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Keeping The Problem Stack Small

To grapple effectually with even purely material problems requires more serenity of mind and more lofty courage than people generally imagine.

-Joseph Conrad, An Outpost of Progress

Having followed the logs for a few years with a computer science degree from the "premier engineering and science institution in the world", writing your own version of V should be a simple task, no? You've already escaped the clutches of society, having left the US and all its bureaucratic pantsuitness behind as you arrived in your new home in a new world. You can read the blogs of men to learn about the first time in history when text was deliberately structured with due consideration given not only to its meaning, but also to its source, and to its context. No one is there to look over your shoulder and ask you why you are not on one of the Approved Websites. You have all the time in the world!

But before you open emacs or vim and get started on your ~371 line program, there's a few tasks that your new environment demands you take care of. You'll have to figure out the issue. The cheap apartment you found came with a beautiful view, but some of its inner functioning is out of order. And while you're fixing the plumbing you may want to consider removing the electrical cables sticking out of the heating device on the shower head.

First things first though - you need to get yourself a good meal. There's not exactly a deli right on the corner nor a seamless service where you can just click click click and food appears - you have to cook yourself. I mean you could walk in the hot sun to the local soda1 20 minutes each way and order a casado,2 but the whole point of moving to a new country was to build up some goddamn independence!

Well now that that's done - and you're slightly sustained although the food wasn't really the greatest and there's a mess to cleanup because when you washed the pan you left water droplets that later evaporated blasting hot olive oil on you and nearby surfaces - you can get to handling the plumbing issues. So you reach for the wrench you realize you don't have. You've never needed one since you could always make a phone call to some magician - the super - to deal with these kind of issues. So you decide okay you can live with the plumbing problem for now.

The next morning would provide a great window of time to handle the V task, but there were a few disturbances that prevented a good night's sleep. You learned your apartment's membrane is rather permeable. Some mosquitoes found their way in through the tears in the screens or the cracks in the wood or the gaps in the doorway. So you had to fall asleep to the buzzing of a flying syringe that probably did wind up stabbing you after you gave up spending time trying to kill it.

Despite the lack of sleep you should get started on that task, but the morning came with all the previous problems and more. There's the basic chores: take out the trash, sweep the house, do the laundry, wash the dishes. There's a cut you got on your foot you absolutely must clean thoroughly. There's a trip to the store you need to make because you managed to forget salt on the extensive shopping list you wrote for the previous trip. And worst of all, there's an ant invasion to deal with; you tried your best to clean up all the food but you live in a ~jungle and billions of years of evolution made the little guys energy efficient. That one crumb and the moist sink was all they needed.

Annoyed by these overhanging problems, which also includes un hongo3 that has found refuge in the sweat of your labor, you to decide to put your troubles aside for a minute and go surf. It's what you call a hobby and maybe sometimes it is that but right now it is an escape. An escape from dealing with the aforementioned problems but also from thinking about the ones surely to come.

Society has always taken care of these problems for you - not from any tenderness, but because of its strange needs.4 But society did not teach you how to solve problems for yourself. Instead all it did was give temporary solutions or solutions that make you dependant. For example, society stocks its stores with Raid, a chemical that kills the ants in front of you but not the queen that hides in a cavity respawning those ants you just killed. Society will sell a call to pop() on the stack of your problems, but it has no incentive to help you stop the processes that push() shit onto that same stack.

Effort spent manually popping the stack is almost always effort wasted. Fixing a surface level problem - such as killing male ants - may temporarily ameliorate your situation but it is not the type of action that will improve your standard of living. If you only spend your time fixing what's right in front of you, you'll either arrive at some push() pop() equilibrium point or become overwhelmed.

The serene mind must reason to find and remove the sources of problems. They are always hidden from sight. Because if the evil processes were out in the open, one would already have killed them. And as the mind meditates on how to find long term solutions, it's okay to temporarily let the stack of problems grow. The mind needs to have confidence that the patient search for larger, longer term solutions will yield results. And once those results have been realized one can finally pop the stack down and use the time freed to create beautiful things such as a working V.

  1. A soda is a small home-cooked style restaurant (sometimes w/ only 1 table) that serves typical Costa Rican food. []
  2. A casado is the typical dish served in sodas. The specific ingredients vary, but the template is rice & beans + a salad + a choice of meat or fish. []
  3. The Spanish word for mushroom is also used for the general term fungus. Costa Rica has a few hongos that can cultivate themselves in the creases in your elbow / behind your knees. It looks like an eczema and is easily treatable with anti-fungal cream. []
  4. The full quote:

    To grapple effectually with even purely material problems requires more serenity of mind and more lofty courage than people generally imagine. No two beings could have been more unfitted for such a struggle. Society - not from any tenderness, but because of its strange needs, had taken care of those two men, forbidding them all independent thought, all initiative, all departure from routine; and forbidding it under pain of death. They could only live on condition of being machines. And now, released from the fostering care of men with pens behind the ears, or of men with gold lace on the sleeves, they were like those lifelong prisoners who, liberated after many years, do not know what use to make of their freedom. They did not know what use to make of their faculties, being both, through want of practice, incapable of independent thought.


