Some dreams I had lately
From most recent to oldest:
1. I was having open-heart surgery, fully conscious with my chest open. It wasn't painful or scary, just kind of scientifically interesting. The doctor handed me the loose end of one of my own arteries - a big one, maybe my aorta - and told me to hold onto it. He told me to take the plug out of it and then pinch it shut really tight. Cuz if I didn't pinch it hard enough, all my blood would come out and I would die. So I pinched with all my might while a guy who looked just like Joe Biden sewed the loose end together with some other artery piece.
Later I read a magazine called "Truckers: The magazine for people with Trucker's Disease".
2. I was doing battle with a cockroach infestation in my apartment. They had a nest under my kitchen cabinet. These cockroaches were smart and had a military-style organization, and they would do organized raids to cause mischief, like messing with my internet by chewing on the cables and stuff. I had to rip out bigger and bigger chunks of the cabinets, and then the kitchen wall behind them, in order to reach the center of the cockroach nest, all while they put on a fighting retreat, marching in little phalanxes. Finally I got to the End Boss: the cockroach queen, who through dark arts had combined spider DNA with her own, and grown to the size of a bathtub. She was a monstrosity of articulated limbs and poison stingers. I faced her in single combat. After a perilous struggle I killed her by jumping onto her back and ripping her head off with my bare hands. As she was dying, her severed head spoke to me. She said "You have defeated me, but another will rise to take my place... the queen... of the cockroach nest... UNDER THE FRIDGE!" And I looked, and saw there was an equally big nest under the fridge. And another under the stove. The battle was only beginning.
3. I was filming a reality show, starring Sushu and a time traveler from the late Roman Republic / early Roman Empire period. The goal of the reality show was for them to make $10 billion in three months by manipulating global currency markets. I was sure the Roman dude was going to be really good at it due to his Imperial colonialist greed and massive sense of entitlement. But he insisted on doing all his math in Roman numerals, which was really slowing down our financial transactions. And I was like, dude, we have got to teach this guy Arabic numerals and the concept of "zero" before the next episode.
4. Some bad guys tried to assassinate me by putting a venomous fish inside a venomous frog, inside a venomous snake, inside a venomous salamander. Like a Turducken of poison. But all the layers were still alive, so the combined poison was 4x as poisonous. They snuck it into my room, but I got wise to their plans, and when the salamander, looking like a little blue dragon, came over near my bed, I smashed its head with a can of soup. I had to keep smashing and smashing because it had a thick skull, but finally it died. I was worried that I might be poisoned anyway, because I had brushed it with one finger in the process of killing it.
5. I was a magical fairy princess, and I had a pretty pink dress and a tiara and a magic wand. And a cheaply-printed, thick trade paperback edition book of magic spells. Aslan (like, Aslan the lion from Narnia) would periodically appear to me and send me on Very Important Missions. Getting to the designated location for my missions generally involved taking the New York City subway system. I brought two pairs of shoes with me on the subway. One was my pretty fairy princess shoes, and the other was my ass-kicking shoes. On the particular mission I was dreaming about, the pretty shoes didn't fit, so it was time for the ass-kicking shoes.
6. I wrote a computer program that could create quantum black holes. It was a command line program, naturally, and I just had to give it the the x/y/z coordinates and a mass, and the black hole would pop into existence, silently hovering in the air: a sphere of utter blackness about the size of a cantaloupe, surrounded by a halo of mirrory, shimmery beauty where the light was skirting the edges of the event horizon and undergoing gravitational lensing effects. I could move the black hole around by carefully baiting it with massive objects. It would slowly grow in size as it swallowed up air. When it got too scary, all I had to do was go back to my computer and it Cmd-Z to Undo my last command, and the black hole would disappear. I tried to get my mom to come look at what I had made, because it was cool, but she wasn't interested. Then when I came back to my workbench, I found I had left one of the black holes going too long; it had gotten too big, and started to seriously suck up random objects off the workbench... and then, before I could undo it, it sucked up my laptop. Uh-oh. No way to cancel it now. Sorry, everybody, I think I just doomed us all.
And now because that last post was entirely too serious...
...here's a doodle I did of a Sister of Battle, using my half-finished "Pencilbox" drawing program.
She's only part colored in because I hadn't added the rest of the colors I needed to my program yet, and I couldn't add them without restarting and thus losing my work.
