Best of 2008
Aza says people are more likely to read articles if they're in the form of a top-ten list, whether that fits the subject matter or not. Maybe I can make up for barely blogging at all in 2008, now that the year is over, by turning it into a top-ten list.
9. Turtwig and Pokemon trainer
One of my long-term goals is to make sure my sister Aleksa grows up to be a gamer, by exposing her to nerdly board games, role-playing games, and video games. We've even worked on creating our own video games together.
Christmas 2007 Mom got us both Nintendo DSs, so I suggested picking up the latest version of Pokemon; Aleksa was hooked instantaneously, and like a human sponge rapidly soaked up the vast corpus of Pokemon lore required to be a successful Pokemon trainer.
That leads us to Halloween 2008:
She's a Turtwig, I'm the generic male Pokemon trainer character from the Diamond/Pearl edition. (As every kid, and not a single grown-up, in the neighborhood could have told you.)
Group costumes are exponentially more fun than individual costumes. And for 2009? We're talking about maybe "Mega Man and Rush".
Sadly I don't have pictures handy of this one (I'll post some if I can find my misplaced CD) but in August I jumped out of a perfectly good prop-plane some 15,000 feet above Hollister, CA, strapped to a parachute and a 200 pound surfer dude named Mako. (They always make you go tandem diving if it's your first time.)
After a couple seconds you hit terminal velocity, and then it doesn't feel like you're falling anymore; you're just weightless, swimming in the air, with what looks like a very large flat photograph of a landscape somewhere below you, and a very dry 300 mph wind blowing up into your mouth and nose. You know when you're having a flying dream, the way you can steer yourself just by tilting your arms? It turns out that it actually works that way in real life, to my surprise.
Then the parachute comes out and you're violently hoisted up by your femoral arteries, and suddenly the wind is gone and everything is perfectly quiet and still. You can steer the parachute by pulling on two straps, and the idea then is to aim for a flat patch of grass and avoid power lines, highways, and people's backyard fences.
On our way down, Mako and I spotted a balloon that some child had let go, on its way up. We tried to steer towards it and grab it; we missed by about 18 inches.
Imagine if we'd caught it and brought it back to the kid? "Be more careful next time, son." How cool would that have been?
7. Learning Mandarin
I am now working on my third language (not counting those I just did for a couple years in high school), under the expert tutelage of a native speaker (Sushu). Actually her family's from Shanghai, so sometimes she's all "In Mandarin you say "kai shuei", but in Shanghainese it's "ka si" and then I'm like "Whoa, whoa, one at a time!".
Yes, to say that Chinese has dialects is like saying that "Romance language" has dialects called French, Spanish, Italian, etc. It's really different languages.
Since the Chinese writing system was absorbed wholesale by Japan in the 800s, many of the characters are at least partially familiar from Japanese. Often the usage of a character has drifted apart in that time, so the usage will be slightly different, or the modern Chinese one will have been simplified while the Japanese one remains the same, like a fly trapped in amber since the Tang dynasty.
On the other hand, knowing how the character is pronounced in Japanese usually does me more harm than good, since the 8-bit compression algorithm that is Japanese phonetics produces a rendition of the Chinese sound that's about as accurate as "ROKKETTO PANCHI" is as a rendering of the English.
So, learning the meanings of characters is not so bad, but the pronunciation is killing me. I'm having to rewire my brain around the idea that "DZUO?" (rising tone) and "DZUO!" (falling tone) are two different words. Also there are consonant distinctions that don't exist in English, like the difference in tongue position between "shang" and "xiang".
Sushu has been coaching me very patiently, and I'm now getting to the point where I can have the rudiments of a conversation with her family. Huzzah!
6. Learning to Drive
It took me long enough. Due to a combination of eye problems, living in areas with good mass transportation, and sheer laziness, I never got around to learning to drive until 2008, when I was 28 years old.
