World AIDS Day

This is a day that I’m usually pretty quiet about, because it’s a puzzle to me how to respectfully respond to it. You see, I’m a queer guy (not a gay guy) in his mid-fifties. Personally, and for reasons I won’t get to in greater detail here, that difference between queer and gay is a huge part of the reason why I managed to both avoid that HIV bullet myself, and avoid the experience of having most of my close friends die, despite being the “right” age to have experienced both.

Therefore, I can’t really relate any sort of the personal horror stories that most gay men of my age can, nor do I really feel in any way like a survivor (or have any consequent survivor’s guilt). So I’ll just have to say that while I haven’t personally experienced much of the impacts many of my friends my age have, I understand that many of them have, and that it must have been terrible.

I will say that I have had the pleasure of meeting many unassuming people who were fierce warriors during the era when AIDS was a crisis in the First World. That latter part is important; in many parts of the Third World, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS is still a huge crisis today. It is due to AIDS that many African nations have a lower life expectancy today than they did 30 years ago.

Finding Your Strengths Can Be Difficult

I remember when I first figured out I was naturally good at discrete math, probability, and statistics. It was in a probability theory class, which up to that point had been easy. Then came the unit on Bayes’ Theorem. Up went a welter of new and confusing notations on the board, accompanied by a confusing, mind-numbing, and nonsensical welter of jargon. For the first time in the class, I was lost.

The end of the class came. Unexpectedly, the teacher assigned a problem which to my eyes had nothing to do with all the confusing mumbo-jumbo of the past hour. Moreover, the apparent answer was so cryingly obvious I couldn’t fully understand why the professor would ask anyone to solve such a self-evident exercise. Hoping to clarify the past hour of confusion, I blurted out a question to the effect “Well, offhand, the answer is intuitively (some number), because the second event is a sub-event of the first, and that’s a product of the two probabilities, but I’m not sure that’s right by the theory you just discussed.”

The professor scowled at me, because I had just ruined his homework assignment by answering it and explaining the logic behind it, and he now had to cook up another one on the spot. It was then that I thought back about times I’d run across sets of math problems in puzzle books: generally difficult, but with a few mysteriously easy probability or statistics ones thrown in for some reason.

It dawned on me: those “easy” problems really weren’t intrinsically easy; I was gifted at solving them. The problems just seemed easy, because they were easy… to me. In the absence of any data on how challenging those branches of mathematics were for others to understand, I had been operating on unrepresentative information and laboring under the misconception that my level of talent was representative.

That latter assumption is usually a valid one, of course. In most things, talent is distributed according to a bell curve, and odds strongly favor one being somewhere near the middle of it. The rub is, usually and always are not the same thing.

Nearly everyone has at least some areas where they excel far above the norm, but the principle above can make it difficult for one to realize those strengths. For those trying to assess their strengths, or to build a career based on them, this can make that task difficult.

For those trying to advise others, it can render their advice far less useful. Consider this article. It’s a common thread I’ve run across: just follow your passion and everything will sort itself out.

Sorry, wrong. No, it won’t—not unless you’re very lucky and by random chance happen to choose something that’s marketable. I speak as someone who pissed away four years of his life doing just that sort of passion-following and hoping for something to come of it. Nothing ever did.

You see, that author has innate entrepreneurial ability, and I do not. While he was “simply following his passions” he was also filtering them for marketability without even realizing it, or at least without realizing how difficult that can be for others not so gifted as he. He simply assumed he was normal and virtually everyone else shared his special ability. He wrote a whole book on helping the innately entrepreneurial make careers for themselves while believing he was writing a book useful for everyone.

More on That in This Post

A couple posts ago, I wrote:

Part if it is that I may be moving further west and simply not visiting this particular cranberry-harvesting spot in future years (more on that in another post).

Today, it became rather more likely that I will be doing just that. At my most recent job, I interviewed for a software developer position. I was informed that there would be some on-call duty to support mission-critical software in those cases where front-line people can’t resolve the problem, but not much.

While I positively loathe on-call duty, I’ve managed to shirk it in the past by taking pains to release only well-tested software, and engineering in reliability to the code I write (e.g. designing things so that if components fail, the consequences of the failure tend to be less severe and self-healing). My code would sometimes fail over a weekend (nobody writes perfect code), but never badly enough that I’d get called to put out an emergency fix.

Such shirking works if you’re a developer (and employers love it; it means you’ve written reliable software). But for a sysadmin, it’s basically impossible: emergency response is a core part of the job. It’s one of the reasons I got out of systems administration and became a developer. One of them: I also simply find the creative aspect of designing and writing code to be intrinsically fun in a way that messing with system and network configuration parameters never can be.

Anyhow, it turns out that the position which had been advertised as a developer job (and which I had been hired for) had morphed into a systems and network administration one in the months between when I interviewed and when I was hired. Or so my boss said this afternoon, and I have no real reason to doubt him; he comes across as basically an honest guy.

