When I was young, my friend James and I liked to fish. Other kids would be dropped at the mall for the day, but we’d get our parents to drop us at Joe Pool Lake. We were strange.
At first, the google engineer cheered, knowing he or she had contributed to the world. It felt good knowing their contribution would save eons of man years of productivity that would have otherwise been wasted. They gladly marked their name down in wikipedia right beside bill gates.
A college friend of mine randomly decided that nutritional guidelines were bullshit. At the time, he was deliriously lost in a pipe dream of being rich before 30.
This may or may not have been the same time frame when he bought a house in California and rented it out to too many roommates at once. The theory was, California real estate value was only going upward – so buy, have some other fools pay the mortgage, and then sell for complete profit.
My friend was the extremely frugal sort, and a nerd, like myself. He examined his RichBy30.xls spreadsheet and tried to cut as many corners as he could expense wise. One evening, knee-deep in RichBy30.xls data, my friend decided he didn’t believe in nutritional advice – all his body needed was calories to consume, so why not optimize for the most cost effective calories there are?
Thus, the Ramen Diet.
For several weeks, perhaps a month, my buddy ate nothing but ramen and drank nothing but water.
We were in our early 20s, and we’d practically “lived on ramen” while on college from time to time. I was incredulous of the idea, but if nothing else, the Ramen Diet sounded like a worthy experiment.
After all, in your 20s, you’re immortal.
After about a month on the Ramen Diet, my buddy landed in the hospital for several days due to malnutrition. He came out okay, but his hospital bills were ten times more expensive than the monthly food expenses he had just cut. One month on the Ramen Diet costed my buddy one year’s worth of food expense, and nearly his life.
The Ramen Diet is, in many ways, a parable for the last decade of my life.
When my youngest brother was born, my body was on fire. Chickenpox was making the rounds at my school, and it was my turn.
During chickenpox week, our house was a scene from the movie E.T., this child quarantined in that room, the younger child in yet another room, and the baby a safe distance from everyone involved.
As my fever rose one evening, I began to hallucinate – my bed was an island in the midst of a room spinning like a top. When mother came to check on me I was covered in sweat, sobbing, hyperventilating, and holding onto the corner of my mattress as an anchor in the madness, as if my life depended on it.
Mother brought a cold rag for my head, and she told me of a magic trick: Focus on the nightlight in the corner of the room, if I do that, the spinning will stop.
The magic trick worked.
A few years after The Ramen Diet, a coworker of mine confided that when left to her own devices, she’d eat a can of beans or corn, unheated, for dinner. My coworker was 10 or more years my senior, and had her shit together in all the possible ways to have your shit together.
Another coworker, managing a very large high visibility project I was working on, offhandedly remarked on April 14 that he always waits until the evening of April 14 to do his taxes. In my humble opinion, that guy did not have his shit together.
Thus, it follows quite logically, that I tricked myself into a slower paced version of the Ramen Diet, but still did my taxes in February.
Nutrition was never a thing in our household. I mean, it was in the same way it is in every household, where your parents cook good-for-you dinners, and you stuff the broccoli in your milk so you can be the first to get the nintendo controller.
Vicious lesson in capitalism and being the first to market, being in a household of three boys with a nintendo that only had two controllers.
Our parents would buy sodas and fruit rollups (oh god, gushers fruit snacks!), four boxes at a time, intended to be rationed out over a month. The previously mentioned free market / first-to-market system we operated under would demolish those four boxes in two days, and we’d suffer with good-for-us sandwiches for the rest of the month. It was the worst.
Those two days when the nectar of the gods (various forms of corn syrup) would flow like rain at the beginning of the month were the greatest days of our childhood. Pure sugar-high delirium, with a high-stakes competitive game amongst ourselves to hide or consume more than our competing siblings.
There is nothing sweeter in this existence than eating the last fruit roll-up and staring right into your brother’s teary little eyes, watching a little piece of his soul slip away as the realization of the impending 28 days of sugar-free hell sets in.
Anyway, our parents taught us about food pyramids, but my takeaway was the same as my friend with the Ramen Diet, more or less – my body needs calories and if I eat the right amount I’ll be fine – got it.
Very strange, hallucinating, sitting in an ice-cold bath you logically know to be ice-cold, and yet your little body says the bath water is in fact boiling.
Cold baths for fever, and steaming hot showers running with closed bathroom doors for congestion, these were our family remedies that worked a charm, every time.
My chickenpox fever was dangerously high off and on through my week of hell, and every time it reached a certain point, the cold-water fever bath was necessary. Never in my life had I felt my skin boiling, and, fortunately, I haven’t again since.
The boiling ice water fiasco was my first personal brush with the concept of mortality and true pain. I tried very hard to forget about it, and believe instead that I was immortal.
“I don’t want this fucking fire truck.”
I probably didn’t know the f-word at the time, but the sentiment was the same, the last thing in the world I wanted was that fucking fire truck toy.
My youngest brother and I were spending hours that felt like years playing in a playroom, typical set of hospital toys – the one with the bendy wires that kids move blocks along from one end of the the wire to the other. We did that a thousand times, adding to the bacteria farm those toys were, like a bug light for every germ on earth, we were making our contribution with a sense of duty.
We were young, and confused. Our brother had a cough, then it got worse, and then he was staying in the hospital for a few days with a case of croup.
I’ll never forget seeing my middle brother laying in an oxygen tent – forever cementing the sheer horror of the movie E.T. I had seen years earlier – no contact, no touch, only tears as you watch your brother do battle.
Watching him there, struggling to breathe, helpless, I hoped in vain that his personal hell was somehow easier than boiling ice-water baths. I could not stand to watch him suffer.
When the wire bacteria farm gave way to worry and occasional hyperventilating and tears, someone, (my parents? my grandparents?) gave me this impressively large fisher price fire truck. I remember thinking this was easily the biggest and thus in some way the best gift I’d ever received, and I didn’t want it.
I might of (probably did..) thrown the truck against a wall in a tantrum, that would be classic Jason, unable to bargain with or contain overwhelming fear. I didn’t want that fucking fire truck, I wanted my brother to be better and out of this hell.
It wasn’t the fire truck though, it was mortality, suffering, and helplessness.
By the time the chickenpox vaccine came to market, I was already enamored with western medicine.
Doctors had saved my brother’s life with an oxygen tent, and stitched up little terrifying wounds for all three of us boys half a dozen times.
Grape flavored corn syrup with a pinch of medicine miraculously put us back on our feet from time to time. And who can forget the bubble gum flavored antibiotic we’d always get? Why couldn’t broccoli taste like bubble gum antibiotics?
When I heard the chickenpox vaccine was a thing, I remember thinking kids born after this are lucky little bastards, never needing to take a ride on the bed in the midst of the spinning top, or feel ice water boil their skin – incredible, really. Modern magic.
The cholesterol fad hit somewhere in my early teens, right around the time medicine for cholesterol was coming to market, funny how that works.
Our mother’s side has high cholesterol in the genes, and, bonus, not the type of high cholesterol that’s tamed by the previously mentioned cholesterol medicines.
For years my various doctors would prescribe lipitor, or zocor, or whatever the latest patent-protected big-pharma-pushed non-generic/full-cost cholesterol med fad was, and it’d never work.
I’d graduate from my high school doctor to one where my college was, and we’d have the same conversations repeated ten thousand times. No, doc, this shit really doesn’t work on me. Sigh.
I still trusted western medicine at that point, but I internalized the cholesterol battle as a personal curse, another checkmark on a very short list of perpetual health defects. Oh well, you can’t win them all. I guess I’m dying early then. Hopefully I make it to thirty, I guess?
I remember telling my wife about my coworker friend who would eat a can of beans for dinner sometimes. This was a justification on my part, and it worked. My wife continued to let me eat spaghettios and sugar cereal for dinner from time to time, and we happily and thoughtlessly called it “The Coder Diet”.
I didn’t ever tell my wife about The Ramen Diet, for obvious reasons.
After a few years of doctors threatening my 15 year old body with early death over cholesterol, I started losing faith in medicine. My previous naive trust in pills faded into a hazy grey middleground – to this day I feel there’s many things we can cure, but there’s still a ways to go, unfortunately.
I remember taking a day off of school once a year or so to go with mom to the children’s hospital – already a terrifying event in itself forever due to oxygen tent memories, and running on a treadmill for a few minutes, playing legend of zelda on a hospital NES, then later that day hearing yet another confirmation that yep I’d be dead really early in life. Cue metamucil fiber drink from hell, cut the eggs, we bought the entire cholesterol marketing machine hook, line, and sinker.
All of those times mom and I went to do treadmill tests, all of her fretting over her personal health and mine due to these damn genetics – so much effort all for naught.
During my first year of college, my mother caught a solar ray wrong, or some other factor caused a cancerous mutation in her body. She found a lump, a scan found nothing, six months later she was stage 4 all over her body, 4 years after that, she was in the ground.
When cancer’s aggressive, you’re often fighting a losing battle. She was terminal the minute she was diagnosed, and she endured 4+ years of hell – chemo and surgery galore, all the while just trying to buy more time to be a mother.
Every year there’d be some massive surgery, followed by two blissful weeks of not knowing if it was all over or not – not unlike those blissful days with fruit rollups in the family pantry.
We’d always hope for the best, and six weeks later some scan would tell us some new terrible.
While our mother was fighting these cancer battles, she tried anything and everything, drinking copious amounts of green tea, cutting sugar completely, exercising when she could – a thousand lottery tickets in vain.
At several points she participated in clinical trials for drugs coming to market – something I’d never heard of previously, indeed at the time I didn’t understand that the big-pharma marketing machine existed, or how drugs are made, or how studies are ‘sponsored’, and so on.
When she passed, I was angry. Extremely angry, facing boiling bath water oxygen tent mortality constantly in my thoughts. Angry at western medicine for failing my mother, for bullshit scans not seeing what was already there at the very beginning.
In that grieving process, someone somewhere told me exercise was a good way to deal with anger, so I started running on a treadmill. I was in my early 20s, and immortal. Within weeks of starting I was jogging fifteen minutes straight every day. I lost weight, and for the first time in my life, my cholesterol dropped dramatically.
Naturally, my pharma-bought doctor wasn’t happy with results and insisted I should still be striving for even lower cholesterol. It was about that time I quit the meds and started thinking I knew better than doctors.
Fast forward a decade, through several spells of running on a treadmill with my 20-something immortal body at random. Stop. Start. Never stretch, my immortal body, smarter than doctors, smarter than trainers – that 20-something body just keeps on going. No matter the nutrition or lack there of.
My delusion increases. Maybe I really am immortal, I almost never stretch, and I do only a couple of exercises, maybe gyms and trainers are a ruse, maybe they’re bullshit like nutrition food pyramids and all I need is time on the treadmill with calorie counting?
Around this time, I find myself a doctor who proudly hangs this informal certificate of membership for a group of physicians who steadfastly refuse big-pharma evangelists – the “free” lunches, the “free” latest-drug-fad branded swag, the “free” conferences in Hawaii about said drugs, etc. Finally, a doctor I can trust.
In my late twenties, I stop going in for routine physicals, because I know what the bloodwork says – my cholesterol is high, and I need to lose weight – tell me something I don’t know. I’m immortal, and starting to think cholesterol is a marketing machine.
Maybe it’s all bullshit and marketing. I start to think, maybe I can just eat Ramen for life, you know?
Around 32 I get the big payoff – the reward for sitting in front of computers 12 to 14 hours a day for more than half of my life – lower back pain that comes and goes.
At first, running on treadmills helps the back pain, then it doesn’t.
I start to think, I wonder if I should have paid attention to my gym teachers, and done leg-lifts and stretched in my 20s, rather than just running and doing bench-presses?
The months roll onward and I endure awkward phases of foggy brain and decreased energy levels, often looking at my work week as a shitty version of the lottery, will I make it through this week without any back pain?
This goes on for years.
One time my wife and I cut sugar for an entire week. We had heard that if you do that, then eat normally after about a week – wine tastes better, indeed everything tastes better. That first day after the week without sugar we binge like mad, worst sugar coma / headache of my entire life – not recommended.
