1173: Steroids

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A human is a system for converting dust billions of years ago into dust billions of years from now via a roundabout process which involves checking email a lot.
Title text: A human is a system for converting dust billions of years ago into dust billions of years from now via a roundabout process which involves checking email a lot.


This comic is about steroid usage to enhance humans performance; it is likely inspired by Lance Armstrong's then-recent confession to blood doping in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey (although Armstrong's confessions did not itself include anabolic steroid use; "steroids" is a common catch-all phrase often misused to reference other forms of doping).

This comic is making the point of the opinion that the criterion about which chemicals (steroids) humans may or may not take in to be considered the strongest or fastest is an artificial criterion. This is demonstrated by Megan explaining the whole concept to an energy sphere representing a non-humanoid intelligence; when framed the way Megan explains it, the explanation sounds rather trivial and silly. A better explanation would be to say that some chemicals make humans faster and stronger but also damage the human body, so these chemicals are banned so the competitors won't destroy themselves. Another point Megan has missed is that the competitions aren't unrestricted, they're designed around specific rules and structures, to which all participants agree. The chemicals in question are a violation of those rules, and so are both dishonest and subvert the entire purpose of the competition.

This comic is one of many instances where Randall attempts to trivialize sports.

The title text changes the perspective again by suggesting that humanity itself is trivial in the grand scheme of things and that really all we are is a "transition" state between old dust and new dust, with a bunch of emailing in between. This is a version of the saying that the Universe is just trying to turn itself into Iron, which is the atom with least energy, and it can thus neither be fused in stars or decay radioactively.

The comic was published on Ash Wednesday (Western liturgical start of Lent). The dust to dust reference calls to mind the charge, "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust you shall return," which is traditionally spoken by priests as they place ashes on the foreheads of observers on Ash Wednesday, in addition to the idea that all atoms in the universe other than Hydrogen, Helium, and some Lithium, were created after the big-bang via Stellar nucleosynthesis, with further production and dispersal via Supernova nucleosynthesis. Thus the reference by Joni Mitchell in the song Woodstock: "We are stardust..."; and echoed by Carl Sagan: "We are star stuff."

Similar talking floating energy spheres have been used later to represent super intelligent AIs both in 1450: AI-Box Experiment and 2635: Superintelligent AIs, where it is clearly a different sphere and then in the Time traveling Sphere series. There is no indication of it here, but the sphere here could be another time traveler as well, back to try and understand humanity.


[Megan is walking while an energy sphere (Sphere) floats behind her and talks to her. The sphere is black but surrounded by six outwardly-curved segments that are shaded gray. The white parts in between makes it look like it irradiates light out along these lines.]
Sphere: Explain to me this "steroid scandal."
[Zoom in on Megan's face while she holds a hand to her chin.]
Megan: Well, uh...
Megan: We humans are sacks of chemicals which stay alive by finding other chemicals and putting them inside us.
[Megan has turned around facing towards the Sphere to the left. She holds up one hand palm up.]
Megan: We hold contests to see which humans are fastest and strongest.
Megan: But some humans eat chemicals that make them too fast and strong.
[Megan still facing the Sphere holds her arms out.]
Megan: And they win contests!
Sphere: That does sound bad.
Megan: It's awful!

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Does anyone know what that 'something' is? That's what I came here to find out... :/ --NeatNit (talk) 11:57, 13 February 2013 (UTC)

I had a lot of ideas, but I don't know. It might be a molecule, some sort of portal transmitting sound, a star, a future life form.
--Jaap-Jan (talk) 12:13, 13 February 2013 (UTC)
My first instinct was that Megan was talking to the asterisk that gets put next to world records held by athletes who have been suspected of using steroids.
Smperron (talk) 17:08, 13 February 2013 (UTC)
It looks to me like the God from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Though that God would know all about the steroid scandal, presumably. 00:19, 14 February 2013 (UTC)
It's the crystalline life-form from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Home Soil". When not killing red shirts, it keeps taunting humans that they're "ugly bags of mostly water".Columbus Admission (talk) 00:28, 14 February 2013 (UTC)
My first association was this "entity of pure energy" from Futurama: http://theinfosphere.org/Energy_being 10:10, 18 February 2013 (UTC)
It reminded me of the white hole from Diane Duane's "So You Want to be Wizard".
It's not supposed to be anything. Just some non-human entity that can't grasp the whole steroid scandal in a human way. 12:45, 20 February 2013 (UTC)
It does look a lot like Chocky. --Squiggle^4 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I think the "artificial boundary" isn't so artificial. There is a clear difference between food chemicals, which are healthy for us, vs steroid chemicals, which cause all sorts of health problems. Of course, then Megan would have to explain that we have limited lifespans and we greatly value our quality of life, and these steroids would decrease our quality of life. 13:41, 13 February 2013 (UTC)

So on the one side of this "clear boundary" you'd have something like Big Macs (food, good for us) and on the other you'd have vitamin supplements (non-food chemicals, bad)?

