2391: Life Before the Pandemic

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Life Before the Pandemic
I can't wait until this is all over and I can go back to riding my horse through the mall.
Title text: I can't wait until this is all over and I can go back to riding my horse through the mall.


Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: Created by a STUPID CLAW. Please mention here why this explanation isn't complete. Do NOT delete this tag too soon.
If you can address this issue, please edit the page! Thanks.

This is another comic in xkcd's series of comics about the COVID-19 pandemic. Megan and Cueball are having a conversation about life before the pandemic, which was declared as such on the 11th of March, 2020 by the World Health Organization. They talk about what they miss about life before the pandemic, but Cueball says that he can barely remember it. This is borne out by the rest of their discussion: None of the activities they list were ever common and most are strange, and various items are misconstrued as existing for pandemic mitigation purposes.

After they finish reminiscing, Megan says that she can't wait for a vaccine, further implying that she she can't wait to have all of these things "back." Both Pfizer and Moderna are making vaccines, with Pfizer making their application for emergency use on November 20th, 2020, 7 days before this comic's release. It is expected to be approved for use by the end of the year.

Scuba diving without a mask

Scuba stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. It consists of a tank of compressed air, which is conducted through a tube to a mask which allows the diver to breathe underwater. The mask is a fundamental part of scuba diving. Cloth masks, to help lower the spread of the virus between people, are a recommended precaution when in public, but wearers are advised not to wear them when swimming. Megan is conflating these two different types of masks, misremembering a world where scuba diving did not have masks involved. You do not need to wear a cloth mask if you are scuba diving, but you do need to wear a scuba mask–irrespective of whether there is a pandemic.

Scuba masks previously rated quite well on the mask effectiveness scale in 2367: Masks.

Free refills at gas stations

Gas stations are locations where you can buy gasoline, which powers internal combustion engines, especially those in cars. A "free refill," in this context, likely refers to getting the gas tank of your car filled for free, which was not a business practice that was ever common. However, many gas stations also have a small convenience shop that accompanies them, where you can buy food, drinks, and can use the restroom. "Free refills" could refer to getting a free refill of a type of soft drink, which may happen in gas stations, but is mostly associated with restaurants and diners who allow free top-ups of inexpensive soft drinks (or tea/coffee), as a possible loss-leader, for those that potentially paying more for a substantive meal. The hospitality sector has been curtailed to various degrees, depending on local responses to the pandemic, and it's possible no outlets that offered free top-ups can continue to do so, or even operate an eat-in service at all. While gasoline stations don't offer gas refills to cars, there are quite a number of locations offering free "refills" for electric vehicles. Electric vehicles were considerably less common before the pandemic, thanks also to generous incentive schemes in many countries. This might explain why the characters have a ghost memory of "free gasoline refills".

Grilling in the library

Grilling food generally poses a significant fire hazard (and can produce toxic carbon monoxide) and is thus typically not allowed indoors, especially in libraries.

Grilling, however, also refers to "an intense interrogation or period of questioning."[1] which can be done over the content of a book found in the library, but is probably not encouraged since most libraries enforce keeping quiet so others can concentrate.[2] The library staff (or the police) might grill a person suspected of stealing, vandalism, or other crimes in the library, although it's not clear why Megan would miss this.

Tennis without a "safety" net

Tennis is a sport where two players use racquets to hit a ball at each other. The game is played on a court divided in half by a low net. The net is not used for anyone's safety; it's to ensure that the ball must be volleyed to the other player with some minimum height. Megan seems to believe that the net is there to ensure that the players stay on opposite sides of the net, in order to lower the spread of the virus.

Indoor fireworks

Many indoor activities were moved outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, as poorly-ventilated indoor spaces vastly increase the chance of the virus spreading. Fireworks are explosives shot into the air for entertainment. Most fireworks are not suitable for use indoors; setting them off indoors is even more dangerous than they already are, even before the pandemic.[citation needed] However, there are specially designed indoor fireworks, most often used by specially trained and licensed pyrotechnicians.[citation needed]

Arcade claw machines

Arcade claw machines have a bin of prizes (often stuffed animals) with a claw mechanism hanging overhead. The player pays a few coins into the machine and maneuvers the claw over a desired prize. The claw will descend and "attempt" to grab the prize for retrieval, but to ensure a favorable revenue for the machine operator, there is often a hidden percentage chance that the claw will not fully close. This is a frustrating experience for the player (e.g. Cueball). Remote manipulator arms are used for handling dangerous items, but the arcade claw machine was not implemented for the purpose of safety.

