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The world's longest suicide note: ONE MILLION words.

I write about life with bipolar disorder (a.k.a. manic depression).

All opinions are my own.

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nick@manicgrant.com

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Training Artificial Intelligence

12 min read

This is a story about computer brains...

Screens

Let us imagine that I want to set my computer a simple task: I want it to point to the end of my nose. My computer doesn't know what a face is, what a nose is, or even that it can and should point to a certain part of my anatomy. I could write a program which tells my dumb computer exactly what to do - how to divine the position of my nose from an image, and then the relatively straightforward job of then asking the computer for the co-ordinates of the end of my nose, once the nose has been located. I could also use artificial intelligence, and more importantly machine learning.

Why does milk taste sweet?

You might not think of yourself as having a very sweet tooth, but in fact you used to have an insatiable appetite for sweet things. Your body is programmed to seek the wet, fatty, sweet goodness of milk, which provides the perfect sustenance for your growing brain and body. The reward circuitry is self-reinforcing and gives you a hit of dopamine every time you suck on the tit and get a mouthful of your mother's milk, which causes the neural pathways in your brain to become stronger, while others are pruned away. Eventually, you become hard-wired to stuff fat and sugar into your mouth, when to begin with you had only the reward part.

That's machine learning.

We need to give our machine - our computer - a reward. Let's say that for a high-resolution digital photograph of perhaps 8 megapixels, assuming that most of the photos we give the computer will have the nose tip somewhere around the middle, the worst possible guess would be somewhere near the edges. We can set up a super simple reward for our artificial intelligence, giving it a hit of computer dopamine every time it guesses a point somewhere in the middle of the photo.

Obviously this is very flawed.

Very quickly, our artificial computer brain will learn to make guesses in the middle. Even though our computer doesn't know what "middle" is, it will quickly become hard-wired to guess in the middle of the photos we show it, because that's how we set up our reward system.

The guesses are not close to the tip of the nose, but they're a lot closer than if we just let the computer guess completely at random.

We need to refine our reward system.

So, we take a library of thousands and thousands of photos of people's faces, then we record the location of the tip of the nose by manually clicking on the tip of the nose ourselves. We create a huge database full of the correct locations of nose tips, created by humans.

Then, we set up the reward system to reward guesses which are close to the correct location of the nose tip. The closer the guess, the bigger the reward.

Now, we train our computer system with the big database of photos and nose tip locations. Every time the computer guesses, it gets a reward based on how close the guess was. We can run the training millions and millions of times. We keep doing the training until the computer gets really really good at guessing the location of the nose tip.

Remember, the computer has no idea what a face is, and it has no idea what it's really doing. Nobody wrote a program instructing the computer how to do anything. The truth is, nobody really knows how exactly the computer is getting better and better at figuring out where the nose tip is. Nobody could predict how the computer brain is going to wire itself up. The computer sees all those thousands and thousands of photos, which are all very different in immeasurable ways, and somehow it begins to make associations between what it 'sees' and how it should intelligently guess the location of the nose tip.

That's a neural network.

The really interesting thing that happens next, is that we show the computer a photo of a face it hasn't seen before, and it's able to guess where the nose tip is. We use the same artificial intelligence with a brand new face which the computer hasn't been trained to locate the nose tip of, and it's still able to figure it out, because the neural network has hard-wired itself to be really good at fulfilling the rewarding task of pointing to nose tips.

There's nothing particularly amazing or hard to understand about machine learning and artificial intelligence. We're simply training our computer slaves to do simple tasks, by setting a quantifiably measurable reward system, so that the neural network can practice for long enough to get good.

The predictive text suggestions on your phone come from machine learning, which has seen vast quantities of stuff written by people, such that it's fairly easy to guess the word that's likely to follow, based on what you've just written.

So, what about training a computer to be more human and be able to have a conversation? How are we ever going to pass the Turing test and trick somebody into thinking they're talking to a real person?

We need to come up with a way to train artificial intelligence to speak just like a person.

Every time you use a text-messaging service to have a conversation, that data is harvested and analysed. Quintillions of messages are sent between people every year, and all that data can be fed into a machine learning system to train it to come up with typical responses to things people say. Google Mail makes absolutely brilliant "canned response" suggestions, which are usually totally appropriate for the context, because Google has seen quadrillions of banal emails saying little more than "thanks and kind regards". Google employees don't read your emails because they don't have to - a machine does it and it effervesces the very essence of your exchange, such that it knows whether you should reply "love you too" or "see you in the office tomorrow".

It's of no particular use - beyond the present applications - to have so much aggregated data, unless we want to have a very bland, homogenous and unsatisfying experience of life. We we slavishly obey the conclusions of vast pools of data which have been analysed, we'll end up in some sort of dystopian nightmare where are life outcomes are decided at birth, using available data, and reality will become like a piece of text composed by the predictive suggestions your phone came up with.

As an example, I'm going to generate a random number between 1 and 437, which corresponds to the page number of the novel I'm reading at the moment, then I'm going to generate another random number between 1 and 50 and use that word as the 'seed' for the predictive text feature on my fancy brand new iPhone Xs.

Let's go...

Ok... page 35 has been randomly selected.

And... word 17 has been randomly selected.

The 17th word on page 35 of my novel was "of".

OF COURSE IT WAS "of".

Chances are, it was going to be "a", "an", "of", "the", "is", "as", "to" and any one of a zillion different super common words. Let's use the word "sycamore" because it was on page 35.

Here's what my phone just generated:

"Sycamore is a good one and I have had to go back and I get the feeling of being able and then they are taught to work and they have had to do it a little while I’m not gonna was a very long and I have a very good relationship"

Clearly, machine-generated text leaves a lot to be desired.

Critically though, do we really want a single machine mind which can spit out decent text, or do we actually want personalities? Do we want a single generic face which is composed of the average set of features from all 7.6 billion people on the planet, or do we want variation?

Thus, we arrive at the conclusion that we should all be training an artificially intelligent system capable of machine learning, to be just like us, as an individual. It's no use that Google harvests all our data, because it aggregates it all together. It's no use that all the messages you've typed on apps from Apple, Facebook and Google, all the emails you've written and all the documents you've created, are absolutely fucking useless because they contain very little of your personality. Most of the messages you wrote were about food, sex, your children and your pets. Most of the emails you wrote were about the bullshit made-up numbers you type into spreadsheets all day long, which you call your "job". None of it is any use to train an artificially intelligent system to think and act like you.

I haven't figured out the reward system yet, but I'm building up a huge database of stuff I've thought. This stream-of-consciousness seems like utter madness, but I've very deliberately expressed myself in a certain manner: pouring my inner monologue out onto the page. It's ridiculous egotism and something which lots of writers have fallen foul of over the centuries, believing they're immortalising themselves with their words, but we are in an unprecedented era of exponentially growing computer power, yet most of our efforts are diverted into meaningless exchanges which expose very little of the interior of our minds.

173 years ago, Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods, lived alone with his thoughts and wrote perhaps 2 million words in the journal he kept for 24 years. It's highly unlikely that his handwritten text will ever be digitised because of the incredible effort involved. By contrast, my 1.1 million words have been extensively search indexed by Google and other search engines, and my digital legacy is conveniently stored in 'the cloud' with perfect fidelity. While most people have been wasting the gifts of the information age by asking their partner if they need to buy bread and milk, I've been gaining what can only be described as a head start in the race to be immortalised by advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

How the hell did you think they were going to get the contents out of your brain and into another [artificial] one? Did you think it was going to require no effort at all on your part? Did you think that somebody was going to invent some kind of data-transfer cable?