A year or two later paleo became a thing, and our friends took part in the facebook gym post crossfit marketing machine. I collected an arsenal of memes to post in response to said posts, it was a glorious glorious day when facebook started allowing images in comments – not unlike that last-fruit-rollup moment staring in your sibling’s tearful eyes with your cold smirk fronting a mouthful of sugar.
My wife and I were incredulous of paleo diets and non-stop crossfit testimonials. “26.2” bumper stickers started popping up on cars everywhere and all I could think was “oh come on, fuck off.”
The Coder Diet, my decade long version of the Ramen Diet, persisted.
Right around the start of the crossfit marketing machine, the back pain starts, karma for a million gym post meme comments, no doubt.
At the time I wouldn’t say I was at the height of my irrationality, but I was climbing that hill.
My wife would recommend a deep tissue massage to loosen leg muscles leading into the back, I’d try it, it’d work like a miracle. My back pain would disappear, then I’d try to jog like a 23 year old again.
A month or two later I’d be in my doctor’s office with lower back pain again. He’d recommend muscle relaxers to get me through the current bout.
Next I went to physical therapy, that was fun, the unattentive gym rat physical therapist, costing me $100 a throw to watch me do some exercises that didn’t appear to help, no advice for improvement – too busy facebooking on his phone and chatting up every bro and ladybro in the joint.
Finally, I go see a trainer friend of ours, she sets me up with a set of exercises that sound logical. I start doing them, intending to meet her again in a month. We don’t meet up again, I was watching some netflix marathon as soon as the back pain went away, instead of exercising.
Back pain comes back, I half-heartedly try a standing desk for a week. A week later I’m just sitting in the living room working on the couch instead.
I start to realize I’m not an immortal early-20s guy anymore – and I cling for dear life to a childish delusion, maybe I can’t jog anymore and if I’m even lazier (no working out at all) my back will stop hurting – this works. Then it doesn’t.
In the midst of on/off back pain my wife constantly encourages me to really get serious about fixing my back. She pushes doctors, another physical therapist, regular visits with a trainer – she advises me to really work the problem and start acting like an adult and taking this seriously.
Instead, I think of my pocket book. Yeah, my back hurts, but I don’t want to pay for a gym membership or a regular trainer, and the doctors will just prescribe a pain pill for today, and the physical therapists won’t whatever.
The whole ordeal starts to remind me of my mother’s lottery tickets against her cancer battle, is green tea going to help my back? How many lottery tickets do I have to give a half-assed try? Oh god, is this my version of cancer screenings being bullshit?
Besides, I know better. I am smarter than doctors and trainers. Everything is marketing, everything is bullshit. Clinical trials exist precisely because of this problem. Back in the 19th century people could put anything they wanted on a bottle and sell it as medicine.
I am excuses, and my wife waits patiently.
We try a fad diet of sorts for 30 days. The goal is to see if we’re allergic to various types of food. Like the week without sugar, but this time its no grains, sugar, beans, or anything really. Lots of cashews, chicken, and carrots.
About two weeks into this food allergen experiment, my energy returns and my foggy brain is suddenly clear skies consistently. There’s something to this diet.
The annoying thing about the fad diet was that I learned some stuff I didn’t want to know. I learned that not every calorie is the same, and that nutrition isn’t bullshit. I learned various things that made my delusions of The Coder Diet and immortal 20s lifestyle just a little bit harder to believe.
My favorite take away from the book about the diet was a comparison of the human body and a car’s gas tank. Different foods send different signals to our brain, some of these signals indicate we’re full and it’s time to stop, while others (oreos, etc) tell the body never stop eating. You can think of this as filling a gas tank on a car. When you put gas in the tank, a sensor in the tank indicates your tank is full on the car’s dashboard. Eating oreos is not unlike putting the gas in the tank after first drilling a massive hole in the bottom of the tank.
The problem with calorie counting as a nutritional guide is that you’re using the wrong tool for the job. Counting calories is comparable to filling your gas tank with water. The full-tank indicator is lit on the car’s dashboard, but bad things will happen if you try to run the car on water instead of gasoline. An ounce of protein is not an ounce of rice. A hundred calories of broccoli is profoundly different nutritionally from a hundred calories of a snickers bar.
The diet ends. We’re not obviously allergic to anything. Eating right was a lot of work.
Three days later I am mentally early-20s immortal again: Fuck it. Oreos and pringles are worth it. Right? Right.
At 32, one year into the back pain chronicles, I give running another go. It’s always worked before, so why not? I do my same old slow-paced ramp up from walking for several weeks to jogging. For several months I’m jogging like I was able to as an immortal early 20-something, but all the while my back pain is coming and going.
Every iteration of the back pain gets worse. First it’s mild discomfort by Friday of a work week, then a month or two later it’s Wednesday, then another few months pass and I bend over wrong doing yard work and my back’s intolerable for the better part of a month.
After a half-month of pain, I start my “never work out again” plan, then that doesn’t work, then I half heartedly go to a trainer, then I never exercise, rinse, wash, repeat.
All the while I’m thinking more and more often on boiling ice water baths, oxygen tents, and cancer screening gone wrong. I build an impressive house of cards, each card some bullshit excuse to not man up and face the realities of being an adult and taking care of my body.
The fad diet kicked the first cornerstone card out from under the house, I just didn’t know it. The diet was an unexpected curve ball in my delusional quest to remain the 20-something immortal, living on the Ramen Diet. Not even two weeks of eating healthily cleared my brain fog and concentration troubles up for months afterward. Nutritional science is most definitely NOT bullshit.
Now I’m starting to wonder if there’s something to all of that advice about stretching and doing more than one type of exercise. Maybe the Nth chapter in the quest against back pain will do the trick. Maybe it’s time for a lifestyle change. A little less ramen, computers, and delusional immortality blanketed in denial.
My current programmer living in a chair for a career back-pain lottery tickets, that you may also consider if any of this hits close to home:
- Walking for 15 minutes every two hours during work days, rather than sitting in a chair for 6 hours at a time.
- Walking outside rather than on a treadmill, working different muscles as I walk on uneven terrain.
- Consulting with a gym trainer regularly.
- Trying the standing desk again, remember not to lock the knees!
- Various tips from /r/fitness threads.
- Learning how to lift weights correctly, the book Starting Strength keeps coming up on various threads I’ve been reading.
- Regular calisthenics exercises, you know, all those exercises you were taught in elementry school. (Thanks, Nick.)
Finally, I’m not a doctor, but here’s some possible bullshit I’ve heard recently, maybe some of it’s true:
- Our bodies aren’t made to run long distances, but they are made to walk long distances. Walking as a recommendation for back pain relief is common.
- My doctor says every 10 pounds of weight over your ideal weight puts 100x the stress on your back, so being 30 pounds overweight is 300x more stressful on your back than being your ideal weight.
- Lower back pain is often attributed to weak core strength. Crunches, squats, etc help this.
Music: R.E.M. E-Bow the letter, and Leave.
A friend confides in me that they don’t feel as if their job is a ‘career’, because they didn’t need a degree for the career path they’ve been on for nearly 15 years. No degree, not management, not ‘career’.
I respond that if a career means endless promotion resulting in management positions, then I never want to have a career.
I’ve recently broken up with a long time girlfriend, feeling as if I’ve been asleep for the previous four years of life – missing everything important. I sit in a daze, watching our country invade the middle east with non-stop televised live footage of the war at hand, this is a first. “Shock and Awe”, indeed.
I’ve been listening to a lot of the Matthew Good solo album Avalanche, and his band’s previous release, Audio of Being.
The albums strike me as a soundtrack for a future dystopia I am far too naive to realize already exists. One song in particular ingrains itself in the forever memory store:
Here’s a quarter for the phone
why don’t you call someone and find out
how it is we can all belong
to something that no one
wants any part of
one day you’ll wake up and there’ll be
advertising on police cars
and your death will sell you out
as someone smart,
Baby don’t get out out of bed,
just lay back down your pretty head
and they’re advertising on police cars
Days or months later, the hundredth article on the up and coming surveillance state in the UK pops up on slashdot. The tin-foil hat crazies go on and on about how one day the entire world will be this way, cameras on every street corner, state-sponsored cyber warfare, and so on.
One comment on the slashdot UK surveillance state story catches my eye, a slashdotter recommends we read The Light Of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter.
Arthur C Clarke? I love the movie 2001, on to the amazon “books to read” list the novel goes.
It’s 1999. I’m a high school junior sitting in a Barnes N Noble reading a book about the world before 9/11, before patriot acts, before twitter and selfies.
I’m reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.
The atom bomb book is a massive book. I determine to finish it by the end of the summer, always forcing myself to go read bits of it at the store – an excuse to get out of the house and feel social in one of those weird ways introverts feel social without talking to anyone at all; also an excuse to not pay $25 for the book.
Rhodes starts his book talking about Leo Szilard, one of a few top scientists who made the atomic bomb a reality. Rhodes recounts how many scientists involved with the project had typical scientist delusional fantasies: this new, bigger weapon will cause world peace somehow, because of course it will.
In the book, Rhodes mentions Szilard in particular was incredibly influenced by a book H.G. Wells had written before World War I entitled The World Set Free.
Wells’ vision of utopia in The World Set Free entails the invention of an atomic weapon that renders a major world city a nuclear wasteland, uninhabitable for eons of time to come – after this unimaginable event takes place, all world powers unite and become peaceful – free of war.
How crazy it must have been for Szilard to read these sci-fi books about a future that in part came true just as predicted.
I didn’t finish the atomic bomb book. Instead I lost myself in H.G. Wells stories, finding his short story The Country of the Blind a perfect summary of every argument with the ignorant and dogmatic, ever. Idiots rule.
A local theatre shows 2001 : A Space Oddyssey on 35mm. My wife endures 3+ hours of amazing, and never lets me forget about her sacrifice whenever the movie comes up in the future.
The screening pushes me back into another Arthur C Clarke habit, reading the entire 2001 series of books again. Unsatisfied, I browse my amazon wishlist of books to read and find The Light Of Other Days, the book the tin-foil-hat slashdotter recommended several years ago in response to the UK becoming a surveillance state.
I read the book, finding it both fascinating and terrifying all at once. The plot supposes a brilliant technologist invents a machine that can instantly recall or ‘see’ any point in time anywhere on earth, all-encompassing youtube with instant recall for any GPS coordinate you wish.
In the book, the masses are terrified by this all seeing machine – it shouldn’t exist, or it should be highly regulated, or at the very least it shouldn’t be controlled by a single company. Like the machine gun, and the atom bomb before it – the machine exists, it cannot be taken back or wished out of existence. The work’s been done, and now the world must deal with the consequences.
That’s Act 1.
2012. George Zimmerman kills an unarmed 17 year old African American boy. He’s acquitted.
Say what you will about a country divided, at least in the case of Zimmerman, we’re fairly united in our outrage.
Edward Snowden blows the whistle on the NSA, revealing a world-wide surveillance state that dwarfs the early 2000s UK stories the slashdot tin-foil hats were so upset about.
Haunting echoes of The Light of Other Days Act 1, indeed, the all-seeing machine already exists.
The Light Of Other Days: Act 2.
After the initial shock of the all-seeing machine wears off. The world settles into a steady-state. Life as an ordinary citizen is not the same as before, because the all-seeing machine has eradicated privacy – but at least it’s a controlled beast – it’s not like your neighbor has access to the machine.
Turns out, the brilliant technologist who invented the thing is a benevolent type – he doesn’t want the all-seeing machine to fall into the wrong hands, so he sets it free – the all-seeing eye becomes public utility, accessible by all – another cultural atom bomb, just after the first had settled.
Chaos. A billion divorces. A million crimes solved on day one.
Remember when they shut down that town near boston for a day looking for the boston bomber and found nothing with thousands of police officers? Remember how one hour after lockdown was released an ordinary citizen found the kid?
You know how Microsoft spends 500 man years with 10,000 QA people testing windows before it’s released, but then on day 1 after the release a million bugs pop up anyway because 500 man years of time is just one hour for every 1 million users that use the thing?
Like that, but sci-fi style.
All over again, world-wide outcry – the machine was terrible for existing before, and now it was even more terrible with public access – the final crushing blow to privacy. Privacy eradicated forever.