But once I applied myself, it wasn't too hard. I got some lessons from my mom and my aunt Robin, and passed the driver's test in Illinois in February.
Switching this over to a California license was harder, thanks to a real Modron of a DMV clerk who thought that because my last name (DiCarlo) is spelled "DI CARLO" on my birth certificate, but "DICARLO" in the social security database, that I was some kind of terrorist impostor. I contemplated changing my name to something that's not StudlyCaps, but a simpler solution was just to go to a different DMV office. And now I can legally operate a motor vehicle once more.
5. Cross-country road trip
In March, I packed up everything from my apartment into a Budget rental truck and, like so many before me in the story of America, headed west to seek my fortune.
My sister Kristin and I took turns driving. And picking music. She introduced me to some pretty righteous techno beats.
The Budget truck had horrible gas milage, cost eighty dollars to fill up, and when fully loaded had barely enough engine oomph to get itself up the Rocky Mountains. You can't see out the back of it, it's very difficult to park, and it's so top-heavy that I kept feeling like it would blow over in a strong prairie wind.
It's a long, long way from Chicago to California. It took us three days, going through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada.
Above: Utah. The Great Salt Lake, the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and the Bonneville Salt Flats, respectively.
Dude, Utah is weird.
The cross-country road trip is a quintessential American experience. It's quiet, lonely, and meditative, yet adventurous. You drive through so much nothing, yet there's always something to discover. And when you get to the West Coast this way, you feel really cool, like you've earned something.
It's also pretty cool that we were able to spend that long in a truck together without wanting to kill each other.
4. Finding an RPG group
When people complain that they can't find an RPG group in their area, Ben likes to point out how he started an RPG group out of the English-speaking expatriate community in Shanghai, and if he can do that, then nobody who lives in the USA has a right to complain.
Inspired by that, I started hitting NearbyGamers heavily, and after a couple of false starts, I finally managed to get together four people in the South Bay / Santa Cruz area who could all meet on the same day and were all willing to play the same game.
We did a Primetime Adventures game about a secret organization that covers up extraterrestrial activity on Earth. I started out thinking it would be more X-files, but it quickly turned out to be more Men In Black. (Except with no memory-erasing devices, because we all agreed that would be a lame cop-out.) But I loved Men in Black, so this was fine with me. I created a character with personal issues that were interesting to me, and played them through a multi-session campaign to a satisfying conclusion, for what I think was the first time ever. (Isn't it a bit sad that that seems like such an achievement? But it is.) Next we're going to be starting up a Spirit of the Century game, which I'll be GMing.
Above: Dave's epic win in his spotlight episode of PTA. (The conflict was whether Agent Phil would be able to protect Gertrude's speedboat from the submarine battle without halting the launch of the satellite-interceptor rocket from the undersea base. It was a huge budget spectacular of a season finale action scene. Red cards are success, black cards are failure. Odds of getting six reds are less than 1 in 64.)
The Mozilla thing took me by surprise. It all happened so fast! One day I was thinking only of adding features to the next version of Enso and how Humanized could be successful, then the next day I was flying to Mountain View to interview for Mozilla Labs.
During the interviews (ten of them over three days), many people asked me "Why do you want to work for Mozilla?". In truth, I hadn't even thought about it before. I started trying to BS an answer; but as I said it, I realized that it was the truth.
It took me a few months to adjust and find my bearings. At first I had a bad case of Silicon Valley Culture Shock, isolation, whiplash, and a lingering sense of incompleteness about the Enso project.
But it also seems weirdly inevitable that I would end up here. I don't just like the Web, I believe in the Web. It has already done more to democratize the flow of information than any other invention since the printing press, and it has yet to fulfill its true potential. I believe that it has to be kept free, open, and participatory, and not decay into a one-way corporate-controlled television analogue. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say the future of humanity could depend on it. Keeping the web free is Mozilla's reason for being.
