I had a quick question.
At the end of writing all these stories about running a bulletin-board system, I thought to go through some old boxes and I turned up some very curiously labeled 5.25” disks.
About a month ago, after getting the kids to bed and cleaning up the kitchen, I drove down to a Redwood City parking lot where I traded a guy I’d met on Craigslist $120 for an Apple IIe. I drove back to the city and hauled the old equipment into my office and began to poke at it.
I was up playing with it until nearly 3 AM that first morning. Then I figured out what it’d take to get it to talk with a modern computer, which saw me order up a special cable and a special adapter and then, about a week after that when the cable arrived, any disk that I had in the old Apple’s disk drive would get read and fed over some wires to my literally shiny modern computer.
A lot of the disks weren’t readable after all this time, of course. Even on the readable disks, I found a lot of files that I really wish I could open but couldn’t. However, among other things I found a partial backup of my old system.
Over the course of a week, I looked through a lot of it. One file was a partial copy of the system’s users, including their real names and addresses. I was surprised to find this, because I’d forgotten that I’d gone to some pretty lengthy measures to verify everyone who wanted an account on the board. I’m not entirely sure why. I think at the time I thought I was being paranoid, though now I think it was just a ham-handed attempt to try to make friends.
I looked up a bunch of the old users. Most of them have LinkedIn profiles, doing things like mid-level IT management at some tech company I’ve never heard of in a decent Dallas suburb. I recognized but couldn’t summon up a face or a voice for a lot of the names there, so I don’t feel like I need to reach out to any of them.
In most cases so far, in writing this story, I’ve been choosing to change the names of people I haven’t gotten permission from, for whatever reason. I mixed up some of the pseudonyms and true names of the various kids who showed up in that story, and it doesn’t look like this partial backup has any of their contact information, so I’m going to call it a draw.
I thought I had one more set of disks, but they haven’t turned up yet. I hold out hope for something else interesting there, if I ever find them.
What I did find was a bunch of text that I’d written, probably when I was sixteen, for the game that I’d been running. Not just a bunch, actually. There’s a lot of it, along with a bunch of other files, including enough code that I might be able to get the game up and running again. That could be a good year-end holiday project.
To the extent that you care to read any bits of it, below are some unedited* excerpts of text that I recovered from the old disks. As near as I can tell, I wrote them when I was sixteen. Because part of the game had you walking around a fantasy-world city, I needed text descriptions for its nooks and crannies. As players moved from room to room — more like scene to scene, in some cases — the system would feed them a different description file. Each room connected to other rooms in different directions, so the text had to give you a sense of where you were as well as what you could do there. There wasn’t much fancy in what I wrote, but there’s a great lot more than I remembered. I’m embarrassed to find that some of the street names were lifted from a classic-but-obscure adventure called “The City-State of the Invincible Overlord,” a copy of which arrived at my home today in the mail and which I used to verify my teenage proper-noun theft.
But I like that even though a terrifyingly large number of years separate me and the kid who wrote this, it sounds to me an awful lot like me. And I think I’m okay with that. It’s not all that interesting, though I remember the text delivering a nice effect as you moved from room to room. Also, there were monsters.
In no particular order:
This farmer’s road is quite empty. Everyone must be in the City today. You can see an open window on a barn to the south, but you can’t get to it from here. The road continues east and west.
This is the end of the chain link fence. Here, the brush gets too thick to pass any farther north. Your only exit is south.
Lying on your stomach gives you a whole new perspective on the world. Either go west and explore the unknown beyond this fence, or be a coward and go back up to outside the fence.
The north and south walls of this room are lined with bunks, three high and seven long, and an extra one at the end. There is a door to the west that leads into another room, and from the east door blows a cool breeze. Over the west door is that symbol of the eye in the pyramid again . . .
Yes, this part of the ox-cart road IS quite new, the dirt on the side not even packed down completely yet. An alley runs northwest of here, one of the many in this City, and the wooden fence blocks off any route east.