8 Responses to “Keeping The Problem Stack Small”

  1. Diana Coman says:

    Not bad, but don't overdo it on the side of "gotta get to the ONE TRUE SOURCE of ALL the problems", either, ok? Sure, fix the cause, not the effect or it's not a fix in any sense but fix you must, for you never can have infinite time.

  2. whaack says:

    Thanks. My conclusion oversimplifies / misses some points. For example: sticking with my analogy, solutions that reduce the cost of calling pop() are valuable as well. Also, you certainly must use what you know and perform fixes at some point - from reading the piece I can see how you can imagine someone meditating forever thinking they will one day find the root of all evil.

  3. BingoBoingo says:

    For ants, a mix of boric acid and something the ants like will create a slow acting bait which may work for killing the Queen. Caveat: The ants may be holding off greater nuisances.

    You'll probably want to get in the habit of throwing some powder on to keep the moisture related skin irritation down. You may also need to re-evaluate how climate appropriate what you're wearing is. A dehumidifier may be a worthwhile thing to keep the humidity down. This will also help the dishes dry on a human timeline.

    Anyways, it's nice to someone else coming to terms with being thousands of miles away from familiar supply lines.

  4. whaack says:


    I looked around but was unable to find boric acid. The fumigation store I went to had their own bait solution with the active ingredient avermectin. I am waiting on the order of new screens + their installation before I attempt to feed the ants a feast they won't forget. That said I am curious to know what the ants may be eating / defending me from. Currently my list of approved animals inside the house consists of lizards and dragonflies. I am somewhat okay with spiders too as I believe they are doing the good work, but they don't make for a good aesthetic.

    Looking into a powder for my skin and getting a dehumidifier is a good idea. The guitars are the only objects here that enjoy the humidity. The humidifier is not necessary for the dishes though, they are placed by the window and dry quickly.

  5. The ants almost always keep a larger problem down. There's no cockroaches in Costa Rica, and I believe the ants do that.

    The problem with living is that in general it'll proceed in some kind of a mess -- even in the relatively sterile dwellings among Euro "temperate" zone hills I didn't, for instance, sterilize the air. Sterilization is a complex topic, it's one thing to, for instance, kill all bacteria -- could be approached through all sorts of cheap and workable avenues, such as UV treatment, or ozone, etcetera. But what about killing all viruses ? Those aren't even alive to any sort of standard in the first place, if you separated all flu viri currently alive and well within the Pentagon you'd get a small jar of whitish biomatter about as inert as table salt, and just as "alive" -- until you ate some, at least.

    My CR place has geckos, for instance. They cackle their way into conversation, run across the ceilings, occasionally cause near-death experiences by sheer unbridled cuteness. They'd qualify as an infestation anywhere else, but honestly I don't see it. That same place has a yearly problem with a sort of Carabidae, dubbed "the beeeeeetle shoooow!!!" ; this comes with being the preminent feature atop a hill, illuminated all night long in incandescent glory. The bugs themselves are perfectly harmless, neither their alimentary or reproductive cycle having anything in common with the inside of the dwelling ; but they're a nuisance through abundance and very poor flight skills -- you should see the damn things careen improbably bumping on everything around. One might even be funny, especially if the party's inebriated, finding its way from tit to cock...tail or whatever ; but by the hundredth...

    There's also very occasionally ants ; they never did anything, and from what I can discern they're only there ever checking things out, but soon move out. In any case it never got to the point where I took any measures against them, and over years I didn't live to regret the stance.

    Figuring out the partition, what to tolerate, what to ignore, what to attack is perhaps the most compressed summary of life available. Costa Rica is most peculiar among civilised man's experience in that very fundamental heuristics workable anywhere else ("if it moves, you should kill it") don't deliver much value. What can you do...

  6. whaack says:

    @Mircea Popescu

    The geckos are a favorite of mine as well. They are a nice surprise to see when you move items such as a picture frame from the wall.

    I have always been quite annoyed by the beetles you speak of. I guess during the day their drunken flying is pretty amusing, but at night the racket they make it awful to fall asleep to. I wonder how an animal so terrible at flying manages to not go extinct. iirc Darwin mentions that insects with broken wings often survive catastrophic wind events where all insects with proper flying mechanisms get blown out to sea. Perhaps their disoriented flying pattern gives them an unexpected survival advantage.

    I learned from this that ants raise armies to kill bigger bugs. I've seen them carrying off corpses of praying manti etc. but until now I did not know that they were capable of committing the murder. I have a new respect for them, and I will permit the brave soldiers from foreign lands as guests in my house. However, I still would like to evict the freeloading queens.

  7. [...] When you don't manage to keep the problem stack small. [...]

  8. [...] Rica. The base is rice and beans. In a home environment these are leftovers from the previous day's casado. This base is often mixed with natilla, a sour cream that's not so sour. The other ingredients are a [...]

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