I also uncovered a bug (now fixed) with the eraser tool. And, looking now at how wiggly those lines are, I think I need some kind of auto-smoothing algorithm on the pencil tool.
Pencilbox is getting pretty close to ready; I shall continue to doodle around with it and post the results, because that's simply the best way to discover what features I still need to add.
What's the best thing I could do with my life?
I turned 30 this year, which brings with it certain thoughts about milestones, mortality, straddling the past and the future, that sort of thing.
I've been unbelievably fortunate in my life to date. By any objective measure, I'm doing great. I've got a promising career, a great relationship with my wonderful wife, I've got loving family, all the money I need, leisure time, etc. On Maslow's pyramid I've stopped having to worry about anything except the very top layer.
Naturally, this makes me think two things. One is, "There's nowhere to go from here but down" which is pretty depressing. My health is certainly never going to be as good again as it is now. I'm growing more and more white hairs, did you know that?
The other, possibly more useful, thought is "With all my own needs met, how can I help others?" Followed by, "If I can think of a way that I could plausibly make the world a better place, do I not have a moral obligation to act on it - as soon as possible, and with all the force I can muster?" Awareness of the finiteness of my remaining years and the infiniteness of things I could possibly be doing, I must then ask myself: "What's the single best thing I could dedicate the rest of my life to doing?"
Writing internet software probably isn't it.
Like, writing software is totally a fun job. I'm really lucky to have some skills in a field where I can do fun things and get paid (let's face it) ridiculously well for it. And I want open source software to succeed, and I want the Web to stay as free and open as possible, and I want web browsers and software in general to have better user interfaces. So it's not like what I'm doing now is something totally frivolous. I agree with everything in the Mozilla manifesto and I like working for a place that has a manifesto. I just think that, all things considered, web standards probably ain't the overriding moral issue of our time.
What is it, then? I don't know, exactly, but I look to the future and see scary, scary shit on the horizon. If technologically advanced human civilization is going to last the next hundred years -- and I hope it does, because I kinda like technologically advanced human civilization -- then there's some stuff we need to figure out fast.
How we're going to feed the 10-12 billion humans who will be living on this planet by the time population growth levels off, for starters. And how those people can raise their standard of living without rendering the atmosphere unbreatheable and the seas toxic, maybe that too. And whether they're going to live in systems with freedom of press, speech, and religion. What the hell we're gonna do with all these nukes left over from the cold war, and the new nukes that Iran and Pakistan and North Korea made / are making, and how to stop having crazy dictators and terrorists who want to use them. How people of different religions can live together and stop killing each other so much, maybe. How we're gonna prevent, or adapt to, melted ice caps, if global warming is real. How we're gonna make electricity and go places when the fossil fuels are used up. How to get safe drinking water for the third world. How we stop fisheries and other ecosystems we depend on from collapsing entirely. You know, that sort of thing.
Whether Firefox loses market share to Chrome just doesn't seem that important, comparatively speaking.
I don't believe in any religion. So I think this life is probably all we get. And there's probably no guiding hand pushing the world towards a happy ending. No cosmic justice, no reward for good behavior, no prize for trying hard. No Rapture or Singularity to save us from ourselves. Just human beings, our decisions, and the effects our actions have on each other. Some religious people describe my worldview as an evasion of moral responsibility, like I decided to be an atheist so I could have a hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and promiscuous sex, or something. I see it quite the opposite way. If this life is all we get, all the more reason to make the best of it. If all we have is each other, all the more reason to treat each other well. If there's no absolute standard of right and wrong, all the more reason to think through the consequences of our actions. If there's no cosmic justice, all the more reason for people who want justice to work towards building it on Earth.
The inescapable conclusion of my philosophy is that I have a moral duty to figure out my optimum strategy for reducing human suffering and/or increasing the probability of long-term human survival... and then to act on it decisively. Even if I fail, I'd rather look back on my life and say "At least I tried".
What all this means in practical terms is that yes, I'm thinking about a career switch. Not necessarily this year, or next year (there's a lot I can still do at Mozilla to position myself for the leap) but soon.