Yes, it's horribly arrogant to think that anybody would have any interest in spinning up a digital version of me, but you remember that bullied kid at school who everybody hated and ostracised? You remember that you called that kid "nerd" and "geek" and generally abused them because they were good at maths and physics? You remember how you made it your mission in life to make their life as thoroughly miserable as possible?

They're your boss now. They're rich and you're poor.

Those geeks and nerds are suddenly on top of the pile.

You thought you were top dog when you were a kid, but now you're getting left for dust. You're being left to fester in your own filth. You're the underclass.

All of those skills you developed in bullying and abuse quickly became redundant, when all that geek stuff became highly lucrative.

Those late-gained skills of using Facebook groups to share your vile bigotry amongst your fellow thick-skulled dunderheads, has done nothing except line the pockets of the geeks. The geeks have been using the internet for decades to discuss the creation of a better world, where the knuckle-dragging primitives who thought they owned the playground, have somehow been left unaccounted for by 'accident'.

I'm not a big fan of the social exclusion and elitism which is emerging at the moment, but I'm damned if I'm going to stop keeping my technology skills up to date and investing my time and energy in my digital persona. Having put up with a lifetime's worth of bullying during my childhood, I'll be damned if I'm gonna meekly shuffle off into a quiet corner now. I'm sorry that you weren't paying attention when the world went digital and now it's super hard for you to catch up, but that's what happens when you're too busy making vulnerable people's lives a misery, to notice that you're wasting valuable time.

Every word I write is harvested by thousands of computers which comprise part of 'the cloud' and although billions of webpages are lost every single day, content is king and my 1.1 million words can be easily copied from one place to another, unlike the contents of your brain.

This might be a core dump of the contents of my mind, hurriedly written down in a state of kernel panic but it's taken a huge investment of time and effort, which unfortunately has always been required to achieve anything. Without the large databases manually created by humans, the machines would have no datasets to learn from and artificial intelligence wouldn't even be a thing.

 

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Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics on #WorldMentalHealthDay

7 min read

This is a story about data science...

Non bank threats

What the hell is big data anyway? Well, some companies - particularly well-known dot coms - have amassed huge data sets capturing the online behaviour of their millions of users: particularly the journeys those users took to discover products, discover and view media - and to see advertising of course - before eventually making purchases. If you like that, you'll love this.

Did you ever think that Google is kinda clairvoyant in being able to predict the question you're asking it before you even finished typing it - its suggested searches are almost always on the money. That's because Google has such a ridiculously huge dataset, while the range of dumb questions asked by idiots is quite narrow, such that Google 'knows' what you're asking it before you even finished typing "where do babie...?". Yes. So many other people asked that very same question before you.

With big datasets, there comes the temptation to believe that we can predict a person's future. If we see a high degree of correlation between rates of absenteeism at school and exam grades in our data, it might be tempting to assume that high absentee rates are a good predictor of poor exam grades. However, correlation is not causation, and it's entering dangerous territory to attempt to predit future outcomes, just because there are statistically significant findings in our historical data.

The financial services industry is particularly interested in your past behaviour as a debtor, as a predictor of your future likelihood of reliably making your loan repayments. Your credit score is - in essence - a number which tells loan sharks how much of a compliant and obedient slave you are.

You will spend the most healthy, energetic and productive years of your life, making student loan repayments, mortgage payments, car loan repayments, overdraft payments, credit card payments, store card payments, loan payments and other regular instalments, payable in return for the privilege of being alive. Try living your life without a mobile phone and some sort of internet connection for a few months, and you'll soon see that there's a high price to be paid for the oxygen you breathe.

The burden of debt is not trivial.

Debt is natural to us, whereas altruism is not. Every act of apparent altruism can be unmasked as a selfish act, when analysed using statistical methods across large datasets. Unfortunately, your momma's so-called unconditional love for children and your daddy's obsession with sex, are two sides of the same coin. Your poppa wanted to shoot his love snot and your dear mother wanted to receive it, with the genes of both individuals aiming for a pregnancy - neither asexual partner can claim that they were intent on giving the so-called "gift" of life. Your parents were simply obeying the will of their genes, in much the same way that any mould, slime, bacteria, worms, fleas etc. will multiply with impunity, given favourable environmental conditions. Sex is sold, not given freely.

We often think life conforms to some kind of natural order and mistakenly hold the belief that there is stability and equilibrium in the world, when in fact the very polar opposite is true: the world is an erratic and unpredictable place, with evidence of continuous events considered cataclysmically catastrophic for whole species, with or without human intervention. We are prone to succumb to the gullible belief in the divine right of kings, and law & order, such that the majority of us meekly comply with the oppression of the many by the few and our general exploitation. There is nothing natural at all about a handful of individuals tyrannising and enslaving so many.

The so-called miracle of the information age - often called the fourth industrial revolution - can perhaps be unmasked as nothing more than a fancy way to tell you what other products you might like to buy after making a purchase. It's unquestionably true that Amazon will make a very accurate prediction of something else you'd like to squander your dollars on, but to suggest that this advances the human condition in a positive direction is demonstrably ridiculous and downright wrong.

I can't really imagine a worse time to be alive.

While the threat of death from diahorrea or a bacterial infection - arising from the tiniest of skin punctures - has receded dramatically, we must be mindful that the single biggest cause of death amongst people like myself, is not road traffic accidents, drug overdoses, cancer, or any disease. Suicide. Suicide is the biggest killer of men like me. Suicide is preventable. What kind of advanced society are we living with, when the thing which kills most of its biggest economic contributors, is 100% preventable? Does that sound like an advanced society to you; a paradise?

Fundamentally, you've been reduced to a handful of numbers from the very moment you were ejected from your mother's womb, and your destiny was foretold.

Birth weight is the number one best predictor of your life outcome. Hands down. No argument.

Second, household income.

Right there, before you even got to suck on your mother's titty, are two things which have absolutely nothing to do with you or your life choices, or even your unique DNA. You could have the greatest genes given to a baby in the history of humanity, but because you were underweight and born into a poor family, you're destined to be used, abused, forgotten and discarded, as a minimum-wage McJob worker who can barely make your rent payments.

Statistically, we can predict whether you're going to get those all-important "A" grades, graduate university and enter a highly paid profession. Statistically, we can predict whether you're going to reliably repay a big mortgage, and hence be able to buy a big house to fill full of genetic clones of yourself. Before you've even sat down to take a single exam, big data has predicted that you're going to be a no-good washed-up good-for-nothing piece of worthless human trash.

Surely there's been a mistake.

Is it right that 98% of humanity will wake up each morning with a heavy heart, knowing that they are heavily in debt and they have been economically enslaved? Even those who did not directly incur the debt - by knowingly and willingly signing contracts - have incurred massive amounts of financial burden, because their governments borrowed against their predicted economic potential. We are sold into slavery before we're even born, because of our anticipated life-preservation instincts.

Economics, statistics and data science are indeed dismal sciences, which are corrupted by financial incentives to tease out the most efficient ways of exploiting humanity. We are ill-equipped to deal with the vast investment in the academic pursuit of knowledge, which equips the wealthiest elites with a suite of tools to push our buttons and make us dance to the beat of their drum.

