Unemployment and its discontents

My “career” has been frustratingly unstable—the longest time I’ve held a job was five years. Since I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2002, I’ve never hit a three-year anniversary anywhere. (Nearly all of this short-timing comes from layoffs or working on contract.) My savings account (and more recently a “safety net” investment account at Betterment) exists as a cushion for lean times; I want four to six months of coasting time before panic sets in.

But when I was laid off in September 2017 after only nine months at a new job, I realized that between my checking account and a generous-for-such-a-short-gig severance package, I wouldn’t need to start looking until the start of the new year. And, man, I felt like I could use a break.

So I took one.

I drove up the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway (too quickly, and I should have ended up in Portland to visit Hale Pele), doubled down on exploring microbreweries around Northern California, and spent three weeks in Florida while still somehow managing not to see everyone there I wanted to. (It’s not a huge number; I just didn’t plan well.)

Starting in early January, I did start looking for work, and it’s been a mixed bag. I’ve gotten nibbles from companies I should have followed up on but—for reasons that made sense at the time—didn’t, followed up on other contacts that didn’t go anywhere, and had one rather stinging rejection. I have one prospect I’m talking with that may turn into my first face-to-face interview in this hunt. Things have felt tougher this time around, although that perception may be colored by how long it’s been since I last went into an office. I’ve been actively looking less than two months, but I’ve been out of work for five.

And this has led to a disquieting realization. I’m kind of, you know, enjoying this. Not going into an office? Cool. Working on whatever I want to, wherever I want to work on it? Also cool. I joke about living the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle—the one in his old songs, not the one he actually lives being a multimillionaire running the 5,000-employee Margaritaville┬« corporation—but, y’know, I’d kinda like that.

Between unemployment and that cushion I mentioned, I can probably coast for another six months. Part of me really wants to see if I can build up a writing/editing income during that time. Hitting the equivalent of a full-time income—hell, even netting what I’d need to stay afloat without replenishing savings—would be tough, though. Yes, I know this is made far worse by living in one of the most expensive regions in the country. But moving is never simple or cheap, and I wouldn’t be saving as much on rent as one might hope unless I got another roommate. (I have one here, but we’ve been friends for over two decades, and I think we’re mostly fine with one another’s quirks at this point. I’m not keen on living with strangers.)

Even so, moving back to Florida has been in the back of my mind for years. A decade ago I’d have considered that some kind of failure, but I’ve been out here for over fifteen years. My mother is in her mid-70s now, living alone, and has no other immediate family; it makes sense for me to be closer to her sometime soon. A few years ago, I’d expected to be passing my four-year anniversary at RethinkDB this March, be in excellent financial shape, and working up the nerve to propose I move cross-country and work remotely. Ironically, now that I’m ostensibly more free to do that, I’m less certain it can happen. Actually finding a job out here is likely to keep me cemented in place another…well, ideally two or three years, although that’s nothing I’m gonna count on at this point. (To be fair, it could be more.)

I suspect, though, that no matter what happens, I’m going to see if I can find ways to build “alternate income streams.” I’m sure I can go back to an office again, there are some cool employers out there, and I’d like to squirrel away more money. (I started saving for retirement fairly late in life, although I’m not sure I could have started much earlier, realistically speaking.) But I think I’d like for my next office job to be my last one.

The “A” word

In the wake of Apple’s HomePod release, I’ve seen talk about whether it is or isn’t an “audiophile” speaker. A Reddit post went through an inordinate number of tests to argue that yes, in fact, it is; Chris Connaker of The Computer Audiophile goes into great golden ear detail to call bullshit.1

First off, let’s address the snake oil in the room. There’s a decades-long debate in audio circles between “objective” (if you can’t measure a difference, you can’t hear a difference) and “subjective” (measurements don’t capture everything you can hear in terms of sound quality). While I lean toward the objectivist side, the subjectivists aren’t intrinsically bananas; it’s not hard to find audio components—particularly speakers—with similar measurements that still produce different sound.