2014. A Ferguson Police Officer kills an 18 year old African American boy. He’s not indicted. Riots ensue.
More Snowden documents leak through the year. Huge tech firms form alliances to lobby the government, begging them to cut it out. The US Government responds with ideas about surveillance security holes becoming law.
Meanwhile, security becomes a hot topic – and it seems things are accelerating.
Slashdot stories abound about security issues being found everywhere. Nevermind Microsoft’s patch tuesday – now our ten year old wifi routers with firmware that’ll never be updated have security holes being disclosed almost weekly. Remember when the TJMaxx credit card breach seemed like a big deal, then in 2014 it seemed every major retailer had the same? Heartbleed? Truecrypt developers saying don’t use the product?
In reaction to Ferguson, cameras-on-cops becomes a relevant social topic. If there’s going to be a surveillance state, why can’t an ordinary citizen tune in too?
Social media carries stories of the surveillance war being fought in the streets – police officers smashing phones and/or harassing citizens for recording police actions on video.
A friend of mine mentions how the police in Fort Worth Texas have had dash cams and cop-cams for the past half-decade and it’s done a world of good.
My friend’s statement reminds me of my earlier conversation, about career ideally being anything other than management. My theory being that a manager isn’t there for the all-stars, managers exist to keep the screw-ups in line. A manager in my line of work spends perhaps one hour a month one-on-one with their all star reports. The very same manager spends half an hour per day per screw-up who needs to be micro managed – the manager’s job is not awesome, the manager is a babysitter.
The manager is necessary because not everyone’s a model employee.
Riots break out in Baltimore, in reaction to a 25 year old African American Male suspiciously dying while in police custody.
One wonders if Freddie Gray would still be alive if the all-seeing machine were on Freddie’s side that day he took a ride with the officers. Perhaps it’s time for a manager, or babysitter, perhaps an all-seeing machine that’s above the control of local law enforcement CYA politics.
The all-seeing machine exists – it cannot be undone. Perhaps this is Act 2, the point when the surveillance state becomes a public utility – openly embraced, rather than feared.
See also: Pandora’s Box.
See, this is why the erosion of privacy and data convergence worry me.
Sometime in the future, I will skype video conference my doctor for my yearly physical. It will be convenient, because I won’t have to wait in a waiting room for an hour for my appointment. Bonus: No blood draws or treadmill tests, because my fitbit 5000 health tracker gizmo will tell my physician everything she needs to know.
My doctor will inquire about my health, and I will, as always, say everything is fine.
Unsatisfied, my doctor will grill me with further questions, testing my lying skills from differing angles. I will, as always, masterfully weave a magnificent tale of ‘truth’ about how healthy I’ve been eating and how I exercise all the time (thinking about exercise counts, right?).
My doctor won’t immediately yell ‘bullshit’ based on my fitbit stats, instead she will try to gently prod my tall tale of health for a number of minutes – not because she’s unsure of the truth, but because in this day and age, seeing patients squirm in their blatant lies will be a sport or treasured hobby for doctors.
There will be popular T.V. shows dedicated to video captures of the funniest video conference physicals, and my doctor will have a small betting pool going amongst colleagues about who’s patient will be featured on the show first. Anything to keep the day job interesting, right? Right.
With enough squirming out of the way, my doctor will proceed to open a shared computer screen window for our video conference and start typing my name into google’s search box. Type type type .. “J-a-s-o-n-space-b-a”
Right around this time, when my name’s being typed in, my doctor will receive a 911 notice on her smartphone, saying one of her patients, a “Jason Baker” has a blood pressure rate going through the roof.
At that most opportune moment, my wife will join the video conference and say hello. The doctor will pause her typing and exchange pleasantries with my wife. The 911 notice on the doctors smartphone will subside ever so briefly, at which point my wife will ask how the physical is going. Next the doctor will remember where she was, and start typing into google again.
It will be at this moment that a “flatline” notice will alarm on my doctor’s smartphone, you know the one, with the adorable stylized/cuddly skull and crossbones emoji? The ‘flatline’ notice will be for the same patient as before, naturally. The doctor will crack a joke about how this happens all the time, and she thinks the notification/alarm notifications for fitbit have some bug in the latest software update. My wife will laugh, and I will attempt a grin while trying to catch my breath and noticing my left arm is feeling funny.
The doctor will complete her search request, five grocery receipts will pop up in full 16K hi-res glory on the video conference.
For a brief glimpse of time, perhaps two seconds, there is silence. One of those beautiful but especially rare moments where you have this out-of-body experience and seconds feel like glorious minutes or hours, all in slow motion – the kind of moment where you savor the silence and just take it all in – especially if you’re me, and you already know what your wife and doctor are realizing.
Slow motion moment over, with a scream: “WHAT THE HELL, JASON?”
(Just to be explicitly clear, it’s my wife..)
“What the hell, Jason? Four fridays in a row where all you bought was those ‘drumstick’ ice cream cones?” – my doctor starts seeing dollar signs, thinking about how the betting pool with colleagues is up to about five grand – “I thought you said you were going to the corner store to buy an ice cream, and you came home with a single ice cream, but these receipts are showing that you bought four-packs of the ice cream 4 weeks in a row?! What do you have to say for yourself?!?!” – the doctor is deciding between somewhere nice in the carribean or perhaps a nice trip to tahiti – I am sinking in my chair, slowly dipping out of view of the video conference camera, VERY carefully checking my desk to ensure none of the candy bar wrappers are actually in view of the video conference camera.
“One moment ladies, I need a restroom break.”
I take the moment to collect myself. I wave my hand in front of the faucet with a gesture to the left and cold water comes on. Yeah yeah, the water is wired backwards – it’s actually piped in correctly, but we bought the microsoft or google faucet, not the apple one. It was half the price, sue me. Anyway, I splash some cold water on my face and towel it and the sweat from my face. I give myself a moment for my tell-tale nostrils to stop flaring the “he’s telling a big fat fucking lie right now” flare of betrayal – and I return.
As before, I weave a wondrous tale of something ludicrous, probably something that starts with “sorry honey”.
“Sorry, honey – I’ve been buying ice creams and splitting them with your dad – you know how he’s having a really hard time right now because they canceled the bachelor series last month after someone was killed on live tv (ratings and profits, they must go ever upward, right? right.) – so I’ve been buying a 4 pack to conceal our secret meetings, he eats 2, and I eat one.”
The moment I name drop my father in law, my wife will already be speed dialing him, by the time I finish my story his video will be starting to come online. 5 minutes later we’ve troubleshooted his video conferencing problems (poured water on the microphone again), and my wife will ask her father about our clandestine ice cream meetings.
My father-in-law will sense hot water so he backs me up in these fantastic lies.
Usually, in this type of scenario he’d be overly jolly to either make the lie more fantastic to poke-the-bear (that’s what we call it), or – if it were truth – he’d be excited to recount the fun he’s been having. My father-in-law is a smart man though, and he will have noticed the white-coat, and he will have noticed that my wife an I’s faces are the exact same shade of red, and he will notice my nostrils flaring like a maniac, so instead of weaving a tale, he’ll just stop with a confirmation of my fantastic tale, without adding his characteristic ‘enhancements’.
If my tell is nostrils flaring, my father-in-laws is an answer to any question being less than 300 words. My wife will of course pick up on this and immediately speed dial the oracle of truth, mother-in-law. Mom-in-law’s video starts coming online, and I will see my story and my ice cream adventures falling apart in my mind.
Being a computer programmer, and a good boy scout who’s always prepared when it comes to doctors visits, I will quickly execute a command on my computer to wget a super-secret crash-in-laws-computer webservice I had installed earlier in the month when I helped install a computer game (i knew i had a physical coming up, so sue me). At that moment my in-laws will mysteriously drop from the video conference.
I will muse aloud that they must have spilled water on the mic again, and note that our time’s almost up.
Some while back, our doctor will have decided on tahiti and made herself some popcorn to watch me sweat on the stand while testifying. With in-laws out of the picture, my doctor and wife confer on a diet plan for me and I start to become irate. “I didn’t even eat but one ice cream a week, give me a break, this is bullshit.” My doctor will calmly interject – “but, your fitbit 5000 is showing me that you had around 2000 calories of sugar within a half hour for each of these mystery ice cream trips?” – the doctor will silently think to herself: “ZING!”
The doctor tags out, my wife enters the ring and we go another round about truth and half-truths, my nostrils flaring furiously.
We’re getting nowhere, which is to say, I’m winning, and perhaps maybe, just maybe, saving myself from a fitbit 5000 monitored diet. If I win, I am most definitely going to the grocery store for a 4 pack of ice cream in celebration – naturally.
Time really is running out, and the doctor’s nurse has slipped her a note about a patient with the flu.
The doctor starts to wrap up, but she leaves us with a parting-shot. She quickly pulls up google again and starts typing again “j-a-s-o-n-space-b-a-k-e-r-space-5-space-y-e-a-r-space-g-p-s-space-h-e-a-t-m-a-p-space-n-e-a-r-space-g-r-o-c-e-r-y”.
At first, as I watch the doctor type, the pure geek in me will be curious what new google feature my doctor has found, I won’t be able to control my geek and I’ll start asking the doctor questions rapid-fire: what this will be and where she heard about this and so on, but before I’ve even started, she’ll click “i’m feeling lucky”.
And there it will be. A heat map of my favorite grocery store. You know the type, like a crime heat map where areas with no coloration indicate zero crime, green indicates non-zero crime, and bright-red indicates the-wire-style gentrification is around the corner? Right, that kind of map.
The grocery store map will naturally show a bright red area around the registers and the front doors, a token amount of green in the veggie aisle, but there in the middle, slightly more red than my face, will be what we all knew would be there: bright red lines from front door through the candy aisle and ice cream aisle.
The last thing I’ll remember will be my headset’s speakers clipping out from the sheer ferociousness of my wife’s instinctive tirade she’ll launch without pause, and then I’ll click the ‘hangup’ icon.
Don’t worry. I’ll go out for one last four-pack of ice cream anyway.
And that’s how I will become the four-pack-ice-cream guy on the hit tv show ‘americas funniest physicals’.
You should start at the beginning: Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 1
I started playing Minecraft early this past August. What started as an innocent and fascinating experience in a “real world” simulator eventually took a turn. I spent about a month happy as could be with an extremely limited world view: break down the rocks, harvest the garden, live on, break some more rocks, enjoy the sunset, fish, repeat tomorrow.
Then Andy’s friends joined, right around the time I realized the Minecraft world is in actuality more like the real world than we’d care to admit: It’s a massive massive expansive world with limited resources, but more than enough resources to last several real-life lifetimes of gameplay. What’s more, the “world” we played in was shared by 5 people, rather than 6 billion, and in theory the game limits the world to about 1.4x the surface area of the earth.
Big massive world full of practically unlimited resources, all ours? Go wild. Right? Right. – Just like in real life.
During my first sheltered life of game time, I didn’t know anything more than break down the rocks, harvest the food, and perhaps watch my friend Justin build something magnificent that I could never make on my own.
So, Andy’s friends.
Andy’s friends joined our map in early September, and unlike our other friends Jon and Justin, these guys would play nonstop with every waking hour of freedom – like me. Except, Andy’s friends had played before, and their favorite play style with such experience under the belt closely mirrored mine: They wanted to do things they’d never done before but heard about – such as build a zombie farm in the sky – a so called “mob grinder”.
The theory of a mob grinder goes: The game tries to spawn monsters in a given area, but if the area is covered by water, no monsters will spawn. So, in theory, you could build a slab of concrete in the middle of the ocean, and monsters would spawn on it.
Slight problem: Monsters are dangerous, and they’ll kill you, so building a slab of concrete in the middle of the ocean is a terrible idea.
However, building a slab of concrete 100 blocks in the sky with a long controlled free-fall to another slab at the top of the ocean makes for a excellent monster-farming machine. You simply light up the slab at ocean level with torches so the game will think “Well, can’t spawn monsters here, it’s too bright”, and the game will instead decide to spawn monsters on the slab in the sky. The monsters will wander (or be forced) into the free-fall joyride machine of death, and you’ll collect the loot at the bottom.
Justin and I spent an entire real-life evening building this monstrous, ugly, hideous machine, our amazing mob grinder – just out of sight of the bay.
Building the grinder was a fun time as a team, except when it ended in failure.
