Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Mike Hoffman (1985 - 2021)

My friend Mike Hoffman died a few days ago. He was 36 years old. 

I met Mike when I was working on PlayStation VR. His desk was right in front of my office. He was always there when I arrived, and always still there when I left. His long hours and good cheer made enough of an impression that I talked to his managers to acknowledge his efforts.

Mike genuinely loved his job, loved games, and loved his colleagues, particularly his pod of Nate, Josh, Annette, and Paul. They were a fantastic and funny group. Their banter often had me cracking up in my office, even contemplating writing a sitcom about them and their adventures. Perhaps something similar to Mike's beloved "Community".

I got to know Mike during my time at PlayStation. He was a kind man, and passionate about social justice issues. We frequently had lunch at the office cafeteria and talked about the world, life, and our respective creative pursuits. 

When he wasn't rhapsodizing about one of his favorite shows or movies, he would be entertaining us with terrible jokes, including his famous skateboard trick.

He was a good friend, and a rare combination of someone who is fun to be around, but who also wasn't afraid to engage on a deeper and more serious level. I wish I had more people like him in my life.

I met Mike for lunch in the city at the end of August, just about 6 weeks ago. He seemed in good spirits, and we had a wonderful catch-up, enjoying the blue San Francisco skies, a long and heartfelt conversation, and tasty food. We vowed to do it again soon. 

Mike, I am so upset it is not going to happen. I wish you could have reached out to any of the many, many people who love you, just for a moment.

Instead, we are now reaching out to each other, trying to help, listening, sharing memories. The sort of thing I think you would have done, had you been in our miserable, heartbroken shoes. 

As Anthony might say, "How dare you!"

I miss you.

***

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Brian Johnston (1969 - 2021)

My friend Brian Johnston died on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. He was 52 years old.

Brian Johnston, in a recent photo
Brian was an artist, making both music and visual works. He was also active in trying to reform and modernize his church, and started a site to help others struggling to reconcile their faith and their lives. While I am not religious at all, I deeply respect Brian's drive to make things better and provide support for others.

I met Brian at Langley High School when I was a junior. We bonded over music and synthesizers.

Brian had an Ensoniq Mirage, the first "affordable" digital sampler. I had a Casio CZ-101 and a drum machine. Together, we started a synth band project, called The Panther Moderns, the name stolen from William Gibson's "Neuromancer".

We got a spot in the high school talent show that year, and performed a cover of Faith No More's "We Care A Lot". It was my first time performing as a lead singer, and my first time performing in a rock band. It was a life-changing experience.

That one performance led to my being asked to join Darow Han's band. Brian would go on to join Jesus Wept. We remained friends through high school, hanging out, and going to each other's shows (when we weren't playing at the same ones!).

I remember Brian as a thoughtful and relatively quiet guy, with sad, expressive eyes and a kind of Nicholas-Cage-in-Valley-Girl charisma and emotional core. He was also very funny when he wanted to be.

The author (l) and Brian Johnston reprising "We Care A Lot" in 1987.

Over the last decade or two, Brian and I communicated once or twice a year, usually over email. A few years ago, we had discussed starting a new collaboration, an updating of our original synth duo project. Our responsibilities got in the way for both of us, and after some false starts, we reluctantly agreed it wasn't the right time. 

I wish I had more time with him, to hear more about how he was doing, to make more art together. I am grateful for the time I did have, and for his inspiration and life-changing impact. 

Thank you, Brian.

Brian is survived by his wife and six children. You can make a contribution here.

Friday, July 16, 2021

52

A lot can change in a year. 

The author, July 16, 2021

Today, July 16, 2021, we have vaccines, true miracles of modern science. We have a new administration.  Rather than uncertainty around lockdowns, we face uncertainty about what "re-opening" means, and what it looks like.

I can point to a few new decorations in the house, a place which I have never appreciated more than the last year. New bins to store my clothes, neatly folded. A shoe stand by the door, which makes me strangely happy. 

At a smaller scale, there's me. My hair is longer than it has been since 1988.  I have a job. I'm reasonably happy, particularly compared to how I was feeling last summer. I am in good, even great physical shape, even if the doctors want to adjust a few things. 

I have also been working on some longstanding personal issues, and making slow progress and gaining awareness. 

It has been an unquestionably productive year, filled with music and long conversations with friends. 

A year can also pass without much changing. 

