Going to California

Life by the Valley — 4

When I got in the next morning, Mary threw that special task at me. It was an interactive security training application on a compact disc, and three minutes into it I was wondering if it might not be a trick, a test — it was that awful. Still, I kept plugging away at the training, given that I’d had to borrow a laptop from someone in order to run the thing. Whether or not something is specifically a test, it’s best to be thorough.

“Well?” she asked me after lunch, in her office. “What did you think?” A tall, Italian-esque man I’d never seen before was standing behind her.

“Um…” I said, glancing back and forth between the two of them.

“Spit it out,” she said.

That was my least-favorite thing for people to tell me. “It’s not that good,” I told her, then turned to the gentleman, holding out my hand. “And you are?”

“Ah!” he said. “Dario.”

Mary laughed. “Dario’s come on to help with the business side of things, isn’t that right?”

Dario made a good-natured noise.

“Oh, thank God,” I said. “I thought it might have been your product or something.”

Dario chuckled.

“Because it’s really bad,” I added.

“Bad?” he asked

“Ah, yes. It was bad.”

“There’s a big difference between bad and not good,” Mary said. “How bad?”

“Inconsistent level of detail — sometimes they talk about how lock tumblers work, sometimes very high level about risk management, then back down, then back down to say something about restricting access when people don’t need it. There’s no organization. It’s kind of a grab-bag. Plus, it looks terrible. A freshman graphic-design student could’ve done better. The interaction was slow, the interface clumsy. The writing was really horrible, inconsistent—”

“Tell us what you really thing,” Dario murmured, then he and Mary shared a laugh.

“Okay,” she told me. “Thank you.”

Phil came by my cube later on. “You settle on what kind of machine you want, yet?”

I showed him the Mac laptop I wanted. Two weeks before, I’d never dreamed I’d have one any time in the near future, and there I was having someone order it for me — the low-end model, but an excellent machine nonetheless.

He was leery. “You sure that’s what you want? Everyone else is using Windows, here. We’ve got some nice Sony VAIOs — you seen those? They are pretty slick. At least get a Windows laptop and put Linux on it, yeah?”

“This is what I need,” I said. “I have good reasons.”

He sighed. “Look,” he said, “if you need it, you need it, but it’s just a toy — it’s practically a brick.”

“Try hacking it,” I said. The original Mac operating system was, in fact, not a whole lot more than a toy, relative to a unix-based OS. The advantage of Apple having struggle through most of the 1990s, repeatedly failing to ship modern software for their machines, was a system that was almost entirely too dumb to fall for the usual modern tricks which let remote attackers take over your computer.

Phil knew what I was talking about. He smiled. “Okay,” he said. “You’re smart, I’ll give you that.”

“And there’s a version of Linux I can install if I have to.”

He walked slowly away, nodding, and I returned to finding places for things in my office. Late in the day, as I was assessing the layout of notebooks, software backups, and Yellow Submarine figurines around my desk, Doug rushed in.

“Do you have a minute?” he asked, nearing panic. “Of course you do. I have a report for a customer. They need it before the end of the day. It needs some editing. You can do it, right?”

“Sure,” I said. Doug thrust some fax pages at me, tightly spaced lines of small text. It wasn’t a mess, but it wasn’t great.

“Can I get the text?” I asked.

Doug made a scoffing sound and leaned in to watch me mark up the page.

“Who’s the client?” We kept the office dim, so I hadn’t noticed until he’d stepped forward how flushed he was. “The client’s in New York,” he said. “They have to have it by the end of their day. That’s now.”

“I’m hurrying,” I said, and I did. As I finished each page, I handed them to him. After every couple of pages he hurried across the office and stuck them in the fax machine.

Once the last pages disappeared into a plastic box, all whirring and beeping, he sighed, Doug sighed, his shoulders folding in again. He didn’t look great. I began to wonder how much I didn’t know.

“That was kind of a crap job,” he told me as we walked to his car.

I said, “Huh?”

“I was expecting you to re-write some of it. Make it better. We’re opening our own office in New York City for ISG—” That’s the Information Security Group, who we were. “—and we to do a lot better than that crap you turned in today.”

I wasn’t sure where that was going or what I had to do with it, but there we were at the car and Doug was rubbing his eyes, so I let it slide. He plucked a box of take-out from his back seat.

“Another offering to the mold god, I guess,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

“Yes, they do.”

As we pulled out of the parking lot, Doug asked, “Oh, hey: about that security training CD-ROM.” He chuckled. “I guess you didn’t like it?”

“It was terrible.”

“Well, did you see those two guys walking out of the office, maybe mid-afternoon?”

“Sure,” I said. There were something like 36 people working there, some on the lower floor but most on the upper level, though nearly half of the staff seemed to be travelling on any given day, en route to or from a customer site, or ensconced somewhere doing actual security work, plus a few folk finishing summer vacations. Even on my first week there, new people stood out to me in our dark, quiet office.

“You just cost them three-million dollars.”


Doug laughed. “Kroll was shopping for another security-training company, and we were close to buying the company owned by those two guys. Maybe only one guy owned it, and the other guy was a partner. Anyway, the point is they gave us their best sample for us to review, and whatever you said made Mary go back in and say, ‘No, no thank you.’”

“Holy shit!” I said. “I didn’t mean to cost those guys — I mean, it did suck. It really sucked. It was pretty bad.”

“You didn’t cost those guys anything, you saved the company three-million dollars.”

I watched the grotesquely overpriced clap-board houses glide past on the other side of window of the front passenger seat in Doug’s car.

That night, I met his girlfriend. She was pretty, no doubt, and at least kind of smart, the illusion of brains boosted by her faint British lilt. Grow up in the right place and Americans will think you know what you’re talking about, I suppose. But beyond whatever I couldn’t figure out was wrong with her, there was something wrong between the two of them, like they were talking to one another without actually listening to what the other person had actually just said. It was like the difference between two people dancing together, and two people who’d merely synchronized their choreography.

I didn’t actually like her that much, really. And I was starting to worry about my good friend Doug.

It was that evening, once I’d retreated to their guest room for the evening, that the yelling began. They didn’t build up to it, they just started at a good level of yell and kept it up for a while. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 3.2

“How long does it take to download a file?” Jim asked.

“It depends on your bandwith,” I said. “Faster pipe, faster download.”

Jim and Doug shared a smile. For years, going as far back as our time together at Illuminati Online back in Austin, they had been consipring over great ways to use technology. At various times, Doug had come to me asking for help putting together logos for a bank based on a digital currency and a point-to-point encrypted phone system that he and Jim had dreamed up. With cable modems and other higher-speed Internet connections spreading out across not just America but the rest of the world, and the dot-com madness nearing what we’d later know to be its peak, it was the right time for well-heeled geeks to make an inventive move.

Like Doug, Jim McCoy had moved to California from Austin for a virtual-reality start-up called Electric Communities. After more rounds of funding than anyone thought possible — good money repeatedly being thrown after bad — E.C. had finally collapsed, the fantasy of cyberspace vanishing in the face of reality. People did not want to walk through 3-D virtual storefronts, they wanted to search Web pages like the Sears catalogs that had ruled most of the Twentieth Century. Happily, E.C. closed down well before the financial market went bust, in time for most of its decent people to leap into various other ventures.