Nothing would spawn on the sky-slab.
The next day, after a few internet searches and youtube videos later we learned that the game could be spawning monsters under the ocean, in caves in the same area below the ocean floor – the way around this? Build higher into the sky. Forum theory on the subject suggested that the game logic spawns monsters within a 128×128 block radius of a player, so if a player is say 150 blocks above the ocean, the game would never consider putting a monster beyond that ocean under ground.
So, we built taller. We were sure this time that we knew what we were doing, so we built a three-tiered machine with a massive 35×35 slab of concrete at the very top. That slab had water ways forcing monsters down into holes that led down to a 20×20 slab, then to a 10×10 slab, and finally into our joyride free fall chute of monster death. We built so high that we were above the in-game clouds. In game clouds would roll in and through our death machine – it was weird.
We built the machine, cut a hole in the wall on top of the machine, saw monsters spawning and raced down to see them splatter atop our harvesting zone, below the joyride.
It worked! We e-high fived, and collected our loot. We quickly christened our machine the ‘gun powder machine’ because creepers falling down the joyride would give us an endless supply of gun powder items when they went splat.
We started working on a sign for the gun powder machine when minutes later, the machine stopped working, again.
It stopped working because our players were more than 128 blocks from the slab-in-the-sky. So we went back to the top, idled for a while and got dinner – we came back and went to the bottom to collect riches, only to discover the only riches there were from monsters that had just recently followed us down the ladders (though they took the much faster joyride/splat route).
Our math was bad again – loot only stays spawned if a user is within some 128 blocks of the loot, so we had built ourselves a catch-22 machine, for the machine to work, two players would need to stand by – one in the sky, one at the bottom of the joyride, and waste their time waiting on things to happen.
After that disaster, I rage quit the game for half a week – it was the first serious investment of time that led to failure. What was I doing wasting my free time playing failure simulation games that made me mad? Screw that game.
Meanwhile Andy’s friends, true captains of industry and all things automated, had joined the game and by the next time I logged on they had a working “Iron farm” – which is a “mob grinder” for these monsters called “Iron Golems” that only spawn with very narrow criteria – not only had they crafted a working mob grinder, but part of the mob grinder involved a collection of villager people in a box. The villager-in-the-box ensured where the iron golem spawning zone was, and also kept interested zombies and monsters from killing the villagers.
So not only was there a working iron farm, but there was a box of villagers that constantly attracted zombie monsters at ground level toward a big pit that then led the zombies down a water way to a holding area where one could use a sword to kill the zombies for easy experience.
I had semi-rage quit, and I think Justin had too, two days earlier. But, when we came back, Andy’s friends had lapped us, twice, with a two-for-one double decker mob grinder that was fun for all ages – churning out an endless supply of both iron and zombies for the taking.
Around this same time, Justin, the artist, decided he would make a huge amazing temple to a fictitious god he called “Ahl” – he’d need tons of stone to do this – and having my first big set back with the failed grinder, I was happy to tear down the failed grinder and mine for a while for Justin’s dream home. He’d build, I’d dig.
Things were accelerating.
I had joined a world of pristine beauty, with a few holes in walls 5 blocks deep with an occasional door guarding an entrance. At the time, in the beginning, the world’s population of four was bickering about the spoils farmed from 20 pigs and cows without sharing them around.
Now, one real-life month later, we had an ugly machine that did nothing, and another that provided safe zombie ‘farming’ and unlimited iron for faster-digging and faster-fighting iron tools – not to mention iron armor.
A real-life week later, Andy’s friends had built a “trading village”, which is an elaborate huge area walled off and lit very brightly to prevent zombies.
Inside these walls they had built some god-defying machine that tricked the game logic into spawning baby villagers endlessly – this three story high contraption would constantly spawn villagers because the game was trying to get them to do something but a certain circumstance prevented the game from fulfilling its wish, so five minutes later it started again and an endless supply of villagers would generate.
Suddenly, Jason’s greatest hits of fuck ups, the non-working mob grinder and the previously mentioned sheeptopia ghost town were a distant memory. Like Iron, Villagers were no longer a precious resource. They were an animal, in a cage, not unlike our cows and sheep.
Problem was, too many villagers would spawn and the game would slow down, so what does one do with an infinite regenerating resource in abundance?
The first time I saw this machine I was reminded of one of the most terrible moments of my privileged life – the time I visited the holocaust museum in Washington DC. If you haven’t been, you need to go.
If ever you have an inkling of a thought that humanity is anything other than a godless collection of depravity that from time to time will invent some new previously unthought of terrible evil low, you need to go to that museum.
If ever you think there is a kind and benevolent god, or many gods, and humanity is that kind god’s greatest creation, you need to visit the holocaust museum.
If there is a god, he or she is not kind.
The museum has this tiny scale model of a gas chamber from one of the real camps, the model is terrifying. It’s about 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep, and a about 100 scale model humans fit within an 8 inch square. The model is truly terrifying to behold. For my entire life I had always naively and innocently pictured these world war 2 horror stories as some bank of showers to put perhaps 20 people to death at a time – they weren’t – the scale model shown in DC could have fit 1,000 people at a time with ease.
Six million seems like a large number, some factoid for the history test, until you see just a fraction of reality in tiny scale:
Anyway. The trader’s village baby creation machine reminded me of the holocaust in a bad way, and this caused me to start thinking a bit deeper about the meaning of our existence.
Are we destined to create brave new world like machines that create children without mothers, with some terrible secondary machine to deal with the excess of a bumper crop? Are we as humans ultimately a resource not unlike common iron ore in the ground? Dust to dust? It’s what plants crave?
The holocaust machine set me to thinking about real life outside of Minecraft.
I had not before in my life ever truly cared to understand how we got from zero to today – the future.
Never had I really given much thought to how incredible it is that so much *stuff* is so easily consumable and usable in modern society – and the sheer complexity and man-lifetimes of work behind these products and advances is astounding when you stop to think about it. For more on that matter, read this.
The game sparked a personal interest in life before the 1980s. I downloaded a book about the edison/tesla/westinghouse electrical rollout and wars of the early 20th century. The book detailed how at the time, American cities ran on gas-powered lamps – a common household chore was to clean the soot and muck out of the inside of the house’s lamps, and bonus: everyone had headaches almost all the time from the gas smell in their claustrophobic living rooms with the gas lamps running.
A hundred years ago there was no such thing as a record album of music. A hundred years ago music was something experienced as a group, and almost everyone knew how to play or sing.
A hundred years ago you did not go to a fancy restaurant downtown, because the streets were covered with horse shit. There were entire industries of workers working to move millions of pounds of manure from New York City streets every night of the year.
This was all just one hundred years ago, never mind a thousand years ago, or 2,000 years pre-roman empire with their world-changing water aqueducts.
The sheer complexity and enormity of many millions of lifetimes of industry is astounding – it is no wonder that younger generations born into a world with google and wikipedia often fail to find a reason to want to try – there’s just so much *stuff* – it’s overwhelming.
Around the time of the holocaust machine, Andy found an ‘automated chicken cooking machine’ recipe online – that is, a series of Minecraft blocks arranged in such a way that some chickens laid eggs, the eggs fell down to become chicks, and when the chicks matured they’d automatically be cooked and stored in a chest for later retrieval. Here was another machine not unlike actual horrors in our waking life, perfectly acceptable machines of industry that lowers the price of chicken and feeds the human race to a greater degree as the years of engineered efficiencies mount.
It was at this time that Andy also found a schematic for an auto furnace – that is, a furnace that you could prepare fuel and things to cook for, and it would automatically cook those things and deposit them in a chest for you.
In no time, I took Andy’s auto furnace concept to its logical horrible conclusion: a seven-way auto furnace that constantly consumed hundreds of buckets of lava to turn my second, improved “glass factory” into a real life honest-to-unkind-god factory.
I’d spend 5 minutes above ground with a diamond-level shovel enchanted with a magic spell to go fast and fill my 27×64 inventory full of sand in the middle of this desert in the middle of nowhere – then I’d climb underground, collect lava from a nearby lava lake, feed the machines, and go fishing in a manmade pond (not unlike most lakes in my home state) near by that was just big enough to “trick” the game into thinking this 3-block deep body of water deep underground should have fish in it.
Things were still accelerating, except our rate of acceleration was getting out of control.
Justin taught me about the ‘nether’. The nether was this other world area you can warp to using a specially built portal – every block in the nether mapped directly to eight blocks in the “real” (non nether) world. Justin told me a story about how he and Jon had previously built massive cities of buildings, interconnected by a nether highway.
I set out to do the same.
I first built a couple of portals between our bay and the dark and scary redwoods – a 20 block walk in the nether covered 160 of ocean and put us on solid ground. I then used my easy-to-make-thanks-iron-farm iron armor to protect me from monster attacks and I leveled a large section of the redwoods. Today, there is a massive plain leading into redwoods, and if the game would draw far enough, we would see Andy’s mesa area from our bay. No longer a dark and scary forest, the front visible areas of the redwoods now remind us of something out of bambi, a nice meadow leading into something that grows more treacherous slowly.
I then set out to build more.
I built a nether highway portal to Andy’s mesa area, with the iron farm and what not.
And a long while later, my nether highway reached all the way out to Justin’s temple that he had built near Jon’s old ‘house on the hill’ in the mountains. No longer would someone have to appreciate the enormity or beauty of the natural minecraft world, much like the real world, we could just walk a few blocks through the subway at a 8block-for-1block speed down a bland grey hallway and be at the mountains in 5 minutes rather than 30.
Then Justin went on a random adventure 5000 blocks to the east.
Then in half an evening I connected three villages he found during the trek to the nether highway – no need to see THAT beautiful trip again, just walk the bleak grey highway.
5000 blocks was a long way though, so we put in minecart tracks, and now we could travel from the bay to the mountains through nether minetracks inside of two minutes, down from the original 30 – only 2 minutes. Nevermind how bleak and boring the grey subways are, you only have to spend two minutes in them now!
At the end of the madness, my true glass factory was a moments jog from the iron farm where most of our players were constantly toiling on ever more fantastic machines.
Justin built his temple, I built my nether highway, then we were bored.
A few days later, Justin and Andy and I were recounting the crazy modern self-sufficient world we’ve all built. We were telling Jon, a hermit previously mentioned in previous posts, and he’s intrigued.
Recall that Jon was previously living atop a mountain, then I joked about burning his house down, so he moved to some secret place a thousand miles away.
Jon’s curiosity at our machines got the best of him, and like a fool, he came out of hiding, and told us his coordinates.
We build him a nether highway hook up in the blink of an eye – he then comes and looks around for half an hour, and moves again, almost instantly.
He builds a little hut for me as thanks for the nether hookup, and another hut he had promised Justin for helping him move and keep his secret a secret, and leaves.
We never saw him again.
From time to time he would taunt us with screenshots of so-called “Jontopia” – a wholly separate and different civilization comprised of a population of one. But he’d never give us his coordinates, because, in his opinion, our civilization and ease of Minecraft life “fucked everything up”.
“Whatever”, we thought, “his loss.”
Another player, our friend Nick, played from time to time too – sporadically. He too was a self-proclaimed luddite. We constantly offered him a free hookup to the utopian blight we were so quickly putting together, and for some strange reason, he always declined.
Justin and I were bored, and done. We’d done it all.
There was no point in mining more ore, besides Justin had played this game on and off through several huge maps many times several years before with differing sets of friend – he was done. I was too.
Then we yet again came up with another scheme, a non-holocaust-style safe village incredible in scope and size. Justin had told me in a previous Minecraft map in creative mode (unlimited resources / god mode) he and his friends had dug a massive hole 40 blocks deep – this sounded like a fun challenge to me, so again we were back at it. Just like his temple before, there I was, digging out a ton of stone underground, and he was toiling above ground building massive castle-like walls around this village full of villagers.
I built a massive 64 block long x 30 block wide underground farm that housed every type of farmable plant or nether plant known to man, and Justin built the walls protecting the village. I helped complete the walls and he built the beautiful turrets at the corners of the walls. I spent some time fertilizing an area of tulip flowers and he spent some time building more homes for our little utopia village to expand into.
Out of boredom I went on a short trip North and tripped into a ‘Jungle’ biome, which is the only place you can tame a cat.