You stand on solid cement, the first paved road you’ve seen in this town. It is overgrown with weeds and grass, this artifact from another age. The old south road now serves as a path between Harvest Road the farmer’s market. It stretches northerly.
This is the east side of the Bazaar of the Bizzare, and a little calmer than the west, though the tension and excitement still linger in the air. High above you looks a window, just out of reach. A bit of the bazaar continues farther east. To the south is the great Wall, immovable.
Brazier Street ends here, all former glory lost. To the west, around a two-story apartment/blacksmith shoppe, is Scud Street, and a small alleyway runs northwest of here. On the bright side, you can get away from all this by going back south.
The people here are crammed in like sardines, all smelly and slimy. The only apparant way out is up a ladder to a better view of what everyone’s shouting about, or east and away from this madhouse.
You’re standing in front of a millitia blockade. “Move along”, says one Guard.
This is the largest of all the houses here. The grass lawn is well trimmed, and the shiny, solid oak door is well polished. A large plaque on the door reads “Uncle Stevie is OUT”.
The laughter follows you down the hall to this room, like will-o-wisps from conversations gone by. This room is full of ale kegs, all of which prove to be too heavy to carry. Street sounds rise up from a window ledge on the south side of the room, just size enough for a person to sit on. The giggling of a young person beckons from the west.
If you don’t know where you are by now, there’s no use in telling you.
* Okay, among all the typos and abuses of style, I made one tiny edit. I’m not sorry.
While I had several people reading the Hacker Crackdown stuff before posting it, I still got a couple of things wrong.
First of all, the three Legion of Doom guys in Atlanta were raided six months before the AT&T long-distance telephone network crash, but they weren’t arrested until three weeks after the network crash (along with Terminus, a Legion of Doom associate, and Knight Lightning, who edited the online magazine Phrack). Only after that did Erik Bloodaxe and the Mentor decide they had to take down their security research board, The Phoenix Project.
Here’s the best overall hacker crackdown timeline I’ve found online. The formatting isn’t great, though. I’ll probably make one at some point.
Also, thanks to Steve Jackson for pointing out that the U.S. Secret Service actually did have a warrant for Steve Jackson Games. What they didn’t have was a subpoena, and that was what cost them. This is because the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 grants publishers freedom from having the authorities search for evidence of crimes in their offices. Pete Kennedy was one of the lawyers for Steve Jackson Games, and he wrote:
they may not “search for or seize” publishers’ “work product” or “documentary materials”, essentially draft of publications, writers’ notes, and such. To get such material, the police must subpoena them, not with the much more disruptive search warrant.
Also, it turns out that the U.S. Secret Service had a warrant for their raid on Steve Jackson Games, though it was not available for inspection at the time of the raid or at any time soon after. It had been sealed by court order, which generally only happens when people’s lives are clearly at risk. Only many months later did Steve’s lawyers get the warrant affidavit unsealed.
The warrant, dated the day before the raid, clearly gives the SJ Games office address, even going so far as to describe it from the perspective of someone who had actually visited the location.
Mentor confirmed for me that the Secret Service agents already knew about Steve Jackson Games when they knocked on his door, and already planned on raiding the place. They mistakenly thought Mentor was a student at the university, which was why they’d brought campus police with them — likely because Erik Bloodaxe was a student. They did ask him about his past programming jobs, though it was when they tried working out his role at SJ Games that they learned about the cyberpunk game.
When I go back and edit the text — sooner rather than later, hopefully — I’ll work in all these changes and details.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that in one of those unexpected alignments, the same weekend that this was written also saw Steve Jackson Games celebrate the roll-out of their newest version of Ogre, the Ogre Designer’s Edition. The Kickstarter that they launched to gauge support for the game generated more than $900,000 over the asking price. It’s been immensely popular both in American and internationally; they’ve just put out a draft copy of the rules in German, for example.