Doug had co-founded a company called C2Net. At the time, the U.S. government wouldn’t let American companies export products offering strong encryption, which we now take for granted as what makes Internet commerce possible. You can imagine how the U.S. government might want to limit foreign countries from encrypting their network traffic. To get around the export problem, Doug hired a bunch of coders in the U.K. and, using a leaked version of the protected crypto algorythm, became the first American company to offer a Web server with strong crypto to the rest of the world.

Jim had gone off to a twenty-person start-up called RocketMail, which offered what at the time was a new thing: email, but on the Web. Crazy, I know, though one of the high-growth portal sites, Yahoo!, decided it was crazy-like-a-fox and bought RocketMail, rebranding it Yahoo! Mail and offering it alongside their other services as one more way to keep people in their Web browser, looking at other Yahoo! pages, specifically. This made Yahoo! seem much more well-rounded, suddenly competing with services like America Online (or AOL, as they’d eventually call themselves) as a one-stop Internet experience.

Yahoo! stock had swelled alongside all the other so-called dot-coms, making geeky Jim McCoy, of the thick, wire-rimmed glasses and ratty ponytail, quite wealthy. It only took one eye-surgery and a haircut — along with the confidence that comes from knowing you’re not just a bad ass, you’ve also got millions of dollars to back you up — to make Jim look at a glance like the cool guy I’d always known him to be.

C2Net, on the other hand, had stalled out somewhere along the way. Other companies followed Doug’s strategy of coding crypto outside the U.S., eventually causing the export ban to be lifted. While that was a great achievement, the company’s commercial success remained elusive. Doug and his co-founder, Sameer Parekh, both took jobs with Kroll-O’Gara to do security consulting while their company worked out its next steps.

It’s great when someone you like becomes wildly successful. It’s even better when two people you like, who are also good friends, both become wildly successful. However, it’s slightly awkward-making when only one of them profits wildly from great success. Jim had lost none of the exciting energy that had driven him for so long, while Doug’s cool confidence seemed to vibrate with an anxiety that only seemed to calm when the two old friends would look at each other and smile. Clearly, they had a plan.

“It doesn’t matter how big a pipe you’ve got,” said Doug. “I mean, it does — it matters a lot — but what matters a lot more, a lot more often, is how big a pipe the server has.”

“Imagine if a server has one big file,” Jim said, gesturing with his hands. “If a thousand people want that file—”

“If only a thousand people want it,” Doug added.

“—then the server needs a thousand times as much bandwidth as the people at home.”

“In technical terms,” Doug said, “that’s a gigantic ass-load of network pipe.”

“So,” said Jim. “Imagine I’m a server, and Doug has already started downloading a file, and then you reach out to me because you want the file, too. But because I’m also trickling the file out in little chunks to a thousand other people at the same time, you can’t pull it down as fast as you would otherwise. What if there was some way you could ask Doug to send you the parts of the file that he had already downloaded, while you focused on getting new parts from the server?”

“You’d get the file a bit faster,” I said, “though presuming Doug is some random home user, his upload bandwidth is going to be pretty shitty.”

Doug nodded. “This is true,” he said. “But what if the server to put you in touch with everyone who’d ever downloaded that file—”

“At least,” Jim said, “everyone who was online right then—”

“—and who still had pieces of the file that you didn’t have,” Doug added, “then you can max out a home Internet connection, even a fast one.”

“You could even encourage people to stay online, sharing little bits of files with other people, hugely magnifying any server’s download power,” Jim said.

“How?” I asked.

“With a crypto-currency,” Doug said, “or at least something that can’t trivially be counterfeited, which downloaders can give to file-sharers, essentially ‘buying’ preferential treatment and better service. Then the file-sharers can re-use the digital coins with other sharers, making their own downloads even faster.”

“We call it mojo,” Jim said. “You want me to share something with you, so you share some of your mojo with me. I spend mojo to get something from someone else.”

“Or you don’t spend mojo, so your download takes longer but still not as long as if your download was throttled by a single server’s pipe.” Doug and Jim smiled again. “The plan is for us to seed the system with a bunch of mojo, and to reward sharers with extra mojo even if downloaders aren’t paying for what they’re keeping online.”

“And if users want more mojo?” I asked.

“They buy it from us,” Doug said.

“Imagine you have two dials,” said Jim. “You want something faster, you turn the mojo knob and pay for the service. You want more mojo, you dial up the storage knob and let the service store more little bits of files for sharing. We give people mojo to host files, even if they’re not being actively downloaded, to persist files in the system. The next morning you wake up to find you’ve earned mojo.”

“Or you buy more mojo from us,” Doug added.

I felt like I was missing something. “So you’re talking to different companies about making deals to share their content?”

Again, Jim and Doug glanced at each other, but this time they seemed to be trying hard not to smile.

“Not per se,” Doug said, breaking into a grin. “The beautiful thing is that this doesn’t require the content people to do anything.”

“How so?”

Jim shrugged. “Once a file’s been uploaded into the system, split up into however many tiny little pieces across however many computers, it doesn’t need a main server to host the file at all. All you need is someone to track who’s offering which file.”

Doug raised his hand. “That’s also us.”

Jim continued. “If you want a file, you ask us who’s got some pieces of it, and we put you in touch with your peers. Then it’s a peer-to-peer conversation after that. We don’t even know what content you’re talking about, all we’re doing is putting you in touch with other people who have data you think you want.” He shrugged with cherubic innocence. “And if you spend mojo, everything goes faster.”

My mind thrummed from shock. Somewhere, what remained of the fourteen-year-old software pirate I had once been began to laugh. For the first time I could remember, I had a hard time speaking.

“Motherfucking any file, you’re talking about,” I managed to get out. “Any file, from anywhere, but it wouldn’t be stored anywhere, it would be everywhere. And you wouldn’t know who had downloaded it, so no one could go after you for serving it.”

Jim smiled, nodding. “It would be hard to prove that anyone ever had the whole file. All we could say is that these people were thought to have some pieces of a file matching a certain fingerprint at one point in time. If you can’t bust a search engine for serving up a link to something, then it’s not illegal to connect the people who have data with the people who want data. The people who have it don’t even need to know what they have. All they know is that they’ve carved out part of their hard drive as part of Mojo Nation.”

“Mojo Nation,” I said. “I like it.”

“The speed is important,” Doug said idly, “when you imagine that a compact disc full of music is, like, 600 or 650 megabytes, so at 48K per second—”

“If you’re lucky,” Jim added.

“—that’s, like, three and a half hours. If you can max out a DSL line, you’re talking less than 15 minutes.”

“No, you’re not,” I said quietly, and both of their eyes snapped wide open. Quickly, I added, “At my last job, after they laid off everyone around me, I took over a couple of computers that no one was using any longer and passed the days copying all the CDs I owned — then about a hundred CDs that sat in a big, fat disc changer in our break room, then stacks and stacks of CDs that I’d borrowed from friends — to the hard drives of one machine or another and then converting the music to MP3. It took at least an hour per disc just to copy the data to the hard drive, then it could take a couple of hours to convert the audio with reasonable compression, so I’d usually spend the day copying CDs onto the machines and then kick off the conversion before heading home. Once it was digital, though, you’re only talking 65 megabytes per CD.”

“What?!” they both said at the same time.

“There’s no way you’re going to get an order of magnitude savings,” Doug began, then he paused, thinking.

