Return to Narnia
Japan is like my Narnia. (Or Oz, if you prefer, or Wonderland). It's this alternate world where I went and had all these adventures in my early 20s, and I came back completely changed by the experience; but none of the people around me after my return shared any of those memories. To them it was like I had just disappeared for three years. Sometimes I did wonder if I had dreamed the whole thing, so strange and intense was it, and so little connection to the rest of my life it had.
What do I miss about that time? Frankly, I spent a lot of time being lonely, cold, and miserable. But I loved every minute of it because I was on a non-stop adventure. Just trying to negotiate daily life in Japan was adventurous. There were surprises around every corner, many of them weird and inexplicable (like the time a drunk Russian sailor who spoke neither English nor Japanese showed up at my apartment in the middle of the night looking for food and water). Traveling around the mountainous Japanese backcountry was an adventure. Trying to find ways to teach the kids something useful in the face of apathy and Kafkaesque bureaucratic resistance was an adventure. Struggling for fluency in Japanese language and culture was an adventure.
These days I feel like I'm much more in control of my life, and I'm building a lot of things that I'm proud of (software, a marriage, terrain, etc.) but I'm no longer on a kind of spiritual quest like I was back then. I feel kind of complacent, comfortable, not as adventurous or as acutely aware of things as I used to be. I miss those feelings.
It's weird that I'm now going back there, but I'm not going back to my old job, my old apartment, my old friends, nor am I going back to the phase of my life I was in when I had those experiences. And I no longer have the anime/manga obsession which was such a big part of why I went to Japan in the first place.
So it's not going to be the same at all. I'm going back to the place, and the culture, and the people (although I don't expect I'll be able to track down many of the people I used to know -- many of them have moved on) but I'm not going back in time. We'll see how much of what I miss is Japan itself, as opposed to the time in my life that is tied to it.
I hope and expect that being surrounded with visual reference materials will get me inspired to draw more comics! I brought all my Yuki Hoshigawa sketches with me and I will be on the job. I'll also be taking lots of pictures — not pictures of cool stuff or touristy stuff, but pictures of entirely mundane things to use for reference material: the insides of train cars and buses, sidewalks, office buildings, telephone poles, kitchens, vending machines, parking lots, grocery stores, traffic lights, etc. The stuff that needs to go in the background of comic panels all the time but which is hardest to find references for on the Internet (because who would post pictures of such boring stuff?)
Then, after that, it'll be China for the first time. China! It's way too huge for me to comprehend.
Making my way in Japan when I first went there, it felt like a second childhood — I felt like a child in the sense that I was helpless, didn't understand anything, had to learn to read all over again, had to learn which foods I like and didn't like, had to learn my manners, how to talk to strangers, etc. Part of what makes travel so exciting is that it takes you out of your habits and makes you re-learn all the things you normally take for granted. I'm guessing that being in China for the first time will feel the same way.
Too many meetings
I've been frustrated at work lately because it seems like I'm in meetings all day long and I don't have any time to write code.
They're not always "meetings". Sometimes they're interviews, or debriefings, or planning sessions, or brainstorming sessions, or I'm giving presentations, or moderating discussions, or answering people's questions, etc. etc. etc.
And it's not literally "all day"; I have chunks of time in between these things. But a half-hour chunk of time isn't very useful for writing code; it takes me that almost long just to get back into the groove, read the code, remember what I'm doing, etc. If someone then comes along and starts a conversation with me about design stuff, I lose my place and I have to get back into it.
It all means that I spend more of my work time talking to people about ideas than I do writing code. Talking to people about ideas is fun, and it's necessary to what we do, and it's productive, but that code still needs to get written somehow.
I used to solve this problem by working late. After 5:30pm or so I am usually left alone to write code, so I got some of my best work done in the evenings. But I'm married now, and I need to be home for dinner each night, so I can't just work as late as I want.
It's frustrating. I'm actually writing code at home this weekend, because there's code I need done by Tuesday which I didn't have time to write during the week. How did work become a place where I don't have time to work? That seems so wrong.
Is my job to generate ideas, with software as a by-product? Or is my job to generate usable software products, with ideas as a by-product?
As anybody who works in a creative field can tell you, ideas are cheap. We've all got way more ideas than we could possibly have time to work on in our lives. An idea helps nobody unless someone puts in that 99% perspiration to turn it into something usable.
