Digital wizardry

Maybe it’s the Mercury retrograde, or the obscene pile of projects I’ve taken on, but I’ve spent most of the last month fiddling with computers. Fixing them, writing code for them, and just generally immersing myself in them in ways I thought (and hoped) I’d left behind me.

I wrote this on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, when I should have been working…

I was going to write a long, rambling post about all of the various tech and nerd things I've had to work on over the past two weeks, but I can't because...
1. It's all for a Super Secret Thing that I can't talk about yet.
2. I have so much work to do that I shouldn't even *be* on social media writing *this* much.
Suffice it to say, if this new venture ever makes enough money so that I can hire other people, Employee #0001 will be a tech monkey who's job it will be to make it so that I never, *ever* have to look at PHP, hand hack a "requirements.txt" file, or remember to type "sudo ufw status numbered" and not "sudo ufw status" again.

Then a few days later I wrote this, while I was trying to un-hork my father’s computer…

I really love how Windows updates have become a game of Spin-the-Dynamite. I know this behavior goes back to a *least* Windows XP, but wow! Now, it's like every other update has a better-than-even chance of throwing your OS into a wood chipper.

When I tell people I used to be a computer geek for a living, but ran gleefully away from that industry in the early naughties in favor of working in a factory and never looked back, they question my sanity. I, however, question how anyone can stand it.

Years ago, I read some other computer-land expat’s comments about how “fun” it is dealing with malfunctioning technology, which went something like this…

If you made a Venn diagram of my life, there would be two non-overlapping circles, one labeled, “Times when I’m well-and-truly happy” and the other labeled, “Times when I’m logged in as root, holding a cable, or have the case open.”

(Apologies for not remembering the specific person who wrote this, or where I saw it posted.)

I cannot, cannot stress how much I relate to this.

Aside from the tech support I had to toss at my family, nearly everything I’ve been working on lately has been for that Super Secret Project I mentioned the other day. It’s still going to be a few weeks before I can talk about that, but it’s coming along despite all my whining.

Or maybe because of it? They say talking through your pain is a good way to get through it.

Anyway, I’d much rather be doing tarot or astrology consultations for people, so why don’t you hit me up for one? I’ve finally caught up on my email, and while I still have a criminally-insane amount of work ahead of me this week, I’d love to procrastinate on your behalf.

Normally, my go-to method for avoiding work is taking long walks outside, but we’re in the middle of another heat wave, so the outside feels like it’s trying to kill me.

Friends don’t let their wizards get heat stroke.

Less than ideal lives (and laptops)

I planned to spend this morning getting one of my many projects finally banged into shape and sent out into the void, but now that I’m here…it’s probably not going to happen.

Due to a host of factors—some beyond my control—I had a very crappy night of sleep. Also? There’s a weird sound in my house, a kind of cross between a car with a bad starter and a hard drive thrashing itself to death. I can’t seem to narrow down where it’s coming from, despite spending half an hour stalking through my home one step at a time and listening for the source.

I’m guessing at this point that it’s coming from my daughter’s room, which means two things…

  1. A dying hard drive is the most plausible explanation, which would seriously suck if that’s the case. Her desktop is starting to get a little long in the tooth, and I don’t have the time, money, or inclination to get elbows deep in that situation just now.
  2. I can’t do anything about the sound until she wakes up. In, like, a couple of hours.

So…yeah, that’s just a thing I have to be distracted and annoyed by, I guess.

Then again, it’s not like annoyance is a new emotion for me. In fact, I spent a good portion of the last few days annoying myself deliberately.

You know what? Fuck it. Let’s have an long rambling,, sleep-deprived post filled with mundane details and nerd shit no one but me will ever care about.

Ideal life? What’s that?

Over a year ago, I wrote a post about how I used to work in the computer programming and IT fields, and how leaving that industry was one of the best decisions I ever made. And if memory serves, I’ve brought up that thought several times since.

To clarify again, about a year after I left the shit-show, I ran across a post from another former denizen of that industry and saved a quote from it.

“If you made a Venn diagram, there would be two non-overlapping circles, one of which was labeled, ‘Times when I am truly happy’ and the other of which was labeled, ‘Times when I am logged in as root, holding a cable, or have the case open.'”

If there’s a neater summary of my feelings, I’ve never seen it.

Anyway, I’ve spent most of the last month working on a collection of programming projects with a friend of mine, and spent most of the last week finally setting up a laptop to run Linux and be my primary machine.

So what the hell happened? I mean, beyond the fact that I make horrible decisions?

In it for the money

As it turns out, global pandemics suck for a whole lot of reasons. There’s the illness and death, of course, as well as all the fear and anxiety which comes from said illness and death. Then there’s the supply chain breakdowns, shuttered businesses, massive unemployment, etc. etc. I’m sure none of this is new information for you.

