I saw this headline on the BBC this morning and I thought, “You know, that is a wrong question.” The right question, I think, is, “How long should a company live?” Whether a company is successful or not, I am of the opinion that it ought to ride the carousel after a brief run and get reincorporated only if society at large thinks it’s a good idea. Seriously, do we want immortal sociopaths running our world?
The title of this post refers to a wonderful book of manners, “How to Behave, and Why” and I’m thinking about that particularly because we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t lie. We especially shouldn’t lie to the government. Not only is it not right thought nor right action nor right speech to lie, but it could get you into real trouble. And yet, I’m here today to tell you about a time when you really, really, should lie to the government.
When creating a user account at the Franchise Tax Board website, one is asked to provide security questions and answers which will be used for user name and password recovery. Note that the account is used to get tax information and to make tax payments. Pretty sensitive stuff. And yet, one is not permitted by the website to choose one’s own questions. One must select from a list of questions provided by the State. The list includes questions whose true answers would be easy enough to figure out just by looking at, say, one’s Facebook profile (what high school did you attend, what was the high school’s mascot, in what year did you graduate from high school, etc.).
The answer here is to lie like crazy, or even just make up gibberish and then write it down and put the questions and answers somewhere safe – a fire safe, for example. The government’s computer doesn’t care if you tell the truth, and you certainly care that nobody else has access to your tax records.
I have been listening to Niall Ferguson’s book, “The Ascent of Money,” and it’s making me nervous. I’ve read other popular books on economics, as I find I’m fascinated by the field. This is dovetailing in my mind with other books I’ve read: “Collapse,” by Jared Diamond, “What Went Wrong,” by Bernard Lewis, as well as histories of Alexander, the Byzantine Empire, and the Enlightenment. I’m wondering what horrible collapse I’m going to be experiencing in my lifetime. I am feeling highly motivated to try to ensure my family’s security but I don’t have a good idea what to do beyond what we’ve already done and what we continue to do: be frugal, be humble, and stay scrappy.
Shortly before I left my last job I was disillusioned with the company so much that I’d started interviewing at other places. I wasn’t a great match at any of the places I talked to, and then Junglemonkey convinced me just to quit. That was totally the right decision; it’s let me be bitter and play the bagpipes and spend time with my family, who are truly important to me.
Since then I’ve continued to receive emails from recruiters sounding me out for various companies, sometimes secretive and sometimes open both about their identities — “…well-funded pre-IPO company…” — and about their projects. All of these have just left me cold. They all just seemed reiterations of the last bubble and reading the pitches or trying to imagine myself working on their products I’d get tired. Tired the way that depression makes you tired: unable to imagine even wanting to keep breathing. Now, the offers aren’t unusual; around here anyone who can bang out code and has demonstrated any kind of competence gets a couple of these things a month. I gauge the strength of the job market by how many recruiter emails I see in a week. The anomalous thing for me lately is just how much these companies turn me off. A year ago I’d maybe roll my eyes at the hyperbolic buzzwords but now I feel disgust.
Junglemonkey expressed concern that maybe I was letting my bitter disappointment at the way things went at my last gig cloud my judgment. What if one of these recruiters were hiring for a company that I’d really love? I grudgingly agreed to try not to be so negative but really I just thought I’d have to start my own company to get that kind of satisfaction and excitement again.
But today I got a query that made my heart race. Would I be interested in doing what I do best at an organization I’ve wanted to work at since I could read? Seriously, is it even a question?
Well actually, it is a question. Four years from now, I’d love to have that kind of opportunity. Right now, though, I’m fully engaged in supporting my family. I’ve promised them that I’ll be doing domestic support while Junglemonkey takes her career off hold. I love my family and I’m not going to torpedo their lives just to chase a job with some geek status. This gives me some hope, though, and some confidence: I’m not hopelessly embittered by my last job. It is possible for me to be excited by the idea of working on the right project. Those other companies? They probably are soul-sucking jerks.
