2181: Inbox

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Rome's declaration of war against Carthage was sent from a no-reply address, so Hannibal had to cross the Alps to deliver his "UNSUBSCRIBE" response in person.
Title text: Rome's declaration of war against Carthage was sent from a no-reply address, so Hannibal had to cross the Alps to deliver his "UNSUBSCRIBE" response in person.


Email differs from "snail" mail, in that people often expect a prompt reply. Replying to an email may lead to another email response, thus leading to a "loop" of constant replies and responses. Since an individual email is quick and cheap to send, people send lots of them. Thus people get a lot of emails, and may spend a large portion of their day dealing with email.

Megan observes that maybe the Romans got a lot done because they did not spend time on email. In doing this she plays on the email handling strategy named Inbox Zero, which they might not have had because the Roman number system had no symbol for zero. This is of course redundant, as email did not exist at the time.[citation needed]

Inbox Zero is an approach to email inbox management espoused by Merlin Mann, with the idea that people should spend as little time as possible in their email inbox. To achieve this, one should check one's inbox as few times as practical, and quickly deal with all new emails by deleting, delegating, sending a short reply where possible or categorizing them for later tasks. Basically it's a continuation of the "touch it once" strategy for dealing with physical mail.

The ancient Romans are one of the model historical societies, well revered for their culture and life. A common misconception is that Romans did not have a concept of the number zero. The Romans were aware of the concept of zero, but there is no numeral for 0 in the Roman numeral system, as Roman numerals do not have place values like Arabic numerals. A value of ten or greater is represented in Arabic numerals using 0 as a placeholder for empty place values. Roman numerals do not have such a placeholder digit, and so did not have a numeral for zero; the word nulla was used to refer to "zero" in the sense of "nothing". Various sources indicate that this eventually gave use to N as a Roman numeral for "zero", and such is the case for modern users of Roman numerals.

The title text refers to Hannibal's crossing of the Alps, a famous military campaign by Hannibal against the Romans. Randall claims that Hannibal needed to invade Rome to tell them to stop sending him so many emails. The reason for this was that Rome's email was sent from a "no-reply" email address, so Hannibal had no way of replying by email, and had to tell them in person. The real reason for Hannibal to cross the Alps was because he wanted to conquer Rome. He did not conquer Rome, so he never sent his "unsubscribe" message.



[Megan and Cueball are sitting at a desk, facing each other, each working on their laptop computers.]
Megan: Answering email is the worst. It just leads to getting more email.
Cueball: Yeah, email is a trap.
[Beat panel.]
[Megan looks up from her work on the computer.]
Megan: I bet the reason the Ancient Romans got so much done was that they had no concept of Inbox Zero.
Cueball: That explains it.

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Key to the joke is that the Romans had (allegedly?) no concept of zero, i.e. Roman numerals cannot express 0.Mathmannix (talk) 18:19, 26 July 2019 (UTC)

Maybe, but I think this refers to the Inbox Zero methodology more. 19:12, 26 July 2019 (UTC)

It's a pun. It doesn't work without the notion that Romans had no concept of zero.

I don't see how that is remotely relevant, or how it would make the joke "work". They didn't have a concept of "Inbox Zero" because they didn't have email. But regardless of why they didn't have Inbox Zero, I don't understand what the joke is here, since if I understand correctly Inbox Zero is basically about spending as little time as possible on email. Zmatt (talk) 14:43, 29 July 2019 (UTC)

I actually find there's nothing in this comic that suggests it's referencing the idea that Romans didn't have a "zero". They didn't have the concept of Inbox Zero because they didn't have inboxes. It's a cute additive, though. NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:18, 27 July 2019 (UTC)

It's a common if fallacious trope that the ancient Romans "had no concept of zero", so it's clear to me that Randell is referencing that trope (otherwise he wouldn't have worded it so closely), more so than the obvious one that they would have no concept of inboxes in general. -boB (talk) 15:11, 29 July 2019 (UTC)
Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I felt I should retract my statement. Like you said, the wording seems to really suggest it. I think I had difficulty seeing it because this explanation was the first time I ever heard the idea that Romans didn't have the concept of zero (which I can understand, as I've never heard a Roman numeral for Zero). NiceGuy1 (talk) 07:04, 31 July 2019 (UTC)

Since when does "email usually demands a reply"? By some statistics much to most (45-73%) of email is spam. A good chunk of other email is notifications of orders, tracking updates, forum/etc subscriptions, social media notifications, and so on -- those certainly don't require a reply (though some may require or prompt further action). Then there's all the RE:FW:RE:RE:FW:FW:RE type chain letter stuff (as differentiated from spam) and a lot of CC/BCC stuff for people being "looped in" but not needing to reply. Only a tiny portion of email (higher on work accounts) requires a reply, and even then a lot of that email itself doesn't _demand_ a reply, but rather that societal conventions of courtesy (and/or "being a team player") make non-responsiveness sometimes problematic. YMMV, but IMO the only emails that really need a reply are direct questions from supervisors/subordinates, clients, and friends/family members. Anything else is extra. Never mind the whole pedantic argument that email itself cannot demand anything as it is the message/medium rather than the sender of the message...

I would argue that Hannibal did send the unsubscribe message loud and clearly. He only didn't manage to get it through to the intended recipients.