Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 2

Previously, on “Going to California”

I’d never even heard of a girl hacker. “What are you?” I sputtered. “Some kind of crasher?” I had no idea what I was saying.

“I only wanted to get your attention. I’m bored.” She explained, as she would countless times in the months to come, how she had to go straight home from school, and how she wasn’t allowed to leave her house or have anyone come over outside of a couple of girlfriends. And that was all she got to do, ever.

“Why?” I asked, more than one time.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I get in trouble. Look, I can’t talk long. My brother’s going to be back in here in a minute. He lets me use his computer when he wants me to leave him alone for a while.” She snorted. “He’s an ass.”

“Who’s your brother?” She told me his handle, the name he went by on the board. He was one of the mid-tier hackers, in the game enough that he was fun and a little dangerous — and probably the source of her crash codes — but not so in the game that he had his own board. A cool enough guy, all things considered.

“Huh,” I said. “I thought he was okay.”

“He’s not okay. I mean, I guess he is. I don’t know. Are you gonna validate my account or what?”

“I guess.” I logged into the system and checked the new user list. “You’re . . . Shadow Lord?”

“Are you gonna validate me or not?”

“What’s your real name?”

There was a decent pause. “Wendy,” she said.

“Okay, Wendy. I get a lot of people signing up who don’t call back. Are you gonna call back?”

“Yes! Yes, I’ll call back. I’ll ring the bell and interrupt you making out with models or whatever.”

I’d not by that point, at fifteen years old, ever kissed a girl in my house, much less in my bedroom.

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“My brother said you were a model or something.”

I didn’t remember telling him that, though my basic patter about how I got my computer involved the money I made from modeling. I didn’t want anyone thinking my family was rich, which we weren’t, or that I could afford to lose my computer, which I couldn’t. It was a gift of fate, and I didn’t want to set myself up as a target for anybody.

“I do modeling,” I said. Which was true, though I hadn’t had a real job in months. That had been a Diet Dr. Pepper commercial. It sucked.

“How are you a model?” she asked. I started telling her the story, and she interrupted. “I believe you, I believe you. I gotta go.”

“Sure,” I said.

She said, “You really are a cool guy, Patrick.”

But I wasn’t. I mean, I knew I was cool to myself. I often took time after lunch to hack the phone outside my high school’s cafeteria so I could connect with other computer-obsessives in other area codes — even if I was only popping in and out, just to say hello to people, anything to stay far enough in the loop to make it more likely that once a decent new underground board came up I’d be likely to hear about it, or even better to get an account on it early on before it got shut down. Five minutes at a time, about the most I’d let myself stay on an open conference line when I was making a long-distance call without paying for it, I got a trickle of information that sometimes, occasionally, in rare bursts, let me do things that were about as cool as you got, as a teenager growing up in suburban Texas in the later half of the Twentieth Century.

The other kids at school, though, they didn’t know that I was cool, and I didn’t help my case. Even as late as my senior year in high school, I remember wrangling to volunteer alongside a girl on whom I’d developed a serious crush. I don’t remember where we volunteered — it was off-campus somewhere, which was exciting.

Now this girl, she was drippingly cool. Our first day, we were told to sit in a room for half-an-hour and wait for someone to tell us what to do. I was thrilled. I got her talking about spring break, which we’d all just come back from. She and some friends had ended up at Padre Island, aka party central.

“Oh,” she said, “and there was this guy, in these shorts — you know those late-‘70s jogging shorts, white with the blue piping or whatever?”

“Oh, yeah!” I said. “Sure, I got a pair like that.” Her expression fell visibly. “For sleeping in,” I quickly added, which was true. “Just, you know, not for going out in or anything.”

“He, uh, he was in a phone booth, trying to make a call, and he had on these shorts.” She looked me up and down, suddenly and visibly off-put. “They look terrible.”

“I know. That’s why—”

“We made fun of that guy for days.” She crinkled her nose, as if she were about to sneeze. “Don’t ever tell anyone,” she said, her finger pointing down where shorts would be if I’d been wearing them, “about that.”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said, and she turned her attention to a stack of magazines in the waiting room. There was four-month-old news to catch up on. She had no idea how cool I was, and I had no idea how to tell her.

Wendy, though, she thought I was cool. I fed her little hacker tricks that her brother didn’t know. She said it pissed him off, which — even though I thought he was an okay guy — I admit I found pretty funny. And there were other things, too. Like, I never asked her how old she was. Instead, I asked her how old her brother was.

“Fifteen,” she said, “almost sixteen.” So just a few months older than me. “And he’s my big brother, but not by much. I’m fourteen. You never asked, which means you either don’t care, or it doesn’t matter, or you really badly wanted to know but you didn’t want to come right out and ask because you knew I’d think you were uncool.”

“I’m fifteen,” I said.

“Well, la-dee-dah.”

“I’ve got a little sister, but she’s four years younger than I am.”

“So, am I just a little sister?”

“No,” I blurted. “You’re a really cool girl, did you know that?”

“We should hang out,” was what she said. It was both what I wanted to hear and what I was afraid of hearing. I was afraid that when we met I’d find her unattractive. You see, a few months earlier some people had moved into a house down the street, and I’d heard there was a girl my age in the family. I probably dropped by five times over the course of a month, and never got to meet her. All I knew was her name was Chris. I knew an unfeasibly hot girl named Chris, so because I was stupid and shallow I kept dropping by, because who knows? When we finally met, she turned out to be horrible — not because she was very overweight, which she was, or because she had terrible skin and hair and even smelled a little bit, which she did, but because most of the time I spent trying to talk to her she just sat there, swollen arms pulled tightly to her body, welling up with hate for her very existence. I spent maybe ten minutes trying to get her to say something interesting then I left. I never dropped by again. They moved away less than a year later.

All this to say that I liked the idea of an impressively cute-sounding crash girl who liked to call me, which happened about once a week in a narrow window of time after school, while her brother was busy with something else, but before her parents got home — yet I didn’t want my illusions shattered.

“That sounds cool,” I said, “but what about the no-people-over thing?”

“Well,” she said, “that is a problem. Gotta go.” It was common for her to hang up suddenly — often just as things were getting interesting. A few weeks later, she asked me if I’d ever had phone sex.

“No,” I said, though I was anxious to know more.

“It’s when you take the phone away from your ear,” she said, “and you put it up your butt.” She laughed. “And then you sorta . . . spin it around.” She hung up.

Okay, I thought, she’s not actually cool. That’s actually weird. Oh man, I thought — what if she’s twelve or something? I thought about my own sister. I thought I was only talking to a girl who was one year younger than me, but I was very protective of my sister, and any closer to her age was too close for comfort. I got unnerved about Wendy several times, but she’d always call back, and I only wanted to talk to her more.

One time, I didn’t hear from her for some months. Then she called. I knew it was her because we had this signal worked out: she’d call and let it ring one time, then she’d hang up, then she’d call back. So if I heard the phone ring once and then nothing, if it rang again seconds later I’d pick it up before the computer answered.

“What are doing?” I asked.

“Just waiting for my friend, Jenny. She’s coming over, so Mark let me use the phone.” That was her brother.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Mostly with Jenny, though I got into a little trouble that way.”

“How’s that?”

Jenny had met a couple of guys out somewhere — older guys, nineteen or twenty — and late one night the three of them talked her into sneaking out of her house. They’d walked, in the night, two blocks over to explore some unfinished North Arlington homes in the new subdivision under construction. That told me where she lived, within about four blocks. They got separated from each other, she and Jenny, and she and one of the guys got caught by cops while Jenny and the other guy escaped somehow.

“Why’d you get separated?” I asked.

“Well,” she said quietly, “you know, sometimes you don’t always want to fool around with your best friend right there. Sometimes you want a little privacy, but I guess the cops don’t understand that when they come at you, all flashlights and questions and ‘Do your parents know where you are’ and everything.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. And that was basically our relationship. I let her talk, and I listened, and I gave her advice, and she told me I was cool. A lot of times, she let me talk about my life, too. Talking to her was the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes we were typing but most of the time I actually spoke to her, through a handset. When I felt the stutter coming on, I’d start singing David Bowie songs or whatever came to mind.

A few months later, that summer, she idly asked me what I was doing.

“Getting ready to go to an audition,” I told her, which was true. I’d been asked to show up at a cattle call for a Frito-Lay print ad. Nothing magical, but $175 still sounded like a lot of money to me. “Then tomorrow I’m going to Wet ’n Wild with a friend of mine.”

“Really? Hey, no kidding: my friend Jenny is going to Wet ’n Wild tomorrow.” It was the local water park, with slides and an enormous wave pool and all that crap. “We should meet up some time, you and me. But I think I’d like her to meet you first. Tell you what: do you know when you’re going to be there?”

We arranged that I’d meet Jenny a little after 3 PM, in the fake creek that circled most of the park, around its northwest entrance. I remember actively pushing the thought of her out of my mind as my mom drove me to the audition — really more of a “walk in here and let us take a look at you” sort of call. Then the next day I went to the water park, and I kept my eye on the time. It was a nightmarishly hot day, and all I could do was think about making it to the mid-afternoon. About a quarter ’till three, I ditched my friend for a bit and began circumnavigating the creek, timing it to arrive at the right position at nearly the right time.

I’d spent many, many years around strikingly pretty girls, models and dancers and actresses. I always had a lot of female friends because I found them super-easy to talk to, and because if they didn’t hit me over the head with a baseball bat to tell me that they liked me then I presumed they were so far out of my league that I wasn’t losing anything simply by being friendly. It also meant that I had a decently high bar for what made a beautiful girl, in no small part because I knew that the head of a beautiful girl had no reason to hold a mind that was any more secure or interesting than that of a less-beautiful girl.