I’m hoping to have my copy of the Ogre Designer’s Edition in about a week. It looks massive, like it needs its own room. I don’t know where I’ll put it, but it will get played.
Now back to the story.
Steve Jackson Games was well known, long lived, and respected in the adventure gaming industry — again, I hope I’m not spoiling the story to say that they still are. At the time, though, they were still smarting from the Secret Service raid. They needed a hit. I’d just laid out and sent to print about $10,000-worth of color posters promoting the game. It was game on, seriously, and I had been trusted with this.
I took a deep breath.
“This is a one-gigabyte drive,” I said. I’ve added a picture of the drive in question, just above this text; I keep it on a shelf in my office even today, as a reminder. “How much do you think this costs?” I asked.
“I dunno, about two grand?”
“About two-thousand dollars. That sounds like a lot of money to me. I don’t have extras lying around. I didn’t just happen to make a mistake and bring you the wrong drive. This is the only one I’ve got, and it’s the one I’m very confident has the full-color book I’ve been slaving away on, night and day, for the past three weeks.”
The guy started to look nervous. I smiled, hoping to put him at ease.
“I think I know what the problem is,” I said, genuinely being a huge enough geek that I had intuited the solution to the problem. “I had my project folder on the drive’s Desktop. In the last version of the Mac OS, there was a small bug that made files on the Desktop seem to disappear, but everything is still really there. An update came out a couple of months ago; maybe you haven’t upgraded yet, for some reason. But, cool. All you have to do is reboot the machine and hold down Command-Option after it’s done starting up, ’cause that’ll force it to rebuild the Desktop, and then you’ll see the files, no problem.”
I thought I was saving this guy’s life. What I didn’t know was that he’d already lobbed a one-gigabyte bomb into mine.
“Well,” he said, “yeah, I think I remember hearing something about that bug. I think we had that problem a couple times, a while back, I just never got around to upgrading that machine.” He winced from somewhere deep inside, as I glanced back and forth between him and my hard drive as though I was glancing back and forth between his hand and a desk-mounted vice grip, wondering how to get the two together.
“So then we reboot the machine,” I said.
“Do you have a backup?” he asked.
I took a deep breath. “Of the six-hundred megabyte project? No.” Three years later, I’d be able to burn that much data onto a CD for $15.
“Well,” he said, “there’s a problem. Last night, I needed to move a bunch of projects around. And I needed to get them from one place to another place. And I thought your drive was blank, so I copied everything over to it, moved the drive to another machine to copy everything off. It was about…a gig.”
I felt my eyes narrowing. “And because your computer didn’t know that I had stuff on the disk, it wrote over everything that was there.”
He looked as though I’d already put his hand in the vice grip. “Basically,” he said.
I could hear a rush, like a hurricane coming up behind me. Our partner had in fact already shipped their miniature tanks to the world’s game stores. We were already a couple of weeks late getting the book out. Steve had approved the final artwork from Japan, where he was still traveling on business. I was going to have to tell him that the book would be delayed by as much as a couple of weeks — longer, in fact, given what I’d learned about big printers. You don’t just send something to a large-scale printer and have them print it. You schedule it, as far in advance as you can. They probably wouldn’t have an opening in their schedule again for more than a month. They probably wouldn’t be happy about me creating a hole in their schedule by failing to ship them film at the last possible moment, either.
I might have to find another printer. I might have to fall back to someone who would only produce the book in black and white. We had already solicited orders for a full-color book. We might have to start all over, a three-month process of canceling the outstanding orders and asking distributors to place new orders for the suddenly black-and-white book. Our partner might take a gigantic hit on the brick wall that the miniature sales would hit. It might be years before I got anyone at the company interested in considering going digital again.
“I see,” I said, staring intently at the drive, as if that might bring the data back. It was right there — I just had it last night.
“I’m really sorry,” the guy said. “I am, I’m really sorry.”
