While the Packet Storm crew was wondering how to get one of their fathers out of jail without rolling over for the FBI, I was under a different kind of pressure.
It was raining — it had been raining for a while. They called it the rainy season, and I’d never lived through something like that before. In Texas, it rained for at most a couple of hours, then it stopped. Maybe it was enough rain to wash away cattle, but it was always enough to know you’d been rained on. Maybe it’d rain again tomorrow, maybe in a couple of days or weeks, but that was about all you could say in terms of predicting the weather outside of hot or cold. In the Bay Area, I’d been told, we’d get three or four or sometimes five months of light to moderate pitter-pattering, and things would always be wet and it’d always be gray outside until springtime and its wave of warmth with hardly a cloud in the sky for seven or eight or nine months.
But the gray and the damp and the indeterminate constant drizzle — while Jim’s many multi-week trips and Doug’s relative social distance left me without close friends — all started getting to me.
It was fear, mostly. I was afraid that after finally making it to Silicon Valley, I no longer had what it took to make computers sing. It actually made me laugh, I could hardly imagine a greater tragedy. I’d lost touch with my technical roots. I’d become afraid of the details, which is the one thing you absolutely cannot do as a technically minded person. I still had my curiosity, but the fear was stronger than any love I still had for the details.
It simply seemed as though no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make anything work. More to the point, I couldn’t seem to do any work. Harry, the Englishman we’d been courting for a job since September, had finally come to an agreement with Phil and would be moving out with his girlfriend by early summer. He was working on contract in the meantime, and unfortunately I was the thing standing between him and the work he needed to do. Lineman had helped me scope down my research efforts to the most meaningful set of network attacks, but beyond assembling a list of them I simply couldn’t find it within myself to do the analysis and the writing that I needed to do for each vulnerability. And even once I had the content for our security findings, I still had no idea how to tie them together into a meaningful report. Harry was meant to hammer out the report generation engine. He was waiting on me for the report specs. He’d been asking for them every day for two weeks.
“Just show the findings,” Phil told me.
“It’s not that simple,” I said. “We can’t just give people a blast of raw data and expect they can use it to secure their network.”
“So make it pretty. That’s what you do.”
But the report generator had to run on a server somewhere, which meant it couldn’t simply be made beautiful and emailed off to our customers. We needed a report template that could be opened and read and managed under the Linux operating system — which, even more so at the time, offered serious limitations when it came to attractive and flexible graphic design. This was a terrific impediment to making something attractive. It was even worse for me in terms of devising something useful.
More and more often, for seemingly no reason, my heart would race. I wasn’t doing anything, and it was panic-making. “I can’t even get a network interface up on my Linux box,” I told Phil. “It’s been a week.” It had actually been, like I just said, two.
Phil looked at me coolly. “Get Tom to help,” he said. “You know our Tom, yeah?”
I’d met him, yet another Englishman but this one cut from a decidedly different cloth, wild-haired and wide-eyed, smiling a lot but walking through the halls like he was definitely not fooling around.
“I’ll get Tom to come by,” Phil said. “He’ll sort you out.”
And early that afternoon, he did.
Tom was one of the security consultants, and therefore automatically one of the cool kids. Like most of us, he didn’t have a traditional story for how he got there. He’d started out getting trained up to do welding and jobs like that, at least that was the he’d had set for himself by the testing of the English school system. But a friend who knew he was very good with cars had shown him one day how computers were just really big cars with engines just ripe for the tinkering.
“It’s just a matter of knowing what the parts are,” he said, “and where they are. How to tighten down the bolts as you’re stepping away from it so it doesn’t explode all over you when you start it back up.”
He showed me where the source code for my operating system’s kernel was stored, how to load a new kernel module — like support for the network interface I couldn’t get to work — and how to recompile the changed kernel before restarting.
I had a hard time believing how simple it was. “You can change the system while it’s running? From inside the system?” Do that on a Mac, at the time, and it might have crashed and never come back up.
Tom typed the command to restart. “Piece of piss,” he said.
But getting past one hurtle did nothing for my problem. The worst part was knowing it. I knew full well what my problem was: I was being emotional. In the past, when computer things didn’t work, I’d lean into the problem, ask myself, “I wonder why?” Then I’d begin trying things. But by that point, instead of leaning in I was leaning back, crossing my arms and saying, “Why does this goddamn thing not work?” And the emotion I was feeling robbed me of the cognition I needed to solve the problem. It was super clear what was happening, I simply couldn’t control it.
Maybe it was the long, punishing rainy season, maybe it was the lack of close friends around, maybe it was my overall beaten-down state, but it was fertile ground for the return of my depression, out from which grew my old paranoia — not, it would soon turn out, without very good reason.