This is a brief update on what I've been doing since my last posting a month ago, and where I'm going next. I am writing this from Skanör, Sweden, where I've been staying with my friend Steven Baker and his family since leaving my Copenhagen apartment on September 29. I'll be here until October 9, when I fly back to Toronto.
My main priority right now is finding a long-term address on the Canadian side. I've been in touch with a real estate agent on the Toronto side and she's helping me locate a place to rent. At this end I'm putting together a generic rental application (references, supporting documentation, etc.). Coming in from a foreign country makes everything a lot more complicated. I'd really like to be able to avoid the kind of nonsense I faced when I moved from Toronto to Winnipeg around 2010 and had to deal with a management company who didn't really want anyone from so much as another province. Most landlords are probably easier to deal with than those ones were, but coming from further away doesn't make it better. At least I do have some rental history, and an excellent credit rating, in Canada already from having lived most of my life there.
But I find the whole thing very stressful. Even though in theory this period until I get on the next plane is supposed to be something like vacation time, in fact I constantly have a to-do list hanging over my head of people to contact, forms to fill out, suitcases to repack, and so on. Each item I clear just adds at least one more, and being one person alone doesn't help because there is nobody else who can do much of this stuff. Many tasks associated with this project can only be done by me, and they're tasks of exactly the kind that cost me the most energy - initiating contact with people, fulfilling bureaucratic requirements, and so on. It really feels nothing like time off or a vacation at all.
I made the rounds of government and institutional offices in Copenhagen trying to do the proper paperwork for permanently leaving the country. At pretty much every step, I would go on a Web site, be told that I could not do that step online and had to go to the office in person, go to the office in person, and be told that I could not do that step in person and had to do it online. And every bureaucrat I talked to seemed to be surprised that I was even bothering to make the attempt to do things properly instead of just getting on the plane and letting the chips fall where they might. So what it comes down to is that the experience of leaving Denmark was pretty much exactly like the experience of living in Denmark.
After about a month out of the academic stream, I don't miss it at all. I don't miss Denmark in general, either. Yesterday I went back for most of the day as Steven attended a conference in Copenhagen and I tagged along, and it was quite noticeable to me that this place I lived two years doesn't feel like home at all. There are individual people, and there are specific things, like Danish blue cheese, that I'll miss. But overall, it's clear to me that walking away, walking the Earth, is the right decision.
Software engineering is not my home, either. Because of staying with the Bakers I've been exposed to a lot of what goes on in Steven's work, I've been meeting people and hearing about events, and I've been very much reminded of all the things I wanted to stay in academia in order to avoid. How can I put this? The things that software engineers today spend their time making are not beautiful things. The day to day tasks software engineers perform to make those things are nearly all exactly the kind of spoon-draining no-win "soft" tasks I most want to avoid doing, and at the end of the day the products suck, so why did we bother?
Meanwhile, the California "tech" industry is stampeded by tribalism, with the losing side of the culture war doing its best to make everything in "tech" as unpleasant and poisonous as possible to people like me who defy tribal boundaries, and that spills over into software engineering everywhere else in the world, too, even if it's much milder on this continent where civil society is stronger. I'm especially disappointed by this angle because the culture war in pretty much its current form is something I foresaw and wrote about more than 20 years ago, as the ideas were first coalescing in what were at the time the extreme fringes of academic humanities. The parts I didn't predict are mostly just things that in my youthful optimism I thought nobody would ever be evil enough to do; I assumed more human decency, more widely distributed in the population, than evidently exists. I started to realize how much worse things were than I imagined, when I saw the social justice backlash to my article on Livejournal's child pornography problem - and that's already nine years ago.
I always wanted to be part of preventing all this from happening. But I never had any real power to influence and shape the evolution of this situation, nor even much of an audience for my passive commentary. I just had to watch as the fence builders colonized and destroyed what used to be my homeland; and any commentary I write on it now is just going to be obsolete, coming in much too late. One thing I wanted from academia was a platform for my ideas on the culture of technology to be listened to, but that didn't work and, again, it's now too late. All I can see for myself is to stay as far away from "tech" as possible to preserve my own safety, and make what I can of what remains of my life.