“You didn’t know,” I said, disconnecting the drive.
“I didn’t know.”
I nodded. “I know. It’s my fault for not having backed everything up. I have all the actual layout files — all the pages and the text and the placeholders for all the images — on a backup back at the office. They’re big, but not as big as the giant color photos that I spent two weeks scanning and color-correcting.”
“I’m really sorry—”
“I know. Here’s what I’m going to do, though: I’m driving straight back to my office, as fast as I can, and I’m going to start scanning. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I’ll put the whole thing back together.” I looked around. “How busy are you right now?”
He winced. “Pretty busy—”
“The moment I’m done with this, I’ll call you. After I call you, I’m going to drive straight over, and I’m going to sit down with you, or with whoever’s shift it is, and I’m going to wait until the film starts to come out. Then I’m going to go home, and when the film’s all done I want you to next-day that shit straight to my printer. I’ll have the address for you.”
He blinked several times, rubbing a phantom pain in his hand.
“Can you help me out, here?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, confused. “Of course. I mean, yes.” But he only looked more confused. “You’re being really cool about this.”
“All I know,” I told him, “is that I have a book to get out.”
And that’s what I did. Design school, while run out of the School of Fine Arts, was not a walk in the park. I guess I could’ve let it be easy, but that wasn’t like me. I wasn’t a lazy person, and I could no longer imagine being any other way.
Only in that gray area, beyond where sane people stop and before the hard and fast limits of reality are guaranteed to smack you down can you find anything close to real magic in this world. Still, it’s easy to forget that the far side of a gray spectrum is fraught with darkness.
Two and a half days later, though I probably shouldn’t have been driving, I made it back to the bureau with the drive. I had eaten a lot of take-out; I had not showered. This time the manager was there, and he eyed me curiously.
“I hear you may have something for me,” he said. I gave him the drive and he hefted it in one hand, frowning slightly as if judging its weight. “Everything’s there?”
“It’s all there,” I said.
“Sixty-four color pages —”
“I had the pages backed up. It was just the art —”
“Sixty-four color pages, you scanned all the photos. They’re all set? Good to go?”
“Good as they’re going to be.”
He nodded. “I heard you’re a pretty cool guy. Some people, when they have a problem, they get mad. I had a guy last week pick up that tall stool over there and throw it down the length of the room.”
“Not my style.”
He nodded. “I’m really, really sorry about what happened. We’ll be very careful with this drive.” He sighed and checked a piece of paper on the table beside him. “Here’s what else I’m going to do for you.” Pointing at a line listing my job, I could see that he’d cut the price down to a fifth of what it had been. “I can’t do it for free but, you know.” He smiled. “Cool guys deserve a break.”
“Thanks,” I said, getting lost in what the expression on his face was saying.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “You know, we’ve got a bed here. Maybe you ought to crash out for a little while.”
I told him I was fine, and I made it home alive, and when I woke up in the middle of the night — the following night — it occurred to me that I’d done it. I’d made produced something that wasn’t great, but it looked as professional as its peers at the time. And it was a full color book. that was going to be printed, in thousands of copies, and sent all over the world. Even better, with the discount we got on the film, the book ended up costing less for us to produce than a black-and-white book.
Also, I got my hands on a large backup drive. But that’s another story.
Steve was impressed, so he had a new challenge for me: he wanted to start a magazine, a full-size magazine about gaming and the game industry, with as much color as possible.
He didn’t have a lot of faith that it was possible, though. “If I can make it affordable,” I asked him, “can I do it?” It seemed like a low-risk proposition for him to say yes, which he did.
And that’s how I started a game magazine. I designed it, I scanned or tweaked or swiped the art from other books in production, I went through the slush pile for articles, I leveraged Steve’s name to cold-call famous people in the industry in order to get news from them — and to fill the pages with paid advertising.