Hope for our Happa Children
When me and Sushu have kids, they're going to have two cultural/linguistic backgrounds. We agree that we want them to raise them bilingual (easier to learn languages when you're a kid and all that). They should learn the customs and the values of both Chinese and American cultures so they can figure out how to combine the best of each for themselves.
The kids are also going to be mixed-race. What's that going to be like for them?
Their identities are going to be complicated. I don't want anybody to put them in a box, or make them feel bad about who they are, or make them feel like they have to act a certain way because of who their parents are.
I don't want them to learn that mixed-race people are freaks, or learn that China is an enemy land full of scary communist bad guys, both of which are poisonous ideas floating freely throughout American society.
I want to make sure we give them the tools to define who they are for themselves. I hope they can navigate these waters, and be proud of themselves, and go far with their lives. Like this kid here:
That's baby Barack Obama with his grandfather. What I love about this picture is the obvious family resemblance (especially if you compare the grandfather's face to the adult Barack's face). The obvious family resemblance between somebody we see as "black" and somebody we see as "white" really highlights the fact that race is a social construction.
Anyway. We're not in any hurry to have babies yet. But it's not so far away anymore. So I've been thinking about this stuff lately.
Last Monday, I was walking to work, and Mitchell Baker passed me in her car and offered me a ride the rest of the way to the office. Along the way, we had a really interesting talk about internet privacy. Mitchell is very concerned about how much data ad networks are collecting about us online without our knowledge. (Basically if you look at ten sites that all have ads that all happen to be from the same ad network, then that ad network knows what times you were at each of those sites, and they can build up a profile of your browsing habits.) Mitchell is the Mozilla Foundation chairwoman, and her mission is to protect privacy and freedom on the Internet; to her, Firefox is just a tool to help do that. So she's trying to figure out how Firefox can do more to protect people from scary ad network shenanigans.
I had been in a bit of a slump; the week before, when I wrote this angsty post and this other angsty post, was a low point in my enthusiasm for the Internet, and my emotional state in general. Talking to Mitchell was significantly re-motivating.
Later the same day, my boss Chris came to my desk. He said he was worried about me and asked how I was feeling, and admitted that he didn't really like Facebook or Twitter or the iPhone either. I found out that the reason he was worried was because he had read the angsty blog posts I just linked to.
So I had another really good talk with Chris, about the direction the Internet is going in, what we don't like about it, and what we can do at Mozilla to help steer it in a better direction. We agreed that we want to fight against the Facebookization of the internet.
By that I mean: there shouldn't be a single company which controls everyone's friend network data, refuses to let that data be portable to other services, and uses that data to lock people in, to sell them ads, and to basically moderate their relationships with each other. If one company achieves too much dominance over social networks, then we run the risk of the Internet turning back into AOL, and I don't think anybody wants that.
So it's not that there shouldn't be services like Facebook; clearly everyone loves Facebook and wants to keep doing all the things it lets them do; but my data about my friend network should belong to me, not to Facebook or any other company. So how can we make Firefox help with that?
Finally, Monday evening as I was about to go home, I ran into John Lilly, the CEO of the company. He said that he was worried about me too, and wanted to know how I was feeling, and I found out that he had also read my angsty blog posts. And he was really concerned about the direction the Internet is going in, too. We had another good talk; he reminded me that the wonderful thing about the Internet isn't the technology, it's how it brings people together with people, and "Without the Internet, who would you be telling your game ideas to?" (and I was like, damn, the frelling CEO reads my nerdy blog posts about frelling retro-RPG sprite artwork. Holy crap.)
So, I learned several things that day. One is that I'm not the only one who thinks that all these stupid bandwagons that Silicon Valley keeps getting on are not necessarily in the best interest of the wider world. Two is that I work at a company where I have small but measurable power to fight against the unhealthy trends of the Internet. Three is that I work at a company with very caring, humane people. Four is that apparently, like, all these people read my blog.
I wondered, briefly, whether this readership means that I should tone down the sometimes harsh rhetoric that I use when writing here. I got mad and said "Rar, this makes me want to quit my job", and I didn't really mean that, I was just using hyperbole to express my emotions. But the people I work for read it and got nervous. Maybe I need to restrain myself or just keep quiet about some things?
