Depression Babies

December 16, 2018

30 years ago, it was 1989—I was four, and my parents had just had my brother.

My Grandfather Walter, always the saver: "These kids are gonna need the dough someday".

Series EE

My grandfather grew rhubarb in his yard, fought the Nazis in World War II, and made a living keeping the boilers going at Stauffer Chemical. It was a privilege knowing him as well as I did, and I'll be proud if I turn out to be even half the man he was.


The middle and the fringe

December 15, 2018

Growing up, my dad used to say, "Whenever there's a group of people, there's politics".

Addendum: wherever there's politics, there's a middle, and a fringe.

I'm temperamentally more of a middle person—not a radical. I enjoy keeping the lights on, getting to yes, finding something everyone can live with. The fringe sometimes calls the middle "unambitious", insufficiently radical, or not "pure enough". Guilty as charged, I suppose.

Recently I've found myself more on the fringe of a group I'm part of, a position I'd previously have dismissed as "too extreme", or radical. But being on the fringe has made me see something I hadn't realized: the fringe sets the terms of the debate.

The middle is usually seen as more powerful because they end up brokering the final terms—get everyone together, lock them in a room, and work something out; "the art of the deal".

On the other hand, the fringe might not be in the room when the middle brokers the final agreement, but they get to choose what the middle argues over. They're the broad-stroke, big picture folks who set the basic terms of what's acceptable and what isn't. The fringe's power isn't the last 5% negotiated at the 11th hour; it's the first 90%, setting what's even up for discussion.

Like many things, it's a yin and yang. We could use a little more middle in Congress right now, but too much of it breeds stasis and lack of change.



December 14, 2018

Gardening has become my stock metaphor for big, long-term projects.

I was just looking at my HOA's financial statements. At the end of last year, we closed down—transplated—all the money from old, legacy accounts at Citibank, to new ones at Bank of America. It was a huge, destructive change, basically ripping all the plants out of the ground and moving them somewhere else.

You have to have a vision, but be comfortable as it evolves. The gardener trims the plants, but they never quite do exactly what you want; they're living things, after all.

Gardening also conveys the sense of maintenance necessary to keep things running; the constant battle to keep the leaves off the ground, the busines trimmed just so, the flowers growing straight, and upright.

Code is also gardening; the same organic feel, the dialog between you and the plants, alternating between fighting back decay, and the delight of watching things grow along the paths you've laid out. Interfaces, class hierarchies and other forms of convention are trellises: structures designed to support mass as they facilitate growth. The senior people lay the tracks, the junior people follow what's been laid.

Another thought about gardening: like fashion, it's never quite "done". There's always more to do—more expansion, more maintenance, more cleaning.

Also, gardening goes at its own pace. You can guide it, but ultimately, the plants have to grow on their own. For me, and perhaps many others, there's nothing so satisfying as seeing the end result of a plan realized over many years. There aren't any shortcuts, which appeals to my sense of incrementalism, and favoring the long term.


Flank speed

December 13, 2018

"Flank speed" is a naval term; its command form, all ahead flank, means "go as fast as possible". Run the boilers at 110%, wake the crew up. Push things to their absolute limit, beyond sustainability.

I sometimes dial it up to flank speed in my own life; the past few weeks have been that way, juggling a demanding full time job in addition to the tail end of a year-long financial migration at my condo association, with three consecutive parties last weekend and a lot of family obligations on top. It's been a lot of nights and weekends, and I can feel the toll from not exercising, and not paying enough attention to my marriage.

Giving up alcohol for a year has helped; it's been almost 40 days and the word I'd use to describe the experience is consistency. My energy and focus doesn't ebb and flow as much; I don't feel as tired during the day, and sleep better at night.

Eventually, one has to slow down; in my case, that was always the plan. Today, as I was reaching the end of it, I sat on the couch and went back to the basics: roles and goals. Who am I, to whom, and what are the next things I'd like to get done?

