tim: Tim with rainbow hat (pic#148316)

Photo taken by me in London, December 2006

I take this moment to remember Debra Boyask (of many nicknames, [livejournal.com profile] badasstronaut and Teacake being two of them), who died two years ago today on April 23, 2013. I have thought of Debra every day since then. I am far from the only person about whom the same is probably true. She left behind a trail of material reminders, such as her comics; her friends from the UK comics scene made a memorial comic for her. I have a pile of mix CDs she made for me, though the one she titled "Tech Sex in Space" has the most memorable cover.

Two robots making sweet, sweet love

I wrote about Debra's life, at least as I knew it, when she died. There is, of course, nothing new to say about her life that couldn't have been said then. But what does change and grow after somebody dies is memory -- that is, other people's memories of them.

In my current period of rapid personal growth and change, I remember my previous such period: the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007. For me, those memories are all organized around Debra. I ask myself: "Should I make this about me? Somebody, after all, is dead." But if I didn't make it about me, I'd be doing a disservice to Debra's memory, to my memory of her, to the only thing I have direct control over that keeps her in some sense alive. To be true to those memories, I have to be as personal as I can, in my thoughts if not in my writing.

I had known Debra online for five years when we met in person, but when we finally did, I had no idea what to expect. I didn't expect that we would end up in bed in her house in Bristol, a house whose interior will always represent safety and liberation in my mind.
Stairs with a deep red flowered carpet

I didn't expect that neither her life nor mine would ever be the same again as a result. It's fortunate that sexual liberation can happen at any age. I was 25 at the time and she was 40, but I think we both experienced quite a lot of it all of a sudden, in ways that had an enduring influence on both of our lives even if our on-again/off-again romantic relationship was not enduring. (Our friendship was, up till the end, and the eventual flickerings in and out of our romance never did any lasting harm to our friendship.)

I can't speak for Debra as to what I meant to her, and don't wish to. What she meant to me was this: she was the first person I was intimate with who -- I thought -- saw me for who I really was. In fact, she was possibly the only person I've been intimate with where I felt like I was truly present, and that she was truly present with me. There were ups and downs, mostly due to me having unresolved issues (still not resolved) that make it hard for me to be present for anybody (which is also the main reason why my other relationships didn't go well; I'm neither blaming my other partners for how things went nor absolving them completely here). But when it was good, I felt like I was dealing lightning.

This is, of course, personal. But as I said in the beginning, I feel like to not be personal about it is to be untrue to who Debra was, particularly who she was to me but not only who she was to me. Debra chose Kate Bush's song "Feel It" as one of the songs for her funeral, or at least I assume she chose it because it's not a song you would choose for anyone else's funeral. And she was bad-ass for choosing it -- [I am informed that Debra did not choose the song, but still, someone who knows her well must have.] a song about sex, love, meaning and connection that I appreciate more now than when I first heard it then.

"God, but you're beautiful, aren't you?
Feel your warm hand walking around"

I'm sad to say that when I knew Debra I wasn't entirely ready to feel it, yet, not everything, anyway. But she was a person who came into my life by chance and gave me what I needed in order to start trying. I like to think I returned the favor, but of course, I'll really never know; not knowing is all right, though, because my memory of her is more than enough to hold.

"I won't pull away, my passion always wins
So keep on a-moving in, keep on a-tuning in"

A rainbow above a roof, with a diagonal perspective
Photo taken by Debra, January 14, 2007

When I got the news about Debra, I was reading Facebook in the Mozilla Vancouver office, looking for a distraction but not expecting the one that came to me. I emailed my mentor to say what had happened and that I was taking the rest of the day off, went outside and walked down the Vancouver waterfront, not quite aware of either my surroundings or the thoughts in my head. I remember that I ended up at Little Sister's and bought a rainbow umbrella to remember her by, because of the time when we were driving in the countryside around Bristol and we were having an intense, left-brained conversation about gender, queerness, and identity and suddenly a rainbow appeared in the sky like a sign that the important stuff wasn't the ideas stuff.

But on that day, and for the month that followed, I couldn't really feel the grief, except maybe once or twice after listening to Neko Case's song "South Tacoma Way" on repeat for a while. I won't say I'm feeling it all now, either. My own inability to fully feel her loss compounded the pain of losing her.

Somehow, the only picture I could find of the two of us together was one she took of our shadows somewhere in the Columbia River Gorge, when she visited me in Portland in December 2008/January 2009. The icon I used for this post is also from a picture she took of me during that trip (which was the next-to-last time we saw each other in person).

And while I don't think Debra would have liked it (our musical tastes didn't overlap a whole lot), I also think of her when I listen to the Mountain Goats' song "Matthew 25:21":
you were a presence full of light upon this earth
And I am a witness to your life and to its worth
It's three days later when I get the call
And there's nobody around to break my fall

Oh yeah, and one more thing:

Fuck cancer.

Two shadows in the snow
Photo taken by Debra, January 2, 2009
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Michael Church wrote a thoughtful response to my post joining tableflip.club -- quotes I liked:
"Ultimately, corporate capitalism fails to be properly capitalistic because of its command-economy emphasis on subordination. When people are treated as subordinates, they slack and fade. This hurts the capitalist more than anyone else."
"We’ve let ourselves be defined, from above, as arrogant and socially inept and narcissistic, and therefore incapable of running our own affairs. That, however, doesn’t reflect what we really are, nor what we can be."

That said, I feel my point about love was totally missed and that it's gratuitous to say "that's not always true" about my claim "if you had a good early life, you wouldn't be working in tech" when my very next sentence began, "I'm exaggerating..." I feel like the last paragraph is so accurate that he fundamentally got it, though.

I am genuinely moved and amazed by the quantity and quality of thoughtful replies to my post on MetaFilter, where it made the front page. I've been peripherally aware of MeFi almost since it existed, but I've now joined and will have to keep paying attention to it.

At its peak (Friday), my post was also on the Hacker News front page at #16, but I haven't read the comments there and don't intend to.

When I write a piece like this, I'm always afraid no one will pay attention to or understand it. The amount of response I've gotten this time was beyond my wildest dreams and is informing my thoughts about what I'm doing next with my career (once my next 3 or 4 months of mostly not leaving my apartment is over). Thanks, everybody -- you don't know how happy it makes me to know that I hit a nerve, even if that process is painful for everyone involved!
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
So I used the term "burnout" in my tableflip post (by the way: tableflip.club), and also used it when I was telling colleagues I was quitting. But "burnout" is a euphemism in my case, and in a lot of people's cases (I suspect).

I mentioned it in my post, but only in an after-the-fact edit, so: I have complex PTSD. On some level I've known this for a long time, on another level I only knew as of 4 days ago when my therapist told me that the things I was saying were things characteristic of CPTSD and I heard what she said. I'm going to quote a Bessel A. van der Kolk, who's quoted in that Wikipedia article, because this seems pretty on-point:
Uncontrollable disruptions or distortions of attachment bonds precede the development of post-traumatic stress syndromes. People seek increased attachment in the face of danger. Adults, as well as children, may develop strong emotional ties with people who intermittently harass, beat, and, threaten them. The persistence of these attachment bonds leads to confusion of pain and love. Trauma can be repeated on behavioural, emotional, physiologic, and neuroendocrinologic levels. Repetition on these different levels causes a large variety of individual and social suffering.

