2175: Flag Interpretation

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Flag Interpretation
When Salvador Dalí died, it took months to get all the flagpoles sufficiently melted.
Title text: When Salvador Dalí died, it took months to get all the flagpoles sufficiently melted.


In many countries including the United States (whose flag is depicted in the comic), it is customary to lower the flag to half staff when important public figures die. This is normally done by raising the flag to full height, then immediately "lowering" it to half height. In the US, regulations regarding flying the flag at half staff specify the length of time for the flag to be flown at half staff, and are based on the importance of the person who has died. There are no regulations where the flag would be flown at any height other than full height or half staff, and there are no regulations where multiple flags would be flown.

The definition of half-staff, or half-mast, differs between countries and does not necessarily imply flying the flag at half the height of the pole or mast. For example, in the USA the flag is usually flown at half the height of the pole, whereas UK practice is to leave space for an 'invisible flag' above the flown flag, which may mean flying the flag near the top of the pole depending on its height. These differing practices contribute to confusion and ambiguity concerning the flag height, which is exploited in the comic.

Randall, as usual, makes a humorous list of fictional additional traditions.

The title text is a reference to The Persistence of Memory and other paintings and sculptures by Salvador Dalí which include watches and other objects that are melting.


Flag Position Randall's Interpretation Explanation
Flag at half mast Someone important died. In the U.S., it is customary to lower the flag to half mast when somebody important died. In the flag raising ritual, the flag is supposed to be raised to full mast first and then lowered back to half mast. At the end of the day, the flag is supposed to re-raised to full mast before lowering the flag from the flagpole.
Flag at three-quarter mast Someone died but we're not sure how we feel about them. Assuming that this way of flying the flag follows the same custom as above, it can be inferred that the flag was first raised to full mast, and then lowered by only half the distance customary for honoring an important person. If the people in charge of raising the flag are not convinced of a deceased person's importance, it follows that they would give said person a half-hearted commemoration.

A more literal interpretation is that a single full-mast flag can be taken to mean "nobody important died". If so, 3/4ths mast is a compromise between that and the half mast meaning; in other words, "someone half-important died".

Flag at base of the mast Everyone important died. Likewise, if the flag is lowered halfway when an important person dies, lowering it twice as far implies that multiple important people have died. No intermediate positions are shown, so we can't be sure exactly how many. However, Randall does not specify his definition of "everyone," so this scenario could possibly imply that there was an event that led to the complete cessation of life on Earth, possibly leaving nobody to raise the flag.
Two flags at full mast Someone important was successfully cloned. Following the "flag for important people" rule, two flags would mean two (cloned) important people.
Two flags at half mast An important person died battling their evil clone. The concept of evil clone (or twin) is popular in fiction; in this case, two flags at half mast would mean that both clones (good and evilly diverged), or perhaps the cloned person and their clone-gone-bad (antithetical to the presumably 'good' original), died in some battle where both failed in trying to establish themselves as the sole surviving version.
Flag at half mast and upside-down Nobody has died for weeks and that seems good but statistically it's very alarming. Since on average someone dies every few seconds, it would indeed be extremely unlikely that no one would die for weeks in a row. Although not having anyone die seems good on the surface, it would trigger alarm about why this was happening; what mysterious force could possibly cause cessation of all deaths? And will it continue into the future, triggering an overpopulation crisis in short order?

In real life, flying the US flag upside down is widely considered a distress signal, "a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property", and would not be intended to indicate an important figure has died. More recently, an upside-down American flag has come to be a symbol of the "Stop the Steal" movement by supporters of Donald Trump.

One normal-sized flag at half mast and five tiny flags at full mast Someone diverted a trolley to save five people by killing one important person. This is a reference to the Trolley problem, a well-known thought experiment in ethics: An out-of-control trolley is running toward five people who are on the tracks. If you do nothing, these five will be killed. However, you can trigger a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side track, where there is one person who would be killed. Which is the more ethical option?

In this case, the important person was sacrificed, and so is commemorated by the usual custom of lowering the flag to half-mast. The small flags, which represent the less important people, fly at full mast to indicate those people's continued survival.

No flag on the pole The person who knows where the flag is stored at night died. Presumably the flag-keeper died during the night, and nobody living knows where the flag is stored and can't seem to locate it to put it on the flagpole. Amusingly, this is not symbolic at all, being an automatic consequence of the flag-keeper's death.
Melted flagpole (title text) Salvador Dalí died Salvador Dalí was a painter who was most famous for making objects in his paintings look "melted". Randall is saying that, when he died, the flag-raisers melted the flagpoles to make them resemble his paintings, and that it took them months to do so.