I shook my head. “It’s more that most CDs are only about 45-minutes long. But yes, I swear, you’re talking something like 65 or maybe 80 megs for a lot of albums, with perfectly reasonable compression.”

Jim grinned. “So that’s half an hour to drive to a music store, buy a CD, and drive home, but a minute and a half to download it.”

Doug began making notes. “We’ll do the math,” he said with a tone of doubt, then he paused again. “Do you know how many megabytes a video ends up being?”

“Uh…no.” Suddenly, somehow, I felt like an idiot. It was the obvious next question. The truth was that I’d never had a computer powerful enough to do much with video. But I should’ve at least thought about it. Leave it to Doug to stay a step ahead.

“I don’t know what your schedule looks like,” Jim said, “but we’ll need a logo at some point.”

“Done,” I said, drunk from shock but clear on what I could easily do.

Walking back to Doug’s place in the cool evening air, I looked up at the stars. “It’s beautiful out here,” I said, fanning my arms out along my sides.

“It is indeed,” he said.

“I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe what you’ve come up with. That is genuinely the craziest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.”

“Well, thanks,” said Doug. But the further we got from downtown Mountain View, and the further we wound through the neat rows of clean, suburban homes, the more his shoulders slouched forward and the more slowly he walked.

“Ah,” he said once we rounded the final bend toward his house. “I see my girlfriend is not home yet. I was hoping you’d finally get to meet her.”

“Cool,” I said. “I’m looking forward to it; I’m sure she’s awesome.”

Doug laughed. He’d been married when I’d known him in Austin, though clearly he wasn’t married any longer.

“Whatever happened with Amanda?”

“Oh,” he said, “you know.” He told me the story. It wasn’t that different in principle from other stories I’d heard before, people being people anywhere you go, with the upshot that Doug being Doug, and rarely being without a girlfriend, he came out of the story with a girlfriend.

“What’s she up to this evening?” I asked.

“Oh, she’s probably finishing up at school. She’s getting her MBA from the Haas School of Business.” He checked my face. “It’s a famous business school,” he added.

“I figured,” I said. We walked up his front lawn.

“No, I mean it’s a really big deal.” Doug sighed. “I also applied, but they didn’t accept me.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, that sucks.”

“Well,” he said, shrugging, fumbling with a keyring. “The only thing I asked her is not to talk about it all the time. I told her I could take hearing about it for no more than fifteen minutes every day, and that’s it.” He made a cutting motion in the air. When we walked in, he stood gripping a chair-back for several moments before that unnamed frenetic energy of Silicon Valley swelled again, and he looked up. “Something to drink?” he asked.

“Water, please,” I said.

“You’ll meet her soon enough, I’m sure,” he said. He shrugged, handing a glass. “She’ll be home soon. I just hope she doesn’t ask me to do her homework again. The instructor evidently asked them to put together, like, a basic spreadsheet, and she couldn’t do it.” He chuckled. “She just didn’t know how. I was like, ‘You’re going to business school, and you don’t know how to use Excel,’ and she said, ‘I thought you were going to help me,’ and I was like, ‘I can’t do all your homework for you. You’re the one who got into business school, knock yourself out.’”

“Jesus,” I said. “Oh, hey — I wanted to say: thanks again for letting me stay with you.”

“It’s no trouble,” he said. Then his face softened. “Thanks for hanging out. It’s fun.”

“It is,” I said. “And that is a crazy, fucking brilliant idea you have there. I want to hear more about it.”

“Indeed,” he said, bowing slightly.

The whole world would hear more about the idea, in a lightly reduced different form, though they’d call it Bit Torrent, and it would in fact transform how files were shared — legally or otherwise — on the Internet. But we’ll get there. In the meantime, I had my own work to do.


Going to California

Life by the Valley — 3.1

It was hot out there, too, certainly, you could feel it in the air and see it on the streets. Some frenetic energy, as yet unnamed by science, propelled people through their days in a collective rush toward wealth.

In Austin, the traffic was thick with older and newer cars and trucks, the perfect and the dinged intertwined, carefully leaving enough several car-lengths between vehicles to reduce the risk of an accident. When construction closed a lane, the civilized response was the zipper: every car in the lane beside the closure taking its turn to let someone in, and every merging car waiting for its turn to fold into the path forward.

From a conference room at work, overlooking a Bay Area stretch of the 101 Freeway, traffic gleamed with new cars of mostly foreign makes and models. There were few American cars, and trucks were rare. And on the one hand, while the traffic was pitiless — the “we’re all in this together” spirit of the zipper was nowhere to be found — it cut both ways. It didn’t matter how fast you were going: if you left space enough for a car to physically fit between you and the next vehicle, you shouldn’t be surprised when a car moved to fill it, like any other vacuum in nature, usually without signally, many times abruptly, often for absolutely no apparent reason.

Bay Area driving culture was the exact opposite of Texas roads where, as we liked to say, an armed society is a polite society. But it wasn’t a fear of being shot that kept me from cutting people off in traffic, or that made me respect the unwritten social contract of the zipper. I genuinely enjoyed waving people over when they seemed ready to merge in front of me. I enjoyed waving a thank-you in my rear-view mirror after someone let me cut over in front of them. So the relative brutality and selfishness of Bay Area driving would have been infuriating for me, if there hadn’t also been an upside.

In Austin, and in Texas in general, you could go something like ten miles over the speed limit, and no more, without being guaranteed that the next cop who sees you will pull you over and rather aggressively ask what the hell you thought you were doing. In the Bay Area, though, most of the time if you were only going ten miles over the speed limit, you’re almost guaranteed to see other cars shooting past you, sometimes honking.

My heart soared when I discovered that eighty miles an hour was the basic flow of traffic along several a wide, winding freeways. My favorite was 280, which parallels 101 along the western boundary of Silicon Valley, dividing the tech towns from the long and sharply rising hillside — a mountain range, really, to this Texas boy — which itself separates the warm flatland of the peninsula from the cold Pacific Coast air. Low clouds sprint east off the ocean, building up on the western edge of the hillside until some critical mass breaks through, foggy tendrils waterfalling down the eastern stretch of hills, rolling in to calm any late-afternoon heat, with me, shooting north at more than ninety miles an hour, my ragged red convertible still being passed by shiny European road yachts driven by silver-haired men, lost in thought.

Few people talk about Silicon Valley from within Silicon Valley, even in the static-filled days of that unnamed frenetic energy, throwing off radical sparks of dot-com and Web and broadband-to-the-home. Still, there was no confusing the place for what it was. I had to be reminded repeatedly that until pretty recently, most of the peninsula had been a few scattered suburbs surrounded by tens of miles of rich farmland, fruits and nuts and vegetables in tidy rows where office parks and burrito joints and more office parks and some apartments and glass-and-steel office columns had come to squat. You really wouldn’t know it by looking at the place, which my Texas-tuned estimation figured had been built pretty much from scratch in the mid-1980s, with some office parks added or updated as much as a decade later. This felt odd to me, having come from a place where space was hardly a premium. In Texas there was always more room to build, and every year brought updated styles of home construction, or new modes of compositing strip malls, or a wave of gas station updates. Growing up, I could peg within three years when any housing development had come together, while in Silicon Valley, only two things seemed to change once the place had been built up: the expensively crafted logos which hung off the top edges of four- and six-story office buildings, glowing the names of whichever tech companies had been rolling in cash most recently, and the highway billboards, which were optimistically nerdy well before the rest of the world wrapped its head around the Internet as something that was not going away, that would definitely be a deeply important part of your life, and that would only be summoned into being by some secret alchemical combination of computer code and market vision.