Jenny and I recognized each other immediately. She was an irredeemably gorgeous blond in a mostly white bikini, thin stripes of pink and blue shining through. She had a look about her that held me in place like a butterfly pinned to velvet. It wasn’t just that she was hot, which she was. She was, I realized by the way she looked me up and down, very familiar with sex. She was has-sex hot.

And as a fifteen-year-old, nearly sixteen, has-sex hot was the hottest kind of hot there was. She was all the more hot for so obviously liking what she saw in me.

“Okay,” she said, smiling. “I think we can work with this. I’ll let Wendy know. You’ll hear from us.”

I liked the way she said that. I said something like, “Sure,” and strode out of the creek, away from her, knowing when my interview was over, not wanting to flub any improvised lines.

An hour or so later, when my mom picked us up from the park, she was delighted.

“You got the job!” she said, then in the rear-view mirror I could see her face fall. “Oh, dear, I think you might have gotten a little sunburned.”

“Really?” I said, touching my shoulders. They didn’t look that bad. I’d lived in Texas more than ten years, and I’d almost never had a problem.

“Your face,” she said. I touched my nose, and suddenly it was on fire. We called my agent, who stayed very calm but explained that after an audition, before finding out whether or not I got the part, the plan was supposed to be to lay low and not to do anything stupid. They passed the news along to the crew, who told me to show up anyway.

I did. It was a disaster.

“We’d heard you were sunburned,” said the director, taking a step back and tilting his head to one side. “We didn’t know you were like this.” The skin was bubbling up off my cheeks and my nose. Skin had begun peeling off my back in long strips earlier that morning. I was a mess.

“Tell you what,” he said, pointing behind me at the set. We were in a Dallas high school classroom, empty for the summer session. There were maybe eight kids, all intended to depict a different archetype of school life in a kind of pop-culture tableau. “You were gonna be one of the popular kids, but tell you what: let’s see if the make-up people can work with what you’ve got. How about you’ll be the nerdy kid in the back, looking up from a beaker that’s exploded into your face?” He motioned over a make-up lady, and she got to work.

“Ooch,” she said, daubing foundation on with a sponge. “I hope this doesn’t hurt.”

“I’m fine,” I said, wincing.

“So you’re the nerd then?” she asked.

I nodded. I knew my part well. It was the last call I ever got, and the end of my modeling career.

I didn’t hear from Wendy the next day, or the day after that. I called the number I had for her, and it was disconnected. I spent the rest of the summer feeling hollow inside. She hadn’t crashed my board — she’d crashed me.

Then a few months later the phone rang one time, paused, then it rang again. Before my computer could pick up, I answered it.

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Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 3

Table of Contents

“Hey, Patrick,” she said.

“Hey.”

“It’s been a while,” she said. I said nothing.

“Jen really enjoyed meeting you,” she added.

“Yeah,” I said, “same here. She seemed cool.”

In a series of short bursts, each one word long, she said, “Jen . . . has . . . been . . . bugging . . . me . . . to . . . call . . . you. So I am. She thinks we should get together some time.”

“What do you think?”

“I think she needs to keep her hands to herself.”

Okay.

“What have you been doing?” she asked.

“Busy,” I said. “I’ve been pretty busy.”

And unlike most of the rest of the times in my life when I would say that to a girl who I’d been desperate to hear from but who had failed to call me, I was sadly telling the truth.

I’d filled most of my free time with hour-long drives to the far side of Dallas, where some guy with a couple of Apple II computers and a bunch of little radios and a blackened warehouse appropriately fog-lit and a really good idea for making money from all of that stuff put together in exactly the right way was making a total crap-ton of money.

It was called Photon. You probably know it today, if you know it at all, as Laser Tag — but Photon was the first, as far as I know. You have two teams, each team has a base, you get points for shooting the enemy’s base and for shooting enemies. When you get shot, your gun goes dead for something like five seconds. That’s it. You have a helmet and a chest-plate with sensors, and a gun, and a gigantic load of batteries strapped around your waist. Also, it was crazy air-conditioned in there, and this was Texas.

You could not have designed a better trap for my spare attention. I started going there as often as I could. I had to borrow my mom’s mini-van — I think I already mentioned being on the near-side of the cool-kid bell curve — and I did so, regularly. Even the much older boys down the street, who’d originally introduced me to the world of geekery, were excited to hitch a ride with me to run around shooting at live bad-guys in a science-fiction set.

This will be important next time; it’s simply too much to get into this time.

My board had been expanding. I got a great deal on a hard drive from Frank, my first and best grown-up friend in that extended social circle; he brought his wife over and she marveled at me and my room, “It’s like, left-brain and right-brain, all together.” That gave me a colossal 15 megabytes online, all the time. My dad called it the Battlestar Galactica, it was so loud.

The thrum of life in my bedroom was fine. It was the code that was driving me nuts. The game kept crashing, so I had to pull features back until I got them working together again. I couldn’t imagine today a more insane way to develop software. Here’s what I did: code like a crazy person, reworking small feature by small feature. I could never have anything in the code be totally broken for very long, because the moment the phone would start ringing I would type RUN BBS and let someone explore the system in whatever state I’d left it in. The maniacally twisted part — or the lovely and delicious part, if you’re a modern user-experience designer with few scruples — was that I would then watch people interact with the game, taking notes so that I could make things easier next time, or at least less broken.

Little did I know that, thirty years later, I would still be doing very much the same thing, only larger. Also, I exited my teenage years having grown a pair of scruples, though that was later.

And there was more competition in town. Specifically, also over in Dallas, there was a totally new kind of system. Get this: you call a number, and you get switched between one of six or seven lines, all of which ran into a single computer. The computer had six or seven modems running, jacked into six or seven phone lines — meaning that six or seven people could all be online, on the same system, at the same time.

There was nothing to do there but to chat with the other people. That was novelty enough, believe me, even if it seemed like a low ambition for my taste.

After declining to help Wendy sneak out her window late at night, not even considering what I’d have to say to get my parents to let me take the car out at a late enough hour that her parents would be asleep, we talked on the phone a few more times. I once asked her about Jen, and she said she’d hang up if I mentioned her again. But then the next time crash girl called, she brought Jen up herself, sort of.

“I was thinking we should meet,” she said.

“Yeah, we talked about that.”

“There’s this thing. My brother’s doing it. I think you should come.”

“What thing? Where?”

“Pfft. Just this thing. He and a bunch of people — War Wager, X-Man, and like three other guys — are gonna meet at Chuck E. Cheese’s.”

“Are you kidding me?” I was actually a little hurt. I mean, I knew all those guys. I hadn’t met a lot of them in person, but that was uncool.

“They don’t invite you to those things because they’re afraid you’d think they were uncool.”

“Well it is kinda uncool for them to—”

“I told Mark I was inviting you, and he was like, ‘Sure.’ And…there’s this friend of mine, been saying we oughta meet. So you’d better come. You can come, right?”

Could and would but did not. It was Halloween, and of all early evenings, my sister had a rehearsal or a recital or some such business that an older high-school kid did not care about in the absolute least, and my mom needed the car. We actually passed the Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza and video-game parlor on the way there and on the way back. But mom didn’t want to be bothered with dropping me off and picking me up and it was a school night and she’d had a hard day and damn it, damn it, damn it.

I told myself: If the streetlight turns red at the intersection, I am going for it, I am running. The light was green, smooth sailing through the intersection. It was red on the way back, so I had a full minute to stare at the illuminated pizza and video-game parlor logo, seeming only slightly diminished beside the red, glowing K-Mart with which it shared a strip-mall storefront.

It had been months since I’d stolen long-distance. I’d been trying to stay in the lighter-side of the computer underground gray area, but that night I took the board down and kept the line busy calling a bunch of pirate boards in Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, downloading the most terrible information I could touch. Car hot-wiring instructions. Explosives recipes. Most of it was bullshit, but I kept going. I was angry at no one in particular. I was angry with everyone. All this to say I was sixteen.

She called the next day, after school. I explained what happened in a way that made me sound less like the twelve-year-old I felt like I’d been reduced to — and when you’re sixteen, in case you’ve forgotten, the difference between you and a twelve-year-old is not four years, it’s a lifetime. She was sympathetic enough.

“That’s awful. Aw, that really sucks. I mean, I missed seeing you.”

“How was it?”

“Oh, you know, no good. Bunch of uncool guys and some pizza, right? X-Man was there, though, so it wasn’t too bad. I mean, he’s a total loser. He’s like twenty-one — did you know that? twenty-one? I mean, wow! — and he was all excited about showing us his totally cool car. Ha. It was so cool that when he started it to give us a lift, it broke down and died right there, totally died. The radiator fell out or something right there. Shitty piece of shit.”

“Wow. That sucks.”

“Oh, no — it was funny. He’s a jerk, that guy. A real asshole.” She made a kind of purring noise, took a deep breath, and then made no sound whatsoever.

Finally, I said, “What?”

“Gotta go,” she said.

I glared at the handset, the one I’d fallen in love with at four years old when we’d first moved in, so delighted by all the tones its little buttons made. Even better, I remembered when a phone repairman had come to the green phone company switch box in our backyard and let me look at the tool he used. It looked like a kind of funky phone, but it had an extra row of buttons along the outside, which did different special things to the phone system. I’d always wanted one of those set so badly. But right then, I stared out along the far edge of the touch-tone pad, begging for a button that would end my misery.

My misery would only last another couple of days longer, and it would end with a phone call.

 

Table of Contents

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Going to California

“Shall we play a game?”

Previously, on “Going to California”

Before I can begin to explain my life in California, there’s something else you need to know.

The summer between high school and college, after I’d turned off my board, I went to one last pirate meet-up. We would pick a day, some combination of three or four or sometimes five of us would get together at someone’s house to copy the hell out of whatever software other people had and talk about all the things we’d learned about they types of systems we’d variously been able to access.

