Brian Shaler

Occasionally Interesting

Gravity is for chumps

Archive for January, 2014

2013: A year of working from anywhere

It would be nice to recap the year using photos and a map, but for now a list of places and events will have to suffice.

January: I booked a flight to Amsterdam for a couple weeks to couch surf with a friend I met at SXSW years prior. While there, I noticed 3 of the most intelligent and interesting people I know from around the world were converging in Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum and figured, what the heck, why not swing by and try to crash some parties? I found a cheap flight from Rotterdam (less than an hour from Amsterdam by train) to Geneva, where I rented a car and drove across the country to Davos. Turns out you can’t really crash parties at the World Economic Forum; there are too many fully-automatic assault rifles. Driving through the Swiss Alps made the entire trip worth it. Incredible.

February: I attended a small tech conference on a boat in the British Virgin Islands. I figured if I was going to spend all kinds of money to be on the boat for a week, I might as well make a trip of it and spent a week with a friend who coincidentally lives a stone’s throw from where the conference’s boat was docked. There’s not much to do on Caribbean islands when you’re not on vacation or spending money, so I tend to be very, very productive. I remember making excellent progress on a Node.js CLI app to render videos of cars spinning around for my client.

March: I didn’t leave the country, but I went to Texas for SXSW, and that’s pretty close. I stayed with an old friend (since 5th grade!), who recently had a kid. Oh, how fast life whizzes by when you spend your life on the go and only check in with someone every year or two.

April: I went back to New Zealand, and this time I reserved a campervan in advance and spent most of my 3 week stay gallivanting around the kiwi country side while working from wifi-enabled commercial camp sites (“holiday parks”) from Auckland to Queenstown. Two weeks in 2012 wasn’t enough. Three weeks in 2013 wasn’t enough. I desperately want to go back as soon as possible for a greater number of weeks, which I’m sure will also not be enough.

May: I attended another tech conference, this time in Belize with 27 CTOs, investors, and startup founders. It was only a few days long, so I hopped over to Ambergris Caye, which was recently in the news as part of John McAfee’s saga.

June: I spent a week in Germany tending to a 2 year old physical installation I worked on at Volkswagen’s Autostadt.

July: Upon getting my passport back from the Chinese consulate faster than expected, I was free to leave the country during July. I wanted to keep my streak of leaving the country every month (except for March) going, so I hopped up to Vancouver for a week. First time to Canada! I napped in my third hammock of the year, which made me realize I had napped in hammocks in three different countries in 2013, none of which were in the USA.

August: I slowly made my way to Beijing, with a multi-day layover in Hawaii to visit friends. After a couple days in Beijing, I met up with a couple friends from NYC in front of a coffee shop, where we were swooped up and taken to the DPRK.

September: After a week in the DPRK, we returned to Beijing, where I stayed an additional 10 days before slowly making my way back to the Arizona with a 10-day stopover in Hawaii. I didn’t know where I should stay in Beijing, but after reading a summary of some of the districts, I booked a hotel in “the Silicon Valley of China,” Zhongguancun.

October: I wanted to visit a friend of mine in London, but he had to go to Dublin to speak at Web Summit. He was able to secure a spare ticket, so I darted off to Ireland and then England—first time anywhere in the British Isles!

November & December: I ended up just shuttling back and forth between NYC and PHX for Thanksgiving (PHX) and Christmas (NYC).

What an exhausting year! The only downside of my travel in 2013 was that almost every trip was about 2 weeks long, which is not very practical or economical when leaving the country or crossing an ocean. Instead of boomeranging out of the country and back many times, I would prefer to wander more slowly and go to more places when visiting a region. Hopefully I can make that happen in 2014.

A Year and a Half of Dust

I didn’t write a single post on this blog during 2013.

2013 was a pretty intense year. Not too intense to write blog posts—I shared updates, photos, and check-ins throughout the year using various social networks.

Lately, I have been getting frustrated with those platforms.

The motivations of the social networking companies (ad publishing businesses) don’t always align with the goals of the users. Are they helping connect people with their friends? Or with brands?

As tools, they tend to break down as people use them differently. What if one friend posts every thought he or she has in a day while another thoughtfully posts one thing per day or week? Facebook, with their Top News feed, seems to do a pretty good job of bubbling up the most interesting or relevant posts and filtering out most of the noise. But the Top News algorithm applies only to what your Facebook friends share on Facebook, not what your friends share online.

Twitter did a much better job of connecting people in 2006-2008, when people posted less frequently (used the service more similarly), followed fewer people on average, and were more likely to read everything. As it turned out, requiring every user to self-moderate prior to posting would not work out in the long run. The closeness Twitter fostered was eroded as it transformed into a chat room and link sharing/promoting service.

Features come and go—or in Google’s case, entire services—based on whether or not the sponsoring ad publisher (Google, Twitter, Facebook, et al) deems it a benefit to their bottom line. Foursquare cares more about fleeting digital rewards (mayorships and badges) and selling deals/sponsorships to brands or venues than it does about doing meaningful things (to users) with our data. In many cases, ad publishers’ agendas align with the needs of their users. After all, they can’t sell advertisements if the users don’t keep coming back.

WordPress—perhaps a dinosaur in today’s post-RSS, social-network-central world—is one of the few options we have to connect directly with each other. I write a post, and save it to one of my computers (a web server). Then, from anywhere—a browser, web app, RSS feed reader, or perhaps some other mechanism—you connect to my computer and fetch the post.

It is saddening to realize I have all but abandoned WordPress in favor of the social networks, but ultimately, WordPress isn’t an ideal method for connecting with each other. Not everything I want to share is an article, and I don’t necessarily want to blend long form blog posts with microblog one-liners (Twitter) and photoblog posts (Flickr, Instagram). Even if I could share these various facets of my life using one tool, it’s not connecting me with my friends if I’m just posting them to some site somewhere while all my friends are using insular social networks.

I deleted my Facebook account in August (dodging the inevitable flood of banal platitudes from acquaintances you tend to receive on your birthday) and my Twitter account will be going soon, too. Twitter was my favorite place to go when I felt like talking to myself, but I could only stand throwing my thoughts away into the ether for so long. I want my thoughts to live somewhere, and an ad publisher’s web site is ultimately the wrong place for that.

For now, I will be stuck with WordPress. As a developer, I feel the urge to figure this out and come up with a way to share my life online while staying connected with my friends no matter where they’re sharing their lives.

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