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The world's longest suicide note

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

All opinions are my own

twitter.com/ManicGrant

nick@manicgrant.com

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Talking Shit Behind People's Backs

4 min read

This is a story about IT security...

With great power comes great responsibility

Ordinary people - non tech - believe that IT security is so good they can say WHATEVER THEY WANT and it'll be safely protected from prying eyes. What I'm really saying is, if you were to look at - hypothetically - a load of so-called private mail and messsages which have been exchanged electronically, you'd be horrified by what you saw. Somebody can easily act all sweet and innocent, believing that the ugly truth of what they say in so-called privacy is protected.

Before I continue, I must state for the record that I'm not a hacker, I don't hack people's accounts and I don't use my IT skills to invade anybody's privacy.

Even the least tech-literate amongst us uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Email (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo... to name but a few), Whatsapp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn, plus of course THOUSANDS of websites. Each one of those things keeps a record of who you contacted and what you said. So, if you're talking shit behind somebody's back, there's a trail of digital evidence.

In the course of my job as an IT professional I SEE what people are doing with their computers and smartphones. I'm not spying. I'm not hacking. It's simply a hazard of the job. I make software. I put the software onto the devices. The devices get used by people. The data gets stored.... then at some point, I have to look at the data: not because I'm spying, but because I'm trying to fix a bug for somebody. Inadvertently I see all the SHIT that people send when they think nobody's going to see it except the intended recipient.

Now, I promise you as a software designer, I try to build systems where I couldn't see the shit you talk about people behind their backs. I really wish I DIDN'T KNOW just what a nasty bunch of people there are out there, and what nasty things they say and do. However, when you work with a lot of systems, and you didn't design and build them all yourself, you don't really get to avoid seeing the horrible stuff that people say to each other, about each other, and the nasty stuff they do.

People are really horrible, when they think they're in private; when they think they can get away with being nasty about somebody and they'll never find out.

Let's say that hypothetically, you wanted to know what somebody really thought about you. If you were determined enough, you could harvest every email, every message... everything. When you have all those Whatsapp messages, Messenger messages, personal emails, work emails, Twitter DMs, Instagram DMs etc. etc. then you - having completed the hypothetical exercise - you can see what a lot of shit got said behind your back; you really know what people think about you.

I suppose this is the curse of the IT professional: to know that people are two-faced, lying, cheating, nasty pieces of work. To see - in unambiguous clear plain text - that people are really really horrible  is very upsetting.

I think that's what this blog is about. I wanted to get out of "inbox culture" and the world of 'private' correspondence, and live an authentic life. I've practically stopped using email, messaging apps or any other form of communication which is not 100% public and transparent. I don't talk about people behind their backs. I don't chat shit. I don't have private discussion groups, to convene and invent sob stories to elicit undeserved sympathy. I don't lie. I don't cheat. I'm not two-faced. If you send me a message, I'll reply - I won't forward it onto somebody else.

I suppose that's what being a nice person is: not chatting shit behind people's backs, not talking about them without them knowing, not saying stuff about them in secret.

As an IT professional with "great power" I'm constantly disappointed - people really are complete and utter shits, when they think they're safe to say what they really think, and do whatever the fuck they want, and the victim will never find out

Hypothetically.

 

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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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As Fast as Humanly Possible

10 min read

This is a story about the origins of [my] bipolar disorder...

Me in hospital

Here are a couple of select conversations from the last year that might help you to understand the circumstances that influence my mood instability.

Me: "I'd like to discharge myself from hospital, please"

Doctors: "No. You are on a high dependency ward. You will die"

Me: "It can't be that bad. I want to discharge myself, please"

Doctors: "Your kidneys aren't working. You need dialysis. Your blood has dangerously high levels of potassium in it and you could go into cardiac arrest at any moment"

Me: "But I need to go to work otherwise I will lose my job"

Doctors: "You can't work if you're dead"

Me: "I'm going to have to risk it"

Why would I do such a staggeringly stupid thing? Why would I risk my life like that? It seems patently absurd, doesn't it?

For my whole career, bosses and shareholders have demanded only one thing: do more, faster.

I decided that I was being exploited. I'm the one who makes the software. Without my software, there's no product; there's no business and there's no profit. Without software that I've built, no amount of lawyers and salespeople and middle managers and jumped-up idiots with important sounding job titles, would have anything to do other than burn what little money the company had left. If the software is the product, then you've got nothing if you've got no software. If the software is what allows you to do thousands of times more volume than you'd be able to do without it, then you haven't got a business if you haven't got the software - your business model would collapse. Your business is software.

I'm not saying that software is important. Software can't build a house. Software can't plant carrots. Software can't dispose of your sewerage. Software is bullshit. However, most of the economy is bullshit - at least 85% bullshit here in the UK anyway.