I never one time saw anyone exchanging credit cards. I saw files discussing the security features of credit cards, but that was only interesting and not incriminatory. The only people in that extended series of circles who I ever heard of committing credit card fraud ended up getting something like what they probably deserved.

But we would copy files, and get in line to be next to copy something, and show the new kid that you could cut a notch along the plastic edge on the other side of the disk and then you can flip it over and write onto its backside. A fun few seconds with a hole punch and you’ve doubled your storage!

And before I went off to college, I figured I’d better make one last round. In a quieter moment, when the conversation had died down and the background whirring of disks being read and written had drifted into the foreground, one guy — we didn’t know each others’ real names, no joke — said, “I been meaning to ask you guys something. Why do you think we do this?”

“Because it’s cool,” I said.

He smiled. The other guy did, too. “It is cool,” he said, nodding. We were actually cool. It’s just that almost no one else knew it.

The lie that the movie War Games sold me was that if I dove deep, deep into what you could do with a computer, an alarmingly attractive girl would come along and she would think that this whole thing was really cool, and she would want to know more about it.

And okay, let’s be honest, you would show her how you’d been able to access the school’s computers and change her grade to an A in some class. She would be horrified, begging you to change it back. Certainly the girl’s existence was basically a lie, I can tell you from my first couple of years of diving way, way further into the computer than I probably should have, and if there were a girl there she would much more likely be shaking your chair and directing you to add a couple of classes to her record that she had never even taken, as long as you were at it, but change it all back to how it had been after a couple of weeks, once the college transcripts go out. Because this would have to be our secret.

There are things you can do that will crash systems. We learned this early on. It’s not pretty, and it’s not that useful unless you’re a very malicious person, but some people delight simply in being able to do it. It’s very rarely helpful in any way. But still people try, for a lot of reasons. One reason, of course, is that some systems, if you can crash them in a very specific way, you can gain some control over them. Sometimes you can gain complete control of them.

Back when I was running my board, I was never surprised when I saw someone trying to crash it. With some systems, it could be something as dumb as crashing if a user hit too many keys at the main menu, or typed some specific pattern of characters.

Most of the time I kept my computer screen off. The current session was being echoed to my monitor, and I didn’t need to see people doing things like writing email. But people could page me, and if I was around I’d type to them.

One time, one mid-afternoon, I got a long series of page requests, like ten or fifteen, startling me on my bed where I would have been reading over something like the Arduin Grimoire, a role-playing game book, for the eleven-thousandth time. I turned on my monitor. Looking at the user’s recent history, and what they were typing while I watched, it looked like someone was trying to crash my board. Line after line, someone was trying an impressively extensive list of all the crash-inducing command combinations I’d ever come across.

And now the user was pinging me. Glancing at the top couple of lines of the screen — which always reported the name of the currently logged-in user and some interesting stats about the system at large as well as the current user — I could see that it wasn’t a verified user. I asked that in order to sign up, people create an account and feel free to look around. If they actually wanted to be a user, leave me your phone number and I’ll call you back to verify that you’re a real human being. Or something. I’m not sure what I was thinking, I’m both afraid and not surprised.

So someone who’d never called in before was trying every kill command they could think of — and they had a perfectly respectible list to work with — and then tried a few more for good measure after quick-firing a bunch of chat requests at me. I didn’t give a shit about the crash commands. They could try whatever the hell they wanted to try and they would never crash my board. I was confident because I constantly beat the hell out of it, and every time I heard of a new exploit somewhere else I would check my code for the same sort of mistake. I thought it was kinda pathetic that someone would try so many dumb things. Maybe a twelve-year-old, or something.

Then the feed from the other end went silent. The cursor blinked a number of times in front of the prompt, and then the person on the other end of the line rapidly typed out, “I KNOW YOURE WATCHING”.

That stopped me.

“I KNOW YOU ARE,” it said.

“TALK,” it said.

I dropped into chat mode.

“About what?” I typed.

“CALLING BACK. PICK UP.” Then the line went dead.

Holy crap, I thought. The phone started ringing, and I pulled the receiver off the hook just after the first ring finished washing over my body, before the computer picked up.

“Hello?” I said. “This is Patrick.”

“Hey,” she said. “Hello — oh, wow. I’m really glad you picked up. This is totally great.”

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Going to California

True Names — 3

It was a game, definitely, though because I was an otherwise quiet boy and those rebellious streaks had to get out somehow, it was also something more. But before anyone had a chance of getting that far, the first thing people noticed was the system felt eerily smooth to use. Here’s why.

Let me start with a little background. Thirty years ago, after your computer made a connection to another, text slipped across the wire to you one line at a time, each new line appearing across the bottom of the screen, pushing the previous lines up. It could not scroll back up to show you something you’d previously seen, and the spewing of text could not reliably jump backwards at all without deleting everything that it had fed to you previously. It could clear your screen and start over again at the top, but that was it. To make things even more tedious, you were fed each row of text only a little bit more slowly than most people could read.

When this is your only interface to a remote machine, certain delays became really, really annoying. Over time, system operators came up with all kinds of little tricks to help reduce these terrific irritations, and these modifications would eventually get shared with or copied by others.

I used to spend a lot of time being very concerned about how to make my board the best possible experience, given the constraints. One of my favorite tricks was the spinner. It was so successful, that one way or another it’s still leveraged in modern apps, even if it’s slightly different now than it was then.

Here’s how it worked. When you, as a user, asked for some information from the remote system, and the system had reason to believe that it might take a couple of seconds — such as checking to see which of a system’s boards have how many new messages since the last time you logged in — then while waiting for the information to load from a slow-ass floppy disk, the system would loop what it was sending across the wire between a series of characters, like this:

– / ! \ – / ! \ – / ! \

… but the trick was that it would send a backspace after each character, giving the impression of a line spinning in place. Crazy. In case that’s not super-clear — and I remember people freaking out the first time they saw it: “How do you do that?!” — here’s the breakdown. First you would see the hyphen, then it would be replaced by the forward-slash, then the forward-slash would quickly be replaced by the exclamation point, then the backslash, then the hyphen again. And this was cool because it was one of the rare times you ever got feedback from a remote system while it was in the process of doing something for you. You could be sure that your call had not accidentally been dropped, maybe because you forgot to disable call-waiting before you dialed out with your modem, since the system was clearly telling you that it was doing something. It was genius.

The only thing smarter than that, I figured, was not having to show a spinner at all because your system was faster than anything anyone could imagine at the time. Through my RAM disk, I had found a way to avoid having to reach out to a floppy drive and start it spinning, and then move the head to the right track and read the right sectors off the disk as it spun around beneath a tiny magnetic head. Instead, after I added the first chunk of memory to the card, I began running the entire system in the RAM drive, and it was insanely fast because it never had to hit the disk.

You had to be careful, though. I had to copy the contents of the RAM disk to one or more floppy disks before restarting the computer, because when power was interrupted, anything in its electronic memory would be lost forever. Still, it was worth it. Soon I had the equivalent of several disks worth of space to spread out around into. Most boards had two floppy drives, some had three or four, but I soon had nearly ten disks worth of unreasonably fast space. It was so fast, in fact, that people thought it was faked, that they were having a text file streamed to them, until they started interacting with it.

I promise this is going somewhere.

Some people told me that my system’s speed genuinely freaked them out, and that made me feel good. I began to get more users. The line started staying busy outside of work and school hours. As on most systems, users were limited to thirty minutes a day, though people more and more often rang the chat bell on my end, wanting to ask me some question or other, or just to catch up. With all that typing, I did more talking in those evening and weekend hours than I did in most of the rest of any given day, and by that point I had begun to get better at acting more normally chatty. It all came back to the acting, I think, in the end. When I was playing a role, I could stick to my lines and things very often came out okay. Typing, I could get out nearly anything and it didn’t seem to matter one way or another how I tried to say something, I never got stuck. It was as close to a pure expression of my thoughts that I could imagine.

There was always that moment, after you had gotten to know someone fairly well on a system, when it’s proposed that you meet up in real life. And at this meeting, if not a little bit before, maybe while talking on the phone, you shared your real names. My name was Patrick Dennis, because in a stage production four years earlier I had played a character named Patrick Dennis, and I knew who he was, and I knew my lines, and I could play his part. And luckily, my mother was relieved to know that I was not selling drugs, and she believed me when I explained how I was doing something with my computer that had inspired these people, mostly adults, to give me money. Not a ton of money, but slowly more and more. She saw the hand-colored maps of the fantasy game world that I had created, which I would mail off to those who had donated at least $10 so that they didn’t have to keep track of where everything was on their own, and so she believed me, even if she didn’t understand me. If she didn’t think it was an especially great use of time, to her credit she didn’t lecture me about it.

I installed another expansion card in my system, one that essentially replaced the Apple processor with one that was nearly four times as fast. After filling up all the memory sockets on the original memory expansion card, I expanded the card itself. I’ll say that again another way: They let you hang a memory expansion card from the memory expansion card. Soon I had filled that one, too, with what I had made, and I thanked the guys who wore brown ties with blue, short-sleeve shirts.

What I made was a game, basically, something that played a bit like Wizardry and a bit like Ultima III, but entirely text-based, fed to you one line at a time. After logging into the system you could read the message boards, check your email, browse the limited text file directory, ask to chat with the system operator, or you could play the game. Once in the game, you could not return to the rest of the board in the phone call. In the game, you were either exploring the terrain or you were walking through a city. In either of these places, you could fight things when they were there to be fought.

By exploring the terrain, you moved north, south, east, or west through different types of landscape, from deserts and ice and grasslands and forests, to hills, which meant you were coming close to some mountains, and mountains, which you couldn’t move through. There were a few secret paths that cut through some shallow mountain ranges, which might be more obvious if you bought a map, but in general you had to do a bit of walking around to get from place to place.