What do you find in a woodpile, besides wood? Anyone who spends only a couple of minutes thinking about it will come up with the straightforward answer: bugs. And yes, that’s what I find in our woodpile. I’ve found beetles, worms, millipedes, spiders, scorpions, rats, slugs, earwigs, and even a couple of salamanders. I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when a huge black widow came crawling over the log I was putting into the fireplace just now. Shouldn’t have been.
At least I didn’t let out a scream. I’ll cop to a shudder, though, and a renewed determination to wear gloves while I’m building the fire, not just when I’m tending it. Ugh.
I’ve been listening to a bunch of Commonwealth Club podcasts: Joel Brinkley on Israel, Eric Ries on “lean startups”, Gavin Newsom on the state of the state, and then this panel on public-private partnerships to boost jobs. By the time I got to the panel, I’d been completely primed to be thinking about structural change. Mr. Newsom mentioned that unemployment in the central valley is up near 30% and contrasted that with the statewide number of just over 12%, as an illustration of why it’d be a good thing for politicians to get out of their comfortable cities and go meet with people who really need their help. Mr. Ries was talking about how entrepeneurs really need to think scientifically about their businesses – a point of view that seems very natural to me and probably feels familiar to many folks who’ve been doing startups for a while, but which does go against the conventional wisdom about how to run a business. Mr. Brinkley made the excellent point that people who criticize the president of the United States or who criticize the foreign policy of the United States are not necessarily un-American nor anti-American, and that the same standard really ought to apply to any state, including Israel.
So here I am, all primed to think about structural problems in the California economy, my excitement at making a difference momentarily rekindled, and what does the panel start up with? Each panelist got to start out talking about how he or she saw the economy right now. Understandably, Nicole Levine, Executive Director for the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment for San Francisco and the Bay Area, talked about unemployment just for women — and then sliced it further into unemployment for various segments of non-white women. And then I started getting frustrated.
What that kind of segmentation says, to me, is that the person doing the segmenting doesn’t believe that the segments can or should be held to the same standards. One has got to be very careful about this kind of thinking; it’s one thing to look at all the demographic and economic data and say, “Gosh, we’ve got x% unemployment, and of people who’ve been unemployed and then started a business, y% of them fail within M months. Maybe we should see what’s going on with them versus the ones who don’t fail and see if there’s an opportunity to help them out.” It’s quite another thing to say, “You know, there’s unemployment, and there are people who try to start their own businesses, but I only care about the black and latina women and what’s up with their businesses.” And sure, that’s fine — there will always be more people who need help than there are resources to go around, so one has to target those resources. But it just struck me as…short sighted. What a weird way to segment things. Of course, any black or latina woman in San Francisco who wants to start a business would be a fool not to take advantage of those resources. I know that if I do decide to come out of retirement and start a company I am totally going to have my latina wife be the owner so it can get that kind of boost.
But I just don’t see that kind of segmentation as being a productive way to think about solving what is, fundamentally, a structural problem. The problem in California is not that black women don’t have jobs, it’s that Californians don’t have jobs. Many people are pointing out that big companies don’t create jobs, they eliminate them. Job growth comes from small businesses, so our attention ought to be on coming up with ways to make it easier for small businesses to get started and to succeed. To the extent that Women’s Initiative for Self Employment for San Francisco and the Bay Area is concerned with getting small businesses started up and running, they’re part of the solution and I think that’s awesome. But how much should a human who is not in San Francisco nor the Bay Area, or who is not a woman, care?
What’s this “-ism trap” I refer to in the title? It’s particularism; thinking that women, or Jews, or blacks, or white men with blue eyes are somehow fundamentally different from all other human beings and that businesses or states run by these people must therefore be subject to different rules than those that apply to every other human being. It’s thinking that, if I point out that gravity does too affect them the way it affects everyone else, that means that I must necessarily be anti-woman, anti-Jew, anti-black, or anti-white-blue-eyed-man.
In a time when everyone is having trouble, this particularism feels to me like a weird sort of inverted contest where the challenge is to be the most victimized segment. What good does that do? How does that make our world better? “Victim” is a powerless position. People who define themselves as victims are defining themselves as powerless. That’s not a position of hope, that’s a position of despair. I’ve had my own struggles with despair and I don’t want to get sucked into that trap. The only way out of victimhood is to stop being a victim. And once you stop being a victim, you join the rest of humanity in trying to solve our problems, not just the problems of some particular demographic segment.
