1891: Obsolete Technology

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
(Redirected from 1891)
Jump to: navigation, search
Obsolete Technology
And I can't believe some places still use fax machines. The electrical signals waste so much time going AROUND the Earth when neutrino beams can go straight through!
Title text: And I can't believe some places still use fax machines. The electrical signals waste so much time going AROUND the Earth when neutrino beams can go straight through!

[edit] Explanation

This comic mocks people who criticize an industry for using obsolete technology, even when said technology is sufficient for the task at hand. The claim often comes with the implication that those in charge of the industry are behind the times and cannot adapt to the cutting edge. What these critics often fail to realize is that there are cost benefits to sticking with "obsolete" infrastructure, and that upgrading to the newest tech can introduce unwanted side effects and other risks.

Here, Ponytail is one such critic, complaining that the business is taking "forever" to get with the times. Megan uses sarcasm to deliver her counterargument: despite the advent of nuclear weapons, fireworks use the ancient technology of gunpowder (invented in the 9th century), because fireworks are used by civilians for celebratory purposes and should have as few lethal side effects as possible[citation needed].

As they use gunpowder, fireworks do claim a handful of lives and cause thousands of injuries each year due to improper handling procedures; between June 18th and July 18th of 2016 (thus including the Independence Day celebrations on July 4th), fireworks caused an estimated 11,000 injuries, of which 7,000 had to be treated in hospitals. In the whole year of 2016, four people died. (U.S. stats, [1]). Nuclear explosions, meanwhile, can have detrimental effects on human health[citation needed]. For example, should a nuclear explosion at a firework display be too powerful, the spectators, and possibly the neighborhood around the display, would be vaporized instantly. Fallout from a nuclear reaction could spread radiation across a wide area, leading to increased risks of cancers and other detrimental genetic mutations.

In other words, sometimes using newer technology is "overkill" for the purpose, and it might be costlier to switch to a newer technology. For example, many industrial machines were designed and sold in the 1990s when floppy disks were the prevalent means of storing the instructions, but those machines still have one or two or even more decades of usable lifetime left, and the instruction files still fit on those floppy disks. So, in 2017, there are several companies that thrive on buying, refurbishing and selling floppy disks. This report portrays one of these companies.

MS-DOS is a computer operating system made by Microsoft that was dominant during much of the 1980s. When Microsoft released the Windows line of operating systems, they encouraged people to switch to the new platform, which many did. MS-DOS became essentially obsolete when Microsoft released Windows 95 in 1995. However, there remain rare circumstances in which MS-DOS (or another command-line operating system) is still preferred, such as when no mouse, touchscreen, or other pointing hardware is available, or when the hardware does not support a newer operating system. To make matters simpler, there is DOSBox, a free and open-source MS-DOS emulator which is actively maintained and extended. Likewise, FreeDOS is a free and open-source operating system designed to run on both older and newer computers which is compatible with programs written for MS-DOS.

The title text uses a different twist, criticizing the current use of fax machines. In many respects, faxing is obsolete compared to e-mail; it supports only black-and-white images, it complicates the process of modifying sent text by rendering it as images, it consumes the recipient's paper and toner and, in some countries, requires the recipient to pay a fee. Fax machines are a peculiar topic among "obsolete" technology; in some fields, like lawyer offices, pharmacies and medical practices, they staunchly hold their ground, as they offer a way to quickly transfer handwritten and hand-signed documents. Confidentiality is also an issue; fax, which uses a landline, is more difficult to intercept than internet-based traffic. In some countries, a telecopy is a valid document, having the same legal value as the original. A patient can thus call their doctor to fill a prescription, which is faxed to the pharmacy where the patient can fetch his drugs, saving precious time. In the same manner, a legal request can be sent to the receiver, without having to use a courier or express mail.

But rather than argue on any of the above points, the title text instead claims that faxing is obsolete due to being electron-based, while neutrino-based communication would be faster. In 2017 neutrino detectors are heavy and expensive, used for nuclear research only. Electronic communications travel at a fair share of speed of light and the advantage of path would be at most a factor of π/2, so neutrino-based communication would normally be way too expensive compared to the speed gain. Even in the most extreme case (communicating between antipodes), the time saved would be a few hundredths of a second – insignificant for almost all purposes, but potentially enough to gain an edge in high-frequency trading, as suggested in a 2012 Forbes article. Real-world fax detractors would rather replace it with other electronic communication systems, not neutronic ones.