If we are looking for a single cause of the epidemic of mental health problems which sweeps the globe, we should look no further than the vast quantities of data which have been gathered on us, and the treasure trove of insights which can be exploited by those who are so lacking in ethical contraint, that they're prepared to consign the majority of us to a living hell, in pursuit of material gain.

Yes, it's quite possible to use every bit of data available to predict the life outcome of an innocent child - a blank canvas - before they start school, and to consign them to the reject bin... but should we even look at that dangerous data? I say that the temptation to believe that we hold good predictors is too great, leading us to playing god, ruining countless lives.

Past performance is not a guide to the future.

 

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What Have I Got To Do To Get Sacked?

5 min read

This is a story about biting the hand that feeds me...

Water cooler

This colleague of mine was holding an object which looked so much like a sex toy that I was compelled to take a sly snapshot. Trying to be as subtle as possible and not arouse any suspicion, meant that I did not compose my photograph as well as I could have done, but I offer you the cropped image below so that you're better able to imagine what I saw.

Zoomed in

Is that any better? Attempting to photograph a colleague waving around a dildo-like object while filling a bottle from the water-cooler in my office, was somewhat hampered by the fact I spend my days on a secure campus with high fences and guards manning the gates, in a building which you can't gain entrance to until you've been through various in-depth background checks, to ensure you're the right sort of chap.

I'm sure there's something somewhere written in a contract or a code of conduct I've signed, which could be twisted and misinterpreted to mean that I shouldn't irreverently make light of my privileged position in the world.

People tell me I have a "good job".

People tell me to watch my step and button my lip, because "they" are monitoring my electronic communications and every word I speak and write.

We are well aware that GCHQ's mass-surveillance invades millions of law-abiding UK citizens' presumed automatic right to privacy, in the name of national security. We are all well aware that the police are using undercover officers to infiltrate groups of UK citizens who intend to exercise their right to unionise, strike and demand better pay and conditions. We are all well aware that the police share dossiers of intelligence with private companies, black-balling individuals, preventing them from being able to work in certain industries, because they are labelled as 'agitators' who are likely to attempt to turn the tide of worker exploitation by wealthy capitalists in favour of a fairer society. The oppression of the 98% by the 2% is state-sponsored, as proven by an overwhelming number documents compiled and paid for by the UK taxpayer.

This is paternalism in action.

Don't be distracted by the "patriarchy" BS - that's a clumsy, flimsy, pathetically obvious attempt to divide and rule. If there's one thing that the Brits are good at - empire builders - it's dividing people up into groups using arbitrary and imaginary lines. The British civil servant who drew the borders of Iraq and Kuwait had never visited the Middle East in his life.

Civil servants have decided that you're not allowed to privately own a snowplough; they've decided that an ambulance is not allowed to have an electric engine. Why?

Why the fuck are civil servants making these rules?

The Great Game.

It's all a great big game for a highly educated bunch of toffs who've had their egos massaged their whole lives and been told they're destined for greatness, but ultimately what they're left doing is creating a massive and impenetrable rulebook of totally arbitrary made-up regulations, which exist for no other reason than justifying the existence of a bunch of paper-pushing desk-jockeys, meddling in the affairs of every citizen of the kingdom.

I actually think the civil service is somewhat of a benevolent dictator for life; mostly harmless and well-intentioned.

I'd be a bit gutted if I was kicked out.

[Please note, that this is not an admission of where I work, who I work for, what I do, or any other overt statement which might tie me to my employer or client]

Even though it's not a real job, making up rules for other people to follow, enforcing those rules and generally policing other people's behaviour - perhaps even on spying on private law-abiding citizens - it's a little bit hard to argue the contrary position, that we don't need the organisations and the huge number of people who keep the country running. I'm not as much of an anarchist as I claim to be. I live a very happy sheltered secure wealthy life because I'm the right sort of chap and they tend to see me as one of their own and assume I'm on their side. Everyone assumes I'm a well-behaved conformist patriotic stand-for-the-national-anthem Queen-saluting fully-indoctrinated and sufficiently economically incentivised member of the paternalistic guardian class, such that I'd never be so insane as to step out of line and bite the hand that feeds me.

Do I plan to make mischief? Do I plan to commit sabotage? Do I have treasonous intent?

No.

You got me there.

I am a humble servant of Her Maj.

To connect my name with search terms such as "civil service" and "government" is recklessly stupid, one might say, but on careful inspection - by reading what I've written more closely - you can see that I have not revealed for a single instant who I work for and what I do for a living, specifically.

Meanwhile, I promise you that every single day I give dedicated service, to the very best of my professional abilities. I care about what I do. I want to make a difference.

For Queen and country. Ich dien.

 

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A Streak of Arrogance

7 min read

This is a story about hypomania warning signs...

Cambridge Union Society

If I was pressed to justify why I have any self-confidence and why I think I add any value to humanity - anything useful or interesting to say - then I could reference a number of achievements which I'm very proud of, indicating that I'm not completely delusional and grandiose. My sense of self-importance and pomposity is not entirely driven by perturbations of my sick mind. There are a few little things which mean I shouldn't think of myself as a complete waste-of-space, I hope.

Of course there are plenty of people in the world who will shout and scream: "YOU'RE A SHITTY WORTHLESS WASTE OF SPACE WHO SHOULD SHUT UP AND MAKE ROOM FOR ME ME ME AND ONLY ME. GET THE FUCK OFF THE STAGE YOU TALENTLESS FUCKWIT AND LISTEN TO ME ME ME. SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND LISTEN TO THE IMPORTANT STUFF I'VE GOT TO SAY BECAUSE IT'S ALL ABOUT ME ME ME".

I've had to endure plenty of these sharp-elbowed puffed-up pompous idiots, in love with their own reflections; quite convinced that they're brilliant people. I'm not exactly the shy and retiring humble type, but there's got to be some kind of middle ground unless you're happy flipping burgers in a minimum wage McJob and otherwise being trampled by precocious little shits; being shouted down by fucking airheads and their entourage of sycophants who believe the world owes them a stage and an audience.

...and breathe...

I realise that an arrogant streak within me rears its ugly head whenever I'm stressed and exhausted; whenever I'm scared and insecure.

I'm feeling very scared and insecure at the moment.

I know that I'm good at my job and I make a big difference to the teams and organisations that I'm part of, but I can see that a nasty side of my personality emerges when I'm under extreme pressure and stress. I can start to believe my own bullshit and see those around me as dead wood. I can start to become irritable and impatient. I can start to treat people unpleasantly. I become horribly arrogant.

It's a reaction to circumstances.

I'm not comfortable. I'm not secure. I'm not happy.

I'm exhausted.

I'm tired.

I'm scared.

At work, I know that I've proven myself yet again. I know that I've gotten to grips with a huge complicated system and a gigantic organisation in record time, and I'm making myself useful. I'm highly productive. I feel needed and I feel like I'm delivering good value. That feeds my fragile ego. My ego is incredibly battered and bruised because of the rollercoaster ride I've been on during the last few years, and because I don't feel at all secure.

I can point to things from the past which hint at my potential and clearly indicate that I'm not an idiot or a nobody, but how far back do I have to go? The picture above of me doing a Dragon's Den style pitch at Cambridge Union Society is about 7 years old. It feels like my life has been a complete mess since then. I feel like a fraud. I feel like a washed-up has-been.