The problem that we run into is when subjectivists step beyond “there are things you can hear that aren’t reflected in measurements” and stand firmly on “there are things you can hear which can’t be subject to testing, period, only listening.” This, in a nutshell, is how audiophile came to be synonymous in the popular imagination with rich white guy who buys $550 USB cables. Sure, the fact that nobody can consistently distinguish the sound of that cable from a $5 one might be due to an inherent flaw with the very concept of double-blind testing, but there are other possibilities one could plausibly entertain.

My own definition of audiophile is fairly prosaic: someone who wants a system capable of reproducing the source recording as closely as possible. I found fairly early on that spending a few hundred bucks more here and there in my system made what were, to my ears, profound differences in quality. (I also learned that calibrating and positioning speakers properly makes just as big a difference.)

When reviews talk about the HomePod being “audiophile,” though, they’re not using my definition, and they’re certainly not using the Computer Audiophile’s. What they mean is: “does this sound good?” Does it outperform other audio-systems-in-a-can? Does it have low lows and high highs and, uh, middle mids? Does it fill the room? Does it seem expensive at $350, or is it punching above its weight class? From most reports, it’s damn impressive for a system that’s only $350.

Did I say “Only?” Yes. It’s a lot cheaper than my system, let me tell you. And my system is (ahem) just a wee bit cheaper than Connaker’s: the speakers he used in his reference system were around $45,000 for the pair. He defended this by arguing that he needed a reference system for, well, reference. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I’m questioning how much we truly learn about a Mazda 3 by taking it out on the N├╝rburgring with our reference Audi R8.

I’ve only heard the HomePod for a few minutes in an Apple Store. It sounded…fine, other than bass so pumped up it verged on the comical. I’d like to hear it in, ah, a less challenging environment sometime. But I knew going in—as did Connaker, surely—that it not only performs automatic room correction and equalization, it “separates the music into direct and ambient sound,” in Apple’s words. There’s a truckload of processing going on here, which is antithetical to what audio purists look for. It isn’t meant for, as audiophiles would put it, “critical listening”; it’s meant to be something you can stick in a corner, shout Hey, Siri, play The Wandering Hearts at, and have not just that corner but the whole room filled with pretty good-sounding music. It’s a “sound first” smart speaker, not a High-End Reference System in a Tube. It’s Apple saying, “Hey, you can have something like Alexa, but have it sound way better,” and it does.2

The perennial lament of the audiophile is that the Unenlightened Masses accept low quality sound as “good enough,” and that if only they’d spend a little more they’d understand. And, you know, I did spend a little more, and there’s definite truth here. But while cheap junk is generally still cheap junk, the “midrange” of the audio world like Marantz, Denon, B&W and KEF has gotten great over the last couple of decades. I won’t get into arguments over bit rates and audio formats; if you can consistently hear the difference between CD quality and “high resolution” audio in a blind test, good on you, but most people can’t. (If instead you want to argue that proves blind tests are garbage, well, bless your heart.) Personally, I’m not convinced I can reliably tell the difference between lossless and well-mastered, high-bitrate lossy; I do know that when I stream that (gasp) 256K AAC Apple Music through my stereo, it sounds pretty good.

Ironically, that’s why I have no plans to buy a HomePod. It would surely be more convenient than my setup, but the HomePod is aimed squarely at households that don’t have or want a living room AV system, or want a secondary music-only system in another room.3 Neither of those describe my living situation presently. But I know people for whom it would be better than good enough.

  1. It’s worth noting that since the Reddit post was published and widely shared, the author has walked back some of these claims, as per the edit at the post’s top. 
  2. Of course, it’s not Alexa, it’s Siri. But you’ve never heard it say “I’m sorry, I can’t find the track ‘Egg Freckles'” in audio quality this high before! 
  3. The HomePod is very clearly not designed to be a TV speaker, even in a stereo pair, although I’m sure some enterprising nerd will find a way to do it and be dreadfully disappointed. 

