Going to California

Life by The Valley — 8.1

When he was around, Jim was a good influence as well as a bad one. I’d gone from not having a computer other than my work machine — I’d kept the massive collection of cables and adapters and accessories and media readers that I’d amassed over fifteen years of late-Twentieth Century computer hacking, but I had divested myself of monitors and machines before leaving Austin, since it looked as though I’d soon have the cash to buy modern tech, at least for a while.

Jim had many orders of magnitude more money than I did, and an even more aggressive love for computers than I ever did, which was really saying something, so hanging out with him on any given day of the week typically involved a trip to Fry’s Electronics, a chain of tech stores that hadn’t yet made it to Austin and so boggled me with the range of products they stocked.

In four months, I’d gone from life in a tin-roofed shotgun shack with my cat off an unpaved alley underneath a busy flight path and across the street from a freight train line, wondering both what I’d be doing for food next month and which was going to destroy my weary and aging tech, the heat in the air or the sweat from my fingers, suddenly switching over to whipping around between my quiet poolside apartment, a short walk from the commuter train, and a fantastical warehouse of the tools with which Silicon Valley had been built. Even better, beside you shopped the people who’d built it. Yet better, for the first time in my life I could probably have afforded to buy at least one of nearly anything in the store. It’s safe to say that a whole world of computing opened up before me.

Jim often needed something at Fry’s, so I ended up spending a lot of time at Fry’s. This made kind of a bad influence. Did I need more memory? Who didn’t! With his advice and encouragement, I spent a lot of money there as well. This made him a pretty good influence, because it’s too easy to waste money on technology that won’t end up doing what you’d have wanted. One of the first things I did was to build a Microsoft Windows machine up from scratch. Windows had always looked to me like a fantastical waste of time, all these settings you had to know about and fiddle in order to push the envelope any, but if you didn’t want to do a lot of pushing and were willing to buy name-brand parts, you could avoid suffering through getting the drivers for all the cheap tech playing well with each other. So for only a little less than an equivalent Apple Mac, I got into my first personal Windows machine. There were simply way too many of the damn things in the world to avoid needing to understand them better. But I didn’t have a lot of faith in Microsoft, so I made sure that the pieces I bought would work with the free if super-techie software alternatives.

On any given day, before or after Fry’s, Jim and I would stop at the Caribbean rib joint. He liked picking up the tab, because in relative terms it didn’t matter much to him, and everyone else delighted in finding new ways to intercept the bill before Jim could get to it. My living room began to fill with shiny new tech — like Sega’s final, failed platform, the Dreamcast, as well as other miscellaneous fobs and toys. It seemed like life could go on that way forever.

I wiped barbecue pepper from my chin, “There’s this guy named Doug,” I said.

“Oh, Jesus,” Jim said.

“Nothing bad about him,” I said, “just something he did at work before he took off.”

“What did he do?”

“He hired this girl purely on the grounds that she’d just graduated from MIT, and that she passed the lunch interview with one of our several resident MIT grads.” I put my hands up. “I understand how you should expect an MIT computer-science grad to be able to apply herself somewhere, somehow, but this girl is now at the point of causing serious trouble.”

“It’s possible to get a computer science degree,” Jim said, “and end up knowing absolutely nothing about how to use computers.”

“Shit,” I said. “Like mathematicians and calculators?”

“More like how astronomy has very little to do with how telescopes work, as Rob likes to say. What does this have to do with Doug? That he hired her?”

“And the signs were there that she was clearly not workplace material before he left.”

“How so?”

“A bunch of the other women in the office who weren’t Mary had pulled him into a conference room to tell him to tell her to leave them alone. He ended up pulling her aside and listing off the top ten non-verbal cues that someone is no longer interested in talking with you.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m not kidding. ‘They check their watch,’ was one, or ‘They turn away from you and begin typing.’ She took notes, seemed appreciative. The next day, when she stopped by my desk to tell me how many seconds each traffic light had been, and how different that was from the same day of the previous week, I only had to glance at my wrist and she stopped cold, turned on her heel and walked away. I wasn’t even wearing a watch.”

“At least she’s paying attention.”

“Mmm, I don’t think she is, really. She doesn’t seem capable of doing any work.”

“What? With a CS degree from MIT?”

“Now you’re being mean. The problem with Rain Girl isn’t that you have to throw a handful of paperclips on the floor to escape because she has to count them all before moving on. It’s that she does mean things to people. I’d have thought that someone capable of understanding and of changing after being told she annoys people would have been told already, and would have changed.”