But you know what? Screw that. I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing since I started this blog. I'm going to tell the truth to the best of my ability, I'm going to think about whether I'm saying what I mean to say, whether I would be harming anyone by saying it, and whether I'm telling secrets that are not mine to tell. But I'm not going to worry overly much about offending people's delicate sensibilities and I'm not going to let the potential for stepping on toes stop me from telling the truth as I see it. Sometimes I'm going to screw up, and when I do, I'll admit it like a grown-up and work to correct things.
I'm especially not going to worry about what Mozilla thinks of this blog, because Mozilla is about protecting the freedom of the internet, and blogging my views is what "the freedom of the internet" is for, am I right?
What's the best thing I could do with my life?
I turned 30 this year, which brings with it certain thoughts about milestones, mortality, straddling the past and the future, that sort of thing.
I've been unbelievably fortunate in my life to date. By any objective measure, I'm doing great. I've got a promising career, a great relationship with my wonderful wife, I've got loving family, all the money I need, leisure time, etc. On Maslow's pyramid I've stopped having to worry about anything except the very top layer.
Naturally, this makes me think two things. One is, "There's nowhere to go from here but down" which is pretty depressing. My health is certainly never going to be as good again as it is now. I'm growing more and more white hairs, did you know that?
The other, possibly more useful, thought is "With all my own needs met, how can I help others?" Followed by, "If I can think of a way that I could plausibly make the world a better place, do I not have a moral obligation to act on it - as soon as possible, and with all the force I can muster?" Awareness of the finiteness of my remaining years and the infiniteness of things I could possibly be doing, I must then ask myself: "What's the single best thing I could dedicate the rest of my life to doing?"
Writing internet software probably isn't it.
Like, writing software is totally a fun job. I'm really lucky to have some skills in a field where I can do fun things and get paid (let's face it) ridiculously well for it. And I want open source software to succeed, and I want the Web to stay as free and open as possible, and I want web browsers and software in general to have better user interfaces. So it's not like what I'm doing now is something totally frivolous. I agree with everything in the Mozilla manifesto and I like working for a place that has a manifesto. I just think that, all things considered, web standards probably ain't the overriding moral issue of our time.
What is it, then? I don't know, exactly, but I look to the future and see scary, scary shit on the horizon. If technologically advanced human civilization is going to last the next hundred years -- and I hope it does, because I kinda like technologically advanced human civilization -- then there's some stuff we need to figure out fast.
How we're going to feed the 10-12 billion humans who will be living on this planet by the time population growth levels off, for starters. And how those people can raise their standard of living without rendering the atmosphere unbreatheable and the seas toxic, maybe that too. And whether they're going to live in systems with freedom of press, speech, and religion. What the hell we're gonna do with all these nukes left over from the cold war, and the new nukes that Iran and Pakistan and North Korea made / are making, and how to stop having crazy dictators and terrorists who want to use them. How people of different religions can live together and stop killing each other so much, maybe. How we're gonna prevent, or adapt to, melted ice caps, if global warming is real. How we're gonna make electricity and go places when the fossil fuels are used up. How to get safe drinking water for the third world. How we stop fisheries and other ecosystems we depend on from collapsing entirely. You know, that sort of thing.
Whether Firefox loses market share to Chrome just doesn't seem that important, comparatively speaking.
I don't believe in any religion. So I think this life is probably all we get. And there's probably no guiding hand pushing the world towards a happy ending. No cosmic justice, no reward for good behavior, no prize for trying hard. No Rapture or Singularity to save us from ourselves. Just human beings, our decisions, and the effects our actions have on each other. Some religious people describe my worldview as an evasion of moral responsibility, like I decided to be an atheist so I could have a hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and promiscuous sex, or something. I see it quite the opposite way. If this life is all we get, all the more reason to make the best of it. If all we have is each other, all the more reason to treat each other well. If there's no absolute standard of right and wrong, all the more reason to think through the consequences of our actions. If there's no cosmic justice, all the more reason for people who want justice to work towards building it on Earth.
The inescapable conclusion of my philosophy is that I have a moral duty to figure out my optimum strategy for reducing human suffering and/or increasing the probability of long-term human survival... and then to act on it decisively. Even if I fail, I'd rather look back on my life and say "At least I tried".
What all this means in practical terms is that yes, I'm thinking about a career switch. Not necessarily this year, or next year (there's a lot I can still do at Mozilla to position myself for the leap) but soon.