Anger directed against the self or others is always a central problem in the lives of people who have been violated and this is itself a repetitive re-enactment of real events from the past. Compulsive repetition of the trauma usually is an unconscious process that, although it may provide a temporary sense of mastery or even pleasure, ultimately perpetuates chronic feelings of helplessness and a subjective sense of being bad and out of control. Gaining control over one's current life, rather than repeating trauma in action, mood, or somatic states, is the goal of healing.

(From an article called "The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism", which I'll have to look for.)

I think, though, this realization actually came to me a week ago, but in the form of a realization that I had to quit tech. As of then, I was thinking I would quit, maybe take a little time off, and then get into my career plan B (or rather, preparation for it) pretty quickly. What I only realized after I actually quit is that no, actually, I'm going to need a couple of months to recover. At least. And those are going to be a couple months in which I don't leave my apartment much and generally feel good about not leaving it. (I'm lucky enough to have just enough savings to allow for a couple months of this, though not a couple years; hopefully it won't take that long.) You don't recover from 29 years of trauma overnight.

Did the tech industry cause my CPTSD? I want to be clear: absolutely not. Not the "industry" in general, not Silicon Valley, not any one of the individual places where I've worked. As bad as some of them were, situations you enter into as an adult that you are able to leave do not generally cause CPTSD (they can cause PTSD). As Roast Beef in the "Achewood" web comic said, I come from Circumstances; I was born into Circumstances. On the one hand I could say the Circumstances were my mother, but to be honest I would have to acknowledge the Circumstances -- big ones, to do with war and colonialism and coming from four generations of refugees -- that she was born into herself. That doesn't excuse her from responsibility for her actions, or me for mine (for that matter), but must be understood.

But as I hope I already explained in my article, tech didn't make it any better, nor do I think I'm the only one by any stretch of the imagination. I'm gratified that many people on Metafilter agreed that tech attracts people with trauma, exploits us, and compounds the trauma to boot.

I'm not taking back anything I said, I still agree with it all. I guess I'm making this clarification in order to say: if you read that article and felt that you feel like I do, take yourself seriously; it's not "just" burnout, which usually clears up on its own with some rest, but quite possibly something more than that that I would urge you to get competent professional help with. The Resources for therapists page on the GF wiki is something you can show a potential therapist to determine whether or not they might be helpful if you're a tech person with some problems to work through. If they get confused, you might want to look elsewhere, but if they understand or at least have questions that reflect thought, that might be a good sign.
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
“There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

 -- Mario Savio

Love is the only motivating force, and while love can motivate some pretty awful things, it’s nonetheless impossible to do any good without it. I have no love left for my job or career, although I do have it for many of my friends and colleagues in software. And that's because I don't see how my work helps people I care about or even people on whom I don't wish any specific harm. Moreover, what I have to put up with in order to do my work is in danger of keeping me in a state of emotional and moral stagnation forever.

I don’t necessarily need to work on anything that helps people: some people love abstract puzzle-solving, and I'm one of those people. But when I’m at work as a programmer, I don’t spend much time solving abstract puzzles, at least not in comparison to the amount of time I spend doing unpaid emotional labor. Maybe other programmers are different (they spend their time shifting their unpaid emotional labor onto others instead? I don’t know.) I just know that’s how it is for me. Puzzly tinkering was one of my original motivations to work as a programmer, but it’s not a big enough part of the job to continue to be a good motivator.

Not only was I wrong about the degree to which puzzly tinkering would be part of my future life as a software engineer, I also failed to predict how hard it would be for me to keep my head above water in tech’s endless stream of macro- and microaggressions. Rapidly, getting up in the morning and going to work at my computer job became a source of frustration and the mornings became afternoons. I started to need coping mechanisms to cope with my coping mechanism.

I wrote the rest of this essay to wrestle with the question: “Given the many advantages of having a comfortable, high-paying, flexible desk job, are the frustrations I feel really bad enough to justify taking the risky path of searching for something more grounding? In the absence of pure intellectual pleasure and in the absence of the feeling of social benefit, will continuing to work in the software industry help me more than it hurts?” The short answers are “yes” and “no”. Here’s the long answer.

Flawed Coping Mechanisms

“All of y’all’s gold mines
They wanna deplete you.”
 -- The Coup

Programming thrilled me when I was 14 and needed a world to dive into that I controlled completely. I had had no control over my life up until then. The feeling of control that writing code -- making things out of pure ideas -- gave me was intoxicating in every sense that word has. Twenty years later, I don’t know if I’m wiser, but I don't want that escape valve so much anymore. I can give living in this world, with all of its messiness and blood, a trial period. I can try to dwell with that which I can't control.

I've thought about all of this for a while but this week I met the enemy and realized he was me. It's easy to bemoan brogrammers, it comes naturally to lambast gaters, but -- and by the way, in this paragraph I am addressing only my beloved fellow SADISTIGs (Sweet And Delightfully Introspective Sensitive Tech Industry Guys) -- that's because it's easy to find fault with somebody else for what lies in your own heart. I don't know about you, but I came here because I liked making machines bend to my will; because I wished I could figure out how to do that with people, but until I did, I was dead set on avoiding them. It's a hard thing to admit, but it's true. My past self wasn't a bad little dude, but the demons he ran away from into the twists of the compiler pipeline are dead. All of this personal bullshit makes me fundamentally not different from those concerned with ethics in video game journalism or with bro-ing down and crushing code, just more apologetic about it.

Ah, the persistent myth of the meritocracy. You know what? I want to be judged for more than the code I write.”

-- Coraline Ada Ehmke

I am far from the only emotionally stalled guy who works in tech, which is the point. If it was just that there were a lot of other folks like me in this field, that would be tolerable and maybe even a plus. But the tech industry is wired with structural incentives to stay broken. Broken people work 80-hour weeks because we think we’ll get approval and validation for our technical abilities that way. Broken people burn out trying to prove ourselves as hackers because we don’t believe anyone will ever love us for who we are rather than our merit. Broken people put up with toxic, dangerous co-workers and bosses because we’ve never experienced healthy relationships. Broken people sometimes even defend toxicity not because we want to do harm but because it’s simply what we’re used to. Broken people believe pretty lies like “meritocracy” and “show me the code” because it’s easier than confronting difficult truths; it’s as easy as it is because the tech industry is structured around denial. Why is it so compelling for some people to participate in a world where, ostensibly, they will never be seen as their entire selves and will be judged solely on some putatively objective numerical ranking within a total ordering of all hackers from best to worse? Since “some people” includes “me”, I have to guess that it’s because they’re terrified to be seen as their entire selves, since I know I am.

You Don’t Have to Have Complex PTSD to Work Here, But It Helps

“They say I’m running blind to a love of my own
But I’ll be walking proud
I’m saving what I still own” 

-- Indigo Girls

edited, 2015-04-14: If you don't like this section heading, please read the Clarifications section at the end of this post.

