Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.4

We’d been hiring more and more people, mostly to keep up with the demand for our services while replacing those we’d lost to the interesting start-ups which continued to spring up all across Silicon Valley. Maybe six weeks before the DDoS attacks began, two people had suddenly appeared in an empty row of desks behind Rain Girl, a young man and a young woman with the clear faces and wide smiles of people who weren’t exactly bad but who it was easy to imagine could be up to no good.

“You know who the new kids are?” I asked Phil.

“Ah, well,” he said, “Brad’s traveling more and more — consulting for clients and doing more than his share of partying, you see, so he can’t be troubled with the daily care and feeding of Packet Storm. You got new exploits and vulnerability hints coming in every day, so someone’s gotta go through it all, figure out what’s what, and get it up on the site.”

“Is that good for you? Him not being around.”

Phil shrugged, slumping a bit in his chair. “I’m not bothered about him any more. He’s going to slip up on his own, I don’t have to be the one to give him a shove.”

“So they’re running Packet Storm now?”

“He is, the one kid, a young hacker Brad found in Chicago. A bit touched, that one.”

“What do you mean? You mean like ‘Rain Girl’ touched?”

Phil slumped more deeply into his chair and looked at me through steepled fingers.

“Why don’t you tell me,” he said.

“And the girl?”

“Dunno. She’s his girlfriend. Don’t think she does anything but keep him happy. He refused to come out unless we gave her a job as well, you see.” He scratched his neck.

“So we’re paying her a Silicon Valley salary to be his girlfriend. I think there’s a word for that.”

“Don’t go there, pally. She answers email, I guess — spends a lot of time typing, at least.” Phil sighed. “Talk to them. Make friends if you can. See what he’s got them doing. If it’s up-and-up, fine.”

“If not?”

He pushed his chair back from his desk, stretching. The conversation was ending.

“You tell me,” he said.

The happy couple spent most of their time hiding behind headphones and screens of laptops, madly clickity-clacking from when I arrived in the morning until I left every evening. The site was getting updated, it was starting to get attention.

I had my own problems, of course. I had caught up enough on the technical side that I understood exactly how far behind I was. It wasn’t simply a problem of knowledge and understanding, it was a problem of habit. Those last few years in Austin, I’d let myself develop some terrible habits, mostly around not doing much work at all. The only way to get productive was to begin producing, and the only way to produce was to develop the habit of sitting your ass down every day and doing it.

One Sunday, with nothing else to do — Jim was off on one of his multi-week trips around the world, and the Bay Area’s rainy season had well and truly settled in; the days were short and my mood was dark — I went into the office to see if maybe I could get something done that I could feel good about, in hopes of starting the week with fresh momentum. To my slight surprise, I hadn’t been there an hour when I heard the office front door click open. I clocked the tops of the heads of the Packet Storm couple walking up the corridor that’d bring them past my office.

Slowly, the guy said, “Hey.”

“Hey,” I said. Beside him, the girl smiled with tightly pursed lips. He stared at me for moment, mouth opening and pulling air in as if he had something to say, then he turned on his heel and strode briskly on to the back corner of the office. The girl waved at me, then quickly followed.

I turned back to my screen, completely unable to remember what I’d been doing. I stared at my screen for nearly a minute before thinking I could probably use something to drink. Off to the kitchen, near the back corner of our office.

When I passed the open door that had been serving as a kind of lab, stacked high with racks of computing equipment and unlabeled cardboard boxes, the guy was standing on a chair, trying to attach something to the ceiling. The girl, sitting primly in a rolling office chair, looked over at me through the wide eyes of someone who wasn’t sure how the current scene would play out. Clearly, in her mind, it could go any number of ways.

I found that interesting.

“Hey,” I said, leaning against the frame of the door to the lab.

“Hello,” the guy said distantly, finishing what he was fiddling with, which was mounting a small disco ball to the ceiling. Then he hopped down off the chair and stood before me, arms pressed to his side.

“Hello,” he said again, as if for real this time.

“Hi,” I said, extending my hand. “My name’s Derek.”

“Mmm, hmm,” he said, shaking my hand and then going back to staring at me. The girl put on her headphones and swiveled around to face her screen — one of the top ten non-verbal cues that someone no longer wants to talk to you, in case you didn’t know.

“You guys are working on Packet Storm?” I asked.