I have wheat allergy and gout. There are commonly available staples that cripple me. I would like to try marijuana oil but am law abiding. On several occasions I have been denied pain killers by arbitrarily chosen nincompoops who would rather believe I am a liar/would be drug abuser rather than suffering pain.

On two occasions I've suffered peritonitis. The last time the bowel blew a fuse through to the outside of my body. That was unpleasant.

Nobody should have the right to deny me what god designed to help me. Not quite on topic but by and large, pretty much the gist of the comic.

Back on topic, I am pleased to note I am not the only person who finds it incredible that grown men can get paid to chase a bladder. I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 12:56, 11 January 2015 (UTC)

I think the theory is that things that improve athletic performance but hurt the body should not be allowed. That way, athletes who are willing to sacrifice their health in order to win do not have an advantage over those who are not willing to make such a sacrifice. If people want to eat Big Mac's they are welcome to because it doesn't give them any advantage. Basically, you can put bad stuff into yourself all you want, but not if it gives you a competitive advantage. 17:36, 14 February 2013 (UTC)
Which is good theory except that we have hardly any idea what are long-term effect of most chemicals, not speaking about fact that any chemical which is beneficial in reasonable amount (which we often don't know and it may depend on individual or other condition) is dangerous if you take it too much. The L-ascorbic acid is particularly interresting example, as the official recomendation is 90mg per day, but depending on doctor and on situation (like illness or stress level) even 10,000mg may be considered healthy. Another good example is already mentioned testosterone, which IS actually steroid. Oh yes, and then there is the problem of DETECTING that the athlets are getting those "unnatural" chemicals. -- Hkmaly (talk) 09:46, 15 February 2013 (UTC)
Your argument seems to suggest that just because we can't catch all criminals, or because we don't know the long term effects of people's actions, we should just release convicted murderers. No one ever said the system's perfect. I grant that there are many grey areas, and we can't come close to policing every athlete. I don't think we should stop athletes from taking vitamin C given our current amount of knowledge, but I do think we should try to stop the athletes that are detected to be using chemicals in quantities that are known to be unhealthy in order to gain a competitive advantage. 21:45, 18 February 2013 (UTC) 21:45, 18 February 2013 You make a very clear argument for having all your posts reviewed with the idea of erasing them. Since all athletes take drugs except the ones that haven't been caught yet and won't admit it, we must allow all athletes to do as they like and follow them to their graves to see how dementia figures spike for old athletes and when such aberrant data first appeared. Or does anyone believe that just because they are fit and healthy when young they are automagically stooooopid? I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 17:07, 11 January 2015 (UTC)

Like trying to line up all the people in the world and draw a clear line to divide blacks from whites, it's too much of a gradual spectrum to be anything other than arbitrary. 17:27, 13 February 2013 (UTC)
I explained my point very poorly. "Good" performance enhancing chemicals (like healthy foods) tend to also make us more healthy while "bad" performance enhancing chemicals (like steroids) cause all sorts of health problems. Athletes are generally encouraged to take the "good" stuff while avoiding the "bad" stuff. Of course there's a huge grey area in between (including non-performance-enhancing Big Macs), but I think steroids clearly fall outside this grey area. 19:58, 13 February 2013 (UTC)
|Um, you do realize that the human body itself creates "Steroids"? Which are also in found within the plants and animals that we eat. (Especially soybeans.) Testosterone is supposedly one of these "bad" steroids, which cause many problems for humans. 12:28, 14 February 2013 (UTC)
I suppose my point requires further explanation; devil's advocates will never be satisfied. Testosterone isn't intrinsically "bad" for us (as you mentioned, it is an integral part of our chemistry), but taking significant amounts of it from external sources has been shown to damage our bodies' ability to produce it and/or regulate its levels, among other effects. Hence, taking steroids is bad for us. Compare that with healthy food, which is generally accepted to "increase" our athletic performance (compared with unhealthy food, or no food) without any serious avoidable side effects.
However, you do bring up the point of testosterone being present in some things we consider to count as "food". I guess there is a certain amount of testosterone you are allowed to ingest (for these contests) that cause a negligible effect. 13:21, 14 February 2013 (UTC)
So it should be permitted to take non-dangerous levels of steroids? Either way, blood doping is the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream, seems like a difficult argument to make for that to be bad (unless you have too many, but until that point). 07:11, 15 February 2013 (UTC)
I guess by my logic, it should indeed be permitted to take steroids at a non-dangerous level. It sort of is the way things are; if I take 1 miligram of testosterone a day I don't think anyone would stop me because they couldn't catch me. At such a low level, I doubt it would have an effect on my blood testosterone levels. It gets a lot murkier when you get into the question of "what is the highest amount you should permit?" 21:45, 18 February 2013 (UTC)

