2485: Nightmare Code

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Nightmare Code
Charsets even used to be known as 'alpha-bets' before that word's obvious negative associations caused it to die out.
Title text: Charsets even used to be known as 'alpha-bets' before that word's obvious negative associations caused it to die out.


Although the pandemic is not directly mentioned, this comic is another in a series of comics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A person using futuristic technology is giving a presentation or lecture. The content of his projected screen includes the names of the first four letters of the Greek alphabet, which he refers to as the Nightmare Code. The presenter expects that the list is familiar to his audience, but that it is novel information to them that it used to have a purpose other than providing arbitrary names to hurricanes, virus variants, and nanobot swarms.

The presenter refers to Greek as a language from Earth: this implies that the audience is mostly extraterrestrial - on Earth, everything is Earth implicitly. This may be the reason that they're unaware of the Greek language: the nightmare code may have spread beyond Earth, but a rather small Earth language may not be common knowledge.

Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms are named once they have sustained wind speeds of 33 knots (61 km/h; 38 mph) or more. The names for these storms go from A-W each year (each letter has a name randomly chosen from a predefined list), with 21 names allocated each yearly period. When the 21 names are exhausted, Greek letters were once used to continue naming storms as needed, as referenced in 944: Hurricane Names. The World Meteorological Organization decided not to use Greek letters when naming storms from 2021 onward. Perhaps in this vision of the future, the naming lists have given way to using the Greek alphabet exclusively.

Virus variants may also be given names once they are deemed sufficiently nightmarish. At the time of this writing, eleven variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been labeled with Greek letters. Previously, variants were named informally for the region in which they were identified (as were many viruses themselves), but this practice has ceased due to risks of discrimination and the perverse incentive of countries to suppress health information for the sake of saving face. A place may become (in)famously known as the origin of a disease by such a name, even if it originated elsewhere; an example is Spanish flu, which was actually first observed in the US state of Kansas. Nowadays vague names such as 'bird flu' or partly-informed geographic names tend to be better referenced by their hemagglutinin and neuraminidase subtypes, such as "H1N1" and "H9N2". The more technical coronavirus identification system uses a term such as "lineage B.1.617.2", whose awkwardness makes it unlikely to replace better-known names such as the "Kent variant" or "Indian variant".

Another set of historic nightmares the audience clearly knows about, which are still in our own future, are nanobot swarms, presumably nanoengineering failures and/or deliberate misuses of nanotechnology of the Gray goo type. Significant recurring or sequential events have seemingly earned the need to differentiate their outbreaks, and Greek letters have been used to do this. One may even be tempted to speculate that the futuristic figure and his presentation equipment float in space because the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable as a result of one or more of said nanotechnology disasters.

The cultural forgetfulness about the neutral basis of the old letters, after perhaps who-knows-what nanobot disasters that may have scoured the Earth clean of all things Greek, has led to no other common use for them except for their use in identifying far too many crises. The words themselves thus are instantly associated to bad times for almost everyone.

The title text indicates that future people stopped using the term "alphabet" (which derives from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta) due to the negative associations of the words caused by them being used to describe nightmarish occurrences. The "alphabet" is now called "charset", for "character sets".

The futuristic suit and gear are nearly identical to the ones worn by people in the future in 318: Nostalgia.


[A Cueball-like person is giving a presentation while wearing futuristic gear, including a visor with an antenna rising from it, a backpack-like appliance of some kind, and a futuristic pointer. The audience is not pictured. The presenter is floating rather than standing. The presentation is projected from a small device near the bottom of the frame, and the appearance of the presentation suggests it is a hologram. The content of the slide shows the names of the first four letters of the Greek alphabet:]
Presenter: We all know the Nightmare Code, used to assign neutral names to scary ongoing lists, such as hurricanes, virus variants, and nanobot swarms.
Presenter: But did you know it actually originated as the letters of an ancient Earth language?

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As I feared, I got into an Edit Conflict after doing (significantly more than I intended) editing of my own 'starter' explanation. Now resolved - thank you for your patience... 20:24, 5 July 2021 (UTC)

Central pacific hurricanes (e.g. Iniki) have different naming conventions than Eastern Pacific/Atlantic hurricanes (13 names in a list that doesn't reset at the new year).Gacktuar (talk) 23:19, 6 July 2021 (UTC)

Is the Alphabet gag in the Title Text related to Alphabet, the company that owns Google? Kev (talk) 17:32, 5 July 2021 (UTC)

It would be more expected that Alphabet would change their name if Alpha and Beta become associated with nightmare codes. OTOH, many thought that the Corona beer brand would suffer marketing problems during the pandemic, but it wasn't impacted very much. Barmar (talk) 20:21, 5 July 2021 (UTC)

@Kev Well, the speaker is wearing Google Glass. Lightcaller (talk) 20:22, 5 July 2021 (UTC)

The speaker specifically mentions "Earth Language" and wears something that might well be some kind of life support. I don't think they are addressing earth-based humans, but rather some more diverse audience that is mostly not from earth. Many of them obviously don't know old earth languages too well. But the usage of the nightmare code seems to have spread beyond earth. Therefore, there's no implication that (earth-based) humans have forgotten the Greek language, the speaker may simply be giving a talk about their culture. -> I think the first paragraph is making wrong assumptions. @Abd are you sure? Chichak (talk) 22:37, 5 July 2021 (UTC)

Not at all. Feel free to improve it; that's what wikis are for! Abd (talk) 16:20, 6 July 2021 (UTC)

Wait, what? The future's character sets? Our character sets (or at least some of them) are known as alphabets! Or have we already forgotten the term "alphabet"? ^unsigned

How far off is "the (far) future"? Based on the retro-future styled headwear & relatively minor language drift, I was picturing 20-to-60 years, tops.