He nodded, seeming to breathe more quickly. He was tall and thinner than most, wispy blonde hair like a cloud that followed him around. He looked toward me, but through me.

“I’m working on Radar,” I said. That was what we were calling our scanner.

“I know,” he said.

“I don’t think our bosses get along,” I said.

He barked a laugh, looking down and away from me. “I think you could say that.”

“Hmm,” I said. “That bad?”

He shrugged, still looking away. “He doesn’t know anything,” the guy said. “He says he does, but he doesn’t, not really.”

“What got you into computers?” I asked.

He took another good breath. “Oh,” he said slowly, “I like to play with things.” He shrugged again. “You know. Explore things.”

I nodded. Okay, I thought, let’s roll the dice. I opened my mouth and I said something I hadn’t told anyone in a long time.

Standard
Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.3

In late 1999, more and more weaknesses were being found in computer networks, mostly in Microsoft Windows systems. As more people continued to leap onto the Internet, the number of targets swelled immensely, and some hackers began to realize that there might be more to life than rummaging through random people’s computers for interesting information — though that certainly still happened. Instead, an idea began to grow in the underground that by leaving vulnerable targets relatively intact and unmolested, you could build something that the world had never seen: the biggest hammer anyone had ever held, as long and as wide as the Internet itself.

They called it a Distributed Denial of Service attack — or DDoS. If the Internet, for having been designed to stay online through nuclear holocaust, was the closest thing we had to an immovable object, then a DDoS wasn’t far from its irresistible force. A DDoS couldn’t take down the entire Internet, though it could press hard against some important parts of it and make them cry.

How did someone make a great big hammer out of a bunch of Windows machines? Well, hackers had already begun taking it upon themselves to scan large swaths of the Internet looking for machines that seemed to be vulnerable in one way or other. The scanning tool would attempt to exploit a vulnerability, and if it was successful then it would install a tiny little app in the background of the computer, set to come back up with every system restart. The application was intended to be lightweight, low impact to its environment — it’d be best if the host never became aware that it had been taken over. The invading code came preconfigured with the addresses of some other machines that had already been taken over in a similar way, and which had been chosen to serve as central control points for the growing army. That way, the hackers could hide behind the central command-and-control machines, delivering them instructions which they would then pass along to the other bots.

A few months after the tools first became available, some people suddenly found themselves in control of a huge number of hosts. As hackers traded lists with one another, several lists of hundreds of compromised hosts became one list of more than a thousand, then lists of thousands became a single list of tens of thousands, and pretty soon someone held the reins of the first bot army big enough to do some pretty serious site smashing, raining down hammer strikes, essentially identical to valid Web requests, from all across the world.

There were plenty of places besides Packet Storm where you could find copies of DDoS attack tools, though we were one of the most prominent. It was a particularly bad decision by Brad, the Packet Storm project owner, that brought the authorities to our door. In December of 1999, he ran a little contest, offering $10,000 for the best analysis of how to handle a large-scale DDoS attack — which, as far as nearly everyone knew at the time, was a purely hypothetical question. Internally, a few of us took bets as to how many submissions we would get. I guessed six. Brad, the Packet Storm project owner, thought we’d only get one. We ended up getting two, but both of them from the same person, a young German hacker called Mixter who’d written one of the most popular bot control tools, TFN, Tribal Flood Network. Shortly afterwards, an even more advanced tool appeared on the scene, called Stacheldraht, which means “barbed wire” in German. It seemed to have been based on TFN, and even though Mixter never publicly took credit for it the math looks pretty simple.

So yes, we gave ten grand to a 24-year-old German DDoS hacker not long before the newest generation of his code was fingered as being responsible for the first large-scale public DDoS attacks, in which an oppressive number of remotely orchestrated computers took down Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, eTrade, and others, for as long as ninety minutes at a time during crucial business hours, causing an estimated $1.7 billion in damage in just three days.

Jim McCoy was not the only one who didn’t find it particularly clever that we might have aided these attacks, however distantly. Someone at the FBI wasn’t impressed, either.

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard
Going to California

Life by the Valley — 7.3

When we got to work, Matt stomped off on his own. I disappeared just before lunchtime, and when I came back I went straight to Phil’s office.

“I made a mistake,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he said. I didn’t have to be finely attuned to the British accent to hear he was being coy.