This really is going somewhere.

While exploring, you could randomly have an encounter with a kind of monster native to that terrain type. So, you might fight a polar bear if you were in an square on the map marked as being ice. The monster would be about as big and as tough as you were, so in your first random forest encounter you might find a goblin, but later on you might be surprised by a bugbear.

By walking through a city, you moved essentially from room to room, one stretch of street or hallway at a time. Each room had a paragraph’s description, and some rooms had people or monsters in them. I only ever completed one big city, and I never fully got it the way that I had it drawn out on the square meter of cardboard that I kept tucked behind my bed. Before my grand plans eventually hit a wall, though, the city you could explore had a decently large number of houses and avenues and markets and apartments — and people, their names all butcheries of characters I loved most from whatever I was reading at the time.

When you got killed, or your daily time limit ran out, my computer would drop the connection and you’d have to call back and start over. At first, yes, I didn’t keep your character once you died. It was easy to make a new one, though yes, eventually I saved people’s characters.

As you killed more things, your character became harder to kill, giving you access to and a chance at surviving an encounter with higher-level monsters. You also collected more and more powerful swords and armors, all of which I spent way too much time naming. I used to work on the lists and the names of the items over the long drives out to the country those Sundays when we went to visit my father’s parents.

Similarly, each bad guy, from a random bugbear in the forest to a giant worm in the desert to the evil priest at one of the temples in the city, had a custom “death” message. As with the weapons and the armor, I spent time making list after list of different messages — I got there while saving money for my modem, thinking how boring it would be to see the same “You killed a (monster’s name)” over and over again, and decided to show a special message for each monster. So to my table of monsters, which I’d written out in rows and columns to make sure that the less powerful monsters remained easier to kill than the more powerful monsters, I added a “death message” column and filled them in so that I wasn’t repeating myself.

I don’t now remember exactly when I first hit upon the completely insane idea, it was so long ago. However, I do clearly remember reflecting on that moment, a year or so afterwards, wondering if in my madness I hadn’t maybe pushed things more than a little bit too far.

I didn’t have that many monsters, really, but I had to have an equal number of different monsters for each terrain type, so that different levels of characters would always have something to fight wherever they were. And I wanted all the “You killed it!” messages to be different, though I felt like making the messages consistent somehow for monsters within any one type of terrain. At some point I must have run out of different ways to declare the death of a monster — like, by the time I got to deciding what to say about monsters killed in the hills, for example — and instead I started putting in phone numbers of less common but interesting underground hacker boards.

Clearly, it was unexpected for each monster to give up a different piece of information once slain, but I figured that I’d already done it so I guess I felt I had to keep doing it.

I mean, I know that there were a lot of people who didn’t realize — and I’ll make something up to give you an idea — that when you killed, for example, a bugbear, you got the number for a phone company test line, where two or more phone company employees could attempt to call into in order to troubleshoot network problems as a group, from different parts of the network. There were a bunch of these numbers, and hackers shared them, both locally and across area codes, we would hijack them as little chat rooms where we’d hang out for hours shooting the shit and maybe bragging a little and trading other interesting numbers. Then maybe when you killed a sandworm, you’d get the death cry of the creature followed by a username and password and phone number for some system.

People kept calling, more to explore the game than for any information they might have been getting out of it. Like I said, I don’t think most people knew what I was showing them. I kept it going for years, and I loved it, I loved every hour of it: the yawning sense of my social life outside of my electric community shutting down, then the weeks and even months that I would let the system run without hardly paying it any attention, and all the people I met and the dramas I ran through. It was a crazy time, but I made something for myself. Within a year of getting that first copy of bulletin board software I’d completely re-written it, and it was tight, and I’d written a game from scratch, and it wasn’t great and it was breaking a lot and I would go a while without updating the content because I had to get a job and do other things at some point — but eventually something happened and I outgrew it and I couldn’t stand it any more, and I was very relieved, somehow, that as myself, as Derek, my true name, I never had to say goodbye to any of those people. I’m sure they simply wondered whatever happened to Patrick.

I will have to write about them someday.

The week after I graduated from high school, my parents took me and my sister to Hawaii for a week. It was our first time off together as a family in years, and the day before I left I turned my computer off and I sat in my room and I listened to the tiny noises in the silence. I left it off the whole week we were gone, and when I got back I didn’t turn it back on. I plugged the phone in when I wanted to make a call, which wasn’t often, and otherwise I left it unplugged. That summer my parents moved houses, and I didn’t move my line with it. A few weeks later I went away to college to take my first real computer science classes and I never looked back.

Twelve years later, when my boss’s boss asked me if I was a hacker, I knew enough to deny it. But I couldn’t say what the truth was, not without stuttering — which I refused to do in front of other people, not anymore, not if I could help it. I knew my lines, I had them down. The stage had been set, the curtains drawn. I was ready, I thought.

I had no idea how little I still knew.

Standard
Going to California

True Names — 2

In my teenage years, the only thing more precious than a computer and a dedicated phone line was the amount of information you could afford to make available at any one time on a computer with a dedicated phone line. Even running some highly customized, super-trim code, the contents of a floppy disk could only hold so many conversations and isolated buckets of people’s emails and text files of questionable legality.

There was no way to send email from one system to another — that was madness at the time, though a couple of small systems eventually networked themselves together enough to offer some sharing, before the Internet as we now know it took off — so once your email was dropped by a system to make room for other things, it was dropped forever. You didn’t keep a copy of all your emails on your computer. You hardly had enough space for the things you absolutely needed in order for your computer to be useful to you in the first place, so you left all your email on the server, always. As a system operator, I felt worst when I had to delete someone’s email, even if it had been read. But I was building something, and I had to have priorities.

It was hard for me to say exactly what it was that I made. It was a game, definitely. But it was a peculiar kind of thing.

I called my mom on the phone tonight.

“I’ve really enjoyed reading all your posts,” she told me.

“Thanks so much for reading,” I said.

“I remember,” she said, “I don’t know if it’s true, but what I remember is that three times one day, while I was ironing, three people came by, and they had $20 for Patrick.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, that happened.” That kind of thing happened more than once. “You know where the story is going.”

My mom and dad were normal parents, around as often as they were supposed to be, so I couldn’t always control whether or not they were home when some adult with whom I was at least passing friends would drop by with a donation toward the keeping the board up. Once I figured out the most straightforward and awesome way to get to where I wanted to go, I flat-out asked for money. Hey, man, if you like it around here, and you can spare anything, I’d totally appreciate it. And what do you know, I got money.

One time, it was red-haired woman, maybe in her early-30s, and she had two kids who were only a few years younger than I was. She gave me money and blinked back her surprise that I was who I said I was, alternating between gushing and being restrained about how much she liked the system. Her boys stood partly behind her, looking at me with a confusing sort of mistrust. God knows what she’d told them she thought I would be like.

And I’ll admit, it looked bad to a parent. Imagine this: You have a son named Derek. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by naming myself at this point. And every once in a while, sometimes a couple of people relatively close together — after normal work hours but before dinner time — would ring the doorbell or knock. The houses in our neighborhood were not especially close together, this being Texas and space being as widely available as it is, so this is not a random caller, but neither is it an expected knock. You answer the door, and a woman only a few years younger than you presses $20 into your hand, smiles, and says, “Tell Patrick it’s great stuff.” To a parent, it sounds pretty bad. I think the only thing that saved me was my complete obliviousness to how bad it sounded.

Like I said before, the Apple IIe had a bunch of card slots, and there was a good number of small companies who made a good living producing boards with different specialized components on them. One of them, Applied Engineering, was in the area, so their catalogs were floating around. One of the sysops for one of the other underground boards had made friends with a guy who worked there, and could get a good discount on their hardware. At half-off the retail price, I bought an expansion card that would let you add memory to it — not storage, like on a spinning disk, but all-electronic and highly volatile memory. The processor couldn’t address this memory directly, though. It had to go through the card slot to get to it, so it wasn’t quite as fast as the memory that came built in with the computer. But you could play a mean if effective trick on the computer by telling it to treat the card like a disk drive. The only snag was that, of course, the card didn’t come with any memory on it. You had to buy it, and it was expensive.

But it was an awesome plan because unlike with disk drives, you didn’t have to take up another card slot every time you wanted to add the equivalent of two more disks-worth of access. The memory expansion card could host the equivalent of 15 floppy disks, on the one card, with no moving parts. It wasn’t as expensive as a hard drive, which started at $700 for cheap crap and which was still far enough out of my league as to be an alien artifact kept in a private hanger by the Air Force somewhere. I had never even seen one with my own eyes, and I had come across a lot of computer equipment by that point in my life. The RAM disk was the way to go.

I kept mowing yards. I could add memory to my system’s expansion card by buying four chips at time and carefully plugging their tiny little delicate metal legs into the small sea of empty sockets on this massive expansion board. The chips came in plastic rails; uncap one end and chips would slide out. I could only ever afford four chips at a time — and it would cost me three weeks of lawn mowing. So for a while, every three or four weeks, I’d ask my mom to drop me off at the comic book store along the edge of the university, and after checking out what was new I would cross the street to buy another rail of chips from a small, bulk electronics parts vendor.

They used to look at me funny when I came into their office. I don’t think they got a lot of walk-in traffic. I used to think, “Come on — don’t look at me. You’re the nerds here.” But I think it was my age, and how excited I was about picking up my fourth rail of RAM that summer. Someone finally asked me what I was doing, 128 Kilobytes at a time, and knowing that I had never given them my name — though they knew me at the comic book story across the street; oh, shit — I began to tell them what I was doing and was quickly waved off as being insane. That kind of reaction was why I never talked about it, or about many things, really, so I shut up and I split because all I cared about was putting that new memory in the card and seeing what else I could do with it, and I couldn’t care less about a bunch of middle-aged dudes with bad, greasy hair who wore brown ties with blue short-sleeved shirts. You’re using an actual pocket-protector, for God’s sake. Why the hell was it so humiliating to be completely and utterly rejected by those people? Why did I not allow myself to feel validated when, on my next visit, one of them very quietly asked for the board’s number, and then thanked me with a quiet sincerity the next time I came in?