At least, those two things seemed to be the strongest vectors of change from the perspective of a haggard red convertible sprinting down 101 at a speed approaching three digits. Exit the freeway, calm yourself, and drive a few blocks, and you may find one more degree of freedom in that time and place. Even though the people who’ve made lives for themselves in Palo Alto and Mountain View may believe that the normal rules of the world don’t apply to them — and this misconception would bring them enough grief soon enough — the life and times of restaurants didn’t seem to be any different there than any other. If you were very profitable you could survive, at least for a while, but the churn was high and if you didn’t keep upgrading your signs and your service you would quickly find yourself left behind.

Doug lived a couple of blocks from Mountain View’s small downtown strip where, after my first day at work, we walked over and met Jim. The look and the feel of that walk though cool, late-summer air as a few street lights began to flicker to life is forever cradled in my memory, and though I have no idea what we talked about as we walked over to Tied House that early evening, I’ll never forget what they told me once we got there.


Going to California

Life by the Valley — 3

I’d found myself in California, though that says so little for having been so much.

It was cool, certainly. “Air-conditioning, but on the outside,” I’d said at the start of this story, and having just suffered through a summer’s worth of days when I’d been unable to keep my computer up for more than twenty minutes before its core would swelter from heat internal — the black arrow pointer stuttering across the screen before the whole machine crashed hard — the consistently temperate Pacific Ocean breeze could not have been more pleasant.

This coolness in the air changed everything over what I’d come to expect to be normal in Texas, from how the buildings came together (thin wooden walls, without insulation) to where the people came together (anywhere, everywhere, on the streets, all the time). It would be a long time before it would change me, though it wouldn’t take long for the process to start as I first got my lay of the land.

Hold your right hand up in front of you — fingers straight upright and together, palm facing away from you, allowing your thumb to hang naturally, creating a slight space between it and the forefinger knuckle — and you’ll be looking at a good map of more than half of the San Francisco Bay Area. Your thumbnail is roughly the shape and size of the city of San Francisco itself, seven miles tall and seven miles wide, with water on all three sides. Along your forefinger are the cities of the East Bay, Oakland and Berkeley and others, first joined from thumbnail to hand by the double-decker Bay Bridge; ignore for now the fact that there’s a gaping emptiness above your thumb, where the Golden Gate Bridge joins San Francisco to the rich towns of Marin, in the North Bay.

The deep crease, where the meat of your thumb joins the rest of your hand, is where you find the city of San Jose. Between San Jose and San Francisco, on the inside of your thumb, the Bay Area Peninsula, is Silicon Valley, where towns ramble north from Cupertino and Santa Clara to Sunnyvale and Mountain View and Palo Alto and beyond, each one easier on the eyes and harder on the wallet as you wander away from the sprawl Hispanic poverty around San Jose to the intimidating beautify of San Francisco. Not that it was a clear gradient all the way up the fifty miles between the two cities, far from it. In those early days, outside of the handsome homes and glass-and-steel skyscrapers of the city, I often had a hard time telling the rich from the poor.

One of the first days, driving around Palo Alto with Doug, he’d jabbed a finger toward a row of flat-roofed wooden homes, surrounded by low, lush greenery but built to press nearly up to the curb. “That’s a million-dollar home,” he said. “Or more. One-point-two, probably.” I could not believe it. In Texas, a million-dollar home would sit far back from the curb, cripplingly thick brick walls holding off the outside world, three stories of open air and windows you would never open — God, why would you want the outside air in? — surrounded by neatly mowed grass that grew yellow and sun-burned along its tips even when heavily watered in blatant violation of the strict water conversation plans imposed some years. That place looked like my tin-roofed shack, times eight, minus the tin.

“You have got to be joking,” I said.

“There are bigger places, for sure,” he told me. “People are fighting with the city to tear down these flimsy things and instead put up multi-story McMansions with elevators, insulated walls with double-pane windows built right up to the edge of the property lines. So a lot of these are getting replaced by the new wave of money that’s coming through here.”

Doug wrestled with the steering wheel, doing something I seldom saw. He frowned. Money, and the new wave of it, was a thick current of heat that flowed over the coolness, just beyond the fingertip reach of most.

Going to California

Author’s Note

This whole time, I have been successful at putting off thinking about what I was actually going to say about California, but following a recent class on personal essay (by the great Jane Ganahl) I reckoned I needed to one together, and I admit I’m taking my time. Still, now I have an general outline to write against, and so regular daily posting will resume on Monday. Thanks for being patient as I put the rest of this story together. I’m aiming to be done by the end of June. Let’s see if I can stick the landing there. Thanks for your encouragement.

Going to California

Life By The Valley — 2.9

My first day at work in Palo Alto was mostly meeting a lot of people and signing a lot of papers. I’d already met my new boss, Phil Straw, when I was interviewed. He was a quiet, thoughtful, outspoken force of nature.

“Here’s a Phil story, for example,” Doug said, on the way into work that first day. “We’re at dinner, he gets a phone call. After listening for a moment, Phil asks for and gets a few numbers from the person on the other end. Then he pulls out a laptop, reads a few numbers from a spreadsheet, then says, ‘Good luck,’ and hangs up, puts the laptop away. I ask him, ‘What was that all about?’ And he says, ‘Oh, just a mate of mine on a boat. Came up too fast from a dive and felt the nitrogen bubbling up out of his skin. Asked me how far he had to go back down, for how long, to decompress.’ Phil and his friends are serious divers, but you should know he’s the kind of guy who gets phone calls like that.”

And no surprise, Phil now runs a company that makes custom dive computers that manage exactly that kind of thing, diving down to crazy depths and using delicate mixes of different gasses in order to let you stay deeper longer. It also has to let you know how, and how quickly or slowly, to come back up, or else you’ll die.

I’d be making it up if I said I remembered much of what happened that day, but certain moments stayed with me.

I remember being lightly briefed on recommended security protocol, and being relieved that in my general paranoia I was already meeting or exceeding most of their recommendations. But one other person was being on-boarded the same day that I was, a guy with the same initials as me. We signed our paperwork at the same time and, to our mutual horror, discovered that our signatures were identical: DP-identical-sqiggle. As in, we couldn’t tell them apart ourselves. We actually took a step back away from each other, I could feel my eyes growing as wide as I saw his opening up. The next day, we both confessed to each other that we’d spent part of the previous evening practicing new signatures.

Then there was the man I met on the street. Doug and I were on our way to dinner, after my first day at work in Silicon Valley.

“Hey, is that a game store?” I asked. It was the first game store I’d seen since driving up from Austin the day before, though I was sure the San Francisco area had no shortage of them.

“We can head on back after we eat,” Doug offered.

The following block had a “Dianetics and Scientology” sign along half its length. On the corner stood a wild-looking old guy, long white hair whipped to the side by the passing traffic. He bore a sign which read, “Scientologists have space cooties! www.xenu.net.”

“I think that’s Keith,” Doug said with mild surprise. “Well, we can go back and see Keith, too.”

We ate. Then the game store, and Keith.

