1912: Thermostat

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Thermostat
Your problem is so terrible, I worry that, if I help you, I risk drawing the attention of whatever god of technology inflicted it on you.
Title text: Your problem is so terrible, I worry that, if I help you, I risk drawing the attention of whatever god of technology inflicted it on you.

Explanation[edit]

Hairy is working at a tech support office, and receives a call from Cueball. After the scripted greeting, Cueball, who has the most bizarre tech issues, tells Hairy that his thermostat – a single-purpose device used to control indoor heating and air conditioning – is showing an error screen from the Android operating system, and asking if he wants to partition the volume. The Android error seems to imply that it is trying to mount a file with .doc extension (likely a Microsoft Word document) as the boot device. An added twist is the "(1)" in the filename, which is commonly appended when a user attempts to copy a file into a directory that already has a file with the same name. Furthermore, the extension .docx has been the default option from Microsoft Office 2007 onwards rather than the earlier .doc extension used in the comic, implying that the file is likely a rather old one.

The error message suggests a system problem at a low level of the device. Not only is the operating system missing, but the device is trying to locate the operating system inside a Microsoft Word document, something that has little to do with regulation of temperature and probably has no way of getting onto the device in the first place, let alone being considered as a bootable file.

This is so abnormal that Hairy is briefly struck silent and, upon recovering, he suggests Cueball walk into the sea as a form of suicide, rather than try to solve the issue.

The title text elaborates that the situation is so absurd that it must be divine punishment, so Hairy does not want to try and help him for fear of invoking the wrath of whatever deity is issuing it. An example of such reasoning in literary culture can be found in the character of Aeolus in the Odyssey, who, having made an unsuccessful attempt to assist Odysseus by giving him a bag containing unfavorable winds, refused to provide further assistance on the grounds that the gods were clearly hostile to Odysseus.

Part of the humor is in the problem being only a slight exaggeration of real software issues. The symptoms are unlikely, yet possible (a thermostat could be running Android and could generate a report as a .doc file; given some data corruption, the name of the .doc file could get into the boot script and a volume could appear unpartitioned). It would take an expert Android or Unix engineer to fix, particularly on an embedded device with no obvious way to connect remotely or attach a keyboard. In real life, it would probably be easier to just replace an embedded device whose software was this broken.

Transcript[edit]

[Hairy, with a headset on, is sitting in an office chair at a desk with his hands ready on the keyboard of his computer.]
Hairy: Tech support, how can I help you?
[Cueball is on his smartphone while looking at a small blinking panel on the wall in front of him.]
Cueball: The little LCD on my thermostat says Error: Android system recovery: Unrecognized boot volume "/MONTHLY ENERGY REPORT (1).DOC"
[In a frame-less beat panel Hairy just stares at his screen with his hands on his lap.]
[Back to Cueball, now with Hairy's reply coming from the smartphone in a box with a jagged arrow pointing to the smartphone.]
Cueball: It's asking if I want to partition the volume. What should I do?
Hairy (on the phone): Have you tried walking into the sea.


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Discussion

Maybe the the last sentence is about moses parting the sea so he can walk through it.162.158.91.221 05:55, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

I interpreted it that way. In computing, partitioning separates parts of a drive that are to be used for different purposes, so parallels might be drawn there. - Emmia (talk) 07:24, 6 November 2017 (UTC)
Not so sure about that. It's possible, I guess, but it's not obviously funny. I think it's more related to the title text about the helpline operative being afraid to upset whatever god of technology has cursed him with this unfathomable tech problem, and suggesting to him that the situation is so dire he may as well just end it all. (Obviously overreacting, as the failure of an IoT-enabled thermostat is definitely a First World Problem and not the horrendous event the characters are considering it to be.) 09:57, 6 November 2017 (UTC)
I also thought about the "parting the sea" idea...consider that in the Old Testament, the gods of other cultures were spoken of as alive, and the Israelite God as directly challenging and defeating them (see the challenge issued to the Egyptian deities in Exodus). Perhaps, rather than helping Cueball himself, Hairy thinks that by invoking the Most High, Cueball might be able to defeat whatever technology god he has angered. Hence, Hairy suggests that Cueball try to play the role of Moses. 172.68.34.76 16:11, 6 November 2017 (UTC)
No, just talking about abandoning hope and that Cueball should escape life. This use of walking into the sea is a commonly used result of giving up at life, a reaction to not wanting to deal with people, reality, etc. any more. NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:37, 7 November 2017 (UTC)
I read it more as a comment along the lines of "if we've got to the point where we're making something as trivial as a thermostat this complicated then there's no hope for us and we may as well just end it all".162.158.155.32 17:31, 7 November 2017 (UTC)