For all my achievements, I've also repeatedly had problems with hypomania, where I've become impatient and irritable and I've spoken to people really badly. My arrogance has raged out of control at times. There's no justifying that behaviour.

I'm acutely aware that I wrote a very boastful blog post yesterday, and that I'm starting to become quite irritable by the amateurish stuff I have to deal with in my day job. I have to try very hard to avoid being harshly critical of my colleagues' work, which is perfectly mediocre and acceptable in the humdrum corporate world. I have to frequently remind myself that although I'm right it doesn't matter; although I could build a much superior system and do things so much better, I'm just one team member on a big project in a huge organisation. I need to recognise that I'm prone to the cyclical pattern of being smashed to smithereens and ending up destitute, only to get back on my feet and able to become high productive again with unbelievable speed. I need to stop being so dazzled by my own remarkable ability to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, because it's horribly arrogant.

There's a mountain of evidence that proves I can achieve exceptional things, but there's also a mountain of evidence that shows that I can become a right pain in the ass and I can be thoroughly unpleasant to deal with, when I'm consumed by hypomania. I need to remember that it'll be beneficial for me and everybody who I work with if I can rein in my arrogance, keep my lip buttoned, be kind, be patient and be as humble as I can possibly be.

It doesn't help that two people who I very much admired and respected have left my team, leaving me as the de-facto top dog, but I work with smart people and I need to work as part of a team or else I'll burn out. I need to get into the habit of learning to be more tolerant of the mistakes which people have made and the "varying abilities" in a diverse team, which is diplomatic double-speak for learning to put up with dullards. It's an essential skill in the workplace I think, to accept that there are more people who are undoing your good work and generally thwarting your ambitions to build utopian perfection, and to recognise that there are a huge amount of advantages of being a member of a big team of people who really don't care too much about the gigantic heap of useless crap they're very handsomely rewarded for fucking up. Striving for perfection has really messed me up very badly in the past.

So, I need an attitude adjustment. I need to acknowledge that when I've been given carte blanche - a clean slate - I've been lazy and sloppy and cut corners. I need to recognise that even though I have single-handedly built great big complex systems and profitable businesses from nothing, it's always fucked me up and burnt me out. On balance, it's the same net result - the tortoise and the hare.

I want to work really hard. I want hard work to accelerate me forwards. I want there to be a direct relationship between how hard I work and how much money I earn, but there isn't. No matter how brilliant and ingenious I am, I'm basically paid for being bored and keeping my mouth shut. The more dumb and numb I am, the more I get paid and the more people love me at work.

It's a really tricky time, because my mood viciously see-saws between suicidal depression, extreme boredom, insecurity about my value as a human being and a mountain of evidence that I'm very capable and competent at pulling off death-defying stunts and overcoming very difficult challenges, which clearly hints at a kind of troubled brilliance... although I'm not wanting to pat myself on the back too much or otherwise pump up my already excessively over-inflated ego.

If I'm going to make it through the coming weeks and months without disaster, I need to remind myself of past mistakes and attempt to curtail my arrogance; I need to recognise the cyclical pattern of my mental health and remember that it's always disastrous when I start getting impatient, intolerant, irritable and generally full of myself.

I need to keep my arrogance in check.

 

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Paranoia: So Close But Yet So Far

8 min read

This is a story about being thwarted...

Social Media Training

If I was prone to paranoia, I could swear that I've had more than my fair share of bad luck while trying to get back on my feet. Things should have panned out for me several times, but I've so far been thwarted by some asshats.

In September 2014 I was beginning to sort myself out after my divorce. I took a quick holiday before starting a new job. I was making good progress with the new project, but a couple of asshats took offence to me getting ahead and conspired to screw me over. Mercifully I took 'em down with me, although it was a hollow victory.

In September 2015 I'd had an eventful summer but I'd achieved a lot and proven myself to be a valuable member of the team on the project I was working on. It was a friend who rather unreasonably expected me to help him get a job and get out of the dive he was living in, which pushed me beyond my limits and made me unwell. There was also excessive pressure on me at work, but I could have coped if I'd have had a more settled personal life, such as having a secure place to live and some financial assistance.

In September 2016 I was starting to believe that I was finally going to get back on my feet, but the project I was working on was cancelled unexpectedly. With hindisight I suppose it was obvious that the project was going to get cancelled and that it was a dead-end job. It's my own fault for taking my eye off the ball. It's my own fault that I didn't immediately attempt to get another job, but I'd been so bored and miserable, and I felt like I'd been de-skilled by all the time off work I'd had. I hadn't learned anything, gained any new experience or developed at all on the project, so my self-confidence was at rock-bottom.

In September 2017 I was sacked because I was in a coma on life support and the asshat I was working with thought that unconscious people are able to make telephone calls to phone in sick. He still owes me a lot of money. Obviously I had a lot of different problems that year, but successfully delivering software projects was not one of them - never has been and never will be.

I've been working for 10 consecutive months without a holiday and I've delivered two software projects successfully into production. I got sick in May, but I was given the benefit of the doubt because I'd proven myself to be a valuable member of the team, like I always do. I was sick in January/February time and barely limping along, but because I'd already completed my project in record time nobody much cared. That's the way I work - I'm blazing fast when I'm well, but I get sick too. You don't get to have me only on my good days - you've gotta take the rough with the smooth - although I don't charge my clients for the days I'm not productive.

Even with all the gaps in-between projects and time off sick, I've still delivered a hell of a lot of software in the last 4 years and I've impressed a lot of clients and colleagues. I've achieved a huge amount, despite not being very well. What I've managed to do in the workplace is all the more remarkable when we consider that it's set against a backdrop of homelessness, near-bankruptcy, drug addiction, mental health problems, hospitalisations, being sectioned and kept on locked psych wards, suicide attempts, moving all over the country, being estranged from family, social isolation and a whole host of other things which are toxic to a person's chances of succeeding in life.

I don't want to pat myself on the back too much, but I deserve a break. It's time I made a breakthrough. It's time I'm allowed to make a breakthrough.

Every time I get close to making a breakthrough, something goes wrong which is beyond my control.

It's making me paranoid.

If I can get to the end of the month, I'll have hopefully proven my worth sufficiently with my colleagues on my current project, such that I'll be able to relax and take a holiday in October. It would be incredibly cruel and unlucky if something went wrong, such that I'm not able to go away on holiday and relax, knowing I've got a job to come back to. That's what happened to me earlier this year, when I'd booked a holiday in June but then my project ended and I found myself looking for work again.

It's good that I've been able to work for 3 different organisations on 3 different projects this year, without any asshats screwing things up, yet. Not having huge gaps between projects has been crucial to my recovery. Also, it's important to note that this year I haven't - yet - been screwed over by anybody and I've been recognised for my talents and experience which I have to offer. It's nice to feel confident in my own abilities and to feel like I have proven myself to be reliable and dependable, beyond any doubt.

Obviously, I'm very exposed - my colleagues have seen the semicolon tattoo behind my ear and must have wondered if and when I'm going to get sick, but hopefully they've now started to see that I'm very capable and productive; hopefully they're enjoying working with me and they value me as a team member. However, if I need to take any time off work sick, it will obviously raise doubts again about whether my mental illness makes me a useless loser who should never be allowed into civilised mainstream society or permitted the dignity of getting back on my feet.