Blood doping is not the same as steroid use. -- ‎ (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

EDIT: I think for the purposes of this discussion, blood doping does have its recognized risks. I guess it's another form of performance enhancement that is difficult to do properly, and can kill you or transmit dangerous diseases if done improperly. Check out the Wikipedia article for more information. I think it should be controlled in the same manner as steroids, not because it's inherently bad, but because it can be difficult to self-regulate for athletes. 21:45, 18 February 2013 (UTC)

Does anyone else feel that the title text has a strong Douglas Adams flavour? And if so, can we make that hard with a quote from one of his books?

It's a biblical reference, Genesis 3:19, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return", King James version.Jasqm (talk) 14:03, 13 February 2013 (UTC)
D.N.A. has been known to reference the bible:
-"In the beginning, the universe was created. This made a lot of people unhappy and has been widely regarded as a bad move."
-"And then one day, nearly two thousand years after one man was nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be if people were nice to each other for a change..."
Smperron (talk) 17:08, 13 February 2013 (UTC)
You're probably thinking of his quotes that reference digital watches and what a big mistake it was to leave the oceans (combined with the scene from the show where the guy walks back into the ocean).CityZen (talk) 21:30, 13 February 2013 (UTC)
"...questions including, 'Why are are people born?' 'Why do do people die?' and 'Why do they spend so much of the time in between wearing digital watches?'"
"Most of the people were pretty much unhappy for pretty much most of the time; many solutions have been suggested for this problem, but they mostly involve the movement of small green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn't the small green pieces of paper which were unhappy."

Ive said that Douglas Adams write for XKCD for years now...Notice if you change all the letters to their corresponding number (A=1, B=2, etc) and add them, you get 42 ;) 12:49, 13 February 2013 (UTC)

Yeah, I'm pretty sure we all know that was a coincidence; Randall said so.
I wrote a quick program to check for four-letter combinations and add their value. I'm assuming (hoping) that I coded correctly and got accurate results (I was using a library that I am unfamiliar with). Of the 26^4 possible letter combinations, 8840 (roughly 2%) will result in a total of 42 (order matters). This comes to 449 different sets of letters (in whatever order) that total 42. The numbers change if we assume Randall would only choose a letter once to be in the title. I'd rewrite the program to count up all combinations that total 4 to 104 for comparison (with and without repetition), but it's after 5am now. 10:25, 15 February 2013 (UTC)

Not just a Biblical reference, the comic is published on (western christian) Ash Wednesday... Patmiller (talk) 14:58, 13 February 2013 (UTC)

I didn't think of Douglas Adams when I read it, I thought of Paul Erdos' definition of a mathematician as a device for turning coffee into theorems. MGK (talk) 15:16, 15 February 2013 (UTC)

That quote was was actually due to Alfréd Rényi. 07:16, 5 June 2013 (UTC)
I've never heard this quote before - thank you both, I love it! (10,000 Day . . . ) L-Space Traveler (talk) 14:04, 19 December 2022 (UTC)

That was exactly the thing that crossed my mind when I read it... Spot on! (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I've learned that Mr Armstrong is a future hero (Thank you Mr. XKCD). We will need to help out evolution to make us stronger and faster when we need it (sorry Jet pilots of today, you will need to continue enduring those coughing fits until we figure something out). Considering we need to do so by choice, drugs are the only way we know how at this time. Mr. Armstrong was trying to teach us a lesson that if you practice moderation and have will power to put in the work as well (drugs are no pathway toward the easy life), you can overcome any limitation (such as getting over cancer) to become one of the greatest human athletes we have ever known (and yes, I do believe you are both are still as awesome as ever Mr. Armstrong and our teacher Mr. XKCD). -e-inspired 19:25, 27 February 2013 (UTC)

The Sphere baffled asks if that is so bad, to which Megan states that this is awful. That's not what the sphere said AT ALL. But That's right, Jacky720 just signed this (talk | contribs) 17:56, 3 May 2017 (UTC)

My problem with the “controversy” section is that it says that a reason for banning chemical is in cases that they cause harm to the athletes, but wouldn’t that also be a reason to ban most sports entirely? Just look at all the (potentially debilitating) injuries athletes often get (especially football players). PotatoGod (talk) 14:05, 28 March 2018 (UTC)