“With Matt,” I said. “I’ve seen him rub people wrong before, but this is a whole new level. Or maybe it’s I’ve never been leveled by him before. But he’s gone wrong, and people are starting to listen to him, and it’s going to be bad for the project.”

“You don’t trust him,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Does anyone else on the team feel this way?”

I thought about it. Most people were still charmed by him, but I’d been watching — with him talking so much, I had a lot of time to observe other people. A couple of the older, no-bullshit guys clearly doubted him.

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay,” Phil said, palms flat on his desk. “So you’re paying attention. That’s good. Here’s the deal: on Friday last week, your ‘buddy’ came in here and he told me that I had to stop you from doing what you were doing, right in your tracks. That I had to give him your job, and that you should work for him as his little helper.”

“What?”

“Now this morning, he went into Mary’s office and told her that he needed my job.”

“You seem pretty calm, considering.”

“When you know what you’re dealing with, you can afford to be calm.” He sighed. “It’s good you came to me.”

“What makes Mary think he won’t just do the same thing to her? What does Taher think?”

“He’s out, back Wednesday for the staff meeting.” I didn’t usually attend Mary’s staff meeting, but this time our whole group had been invited to give an overview of the project’s progress. It was going to be a big deal.

He narrowed his eyes at me. “This could be ugly. Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “This guy’s an old mate of yours right?”

“It’s already ugly,” I said. “Every morning and evening, he’s been the same cool guy I’ve always known, then at work he’s been some kind of crazy person. He has no money, so he’s staying at my place, and I’m paying for all his meals. This weekend, all he did was order me around and talk shit about how I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Phil looked at me for a long time as his face slowly softened.

“That is the worst thing you could have possibly said. I am really, really sorry that that’s what’s been going on. You should’ve told me much earlier and I’d have gotten it all sorted out.” He thought a moment. “Maybe that wouldn’t have been for the best, though. At least now it’s clear. You went above and beyond, you gave him every chance and he stabbed you in the back. He tried to stab me —”

“I’m really sorry about that.”

“Don’t you apologize, it wasn’t you. Better people have tried.” He leaned forward. “What I’m saying is you gave your best mate a chance, and he turned on you like a mad dog. I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll talk to Mary. Don’t worry. It’s going to be all right.”

I believed him. Two days later, we were all in Mary’s office. Matt was tapping his fingertips on the table, practicing some drum riffs. The Packet Storm product owner, Brad, couldn’t make it.

Taher came in and the meeting started. The engine team gave the technical side of the presentation, to positive head-nods all around. Then Mary introduced Matt to Taher as the consultant we’d brought in to speed development of the Web site through which the service would be offered.

“Let’s see it,” said Taher.

“It’s going to be a while before we have a site,” he said. “We have a whole lot of work to do before we put down a single line of code.”

Taher shot Mary a questioning glance.

“The site itself is not on the critical path,” Matt quickly said. “There are plenty more important—”

“Do you know,” asked Mary, “what ‘critical path’ means?”

“Well, yeah,” he said. “It’s all the biggest, most important things in the project.”

“No,” she said. “It’s the longest path of dependencies through the project. You can have small things on the critical path that don’t seem important.”

“Oh, yeah, I know that. I read that book in high school.”

Mary laughed lightly. “High school,” she said.

“What do you have so far?” Taher asked, clearly unamused.

Phil brought up the couple of screens I’d done before Matt had arrived.

Taher nodded. “Looks good,” he said. He smiled at the team. “It’s getting somewhere.”

“Thank you,” said Phil. I began to notice how no one was looking at Matt anymore. They never looked back, either, not the rest of that day or the day after, when meetings began to be held without him being invited. People didn’t stop to speak to him in the hall. Mary walked out her office and blew past our cube on her way to the door.

“Hey,” Matt called. She was gone.

I got Chinese food for us that night. The next morning I’d be driving him and his grotesquely enormous luggage to the airport. Phil had urged me to let the company put him in a hotel, but I’d declined. I wanted a chance to say goodbye.

“I just don’t get what happened,” he said, rocking back and forth and staring at the carpet. “Guys come out here and get crazy-ass jobs, they’re offered desks made out of LEGO and shit — I mean, they hired you. I don’t know what went wrong.”

“Did you tell Phil to give you my job?”

“That,” he said, “is bullshit. All I wanted was for the right thing to happen. Everyone would’ve been happy. Well, shit. At least I have the other two weeks.”

