A Longishly Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

A Longishly Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Almost three months in, 2015 is at last starting to feel like a new year. I think that’s because 2014, for me, still feels as though it begin last April, a month that was the culmination of a journey that I began in 2013.

2013 was an intense period of transition, new projects and new graphics research. By the time summer arrived, I was working extra long days, obsessed with new ideas for games, procedural worlds and some deliciously math-heavy work for a client. Summer brought along some punishing trail runs, too — extra hot, very dry, and I was loving every minute of it.

Near the end of that summer, I developed a prostate infection — my first and only case of prostatitis. I learned that it was not uncommon, and after a visit to the Urologist and a couple of rounds of antibiotics, it was gone. However, my PSA, which was a bit high during the infection (not uncommon either), did not return to normal. This led to a Digital Rectal Exam, which was normal, a cystoscopy (normal) and a prostate biopsy in January. The biopsy, to my utter surprise, was not normal, revealing prostate cancer.

You never really think you’ll hear the words you have cancer and, predictably, the moments that follow are impossibly immobile. Sitting in the doctor’s office, holding my wife Kahty’s [sic] hand, I was in a singular state of frozen shock (my Urologist at one point actually said, “you’re obviously in shock right now”). But there was good with the bad: it was early stage (though not early enough for active surveillance), no palpable tumor, not terribly aggressive morphology and an optimistic prognosis due to my age and health.

I wasn’t unfamiliar with prostate cancer. My dad had been treated successfully for it just a few years ago, opting for radiation, while a few years earlier my father-in-law, with a family history of long-life, exceptional health for his age, and as a retired surgeon who was very comfortable with surgery, had a successful prostatectomy. Both of them are much older than me — it was awful, but not a complete shock, when they were diagnosed. Prostate cancer is not unusual in older men, and many men will eventually die with it but not from it.

It’s more unusual for a man in his 40’s — in this case, me — but certainly not unheard of. There is no definitive research on the cause. As a life-long runner I was in good shape and had never had a problem “down there” (other than the prostatitis, which was more annoying than alarming). I knew that I’d need to add a PSA test to my regular checkups soon, and that I was in a higher risk category because of my father’s diagnosis (though interestingly, according to my 23andme workup, genetically I was lower-risk), but I hadn’t thought too much about it. (Looking back on it now, I may have benefited from having my PSA checked earlier, since it might have led to even earlier detection).

Three months later, after interviews with surgeons and tons of research (this book is required, as is this forum, and this, and this), Kahty and I found ourselves on a two-week “holiday” in Duarte, California at City of Hope. After checking into the hotel where I would subsequently recover for ten days after surgery, two days later we arrived at my real destination: three hours of anesthetic oblivion, my body stretched out and rotated, feet-up, on an eight-foot table, six robotic arms inside my abdomen.

My doctor, Dr. Timothy Wilson — one of the top RALP surgeons on the west coast — did an incredible job removing my prostate. My physical recovery has been better than textbook. Common side effects (decreased bladder control and ED) have essentially been non-issues. Nearby lymph nodes removed during the procedure showed no signs of metastasis, nor did the surrounding tissues; the cancer was confined to the prostate. Since the surgery, I have seen my PSA rise slightly and I will receive adjuvant radiation to cement the cure, in fact I’ll be participating in a treatment study at City of Hope, led by Dr. Sagus Sampath, a passionate Radiation Oncologist who is devising better and faster ways to treat prostate cancer with radiation. My statistical probability of a cancer-free future is good, and I remain in good health.

Emotionally the story is not quite textbook — or maybe it is — to say it’s been a roller coaster doesn’t really capture it. On the heels of the Kineplay service dying a quick death in 2013 and a short bout of depression unlike anything I’d ever experienced, my cancer diagnosis was an insult-to-injury, kick-me-while-I’m-down sort of affair. These things never have good timing.

When we started Kineplay I thought that the path before us was solid. I’d spent a lot of time in startups and intimately understood the milieu. I knew we were in for a ride but I was confident it was balanced and well-designed: Every low would have a high and the highs would be thrilling. But the plain and simple truth is that, like so many others before me, I failed to make it happen. I have plenty of buts:

But we were remarkable. We had the experience, drive, passion and technical chops. We had a solid network with great connections. We received nice early press and credible encouragement from colleagues and friends. We launched our first product in six months when it would have taken just about any other team I know twice as long with double the team. Our demos were killer.

But we were motivated. Our core relied on content in addition to service and we moved into content too quickly. We trusted potential partners too easily — the industry is seriously cutthroat and we knew that all too well, but we couldn’t get the wishful out of our thinking. We were mesmerized by our own bullshit.