[edit] Transcript

[Ponytail sits in front of an old computer. Megan stands behind her.]
Ponytail: Whoa, this is running MS-DOS! It's weird how new technology takes forever to reach some industries.
Megan: Yeah. Like how we still use gunpowder for fireworks, even though we've had nuclear weapons for over 70 years.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


Wasn't DOS still running behind Win95, and integrated into the OS similarly to the Linux shell? 14:48, 18 September 2017 (UTC)

Even worse than that. DOS was not "integrated" into Win95 or Win98, but Win95 and Win98 were built to run atop DOS. Windows NT did away with that dependency on DOS.-- 22:48, 18 September 2017 (UTC)
Win Me were also built to run atop DOS. Win NT were considered server system, only later Win 2000 and Win XP brought NT-based Windows to home machines. -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:38, 18 September 2017 (UTC)
Not quite. Windows NT was a concurrent line with the more mainstream 95/98/ME line (I think ME also was on top of DOS, but I never used it so I'm not sure). At the same timeline as those versions of Windows was Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 (NT 5.0), and maybe NT 3.5 earlier than that. Windows 95 was originally supposed to only be a temporary stepping stone from DOS with Windows 3.11 to bring people over to NT, so they kept DOS as the underlying foundation of Windows (which was a good thing because power programs and high end games still used DOS, to avoid the resource suck that is Windows. Not being in Windows frees up processing power). But so many people liked and adopted 95 that they came out with a "sequel", 98. This two-lines idiocy ended rather with Windows XP in the early 2000s, which combined the two lines, having elements of the NT line - like the NTFS system for larger hard drives, literally "NT File System", which is still in use today - with elements of the 95 line - like removing and relaxing the restrictions that blocked certain programs and games from running in Windows NT in favour of greater system stability (my NT 4.0 computer crashed the least of every Windows I've ever run). NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:27, 19 September 2017 (UTC)

This reminds me of this Raganwald article on Blub: Are we blub programmers? Adequate doesn't mean best for the job; this comic presents the other side of the coin, don't upgrade just for upgrade's sake. --Jgt (talk) 14:51, 18 September 2017 (UTC)

The computer doesn't look like an early PC from the MS-DOS era. Reminds me more of the previous generation: à so-called mini-computer or a terminal connected to a mainframe. Zetfr 15:32, 18 September 2017 (UTC)

You are right, but I think we should make allowances to the look as this is stated to be an 'industrial' computer. Sebastian -- 16:24, 18 September 2017 (UTC)
Actually I take this unusual look to be quite on purpose: this machine is so unique, in such a specific place doing a specific job, that nobody has tried changing or updating anything in years. It might even take a reboot to spot WHAT is booting up. Hence the situation as it stands, that "new technology takes a while to come to" this computer, as an industry, or a section thereof. NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:32, 22 September 2017 (UTC)

https://www.cpsc.gov/Safety-Education/Safety-Education-Centers/Fireworks has a link to the 2016 Fireworks Annual Report, which has some useful statistics on page 2, the executive summary. --Ozmandias42 (talk) 20:08, 18 September 2017 (UTC)

I just finished working on upgrading an industrial control system. In the plant's control rooms, the interfaces and terminals were relatively new, running Windows 7 Ultimate. However, the DBMs in the server room that managed the control network were running MS-DOS 6.22, and they still worked just fine. The client was only upgrading the system because the OEM no longer provided support or replacement components. 21:44, 18 September 2017 (UTC)

What bothers me about old technology is that security updates stop while the rest of the world gains an ever-increasing exploit advantage over people connecting to the same Internet. Along with the risks to them, it's worse when compromised devices act as workhorses to leverage "millions of papercuts" against the rest of the system. Elvenivle (talk) 00:27, 19 September 2017 (UTC)

The systems running these old OS versions are generally not connected to the outside world, especially not to the internet. These servers are generally used to control components in the overall system (e.g. start or stop a pump) and have no reason to be connected. In that situation, security updates are far less important, as only a handful of people can even connect to the machine from a private network. 07:16, 24 September 2017 (UTC)

Hm, while it makes sense to stick to a DOS based system if nothing newer is required, the comparative of fireworks/nuclear weapons is incorrect. Upgrading those MSDOS systems to something newer (which could be just freedos) would perhaps incur on huge unnecessary expenses at most, while "upgrading" fireworks to nuclear energy would not only would make them far more expensive, it would make them far, far more dangerous and deadly. 00:32, 19 September 2017 (UTC)

What surprises me is that anything for which MS-DOS includes drivers would still be physically running after this long... in the comic scenario, they went 20 years without needing to replace key components? That said, for a lot of the older industrial systems, running something LIKE Dos, such as FREEDOS, or various custom boot environments which use DOS command formats, would probably make perfect sense.

