2754: Relative Terms

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Relative Terms
Small sewing machines are sewing machines that are smaller than a sewing machine. A sewing machine is larger than a small sewing machine, but quieter than a loud sewing machine.
Title text: Small sewing machines are sewing machines that are smaller than a sewing machine. A sewing machine is larger than a small sewing machine, but quieter than a loud sewing machine.


The terms "small" and "big" are used to refer to size; the terms "loud" and "quiet" are used to refer to (audial) volume. While these terms are relative, they are often used even when there is nothing obvious being compared against (e.g. "A windmill is a big thing" or "An ant is a small thing").

This comic humorously suggests that the item defined to be in the middle of all four terms ("neither small nor big; neither quiet nor loud") is a sewing machine, as a sewing machine seems (at least in comparison to the other items on the graph) to be neither particularly big nor particularly small; neither particularly quiet nor particularly loud. A standard sewing machine is roughly 60dB in volume and approximately 42” X 21”, although this is for industrial machines, and those in the home (table-top electric models) would be both smaller and quieter. More antique treadle-powered sewing machines might include the treadle-table, as an integral part of its size, but could be even quieter if kept well-maintained.

As the reference point, the sewing machine is placed in the center of the chart, while a selection of other example objects are located in the four quadrants around it, based on whether they are considered to be small or big, and loud or quiet. Many of the items might appear to have been placed in the wrong quadrant for their actual attributes; locations may reflect more how Randall generally thinks of these things, as opposed to others' subjective ideas of their real-life relationship to a sewing machine.

Other references from everyday life that could be placed in the center include the average adult human (the perspective from which people might measure other things), a bread-bin/box (a popular comparison for size in certain situations, but doesn't fit the bill in terms of loudness), or even something like "the size of a large/small/medium-sized dog" (which highly depends upon a shared reference of which breeds are commonly encountered, and dogs might be considered too loud to be in the middle of the volume range), all things that are often encountered. A sewing machine may once have been found in many homes, but some of the comic's comedic value may arise from the relative rarity in modern times.

The title text is humorously tautological because it compares the standard against those things that are themselves defined against the standard.