I just wish he hadn’t assumed I’d be OK with that just because I mentioned having been a systems administrator in the past. I never mentioned the part about getting burnt out doing it, because I didn’t want to appear negative.

I’m resigning the position. There’s really no alternative. When I burned out on systems administration in 2002, I was so thoroughly burned out that I adopted what I call Rule No. 1: no more systems administration, no matter what. It’s a good rule, and a necessary one: I’ve come to despise systems administration so much that any stint of it I do, I’m fated to be resentful and do a terrible job. I’ll just end up getting canned for poor performance within a year, anyhow. Then I’ll have to recover from that. Better off to nip the problem in the bud and get out now. I call it Rule No. 1 for a reason.

I guess the moral of the story is that there is simply no good way to mention past experience in systems administration in an interview. Either you signal a whiny, negative attitude (if you mention being burned out on it), or you signal a willingness to do systems administration. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

At this stage, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it was a mistake for me to get a computer science degree so many years back. I’ve almost never had good high-tech jobs, and the few good ones haven’t lasted. As the old saw goes: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

So it’s time to get truly busy with the difficult process of moving on from high-tech work. What that will be exactly, I don’t know yet, though I do have more ideas than I’ve had in the past.

What I will say is that it probably doesn’t make much sense to continue living in the Seattle area:

  1. The availability of tech work is why I decided to move back to this area, and that point has now been mooted.
  2. The Seattle area has become increasingly expensive; given how my new income is going to be significantly reduced, I’m better off living someplace more affordabole.
  3. The above is particularly the case given how I don’t think Seattle is really that great a city; it suffers too much from too many decades of poor planning and lack of vision. There’s not enough large parks near the urban core, and Seattle’s mass transit is decades behind most other West Coast cities.

All in all, I’d love to live in a place like Portland, if my allergies weren’t so bad there, that is. Portland has Forest Park, and great mass transit. I can’t have both the city and nature like that in Seattle; I must choose one or the other. If compelled to choose, I will choose nature every time. Conveniently, that’s also the option that involves a lower cost of living.

So it’s likely I’ll be moving further away from the big city, probably to the Olympic Peninsula, though it’s still very early in the visioning and decision process and that could easily all change.

Back from Camping

Cape Flattery was spectacular and well worth seeing, but the camping options near it leave something to be desired. In particular, Hobuck Beach got crowded sooner than I thought (by Thursday evening; I was expecting it to get bad Friday and as such had planned to leave Friday morning). Worse, it attracts clueless idiots who think it’s a reasonable thing to fire up generators for their RV’s at quarter to five in the morning.

Prompted by that camping experience, I craved balance, so I decided not to go to Lake Ozette on Friday. Instead, I went into the Olympic Mountains and did some dispersed camping on national forest land, because I craved silence and solitude. I figured I could look for high-elevation huckleberries, part of an ongoing search. They’re easy enough to find in the Cascades, but not so easy to find in the Olympics.

And I found them. Not just a few bushes, good for a snack and that’s it (all I’ve found before in the Olympics). They weren’t near where I camped, so on Sunday I packed up and started driving to a spot on the map that looked promising (higher in elevation). The road became impassible before I reached that area, but at the same spot I was compelled to turn around, there they were. I found the silence and solitude, too. It was delightful to fall asleep to the sounds of no other human activity.

Today, for the first time in many years, I made mountain huckleberry jam again.

Tomorrow, I start my new job, which I certainly hope turns out to be a better match than my previous one.

At Last, a New Job

At long last, I have a job. I’ve actually been pretty sure of it for some time, but the process of getting a sure-thing offer has been bureaucratic, so I’ve held off posting about it until it was indeed a sure thing. It’s at a Fortune 500 company, not a startup, so bureaucracy is to be expected.

All my past experience to date indicates there are no truly good matches for me in the high tech world, so I’m not expecting this to be a one. The one time I did find an apparently good match, it didn’t last. Realistically, that’s about the best I can expect from this gig: 2 to 3 years before the level of change accrues to make it no longer a match for me. At the least, I have every reason to expect it will be better than the egregious mismatch that led me to depart from my previous job.

My hope is that will be sufficient time to allow me to pursue opportunities out of the high tech world by then. I was faced with the task of attempting that transition right now, when things are just not quite to the point where I’m financially ready for it. Now it seems I will have time to prepare.

I did get the job by breaking my Taleo rule; even though it was at a firm that uses Taleo, I applied anyhow, because the listing indicated the job was a far better-than-normal match for my particular skill set. I figured that if I took care to use every last buzzword in the job listing someplace in the data I fed into Taleo, I stood a better-than-average chance of getting a phone call in return for my efforts. I didn’t actually bother to enter in my entire résumé by hand, because I could fill out the Taleo forms honestly for my past two jobs and end up using all the required buzzwords.

I figured that the hiring manager would be mostly interested in my résumé, and if my attempt at hacking my way through Taleo was successful, I’d have a later chance to amend that information and make it complete. The cost in time and effort would become worth it once there was a very good chance of being hired if I did so. (The cost in time and effort is not worth it otherwise.)

