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Thoughts on Disconnecting

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Like many, I found myself ending 2020 without having taken any time off. After all, travel itself wasn’t exactly advisable, and I’d fruitlessly hoped that by delaying as long as possible, I might better my chances of getting a vacation. Little did I know, delaying until the end of the year actually put me directly in second surge territory – Christmas and New Year’s were straight out.

I’ve never taken a staycation, and my last attempt at disconnecting was cut short a mere two days in by my place of work being bought out, so I figured now was high time to give it another try. A typical day otherwise can consist of numerous phone calls, text messages, e-mails, Slack messages (not even on my company workspace), and so on. I decided not to cut myself off from the Internet, which I saw as enabling, but instead from communication, which I saw as distracting.


Grooming the Fridge-ban

I run a Kanban board on my fridge, and decided to groom it into the tasks that, at the outset, I felt were the best use of the time I had. One project required a significant amount of outdoor time, another required a significant amount of screen time, and another required a significant amount of creative time. These weren’t things that I could have done while 9-to-5ing, nor were they something I’d have had the stomach for over a weekend.

Handing off volunteer obligations

I have an ongoing volunteer obligation. While it’s not something that would cause a huge problem if I disappeared for three days, simply disappearing wouldn’t have helped anyone. I instead solicited another volunteer in the same organization to take over my obligation for a few days, so that it otherwise appeared uninterrupted. Volunteer organizations are often best-effort. Best-effort, to me, meant at least attempting to provide continuity, even if I hadn’t been able to achieve it. Removing myself without notice could not, in good faith, have been best-effort.

Notify work, family, and friends

Much like the volunteer obligation, I first cleared my disconnect with my manager (who was more than supportive). I also notified family and friends that I’d be unavailable, as some can reach out to me multiple times per day – an extended unexplained absence might be concerning. I gave a select few people a “pull chain” to grab me back into the land of the living, if something truly needed my attention. This could be a cell phone with a separate number, e-mail address, or simply a trusted person who would be a point of contact, who then would drive over and knock on my door (which is the system I used).

Up front as much work and play as possible

Some of the things I did in the days leading up to disconnecting were:

What I Ended Up Doing

Here are some of the highlights:

I cleared out the garden behind my house, which has been overgrown with weeds and trash since I bought it. This took close to six hours. I learned how to re-chain a chainsaw halfway through, and ended up with a space I hopefully can use to offset my fruit and vegetable costs come springtime.

I spent a few hours increasing the granularity of my financial history, which I keep in GnuCash. Some of my accounts, like my 401(k), had one large “opening balance” transaction, followed by quasi-quarterly “true up” transactions – these now have appropriate monthly granularity based on my last few years of statements. In addition, I now have some net-new accounts tracked (e.g. HSA balance) and finally learned how to split my mortgage payments into principal payments against the house, interest payments against the loan, and escrow deposits.

I fixed a speed issue with my home Internet service. The brief version of the topology is:

Brief version of the network topology

After moving earlier this year, I noticed that traffic on the trusted network was significantly slower than on the untrusted network, and I initially pegged this as my old router not being able to penetrate walls well. That router was replaced, and solved a problem with connections being dropped, but did nothing for speed. The issue turned out to be a break in the first long Ethernet run, from the modem to the router, that caused it to sync at 100Mbps and occasionally fall back to just 10Mbps. Lacking any bulk Ethernet cable to rerun, I just moved the existing coax closer to the router. Who cares if the Internet’s dead for an hour if you’re not using it anyway?

I wrote a quick cron to blink the lights on my Raspberry Pi’s when I knock their cables out from the switch. While testing, I ended up modifying the script to also handle the edge case where the link is still up, but there’s no Internet connectivity, because I’ve knocked the cable to the router out of the switch instead. I’ll be publishing the script as a Gist soon. (I could also buy cables with the keys intact, but this was more fun!)

I added network support to my cheap no-name ATSC tuner / DVR combo. This was a very fun project that used the SATA and USB OTG interfaces on a Banana Pi M1, the Mass Storage USB Gadget kernel module, loopback devices, and NFS. Hit the record button on the DVR, and the video shows up on an NFS share. I’ll be adding this to the Projects section in due time.

I set up an isolated wired and wireless network on my junk workstation, so that I can interact with devices that make interesting assumptions about the network, like cameras that ship with DHCP disabled, or that I don’t want phoning home before I flash them to better firmware, like cheap Android 4.4 touchscreens from eBay.

I relaunched this very website! This is something I’ve wanted to do since this time two years ago. There was an intermediate Jekyll rewrite that never saw the light of day, and an earlier attempt at a Hugo site (with content, even) that I scrapped entirely and started over. I’m hoping that having this blog and first post available lower the barriers to entry enough that I contribute regularly.

What I Would Have Done Ahead Of Time Next Time

The most shocking realization was just how much I rely on having my phone available to do things. For instance:

For some non-technical thoughts: