Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.2

The next morning, the admin had come in to see that Rain Girl had taken to keeping large amounts of leftover food containers on her desk, unrefrigerated. Setting aside what eating very much of it would’ve done to her, and how badly it was beginning to smell, the worst part was the trail of ants streaming back and forth from the precious bounty. Even in the face of a stern talking-to from our admin about the smell and the personal health implications, Rain Girl remained obstinate that she’d not done anything strictly wrong. But the conversation would not stop there.

“And what about the vermin?” our admin asked.

“What vermin?”

“You leave stuff out like this, you get bugs, you get mice and rats and all kinds of things.”

Rain Girl’s face fell. “Mice?” she said teeny-tinily.

And because our admin, a strong-jawed woman securely in her late-30s, was done with this girl’s crap, she said very seriously, “Yes. Mice.”

Rain Girl cringed. “How do they get up here? We’re on the second floor.” The girl began to smile, but the woman’s smile was larger.

“They smell the buffet you’ve left for them, and they’ll find a way.”

“How will they smell it? The windows don’t open, and—”

“Every person who walks down the hall past your desk and out of the building carries tiny little tastes of that smell, of rotting, open garbage — on their clothes, on their shoes. Maybe we can’t smell it, but outside, the mice can. And the rats. There’s a lot less easy food around, now that it’s gotten cold and rainy, so they’ll be looking for a way in here. They’ve probably already found one. They’re nearly through searching the first floor by now, I bet, but they hear us, up here.”

“Stop. Stop it. They do not.”

“Your desk is by one of the inner walls. You ever heard something around in there? Inside the wall? A scratching—”

“No. No, I haven’t.”

Having overhead some of this is the only reason I understood why I found Rain Girl, a few hours later, leaning sideways over her desk, staring down into a plastic channel full of cables which snaked up from the floor. She seemed concerned. Before I could open my mouth, she asked, “Could a mouse could fit in here, do you think?”

“No,” I said, then I sucked breath in slightly, as if reconsidering. Her eyes opened slightly and her head tilted fractionally forward. My subtle non-verbal cue had been caught, and for a moment I had a great deal of her attention.

It occurred to me to wonder if she was role playing, acting out the part of the vaguely Aspergery genius as an excuse for being selfish. I wondered what role I was supposed to play.

“Maybe baby mice could,” I finally said. “Mice breed like crazy, every couple of weeks or something, so I could see a bunch of blind, hairless baby mice — you know what I mean: veins visible through translucent skin — smelling something good and crawling up the loose spaces between the cables.”

“Oh, God,” she said, hand to her mouth.

Oh, God, I thought, she wasn’t role playing. If she was, she’s lost herself in the role. Once you lose yourself in a role, though, you’re no longer role playing, you’re just being you. This clinically self-absorbed personality was simply who she was.

I left the office and drove home for a part that I needed. On the way back, I called Jim to see if he wanted to get an early lunch, in hopes that telling him the story would absolve me of my guilt.

“I can’t go anywhere,” he said. “Yahoo’s down.”

“Oh,” I said, not at all registering understanding what he was saying. “Maybe later? Like in an hour?”

“Yahoo is down,” Jim said again. “And Amazon, and eBay. Some other sites, not all big ones.”

“Yahoo’s down?” The words made no sense.

“Yahoo — all of Yahoo, the whole thing — is off the Internet, all of it.”

“How?”

He laughed. “Someone’s attacking us.”

“Who?”

“It’s unclear,” was all he said, and that would pretty much sum up the event as a whole that week, as major Internet sites were relentlessly hammered over the next several days, rendering them inaccessible for as long as an hour as a time.

The story hit the news quickly, nearly as fast as it was capable of spreading back then, but much like the outage exactly to the month twenty years before, we still can’t say today what actually happened.

The service outage in early February of 2000 was different in one major way in that it could not have been an accident. This time, what the Secret Service and other science-fiction writers had long feared had finally come true. Big, bad-guy hackers had finally and hugely attacked the public good. One young hacker kid in particular would end up having the whole thing pinned on him, of course, but by the time our optimism had worn off and we were well and truly into the Dot-Com Bust, we’d already forgotten about the falling of this first domino.

Yahoo’s stock price had already been sliding. It would recover briefly after a few months, but only for two or three days. The attacks exposed a fundamental vulnerability of Internet services, one we still struggle with today. Even after the authorities had found a scapegoat, there was no getting around the fact that the only reason the Internet still worked as it did was because whoever had attacked us had chosen to stop attacking, though there was really nothing to stop them, or someone else, from starting it up again once the vulnerability was known — had been known for a while, actually.

I think the attacks, largely forgotten today, helped crack the foundations of our optimism around the unfettered growth of the networked world. There were limits, still.

And even after the scapegoat was caught, it didn’t take long for the finger of blame to swing around, eventually pointing at us, in our cookie-cutter Silicon Valley office. Here’s why.

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