The entire time we’d played the game, Justin had gone 5000 blocks in one direction, and I had once gone ten thousand in another – all in search of a Jungle biome – which, of course, all along, was just in our backyard in the other direction.
I was so excited to go catch some cats and show them to my wife – the world’s most crazy cat lady.
I tried my hand at building something beautiful like Justin could build, and yet again found that everything I touched had a great view from the inside, but looked like a giant mistake on the outside.
In the end I bred some 20+ cats of all three varieties and threw in the towel.
At the time, Andy and his friends had finished their work, their crowning final achievement? A snowball machine. Some steampunk looking monstrous intertangle of blocks of all sorts that automatically made snow balls and deposited them into chests. They were bored, and done.
Done done. We all were.
This was Jon’s perfect moment to say “I told you so” – our immaculate civilization had outdone itself, everything was too easy, our only option left was to start over again, brand new.
In playing the game I noticed we all had very distinct playing styles.
Justin is an extremely talented artist in real life, so it should come as no surprise that in the video game his aspirations usually leaned toward making something beautiful – something that looked better than any of the rest of us could ever make.
Andy and his friends do I don’t know what in real life, but for example Andy was happy as could be mining *forever*. Literally the entire time that guy played the game he was mining. We used a third party tool to create a google-maps like view of our world, and there were only two man-made objects visible from space – Justin’s huge temple, and Andy’s expansive mining tunnels.
Jon didn’t play all that much, and when he did, he just fished.
I was so fascinated by the game because in the video game I could make a bed, or a table or a boat – things I could not do in real life. Jon had played several times before, and besides, he can make tables and stuff in real life, so minecraft to him is a bit like a toy computer language is to me – interesting, but probably lame to some degree.
When my wife says “Stop playing that game and make something in real life.”, I cry inside, because I can’t.
When Jon’s wife says the same, Jon doesn’t cry, he’s a craftsman at heart and builds whatever the hell he wants, beautifully, in real life.
I’m a software engineer by day and over the years I’ve worked on projects both tiny and massive in scale. Most if not all of my career has been like an ongoing repeating game of Minecraft – I set out to accomplish something, accomplish it, get bored, move on.
I’ve hopped around from company to company a few times in my career thus far, sometimes by choice, other times not – but each time, no matter how dire the culture or impossible the goal – I am excited all over again to do something different, to solve some more problems and make something better than I’ve ever made before.
My real-world skills do not translate into being an excellent call of duty twitch-style-precision game player, nor do they translate into an ability to build something beautiful:
My skills and interests do however translate into the game’s machinery.
Every machine that Andy and his friends found or built, I had to know how they worked, every efficiency they had discovered over thousands of hours of game time was tucked into my memory.
Andy built a chicken farm near the iron farm, so I built a chicken farm twice as large near the skeleton farm – and then I proceeded to feed the chickens until some 500 chickens were running around in the top pen – the game would make glitchy nonstop clicking sounds as it attempted to keep with the occasional cluck sound per chicken – I made a chicken farm that would feed the world forever.
The next time I visited the farm, the chickens had been cut down to less than 100 – a good choice, the clicking sound stopped.
Andy taught me about the auto furnace and I almost immediately thought about this huge expanse of desert (read: sand resources) we found on our google-map of our world. I nethered it up, built the 7-way auto furnace and almost instantly demolished several picturesque sand dunes, turning them into glass.
I mined and mined and mined 40 levels deep under Justin’s massive castle village, just, more or less, to prove that I could. I was hell bent for several days on end to keep hunting the jungle for cats until I could show my wife all three types, and so on.
The software engineer in me bled through into the game, just as it does in real life outside of work. I tackled problems with great enthusiasm, and often thought of second or third ways to better solve the problem over again. My wife is forever frustrated at my consistent attempts at finding the ideal furniture arrangement in our home – no configuration is forever, and there’s always something better.
When I got bored in the video game, I’d leave everything behind, go out into the wilderness for a second, third, or fourth time, naked as the day I had spawned – with nothing, and start again, building something from nothing. If that’s not the story of my career, I don’t know what is.
Before I signed off for good I went to our nether highway’s ‘warehouse’. The warehouse was a giant room of storage chests, free stuff for anyone who needed it – as well as one box per player with their name labeled above it. Jon was probably the only one who might log into the game ever again, and that bastard had still been in full hermit mode and sworn off the nether forever. He was still just happy to virtual-fish once in a while, so that was what he did.
I did not know where Jon was, but I knew he’d sworn off the nether forever, so I went over to his specially marked chest and placed a little circle of princess-pink carpet around his box, for Jon, our little luddite hermit princess.
Weeks later our mutual friend Nathan told me he had been playing Minecraft, I told him to jump on our server and I’d give him a tour of everything. The tour was extremely fast paced, and made good use of our no-time-to-travel nether highway. The tour lasted over two hours in length.
Toward the end of the tour, I led Nathan to my glass house on the plains that once were beautiful redwoods. We exited the nether portal, opened the door, and I stopped cold – laughing in real life.
There, in the middle of my house’s entry way, was a patch of princess-pink carpet.
Some oddball luddite hermit had taken a trip on the nether highway, and I knew exactly who.
Some fool who for weeks after we were bored and done was still enjoying the game, making progress all alone on his own, without a care in the world. Fishing all the time.
Thanks Jon, you told me so. You were right all along.
The very last day I played, putting the finishing touches on a massive minecart track between the castle village and my “Amanda’s house of cats”, our friend Nick logged on again.
Like Jon, Nick had expressed adamant distaste for the idea of the nether highway. He too had been working on something of his own here and there, and no matter how often we offered to help or said we wanted to see his work, he’d say no.
For the millionth time I offered Nick a nether hookup, expecting no response yet again. He refused, but something strange then happened. He offered for me to come look at his secret getaway.
There were rules – I could only come by boat, no nether highway tricks near his area, and I was not allowed to tell anyone else the coordinates. As I gathered my supplies, he asked if I could bring something to make a bright light – I suggested nether brick, a brick that you can light on fire and it burns eternally. He said that would do and I said I’d be on my way shortly.
That last day I played I’d been thinking a lot about how strangely Minecraft resembles our real, true, world. It was not surprising to see Justin’s beautiful temple, or hear that Jon the craftsmen could give a fuck about virtual tables and boats. Just as in the real world, a civilization had risen to a certain technological point, and collapsed at that bittersweet moment when every carefree utopia turns into a dire dystopia of boredom and unrest.
But, unlike in the real world – playing with others was more exciting to me than playing alone. I had purchased a Playstation Vita and had played a fair bit on that, but the Vita always left something to be desired – no friends of mine had a Vita, so there was nobody to show or share triumph with, every triumph on the Vita was just a personal lame triumph nobody else would ever enjoy – and for some strange reason, this bothered me, deeply.
I take great pride in being a cowboy/lone-wolf/self-sufficient/delusionist. An introvert at heart, I’ve spent this entire day writing about 10K+ words about a virtual world that only exists in my friends and I’s heads – and I’ve been doing this to escape a rather wonderful but kind of fucked up right now every day life.
As an introvert, I quickly feel over stressed and worn out in the presence of others, and I’ve often worked remotely these past few years. This year in particular I worked from home four days of the week, every week, until around the time Nick asked me to come see what he was building.
Around the time Nick invited me to his virtual surprise, the year started winding down and other engineers on our team started traveling less, meaning I could work with them in the office more often. I did not want to do that – I was more efficient at home, building bleak real world nether portal highways to nowhere that meant nothing – rather than seeing the countryside or enjoying a bit of fishing like princess-pink Jon.
Anyway, Nick invited me over, and I set out on the way. He was due North of the original spawn island.
It was bittersweet coming back to the original spawn island. Every player had started here, naked, and afraid. Each and every players started this way, completely alone on an island far too small to sustain life at all. Every player, right out of the gate needed to surmount an impossible body of water before they could even begin.
When you died, if something had happened to the last bed you slept in, you’d respawn back at spawn island rather than in your home where your bed had been. Naturally, when this happened, some monster had just killed us and the game shot us a thousand blocks away to spawn isle – far from everything we were just now carrying around – items and loot we had spent real life time obtaining. Several of us were infuriated to learn our stuff would despawn some thousands of blocks away from us faster than we could build a boat and travel home – so, naturally, we nethered up spawn island.
I took a light jog down the bleak nether highway and portaled out to our more-efficient and now forever safe and easy spawn island.
No longer would one experience fear, dread, or anxiety if their bed blew up. Brand new players would never even know what life was like so many thousands of Minecraft days ago – indeed, our civilization had nicely wrapped up most if not all aspects of life itself in a nice and comfortable world of automation – the lot of us were free to retire and fish all the time like Jon, except instead of enjoying our work, we simply checked out and quit the moment our empire was realized.
I was thinking these bittersweet thoughts that last time on spawn island, on my way to whatever it was Nick had been secretly toiling about on from time to time. I got in my boat and started heading north. The sun was setting, and as I approached his area it began to rain.
As I drew closer I saw a massive grey building that looked not unlike something as beautiful as Justin would make. It was a cylindrical grey column of stone, with glass on top – Nick had built a light house, all alone, on his own – but without someone else, he could not actually light it up.
Nick never logged the hours that Andy and I did – he was much more like Jon in that he was rarely online. Unlike Jon though, he didn’t have to keep escaping technological progress to find harmony. Here he was, just another day on a rocky shore, finishing his master work – a light house, a solitary beacon in the pouring rain.
I gave nick the nether brick and watched him as he put the finishing touches on his masterpiece and for a moment I felt as if I were with a famous artist, watching the final realization of something magnificent.
I rode out in my boat to take a look, still in the rain. As I looked back to shore at Nick’s magnificent light house – I knew this would truly be the last “playing the game” moment I’d have in this Minecraft world, and like Jon with his fishing, I took it all in, soaking in one of those very rare moments where you know you’re forming a lifelong memory and you’re living it just then.
Nick’s lighthouse was beautiful, and a testament to his resourcefulness without the blight and easy hand of iron farms and infinite food.
In that beautiful moment I realized that all along what had made the game for me was not digging out stones, or building things, or digging out more stones, or making ever more terrible machinations – what had made the game special was the time spent with my friends, enabling them to realize their visions with some efficiency they would not have had without me – the software engineer who delights in automation and tooling in real life was at his happiest when helping someone with some tool.
It seemed foreign at the time, but after nearly a year of working in self-imposed solitary confinement, telecommuting from home, I realized that though we may be capable of horrific, terrible things; at the end of the day we still need one another, flaws and all.
Without each other we are nothing. Without each other we are Jason flying on a business trip to the middle of nowhere away from friends and family amidst family emergency, playing Minecraft on the Sony Vita, accomplishing incredible virtual triumphs all for naught, accomplishing something we’ll never share with anyone.
I recently realized that life is more than efficiency. Don’t forget to take some time to fish – with your friends.
Music: Matthew Good – In a Coma (deluxe edition with the acoustic tracks, naturally.)
My wife is a cat person. I am a dog person.
I do not understand why my wife is a cat person. Why be a cat person, right? Cats are neurotic, fiercely independent, super picky, indifferent to your existence, jerkface assholes. Agreed? Good.
Dogs on the other hand are sweet, pleasant and so damn simple. The end.
I despise cats. I wouldn’t say I hate them, but I passionately dislike them at times.
When we got married, we had a 5 year plan to get a dog that delivered in about 1 year. I fell in love with our dog in two seconds and that was that. Amanda took longer to come around. She liked the dog, the dog was cute, or whatever, but she didn’t LOVE the dog until a few months on. It’s ok, don’t count that against my wife, thats how she fell in love with me too – she just takes time to process things.
The point here, really, is, Amanda fell in love with the dog. That is, she was open to something she didn’t really care for earlier in life and gained much happiness and joy as a result. It’s only natural, obviously, because dogs are awesome.
Later, we had a neighborhood cat who got injured and became an inside kitty. She was a feral cat, very wild and scared. I love our cat, I do, but man she can be a huge jerk. We have some other cats and her favorite game in the entire world is to stalk and hunt the other cats. There is no higher level of joy than to surprise one of her siblings and scare the shit of them. I dislike cats, obviously, because cats suck.
