Map-Territory Distinctions

When I moved here last year, I got a big trash can to put outside for garbage pickup.

The trash can only got emptied about one in every two garbage days. I called the city’s Department Of That Sort Of Thing to ask why it kept getting passed over, and they told me that my trash can was oversized, bigger than the regulations allowed, and so any garbage-people who noticed this would refuse to empty it.

I decided to get rid of the trash can so I could buy a new, correctly-sized version.

Readers, you have never known frustration until you try to get garbage-people to take a trash can.

Like, technically we have a bulk trash pickup day. And the trash can is well under the limit for bulk items that are allowed. So I leave it out on the curb. And about one in every two garbage days, I find that any dust or leaves that have collected in it have been dutifully emptied. One in two days, it hasn’t been emptied, because it’s oversized and against regulations. In either case, the trash can is back on the curb where I left it.

Last week I asked Ozy to make a big sign saying “THIS TRASH CAN IS THE TERRITORY, NOT THE MAP” and stick it on the can. Ozy is a very practical person and I am pretty sure ze wrote something else. Ze stuck the sign to the lid of the trash can. When we woke up, we found the trash can with the lid open, as if someone had checked inside to see if there was any trash. The sign was still on the top of the lid, now hidden against the side of the can.

Next week I think I will write the message. I was thinking something very simple, like “TAKE THIS, THIS IS THE TRASH”. But then the garbage-people would probably just take the sign.

I need something subtler, something that jars them out of their everyday reality to a deeper level of understanding. I’m thinking something like “THIS TRASH CAN IS THE MOON, NOT THE FINGER POINTING TO IT” or just “CECI N’EST PAS UNE POUBELLE”.

The great work continues.

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36 Responses to Map-Territory Distinctions

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  3. Michael Mouse says:

    This is one of Scott Aaronson’s Malthusianisms, isn’t it? This sucks, because it not sucking would not be a Nash equilibrium.

    Why is it so hard to get the garbage people to take away a waste garbage can? Because if the garbage people weren’t really, really reluctant to take away garbage cans, they’d take away lots of garbage cans that people still wanted. And I’ll bet any single one person who had their garbage can removed against their will would cause orders of magnitude more trouble for the garbage people, the Department Of That Sort Of Thing, and elected representatives at all levels of government than the tiny number of people who actually want garbage people to take away their garbage can.

    Your unwanted outsize garbage can is trapped on the wrong side of an effective Schelling fence.

  4. covaithe says:

    I bought a house last year. In my town (Ann Arbor), the garbage trucks do have the robot arm thingy that empties the bins into the trucks, so the city issues us special trash bins that work with the robot arms.

    The previous owners of my house, when they moved out, had left behind a second, larger trash bin of the same robot-compatible design in addition to the normal one. We never used it, since don’t usually generate enough trash to fill up the small bin. Some time went by, and I discovered that my city utilities bill included a fee each billing cycle for the extra bin.

    After more procrastination, I eventually got around to calling them and asking them to take the surplus bin back, because I didn’t use it and wanted to stop paying the fee. They told me that there would be a $25 service charge for them to come pick the bin up, and that it would have to be clean. I grumbled but agreed. Then when they came out, they refused to take it because it wasn’t clean enough: there was some dry dirt, two or three leaves, and a bit of paper stuck to the inside.

    In the end, it took three tries to get them to take it away, along with roughly six phone calls, half an hour of scrubbing the inside of a trash can, and a total expenditure of about $100. All to get rid of a trash can that I did not ask for and had never used. So I certainly understand your frustration, Scott!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Wait, you’re an Ann Arboreal? Have you come to our Michigan meetups? Do you want to? Give me your email and I’ll add you to the mailing list.

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        See, THIS is why I kept thinking Ann Arbor would be a cool place to end up. (That and I don’t think I can afford the Bay Area with my current level of student loan debt and utter lack of local people who know me personally)

  5. Walter says:

    During the night, bring the can to a park’s trash area, and put it at the end of the line, next to the ‘trash’ can. Either you have successfully improved your local park’s trash disposal (unlikely), or the park maintenance guys will dispose of your contribution the same way that they undo anything else you do to a public space.