Micro.blog, LiveJournal and community

I’ve mused before on whether the world needs—for certain values of “need”—something like a modern LiveJournal: a social network that fills the space somewhere between tweets and blogs. On a recent episode of Originality, co-host K. Tempest Bradford noted that when she switched from LiveJournal to WordPress, she wrote less. LJ felt comfortable for posting any old thing, whereas WordPress made her feel like she had to be writing something “important.”

Sure, this is kind of arbitrary—you can post any old thing to WordPress, too. Blogs that feel most like communities have authors who post without much regard to either topic or perceived weightiness. (Bradford called out John Scalzi’s Whatever as one such place.) But I’ve felt that weight myself over the years, despite hosting the original Coyote Tracks on Tumblr.1 Twitter has the opposite problem; it’s optimized for ephemerality.

Micro.blog is, at first glance, much closer to Twitter than LiveJournal—it’s right there in the name! But appearances deceive; you can post any length post to Micro.blog. It uses a simple algorithm for determining how to display that post on your timeline:

  • If the post has a title, regardless of length, then it displays the post’s title and a link to its URL. (That’s what you’re seeing on this post.)
  • If the post has no title and it’s under 280 characters, it displays the entire post.
  • If the post has no title and it’s over 280 characters, it displays a truncated version of the post with a link, like “Tweet Longer” services do for Twitter.

Simple, but clever.

There are things I loved about LiveJournal that Micro.blog doesn’t handle relating to engagement and privacy. Most notably, there should be a way to block webmentions from people you don’t want to engage with. (That needs to happen on the protocol level, not as something specific to Micro.blog.) But what I’m seeing on Micro.blog that I didn’t predict is sustained, thoughtful conversation, of the sort that I remember from LJ comments. I’ve seen it in blog comments, yes, particularly in the science fiction community. I have some blind faith that if I went back far enough in my Twitter archives it would be there, too. But I genuinely don’t remember it to the same degree. I haven’t found it in Mastodon yet, either.2

So what about Micro.blog encourages that? I’ve already talked about technical differences between it and the other services. Philosophically, Micro.blog is heavily focused on “owning” your content. But I don’t think it’s either of those, exactly. Instead, Micro.blog has attracted an initial community of people who want a “nicer” alternative to Twitter to take off. What separates them from the Mastodon community, who presumably want the same thing? A couple thoughts. First, nearly all Micro.blog patrons have paid for it, either through the initial Kickstarter or through ponying up for monthly service fees (or both). Also, there’s the very different UX decisions I talked about in my previous post. If you want someone to know that you liked what they posted on Micro.blog, you have to reply to do it, not just tap the favorite button. And, so far, civility has bred civility. I’ve seen conversational topics that would have immediately gone flameward on Twitter stay cool and collected over day-long threads on Micro.blog.

I’ve been thinking about my own blogging lately. I suspect if I’m going to blog more, I need to give myself permission to blog about, well, less consequential things. I don’t want to dive into the dreadfully personal topics that LiveJournal’s privacy controls allow (hi, future prospective employer trolling through this unprotectable posting). But I have to stop thinking about this as if it were a technology column that I need to post perfectly-crafted articles on.

In theory, Coyote Tracks is set up to allow those title-free “status” posts (or, as LiveJournal would have had it, “(No subject)”). If I start doing those with any regularity, I’ll set up the RSS feeds to let you be more selective in what you get. (Right now you can get feeds for just “tech” and just “writing” posts, as well as the everything RSS feed. If I start making status posts regularly, I’ll add an RSS feed that excludes those.)

  1. By the way, if you’re reading this on Tumblr or the Tumblr RSS feed (tracks.ranea.org), you should probably switch over to coyotetracks.org if you can. In part this is because I can’t guarantee how long I’ll keep crossposting, and in part this is because I can’t guarantee that the now Verizon-owned, founder-less Tumblr will continue being hospitable. 
  2. I suspect this is not a universal experience on Mastodon, but compared to Micro.blog—and even Twitter—it has notably more “shouting into the void” to it for me. 