So, anyway, some jumped-up little twat with his daddy's money comes up to me saying "I'm an entrepreneur and I've got a genius idea... I just need a geek to make the software". On closer inspection the software is where the genius lies. When the business idea is examined with close scrutiny, it turns out that none of the important details have been figured out. Turning an idea into a working business - the execution - is something that gets figured out by the lawyers and software engineers. The "entrepreneur" just provides his daddy's money, while he walks around with his chest puffed out pretending like he's a serious businessman.

The next thing that happens is that I say "how much money have you got to spend and when do you need to have a working product?". The answer is always the same: "I haven't got any money and I need it yesterday".

Where did the budget go for the software? It seems to have all been spent on employing a bunch of old schoolchums to do "brand consultancy" or "business development". Basically, the directors fly all around the world attending conferences and "networking", which is very costly because they're running up huge expenses. Meanwhile, the geek is expected to churn out the software - "I don't know what it is, but is it finished yet?" - as fast as they possibly can. It's quite common now for very capable young computer programmers to work unpaid, or on slave wages, because they're desperate to gain commercial experience. Some idiots even think that I'd enjoy working on a software project for free, like it's a motherf**king hobby or something.

So, I arrived at the situation where I would always work at top speed. I've pleased my bosses and shareholders, not because I give them what they want, but because I've generally been much faster and much cheaper than anybody they've used before. In short: I deliver.

I was working so damn hard all the time and not seeing much of a reward for the dedication I put into my job, so I started to work for myself. I made software and I sold it. I made some iPhone apps and I sold them. One of my apps took me half a day to code and it was downloaded thousands of times. This made sense to me - the whole reason I work with computers is because they can do things while I sleep; a computer can perform many thousandfold tasks than I ever could. It makes sense that I would use a computer to leverage my talents and efforts.

I didn't quite understand that the whole reason why I came to be writing iPhone apps was because I'd been burnt out by my employer. I'd landed a hell of a project. The world's biggest project, in fact - "Nick, would you mind creating us a system that can process a quadrillion dollars worth of credit default swaps, please? Have it done as soon as you can, please, there's a good chap... we've got a global economy that needs wrecking".

I didn't quite understand that I burnt myself out again writing iPhone apps. I coded as fast as I could. I catnapped and skipped meals. I worked 7 days a week. I knew that every moment that I wasn't coding was another moment that my competitors were potentially going to release a similar app. I had to be first to market with my ideas. I had to be the first person in the Apple App Store with an app that did something that nobody else had thought of yet.

I decided to start a proper business. I decided that I'd create a piece of software with a recurring license cost. I decided to create a piece of Software as a Service (SaaS) and then I'd be able to earn money while I slept, once I'd completed the system. I didn't have any of my daddy's money to spend though. I didn't raise any money from friends and family. I just had me and my idea, my software engineering skills and 24 hours in every single day.

I didn't quite understand that I burnt myself out doing my startup. I didn't understand that writing the software - the hard bit - was only the beginning of what I had to do. I had to raise investment to be able to market my product. I had to sell the product. I had to support the product. I had to do all the business administration. I had to raise investment to be able to afford to hire people, so that I didn't collapse under the weight of all those competing demands. I didn't go fast enough though, so I did collapse.

With every burst of intense focus and effort, there would be a windfall. Particularly in investment banking, if you do a good job then you get a big fat juicy bonus. If you make an app that goes to #1 in the App Store charts then you get a windfall. Even if you do a startup, you can sometimes get a reward - my startup was at least profitable; investable.

The pattern of behaviour was established. It made sense to me to work as hard and as fast as I could, because the rewards seemed to be there.

When I run a software project - a team of people who work for me - then I put developer welfare as the top priority. I set realistic deadlines. I allow time for people to catch their breath. If the pressure starts to increase, then I move the deadline rather than asking people to work longer hours. Bosses should hate me, but I underpromise and overdeliver, and I run happy motivated high-performing teams. I get great feedback from the people who work for me.

When I'm coding, I seem to forget about my own mental health. When I've got a tough deadline and a tough deliverable, I'll work as hard as I can. I get scared. I think I've forgotten how to code. I feel like my skills are rusty and outdated. I feel old and useless. So, because of this fear, I go as fast as I possibly can.

It hasn't helped that I've never quite managed to gain a comfortable financial cushion that would allow me to feel like I can consider my health and general mental wellbeing, as well as just delivering the software. I always put work as my first priority.

Me: "I'm going to go to London to do some IT consultancy for an investment bank"

Psychiatrist: "But that's what you always do, and you know it makes you unwell"

Me: "But I need the money"

Psychiatrist: "You need to look after your mental health"

Me: "My mental health can wait. I'm nearly bankrupt"

Psychiatrist: "Well go bankrupt then. Allow yourself time to recover"

Me: "But then I'll never be able to work in investment banking again"

Psychiatrist: "That might be a good thing. It makes you unwell"

Me: "Yes, but it also makes me rich"

In the interests of completing the picture: I am not rich. The amount that I earn would make me rich if I could stay well for long enough to keep working, but the stress and the pressure also mean that I almost always get sick. It's a horrible catch 22.