Doug called out to him as we approached. Keith looked a little leery of us at first, and a little crazy, too. Then he recognized Doug and both the leeryness and his insanity fell away. The two of them did some catching up, I was introduced, and then Keith’s background was made clearer. He’d spent no small amount of time working on Xanadu, a legendary hyper-text project in progress since the ’60s that had finally shipped that week. In 1980, he was made a founder of the L-5 Society, an organization promoting space colonization. In his spare time, he had several large axes he enjoyed grinding.

“What does that mean?” I asked, pointing at one of his other placards. It said, “You mock up your reactive mind.”

“That’s what they tell you after you’ve given them $160,000, that you’ve been in control of yourself all along: you ‘mock up’, or you define for yourself, your ‘reactive mind’, how you interact with the world — see?”

Keith has been increasingly villified by the Scientologists thanks to a long pattern of mutual lawsuits. By the Scientologists’ estimate they’d expended over $350,000 on fighting him in the courts. By his, they’d spent about $2 million.

“Wow,” I said. “Even by their count, that’s two reactive minds worth of cash.”

From around the corner walked a beautiful blonde woman, properly business-suited if not business-minded.

“This is Robin,” Keith said as way of introduction as she passed. “She’s a Scientologist. Robin, these are two of my friends.”

“Hello, Robin,” I said, but she didn’t seem interested in further conversation. She smiled dismissively and pushed the crosswalk button. Her smile faltered only slightly when she realized she’d have to stand there with us for a full traffic-light cycle.

“Robin can’t say ‘Xenu,'” Keith grinned. That got her.

“I think that’s just silly,” she snapped.

“Of course. Xenu is silly.”

“I know,” she sighed with the slowness of someone repeating a mantra designed to sooth anger, “that nothing I could say will make you think any different about Scientology.”

“Oh yes you could!” Keith gushed. “You could make me think it was far worse!” This quickly became one of the most entertaining exchanges I’d personally witnessed in my entire life. Keith turned to the offensive.

“What do you think about [forgotten Scientologist term]? Where they keep you in a chair and put boogers in your mouth?”

“That’s . . . ah, I’ve never heard of that.”

“Oh really? Well you should ask someone about it. If you can get to the Internet, search for it. People who used to be higher-ups in Scientology talk about it a lot.” Robin glanced nervously between him and the other side of the street. The light hadn’t changed yet. She visibly restrained the urge to punch the crosswalk button a few more times. That’s Scientology training for you.

“There’s a professor,” she said in defense, “an Oxford professor emeritus named Brian Wilson.”

“Brian Wilson?” Doug asked. “Of the Beach Boys?”

“OF OX– . . . of Oxford. A professor. He’s done research into apostates, going back to the 13th century, and he found they’re notoriously unreliable sources.”

“One, sure,” Keith gave her. “Two even. But when so many people recount the same story — with minor variations in the details, which accounts for different places doing things differently — then you just can’t discount it.”

The light changed. “Excuse me,” she said over her shoulder while charging across the street. Keith waved one of his picket signs at her.

“Bye,” he called. I’m sure he’ll see her again.

“Bye, Robin,” I said. Then, when she walked out of earshot, “What’s Xenu? Or should I just check out the web site?”

“Oh, you should check out the site. But in brief, L. Ron Hubbard had to stretch for a background for his new religion, and coming from science-fiction as he was . . . . Xenu is the cosmic entity who kidnapped trillions of aliens from the seventy-six inhabited planets closest to us. He trapped them in volcanoes on Earth about eighty-five million years ago — volcanoes that couldn’t’ve existed at the time — and when they were blown up, the alien souls were trapped here forever.

“That’s what they teach you when you get way high up in the organization: you’re filled up inside with alien cooties, and the only way to get rid of them is to, well, give Scientology more money.”

As far as Keith goes, within two years, about three months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he would be hunted down in Canada as a terrorist. He joked on an Internet forum that a Scientology office should be hit by a “Tom Cruise missile,” and a group of Scientologists apparently convinced a judge that this was a genuine terrorist threat. Keith fled the charges, and Scientologists tracked him to Canada where they reported him to the authorities as a dangerous man, wanted in the U.S. as a terrorist. Things went really poorly after that. I’ll let a Toronto journalist tell the rest of the story.

And that was probably the most important thing I learned in the depths of my first day in Silicon Valley — also, that I did not have a number for anyone I could call for help in decompressing. I knew I had to be careful; I had no idea what would bubble up, out of my skin.

Going to California

Life By The Valley — 2.8

“When do we start?” I asked my new boss.

“Week or two. Need to get some people back in town, need to get some things sorted out, then we hit it hard.” He puffed his cheeks with air, thinking. “Did Mary talk to you?” he asked.

“Yeah, she said she’d have an assignment for me first thing tomorrow morning, said she’d tell me then what it’d be.”

“Don’t fuck it up,” he said with a smile.

I laughed. Then I realized he was only half joking, before realizing he wasn’t joking at all.

“I’ll do what I can,” I said, getting up to leave his office.

“Oh, don’t do that, mate,” he said with a deeper smile. Then he turned back to his computer and I walked back upstairs to my little cube.

There I found Doug. “Lunch?” he asked.

(If you started reading from the beginning, you may remember a story about a guy who’d been picketing in front of the Scientology headquarters in Silicon Valley. If this were, for example, a book, I would move that story here. I’ve already removed it from its place among the earliest posts. But instead, of simply slipping it in here for the online readers, I’m going to bring it back in as the following post, as a sidebar. If you’ve already read it, you can safely skip it.)

On the other side of a late lunch, there wasn’t much to do. I felt the slight pressure of the money I was being paid, a fantastic sum to me at the time and to many people still today, and wanted to be productive enough to feel I was earning it.

“What can I do?” I asked Doug.

“Well, there’s not a lot going on right now. We have a number of consultants in New York right now — that’s where the corporate office is.” He took a sharp breath through his nostrils. “Have you heard about what’s going on with the company at large?”

I hadn’t.

The company’s full name was Kroll-O’Gara, formed by two companies which had only recently gotten married. Their individual businesses were booming, and there had never been a single, massive, well-rounded security company. Kroll was an old-school detective agency and O’Gara was an old-school armored car company, and between them they bought up some of the major players in other security industries. They purchased Background America to do the basic background checks, they bought a major corporate drug-testing lab, and a couple of other smaller joints. Then they started looking around for what to do for information security. They met up with a little consulting company called Securify—

“Really?” I asked Doug. “They called it ‘Securify’?”

He shrugged. Kroll-O’Gara had bought Securify eight months back, and were busily directing all inquiries about information security to the consulting arm of the Securify body, of which Doug was vice-president. I had been hired into the tiny but growing engineering organization. But the ultimate end-game, I was told, was to spin the information security group, where I worked — the former Securify — back out as a start-up, given that start-ups were hot.

“So,” I asked, “we’re going to use our computer security consulting practice to figure out what people need, and then grow a company around whatever we build?”

“Basically,” Doug said. “Though at this point, the real trick will be getting the board to agree on everything.” He sighed. “The company’s been on such a buying spree, trying to be the big security behemoth where there’s never really been one, that they’re letting themselves be a little distracted at the moment. Kroll was a global detective agency that had been around for something like thirty years, very well-entrenched with a lot of good customers, and O’Gara was an armored car company that traced its history back to the Nineteenth Century. The Kroll-O’Gara board is split between them, so you can imagine how conversations go sometimes.”