Soon, before I get too comfortable where I am. And I am getting too comfortable, I think. Writing code is less and less of a challenge as the years go by. As the year 2000 recedes into nostalgia, the computer/software/internet industry feels less and less like a frontier, a place where visionaries and madmen come to hew form out of chaos. It feels more like a place where professional certified engineers come to ship product, so that rich kids can go down to Fry's and buy a pocket gadget that's slightly better than last year's pocket gadget. Being a non-profit, Mozilla stands a little bit apart from all that. But we're still really focused on, like, how do they say this, "having a presence in the mobile space".
(I can't believe I used to care what operating system people used. God. Silicon Valley is so disillusioning. It's a snake pit of sell-outs and phonies, all chasing each other's tails. I gotta get out before I turn into one of them.)
I need to switch careers before me and Sushu have children, that's the really important thing. Once I have financial dependents counting on me, it will get a lot harder to switch and a lot more tempting to just, you know, do what I'm told so I can keep climbing the corporate ladder and get raises to put towards the kid's college fund.
The only real question is, what to switch to? Science, business, politics, social work - how to have the best chance of making a difference? Maybe I should become an artist of some kind. Start an artistic movement with a manifesto and followers and stuff. Fuck up people's complacency. Try to shift the culture a few degrees in a less stupid direction. They're doing promising research in nuclear fusion energy on the other side of the hill in Livermore. Fusion could save us, if we ever get it working. I wonder if they need programmers. I wonder if they're even going to stay funded with all the budget deficit. Maybe I should move to another country. Maybe to the developing world, where the action is, where a small group of ethical technologists could make themselves useful allies to the downtrodden. Is there an organization I could join doing good work like this?
I'm not ruling anything out at this point. I'm open to totally crazy ideas. Shoot me a proposal.
Why I'm leaving Mozilla
I've told them June 7th is my last day. On June 8th (the start of Sushu's summer vacation) we leave for a two-month trip to China, and when we return I'm going to be jobless.
On the surface, quitting Mozilla seems remarkably foolish. They're a respectable company, they pay me the big money, they treat me very well, I like the people I work with, and I get to work on fun stuff. I've been extremely fortunate to have a good job while so many people around me were losing theirs, and I've been able to use the money to help my family pay off a lot of debts. I'm grateful for all they've done for me.
I started at Mozilla in spring 2008, so it's been more than four years now. I've been working for Mozilla longer than I've been involved with any other organization in my life. The first few years were great, but everything took a turn for the worse in early 2011.
I tried to make it work, I really did. I spent the second half of 2011 vacillating. I would tell Sushu that I was going to quit; then I'd have a few really good days in a row and change my mind. I really do like the people I work with and I don't want to let them down. But then I'd have a few miserable days in a row and Sushu would once again have to put up with my bitching about work.
I think it was early January that I first told Jinghua (my manager) that I was going to leave. She made a sad face. She talked me into staying for another few months, which I agreed to because there were some projects I wanted to finish up. By June I'll be able to finish my current work on Test Pilot and Collusion and hand both projects off to other people. (Up until now, every software project I've worked on has died the day I stopped working on it. It will be nice to have a project outlive my involvement for a change.) She's still trying to figure out a way to talk me into staying.
But I won't. Leaving is just something I have to do. I will try to explain why.
First: I've got the wanderlust.
They say some people have had 10 years of experience and others have had one year of experience ten times. Corrolary: if you find yourself having the same year of experience over again, it's time to try something new.
Mozilla has gotten too comfortable. I'm not challenging myself here. I'm not stretching, I'm not growing. The days and weeks and months have been slipping by with no sense of forward progress. I'm also not getting any younger.
I'm terrified of waking up one morning to find that ten years have gone by and I'm still sitting in the same desk, doing the same job, having accomplished nothing of lasting value.
Four years is a really long time for me to do any one thing. Most of the "chapters" of my life have been about three years; at around the three-year mark at Mozilla I started to feel the wanderlust, the voice inside me saying it's time to move on.
I desperately want to get out of Silicon Valley. It's hard to explain how much I despise this place -- its suburban sprawl, its strip-mall parking lots, its expensive lawns, its traffic jams; its rich, smarmy, boring yuppies; its disturbing lack of weather and seasons; its phony cheerfulness; its bubble culture; its incestuousness; its endless gossip about the same few software companies; its lack of history; its self-importance.
I miss winter, I miss artists and blue-collar workers and other people not in the software industry. I wish I could just ditch this place and move back to Chicago to be near my family.