But I still haven’t told you what it was.

Standard
Going to California

True Names

“True Names,” by Vernor Vinge, is one of the few things I can point to and say, “That thing there, it changed my life.” It was dressed up as science-fiction, though it could hardly have been more accurate in depicting the world as I saw it — or at least, as how I saw it was going to be.

In the old fairy tales and fantasy stories, knowing how to make magic was the most powerful thing you could do. You were a walking, talking plot-device, not just a game-changer but a world-changer. However, your success hinged on remaining untouchable. If someone knew your real name then they could control you.

In “True Names,” a group of hackers meet secretly in an online fantasy world, using fake names like Mr. Slippery, where they share information, raid computers, and do all the other things that hackers are classically thought to do. Our story begins with a guy getting busted by the cops, because they were able to trace him back to his online hacker identity. Eventually, of course, he comes to see that the cops are right, that one of his hacker buddies is a terribly bad guy who he has to help take down, but the story kicks off with him being forced to take their side because they know his true name, and they threaten to destroy him if he doesn’t do what they say. Not a great beginning to a partnership, but a great start for a story. I had a special fascination for a part of the story where something terrible had begun to grow in the unused spaces between systems, in this near future where tens of megabytes could go unused, unnoticed. These spaces had to be explored, because there was no way of knowing what you’d find there.

Having my inner life lain so bare gave my fantasies an external reality much more powerful than I could have built them up to be on my own. The expensive modem I wanted had begun to feel very far away. As “True Names” settled into a space in my mind, saving money for that modem acquired a life-threatening urgency. Dwelling deeply on what my eventual plans should be as I mowed our yard week after week, I could not shake the one thing about the story that angered me. It wasn’t that the hero turns on his hacker buddies and works with the Feds. It was the word that he has the hackers call themselves. The author calls them warlocks. I’m sure it was meant to echo back to the origin of the idea behind the power of “true names” in fantasy literature, but let’s be honest: it was stupid. It was an example of the problem I had even then with most fantasy and science-fiction. You don’t have to make up dorky words when there are perfectly good words that people use every day. I mean, come on. It grieved me to the point that I wanted to type in the whole damn thing, replacing “warlock” with the real words I knew, the true true-names.

Then as now, most of the people walking around in my world knew the word “hacker,” and they had some idea of what it meant, and they were wrong. There were four general groups of people in the digital underground at the time.

There were pirates, who largely limited their activity to copying software and helping spread it around. It was acknowledged that this was probably at least a little illegal, but no one had ever heard of anyone being arrested for it, outside of racketeering-scale piracy, more often counterfeiting schemes, specifically to make money. Real pirates, we all agreed, were not doing it for the money. Being a pirate also required the least amount of specialized knowledge and effort, so most people in the underground identified as pirates.

There were phreaks (pronounced “freaks,” sometimes called “phone phreaks” just to be clear, especially when talking out loud). Phreaks could do amazing things with phones, starting with free long-distance and growing more sophisticated until you were rerouting pizza delivery calls to your ex-girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. Not that I ever did that, but that was the kind of thing that happened. We presumed that the phone company would be enraged about some of these things, but most of what we were doing wasn’t strictly illegal at the time. Still, after enraging your ex-girlfriend’s father with an inundation of Saturday night calls demanding pizza, you might not have thought of yourself as a criminal even if you were definitely an asshole.

Then there were crackers, the people who got up to the actual, undeniably illegal tricks. A pirate could help you copy a game, and could probably even figure out how to copy something that had been copy-protected in a way that he’d seen before, but it took a cracker to dedicate the long and tedious hours to figuring out how to defeat some new form of copy-protection. And more often than not, the focus and dedication and curiosity that made an expert copy-protection cracker would eventually get turned toward cracking any number of other kinds of systems — for, as they say, fun and profit.

The term “cracker” didn’t really catch on. I thought it was a little lame, myself, but from within the underground I could see the need to differentiate between a hacker in what we imagined to be the pure sense — someone smart and curious and interested in exploring for the love of knowing more — and someone driven by selfishness or even by malicious intent.

Whenever there was a news story about some hacker who’d broken into a system to change his grades, or who had been caught downloading documents from a corporate system, or something similar, it almost always kicked off a new round of underground indignation along the lines of, “You should call these people crackers, like safe-crackers, because they’re trying to break things, and not hackers, because it’s an insult to the hackers who just want to look around and have fun and don’t want to hurt anyone and aren’t in it for the money.”

The actual hackers — the real geniuses who weren’t malicious, or at least not very much, who were obsessed with learning more about the systems, who simply felt compelled to code all day and spend their spare time exploring connections, the spaces between the systems — seemed rare. But they were out there, a small but decent number of them.

Thirty years later, we talk about white-hat hackers and black-hat hackers in order to call out the difference in motivation and intent. But really, most of us knew that what separated the people we thought of as hackers from the people we dismissed as crackers was opportunity and perspective. Most hackers I knew were never actually given the opportunity to find out what they would do when faced with the chance to pilfer a corporate system. In the same way, most hackers I knew never allowed themselves to objectively consider how far they had in fact already gone in violating the privacy and the security of some systems and people. Most people seemed to be pretty cavalier about it.

Given the opportunity, though, I think a lot fewer people would have risked serious jail time through outrageous exploits than talked about it. From a more honest perspective, though, I think vastly fewer people would have been able to call themselves merely hackers. If you spent enough time on the scene, and you had even the slightest idea about and interest in what you were doing, eventually you were going to crack something.

Ideologically, I sympathized with the pirates, but I trained with phreaks, which relates to why I suffered without a modem for so long. Most modems back then used a super-cheap way of dialing a phone, pulse-dialing — imagine the simulation of an old rotary phone click-click-clicking around its actual dial in order to tell the phone switch what number it wanted to be connected with — because tone dialing, the sounds we still today associate with pressing numbers on a keypad, was very expensive to simulate. Computers back in the day could not generate arbitrary tones, not cleanly. Now, your phone can store and play back a sample of any kind of audio you’d ever want to play, spooled down at fantastic speed from a server who-knows-where, but when I was fifteen, if you wanted to dial a phone using touch-tones then you needed a modem with a special and expensive tone-generating chip. And the great thing about those was that once you can generate touch-tones, you can generate all kinds of tones.

The phone system back then was driven by tones. It lived and died by them. For example, you’ve probably heard how a guy who goes by the name of Cap’n Crunch — whose true name is John Draper — discovered that a whistle, included as a free toy in a brand of cereal marketed to children, produced a clean-enough 2600 Hertz tone to trick the old analog phone switches into thinking that a call had just ended, which left the whistler with an open line. Once you have an open line, you can call anyone, anywhere, for as long as you’d like to make the call, because the phone company won’t log it to your account. Then there were the tones that switches expected from pay phones when someone puts in a nickel. Fire the correct tone enough times, and you could make whatever call you wanted, since you’ve convinced the systems that you’ve paid for the privilege.

So if I saved my money for a more expensive modem, I would have touch-tone dialing, which was super fast relative to pulse-dialing and which made it much more likely that I’d be able to get through to some busier sites on busier nights while I let auto-dial do its dirty work. Plus, I’d be able to generate a number of interesting tones, starting with 2600 Hz and working my way up. And that way, I would only be ripping off the phone company. And no one likes the phone company, anyway. And since it’s not like I ever would have paid to make those calls in the first place, I reasoned, then it’s not like I’m robbing the phone company of anything. Fourteen-year-old boys can reason with a very specific flavor of self-serving precision.

What matters is that I will never forget a most joyful if painfully over-long bike ride to and from the only electronics store within many miles of my house in small, suburban Texas. It was just after Easter, I think.

I returned to the online world to find that a lot of my favorite numbers still worked, and a lot of people were glad to see me back. That was cool. There was no longer a computer answering the phone number for the Southern Baptist bulletin-board system. I never called it again.

On one of the first boards I connected back into after nearly a year’s absence, I requested to chat with the system operator. This was a common feature back then. The person calling in presses C from the main menu, and the remote system would beep, flashing a message that the user would like to chat, if the sysop was available. The sysop had been both nearby and interested in chatting, so we typed at each other for a while. I was quick on the keys, and expressed myself much better than any kid near my age, stutter aside. I told him I was interested in running a bulletin board system and asked if he could share a copy of the software for one with me.

“Just the source code,” I said — or typed, rather. “If you don’t mind. I want to run my own system. I want to see what the code looks like so I can write my own.”

He was of a pirate mind, and was happy to let me pull down a full copy. I could not believe my luck.

That night, I set up my system the way I wanted it to be. I got stuck thinking of a name, though, until it hit me. What should I call an underground site, hidden inside a boring chunk of hardware, though which my happiness bubbled out into the world? I posted an announcement, with my phone number, on three or four local sites — THE SUNSHINE FACTORY — and then I went to sleep.

The next morning, I saw to my delight that the system had been busy overnight. Then I realized to my horror that the system was down, hard down, wedged in a bad state, and all because I had done something exceedingly dumb. There had been enough callers overnight, and between the posts and their uploads they had completely filled the digital space on my one disk drive. It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but it was a time when you could basically type a computer to death. Now, I’ve seen people look like they were trying to fill their phones with text, but I don’t think anyone’s ever succeeded.

I reached back out to the guy who’d given me the software.

“You gotta set limits on things,” he said. “You can’t just let people post any old thing, either. You gotta delete stuff. It takes time.”

Then I told him I only had one floppy drive.

“That’s your problem,” he said.

“Do you have anything smaller?” I asked. “If the code was smaller, maybe there’d be more space on the disk for other stuff.” An Apple II disk could hold nearly 19,000 words. That wasn’t a lot. When I’m on a roll, I write about 1,000 words an hour. A lot of the code that ran the bulletin-board system was embarrassingly straightforward, though big chunks of it made zero sense. I had now idea how much of it was absolutely necessary versus what I could happily delete in order to make room for another small list or two of interesting numbers.

He didn’t have anything smaller. I had to aggressively remove posts and completely restrict file uploads. People were happy to download without contributing, but the gears of the Sunshine Factory were grinding. I was failing before I’d even begun. I hadn’t set out to host a popular pirate site, offering up the hottest new games, because I didn’t want to serve users who would only connect so that they could kick off a download. I wanted to talk to people.

Something else would have to be done. I called another board that I’d been on for a while, chatted with the sysop. He also agreed that my problem was the storage, not the size of the software. We typed back and forth at each other for a little while, until he told me to call back with an actual phone to have an actual conversation.

I asked if he’d mind giving me a copy of what he was running, just a piece of it so that I could see how it worked. I told him I didn’t want to rip anybody off. “Why don’t I give you a copy of the whole thing?” he asked. He was going to be in my area that weekend. He said he’d stop by.

He ended up being a man in his mid-30s, red hair, mustache — the first person I ever met in person only after coming to know them online. I’m not sure what he was expecting but from his expression when a whisper-thin fifteen-year-old boy answered the door, I was not what he was expecting. He took it well, though.

“Come on back to my room,” I said. He stepped in, nervous, looking around for adult supervision. My parents were out.

In a black nylon satchel, he’d brought a spare disk drive and the cables it needed to hook up to my computer. Soon we were reading his bulletin-board software from one drive and copying to a blank disk in the other, while he thumbed through my small library of pirated software. He wasn’t interested in games, which cut out most of what I had. Evidently I had a sector editor he hadn’t seen, though, and he asked if he could copy it. I was totally surprised he hadn’t seen it, since it had been so useful to me.

Earlier that year I’d fought my way through a game called Ultima III, and once I got to the same point with it that I’d gotten to with Wizardry where it felt less interesting and more of a grind, I’d started wondering how the game remembered my progress. A sector editor was a tool I’d been told was used mostly by crackers to read and modify information on a disk at its lowest level. It usually looked like garbage, though sometimes you could find interesting things by scanning through screen after screen of the actual bytes on a disk. Scanning my copy of Ultima III eventually turned up where it was storing my game character, and through methodical experimentation I figured out what all the funny letters meant — this one told the computer how strong I was, this one was how hard I was to kill, and so on. I gave myself greater and more incredible powers until I sailed straight through the game’s finale, devastating it. Even weeks later, I kept tweaking my character, going back to stomp things that had previously been serious challenges for me in the game.

“It sounds like you’re trying to do something here,” he said. “What are you trying to do?”

I felt pierced. I wasn’t prepared to talk about what I’d been planning, especially not with a grown-up.

“Have you ever read a story called ‘True Names’?” I asked, stuttering badly.

He had not. Using as few words as I could, I told him what I was going to build.

He clearly wanted to finish my words for me, as most adults would when my stutter was at its worst. It was a relief to find him interested in what I had to say and patient enough to let me say it myself. It was a real kindness, and was probably one of the reasons we became something like friends, eventually.

When I was through telling him what I planned, he stared off into the distance, nodding to himself. Then he looked back at me and said, “That is completely bat-shit crazy. My name’s Frank, by the way.” We only knew one another by our online name.

“Patrick,” I told him, pointing at myself, because I was not about to give anyone my true name. I had a lot of work to do.

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Going to California

The Sunshine Factory — 3

For nearly six weeks, just after turning fourteen, I had a phone line and a modem and a computer — a combination of things that a world of people much younger than fourteen years will commonly walk around with in their pockets all day, every day. But in my world, I was special.

I don’t remember going outside much, those weeks. I remember Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue,” and I remember Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” but not a whole lot else that didn’t come in the form of Coke in a can or as green, glowing letters on a matte-black background. After long years of planning, I had the most fascinating thing I’d ever heard of in my whole life in my bedroom. No one else in the house wanted even to be in the same room with it, and no one minded that I spent all my time with it. How could things get better?

One thing I had learned in my time looking over the shoulder of the kid who’d owned the modem was that the list of bulletin-board systems in the back of the monthly local computer magazine was only the tip of the iceberg. Systems constantly popped up and vanished overnight, launched by kids who didn’t realize that by connecting their computers to their house’s phone line they were blocking their parents from receiving phone calls. These were always fun, for the days or hours they lasted. Then there began to emerge, on the scribbled list of numbers I’d collected, a tier of slightly more persistent boards, ones that lasted weeks or months until either the system’s operator got bored or it decided it didn’t want to take on any new users and went private, access by invitation only. Those boards flew under the radar, either because they were hosting text files that the general public either didn’t care about or probably wouldn’t like, or because people sometimes had conversations that might not have been strictly legal. Some sites were private because they would let you download games, which definitely crossed the legal line at the time. The other software was also interesting, especially the programs that could copy disks and otherwise to crack the kinds of copy-protection used on computer games at the time.

Me, I loved all of those all boards. I thought they were great. And the more you went on, the more you found out about. The people were funny, or rude, or crazy, or normal stick-in-the-mud people, and I read everything everyone wrote, mostly because it didn’t stick around very long. And taking part in the conversation, having people who I suspected were adults listen to me and respond to me like I was any other person, was the greatest thrill. While I was not a bad stage or screen actor, once I knew my lines, in everyday life my stutter made interpersonal interactions difficult for me, and had been for years. I don’t remember talking much at all in second grade, for example. But it wasn’t hard to get decent at typing on a computer keyboard, and in those tiny islands of isolated online worlds I found a voice that seemed to work even when I wasn’t simply reciting something I’d memorized, or quoting what I’d heard someone say in a movie. I was writing, and it felt more natural than speaking, even better than singing.

Even today, there are plenty of times that I’d rather type than talk. On a lot of days, it feels more like my real voice.

I hadn’t stopped playing Wizardry, the dungeon-exploration game, though not simply because it was proving to be harder to get to the tenth and final level than I’d thought but also because it seemed impossible to copy. I couldn’t copy it myself — and oh, did I try — and I never one time saw a cracked copy floating around. So because I couldn’t copy the game, I had to beat it before the much older boys down the street wanted it back.

One day, flipping idly through my scraps of graph paper I’d filled with geometric dungeon shapes through hours of playing the game, I remembered the map I’d drawn of the Southern Baptist Radio & TV Commission, and the number of the bulletin-board system that they ran. I’d never seen the number published elsewhere, but I’d carried that worn piece of paper in my blue velcro-sealed wallet for more than a year until I realized I could finally use it.

Setting fantasy dungeons aside, I had my computer dial the number. Their system answered, and even let me create my own user account — I didn’t recognize the software, though I’d gotten good at being able to pick them out; there were maybe four or five super-common ones. After creating my account, I found myself in what looked like something I’d never previously imagined: a digital ghost town. Now, it was true that my newly created account had limited access, but everywhere else when a system let you in it would also let you look around at basic things, even if you couldn’t see the bulk of whatever cool stuff they were hosting. This system looked like it was never used. It felt eerie. I called back several times over a number of weeks, but never saw any sign that other users were logging in. The general board was empty, the system’s welcome message was never updated, and all the other timestamps continued to age. If I was supposed to believe what I saw, it had been more than six months since anyone else had touched the thing.

Beating Wizardry should have made me feel better than it eventually did, but by the time I got to the end it was little more than a simple math exercise. The final battle was over quickly, and there wasn’t anything to do afterwards. It began to feel as empty as the Southern Baptists bulletin-board system. I didn’t want to stare into a screen, interacting only with a computer. I wanted to thrum with life.

After returning the game to the older boys down the street, I had one of those rare opportunities in life to do something very stupid without any repercussions. The welcome message on the Southern Baptist’s system said to send an email if you needed anything, I remembered. So I logged in and I wrote to the sysop that I had figured out how to destroy their system. However, if they would make me a system operator, and post a copy of the bulletin board software for me to download, then I wouldn’t tear the place down. I’m sure I expressed myself poorly, though thankfully it didn’t matter. In the weeks to come as I checked back to see what would result from my note, I still never saw any sign of other logins, much less any updates of any kind.

Since I never saw any sign that anyone ever even read my message, I got two things out of that final flare of rebellion against the Southern Baptists. The first thing was an understanding of the scale of waste in the world, even in relatively modest organizations. That they let a computer sit there, with a modem, plugged into a phone line, for probably more than a year without using it for anything, was unfathomable to me at the time. The second thing, which had never crossed my mind until I’d stopped to wonder what I should ask them to give me, was the idea that I should run my own bulletin-board system.

Something else had happened, though. After years of being a super-good kid, actively resisting rebellious urges, I discovered a dark gate in my heart. It was very pretty in there.

I had been talking with — more like writing to — people for long enough, building a kind of reputation, that I was starting to gain access to some interesting places online. Some of the things you could find in these places were short-lived cultivations of interesting numbers. Some of these numbers were access codes for long-distance phone services.

In the 1980s, long-distance phone calls were unfeasibly expensive, though they were required for doing most forms of business. Business people could call the local number of one of these new long-distance companies that were springing up, punch in their access code, and then freely make a long-distance call, which would be billed to the access code’s account instead of showing up on your monthly phone bill. As far as your phone company knew, you’d only made a local call.