The moral of the story is that no set of hard-and-fast rules can always be applicable to all situations. One has to have the flexibility to make exceptions.

My start date is Tuesday the 4th. That means it’s time for a combination end-of-summer and celebratory camping trip, starting as soon as possible. I’m about to start packing this afternoon, and plan to be underway after breakfast tomorrow morning.

I plan to visit Neah Bay and revisit Lake Ozette. As the wording implies, I’ve never been to the former place at all, despite long being curious about just what the northwestern extreme of Washington state is like.

Neah Bay was actually the alternate destination for this trip; several weeks ago, when I came up with possible places to visit, the Mowich Lake area of Mt. Rainier came up at the top of the list. However, it’s supposed to be cloudy, rainy, and quite chilly at that altitude for a good chunk of the next few days. The coast will still be damp at times, but I can expect the temperatures to be milder. Mowich Lake will have to wait for another year.

So I’m about to head off. It’s unlikely you’ll see anything more posted here until I return.

And I’m Back

Since the main focus of the trip was for volunteer work, which is actually work (just because work is unpaid does not mean it is not work), there is paperwork to fill out.

Encouraged by others, I decided to give the electronic versions of the paperwork a try. They’re all Microsoft Word documents, of course. Despite Word being a mediocre typesetting program, and being properiety, and being expensive, it is what virtually everyone uses. And may I add much to my annoyance due to the previously mentioned factors.

“Just use Open Office” they said when I mentioned not having (nor wanting to squander money on) Microsoft Word. I should have realized what the outcome of that exercise would be, but me being generous to a fault, I gave it a try.

Naturally it was an exercise in revealing just how low most people’s standards are when it comes to document layout. Neither Word, nor Preview, nor Open Office rendered the forms properly. All made messes of the layout which rendered any attempts at filling them out ambiguous. That may not matter to most, but it does matter to me: I don’t want my submitted forms to simply result in back-and-forths with multiple clarifying questions (or, worse yet, incorrect data being entered).

Three strikes and electronic document submission is out. I ended up printing the form out and filling it in by hand, as usual.

A Tale of Two Airports

At Sea-Tac, I arrived to find all luggage windows closed save for two, despite a crush of incoming passengers. A huge line snaked through the terminal to those two.

I got into it, and within minutes was told that there was a problem with one of the conveyor belts, so the pair of agents was being shifted to another set of windows. Everyone was told to move to the new set about 100 feet away.

No measures were taken to ensure anyone’s spot in line was preserved. A number of people who had just arrived managed to get in front of those of us who had been already waiting for a while.

The whole process took fifteen minutes. At Sea-Tac, this hardly rates a mention. Once I almost missed a flight because I had only arrived at the terminal a mere hour before the scheduled departure time, and the wait to check a bag was nearly fifty minutes.

Then I have to get through security. Without much explanation or clear signage, two of the security checkpoints have been converted to pre-check only. Those two were in a row. There were no signs pointing to a non-pre-check security checkpoint. Naturally this caused me to get into the wrong line and have to wait twice to go through security.

At Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, there were three agents staffing the baggage check windows despite it being a far smaller airport with far less passenger influx. There was no wait whatsoever. The security checkpoints were clearly labeled and again there was no wait.

I was about to get annoyed because there were no seats anywhere with outlets near them, then I notice a row of carrels with desks, each with a pair of outlets, for those with laptop computers to use. Instead of having to hunch over my computer while it’s on my lap, I am sitting at a desk much as I do at home.

Maybe I wouldn’t hate flying quite so much as I do if my home airport didn’t so abjectly suck.

A Strange Book

So, a week or so ago, I was passing through the campus of the University of Washington when I noticed two brand-new copies of a book sitting on a bench outside. It was a novel, not a textbook, so evidently someone had been passing them out as free samples, and two takers had decided to leave them. Being a chance to get a brand-new book for free, and the book not obviously being a political or religious sect’s recruiting text, I decided to take one.

The book was Wild Animus by Rich Shapero. It’s a somewhat strange (and not entirely realistic) tale about an LSD-using graduate student who takes his hallucinations a little too seriously, eventually to the point of perishing near the summit of Alaska’s Mt. Wrangell.

Two articles on the book may be found here and here.

It turns out that free distribution is evidently the main way the book passes into the hands of the public, and that college campuses are one of the typical venues for such distribution. Apparently it’s written by a somewhat eccentric high-tech millionaire who has decided it’s a good value for his money to pay significant sums having copies of his stories printed, and then to distribute them for free.

I can’t quite share the resentment of the reviews of some of its readers. It’s something of a trippy tale, which turned out to be just about the perfect thing for me to have read during my recent camping trip, on which I did not take any cannabis. The book provided a conveniently drug-free means of entering into a somewhat trippy state of mind.

Having read it, I will now sneak it into the nearest Little Free Library. I will almost certainly not be the first person to sneak a copy of this work into one!