Small and quiet (upper left)
Item Description
Ant Randall has used ants as a small comparator in a previous comic on the topic of comparisons.
Balloon A party balloon is quite loud when it pops, or if someone 'squeaks' it by rubbing; a hot-air balloon is big enough to carry a few humans, and the burner can be surprisingly loud.
Book Books are typically sized to be handheld, and thus smaller than a sewing machine, though some very large books do exist.[1] Similarly, books are associated with quiet activity, making no more sound than a quiet turning of a page in typical use, but could make a very loud bang if slammed shut on thrown forcefully on to a hard surface.
Bun (rabbit or pastry) "Bun" is an informal term for a rabbit and a loaf of bread; a comparison between the two was made in 1871: Bun Alert. While some rabbits may reach the size of a small dog or a child, and specially baked items for promotional activity or record attempts may exceed the size of a sewing machine, both would typically be smaller. However, while bread, even when being eaten, is usually very quiet, rabbits can make a large amount of noise that is at odds with their common image.
Butterfly Butterflies are used as an exemplar of something small, unnoticeable and seemingly insignificant in the metaphor of the Butterfly Effect.
Hat A hat, being a non-living item of clothing, is very quiet. They also come in a range of sizes, hence their position in the middle of the Big/Small axis.
Mouse A mouse is a very small, quiet animal. This might also be a reference to the expression "quiet as a mouse", meaning very quietly.
Newt A newt is a semi-aquatic salamander. Being fairly small and living in water most of the time, they are very quiet.
Pin drop The expression "hear a pin drop" is used to indicate that an area is exceptionally quiet; the idea is that the space is so silent that even something as insubstantial and tiny as a pin can be heard hitting the ground.
Snow globe A snow globe is much smaller than a sewing machine. Some snow globes have a small music box that can be wound up to play a melody. Snow globes without a music box are silent.
Small and loud (upper right)
Item Description
Baby Babies are usually considered small, and can be quite loud when they cry.
Blender Blenders make a lot of noise when in use. Most household blenders are smaller than a sewing machine.
Cricket Given that it is in the small/loud quadrant, this would refer to the insect, which is pretty small and can be quite loud; the sport of cricket or a cricket game would be much larger (though potentially much louder).
Fire alarm The primary purpose of a fire alarm is to notify people of fire, so fire alarms are usually very loud, but ideally take up little space.
Firecracker A Firecracker is a small explosive firework that makes a very loud bang when lit.
Flute An example of a small musical instrument that can nevertheless be audibly quite dominant.
Harmonica See Flute.
Popcorn A snack that, as the name implies, is known for a popping sound when cooked, owing to moisture inside the kernels being heated and creating pressure. May also be annoyingly loud in a cinema setting. However, this is largely due to the otherwise low volume environment, and arguably a sewing machine might be equally or more annoying. Individual kernels, popped or unpopped, are generally smaller than a sewing machine.[citation needed] Actual servings of popcorn in some cinemas, however, may be larger than a sewing machine.
Songbird Songbirds, despite being very small, are well known for their songs that can be heard over a large area.
Whistle This is of course a device known as a whistle, as these are small. The human act of whistling, or a whistle produced by, for example, a kettle, has no size (other than that of the whistler or whistling object). A whistle is used as an alert or signal, or could be another musical instrument (see Flute). The loudest human whistle ever recorded was 8372 Hz and roughly 110 DB, which is a C9 in the standard musical scale and is roughly as loud as a jackhammer[2]. Since a whistle should be able to beat this it must be seen as loud.
Big and quiet (lower left)
Item Description
Anaconda Snakes typically aren’t that loud, especially constrictors like anacondas.
Giraffe Giraffes can be quite loud, but they usually vocalise using frequencies well below the range of human hearing. So, to a human, giraffes are quiet.
Northern lights "In 2016, a Finnish study confirmed that the Aurora Borealis does produce a sound that can be heard" [3]
Shark When people think of sharks, they typically envisage something large and dangerous, yet eerily silent as they swim (up until entering a feeding frenzy), like a great white. However, sharks come in a large variety of sizes, often considerably smaller than a sewing machine.
Statue A stereotypical statue is a large piece of public art, intended to be viewed from afar, which would be larger than a sewing machine – even discounting the plinth or other bases; however, there is no easily agreed lower size limit for when a statue becomes a statuette, figurine, bust or merely a carved/cast ornament, as any smaller examples of figurative art could be considered statues in a given situation. Famous and major examples do tend to be life-sized (or larger-than-life-sized) depictions of people, sometimes even depicted atop horses, making them significantly larger; even fractional-scale depictions could be easily of greater size than this comic's reference item.

Most statues are silent, but some may be plumbed in as fountains. Or occasionally equipped with other devices that make sound. There is also "musical statues" being a party game, that can be intermittently loud and quite large.

The Moon The Moon is very, very big[citation needed], but it is also completely silent[citation needed] from the perspective of most humans, since sound cannot travel through the vacuum of space.
Tree A tree can be small and big, but generally aren't noisy outside the rustling of leaves and like. This might be a reference to the philosophical question "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?". According to Randall, a tree falling like this would be fairly quiet.
Windmill Windmills need to have significant height in order to catch enough air movement to drive them. They are thought of as quiet, relative to other forms of power generation; in reality, though, the passage of the blades through the air can cause considerable noise, as can the machinery that they drive.
Big and loud (lower right)
Item Description
Airplane An airplane produces a loud sound from its engines, while also being between 40 and 50 meters in length.
Cannon A cannon produces a loud sound when fired, and is on average 2.5 meters in length.
Riding mower Riding mowers are big in order to accommodate a person, and are known for being very loud, with a loudness of 85-90 decibels on average.
Steam calliope A large musical device which functions by sending steam (or more recently compressed air) through attached whistles.
Train A form of public or cargo transport with carriages, variable size and noise production.
Tuba A musical brass instrument that creates a musical note by air blown through its mouthpiece.
Volcano Lower right corner. Volcanic eruptions can be extremely loud. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa made a pressure wave of 180 dB, the loudest sound ever recorded.
Waterfall A waterfall makes noise as it crashes over rocks. However, the sound of a waterfall is a relaxing sound to many.
Whale Whales are the largest mammals currently living on earth, and are extremely loud in their underwater 'songs' and vocalisations, often reaching over 140 decibels. However, the frequency of these sounds is well outside the range of human hearing, which is why they're placed close to the center on the Quiet/Loud axis.