I produced the first three issues of Pyramid essentially on my own. It didn’t make much money and it didn’t lose much money, but it was terrific advertising, and clearly it was a hell of a lot of fun. It told people what we were doing and it showed off good work by people we liked. It went on to be nominated for and to win a crazy number of awards, which is cool. As I think back on those days I find I’m a lot more proud of it now than I thought I would be, or that I remember letting myself feel at the time.
A few months later, we hired a new print buyer and I moved from the operations side of the small company into the creative side, and it felt like coming home.
For the first time, I didn’t question what they could possibly be thinking when people called me cool, because it no longer mattered to me whether or not I was cool.
Then six months later came the Secret Service trial, then the victory, then the Secret Service’s money — and with the money came certain challenges.
This is where I should probably tell you about Doug.
As a designer, I had a serious problem working at Steve Jackson Games: I hated how everything looked, and not art-school-jokingly despised it but genuinely, deeply held the design output of the whole place at the time pretty seriously in contempt, mostly because they were doing things the old way. Clearly, I still had a lot to let go of. But let me give you some idea what I was up against.
Here’s how the old way worked. After pouring text into a page template, computers were not really involved. Instead, a really nice laser printer spat out a copy of the page, after which a human being covered its back with wax and stuck it to a piece of cardboard. Any art that needed to go on the page was scaled up or down or otherwise duplicated using a super-nice photocopier, and someone had to cut out the copy and wax it to the board-mounted page. Then the ten-inch stack of cardboard pages were shipped to a printer, who laid them out in the proper order for printing and took a photo of them — no joke, with what was basically an enormous camera — and from this film a proof was made. The printer then sent the proof back to us; we checked it for errors, sent back any corrections, and maybe three weeks or a month later a truck would pull up bearing between two- and five-thousand copies of a 128-page black-and-white book with a heavy, color cover.
I thought this was primitive, in terms of wasting a lot of human time, but also because it made experimenting with layout and design very expensive. I wasted no time dragging into the office the great big monster Macintosh I’d put nearly all my money into upgrading. I called it Frankentosh. Over my two years in design school, there would be weeks when I literally starved myself so that I could afford a 1 gigabyte hard drive, which cost nearly $2,000 new at the time. (As long as we’re throwing numbers out there: I had a 28-inch waist.) The climate in the office at the time was distinctly anti-Apple, so as bad-ass as I proved my machine to be it was impossible to get traction for digital publishing.
Even worse, I had the classic designer-brought-in-from-the-outside problem: my client, in my mind, had terrible taste. I wanted to explore the clean lines and the beautiful sense of balance that I saw in Dutch design at the time (and before, and ever since; long live Dutch design), while people at Steve Jackson Games wanted skulls stuck to spikes along the bottom edge some book’s pages.
These were not computer games. SJ Games still today prints board games, card games, and role-playing games, usually with a fantasy or a science-fiction bent. Think Risk meets Star Trek and Dungeons & Dragons, done differently.
No, that’s a terrible comparison. The reason that Steve Jackson Games was actually pretty close to great was that we did our own thing. In the same industry that contained things like Dungeons & Dragons, Steve put out some really great stuff that people who really care about games almost always really know about. I’d been following their growth for more than ten years at that point, myself, and they’re still doing well today.
What was I actually doing there at the time? Clearly I wasn’t doing design, at first. I’d been hired on as a print buyer. This was both crazy and important for two reasons: one, printers have their own bizarre language that they use to describe a print job — “I need a two-over-one on that ten-point matte you showed me, using Pantone 323 as the spot, with a one-over-one, 32-page saddle-stitch insert, okay?” and the companies that run monster printing presses are just like computers in that they will do exactly, precisely, unwaveringly what you order, so if you get it wrong then you live with the consequences, with no Undo; and two, I figured that the only hope I had of changing people’s minds about going digital would be to do it on their terms, literally in the language that they spoke.
I’m not simply talking about the language of printers, of course. I’m talking about the language of publishing, which eventually boils down to money.