But I won't, because the one thing I want more than that is to stay with my wife. So as long as her teaching job is here, I'm here. Mozilla would actually let me work from anywhere; ironically, it's not my software job that's keeping me in Silicon Valley, but Sushu's non-software job.
So we've been trying to figure out a way to live anywhere else. First we explored the idea of living in China for a year or so, but she can't get that much time off from school. Then we explored living in San Francisco, but it would make her commute much worse and we'd be paying twice as much for 1/4 of the space so it wouldn't make any sense.
So I've accepted that I will be physically stuck here for the forseeable future. The only way open for me to get the change I seek is to change my daily routine -- and that starts with quitting my job.
Second: Mozilla is changing.
The Mozilla manifesto says we're supposed to be fighting for freedom of individual user choice on the web. That sounds great, but how exactly does making improvements to Firefox advance that goal?
Mozilla is an organization forged in battle against Microsoft. Back in 2001, "freedom of individual user choice on the web" meant "don't let Internet Explorer have an unchallenged monopoly". But Mozilla essentially won that battle already. In fact, they won it before I even joined. Today, the web is very far away from a browser monopoly. People code to web standards, the capabilities the web can offer are advancing rapidly, and even if Firefox ceased to exist tomorrow, the competition between Internet Explorer and Chrome would keep them both honest.
The biggest question for Mozilla, therefore, is "Now what?" With their main goal accomplished, why do they need to continue to exist as an organization? As long as I've worked there, they've been flailing about looking for an answer to this question.
That was good for me, because it meant that I got to work on lots of experimental projects as part of the search for a new direction. However, a lot of the stuff I've been doing also doesn't feel very productive. The threats to web freedom in 2012 are very different from those in 2001, and it's hard to fight the threats of 2012 using an organization that was built up to fight the threats of 2001. It's kind of like that saying about generals always preparing to fight the previous war.
Honestly I think the biggest threats to the internet these days come from the government, not from any corporation. We can complain all day about how evil Facebook and Apple are, but at least we all have the choice of not using their products. Whereas 60 senators with no clue about how computers work could pass a law like SOPA or CISPA and force us to comply. You can't build an open-source alternative to the law.
Really, if you were building an organization with Mozilla's mission statement from the ground up today, it would make more sense to build a legal/political advocacy organization, not a software company at all.
Nevertheless, Mozilla-the-software-company continues to grow rapidly, and there are a lot of growing pains. When I started, they were under 150 people, and it was just barely possible to know everybody. Since then the number of employees has quadrupled, and with that comes more layers of bureaucracy. We're having to create formal processes for things that used to get done via personal relationships. And as we hire more people from Silicon Valley who aren't necessarily open-source advocates, the culture is starting to feel more and more corporate, with less of the open-source hacker spirit that made it an exciting place to work in the early days.
As for the "Now what?" question, they've recently decided that the best thing to do is try to build a mobile-phone operating system to compete with iPhone and Android. (Really.) The logic is that users have lots of choices for desktop internet software, but the mobile phones are still very locked down. Especially iPhone, where Apple gets to decide what software you are and aren't allowed to run. Maybe we could help break that open by creating another competitor together with some kind of open standard for apps which would be portable between different mobile platforms?
That's cool, I guess. Good luck! But personally I have zero interest in working on smartphone software. I don't have a smartphone, I don't want one, and I don't want to write software for them. If Mozilla's trying to turn itself into a mobile-phone OS company, they need people who understand that stuff. They don't need me; I'll just be slowing them down.
They'd let me keep working on Test Pilot as long as I wanted, but I don't really feel like I'm advancing the cause of web freedom by doing that.
And without the cause, Mozilla is just another software company.
Third: I've stopped caring about computers.
I used to care about computers for their own sake, because it was fascinating to have a machine that could do anything I wanted, provided I could figure out how to express it in code. I got all excited about learning new programming languages or techniques or whatever.
These days I'm like, a computer is just a tool; it crunches numbers fast. What are we doing with that tool? Are we using it to make life better for people? If not, who cares?
I used to have strong opinions about what hardware or software was good or bad, and would try to convince people to switch. Now I'm like, whatever; it's all basically the same, use whatever works for you; why should I care?
The rate at which people upgrade their computers is slowing down; computers are already fast enough for everything people want to do. Half the internet is still on Windows XP because there's no good reason to upgrade. The internet has matured and has been basically feature-complete since about 2005. Video game graphics are as good as they need to be. AI is stagnant. Computers are really boring now.
