I.

Obligations are where free time goes to die.

A friend recently asked me why I don't want kids. I answered, two reasons: First, because I'm basically allergic to children. But second, because there are things I want to do with my life, and I can't do them if my remaining good years are consumed by child-rearing.

(once I would have added "because humans suck and I don't want to make more of them", but getting out of end user support for the last few years has made me slightly less misanthropic)

She came back a couple of days later and asked "okay, there are things you want to do with your life; what things?"

This is something I've thought about more than usual recently. Some changes in my life have left me wondering "what next?"

Over the last couple years, for the first time, I've achieved something like financial stability. I have a career that will keep me paid for as long as IT is needed, and I'm well past the "breaking into the industry" barrier. I'm finally in a position where I can do what I choose to do instead of what I need to do.

But what, specifically? I wasn't thinking of anything specific when I said it. My beef with long-term, irrevocable responsibility isn't "I won't be able to work on some specific thing", but "I won't be able to work on any other specific thing, details to be determined later."

I answered my friend with the first things that came to mind. I have personal projects and fanfiction and toy programs and other Stuff, I want to create, and it's hard enough to keep my mind on track when I don't have screaming babies eating my time and attention.

But there's more to it than that. I create because I enjoy creating. But on a separate mind-track, I also want to do something that matters.

II.

You are a member of the species that did that. Never forget what we are capable of, when we band together and declare battle on what is broken in the world.

-- Jai, 500 Million, But Not a Single One More

This quote always makes me tear up. There's no lack of important things to do in the world, and fewer limits on what we can achieve than we think.

I don't identify with the effective altruist movement, but I've read enough of their stuff to be convinced that most of the causes most people worry about are tempests in a teapot. Contemporary U.S. politics has gone basically insane and its poison has infected even people I know and respect. We use up all our outrage and our hate on each other while dark gods rape the world.

(in some sense, the Current Crazy is one of those gods.)

That doesn't mean we can't make progress along orthogonal lines.

We killed smallpox dead. Polio is on its last legs. Malaria's still up and punching, but maybe not for much longer. Other pestilences remain, but even former death sentences like AIDS are not as fearsome as they used to be.

Norman Borlaug's crew ushered in the Green Revolution, ended famine on the Indian subcontinent and saved one billion lives. Forget Tyson vs Holyfield or whatever today's equivalent is; I want to see Borlaug vs Malthus.

It's hard to overstate the significance here. As a species, we are going toe to toe with two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and we are holding the line.

As apocalyptic crusades go, one I wouldn't mind raising the flag for is anti-aging (to stick to the four horsemen metaphor, let's identify aging with Death). Aging kills more people than all other causes put together, and brings decades of misery to all of them as their bodies -- or, worse, their brains -- disintegrate around them. I'm 34. I haven't hit decrepitude yet, but I'm well on my way. When I get into that fight, I want a knife up my sleeve.

Another friend, when the subject came up, said that curing aging is a pipe dream, at least in our lifetime. I replied: We killed smallpox. We put boots on the Moon. We do heart transplants. We took the power that makes the sun burn in the sky and we made it our servant.

The ancient alchemists dreamed of the Philosopher's Stone, which could grant eternal life, or turn lead into gold. Pipe dreams?

We haven't figured out eternal life. Not yet.

But we turned lead into gold.

I am a member of the species that did these things. I will not forget what we are capable of.

III.

So, what next?

I don't know. I was only semi-serious about aging above; the most significant anti-aging organization I'm aware of is SENS, and they don't need IT engineers -- or if they do they're not advertising it. I can send money their way, but it doesn't help figure out what to do with my life. The same goes for the crusaders against Famine and Pestilence. They might need my money, but I'm pretty sure they don't need me.

I can purchase utilons with money. The warm fuzzy feeling of using talent well is harder to come by.

The obvious Important Tech Related Thing is AI research, but I have no expertise in that field and don't expect I can contribute much. I do infrastructure, and that is valuable, but much of that value is wasted running social experiments, marketing, clickbait, and the Internet's endless hate parade.

(and whenever I feel my misanthropy slipping, I remind myself that Facebook exists because these things are what most people want)

There are some infrastructure-related windmills I tilt at, like the way open Internet protocols have mostly been replaced by closed-garden Web applications even when the web browser is so far from the right tool that it's technically in an alternate universe. Changing that is problematic. Not because modern, open replacements couldn't be written, or that I'm not capable of writing them, but because users do not care.

Another possibility: running infrastructure or doing development for an organization that does Something Valuable and Awesome. Something that isn't mostly composed of negative externalities. That's a tough problem, because IT management is often outsourced. But it seems like a solvable problem.

I wonder if SpaceX needs remote IT people.