Neutrino beams would also mostly go straight through (without interacting with) any sort of detector you might wish to use to intercept the signal. 07:39, 19 September 2017 (UTC), there are neutrino detectors, and they have been used to detect artificially generated neutrinos. For an example from 1999, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/06/29/science/team-detects-neutrino-fired-through-earth-s-crust.html and more recently for communications at http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2012/mar/19/neutrino-based-communication-is-a-first . The problem is partially the cost, but market traders would pay a lot to get a small speedup in communications from, say, NYC to London. The bigger problem is the bandwidth and latency. The experiment in the second link has a bandwidth of less than 1 bit per second. You can send a lot of data around the world in less than a second.

I still use MS-DOS. Unless there's an easier way to get a list of all the files in a folder in text file format. 09:25, 19 September 2017 (UTC)

Is that a joke? Is that a real question? In Windows 10; Win Key, type "command line", press enter to open Command Line. Type "CD <Address>" and press enter, where address is desired address. You can also right-click the address bar of any File Explorer location and choose Copy Address As Text, and just paste it into the address bar. Then type "dir > list.txt". DONE. If you want to trim out the extra information so that it's literally just a list of files with no extra information, like if you want to plug it into a program to process those files, use "dir /b > list.txt". Windows 10 doesn't have DOS. It still supports all the usual basic command line stuff. The hardest part about doing this in Windows 10 is having to install Windows 10. 11:21, 19 September 2017 (UTC)
I suspect the guy at "" is the kind of user who confuses the NT's cmd prompt as "MS-DOS" (which is quite common, unfortunately) 08:51, 20 September 2017 (UTC)
No, Command Prompt IS DOS, essentially, just with a new name. Runs all the same commands in the same way, works the same way. Those of us who remember using MS-DOS have a nice advantage in that environment for this reason. The only differences are subtle and largely internal (the only differences I can think of is that there's an underlying security being applied, hence the existence of "Administrator Command Prompt", and that it isn't the underlying foundation of Windows, that the original phrase, Disk Operating System, is no longer accurate). I believe the name change was mostly just to not scare away people who heard about DOS having a steep learning curve. In fact, having used DOS 5.0, 6.0 and 6.22, I find there's NO difference in the language since 6.22, especially considering the differences between the other versions. Trying to make the point the it isn't DOS is nit picking and helps nothing.
And I agree with 162 158 155 62 here, I use DOS quite regularly to get file lists. I'm really not sure why Windows has never implemented such functionality. NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:32, 22 September 2017 (UTC)
Command prompt runs like DOS, sure. But it's not DOS. This is a comic about Obsolete Technology. If you're using Command Prompt in a currently supported version of Windows, you're not using obsolete technology. Command Line will never be an obsolete feature in any OS used by computing enthusiasts - not until we have neural interfaces. MS-DOS - an actual MS-DOS installation - is obsolete. Windows did implement such functionality. That's what Command Prompt is for: using the keyboard to call up a ton of functions that are too niche to be in the right-click menu. 16:55, 22 September 2017 (UTC)
Other than Command Prompt not actually being the foundation of the operating system, I can't find a single difference. The language is the same, the commands are the same, even the command switches are the same. People here are nitpicking nomenclature. I am one of many who find it perfectly acceptable to refer to it as DOS. It seems like using the Command Prompt in Windows should theoretically be unnecessary, that its continued presence is mostly to keep geeks like me happy. As such, actually using it would be thought of as using obsolete technology (not that it Is obsolete, seems like most if not all of the people in this thread knows of things only possible within Command Prompt). After all, the trend over the last decades is toward "user friendly", starting with hiding DOS away, letting people do things without knowing commands. These days "user friendly" seems to mean "hiding away anything that isn't basic", it's old fashioned to need text commands. If it isn't doable directly in Windows, it's because Microsoft deemed it unnecessary. Besides which, my comments are less about the comic but more about comments here nitpicking other comments. Let people call it DOS and move on, don't get stuck in the muck. That's all I'm really saying. Some people seem to be nitpicking so hard as to actually seem confused, like thinking (or pretending to think) that mentioning using DOS means using a DOS emulator! NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:32, 26 September 2017 (UTC)
And all I was saying, was that someone talking about Windows NT Command Line, in a discussion about obsolete technology, while calling it "DOS", is choosing to be misunderstood. Even if it looks and acts the same for the user, it has completely different code under the hood. It's technology is different. DOS is obsolete because it can't use modern innovations, like more than 4GB of RAM, or USB, or multi-core CPUs. DOS-style commands are an entirely different subject to MS-DOS, the operating system. (And "User Friendly" is literally about making it easier for Novices to use technology. Typing commands is not novice-friendly. If you are an advanced user, command lines are helpful, especially for Admins, but Windows is designed for the average consumer, using as little cerebral overhead as possible, not the advanced users.) 17:35, 23 October 2017 (UTC)