I think there's additional humor to the extent of his boot problems. Monthly Energy Report (1).doc would be a normal document a smart thermostat may create. But if it became a boot volume it'd brick the device. -- Comment Police (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Maybe "Monthly Energy Report (1).doc" was meant to resemble a malware-laden email attachment. The "(1)" could indicate a name-collision-avoidance suffix of a downloaded file. Bob Stein - VisiBone (talk) 11:48, 6 November 2017 (UTC)
'Monthly Energy Report.doc' might be a normal document a smart energy device might produce (can't see why it would be producing energy reports if all it is is a thermostat), but the '(1)' on the end suggests it's been unable to overwrite a previous report. or for some reason produced a copy of the original document.162.158.155.32 17:23, 7 November 2017 (UTC)
When generating a report with a static filename every month, instead of using report names which include a variable such as 'Monthly report November 2017.doc', the generation will cause a naming collision the second time a report is run. Why there would be a process to guard against overwriting the previous report, or what the significance would be to know the device is 2 months old, I do not know. I guess, in real life, this could happen when the thermostat has this guard against filename collisions in place and characters such as ( are not properly escaped in the script used to update the bootloader. -- Comment Police (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Possibly a reference to xkcd 327? Though it feels like a stretch. 162.158.111.247 22:46, 8 November 2017 (UTC)

I believe Cueball has accidentally discovered that the thermostat—supposedly simple device—is actually doing surveillance on the house (and is poorly coded). Now the tech support guy is astounded by the fact that somebody has found out, but then promptly suggests suicide in a non-direct manner to clean up evidence, covering this is with religious explanation. 172.68.244.24 06:37, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

I'm not sure about the surveillance. It seems to me that the .doc is somehow a record of power usage of the thermostat. However, it remains to be determined a. why it is running Android b. why it is mounting and booting a .doc c. how it got there 162.158.106.12 07:11, 6 November 2017 (UTC)
The .doc file is the trojan that was installed on the device. It was supposed to look innocent, but actually contains an encoded sysroot with the real spyware. It's just also terribly written. Very genuinely Russian.162.158.202.106 21:46, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

I took it as a variation on this joke in HHG:

"Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans."
...Which in the BBC TV series was accompanied by visuals of Douglas Adams himself walking into the ocean. --172.68.86.58 07:27, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

Might be a reference to the Nest Thermostat, which like Android is an Alphabet thing. While Nest doesn't run Android, its OS is Linux-based like Android. 108.162.246.89 08:07, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

While reading the title text my first thought was http://americangods.wikia.com/wiki/Technical_Boy Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 08:16, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

Not sure if "Android error screen" deserves emphasis in the explanation, as lately many very simple devices have Android, it shouldn't be surprising to find a thermostat running it. Fvalves (talk) 10:12, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

https://xkcd.com/349/ also mentions tech issues and the sea. --141.101.107.78 10:36, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

As a (former) network engineer for the largest IoT deployment at a major ISP, I can say with complete certainty that this is nothing. A hard reset (typically, holding the power and some other button down for 5+ seconds) will skip the attempt at local boot and go directly to a BOOTP wipe from the mothership, which should have that thermostat up and running the Russian military/mob's firmware in ten minutes tops. Soon your thermostat will be mining bitcoin and staging attacks on your local vital infrastructure like all the other thermostats, don't you worry. 141.101.98.196 11:14, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

Should we make a category for this? It's becoming a recurring theme on xkcd. RamenChef (talk) 15:49, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

Sounds like this may be referrng to recent news where some Google Pixel 2 owners received phones without any operating system. Shamino (talk) 16:59, 6 November 2017 (UTC)

Refer to https://xkcd.com/801/ on using a complex OS for single purpose Hardware 172.68.46.101

Perhaps it's referring to the story of Jonah. In an effort to get Jonah to go back to where he was supposed to go, God sent a terrible storm that devastated the ship that Jonah was escaping on. In order to appease God, the crew had to throw Jonah into the sea, where he was subsequently swallowed up by a giant fish.