A tiny, dark pebble dropped into the pool of my new joy. The ripples it made would echo in my head for nearly a year before I would finally come to terms with how much trouble I was in. I give myself credit for understanding almost immediately what was wrong with the situation, and I forgive myself for not running full-tilt in the opposite direction. My life would simply become too exciting to walk away from.

“Hey, Doug,” I said. “Remember in Cryptonomicon, when one of the guys is comparing the kinds of people you get in tech start-ups to the different races from Lord of the Rings?”

Doug nodded. I went on. “You have Dwarves, who go down into the mines everyday doing the hard work and making the cool tools, occasionally digging out some magical thing that can change the world.”

“Or burn it down,” he said.

“Then you have Elves, who are the sort of snobby, elitist, high-minded architects of grace and beauty. You have Men—” I looked around. “—and occasionally a couple of women, who are the social creatures, making all the deals and organizing the armies. Occasionally you’ll come across a Wizard, who sweeps in looking like a homeless person, draws something on a whiteboard that blows everyone away, and then vanishes into the night. You’ll end up with a couple of Hobbits, who’ve never been out of Hobbiton and have no idea how things actually work and who’ll only survive if they can learn how to roll up their sleeves and dig with the dwarves, deal with the men, and communicate with the elves.” I paused to take a breath.

“Yes,” said Doug. “And your point?”

“Sorry,” I said. “Just got carried away. My point is — first, is that true?”

He coughed a laugh. “Absolutely.”

“So what we have is a company that’s half controlled by a bunch of debonair spy people in pressed suits, smoking cigarettes and thinking abstractly about problems, and you have a bunch of gritty, hammering out armor and chomping on cigars and talking about how much blowing-up their cars can take before getting blown up.”

“I don’t see what you’re—”

“It’s elves and dwarves. The spy people are elves, and the armor people are dwarves. That’s…that’s a gigantic problem.”

“Why is that a problem?”

“Elves and dwarves do not get along,” I said, “never ever. Never will.”

Doug was unperturbed. “We shall see,” he said. “Right now, what do you think about dinner? Jim can join us.”

“Definitely.” I’d been looking forward to catching up with Jim. “How is he?”

“Jim is doing well.” Then with great deliberation, he said, “We have something we have been working on. Would you like to hear about it?”

“Very definitely,” I said.

We met up at the only micro-brewery in Mountain View, Tied House, where Jim and Doug told me what they were up to — what they had been plotting between themselves for years, since way back in what by that point felt like the distant, fog-enshrouded past when we’d been working together at the game company. You won’t believe it. I didn’t.

Wait: I need to back up a step. I haven’t even told you exactly where I’d found myself.


Going to California

Life By The Valley — 2.75

There was this company — big company, well-known company at the time — that sold music online — selling music on physical media; in 1999’s August, Napster, the first major online music sharing service, wouldn’t attract the ire of the music industry for nearly four more months. This company was pretty big at the time, though I don’t even know if they’re around any more. Probably they were bought by somebody at some point.

Anyway, they’d received an email from someone who called himself a freelance information security consultant, about how they had this terrible information security problem. As evidence that there really was a problem, and that he knew what it was, he sent along a file listing tens of thousands of credit card numbers belonging to their customers. For a mere $100,000, wired to a foreign bank account number, he would tell them how to fix their security problem.

Naturally, they were unhappy people, throwing around words like “extortion”. So they had some connection which brought them to us, and we sent out a consultant to see how quickly they could figure out and close the breach.

Our consultant flew to their city that evening on the red-eye, arriving early enough in the morning to have to wait in their lobby while enough people dragged themselves in to work that he could finally gain access to the server room.

He was sort of expecting a bunch of machines, running such a large site. The operation was not a small one at that point. And they did have a bunch of machines holding things like album cover images and track listings and the like, though they only had one Web server that processed purchases. The pages that a user needs to see in order to complete a purchase are pretty lightweight and straightforward, so one beefy machine was able to do it for the whole site.

“And where’s the database?” our consultant asked. It was on the machine, he was told. On that same machine. Our consultant thought, “That’ll be problem — this machine has to be reachable from the public Internet, and the database probably has a port open, and they probably have a shit password on the database, if any, so this guy was probably able to connect straight into the database from wherever he is and trick its gag reflex into vomiting up everything it’s got.” But even though that was in his head, what asked was, “What’s all that beeping?” Because ever since they’d come into the server room, the computer had been beeping in an irregular pattern that did not sound like what you’d want from the machine that made your company millions of dollars every month.

The escorting employee beamed. “Oh,” he or she said, “that’s how we know we’re making money!”

I’m told that the consultant we’d sent did not say, “You’re kidding me,” out loud.

The employee went on. “Our CEO wanted us to have a connection to every sale, so we could understand that what we were doing was affecting people’s lives right then, exactly that second. So every time a sale goes through, he wanted the machine to beep.” I’m told he or she sighed. “Unfortunately, the only way we can know for sure that an order was completed in real-time is to verify with both the Web server and the database. So we needed the database and Web server on the same machine.”

“And the Web server connects to the database over a network port, right?” our consultant asked.

“Of course,” the employee said. “Normally the database would be on a separate box, but we put them on the same machine so we could make a ‘ding’ when an order went through. The Web server connects back to database, sitting on the same machine.”

“So you’ve got one machine, with Web ports and database ports open, sitting on the public Internet.”

The employee nodded. “Our firewall is supposed to be blocking that, though.”

I’m sure our consultant nodded patiently. The firewall, of course, was not. I heard that our guy was out of there after only a couple of hours, though we ended up charging them for a full day. We saved them 95% off of the hacker’s extortion racket, though, and I expect they were glad to pay it.

“So what happened?” I asked my boss.

“Fixed their firewall rules, I think,” said Phil.

“No,” I said, “I mean about all the credit cards that got stolen.”

He shrugged. “They’re already gone, right? And the breach is closed, right? So I don’t think they care.”

“But those card’ll just get sold to the Russian mafia—”

“Uzbekistani, I think,” my boss corrected.

“Whatever. They really don’t care?”

“They care that they took care of the exposure. That’s all they’re required to do.” It varies from state to state in the U.S., but in 1999 the reality was that the Internet had grown up pretty fast. If you hadn’t been paying attention to information security for the last fifteen years, you could be convinced that these problems never could have been predicted.

My eyes drifted to a middle distance, as they usually do when I convince myself that I’m thinking about something in many different ways at the same time. Whether or not I truly am, I have no idea. But sometimes, interesting things come out of these moments.

I said, “So, hackers are war-dialing common ports across a bunch of servers on the Internet — common database ports, for example. And when their script gets a response, it gets logged. Then the hacker comes home from work —”

“Or school.”

“—or school, and they check the list of Internet-accessible databases that their computer found for them during the day. Then they start making money.”

My boss leaned forward. “What we’re wondering,” he said, “is how we get people to scan themselves. Think about it: if you were the CEO or the CIO of a company, and every month you got a report that told you what your network looked like from the outside, maybe you’d feel great. Maybe you’d be interested in paying some small amount for a monthly or weekly scan of your perimeter to make sure some new admin hasn’t opened you up to something horrible since the last time you checked.”

“Because how else would you know?” I said, fully gripped by nausea.

“How else?” Phil asked. “That’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to build a scanner that can check any location on the Internet for known vulnerabilities, assemble a report and tell them how to fix things, if possible.”