The only argument I’ve *ever* heard for cats has been that they’re easier to maintain – they manage themselves just fine and won’t eat themselves to death, they usually use the litter box, and so on. My counterargument is that unlike cats, dogs do not do anything out of malice. I’ll take a sweet dog with a trash can habit any day over a cat that’ll eye me funny and plan for a month of sadistic horrors after every vet visit.
For years I’ve been trying to convince my wife that cats are evil. After six years of marriage and a few more of dating, I realize now that trying to make the crazy cat lady dislike cats is impossible. I learned this from the ‘All marketers are liars’ book that mentioned how people believe what they want to believe and it’s nigh impossible to change that, no matter how irrational the belief.
I’d call our situation a standoff – I grow weary of cats attacking each other and anger-marking territory, and Amanda grows weary of me using internet pictures to convince her that cats are the devil. Ignore the fact that Amanda still loves the dog very much, that just makes her a better person than me.
My youngest brother is exhausting. He has everlasting go-go-go power. He’s getting married soon. He’s getting married while working a full time job, and doing an MBA program. He’s extremely busy, but he found about 15 minutes of spare time a week between wedding plans and school, which is good news. 15 minutes a week to relax, right? Nope, he decided to buy a house and work on that small project during those 15 minutes, for grins, I guess?
He’s high energy. Intimidating, super, high energy. Youth.
Steve Jobs has a famous quote/mantra about making every day count. This sounds excellent on paper. My brother actually lives this, the kid has plans until 2020 in spreadsheets, and spreadsheets to manage those spreadsheets.
In high school some of my buddies gave me a nickname of slacker. I resented the label, because it just didn’t fit! I’m an awesome guy, I like dogs, and I’m, awesome! Seeing my kid brother shoot for the stars without slowing down has shown me that my high school friends were completely right – I am a child.
My youngest brother, like my wife, believes cats are not evil. For whatever reason I’m surrounded by fools.
Meanwhile my brother’s fiance is awesome. Clearly out of everyone’s league by a factor of 10. Partly because she teaches calculus and enjoys it non-ironically. It’s going to be so nice having someone at my brother’s house who understands what an HDMI cable is. She’s also awesome because she likes dogs.
She has this cute little dog who’s super high energy and all he wants to do is ALL OF THE THINGS always. When we visit, he wants pets for precisely 5 seconds, then its time for fetch, then its time to run around outside, but in 2.5 minutes we need to come back in to the couch for pets again. The dog, like my brother, doesn’t waste any time.
For whatever reason, my brother is not a dog person. A future sci-fi brain scan will reveal a damaged area in his brain, but until then he’s just going to continue believing cats are worthwhile. He likes my dog for about 15 minutes to an hour every time he visits, then he’s done. He’ll waste the rest of his weekend visit trying to convince one of our three asshole cats to give a shit about him for 30 seconds, and go home disappointed – when our dog was ready to jump on his lap and wiggle around 24/7 the whole time. Cat people.
My brother likes his dog-by-marriage about like he likes our dog – in very small doses. The high energy jumping around and following him around is super annoying to him. It’s so sad, I’ll visit and the dog will be so happy to see me and my brother’s fiance – he’ll visit us for a minute and let us pet him, but he constantly watches my brother – he wants nothing else in the world more than playing fetch for 15 seconds then petting for 15 seconds and so on, forever, with my bro. I throw a ball for him, he grabs it, and takes it to the window to try and figure out how he can drop it at my brother’s feet.
My brother has been very vocal about his displeasure at owning a dog. This has been really upsetting to me, because I don’t have a leg to stand on to tell him to be nice. In some ways, my brother patterns after me, and after hearing the rants against dogs I only recently realized how often I’ve done the very same. Except, previously, when I ranted about cats, it was always a self-justified “blowing off steam” or “funny, right?” kind of thing. Being on the receiving end of these rants was not as funny as I thought it was all these years, and I’m surprised my wife has not punched me in the face for all of the anti-cat bullshit.
Seeing my brother follow in my footsteps with the anti-dog rants has been supremely frustrating – it’s like looking in the mirror, except the mirror shows the me I prefer to pretend nonexistent. What’s the saying, if you hate something, don’t you do it too?
I don’t think my wife will ever be a ‘dog person’, and I’m almost certain my brother won’t be. I’ve learned, finally, to accept that over the past few months – we are who we are, and part of who we are is our passions, our likes and dislikes.
So, I accepted it. Until brain-scans can properly diagnose cat people’s mental disorder, at least.
A funny thing about letting something go is that you free your brain up to spend a little less time wasting cycles on pointless pain. When you let it go, you’ve got another puzzle piece in place and you’ve got some time for something else. My brother’s way better than I at this, obviously, he and his dog use every 15 second window of time extremely efficiently.
That was something I noticed, actually – during my brief moment of not considering why cats are dumb. Instead, for a split second I considered my wife and brother’s point of views – why do they like cats so much? How can there be any benefit in the world to liking a cat? What was I missing?
I was considering this a few evenings ago when my wife met my brother’s new dog for the first time really. He was 10 times more wiggly than our dog and all over all of us – jumping back and forth manicly, he was in heaven. I loved it, and my wife was kind and friendly to him, but she didn’t ‘get it’. Dog’s jumping up and down in her lap just isn’t her thing. Shortly after this, I had to half-jokingly (i think?!) tell her not to kidnap my brother’s new cat as a carryon for her flight home.
While the dog was bouncing around, I mused to myself that my brother’s fiance must have a thing for high-energy types, what with the superman high-energy husband to be and his sidekick dog tornado.
It was that moment that caused everything to unwind in slow motion – like the end of ‘a day in the life’ – where everything starts coming out in reverse and speeding up all the while.
It was then that everything came to me in machine-gun fire: Wait, my brother is like the dog, super neurotic and high energy and demanding, and his fiance loves them both; my wife is like my dog – cool, calm, just wants to enjoy life and get along; my brother’s fiance is like his cat very friendly and affectionate to everyone (he’s actually a dog, i think..); and, wait for it.. I am just like my wife’s cats – aloof, independent, self-centered, mildly-self-sufficient, neurotic, and all of those other amazing qualities I think we can all agree are awesome in cats.
Cats are awesome, now that I think about it. Agreed? Good.
It took a long *long* time for me to realize that there can be pros and cons to everything, even yet-to-be-diagnosed brain disorders causing chronic affection for cats and other similar species of jerks.
If my wife wasn’t just how she is, super tolerant and patient with lost-cause feral animals and super-forgiving, then she wouldn’t have ever given me a chance, or a second chance, or another chance on a daily basis depending on my behavior at times. 🙂 Our cat/dog preferences are just a small component of the yin/yang experience we share. To change her love for cats would be to make her into someone fundamentally different than who she is, someone who quite possibly would not have been a perfect match for me. She’s a great partner for me, because she is a rare specimen who is both awesome and for some reason has just the right amount of brain damage to see aloof robot-like independent quirky neurotic immature me as marriage material.
I really should hug my wife more often, and be less of a goddamn cat.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see someone else’s point of view. We believe what we believe, and it’s very hard to change or see past those beliefs. This works beautifully evolutionarily speaking – if we see someone jump off a cliff and die, we quickly learn to believe that’s not a good idea for ourselves and we don’t bother challenging the belief. Belief is less fun when we disagree – in those times belief can behave as a cloud – a smoke screen making obvious truth invisible. When we set the smoke screen of belief aside, we open ourselves to the seeing a new and better version of the truth.
2013, for me, sucked. The overly-simplistic way to summarize would be to say that I simply made a bad career move. It’s more than that, though.
The person I had become leading into 2013 was not who I want to be – to be clear, I did not say it’s not who I wanted to be, rather, who I was aiming for becoming is no longer who I wish to be. For me, if nothing else, that’s the main takeaway from 2013: people can (and do) change who they are and who they want to be – and that’s ok, it happens. The trick is remembering how much impact our choices can affect others.
It’s as if I’ve come full circle – a few years ago I left a steady-paying, somewhat interesting corporate programming career that started at Visa and ended at PayPal; and now, three years later, I’m ready to go back.
The younger, cockier version of me from three years ago would almost certainly want to kick my modern-day ass and call me a sellout.
Younger Jason had his future ahead of him, and viewed his life’s worth in terms of career. Younger Jason would not settle for ‘wasting time’.
Younger Jason was certain there was a perfect opportunity out there for him to be both productive and satisfied.
But, older Jason’s got some mileage on the younger version, and I’m happy to report that it’s true, you can be both productive and satisfied – but often at great cost. You may reach greater heights of personal success than imagined, only to turn around and see all that you’ve missed in trade for said success.
I took a somewhat risky path heading into 2013, by accepting a ground-floor ‘partner’-level position at a small mobile consultancy. The job was great. We worked 30-35 hours a week; which often meant 4 day work weeks. We telecommuted all we wanted, and I had the opportunity to work with one of my closest friends. Working at the consultancy was as close as I’ll likely ever get to a high-paying position with complete autonomy.
Life was incredible at the mobile firm, until it wasn’t. I started the year super-strong, spending four days a week slinging code for our clients, and one day a week starting 4 or 5 small projects of my own. My friends and I had big could-not-fail plans for our semi-successful Tumblr app, and I felt there was nothing that could stop me.
There was just one wrinkle – I had to be an account manager.
Lesson #1: The customer’s always right.
As a teenager, I worked at a Best Buy in the music and software department. I had seen Empire Records, and sadly, Best Buy, was and still is the closest thing to a record store that existed in my personality-free hometown suburb.
The music department, in those days, was huge. It was also the #1 source of stolen products, and for that reason, it was placed toward the front/middle of the store, where security, cashiers, and even managers could assist with eyeballs-on for the department. An upside to this arrangement was that I was able to witness many examples of customer service, often with not-so-happy customers, without actually directly interacting in such situations.
One morning a gentleman walked into the store extremely angered from the very start. He had his son with him, and his son looked fairly upset too. His son was clearly underage and he had a cd with a parental-advisory sticker in his hands. Bonus: the manager who wouldn’t take shit from *anyone* *ever* was on duty.
For context, this was late 90s big box retail – where the customer was always wrong and returns/exchanges factored into a bullshit store metric that would hurt your store when compared to others in the region; so, you might say our manager was incentivized to prove customers wrong.
This was one of those juicy dramatic situations where half of the media department just happened to be suspiciously loitering around and half-heartedly organizing the very front of the department within ear shot by the time the customer and his son reached the desk.
The customer surprised us, he was not there to complain about selling inappropriate content to a minor; instead, he was livid that his son’s cd was defective. The CD had twelve tracks of short silence, and the first real song started on track 13.
The man’s son really enjoyed the cd, aside from the obvious defect, and he simply wanted to exchange it. The CSR on hand called our favorite manager over to approve the exchange, and our manager helpfully noticed that the album’s backside artwork listed the first track with the #13 beside it – it appeared the track 13 thing was intentional. The customer immediately declared that the manager’s suggestion was ludicrous and started a round of fireworks unmatched before or after that day – ending with the manager verbally screaming the guy out of the building.
The weird thing about the experience was, the customer was, in fact, technically-speaking: wrong.
In time, that customer interaction became the stuff of legend in our little media department. In some ways, it boosted our little insignificant egos to know we were somehow just a tad smarter or with-it than these occasionally idiotic customers we interfaced with, and, for better or for worse, it was nice knowing we had management with backbone to back us up if a customer demanded something unreasonable.
The thing is though, we all have egos, we’re all self-justified; and we all have different levels of experience this way or that. Veterans from Nirvana cds with one too many tracks (with a ‘secret’ track) would call the Korn cd that started at 13 a clever or amusing move, but clearly someone without our specific background could be frustrated that their way of understanding things did not apply – and, it’s never fun being wrong.
The shitty thing about customers is, they’re not always experienced, but they’re always right. This can be especially hard when you’re in consulting, where every move you make can be the last, and you’re expected to ‘be the expert’.
It is not easy being ‘the expert’, when someone is utilizing your services and paying you more than average precisely because they cannot do something as well you do. This is particularly sticky when you’re talking software engineering, because engineers are, generally speaking, not a group to take being wrong lightly.
Sadly, more often than not, my generation of software engineers tend to be fiercely competitive for no logical reason, myself included. At the first sign of disagreement, everything’s about being the #1 gold star sticker honor student engineer who bested someone else.