Thinking about that—who I am in relation to others, and who I want to be—is my north star. Like a compass, it guides me towards what's important, and away from what isn't.

It helps me to see what's next.

On that note, time to head home and enjoy some quality time with Caroline.


Drop it

December 12, 2018

Friday was a frustrating day. Lots of fighting at work.

Usually I leave it at the office. But by the time I reached home on Friday, I was still thinking about it. Caroline and I often go out to eat on Friday, and as we headed out, I made a commitment: "Something has been bothering me from work. I want you to know it's on my mind, but I won't bring it up again".

That was the last thing I said about it, which wasn't easy. My attention kept drifting back, even as I tried to be present, and focus on the food.

I think in the US we're supposed to "vent". We "get things off our chest", talk about our feelings, and "share", rather than "bottling it up".

However, I'm starting to think bottling it up is exactly what I should do. I'm a human being with emotions, not some kind of pressure vessel that "explodes" when the pressure gets too great.

The thing is, you can choose to waste your time being frustrated, or think of something else. It requires mental discipline to put distracting things aside, often more than I can muster.

But life is short.

I think Buddhism has some good lessons here, particularly around mindfulness, and avoiding attachment.


The weekly walk

December 11, 2018

There was a night a few years ago when Caroline got frustrated about something—I don't remember what—we went for a walk outside, and talked it over.

The phones stayed home.

Since that night, we've made a point of taking a lap around Lake Merritt once/week, usually on Tuesday night. We don't do it every week, but when we miss a Tuesday, one or the other proposes an alternate time.

We keep this appointment because it's important.

A lot of fights begin with someone not feeling heard. I think perhaps 90% of relationship arguments wouldn't happen if (1) there was a regular forum where it was acceptable to have difficult conversations, and (2) both people listened, free from distraction.

Easy advice, hard to follow.

Maybe Festivus isn't such a bad idea after all?


Humanity is vast

December 10, 2018

It's become fashionable to bash high tech for its lack of local engagement. To wit, Satya Nadella just got off the interview circuit, announcing that Microsoft would donate $500 million to affordable housing.

Putting aside whether that's a good idea, I've been thinking about the other angle: the effects of "working for the Internet", whiling away one's days in the nowhere of Internet-first commerce. It's at once worldly and parochial: understanding the intricacies of nation-level behavioral trends on the Internet, while barely knowing your neighbors' names, or the location of city hall. I need a local community to be happy—I suspect many people do—I only realized it when I stumbled upon a new living arrangement, and realized how happy it made me.

Despite its downsides, working for the Internet imparts a perspective that's hard to get any other way—an appreciation for humanity's vastness. Whether you're into beach volleyball, taxidermy, or Baha'i spirituality, there are online communities for these things as large as midsize European countries. This whole line of thinking started when Caroline and I were in China, and she said something like, "I don't think jewelery is as popular as it used to be". At this point, I wouldn't even pretend to know; I spent 3 years building mobile analytics infrastructure, only to learn Yahoo Fantasy Sports, something I've never even considered downloading, was a major part of 10 million peoples' week. It was like this every day: whether Candy Crush Saga, Pokemon Go, or something else, each day I learned there was something in the world millions, in some cases tens or hundreds of millions of people used, and I didn't know the first thing about it—any of it.

When you live in this world, "one in a million" happens hundreds of times each day. You appreciate how hard of problems fraud and abuse are, and how no human system, whether for censorship, enforcing good behavior, or protecting copyright, can handle such inhuman scale. But mostly, you become more aware of what a tiny speck of dust you are, and how little anything you do really matters, in the grand scheme of things.



December 09, 2018

Two hand grenades landed in my inbox this weekend.

