Uh oh. Fifteen new messages from work.

Well, it’s day… four? Five? Technically five, I guess – of my new job. So far I’ve definitely done the majority of my productive work in my home office, aka “the desk in my bedroom”. The few days that I’ve actually been out on the road with my bike, I had errands to run – each day it seemed like those errands led me back to my office, though in retrospect I think that was artificial, and there was no real reason I couldn’t have stopped in a park.

Today I embark on the first “real” away mission of my quest – I am writing this sitting in an uncomfortable chair at the Vancouver airport, heading off on a two-week visit to New Brunswick centered around my grandmother’s birthday.

The job so far has been interesting, to say the least. The first day I logged in and started pestering the current admins for documentation and guidance, but the main admin was crazy busy, so told me to just poke around on my own and we’d have a conference call on Monday. The downside to this was that Monday was a holiday in British Columbia. I brought this point to light, but it didn’t seem to be a problem – and since I’m taking off to NB today and won’t be able to do any real work from the airplane, I figured a tradeoff would be acceptable.

Sunday night I went out drinking with some friends – hey, it was a long weekend. Monday I got up around 10am, took a leisurely shower, made some breakfast, cracked my knuckles, and cracked my laptop.

Uh oh. Fifteen new messages from work.

Turns out the gossip site posted some paparazzi photos of Miley Cyrus in her underwear. Cute, I guess, if you’re into that way-too-young thing – the problem came when Fox News linked to the site, causing it to drop to its knees in protest. The older admin rebuilt the page as static HTML, which took a lot of the load off of the database, and made the site somewhat responsive again. We pushed over 500 gigs of data per *hour* for the next four hours.

Tuesday was running a bunch of errands and I barely got two hours of actual work done. Wednesday I got a good solid six hours in, and it was my most productive to date. I made a lot of good discoveries about the systems; the most encouraging was that all of the machines are pretty much completely identical hardware-wise, and all have the same revision of CentOS. The less encouraging was that all of the machines have custom builds of Apache, each build is somewhat different from the rest, and none of the machines are up-to-date with OS patches.

The nice part about all the machines being nearly identical is that with a little bit of configuration I can treat the cluster as a single machine – I can build a single complex command on my Macbook and have it execute on each of the machines in sequence. I added my system accounts, along with ssh keys and a custom ‘sudo’ configuration, and poof – suddenly running an update on all 30-odd machines is 30 times less work than it used to be!

Today I fly to New Brunswick for a visit with my folks, and hopefully this weekend I’ll get a chance to visit with some old friends. I’ll still have to work, which could be interesting – the first few days I’ll be spending at my father’s house in Sussex, where I don’t think he has internet access.

I found out my Burning Man plans are a go! I return from New Brunswick on the 21st of August in the evening, get a chance to sleep, then have almost a day to pick up the last few bits I need for the epic week in the desert. On the 22nd I take the ferry to Victoria, where I meet up with friends who are driving a 15-passenger van down to Nevada – we leave Saturday morning, and aim to arrive on Monday. It looks like I’ll be camping with the Deep End!

More later, it’s time to board the plane.

The Quest Begins!

Today is my last day of work. I have Wednesday and Thursday to get my affairs in order, and I begin my new job – and officially begin my technomadic experiment – this Friday.

So the laptop buyout went… poorly. I was really hoping that they’d bite – my original negotiated deal was to work for the ISP for one year, and at that point I’d be entitled to buy out my laptop for $1000. Well, technically, the deal I tried to negotiate was that after six months the ownership of the laptop would just transfer to me, but they played hardball and would only go for the full transfer after eighteen months. I was kind of stretched financially at the time, so I accepted.

The problem is that I’m leaving the company after only just shy of nine months. I made them an offer of $1000 plus an extra $100 for each of the three months shy of a year, so $1300. The big boss agreed, but with the caveat “…as long as Joe doesn’t need the machine for his tech guys”, putting the decision in the hands of the manager of the technical support team. He was supposed to let me know Friday, but Friday afternoon told me he’d need the weekend to think it over.

That left me at a bit of a disadvantage, as my last day is today, Tuesday, and I would have to leave my machine there – but I was pretty confident that he’d make the right choice and let me buy the machine out. Unfortunately, early Monday morning he emailed me saying “Sorry dude, we’re getting more mac clients lately and so it’d be better to have it in the tech office for testing and client solutions stuff”.