There are other companies fully committed to open-source principles, and there are other companies that make humane user interfaces, but Mozilla is one of very very few that does both.
I have a lot of free Mozilla swag. Anywhere I go wearing it, random strangers ask me if I work on Firefox. Then they either tell me how much they love it, or they complain to me about specific bugs that I have no idea how to fix, or both. It's an interesting change to be an unofficial public spokesman for a well-known company. I should maybe start carrying business cards.
Above: the IE team sent us a cake to celebrate the release of Firefox 3. Before you ask, no, it was not poisoned. It was a very good reminder that Microsoft is made of human beings, most of them decent. We may be competitors to the IE team, but we're also colleagues.
Back in March, on that road trip, I found a random magazine in a hotel room in Des Moines, an old issue from before the primaries had started, introducing all the candidates.
It predicted that the general election would be Guliani vs. Clinton, or if the democrats were really smart, Guliani vs. Jon Edwards. It dismissed Obama as a "vanity candidate" who "will not win a single primary".
If Obama seems kind of inevitable in retrospect, it's important to remember that he was an extreme longshot when this thing started.
The Obama campaign for me was more about the movement than about the man himself.
The man himself has a lot of good qualities, or I wouldn't have supported him in the first place, of course. But the movement he inspired was about a lot more than just getting him elected. It was and is about reawakening the dormant spirit of public activism and citizen control of government -- especially among my generation, the most apathetic and cynical one in modern history. The damage that Bush was able to do in just eight years to the fabric of our democracy taught us the high price of being politically apathetic. But we felt frustrated, powerless, angry but with seemingly nowhere constructive to direct that anger.
Obama was like a seed crystal dropped into a super-saturated solution. A wave of spontaneous organization formed around him. This was the first time in my life I had ever done anything like this. This was the first time I'd even considered doing anything like this. I was not alone. He was propelled to victory by a highly motivated and disciplined volunteer army, of a size and scope that has not been seen in living memory. Many of them were first-timers, like me.
The situation that has been left to the new president is grim. My friends are already starting to refer to the 1930s as " the first Great Depression". Obama may well fail, or he may turn his back on his promises. But the first and biggest obstacle has already been overcome, because we've rediscovered the power of citizens organizing to change the direction of government.
Above: the headquarters of the "Silicon Valley For Obama" team. I did a lot of coding and database/systems admin for them, to run the integrated voters/donors/volunteers database. Which means I spent a lot of time writing debugging dirty PHP and cursing at Drupal.
Above: I went canvassing door-to-door in rural Indiana along with Stephen. I take it as a personal victory that Indiana went blue for the first time since 1964.
On Election Day, I took off my Obama volunteer hat, and became an officially neutral polling place volunteer.
This was a great educational experience. I got to find out how the system works, meet lots of people from my neighborhood who I would otherwise never interact with, etc. I'm going to do a full blog post about it sometime.
We had to keep working until the polls closed at 7PM California time, long after the election was effectively decided, and then work until 10 cleaning up, so we didn't see any of the news coverage. But one guy had an iPhone with internet access, and Sushu sent me text message updates, so I made a tiny map on a scrap of paper and colored in states as they were called.
Above: the precise moment when we knew that Obama had won.
Usually, if you screw up an opportunity, it's simply gone. But once in a while, life does offer a second chance -- four years later and a thousand miles away.
I really hate dating. I wished that I could skip the dating part and go straight into the steady relationship part, preferably with someone I already knew well and was good friends with. That's what I wanted, but I thought it was an unrealistic thing to want.
But it turns out there's no harm in asking. The worst that happens is that the answer is no. And sometimes the answer is yes.
She's asleep and snoring gently next to me right now, while I type this in the dark. She has to get up early in the morning to go teach classes. She's a high school history teacher, and I admire her so much for it. I look at her face in the blue glow of my laptop and right now, I think I would be happiest if I could spend the rest of my life with her.
That was 2008. I didn't know life could be this good.