More even than a chance at professional validation, what I needed from the job was money. After suddenly moving to Wisconsin, my parents paid my $600 University tuition twice a year, for which I was thankful. My first year, they gave me $500 a month; the second year, $250 a month. On one of our Sunday calls, after the first year, my mom told me to ask dad to cut it in half because they were doing very poorly — the company for which dad had moved my family to Wisconsin had folded — and he was too proud to impose that on me as his idea. She passed the phone to dad, and I proposed it, and he gratefully accepted, and I worked many more hours at my terrible job in order to get through design school.
The terrible job, not-good as it might have been, was actually where I learned most of what I needed to know in order to pull off the print-buyer job at Steve Jackson Games, though I nearly got shot a good number of times in the process — which was wholly unexpected, given that there was nothing illegal about what we were doing. In fact, the workplace where I saw and heard more guns than ever before or again in my life was a law firm — though it was a Texas law firm, of course. But that’s another story.
I was luckier than most just getting to and then through college, I know, but walking in the door that first day, I also knew that the idea was to do things that people would like and that would make money.
Not a week after I started, Steve Jackson was finishing a new version of his classic game, OGRE. For the game itself, imagine grown men standing around a large kitchen table, pushing small futuristic tanks around at one another. Each tank is maybe three or four inches long, with a lot of smaller units zipping along around them. There were rules, of course. Luckily, it was fun. For a decade, it had been a terrific game, a classic.
For the new edition, he’d partnered with another company to produce a line of miniatures to go along with the game, which meant he had a big stack of beautiful color photos of sample tanks, professionally painted and tricked out, on miniature landscapes sculpted to model train geek-level.
It was too bad that printing a whole book in color looked fantastically expensive, and time consuming. Except for the cover, his photos would only show up in black-and-white. Even if we wanted to do it in color, having a manufacturing partner also meant that the book’s shipping schedule was carved in relative stone. There was only a little give. If the miniatures spent much time in stores with no game to play with them, it would probably screw up sales, which would probably screw our partner, who had made a much more massive investment in tooling and physical production and packaging and shipping lead-like miniatures that they had cast themselves than we would spend in producing a 64-page book to sell their miniature science-fictional vehicles.
“I can totally make a full-color book,” I said to Steve.
“For how much?” he asked. So I found out, and it was too expensive. So I started asking other printers, and I got back some outrageous quotes. Everyone was thinking about things the old way, which involved lots of cardboard that they would photograph to produce enormous sheets of film from which proofs would then be made. I kept saying that no, there was another way to go about it.
I didn’t go it alone. I found a young, upstart group of guys who’d opened a service bureau in town — basically, they took out a loan to buy something that was part giant laser printer and part enormous film maker. You could print straight onto film, side-stepping the whole photocopying and waxing process. Even better, producing color pages only meant printing four pieces of film, one for each plate of color it took to reproduce the basic range of colors onto a printed page. Those guys helped me figure out what I needed, and they wanted the business so they gave me a really good rate on printing the film.
A lot of printers weren’t set up to trust that I would be sending them good film. For a cover, maybe, but for a whole book’s interior? I began faxing the question to other printers, people I’d never heard of, until I found someone in Canada who didn’t think I was crazy. They only wanted to know how many books I wanted and how quickly I could get them the film.
The photos were color slides, so between the cost of the slide scanner and the film output and the printing, I was able to get the job cost down to only maybe twice the cost for black and white. Steve went for it.
After an intense three weeks, on my own equipment (and Steve’s newly purchased slide scanner) I’d designed and laid out my first real book. I’d produced all the graphics, either by color-correcting the terrible scanner’s output or by drawing things when necessary, and it looked like a real book. I was as surprised as anyone.
It was a good thing there were two days left in the schedule. The next morning, when I called the service bureau to see how things were going, they said they were puzzled. When they hooked up my drive, they’d found it empty.