"the extension .docx has been the default from Microsoft Office 2007 onwards and is generally favored over the preceding .doc extension."... No, not "favored", just that it's the default, and the default default, and most people don't know to change it, or how, or that they should. :) I've found docx more unstable, more buggy, and less readable (seeing as people who have the sense not to blindly downgrade through 2007 and 2010 and 365 won't natively be able to open it, and may have trouble with the file support extension). Actually, Randall's use of .doc here suggests to me he's one of us who are wise enough to stick with Office 2003, or at least stick with using .doc. :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:37, 7 November 2017 (UTC)

Moreover, the adding of "(1)" to a filename, when asked to avoid overwriting with conflicts, is itself only a more modern implementation within the Windows family (possibly Vista onwards, but Win8 onwards more certainly), for what used to be a purely overwrite/do not overwrite decision of sorts, although it does also mirror one of many possible user-based method of versioning/forking that wouldn't be unknown...
(My reading of the comic, BTW, is that someone in the household has opened up the device to a very insecure remote access to grab data to convert into a personal record - and, for some reason, this was being done in .doc rather than .xls or something more usefully statistical - the document for this somehow then written onto the raw partition,perhaps having deleted everythibg else (i.e. the virtual boot partition file the device normally goes to, as part of the bootstrap) leaving that document there for the bootloader to go "well, this is the only file,it must be the partition!" in an overly flexible/helpful but ultimately misguided firmware-led booting process. But there's so much wrong with even this scenario that I'm with the tech support guy in dispair that it ever happened.)141.101.76.130 22:35, 7 November 2017 (UTC)
Actually, the first I saw "(1)" was way back with Windows 95, sorry. Windows has been doing that for ages. Try right-clicking in Windows Explorer and creating a new file or folder in that way, then not changing the default name, then do it again. The second one's default name will have it. :) Whenever I copy files these days, if the same name exists in the destination, I get the option to Overwrite, Not Copy, or Copy But Keep Both Files, which results in the "(1)" method (I generally use Windows 7 at the moment).
As for interpreting the comic, I've wavered between what you said, an attempt to capture a log has gone awry, and the conspiracy-theory-friendly part of my mind (despite not being much of a conspiracy kind of guy) thinking that this is an indication that someone has been trying to spy on Cueball through data from his thermometer, but they accidentally messed it up and revealed themselves. However, the prevailing theory for me is that this is simply another entry in the theme of "Cueball gets the weirdest tech problems", extending beyond the usual computer and programming problems, and extending beyond Megan (Ponytail? I forget...) having to deal with them. NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:45, 24 November 2017 (UTC)
I strongly agree with the previous. My work in tech support has teched me that the worst clients are the ones who have "just a little bit adjusted" something causing the failure but when they contact the tech support they act as the failure had occured by itself and deny ever touching anything. This .doc file is clearly created by the caller who has downloaded data from the thermostat and then accidentally saved it to the thermostat. 172.68.47.48 18:41, 11 November 2017 (UTC)

I can't figure out if it's just a typo or if there's some meaning that "Have you tried walking into the sea." ends with a "." rather than a "?". The author isn't one to make grammatical errors, but I can't think of a clear interpretation - perhaps this is because, while worded as a question, it really only makes sense as a command - if Cueball had already tried walking into the sea, then he probably wouldn't be calling tech support now. That made me realize that we're hearing this from Cueball's perspective, so homonyms could be at play - for example, rather than referencing the "sea" Harry could be referring to the lower level programming language "C" (a predecessor to C++), which could be part of a larger explanation. [TH] 172.68.47.48 18:41, 11 November 2017 (UTC)

I took this to mean Cueball had been trying to hack his traditional thermostat, and poorly. He says the **little** LCD is giving him this **Android** recovery error. Almost no thermostats run Android and if they do they don't have little LCDs. So now tech support has to deal with his utter incompetence and tampering that's bricked his thermostat. Hence the telling him to go walk into the sea. 162.158.186.72 22:22, 19 November 2017 (UTC)

It's Android because that makes the problem extra weird. I feel certain that this is just the latest in the ongoing theme of "Cueball gets the WEIRDEST tech problems". :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:45, 24 November 2017 (UTC)

I've deleted the trivia section, in both 349: Success and 1350: Lorenz, the shark attack was caused by BSD. Herobrine (talk) 04:01, 3 March 2018 (UTC)