“I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

“I need that money — it’d better happen. God dammit.”

“Did you tell Mary you deserved Phil’s job?”

He got quiet. “Look,” he said. “I swear to you, I have no idea what happened, okay? Everything was going fine.” He stared at a spot on the carpet. “I just don’t know what could have happened.”

“I’m not sure I know what happened, either,” I told him, and that was the truth

The next morning I drove him to the airport.

“Enjoy your fucking quarter-million dollars,” he said, wrestling his luggage from the back of my car. He could’ve just lifted it and it would’ve come right out.

Over the weekend, I reached out to my old friends in Austin, hoping they’d tell me I’d been a fool for trusting him. They didn’t.

Rick’s response was emblematic of all the others. “Of all the people in the world, he did that to you? To you? After you defended him, for years? I never pretended to understand, but you loved that guy. And what you described is the saddest thing I have heard all year. It is the saddest goddam thing in the world.”

On Monday, Phil pulled me aside.

“Like I said,” he told me, “we’re all sorry about what happened. But you need to know that we trust you.” He told me they were giving me a raise. I’d been there three months, and after what I saw as having been a massive failure I was getting a raise that on its own was more than half as much money as I’d ever made at Steve Jackson Games.

Distantly, I knew I was supposed to feel good. But Matt had cracked what little confidence I had left. It was the exact opposite of why I’d had him out in the first place.

Over the holidays, a few weeks later, I’d call his step-dad, Michael, to say Happy New Year. He’d sound neutral, and I’d wonder what story he’d been hearing. After a minute, he’d hand the phone to Matt. We exchanged polite well-wishes, and to date we would not speak again.

I think it was the money. Money makes people do weird things. You have to be careful how you handle it. It’s like uranium: you keep it in a vault and don’t think too much about it or you’ll wake up after not long to find your skin bubbling over. Jim had never seemed to be focused on money, just by technical excellence, and there he was starting his own company. He had a better shot than most at changing the world. Doug, I thought at the time, had gotten caught up in trying understand why he hadn’t been as successful as some of the people he’d seen get rich, people who’d simply been at the right dumb place at the right lucky time. As one of the smartest guys I know, I think it was tough for Doug to make sense of the difference between some of the idiots we would see high-fiving each other, buying last-minute first-class tickets to Hawaii, versus himself and where he was. And the worst part is he was right. It didn’t and doesn’t make sense.

Austin had been going through the same exciting economic uplift as the rest of America, though the articulation of the boom was much larger and more obvious in California’s Bay Area. On the roads out here, the cars were even that much nicer. The people were more fit, and more well dressed. Not everyone was rich, but there was an air that everyone was moving up, or at least should be. And if you weren’t, then the difference between the aspirational energy you felt around you and the place where you saw yourself to be could be crippling.

Even a relatively modest and kinda scruffy guy a few doors down from me in the complex had a classic 1960s-era Jaguar. The dude did a lot of work on it himself — it looked awesome. He was a good guy, actually, a bit older than me and not strictly a techie — I forget what he did, but it was more your ordinary job. Still, he was friendly, if a little shy, like so many of us out there at the time, unsure of what our places ultimately would be in the world.

We lived close to each other for four years, and I’ve no idea what became of him. I don’t even remember his name. If we’d had Facebook then, I bet we’d still be in touch today, Like-ing each other’s vacation photos and commenting on one another’s links. But with that strange, euphoric energy binding us to that place in that time, when everything fell apart, as it would shortly, and the energy rushed away there was nothing to hold us all together. We crashed, all of us, and some of us never recovered.

A few of us just crashed earlier than others, is all.

Driving back from the airport after I saw Matt for the last time, I reached out to that place in my mind where I still held some part of his mother, my friend.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

Standard
Going to California

Life by the Valley — 7.2

I hit the snooze button on my internal alarm, figuring I needed to give him a chance, but it was too late. That week was like an extended nightmare. Matt was cool and funny when we were alone. When other people were around, though, he would either ignore me or make me the butt of some joke or other. I’d look surprised, and he’d say he was only kidding.

Leaving work on the second day, I asked him what was wrong. He said nothing was wrong, that I was taking things the wrong way.

On the third day, on the way back to my apartment, I asked him what his problem was.

“There’s no problem,” he said. “Here’s the problem, though: You need to stop doing what you’re doing.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Stop doing what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make a product when you don’t know anything about what your customers need. You gotta talk to people, to end-users and experts, you find out what they want and how they want it, then you design.”

