LMT N°2: New beginnings and delayed transmissions

Well, the first (only!) newsletter went out in August of last year, which means this is almost a year late! .. I’m not going to try to cover all of the year in between so that I might actually get this one written.

LMT N°2: New beginnings and delayed transmissions

Well, the first (only!) newsletter went out in August of last year, which means this is almost a year late! I’d wanted these to be quarterly, but that didn’t happen. I guess we’ll see how often I get dispatches written. In the meantime, I’m not going to try to cover all of the year in between so that I might actually get this one written. However, I will say that one of the biggest things that happened in Novemberish was finally working through a long period of pretty serious depression; it’s maybe the single biggest change to my life in a long while.

On stringed instruments

I’ve still been playing the banjo but I’ve also been taking up the guitar through Tony’s Acoustic Challenge. It’s going pretty well, comparatively; I feel better on the guitar than I think I did at this point in my banjo playing, but that might just be due to the fact that the guitar isn’t my first instrument and I now have some musical background. Picking individual strings on the guitar is still a challenge, and I’m not sure I’ve found The Pick for me; pick preferences seem to change based on which guitar I’m playing, too. I’m also still trying to adjust to the wider neck and more strings of the guitar --- it’ll come, just needs more practicing.

I decided this week that it’s been too long since I’ve learned a new banjo song (I haven’t been taking lessons, just playing things I already know or goofing around), and picked one of my favourites from Kaia Kater’s first album - Rose on the Mountain. At some point, I’ll have a recording of the in-progress version; I’m almost through mechanically learning the notes for the first part but I still need to get the rhythm down.

One of the things that got me back to trying to learn guitar again was that a friend of mine from London was in town. He’s been playing guitar for over thirty years and I managed to convince him to help me pick out my first acoustic. The one we found is just lovely and has a gorgeous sound. It was custom made in the 1960s by a local luthier for his daughter. I just hope that I learn enough to do it justice!

Musically related, I got to see one of my favourite bands in June: Trampled by Turtles. They released a new album after nearly four years, and it was really good. I liked it a lot better than their most recent albums. I'd bought a pair of tickets to go, but ended up breaking up with the lady I was going to go see it with the week before; on the plus side, I had two seats to myself.

I've also found some new favourite music: a coworker introduced me to Caitlin Canty and The Small Glories. I put some representative songs into a Spotify playlist, for those so inclined. I've been particularly drawn to Caitlin Canty's music; I think she writes and plays the kind of music I want to end up writing and playing, too.

On jobs and employment

In March of 2014, I drove 21 hours straight from Aurora to San Francisco to start a new job. It was an exciting, slightly terrifying experience, but in the end it paid off. However, as they say, all good things must come to an end; on the 1st, I start a new job.

The road to the new job has been a while in the making. I’ve been feeling like I’d stagnated and was unhappy with the day-to-day work at my current job. However, the company was a good place to work --- they do good things and the people are great. On a whim, I took a screening quiz for a recruiting agency; I did well enough that they scheduled a video conference screening session for a technical run through and much to my surprise, I was accepted into their program.

I was taken aback by the deluge of companies looking for interviews. I’m at a somewhat senior position at my current place, which is admittedly mostly by virtue of having been around for a while, making scheduling time for interviews (which are usually full day affairs) difficult. I think I ended up only interviewing at 5 or 6 companies out of two or three times that number, and even that was quite difficult to manage.

The other thing that I wasn’t quite prepared for was the feeling that people were genuinely interesting in having me onboard. The recruiting agency sent me two “kits”: one had a nice rain shell, and the next had a backpack, notebook, and coffee cup. I can’t use any of this, though, as I have a no tech-logo sort of rule on these things. They also sent me the book Cracking the Coding Interview; it’s sort of a compendium of “things software engineers are expected to know” book with lots of problems to work through; I don’t think it’s representative of what all software engineers actually need to know. It was fun working through a lot of the problems, though, and I do think it helped with interviewing at a lot of places. As you can see in the photo below, I was studying pretty hard.

