456: Cautionary

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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This really is a true story, and she doesn't know I put it in my comic because her wifi hasn't worked for weeks.
Title text: This really is a true story, and she doesn't know I put it in my comic because her wifi hasn't worked for weeks.


Cueball's cousin decides to install Linux on her new PC, and calls Cueball, whom she views as her personal Linux expert. The overarching joke revolves around the fact that Linux, especially home PC-based GNU/Linux, is much more often used as a "hobby" OS, as compared against a "productivity" OS such as Windows or macOS. Large numbers of people use Windows or Mac by default, because it came with their computer hardware when they bought it, and it already had the software suite they wanted to use installed along with it. Linux, on the other hand, rarely comes pre-installed on PC hardware and generally must be deliberately chosen and acquired; and while it can be set up to achieve efficient and productive workflow in virtually any area on PCs, because it often must be consciously selected, installed, and configured by users, it tends to either attract or, in a few cases, create individuals who take disproportionate pleasure in, and derive self-identification from, hacking the operating system itself. Thus, many people who are Linux enthusiasts began by not really knowing anything about it other than that it's free of cost, but the process of actually building Linux on their machines gradually led them to take an increasing interest in it, which the comic humorously likens to substance addiction.

Xorg (officially X.Org) is an implementation of the X Window System, a program responsible for the graphical display used on Linux. If it has configuration problems, which was quite common with some video card drivers back in 2008 (especially those for ATI Radeon cards), it is often difficult and/or painful to fix (see 963: X11). Man pages are manual pages for Unix-based operating systems and software, usually accessible online but also bundled with the software itself. Considered helpful and clear by the sorts of advanced computer users who typically run Linux, the text only documentation requires a bit of a learning curve and is not generally adequate for less-technical users. Here the joke starts to build in that Cueball's cousin, a computer novice who just wanted something to work out of the box, is now having to learn how to understand Linux documentation in order to even 'attempt' to fix her ongoing Xorg problem (likely an inability to start a graphical terminal, something a novice user would depend on).

In the third panel we see that the cousin's problems are persisting. She may have been able to get a graphical terminal to work, but now Ubuntu's built-in auto configuration tools are failing to address another critical problem. She suggests that she is considering switching to a more "advanced" Linux distro in order to sidestep the failing autoconfig issues. A Linux "distribution" is a suite of tools and applications that provide a specific user experience on top of the core Linux operating system. Each distribution, or "distro", has a different look and feel, and different feature sets and design philosophies. Ubuntu is a very popular "beginner" version of Linux, designed to "just work" and be familiar/usable to people fresh out of Windows. Debian is a popular but somewhat more "advanced", traditionally "Unix-like", distro, with a huge and diverse base of supported software that generally requires more Linux know-how to configure and use. In fact Ubuntu is based on Debian, and under the hood they have similar features, so that it would not be considered much of a leap for an competent Ubuntu user to switch. Gentoo, on the other hand, is a very advanced distro allowing for extreme customization and optimization but requiring extensive install and setup time. It is generally considered to be extremely complex and beginner-unfriendly (to the point that its difficulty has become somewhat memetic in the Linux world), a trade-off for providing a powerful and versatile set of tools for advanced system hacking. It appears that during her six-week struggle to build her system, Cueball's cousin has started to consider that her problem would require a solution that could only be accommodated by complex tweaking.

In the fourth panel there is a strong implication that the cousin has indeed switched to Gentoo because a hallmark of that distribution is the kernel (the basic core of the operating system) must be compiled from source code upon installation. Source code is a computer program expressed in an somewhat human-readable format, often simply as text. However, source code cannot be run directly by a computer, and instead needs to be "compiled" into low level machine instructions the computer can understand. This means that with Gentoo, instead of downloading an already functional Linux system to install and run, users download the source code for the system, customize it to their own needs, then compile the code into a runnable version of the OS, all before they can begin to use the system. The cousin has been forced to do this because whatever her problem is, the solution required a customized kernel. This could include needing the kernel to be compiled in a non-standard way not supported by more mainstream distros, incorporating experimental third party code into the kernel or modifying the kernel herself to fix the problem. Compiling a kernel with the aforementioned modifications is a tricky affair since any mistake or oversight can render the kernel, and thus the computer, non-functional. If a mistake is made or the custom kernel does not fix her problem the kernel needs to be compiled anew. The fourth panel also implies the cousin has been stuck in a Trial and error loop, compiling the kernel over and over again for the better part of 6 weeks in an attempt to fix her problem.

To many such advanced users, their installation of Linux is like a hobby sports car: A never-ending project, constantly tweaked and cleaned and adjusted to improve performance, that spends far more time sitting around with its hood open than actually being used for its ostensible purpose. However, for more typical users who are interested in a functional computer system instead of a toy or project system, Gentoo can be highly frustrating or plainly unusable. By week 12, Cueball's cousin is likely suffering from the Sunk cost fallacy, in that she believes that since she has put in so much time she needs to see it through. She might also be optimistically underestimating how much additional work will be required since at each point Linux does at least offer potential solutions due to its customizability. Finally there could be an element of Target fixation, in that the cousin has become so focused on the problem, she has forgotten about her original plans for the computer or that Windows is still an option.