  6. Tilia bell says:

    You may need to jack it up before they take it. Do you have a hatchet? Or kick the side in, so it’s got a huge dent in it, and then leave it on its side.

  7. MugaSofer says:

    Take the day off, lie in wait for your garbage men, jump out and hand it to them.

    Acquire a really large cardboard box and hide the trashcan inside it.

    Wrap the can in tape, tape the sign to it. No way they can mistake what it refers to.

    Build a massive bonfire, incinerate the trash can. No garbage men required.

    Sneak the garbage can into your neighbour’s garden, cover with branches. When they eventually find it, deny all knowledge. Now it’s their problem.

    Repurpose the garbage can into a crude rocket propulsion system, launch it.

    Paint the note directly onto the garbage can. No way they can mistake that.

    Write a note saying “this can is the trash, we don’t want it” or words to that effect, instead of referring obliquely to the idea.

    Call the Department Of … Garbage Stuff, ask what they think you should do.

    Put a sign on it saying “Deluxe Garbage Can, $50 or best offer.” Wait for someone to steal it.

  8. Thasvaddef says:

    Buy a bigger trash can and put the old trash can in it.

    Then buy an even bigger one to throw away that trash can.

  9. Cyan says:

    Funny — we “inherited” an old garbage can when our neighbor moved. My wife has turned the entire front yard into flower beds, and we were having a problem with the garbage collectors chucking the lid of the can into the flower bed closest to the road. I put a note on the lid saying please don’t do that; I guess the collectors didn’t bother to read the note and just assumed it said that the can itself was trash, because they collected it. ;p

  10. Doug S. says:

    In my town, you have to call to schedule a bulk pickup…

  11. Ken Arromdee says:

    1) This joke was used on Saturday Night Live (I think it was in the first episode)
    2) If you want them to take the trash can, put a sign on which says “I am discarding a trash can. Take this trash can.” Don’t try to be either too clever, or too brief. Do you seriously think trash collectors would understand the reference to the map and the territory?

  12. Benedict says:

    I live in a house with six younger siblings, which means our recycle output is considerably above average and we need two tall bins. Except they won’t TAKE two bins, because asking them to collect more than one recycle bin per house is being greedy, apparently. I solved the issue by putting one recycle bin in the normal place, and the other a little bit down the road so it looks like it belongs to the neighbors, and they’ve been picking it up since. It’s all highly silly.

  13. Martin-2 says:

    Ha, I just finished that chapter in GEB the other day.

  14. Nornagest says:

    This sounds like a problem that a chainsaw would solve.

    Or a sledgehammer, if it’s made of metal.

  15. Typhon says:

    Have you tried to sell it or give it away ? Surely, if it’s not broken, it might be of use to someone.


    • Ialdabaoth says:

      seconded – someone doing yardwork might quickly find a use for it, and it seems a shame to just destroy something rather than finding someone to put it to use.

  16. Joe says:

    Just take it to the dump yourself? I really enjoyed the links!

  17. Daniel says:

    If it’s plastic, you could break it into pieces and then they’d have to take it.

    • Jordan D. says:

      And if it’s metal, you could cover the entire thing in paper mache, then mold it into the shape of a broken pillar or the like. Thus, they won’t realize that it’s a trash can and they’ll take it!

      And if they don’t, at least it looks nice for a bit!

  18. Ialdabaoth says:

    Is it plastic, or metal?

  19. Oligopsony says:

    disappointed this wasn’t titled Too Big To Bail

  20. Andy says:

    Can you solve the problem by reusing the trash can? Like for a rain barrel or a compost bin or something?
    Another option is to take a sick day, sit next to the trash can with a good book, and ask the trash workers verbally to take it when they arrive at your place.
    Or if you have a car/truck that will take it, sometimes municipalities have a place where people can just drop off bulk items.
    Or am I being too practical for a philosophy blog? πŸ˜›

  21. Emile says:

    How about just putting it outside but upside down, with the sign on it saying “this can is to throw away, it’s too big” or something?

    • kappa says:

      Yeah, I also thought of the upside-down thing. Or lying on its side, with the sign on the upward-facing side. Or upright but with the lid removed and stuffed into the can (if this is possible), and a sign taped over the void where the lid should be, proclaiming that the trash can is itself trash.