If you want a concrete example of how tech culture discourages us growing and being vulnerable, just read through the list of silencing tactics on the Geek Feminism Wiki. (I think it especially discourages us men from growing and being vulnerable. The culture is a bit less subtle about what it does to women and non-binary people.) I’m going to point out a couple that I’ve felt burnt by on the job:

  •  “You’re too sensitive”. This accusation gets used primarily against women, but sometimes against men who fall short of from commonly accepted masculinity ideals. A culture that considers “too sensitive” an insult is a culture that eats its young. Similarly, it’s popular in tech to decry “drama” when no one is ever sure what the consensus is on this word’s meaning, but as far as I can tell it means other people expressing feelings that you would prefer they stay silent about.
  • The tone argument. is commonly deployed against political and technical disagreement, and its use reflects an underlying assumption in tech culture that emotional conviction makes an argument less valid rather than more.
  •  “Suck it up and deal” is an assertion of dominance that disregards the emotional labor needed to tolerate oppression. It’s also a reflection of the culture of narcissism in tech that values grandstanding and credit-taking over listening and empathizing.

I say that these tactics are particularly injurious to men not because I think we have it worse but because they get employed differently against women and I have less firsthand experience with that. From what I can tell, being a woman in tech means being judged and found wanting no matter what you do, while being a man in tech means (at least the chance of) success at the price of following an extremely restrictive set of rules that are corrosive to emotional well-being for many of us. I know which set of problems I’d choose, and in a way, I did choose. But the choice between bad and worse doesn’t make bad good.

Moreover, I don’t think tech toxicity bothers people who are used to being listened to and acknowledged as much as it does people like me. (I wouldn’t know, since I don’t come from one of those places.) But if you had a good early life, you wouldn’t be in tech in the first place. Yes, I'm exaggerating, but I do think there’s a toxic feedback loop between the kinds of trauma that cause many people to flee into the world of things-made-out-of-ideas, and the kinds of trauma that some of us will encounter in that world when we least expect it. For example, if you are a person who has never had your own subjectivity and feelings systematically erased, I imagine you will probably just laugh when someone tells you “you’re too sensitive”. (I wouldn’t know, again, since I’m not like you.) I’m hurt by that accusation because I believed it about myself in the first place; that statement and all manner of other little loops of gaslighting are woven into me like tapeworms. If we can blame ourselves for being too sensitive, we don’t have to confront something that is too difficult for most kids and a lot of adults to confront: that someone who loves you can hurt you. If you know what “triggering” means: it’s triggering. If you don’t know what “triggering” means, then now you know.

Being Right Vs. Doing Right

So many think they're good guys. But they're so invested in a culture that depends on proving they're right they don't see the damage done.” -- Jen Myers

Here are some other tendencies that are both worse in tech than in other fields due to the way in which it attracts lost boys, and get reinforced by tech management in a toxic feedback loop of dysfunction and self-deception:

  • Mansplaining arises from the desire to position oneself as an authority rather than to talk as equals. A related pathology is social pressure to perform having an opinion on everything that’s not important (sometimes called “bikeshedding”: as well as not caring about anything that matters. The latter tendency is what I explored in my first Model View Culture article  under the name “false dismissal”.
  • Relatedly, “well-actually”-ism is a verbal habit of interrupting conversations to make factually true but irrelevant corrections, in a way that prioritizes intellectual self-aggrandizement over shared understanding. Like mansplaining, well-actually-ism is rooted in fear and insecurity and I should know, because I’ve done these things all the time, and I know that’s why.
  • Tech culture elevates heroes and “cowboy coders” who sacrifice everything to get all the work done themselves, gaining individual recognition and jettisoning healthy teamwork as well as their own long-term well-being. The “cowboy coder” -- the sort of guy who complains that code reviews slow down his workflow (which is true, in the same way that brakes slow down a car) is a stereotype, but one that you can observe in more or less any workplace. What’s more, you will observe that cowboy coders (often young, usually male, usually without sources of meaning in their lives outside of work) get praised just for fitting this pattern, regardless of the quality of their work. (My now-former colleague Jacob Kaplan-Moss illustrated this point quite aptly in his “who is Mark Zuckerburg?” slides in his 2015 PyCon keynote.  )
  • Failure to listen, failure to document, and failure to mentor. Toxic individualism -- the attitude that a person is solely responsible for their own success, and if they find your code hard to understand, it’s their fault -- is tightly woven through the fabric of tech. Even in places where people pay lip service to the value of documenting and of training new hires, their behavior belies it -- they fail to document because “there’s not enough time”, fail to mentor because they’d rather just hire senior engineers, and fail to listen because that entails the risk of finding out you’re wrong about something.
  • Invulnerability to criticism. There was a famous Linux kernel bug report about a bug that would reformat your hard drive when you didn’t want it to. The software maintainers responded by saying “you should have known better”. This is a particularly extreme example of a general tendency to accept technical bug reports as attacks on one’s most cherished self, to be defended against to the death. I’m not even talking about cultural bug reports here, which I once wrote about in Model View Culture. If you take criticism of your project as an attack rather than as helpful feedback, what does that say about how you will take criticism of your personal behavior?

I understand the reasons why all of these failures happen, and I’ve lived most of the reasons. I’m a very critical person; I’d like to get better at balancing doing the Right Thing(™) with validating and embracing commonalities. I’m not going to find very many incentives to do that, or role models to look to for how to do it, if I stay in tech.

Nobody sets out on purpose to make any workplace a pit of despair. But in tech, the failures are self-reinforcing because failure often has no material consequences (especially in venture-capital-funded startups) and because the status quo is so profitable -- for the people already on the inside -- that the desire to maintain it exceeds the desire to work better together.

“There’s No Crying in Startups”

"It takes mighty big courage to pack up and go
'Cause even a bad life is still a life that you know.”
 -- Brooks Williams

I have found that the more I try to curb my own antisocial and self-defeating tendencies, the less I succeed in tech. Being sensitive makes you suspect. Approaching technical discussions as collaborative efforts rather than cage matches gets you frozen out. Performance gets assessed on rough approximations to individual “impact”, without regard to how much you helped your colleagues do their jobs. I think that I’m capable of continuing to work in tech, as long as I force myself to be continue to be the person I’m tired of being. No stock options are worth as much to me as the still, small voice inside is; no amount of money and benefits is going to get me to tell that voice to shut up now after 14 years with my hand over its mouth. All the tendencies I’ve criticized in this essay are ones I’ve seen in my own mirror. To be in tech is to be in permanent adolescence or at least to maintain dual personalities, one for work and one for home. The latter is way too much effort and as for the former, who in the world would actually choose that? I wouldn’t, because being a teen can be fun (at 16, at 27, and at 34), but not as fun as having been one.

“Aren’t you being melodramatic here, Tim? Aren’t you applying concepts to tech companies that are really for describing family structures?” I would have thought so too until during my first week at a new job (disclaimer: not my current job), I watched a grown man and father of four literally stomp out of an office at 3:21 PM on a Thursday, not to return until the next day, because the company’s CTO was making him feel unheard during a meeting. At the time I wasn’t sure if he was going to come back on Friday. (He did.) To be clear, neither man in that interaction was behaving particularly laudably, and at the same time both had valid points. A third man, my boss at the time, stepped in to explain to the CTO, “I think when you said [whatever] to [REDACTED], the way it made him feel was…” I remember being pleasantly amazed at hearing that kind of communication from anybody in a corporate conference room, although it was a bit less nice when the CTO literally replied with, “I don’t care about hurt feelings. This is a startup.” I also remember thinking that because this company was small, I was finally getting to see behavior acted out explicitly that usually takes place just below the surface in bigger companies. So no, I don’t think I am being melodramatic. If anything, my former colleague (the most senior back-end engineer at this company) who stomped out of the office was, but I wouldn’t even say that, because I sympathize with the pressure that led him to act the way he did at the breaking point. This was actually a pretty reassuring experience for me because up until then, I’d wondered if I was projecting. That day I realized that I wasn’t, any more than the overhead projector in your average office is in 2015. I actually prefer daily screaming matches to ever-present rage repressed at high pressure (one of which, at least once, made me cry in the bathroom at a previous office), but I would kind of prefer to have neither of those things in my workplace. When I worked at another one of my past employers, I took to watching a lot of episodes of “House, M.D.” because I really needed to see examples of people modelling exemplary professionalism and respect for others’ boundaries… by comparison.

