2261: Worst Thing That Could Happen
|Worst Thing That Could Happen
Title text: Before I install any patch, I always open the patch notes and Ctrl-F for 'supervolcano', 'seagull', and 'garbage disposal', just to be safe.
Ponytail and her friends are considering upgrading some part or program of their computers. They may feel the need to upgrade because the software they are currently using has some vulnerability that is only patched in newer revisions (this comic was released just two weeks after the end of extended support for Windows 7), or because they want to have access to some new feature. As part of the decision-making process, Ponytail asks her friends, "What's the worst that could happen?" If the computers they are discussing are privately owned, she may be concerned about losing personal data or having to learn new software interfaces. On the other hand, if they are discussing a corporate computer system, there may also be business-related risks. If their company relies on functionality offered by their current system that has been deprecated or modified in the updated version (such as in 1172: Workflow, or as with many specialized tools or machines in the real world), they may suffer downtime while they modify the rest of their workflow. Even if the upgraded system should continue to fit their needs, they may need to take some downtime to perform the update and deal with the risks of something going badly along the way, and there may be major costs associated with license subscriptions and support contracts. "What's the worst that could happen?" is also a common rhetorical question; Ponytail may be expressing a belief that nothing bad could happen as a result of the upgrade, and not expecting an answer.
Unfortunately, Ponytail's friends answer with their ideas for the worst things that could happen ever, not as a result of the upgrade, as Ponytail meant, or they are taking the question to the logical extreme and invoking chaos theory. The result is a list of "worst things" ridiculously unconnected to a computer upgrade. At the end, however, Megan interprets these as possible results of the upgrade, and advises against upgrading. A list with explanations can be found below. Ponytail facepalms at her friends' overly-literal senses of humor.
Alternatively, Ponytail could be facepalming at the fact that the worst thing which could happen, according to her team, is that they are put on a ridiculous game show in which, if they answer a question incorrectly, they are chucked in garbage disposal. This may be bad, but it is nowhere near as bad as an erupting supervolcano or nuclear war. However, Cueball has shown anxiety and difficulties in social situations, such as the less-than-helpful advice in 1917: How to Make Friends, so he (and likewise Hairy and Megan) may consider that embarrassment on the game show (which might then be immortalized online) is worse than instantaneous death in a nuclear war.
Megan and Cueball have previously experienced a severely-botched upgrade in 349: Success, in which Cueball somehow caused them to end up in shark-infested waters off the coast of a deserted island when he was just trying to get their computer to dual-boot BSD.
The title text talks about searching upgrade release notes for some of the things listed to be sure none are potential side effects of an upgrade. "Ctrl-F" is a common keyboard shortcut for "find text string" in many programs. Since Randall is just reading but not changing the patch notes, a web browser, PDF viewer, or word processing program such as Adobe Reader or Microsoft Word might have been used.
List of worst things
- The list of "worst things that could happen" discussed by the team are:
|A supervolcano is a volcano that would (or does) eject over 1,000 cubic kilometers of material when it erupts. The United States in particular is home to a supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park. When it erupts, the results will be catastrophic to the entire world, possibly triggering a volcanic winter, massive crop die-offs (and subsequent cascading extinctions up the food chain), and the destruction of human civilization. This probably would not be set off by any sort of software update.
|An artificial intelligence overthrows humanity and takes over the world. Hairy is probably concerned with a violent uprising in which the robots are determined to exterminate humanity, as in, for example, the Terminator films, rather than an AI who just wants to stay in a box. Randall has written about robot uprisings (both violent and humorous) in several comic strips. If Ponytail's company is involved in artificial intelligence, a robot uprising could be a remotely plausible worst-case scenario from a botched upgrade.
|"Everyone falls down a well at once."
|There have been several well-publicized incidents in which a real person fell down a well, such as Baby Jessica and these people. If everyone fell down a well at once, there would be nobody to get them out, which would be a pretty bad thing. It's unclear how this upgrade could cause this outcome, making this suggestion preposterous.
