I've never written much about my personal life in the three years, three months, and two weeks since I started Engadget, but for this Father's Day I wanted to talk about the person who inspired my love of technology: my father Federico Rojas, who passed away very unexpectedly this past Wednesday.
My father wasn't a exactly a geek -- he was just a physician whose interests ranged far beyond medicine -- but he was most definitely a classic early adopter when it came to anything related to electronics, and I remember being in awe as a young boy whenever he'd bring home his latest discovery. Whether it was an 8-bit computer, an HDTV, a Laser Disc player (and then a DVD player), a surround sound system, etc, while I was growing up he was always consistently ahead of the curve and constantly wowing me with whatever new toy he was installing.
[That's my dad at right, in a picture from 1979 or 1980. I'm there on the left, my brother is on the right.]
One of my earliest memories of my father and technology dates back to 1980 when he bought a VCR. The VCR he'd purchased was a boxy, clunky affair with a wired remote, but we were all amazed that we could just watch a movie anytime we wanted, as many times as we wanted. At least when we were able to find videos to play on it. There was no such thing as a video store back then (at least not in Merced, California, where I grew up), but I remember vividly the first two VHS tapes he bought: Alien and Blazing Saddles, neither of which I was allowed to watch at the time. One day my dad brought home a copy of Empire Strikes Back way before it was officially released. I don't know where he got it from, but I do remember that we had so many people over to watch it that my dad split the signal from the VCR and set up a second feed on a TV in another room just for the kids. It seemed like magic to me that you could even do something like that.
Early the next year I had my tonsils removed and had to miss about two weeks of school. To help me pass the time my dad did what any responsible parent would do: he bought me an Atari 2600, which instantly made me the most popular kid in the neighborhood.
My father never took much interest in gaming -- he thought it was a little frivolous, if harmless. He was interested in computing, so not long after buying me the 2600 he bought an Atari 400 (and then later an Atari 800) for the family and then started to teach himself BASIC. My dad was never much of a programmer -- the only application I ever remember him creating was a very simple racing game -- but around this time he did take me along to a few meetings of the local computer enthusiasts group he belonged to.
From then on there wasn't a time when we didn't have a computer in the house. He realized pretty early on that computers were going to be the future and when I was about ten years old I remember him telling me one day that I needed to stop playing King's Quest and get better at using MS-DOS.
If anything, though, my father was an A/V guy at heart. He was an audiophile who used to tell me stories about how he'd been so obsessed with music that when he was a teenager he installed a portable turntable into the family car so they could listen to 45s on the road, a plan which backfired not because the needle would constantly skip (which it did), but because one day he parked the car in the sun and accidentally melted all of his favorite records. His quest for audio perfection led him to buy the first CD player sold in the US (the Sony CDP-101, which I actually found in a stack of old A/V components here in his house) and immediately started building a collection of CD's that numbers somewhere around 30,000 today. He did his best to get me hooked as well, and for my 13th birthday he gave me a Sony D-88 Pocket Discman, which was designed primarily for playing 3-inch CD-singles.
[Pictured at right: my dad in 1985 with the A/V rig he had set up in his bedroom. Note the Pioneer LaserDisc player at the bottom with the Sony CDP-101 just above it.]
As he got older it became more difficult for my father to keep up with the latest technology -- he just never got totally comfortable with spending time online -- but he was a lifelong photographer who dived right into the digital revolution, picking up one of the first digital Canon digital SLRs and converting our family room into a digital photography workshop, complete with a large-format Epson printer that he used for giant prints he sold to corporate clients. He loved being able to edit and correct his photos using a computer rather than a darkroom, and he spent hours scanning and organizing the tens of thousands of slides and negatives he had from before he made the switch to digital.
My father instilled me in his love for technology, but the most important things I learned from him have nothing to do with gadgets. Even though he loved gadgets and electronics, he never made them his life; they were just tools to make life easier or more enjoyable and were never a substitute for the friends, family, and patients that he always put first. (He was a fierce advocate for his patients; in all his years as an obstetrician he delivered almost 8,000 infants and never lost a single mother.)
What always amazed me about him was how multifaceted he was. He was an intellectually curious physician living in a small town who had traveled the world, read at least a book a week up until he died, could continually kick my ass in Scrabble even though he didn't learn English until he was 23, and knew practically everything there was to know about classical music, Spanish wines, and French cinema. All I wanted to be when I grew up was as smart as my dad.
I knew that on some level I disappointed him when I decided not to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. He never really put much pressure on me to go to medical school or anything, but he did express his hope that I'd love medicine as much as he did. It took me a few years, but when I did finally figure out that I wanted to write about technology for a living he was tremendously supportive, and I remember how he'd always ask for extra copies of Red Herring so that he could send them to his brothers in South America. And when he told me that one of his patients had asked him if he was related to me, I knew he was proud of what I was doing -- and to show it he even started asking me for advice about what gadgets to buy.
It's difficult for me to write this. I've never shared much of my personal life on the site, mainly because I know that all of you read Engadget for the gadgets, not to hear me (or anyone else) whine about the details of what they did that day. But I also know that there wouldn't be an Engadget without my father -- and not just because he inspired my passion for technology, or that it's always been his dry, irreverent sense of humor that I've tried to emulate in my writing. He was the person who I turned to when I was wrestling with the decision to quit Gizmodo and start all over again with a new site, and he gave me the push in the right direction I needed.
My father grew up in an impoverished developing country where the only ticket out of poverty was to get an advanced degree and get a "safe" job as a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, so it was a big deal for me when he said that I needed to take a risk and toss everything aside to start Engadget. When I was home for Christmas in 2003 we stayed up late almost every night talking, and he gave me the confidence I needed to take the plunge and create the site when I was terrified about taking a chance on something that might fail. Even though he had worked all his life for the kind of financial security he never had growing up, he also believed that you should never spend a second of your life doing something you didn't care about, and he knew how much I loved blogging. He saw potential in me that I didn't see in myself.
That's why one of the happiest moments in my life was when he was able to come to an Engadget reader meetup in San Francisco. It meant a lot to me for him to see how successful Engadget had become, and it was so gratifying seeing him geek out with our readers, showing off his Canon EOS 5D to a fellow photographer and talking about and playing with all the gadgets on display like everyone else.
So maybe it's not all that surprising that this past Sunday the very last conversation I had with my father -- just three days before his untimely death -- was about gadgets. He wanted to tell me about the new HDMI-enabled A/V receiver he'd just installed and about how this new universal remote he'd bought wasn't working properly. He even wanted some insider info on whether he should buy a replacement or whether there was a new version that wasn't announced yet that he should wait for. I advised him to wait, and promised that when I was back home in California next month I'd help him get everything set up.
I expected I'd spend this Father's Day on the phone with him, maybe talking about the new two megapixel cameraphone he was using for casual photos (he'd just bought a 1GB microSD card for storing more pictures on the go) and my upcoming wedding that is now just six weeks away. Instead I'm spending it in his home, surrounded by his family and friends, wishing that I had one last chance to help him troubleshoot his Sonos, or watch Da Ali G Show with him, or sit at his computer while he showed me photos from his last trip, or talk about what it was like growing up in Peru (he had so many amazing stories which I'd love to hear him tell again). I'll never have a chance to do any of that again, but I'm beyond grateful for the 32 years I was able to spend with him.
My father was an intensely private person who'd probably be embarrassed that I'm even talking about him here, but he was a good, honest, highly principled man who did everything he could to give his family a life that was better than the one he'd had growing up in Peru -- and the world deserves to know it. I'll spend the rest of my life trying to live up to the example he set for me. Thanks for letting me share this with you.