So, I've completed another software system and it's live - it's up and running and people like it. My boss is pleased. Am I burnt out? Yes, I am a little. I had to bunk off work yesterday. In fact, I've bunked 3 out of the last 9 days. Is this the beginning of me starting to take a little more care of myself?

The cycle is very much not over. I need at least another one or two decent length contracts before I have that all-important financial cushion. It's going to take me until the end of the year to get back to financial security. It's going to be months and months before the ever-present threat of running out of money goes away, even if some money is slowly starting to trickle into my bank account.

It's quite ludicrous that I was on collision course with certain bankruptcy, and now I'm solvent and I've delivered another project on time and on budget. Last year was the year where I gave up. Everything was just too damn hard. I had a great contract, then my kidneys packed up. I had an OK contract but the boss didn't seem to realise he'd hired a bit of rock star at a bargain basement price. I got a contract, but I only just had enough money to be able to afford to go to work... I was running on petrol fumes.

If you were to ask the most stable person you know to live my life, I guarantee that their mood would be unstable as hell. How can you expect anybody to go through the kinds of ups and downs that I go through, without accompanying high and low mood? My mood is a sane reaction to an insane world.

I don't think I have bipolar disorder. I think I'm a product of my environment.

 

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Tortured Soul

9 min read

This is a story about the brain drain...

Daily photo of me in a suit

I should keep photos of myself wearing my ordinary work clothes off my blog. I should take more care to separate my professional identity from my blogging identity. I should ensure that Nick "Manic" Grant and the name that's written on my CV can never be connected.

To even write my proper name - as it appears on my passport and birth certificate - onto this website would risk appearing at the top of Google searches that prospective employers might do. I've been careful to separate my LinkedIn and never mention my consultancy company name. I rarely mention client names, and certainly not the names of clients who I wish to continue working for.

However, I'm starting to slip. I'm starting to not care so much. I'm starting to prefer my real identity to the fake one that's necessary to get a well paid job. I was finding it cumbersome to try to pretend like everything was A-OK in my world, and attempt to stop rumours spreading about me in the companies I used to work for. It was exhausting, trying to cover up my indiscretions. It's been exhausting, leading a double life.

One of the biggest double life issues I have is that I have nothing but contempt for capitalism and banking, and I completely fail to see the utility of computers and apps and software and data. Yes, in our super tech-heavy world, it seems inconceivable to say such a thing, but I definitely think humanity's headed in the wrong direction. The mechanisation of farming and the industrialisation of food production are two examples of tech's potential to feed the world's hungry, but we're not using tech to do that, are we? Instead, we're using tech to create artificially inflated asset bubbles and an ever greater rich:poor divide. It eats me up inside that I'm involved, but I'm also shackled with golden handcuffs to the cash cow that provides a hefty income. What am I supposed to do?

Many people think it's churlish that I bite the hand that feeds me. Many people seem to think it's not possible for me to have ethical concerns about what I'm involved in as a day job. Why don't I quit and do something else? It certainly seems to upset me and cause me a lot of angst and anguish.

As I've written before at length, I'm economically incentivised to get the most bang for my buck. I'm economically incentivised to sell my labour to the highest bidder. I need a place to live and food to eat, don't I? So of course I'm going to plump for an employer who's going to give me enough money to live, rather than one who would leave me starving, homeless and impoverished.

I should be rich & retired by now. Here's how my strategy to become rich went:

2005

Me: I'm going to invest all my money in gold

Her: no

Result: gold plus exchange rate of US dollar would have delivered 500% return on investment

2008

Me: I'm going to quit my job and write iPhone apps

Her: no

Result: we broke up. I made enough money from my iPhone apps so I didn't have to work... until I got back together with her

2011

Me: I'm going to be CEO of a tech startup worth millions of pounds

Her: no

Result: my company continued to trade profitably and win big customers... without me

2012

Me: I'm going to invest all my money in Bitcoin

Her: no

Result: each Bitcoin is now worth $15,000. I would have paid about $5 for each Bitcoin. A $5,000 investment would now be worth $15 million

2013

Me: I'm going to invest all my money in Bitcoin

Her: no

Result: we separated and divorced. I've hardly had to work since then.

In the absence of any good ideas to get rich quick, I always fall back on IT consultancy. I was getting £40 an hour when I was 19 years old, and then £470/day when I was 20. I was on-track to retire at 40, if I stuck with the consultancy gig, even though it was soul destroying.

Now, it galls me that I've been so close to serious wealth so many times. It galls me that my ex-wife was such a toxic person that she's fucked up a whole bunch of very decent ways I could've made a fortune. It galls me that I'm back doing the soul destroying day job, because my ex-wife held me back and sabotaged some very smart and shrewd plans I had. It galls me that I'm doing a job that I mastered a long time ago. It fucking sucks to only earn six figures and have to work like, maybe 35 whole hours or whatever, doing a really easy job.