“I don’t know if you remember, but I am an expert.”

“You are not.”

“Look, I know you were always hot about pirating software and all back in the day, but I was always more serious in hacking circles than you were.”

“You were not.”

“No, I was. I—”

“You might think you know a lot, but you’re not the customer. You’re not going to pay money for the service. You shouldn’t do shit until you find those people and find out what they need.”

And the worst part of it was, all other things being equal, he was right. But other things were far from equal.

“Sure,” I said. “But it’s super clear what we’re making here, and it should be super dumb to use or it’s not going to be successful. Besides, we have this meeting Phil’s been planning for next Wednesday. We need to show some basic version of what we intend to do if we’re going to win the chance to make something.”

Softly, he said, “That is the bullshit you tell yourself that keeps you from being successful. You already have the chance. Just follow my lead. Everything is going to be all right.”

“It doesn’t feel like you’re helping me. It feels like—”

“You brought me out here because I know how this shit works, and you don’t. I’m going to make it work, and you’re going to be happy. You have to trust me on this. It’s going to be okay.”

But by the end of the week, the other people on my team began turning to him when talk came up about the Web site, not to me. When I brought up the work I’d done before, he’d wave it away, laughing.

As we wrapped up work on Friday, Mary swung by to wish Matt a good weekend. She didn’t say anything to me. I saw Phil leaving, and he wouldn’t meet my gaze.

I put on some music and watched Matt eat the pizza I’d ordered for us while he crowed about how we were on top of the world, and wow, if only the people we used to know back in the day could see us.

For the weekend he wanted to meet up with some friends in the city, and he urged me to go with him, which is to say he wanted me to drive him. After watching him chat and laugh with his friends for about an hour, my mind began to drift, playing back our conversations. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that he was lying to me, but I’d known him half my life; I was finely attuned to when he was lying.

Then I had a calming realization. He hadn’t been lying to me: things really were going to be okay — for him. The crucial difference was that he didn’t care about me, beyond how I could help him.

My oldest friend had become a sociopath.

I stood up. “I’m gotta go,” I said. “You can stay, though.”

“Stay here?” he said, glancing at his friends. “How do I get back, motherfucker?”

“Take the train. The train’s awesome.”

“Oh, the train,” he said, nodding quickly. “That’s right! Well, yeah. Why wouldn’t I take the train? It’s awesome.”

I agreed. He stayed the night in the city, calling me the next morning.

“Hey, come get me,” he said.

“Take the train,” I said.

“Yeah, but who’s going to pick me up at the train, asshole?”

“You can walk to my place from the station. It’s a couple blocks.”

“It’s a quarter of a goddam mile, first, plus I picked up some sweet luggage from this antique place we went to, total old-school, huge-ass wonderful shit.”

“So take a taxi.”

“I don’t have any cash, you know that. Fucking come pick me up.”

I agreed to pick him up. I got there early. A few minutes before he was supposed to arrive, he called.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“At the station.”

“Well, you’re not at the same station as me. I had to get off the train early because the one I got on wasn’t stopping at your station. So get here. Jeez.”

He hadn’t been kidding, the luggage was not small. I had to put the top down for the taller piece to fit, and he had to hold the other one between his legs. He cursed at me the whole way home, and all evening.

“You have no fucking idea what you are fucking doing,” he said. “You just have to follow my lead and do exactly what I say. That’s all you have to fucking do.”

I stayed calm.

“You’re like that girl in Colorado. She is the most frustrating person in the world to talk to. She’s all like, ‘You always say things that hurt my feelings,’ and I’m like, ‘You don’t understand. I am just saying things. This is how I say things. It’s up to you how you choose to take it.'”

“But that’s like punching someone and saying, ‘Oh, that’s how I hug people, by punching them, so when I punch you, just think, ‘Mmm, he just hugged me, that’s awesome, I love hugs.'”

“Exactly,” he said. “You control how you choose to take things.”

“You mock up your own reactive mind,” I said, which was what the sign had said that was carried by poor Keith, the Scientologist protester, on my first day of work in Silicon Valley.

Matt thought about it. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. I should say that to her next time she pulls that bullshit on me.” He grinned. “That’s genius, actually.”

If I hadn’t already made up my mind, that would’ve pushed me over the edge.

Standard