There’s a reason why it’s become a cliché for startups to describe themselves as being like a family: because a lot of us come from families defined by abuse, neglect, multigenerational trauma, addiction, lying, leaving, coming back, leaving again, and conspiracies of silence about it all. We bring all of that into our work “families”. Sometimes we need more than free kombucha on tap in order to cope and heal; when we don’t get it, we take it out on each other because that’s easier than confronting those who have power over us.


I'm gonna K. I. L. L. one of us, baby. Give me time to decide on which.” -- Tonio K.

The person I would like to be is also someone who acknowledges fear and pain and doesn’t always retreat into fury at injustice. I love my fellow tech SJWs, but for me -- and in this paragraph I am calling out no one but myself -- the siren song of righteous anger always lies in wait to take away the small soft things inside and leave me alone on the floor with a rage hangover. There is an infinite amount of injustice in the world and an infinite amount of completely justified anger that can well up from any of us who take the time to think about it. Anger is a very useful strategy for activism; I try my best to never coerce people who are marginalized -- especially by groups I'm in -- into suppressing it. But maybe it's time for me to be a bit more liberal in what I accept and conservative in what I send out, Postel’s-Law-style. For lots of people, alcohol is a useful tool for making social situations a little more manageable; a minority get consumed by it. Maybe anger is a little like that for me. I wouldn't work in a bar if I was recovering from alcoholism, so I'm not going to work in tech while I'm trying to integrate the parts of myself that aren't angry. There are too many temptations.


“I want to leave
You will not miss me.”
 -- The Smiths

So that's why I have to quit tech for somewhere between a little while and forever (inclusive). It's not just that I don't want to, but that, in a very literal sense, I can't. I'm not doing any favors by sticking around when I'm unable to pull my weight. I don't know what's going to be next for me, but it won't be this. If I can find a job doing something involving comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, or even both, that would be neat.

I also don’t think it’s any great loss for tech that I won’t be in it, since I’m neither particularly bad nor particularly good at the work I do; I’m proudest of my minor contributions to tech culture criticism, not any code I’ve ever written. In 14 years including grad school, I doubt I’ve earned the invisible “valued contributor” merit badge anywhere. I’ve job-hopped, quit jobs when I could have stayed and resolved interpersonal conflicts, taken unannounced PTO, checked Facebook and Twitter for literally entire work days at a time. I am neither proud of nor sorry for any of these lapses, because ultimately it’s capitalism’s responsibility to make me produce for it, and within the scope of my career, capitalism failed. I don’t pity the ownership of any of my former employers for not having been able to squeeze more value out of me, because that’s on them. What’s on me is how I spend my time, and I don’t want to spend any more of it pretending I don’t know what I want.

Not everybody can turn their coping mechanism in a career, but I had the chance, and it was an offer I couldn't refuse. After a year or two of being in the tech industry, programming became a less effective coping mechanism and anger became a more compelling one, since the tech industry has so much cause for anger to provide. Over time, the second one replaced the first one almost totally, taking away my original reason to even like programming at all and demoralizing any remaining scraps of work-ethic out of me. It’s sad to have to report that this is true, but it would be sadder to pretend none of it happened.


“And I'd hope that if I found the strength to walk out
You'd stay the hell out of my way."
 -- The Mountain Goats

I tried leaning in, which for me means some combination of “just work harder” and spending a ton of non-work time developing complicated structuring and coping mechanisms to make me feel OK about doing something I fundamentally don’t want to be doing. RescueTime, Todoist, Google Calendar, Trello, weekly schedules, written to-do lists, eugeroics, SSRIs, caffeine, cannabis, fancy drinks, spending too much money in coffee shops, knitting during meetings, big headphones, Twitter, IRC, Slack, post-it notes, text files with lists of questions to ask, animated .gifs, playing 2048 on my phone in the men’s room at work for 30 minutes or longer at a stretch, repeatedly reloading Fucks On Back Order. None of these things are intrinsically bad and many are pretty damn good, but when I invest a lot of my time structuring my work hours with some of them and recovering during my non-work hours with others, all in the service of something I fundamentally don’t want to be doing, I have to start asking why. It’s a lot of effort, largely performed during non-work hours, for a relatively low yield in terms of actual productive work that helped my employer. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s found that leaning in tends to mean leaning into a black hole. The rise of the lifehacking industry, as well as meditation and mindfulness programs for temporarily calming down workers so they can be productive while experiencing abuse, suggest that capitalism does well when it can simultaneously hurt people and sell them palliative care for that hurt.

“Just work harder” always sounds appealing to me too, because in fact I love working, I feel uncomfortable when I’m doing something that I can’t characterize as work, and I can work way harder than is good for me. But that’s only when I feel like there’s a reason to do it: whether the reason is making a software system better in a way that I can see and get tangible feedback on from others, or making other people feel like they’re less alone, or just having clean dishes. When I don’t see the reason why I should work harder, I can’t work at all. So I don’t think leaning in is helping me or helping my employer.

I’m leaning out, because to be a better person than the one I am now, I have no other choice. I'm not saying I'll never come back, but I am saying I'll probably never come back. This is my choice; it doesn’t have to be yours. I’m not taking a moral stance that I would prescribe to others, or in fact, making this decision based on abstractions at all. I don’t aspire to sainthood and I would happily stay in a sweet desk job with flexible hours if it wasn’t destroying me from the inside. The question I tried to answer in this essay is: “destroying me from the inside? Really? Is it doing that?” And I believe the answer is yes.

I don’t know if the alternatives I’m considering are going to be better or not, but I’m at a point where all I can do is find out for myself. I know that every single field of employment has its own unique blend of coffee and bullshit to offer, and choosing a career is a matter of picking which one you don’t mind sipping. I don’t know whether other fields will be worse or better, I just know that tech’s tainted tonic interacts badly with the poison that’s already in me. If what works for you is staying in tech, great! Try to leave it a little better than you found it.

Postscript to Herokai

I hope I’ve made it clear that while it’s not me, it’s also not you. I had to realize all this stuff sometime, and it’s probably not a coincidence that it happened while I was in the comparatively safe and supportive culture that Heroku has. To Leigh, Jake, Evan, Fred, Tristan, Omar, Jamu, Charles, Mary, Ari, Daed, Courtney, Joy, Liz, Jacob, Meagan, Tef, Matt, Geoff, Greg, and Mark: Thanks for the laughs, lunches, and corgi GIFs. Don’t be a stranger. If I forgot anyone there who I should have included, it’s because a week straight of less than 4 hours of sleep a night has rendered my brain into a chia pod.