The unbearable glibness of tweeting

I still love Twitter. A lot of us still love Twitter. But it’s past time to admit it’s an abusive relationship. (“Yes, he hits me sometimes, but it’s only for the retweets.”)

The common wisdom is that the Big Blue Bird’s problem is their lack of moderation, that the service is Exhibit A in the case against Silicon Valley’s belief that you can solve everything with algorithms. I think that’s some of it, but I don’t think it’s all of it. When your software becomes global community infrastructure, the choices reflected in your design have profound effects on behavior. It’s a choice, for instance, to offer no privacy controls other than “protecting” your account. That one choice alone is a large part of why Twitter is so hospitable to harassers: your only option for controlling who engages with you is flipping your entire feed between open and locked down, and—given that anyone you follow can inject anything into your timeline via retweet—aggressively curating not just who you follow, but who you allow retweets from.

Here are some other choices Twitter’s made. “Favorites” are public accolades, not private bookmarks. Mechanisms for retweets and quote tweets are baked in. Official clients stream notifications about not just who favorited and retweeted you, but who favorited and retweeted your retweets. And let’s not even get into who gets verified and what verification offers. None of these choices are necessarily wrong in either a technical or moral sense. But they’ve created a culture that rewards painting everything in the starkest, loudest terms possible.

There’s a metric crapton of political tweets across the partisan spectrum that I could point to, but as I was writing this piece, a bag of “Lady Doritos” dropped into my lap.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi gave an interview to the Freakonomics podcast in which she observed that women ate Doritos differently than men did (“they don’t like to crunch too loudly in public”) and said the company was getting ready to launch “snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently.” The Sun, a UK tabloid, reported this as “Doritos to launch crisps for WOMEN because they don’t like crunching loudly or licking their fingers, boss reveals.” This led to a veritable tortillanado of hot take tweets about snack food sexism.

But wait! Then came the New York Times reporting “Not a Real Thing, Company New Says,” which quoted PepsiCo’s gently acerbic retort, “We already have Doritos for women. They’re called Doritos.” Snap! Fake news! Well, yes and no. The quotes from Ms. Nooyi in the last paragraph are true; Frito-Lay is working on “snacks for women,” whatever the hell that may mean. The fake news part—in the sense that the Sun came up with it, not Nooyi—was the existence of “Lady Doritos.” Gosh, what an outrage-inducing, easily hashtaggable name they invented! Surely that couldn’t have been their intent. Ha. Ha ha. As of this writing, we’re 48 hours into Chipghazi, and the Twitter trends are just starting to ebb.

And this is a problem inherent in Twitter’s design that may not be solvable. Even if Twitter engineers could just go into the database and type DELETE FROM users WHERE is_nazi = 1, the software’s literally designed to reward superficial hot takes. It’s optimized for tweets that make you go “yeah, get those fuckers!” rather than tweets that make you go “hmm.”

When was the last time you scrolled through your Twitter timeline and felt smarter, happier, and generally more at peace with the world?

Mastodon and Micro.blog both propose that the solution to Twitter’s ills is decentralization. Mastodon has multiple “instances,” like Twitter servers, that each have their own rules and community guidelines. Because all the instances can interact with one another, you can follow any Mastodon user, not just the ones on your instance. Micro.blog is, if anything, more radical: a set of open standards that let good old fashioned weblogs interact with one another in Twitter-esque fashion. You can use it just like Twitter, but under the hood it’s using an RSS-like system to build your timeline. They can host your own (paid) micro.blog, which is a full-featured Jekyll install under the hood, but you could host your own blog wherever and on whatever software you want.