In the fifth panel, Randal riffs on the old anti-drug message "Parents, talk to your kids about drugs before someone else does", with the meaning being if a responsible adult does not educate their kids about the dangers of drugs (or Linux), then someone else (likely a peer) might convince them that drugs (or Linux) is a good idea. This brings us to the overall theme of the comic in that Linux might 'seem' like a good idea for the average, less-technical user, but in reality will open up a world of pain that will hinder their ability to be a computationally functional member of society. There is an additional call to the theory of gateway drugs where mild drugs like alcohol or cannabis will lead to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin. In the comic, Cueball's cousin starts out with Ubuntu, a "gateway" version of Linux. However it quickly leads to harder and harder versions, all in a futile effort to solve her problem, with the end result being her vanishing for weeks inside her house like a junkie hopelessly hooked on drugs.

The title text continues the joke about Linux's poor support for many Wi-Fi cards common in 2008, a device that is not only well supported on Windows, but was typically seen as making networking easy for less technical users.

While the comic primarily pokes fun at the difficulties in using Linux (circa 2008), it indirectly shows some of the advantages. The first one is that it is a freely available alternative to Windows and the second is that it provides users the tools to make fixing problems possible, whereas with Windows the only problems that are fixed are the ones Microsoft chooses to fix. The comic is also somewhat anachronistic as over time hardware support in Linux has become much more robust. It is currently unlikely that Cueball's cousin would wind up in kernel compile hell to enable basic functions such as graphics and Wi-Fi. The world's most popular operating system, Android, is a flavor of Linux and the growth of web-based applications have pushed much of even the desktop user experience into the browser. As of 2017 it would be unlikely that the cousin would even consider a desktop computer, instead relying on her Android phone or tablet.


Linux: A True Story:
[Cueball talks on a cell phone.]
Week One:
Cousin: Hey, it's your cousin. I got a new computer but don't want Windows. Can you help me install "Linux"?
Cueball: Sure.
[Cueball's cousin sits in an office chair with her laptop on her lap. She is on the phone.]
Week Two:
Cousin: It says my XORG is broken. What's an "XORG"? Where can I look that up?
Cueball: Hmm, lemme show you man pages.
[Cueball's cousin crouches on the floor with the laptop on her lap. She is still on the phone.]
Week Six:
Cousin: Due to auto-config issues, I'm leaving Ubuntu for Debian.
Cueball: Uh.
Cousin: Or Gentoo.
Cueball: Uh oh.
[Cueball's Cousin lies on her stomach with the laptop on the floor. On the floor are several pieces of paper and a book. Cueball stands to her left.]
Week Twelve:
Cueball: You haven't answered your phone in days.
Cousin: Can't sleep. Must compile kernel.
Cueball: I'm too late.
[Box with text:]
Parents: talk to your kids about Linux... Before somebody else does.

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Isn't 'Talk to your kids about...' from a famous Unilever ad? 09:47, 2 June 2013 (UTC)

Is this Megan? Her hair seems awfully curly and it says she's his cousin. Is there an official transcript? Theo (talk) 20:46, 14 August 2013 (UTC)

Official transcripts, if they do exist, do not contain names in general. These names are just an invention by some communities like this wiki. So, if you have a better stick figure which would match her, talk about this.--Dgbrt (talk) 21:16, 14 August 2013 (UTC)
She is clearly not Megan. I propose to call her cousin. Xhfz (talk) 22:20, 13 October 2013 (UTC)
There exists an official transcript for each comic, available to see in the page's source code. According to a comment in 1037:_Umwelt, Randall does apparently not type those, but is seemingly done by Davean, his friend maintaining the server. (Note: this is just a guess) Vgr (talk) 11:22, 22 October 2013 (UTC)
I don't think that this is Megan either. I propose to call her Alice, though, in reference to cryptography. Official.xian (talk) 19:46, 10 July 2014 (UTC)

I think we're all forgetting something very important here: It's a true story, therefore she has a real name. If we really wanted her correct name, we'd be pestering Randall for it. Anonymous 23:26, 18 August 2014 (UTC)
And since it's a true story Cueball here's probably meant to be Randall himself. Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 08:57, 14 November 2014 (UTC)
And the hair not reminiscent of Megan. 17:26, 18 March 2015 (UTC)
Then why has nobody fixed it to say Cousin instead of Megan?... 19:42, 3 April 2015 (UTC)
Done. I'm not sure abiut the hyperlinks though, if they're supposed to be on every reference to curball then someone shoulf add those. Bbruzzo (talk) 15:28, 26 August 2015 (UTC)

The last paragraph is taking quite a leap. While she has obviously learned over the 3 months, we have no idea if she is actually building her kernel in a critical and meaningful way. Does not fit with actual comic. flewk (talk) 19:28, 28 December 2015 (UTC)

The part where it says man pages use simple unambiguous language made me laughThaledison (talk) 17:59, 26 January 2016 (UTC)

It's called mansplaining for a reason... (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Shouldn't it be explained outright that Randall is Cueball (since title text confirms it's a true story)? -- [[User:{{{1}}}|{{{1}}}]] ([[User talk:{{{1}}}|talk]]) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The [https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php?title=456:_Cautionary&oldid=226935 "There's no learning curve..." edit" is not quite right. Though all Man Pages should be accessible, do you remember the first time you came across something like:

URI       = scheme ":" hier-part [ "?" query ] [ "#" fragment ]
hier-part = "//" authority path-abempty / path-absolute / path-rootless / path-empty

...and wondered what it meant, or how to parse it? Some of the Man Pages out there are even more technically-inclined, presupposing prior knowledge (or where to go to get it), which may not be their intended philosophy but is nonetheless a fact. Not changing anything, but pointing this out. 13:22, 12 February 2022 (UTC)