      But selling it or giving it away to someone who really wants an oversized trash can might be a nobler option.

  22. ckp says:

    In Britain there are standardized bins that get issued by the local council. They change a little depending on the council but I think the light-green general-household-waste bin is consistent nationwide. The recycle ones differ council by council I think.

    They’re nicely shaped so that the mechanized thingy on the back of the rubbish truck can pick them up and empty them. If variable-sized bins are allowed in the US, can the mechanized arm deal with them?

    • Said Achmiz says:

      We don’t have mechanized arms on our garbage vehicles that can deal with single-household trash cans.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Some American towns have arms on the garbage trucks that reach over the cars and pick up the cans from single households. But they issue new cans when they switch to this system.

        • naath says:

          Ours (UK) don’t generally do that. But the bins have wheels, to aid the bin-collecting-people to push them to the bin-lorry easily.

        • Randall Randall says:

          In my neighborhood, no one parks on the street, but we do have garbage trucks with an arm on the side that snatches up the single-household cans (96 gallon / ~364 liter) as it drives by. When we called to set up service (there are three or four competing trash services here), they asked if we wanted to pay extra for a recycling can, or get another regular trash can for no extra charge. Guess which one I got? :/

    • Andrew G. says:

      Where I am, the general-rubbish bin is grey, so that’s not consistent nationwide.

    • Deiseach says:

      As someone who is working with a local authority, you have to ask the Department of This Sort of Thing when the next bulk collection day for rubbish is, and if a metal? plastic? rubbish bin is one of the things that get collected. You will probably also have to specify that you want to get rid of your old bin and yes, it’s broken/smashed so it needs to go.

      Some places only take old white goods and suchlike, and of course, the confusion between “This is a rubbish bin, we’re supposed to take what’s inside it, not the bin itself” is going to work against you here.

      You might have to physically bash the bin about yourself so that it’s actually broken and looks like a piece of rubbish, rather than a functional utensil for holding rubbish, and then it can be collected.

      Nobody wants to chance taking away a good bin and then getting yelled at about “How stupid are your guys on the bin lorries? They took my bin! That’s not rubbish!”

      Speaking from the side of the Department of That Sort of Thing, you haven’t heard angry residents until you’ve been fielding calls about why haven’t the council cut the grass on our estate yet?

      Everything from nice old ladies and their little dogs are getting lost in the grass, it’s so long (true call) to concerned gentlemen saying that children are at risk of life and limb because they have to play out in the road where the motor cars are passing since the grass is too long (also a true call).

      Plus my favourite, the lady who was going to complain to all the election candidates and our local T.D. (national member of parliament) about the lack of grass-cutting; she was actually very nice (most people who entertain these notions of what to do yell and threaten*) and I encouraged her since hey, she might as well get some benefit out of the politicians turning up on the doorstep to woo the votes.

      Doesn’t mean the bloody national government and our Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will approve the monies to pay for grass-cutting, but sure, why not spread the misery at least to the ones who have some chance of doing something about it, rather than us poor minor civil servants with no power? πŸ˜‰

      *My second week on the job, I had a guy ring up and say he was going straight to his solicitor (lawyer) to complain about the rates, then he demanded my name so he could put my name in the Official Solicitor’s Legal Letter as a party to whatever nefarious act of extortion this demand that he pay his rates constituted. Ah, the joys of being a public servant!

  23. Dave says:

    When we were facing this problem, we put the trashcan inside a large plastic bag.

  24. Leo says:

    This sounds like a perfectly good trash can, so rather than throw it away it may be better to put it up on Freecycle or Craigslist or anywhere that oversized-trash-can-wanters may benefit from it.

    If the can was obviously broken in some way, they’d probably be more willing to take it.

    Otherwise, for the sign, I suggest “Hello, I am trying to throw away this trash can. Please take the trash can.”, rather than solving the general map/territory problem. And sticking the sign to the side rather than the lid.

    (…or put a backslash before the trash can to escape it? …put it inside an even bigger trash can?)

    Also, I am currently howling with laughter. Thank you for making my day.