I'm probably pushing things too hard for too long. I should probably have a holiday sooner rather than later, before I have a breakdown; before I burn out. However, I also want to get to the end of the month, because it's a significant milestone and it puts enough cash in the bank to leave me safe from any unexpected bumps in the road. I'm so desperate to get back to a position of security as quickly as possible, having been on this agonisingly drawn-out journey with so many dashed hopes.

Everything is set up very well for me to be able to continue working and improving my life, but I'm paranoid that something's going to go wrong and screw everything up.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of a work colleague discovering my blog. I wonder if I might be the architect of my own destruction by writing this. There's nothing here that's unprofessional though. I'm not naming my client or divulging confidential details about the project I'm working on. I'm not guilty of misconduct of any kind.

As you can see from the screenshot above, I've been trained to be paranoid. I've been trained to keep my mouth shut and pretend like I don't have any problems. Despite the walls of the office being plastered with posters which proclaim "it's OK to talk about mental health problems" they really don't mean ME. I'm expected to be faultless. If and when my faults are ever revealed, it will be the end of me. The tiniest blemish is career-ending for those of us who work in the corporate world, where we must maintain a fake professional façade of perfection at all times.

If I'm feeling optimistic I like to think that my valuable contributions would outweigh the stigma and shock of realising that my colleagues have been working with a homeless, junkie, alcoholic, bankrupt with mental health problems all along - I should never have been allowed to get past the gatekeepers and rub shoulders with those who inhabit the fit-in-or-fuck-off corporate world.

When I'm feeling paranoid I feel like I'm only tolerated because I'm reasonably good at pretending to be a regular guy - any hint of who I really am and what I've really been through, and I'll be swiftly ejected onto the street to suffer destitution and homelessness.

It's so frustrating right now, because I've almost but not quite got enough money to complete my transformation from homeless, junkie, alcoholic, bankrupt with mental health problems, back to somebody who's indistinguishable from any other corporate drone. I'm so desperate to prove that it can be done - to get back on my feet from a terrible situation. It'll crush me if I'm thwarted.

Keep your fingers crossed for me. The next few weeks are crucial.

 

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Context Switching

8 min read

This is a story about screen time...

Phone icons

The button to silence my smartphone has broken so I leave it permanently in "do not disturb" mode, which suits me just fine. Hardly anybody ever phones me except for agents and other cold caller sales types. My time is mostly spent in the 12 apps pictured above. Perhaps I'm not on my smartphone all the time, but essentially I'm context-switching non-stop throughout my waking hours, so I thought that warranted a little examination.

Starting with my 35,225 unread emails, my inbox has gotten rather out of control. Email has become such a victim of its own success that no IT professional I know even uses it anymore - we're all on Slack. Most communication is entirely transient and there's no need to have a record of anything except some kind of chat transcript to catch up on - anything old can be archived and forgotten. I spend all day every day chatting to my colleagues on Slack, including colleagues from organisations where I don't even work anymore.

Messages comprises SMS messages - mostly telling me about voicemails I haven't listened to - and a handful of iMessages from people who aren't using WhatsApp for some reason. WhatsApp deserves special note though, because of the group chats. I was removed from the only group chat I was a member of - discussion between cryptocurrency enthusiasts - and I was usurped by a guy who screwed me over last year when I was on my deathbed, which is kinda besides the point but it galls me.

Instagram I don't actually use very much. I live in a text-based world and the photos I take are in 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio, not 1:1. I don't take very many selfies.

Facebook Messenger is my most active chat app, but I only use it to chat to one person - my guardian angel - and we mainly exchange memes about suicide, mental health problems and the ruined economy. Facebook messenger also makes calls - as do many of the apps - and I occasionally speak to a friend in Poland, which is about the only time I speak to anybody on the telephone.

Recently I've been using Tinder and Bumble in an attempt to meet girls. It adds additional complexity to my context-switching life.

I'm not really sure what I use Facebook for. I do browse through the feed once a day - not on my smartphone - and I occasionally like and comment on things which are especially noteworthy, but I generally try to avoid over-investment in that particular walled garden. I used to share a lot and indeed I've managed to rather make a fool of myself in front of all my friends and scupper my chances of ever working in some organisations, because I dragged my own good name through the mud. I don't put my dirty laundry on Facebook much, only for it to be conspicuously ignored. Instead I write over a million words on my blog and broadcast my ups and downs to thousands of followers and anybody who does Google searches.

I don't use Twitter properly. I don't generally retweet stuff and I don't spend enough time reading the tweets of the 6,000+ people I follow. How anybody could sift through it all I have no idea - Twitter is a pretty noisy place. Generally I just look to see if anybody I know is tweeting about any of the trending topics, and I otherwise rely on an email I receive in the morning each day, which tells me what my favourite people have been up to. I must admit, it's sometimes a struggle to stay on top of my notifications and DMs and then I turn turtle and hide for a while until things quieten down.

I don't bother with LinkedIn much. I don't struggle to find work. I don't much see the point in ploughing much time and effort into my corporate image - I've got a perfectly professional CV and LinkedIn page, and otherwise I rely on my contacts, skills, experience and references to be able to get work when I need it.

I wake up in the morning and I quickly scan through my notifications - mostly Twitter - to see if there have been any comments, which I make a mental note to reply to later in the day. When I get bored around mid-morning, I have a glance at my inbox to see if there's anybody demanding money with menaces or otherwise harassing me. Approaching lunchtime, I might kill a bit of time with Facebook, but I don't want to get too engrossed in my phone when I'm at work. If I'm having a really dreadful day, I might reach out to a couple of friends via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and see if I can get them to send jokes, memes or anything that might provide a moment's distraction from the boredom. After leaving the office and generally before my evening meal, I write a blog post. I often scan through my website analytics to see if there's anything notable going on. If my mind is busy and distracted I frequently find myself flipping between half-watching something on Netflix and several tabs in my browser - a mix of Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes I read the news, but I find that I spend less and less time engaging with current affairs at the moment, because I've been stressed out of my mind with basic survival. A new part of my routine is chatting to girl(s) via the dating apps and if I'm ever lucky enough to get a phone number, then chatting on WhatsApp.

The amount of context switching is pretty remarkable. In any given day I might have to switch between fully professional mode, with colleagues who I want to present with a squeaky-clean corporate-friendly version of myself, and a more relaxed but still guarded version of myself which allows a little bit of my personality to show, but hopefully keeps my bad not-safe-for-work (NSFW) stuff hidden. I might be chatting to somebody who I've known for a long time online who's in a different timezone - ahead or behind - and they'll know an incredible amount of personal stuff about me and we'll be talking very frankly and honestly about everything and everything... then I'll be talking to a girl who I've just started chatting to who doesn't know me at all... then I'll be chatting to work colleagues who I spend 40 hours a week in close proximity with and they think they know me but they don't [and I don't want them to know everything]. Then, there's the image I present and the interactions I have via my blog and social media. and all the people who I have frequent and infrequent contact with, and the different ways I know people. Facebook is a particularly weird melting pot, where former work colleagues mingle with people who I know through kitesurfing, my startup days, the time I was homeless and living in parks and hostels, people who I've just randomly friend requested when I was mentally unwell. Facebook is kinda the worst, because I never know which guise I should be in, so I'm probably too honest and I'm tarnishing my own reputation and good standing that I once had with friends.