Now, that’s a pretty flimsy premise. You’ve gotta understand, there’s a lot of office politics at play here – for one, I had the only Macbook Pro in the office, and frankly that chapped a lot of cabooses, and for two the Macbook Pro is a phenomenally well-designed machine and I’m in an office full of geeks. There were at least four people in the office with designs on my laptop, and from my vantage point (aka “shitty cubicle”) I got to watch them circle like vultures as the word spread. Deals were quietly made – my coworker made his case “I should get the laptop because I’m second to Drew in the admin team and I only have a regular Macbook, which could go to the tech team…”, and went from office to office gathering support for his cause. Another coworker, of much higher ranking, thought he should get it on rank alone. And even the big boss said something like “Just leave it on my desk when you go – oh, and make sure the applications and such are still installed, I’ve been meaning to pick up a mac for my own use…”.

Regardless, I’m getting a signing bonus with the new company, with which to purchase a new laptop. I was really hoping that purchase could be my macbook pro, with money left over for a fancy new iPhone too – but with that hope dashed, I was left with one day to evaluate my options and purchase a new machine.

Fortunately, I’m a geek, so I’d kept up with the tech pretty well – I’d already narrowed the field down to two options. In the left corner the slightly more pedestrian Macbook, and in the right corner the sleek, sexy Macbook Air.

I’ll save you the suspense: I bought the Air.

It was pricy, that’s for sure, it used up my entire budget and then an extra $100 on top of that – but I think I’ve made the right decision. This is a machine that I’ll be carrying with me everywhere for the next – oh, let’s call it two years. I’ll be spending anywhere from one to fourteen hours per day on the thing, which means it has to be both functional and comfortable. I look at a laptop as being like a good pair of workboots – if you’re just doing some gardening every few weeks, the $90 pair of workboots will suit you just fine. If you’re out on a construction site every day though, rain or shine, for eight hour stretches, the $340 pair start to make a lot more sense.

There were a few other factors that influenced the decision; for instance, the Air doesn’t have firewire, which is a strike against… but I had firewire on my MBP and never used it once in the nine months I had the machine. Also the Air only has a 1.6Ghz processor. Which is, um, the same one I’ve been using for nine months on my MBP with no complaints.

Functionally speaking, I’ve traded my Macbook Pro for the equivalent machine, only pared down with less extraneous crap, lighter and more mobile. This is exactly what I’m trying to do with the rest of my life, so it makes me think that I’ve made the right choice.

Friday, I get to spend most of the day on Skype with my new coworkers, mapping out the networks that I’ll be taking care of. Of course, since the new company has grown very rapidly and with a small core of employees, there isn’t really any documentation for any of the systems, so that’ll be my first big task. The following Thursday, I fly to New Brunswick for a two-week “vacation”, which will be the first big test of being a fully mobile sysadmin… and after that, it’s off to Burning Man to either celebrate the burgeoning success of my venture, or to do some deep desert soul-searching as to what I’m actually trying to do here.

Is this all a great idea leading to a wonderfully adventurous alternative lifestyle, or a huge mistake stemming from a drive to escape from a life that seems to be leading to stagnancy?

Great Strides Forward!

If it takes ten hours to achieve three hours of actual work, who am I really cheating?

This update is a bit long in coming, because I took off for Salem, Oregon to attend the Emrg-n-See Festival with Trent and a bunch of other amazing people. The vacation was welcome, even though it ventured into the United States, which as of late has made me somewhat wary.

Regardless, I’m back now, and back at my ugly little cubicle desk in North Vancouver. There’s one major difference though…

This is my last week. I am done this coming Tuesday!

So I gave my notice last Tuesday – the big boss was neither surprised nor alarmed. I guess it’s been pretty obvious for a while now that our department has just been sitting here spinning our wheels, waiting for some guidance from the “new management” that never actually arrived. I mean seriously.. I was supposed to be reporting to a guy in the head office downtown, but I didn’t actually hear anything back from him for four solid months?!

The two things I need to sort out currently are my cellphone and a laptop for the new job. The new Evil Masters have provided a nice little budget for a new machine, but frankly after taxes it isn’t enough to cover a brand new Macbook Pro. I’m currently trying to see if I’ll be allowed to purchase my current Macbook Pro from this job – I negotiated a clause in my original contract here where I could buy out my laptop after one year of employment. I’m just a couple of days shy of nine months with the company, so I’ve offered them $100 per month on top of the original buyout fee. $1300 total for a Macbook Pro – albeit a used one – isn’t too shabby.