Of course, I'm deliberately writing in such a way that might cause offence. Many people dream of earning decent money, or having a shot at getting rich. Well, here's the solution: do a job you really hate.

I hate my job so very very much. I can't believe just how flipping easy it is. I also can't believe just how awful it is to be part of the capitalist machinery that's wrecking the planet and the wellbeing of humanity. I'm involved in legal loan-sharking. I'm an accessory to murder. I'm guilty by association.

I started out my career in defence - the military - so I'm no stranger to the ethical dilemma of working for a weapons manufacturer. I had to wonder to myself how I'd feel when lives were inevitably lost as a result of my software. It seemed wrong to think that I'd succeeded as an engineer, if I successfully brought about the death of the so-called 'enemy'. My software was very definitely going to be used to kill people; nothing defensive about it at all.

What should I be doing? Working for a charity? Working for an NGO or some other kind of humanitarian cause? What, like your chum Hugo from private school, who went off and built a school in Africa... he put that on his CV and now he works for a fucking bank because he's not fucking stupid. Hugo tells all his chums that he's done important work in the developing world, because he's an insufferable tosspot; he's a smug spoiled little shit, who's never known anything other than wealth and privilege.

You might hear my posh accent, or see the big name multinational companies I've worked for on my CV, and you might be mistaken for thinking I'm posh and spoiled and entitled and all the other things you don't like very much. In fact, I've had to spend my whole career with ethical conflict in my heart. I'm a bleeding-heart liberal who puts on a sharp suit and pretends to be a banker. I have to think about the part I played in the 2007/8 financial crisis. I have to think about my part I played in the whole stinking shitpit that is capitalism. I could hide behind the defence: "I'm just an engineer" but I can't.

"I make the rockets go up. Where they land is not my department"

I don't think it's a valid defence for an engineer to say that they're apolitical; amoral. I write software that's unopinionated, but I know what it's going to be used for. I know that I'm donating my brainpower and brawn to an evil cause. I know that ultimately, I'm helping the rich get richer.

I spend my days somewhat outraged that my time's being wasted on trivial bullshit, that contributes nothing to society except for improving the apparatus that oppresses the planet's poor people - tools to better extort money out of the 98%. I spend my days frustrated - I want to be doing something worthy, but I can't.

Of course I'm not going to jack in my job and go work for a charity. Charities pay shit money. Of course I'm not going to work for charity. Charities have failed to deliver any meaningful change. Impoverishing myself is the world's most stupid first step towards any meaningful change.

I'm frustrated and upset, because my ingenuity was thwarted so many times by my ex-wife that I'm now exhausted. I'm not a young man anymore. I was lucky enough to have a couple of moments of glory that proved my point - I can build valuable stuff that works - but now I don't have the energy or the financial security to make another foray into something more worthwhile than the bullshit that passes for my day job.

I'm trapped by debt that I ran up when I got sick. I'm trapped by the capitalist trap of high living costs. I'm trapped by the need to speculate to accumulate, but I've got nothing to speculate with. I'm hoisted by my own petard. The irony is not lost on me, of course.

It's torturous agony, working a job that I mastered 21 years ago. It's torturous agony, solving the same problems that I already solved a million times over, knowing full well that everything is doomed to the same fate. Of course the global financial markets are going to collapse again, imminently. Of course, the whole bullshit system can't be propped up anymore. Of course, the bubble has to burst. Bubbles always burst eventually. It's physically painful in a way that's hard to describe, knowing that the whole ridiculous house of cards is going to come crashing down again at any moment. I know it's just anxiety and stress and depression, but it's not made any better working for an investment bank, doing the same bullshit job that I was doing - I was so close to ground zero when the whole fucking financial crisis happened. I was feeling ethically challenged 10 or 11 years ago. I was feeling ethically challenged 21 years ago. Fuck my life, that I'm back doing the thing that I hate most, because it's an economic necessity.

Who's to blame? Me presumably.

Fine, pin it on me. I'll take the rap.

Imma kill myself.

 

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The Fractional Part of the Cubed Root of the First Sixty-Four Prime Numbers

4 min read

This is a story about going insane...

Barricaded door

What does this even mean? Who on earth can follow what I'm going on about?

When you take a very large dose of a stimulant drug, often you can be compelled to take things to pieces to see how they work. Famously, many stimulant abusers have dismantled their televisions and radios. I once spent the best part of a couple of days - without sleep - wondering how to design a more efficient electric motor.

If you're not going to come up with a new and novel invention, you can amuse yourself by reverse-engineering other people's. Something that holds much fascination for me are the secure hashing algorithms designed by the United States' National Security Agency. I love one of those algorithms so f**king much that I went to the trouble of writing my own software simulation of a central processing unit (CPU) just so I could study how each individual binary bit flowed through the processor and memory.