Soon, before I get too comfortable where I am. And I am getting too comfortable, I think. Writing code is less and less of a challenge as the years go by. As the year 2000 recedes into nostalgia, the computer/software/internet industry feels less and less like a frontier, a place where visionaries and madmen come to hew form out of chaos. It feels more like a place where professional certified engineers come to ship product, so that rich kids can go down to Fry's and buy a pocket gadget that's slightly better than last year's pocket gadget. Being a non-profit, Mozilla stands a little bit apart from all that. But we're still really focused on, like, how do they say this, "having a presence in the mobile space".
(I can't believe I used to care what operating system people used. God. Silicon Valley is so disillusioning. It's a snake pit of sell-outs and phonies, all chasing each other's tails. I gotta get out before I turn into one of them.)
I need to switch careers before me and Sushu have children, that's the really important thing. Once I have financial dependents counting on me, it will get a lot harder to switch and a lot more tempting to just, you know, do what I'm told so I can keep climbing the corporate ladder and get raises to put towards the kid's college fund.
The only real question is, what to switch to? Science, business, politics, social work - how to have the best chance of making a difference? Maybe I should become an artist of some kind. Start an artistic movement with a manifesto and followers and stuff. Fuck up people's complacency. Try to shift the culture a few degrees in a less stupid direction. They're doing promising research in nuclear fusion energy on the other side of the hill in Livermore. Fusion could save us, if we ever get it working. I wonder if they need programmers. I wonder if they're even going to stay funded with all the budget deficit. Maybe I should move to another country. Maybe to the developing world, where the action is, where a small group of ethical technologists could make themselves useful allies to the downtrodden. Is there an organization I could join doing good work like this?
I'm not ruling anything out at this point. I'm open to totally crazy ideas. Shoot me a proposal.
Video game anti-nostalgia
So we all rightly know and honor the great video game classics. The Zeldas, the Metroids, the Final Fantasies, Chrono Triggers, etc. etc. Many websites have expounded at great length about how awesome they were and what made them so fun.
There were also a lot of fun games that remain lesser-known - hidden gems like Crystalis, Zillion, Alex Kidd, etc. They haven't been analyzed to death as much, and it's fun to take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about those with anyone who remembers them.
But an honest retrospective of one's video-game-playing youth, sans rose-colored glasses, I think reveals that we didn't spend most of our game time playing those classic games.
We spent a lot of it playing crappy games. Games we would rather forget about. Games with unresponsive controls, nonsensical obstacles, unfair instant death, and long tedious grinds through copy-and-paste level layouts.
After all, it's easy to recognize the classics in retrospect. At the time - especially since it was a time without Internet reviews to warn us what to avoid - you had to trust Nintendo Power (with its vested interest in making everything sound good) or else pick up games off the shelf and, horror, revulsion, judge them by the blurb on the back of the box. Which always lies. Holding the box of say, Bubble Bobble in one hand and, say, Milon's Secret Castle in the other hand, there was no way to know a priori that one of them was a box full of precious childhood memories yet to be formed, while the other was a box full of anguish and pointless frustration. Now which one is which?
I get a queasy feeling thinking about all the hours I spent playing games that were, quite frankly, not fun. I wish I hadn't. There were a lot of better ways I could have spent that time, and now I'm never getting it back. Let me list off a few:
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- not the multiplayer co-op beat-em-up from the arcade; the first NES game. Yeah. Where Donatello could kill most things with impunity by poking them from the other side of a wall, while Michelangelo and Raphael were only good for taking hits to save Donatello's life points. And that horrible underwater level where you had to swim through the electric seaweed to defuse mines? And if you ever beat that you'd find yourself on a huge city map with no idea where you were supposed to go?
- 7th Saga -- sure an RPG where you can pick one of seven characters, each with their own storyline, sounds really cool. And three of the choices are a demon, an alien, and a robot? Sign me up! Unfortunately, the differences between the storylines are trivial, and it's not like you would want to replay it to see them, anyway, since the gameplay is little more than "grind levels until you can survive the dungeon, beat dungeon boss, go to next town, repeat".
- Sonic Spinball -- an inferior and gimmicky spin-off of the Sonic series, with only four levels, slow animation, and a frustrating lack of control. You spend most of your time in the air, hoping to land somewhere useful. I never finished it; the last level essentially required too much luck to be beatable.
