It goes without saying that most users on xkcdsucks will despise this one....

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Admin Mourning

(From xkcd. Click on the thumbnail for full sized digital footprints in the sand.)

Every so often -- every so often -- a pun doesn't make me groan. Every so often, a pun is an accent to a mood. A clever note on a feeling. And every so often, xkcd manages to touch on a universal behavior through an incredibly idiosyncratic method.

Comparatively speaking, very few people run servers -- and even fewer run servers with other users on them. The behavior that Munroe is describing is unique to a specific profession and a specific type of user. I occasionally administer boxes where I have folks running screen sessions, because that's part of what I do for a living. Most people -- even most readers of xkcd -- don't.

And yet, in one sense we've all been there. Or at least we all can see where this is coming from. If nothing else, keeping the last voicemail you received from someone who died, because you can't bear to erase it, even if you also can't bear to listen to it... that's something that's very human, very part of the grieving process. So long as you have that 1 next to the total messages, then you still have an active connection to someone the rest of the world can only remember.

Or take the last post someone makes to Livejournal or the like. That post, no matter what it's about, becomes a de facto memorial post -- comments fill up as people express condolences to the family... but just as often they send last message they ever can to the person who's died. This is their post, so when you send a comment you're sending it to that person, right? Right? That's how Livejournal works. So if this is your last chance to say how special they were, how much a part of your life they were... then thank God you have it. So you have someone who posts something... well, utterly banal like "Well, time to go grab lunch. I hope the tuna doesn't smell like ass today," and underneath it you have 600 comments from people saying how much they loved the poster, and how they miss them, and how they think of them every day... there's a disconnect there. The mundane touches the spiritual. The everyday touches the eternal. And it feels active. It feels real.

On the other hand, I have to wonder how much more a user's eternal screen session evokes this feeling -- because this was more than a message left or a post made. This was something ongoing. You see, screen sessions allow you to disconnect from a server while leaving a... well, ghost of that connection active, so that when you reconnect the screen looks exactly like it did when you left, and any projects you were doing are sitting right there, waiting for you to pick them up. This is the digital equivalent of a half-written poem, the paper still sitting on the desk, the pen still uncapped on top of it.

And then there's the alt-text, and that's universal too. In a sense, it's even a part of that same grieving process -- because hey, they'd love the joke, right?

Some folks will be upset that this one isn't funny -- or think that the pun at the end means it's trying to be funny -- but really, this strip's a lot closer to the angular momentum strip -- one of those brief moments that are a touch sappy and a touch wistful and still a touch geeky. Less about the funny, more about life, as seen through the eyes of a math, physics or computer geek. It's been part of xkcd from the beginning, and it's often done ham-handedly, but when it's done well it has tremendous effect, and today's was done well.

This one just nailed me. I'm not sure anyone would still care, but Randall Munroe gets himself a biscuit for this one.

A tasty, tasty biscuit.

21 Comments

Randal does this kind of one-off a lot, actually. I rather liked this one.

"Write what you know," they say. I admit this isn't too bad for XKCD--the three people in the world who actually use zsh must be squealing in ecstasy right now--but maybe one reason it's not too bad is that this is stuff the XKCD guy actually *knows* about and feels, whereas his math and science jokes give the impression that he copies formulas out of CRC handbooks while not *quite* remembering what the funny letters and squiggles actually stand for.

The only screen sessions on the servers I manage these days are mine. Though I have had something... not quite similar and yet not so different happen.. many years ago.

I wanted to log in to comment on how much this strip moved me, because I just buried a good friend yesterday and am still mourning, and how I was very nearly in tears at my desk without knowing anything about running a server.

But then it took me 20 minutes to navigate the endless, endless error messages from OpenID to finally get to this page, and the moment was spoiled. Alas.

I'm very sorry for your loss and for the difficulty you had authenticating. Were the errors coming from Websnark or from OpenID itself -- is there something we should be banging on with sticks out back?

I think it was OpenID. I haven't actually used it before, and it wasn't accepting anything that the info page said it should have been. It was nice to be able to skip that bit before.