But the industry changed. We had a front-row seat to the changes that the video game industry was going through, but clung to our comfort zone (traditional game design) as a core piece of a non-traditional product (mobile game discovery) in an overwhelmingly non-traditional, short-dev-cycle, massively hit-driven market.

But we were early. It’s a line I’ve heard frequently from other failed startups. In our case it really was true: We had a product and service that nobody knew they wanted. They still don’t.

But we were under-capitalized. The product was too big for us to bootstrap on our own but we thought we would get lucky. We became classic victims of our own over-optimism and by the time we understood that, the industry had pivoted and we were out of funding.

When we knew that Kineplay wasn’t going to live up to the dream, I had a moment not unlike that dreaded day in the Urologist’s office — time stands still when you’re deep into the realization that you have failed spectacularly.

So much has been written about failure, especially with startups and often by others who have failed big but have had subsequent successes. Everybody loves a happy ending, especially when it happens to them. And it’s all too human to be drawn to the drama of failure — as long as it doesn’t happen to us.

Nothing can prepare you for failing to make a powerful dream come true. Such a failure is something you don’t ever forget, not really — there is always a sense of your own lost potential, real or imagined. And cancer, or any condition that has the potential to extinguish your own natural expectation of health and strength, is much more frightening because it waves the biggest failure of all — mortality — in front of you with abandon.

2014 might have found me somewhere near the summit of three of the most intense and happy years of my life — instead it was more like a horrifyingly real MacGuffin, an anti-climatic last scene where the main character’s fate takes a nose-dive instead of arcing toward resolution. It was a year of long, dark tea-times replete with sleepless, soul-crushing nights punctuated by solitary days that swung from meditative to manic on a whim. It was a year of coping with mortality in the most non-academic of ways.

But like Dirk Gently, I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be. Kahty was there for me every step of the way — I don’t know where I’d be today without her — as were our families and friends. And for the first time in my life, I grokked what it must be like for others who have real depression as I experienced, at times, little control over my own thoughts and feelings.

Even more, I possess an empathy now that is difficult to articulate. It’s made profound when I see others suffering, from the all-too-frequent images these days of economically-deprived and oppressed cultures, to the homeless fellow on the street, to the elderly woman using a cart to get around the store, to the countless other patients at City of Hope who have been through debilitating physical trauma in their very personal battles with cancer. But it’s just as perceptible when I listen — really listen — to my friends and family. Life is hard on some level for everyone — no one is exempt from suffering.

The road leading up to today has been a gradual transformation into a new narrative where I’m reconnecting with myself and those I love, re-evaluating the importance of good work and purposeful and mindful living. I’m looking in directions I had not previously noticed. I’m still a self-absorbed person — sometimes to the point of arrogance — and my obsession with computer graphics and games has not changed. I still have a fire in my gut to make things that are beautiful, functional and valuable to others. I’m still focused on achieving something meaningful. I still believe deeply in the importance of play and fun.

But I’m seeing more and more clearly the inestimable value of how suffering threads itself into the fabric of being human, and I have a strong sense that I’ve been taught something big, that I’ve leveled up. I’m humbly starting to take stock of what I’ve learned.

A few final words: if you’re over 40, or if you’re in a high risk category, insist on a PSA test with your annual checkup. If caught early, prostate cancer is very, very treatable. If you’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer, listen up:

Be the CEO of your condition. It’s up to you to lead the charge and assemble the best team you can find to treat you. Don’t stop educating yourself — read everything you can and connect with others, online and especially in-person, who are going through the same thing.

Realize the value of trusting your team — there is not enough time for you to know what they know. This is especially hard to do if you’re an engineer or someone who is a deep problem-solver by nature, but it’s critical that you trust and accept your team that you assembled.

No matter how bad you think things are, it can be worse, and it is worse, right now, for far more people than you will ever know. Try not to obsess over what you may lose; consider the possibility that you will gain something valuable.

Contemplate the idea that you will end up where you need to be. Don’t think of this as woo-woo, think of it as accepting the outcome of the moment you set your team in motion.

Try to have a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the laughter when, just before surgery, I asked for a different IV — something in a “gluten-free organic”. We’re all human, and the work that your team does is serious, complex stuff. Your attitude makes all the difference and gives them the confidence they need to do their best.

Great Commodities

Great Commodities

I’ve been reading Paul Graham’s essays for many years and almost always find something insightful. His latest post, Let the Other 95% of Great Programmers In, is no exception.

However more great programmers will not help Silicon Valley.

Most US companies are based on a strongly-typed hierarchy whose evolutionary path is entropic and bureaucratic. This means shallow leadership, ineffective hiring practices and the inability to identify and reward greatness. A programmer cannot be a commodity if his or her value is dependent on this cluster-fuckery and as a non-commodity he is indistinguishable.