“Maybe. It was MIT, though. I’m serious, you’d be surprised how long people can live in little pockets where all kinds of different behaviors are okay.”

“So there’s a dork underground.”

“Basically. There are all sorts of undergrounds.”

“Well, she’s going to need to go back there soon. Yesterday, she ate a burrito belonging to our long-suffering administrative assistant. She’d opened the fridge at work, took someone else’s clearly labeled food, and ate it. She denied having done it, until it was pointed out that the foil burrito wrap was in the trashcan by her desk. Then she was like, ‘Oh, that burrito, I thought you meant another one,’ and the admin was like, ‘I can see my name on the foil in the trash can from here.’ And it went downhill from there. Rain Girl makes probably three times what our admin makes, so apologizing and kicking her $10 for lunch should be nothing, but she’s refusing to do it, doesn’t think she has to because nobody told her that something in the kitchen could belong to somebody else. Even putting aside the fact that she can’t seem to do anything that people need doing, I’m afraid she’s going to piss somebody off so much that they snap and do something terrible to her.”

Jim shook his head with a painful expression. “Keep me posted,” he said.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8

The end of the year was filled with an extended series of video gaming sessions when Jim was available, and comic-book reading when he wasn’t, with a foundation of loud music playing on my stereo and a general freaking out over being unable to do the job for which I’d been hired.

Also, depending on who you believed, there was a non-zero chance that the world as we knew it might end. It would end, of course, as worlds are prone to do, but we had some time yet.

Still, while most security people were telling me that critical infrastructure had been thoroughly assessed and all possible instances of what was called the Y2K Bug had been assessed for their risk and everything looked fine, as far as anyone knew, the fact remained that this was still only as far as anyone knew. As I’d find out in my adventures to come, there were a whole lot of old systems out there, and some of them were stuck in closets where an entire generation of staffers had passed by every day without ever once logging into them. Crossing over to the year 2000, and rolling over all the digital calendars from 1999 to 2000 was anxious-making for people who knew what shortcuts computer programmers tend to take, especially those from decades back when you were starving for bytes, and the difference between “1982” and just “82” could make a serious difference to the amount of data you could hold in memory at one time. Some people wanted the extra data and performance and figured that their apps surely wouldn’t still be running in 18 years, so they didn’t bother logging the whole year, just the two left numbers.

The fear was over what would happen when the year in a two-digit calendar suddenly rolled over, like a 1980s video game score, going from 99 to 00. Computers had not famously behaved smoothly when faced with unexpected inputs — especially memory-poor systems, which were least likely to have cluttered up their code with tedious things like checking the format of every input and planning out reasonable responses to error conditions. The practice of building and managing computers had been a regular roll of the dice for many years, to some extent, so it wasn’t like this had been computing’s first chance to screw up a civilization. But it was computing’s first big, “The World Is Watching” kind of test as a critical infrastructure.

The Internet had been designed in the paranoia of the Cold War, where you had to design around an arbitrary chunk of your country simply disappearing in a rush of thermonuclear holocaust, so the network itself didn’t seem to be a worry for most people. People like Jim had no concerns about Yahoo’s ability to stay online come January 1st of the year 2000. It was the old and unnoticed box in the closet at a power switching station, or at a fuel processing plant, that kept people up at night.

The East Coast long-distance phone system outage in January of 1990 was never fully explained — we know the mechanism, but we still only have suppositions as to what kicked it off. We only know that some unexpected inputs crashed half a nation’s worth of computing infrastructure. As relatively minor as that had been, it had led directly led to the Hacker Crackdown, and while it’s possible that it could’ve been a hacker messing around with a switch that caused the cascade of failure, it could’ve just as easily have been a flood of traffic and an unexpected crash-level error condition that hadn’t been anticipated. Even in the heart of Silicon Valley there were “Y2K Disaster Supply” stores, where people were clearly stocking up on prepackaged meals and camping supplies, hedging any bets against apocalypse.

On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I hung out with the Kroll accountant and some friends of hers. She was three years older than I was, and intimidatingly attractive. I had a crush on her as deep as the ocean, but I was too afraid for my professional life to have room for a relationship. I figured I could lose my job soon, and if I was going to spend time with someone I’d rather it be for the long term. So when she stood and said, “Let’s go outside,” and we all stared up into the clear starry sky, holding our breaths as the clock changed over — listening; no explosions, only distant cheers in the night — I did not try to hold her hand because I could only embrace so many fears at the same time. They were like pins, pressing me back against cool black velvet.

But even though our president had the military on high alert, calling up the National Guard and sending choppers cross-crossing states, it would still be a little while longer before the end of the world.

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