I thought about it. “We’re going to create a database of all known vulnerabilities to Internet-facing server software, with nice text describing what they are and how the exploit works, if known, and how to fix it, if there is a fix. And we’re going to scan a bunch of sites constantly, to help them stay secure.”

“That’s the plan.”

The nerve that this touched in me at that moment was old, and went deep.

“We’ll be finding and tracking the open ports on hosts all across the Internet,” I said. “We’ll be uncovering what the Internet truly looks like, its real shape.”

He thought for a moment. “That’s one way to look at it.”

“I’m in,” I said.


Going to California

Life By The Valley — 2.5

“What are we going to do?” I asked my new boss.

“You know about ports, right?”

Now there are so many horrible ways to talk about ports that I’ve had to come up with my own less-bad way to say it.

The way things currently work on the Internet, you have addresses and you have ports. If you’re a computer on the Internet, you have an address, just like how computers networked over phone lines had phone numbers. But the address only gets you there. The same computer can serve up Web pages and manage email, from the same address, so you need some way of as soon as possible getting out of the way whether you’d wanted to talk about email or about the Web, so some years back, purely by convention we started giving each service a number. Each port number is like a different door into the same computer. If you’re running the right service — a Web server on port 80, an email server on port 25 — then you’ve basically opened a door into that computer. The door may not go anywhere, but it’s there.

“I think I know about ports,” I said,

“Like, how many are there?”

“Really? Only a few major ones. But as many as you’d need. Sixty-five thousand.” Because computers are so super-rational as to be completely insane, they believe that 65535 is actually a nice, round number, because that’s how many ports there are.

“Per protocol,” he added.

I nodded. I’d neglected to remember that there were two major core Internet protocols, and they each have more than sixty-five thousand possible ports.

“But that’s not the problem,” he continued. “Or rather, it is the problem. There are so many machines out there with ports open, people have no idea what’s going on inside their companies.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean,” he said, leaning forward, “no one has any fucking idea what is actually going on in their network.”

“How can that be possible?”

“It takes knowing what you’re doing,” he said simply. “It takes time, and money, and attention. You have to pay attention, to see what’s going on. If you don’t see it, it’s like it didn’t happen.”

“But people don’t care that what’s happening could be somebody ripping them off?”

“They don’t care until they hear about it.”

It wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. I figured that someone, somewhere, must have their shit together.

“Firewalls?” I asked.

“Requires you to set up the firewall, then watch it, see what it’s doing. And most people have to set the thing up so open that it’s not doing them any good.”

“I’m very surprised.”

He shrugged. “It’s how the world works. Nobody wants to spend money on something until they know it’s costing them money not to. That’s the problem with selling security. You’re doing your job and all you have to say at the end of your day is, ‘Everything’s okay,’ and that’s not getting you more budget, or a raise, or anything. You only get attention when everything’s so fucked up it’s your ass on the line and you’d better get things sorted out right now or you’re done. After that, you go back to a boring life of telling people things are okay, even if you’re pretty sure they’re not — they’re just not on fire.”

“Sounds about right,” I admitted.

“That’s what people usually think when they hear this is a security company. They think we sell security, when nothing close to that could be the case.” He narrowed his eyes. “What do you think we sell?”

“Risk management,” I said.

“Exactly. We don’t tell people we will make them secure, because who wants that responsibility. We sell risk management. You know what we’ve been doing with all the security consultants?”

“I could say ‘security consulting,’ but—”

“Yeah. So we started out as a security consulting firm, information security. We were bought by this big company, Kroll-O’Gara, at the start of the year. They’re trying to make a big play to be a big security vendor. We’re using our contacts to do a bunch of security consulting for many different companies so that we can identify what problems these people are having, what’s consistent across them, so that we can sell them a solution — or make a solution we can sell them, more like.”

“So how many of these consulting gigs have you done so far?”

“Many. And we’ve learned a couple of things. Like, people have no idea what their network is actually doing. When they do know, they have no idea how bad an idea it was to do what they were doing.”

“So you’re talking about a way to help them manage the risk of doing what they’re doing.”


He told me a couple of stories to illustrate his point. Here’s one that I both believe to be true and think I can share.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 2

Here’s what I was told after my interview, as they presented me with an employment contract and a check for moving expenses, when I asked what I could possibly do for the information security group of an international private detective agency.

“Have you ever heard of Packet Storm?”


“Me neither, but last week I bought it. It was a Web site that was being run for a while by a student at Harvard, a big collection of security information and tools and—”

“You mean hacking stuff?”

“Basically. As he was getting close to graduating, it came to the attention of Harvard that they’d been hosting Packet Storm and they shut the site down. He can’t afford to host it himself, so he sold it to us. He’s shipping us the hard drive. We should have it early next week. So we want to know what’s there, first. Then we need the site redesigned — it needs to look professional — and then all the tools and the scripts and the—”

“Are we talking tutorials or attack tools?”

“It’s a lot of things, I’m sure, but what’s there for certain, I’m not sure.”

“Do you know and you don’t want to say, or do you really not know and you need me to find out?”

“I’m sure I don’t know everything that’s in there.”

Mary smiled lightly.

“So you want me to index and categorize a Web site full of computer cracking scripts—”

“Security tools.”

“—of security tools—”

“And then run it, run the site. Organize everything, manage it, post new things.” She smiled more deeply, as if sharing a secret. “Because we’re not simply buying the hard drive, we’re buying the domain, and one of the most valuable things that we’re getting with that will be the email.”

It took me half a beat. “Because little kids all around the world are constantly emailing their new attacks and exploits and terrible, terrible shit to Packet Storm.”

“Right. And if we can use any advanced information we get coming up from these channels to protect our clients, all the better.”

So they wanted me to do for real, as an adult, what I’d being doing on the sly as far back as high school, collecting and distributing information that many people believed was dangerous but which, for whatever reason, I’d always felt strongly needed to be collected and shared. Or collected, at least — by me, at least.

It’s not that I would do anything with information like that, probably.

When I got to California, on my first day at work, I more formally met my boss, Phil, a Yorkshireman only a little shorter than me but about as broader again across his shoulders than I was. His hairline was a dark, receding buzz that only made his eyebrows seem more severe. He was a serious guy, as I’d find out. He smiled a lot, and he’d joke about things, but he was serious.

We’d met at the interview, though things were different this time. He smiled a little more deeply, in a way that made me feel like I was no longer an outsider. I didn’t just feel like I was talking to a serious person. I was talking to a serious person who was on my side.

“So,” he said. “Bit of a change in plans.”

“Um, okay.”

He winced. “So, the guy who actually owns the Packet Storm project here internally, he’s out of town right now, but he doesn’t want anything to happen on it until he gets back. Sorry.”

“Sorry, how?”

“Well, apparently he’s not impressed that I’ve hired someone to run the site for him.”

“He wants to run it?”

“No. He doesn’t actually want to do any work. He’s off in the middle of fucking Africa watching the eclipse.” I’d heard about the eclipse. Four months before the end of the millennium, and everybody’s talking about the total solar eclipse.

“Wasn’t that a week ago?”

“Something. But if you go all the way to bloody Africa, you stay a while.”


“So, we’re gonna be working on something else.”

“Wait. What’s the deal with Packet Storm?”

“He’s going to run it, with his people, let them do their own thing. He won’t be around much, anyway.”

“Is…is this guy a problem for you?”

Phil shrugged. “Was. He’s a bit of competition.”

“What happened?”