Like many of you, the slow fade of the pandemic has meant a gradual change in the days, rather than some kind of abrupt snapping back to "normal". I got my vaccines as soon as I could, some months ago. Little has changed, other than me no longer worrying about dying from COVID.

The days are largely as they were last year: I get up, have some coffee and listen to music, get on a Zoom at 8 am, try to work, get some exercise (running 20 miles a week in the park! bodyweight exercises at home!), eat some dinner, watch a little video content, try to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Maybe there's some guitar or synthesizer in the mix. Repeat.

I try to avoid the shrieking of the news. It's just gonna bring us down, man. I read a few books, work on my personal issues. Maybe I write a bit, or even meditate. Talk to my friends. 

My daily routine became a work of art, with tasks polished and optimized, at times seeming like there are more of them than ever. I cannot recall going to sleep ever being so complicated (or so important).

The environment is still in big trouble. Arguably, so is American democracy. But the sky is blue (when it's not slate gray) and beautiful here in San Francisco.

52. 

I am consciously trying to move forward. There is no "going back" for any of us, no going back to before Covid or Trump or middle age or whatever. There is only "what are you going to do now, today?" What does the future hold?

It is starting to look like there will be no clear end to the pandemic. Between variants and the incomprehensible unwillingness of a significant minority to refuse vaccination, I suspect COVID will just keep going, like an underground coal mine burning or a a tire fire, for years to come. 

It is too soon to say how or if the changes to work, business, and life will persist, but it seems clear it will never be exactly like it was in the 2010s. That is not necessarily a bad thing. 

I look at the pandemic and think about what it might suggest for the future. If we cannot get people to take the simplest measures -- wearing a mask, getting a miraculous, free vaccine (we'll pay YOU to get it) -- to save themselves and their loved ones from something that could kill them and their loved ones in a matter of weeks, how will we get them to make more difficult sacrifices to mitigate or deal with climate change? I guess we will find out. 

The world turns. We move forward.

People think I really love the 80s. I guess I do to some degree. I have some fond memories of people, places, and music. But I feel the same way about the 90s and the 00s and the 10s. And even what I remember of the 70s. 

But I am really trying to love today, right now, this moment, and worry less about tomorrows to come.

I think about what I want to do, who I want to be. Who can I help? What can I make? How can I make a positive difference?

These are the things I am thinking about today.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Juul, The Box, and Your Choice

A few years ago, I got a call from a recruiter. I always take calls from recruiters. You should, too. You never know what they're going to be offering, and it is a chance to learn something and make a good impression.

But right away, I was suspicious. The cheery caller was asking me if I was "EXCITED TO WORK ON THE FASTEST-GROWING PERSONAL ELECTRONIC DEVICE IN HISTORY!!"

The combination of vagueness and hype kicked my cynicism and skepticism into high gear. Eventually the recruiter indicated the company was, in fact, Juul, and the "device" was their electronic cigarette/vape system. 

They were looking for a fairly senior product person. Unsurprisingly, they were having difficulty finding someone. For what I thought were obvious reasons.

This was a few years ago. Juul is back in the news today because they've just been hit with a $40 million fine. For a company that had been valued at $38 billion, this is nothing. It's a parking ticket. 

Read this great article from The Verge and you will understand what kind of company Juul was and is. The kind of company that brazenly ignores not just existing law (like, say, AirBnB, Uber, or the scooter goons), but the kind of company that ignores explicit directives from regulatory agencies, using the calculus of "we probably won't get caught, and we might get big enough that it won't matter if we do, and if we don't, we're probably out of business. So fuck it."

The kind of company that, it is alleged, knew its pods might be tainted, and sold them anyway.  

And then Juul decided to take money from the cigarette industry! Any notions of "we're the good guys" were cast to the wind as they aligned themselves with an industry that pioneered the kind of disinformation which will likely doom humanity to a climate apocalypse, and absolutely knew their business model included use by kids.

For their part, Big Cigarette (represented here by Altria), did about what you'd expect. In typical old, big, dumb, slow fashion, they underestimated the market, failed to compete effectively, and then just took the lazy approach of "let's just buy 'em!". And they somehow managed to screw that up, buying Juul's problems, but not keeping the people, signing a desperate, thirsty deal.

It has not gone well.

That story -- of an old, big, dumb, slow company whiffing an acquisition -- is hardly new. Nor is the story of a company selling out.