On the cellphone front however I got some bad news today – the boss here agreed to let me carry my cellphone number with me when I left, but Telus (who are bitches) have a grip on the number with nasty, sharp, pointy teeth. Looks like I’ll have to have a new cellphone number shortly. I’m currently deciding between pay-as-you-go and a regular cellular plan.

The more I think about this whole detach-from-the-office plan (and the more I read ‘The Four Hour Workweek’), the more I am convinced that it is a good idea. The biggest challenge will be to be honest with myself about what does and what does not work; maybe working in a coffeeshop will be fun, but will it be productive? If it takes ten hours to achieve three hours of actual work, who am I really cheating?

My last day here is Tuesday, and then I have Wednesday and Thursday off, and then Friday I begin my new contract. I will be working the following Monday through Wednesday, and then Thursday I pack up and leave for two weeks in New Brunswick! This is going to be the really big test: can I work successfully from the east coast, possibly without my new Evil Masters even noticing that I’m not around?

Another big question: as an independent contractor, how can I best track my hours? I saw a web app on Daring Fireball, but I foolishly neglected to bookmark it…


A girl I’ve been seeing is an avid rock climber and has been taking me along climbing lately, several times to the indoor climbing gym and once to Squamish for an amazing day of outdoor climbing. It’s something that I always knew I would enjoy, but I hadn’t ever really had a good excuse to go.

There’s a subset of climbing called “bouldering” that I got to try out for the first time this past Monday, and I learned two things about it:

  1. it’s awesome, and
  2. it hurts!

Indoor rock climbing, if you haven’t been, is a lot of fun. The gym is a three-or-four story building with the floors removed, with simulated rock walls studded with colourful handholds in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Ropes dangle from the top of the wall, and each climb involves two people; one person climbs the wall, while the other handles the rope from the ground, protecting the climber from falling and offering encouragement.

The holds on the wall are each marked with coloured tape to indicate routes, which are rated in difficulty by the experts who run the gym. You choose your route and then climb the wall using only the holds that are marked with the same colour of tape. Simple, right?

Anyway – the first couple of times I ever went climbing I went to the Stronghold in Calgary, a beautiful old brick building that had been gutted and fitted with rock walls. Down in the basement, near the washrooms, was a low-ceilinged room with huge pads covering every square inch of the floor, and the ceiling was a slow sinewave of imitation stone covered with grips. A few male climbers lazed on the mats while one made his way slowly across the ceiling. I distinctly remember having exactly three impressions:

  1. wow, it’s hot down here,
  2. who’d want to climb across the ceiling like that?, and
  3. man those guys are ripped!

Flash forward a few years, and tonnes has changed – for one, I’ve got forty pounds of muscle on Old Drew. For two, I don’t have a pack-a-day cigarette habit, and for three, I’m hanging out with hot girls who are my unquestionable superiors on the rock walls. Still, the initial impressions stuck, and up until Monday of this week I still hadn’t ever bothered trying the bouldering game.

Monday I went climbing, and pushed myself pretty hard, climbing my first 5.10d before being shut down by a 5.11a (just smile and nod). It’s a helluva workout, and my arms were like lead by the time I was done – I could barely grip strongly enough to pick up my backpack! I should have been tipped off right then not to push myself any further, but since I was climbing with a couple of very experienced girls I guess I felt I had to try. On one hand I’m certainly glad that I did, but on the other hand – or forearm anyway – I probably could have taken it a little easier.

After we were each defeated by a wall, one of the girls suggested we boulder for a little while. Wow that’s fun – just like climbing, but more technical and with more arm workout, and without the hassle of ropes and harnesses! The technique is exactly the same – follow the coloured tape – but the wall is almost entirely overhang. I did a few routes, but then my arms basically gave out.

I will definitely go bouldering again. Climbing in the gym is quite expensive, at $18/pop, but when stacked against going for a burger and a couple of pints the choice is pretty clear. As I left the gym though, my forearms began to throb, and my right elbow had a soreness to it that I didn’t recognize – something deep inside the joint, like I’d hyperextended it or something, though I don’t remember doing anything like that.

