The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

What’s Really Important

Last Monday I noticed an XKCD comic and then later deconstructed it. The upshot is that I didn’t like it, but many XKCD fans turned around to tell me that I was either stupid or crazy to question Randall’s artistic vision.

This Monday’s was up about ten minutes before Randall’s inbox flooded. And now we know what topics are important enough to voice disagreement over.


February 25, 2008 - Posted by | rants


  1. You know, just a couple days after the xkcd comic that some thought might lead others to believe gave the appearance of possibly carrying a sexist message, the national media exploded with the story (and reactions to the story) that were rather brilliantly sent up here.

    So is xkcd now a leading indicator for what happens in presidential politics? If so, what might be presaged by the Great xkcd Fruit Controversy of 2008?

    Comment by mike | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  2. Sorry.. maybe I’m slow, but what does the McCain “affair” have to do with the XKCD comic?

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  3. I had in mind the (as I saw them) weird meta-reactions (“I didn’t read it this way, and of course it wasn’t *saying* this, but who knows what the great unwashed masses might think”) that accompanied both the comic and the NY Times article that broke the story.

    OK, I don’t deny that it’s a bit of a stretch; the Kinsley article both made me laugh and reminded me (rightly or not) of the comment threads here, so I had the impulse to link to it.

    Comment by mike | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  4. You don’t think it could just be that people agree with Randall’s position on sexism but disagree with his position on grapefruit?

    Comment by Ben Allen | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  5. Ben, you’re putting words into my mouth like so many others have. I didn’t disagree with his position on sexism, but I disliked his presentation.

    What I find interesting here is the fact that people see no problem with throwing a tantrum over fruit, but seem to have a problem with my criticism of the effectiveness of his discussion of sexism.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  6. I’d just like to mention that “How it works” was also quite a controversial comic, and is still now being discussed on the forums (The thread is 18 pages long as of now).
    I think people just feel more comfortable conversing about fruit, because they wont acciedently offend someone or get their opinion viciously attacked.

    Comment by Nat | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  7. Or maybe people just have a sense of humor? I’m not entirely surprised. Sexism jokes should be few and far between, most people aren’t exactly comfortable with throwing them out left and right. Fruit, on the other hand, is every man for himself.

    You have to understand the demographic, and lighten up every once in a while.


    Comment by Nylan | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  8. Whoa, OK, we’ve got some word-in-mouth exchanges. Rather than unintentionally perpetuate the problem, let me see if I can summarize and/or paraphrase what people have been saying so far.

    1. John Armstrong: XKCD comic #385 is ambiguous, particularly when one considers the title. We know from other evidence that Randall Munroe opposes sexism, but comic #385 does not do so effectively.

    2. Ben Allen: many people agree with (what they perceive to be) Randall Munroe’s position on sexism, while many people disagree with his taste in fruit. If disagreement is more likely to provoke a response than agreement is, then the response to the fruit comic will have the larger volume.

    3. Nat: Fruit is just fruit, and chacun à son goût. It’s easy to make a statement about a harmless matter of taste. Also, there’s been a whole lot of discussion about the “sexism” strip, but in a different arena (the XKCD forums instead of Randall Munroe’s inbox).

    I don’t see these statements as particularly contradictory. Broadly speaking, I agree with all of them. Now, for my idea.

    4. Blake: the disagreement over the “sexism” comic stemmed from some people finding it more ambiguous than others. If you didn’t see the ambiguity, you wouldn’t see what John was complaining about (I didn’t really follow myself, until I thought about his example of assembly instructions: “here’s how the parts fit together” is a normative statement). On the other hand, it’s hard to find any ambiguity in the “fruit” comic. The man does not like grapefruit. To disapprove of the comic, you just have to have a different taste in fruit; you don’t need to contemplate verbal subtleties.

    Comment by Blake Stacey | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  9. I have absolutely no problem with your original post about the comic. I do think it’s unlikely anyone misunderstood the comic in the way you suggested; it was pretty widely linked, and every link I saw read it the way Randall intended.

    Comment by Walt | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  10. Sure, Walt, it’s generally been received as intended (though I reiterate my caveat that most links I’ve been shown have not included the title).

    My point here is that I find it funny that people can get so upset over disagreeing with nuance — I didn’t post what was only emailed to me — and yet so many others can get so bent out of shape over fruit. Maybe it’s true that people feel more comfortable having (and stating) their own opinion when there’s no ambiguity involved.

    But come on. I just disagreed with his choice of artistic implementation. I tried to be clear about my approval for the intended sentiment, but people tended to interpret a mild stylistic critique as an attack on the content. That sort of thing happens when you stand up and say something in public.

    The people flooding his inbox now are complaining about his opinions about fruit. There’s no ambiguity at all, but there’s unambiguously nothing factual at issue! I said I agree, but something rubbed me the wrong way. They say his opinion is wrong.

    And people wonder why the old guard thinks the internet is frivolous.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  11. John, I wasn’t trying to put words in your mouth. I know it was the ambiguity and the execution that were bothering you, not the intended message.

    I’m just saying that people are more likely to react when they disagree with something. So people didn’t flood Randall’s mailbox for the original comic, because they didn’t disagree with it. People did flood your mailbox, because they disagreed (or misunderstood) your criticism of it. And they definitely flooded Randall’s mailbox on the fruit comic, because they strongly disagreed with him.

    I mean, who doesn’t like grapefruit?

    Comment by Ben | February 26, 2008 | Reply

  12. I was a little disappointed that Mr. Munroe blogged about the reaction to the grapefruit comic but not about the sexism comic. Although I’m not sure that’s an entirely rational reaction on my part. Meh.

    Comment by Patricia Gordinier | February 28, 2008 | Reply

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