What's most compelling about my little venture into the world of pulling that puzzle apart, is that I feel transported into that room where a bunch of computer scientists and mathematicians sat down and tried to design what's called a one-way algorithm - a piece of computer code that produces an unpredictable result; unique to every piece of starting data. In theory, it should be impossible to predict the result of a seemingly trivial change, because of cascading complexity. What's the relationship between "AA", "AB" and "AC"? It should be easily predictable. Computers are very predictable. But, is it possible to obfuscate the relationship between those trivial changes and the end result?

You know all that boring maths stuff that you didn't really get at school? Well, guess what... I didn't really get it either. There just didn't seem to be any purpose to it, you know?

Well, guess what? Whoever solves the problem of solving the secure hashing algorithm known as SHA-256 gets to win a quarter of a trillion dollars. By solve I mean to come up with an algebraic equation and a number of coefficients that allow a person to compute - in a single calculation - the answer for a given number.

At the moment, a computer processor has to iterate 111 times to produce an unexpected result. Each iteration has 18 instructions. That's more or less 2,000 computer instructions to find an answer that should be as simple as doing a sum. Whoever solves the riddle will be the richest man (or woman) in the world.

An idea occurs to me: perhaps this little puzzle has been set deliberately. Whoever solves it may inadvertently be destroying the privacy we take for granted in the modern world. Our governments are very keen to break encryption so they can snoop on us. Governments are so keen, in fact, that they could have invented something like Bitcoin, to economically incentivise the very finest minds to attempt to crack the uncrackable.

It hurts my brain and it makes me feel physically sick. Of course, I'm well aware that I can make myself unwell by thinking about such problems. Perhaps it's even a sign that I'm becoming unwell, that I'm thinking about this particular head-scratcher again. I can almost hear the voice of a very trusted friend in my head, saying "banana" which is my 'safe' word, warning me that I'm getting hypomanic again.

Of course I'm getting hypomanic. I've been living with a gun to my head for so damn long. I have to spend all weekend waiting to see if I get paid on Monday. If I get paid, all my financial woes are over. If I dont, I can't even afford to get to work. F**k my life.

 

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Performance Enhancing Drugs

7 min read

This is a story about arms races...

Pool table

Being the only honest player in a game where everybody else is cheating is a fate worse than death. Where do you draw the line for cheating though?

When playing pool, it's a well known phenomenon that there's an optimal level of intoxication to be a better player. Alcohol relaxes you, which means your muscles are less tense and the action of your arm should be smoother, delivering a straighter strike to the cue ball. Is it cheating to have a cheeky couple of pints when you're playing pool down at the pub?

Computer programmers are machines that turn coffee into software. Stimulants like caffeine and the other amphetamines - caffeine being indistinguishable from amphetamines when given intravenously - are well known for improving concentration. If most programmers are gulping strong coffee all day long, how's anyone who's caffeine-free going to compete with the rest?

The combination of caffeine and glucose is proven to improve athletic performance by a remarkable amount. Given that energy drinks are not banned and can even be sold to children, how is anybody supposed to compete at sports unless they're guzzling Red Bull?

There's a great deal of pressure on me to perform at the moment. My entire future rides on me doing a good job at work. If I fail, I go bankrupt and I become a leper: unable to gain well paid employment or even have a mobile phone or broadband contract, let alone rent an apartment.

Therefore there's a temptation to use substances to help me perform at the top of my game. With a strong coffee in the morning, I'll be able to concentrate on writing code all day. With a few glasses of wine or a sleeping pill, I'll be able to unwind and relax after a day of hacking away at complex computer systems. Uppers and downers. Round and round. Highs and lows. This is the life that we should all lead, isn't it?

I'm staggeringly well paid for what I do. Why would I want a lower paid job? Why would I want to be on average Joe wages when I could earn five times as much doing the same job? Why would anybody deliberately impoverish themselves? However, my high-risk, high-reward strategy demands that I perform to the best of my abilities. Without substances, would I have been able to get my foot in the door and hang on to a highly sought-after job?

Thus, caffeine, alcohol, sleeping pills and tranquillisers circle like vultures. I need the effects of substances, in order to cope with the life that I'm built for - I've been in this career for over 20 years. How am I supposed to cope without the unhealthy coping tools that I used successfully... until I had a breakdown; a burnout.

What goes up must come down. The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

It's better to burn out than fade away.

Even music has become performance enhancing. I listen to high-tempo dance music - blasting away at 130 beats per minute - in order to focus my mind and put myself into a trancelike state where I can concentrate on software code for hours and hours. What must the effect be, to be in such an unnatural state for so long?

What must it be like to have a job that brings you into the unpredictable chaotic world of people and human interactions? What must it be like to have a job that's full of intrigue and unexpected surprises? What must it be like to never have to fight your constant existential crises and suppress all invasive musings about the absurdity of existence, because you're just a rat waiting for the next food pellet: when's the next order going to arrive; the next email; the next patient; the next customer?