First: the man who has everything took a trip. He went to a tropical island, and over a long bout of navel-gazing, thought seriously about chucking his surgical career for life on the beach. That's saying a lot, for a guy making millions/year doing surgery. But look past the money, and you'll see a lot of decisions—some of them costly—with real consequences paid in health, relationships, and well-being. Leaning on people once in a while is okay—a strong marriage can handle a few nights apart—but make a habit of it and you'll be divorced. That's been a bit of an adjustment for him, coming out of the "total institution" of medical school.

It's a lesson I could do well to remember myself.

But that wasn't all; the second was a paternity scandal—a guy I know, married with a teenage son—discovered he may have a child he didn't know about. A few bad decisions, and his life might never be the same.

All to say, as I get older, it's not just sins of omission that get you—the calls you didn't make, the letters left unsent—but sins of commission—the things you did, you wish you hadn't. I tend to worry more about what I don't do, but more and more, I see it's not just what one does, but what one chooses NOT to do, that define us.

Be careful. The #1 goal is survival.


Millennial Millions

December 08, 2018

Every once in a while, Saturday Night Live (SNL) does a skit that just nails it; this is one of them.

I still remember after college, I was going nuts trying to find a job, and my parents thought I was sort of crazy. I was fresh out from the computer engineering pressure-cooker, fighting my way through graph searches and bridge-and-torch problems for programming interviews, and they seemed so damn nonchalant about the whole thing.

In part because they never had the opportunities I did, as a graduate of a world-renowned engineering school; less money, and prestige, sure, but also much less stress, or competition, just to get your foot in the door.

But I can't help thinking of Parrot Head Boomer from the video. Every time I go back to Chicago, it's striking how easy everything seems: my aunt has two houses and an iPhone, despite not working in almost 20 years. She's married to a mail carrier who's about to retire on a full pension, on top of Social Security—while it lasts—even as Trump's tax cuts, who mind you, they both support—have given us the largest peacetime deficits ever. Meanwhile, Illinois is on the brink of collapse, I'm slogging through a few median income jobs' worth of student debt with my wife, my condo association is broke, and I'm paying five figures/year in property tax on a 1200 square foot place, for potholed roads and dysfunctional schools, while I watch the unfunded pension obligations stack up.

Meanwhile, the mid-20s people I work with, not the "almost X-er" elder Millennials like me, but the ones born in the 90s, are the most strait-laced, nose-to-the-grindstone people I know. The Economist agrees; maybe they think I'm like my parents?


A Sentinel for every man, woman, and child in Zion

December 07, 2018

A Sentinel for every man, woman, and child in Zion. That sounds *exactly* like the thinking of a machine to me.

—Morpheus, The Matrix Reloaded

I tried to sell some stuff on Craigslist this week. In both cases, I received exactly one inquiry about the product, from an "out-of-state buyer", offering a check with "$50 extra for your honesty" if I'd ship the product once the check arrived.

I co-authored an unpublished paper on scams like this during graduate school; suffice to say, this should be fun…at least, for me.

Obvious tells:

  • They claimed to be out-of-state (legitimate buyers are never out-of-state on Craigslist)
  • They offered to send the check even after I said I'd sold the item to a different buyer; a legitimate buyer would never do this.
  • They initially messaged me over text (SMS), but switched numbers mid-transaction. Their explanation: "I'm using my friend's phone". What really happened: their SMS provider shut them down due to fraud complaints, and they opened a new account on a different number.

And yet, the biggest tell—but also the most subtle—was that I knew I was talking to a bot—software.

  • "David Albrecht this is Luke buying your (Juniper SRX-100 8-port router (DHCP/Firewall) with rackmount bracket - $200)" - a human would never repeat the exact, character-for-character text of my listing, with embedded parentheses and matching capitalization
  • Two identical requests, one and then a repeat several hours later, asking me to confirm something. Character-by-character identical—same spacing, misspellings, and capitalization—humans don't behave this way.
  • Repeated use of my full name (David Albrecht); humans don't do this.

It was like Morpheus said: the thinking of a machine.

USPS tracking of the "check"