Of all the places I interviewed, four gave me offers. All of them had interesting work, though their public missions were various levels of appealing --- I should note, however, that a requirement for working at a company is that their work can’t be unethical; I’d like to be happy with what the company is doing. It’s not that it needs to be about “saving” or “changing” the world, but doing good things is a hard requirement. I’m also not interested in companies that only serve customers on the high end; for example, one company that got in touch did apartment rentals for high-end business customers. This isn’t to knock it but to say that’s just not the right environment for me.

One of the biggest changes in the new job will be the commute. At my current job, I have to take the BART (the subway-like train that goes under the Bay) or take a bus across the bridge. I’m in between two BART stations that take about a 5-10 minute bicycle ride; the problem with BART is that taking your bike on the trains can be difficult, and I wouldn’t trust my bike to be safely locked up at the station all day. On top of that, I’d rather bike down from the BART station in San Francisco to work. The bus works a lot better if you want to also have a bike, but the time between buses varies based on the time of day: sometimes it’s ten to fifteen minutes between buses, and sometimes it’s a half hour or longer. On top of that, there’s only two bike slots on the bus (some buses do have three), and I’ve found myself missing two or even three buses in a row because the bike racks were full. This is, as you might imagine, quite frustrating. Combine this with having to base your time around bus schedules, and it gets old pretty fast. (Yes, I could drive across, and deal with fuel costs, horrendous traffic and drivers, and exorbitant parking fees near work. I very quickly realised I wasn’t going to do that.)

This new job is a fifteen minute or so bicycle ride from my house and in the same city I live in (Oakland), and is less than a five minute bike ride to my climbing gym (which has both a gym and a climbing wall).

At first, it wasn’t going to be an increase in pay (though it was the lowest offer of all the offers I got), but my recruiter gave me some tips on asking for more (something I’m very not good at), and the new place agreed. That made it pretty difficult to say no to…

I’ll be doing software engineering, still, but a  different kind of work than what I have been doing (for those of you in the know, I’m moving from systems engineering to backend engineering and eventually “full stack”). I’ve also talked with people over there about putting together a career development plan --- something my career has been sorely lacking. I’m mostly self-taught, and I’ve never really gotten great feedback as to what I was doing right. It’s all a giant change for me, and I’m approaching it with an excited trepidation. There’s a lot of changes here that even six months ago I wouldn’t have been prepared to take because I had to get over myself and release a lot of unproductive strongly-held opinions on things. It’s a byproduct of some of the personal growth I’ve been experiencing and cultivating.

On the great outdoors

I haven’t been to the mountains much this year (I didn’t make it skiing at all!); one day of outdoor climbing, and one car camping trip in the Sierras. I’ve been bikepacking a few times, where you fill your panniers with camping gear and ride to campsite. There’s a few options around here; the last trip was in Marin (where the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge lands) and it was beautiful.

The car camping was good --- we were supposed to climb, and we tried one route, but I’d thrown out my back and wasn’t really going to be able to do it. And, Mom and Dad, I finally got to use the hammock. It's pretty comfortable!

I am going this weekend, though. There’s a 12 mile looping trail with some lakes. I’m excited!

With the extra money from the new job, I plan on getting a truck shortly. I won’t be taking vacation in between, but I will be planning a trip up the coast and maybe to Glacier National Park in Montana later on. I’m split on when to do that one, because I’d rather not do it when there’s a ton of snow and bad weather, but Montana in the winter sounds beautiful too.

Once I have a truck, my goal will be to get to the mountains at least one weekend every month. Camping, backpacking, sleeping in the back of my truck, wherever and whatever, find me in the wild places.

A friend and I have started trail running on the weekends, too. This last run was just over six miles (not quite a 10K) but early enough in the morning to be rewarded by a lovely run in the fog in the redwoods. The giant trees lend a sense of quiet timelessness, the fog a stillness, and the cool air a tranquility. My heart was bursting with happiness; I'm looking forward to more runs there.