  • 2015-04-14: Yes, I actually do have complex PTSD (beginning with experiences at age 5 or younger, so, pretty well before I ever got paid to touch a computer) and today is actually the first day I've ever said that in public. I'm feeling a little raw about that and the way I usually deal with those feelings is jokes, hence the section heading. I also see how it could be seen as trivializing. I feel like there's no point in suffering if you can't make jokes about it later, but I should probably have included this clarification in the first place.


“Code reviews slow you down like brakes slow down a car” is something I saw on Twitter once. I don’t remember who tweeted it. If you know, or if it was you, please tell me!

“Lean Out” is the title of issue 3 of Model View Culture, for which Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane deserve credit.

Edited to add: The term "well, actually" was coined by Miguel de Icaza, and I learned about it from the Recurse Center social rules.

Edited to add: While I originally learned about the concept of emotional labor from the writing of Barbara Ehrenreich and Laura Kipnis, I also owe one to Lauren Bacon for her article "Women in Tech and Empathy Work".

Edited to add: I first saw the Mario Savio quote on an office door in Soda Hall at the University of California in 1999. It took me the past sixteen years to understand it.

Edited to add: I owe much to Julie Pagano's article "I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship… with the tech community" -- arguably I never would have had any of the thoughts expressed in this piece without reading hers a year and a half ago.

Edited to add: I alluded in this piece to the chorus of Stephen Fearing's song "The Bells of Morning", which was written about the École Polytechnique massacre and which I wrote about previously in reference to Gamergate.

Edited to add: If you happen to live in (or can travel to) Portland, Oregon, and need a therapist, call Cat Pivetti at 503-740-9555. (nb. the initial phone number I put there is incorrect, as is the number on the page linked to, currently.) I don't credit her with me becoming the person who wrote this article, but I do credit her for helping me find what was in me that I put into it, and I think she does that for other people too.

In this piece I’ve drawn on insights from conversations with many different people and from writing by many different people. Nothing I’m saying is new, but I hope that this particular presentation may find itself useful to somebody else. Because there are too many influences to name, for the sake of not privileging any one of them unduly I’m not listing most of them. But know that if you think I made a good point anywhere in this essay, it’s more likely than not to be a point that a woman made me think about. A number of friends and current and former colleagues of mine read and commented on drafts of this essay; for prudence’s sake, I won't enumerate or name them. But if you are one of the people who proofread for me: my gratitude to you symbolizes why I didn’t quit this industry ages ago. I’ll miss y’all.


That's a thing that there is.


Vienna Teng, “Level Up” (s/o to [personal profile] brainwane via [personal profile] yatima for turning me on to this one):

"Call it your day number one in the rest of forever."

tim: Solid black square (black)
[Content note: suicide.]

Two years ago, in April, I lost two friends. Igal was the first one.

Two years ago yesterday, Igal Koshevoy committed suicide. I didn't know Igal well, but I knew him well enough to wish that I'd gotten to know him well enough to know why. What I wrote on the section of my home page that I dearly hope to never have to update again is this:

"I also wish to remember Igal Koshevoy, who died in 2013. I knew Igal as the face behind the Portland Functional Programming Group, which was a minor but important part of what kept me feeling connected to a bigger community when I lived in Portland. He set an example of how to run groups that welcome and include everyone. Igal committed suicide, and I wish that he could have been as kind to himself as he seemed to be to everybody else."

If you haven't heard the Mountain Goats' song "The Coroner's Gambit" [direct MP3 link -- same audio is embedded below, and sorry about the autoplay at first, which I think I fixed now] before, I recommend listening to this someplace where crying is acceptable. Like I said, I don't understand; but I think I understand a little better because of this song.

May we all be a little bit kinder to each other and to ourselves.

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
I took this past week off from work and made what turned out to be sort of a pilgrimage, to Nashville, Asheville and Carrboro, NC to see 3 of the first 4 shows in the Mountain Goats' spring tour. (I missed the Savannah, Georgia show that was in between Asheville and Carrboro, but apparently a fistfight broke out there during "Steal Smoked Fish", so it might have been for the best.)

Back in 2012, I'd heard the Mountain Goats two most famous songs, "No Children" and "This Year" on mix CDs friends gave me, but I hadn't gotten hooked yet. When [livejournal.com profile] lindseykuper, my co-worker at Mozilla at the time, made the trip on Caltrain from Mountain View to San Francisco to go see two of their shows on consecutive nights, I decided I should give them more of a listen. She recommended that I start with their albums The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed, so I did.

I am not a very good listener. It took me a few months to realize what The Sunset Tree was about. But since I caught on, it's been my favorite album, by anybody. When it came out almost ten years ago it marked a shift from John Darnielle's previous writing (often abstract, often chronicling recurring fictional characters) into confessional, autobiographical songwriting. I hear there are purists who only like his old stuff (recorded on a cheap tape player), but I'm just glad I didn't discover the Mountain Goats early enough to risk becoming one of those purists.

I was a teenager in the '90s, when young adult literature dealing with realistic problems the kids these days faced (or at least what adults thought kids faced) was in full bloom, and I read all of it. This was also a time when memoirs, largely by young women recounting experiences with abuse, trauma, addiction, and mental illness were popular, and there was a just-as-popular backlash against them (in retrospect, mostly a sexist one). None of that ever reached out and grabbed me. I got through my teens listening to the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin, and I enjoy them still, but they don't have enough to say to me anymore to keep me going now. Shawn Colvin's "Steady On" and the Indigo Girls' self-titled album helped me get through a few nights, but their lyrics don't have the specificity that I drank up later when I found it in the Mountain Goats.

The songs on The Sunset Tree are about John Darnielle's childhood and adolescence dealing with an abusive stepfather who also abused his mother in front of him. I grew up with an abusive mother, who was single. As a teen, John turned to meth and heroin to deal with that which was too big to hold. I turned to a bad marriage and graduate school. But the thing about music like this is that it lets you believe, for a while, that the similarities between us are more important than the differences. I used the word "confessional", and The Sunset Tree both is that and is more than that. "You Or Your Memory", the first song on the album, is about reconciling the pain and powerlessness you've experienced with the obligation to be an autonomous adult. "Love Love Love" and "Pale Green Things" are about the intricacies of the relationship between love and abuse. These songs coexist with more straight-up looks into what it's like to be a kid who couldn't trust the adults who were supposed to keep him safe. There's the revenge fantasies of "Up the Wolves" and "Lion's Teeth", which are, well, the easiest songs for me to directly relate to. There's "This Year", a joyous ode to flawed coping mechanisms. And there's "Dance Music" and "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod", a pair of songs about staying in your room with the door closed and headphones on; in "Tetrapod", the narrator worries more about getting his stereo broken by the abuser than about getting his face broken.

The adult perspective with its moral complexity coexists here, made to seem no more or less true than the unfiltered rage and helplessness that I remember well from my own childhood. The album made me start to feel like I could finally grow up (at 31) while still keeping the promises I made to myself as a kid, on behalf of my future self -- that is, the ones to never forget how bad this was, to never do this to anybody else, and to never make excuses for any adult who was doing this to any other kid. The Sunset Tree suggests how you might begin to understand without making excuses. That begins with showing compassion to your former self and honoring the things that self loved and hated, which is a necessary prerequisite for empathizing with anybody else. When taken together with much of the content of the albums that followed, it's a body of work that's about how you get from the life you're given to the life you make (to quote a Mary Chapin Carpenter song). It's a hell of a 39 minutes.