- 3D World Runner -- the "3d" didn't work and gave me a headache, and the game is just a dude running endlessly forward across a featureless plain while you swerve to avoid fire pillars and disembodied heads, long-jump over bottomless pits with zero margin of error, and shoot at dragon bosses that take way too long to die. The music is REALLY obnoxious, and you get power-ups by smacking face-first into green columns.
- Phantasy Star 3 -- the worst of the series, with boring battles, little to no freedom of exploration, personality-less characters, and a plot that is little more than a chain of filler quests. And yet I probably spent more time playing it than any of the others, trying to get all the different endings. (PROTIP: all the endings were equally lame.)
- Zombies Ate my Neighbors -- Had a cute theme, a lot of levels, and co-op mode, but the basic gameplay model was wandering around a top-down-view map of the neighborhood, shooting at things with a variety of gimmicky, ineffective weapon. And there's just not much you can do to make that fun. Plus the hit detection sucked.
Why did keep playing these, I wonder? They were obviously not so unplayable that I would throw them across the room and never pick them up again. They all had some kind of cool concept, at least, something interesting enough to make me start playing them in the first place. And my family didn't have a lot of money, so whatever games I owned, I had to wring the most possible entertainment out of. After I've beaten and finished all the games that are actually good, what's left to do but to put in a still-unfinished mediocre cartridge and make yet another attempt at finishing it off? It still beats doing homework or going outside to play, even if just barely. In fact, the more frustratingly impossible a game was, the longer it remained unfinished, and therefore the more I would end up playing it.
Anyway, I want to hear about your anti-nostalgia games. What crappy-in-retrospect games do you wish you had spent less time playing?
Still the ones we've been waiting for.
One of the things Obama said a lot during his campaign that resonated with me was "We are the ones we've been waiting for."
I'm sure some people interpreted this slogan as yet more evidence of a messiah complex, but to me it means quite the opposite: it's a message of independence and individual self-reliance; Obama is not the one you've been waiting for, YOU are. It's "Don't wait for someone else (i.e. the government) to make things better better; your life is in your own hands and always has been."
What it means to me is: Be engaged as far as following issues, voting, supporting campaigns, getting involved, but never count on politics to fix things, or to go your way (or even to make sense). Making life better is up to citizens, up to the individual people involved, not the government.
It was inspiring back in 2008, and no matter what you think of how the last two years have gone, it's even more important to remember now. Never count on politics to get a good outcome; it will disappoint you most of the time. At least half of elections, probably more like nine-tenths, will produce results you're unhappy with.
Not that elections don't matter; they matter a good deal, and bad policies lead to real harm to real people. But the vast majority of life lies outside the reach of politics, thank goodness. There are plenty of ways you can work to make the world a better place. There are plenty of ways you can work to make your own life better. And the vast majority of them are not constrained by the need for an electoral majority. They're not opportunities that are taken away from you just because your guy (or your proposition) lost out in the election. Your life is still in your own hands.
We are still the ones we've been waiting for.
Aleksa: "Let's dress up as our Wizard 101 characters for Halloween!"
Me: "Um... OK!"
That's right, my ten-year-old sister got me to do something I would normally consider too hardcore-gamer-nerdy even for me: LARPing as our MMORPG characters!
We're wizards! We're gonna save the Spiral from Malistaire!
Thanks to Sushu for doing all the sewing on my elaborate robes.
She's pretty amazing - she managed to do all that AND then make her own costume, in just two nights:
It's a variant costume for Toph from Avatar - I think she only wore it one episode. But it's based on real Tang dynasty clothing so she thought it was pretty cool.
She painted the floral pattern on there, too.
Aleksa's friend Evan, when he heard what we were doing, decided to dress up as Lord Nightshade - the "end boss" of the first world.
You can't see it here, but we spraypainted the grass to make a big magic duel circle in the backyard, and then Mom videotaped me and Aleksa battling Lord Nightshade. I'll post the video once it's edited.
I'm a necromancer! Watch me animate skeletons!
This was my favorite house that we saw while trick-or-treating: this family really went all-out.
You can't see it but they've got smoke machines and weird-colored lights, too, and all sorts of fake body-parts-in-jars up on the porch.
Close-up of two of the skeletons.
My favorite costume that we saw while trick-or-treating was this kid, who dressed up as a YouTube video.
Actually, it's even crazier than that: He's dressed as a YouTube video of himself winning a costume contest while dressed as a YouTube video. It's recursive!