Posted on 2021-12-28.
I was thinking about what adjective would best describe the past year for me, and came to an unexpected answer: peaceful.
Obviously, there are countless things to be anxious about. To pick two:
But I am grateful that I and my loved ones made it through the year safely. And despite all the turmoil in the world, I've felt less inner turmoil than in the past. I didn't experience many extreme highs or extreme lows. My life has been moving slowly, but in a satisfactory direction.
Quarantine was getting very emotionally difficult for me last year. It made new friendships hard to form and meaningful group interactions rare. I'm glad we had the option of virtual meetups (special shoutout to the KC Effective Altruism group for some great, deep conversations at a distance), but a few months into this year I'd resolved to stop attending any. Too often it feels like there's no way to speak without talking over people; and when you do get a chance to speak, it's more like lecturing an audience than having a discussion. I'd often hang up from a Zoom call feeling frustrated, and lonelier than when I went into it. That never happens with in-person meetups.
Life isn't back to normal, but norms have relaxed enough to ease much of the burden. Even some small things, like being able to sit in a coffee shop again, have really helped me feel more connected to the world. But the biggest difference in quality of life for me has come from the resumption of in-person meetups. My thanks to the organizers of the Seattle Effective Altruism group and the Science Fiction and Society group, and all the awesome people I've met through them :) I'd also like to extend my appreciation and apologies to everyone who tolerated my very slow turn-taking in various board games.
I didn't leave the state this year except to visit family. Not really going anywhere probably contributed to my sense of this as a "peaceful" year. But I did make some excursions to the mountains nearby and to the San Juan Islands. It's wonderful to be surrounded by so much natural beauty!
I also read about 80 books, which is laughably low by comparison to some of my book club friends, but a 60% increase over last year. (That isn't necessarily a good thing - I had resolved a couple years ago to spend less time on books and more on other types of material - but I think it at least partially represents an increase in my efficiency at reading, which is nice.) Usually, I avoid reading series of novels because it seems like such a huge time commitment, but this year I got through several that I really enjoyed: Murderbot, Teixcalaan, Jean le Flambeur, The Culture, and comic series The Boys.
For most of this year I worked part-time at Bloom, a platform which helps wineries manage their online shops and wine clubs. The part-time arrangement was perfect to help me get back to work (I was very burned-out when I left my previous job in 2019), and I'm proud of what I got done in my time there - particularly around adding flexibility to the management of backend processing jobs. Working with the Bloom team was very fun and I also have a lot of respect for everyone there; I have no doubt they'll continue to be successful, as they deserve.
At the end of November I joined Logikcull full-time. Logikcull builds an app for legal departments and law firms that makes the process of discovery - combing through huge collections of emails, documents, chats, etc to find material relevant to a particular investigation or dispute - simpler, cheaper, and more efficient. I'm still getting oriented at this company, but it's been really good so far. The people are awesome and it's an interesting problem space.
It's the same thing as a "developer" or a "programmer". I assume the term "software engineer" was invented just to sound more sophisticated. Whatever you call it, it's the job of making software.
Software is the (un)intelligence that drives electronic devices. Examples of software include:
To make software, we have to start with some human goal (like "show me a screen where I can type a message and then show that message on another person's screen") and come up with a set of unambiguous instructions that a mindless automaton can follow to accomplish that goal. We write code in a programming language to express those instructions. Often we build systems that involve lots of programs on lots of machines talking to each other, so we also need to create and understand protocols for these programs to communicate, and think about how to select and coordinate a variety of programs together to accomplish a task.
A big portion of my career has been spent doing backend web development. When you visit a site like Amazon or Facebook in your web browser (or when you use their apps on your phone), not only is a program on your computer/phone talking to a program on a computer operated by the company in question; the latter program often then talks to numerous programs on other computers operated by the company, which have specific responsibilities. One may be responsible for finding products that match a search you just typed in; one for saving or retrieving your preferences; one for performing a credit card transaction; one for analyzing a photo you uploaded, in order to detect people's faces; etc. Those sorts of things would be part of the "backend" which is what I most often work on.
A "software engineering" job is different than what's generally called an "IT" job. The latter is usually concerned with configuring and operating - rather than creating - software, and doesn't typically involve writing code. To make this concrete, consider the email program Microsoft Outlook. Engineers at Microsoft are responsible for creating it and fixing bugs in it. The IT people at your organization are responsible for putting it on your computer, connecting it to your email account (and setting up your email account in the first place), setting policies about how you should use it, cleaning up the mess when you misuse it and get your device infected with a virus, etc.
I finished three more courses toward a master's degree in computer science. (Six more to go; I'm not in a hurry.) Some highlights:
Next year I'm planning to focus on AI/ML courses. In preparation (and also because I just want to) I've been trying to refresh my math skills, which has been a frustratingly slow process. I always got A's in my math classes in college, but I did so by learning just enough for the tests, not by developing a deep understanding. That, or my brain just really thoroughly purged the "deep understanding" in the years since, because I certainly don't have it now. I ended up going all the way back to algebra and geometry, and spent a lot of time working problems over the past year. I'm currently working through a linear algebra textbook. I had hoped to be much further along before starting the machine learning course that I'm signed up for next term, but oh well.
After listening to a podcast about dopamine a couple months ago, I decided to try introducing some randomness into what I allow myself to indulge in each day. The idea is to prevent pleasures from losing their edge - or even becoming addictions - by reducing my brain's ability to treat them as a predictable part of life. So, I have a spreadsheet that assigns probabilities to various activities (e.g. 25% chance alcohol is allowed, 67% chance video games are allowed, etc) and each morning it randomly generates a list of what's allowed for that day, based on those probabilities. I can't tell yet whether this really accomplishes the original goal, but I've enjoyed it regardless. It's also a good way to fit things into my schedule that I don't want to forget to do occasionally but am unwilling to commit to on a specific schedule; for example, the spreadsheet has probabilities of assigning me tasks like "meditate" or "work from a coffee shop". It's a way of applying to life the same principle that makes games like Hades and FTL addictive: make each day an unpredictable recombination of good elements.
As usual, I also did some experimenting with productivity / task-management techniques. For a while I eschewed technology and was writing tasks on index cards that I kept on my desk. The idea was that the physical space consumed by the tasks would help force prioritization and focus, in comparison with a digital todo list where it's easy to add far more items than you could ever realistically tackle. Ultimately though I keep coming back to Todoist, which is just a really well-designed and well-maintained app. I made a couple changes to how I use it that have been helpful: