Going to California

Making Magic — 1

Even for a guy who worked in an office where posters of staff-waving wizards and skeletal dragons covered the walls, “magic” was a pretty strong word to use when talking about everyday life. Even though the game company itself was edging toward terrible trouble, and would take some serious reality-bashing to save, we had already conjured up something otherworldly by providing a way to get normal people connected to the Internet. Although truthfully, the real trick wasn’t the service itself, it was getting together the team of wizards who pulled together to bend reality in the first place.

Jim McCoy mentored Patch on how to keep the machines up and humming; newly hired Chris Williams — long hair, long fingernails, long beard, and long stare, who first introduced me to trance music — worked on the scripts which tied all the little things together, automating so much of what until then had been manual procedures; Jeff and I cranking out late-night Web pages, astonished that more and more people in late 1993 were online to see them; and walking in and out of Steve’s office with pages and pages of notes and plans, was Doug. Plenty of other colorful characters came and went in the years I saw that company grow, but these were some the few people I’d call my friends, then and now.

When Apple put out the new version of their Newton portable computer, the 110, Jim and Chris and I all jumped on a special deal to get some of a limited run they’d made with transparent cases. They were amazing devices, like nothing we’d seen before. You could walk around with a computer in your pocket. “Imagine how small and how powerful these things will be in ten years!” But in those early days, I knew Doug the best, mostly because I was a sponge for stories and he always had the best stories. Jim and Chris and I and the others dreamed of international, cyberpunk lives. Doug had already lived something like one.

Once Doug and I had been hanging out with each other for a little while — late night belly-filling at Magnolia Cafe, too much coffee at all hours — we both suspected we’d seen one another somewhere once before. He was of average build, wearing the usual programmer’s uniform of rimless glasses and a dark, scruffy beard, though while he fit a certain nerd archetype, there was no denying that there was something very sharp behind his eyes, and something gentle and helpful in his smile. From a distance, he might not stand out in a geek lineup — yet, once meeting him, I’ve never heard of someone forgetting him. People often tell me I seem familiar to them, but it’s rare enough when someone else feels known to me that I feel compelled to track it down.

When I was a freshman on campus at the University of Texas, Doug Barnes ran with a much older crowd. He was a senior at the time, though against serious odds we had something in common: an affliction of affection for a drama student, a young actress with gorgeously glowing light-green hair. This was in the late-1980s, when there wasn’t the brightly hued rainbow of heads that bob around on the sidewalks and playgrounds of cities today. To have green hair was to make a something of a statement, certainly — and an impression, definitely. Today, twenty years later, Doug no longer remembers her, but I do, and I remember us arriving at the suspicion that it was in her larger social circle where we had likely first seen one another, even if we never quite met.

Doug was the first example I ever met of that mythical beast: a computer programmer who was smart, and focused, and easy going, and well socialized. He was, in a word, cool. If I had met him earlier — when I’d been a freshman, struggling to find my identity as a computer programmer who danced four to six hours a day — I wonder how things might have turned out.

Doug’s life had also brushed up against the hacker crackdown in the week before the raid on Steve Jackson Games. He had taken a local programming gig, and his officemate, Bob Izenberg, was one of the people who’d received an early visit by the Secret Service. They told Bob that a system he managed had been used for storing or transferring some documentation and some code that had been obtained illegally from the phone company. As with most people who had these little chats with the U.S. Secret Service, Bob Izenberg watched them walk off with his server-class equipment, at the time worth something like ten-thousand dollars. Also like most everyone else, they never pressed charges, but neither would they talk about when he might get his stuff back.

This incident, and the mayhem that exploded in the weeks and months to follow — from the Steve Jackson Games raid to the full-court press of Operation Sundevil and its 23,000 seized floppy disks — did not sit well with Doug. After hearing over and over how people he knew were finding out what it was like to have the authorities show up out of nowhere to grab them, he eventually grew irate enough to jump to the same conclusion that any right-thinking geek today might make: if the system was the problem, then the only solution was to hack the system. But as the founding of the EFF soon validated, this was not the kind of problem that you could solve with a “get in and change my grade” kind of hack. Doug was savvy enough to guess which system needed hacking, which was how he got into law school.