So far, these solutions are working, but I’m worried that—particularly in Mastodon’s case—it’s not because they’ve chosen a more resilient design, it’s simply because the community is so much smaller. There’s less social reward for turning the volume on everything up to 11 when the audience is tiny. But Mastodon makes many of the same choices Twitter has, including favorites, quotes (“embeds”), and retweets (“boosts”), then stirs in the questionable belief that moderation issues are effectively moot under their federated server model.

Micro.blog deliberately has no retweet mechanism. Favorites are just private bookmarks. As far as I can tell you can’t even get a list of followers. Unlike Mastodon, Micro.blog shows replies people make to people you aren’t following, the way Twitter did in its first couple of years. All this adds up to a surprisingly friendly, conversational timeline. (Also, Micro.blog’s first hire has been a community manager, which says a lot about their philosophy here.) But as I alluded above, if you want to use it just like Twitter—i.e., no work on your part—you need to pay them to host your blog. They’re looking at it as a turnkey blog hosting service, but if it’s perceived as “like Twitter but with less features for $5 a month,” that’s a problem.

Yet both Micro.blog and Mastodon are just…nicer. I think Micro.blog is the better of the two, in no small part for the UX choices they’ve made that are explicitly the opposite of both Twitter and Mastodon, but Mastodon’s free nature gives it the potential to grow further. Either way, though, both of them have one huge advantage: they’ve seen the shitshow that’s turned Twitter into a Dead Bird Walking, and they can say, “You know what? Let’s not do that.”

Hanging out the shingle

I’ve been a technical writer for a few years now. While I never pursued “professional blogger” as an income stream, this blog is to blame. (Well, its Tumblr incarnation, strictly speaking.) Folks at RethinkDB found it, liked my writing, and one thing led to another.

RethinkDB ran out of money in late 2016. I spent 2017 at Realm, another startup in a similar space. While they got their neeeded round of investment, it came with a catch: lay off some of their staff. I was one of the lucky ones.

Now, it’s time to find an income stream again, and I confess I’m struggling with how to go about it. Will I take another position that involves an hour-long commute to a giant open office plan? Ugh. (RethinkDB was close by. Realm wasn’t, but they let me work from home three days a week.) I’d have to want to work for that company, with no reservations.

It turns out planting the only on my terms flag in the ground when you’re job-hunting is difficult. Not just for the obvious reasons, but also for some less obvious ones. It takes privilege to say “thanks, but no thanks” to a recruiter—and I won’t have this specific privilege all that long. My non-retirement savings should stretch about a half a year, but that’s never as long as it sounds. (Also, a talk with a company isn’t an offer. I’ve already been rebuffed by one company I assumed I had a pretty solid “in” with.)

So this leaves me tempted to try and forge my own path. Listening to podcasters Marco Arment and Myke Hurley try to convince their fellow podcaster Casey Liss to give up his “real job” and go independent is a contributing factor. But the truth is, I’ve thought about this before. More than once. (I’m also, by Silicon Valley standards, ancient. I have unprovable suspicions that’s already been an issue.)

The truth is also that I’ve done consulting work before, though, and we’ll just say that the Tim Ferriss 4-Hour Workweek┬« dream proved elusive. I loved setting my own hours and working from wherever I wanted, but those weren’t high-income years. I had no idea what rates to charge and little idea how to rustle up clients; now I at least know how much I should charge. (Okay, I think I know.) Even so, among that set of podcasters I mentioned, I’m temperamentally closer to John Siracusa than the rest (if less particular about pizza). Having a job I enjoy matters, but so does financial security.

And yet. And yet.

I’m inching closer to setting up another small income stream or two, but those won’t be much. So can I make a go of being a technical writing consultant? An awful lot of companies out there need docs of one kind or another. (The subset of companies that both know that and are willing to pay for it is, I suspect, much smaller.) Part of this process involves figuring out what kind of network I have that I can draw on. If you’re reading this, you may be part of that network.

To put it baldly: know anyone who could use some technical writing done?