Emphasis on personal.
This was a year of good and bad extremes.
This still deserves a separate retrospective. I tried to write one, but life intervened.
The summary is: although duration was not pre-determined, my break from having a full time job ended up being a few days shy of an even year. I don’t regret taking the break, although I did it assuming the world would stay more or less the same until I came back, and it kinda didn’t. Don’t you hate it when that happens!
One must start here.
I am one of the luckiest people on the planet. I really am. Chances are you are too, maybe a bit more lucky or a bit less, but we’d be haggling over third and fourth places in a race of hundreds.
I live in the United States. I am a permanent resident in this country, and a citizen of another safe country. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees. I have a job right now. I have health insurance. I’ve worked in tech for a number of years and I’ve done well financially. Last year I took a break from full time work and spent a good number of months doing not-work. I’ve been able to afford the time and money to engage in most or all of my hobbies. Any chronic physical or mental health issues I might have at the moment are either minor or manageable. I have shelter. I’m not worried about food or water. I do not live in a war zone. I have not lost my home to a fire, a flood, a tornado, or other natural disaster. I have not lost a loved one to an illness or an untimely or violent death.
“Gratitude” is having a moment right now, and so there’s a way this could come across as canned, but it’s not. It’s real. I feel it in my bones.
And I think something that heightened that feeling was another feeling, one of impending doom I felt in a way I hadn’t before. Like this is a moment of twilight. There’s nothing like fear of loss or a looming threat to make you appreciate what you have.
The first three months of the year are lost to me. They were not just the worst of the year but maybe of the last decade of my life. Things got truly existential and I still feel the effects of that to this day. Believe me I don’t like being cryptic about it, but it’s not something I’m ready to talk about in full detail just yet.
Rest of 2023
I ended my sabbatical in June of 2023. Things have been significantly better since. I started a new job at a place I’m proud to work at, re-engaged negotiations with chronic imposter syndrome, got a new bike, got hit by a car riding said bike and broke my elbow, attended a family wedding, said goodbye to a beloved pet, and handled it all pretty well I think.
I haven’t flown for about a year now. It’s not a surprise, many private pilots lapse and get rusty as soon as they pass their checkride. You need a reason to fly, otherwise it’ll be difficult to get over the resistance of booking a plane, planning a flight and checking weather, driving to the airport and preflighting, not to mention the cost, etc. I’m okay with it. I’m still a pilot, and I’ll get back to it at some point.
In an effort to expand my social circle and build an auxiliary sense of purpose, I started volunteering in a community owned bike shop near where I live and that’s been great. I like the people I’m meeting at the shop, I like working with my hands, and I like helping people fix their bikes. I signed up for a lot of responsibility pretty fast and I hope I can manage to not disappoint myself and everyone else around me.
More music and fewer podcasts. I spent a lot of time listening to new music and buying and (re)listening to CDs and old favorite albums. I like being bugged by low-stakes questions like “should I alphabetize my CDs globally or by genre”.
Podcasts are now considered harmful and my goal is to have as few of them in my life as possible. It’s a vice, really. More on this another day.
I’ve read a good number of books. Another good transfer of time away of podcasts.
I’m also glad to see that despite the year it’s been, I still managed to post a few things throughout, although I’m still struggling to write well. My prose is stiff and stilted. I attribute it to lack of practice and a very unfavorable consumption:creation ratio.
In November we visited Vienna, Carvoeiro, and Lisbon. Vienna may be my favorite city ever, and my heart still aches every time I return to try using US public transit after a visit to Europe.
Returning to Vienna got me back into Duolingo. It’s not perfect (see below) but it’s probably the most wholesomely gamified addictive app out there.
I still live here, and I still feel like I don’t belong.
Clearly this is the headline for the tech world, a world I decreasingly and reluctantly inhabit. I really don’t want to talk about this, but I can’t leave it out of a review of my year.
So what of it? There’s a million takes, many of which are more thought-through than mine while still disagreeing with each other about what is happening, what will happen, and whether it’s good or bad.
