Practical Philosophy

The Essential Complexity of Life

I spend most of my professional effort these days working on and thinking about software and computer programming. I enjoy it, and it casts a whole interesting lens on lots of other things. One topic I recently discovered — I even wrote about it in the software context — is the difference between essential (or inherent) complexity, and accidental (or incidental) complexity.

On the surface, you may already understand the idea, but if not let me elaborate quickly. A piece of software will have two sources of complication: the part about the problem it solves that is just hard, and everything else. Tax law is hard, and so software that deals with tax law has a large amount of inherent or necessary complexity to it. If you’re selling in a country like the United States where many local areas have many different taxes and regulations, just pretending that there exists a simple percentage tax in effect throughout the whole country is unlikely to be workable. This unworkable difficulty of the problem is said to be essential or inherent.

Incidental complexity, on the other hand, is much of the actual difficulty with most software in the world. And this complexity isn’t coming from the complexity of the problem, but the mistakes fallible humans make while trying to solve it using computers. Some of this will come because the programming system is inadequate, some of this comes because people misuse the programing system, and some of the issue comes when people use the right tool but in the wrong way.

So what does any of this have to do about the world outside of software? A whole lot. Life is pretty simple really. All life on earth only requires a few basic elements to flourish and multiply. It needs space. It needs a supportive environment in temperature, wetness, and shelter. It needs an energy source: food and water for us humans. And it needs others of its species with whom to learn, socialize, and procreate. And that’s just about it really.

It doesn’t really need a loving relationship with its father. It doesn’t really need to have a nice car. It doesn’t really need a fancy TV or nice clothes, or even a very nice shelter. It doesn’t need to know what its future holds. It doesn’t need to have a beautiful body or a hunk of a husband. Sure those things are nice, and surely they have benefits, but we count them as essential and we’re mixing in the incidental complexity of what we want with the essential complexity of what we really need.

The more time I spend with the idea that life is simple, the truer it feels to me. Maybe this is just a long strung-out trip of self-delusion, but I think it’s actually a deep and profound truth. Life is stupidly simple. If you’ve got food, water, shelter, and health, you don’t need much else. That is a stable base from which you can draw tremendous feelings of strength, well-being, and stability. Other things you could have may make those feelings easier to cultivate, but they are not necessary.

We like to look past how few things are really essential in our life because it’s so humbling to see. We’d rather tell stories of our heroism, or victimization, or ongoing struggle. They give us a supporting narrative which can feel quite compelling. But they’re not really a necessary part of our life. Very little is.


Retroview: The Microwaved Quesadilla

Warning: This quesadilla may not have been microwaved–Photo by Borderline AmazingQuesadilla

There would seem to be two obvious ways of looking at the microwaved quesadilla: “sounds good” and “sounds gross.” When I was younger–around about 12–I was firmly in the “sounds good” camp. Recently, I was pretty firmly in the “sounds gross” camp. And then a few days ago, in a hurry and lacking a better idea, I tried one again. And so I’m now back in the “sounds good” category.

Before we get too far, an explanation. This is the most American of quesadillas. It’s essentially a tortilla-not-bread, microwave-not-griddle, grilled cheese sandwich. A white flour tortilla–always bought at the grocery store because I’m scared of making my own. And then grated cheese, I prefer Colby Jack. And then another one of those far-from-great tortillas. Microwaved for 45 seconds on medium high, and eaten soon enough that you avoid that rubberiness that accompanies anything that sits too long after emerging from the microwave.

I did my best to make it sound bad in that last paragraph, and even now I admit I’m hungry enough for it to sound delicious. Part of it’s that cheese–store brand Colby Jack–it’s got a great buttery flavor that is sorely lacking in even the least-sharp cheddar cheese I’ve had. And that butteriness along with the stark unhealthiness of store-bought white flour tortilla’s is reminiscent of all the joy such foods brought before I knew about calories, carbohydrates, the many types of fat, and the perils of sodium. Also before I ever had any notion that many people snub food made in the microwave.

There’s a time in every child’s life–for me, it was as I finished elementary school–during which the microwave is the magic wonder that proves that you can feed yourself. You’re no longer given the stark choice between eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–not that there’s anything wrong with them–and waiting for an adult to come home and cook you a snack. During those years, I probably ate far more microwaved quesadillas (and microwaved hot dogs) than is healthy for anyone. But I didn’t know and didn’t care about “healthiness.”

I’d be a liar if I said that part of the new-found appeal of the microwaved quesadilla wasn’t nostalgia for those times. But I’d also be a liar if I said it doesn’t taste as good as anything I’ve cooked in well over a week. If that’s because this quesadilla’s that good or because my cooking’s that bad is an answer I’ll leave for a different time and place.

personal, ruminations

How To Spend a Do-Nothing Day

Sarah MurrayDoing Nothing - Rain

It’s not as easy as it sounds, doing nothing. It’s too easy to think of all that you could be doing. All that you should be doing. In a country that seems to possess a cultural bias against stillness, doing nothing can feel dangerous. Immoral even.

It will also help, if you want to do nothing all day, to have nothing to do that day. No obligations of any kind. No work that needs doing. No driveway that needs shoveling. No social commitments that need attending. Not even phone calls that need to be made.

All prepared? Good.

Now wake up late, but not too late. 9AM is a reasonable time, 11AM is essentially too late, 1PM and you’ve already wasted your nothing day.

Then eat breakfast, preferably something that requires little work and creates little mess. Cereals–both hot and cold–are probably the best choice.

Should a dog need to be walked after the meal, ignore him for at least 15 minutes. And then, when you’ve rested from the exhausting effort of breakfast, take him. Not for too long, mind you. And not if it’s too cold.

Then, and only then, do you really want it to snow. If it’s the wrong time and place for that, rain would certainly suffice. Strong wind could work too. Anything that makes it unappealing to go outside.

Then put on some comfortable inside clothes. Get to a comfortable inside place. And do comfortable inside things. Reading, watching, listening. Baking, playing, organizing. Whatever it is that you like to do, do it. And do it a lot. You’ve got a whole day ahead of you. Don’t waste it on anything that needs doing, nor anything should be done. This is a day for things that could easily go without doing for years. Lifetimes even.

When meal times roll around, it’s imperative that you find food in the refrigerator. Knives are allowed but discouraged. Cooking by any method but the microwave is frowned upon.

Pretty soon, if you’ve done all this right, it’ll be late. Past-my-bedtime late. And you’ll sit up and wonder where the day went. But as you crawl into bed, be happy that you did it. You spent the day doing nothing.