I had seen War Games earlier that summer, and I’d noted, dumbstruck in the theater with the simplicity of the idea, how the young hacker character had simply set his computer up calling number after number after number, checking to see if a computer answered. After verifying, to my delight, that the numbers shared with me actually did work — I passed a happy weekend creating accounts on pirate bulletin-board systems in Chicago, in Los Angeles, typing back and forth with people in cities I wouldn’t visit in person for more than ten years — I realized that relying on other people for long-distance access codes was not smart. And using access codes that had probably been leaned on heavily already by other kids was actually pretty dumb. I was against dumb things.

One Sunday before we drove out to the country to see my dad’s parents, I had my computer begin calling a local long-distance provider number, trying a different access code each time. When we got home at the end of the day, I ran home to find that I’d mined a handful of good access codes. I told myself that I wouldn’t use the same one more than a few times. I told myself that these probably belonged to large companies, and probably no one tracked these things, and probably a couple of calls on any one bill would probably be shrugged off in any case.

It’s not like I was stealing, I also told myself, because that wouldn’t be like me. Even though stealing was exactly what I also did that summer on an open-house night at the local college, when I saw what looked like a username and password for an account that I’d seen written on a piece of paper. I didn’t have to write it down; I remembered it. A friend’s father worked for the university, and he used a computer with a modem to call in to the mainframe there, so I already had access to a phone number. Putting the both of them together, in a world where accounts did not get locked out after some number of invalid login attempts, gave me remote access to the college mainframe as some kind of administrator. And I didn’t even have to steal long distance access to get there.

The problem was that I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. There was a basic menu system that served as a launch point, with maybe eight different options. Some of the options spooled out long and boring text files, though a few of them dropped me into little worlds where I recognized few words and fewer symbols. I had the sense that I was somewhere that was alive, distinctly not like the Southern Baptists’ system, but what the university had to offer was well advanced from anything I’d ever seen. It was as though I’d been happily buzzing jungle natives in a bi-plane, mocking their primitive lives, only to look up and find myself in the shadow of a featureless, seamless flying saucer. It was probably the most frightening thing that happened to me that summer.

I dropped the connection before I caused any real damage. For a little while, I lived in fear of the police showing up. Every time I saw a swollen phone bill come in from the mailbox, I dreaded my mom showing me how all the charges for all the calls I’d been making had been reversed to our home number. Why it wouldn’t show up on my personal bill, I couldn’t say. You can’t reason with paranoia, and you can’t reason with a fourteen-year-old boy, so you should tread lightly around a paranoid fourteen-year-old boy.

Eventually, my friend’s parents did pay to have his Apple repaired, and I eventually if reluctantly returned his modem to him. I was offline for about six months, most of my freshman year in high school. I wasn’t happy about it, but even in Texas the grass only grows so quickly, affecting the rate at which I collected lawn-mowing money. I even had to back off on buying comics, to save more money. Besides, I’d already downloaded enough software that I didn’t quite understand. It would hold me for a little while. I wasn’t out of the game. In my spare time, I worked on little skills, like reading upside-down text quickly, which I suspected would come in handy at some point.

Then I read a book called True Names, and my horizon really opened up. It had been so obvious the whole time, really.

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Going to California

The Sunshine Factory — 2

A few months after my time in The Sunshine Factory, I was cast in some national commercials. This, coupled with other assorted TV and modeling gigs, brought me enough money that I could realistically fantasize about owning a computer, which was inconceivable for my parents on two levels. The first level was of course the money. I didn’t just want any computer, which could be gotten for less than $1,000 — and which still made my parents choke — but I wanted an Apple computer, which at the time started out around $2,600. This was more money than my parents had together been able to save in the first years of their marriage. The second level was in wondering what a child would actually do with a computer.

I assured them that I knew exactly what I would do with a computer.

It took nearly a year, but eventually around the time of my birthday I spent half of the money I’d saved and, leveraging my mother’s educational discount, we bought one of the newly released Apple IIe computers, green-screen, floppy drive, and all.

The computer was the biggest piece of the puzzle, but it wasn’t the only piece.

Around the time I turned four years old, my parents moved into the house where we would live until the time I left home for college, in Austin. I remember running in the backyard one time when we were visiting the house after it had been built, just before actually moving in. We were in one of the many suburban communities going up then and still today growing out along the perimeter of Fort Worth, Texas. The house was set on a slight hill, tall oak trees thinly scattered around. The neighbors hadn’t moved in yet either, so they hadn’t yet put up the fences that would soon define the true perimeter of our backyard, but right then it was open. I could look up and down along the rolling land behind the block’s houses. It was interesting. It looked really big. I liked it.

In the far back corner of what was marked out as our yard, I found a thin metal case, about three feet high, ten inches across, ten inches deep. It was looked like a sun-desaturated light green with what I remember as a yellow symbol of it, in the shape of a bell.

“That’s from the phone company,” my dad told me. I walked around and didn’t see any other telephone posts around my height. “Maybe that’s the only one for all these houses,” he said.

Later, when I was checking out the inside of the house, which looked cool without any furniture, but finished, I saw a round, tan, plastic disc stuck to the wall. Molded into the plastic was the same bell symbol.

“Do I have a phone in my room?” I asked. But no, that only meant that there was a wire there, in case you wanted a phone. But what if I wanted a phone? You can’t have a phone, you’re too young. When can I have a phone? Fourteen. When you’re fourteen. You have to pay for it yourself, though.

For ten years, I kept my eyes on fourteen. I always reminded my parents that they’d said that and I held them to it. For years, I tracked how much the least-expensive phone plan was, since it did change every one in a while. On my fourteenth birthday I got my one phone, with my own phone number.

First, of course, I spent a lot of time talking on the phone, I remember. I could get into runs on the phone where I wasn’t stuttering at all, just rattling back and forth in free-flowing language. I’d been doing this for years with some of my closest friends, but only when my parents didn’t need to use the phone, or weren’t expecting a call. A lot of my early phone experience was before call-waiting was available; if someone called and you were on the phone, the caller got a busy signal. But finally I had phone access that would never need to be interrupted by anyone else. It cost me about $15 a month, but during the summer I got about that much in a week for mowing the yard, so I stayed on top of it and still had enough spare cash to take the occasional short walk through my neighborhood in a Texas summer sun, which bordered on a spiritually cleansing experience, to the closest 7-11 convenience store and the comic books they sold there.

Not coincidentally, the same summer that I got a phone was the summer that I got a computer. Still, I didn’t yet have all the pieces. I needed a modem, to connect my computer to the phone line.

For several months before I got my computer, I’d often been hanging around with one of the computer-wielding kids in my extended neighborhood — before me, there were three — and at the exact right moment for me he did the most incredibly stupid thing you could imagine. Unlike me, his parents had enough money that they could afford a computer without thinking too terribly much about it, so I think he didn’t respect it the way I did mine. Also unlike me, he had gotten a modem with his computer. I was a little jealous, even if it was a crappy modem.

Believe me, I’d borrowed a Wizardry, an early computer game largely modeled after Dungeons & Dragons, from the two much-older German boys down the street from me, fully exploiting my computer’s capability as the most expensive gaming platforms available. It was the first time I’d ever stayed up all night. I used my dungeon-mapping skills to explore the game, drawing room after room of explorations out on graph paper. You could find secret doors that way, sometimes. I fought monsters, I collected treasure. But it wasn’t like having a modem.

I could have gotten a crappy modem like that other kid and struggled through, but just like I’d done the research to know what computer I wanted, I knew what modem I wanted and it was nearly $300. There was no way my parents would let me spend any more money. It would be lawn-mowing money, or nothing. So even for a few weeks after I got my computer, I spent a good many afternoons watching over this neighborhood kid’s shoulder, along with two or three other kids, as text trickled across his computer’s screen from remote systems we found to dial.

The modem was a long green card, maybe half-an-inch thick, eight inches long, and four inches tall. You it slotted into the green board that was the actual computer. A thick metal enclosure around the green motherboard kept out troublesome things like dust and water, though the more cards you hooked up inside your computer, the hotter it would get in there.

Concerned about the heat being generated by his modem along with two floppy disk controllers — he had two disk drives; I nearly hated him — the other kid had popped off his computer’s lid and placed the monitor carefully on top, its rubber feet resting firmly on both sides of the computer enclosure. This left a venting area about three inches by ten inches between the top row of keys on the keyboard and the bottom edge of the heavy monitor.

I wasn’t there on the fateful day that he leaned forward to more closely check out something on the screen and, forgetting what he had in his hand, accidentally poured an icy glass of Coke into the vent and across the computer’s main board. Still, the news spread quickly. I waited a couple of days before dropping by to deliver my condolences — Sure, your parents are mad, but they are going to fix it? How, that’s cool; you’re so lucky. How long will it take? Man, that’s a while.

Say, the modem was okay, though, wasn’t it? Wow, that’s good news. Hey: it just occurred to me: could I borrow it while your machine is getting fixed?

I got home quickly, leaping from tree shadow to tree shadow, trying to stay out of the sun, careful not to jostle the modem too much in its plastic bag. Home, in the sudden, sharp cold and dark, I walked slowly to my room, sweat cooling and evaporating from my hands as I rounded the corner and closed the door.

The procedure was simple, I knew. I had put my own computer together in the first place. (I remember my dad, backing away, “He knows what he’s doing,” he said, meaning, “It’s your fault if you break it.”) Pop the top, unscrew and remove a dummy back plate to make room for the phone jack, slide the card carefully in — hold it along its edges; do not touch anything else, especially anything metal — then screw the back plate in place. Close the lid. Plug in the phone cable.

The computer came on fine, and when I started up the dialing program and made that first connection from my computer to another computer, something deep and rebellious inside of me flared, showering my heart with the coldest of sparks amid bright, happy feelings, as I considered what to do first.