I made many attempts at writing something coherent about this topic and failed quite completely. I suppose it’s important to admit it’s related to the crisis I went through earlier in the year.
My feelings are stronger than my thoughts on this, though both are strong and both are pretty negative. I think the effect in the short and medium terms will easily be net bad, and the effect in the long term is a big wide question. I struggle to see how it goes well without a fundamental change in human nature and organized society, and how we individually and collectively respond to incentives. Meanwhile Amazon is shoving ads in every crevice it can find to wring out every last incremental cent it can get, and last week loud ads shouted at me from the pump while I filled up the tank at a Shell gas station. I’m not optimistic.
Maybe a shock is what we need, but it would have to be a bigger shock than COVID-19, and I really don’t want to live through that.
Nothing has dislocated me more from my generation, (some of) my hobbies, or my career than the breathless sprint towards using generative models for anything they can be shoe-horned into. I can’t interpret it as anything other than total willingness and eagerness to commoditize and automate everything, collateral damage be damned. That’s someone else’s problem to solve. Illustration, art, writing, reading, modes of creation and connection, the very god damn atoms of our humanity. I should’ve known better, but I’m still stunned by how many think of art as just pretty pictures, and writing as something to summarize into the shortest fastest snort of words possible. How few see the inherent value in paying an artist or a photographer well for their work. I understood we lived in capitalism, but I thought we knew where to draw lines to demarcate the commercial from the human, work from craft, financial vs psychological value. I thought we cared to know that another person drew this picture or took this photo, or that someone with feelings sang this song. But so many just want passable pixels for their blog and a bop to listen to.
I miss crypto. At least I knew it was all horseshit that was never going to work, and it soaked up all the hype-hungry fast-money hucksters into one drain and kept the rest of us somewhat isolated.
And sure, some people want to use the new tech to cure cancer or dementia, and I’m really glad I work at a place where I can try to be one of those people (and I will). But let’s be honest, all the sweatiness isn’t about that.
I can find some solace in knowing that I’m not alone in how I feel about it all, but will there be enough of us?
I can’t do the topic justice here and it’s not the point of the post. In the meantime I’ll leave a small collection of random links to stimulate the discerning reader.1
- Talk: The Expanding Dark Forest and Generative AI, by Maggie Appleton – I wish, desperately, that I had the clear thinking to have written this. It did such a good job at communicating my thoughts and my grief about the whole thing (the grief is mine, the talk is more neutral).
- NYT: A Coder Considers the Waning Days of the Craft.
- Year in Review, by Tom MacWright – See “What was 2023?” section. His take is a best case scenario for me. I hope he’s right.
- /r/duolingo: Big layoff at Duolingo – “I’m just curious, as a user how do you feel knowing that sentences and translations are coming from AI instead of human beings? Does it matter?”.
- Abstruse Goose comic disappearing with a comment about AGI – at one point the homepage had a single line that read “AGI will not be designed by humans. It will be evolved through relentless evolutionary computational processes designed by humans.” And now it has nothing. 2 I can only speculate that the author is going through their own crisis and has their own feelings about large companies granting themselves permission to their work. How do I feel about how the code I have on GitHub and the words I put up here are being used?
I would love to come back to this post years later and wince at making a big deal out of something that didn’t change much for the worse in the end.
Oops. This is all coming off pretty bleak and angsty I think. Sorry about that. I’ve also been having a lot of fun, I promise! I’m trying to live in the present as much as possible, and just hope that today is not yet the best day I’ll ever have.
I tried coming up with themes for next year and struck out. “Year of less”, “Year of less resistance”, “Year of attention”, “Year of presence”, “Year of focus”. None of it fits well. Like many others my attention and time-management are shot, and I want to repair that. I want to do fewer things and do them better.
If you view source on the homepage, you’ll find a
<meta name="Description" content="Perseverance overcomes almost everything, even nature." />. ↩︎