As I do battle with boolean algebra every single day, there is no comforting wiggle-room of the humanities - computer says yes or computer says no; true or false. There are no shades of grey in my world - there's a right answer and a wrong answer. I sit in front of three screens and I try to figure out the right answer. I can go for weeks without speaking to another person. It fills me with terror sometimes, thinking that the ultimate arbiter of whether I've succeeded or failed is a cold, rational and unthinking machine. It's like playing chess against myself.

Some would say I'm a success story. Isn't the whole reason for paying attention at school and trying hard during your exams so that you can land a good job and get promoted into a position of seniority? Aren't we all trying to climb the greasy pole and get a big fat wage packet at the end of the working week? Aren't we all trying to compete and win? I won... didn't I?

I wouldn't be so churlish as to say "it's tough at the top" and of course, I'm laughably far from the top, but I'm sure there would be a plenty long queue of people who'd swap their salary for mine, so let's not be too hasty. It's worth considering just how destabilising my career choices have been to my mental health: feast & famine, boom & bust and the ever-present pressure to perform. Alcohol and caffeine are ubiquitous - as they are everywhere - but you haven't seen alcoholism in the workplace to quite the extent I have, unless you've also worked in the City of London in investment banking.

They say that banking greases the wheels of capitalism. Alcohol greases the wheels of banking.

The most successful strategy that I could play right now would be to have have two or three strong cappuccinos every day at work, and at least a bottle of wine every night. I'm sure my career and my bank balance would benefit handsomely from such a strategy.

I do worry about my mental health, but in this capitalist society, who has the time & money to stop and think about such a trifling thing? I'm reminded of this time last year, when I had to discharge myself from hospital against medical advice, to go chasing a banking IT contract. Money, money, money. Find an edge. Do whatever it takes!

You understand, it's not greed that drives me. This is the world we live in. We all need a competitive edge. I have no idea how to function in a world where I'm not compelled to use uppers and downers to help me perform. What do people even do without their morning coffee and their evening wine?

I earned well over a thousand pounds for two days sitting in front of a computer screen thinking "what the f**k am I doing?". I'm winning aren't I? This is what winning looks like, isn't it?

I'm winning... aren't I?

Before I know it, I've had more than the magic two pints and I can't hit a ball to save my life. I've gone beyond the sweet spot. I've had too much to drink and I'm just drunk. There's a fine line between performance enhancing, and substance abusing. I wake up one morning and all I've got is a habit. A stimulant habit. An alcohol habit.

We can all reach for substances to give us an edge, but you're playing a high-stakes game. The bigger you are the harder you fall.

It's almost impossible to change the habits of a lifetime. Of course I'm going to reach for substances when I'm struggling. Of course I'm going to return to the same boom and bust lifestyle that's served me so well, and also threatened to destroy me.

Roll the dice.

 

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You won't BELIEVE what's inside this bag!

7 min read

This is a story about the surprising thing that happened next...

Mystery bag

The Internet is a massive dick. Part military network and part academic collaboration tool, our beloved 'net is now mostly pornography, pirate movies & music, clickbait bullshit and advertising. Also, photos of your dog, cat and/or baby.

Copy and paste this to your Facebook wall for the next hour. 99% of people won't do it because they're evil and stupid and they want kittens to die. You have to copy and paste. No sharing!

Why do we have to suffer the endless hoaxes?

If you were a deadly disease, what kind of deadly disease would you be? If you were a Game of Thrones character, which Game of Thrones character would you be? If you were an Internet quiz type thing, which Internet quiz type thing would you be?

Millions of people, bored at work, are momentarily entertained by vapid bullshit, designed to bring eyeballs to advertisers' content. Our entire culture is being reshaped, not by the little dopamine hit we get every time somebody 'likes' our selfie on Facebook or Instagram, but by advertising revenue.

Newspapers The Guardian and The Observer are held in trust, so that they are free from commercial and political interference, but they are facing commercial difficulties, attempting to adjust to a changing readership. If those newspapers fail, we will have almost no free press. Our beloved BBC is politically influenced, established under a Royal Charter, which effectively makes it a mouthpiece of Her Majesty The Queen.

In our world of clicks, high quality journalism is under threat. Can you imagine BuzzFeed breaking important news stories to the world? Are the editors interested in anything other than the number of readers? Can success only be measured in terms of website visitors?

Our best writers are turning their content creation talents into a psychological game of cat and mouse: who can come up with new viral bullshit to suck in the punters?

Facebook allows us to hone our skills, but Facebook hides most of the statistics from us. Only Facebook knows how many people looked at that photo of your cat, but decided not to give it a thumbs up. Facebook is a private proving ground, where you are microblogging, and you are also learning what kind of content is popular. You're being trained to be yet another BuzzFeed writer.

