One year later

Thu Nov 28, 2013

One year ago, I started writing again out of panic. Humans are very adept at forgetting the feeling of panic, so the act of crystallizing it in sentences can be cathartic if you write slowly enough.

Last November was a weird and difficult time for me. I remember spending the night of the twenty-third in a friend’s childhood bedroom overlooking the idyllic frost-laced meadows of suburban Pennsylvania, wrapped in the mansion of an unfamiliar family that had adopted me for Thanksgiving. It was cold and late and Thanksgiving-y, in a way that amplifies certain negative thoughts about the hollowness of growing up and becoming something. I think I was at a point where those kinds of thoughts made me feel like I had swallowed one or two hummingbirds stuffed with bees stuffed with amphetamine. It was a little uncomfortable, so I stayed up all night and wrote about it.

That was the night I decided that I would take a leave of absence from grad school at Stanford and spend a year doing as many different jobs as I could 1. If I couldn’t find a job that I was genuinely excited about by 11/23/2013, I would go back to getting a PhD in Physics.

1 For the record, I held a total of 4 paid jobs and 1.5 unpaid ones during that time.

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To be honest, it kind of sucked at first. I did an apt job of writing about it back in January.

The last month or so has been full of stress, disappointment, and self-doubt, the pains of a transition to life without externally-imposed structure.

Life without structure in the form of school or employment was terrifying at first. I found it difficult to concentrate on reading. Most days I felt like I was losing in some form or another. My patterns of learning were slow and frustrating, and I started to doubt whether I was capable of accomplishing anything on my own. That’s a really horrifying doubt to have about yourself, and I interpreted it as a sign to go rearrange some psychological furniture (not literal furniture, but only because I was couchsurfing at the time and had none).

A couple days after that frankly-depressing blog post, I moved into my first San Francisco apartment and got my first post-graduation job: an internship that had some good moments (getting the company’s IP blocked from Google a couple times) but mostly involved me feeling less like a human and more like a training set for advanced machine learning algorithms with each passing day.

My second job was better. I got to write software.

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Winter passed into spring. I was getting close to 22. Sometimes I would run down Folsom St. all the way to the ocean, amazed that there was still light out at 7 pm. San Francisco in the dimming sunset is full of rushing cars, discarded coffee cups, and people eating salads. My bike was falling apart.

Ever since quitting grad school, I’d been getting good at leaving things behind: jobs, roommates, feelings of attachment to any particular time or place. Part of it was just that I had high standards for who I wanted to become.

San Francisco didn’t quite fit anymore, so I packed a backpack and got on a one-way flight to Boston.

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Once I started travelling, it was hard to stop. The crinkled packaging of snack food at a gas station convenience store is basically equivalent to the wrapping that airlines put around cheap disposable pillows. Both are addictive because they remind you of the miles you have to go.

I did this: Boston -> Delaware -> Pittsburg -> Boston -> Austin -> Marfa, TX -> El Paso -> Joshua Tree -> LA -> Big Sur -> SF -> Seattle -> SF -> a tiny village in France -> Amsterdam -> SF

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Things got better once I returned to SF. I was interning for EFF over the summer and loved the atmosphere and the people there enough to stay put. I didn’t have a place to live anymore in SF, so I didn’t sleep in the same place two nights in a row for over a month.

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Computer security and encryption became intensely fascinating. I didn’t know much to start with, so I read aggressively on subways. My interest probably came partially from my hatred of power imbalances, especially invisible ones. A lot of power belongs to those who made security decisions about software, and those decisions are hardly transparent in most cases.

This seems wrong to me.

Side note: Designing an account management system for a website teaches you that code is supplanting many of the historical functions of legal frameworks. You’d think that would mean that people would write tests.

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I was in Berlin for the first time last week. It was drizzling near-freezing Berlin rain for eight days before a thumbprint of blue pressed through the clouds, but none of that matters when you’re jetlagged and ducking through graffiti-lined streets asking drug dealers where to get a sandwich at 3 AM.

It was in a corner of a dimly-lit Indian restaurant in Kreuzberg one night that I got an email from EFF. It said, thanks for pointing out Google’s HSTS bug. Also we’d like to offer you a job as a full-time technologist.

The next day was November twenty-third, exactly one year after I promised myself exactly one year to find a job that I was excited about.

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I’m proud to announce that I accepted EFF’s offer today and will be starting work there as a staff technologist after Thanksgiving. It’s been a long and challenging year, but I can’t wait to see where it goes next.



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