So you use a Windows 10 Dos emulator to run what are effectively dos commands and disparage the guy that uses dos? (I suspect even they are not using a real MSDOS but do use dos commands)
No, what I'm saying is that using DOS to run simple command line operations is like having Linux so you can program in C. They have failed to address any actual reason to use DOS over a modern OS. If he was running a potato, or a Pi, or he was running a server, that'd make sense. Or, you know, run a DOS game that literally doesn't work on an NT PC. I totally agree that upgrades without measurable advantages aren't good ideas, but this was a bad example. Though, I also failed to note that the NT Command Line can be mistaken for MS-DOS, and assumed he was using some sort of dual boot. 09:56, 20 September 2017 (UTC)
I use a calculator app occasionally that has many fewer functions than my first HP35 back in 1973 - the point is it does the job I need, and updating it to 200 scientific functions while entirely possible would not make it "better". Somebody wrote that Windows 10 Dos emulator because for some file and directory manipulations dos does what is needed in the most efficient manner. 02:35, 20 September 2017 (UTC)
Wow. No, I don't think ANYBODY is talking about using a DOS emulator! Except the people writing these misguided responses... Just because Microsoft is using the substitute name Command Prompt, and that it isn't the literal Operating System anymore, doesn't mean there's any call for this level of nit picking, to the point of jumping to the weird conclusion that anybody is running commands in an emulator. There's no reason to do this. In my experience, the only reason anyone uses an emlator - generally DOSBox - is to run DOS games, not do anything useful. Calling it DOS is simply simpler that calling it Command Prompt, that's it. There are still no differences in the commands and their use since MS-DOS 6.22, which IIRC is more than can be said about the differences between 6.22 and 6.0. NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:32, 22 September 2017 (UTC)

Chernobyl and Fukushima were nuclear reactor meltdowns, not nuclear explosions. Also I think three citation needed-jokes in one explanation is too much and not fun anymore. 09:38, 19 September 2017 (UTC)

I wholeheartedly agree. I've become tired of the general overuse of that joke in explainxkcd. 13:55, 19 September 2017 (UTC)
I agree. I am usually a fan of well placed "citation needed" jokes, but not only are these three to rapidly following each other, they also don't fit the usual joke as the statements they acompany can - in my oppinion - be reasonably challenged. Would nuclear fireworks really necasarily cause larger, immediately lethal explosions? Couldn't one build a tiny nuke suitable for a firework? (And with that statement I will probably find myself on a no-fly list) 13:56, 19 September 2017 (UTC)
Heh, I had once theorized building a mock-up of a nuclear explosion audio-visual effects out of conventional materials: some contained explosive for the bang (just a big firecracker), some magnesium mixture for the flash and some hydrocarbons for the raising mushroom-shaped fireball. Then build up a model town and set the whole contraption off while filming it in slow-motion... Never actually followed that idea. Those were happy times, playing with chemistry and making a small flash or bang once in a while. Today, I can't even buy basic reagents...

"Real-world fax detractors would rather replace it with other electronic communication systems, not neutronic ones." Wouldn't neuTRONic systems use neuTRONs? Would these be neutrinic, neutrinoic? 13:55, 19 September 2017 (UTC)

"Would nuclear fireworks really necasarily cause larger, immediately lethal explosions?" asked No. Starfish Prime, described in "A Very Scary Light Show: Exploding H-Bombs In Space" at http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2010/07/01/128170775/a-very-scary-light-show-exploding-h-bombs-in-space .

I think the joke about electrons is based on the speed of electons not the speed of electronic signals. An electronic signal travels much faster than the electrons themselves, which moves more glacially between high and low points (about walking speed). 12:10, 20 September 2017 (UTC)

An interesting point which Randall may have had in mind: Through at least 2017, the U.S. was still using literal floppy disks (the old 3.5" kind) to run nuclear program software.

From CNN.com: "According to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that the Pentagon was still using 1970s-era computing systems that require eight-inch floppy disks." http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/26/us/pentagon-floppy-disks-nuclear/index.html 18:20, 11 October 2017 (UTC)

Personal tools


It seems you are using noscript, which is stopping our project wonderful ads from working. Explain xkcd uses ads to pay for bandwidth, and we manually approve all our advertisers, and our ads are restricted to unobtrusive images and slow animated GIFs. If you found this site helpful, please consider whitelisting us.

Want to advertise with us, or donate to us with Paypal?