I drove immediately over to the bureau. Lo and behold, the gigantic, gigabyte drive where I’d done all my work said it held zero files.
I took a deep breath.
Because I know I’ve made it confusing, it went:
- I spend two years learning how to actually be a student;
- then there was the SJ Games raid and the hacker crackdown;
- weeks later, I moved back to Austin;
- after taking two years getting a design degree, I take a job at Steve Jackson Games;
- then six months later was the Secret Service trial, and everything after;
- eventually I end up in California, and the whole story changes again.
First, here’s how I arrived at getting a design degree.
For about a year after getting suspended after my first year in college, I’d tried to press on into computer programming but I was frightened as hell that I would only ever be mediocre.
A big part of me still insisted that whatever I ended up learning or doing, there should be some aspect of it that was somehow fun, and all the programmers I knew were much, much better than I was, and it didn’t even look they were having any fun. I was even dissuaded by my dad, who had essentially been an early computer programmer in the Air Force. He was in personnel, which in American business culture we now call Human Relations or HR, and while he never one time thought of himself as a programmer (that I remember hearing about) it was his job to take mission requirements — such as must speak Vietnamese and also be diving-certified, to make up an example — and find the right personnel for the job.
It was a nice desk job, I’m sure, punching a series of long cards in exactly the right way to form exactly the right request which he then fed into a computer, which then did a search of all the folk it knew about and turned up the best people for the specified job. He was kind of like a recruiter, for people who kill people, though I thought he was undeniably a programmer. I think he didn’t think he’d ever been a programmer because in his world you only used a computer if you didn’t have someone more junior than you to use it for you, that’s how much of a pain in the ass it was.
If there were actual great programmers who were cool people and happy most of the time and easy going and reasonably well-socialized, I hadn’t met them. It didn’t sound fun being a mediocre programmer, is what I’m saying. Having already made peace with myself as a mediocre dancer, I had a hard time seeing a path forward. Luckily, I had a chance to get my basic courses out of the way before worrying about what I’d do for an actual college degree.
I’ve no memory of when the answer came to me. It’s too bad that, unlike when the Grinch got his wonderful, awful idea, we rarely have single, life-changing realizations which in one moment shift us radically and irrevocably down one long path or another. There’s usually a build up, or a long burn down, into change. Maybe it feels sudden, but with me, at least, it nearly always turns out to have been a series of cascading thoughts, one after another, like building a Lego sculpture without instructions, or a model, or any clue as to either how many or which pieces you have in the box. Then suddenly the true shape of the thing comes out and you race down the then-obvious path toward completion.
Still, by late 1989, it occurred to me that I was lucky enough to love computers, in a world where most people didn’t yet get how awesome they are, so I figured I should work with that. Computers were not going away, they’re only getting more interesting and more accessible to people who hadn’t yet gotten how awesome computers can be.
Computers were mostly becoming more accessible to average people by laying a graphical interface on top of the normal complexity. I wasn’t going to be a programmer, yet it felt crucially important to understand what the computer does under the hood, beneath the graphics, because knowing what’s really going on with something gives you power that people can’t usually tap into.
While most people saw users and programmers and nothing much in between, I imagined a kind of super-user, someone who knew how the system worked in its deep, dark details and who could use that knowledge to bend the system, to make it do something that other people couldn’t do.
Only years later did I realize that I’d taken a twisty path back around to rationalizing a career as a kind of hacker, all because I refused to let go of the stupid dream that had led me to want to combine computers and dance in the first place. The root of the dream was wanting to tell stories. In the early 1990s, the clearest intersection of art and technology in the service of a kind of storytelling was in what they called Desktop Publishing, which we now simply call “How everything gets published.”
But the scope of what was then desktop publishing wasn’t serious enough for me. I didn’t want to make baby shower invitations. I wanted to tell stories. So moving back to Austin, I first enrolled in the School of Art in order to improve my eye, then I quickly moved into the graphic design track in order to improve my mind.