My brain has to switch between survival mode - where I've been worried about money, housing, addiction, alcoholism, transport, sex, isolation, suicidal thoughts, self harm, depression, anxiety and odds that have been very much stacked against me - and professional mode - where I'm expected to perform at a very high standard and navigate extremely complicated large organisations and know all the ins and outs of massive and complex software systems and the infrastructure they're deployed on, plus all the many teams and the zillions of people and the processes and procedures - and my digital identity which I'm cultivating - which needs me to compose a blog post every day and stay on top of any replies, messages and emails, and generally keep in touch with an ever-growing list of friends who I've never met in person, but who've been amazingly kind and supportive during rough times - and Mr. Eligible Bachelor mode, which requires me to present myself in the correct sequence, so that I can be understood without at the same time being overwhelming and off-putting.

To some extent my life looks quite simple. I have a job and not much else - I don't socialise and I'm not in a relationship. To the casual observer, all I do is move between my home, the office and a hotel, and I'm always in front of my laptop, tapping away at the keys quite furiously.

I suppose my life is quite simple, if we imagine that my fixation is the screen and the keyboard, but the screen time is a red herring - it's a window to an unimaginably gigantic and complex world of thousands of interactions with people all around the globe.

The context-switching is pretty hard though. I've struggled to stay on top of everything during the last couple of days.

 

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Universal Basic Income

7 min read

This is a story about late capitalism...

Bank notes

Having been part of the JPMorgan team who built a system to process more than a quadrillion dollars of credit default swaps per annum, and also the system to find out who was holding the pass-the-parcel when the music stopped, only to discover it was full of dog shit, I feel pretty responsible for the credit crunch and financial crisis, which has plunged us into a global recession many times worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. I'm pretty disillusioned with capitalism.

I've had front-row seats for most of the insanity of the past 25 years - dot com, Y2K, 9/11, credit crunch, financial crisis of 2007/8, Bitcoin etc. etc. - and I was a fully paid-up subscribing member of the 2% profiting handsomely from others' misfortune with my snout deep in the trough.

By 2008 I was sickened by the way I'd turned a blind eye and ignored my moral compass, because I enjoyed the wealth and privilege. I was able to buy a house, a yacht, a speedboat, sportscars and go on enough luxury holidays to help me set aside my misgivings about what the investment banks were doing to the global economy, by creating fabricated securities such as derivatives, which were somehow valued at a vastly greater sum of money than the aggregate value of all the precious metals, gems, land, property, cattle, food, commodities, industrial plant, machinery, companies and cash that exists on the whole planet. I was shackled with golden handcuffs - who in their right mind would give up their trophy wife and pull their kids out of private school, to slum it with the hoi polloi?

I decided that I was sickened by the bullshit synthetic world of digital securities and digital bank balances, and the global computer network with all its software and data, which actually doesn't create anything real or tangible. It seemed like the infamous tulip speculation bubble in the Netherlands during the 1600s. It seemed like utter insanity to place so much importance on a bunch of binary ones and zeros which exist nowhere but as a tiny magnetic bump on a disk platter, an electron in a memory chip or a photon in a fibre optic cable. The entire weight of the internet is estimated to be about the same as a golf ball, if you add up all the electrons. It's madness to think that any of our digital scorekeeping - i.e. your bank balance - will matter at all when global warming really starts to bite.

I quit my investment banking IT job at JPMorgan and I retrained as an electrician. I wanted to build real and tangible things with my hands. I wanted to learn a trade which couldn't be outsourced or automated. I wanted to escape the virtual realm of high finance and software and into a field which could make a real difference in people's lives. Try living for a day without your lighting, heating, hot water, power shower, cooker, dishwasher, washing machine, tumble dryer, kettle, toaster, fridge, freezer and the myriad other electrical appliances which you don't even notice are there in your life, saving you untold time and physical labour.

It turns out, we don't value tradesmen as much as we value bankers.

I could've scraped a living, but it was hard work with little reward. The work was dangerous and dirty and the general public expected to get everything for virtually nothing. I didn't much fancy working my whole life with the threat of bankruptcy and my home being repossessed, never having enough spare money to enjoy what little leisure time I had. Economically, it wasn't viable to be a tradesman, except as a kind of break-even hobby. It made no economic sense to use 100% of my brains and brawn, but receive so little reward.

Subsequently, I've returned to making software systems for banks, doing so as a consultant and getting paid even more. I've been a leech on a leech, and the cash has poured in.

Throughout this journey my priorities have completely changed. Instead of aspiring to acquire and accumulate vastly more than I would ever need, and fantasising about buying bigger and better houses, yachts and other material possessions, my fantasies have taken on a completely different guise.

I've been fantasising about quitting the rat race, and having secure housing. I've been fantasising about having enough money to read books and write. I've been fantasising about having time and being free from the tyranny of the alarm clock and bullshit jobs.

I'd live in a Soviet-style apartment and have beige products - no consumer choice - if I could be intellectually free. I'd travel on the bus and give up exotic foreign holidays if I no longer had to play along with the charade of late-capitalism, where we are all commuting too far, working too many hours, and living under constant threat of losing our jobs, losing our homes and subsequently being made destitute. Given the choice, I choose equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity.

It seems pretty obvious that the equal opportunities experiment has run its course and it would be inhumane to continue. Free markets are efficient, but they are only efficient at stripping away people's security, happiness, dignity and any hope of ever feeling content or satisfied. Capitalism is - by its very nature - a force which will price gouge humanity for the basic essentials, such as food, housing, transport, healthcare, medicine and to some extent education.

Our poorest 50% struggle to afford the basics, while even the very rich are miserably struggling to attain the academic qualifications which will allow them to compete, lest they be trampled by the struggling masses, desperate to realise their opportunities. The competitive element of capitalism has turned us into slaves. Our lives our wretched and appalling.

I desperately want to drop out of the rat race, but to do so would see me persecuted. I wouldn't even be allowed to sleep rough and beg for food without being arrested and locked up. Society offers me no ability to house, feed and clothe myself, with any degree of security or quality of life. Working a zero-hours contract McJob is not going to earn me enough to pay rent and bills, buy food, travel to work and have any kind of life worth living. The theft of our time and freedom is an awful crime perpetrated against most of society. The chance to stop and smell the roses is denied to us when we do not have secure food and housing.

The only viable solution that I can see is universal basic income (UBI). I just don't see how else we're going to be able to stop the terrible decline in living standards and save humanity from the tyranny of exploitation by the capitalists. It seems like we're at breaking point when even the middle class children are becoming slaves to the capitalists, with enormous loans for their education, which might win them a low-paid job in a completely unrelated field from their university degree if they're lucky - the unlucky ones end up unemployed.

It's a sad state of affairs when our fantasies revolve around basic needs, such as secure housing.

It's not my idea of a good time, sitting at home smoking cannabis and playing computer games, but I don't see any reason why it's not morally acceptable or right to allow people to do that, and not threaten them with homelessness and starvation if they don't get a bullshit McJob and otherwise comply with the tyranny of late-capitalism.

The idea that we live in a land of opportunity and that hard work will bring rewards has been proven to be a lie, and ever more-so during each passing year. It's time to let people live lives of quiet dignity, rather than frantic futile desperation.

It's time to just give everybody enough money to live in peace.