For someone who prides himself on being insightful and clever, it’s slightly humiliating to admit that this year, for the first time ever, I understand the “my job is to take the schematics from the engineers to the managers” guy in the movie Office Space. For the longest time I thought the joke at hand was that the guy was the perfect personification of useless bureaucracy. That is precisely what he is, but the thing is, he’s necessary – because engineers are not socially gracious, to put it mildly.
My job this past year was partially to be that account managing/team-lead socially gracious guy, and, for better or worse, I learned that is not what I am. I am a strong engineer, a strong planner, and an perhaps an adequate team-lead with proper backing management behind me, but I am not an account manager. I do not relish the idea of screaming some fool out of the building, or justifying my firm’s participation for the millionth time – I like being a heads-down worker bee, and letting someone else handle the justifications and conflicts.
Fortunately, in software engineering, with a large enough team, being a heads-down worker bee is just fine. So don’t fret if that sounds like you.
Lesson #2: It’s not you.
As 2013 unfolded into a series of escalating, humiliating, embarrassing and painful personal career failures – I discovered a personal boundary, and I discovered a little nugget of wisdom that feels like what I’ve been searching for all along, ever since leaving my corporate cushy job three years ago: I’m only as good as those around me.
I did not know going into 2013 that I was a shitty account manager. Likewise, I did not know that I had inadequate visual design skills, or that startups were not for me.
I came into 2013 on a bit of a high, the popular iOS Tumblr app that two of my friends and I put together was racking up $150 a day in sales and growing, and I was fairly sure I was a god among men.
Or, well .. I thought I was a rockstar visual design communicator when I started the year, but then I worked with designers who taught me that in fact it wasn’t me who was good, it was someone else.
Our designer on the Tumblr product is fantastically amazing at what she does – this I knew. What I did not know was that she was so amazingly over-the-top awesome that she made the rest of us feel like we were pretty smart and good at it too.
That’s one of the life’s funny little quirks, sometimes you don’t know what you had until it’s gone or too late. The very best among us make us feel like we’re somehow good at something too, even when we’re truly not. The very best of our coworkers, friends, and family, will bring out the very best in us, sometimes without us ever catching on.
In my case, it was too late – I’d signed up for a job, thinking myself a badass visual design communicator as well as potentially badass account manager, when in reality I’m fairly horrid at both of these things. It took the better part of a year of working with some peers and superiors that didn’t just *click* with me to realize that I’ve had some pretty badass and amazingly talented peers and bosses in my past that I owe a lot of credit.
Lesson #3: Test your boundaries.
When I left my boring corporate big-co job years ago, I wanted to know exactly how or why things come to be the way they are. For better or for worse, I truly viewed my career up to that point as mostly insignificant – all of my peers and I were coattail riders in a sea of other coattail riders. Someone N years ago started a credit card company, someone N years ago started a online payment website, whatever it was – I wasn’t there at the beginning and I wondered how what that must have been like.
I wouldn’t say that my short tenure in a small mobile consulting in a firm at the ground-level is 100% proof of how the entire world works, but for me, the experience answered a number of lingering curiosities I could not have answered any other way – nobody I knew was willing to take the risk or had taken the risk I had with this job opportunity; so reading a thousand hacker news stories about wantrapreneurs was about as close as I’d ever come to fully understanding what ground-floor looks and feels like.
I’ll say this for it: ground-floor was easily the most fun I’ve ever had in my career.
It was also pretty god damn stressful – too much so for my taste. The firm I joined was already profitable, as only a client services startup can be – so I had no reason to worry about financials or the future of the company and the 4 or 5 of us employed there. And yet, that’s what I did – endlessly.
I’d always *wanted* to know how company financials work, how much profit was there, really? What I had not been curious about was the mental responsibility involved with knowing these pseudo-secret numbers – I couldn’t handle it – and we were profitable!
Part of the stress involved there was the fact that mobile projects are both great and terrible, in that they’re short-lived. You can kick out a fairly complex mobile app with a team of five people working 30 hour weeks in two months. This is good, as you’re never bored, there’s always something new – but it’s also bad, because you’re always supposed to be on the lookout for that next big client to help out when the current project’s 1.0 or 3.0 ships. Like the financials, our pipeline of clients was always healthy, mostly because the founder of the firm was a rockstar – always calm in all situations, and always ready to upsell without the customer realizing they were being upsold – he simply provided customers with what they needed, seemingly at the moment they would discover what they wanted.
It may sound strange, but even though we were both profitable and healthy, there was a significant seemingly unconscious mental burden that I could not escape when I was in that position with a bit of power to mold the company’s future. I stressed myself out quite often at the thought of being the one responsible for making the wrong move that’d put my friends and peers out of a job. I didn’t worry for my own job in the slightest because I always land on my feet, but being quasi-responsible for others well-being was too much.
I managed the stress easily enough for a while, but things started going not-as-expected fairly early. The founder of the company was making his own business moves that I didn’t completely agree with b/c I thought them risky, while I was making some differing but super-safe moves with our Tumblr product on the side. In the end, one of us is still a founder, single-handedly paying 4 or 5 salaries, and let’s just say the Tumblr product isn’t making $150 a day anymore – the wave of Tumblr hype settled down, briefly before they were acquired.
It was at this time that I began to seriously consider my differing motivations and style of taking on risk.
Things really started falling over for me when I actually started fucking up – getting caught in account management 101 stuff where a normally happy customer suddenly wasn’t happy without reason – what do you do then? Me? I panic, and here’s a pro-tip: that’s not what you’re supposed to do.
When a customer wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, you’re supposed to listen, ask questions, and above-all, keep your cool – and to put it nicely, in that back-against-the-wall/cornered situation, that’s not my first instinct. Pro-tip #2: Customers don’t really care for hearing how everything up until yesterday was going smoothly, and frankly, they don’t care to hear much of anything other than “you know what, you’re right!” …
After the first incident of this, I was pretty shaken up – I sought some career counseling and my counselor’s advice was to do my best to learn from my mistake, but keep on being me. She advised that things have a way of working their way out, and the only way I could determine if the ground-floor scene was my long-term career would be to stick it out and try to learn without compromising my core values.
I tried to stick it out, then a few months later the next eventual hot situation came along, and I couldn’t control my instincts. Nice-guy working it out calmly worked to a certain extent, until an unworkable situation recurred continually despite our continual guidance and I lost it.
When it was all over with, I learned a fair bit about how ground-floor works, or at least enough to understand a lot of ups and downs of that situation.
I also learned about a few boundaries that in previous years were sort of hazy concerns I wasn’t sure of – maybe I’m decent at visual design?! – maybe I can handle accounts?! – now those hazy curiosities are crystal clear.
I would not characterize my year of personal career failures as something I enjoyed, but the upside to the experience is that I finally experienced the logical conclusion to my curiosities from years ago – I have answers that work for me.
I feel, in a few short years I’ve had a severely simplified / fast-paced view of how businesses come to exist and grow – and, knowing what I now know, I’m now finally comfortable with the idea of contributing anywhere, big or small, as long as I don’t have to manage clients or be responsible for people’s salaries.
Lesson #3: Know when to quit.
I suppose the hardest part of this past year was screwing up the second time. It was humiliating, and embarrassing to be on the losing end of something I felt fairly justified in. Sometime around round #6 or #7 of fighting this worn-out repeat-disagreement with a developer, I just started throwing in the towel and losing my cool, Mr Nice-Guy Jason went on vacation and “Keeping it Real” Jason started to come out to play.
I wanted to win that last little battle, and until it exploded in my face, I honestly didn’t think it was anything other than an average engineering disagreement – “we’re all sarcastic and funny and biting on the chat” – this is what I told myself.
What I did not realize was: It’s okay to get along with your customer, but always remember they are your customer.
When things settled from that second fiasco, I knew what the mobile consultancy needed was another competent account manager, and there was an expectation in place for that person to be me. As long as I worked there, on salary, it would have been a risky situation to take on a full-time account manager to compensate for my inadequacies in that arena.
I wished there was some way I could continue as is – but I found I couldn’t. There were only two options I could come up with, and so I offered them both to the founder…
Option A was that I’d continue as a non-salaried contractor without account management responsibilities. This would free the founder up if times got tight financially without me in that role sucking up salary, and it would free me from stresses I was no longer interested in bearing. Option B would be that we’d part ways.
I printed up my terms – 8 or 9 large-font statements on a single piece of paper, and presented them. We discussed the terms, and we amended our agreement to be that I’d finish up a client’s work for another month, and then part ways.
It probably sounds silly, but one small saving grace in the career story of 2013 for me was the fact that I had the balls to type up my simple list of needs and actually present them, rather than quitting outright, or waiting to be fired, or just secretly interviewing around and leave the guy hanging.
Lesson #4: It’s not a new year’s resolution, it’s a bucket list.
I set out in 2013 to conquer the world – as the kickass know-it-all super talented guy. I had a super long list of ideas to turn into little apps, and big plans for resuscitating our fading Tumblr app.
One personal goal I remember was that I set out to publish 4 or 5 small apps on the side. I wound up outright canceling participation in one of the projects, and publishing only one of the five. And, bonus, the one we actually published did so poorly that we wound up pulling it a few months later rather than rev it.
When I was feeling top of my game, working ceaselessly on the small apps was my everything, it was what defined me. I was dedicated to spending that friday, every friday, building my own thing – until things started crumbling: the free version of the tumblr app didn’t do well; our users became hostile and trashed our ratings when we made changes they asked for; our second attempt at a small little app failed outright; and front and center, this was about the same time I was beginning to learn how shitty at account management I was.
Still, stubbornly, I marched forward for a good long while, tethering myself to my work like it was a lifeline – more important than oxygen itself.
I kept marching, until I just couldn’t anymore. Sometime in the summer I asked my buddy if he was growing tired of the making-apps-on-the-side game and ever felt like quitting. He mentioned that he’d felt like that for a decent amount of time already. We decided to put the projects to bed for a while (or forever?) and try something else.
Something else turned out to be borderlands – a great video game on the PS3. Both my friend and I take a certain amount of pride in being productive and talented, and we both let our pride take over so much of our lives that we couldn’t see anything else from time to time. This all works perfectly swell when your sales charts are track up and to the right, but not so much when the dice roll the other way.
For the fourth quarter of the year we played the shit out of borderlands and even started playing basketball (a sport, outside, in the sun, would not recommend) together from time to time. I can’t speak for him, but somehow I’ve felt as fulfilled and entertained with the video games as I did when we first had the spark in us to make the Tumblr app – I suppose that’s how life goes, sometime’s you’re a mad scientist cooking something beautiful in xcode, and sometimes you’re playing video games without a care in the world.
Toward the end of the year, there was a fair amount of dread in me for failing my personal goals of you know, doing well at my job, and publishing some apps. I made list XYZ and none of it was done. Today my wife mentioned something she heard recently: “It’s not a new years resolution, it’s a bucket list.” – that is, it may be best to think of one’s goals in terms of eventually rather than time-bound. Thinking of things this way sounds easier to me, and it seems it may fit – I’m not going into 2014 expecting anything fantastic in terms of goals, in fact, I just hope to follow up on a few of the apps I set out to finish in 2013.
The point of life is not to be productive, it’s okay to play borderlands if you need to.
Lesson #5: Life is better than the movies.
My wife and I celebrated our fifth anniversary in November. Naturally, I set out early in 2013 to come up with an epic personalized gift to look back on with fondness. It took me a while, but I finally settled on making a picture book.
The picture book was, in some ways, the biggest failure of my entire terrible year.
I set out to sort 8 years of photos into two sets: good enough, and not good enough. Like all major projects, it started out strong, but as I went on sorting, I started to feel guilty about my photo choices. I felt there was a dual purpose to the photo book idea, and I let my demons get the better of me. I felt the book idea was not ‘pure’ in some sense, because it would be showboating some of my photography skills in this little coffee table book you see at everyone’s house; I also felt less ‘pure’ because I had a dual motive of trimming the photo fat and organizing my photo collection better.
The more I went on, the more confused and terrible I felt about the project – it was cliche, I was topsy turvy about my job situation, blah blah. At the end of it all, our anniversary arrived and I had nothing – no gift at all.