I'd rather focus on Juul itself, and the kind of people who went to work there. Everybody knew what their business model was: getting people, including kids, addicted to their proprietary nicotine delivery system.

Who thinks "yeah, I'm OK with that, as long as I get paid"? It turns out a lot of people were. They did well for themselves, and then split, cash in hand.

Those people can tell themselves they aren't actively contributing to the problem anymore. But they helped create a barely-regulated industry that has spawned a legion of bad actor companies. Coupled with the current "ignore the law" mindset in corporate American and the public at large, 

As for me, I told the recruiter there was no way I was going to go work for a company like Juul, whose business model was fostering addiction.

The recruiter told me the "real mission of the company was to help people quit!" I managed not to laugh, but I asked the recruiter if Juul's board of directors was really steering the company with the intention of seeing market size decrease quarter over quarter, year over year. If that was their guidance and their KPIs. If I would be rewarded for reducing usage.

I didn't have to listen for their answer. I already knew the truth: Of course not. All the investors and all the board members (and perhaps the employees) were banking on plenty of people including kids getting hooked, and monetizing the tar out of it. At every step where they could have done the right thing, they went for the money instead.

One wonders how they would feel if it were their spouses or children ripping hits of this garbage, unable to stop.

Juul is just one company, and between Altria's cluelessness and the exodus of talent, they will likely survive as an empty brand (perhaps for traditional cigarettes! Or flavored booze!), if at all. 

But their legacy and impact linger, like a ghastly cloud.

One day, it may be your phone or doorbell ringing. Maybe it will be a social media company. Or some kind of mobile gaming gambling venture. Or a new wirehead start-up. They'll offer you lots of money. An equity stake. A juicy title. Everything you want. You just have to overlook a few things, like how you feel, or your sense of right and wrong, or the people you will be hurting.

How will you respond?

Yeah, we all have to make a living. Is it OK to do it at the expense of everyone else?

I am reminded of the short story "Button, Button", its adaptation into a Twilight Zone episode and later, the great movie "The Box". Maybe you can make a million by painlessly, effortlessly killing someone you don't know, but inevitably, the shadowy man leaves, looking to find someone who doesn't know you. 

Image by Casey Chin, for WIRED magazine


Sunday, February 14, 2021

+3

3 years later, I am still here, but I find myself in a very different world.

Enough has been written about 2020 that a full review is unnecessary here. However, between things including government problems, social unrest, the pandemic, climate change, and human behavior, the world isn't ever going back to how it was last year, or even in 2017. 

I have my own additions to that list of upheavals and shifts: a new job in a new industry, physical changes, and ongoing adjustments (and hopefully improvements) in my mental outlook. Everything is different now, like it or not. Of all the possible futures, this is the one I got.

It is not what I imagined. A year-long echoing reverberant pause. I am glad for it, if not the circumstances around it.


Yesterday, I was having a socially-distanced, masked walk with a friend through the park. I was talking about how my outlook on life has altered over the last few years. About how important it is to find a way to make your life bearable, pleasant, and fun right now, and not just plan for some future finish line.

The last few years and 2020 in particular have underscored the importance of planning for catastrophe, of being responsible and building a robust life prepared for bad things to happen. But they have equally highlighted the necessity of building a life you can enjoy every moment and every day as you journey through it.

Because there may not be a tomorrow, at least not one that you recognize. Today could be the best day of the rest of your life. 

I spent a lot of time thinking about that over the last 3 years, as changes big and small happened in my life. I say "happened" because much as I might aspire to some kind of control, most of the big ones weren't up to me. I tried to make the most of it all, even or especially the difficult changes.

Life is good, but it is also tough. For me, for you, for everyone. We are living through a global catastrophe on a scale not seen in a hundred years. Sometimes, reminding myself of that helps.

The enforced break has given me time to focus, to calm down, to take stock. I have a lot going for me. The work I've put in during the pandemic means I'm in great shape for a person of my age, if not in general. I have a job I like, and feels like I am making the world better (or at least less bad). 

But all this time has also underscored the routine in life, in every sense. As a function of age and the pandemic, I find myself distracted, unable to concentrate. Or wondering "Is this it? What is the point?" Even if today is a really good day, living it repeatedly produces diminishing returns. I doubt I am alone in feeling this way.

But even with all of that, I am more at peace than I have ever been (at least in some moments). And I am still here. For that, I am grateful.