 

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Mercy

10 min read

This is a story about nth chances...

Reception

Is the UK so short of people with the technical skills and experience that I possess, that I would suffer no career setbacks even if I literally curled out a turd on the table in front of the entire board of directors, having waltzed into the boardroom, leapt onto the boardroom table, lowered my trousers and squatted?

I've been doing more-or-less the same job for 21+ years, and every single enterprise CRUD app for a large organisation is exactly the same as the rest. Yes, I switched from one programming language to another. Yes, I switched from one kind of way of managing a project to another. Yes, I learned a load of technologies that do a lot of 'magic' for me, so my job is 95% plugging things together, and only 5% 'programming'. It's not even programming any more... that 5% is just renaming stuff that you've copied and pasted, so it's not so obvious that you copy-pasted it, and then sorting out a bit of rewiring and configuration.

The last couple of projects I worked on, I got so bored and I had so much spare time, that I was able to do things properly for once - I did things which are hard, so most people don't bother; I was thorough. I didn't cut any corners. When I found the inevitable complex technical problems which defeat most people, I didn't kludge round those problems... I spent those days and whole weeks, tearing my hair out with frustration, to arrive at a "textbook" solution. I should write a frigging book: "How to write nice elegant software in a horrible corporate environment where nothing works like it's supposed to". I guess the title could be a bit shorter.

The main project I worked on last year involved a lot of conversations like this:

  • CEO: I want the app to look like this
  • Me: I'll make an app that has the essential features, but it'll be ugly, then I'll work on the other 70% of stuff that needs doing
  • CEO: Yes, but the app needs to look and work exactly like this
  • Me: Ideally, in a year or so, it could do yes, but right now you've only got me, so if you want to launch something in a couple of months, I need to do lots of other things as well as make a pretty app
  • CEO: OK, but it'll look like this, right? The design is 100% complete
  • Me: It won't look like that because the design includes things that are impossible
  • CEO: OK, but it'll look almost like this?
  • Me: I think you're getting too hung up on the app. There's lots of other stuff to do too.
  • CEO: But it's important that the app looks like the designs we've produced
  • Me: I think you should hire somebody else who can tweak what I produce to make it look the way you want it to look, and I'll get on and finish all the other essential bits
  • CEO: We already had 6 different freelancers from 6 different countries produce 6 different apps, and each one looks nothing like the design I want. Can you re-use any of their code?
  • Me: No
  • CEO: OK, well, I'm sure you'll have it all done in 2 months

So, I worked on the thing that I usually wouldn't bother doing, because it's not my core skill, which was to faithfully reproduce the design that the CEO wanted. I spent a lot of time making a really really pretty app. I learned a lot. I stopped being so afraid of UI/UX work. I started to feel quite confident building attractive and complex user interfaces; pretty apps.

Then, onto my bread-and-butter: take a load of data, convert it and store it somewhere, create some means of retrieving it, and create some means of users interacting with it, plus gathering loads of data and analytics on who they are and what they're up to.

Only, almost all my time had been wasted making a stupid pretty app, and when I came to look at the source data which has supposedly been analysed, it turned out that the analysis was total BS. Half the data which the pretty app was going to display to the users quite simply didn't exist - it was fiction; fantasy. "We'll scrape that data together ourselves" said the CEO. The price of a pint in 120 towns and cities. The average rent in 120 towns and cities. The total number of students in 120 towns and cities. The number of nightclubs in 120 towns and cities. Lunatic.

So, I've had occasion to become somewhat obstreperous. Rather than just plod along and ignore the lunacy, and waste my time on wild goose chases and impossible tasks, I've gotten stroppy; I've let my frustration be known loudly and clearly. I stop doing what I'm asked to do - because it's lunacy - and start working towards a finished product.

I wonder how many times I've left a project, and the CEO or whoever has been thinking "thank God we got rid of that guy who gave us a complete working application, and who told us in precise and concise detail all the problems that we were going to face if we continued on our chosen path, which we've repeatedly refused to deviate from". It's actually interesting to see the pretty app that I developed, live in the App Store, exactly how I left it - none of the impossible lunatic things are there, unsurprisingly

Given that each of the 6 previous freelancers had looked at the previous developer's code and thought "nah, this is rubbish, I'm going to throw it away and start again" but whoever it was who took over the complete and working system that I left behind, decided that it was actually exactly what they wanted and needed, so they released it to the App Store.

On another note, I keep getting sick. I work very hard, I try very hard, and I immerse myself it what I'm doing - I live and breathe the projects I get involved in; I care. It's the caring part that's the problem. When you care too much, you get upset and then you start to get frustrated, which is exhausting and it makes me sick. I literally get sick: I get too unwell to work.

I bust my balls, then I get sick. When I get sick, all kinds of bad stuff happens. I might end up in hospital. I might end up in trouble with the police. I might end up falling out with friends. I might end up running out of money. I might end up homeless... who knows? It's anybody's guess how bad things are going to get when I get sick. I've attempted suicide 3 times already.

So far though, nobody seems to have gone out of their way to do life-changing damage to me: to black-ball me from ever being able to work again, to punish me, to give me black marks against my name that would exclude me from civilised society. Nobody seems that keen to see me dumped on the enormous pile of humans who we've decided serve no useful purpose. Nobody seems that keen to prevent me from ever having another chance.

The last couple of projects, I didn't get obstreperous and I didn't get so sick that everything got badly messed up. The last couple of projects, I gave the client exactly what they asked for, more or less... I just ignored the lunacy, and built useful high-quality working software and ignored all the questions like "where's that [impossible/useless] feature I asked for?" and sure enough, they forgot all about it in the end, and they were happy.

In my personal life, I don't know why my misbehaviour when unwell hasn't landed me in more trouble than it has, and ejected me from civilised society and consigned me to a life that a great many of our "unwanted" and "unwelcome" members of society suffer, because they've caused trouble and they're now permanently branded as "trash". It must seem very unjust to those who have been branded as "human trash" to know that the rules and regulations of life are supposed to be applied fairly and evenly, but evidently they are not. Maybe it's because I can pretend to do a posh accent. Maybe it's because I try to remember to say please and thank you lots. Maybe it's just because I've been lucky up to now, but luck won't last forever.

I know people have found my blog and they know that my visible tattoo advertises that I've got problems, but nobody ever says anything, except for the occasional "do you wear contact lenses?" or other hint that they've seen my bespectacled profile picture: my alter ego.

My plan is to try and get myself onto page one of Google (I'm on page 2 at the moment I think) but the truth is, I don't think people - the decision makers - actually care that much, when they find somebody with the skills that are apparently in such short supply that a person like me can limp along and suffer the horrible manic highs and depressed lows in full view of my office colleagues, when economic circumstances force me back into that environment.

Ideally, I'd like to send out my CV and have my email address as nick@manicgrant.com and list my website, as well as including details about exactly what's happened in my life since I got sick. I'll just write a summary of my life and career to date - good and bad - rather than the corporate friendly horses**t nonsense that conforms to the expected standard.

At the moment, do I require mercy? Yes, a little. I'm in a precarious situation. There are a few people who could choose to bring the full force of the blows raining down on my head, but they've been merciful, so far.

At the moment, do I require an nth chance? Yes of course. I always feel like I'm on the back foot; I always feel like an imposter or a fraudster, even when I've just finished a big project and the client's really happy. I always feel like my not-so-secret website and the stuff that's happened in the recent past - which would usually be confidential - somehow disqualifies me from doing the job that 21+ years of evidence shows I'm very capable of doing to a high standard.