It went really well. For the first time, I was doing work I really liked. Also, I was learning skills that would get me not just some random job out of college, but likely a decent one.
When I called the Mentor, while wrapping up my final college courses, he asked me what I wanted to do with my degree.
“I wanna make stories, really,” I said.
“How about games?” he asked. “Would you wanna make games?”
Yes, I did, I simply never thought it an option.
I would not end up working at Steve Jackson Games to make games, not at first, but I would — though as with most good things worth trusting, it would not come easily.
We had a saying: Information wants to be free. This wasn’t to stake out intellectual property with a proud pirate flag but a way to push back on the forces that seemed to want to draw a circle around everything and to charge money to look inside the circle — or simply to restrict it, for no good reason.
EFF-Austin was a separate group from the national EFF. I think the original idea was that individual cities would spin up their own Electronic Frontier Foundation. That didn’t end up happening, though the EFF very kindly let EFF-Austin go on, and they’re still going today. They’re even still using the logo I designed for them.
Naturally, the Steve Jackson Games offices were where the EFF-Austin meetings were often held in the early days. One of their earliest events was a crypto conference, and Steve was wishing he had t-shirts. I told him I’d design one, and maybe 20 minutes later I showed him on the screen what you see here.
I just dug this out of the bottom of my black t-shirt drawer. It is 20 years and one month old.
Bruce Sterling, when I showed him the shirt, read the white text, smiled, then squinted as he began reading the much fainter text in the background.
“Digital money for crypto-anarchy,” he said. “Data havens, privacy?” I’d pulled from my head a long list of fears and movements and dreams and designs that seemed to be spinning out of the larger conversation about encryption that faster and more widely available computers were making possible.
He shook his head and turned away. “I’m done trying to read the rest.” At least he was smiling.
And that was fine. Everyone approved it, and it was cool seeing them at the event. It was my first t-shirt, actually.
It is a little sad that these ideas are still unresolved, twenty years and nearly a month later. They probably won’t be resolved next month, either. I’m afraid we may not be done talking about them in another twenty years.
But that’s all beyond the point. I really just wanted to show off the t-shirt I found.
Also, because I can’t leave it alone, where did they store and what did they do with 23,000 floppy disks?
Okay, I’ll leave it alone.
After getting stung by the judge in open courtroom, the defense attorney began their case by making a brief attempt to downplay any harm that might have been done. Then the defense quickly rested. Presumably they weren’t seeing a positive outcome to the trial, and were likely anticipating a sizably punishing judgement against them.
Again proving visionary, the Secret Service lost the case, and they had to pay back the EFF’s legal fees, around $300,000. There were other details as well, most important of which to me was a $50,000 award to Steve Jackson Games.
Most important to everyone else in America, the case would eventually set the first legal precedent that electronic mail has the same rights and protections as physical mail. Thanks, Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Nine or so months before the trial in Spring of 1992, I’d called the Mentor to catch up. When he heard that I was about to walk off campus with a design degree, and he called me over for an interview. A week later I had a job offer at the game company I’d worshipped since I’d turned thirteen. It wasn’t glamorous work, at first, but it got me in the door.
The upside of being in the door was that I was there when $50,000 walked in, along with a few new faces around the office and a fresh idea: What if we spent the Secret Service money setting up a new kind of bulletin-board system? They set up a couple of really beefy machines, with a whole bank of modems behind them. Add in a gigantic pipe to the Internet, also thanks to the phone company, and you could sell Internet access to anyone with a computer and a modem of their own for only $10 a month.
And that’s how in 1993 we started a very early Internet Service Provider called Illuminati Online. I know this was a bit of a long tangent just to give you more context for the rest of my story, but the truth is I can draw a straight line from Secret Service agents barging into a game company, guns drawn, to me ending up in California.
If only it had been as simple as walking a straight line.