[A chart, with "Quiet" to "Loud" on the X-axis, and "Small" to "Big" on the Y-axis. It is split into four quarters, with "Sewing machine" in the center.]
[Upper left quadrant (Small & Quiet items):] Butterfly, Pin drop, Mouse, Ant, Bun (rabbit or pastry), Snow globe, Newt, Balloon, Book, Hat
[Upper right quadrant (Small & Loud items):] Popcorn, Cricket, Songbird, Whistle, Baby, Harmonica, Flute, Fire alarm, Blender, Firecracker
[Lower left quadrant (Big & Quiet items):] Shark, Tree, Anaconda, Giraffe, Statue, Windmill, Northern lights, The Moon
[Lower right quadrant (Big & Loud items):] Tuba, Riding mower, Cannon, Airplane, Train, Waterfall, Steam calliope, Whale, Volcano
[Caption below the panel:]
Big, Small, Loud, and Quiet are relative terms. The thing they're relative to is a sewing machine.

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Does this mean that the steam calliopes which are as loud as an airplane are LARGER than that airplane? I'm not finding any examples of such. Ikidre (talk) 01:31, 25 March 2023 (UTC)

There isn't a meaningful upper limit on the size of a steam calliope (other than the expensive of manufacturing and operating it). Planes have more practical upper limits, given that they're at least nominally supposed to fly. -- 11:31, 27 March 2023 (UTC)

Holy shit what a terrible comic 02:24, 25 March 2023 (UTC)

I've seen many a terrible comic and I personally don't consider this one to be terrible, but relative to other XKCD comics I would consider it one of the least interesting and entertaining, unfortunately. 15:44, 25 March 2023 (UTC)

I'm somewhat terrified that "Statue" isn't considered *maximally* quiet. Trimeta (talk) 02:32, 25 March 2023 (UTC)