The rise of user-generated content, blogging, microblogging and social media, is a good thing, but what kind of cultural legacy are we leaving, if everything we consume and create is simply a momentary distraction from our boring jobs? The Internet canon is so heavily influenced by the commercial interests of the advertising industry, that vast swathes of content are locked up in walled gardens or drowned out by the deafening noise of clickbait articles.

Growth hacking is an ever-present temptation, but we can't all sit idle, earning money from the clicks on adverts. Somebody, somewhere, has to generate some real content, and I've really seen enough of other people's children.

Bullshit boring jobs, doing pointless work that's of no value to anybody, is a barrier to the age of leisure, but we're going to need a lot of books, films, computer games and music, to entertain ourselves when we're no longer typing made-up numbers into a spreadsheet, in order to get a mouldy crust of bread.

We're not ready for the age of leisure yet, because there aren't enough Netflix box sets to binge on.

We need to move from an economy that's based on persuading people to buy consumer goods that we don't need, to an economy that rewards people for creative contributions to society, that inform, educate and entertain. Art is a hobby for the rich and privileged. We should all have the opportunity to be a film director, actor, scriptwriter, poet, painter, potter, chef or whatever we want, as long as it adds value to the lives of others.

Measuring value in monetary terms is disingenuous, because money is a token that represents value created by somebody. Somebody had to shepherd the sheep. Somebody had to grow the corn. Somebody had to make the bricks. Money is simply more convenient than barter, because it's really hard to swap a fraction of your house for something you need.

Measuring value in terms of the number of people who viewed your content, is also disingenuous, because it creates an incentive to make something popular not valuable. Free pirate movies are always going to be popular, so the only people who can make art are those who can afford to have it stolen. Movies are made to sell merchandise. Movies are full of product placement. Is that what we want human society to be all about: packaging up the natural world and selling it back to us?

I might sound like a hippy tree-hugger, but it makes me really angry that I have to waste my creative talents, as well as polluting the planet, travelling to get to a pointless job in a pointless building, just so we can all buy more crap that we don't need.

Why can't my job be reading books, watching films and listening to music? In my leisure time I'll write, make movies and compose music. The value that is created is the fantastic stuff that keeps us interested, making life wonderful and enjoyable.

In my utopian society, we won't need more roads, railways and runways. In my utopian society we won't need to take pointless journeys to get to work and for business meetings. In my utopian society, we'll all have much more time to educate our children and get them interested in the world around us.

We already have the agricultural machinery and high-yield farming techniques to feed humanity. We already have the healthcare infrastructure to care for our sick and dying. We already have an adequate transport network to allow us to occasionally visit distant relatives. We already have enough laws, courts, policemen, jails and other mechanisms to protect ourselves from anybody who wants to take more than their fair share.

The idea that people wouldn't do any work if they didn't get paid to do it, is disingenuous. Nurses, teachers and fruit-pickers are paid appallingly, compared with middle managers who do nothing except waste precious resources. Do you suppose that doctors only save lives because they're well paid to do it? Do you imagine that a farmer begrudges the people who share the harvest?

There are roles that are useful and necessary and these are rewarding in their own right. Most 'work' is not necessary, useful or rewarding. Humanity and our planet of finite resources, would benefit a great deal by no longer mandating that we all do pointless make-work.

In my utopia, there would be jobs that you're allowed to do if you want to do them and you're good enough. I'm sure there would be no shortage of applicants, because those people would be respected and admired for their contribution to society. Our gratitude is a much more valuable currency, than useless rectangles of paper and circles of metal: money.

In my utopia, there would be plenty to watch, read and listen to, because creativity would rein supreme. Art would be democratised.

In my utopia, there would be people who smoked cannabis, played computer games and never left the house, but they wouldn't have to suffer the indignity of being told they're lazy useless bums. Simply being part of society is enough of a contribution. Better to be at home relaxing, than clogging up our transport network, going to a job that you hate that contributes nothing to humanity and wastes precious resources.

In my utopia, autobiographies wouldn't be about boring old men who achieved nothing in their lives apart from presiding over untold human misery.

In my utopia, a writer isn't somebody who writes BuzzFeed articles in order to scrape together enough of a pittance to survive.

 

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How Consultancies Ruined IT

6 min read

This is a story about body shopping...

Rainy day

Because I'm a genius, I've figured out a brilliant business plan: buy low, sell high.

It used to be the case that companies would have their own IT staff, because it made sense to have people trained up and retain their skills, given how integral information technology is to every business in this day and age. Businesses would recruit technologists as permanent members of staff, and pay them a professional-grade salary.

Then, the IT crowd figured out that there was a skills shortage and that they were being underpaid for the amount of value that they were generating for their paymasters. Some IT professionals became technology entrepreneurs and others became IT contractors, selling their skills to the highest bidder.