Heck, which objects count as "drones" has already changed twice the last 20 years, & YouTube still thinks Steam® is related to an ironing press. If we're looking more than 60 years out, I have to assume that "nightmare" could be common parlance for 'great', "scary" means 'informative', "negative" means 'removing', & "die" means equalize.

It's a joke about language drift, featuring a floaty person referring to ancient "Earth" languages: Sounds like someone teaching a 1st-grade class at Luna L2 circa 2051, ten years after 'the Oopsie'. I really didn't get a feeling of "oh wow lots of time has passed". I got the impression we were supposed to recognize the elements of the scene so that the grammatic drift stated in the comic would be highlighted as hyperbolic change.

Hovering & silly headgear are kinda the bare minimum to represent "the future" unambiguously, these days. The presumption of extraterrestrial habitation is the most futuristic reference I see. I'd be a bit surprised if that took us more than another decade or two, if ever.

Is this comic really about the far future, or is part of the joke that language changes faster than our perceptions of what is futuristic? ProphetZarquon (talk) 01:12, 6 July 2021 (UTC)

@ unsigned comment above: This comic is set in an imagined future in which the use of the word "alphabet" to describe a character set has fallen out of favour due to the negative connotations of the Greek root. 01:17, 6 July 2021 (UTC)

Yeah, the imagining of "the (far) future", as argued against by someone I can't be bothered to check if they're one of several <unsigned>s or not, actually seems (fictionally) realistic to me. At least one full generation of Alphabet-gnostics has died out, by time passing as well as disaster, with very little seepage of "grandpa always used to say..." into this generation. If it's so soon after a terrestrial catastrophe, I'm surprised 'the old ways' have vanished as quickly as the Jetsons future has arrived. More likely like the montage behind Fry in Futurama's setup episode, happening to lead to a totally unironic retro-futuristic setting with much discontinuity of knowledge from the past. Even without the full-on Earthwide disaster, there could be the general Spacer-like ignorance (Asimov's pre-Foundation run-up series, long before Earth itself became mythical/lost/damaged in various phases) of our everyday cultural certainties - that even the surface-shunning mass of Earthers were showing signs of succumbing to ('Lije Bailey not knowing more than that text from the US Declaration Of Independence, IIRC, was "some old document", and used it casually without understanding how fanatically important its original context was).
And @ below, yes, I also think that the great transhumance into space has removed or reworked away Greek as a living language, as well as Ancient Greek as a non-niche dead one. We're probably even hearing/reading this lecture through (historically-unaware) Translator Microbes if it's being conducted in Standard Galactic (except for the historic loanwords), or whatever hybrid spacefaring lingua franca has developed and put yet more linguistic space between the words we know well and the mere detritus of phonemes that reflect very little of their origin. (Again, reason to believe a gap of no less than a century, possibly several, to shift the popular mindsets.)
But that's just my impression. You could shoehorn a faster turnaround, with enough tweaks. e.g. Bezos retires to his moonbase to tinker up a load of new Amazon gadgetry (Musk does the same on Mars for a Tesla-esque offshoot), the world goes all retro-techno via consumer pressure, plus capable of initiating the Google Labs nanobot swarming that leaves the gadget-ridden off-worlders now disconnected and disinclined to further the blackened legacy of Alphabet Inc, and after a generation or two of off-world schooling (from what few educators and experts had found themselves able to expound their knowledge) there are... gaps and other somewhat more blurred bits in the near(ish)-future shared memory. Your choice! 11:14, 6 July 2021 (UTC)

Does Cueball's "did you know" imply that the Greek language has died out entirely? At time of writing, the origin of the alpha/beta/gamma/etc. pseudo-numbering would already be referred to as "Ancient" Greek, but the same alphabet is still very much used to write modern Greek. 01:17, 6 July 2021 (UTC)

I feel like the explanation is overthinking the comic somewhat - it's a reference to the practice of using Greek letters for hurricanes once the 21 alphabetical names are exhausted (which is happening more often due to anthropogenic climate change) and the "delta variant" of SARS-CoV-2, extended to refer to futuristic disasters like nanobots. The word "alphabet" gaining perceived negative connotations is a result of that - there shouldn't be any cause to bring up ethology or Google's holding company. 01:00, 9 July 2021 (UTC)

Now there's "Deltacron" — ConscriptGlossary (talk) 09:59, 5 July 2024 (UTC)