I wish that Graham didn’t think of programmers as commodities to begin with. Maybe he doesn’t, but I don’t know how he could have written the essay otherwise.

 

Ted Cruz Calls Net Neutrality ‘Obamacare For The Internet’

Ted Cruz Calls Net Neutrality ‘Obamacare For The Internet’

I don’t know why I’m surprised that Ted Cruz thinks Net Neutrality is a bad idea. President Obama’s statement today is very reasonable IMO. In case you haven’t read it, here are his main bullet points:

No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.

No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.

Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.

No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

Look, the Republicans are 100% justified when they remind us that government can get out of control and that we should not allow that to happen. But some things need regulation and the big ISPs will pwn their users if given half a chance. I can’t see how Cruz cannot possibly be on someone’s payroll after tweeting something so ridiculous. And Limbaugh and Hannity are probably already lining up to sell advertising on this issue. Sigh.

Asshole != Success

Asshole != Success

The InterWebs are still full of articles that hold up Steve Jobs as the model of how to lead and succeed. There are now a number of books on Amazon that are all about Jobs as a leader/manager.

News Flash: Jobs was a asshole and succeeded despite his assholerly, not because of it.

I’ve worked with a lot of jerks — most have nowhere near the talent and insight that Jobs had. But like Jobs, they’re usually intolerable victims.

Usually they don’t have much success, but sometimes they do have one or two successes with a product or business despite their horrible personalities. After that they’re intolerably intolerable — they can do and say anything they want to their cadre of enablers. Alas there is never any shortage of enablers.

I’m much more careful these days about interacting with bullies and assholes — I hope you are too.

Dear Spaghetti Coder

Dear Spaghetti Coder

Dear Spaghetti Coder,

I grasp that you can’t be bothered with declaring your allegiance, once and for all, to a particular brace style. I know you like to “mix it up”.

I understand your need to never delete anything and instead leave in long blocks of old, unusable, commented-out code. You never know when you might need it.

I realize that there is never time to make real comments in your code, particularly anywhere near your numerous long, difficult switch cases. It’s not your fault you had to hard-code all those strings.

I know you must be clever since you use so many inexplicable, often funny, variable names. You’re such a show off.

I see that you keep re-writing the same unoptimized, two-to-four-banger nested loop functions over and over again instead of wrapping them all into a single, elegant function. You like to flex your muscles.

I’m sorry that you’ve been hurt bad by the Tab key. You’re appropriately working out this issue in your code instead of paying for expensive therapy.

And I grok your single-minded desire to arrange your code in such an arbitrary fashion that we get to Treasure-Hunt our way through your gamified tome. It must give you endless hours of DungeonMaster-like pleasure.

Sincerely,
He Who Must Fix All Your Crap And Make It Actually Work

P.S. I think you should consider a move into management. No, really.

Dig Here Said the Angel

Dig Here Said the Angel

I’ve been listening to the new collection of songs from Terry Taylor and crew, otherwise known as Daniel Amos (also known to fans as simply DA). Dig Here Said the Angel is as good as anything the band has done in their 40-year history of intelligent, Beatlesque alternative rock music.

I was first exposed to DA as a teenager by a youth leader at one of the local churches in my hometown of Princeton, Kentucky. He loaned me his cassette of ¡Alarma!, DA’s third album actually, and I was hooked by the catchy melodies and musicianship.

Taylor’s lyrics are what really got to me, though. I was at the beginning of a long quest to understand my spiritual nature — if I even had one — and the general concept of spirituality as a human quality. DA’s songs, while rooted in basic Christian beliefs (a mono-theistic, omni-God, trinity doctrine, salvation through Jesus Christ, heaven and hell) tended to stand at the edge and reflect rather than preach. This was a big deal to a farm boy from Kentucky who was raised in a mostly fundamentalist religious culture. Taylor explored a sort of modern American Christian life without the underpinnings of judgement that were so prevalent in my stereotypical upbringing.

It was a notable early part of my rejection of Christianity, which is a statement that would probably sadden Terry Taylor. At their heart, I believe DA was and still is a project that has always been on a mission to “spread the good news”, not turn listeners from it.

In my case, the thoughtful theology and liberal scope of the lyrics paired with fun, textured, sometimes intricate music pushed me toward a kind of energetic, yet contemplative, open-to-the-possibilities sort of state. DA has always motivated me to think romantically, yet critically about the animus and how it tends to become codified by large-scale organization (e.g. religion). In my 20’s that was useful as I hit atheism; in my 30’s, as I began to see patterns and granular value in disparate parts of the world’s major religious traditions, DA stood out as a comforting example of modern Christian media.