I got a little carried away there, though, because I really wanted to tell you about the Mountain Goats' new album Beat the Champ. When I heard their next album was going to be about pro wrestling, I was a little worried, because I was afraid it wouldn't be a Mountain Goats album. What I know about wrestling could fit on a thumbtack, but it turns out it doesn't matter, because Beat the Champ has a lot in common with The Sunset Tree. It's about love and violence, friendship and hate. It's about identity and justice. And because I'm not that good a writer, I'm using those general terms when Beat the Champ is extremely specific about all of them.

I put off listening to the songs from the album that were pre-released until the show in Nashville last Thursday; I wanted to hear them for the first time there. I'm glad I did, because live -- giving it my full attention while standing in the back and trying to see over the tall person in front of me -- "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" reached out and grabbed me by the neck. Chavo Guerrero (who's still alive and apparently loves the song) was John's favorite wrestler as a kid; he symbolized the clear lines between good and evil that didn't exist in John's life. The line that got me the first time I heard it and continues to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I hear it since is this one:

I need justice in my life. Here it comes.

But you can't just read that on the page, you have to hear it. If you haven't heard the song, stop what you're doing and listen to it. Okay? It's the way the song switches in mid-verse from objective, school-report language ("He came from Texas seeking fortune and fame...") to the image of John watching TV in the floor in the dark, the TV light bringing hope and joy. It's the catch in his voice on the word "my" and the audible intake of breath before "Here it comes".

In contrast with the moral complexity of (some of) The Sunset Tree, "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" is three minutes of moral clarity. I love that ten years after The Sunset Tree's meticulous exploration of love when it's entangled with violence, he can still sing, in the last verse -- addressing his stepfather -- "He was my hero back when I was a kid / You let me down but Chavo never once did / You called him names to try to get beneath my skin / Now your ashes are scattered on the wind". I love the simplicity and directness of these words. And I love that the song gives the listener, too, permission to say to the person responsible for their trauma, "Yeah, you know, shit is complicated, but at the end of the day you're dead and I'm still here."

After that, it's a bit of a relief when the album follows up with the They-Might-Be-Giants-ish "Foreign Object", which is the most infectiously joyful song ever about stabbing somebody in the eye. It took me a couple of listens to get into the rest of the album, but now I'm really enjoying "Choked Out", "Werewolf Gimmick", and "Fire Editorial"; they go to some interesting places.

CDs have the advantage that you can play them repeatedly in your car, but there is nothing like a live Mountain Goats show, and of the three shows I saw this past week, each one was successively better than the last. On stage, John looks like there's nothing else in the world he'd rather be doing and like he just discovered that now (25 years of performing notwithstanding). Shouting along to "Up the Wolves" with everybody else in the audience is group therapy and church.

While I want everybody else to love the Mountain Goats as much as I do, I also hope their shows never get too big for John to stay and sign CDs afterwards. At the Carrboro show I managed, somehow, to work up the nerve to tell him how powerful that line in "Chavo Guerrero" was for me. I am sure that that's what everybody else has been telling him too, but he thanked me as if nobody else had said so. So, John, if you're reading this, thank you. And thanks for the hug.
tim: 2x2 grid of four stylized icons: a bus, a light rail train, a car, and a bicycle (travel)
Since it seems that a lot of people don't know what I'm doing (and writing this post won't change that since even if I link it everywhere, the vagaries of various social media software will make sure most people never see it, lol):

I just finished my first week working at Heroku as an engineer on the HTTP Routing Infrastructure team. While most of the first week was spent shuffling ssh keys hither and yon, from here on I'll be writing some Erlang.

I'm living in the Mission (two blocks from Tartine, Maxfield's, and Bi-Rite) for the rest of July, subletting a room in a friend's place.

Since I have the privilege of being able to work remotely, I'm going to take advantage of that privilege for a while (as nice as the Heroku office is). In August, I'll be moving to someplace with lower rent than San Francisco, but within North America (my job is so inflexible ;-) so I can pay off my $30,000 of student loan debt and $12,000 of combined medical and credit card debt more easily. Given my constraints, there are a lot of places in North America to choose from -- specifically, all of them, except San Francisco. Optimizing for relative proximity to people and places I want to visit, proximity to a city with population 100,000+, culture, and low cost of living, I'll probably be looking for a 2 or 3-bedroom rental house in Reno, NV, where I predict I'll be paying about a quarter of the rent that I would pay for a similar place in the Bay Area. Once my debt is paid off (barring anything unexpected, in 6-9 months), I'll probably move back to the Bay Area, but then, who knows what will happen?

It seems that housing is generally "available now", so rather than trying to find a place to live in advance, I'll probably just get in my car at the end of the month and go try to find someplace to live, then return for my furniture and stuff (currently in storage) and my cats (currently staying with a friend in Napa). I'm aspiring to adopt two more cats, assuming I can find a rental place that will allow four cats (and crossing my fingers that my other cats don't hate them).

I would love to hang out with people in the Bay Area while I'm still here, but since I lent my car to somebody for the month to avoid paying half my rent again for a parking space, preferably someplace transit-accessible. I've also been focusing on first-week-of-work panic and finishing-an-article panic, and thus have made zero plans for that yet.

Saying No

May. 1st, 2014 10:44 am
tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
In the past week, I had two talk proposals accepted: one for LambdaJam in July, and one for Open Source Bridge in June. I ended up declining to give both of them. This was hard for me.

I like giving talks. I don't have any stage fright. I've been told I give good talks. In my field, good speakers aren't very common, but the few good talks I've seen make me want to go do the same thing, in a way that almost nothing else does. I like the performance aspect of it, and it makes being at a conference make sense (I always feel vaguely awkward when someone asks me if I have a talk and I say no.)

What I don't like is preparing talks. I don't see a way around this. It's not like anyone else can do it for me. I think it's because of how feedback works -- I get feedback at the very end, after I give a talk, but it's very hard to get any feedback on intermediate products, and when something isn't closely coupled with my job, I don't really have an audience for a practice talk. Even if I do a practice talk, that's after I've prepared all the slides. I think to make the process less painful, I'd have to have a way to get feedback a lot earlier.

I proposed something pretty ambitious for OS Bridge, which is a hands-on Haskell tutorial. I would have to prepare the tutorial materials -- code with "fill in the blank" pieces -- from scratch. Likewise, for LambdaJam, I proposed a talk on a project I've been wanting to do (a "traveling salesman" approximation implementation in Haskell -- for fun, applied perhaps to a data set like the list of Hosteling International hostels in the US), with the idea being that the talk would give me motivation to actually implement it. But now that I would actually have to write all that code in less than 2 months, it doesn't look as appealing to me.

I think what I need in my life now are things to do in my free time that I can do with other people and that don't feel like work. Unfortunately, preparing talks doesn't meet either criterion: I have to do it alone, and it feels like work. And I can't do it on the clock, since it's related to my job but the talks aren't about what I actually do at work (since not all of it is open-source).

In the past, giving talks has seemed like a way for me to get bonus points at work, but the last talk I gave -- at Open Source Bridge a year ago -- backfired in that sense. My manager (at my previous job) complained that I "gave too many talks" (because I gave one talk in two years) because I spent the two weeks before the talk preparing slides and not doing much else. That experience discouraged me from giving more talks in the future. Since what the talks would be on would be only loosely related to my job, I don't necessarily expect negative feedback for giving them (since all the prep would be in my copious free time), but I don't expect it to be a big positive, either.