He smiled. “Just got into his machine and fucked with him a bit. Drove him mental over a couple of weeks. I thought, ‘That’s sorted.’ Now I think he suspects and he’s a bit pissed off. So he’s drawing a big line around Packet Storm. We’ll be working on something different.”

“Okay, like what?”

“A service. Something that could make money.” He paused. “I get the impression you know a bit about security tools, eh?”

I winced. “A long time ago—”

“I don’t mean a long time ago. I mean now, recently. You’ve kept your foot in it, have you?”

“Mmm,” I said.

I’d paused, many times, but I’d never truly stopped. I was never malicious, though I was that other, lighter M: mischievous. My drive toward mischief kept me reading certain mailing lists, and at least thinking sideways about how certain new bits of computerdom worked. Here’s an example.

Working my way through college, I’d gotten a job at a computer mail-order parts place. It was probably the most dangerous job of my life. In nearly every room of the joint, somewhere, was a loaded, semi-automatic weapon. The parts company — we sold memory, drives, printers, monitors — was run out of the back of a bankruptcy attorney’s office, and about every six months or so some client’s spouse, or ex-spouse, or creditor or other associate would come by and try to cause trouble. This was in downtown Austin, and nobody batted an eye. The density of weapons was simply so that our boss could most quickly, with the least amount of fuss, be able to discourage someone from making further trouble for themselves.

A woman in the office below us, a divorce attorney, was shot and killed by a client’s husband, who then killed his wife before turning the gun on himself. I was working that day, one thin floor right above them.

I disliked our boss. For such a smart guy, he was kind of dull, but he loved his toys. He let me design his magazine ads, which was how I did my first professional print work, but I had to use one of the crappy black-and-white 13″ monitors on the Macs in the sales room where I spent most days answering phones and taking orders or otherwise coping with angry customers. We had a lot of angry customers. In his office, though, he had two enormous 19″ monitors hooked up to the same computer. He had the biggest, most bad-ass machine I’d ever seen, and he used it to do really simple things with spreadsheets, and to try out all the new junk that people used to send him, to see if he wanted to sell it.

Like the Voice Navigator, the first commercial voice-control system that I ever heard about for the Mac. It was a thin black box with a thin microphone that came up at a 45° angle and ending in a puff of black foam about a foot from your mouth. You’d train it, saying, “Computer, shutdown,” three or four different ways so that it would have some slightly different samples to compare against as it sat there, constantly churning away, listening, in case you wanted it to do something for you. It sounded pretty cool, even though in practice it seldom worked at all, unless you had a really good sample.

One time, on a Saturday, he let me work on the ad on his machine. I’d already turned it into him but he wanted a bunch of changes, so I got to sit in the big leather chair while he cleaned his pistols in the other room, worried that we wouldn’t make the 3 PM FedEx deadline to get our ad in the next issue of MacWorld magazine. Every 15 minutes, his secretary would buzz me on his intercom to ask if I was finished. So when I was done, I figured out how the Voice Navigator worked, and the next time the buzz came through I recorded it, all three buzzes, really good samples, and I assigned them to the Shutdown action.

Days later, he was cursing. He didn’t know nearly as much about computers as he said he did, he just thought they were cool and wanted more than anyone else he knew. He had so much crap jacked into that Mac that it took something like five minutes to fully start up. Shutting down was as major an event, a shifting of applications, all running at the same time, which slowly tried quitting. Shutdown took so long that he never had an opportunity to associate it with the Voice Navigator. All he knew was his intercom would buzz, and he’d turn away from the computer to answer it, usually having to get on the phone after that. Once he was done with his call, he’d turn back to the Mac and it would be off. What the hell?

I caught it in action, one time. The phone buzzed and he looked away, but he kept his hand on his mouse; he’d been irritated for a good couple of days, and he was getting twitchy.

“Uh, huh,” he said over the phone. “Well, tell him he can—wait, hang on.” He squinted into his enormous monitor. “No, computer, don’t lose my changes, save the file. Okay, I’m back with you. Wait.” Under his breath, he muttered as he moved his mouse around to click buttons that were popping up in dialog boxes on screen. “Why are all these programs closing? Yes, save changes. Save changes.” Then he slammed the mouse down against his heavy wooden table so hard that the little circle holding in its rubber ball popped off and the ball that actually fed the motion data up through the mouse fell right out and rolled into the tangle of cables and floppy disks underneath his table. “Goddammit!” he screamed. “Fucking computer. Goddammit.” He remembered he was on the phone. “I’m gonna have to call you back.”

After a wholly unproductive week, he ended up erasing the entire machine, and losing a couple of months worth of data because he was afraid that any backups might also be corrupted. I’ve never heard a man curse that much or that hard in such a short period of time. He wasn’t a poet, he just had a good, workman-like approach to his cursing. I felt entirely justified, even though I hadn’t really done it on purpose. I just thought it’d be funny, especially that his problems stemmed from his inability to troubleshoot a simple problem, compounded by his poor computer hygiene — no one needed that much crap running at once. He so clearly had no idea how anything could possibly go wrong with what he’d made, so he had no idea what was going wrong. It must be some virus that no one knows about, he howled.

Also, I’d found out that he’d ripped me off for about two thousand dollars over a six month period of time, when some manufacturers were giving bonuses to salespeople on the sales of certain items. He told us that the paperwork didn’t go through, when really it had gone through — he’d simply used his own name in filling out all the forms for the five of us who worked for him. Still, I hadn’t meant for it to cause him that much grief. The second time, though — the second time I got to see him running around the office, literally pulling his thin hair out from his scalp, I meant it.

And that was just the kind of stuff you could do if you had hands-on access to someone’s computer. Early applications that connected machines to each other over the Internet were not especially well-coded, early on. As the Internet grew, more computers were connected to other computers, which meant that while more and more people could send each other email, or chat on private relays, it also meant that more and more people could attack random targets, at low cost to themselves and at a potentially high return on their effort — given a good target, or enough crappy ones.

For example, in the mid-1990s there was The Ping of Death. You could craft a couple of malformed packets of data, pop them in digital bottles and float them over to very many machines on the Internet, and when they opened them up to read them they would die. Or rather, the machine’s processing would hang, and you’d have to reboot the machine to get it to do anything again. I first ran into that on a chat client, a crappy little app which was itself vulnerable to a ping attack. If you wanted to kick someone off of a chat line, or out of some games, you could send some very innocuous traffic over the network to their address. At best, from their perspective, it would slow down their interactions, and at best, from your perspective, it would knock them offline.

Sometimes all you had to do was simply send a bunch of packets to the target faster than they could respond, again at least slowing them down but more likely crashing some service on their machine. There was a version of this called a Smurf attack. If you were on the same network as a machine, you could send out a bunch of packets which were fraudulently marked as having been sent by your victim machine, and the barrage of responses from all the hosts who thought the victim wanted something from them would crash the victim. You smurfed your target.

As people wrote more services — more name services, more mail servers, Web servers — the vulnerabilities only got more sophisticated. I could go a couple of months without paying much attention, or trying anything out, but things change so fast, and I’d have hated to have missed much, especially because I was still insatiably paranoid.

“Yeah,” I said offhandedly. “I kept my foot in it, a little bit.”

“How long you been hacking?”

“Since I was fifteen, so: half my life.”

He nodded. “Alright. You can do this. Here’s what we’re going to do.”