I don't think the position in the quadrants is meant to indicate degree of loudness or size. Barmar (talk) 04:07, 25 March 2023 (UTC)
Yes it is, that's how such graphs work. That's why sewing machine is in the middle, Randall is declaring that it's neither small nor big, and neither quiet nor loud, it's medium on both scales. Comics like this are roughly the standard X-Y graph but without numbered scales and having words instead of points. And I too noted that statues aren't maximum quiet, LOL! Maybe he's referring to the Doctor Who Weeping Angels? DO they make any sound? NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:29, 25 March 2023 (UTC)
Well, that may be how such graphs sometimes work, but clearly not this one. The quadrants are positioned relative to the sewing machine, but that appears to be the only significance afforded to positioning in this layout - an item's position within its quadrant does not indicate the degree to which it qualifies as belonging there. Otherwise a firecracker and a blender would be quieter than a cricket. Unless Randall is referring to the crowd at a test match. But that seems pretty unlikely.Yorkshire Pudding (talk) 10:20, 25 March 2023 (UTC)
The fact that xkcd charts usually have arrows on the axes when the position within the quadrant does matter would support this claim. NcPenguin (talk) 16:45, 25 March 2023 (UTC)
Came here to point out that I’ve heard a mouse that somehow got in scritch-scritching n something in my kitchen, and I’ve heard a butterfly that somehow got in battering against a window trying to get out, but I’ve never in my life heard an ant, nor even a hundred ants working together to wreck stuff. But as you pointed out, there are no arrows on the chart, so the positions in the quadrants probably aren’t intended to be meaningful. 21:56, 25 March 2023 (UTC)
To support that further, while buns (pastry) and buns (lagomorph) are probably both quieter than a sewing machine, the latter is generally significantly louder than the former (as well as most everything else in that quadrant), so co-locating them wouldn't work. 08:20, 27 March 2023 (UTC)
I am certain that this is how Randall does such graphs, and intended with this one, but he got sloppy this time. I suspect he WAS doing that, but then would think of something quieter (or louder or bigger or smaller) and have left himself no room to indicate this (like he already put "Volcano" at the biggest before he decided to add the even bigger "Moon", so now they're both at the bottom of the graph). So, yes, gradation IS supposed to be indicated, but very loosely, not vigilantly. NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:22, 26 March 2023 (UTC)
I'm not sure what your certainty is based on, but I don't think you're correct about Randall's intentions with this chart. 20:55, 28 March 2023 (UTC)
2,750+ comics, that's what my certainty is based on. :) He often compares things like this (not long ago was a graph which compared doctors, I think the aspects were how legitimate their degrees were and how much you could trust them to help you with a medical issue). That, and I always get the feeling me and Randall have highly compatible thought patterns, like there are times I know exactly what he was going for, when others express confusion and uncertainty. I just know there's a GENERAL, LOOSE gradation going on here. You can't compare all objects, but for many you can. If you looked at no entries except Volcano, that feels like it would be the biggest thing here. If you look at only the Moon, THAT feels like it'd be the biggest. So they both feel right at the big part of the scale. Compare them to the Northern Lights (slightly higher, therefore smaller) and that's correct. Compare the RIGHT things, and it's graded. That's why the items are scattered instead of just listed, and why sewing machine is dead centre, as the baseline of everything. 04:57, 1 April 2023 (UTC)
Gartner Magic Quadrants include arrows on the axes, e.g. "completeness of vision -->" and "ability to execute-->". This is not that. However it is mostly implied by the contents of each quadrant that the items are arranged smallest to biggest (top-down) and quietest to loudest (left-to-right). I think for those who study the items carefully, this then introduces some situational irony for comedic effect in the way of the unexpected placement of certain items like "statues" (louder than a Giraffe?), "baby" (smaller than a harmonica?), and "cannon" (quieter than a riding mower?). Additionally, having spent time in a quiet room with a cricket, I think the "maximally loud" position of the cricket here feels about right. 16:44, 25 March 2023 (UTC)
It seems that the joke is exactly that the ONLY meaningful distinction between big/small and loud/quiet is how something relates to a sewing machine. There are too many obvious deviations otherwise.

I've always considered a microwave oven to be the central item

I concur that microwave would be excellent in the center, and less ambiguous (I mean, I feel certain that Randall didn't think of industrial sewing machines, but this community loves being uncertain, LOL!) NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:22, 25 March 2023 (UTC)
∃ industrial microwaves. Units of at least 1MW are available, compared to domestic units around 1kW. 04:13, 26 March 2023 (UTC)

AFAIK, only Randall/xkcd uses the term "Bun" to mean bunnies... :) I feel like it should be worded that way. NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:22, 25 March 2023 (UTC)

No, it's very common in the furry community, and I swear I've heard it elsewhere as well. 12:03, 25 March 2023 (UTC)
Well, there's a reason I said this in a comment instead of editing the Explanation. :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:25, 26 March 2023 (UTC)

Is the breadbox no longer the standard item for size comparison? Because I still use it that way. Mathmannix (talk) 12:43, 25 March 2023 (UTC)

Ah, but this requires a standard for size AND sound at the same time, and I can't imagine a breadbox being the middle of any sound scale. What's quieter than a breadbox? NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:27, 26 March 2023 (UTC)

Is the moon really bigger than the northern lights? 17:39, 25 March 2023 (UTC)

