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Revision as of 21:16, 24 March 2013

Welcome to the explain xkcd wiki!

We have collaboratively explained 5 xkcd comics, and only 1886 (100%) remain. Add yours while there's a chance!

Latest comic

Go to this comic explanation

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!

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. 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 variant of MS-DOS, compatible with both older and newer computers.

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. Real-world fax detractors would rather replace it with other electronic communication systems, not neutronic ones.

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.


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You can read a brief introduction about this wiki at explain xkcd. Feel free to sign up for an account and contribute to the wiki! We need explanations for comics, characters, themes, memes and everything in between. If it is referenced in an xkcd web comic, it should be here.

  • List of all comics contains a complete table of all xkcd comics so far and the corresponding explanations. The red links (like this) are missing explanations. Feel free to help out by creating them! Here's how.

Rules

Don't be a jerk. There are a lot of comics that don't have set in stone explanations; feel free to put multiple interpretations in the wiki page for each comic.

If you want to talk about a specific comic, use its discussion page.

Please only submit material directly related to —and helping everyone better understand— xkcd... and of course only submit material that can legally be posted (and freely edited.) Off-topic or other inappropriate content is subject to removal or modification at admin discretion, and users who repeatedly post such content will be blocked.

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