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.

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.