Postulate: The computer revolution is over. All that programmers are going to be doing from now on is rewriting the same applications over and over again, for ever-crappier platforms, using ever-higher-level languages.
The software industry today is an arm of the advertising industry. That's just a cold economic fact. Mozilla is no exception -- our money comes from Google and Google gets it from advertising. An industry driven by advertising is always going to serve the advertisers' needs, not the users'. ("If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product.") I don't really want to work for the advertising industry.
Since around 2005, when I got involved with Humanized, I had the idea that I could be a usability guy, and help people by making computers easier to use. But I've realized that usability, too, is just a tool. What is it that you're making easier to do? Something that's truly beneficial to the user? Or are you just making it easier for them to spend hours on Farmville while giving their private information away to advertisers?
In the last few years the industry seems to have decided that the way to solve the usability problem is to stop giving people computers and start giving them locked-down information appliances, which are "easy" because they can't do much. (i.e. tablets). This isn't what I wanted; I wanted to make the power of real computers accessible to more people, not some dumbed-down baby version. But maybe it turns out that people don't even want that power; maybe they just want to watch vidoes and play Angry Birds.
Anyway, being the usability guy was Aza's dream, not mine. I've given up on being that guy now. I'm looking for a different guy to be.
I don't think I want to make software anymore. But programming is my main marketable skill. Maybe I can find a job in another industry where I use my programming skills for some kind of higher purpose, like education or renewable energy resources or robotics or something. I'll go back to school and learn new skills if I have to.
Fourth: Sushu wants to have a baby soon.
This thought is absolutely terrifying to me.
Right now, I have the freedom to change jobs just to pursue personal satisfaction. I have the freedom to not care about how much money I make, because I don't have any dependents.
Once I'm a dad, I won't have that freedom anymore. I will have to be responsible.
If I'm going to change careers -- to green tech or robots or education or whatever -- I need to do it now, before any babies happen.
It might be my last chance.
I'm usually a pretty cheerful guy but every once in a while I get depression to the point where I can barely function. I fell into it in a bad way last September. It hit me again about a week ago and I've been struggling with it since.
I've never been diagnosed so I don't know if I have capital-D clinical Depression or not. I've never had to take antidepressants in order to function. I have friends who have needed medication, and I don't want to trivialize their experience by suggesting it must be just like mine. I'm just lucky I haven't had it as bad as them. I can only speak for what's going on in my own head.
It's worse than just being in a bad mood or feeling crappy; it's like a switch in my head gets flipped and suddenly I'm in a world where there's no possibility that anything good will happen, ever again. I become incapable of even imagining happiness or enjoyment.
Depression takes away my motivation to do anything. It makes me not want to do things that I usually enjoy. It reminds me that all human endeavor is futile and everything will come to dust in the end, so there is no point in doing anything. It becomes especially hard to work on long-term projects like coding or writing or studying Chinese, but even fun activities that usually provide immediate gratification, like playing accordion or painting minis, lose their appeal. That's what makes it different from an ordinary low mood. It's like there's a wellspring of positive energy that usually rewards me for doing things I like, and I've been cut off from it. Severed, like when the bad guys in The Golden Compass cut children off from their daemons.
The depression doesn't start randomly; it's triggered by some event or realization. The current bout started when I read that Arctic sea ice reached its lowest recorded level this summer, and that we're currently on track for 6-degree-celsius global warming by 2100. (I'll blog about that some other time.) This was compounded by hearing that there's now a good chance Romney might win the election and put the climate-change denialists back in power; together it makes me think that our political system is utterly incapable of facing up to the coming environmental catastrophe or doing anything to stave off the global food shortages that are going to come with it.
But whatever triggers it, once it starts, depression is self-sustaining. Depression will use anything it can find to make me stay depressed. It takes the news about global warming and politics and forces them into the most pessimistic possible interpretation. Anything bad must be true; anything good must be fake. Depression likes to remind me that I, and everybody I know, will die someday, and will be dead forever, and that there's no reason to believe in any kind of afterlife. It points out that I'm already 32 and haven't achieved my dreams; it tells me that now it's too late, I'm too old, I failed, and my life will be all downhill from here. I'm unemployed and my ideas for starting a business will never work out. Also, in a few billion years, the sun will go red giant and consume the earth, and after that all the stars will go out, and eventually even protons and black holes decay, and the universe will suffer entropic heat death.