|"Instead of hitting the tallest thing around, lightning starts hitting the nicest."
|Lightning generally strikes the tallest object under a thunderstorm, a topic addressed in What-if #16: Lightning. Lightning rods are built to take advantage of this effect to protect nearby important objects from the lightning. If lightning started hitting the nicest thing around, then it would presumably strike whatever it was that the lightning rods are meant to protect (nice buildings, nice people, nice rockets). If the computer that's being upgraded is connected to the Universe Control Panel, this change could be a plausible negative consequence of the update.
|"Seagulls all get handguns."
|Guns in the hands of humans account for the large majority of homicides and suicides in the USA. Letting handguns be wielded by seagulls, which lack the impulse control and cognitive thinking required to make the ownership of a handgun somewhat safe, would make this much worse. Seagulls are not particularly known for their intelligence, self control, or kindness toward others. At popular beaches, seagulls are known to aggressively harass humans for their food; if they wielded handguns, a great deal of violence would ensue. Even if mayhem and death were not due to intentional use (i.e., if the seagulls were capable of learning that use of a handgun would get them food or something else they might like), they would happen from accidental use.
|"A really slow nuclear war."
| No nuclear war involving two sides launching nuclear weapons at each other has ever been fought, but experts generally agree that an all-out nuclear war between superpowers would end very quickly and very badly for all parties involved (as well as all parties not involved). A "slow" nuclear war might play out as a series of tit-for-tat individual launches rather than a single apocalyptic exchange, but the destruction of cities and release of fallout would be the same. Perhaps the anticipation of when exactly it's "your turn" to be a target would make the slow war a worse experience.
Much of the computer networking technology used today has its roots in research into hardening nuclear command and control systems against an incoming first strike, and many works of fiction have depicted nuclear war (or the risk of nuclear war) resulting from computer and software errors in systems that are supposed to "upgrade" the decision-making process, such as WarGames and "Fail-Safe". If Ponytail's company is involved in the defense industry, a nuclear war could be a plausible worst-case scenario from a botched upgrade.
|"We have to go on a game show where they show you photos of people you've met once and ask you their names, and if you get one wrong a trapdoor opens and you fall into a garbage disposal."
|The premise of this game show seems to play on Munroe's frequent references to anxiety about social situations. For people who have troubles remembering names, encountering someone you've met once before can be harrowing, as you may know that you should know their name, but be unable to recall it, creating embarrassment and awkwardness (particularly if the person remembers your name with ease). The concept is that fear could be exploited in the form of a game show. Many popular game shows feature contests where contestants who fail are subjected to pain and/or humiliation, such as the Ninja Warrior franchise. This case is particularly exaggerated, as the inability to remember even a single name would result in being dropped into a garbage disposal, which would virtually guarantee serious maiming and/or death. The reaction of the strip characters suggests that they all share a lack of confidence in their ability to remember the names of casual acquaintances, making such a game show one of the "worst things" they could encounter.
- [Ponytail is standing in front of a desk with a computer. One of her hands is on the keyboard. Behind her, Cueball, Hairy, and Megan are looking at the computer screen.]
- Ponytail: We should upgrade. What's the worst that could happen?
- Cueball: Supervolcano.
- Hairy: Robot uprising.
- Megan: Everyone falls down a well at once.
- [Zoom in on Cueball, Hairy, and Megan. Cueball has turned toward the other two.]
- Cueball: Instead of hitting the tallest thing around, lightning starts hitting the nicest.
- Megan: Seagulls all get handguns.
- Hairy: A really slow nuclear war.
- [Large panel with the original setting. Ponytail has turned towards the other three but is now facepalming, as Cueball gesturing with his hands at chest-height are still looking at the other two facing him.]
- Cueball: We all have to go on a game show where they show you photos of people you've met once and ask you their names, and if you get one wrong a trapdoor opens and you fall into a garbage disposal.
- Hairy: Ooh, that's a good one.
- Megan: Yeah, let's put off the upgrade.
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