[8 panels in 2 rows, 4 panels per row - each panel shows a flagpole in a different state of flying flag(s) with a caption at the bottom of the panel below the flagpole.]
[The US flag at half mast.]
Caption: Someone important died
[The same flag at three-quarter mast.]
Caption: Someone died but we're not sure how we feel about them
[The flag at the base of the mast.]
Caption: Everyone important died
[Two identical flags at full mast.]
Caption: Someone important was successfully cloned
[Two identical flags at half mast.]
Caption: An important person died battling their evil clone
[An upside-down flag at half mast.]
Caption: Nobody has died for weeks and that seems good but statistically it's very alarming.
[A normal-sized flag at half mast and five tiny flags at full mast.]
Caption: Someone diverted a trolley to save five people by killing one important person
[A flagpole with no flag.]
Caption: The person who knows where the flag is stored at night died.

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Can we all just take a moment to appreciate that Randall drew each US flag by hand? He could have just copy-pasted the same one 14 times, but he didn't. 16:27, 12 July 2019 (UTC)

Something about a Dali-esque melting flagpole set at half-mast seems very suggestive to me... -- ProphetZarquon (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Flying the US flag upside down would be considered a distress signal by many. Should this be in the main description or a "trivia" section? Cgrimes85 (talk) 15:51, 12 July 2019 (UTC)

I had the same thought (before I saw your comment) and put it in the main description, since it seems necessary to understand the joke. --Aquillion (talk) 05:51, 13 July 2019 (UTC)

Half mast or half staff? In the US (which appears to be the flag shown in the comic), the popular usage is half-staff, although half-mast is more common elsewhere. Cgrimes85 (talk) 15:56, 12 July 2019 (UTC)

Half-mast should be for naval connotations and half-staff for non-naval connotations, at least in the USA.
Definitely half-mast in the UK. To the point that someone showing a lot of sock has historically drawn comments of "Who's died?" or "Your cat died?" which is then clarified by explaining that their trousers appear to be at half-mast. YorkshirePudding (talk) 21:59, 12 July 2019 (UTC)
In Northern Ireland, a flag half way up a lamp post usually just illustrates that the ladder was too short. Not strictly relevant, but it feels like an XKCD style punchline.
Where I live in the US (Northern California), everyone says "half-mast". We don't use "half-staff". Trogdor147 (talk) 01:42, 30 August 2023 (UTC)

The no one dying for a while was done in the TV Show Torchwood: Miracle Day https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torchwood:_Miracle_Day 19:01, 12 July 2019 (UTC)

Also the premise of a SCP End of Death hub. 10:11, 15 July 2019 (UTC)
Terry Pratchett also did this in one of his books, 'Reaper Man'. 02:02, 26 September 2019 (UTC)

Note that a flag may traditionally not fly outside at night, to the point that a flag which hangs after dusk should be burned. 13:32, 13 July 2019 (UTC)

" a flag which hangs after dusk should be burned." Uhhh, no. Burning is the respectful way to destroy a worn-out US flag, but just having had the flag fly at night does not mean that that flag should be burned. ( Where DID that idea come from?? ) 20:59, 13 July 2019 (UTC)

It's actually acceptable to fly a flag 24 hours a day, provided there is appropriate lighting on it. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 14:02, 14 July 2019 (UTC)

Related trolley problem link I am not adding to the explanation lol. 22:26, 14 July 2019 (UTC)

I don't know about the US, but in Sweden when you're flying at half-mast the flag is actually at 2/3 up the mast. The 3/4 mast looks almost like that. Also, the explanation for the double flag half-mast says that both clones died, but this is not necessarily the case. It's just that the flag line doesn't have multiple spots to attach a flag to so if you want two flags you have to attach them to each other. The explanation for the upside down half-mast talks about risk of overpopulation and worry about the cause for the lack of deaths, but the text in the comic says that it's statistically worrisome, which to me seems like this is more about gambler's logic; if no one has died for weeks then very soon a whole lot of people are going to die at once. Kapten-N (talk) 07:31, 29 July 2019 (UTC)

I understood the statistical thing, that it is highly unlikely that it happens just coincidally for weeks, that noone dies, so it must be having a reason. Only one I can imagine is either some "death on vacation" thing, which never ends well in fiction, or that there was a mass-dying before this period. --Lupo (talk) 07:35, 29 July 2019 (UTC)