Neither my wife or I are ones to expect gifts, it’s just a nice thought, you know? And in previous years we have both come up with some pretty great ideas.
Our anniversary rolled around, and she and a couple of my friends made this epic music box that was wired up with a mini speaker and ipod to play one of the songs from our wedding. It was so perfect, definitely a treasure I hope to keep for as long as I live.
And, I had nothing.
I had nothing because I got my panties in a wad about overanalyzing myself and my motives. I had nothing because I would not settle for not-good-enough and I’d rather fail outright than compromise. I had nothing because I knew she deserved more than generic, more than cliche – and I was spiraling on this dramatic emo journey into questioning who or what I was as a man/husband/whatever – so focused on self that by the time the end of my job situation rolled around part of my spectacular failure at life for the year was to just say “I’ll come up with something” – and never actually come up with something.
A few weeks later a friend of mine was visiting. He was going through a bizarre rough spot in life and he point blank asked me if my life was like the movies. He asked me these weird little questions like ‘What do your wife and you talk about normally over dinner?’. He was getting at a fundamental failing of our advertising-soaked culture, I think, and I didn’t realize it until that moment. He was genuinely curious to know if anyones life was better than a movie.
He asked me these questions and I thought for a moment. I thought, and I remembered the other reason I stopped the photo book project – there was too much. When I set out to make the book, I figured a 100 page book, with perhaps 4 or 5 photos per page on most pages – so a ballpark limit of 500 photos in the book.
When I first started sorting the photos, 500 seemed like too much – oh god, how can I find 500 good photos – right? Right. But then, a curious thing happened, I sorted the first year and I had 1000 ‘good’ (subjectively, for the target book..) photos.
I sorted another year and had 1200 photos, another had more than 700. As I sorted and sorted I had to stop for another reason beyond my ‘unpure’ existential bullshit motivational questions – I had to stop because there were far more than 500 photos of great moments to choose from, there were thousands, and thousands, and thousands.
It’s so easy to remember our pains, our failures, and perhaps a dozen great moments in our life – but the failures, for me, always sting the most. I always overanalyze the terrible moments the most, and the beautiful moments just come and go – appreciated for a glimpse, and moments later – gone.
My friend asked me if my life were better than a movie, and this was after the job drama of the year, this was on the way toward mending myself and prepping for the next great thing, this was in the midst of troubling times for both he and I in our own lives. He asked me what we talked about over dinner, and I didn’t skip a beat.
I told my friend about how our lives are better than tv shows, our lives are more than that. I mentioned how it’s curious how many multi-hour movies we love are essentially about half a dozen moments strung together, and yet they seem larger than life – better than reality, as another friend of mine may put it. Truth is, though, our lives are better than the movies, we only have to take a moment to see it.
Even in the midst of the worst year of my career on record, there are a thousand beautiful moments to be found, like, the time we discovered the missing neighborhood tomcat with all the perpetual scrapes and bruises had been taken in by a neighbor and was in great health:
or, the time my brother proposed to his girlfriend after a 36-step carefully planned 8 hour adventure driven by spreadsheet lists:
the times my wife and I found comfortable solace in listening to vinyl records in our bedroom:
the time we had the beauty of a cold washington morning all to ourselves:
the time she was about to kill me because I would not stop taking photos of red leaves on the trail:
the time we played our friend’s home made board game that I swear I will one day turn into an IOS game:
the time my best friend smiled a smile he hadn’t in a thousand years:
the times I worked with my friends and had the most god damn fun of my entire career:
the time our app passed 1 billion photos viewed:
the time we saw sigur ros – the best concert of my life:
and the time we discovered caspian at the one late night show mid-week in a surprisingly cathartic moment – the moment when everything seemed to finally be sorted, for better or worse:
the list goes on and on.
Career-wise, professionally speaking, this past year was not a highlight for me; but even so, my life, just like yours, is way better than a movie – I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.
Funny images from tumblr, many of them reblogged w/ links to original sources on my tumblr.
Written while listening to Caspian’s latest EP, hymn for the greatest generation – it’s awesome, check it out.
Commiting to a rambling blog entry at 7a without sleep is always a good place to start.
Music: Matthew Good – Non Populous
TLDR: When it feels topsy-turvy, it’s time for a break. It’s okay to take a break.
Thursday, August 22: “Man, this stuff + work drama makes me so want to quit all of this crap. ever feel that way?” .. “Yes.”
I spent a large part of the year working on a half-dozen personal projects in my spare time, enjoying myself quite a bit – until I didn’t. I could have been stretching myself too thin, it could have been that my latest career move was a bad one, it could have been that the projects I’d kicked out earlier in the year didn’t bring results, it was probably all of the above. Truth is, the reasons, the who and why – they don’t matter. The thing that matters is that I wasn’t enjoying myself or these personal projects anymore.
A few years ago, a coworker I knew would regularly declare “social bankruptcy”. Like most software engineers (myself included), he was an introverted type – perfectly happy to sit at home alone for a full weekend. The problem was, he also enjoyed hanging out with his friends, and he couldn’t seem to find the balance between social and non-social personal time. His solution to the problem was social bankruptcy. When he felt overwhelmed by his social life, he’d tell his friends he’s declaring bankruptcy on social life for a little while, he’d promise to be back, but he’d make it clear that he was going underground for a while. He’d go underground, seemingly dropping into non-existence while he recharged his batteries on his own, and a month later he’d be back at it – ready for another 3 months or so of a busy social schedule.
For me, my creative efforts and interests have always been cyclic. There are definitive high and low tide moments from time to time – be it code, music, photography, whatever. When the tide’s growing towards a peak, I’m intensely prolific to an almost maniacal and occasionally intimidating degree. As the cycle wanes, my heart’s no longer in it, and at some point it feels I’m investing time into something that no longer makes sense.
This, for me, is one of those times.
My friends and I have collectively spent the past few years pumping out quite a few apps, websites, novels, albums, and so on – and it seems for many of us that 2013 is a very low-tide year. There will be another prolific creative cycle, and I will again feel my heart accelerating in excitement over some idea or another. But, it can’t be forced.
The downside to the low-tide is that it often feels as if something is wrong, something’s broken. Even though I logically know that my life runs in cyclic patterns, I worry that the last high-tide was the last there will be. In my experience, there’s no cure to the worry, except to stop everything, and wait it out.
Large, successful companies take a yearly inventory and figure out what’s next. This voodoo magic looks great to stockholders and gives c-level executives something to do besides fight PR fires. The important thing about the inventory is that it’s a self-assessment, it’s taking a little time to reflect on what was planned, what was done, what worked out, what needs a little help or a change, and what’s next.
I’d love to say that taking inventory is the solution to skip over the “wait it out” phase of the creative doldrums, but in my experience, trying to logic it out just makes things worse. There are some things that just take time.
There aren’t too many lightweight first world problems such as these that an occasional cocktail won’t help even out for a moment or two. Here’s my favorite recipe, or at least the one I’ve been trying of late:
- Playing video games with friends, and on my own. Of late, borderlands and the ps3 edition of diablo 3 with friends, as well as diablo 2, luigi’s mansion 3ds, and pikmin 3 on my own.
- Getting out of the house, vacation style – visiting friends and family both nearby and afar.
- Dropping the to-do lists a few days a week and just being.
- Taking long walks with my spouse and our dog.
- Watching all of breaking bad in two weeks.
- Listening to music or watching movies that help break the emotional dam for a moment, recent recommendations: into the wild, black rebel motorcycle club’s latest, anything matthew good, and/or a douglas coupland novel.
- Experiencing a place with manic weather, like Seattle, better yet, camp in it.
The general idea is to relax the personal commitments and goals for a little while, minimizing the to-do list to only things that *must* be done, and taking some room to breathe. It’s not a cure, but it helps minimize the stress until the next worthwhile idea comes along.
I was young, but not so young as to not remember, perhaps 8. It was early evening, but felt like dawn. I clung for dear life, at the edge of my bed, as the room spinned and spiraled around me. Slowly, methodically, I made my way through ice cubes, mouthing one after another, willing the room to stand still. Sometime minutes or hours later, mother opened the door to check my fever – clearly still going strong. I beg her to make the room stop spinning. I cry in confusion, unable to grasp the edge of the bed strong enough to put the world back in place. Mother frowns at another thermometer read over 100 degrees, and tells me I need some rest. She explains the spinning room in terms of fevered dreams, while gently prying my rigid hands from the top of the box spring. She says “See the night light in the corner? Focus your eyes on that little light, and the room will stop.”
It was christmas break, 1999. My girlfriend and I were high school seniors, the so-called class of the 2000. Every waking hour of our better-than-the-rest education had always assured us both that we would somehow change the world, because we were born in the right time, at the right place. Right on the cusp of being grown ups, the world was changing – the year 2000 was mere days away, and christmas had been intense, more-so than previous years. We decided to see a film. We watched as Jim Carrey’s rendition of Andy Kaufman saw his world fade from practical joke to self-parody, with a witch doctor delivering the final irony – new age cancer curing surgery without a single cut. Kaufman sees a bit of chicken in the doctor’s hand before the surgery begins, and begins to laugh – it’s all a joke. Seeing this, I grip my chair, as the room begins to spin. It had been the first in a series of somber christmas breaks, mother’s terminal cancer had just been discovered.
Fall semester, junior year of college – just going through the motions. The girlfriend and I broke with a nasty split a bit before summer, and I had skipped the usual summer family trip – unable to spend a week bouncing off the walls watching our deteriorating mother on what we knew would be her last family vacation. I return from yet another Burden Brothers show, cross the room, and see a message on the answering machine. As I press play, my shitty hand-me-down living room furniture starts to ebb and flow, wiggling in place in the corner of my eye. “Jason, it’s dad. Something bad happened today with Carol, don’t worry, she’s okay, but you need to call me.” I dial, he picks up and the wiggling furniture starts to march. I grab the corner of my computer desk as my knees give way.
Christmas Break, 2003. I walk into her bedroom, and pet my brother’s cat, Sable. The cat had not left her side since the event from September, when mother finally let go. I ask her if she’d like to watch a new movie, promising she will enjoy it. She asks what it’s about. “It’s about a fish who’s lost his son, and lost control of his life.” She does not have the strength to object. As we watch the movie, she smiles an awful lot – much more than she ever did before the event, perhaps more than she had in many years. She’s enraptured, and I just sit and stare, gripping my chair for dear life. The movie finishes, she loves it – like a child. I do not have the heart to tell her it is the fifth time she and I have watched it together.
Three years into my career, I am on top of the world – though I would have preferred it not to spin. There was an engagement ring hidden on the upper shelves of my bedroom closet, and a bucket of ice near me on the bed. 20 years had elapsed since mother told me to focus on the night light, but this time there would be no need. The world around me, though spinning, was understood, simplified, and easy. The moment would pass soon enough, and before I knew it we’d be married, and then, and then, and then. I hastily push my fevered dreams into words on paper, for inclusion in an album my buddy John and I had been working on for a good while.
The lights were dimmed, and the slideshow began. A steady march of images synced to Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism for our first dance. As the song crescendos the images start to wiggle, flashing faster in reverse. As images flicker, they paint her dress, her face. Our family and friends, our world, spins around us and I tighten my grip. Later, my father will hand me a card, a card mother picked for this day, years ago, before she died. Later, I will read my father’s word’s in the card and that night will return in a flash – just keep breathing, keep staring at that little night light, don’t stop staring, just ignore the dancing furniture, ignore the ebb and flow, focus on the light. We spin, the room spins, our friends, our family, the flicker of the projector, the swirling music, until finally, the end. I dip her, and hold onto her for dear life, we kiss and the projector stops on a single image – it paints us in golden light.
I look up from the kiss, and all I see is a bright light in darkness. In a flash, I am 8 years old, bewildered by fevered dreams and staring at a night light. I blink and I’m in the theatre unable to stop the tears. I inhale deeply and I’m with my childlike broken mother, days before she would pass. I pause, staring into the light, and hold my breath for just a moment. I exhale, and look away from the light. I hold her tighter, soaking in her shimmering golden aura, I hold her for dear life, and the world falls in place.
Sept 23, 2013 – 3.45a
Music: Matthew Good – Avalanche (the song)