Understood. Well, the old system's still there if you want to use it. I still do, but then it actually works for me. Way too many people can't claim that for comfort in relying on it any more.

I had to spend about half a day figuring out how to get an openid account (even though I support it on ubersoft.net I never bothered to used it). And then the first time I tried to log in with openid there was an error message that didn't provide any clues as to whether the error had anything to do with the site or with myopenid. It seems to be working now though.

A rare XKCD indeed, this one seems like he isn't just phoning it in like he usually does, but actually wanting to take the time to comment on something he really cares about. It makes me wonder at times if XKCD would be better off if it didn't update as often, and therefore have more time to write more thoughtful comics.

There's a friend of mine from college who died this summer, and whenever I log into AIM, there's his screenname, still up, active, and on mobile.

I don't know why it's still there, but it's a pretty close approximation of this.

Okay, I have a question:

A dear friend of mine killed herself last June. Within 12 hours of her death, her parents had her room cleaned out. Furniture, personal effects, even the carpet, was pulled out and gone. My friend had a rather extensive online presence (multiple LiveJournal and email accounts, mySpace and Facebook accounts, etc.). Her mom has done everything she could to get all of them deactivated. But the kicker is that her mom worked in funeral parlor and the only reason my friend got a funeral at all is that her (the mom's) coworkers found out and held one at their expense.

So my question is this: Am I wrong in thinking the mom is evil?

Using a Livejournal ID to log in here works just fine.

By the way, I'm really glad to see you posting again. It was a very pleasant surprise to open my RSS bookmarks this morning and see several new posts to read.

czarzhan, I would hesitate to describe her as evil. Suicides and the grief surrounding suicides provoke a lot of reactions in people that aren't easy to assign motives to.

I agree with M. Wright, Czarzhan. Yeah, this is an emotionally enervating moment -- you know that as well as anyone, since I'm sure it was a very difficult time for you too. Some people, when trying to cope, get locked in denial. And that sounds like what's going on here. Hardcore denial, coupled with expunging everything that might remind them of the turmoil your friend was feeling.

In a way, it's the flip side of the phenomenon Munroe described in his strip. With these virtual artifacts, we are reminded of who these people were -- they feel more immediate and fresh. But for some people, it's too much. They want to remember (in this case) their child in a certain way that reality doesn't necessarily jibe with, and these reminders serve to trigger pain.

It's hard on the others who loved your friends, but I don't think that automatically means she's evil.

Not having any first hand knowledge, that's all I can say. That, and I'm sorry for your loss regardless.

For me, it's the last ICQ message I sent to a friend who had just slipped into a coma, telling him that he had to wake up, because he had to live long enough to see my firstborn son, who'd inherit his nickname as a middle name. He died less than a week later.

It's not actually related to why I haven't tried fathering a child yet... but it sometimes plays on my mind.

I tried to sign in earlier today with my LJ ID and couldn't, but right now it's working just fine.

One of the first things I did when I logged onto LJ was discover that someone who'd been a major, if second-hand, influence on the fanfiction I wrote in the heyday of alt.drwho.creative had died recently of early-onset colon cancer. I searched on the net alias I knew her by, and read the last few weeks of her journal, the final entries of which were wake announcements and memorial recommendations from her husband. I never have figured out how I feel about it.

I suppose this is a semi-macabre thought, but I've occasionally wondered what would happen to my online presence (my website, my domain names, etc.) if I died. There's a whole lot of stuff that would have to be taken care of so I suppose I ought to leave written instructions somewhere, along with passwords and account information. But what if I didn't? What if I just kicked off and there was no one to take care of it?

If Howard Taylor or Jeff Darlington were to pass on (God forbid) it could potentially be months before anyone noticed because they have ridiculously large comic buffers. Whereas I have sort of an "anti-buffer," but it would still be months before anyone noticed because my audience would just assume I was taking another one of my "breaks." Heh.

Ah good it's not just me.

This strip really nailed it for me, and when that happens, I normally see a couple of other people on LJ post something about it, but not a whisper until thiss.

ubersoft: I do have written instructions left. Once a year I remind my family they're there. Actually that's about due.

Bit late, but:

There's an "xkcdsucks" website?

...sigh.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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