1095: Crazy Straws

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Crazy Straws
The new crowd is heavily shaped by this guy named Eric, who's basically the Paris Hilton of the amateur plastic crazy straw design world.
Title text: The new crowd is heavily shaped by this guy named Eric, who's basically the Paris Hilton of the amateur plastic crazy straw design world.


A subculture is a small group of people within a culture that share some property in common, such as hackers or hipsters. Some subcultures form based on a geeky obsession over a trivial topic (for instance, a minimally-drawn webcomic). In this case, that topic is crazy straws, which are toy drinking straws designed with unusual twists and loops. This strip uses this group as an example of the fractal nature of cultures.

Informally speaking, a fractal is a mathematical shape with an infinite level of detail. Just as fractals can always be divided into smaller patterns, Randall points out that human subcultures can always be divided into smaller subcultures. We have the "people who like crazy straws" subculture, but this is further divided into the professionals and the hobbyists. The hobbyists are themselves broken into those who accept loops in the straws and those who don't. A splinter group, as used in the comic, is a subculture that breaks off from a larger one. Of course, this nesting is not really infinite, since there is a finite number of people living.[citation needed] The claim that it is infinite is hyperbole.

Despite the incredible amount of work fans put into it, the whole concept seems completely inconsequential to an outsider. This irony is the source of humor in this strip. An earlier comic covers a similar topic.

Paris Hilton is a celebrity who is essentially famous for being famous. The "guy named Eric" mentioned in the title-text is someone prominent in the amateur plastic crazy-straw community, but that doesn't really count as famous by most standards, so the Paris Hilton comparison is quite a stretch.


[Two people hang out with some beverages. Cueball here has a bright green crazy straw.]
Cueball: The thing to understand about the plastic crazy straw design world is that there are two main camps: The professionals - designing for established brands - and the hobbyists.
Cueball: The hobbyist mailing lists are full of drama, with friction between the regulars and a splinter group focused on loops...
[Caption below the panel:]
Human subcultures are nested fractally. There's no bottom.


When this comic was first released, Randall typed "subcultres" instead of "subcultures". The typo has since been fixed, but the original image is available here.

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Compare xkcd.com/915. Arlo James Barnes (talk) 10:06, 15 August 2012 (UTC)

"Subcultures" is misspelled in the comic. Perhaps Randall will fix it and reupload? Erenan (talk) 15:17, 15 August 2012 (UTC)

Randall has corrected the mistake, but the image on this page is still the old one. Would we want to keep both versions of the image in the interest of completeness? Erenan (talk) 00:02, 16 August 2012 (UTC)

Have to admit, this one went a bit over my head. TheHYPO (talk) 20:38, 15 August 2012 (UTC)

Fractals not only have an unlimited level of detail; they are (most times) self-similar in the sense that you'll find the same pattern on every level of detail. Just like finding the equivalent of finding the "Paris hilton of the plastic straw subcultures' hobbyists' splinter group." BKA (talk) 09:06, 16 August 2012 (UTC)

I think we should get the corrected comic, but note that it was originally misspelled in the explanation. Tebow Time, Twice a Day. 17:19, 16 August 2012 (UTC) (talk)

It's a mistake to think the every-pickier level of detail is a flaw in these interest subcultures. Smaller and smaller levels of study are what flesh out our knowledge of the world. And myriad small subgroups of shared interests allow many people to achieve excellence and status, not just in their minds but in an (admittedly small) range of reality. Examples: the people who maintain and improve the Kennedy line of Boston Terriers; people whose specialty is tooth wear in prehuman hominids; people who parse xkcd comics.

This comment was mine, attribution corrected.Noni Mausa (talk) 12:39, 19 August 2012 (UTC)

I don't think that the comic means it as a flaw, I think it's a just a (humourous) observation, not a negative critisism.