Title text: Riding a horse through the mall

A mall, in a historical context, refers to a large open walkway, such as the National Mall, where one could conceivably enter with a horse, although it was considered inappropriate to do so. However, it appears Cueball and Megan are referring to a shopping mall, where a shopper entering with a horse was never a regular occurrence[citation needed].

Horses and shops have been mentioned together once before, in the what if Twitter.


Ambox notice.png This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.
[Megan and Cueball are having a conversation]
Megan: What do you miss most about life before the Pandemic?
Cueball: I can barely remember it.
Megan: I miss going scuba diving without having to wear a mask.
Cueball: I miss free refills at gas stations.
Megan: I miss grilling in the Library.
[Close-up on Megan, Cueball's voice comes from off-panel, to the right.]
Megan: I miss when tennis players didn't have to have that safety net between them.
Cueball: I miss indoor fireworks.
[Return to seeing them both, they are now walking to the right while talking]
Megan: I miss when arcades let you take toys from the bin with your hand instead of using that stupid claw.
Cueball: Ugh, I hate that thing.
Megan: I can't wait for a vaccine.

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This reminds me of the Four Yorkshiremen from At last the 1948 show. Tell that to youngsters nwadays. Arachrah (talk) 15:06, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

Thank you for correctly identifying the origin of the sketch :) 13:09, 28 November 2020 (UTC)
...but tell that to the youth of today, and they wouldn't believe you! 13:44, 28 November 2020 (UTC)

It is actually not clear to which ongoing pandemic the comic is referring. Wikipedia [3] is listing 10 epidemics currently going on. The longest ongoing one is the HIV/AIDS pandemic since 1981. It is not unlikely that the majority of humans on earth has no recollection or barely remembers the time before 1981. -- 15:51, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

You are *techinally* correct. (The best kind of correct) But, only one pandemic has made people wear masks, moved indoor activities outdoors, is referred to as THE pandemic, we -as a society- are waiting on a vaccine for, and is currently the central topic of our discourse. Argis13 (talk) 15:59, 27 November 2020 (UTC)
The HIV/AIDS pandemic is making people wear condoms, which on some level could be compared to masks or safety nets. I believe there are some people to be found that miss the time before the 1980s restriction in their sex life.-- 16:07, 27 November 2020 (UTC)
according to wikipedias own definition ("An epidemic is the rapid spread of disease to a large number of people in a given population within a short period of time."), i'd argue that HIV is not an epidemic, much less a pandemic, but a regular endemic disease by now. 18:19, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

Non native speaker, here. Should the mouse-over text be understood as riding a horse in a shopping mall? That would make sense as it is as absurd as the other activities mentioned in the strip. "Mall" can have also other meanings, but riding through the National Mall in Washington DC or the Mall in London doesn't seem outrageous as all.--Pere prlpz (talk) 16:01, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

You are correct, Randall means riding a horse through a shopping mall. Nitpicking (talk) 16:09, 27 November 2020 (UTC)
(Written but ECed by Nitpicking... But as I said a few things I liked, have it anyway.)
As a term, though over here in my country it's more often called a "Shopping Centre", I would indeed assume it's collection of stores with at least one entrance-doorway (and possibly all) leading into an indoor 'street' (one of several, perhaps with multiple levels, upper ones deployed as lining balconies to provide skylight/spotlight illumination from the shared roof).
The 'street' roadway would be designed to be pedestrian-only (or mobility scooters; but usually barring skaters, skateboarders, bicycles and all motor-vehicles except for dispensation or disobedience) and typically surfaced in polished stone slabs or ceramic tiles. Which might be one of the worst surfaces for an iron-shoed horse to try to walk on due to the low grip or friction (I think there are rubber horseshoes/overshoes available for mounts that might be ridden or led across hard surfaces like asphalt).
I'm happily reminded of the sequence in True Lies where the horse is used to chase the motorbike - partly, and apologetically, through the hallways of a posh hotel - and I presume they had to stick to carpeted areas (or lay down and secure ones of their own) rather than the bare marble mall-like flooring for the more dynamic bits of stunt-riding involved in that.
So, yes, a horse in a (shopping) mall would be dangerous to the shoppers, dangerous to the horse/rider and even if no iniury occured, horses being biogical it's a fair bet that the previously immaculate floors might need cleaning even if they don't need repairing. ;) 16:35, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