So the calculation I did was that preparing the talks was likely to give me more anxiety than satisfaction. And in fact, that would still be true even if I did only one of the talks. So I declined. I still feel like I'm passing something up, but the cost of accepting the opportunity seems too high for me right now. Of course, that could change in the future, and there will always be more conferences.

I still plan to go to Open Source Bridge -- there are too many good talks not to, I'll be passing through Portland anyway, and it's a great chance to see a lot of friends. I don't know what the future holds for me, career-wise, so right now, putting in extracurricular effort to be more established in the tech community doesn't seem like a good investment: I don't know if I'll be in this community in two years. It's uncomfortable to be in this liminal state, but I think the way to deal with that discomfort is to experiment with actually being nice to myself and giving myself enough time to satisfy needs that don't have to do with writing code.
tim: 2x2 grid of four stylized icons: a bus, a light rail train, a car, and a bicycle (public transportation)
Saturday, four days ago, I flew from Vancouver to Minneapolis, spent my layover chatting with my dear friend ADB who had come out to the airport to meet me, and then flew to London on a red-eye. (But not before ending my 31-month streak of never getting either groped or pornoscanned in an airport; there was only one checkpoint open at MSP that Saturday night, with only a scanner option. I had been planning to opt out if that happened, but at the last minute I decided I didn't want a random cis person touching me. In any case, I couldn't think of a better reason to end the streak.)

Sunday, I arrived in London feeling like a zombie, since I'd only slept for about four hours on the plane, if that. Plan A had been to go to a coffee shop for a few hours and noodle around pointlessly on the Internet, I mean catch up on work, I mean... In any case, my laptop was almost dead and the power adapter I'd bought at the airport wasn't grounded, which of course I didn't notice when buying it, in my zombified state. So I collected all my belongings and headed down the road to the Superdrug, where I bought another adapter. Nope, that one wasn't grounded either, and so I embarked on a long, long journey to the Apple store in Covent Garden to get the "world traveler kit". I ended up finding out just how long it can take me to find the Covent Garden market starting out from the Covent Garden tube stop (answer: a long time), and by the time I got back to the coffee shop where I'd planned to meet [livejournal.com profile] jasonelvis, he was waiting there.

After dinner with Jason, Tracey, and their adorable three-year-old, we all agreed that I'd want to collapse... except instead, Jason and I stayed up for a while talking about Debra. I was able to put my tiredness aside, because getting time to talk about her with someone who knew her the way I did was really important to me and meant a lot.

Monday, we accumulated more people and headed out to Bath in various cars. We went to a park and (unexpectedly) saw hot air balloons take off, then Indian take-out food was had and silly TV was watched.

And then, Tuesday, the big event. Prefaced by hat shopping with the three of us guys in our little entourage, since we'd been told that Debra wanted the funeral to reflect her Jewish heritage, though it wouldn't be entirely traditional. So part of that was that the men would cover their heads, and the women would too if they wanted to. That was fine, but none of us had hats. Then it turns out to be difficult to find a funeral-appropriate hat in May, but the clearance rack at Debenhams saved the day.

Fully equipped with hats, we drove the 45 minutes to Bristol and got to the chapel and cemetery, in South Bristol, a bit early but not too early. I met various people who I'd only known from their LiveJournal comments before, and before we knew it, we were being called in for the service. The opening music, "Good Morning Starshine", let us know that this wasn't going to be an entirely traditional funeral. Debra wasn't a traditional person, so that was appropriate.

There were several eulogies, including one delivered by Jason, which captured the playful, caring, bum-joke-loving Debra who I knew. But the moments I remember most clearly were actually the music: Kate Bush's "Feel It" in the middle, and Lemon Jelly's "Space Walk" at the end. Someone had posted a link to "Space Walk" on Debra's Facebook wall soon after she died, and I listened to it in my apartment. Hearing it again at the end of the service took me back to that confused, surreal state.

We milled out to the grave site, which was facing out on a hillside with a really nice view of the river and the green hills beyond. I thought to myself that maybe someday, years from now, I would have some reason to be back in England again, and I would rent a bike and ride from Bristol up to the cemetery; it would be a nice ride. And they laid her in her grave, in a wicker casket, which seemed very fitting.

A group of us went to a pub nearby for lunch afterward, and comics that Debra had been involved in making got passed around; I got to look at some I hadn't seen before. Then we headed to Debra's house to pay our respects to the family and such friends as were still there. Talking to Debra's mother and stepfather, I found myself struggling for words; I found it hard to explain what Debra and I were to each other, and resorted, as so many queer folks do, to the language of "friends". Maybe it's something to do with that whole queer thing of not being able to assume there's a framework your relationships will fit into; maybe it's something to do with how none of it really makes sense if you can't assume the other person understands the notion of deep, meaningful, partially computer-mediated relationships. Probably some of both.

Debra's last LiveJournal post was about hummus. There are worse things one's last LiveJournal post could be about. Or rather... the last one I can see; due to me moving from LiveJournal to Dreamwidth, I'm no longer able to see a lot of her posts that I was able to see before, which is a little sad; I would have liked to re-read her posts from around the first time we met in person, especially.

And then the next morning, Jason did what only a true friend would do and drove me to the airport bus stop at 5:45 in the morning, and eventually I made it back to Vancouver, a place I can't lay any permanent claim on.

"well, it could be love
Or it could be just lust but it will be fun
It will be wonderful"

tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)

Brain Hacks

Almost a year ago, a friend and I had an offhand email exchange that led to me saying I wanted to write a blog post about what I've discovered so far in re: managing myself and getting myself to do things in a way leading to more happiness for myself. These tips apply to both work and personal goals (whether it's a hobby, household maintenance, making art, or keeping up friendships); I suspect for many people like me, the lines between can be blurry.

"Time management" is the best phrase for what this post is about, I suppose, though it's a phrase that has bad connotations for me (as I'll explain later). Though it's less succinct, I could also say it's a post about how to hack your brain in order to get what you want. (Are you not your brain? It's been a while since I took sophomore philosophy, but to a very rough approximation, I'm going to assume each of us is made up of communicating subprocesses that sometimes cooperate and sometimes conflict. An example is when part of you knows you have to get up for work at 7 AM tomorrow and that you need 8 hours of sleep per night if you're not going to feel awful, but you stay up until 2 AM looking at cat macros anyway, beccause another part of you needs to be soothed with something silly and familiar.) I could also describe it as self-organization or as being your own project manager. I suspect a lot of people know what I mean, though, and it certainly hasn't gotten any easier to deal with distractions and focus on what's important now that lots of us have the Internet next to our butts all day and night.

I feel a bit silly giving advice on self-organization, because I still feel pretty disorganized and that I'm pretty inefficient about how I do a lot of things. But this post isn't really advice so much as my notes on a collection of ongoing experiments. If these notes give you some ideas you can use, great! If not, well, science isn't always useful.

