September 13, 2009
Bertrand Russell on Throwing Away a Garbage Can
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
While Mike Frisch is off making national news and Bill Henderson is laying bare the problems of the profession and the academy, I'm pondering replacing my garbage cans (Sunday is garbage take-out evening here in Neighborhood Nine of our fair city, Cambridge, MA). I'd like to get a couple of the tote models with wheels and attached covers, but I'm somewhat intimidated by my experience over thirty years of married life in trying to throw away a garbage can. It occurred to me that perhaps this was the mundane household event that caused Bertrand Russell to come up with his famous paradox - namely, whether the set of all sets that are not members of themselves is a member of itself. If the set is a member of itself, it is not a member of itself. If it isn't a member of itself, it is a member of itself.
Other than writing in big letters - PLEASE TAKE THIS GARBAGE CAN BECAUSE IT IS PART OF THE GARBAGE - the question is whether set of garbage cans that I don't want is a member of the set of all of the other things I don't want. Since the garbage collectors can't resolve the paradox, they never take the garbage can. Maybe this is why my father-in-law was famous within the family for always repairing and never throwing away garbage cans.
I'm pretty sure there are drugs being advertised on TV right now that could cure me of thinking like this.
UPDATE: Just after posting this, I took the dogs on their afternoon walk, and saw something demonstrating just how pervasive and intractable this problem is. In Cambridge, we recycle a lot. If you have yard waste, it goes in a separate pickup. If it's in a regular garbage can, you put a bright red bumper sticker that says YARD WASTE ONLY on the can. We walked by such a can that had another handwritten note stuck to it that said "Trash." Hmm, I thought, was this a homeowner trying to throw away a garbage can? No, I concluded, the can looked okay. He or she was simply trying to override the bumper sticker to indicate that it was real trash and not yard waste. I realized that I was being flip earlier in suggesting one could solve the problem with a note to the garbage collectors. To remove all ambiguity, you'd have to write a note that made it absolutely clear that the can itself, and not just its contents, were part of the trash. By the time you got done, it would be so long that no self-respecting garbage collector, intent on grabbing the can, dumping its contents, and then flinging the can and its lid so far away from the house that retrieving it later was a kind of community grab-bag, would ever read it. Harrumph.
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> the set of all sets that are not members of themselves is a member of itself
Name me one use case where one would actually have to address this?
Also, I am reminded of the Tao. The garbage can that can be taken away by the emptiers of garbage cans is not the real garbage can. Metaphysics requires that you step outside your context and take the garbage-can-that-is-now-garbage-not-can to the dump yourself, in an existential demonstration of our ability to transcend systems and hierarchies.
In NY, this also can be sidestepped by writing "BASURA" on anything you wish never to see again. In ITIL, we call this a workaround.
Posted by: Simon Pride | Sep 13, 2009 5:33:46 PM
I once had that problem - I bought some nice new trash cans and wanted to throw away the old rusted one. I solved the problem by selling the house and moving away, and leaving the old trash can behind.
Posted by: Buffy | Sep 16, 2009 9:57:59 PM