Today, as an agnostic and a logician, their music is a trip down memory lane, a satisfying nostalgia for really formative periods. Sure, it’s just rock music. It’s couched with popular sentiment and clever allusion to one worldview. It has just enough cool, kitsch, pomp and rebellion to energize and exercise. And in the story of my life and work it’s far more footnote than chapter. But I couldn’t be more pleased that Terry and company are still making it.

Kutcher/Wal-Mart/Twitter

Kutcher/Wal-Mart/Twitter

Two thoughts after reading this bit on Salon:

1. A celebrity’s tweet is what gets Wal-Mart’s attention. It’s obvious that would be the case considering the press. What a screwy culture.

2. The whole thing is no different from feudal-lord wealth-hoarding. We all know this. Wal-Mart totally knows it and cares not one iota.

We humans, we evolveses…slowly.

Coming Up Roses

Coming Up Roses

The ten-year anniversary of Elliott Smith‘s death is today; it’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since one of the best songwriting minds of my generation decided to log off the Earth server for good.

A few weeks ago I picked up the new book, Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, by William Todd Schultz (Schultz has also written on Diane Arbus and Truman Capote). It’s a well-documented, detailed look by a devoted fan into Smith’s life and journey.

Smith was a seriously complicated guy. I remember when I got his first solo release, Roman Candle, in the mid-90’s and how blown away I was by the emotion and especially the craftsmanship of the songs. I was writing a lot of songs back then myself, several of which eventually wound up as the pseudo-band project The Daisies (some of those songs are now part of IUMA — see here if you’re interested).

Elliott left us with a number of great songs, and while many are slow, dark ripostes to years of abuse and victimization, much of his work is a healing salve for the mind and heart. This was a guy who suffered tremendously, often by his own hand, but in the truest artistic fashion he transformed that suffering into beauty and truth.

In January a gig with Smith and Jon Brion popped up on YouTube, circa 2000. Smith’s performance is powerful. Independence Day, accompanied by Brion and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau is mesmerizing. Smith also plays a few covers, including renders of Lennon’s Jealous Guy and Big Star’s Nightime (what a treat — Smith covering Chilton!).  

Has Your Fail Already Begun?

Has Your Fail Already Begun?

The Inter-Webbies are chock-full of advice on business leadership, entrepreneurship and management, not to mention vast numbers of books, coaches, consultants, the lists go on — it’s all over the place.

Much of the wisdom is the same and centers around motivation, communication and decision-making. The root of an unsuccessful business, in all but the most outlying of edge cases, is poor implementation (this is “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer”, as one of my profs used to love to say).

Poor implementation can mean a lot of things, but the root of the root is, in my experience, dishonesty with oneself. In other words, failure begins when you lie to yourself.

The ways in which human beings lie to themselves are many, well beyond running a company into much more profound emotional, psychological and spiritual areas. Startups are breeding grounds for self-deception but it happens in all businesses, small and large, new and old, lean and fat.

The most critical fails are often tactical — the day-to-day.

The biggest lies are when Managers think they know the tactical details of their businesses better than the Makers who are “on the ground” doing the real work.

The biggest lie of all is that Manager cannot trust Maker — cannot trust what Maker does, what Maker says, what Maker believes. Over and over, managers move mountains of time and money to find the right talent only to squander the investment by not trusting that talent.

If you’re a manager and you’re not trusting your people, your Fail has already begun. Start trusting them to do the jobs for which you hired them — no matter how right you think you are — and you have at least a fighting chance. Otherwise cut them loose — immediately.

Hellfire and Damnation

Hellfire and Damnation

Caught a doc recently that I really enjoyed. Hellbound? does a great job of touching on the debate (in Christianity — other worldviews are not really addressed) between those who believe in a real “Hell” (e.g. eternal punishment) and those who don’t (e.g. universalists and annihilationists).

Watching this film quickly reminded me of my “Bible Belt” years, growing up in Western Kentucky and then my first few years out of college in Indianapolis. Back then I had plenty of exposure to more conservative, fundamentalist types who relied heavily on Hell as an important part of Christian doctrine.

Trust me — until you’ve seen the fundamentally ill up close, it’s difficult to understand just how powerful memes like Hell are. That said, I don’t have a problem with those who believe it, as long as they don’t bother the rest of us. Of course they love bothering the rest of us, which means I usually have a problem with it.

As an a-religious, non-theist who values the Judeo-Christian ethic (IMO every major tradition — spiritual and scientific — has at least one or two shiny nuggets), I like the Universalists — in general they’re all about a warm-and-fuzzy, peaceful loving God instead of a vain, violent, judgmental deity.

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