1821: Incinerator

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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My trash can broke recently and I had to get rid of it. When I picked it up, I suffered a brief but harrowing existential crisis.
Title text: My trash can broke recently and I had to get rid of it. When I picked it up, I suffered a brief but harrowing existential crisis.


Cueball and Ponytail have just finished installing an incinerator for some unspecified purpose at some establishment. Ponytail brings up the problem of having to get rid of the old incinerator, and Cueball may begin to suggest using the new incinerator to incinerate the old one, but he is shut down by Ponytail off-panel. This makes him noticeably disappointed, probably because the idea of using an incinerator to destroy an incinerator is novel to him.

Throwing an incinerator inside another incinerator would probably break some kind of regulations or safety concerns, and since incinerators are meant to withstand their own high heat capacities it would be ineffective anyway.

The title text implies that this comic was inspired by recent events at Randall's house: his trash can broke and he struggled with how to dispose of it. At least for Randall, there is something wrong with forcing anything to destroy something of its own kind -- in this case, throwing the old trash can in the new trash can. Since machines have no human emotion[citation needed] this would not cause any trauma for the machine, but the humans in charge might feel as if something is wrong, and Randall mentions having an existential crisis. This is because humans tend to project human qualities onto the machines they are working with (anthropomorphization), thus possibly framing the situation in the context of something like cannibalism or homicide.

Another way of taking it would be in the sense of "being replaceable". Many people live without wanting to think of what might happen to everything around them after they die, but in this title text one can start comparing the trash can to themselves — the same way the trash can turns into something to be disposed and replaced with a new one after it becomes useless, what about people then? What will happen to you when you grow older? Should you suddenly go sick and become useless? How about in your job, what would happen if someone more superior than you comes around and starts threatening your hard-earned position?

Yet another interpretation is that while disposing of the trash can, Randall realized that he was now in the same situation as the trash can itself. The trash can was a tool used by others, in order to dispose of trash. And yet, in time, the trash can itself became trash and had to be disposed of by Randall. Which makes one wonder if Randall is himself a tool created/used by others, who will one day dispose of Randall when he has outlived his usefulness, the same way that he disposed of the trash can when it outlived its usefulness. From this perspective, Randall is simply a more intelligent and autonomous trash-junking-tool, different in degrees but similar in nature to his own trash can.

Many people define themselves by the things they do and are capable of. The idea of losing those, and then being replaced for it, is a bitter pill that we will all have to swallow at some point. All things must come to end after all, including ourselves.

A more simple reason for this may be that for almost anything else you might pick up, having done so you now have the option to put it in the trash can. Picking up the trash can itself (perhaps just to work out if it is beyond use) simultaneously removes "the trash can you may opt to put something you hold in" from its usual point in your normally instinctively simple mental mapping of the domestic universe.

Plus, actually throwing out a garbage can can be surprisingly difficult.

Another device to perform a meta-action was previously explored in 952: Stud Finder.


[Cueball and Ponytail stand next to an incinerator, with a combustion chamber and flue that rises up to the top of the frame.]
Ponytail: Great, the new incinerator is installed. Now we just need to dispose of the old one.
[Ponytail walks out of the frame.]
[Cueball lowers his head, beat panel]
[Cueball raises his hand and begins to ask a question.]
Cueball: Hey, could—
Ponytail (off-panel): No.
Cueball: Aww, maaan.

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The crisis could come from a more abstract feeling thinking of the incinerating/trash devices as Ouroboros, serpents biting their own tail or nilpotent matrices. Nothing would be left. Sebastian -- 06:01, 8 April 2017 (UTC)

There also might be a more practical explanation of the crisis; in my experience it is extremely difficult to convey to trash collectors that a garbage can itself is part of the trash. Merely placing it inside another, larger trash receptacle is often not enough to convince them to collect it. 07:15, 8 April 2017 (UTC)

I actually had the opposite problem recently, where we obtained a medium sized plastic tote with a recyclables logo on the side, and they were kind enough to take all the recyclable materials, apparently including the tote. So be careful what you wish for. 17:14, 8 April 2017 (UTC)
Sadly, that might not have been the trash collectors. That is, I'm sure they took the recyclables, but it's possible one of your neighbors said, "Hey, free tote," especially since if it was new, clean, and did not have any identifying marks, such as your address, on it. 23:19, 8 April 2017 (UTC)

I find that the people who post here have the weirdest, most unusual problems. 07:46, 9 April 2017 (UTC)
In my own practical experience, the only solution to throw away a personal trashcan (that is, a can which is not supplied by the waste management services), is to cut/dismantle the old can and dispose of it in the new can. Trashcans supplied by waste management services have always been a simple call to the customer service office and a brand-new can would be awaiting after the next garbage collection day. 03:38, 3 June 2017 (UTC)

Disposing of a trash can by putting it in its replacement is simply insustainable: After a few generations, you end up with a container that won't fit trough your door! -- 13:09, 9 April 2017 (UTC)

Maybe the crisis was recursive -- using the broken container to dispose of itself.CoderLass (talk) 17:34, 13 April 2017 (UTC)

That's what I thought as well! 17:39, 17 April 2017 (UTC)
I second this thought processV (talk) 23:19, 4 June 2019 (UTC)

I am reminded of the time a man got a new boomerang for his birthday and went crazy trying to throw the old one away. Cosumel (talk) 05:31, 12 September 2020 (UTC)