When I'm deep in it, depression makes me not want to get better. It makes me not want to do things that would make me happy, almost like it's a parasite that will fight to prevent being removed from its host. It makes me want to indulge in more negative thoughts, providing a grim satisfaction when I think of more reasons why everything is horrible.
And this self-destructive impulse always masquerades as rationality. It's not a mood, it's not a mental illness: it's a rational appraisal of a reality where everything is objectively horrifying. Or that's what it tells me, anyway. When cutting off my motivation it tells me that my desire to do things was irrational: logically there's no reason to do anything, not when global civilization is about to collapse from food and oil shortages and we're all going to die. Happiness is an illusion anyway, so logically there's no reason to want to be happy.
When I'm depressed, I can barely talk to anybody; depression makes me want to avoid people, and when I have to talk to somebody it's a struggle to get the words out. I avoid eye contact and have long pauses in my speech and what I manage to get out is only the barest approximation of what I'm really feeling. I think this is another way the parasite fights for its own survival -- it knows that human contact is part of the cure, so it tries to prevent me from getting any.
There's also this weird thing that happens where I feel guilty about being depressed. After all, other people have it much much worse than I do. I've been extremely lucky in my life; I've had a lot of privileges; I've never faced any real hardship. I don't deserve to be depressed when other people are missing limbs or getting shot at or facing abject hopeless poverty or dying of cancer. So I get into this guilt/depression death spiral, and after a week I'm not depressed about the original triggering event so much as I'm depressed about the fact of being depressed! And I feel like I shouldn't tell anybody about it because I'd be violating some kind of imaginary social contract by admitting to depression.
So that's what my depression feels like. Here are some things I've been doing lately to try to pull myself out of it.
First, I think of it like an actual disease. When I've got a flu I don't try to pretend everything is OK, nor do I let the flu rule my life. I change my habits to try to help myself get better - drinking lots of hot fluids, getting lots of sleep, etc.
In this post I've been talking about depression as an external thing -- "Depression does this, depression does that" -- because I've found that's the key to fighting it. This is silly, but I visualize it as like a ghostly grey parasite creature that clings on to my chest and feeds off my bad feelings. Sometimes I can feel it there, pressing down on my lungs like a physical weight. But like a flu, I don't think of it as part of myself; it's a thing that I've got, temporarily.
That way when I wake up each morning feeling like "ugggggggh humanity is doomed life is pointless why should I get out of bed" I can respond "No, that's the depression talking". By imagining it as external to myself, I can turn and face the enemy.
I can't deny that the world is screwed up and bad things are happening. If I try to deny it, the depression always wins that argument. Trying to "logic" depression away doesn't work.
But what I can do is say "look, maybe my chances of doing anything to improve my life or make the world a better place are 0.00001% under the best of circumstances. But as long as I'm depressed my chances are absolute zero. If there's any path to anything better, it has to start with getting myself un-depressed."
Sushu has been wonderfully loving and supportive through this thing, helping talk me through stuff, getting me out of the house, holding me to my goals, and just being there for me. I am relying on her a lot.
Next, I try not to be alone with my thoughts for long periods. I force myself to get out of the house and talk to people. This is harder now that I don't have a job, because I don't have an office to go to or a time that I have to be there every day. But I've been using a local coffee shop (Philz on Middlefield Road) as a substitute office, going there every morning to work.
I've been making myself reach out via email and instant message to people I haven't spoken to in a long time.
I'm avoiding triggers. The trigger for this spell of depression was reading about global warming and politics so I'm forcing myself not to read any more articles about those things for a while.
I'm setting some modest, not-too-difficult goals. I worked with Sushu to define the next milestone for the Chinese study game, and set a due date of next Wednesday. She's going to help hold me to that.
I try to recognize the signs of a mental death spiral, and refuse to indulge in it. "Nope, not going to think about that right now" , I say, and distract my attention to something else.
Finally, I remind myself that it's OK to do pointless things just to make myself feel better; I think of them as a form of self-medication. Playing games with friends is good! To play a game is to care intensely about something (the goal of the game) even though it doesn't matter in the big scheme of things. Reminding myself what it feels like to care about things is essential to climbing out of depression.
I don't have a great conclusion to go there; this is an ongoing process. I welcome anybody reading this to share their experiences of depression and what they've done to try to combat it.
I'd rather punch myself in the balls than write another grad school application essay
OK, I've finally submitted my applications to Stanford and Berkeley.