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Going to California

The Sunshine Factory

The story of how I ended up in California could start any number of places, but the point of no return would have to be The Sunshine Factory.

Growing up, I was a good kid, I think, a really good kid who followed the rules with an earnesty bordering on desperation. I walked straight to school, I was a reasonable student, I came home from school and quietly watched TV until I had to go to bed. I had no interest in sports or in running around breaking things, like so many other boys in my neighborhood. I took care of my toys. I did not want to hurt bugs.

At maybe ten years old, I one time tried to walk out of a store with a purple gum ball, bulging stupidly out from the side of my white, tight gym shorts. I got called out seconds later by the aunt who was with me. “That’s not like you!” she said, and yeah, she was right. I could not explain why my hand had reached out for that gum ball, and as much as anything bothers a ten-year-old, it bothered me.

I never again tried my hand at shoplifting, though as I stepped through from twelve to thirteen years old, other little rebellions began to streak out through my character, deep vibrations that would not be denied.

In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I filmed a season of a locally produced children’s television show called “The Sunshine Factory.” I’m extremely glad to report that as far as I know it was only minimally broadcast, though some later seasons saw syndication. They even bundled up a few shows for the home video market, some of which later showed up on YouTube so you can see for yourself how awful it was.

The show, in brief: an over-genial couple — imagine Ned and Maude Flanders from The Simpsons, nearly ten years early — ran a hardware store that served as the gateway to a brightly lit and wonderful world, a supernatural factory from which joy and sunshine was generated and sent out into the world. Ten or so implausibly cheery pre-teens hung out down there with the Flanders-like couple and the obligatory puppets, dressed uniformly in blue pants and red shirts. Each episode explored different emotional and social issues though little skits and dramas and songs.

I know. It sounds dumb. I knew it was awful at the time, and when a seventh-grader, even a super-precocious one, thinks your show is poorly written, then maybe you have a problem. In my defense, there were mitigating factors as to why I was involved. For example, it paid decent money, especially on the scale of a twelve-year-old. And as a kid with a cringe-inducing speech impediment, except when singing or when reciting phrases or lines I’d previously memorized, those brief moments of praise for doing what seemed to come naturally to everyone else — speaking clearly — were delicious. If nothing else, it forced me to work very hard on my memory. As long as I had my lines down, I was as fluid as anyone ever was. One step off the line, and it was crash-and-burn.

The show was produced by the Southern Baptist Radio & TV Commission out of their Fort Worth offices. This was in the early 1980s, when evangelical Christianity was swelling forward into the new media world. The larger churches were acquiring satellite uplinks and cable television was sweeping the nation—you no longer had three big networks alongside a couple of local stations showing reruns, you could have tens of channels showing a wide range of crappy content. I remember when cable arrived at a friend’s house. We watched for hours as the most amazing images flashed past. His father had attempted suicide, and was expected to spend the rest of his life being cared for in a hospital. His mother was happy for the narcotic of cable television. We disappeared into the screen, when we could. The Southern Baptists had seen kids do this as well and they wanted a foot in that door. So they funded the production of a decent line-up of shows, including children’s programming.

We didn’t spend all our time filming and rehearsing, though. We spent a lot of time, most of our time, sitting around waiting to film. We were allowed to talk with one another, though we couldn’t get too loud given that we were basically crashing out in the air-conditioned, stubbily carpeted lobby of their home office. Myself, I mostly read comics. Then in the quiet times, when the fewest eyes seemed to be upon us, I explored.

Most hallways fed into open and well-populated offices, so there weren’t a lot of options to pursue or much room to claim that you’d gotten lost once you were caught opening doors and sticking your head into closets. Tucked into the pages of a comic book was a sheet of paper on which I began to draw a map of the place, like I’d seen the kids at summer camp do while playing a new game that they called Dungeons & Dragons. I had drawn all the doors and windows on the map, though that was all the detail I got. It didn’t feel right to embroider a real place by drawing in imaginary creatures. The only real monster I faced was boredom.

That’s how I discovered another medium into which the Southern Baptists hoped to expand. In one office, I found a computer, though no one seemed to be using it. Naturally, I thought, they should totally let me at it. The machine was definitely on, fan whirring, though the monitor was off. Since it was situated in a room where a bunch of people were always busily working, which ruled out a stealthy approach, I did what I thought was the smart thing. I walked straight in and asked a grown-up for permission.

Oh, no, no, no, he explained. It was the show’s Ned Flanders, with whom I felt I had the best relationship. Oh, he thought it was neat that I wanted to buy a computer someday, that I had even taking classes the summer before to learn some programming, but no, I still couldn’t use theirs, because even though the computer looked like it was asleep, it was actually doing something important. It was running what they called a bulletin-board system.

You see, they had attached a modem, which is a box that lets you hook a computer up to a phone line. Once connected, the computer could run a program that let it recognize and pick up calls, which allowed a remote computer to read files stored on the computer in the office, from notes left by other callers to text files sorted by subject. Some bulletin board systems even had little games you could play online, against a computer or with other people. Theirs didn’t have any games, though; theirs was a private system for coordinating across different offices and other important things. But if I was interested, when I saved up all my pennies and got a computer and a modem — he laughed at the likelihood of this actually happening — in the back pages of a local computer-interest magazine was a list of as many as fifteen or so public bulletin-board systems. I could try calling some of them, maybe.

Okay, I thought, I’m interested. I tried to respond, hoping to change his mind or at least to extend the conversation, but I couldn’t. That was my speech impediment, lovely creature that it remains today. I felt my face flush as I nodded, something quite the opposite of sunshine and joy growing in the factory of my heart. Turning away, I caught only a quick glimpse of a phone number, taped to the bulky computer monitor. But my memory was good.

I went back to the other kids, and my comic book, and on my map I drew a dot in the office where the computer sat. “Treasure,” I wrote beside it, also noting the phone number.

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Going to California

From the beginning — 3

My new employer, I found out quickly, was actually more of a general security company, or at least it was trying to become one. In addition to being your classic international detective agency, they also owned a popular corporate drug-testing company as well as an organization that did background checks, mostly for employers. But it didn’t stop there.

We also built armored cars — though not the kind that banks use. Well, maybe that kind, too, I don’t know, but they were specifically great at armoring normal cars in a way that you couldn’t tell from the outside that they were armored. For example, I was told that they’d made the Lexus that Bill Gates drove. I hate to think of what their suspensions must have been like, supporting that much armor. My once-and-former-and-now-once-again boss, Geoffrey Cooper, managed to visit the factory once, where he saw a stack of doors waiting to be attached. They were so heavy that the stack of them was unshiftable. But once mounted on precision hinges, the solidly armored car doors would open and close with nearly no effort, even if I’m not sure you’d want your leg to get caught by one.

Someone from our office — maybe it was Geof, I don’t recall — saw a customer walking up and down the line and shaking all the hands that built the car that had protected her and her family from a missile attack.

Like everyone I’d already met at my new job, the woman who was ran our office was sharp and tireless. She was the kind of person who liked to meet people in her office by walking around to stand in front of her desk, leaning back against it only slightly.

“So you know a lot about web sites,” she asked me.

“I’ve been doing it since 1993,” I said. “A lot of people know more than me, but I think I know enough.”

“So they tell me. And you’re a graphic designer — Photoshop, the whole bit?”

“I got a degree in it. I’ve probably logged more flight time in Photoshop and in Quark than in any other programs, outside of text editors. I’ve converted a old-style paste-up shop into a digital pre-press production.”

She made an extremely subtle wave with one hand, which I took to mean that we were done talking about that.

“I can draw,” I offered.

“And write, I hear.”

“I should be good enough.”

“Could you write marketing copy?”

“Sure.”

She narrowed her eyes at me.

“I’m from Texas, too, you know,” she told me.

She was the first transplant I’d met who I hadn’t known back home. “Really? Where?”

“Houston.”

“I spent the last twelve years in Austin.”

“I know,” she snapped, adding, “Nice place.”

“I liked it.”

“What I’m saying is, in Texas, we know from bullshit.”

I agreed that I knew what she was saying.

“Also,” she said, “you’re a geek — no offense.”

“None taken. I’m a geek about the things I’m a geek about. There’s a lot I don’t know.”

“But you do know a lot, in a lot of different areas. One of our corporate groups does security training. Is there any training you’d like?”

“Like what?”

“The course on anti-terrorist driving techniques is popular.”

“I can imagine.”

She smiled. “What they do is they drive you around, while another car follows you. The instructor demonstrates a number of techniques for shaking or discouraging someone who’s following you. Then they put you behind the wheel. You have to figure out who’s following you, and you have to lose them.” She beamed. “And the car they use, is—wait, you’re a hacker, too, right?”

Impressive, I thought. You got my guard down. Yes, we Texans know from bullshit, sometimes.

“I’ve been following computer security, sometimes with more attention and sometimes with less, for about 16 years.”

“And you’re 30 years old.”

I nodded. “I was more of an informal computer security researcher. I did know real hackers, so I knew enough to know not to call myself one.”

“You’re here, so you know enough.” I certainly knew enough to recognize flattery by that point.

She leaned further back against her desk. “You can design magazines and fonts; you can write; you know about marketing and you know about databases.” I didn’t actually know that much about databases at the time, but there wasn’t room to correct her. “You draw, and you code.” She gestured back and forth in the space between us. “You communicate,” she said. Then she smirked. “And you’re at least a little bit of a hacker.”

Without turning my head I glanced quickly around, paranoid, as if someone might be hiding behind an office plant who I wouldn’t want to speak in front of.

She looked me up and down. “Say I believe it. How did this happen?”

“It’s a long story,” I told her. Ultimately I guess it turned out not to matter, since I’ve been with the company now in one form or another for fourteen years. But you have a trustworthy face. I’ll tell you.

Standard