Tuesday I was fine for most of the day, but the bikeride home from work (North Vancouver to East Van, via the Lions’ Gate Bridge and through the downtown core) really hurt my elbow. It felt as though I’d torn a tendon or something in my elbow, and both my forearms felt swollen and painful. I worried that perhaps it had something to do with my positioning on my bike, and still worry that climbing rocks and riding my track bike might not be compatible sports.

Tonight I will try the same ride again, and cross my fingers that I will not hurt when I get home. I believe in the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” adage, but that really only applies when you give yourself adequate time to heal between killing attempts!

Burning Man 2008?

I first went to Burning Man in 2002, with my ex-fiancée. It was a fantastic time, great adventure with great memories – we returned fulfilled, but didn’t really see a need to go back. Inside though, I told myself that if I ever found myself single again, I would return to the desert.

Last year I found myself single again, and went back – it was a completely different event, but worth every second.

Lots of people talk about making the epic journey to the desert, but not nearly as many actually make it down – well, at least not so many from Canada, seeing as it’s an eighteen-hour drive. One trick that I’ve employed both times now which seems to work pretty well is to purchase a ticket, even if you’re not sure you’re going to actually go. I know, it seems so simple, but it works – just having a physical reminder of your plan makes it much easier to save the money and buy the gear.

Last year I was in a bit of a strange space – my entire world pretty much collapsed. In the span of a few months, my job of six years went away due to a corporate buyout, my relationship of eight years went away, and I thought I’d have to sell my house. Fortunately I got a large severance package from the buyout, and was able to take a few months to get my head on straight again. Burning Man was a huge reset switch for me, and made me rethink a lot of my personal comfort boundaries; specifically boundaries regarding time and scheduling, imparting to me a new desire to rid myself of scheduling whenever possible, so as to allow myself to jump on plans that sound like adventure whenever they present themselves.

The biggest example of that desire would probably be in the form of a beautiful young girl named Suzy, with whom I had a whirlwind romance that lasted months after the end of the festival. We met on Friday afternoon and danced through the weekend; on Sunday morning, returning to the campsite to get some rest, we discovered my campmates packing up to leave ten hours before our scheduled departing time. We decided that we hadn’t quite had enough time together, and she suggested that I could get a ride to Los Angeles with her and her friends and that she’d drive me back to Vancouver in a few days. A road trip on the California highway with a beautiful girl in a brand new Mini Cooper sounded like a lot of fun – but having been awake for days on end there was a good chance that I wasn’t thinking clearly. I discussed it with my campmates, and to my surprise they agreed that it sounded like a fine adventure. So, with my backpack and a few days’ worth of clothes, we waved our goodbyes to the Vancouver caravan as it pulled away, and wandered over to meet up with the other ride “home”.

Unfortunately, upon meeting the other ride we found that they didn’t actually plan to leave that day, and would instead be leaving two days later! This threw a bit of a wrench in the plans, given that I had just sent all my camping equipment, water and food home in the Winnebago. We stuck around for a few hours, but after a week in the desert we were both dying to get out of there. So, in the spirit of adventure, we sent her equipment home with her friends, biked to the front gates, and began hitchhiking!

Fortune was with us, and I doubt we hitchhiked for more than two minutes before being picked up by a single driver in a Lexus SUV. He gave us beer and fresh steaks, and dropped us off in Reno at a fleabag hotel. In the morning, we wandered to a café, rented a fast car over the internet, and then picked it up and drove to Lake Tahoe where we had the swim we’d been planning for days. Then we drove through the night to Los Angeles – and a day later, I found myself attending a Cultural Anthropology class at the University of Santa Monica.

That experience cinched it for me – great adventure is out there to be had, though it won’t find me hiding in my basement. I need to put myself in the way; the river may well carry me somewhere cool, but not without throwing myself into the current first.

I haven’t figured out any plans yet, though I know that most if not all of the friends who went last year will not be going again this year. I do know of a few folks who are going down from Vancouver, and while they’re not close friends, they’re friendly acquaintances that I’d like to know better. I know that last year I spent a good portion of my time at the burn at a daytime dance club called “The Deep End”, and that if I make my way back there again I’d like to volunteer to bartend or help with their soundsystem.

This could be good, or this could be bad – a part of me is very excited about the idea of going down completely alone, and the adventure that that could represent. Another part of me thinks that’s crazy, and wonders how the hell I’ll get seven days worth of food, water and camping supplies into the desert on my back.

…but I’ve bought a ticket.