What might be new information for you is that I tend to have a pretty stable (read as “fixed”) income, which is mostly fine since my expenses are generally also fixed as well as relatively low.

Unfortunately, two pandemic-related things have kicked me in the balls over the last year and a half…

  1. I bought a lot of things to help myself and my family deal with the mental and emotional clusterfuck. My philosophy at the time was: “We’re all maxed out on stress. If fifty bucks of takeout makes this shit even a little more tolerable, it’s worth it.” At the time, I figured this was “safe” since (as I wrote above) my normal expenses are pretty reasonable.
  2. However, inflation has gone totally off the rails. When you’ve already let your credit card balance get a bit higher than you should have, seeing your once-modest grocery bill double isn’t exactly awesome. At a guess, my total, normal monthly expenses are about fifty percent higher now than they were back before the plague.

I’m sure many of you are in are in a similar boat. And, unfortunately, my own personal boat is finally taking on enough water that I have to resort to somewhat-desperate measures to bail it out.

One of those measures involves making an inventory of every one of the weirdly-diverse skills I’ve picked up over the years, looking at them one at a time, and asking the question: “Can I use this to make money?”

I said I’ve spent most of the last month programming, but that’s not strictly true. That’s been a major focus, but I’ve also had to start writing “professionally” again, as well as dust off my marginal graphic design skills for another project I’m not ready to talk about yet.

If you’ve been wondering where all of the woo-woo magical blog posts have gone, well, you have your answer. I’m still doing magic, I just don’t have the time to write about it here. I’m working somewhere between ten and fourteen hours a day, taking maybe one day off a week, and spending the rest of the time exhausted.

I’m forty-four years old, not twenty-four. The days when I can work sixteen hours at a time for weeks on end are far behind me.

Okay, so why Linux?

Given the fact that I’ve swamped myself with work, why in God’s name would I subject myself to working with an operating system notorious for being a high-maintenance pain in my ass? There are many reasons, and one or two of them are actually good ones.

Back in July, I wrote a post about how I was spending less and less of my time in front of computer screens (ha!) and I was growing ever-more-angry at social media and the “Big Tech” companies we’ve handed our civilization over to. When you combine those thoughts with those I’ve already expressed about the computer industry, it should probably come as no surprise that I despise companies like Microsoft.

And if you’ve read and understood the other thoughts I’ve expressed here, it should also not surprise you that I’ve just been trying not to give a fuck and running Windows and other propriety software for most of the last few years, because I have a life and am (ostensibly) trying to run a business here.

There’s a balancing act to be found between “I shouldn’t support or use the products of companies which are Bad,” and “Life is too short to spend staring at a shell prompt.”

Well, for better or worse, in early August I decided that my act was unbalanced and I needed to do something about it. I bought a new “desktop-replacement” laptop with Windows on it, and wiped my slightly-less-new laptop and loaded it up with Ubuntu.

The intention here was to use the Windows machine only for those things which are at least fifty percent easier to do on that platform and with proprietary software. So, software such as Photoshop and Illustrator lives over there, as do the majority of the tools I’m using for all of the programming projects I’ve mentioned.

The Linux machine? That’s for anything I can do using open-source software with relatively little hassle. That includes the majority of my writing and web-surfing, as well as a few odds and ends.

That was the plan, anyway. However, by the time I got the new Windows machine and installed Ubuntu on the “old” one, I ran headlong into the project-related weeds I spend the first half of this post talking about.

The Linux system gathered dust while I spent most of my waking hours using Windows.

Until last week, that is, when I needed to get a bunch of writing done quickly, and I also needed to organize the whirling vortex of notes and to-do lists I’d been trying (and failing) to stay on top of.

Ever since I first used it back in 1993, Emacs has been the text editor I’m both most comfortable with and the my productive in. And ever since the mid-2000s, an extension to Emacs called “org-mode” has been my go-to note-taking and planning system.

I’ve fallen in and out of using this software over the years, but whenever I need to do some serious, distraction-free writing, or whenever my life gets well-and-truly busy, it’s the only thing that works for me.

And I’ve only ever been happy with the software when I’ve run it under a Unix-like operating system. Using it under Windows? In my experience, it only barely works—at least for my purposes.

Am I happy?

So, how happy am I with all of this? The financial anxiety, the workload, the technical bits—am I in a good place or a bad one?

I honestly don’t know.

I’m in a productive place, which is good. Over the last few days, I’ve managed to get more or less every task and note I need shoved into Emacs and “.org” files. I’ve also managed to write an average of 3,000 words a day. So I’m getting things done.

But that’s just the thing. It’s not that I spend my life sitting around all day doing nothing. Rather, I’ve generally been spending it doing more or less only what I want to. Being a full-time wizard is work, even if it doesn’t look like it to the straight crowd. And as I wrote way back in the first post I linked to, that’s basically my ideal life.

