Remote work: the last meritocracy

The general idea of remote work is that you do the same job you would do in the office, but you don’t have to actually go to the office. This removes all the problems with people and politics of the office. That’s viewed as a huge benefit, but the reality is that many people only keep their jobs because of the people and politics of the office. Remote work strips all that away and leaves you standing naked in a meritocracy where only your skills matter.

I’ve worked remotely for 7 out of the last 9 years. For 4 years I was a remote contractor left to my own devices. I spent 2 years working as a remote worker for a non-remote company and I’ve spent the last year-ish working as a remote worker for a remote company. While sitting at home looks the same in all cases, each of those situations were very different from each other.

Here’s what I have learned from each of those situations:

Remote work as a contractor

StressedUnless you want to spend a lot of time chasing business, chasing cheques, and schmoozing on the phone, you’re screwed. The vast majority of remote “employers” are really just guys with ideas that want the cheapest possible labour to see if their idea has legs. They’re not invested in the idea of building a remote workforce for any reason other than they see it as the cheapest way to get going. They’ll work the shit out of you to see if you’re good “startup material” (which really means “I have no money because nobody but me believes in my idea”) and discard you when you’re so exhausted you trip. If they have no backers, be wary. Don’t know if they have backers? Google it; Angels and VCs love to talk about who they’re backing.

I spent about 25% of my time actually working and the rest of the time doing these tasks in no particular order:

  • Trying to find new work.
  • Trying to get paid for completed work.
  • Trying to figure out the best way to acquire gear and services (from a tax perspective).
  • Learning how to do my taxes properly.
  • Mourning the loss of my skill set because I was not using it.

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Defeating keyless entry front door locks.

I’m the least mathey person I know. My bio will attest to that – my skills are terrible but my curiousity is high. There’s a certain magic to numbers that I get a glimpse of every now again when I manage to win a struggle with them and it’s compelling to me. Math is a representation of data and while me and Math don’t along very well, me and Data are best bros. I spend my days mucking about in log files on other people’s systems looking for reasons, root causes, and footprints. The trails become clear once you tame the data and turn thousands of unruly log lines into succint sorted output. These same techniques are used by good guys and bad guys alike and from them we learn that some things are truly hard. We also learn that some things only look hard, but really aren’t.

Four digit numbers crop up repeatedly in our society. In the late 1990’s I had a TD bank account and my bank card had a 6-digit PIN. That did not last long because the international consortium of bankey people standardized on 4-digits for PINS which is too bad because that exponentially decreased the security of my PIN. Overnight the odds of guessing my PIN plummeted from 1 in 1,000,000 to 1 in 10,000. But, hey, the bankey heads know what they’re doing, right? But I digress…

I’m not sure how we landed on 4 digits, but that frequency turns up all over the place. My bank card PIN is 4-digits, my credit card PINs are 4 digits, even my front door lock is 4 digits. That begs the question: how long would it take to guess the code to open my front door? Let’s ask math.

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A primer on your phone, I mean…your website.

The world of things is grouped into three categories for me. There’s things I know, things I don’t know, and things that in order for me to understand they even exist you’d have to go back to the Big Bang to give me enough context to get a grip on. I think that most of us think that most people know what we know, or at least have enough context to get up to speed pretty quickly. Recently, however, I find myself talking to a lot of end-user website owners and I’ve come to realize that is not so. I’ve had to have many Big Bang conversations with website owners in order to explain what I felt were pretty fundamental pieces of the Internet. So, I thought I’d try to lay out the basic things that I think everyone that owns a website needs to know.

Confused

Many of the people that cross my path daily are legitimately trying to understand all the moving parts of their website; but there is a sub-community that promotes willful ignorance as well. In some circles it has become chic to be incompetent with technology. We wouldn’t dream of saying things like “I take my car to work but I have no bloody idea how to drive” or “Lawnmower? Not a clue how it works, when it runs out of gas I just throw it out and buy a new one because I have no idea where the gas goes in”. But it is somehow OK, and in fact fashionable, to say “my website? Not a clue how it works. When it stops working I just scream and yell at random people until someone fixes it”.

So here’s my attempt to help.

Continue reading “A primer on your phone, I mean…your website.”

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, yo.

Of all the things that interest me most in the world, I think humans might top the list. I’m a scientist at heart and I love to categorize things and learn the rules that apply to situations. Humans have this manifest ability to evade any and all attempts to be classified which simultaneously fascinates and repels me. The cultural concept of value is a good example. Value is one of those human things that is entirely subjective and just can’t be nicely typed. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, yo (Peter Griffin would have loved this). But for certain values of trash, it’s treasure for all. Continue reading “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, yo.”

How does logic work?

Today I ran across what is likely the most elemental example of logic ever devised. Aristotle is credited with its earliest forms and I am therefore sure that it is taught to every first year philosophy student on the planet; but that does not take away its simplistic beauty.

It is a syllogism.

Much like the best scientific theories are simple, the best examples of logic are simple. So here we go.

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Emergence and Reductionism

Reductionism is a philosophy that provides some interesting thought exercises. When applied to science, the basic theory is that all science can be revealed as some subset of some other part of science, therefore reducing the subset into the other discipline. In short, systems are no more than the sum of their parts. Followed to its logical conclusion, we would eventually discover that there is, in fact, only a single branch of science that could explain everything.

By way of a small example (that doesn’t work fully), we can take Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Kepler explained how planets move. A few years later, Newton came up with his laws of dynamics which explain how everything moves. Newton’s laws explained how the planets moved as well as everything else, therefore Kepler’s work was “reduced” to become part of the general understanding of how things move.

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Rise of the Machines – Why do old things matter?

I went to a Christmas craft show today and a large part of the space was devoted to antiques and collectibles. The vendors had very large spaces with lots of old stuff ranging from typewriters to old door locks, to china and Polariod cameras. These guys weren’t just cleaning out their attics, they were definitely “in the business”.

Picking through old mechanical stuff is a great joy of mine. It doesn’t have to necessarily work as long as it retains enough of its parts that I can see how it used to work. I don’t have much use for old magazines and china, but I love old machines; or, at least, the things that preceded our machines of today. I must not be alone because the vendors there obviously know there is business in collecting and selling this stuff. That got me thinking about the reasons why we love old stuff.

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From bartering to Bitcoins; How did we get here?

I doubt there’s a single person alive in North America who is unaware of the financial mess the United States is in. Jumping from Fiscal Cliff to Sequestering, it’s quite obvious to all of us that the “money” in question does not exist. Greece is in a no better state half-way across the world so it’s pretty easy to make the argument that money is broken. When your country has over-leveraged its financial resources so terribly that you know, deep down inside, that your money and property can become worthless overnight with the flick of a pen in government house, what do you do?

Get new money, of course. Continue reading “From bartering to Bitcoins; How did we get here?”