Agreed, and it even goes on here (just drop in on the community portal, to see tempests in a tea pot such as whether he's Cueball or Rob...) I couldn't help but think that RM poked his head in on this site and came up with this comic as a response. (Of course, that would be greatly overestimating our importance in the grand scheme of things, but we are all entitled to our little fantasies of grandeur, no?) Ah, well... it seemed perfect timing nonetheless. By the way, folks: please sign your posts. Four tildes, a la ~~~~, is all it takes... -- IronyChef (talk) 14:30, 16 August 2012 (UTC)

I don't think the fractal analogy holds because human subcultures cannot be nested infinitely deep. At some point, subcultures will come down to individual humans, who aren't also (infinitely deep) subcultures. 15:06, 16 August 2012 (UTC)

Randall is using the term hyperbolically — his point is that subcultures have ludicrous amounts of detail, not necessarily infinite. 18:26, 16 August 2012 (UTC)
Half of me disagrees with you, with the other half in an argument with itself over from which crazy straw will Paris Hilton look best drinking. 18:49, 16 August 2012 (UTC)
Still, even people so crazy they are kept in straitjacket all the time can have only several dozens of personalities ... there's not enough space in brain for infinite. -- 09:36, 17 August 2012 (UTC)
I still believe Randall's point was not the infinite detail, but self-similarity. Regardless on whether you look at something very popular or a niche - you'll always find exactly the same social structures. BKA (talk) 06:05, 17 August 2012 (UTC)
Funny, I was just reading the article http://www.economist.com/node/21560559 -- And while they're not infinite, there's a damn lot of (microbial) subcultures within a human too!

Isn't there any reference to the Open Letter to Hobbyists and the famous hacker Eric Raymond?

I keep coming back to this page to see who "Eric" is. I don't think it's Eric Raymond (no apparent connection, from what I can see). Any insights? Zelmo (talk) 03:56, 18 August 2012 (UTC)
"Eric" isn't an uncommon name, and in fact, there's a well documented "Eric Conspiracy" out there. While ESR is a prominent Eric, I see nothing to tie the Eric in this comic to ESR specifically. For that matter, I'd be hard pressed to see a reference to Bill Gate's "Open Letter to Hobbyists", either. Blaisepascal (talk) 17:54, 19 August 2012 (UTC)
I wonder if the comic is making an oblique reference to String theory and Loop Quantum Gravity. There was (and still is, in some places) a lot of hostility between the two camps, most easily visible in the articles and comments of various physics blogs. This would kind of tie in with the 'fractal' comment, since you see this same division into strings (or wiggly crazy straws) and loops - it's a pattern that repeats when you look at physics groups or crazy straw groups. In that case, the Eric would be "Erik Verlinde". I know it's a bit of a stretch, but what do you think? Slouchingtb (talk) 01:56, 20 August 2012 (UTC)
Okay, at this point the depth of the discussion has just corroborated the point of the comic. Good job, everyone, pack it up. 17:44, 1 November 2013 (UTC)

IMO Kim Kardashian is a much better example of someone who is famous (just) for being famous. Hilton hotel scion etc. 09:51, 27 January 2014 (UTC)

Not really. Kim K became famous from being a porn star and then becoming an actor after that. Paris Hilton sorta just became famous for no obvious reason. 07:46, 12 July 2020 (UTC)

Is it just me, or are the crazy straws themselves examples of something that would work just fine as a straight line, but are much more interesting with fractal-like complexity (subject to the practical limits of a physical object)? Mountain Hikes (talk) 04:50, 16 February 2016 (UTC)

Despite the fact there is a finite number of people (or so the explanation claims) it forgets that a single person can have conflicting opinions. For all we know there is a crazy straw enthusiast who has a fascination with loops but has decided to never put them into their own design. And opinions can be near infinite, so a few people may be able to carry on their subculture's infinite niches in their own head. 19:35, 1 September 2021 (UTC)

Does anyone think that the last line of the explanation doesn't make sense? He's not saying that the guy Eric is famous in the world, he's saying that he's famous in the straw community, with the same reason as Paris Hilton, right?Sarah the Pie(yes, the food) (talk) 12:43, 9 October 2021 (UTC)

I took it to mean that people tend to care about a famous person's opinion about things, despite having no particular reason to do so other than "I've heard of that person" 14:22, 21 March 2022 (UTC)