1349: Shouldn't Be Hard

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Shouldn't Be Hard
(six hours later) ARGH. How are these stupid microchips so durable?! All I want is to undo a massive industrial process with household tools!
Title text: (six hours later) ARGH. How are these stupid microchips so durable?! All I want is to undo a massive industrial process with household tools!


This comic refers to a sentiment sometimes expressed by computer users that "what I'm trying to do is really simple — it shouldn't be hard." The statement demonstrates an assumption that because the desired action is conceptually simple, it must therefore be simple to implement. There is a logic to this line of thinking, but in reality, as the off-screen character notes, a computer is a very complicated set of components which effectively can't do anything (simple or complex) until someone has programmed the functionality into it. Even more abstractly, a random silicon crystal can't do anything at all until someone has applied a complex industrial process to it that allows it to read and execute computer code in the first place.

In terms of a user-interface, the "simplicity" of executing a given task may be more a function of the perceived utility and frequency-of-use of that function, and less a function of its conceptual "simplicity". For example, changing the color of the font in a word processor is often simpler than changing the color of the background/page, even though changing colors of two parts of the document would appear equally "simple" in concept. The different implementation is a design choice by the programmer most likely on the basis that the intended user is considered more likely to want to change the font color than to change the page color.

This sentiment equally applies to computer programmers: most commonly when they are just beginning to learn a new computer language. Sometimes because of difficulties with the syntax rules of the language or similar problems, a programmer may spend a long time trying to get the computer to do a simple action, such as display a message on the screen, or ask the user for a number. This is also true when a programmer is working in a language which doesn't have an easy way to do something that might be simple in another language. And in computer science, it may often be very hard to differentiate the almost impossible from the easy, especially when compared to what humans can and can't do easily.

The off-screen character points out that computers were "just carefully organized sand". Modern computer chips are made largely of silicon crystals, chemically a part of silicon dioxide crystals that compose the majority of sand. The character puts Cueball's goal in perspective by pointing out the large amount of complexity required to make, what is essentially sand, do even the simplest of computational tasks.

The punchline of the comic is that, after considering these words of wisdom for a panel, instead of the anticipated response of Cueball coming to the realization that the off-screen character is right, and working even harder to solve his problem, Cueball instead succumbs to his annoyance and sets out to destroy his computer (which he characterizes as turning it "back into sand"). The off-screen character helpfully offers to get a blowtorch so that Cueball can melt the computer down into simple compounds and elements.

The title text sees Cueball again frustrated with a task he considers "simple" (destroying the computer). Cueball appears to be oblivious to the irony in his statement that he is having trouble destroying something with household tools that required very large machines and an industrial process to create. This might be compared to trying to undo a steel weld by lighting a wooden match and trying to melt the weld with it. This points out the irony that destroying the processor is even harder to do than the task from the first picture.

The melting point of silicon is 1,414 °C. Although a typical butane blowtorch that might be found in a kitchen has a maximum temperature of 1,430 °C, that temperature is at a very small point and rapidly cools. Hence it is unlikely that you could focus sufficient heat with a kitchen appliance blowtorch to actually melt silicon.

The apparently simple task Cueball is trying to complete may express Randall's frustration in the creation of the crowd-sourced comic 1350: Lorenz, which was launched the next day and initially contained a large number of bugs.


[Cueball is typing on a laptop.]
Cueball: What I'm trying to do is really simple.
Cueball: It shouldn't be hard.
Offscreen: All computers are just carefully organized sand. Everything is hard until someone makes it easy.
[Cueball sits back and pauses.]
[Cueball picks up and examines the laptop.]
Cueball: Maybe I should turn this one back into sand.
Offscreen: I'll find a blowtorch.

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Carefully organized sand eh? I believe this is a callback to this comic( and the silicone of course but...). 14:33, 31 March 2014 (UTC)

I Don't think this is a call back -- just a common reference to that computer chips are based on Silicon which have been arranged into electrical circuits Spongebog (talk)
Not a callback, not even a little bit. That comic did not reference the manufacturing process of computer chips at all, but instead use rocks as a sort of physical computer. The "carefully organized rocks" in that comic could have easily been carefully organized coconuts and the meaning of the comic would not have changed a bit. Also silicone is not the same as silicon. Silicone is a synthetic polymer made out of silicon and would be entirely unsuitable for building computer chips. Silicone = caulk, implants. Silicon = quartz, sand, computer chips. 16:04, 31 March 2014 (UTC)
That comic was also the first thing I thought of, but alas I do not think this comic is referencing that one, because in that comic he is organizing rocks, not sand. Sparx (talk) 03:46, 1 April 2014 (UTC)

Repeat after me: the CPU is not the computer. "The core of the CPU is mostly made out of sand" is less cringeworthy. As the "computer" itself, it's mostly made of plastic and metal. Even the CPU's plastic casing is a large part of it in volume. Ralfoide (talk) 14:21, 1 April 2014 (UTC)

When I buy a box of Ferrero Rocher Hazelnut chocolate, and I say, these made out of chocolate, would that statement be "cringeworthy" if I forgot to mention the hazelnut interior, or the tin foil that surrounds the chocolate, or the paper cup that goes around the tin foil, or the plastic container that it comes in? Even the cardboard setting in the box is a large part of it in volume. (Moral: when we describe something, we only really care about the active components that allow it to do whatever it is supposed to do, not the packaging it comes in.) 15:32, 1 April 2014 (UTC)
It's aluminium foil, not tin. It comes in a cardboard box here. 02:04, 1 July 2016 (UTC)

It has changed! The title is now "Lorenz" and each time you open a tab there seems to be a random choice between 3 different comics, two of them with clickable options Jesuspetry (talk) 14:41, 1 April 2014 (UTC)

And it seems the (multiple!) followups to each comic are being created by user suggestion! Jesuspetry (talk) 14:50, 1 April 2014 (UTC)

What Jesuspetry said! Checking just now, the title of the comic is "Lorenz" (a reference to Edward Norton Lorenz?) and the title text is "Every choice, no matter how small, begins a new story." Imperpay (talk) 14:53, 1 April 2014 (UTC)

Wait, no, we're looking at number 1350 on the main xkcd page, not 1349. Time for a new page here, forthwith! Imperpay (talk) 15:00, 1 April 2014 (UTC)
You're right. What has confused me is that 1349 flashes in the screen before 1350 is carried over by the browser Jesuspetry (talk) 15:26, 1 April 2014 (UTC)
Oh, and from my connection at work, I can't see the "real" 1350 at all. All I see is the image from 1349, with a new title and new title text. I'll have to wait until I get home. (I believe you'll see what I see if you use the old unix interface from a previous April 1, at uni.xkcd.com, and display 1350. Imperpay (talk) 16:41, 1 April 2014 (UTC)

While this may be pedantic, I would argue that not ALL computers are carefully-organized sand. Some are based on relays, and some are purely mechanical.