For the first 11 years of my career, I had an unspoken agreement with my bosses: they'd let me have days off sick or come in late when I was depressed, because they knew I'd be so productive when I was manic. It was a system that worked well. The trouble is, with short projects, it's so much harder to establish the trust in that relationship and accept that a member of your team is not a regular 9 to 5 Monday to Friday mediocre plodding drone who doesn't give a f**k.

It would be arrogant and unreasonable of me to expect special treatment in the workplace, or indeed in society in general. I don't know why I keep getting more chances. Do you think it's fair?

 

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My Macbook is Kaput

3 min read

This is a story about precious objects...

First Macbook Pro

I gave my sister the second Macbook I ever bought, which was the first model with the aluminium case. However, it was also the one where the batteries always expanded and busted the trackpad when it got old. I got it fixed, but never got round to giving it back to my sister.

I had a Macbook Air, which was wonderful, but then I went through a phase of breaking it. One time it cost me virtually the price of a [working] second hand one to fix. Once it broke, so I left it gathering dust for a year or so, and then it came back to life.

I can't wait a year to see if my main mac comes back to life. Annoyingly, I only back up SUPER important stuff, so I'll be hunting through email inboxes or just damn well having to live without some of the data, until it can be recovered.

I'm back on the Mac Pro my friend brought me back from New York, saving me hundreds of pounds. It has an "enter" key rather than a "return" key, and no sign of the UK Sterling or Euro currency marks. I like that I can type a # (what Americans call pound) without having to use a weird keystroke.

Having this old mac has saved me from being laptopless while I get mine fixed, which could really have badly screwed up my week (more than it is already) and delay me applying for contracts in London, of which there are loads and they're really good ones too, so I'd better get my CV updated... see if I can secure something before my last day at the current place.

Tonight and tomorrow are going to be awful; this week is going to be awful. I've made things harder for myself than I needed to, I've seen how much work there is in London, and how much extra they'll pay now I've added a few skills to my repertoire, and it's great news: it makes me really hopeful that I can go to London, live comfortably and be able to continue to replenish the war chest. It'll be so much better to not have the constant strass and anxiety about cashflow.

If I get this old laptop out at an interview, it might raise a few eyebrows, but it does the job and it's got retro chic.

Am gutted about my Macbook, but I do have home insurance which will hopefully pay for the repair.

All in all, I've managed to make a right mess of the weekend, after a relatively uneventful Friday night, and I've really made a lot of work and suffering for myself,  as well as the risk of going into the office when in a state. Should've brought the work laptops home on Friday, but I was feeling a helluva lot better than I was on Wednesday... I'm a fucking liability.

Maybe the insurance gods will be kind and I can get a shiny new toy.

 

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High Availability

6 min read

This is a story about keeping the lights on...

Bright city lights

There used to be a time, not so long ago, when banks were closed at weekends and on bank holidays, and the only way to do financial transactions was with cash, or otherwise with cheques that used to take 3 working days to clear and could 'bounce'. Today, we can do credit and debit card transactions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Today money flows across the globe in the blink of an eye - pay for some sunglasses in Singapore and your current account will be immediately debited back home here in the UK.

There used to be a time, not so long ago, when getting online meant phoning up another computer. We weren't online all the time - we'd connect once in a while to check our emails, but the rest of the time our telephone line had to be left free so that people could call us. Likewise, computers weren't always available to be connected to - the dial-up number might be engaged because somebody else was connected, or maybe the computer would be switched off or having maintenance done to it. Today, you can access websites 24 x 7 x 365 and you'll never see a message that says the service you're trying to access is offline because of maintenance or some kind of problem. That's what "high availability" means.

So, did we stop turning off the computers, or install some more phone lines or something? Did we get rid of the need to upgrade and do maintenance on the computers? Are the days of engineers having to take a service offline now gone? From a consumer's point of view, that's certainly the way it appears.

In a post 9/11 world, disaster recovery is seen as an essential requirement for business. A terrorist organisation could blow up the headquarters of your bank, but to you as the customer, the computer systems have been designed so that things should function just like normal - business as usual as far as you're concerned. Does that mean that computers are now bombproof? From a consumer's point of view, it certainly seems to be the case.

The reality is that behind the scenes there is a lot of redundancy and failover design so that if anything catastrophic happens, other parts of the system can take over from the parts that have failed. If a computer blows up, another one immediately takes over its work, seamlessly. If a hard disk fails, the data has been copied across a bunch of other ones so no information is ever lost. Software is designed so that it can be upgraded without the users even realising that it's happened - you get new features on the websites you use all the time, but you never notice any interruption in the service. That's high availability in action.

Behind the scenes, there's an army of developers, testers, devops, support analysts, network engineers, sysadmins, database administrators and other flavours of infrastructure engineers, who keep things running smoothly. To keep you plugged into the digital world 24 hours a day, allowing you to send and receive emails, text messages and naughty photos whenever you want, a huge stack of systems have been designed, built and maintained with the principle that they must be "always online". It's a bit like repairing a broken-down car while it's still driving down the road at 100mph.

The net result is that the main skill in IT is not creating the hardware and software anymore, but in keeping the lights on all the time - 100% uptime. Teams of people work in shifts around the clock just waiting for something to go wrong so that they can spring into action and fix it, even though faults are not fatal to the overall functioning of the system, and the users won't even notice that there's been a problem. Computers still fail and hardware still needs replacing. Things need upgrading; things need maintaining, but it all happens without anybody ever seeing a message that says "SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE".

Personally, I do not enjoy sitting waiting for something to go wrong. I'm currently working for a team whose role is to keep the lights on, and it got briefly exciting when the air conditioning failed and a whole datacentre shut itself down, but that was the briefest possible thrill. I'm like a firefighter in this modern world where modern fabrics, improved electrical safety and central heating systems mean that fire is an increasingly rare occurrence in the domestic home. I'm built to fight fires, but everything's built to be so resilient. There are no crises that demand heroics anymore.

I'm pretty much in the wrong job. I deal with machines all day long but I want to deal with people. I'm bored but banking is supposed to be boring - when it gets exciting it means stock market crashes and people not getting paid. I need variety but once you've grasped how to build a computer system, they're all the same - I've built everything from torpedo guidance on nuclear submarines, to bus ticket machines and iPhone apps, and it's all built exactly the same way. I am devastatingly depressed about my job. I think banking is 99% evil, with only 1% of it having anything to do with keeping people's wealth safe from robbers or facilitating transactions that are easier than barter. I need to be solving problems, but I've already solved the same ones a million times, and if I do a good job upfront then there aren't many to solve anyway. It's a dismal existence.

So, I sit at my desk and I get paid an obscene amount of money for doing nothing, just in case something goes wrong... which it very rarely does. I'm highly available, but like a disaster recovery site, hopefully I never have to spring into action, because things are really bad if I'm put to good use. It's really horrible, sitting and waiting for something terrible to happen, and really wanting a crisis to develop because I'm so bored and under-utilised.

I really need to find some kind of app which serves some kind of societal function, beyond stupid distractions from the point of living. Surely the point of living is to spend our brief time on this earth with our family and friends, eating, drinking and making merry, not chasing money and other made-up bullshit.

 

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