Hmmmm... I wonder. Well, the Moon is a tad under 3,500km (diameter). Taking just a single pole's Aurora (combined, you could just say they are approx. Earth's diamater, which is bigger than the Moon,[citation needed] going pole-to-pole) the height is the thickness of the (upper) atmosphere, very much of that below the altitude of satellites (e.g. ISS), which is mere hundreds of km at best. Or take its 3-6 degrees of 'band width', that is perhaps a tad over 300-600km thick. But if we go with its extent all the way round off the pole, it seems to get about the size of the Moon (linear distance, not 'over the pole') once it extends by 15-16 degrees of latitude (i.e. to less than 74 degrees N/S). It is generally accepted that it varies between 10 and 20 degrees from each geomagnetic pole (is seen at lower latitudes, but only above the horizon) so... it's a close thing. If I've done my calculations correctly. 18:58, 25 March 2023 (UTC)

Would it be useful to add "size" and "loudness" columns to each of the tables, along with estimates of each for each item? -- Dtgriscom (talk) 01:23, 26 March 2023 (UTC)

I don't think this comic is fully accurate... I've always assumed volcanoes were smaller than the moon. Thexkcdnerd (talk) 04:08, 26 March 2023 (UTC)

The Earth is larger than the Moon. The Earth spews lava from vents, ergo the Earth is a volcano (that is larger than the Moon)...
I actually subscribe to the idea that relationships within the quadrants mean little, I mean whales bigger than trains? Firecracker bigger than a blender? A book is noisier than a newt? ...but if you want an absurdist reason, I'm gonna say I live on a volcano, just because there's a whole lotta magma underneath me, and not as far away as space is above. ;) 12:46, 26 March 2023 (UTC)
I've slammed books closed or on to tables, but never seen/heard anyone slamming a newt, ergo books are louder. SDSpivey (talk) 15:49, 26 March 2023 (UTC)
Books barely make any sound at all in breeding season. In fact, they hardly do anything in breeding season, not matter how long you sit still and watch them. But it's quite difficult to set up a hide in a bookshop, so many objections from the owners... 16:23, 26 March 2023 (UTC)
Book printing, however, is quite loud. -- Hkmaly (talk) 19:37, 26 March 2023 (UTC)

How is a windmill quieter than a sewing machine? Looks like Randall never went up close to one :) Wind turbines make around 100 dB (of course you never stand close enough to experience it at this level), and the old timey windmills or water mills were very loud mechanisms too. -- 15:37, 26 March 2023 (UTC)

I second that comment. Wind turbine farms can be heard as a low humming sound from hundreds of meters away and are indeed quite loud up close (if you go and stand under one, you'll hear the "WHOOOoooM, WHOOOoooM" sound as each arm passes). It is even a major issue with the installation of wind turbines close to homes (at least in France).

Either I haven't been used to his sewing machines and waterfalls, but many waterfalls --very arguably most are about the size of a badly leaky faucet in volume -- much quieter than the sewing machines I'm used to.

I have found that the loudness of a sewing machine is definitely related to how old the machine is. I've got a 70-yr-old electric Singer, and my friend has a very recent model sewing machine, and mine is less than a quarter of the loudness, especially when thoroughly oiled. His sounds like a push-style lawnmower. I had no idea sewing machines were so loud until I met modern sewing machines. Thisfox (talk) 19:38, 26 March 2023 (UTC)

I've never been more compelled to post this in a satire subreddit. This xkcd looks like it was written by someone with dimentia. (talk) 15:22, 28 March 2023 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Well, it is 2-Dimenti(on)al... Well spotted! 02:18, 29 March 2023 (UTC)

As I've seen pointed out elsewhere, on the weboweb by another presumed xkcdophile, the item (sometimes refered to as a "statue") involved in defining the ultimate culmination of Vladlen Tatarsky's activities, in St. Petersburg, was both smaller and (briefly) very much louder than a sewing machine... 00:18, 4 April 2023 (UTC)