Now that I’m back doing my version of the Freelance Grind-A-Thon?

That’s…less than ideal.

Anyway, how’s your week going?

Laptops and ideal lives

This week’s post was supposed to be a kind of “mid-year progress report.” I was going to ramble on a bit about the various goals I had set for 2020, how those goals had shifted as a result of…[gestures broadly]…and how I’ve been able to use a kind of “magical thinking” to keep myself on course in spite of catastrophic uncertainty.

Unfortunately, this morning my laptop decided it had had enough of life and tried to leave this plane for a better one. I managed to drag it back from the brink, but only just, and I doubt it’s long for this world.

To be fair, this laptop has been a trooper. It’s a very low-end model, and I bought it expecting it to last only about a year. It’s lasted about three. These last six months, though? Let’s just say that if I want to run a web browser and say, the calculator app, well…I have learned a great deal about patience.

But all of this is prelude, and it served only to get me thinking about my life choices, both in the past and those I’m making now for the future.

And I had a lot of time to think while this machine was rebooting. And rebooting. And rebooting.

Years ago, in a former life, I was a computer geek. I set up computers, I fixed computers, and I wrote software for computers. At one point I could safely lay claim to being fluent in more than half a dozen programming languages, and knew my way around at least as many operating systems.

Back in 1995, if you’d asked me what I was going to do with my life, “information technology and/or software development” would have been my answer.

Less than a decade later, I turned my back on that whole scene, and have never regretted it for even a single moment.

See, something I realized right about the turn of the millennium is that I don’t really even like computers. What I like is what I can do with them.

Playing video games, writing and sharing that writing with others, talking in real time with other people around the world…these are all very cool things which either require a computer, or are made much easier if you have one.

And if you also know how to write software, well, you can basically do almost anything.

This all seemed very cool to nineties-era, teen-aged me, and since I was reasonably good at making computers go, it also seemed perfectly reasonable that I should do it for a living.

That was a decision which, a few years later, would bring me to the First Big Revelation I Had About Life: Just being good at something is no reason to do it.

I had that revelation in 2001, and a year later I left the white-collar computer world for a job in manufacturing. Less than a week after that, while working on an assembly line, I realized I was happier than I had ever been behind a desk and staring at a monitor.

As cool as I thought it was to be able to bend machines to my will, the truth is I hated it. I hated spending hours staring at compiler errors. I hated spending even more hours re-installing operating systems and hooking up network cables. And, at the risk of offending former coworkers I haven’t seen in years, I’ve hated pretty much everyone I have ever worked with.

The computer industry has always attracted exactly the sort of people I would never choose to associate with. I don’t want to get bogged down with specifics, but let’s just say I am not in any way, shape, or form surprised that half of the Silicon Valley “elite” is getting dragged in front of congress for hosing civilization, while the other half is getting accused of all manner of bigotry and sexual harassment.

The best decision I ever made was leaving that industry when I did.

Sadly, though, old habits die hard.

Once you know how to fix computers and write code, I don’t think the compulsion to tinker ever really goes away. If something about your machine isn’t working just the way you want it to, the fact that you can do something about it almost invariably leads you to do it.

Even though I left the computer industry almost twenty years ago, I still find myself thinking up little programming projects, or wondering if there’s a setting somewhere I could tweak to make my computer do just a little bit more. As I touched on above, if you know how to write software, a computer can look an awful lot like a sea of infinite possibilities, and the impulse to dive into that sea can be quite strong.

About two years ago, I learned to catch those impulses and throw them down the garbage disposal.

This ties back to what I might call the Second Big Revelation I Had About Life: Possibilities may be infinite, but life isn’t.

I don’t exactly subscribe to the conventional notion of “True Will” you find among the more Crowley-influenced magical folks, but I do accept that we each have a finite amount of time in this world, and that it’s probably best we choose how to use that time wisely.

I have no complex theory here, just a two-step process: Figure out what your “ideal life” looks like, then do the bare minimum number of unpleasant things needed to live it.

My ideal life looks a lot like reading, studying, writing about, and doing magic. A few nuances aside, that’s basically it.

More pertinent to our present discussion, my ideal life doesn’t look like sitting in front of a computer screen trying to figure out why the program I’m writing keep crashing. Or trying to figure out why balancing my checkbook caused my laptop to go into seizure-mode.

So I’ve got a new laptop on the way. When it arrives, I’ll give this one a proper goodbye, and while I’ll grieve for it, that grief will be tempered by the knowledge that my new machine will be under warranty, and so not my job to fix!

All of this is probably gibberish of the least interesting sort, but what can I say? It’s Monday, I’ve been up since four, and I spent the first two hours of my day fixing one computer and ordering another. It seemed like there was a life lesson in there somewhere, even if it was just a remedial review of a lesson I learned years ago.

It also made me want to pose the question to you.

What does your ideal life look like, and how close are you to living it?