Cueball is meeting White Hat, who is probably not in the same household. White Hat asks how Cueball is, which is normal small talk, but Cueball responds by expressing his anxiety that they're inhaling one another's "gross lung air". Cueball then repeats a common joke regarding how impossible it is to connect with people when our conversation norms discourage honest communication, switching to a more socially acceptable "fine".
"Gross" here may be a pun on the term gross anatomy (i.e. anatomy at the macroscopic level) and "gross" as a synonym for "disgusting."
A recurring theme in xkcd is characters expressing an uncomfortable awareness of realities that most people tend to ignore, particularly for experts in a particular field (examples include 2057: Internal Monologues, 913: Core, 203: Hallucinations, and 1839: Doctor Visit). In this strip, likely as a result of being primed by awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cueball finds it difficult to be in the same building with other people without being aware of the fact that they're breathing the same air, meaning that particles of biological material are being freely exchanged. In an earlier era, such concerns might have been dismissed as being extreme, but the pandemic has demonstrated that there's very real reason to be concerned. Even if everyone involved is vaccinated, that doesn't entirely remove the risk, nor does it protect against other diseases, which can spread in similar ways.
The title text reinforces the idea that knowing more about any subject increases the likelihood that you'll become disturbed by some constant and basic reality of life. In this case, studying biology tends to be disturbing, since the field involves in depth knowledge of our own bodies, as well as all other organisms we encounter, and which makes one uncomfortably aware of all the risks and flaws basic to being alive.
Normally, inhaling unfamiliar biological organisms from the bodies of others is one way the immune system learns its environment, to prepare for possible diseases like seasonal colds. With the advent of common distant travel, culture has adapted to the onslaught of new organisms people are exposed to, giving us strong senses of hygiene to protect our health beyond the adaption of our immune systems. Diverse cultures of hygiene have evolved deadly superbacteria, produced sets of people with very good hygiene and very weak immune systems, as well as saving millions of lives, providing for treatments like safe open surgery and normalizing novel piercings. Often learning of the realities of the pervasiveness of micro-organisms and the details of biology can clash with one's culture of hygiene.
- [White Hat and Cueball are having a conversation.]
- White Hat: How are you?
- Cueball: Excruciatingly aware of how much of each other's gross lung air we're breathing.
- Cueball: I mean, fine! How are you?
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I think he's not afraid of getting COVID, he's just now aware he's inhaling the respiratory particles that everyone else is exhaling, which pre-COVID he never thought about. 18.104.22.168 05:38, 29 June 2021 (UTC)
- Mitigated that in my own edit. (And wait 'til he learns how many water molecules may have been through dinosaur guts, etc!) 22.214.171.124 06:23, 29 June 2021 (UTC)
- Just for context for others, this comment I think is based on this what if. --Lupo (talk) 12:37, 29 June 2021 (UTC)
126.96.36.199 20:20, 29 June 2021 (UTC) exec
Check this http://www.vendian.org/envelope/dir2/breath.html
Earlier on, the explanation suggested that this might not be at an Indoor Sociali[s|z]ing moment, which I found quite convincing, but has been edited out. White Hat (already a known close contact who has been shown as a being in the presence of Cueball in an obvious inside situation) could be trying to psyche up Cueball to go indoors to meet people. Or the question isn't a bland social-nicety (over-reacted to) but an actual question of concern when Cueball has had to flee/avoid an indoors situation. If the latter, Cueball is actually giving a correctly contextual response to the far-from-rhetoric question, but then consciously toning it down to the non-commital response that over-sensitive people might retreat to if they're in denial about their internal strifes. - Randall should have helped by adding a little extra detail, like internal furniture, the porch/doorway to a house (either side) trees and plants to establish this as a public green-space setting. Without that, I'm unable to tell which interpretation to actually apply to the words in use - which words to stress in the question ("How are you?", "How are you?", maybe "How are you?") included... But maybe that's just me? 188.8.131.52 21:37, 29 June 2021 (UTC)
- You know, whether you write 'socializing' or 'socialising' is up to personal preference (or rather, which country you grew up/are growing up in). You don't need to do both. Beanie talk 10:19, 30 June 2021 (UTC)
- sounds like some people argue about it. I sometimes write it both ways by accident, but it looks like it was intentional here. I think Randall was more interested in the specific joke environment here, and was leaving it up to the reader to interpret the context as they chose, but only Randall knows. In my opinion "how are you" is pretty much always a social nicety when no context is provided, for now. I really like how you're able to describe sharing one's feelings as normal. It's really easy to fall into copying what one thinks everyone else is doing. 184.108.40.206 10:40, 30 June 2021 (UTC)
- I don't like writing the Americanized version of such words (sorry, Randall and the other colonials out there, though obviously if I'm quoting I'd try to quote correctly if my fingers don't go auto-pilot) but I also feel self-conscious about the alternate Anglicised spelling that I was taught as correct (if I notice I've done it) where the Leftpondian preference is presumed. See also "colour", etc. I would normally try to reword to avoid this ("I can't remember when it was I last had an Indoor Social round at Dave's, but I think the curtains had a red hue"..!) and avoid comment but it seems someone has gone worst of both worlds by making their ambivalence obvious.
- As the author of the "Mitigated" comment above, from 220.127.116.11 (whatever IP Cloudfare, or maybe my ISP, funnels me through this time) I note that the "[s|z]" author was also 18.104.22.168, so while I know for certain that this faux pas was not tapped in on this device, it's likely (not going to do the reverse lookup to be sure) that they're a fellow Brit, and have a similarly torn self-awareness about the whole Johnson vs Webster root of being 'separated by a common language'.
- Also, they're verbose, as this chatter proves I can also be. I think therefore I may rightfully feel sympathy to their plight.
- (Also, I stand by my original "White Hat might not be a non-householder being met indoors" tone of edit, which I also noted had been redacted. I'm more sanguine about that erasure, though, as it was the most verbose bit at the time... if no longer. But that's Wikiing for ya! Everyone's a critic...)
- None of this adds to this comic page, but (rewrites aside) I'm not sure there's much more directly relevent info to add (ready to be proven wrong!) so I doubt it'll get in the way. 22.214.171.124 12:01, 30 June 2021 (UTC)
OMG, Another COVID comic. Who else is disappointed?
- OMG, Another unsigned contribution. Who else is disappointed?
- (Srsly, if he has something to say then he'll say it. I don't think it's all he's thinking about, and we've seen non-Covid subjects, but you can't blame him for harvesting a current and rich vein of dark-absurdity if that's what he feels needs saying. Especially if putting them into a potential 'save for later, pull up other stuff for now' pile risks no longer being understandably topical and loses the intended impact. Feel frustrated, if you want, but it'll not change anything to moan here about it.) 126.96.36.199 00:34, 1 July 2021 (UTC)
- ever since he stopped updating his blog and what-if ... 188.8.131.52 00:40, 1 July 2021 (UTC)
I got the sense that the title text was referring to the game of tag, where one person "is it" and must then run around trying to tag someone else in the game. I think the title text is suggesting that everyone "is it" and trying to tag you with their biological elements. Anyone else think the same thing? Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 12:43, 8 July 2021 (UTC)