So here's what I've learned about getting things done. I only because willing to learn about it in past 5-6 years or so. That was about when I read the book Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen; it wasn't super helpful to me (partly because of its orientation towards using physical file folders rather than a computer, but maybe there is an updated edition now), but I did take away three good points from it:

  1. Keeping one's email inbox zero -- the book may even have been talking about a literal physical inbox, but it's the same zero. The author says that whenever you have an item in an inbox, that's something screaming out for your attention, and it causes anxiety because you don't know what the next step is towards addressing it. That's certainly true for me. So I've made more of an effort than I did before I read the book to keep email not in my inbox, and, if something is complicated, to make a to-do item to address is as opposed to just leaving it in my inbox. To-do items are better than emails in my inbox since they're attached to a particular day, if not a particular time (more about this later).
  2. GTD talks about knowing what the next step is rather than just having a huge, vague item on your to-do list; and also identifying the next step anytime you stop working on a given project to go rest or to work on something else. For example, if my to-do list says "start working on rustpkg", I will put that off, because it's a huge task and I don't know where to start. If it says "write a unit test for the install command", that's a much more approachable step, and will probably lead to more work beyond just that one little sub-task. I could make the first step even more specific than that, but get the idea.
  3. This is a bit like the first point, but: GTD talks about the importance of writing everything down. I'm still working on this, but it's one of the major principles that has allowed me to become a more functional person. I don't know if my memory is unusually bad, I just know I forget things if I don't write them down. This applies to both week-by-week schedules and, sometimes, just to sequences of tasks I do regularly. For example, a year or two ago I made a list of everything I do to get ready in the morning, and another one of everything I do before I go to bed at night (the latter one starts something like "take meds, brush teeth, use neti pot...", though actually I've even broken up some of those into more steps). This is because I noticed that I would forget to do things, as well as put off getting ready for bed because there were too many things to do and it was easier to be on the computer. It seems silly, but just having these lists has helped me a lot when it comes to going to bed when I'm actually tired (as opposed to staying up late because I'm too tired to coordinate getting to bed) as well as not sitting around for hours in the morning doing absolutely nothing because again, thinking about getting dressed and ready is overwhelming.

I'm pretty sure I have some sort of executive function issues; when people who are on the autism spectrum talk about executive function issues, it strikes a chord with me (though I've never been diagnosed with autism and many other aspects of being autistic don't seem to be things I've experienced), though I've never been formally diagnosed. I was provisionally diagnosed with inattentive ADD once, as an adult; unfortunately, the meds had no effect on me and so to me, there isn't much point knowing whether I have ADD, anxiety that acts like ADD, or something else. In any case, maybe it doesn't matter (for me), if I can find the right accommodations to make for myself and learn to be okay with making those accommodations for myself, with taking specific action to make things easier that might already be easier for a lot of people. But so what -- I'm not a lot of people.

While I'm talking about diagnoses, I'll also note that a lot of anxiety and maladaptive coping mechanisms come from having been treated very badly in the past. It's helpful to talk about these past experiences, but at least for me, that on its own doesn't make me able to function as an adult. I want to say this in as simple words as possible: I think the story that is often told about depression and anxiety as "chemical imbalances" is wrong or at least misleading. There is no doubt some amount of truth to it (though possibly not as much as we've been thinking) but the neat, tidy story that such illnesses are the result of random brain misfirings shifts blame from a society that enables systematic abuse of children and everyone else placed in a position of lesser power, onto individuals who can be deemed as defective and disregarded. Politically, I would feel dishonest if I didn't mention this, but on a pragmatic, day-to-day-survival-so-you-can-pay-the-rent-and-not-get-fired level, at least sometimes I have to occupy a mode where I'm just working with what I have.

How To Do Things

So here's what I've figured out about how to do things. I present it here not assuming that it will necessarily work for anyone else, but in the hopes that some of it might be adaptable or at least inspiring. I certainly wouldn't want to try to generalize, since then I would just be making stuff up, so I'm sticking to what specifically has worked for me. Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Debra, aka [livejournal.com profile] badasstronaut, was the first person I added as a friend on LiveJournal who I didn't already know, back in 2002. This was mainly on the basis of both of us having Nina Paley in our interests list. I met her in person when I visited her in Bristol, England in 2006 while I was interning at Microsoft Research. Unexpectedly, we became lovers. That didn't last (living on different continents will do that, though for a brief period, things were such that I actually considered moving to the UK), but we always remained friends. She visited me once when I lived in Portland, and I visited her twice more in Bristol; the last time I saw her was a year ago when she was visiting New York City with her wife Kris, and I flew out to NYC to see them.

Debra was creative, intellectually probing, and very funny. She made indie comics and was an educational developer and university lecturer; in that order (at least as I saw her). Unfortunately, most of her comics don't seem to be online, except for a few. She started out as a hairdresser before she went to grad school, and at one point planned to write a Ph.D dissertation on hairdressers' professional culture (but, like me, she never finished her Ph.D). When she lived in New Zealand, she also did feminist and other political activism.

She liked robots and bunnies and had a great sense of style. One of the times with her that I remember best was when I visited her after going to ICFP in Edinburgh, in September 2009; we went to a bed and breakfast in Hay-on-Wye for two nights and went kayaking and, one night, sat in the pub attached to the B&B drinking scrumpy (or at least I did) and listening to some guys literally talk about how to "make Britain great again".

There's so much more, but nothing I could say would be adequate. For the past year I've known that Debra was ill with breast cancer; she didn't seem to want to talk about it much, preferring to go on as normal, so I generally didn't press the issue. We did exchange emails on the subject of top surgery; rather than having a mastectomy with breast reconstruction, she wanted to have a male chest reconstructed so that she could present a more genderqueer appearance. She wrote to me back in September 2012:
Strangely, I am quite excited about it! It's funny - some women I've
talked to say they'd be most worried about the hair loss (what???) and
losing their bust. Those were the least of my concerns, and if I come
through all this successfully I feel I will be able to celebrate with
new clothes and almost a new persona. And I might take up running...

I will miss her so much. I know that her wife Kris and her mother took good care of her over the past year, and she wasn't lacking for support. Even so, I wish I'd been a bit more in touch with her instead of assuming she would prefer to be left alone.

This is the one picture of her I could find that I took (I have more, but am disorganized with my data), on that trip to Hay-on-Wye in 2009):
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (work)
I'm starting a job as a software engineer on the Research Team at Mozilla (where I interned from March to September this year), on January 2, 2012. I'll be working mainly from the San Francisco office and living in San Francisco (though I don't have housing yet -- let me know if you know of someone looking for a roommate or lease-taker-over!), spending some percentage of my time in the Mountain View office.

My term of employment concludes at the end of March, so anything is possible after that. Goat farming? Bicycle messengering? Returning to grad school, this time with mace? Or proving myself irreplaceable? Stay tuned...

What's in store for me in the meantime? Well, it probably looks a lot like this:


(I'm the gray and white furry one with the green eyes.)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
I was copying files hither and yon in conjunction with having a new computer. While watching filenames scroll by, I realized that my source disk contained a backup of the computer I used between 1995-1999; I hadn't been sure where that backup had been hiding.

The metadata on those old files was still intact, stunningly enough, and all the custom icons I had painstakingly attached to my folders when I was a 15-year-old Mac user with too much free time were still there. And if I can figure out how to open Microsoft Word 5.1 documents (strange to think of a time when I didn't know LaTeX), I can read my college application essays. I have no idea when I am ever going to re-read those transcripts of Unix Talk sessions from days long past, but I wouldn't dream of deleting them.

Some advice: don't re-read emails from the dead after midnight. It might make you want to cry.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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