As the year 2000 approached and panic spread about the millennium (Y2K) bug, IT contractors could pretty much name their price. It was quite clear just how valuable IT had become to big business and the running of the technological world around us.

Consultancies started to hoover up all the graduates coming out of the Computer Science degree courses at university, and also maths, physics, engineering and other technical disciplines too. There seemed to be an insatiable demand for anybody who had an aptitude for programming, so why not corner the market in anybody with the slightest ability to write software?

If you can hire a graduate for £25k per annum, how much do you think you could charge a client for a day of their time?

IT contractors probably charge circa £500 a day. The best get £700 to £1,000 per day. The worst get £300 per day.

£25k per annum equates to a cost of less than £70 a day, but you can't ask your fresh uni graduate to work weekends, you're going to have to give them some holiday and you're going to have to train them. Let's assume that our graduate is only billable for 26 weeks of the year and they cost a shitload to train and for taxes and other overheads. That means they cost the 'consultancy' (a.k.a. body shop) about £250 a day... in the absolute worst-case scenario.

A recruitment consultant will charge a 30% mark-up on an experienced IT contractor who's been working for 10+ years and is an absolute expert in their field: the best of the best. So, assuming the contractor is getting £700 a day, the company who needs them is paying £910 a day.

How much do you think our fresh graduate is charged to clients for, given they only cost the consultancy £250 a day? Answer: £1,200 a day and upwards.

This is the consultancy model: place a shitload of inexperienced people on client sites and charge a whopping 400%+ mark-up on them. Leave them to flounder and figure stuff out at the client's expense.

The IT contractor's role is now to go around cleaning up messes left by the poor kids who have the unenviable task of doing a job that they don't have the knowledge or experience to do, while getting underpaid to do it. The IT contractor's role is that of the grown up, the nanny, the only person who's even remotely worth the money.

Most companies are trying to trim their IT budgets and they got their fingers burned by offshoring a load of roles to India and other parts of Asia. You get what you pay for, unless you're paying for inexperienced graduates in this case.

For sure, graduates are smart nice people, strong communicators and they learn quickly. For sure, when "all that IT stuff is done" then you can say goodbye to all those pesky technology people without having costly redundancies.

The reality is that there's a load of crap software out there that's been developed by a bunch of amateurs, and it will fall to bits... if it even works in the first place.

It's professional suicide to write this stuff, but everybody's too busy making easy money doing bodyshopping that nobody important is going to read this. My IT expert friends might read this and chortle "yes that's so true!" but the consultancies are only interested in bums on seats. They don't care who I am or what I have to say: they only want me when the shit hits the fan and they need somebody to come and mop up the mess, as inevitably happens.

It pains me to see IT go from being a profession filled with experts and people who take pride in doing a good job, to being seen as some kind of dirty necessity. It fucks me off when the consultancies suck up to their clients and seemingly agree that there's no long-term value in having software experts in their firm.

"Get the job done, fuck off and let us go back to doing our business" seems to be the attitude. That's why the dinosaurs are dying and the startups are taking over. IT is your business, fools. Look at Amazon: are they a retailler or a technology company, first and foremost? Do you think Amazon is going to sack all their software developers now that they "have a website that works"?

The era of offshoring was a costly mistake that was brilliant for the consultancies, because they got to build huge development centres and skill up their own graduates at the expense of greedy Western corporations. Now the body-shop 'consultancies' in the UK have monopolised the IT contract market, flooding it with inexperienced people and charging top dollar for them.

I'm hoping - and not just for personal gain - that the whole thing comes full circle, and we'll revert to an era of experts being in demand and companies recognising that they need technologists as much as any other business critical function. Software's not some crap you can get on the cheap... it's an investment in the future of your company. One day, all businesses are going to be technology companies.

 

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It's Not About The Code

1 min read

This is a story about software development...

Punch card

Computer programmer != software developer.

That is all.

THE END

 

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Ups and Downs

2 min read

This is a story about data collection...

Step Count

Here's a graph of my daily step count for the last 18 months, as recorded by my iPhone. I practically always have my iPhone in my pocket, so it should be fairly accurate.

As you can see, there are big gaps.

I've added a 14-day moving average to the graph too, which is the dotted line.

How do I interpret this?

The optimistic interpretation is that I was overdoing it last year and had a big crash. There's a little gap in the graph that you can hardly see at the end of October. I was in hospital then. This year got off to a shit start and then improved and stabilised, but I still had a hiccup at the start of October. The graph is much flatter on the right hand side - on average - than it is on the left hand side. Perhaps the volatility in my life has been reduced.

The pessimistic interpretation is that there's a strongly downward trend. There are also signs of repeated periods of inactivity: shit times. Perhaps there's a cycle that would be clearer to see with more years of data.

I could bring in my Android phone data which covers the period before this, and maybe some other data sources too, but it was a pain just to produce this. 

Interestingly, if you own a smartphone, you should be aware just how much it's tracking you all the time you carry it around!

 

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