Both applications required a personal Statement of Purpose and in both cases I procrastinated until literally the last minute before submitting it. Like, I had a week to do the essay in each case and I literally couldn't force myself to write the first sentence until utter panic set in about four hours before the deadline.
This was way worse than my usual procrastination. This was some sort of black-hole time-warp form of mega-procrastination that paralyzed me for days. My usual amount of procrastination is just because I'm a terrible person who fails at basic life skills. But writing grad school application essays is so much worse. My brain rebels against doing it at all. Why is that?
- The stakes are high, so I'm stressed.
- I'm really bad at selling anything, much less myself.
- I'm writing for an audience I know nothing about: a group of people I've never met, judging me by criteria I'll never know, and there's no way to gauge their reaction or get any feedback until it's too late.
- They want me to talk about my research interests and career goals. Uh, I don't know anything about this field I'm trying to enter, that's why I want to go to school for it, so anything I say about research interests or career goals is a wild guess.
- I know how to write a job application: "You should pay me because I have these skills that I can contribute to your company." But for grad school, I'm paying them to get skills I don't have yet. Do I talk about what I can do for them, or what they can do for me, or neither?
Last and most frustrating, they want to hear my plan for my whole life, how everything I've done has led up to Stanford's Energy Resources Engineering program (or whatever), and how going there will make all the difference in my career plan. They want me to fit my life into a tidy narrative.
But honestly? I spent 2000-2003 teaching English in Japan because I thought Japan was cool. Then I got back and thought I wanted to be a computer programmer, so I applied to University of Chicago in 2003. Why the U of C? Because it had a good comp-sci program? No, because it was conveniently located close to my parents' house. Joining Humanized was the result of meeting Aza, which was the result of doing the Shingo Mama dance at an anime club party in early 2004. Coming to California in 2008 was the result of not seeing any other appealing prospects other than following the Humanoids to Mozilla. Staying in California was because I got married to Sushu. And then I didn't want to be a computer programmer anymore, because I realized the software industry has become nothing but a branch of the advertising industry, so I quit Mozilla. Now I'm stuck in California, unemployed, with a set of skills optimized for a career I don't want, looking for something meaningful to do with the remaining years of my life.
It's been an opportunistic random walk the whole time. Any narrative connecting my past education or life experiences to Stanford or Berkeley's programs would be pure retroactive invention.
I remember seeing some interviews with scientists when I was a kid. The scientists would always say things like "I always wanted to be an astronomer since I saw an eclipse when I was 6". Hearing that, I wondered when my eclipse was going to come -- you know, the life-defining event where it suddenly becomes clear what I was put on this earth to do.
But now I suspect that astronomer probably was interested in lots of stuff and could have been good at lots of stuff given the opportunity. What probably happened is he/she just lucked into a sweet gig, then cherry-picked a plausible narrative precursor from all the events in his/her past.
But I don't think graduate school admissions want to hear that. So writing these essays is like pulling my own teeth out because it feels like trying to pass off creative writing about myself as non-fiction. It feels dishonest. My brain rebels against writing shit that I don't believe.
Does everybody secretly feel like this? Or do competent people have life stories that make sense, where they know what they want to do from a young age?
Is all this doubt a sign that I really shouldn't be going back to grad school, after all?
A few years in Silicon Valley cured me of my computer obsession. Just like a few years in Japan cured me of my anime fandom. And a few years... wait, no, ONE trip to GenCon cured me of ever again wanting to call myself a "gamer" or belong to "gamer culture".
I still play games, program computers, and sometimes read a Japanese comic. But these are things I do, not things I "am".
There's a pattern here. Possible explanations:
1. I satisfied my curiosity, now I'm ready to move on.
2. I'm a hipster and when I see too many other people enjoying something, it makes me stop enjoying it out of sheer contrarianism.
3. Life is a series of disillusionments that happen one after another as you discover the flaws in your childhood heroes and the seedy underbelly of communities you once respected.
4. Defining yourself by subcultural identification ("I am a..." statements: "I am a hacker/gamer/otaku/geek etc") is inherently problematic because it abdicates responsibility for the hard work of constructing your own personality by deferring to a group identity, AND makes you less able to think rationally about that group because your self-esteem now depends on defending the group from criticism... and I've gained enough maturity that saying "I am a..." no longer appeals.
5. I've just gotten less into geeky stuff as I got older, no special explanation needed, and I'm way overthinking this.