The header on this Web site says "People before principles" but I've come to understand that what I mean by that, in some people's present-day terminology, might be more clearly expressed as "Individuals before tribes." That's one thing in which I solidly believe.
Once I get on the plane this coming Sunday, I'll be in Toronto for almost two weeks. I really hope that during that time I'll be able to arrange a long-term place to stay. On the 22nd I'm heading off to Japan, to return in early November, and what I want to happen is that I'll have everything set up so that upon my return I can move straight into my new location. If I can get solid commitment from the other parties before I go to Japan, then it can be a really real vacation, with no deadlines hanging over my head. It remains to be seen whether that'll work. If it doesn't, well, then I guess I have to deal with what comes up.
I'll be presenting what may be my last academic conference talk, at SISAP 2016 during the Japanese trip. (See schedule - I'm on Day 2 just after lunch.) Then I also have a few days currently unplanned. I will probably use those for a trip to Hokkaido, in the north. It's a part of the country I would really like to visit, and I think it may be a long time before I have another chance. I want to visit some nice restaurants there. I was looking at menus on the Web and after two years of living in Copenhagen, restaurants in Japan all look inexpensive by comparison. It's hard to make the detailed plans right now, though, because of my energy being consumed by the rental-hunting stuff with nearer deadlines. Some of that planning will have to be delayed until I'm in Toronto.
Stuff related to establishing my synthesizer business has a weird status because, on the one hand, it doesn't have fixed deadlines and so seems like it should be lower priority as long as I have deadline-connected things I need to do immediately; but on the other hand it's more fun, and this stuff is what I really want to be doing, so I end up doing some of it just because I need the recovery time. It's the actual electronics that I want to be doing, but having all my equipment packed up limits how much of that I can really do. There's a lot of other stuff connected with the business that is of a bureaucratic and people-contacting nature and such tasks don't help me recover my energy at all. That stuff will simply have to wait until I am past the deadline-associated tasks of similar nature that come from the move back to Canada.
One thing I can do right now, and need to do a little of in order to keep my mood up, but probably shouldn't do too much of because it's not deadline-associated, is work on a sourcing tool. I started working through the full-detail BOMs (bills of materials) for my first couple of products, trying in particular to get an accurate estimate of "cost of goods sold" for business planning purposes, and it quickly became apparent that doing it by hand using a spreadsheet isn't going to work. This is a problem that's going to require more specific software.
The thing is that for every part that goes into a module, I need to know where I plan to buy it; exactly which specific part from that supplier I want to use (with some amount of substitution often but not always possible); ideally, an acceptable option from at least one other supplier in case they go out of stock or stop carrying it; cross-references to the local "reference designator" for that part on the schematic diagram when it's something that has such a designator; how I plan to order it (especially, in what quantity, given that there can be restrictions like needing to order an integer multiple of some package size); and how much it costs taking into account the quantities involved. This covers not only the electronic components directly noted on the schematic diagrams, but also stuff like the zipper bags into which I pack the parts, the bonus goodies that get tucked in to entertain customers, printed instruction sheets, and so on.
I also need to keep this information updated through design changes; and because many parts are used in multiple products, I need to make sure the records for identical or substantially similar parts in different products agree with each other and the quantity-related consequences (like if one product needs 400 of a part and another needs 500, it makes sense to order 1000, and then the price per unit changes) are properly worked out. If possible, I want to export from my own records into a form that I can upload as an order or quote request to a supplier and thus be pretty sure I'm buying exactly the parts I need; and (I already wrote this using Perl, but it needs to be integrated) I also want to generate nicely formatted BOMs for documentation purposes, to give to others who will be doing their own purchasing. I think spreadsheets, the first resort of software scoundrels, are probably the wrong way to do it - even though they're what everybody uses - and now I'm looking at more automated techniques. In the spare time I don't have this month, between housing-related tasks. There are some interesting questions there.