We’ve changed this blog to use WordPress instead of our own hosted Drupal installation, and I’ve got all the old posts dumped to an XML file. WordPress doesn’t know how to import the schema we’ve got, though, and it’s made trickier in that the posts to all three of our blogs were stored in the same database table. So getting it all sorted out into a file format that WordPress can import is taking a bit of time. What we have is a single file of XML. What we want are three files formatted as WXS (which is a WordPress specific format that sort of looks like XML but which isn’t actually documented anywhere). I do have a sample WXS file which I’m using to reverse engineer the transformation, but I’m also going to want to split the posts up, some to this blog, some to the QBCPS blog, and most to Junglemonkey‘s blog.
If each record were a single line, I could probably use sort, grep, and tee to get two files (things I wrote and things Junglemonkey wrote), but there’s still a manual sorting that will have to happen, with the bulk of the work not being mine. I think I can come up with a nice looking interface that shows the list of all the records and, for whatever record is currently selected, the post’s text and author. Then the user can assign the post to one of the destination blogs. When that’s all done, the program can then output the three WXS files and we can try to import them. If this all works, I’ll probably share the app somehow.
Today I made some really beautiful noise on the pipes. “Too Long in This Condition” was, I think, the high point. The taorluaths were happening, my hands were relaxed, and the drones were well-tuned. I’m making progress with “The Sleeping Tune” and getting speed with “Cullen Bay”. Today I felt like I could play for hours; I love when I’m in that zone.
I’ve still got lots of practice chanter work to do, though. I’m still struggling with my first strathspey, and I’ve got to get memorizing “Catherine’s Lament.”
The outside tenor still has a tendency to choke with moisture, and my chanter reed keeps growing fuzz. I’ve been brushing bleach on it and that seems to work for a couple of days but that’s all. Next, I’ll try Listerine, maybe even swab out the stock and bag with it. Whiskey doesn’t work, I know that much.
I’m now in what most people would consider an enviable position. Materially, my family has everything we need, and I’ve accomplished my big dreams. We’ve achieved comfort and a measure of security. So, what do I do now?
It’s not like I haven’t been here before. When I was 25, I was getting paid to be a computer programmer. Aside from being a fireman (pre-kindergarten dream) or an asteroid miner (you may laugh, but acknowledge that the SF geeks from high school are the nerds who made bank in the 90s), computer programmer was my dream. It was what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I’d accomplished that by twenty five. I figured I was on extra guys at that point, and sort of wandered. After a few years, I figured out that I wanted to have a family and that I wanted to work on something that made an actual difference.
Okay, so now I’ve done that. And, in case anyone is wondering, that feels great. Wonderful. I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re not working on making something that you think ought to exist in the world, then quit. Now. Don’t spend any more of your life than you absolutely have to in making the world a worse place. Be a good scout and make the world better.
But, now what? I’ve taken up the bagpipes, and that’s personally very rewarding. I’m practicing and I’m trying to get good enough to play with the band. It’ll happen, I’m sure, and fairly soon. At the very least, I’m not making the world a worse place, but I have a hard time thinking that my piping is going to do anything beyond making me and, indirectly through getting me out of the house, my family happy.
Since I left my last job, I’ve received a lot of pings from recruiters. There are lots of companies in the Bay Area who want me to come work for them. But honestly, every time I look at what these guys are doing I just feel tired. I don’t feel excited about the products they’re making. At best, I think they’re okay for some people and probably won’t be the direct cause of Satan’s triumph over humankind. Mostly, though, they just seem like the kind of soul-sucking misery that is the epitome of evil. Businesses whose whole model is based on exploiting human weakness, whose success depends on the customers’ giving in to one of the seven deadly sins, I’m not interested in working for them.
So right now, what do I want? I want to be a good piper, I want to be a good husband, I want to be a good father, and I want to put good into the world. I’m still working on the actual implementation. I guess I need to come up with a new dream. I’m not that good at dreams; I’m better at nightmares. But I refuse to work on my nightmares. I’m just going to have to get better at dreaming.