Could "riding a horse in the mall" be a reference to the John Mulaney skit "there's a horse loose in the hospital"? 16:50, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

I'm detecting just a tiny bit of sarcasm in this comic. Elvenivle (talk) 17:52, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

I am detecting more than a tiny bit. Nutster (talk) 21:02, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

SCUBA divers, especially sport divers, usually breathe air through a mouthpiece that is separate from the mask . . . 18:23, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

Indeed. SCUBA divers almost always to wear a mask, but it's used to cover the eyes and provide an air space in front of them, allowing clearer vision underwater. (Some divers wear goggles instead of a mask.) Nitpicking (talk) 20:59, 27 November 2020 (UTC)
Divers can't wear goggles since there's no way to equalize the air space in front of the eyes. This would result in severe injuries to the eyes if you dive beyond a few meters. 14:14, 30 November 2020 (UTC)

SCUBA mask could be a reference to diving masks converted into hospital ventilators by a famous sporting good retailer (Decathlon)? https://www.isinnova.it/easy-covid19-eng/

Isn't there another XKCD comic that showed a one of the characters riding a horse? I seem to recall the title text of that one referred to riding in a shopping mall or other large enclosed space. Nutster (talk) 21:02, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

This is hilarious and wonderful.

Regarding grills in libraries (girls in libraries are fine), I'm reminded of the declaration that one is required to proclaim when applying for membership of the Bodleian Library in Oxford:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

Megan would definitely not be allowed in, for that reason, if not for others.

Also, I think the horse might be required to wear a mask, which might be a problem if you had a recalcitrant horse.

Given that it IS those two, Megan and Cueball, they could actually be people who DID those things. Cueball is absent minded enough to think that not being charged and chased at a gasstation is a free refil. Megan really WOULD ride a hose through the mall.

Ha! You have clearly failed to consider the electric grill. Check and mate, Bodleian Librarians of Oxford! You shall keep your oppressed patrons from delicious grilled snacks no longer. Q.E.D! 10:03, 28 November 2020 (UTC)

Indoor fireworks were a thing when I was young (and apparently still are), not needing any special expertise or training. 13:12, 28 November 2020 (UTC)

Yes, I thought the point of that reference was that they do still exist, and ostensibly the pandemic would stop you using them because of the recommendations against indoor activities, but in reality it's not the pandemic that stops most people buying them - it's the fact that they're really really crap. (I know a lot of people who have bought them once, but no-one who has bought them twice.) 16:38, 28 November 2020 (UTC)

Restaurant soda free-refills aren't a loss-leader. You paid $2 for that soda, the restaurant paid between 5 and 20 cents. The *cup* probably cost more than the *beverage* did. https://www.aol.com/2010/09/08/top-5-food-mark-ups-where-restaurants-make-huge-profits/ Draco18s (talk) 19:05, 29 November 2020 (UTC)

Could someone who is more competent than me please add "Correlation does not imply causation" from wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation) to the page? The whole comic is a perfect example of that principle. 22:26, 29 November 2020 (UTC)

It seems like you were thinking of something nonobvious. I don't know where that would go. Did you mean to comment on a different comic? 21:40, 1 December 2020 (UTC)

"Since multiple people would presumably have already touched the metal interior, this is an effective way to spread the contagion quickly." Except, that as our knowledge of the virus has increased the medical community now thinks that surface contact is anything but an "effective" way for COVID-19 to pass from person to person. There's other germs you can pass on/pick up from frequently touched surfaces but COVID-19 isn't one of them. 17:07, 2 December 2020 (UTC)

Here in Norway, free refills of coffee at gas stations IS pretty common. You have to buy a special cup, which gives you the right to free refills for the rest of the year.