On the printed word

I’ve been reading, though maybe not as often as I’d like. On the technical side, I’ve been fascinated lately by quantum computing and I’m currently working through Quantum Computing for Computer Scientists; I chose to start with this one because the first two chapters build the maths background needed to understand the rest of the book. The other books I have (Quantum Algorithms via Linear Algebra and Quantum Computing: A Gentle Introduction) assume a stronger maths background than what I have, so they'll have to wait. Another technical book I'd like to get through is called the The Jee Book: Adventures in Physical Computing, named after Jee Labs. The author is the kind of engineer I want to end up as, exploring and engaging the world by building things with a certain curiosity.

I've been trying to read less fiction by percentage of my total reading; some of the nontechnical books I've read recently are

  • Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck. Like so many Steinbeck books, I fell in love with this one pretty quickly. It's funny how little America has changed, really. There's a lot to like to this one and a lot of philosophizing on people, America, and life in general. I found about this book from a Trampled By Turtles Song (it's the Steinbeck book referenced in the song "Thank You, John Steinbeck;" of course, I had to read it. This happens to me a lot --- finding out about books from songs, other books, movies, or whatnot and the books turn out to be amazing; for example, one of my other favourite books is Wind, Sand, and Stars, which I think I found out about from All The Light We Cannot See (another great book!)
  • Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, is another one of those great travel essay books. Abbey was a park ranger for a bit at Arches National Park in Utah. He writes about the desert and living in the wilderness with a lot of passion. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I'll say I definitely agree with him.
  • The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, by Matthew Crawford, is a book I picked up while on a museum day (where I go check out a museum, usually in the morning, then get lunch, find a bookstore, and get coffee). The premise of this book is that we need to spend more time building physical skills and not be so tied to our phones. I really enjoyed reading it.
  • The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability--Designing for Abundance, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, makes the premise that we should design objects not with a cradle-to-grave perspective, but with a cradle-to-cradle perspective: when the things we make are no longer useful, how do we make them useful again? For example, a t-shirt might end up with any number of other uses besides clothing once they're too tattered to wear. Making things biodegradable or trying to source non-toxic components could go a long ways, too. One of the points that the book makes that I really liked is that if you set out with the mindset of trying to limit the harm your product can do (e.g. making sure you use non-toxic paints), it puts a natural limit on how beneficial it can be --- you can, at best, end up not doing any harm. This isn't a bad thing, per se, but if you go with the mindset of maximizing the benefits of a product, you'll also be working to minimize the harm while also not constraining yourself to how beneficial your thing can be. The authors do a lot better job of explaining this (maybe that's why they're the ones to have written the book), but I thought it a useful way to approach the world.

I have a bad habit of underlining and writing in my books, then not  copying those notes and underlines anywhere; otherwise, I'd share some.

For fiction, I read a couple sci-fi books that were pretty good if you're into the kind of sci-fi I'm into: After On, Gnomon (a real mind trip, that one), Bandwidth, and Void Star are the standouts. They're all pretty good. I also read Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, which is a fantastically imaginative collection of stories about cities that don't actually exist (but maybe could). It's hard to describe, but it's a short read that I really enjoyed.

On routines and rituals

One of the things that depression made difficult was sleeping at all. Now that I'm free of this, I've been trying to stick to a 4 AM wake up time, with a list of things to get done. In doing so, I've found myself in a much better mood than I've been in for a long while. One of the things I try to do in the mornings now is to write in my journal. As I write this, it's been five days straight of writing, and a lot of days in the last month with a few gaps here and there (I only recently "formally" committed to trying to write in my journal every day). One of the things I don't like about where I'm at with that is that my writing is still very "journalistic." That is, I haven't really done a lot of creative writing. One thing that might help with that is continuing to write this newsletter regularly. It doesn't have to be creative writing, per se, but I can have fun with it and see what happens.

Another thing is the idea of formalizing your intents. I'm using an app now, mostly because it automates a lot of the drudgery behind this, but by writing down the things that I want to accomplish and having it be a checklist in the morning, it's easier for me to make sure that it happens. It works as a kind of commitment to oneself, agreeing to do a thing and then making sure you stick with it. I've been happy with the results so far.

And that's all I have for now. I'm sure this thing is riddled with typos and more than a little rambly, but I'm going to send it out anyways so I get something out there. Thanks for reading!

  • K