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== Latest comic ==

Revision as of 23:11, 7 August 2012


Welcome to the explain xkcd wiki! We already have 11 comic explanations!

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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

Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: Someone please find some statistics for annual fireworks casualties and injuries.

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 (although she may be serious): 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. Nuclear-based fireworks would not only cause much larger and immediately lethal explosions, but would also release radiation that would poison spectators. 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]). In the same time, nuclear fireworks directly caused neither injuries nor deaths, suggesting (obviously in error) that health hazards could be lowered by using nuclear fireworks.

However, what is not stated in the comic is that nuclear explosions 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 Windows, a newer operating system (or series of operating systems), they encouraged people to switch to that, 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: it criticizes the current use of fax machines, which many find obsolete compared to e-mail (black and white only, text sent as image making further treatment complicated, waste of ink and paper for recipient while sender has to pay per fax in some countries), then argues it 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 saving would be a few hundredths of a second – insignficant 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.

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. So, a patient can call his 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.

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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