Before finishing his degree and embarking on his legal studies, he scooped up some money he’d saved and took some time off to visit a friendly ex-girlfriend, who had moved to Taiwan. He’d never been out that way, and when else in the near future would he have the chance? It would be an adventure.

Like any good international cyberpunk adventure, Doug’s visit quickly turned into a rescue mission. He arrived to find his ex- squatting in a derelict building, with no water or power, as part of a thriving community of meth users. Doug rented an apartment for her and for anyone else who wanted out.

After helping his ex- sort out her drugs-and-roommates problem, he found himself spending a lot of time where she worked as a bartender. Then he found some reasons to stay longer than originally planned. Then he arranged to defer his law school admission, and began teaching English to Taiwanese professionals, bankers and lawyers.

Then he met Coco, a minor TV news personality in Taiwan, and this connection set him on the course that would shape the rest of his time there. In addition to possessing a small spark of celebrity, Coco also happened to be a life-drawing model. On their first real date together, Coco brought along a portfolio of portraits that people had made of her. “If I had been thinking carefully,” Doug told me recently, “this would have set off sufficient alarm bells at that point to bail.”

Doug and Coco had a good number of blissful months together. At some point his visa had expired, but he didn’t care. He was happy, for a while.

After that, it should have ended like most love stories do: she began to feel more seriously toward him, and as he was realizing that his feelings were less serious than hers, they broke up. But when Doug began seeing another woman, he discovered that his love story with Coco had not ended. After many months of relatively normal life in Taiwan, suddenly Doug seemed to be targeted by the random aggression of the world. His door got spray-painted, his motorcycle tires were slashed. He knew it was Coco, though he didn’t know she was only getting warmed up.

Coco knew Doug had been working without a visa, which left him vulnerable to someone with the kind of good connections that minor media personalities have in some countries. She went to the police, and convinced them to illustrate for Doug what it really does look like when the authorities show up to grab you.

Recounting the story nearly ten years later, Doug said, “Do you remember that scene in The Matrix? How our hero sees the cops walk in and he’s like, ‘Uh oh,’ and locks himself in an office and then negotiates his own release by phone? That’s basically what ended up happening, except I got thrown into a holding cell with some guys from Sri Lanka.”

Coco had come along with the cops, presumably so that the point wouldn’t be lost on Doug that she was the one responsible for his suffering. In my mind, she is wearing mirrored sunglasses.

Two days later, they marched him to a plane and sent him back to the States. He’s never returned to Taiwan.

The rough thing that in those early days we called the Internet was beautiful, by any measure. And even those of us who’d been expecting it for years, we didn’t quite yet believe that it was in the process of becoming a real thing, right before our eyes, finally, even though we were making it happen. Because there still remained one question that no one could answer — a question it was presumed would have to be answered before the Internet as we thought we would know it could fully arrive. What will the Internet look like?
It was a restless and more experienced Doug who eventually made it back to Austin — after finishing his degree, gaining a wife, and losing a father — and found his orbit drawing him into a series of side shows that had grown up around the question of what the Internet would ultimately look like. Quickly, he got to the heart of it, first loaning a server-class machine to some friends to start one Internet service, then meeting Steve Jackson and Mentor and launching a more successful venture, in those days before the Web took over.

Doug’s stories of international adventure felt like some kind of a connection from an abstract, science-fictional world of mirrorshades and madness to my boring world of oppressive heat and endless laundry. Some part of me, in the long quiet moments while the rest of me obsessed over magazine-page design, imagined that it must be a two-way connection, that if Doug popped out of a science-fictional world into my reality, then it must be possible to follow the tether back to that place.

For a time, on my way home from work or while waiting for a late-night hamburger at the local franchise drive-through, I used to dream about this other reality, knowing full well that the path to that place was more likely to be tangled up inside my head than it was to be spelled out on a map anywhere.

Five years later, I’d dropped my drive-time fantasy of finding the sideways path into a science-fictional world. Of course, only once I stopped looking for it did an alternate, cyberpunk reality found me. It would consume me completely, but a lot had to happen in those five years before I made it to California.

By the time we’d formally launched Illuminati Online, I was deeply exhausted — not least of which because, in addition to starting and sustaining a magazine that would be nominated for a slew of awards, winning some over the years, I’d also been scraping together hours here and there to work on Hot Lead, which was where the worst of our problems began.

What was Hot Lead? Well, I’ll tell you.

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