Going to California

Dog Boy

Eighteen years and three weeks ago, I drove from Austin Texas to the San Francisco Bay Area, from a tin-roofed shack off an unpaved alley behind a high-school friend’s house to take a well-paying job in Silicon Valley. I was making a move between what I saw as a life where I wasn’t contributing anything to the world, to a place where I felt I could.

On a whim, I brought a hand-held tape recorder along for the ride. Every once in a while, I’d record random thoughts or tell some story or other. The drive itself was a bit of a blur, and I couldn’t remember what all I’d said. I despise the sound of my voice, so for eighteen years I’d never listened to the tape.

But two weeks ago, I did, and I felt compelled to transcribe my favorite part. Looking back, this story is both the core of everything that was great about my move to Silicon Valley, and everything that went really, really wrong.

Here it is, essentially verbatim.* My 18-years-later notes are in parenthesis.

 


 

My greatest achievement in art school, in my opinion, was also my first — which was sort of disappointing, as (everything else) was basically downhill from where I was.

My first summer I returned to the University of Texas and officially entered art school, I took a 3-D design class. I took a sketching class, and a 3-D design class. Out of the sketching class, I got the friendship of a woman named Stacy, who also had a painting class on my floor. And who was breathtakingly beautiful, and mind-numbingly attractive. At the same time I had just been so hurt by a major breakup that I found it impossible to really give in and accept her affection for me. (We ended up spending tons of time together. She even came over to sleep in my bed, and I never so much as tried to kiss her. I didn’t think I deserved her affection. This would be a running theme.)

But the other class I was taking was a 3-D design class. I met some really cool people there who I would end up knowing for a while, as well. It was in this class that I had the greatest achievement of my art-school experience.

(There were four of us in the group.) One was a really cool guy named Chris, who ended up being in a band called Mother Tongue and moved out to LA and did all swell — I’m told; I saw their name on the cover of a magazine once and I thought, “Wow, man, they must be bad-ass now.” And they were, they were great. (Had always been.)

Once, I’d gone to go see a movie at the Hogg Auditorium on the UT campus where they would show movies in their really kinda crappy auditorium, these really painful wooden chairs. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience, but they played films that you wouldn’t see elsewhere. And he worked there, he helped run the place. (He was on ticket duty that night, and even though I hadn’t seen him in months he did the cool-guy head-nod and waved us in for free.) I was there with my girlfriend Melinda at the time, watching Casablanca. Afterwards he and his friend played this song. (It echoed down from the projection booth.) They were both playing guitar and one of them was singing, while the other would come in with harmonics in the background. And they were great. We sat there on the ground in the foyer of Hogg after the movie, just kinda holding hands, leaned up against each other, sitting on the ground. And it was cold, we were bundled up because it was February — and it was great.

It was actually his idea, the dog. We were working on our final project. Our final 3-D design project was to create a sculpture, in a group, that would be integrated with its environment.

There were two girls in our group. One girl, I think she was Greek, a very petite olive Greek with dark, black curly hair. She was beautiful. This last half of the summer was to be her last little bit of freedom before she moved to San Antonio to marry an Arabic man that she was very enamored of, who was probably her very first decent lover. So she was going off to San Antonio to marry him, then they were going to move off somewhere else, their eventual destination I’ve forgotten after ten years.

The other girl, Michelle, was really cute. We mugged out real hard one time after I dropped her off at her place, while working on the project. She was the one who contributed the leash and the rhinestone collar at the last minute.

Because: all of the suggestions that we put forward to our teacher, she shot down. And she wanted to know what we were going to do — ahead of time, we had to tell her, we had to sell her on it. It had to be a sculpture that was integrated with its environment. It had to be around the art building and the environs.

So we suggested things like a large spider in a giant web up in the corner of the stairwell of the art building, and she said no. We suggested a lot of things and they she shot down everything. Meanwhile the other groups were happily cranking along during class and constructing (things like) their enormous lipstick and power case to be erected in the girls’ bathroom. That one was done by the girls who were just taking the basic 3-D class (as a necessary elective before graduation). So there were a lot of dilettante girls who needed their three-hour credit and figured they’d fill in half the summer with this 3-D design class that (actually) took up four hours a day, I believe every day of the week.

It was a great life, though, it really was. I knew I was blessed at the time and I loved every moment of it — but I didn’t love myself, and I didn’t allow the love of anyone else to shine through.

That was really a drag. I feel like I’ve sort of truncated my emotion right now, and it’s this emotional energy that I’ve bottled up the whole time (more than ten years) to sweep me across half of North America at 85 miles an hour.

So anyway, there we were. It’s the night before the project is due. We’re at my place, we’re drunk — I’d just cooked up a big shrimp-pasta crazy-ass thing, threw in a bunch of wine and we all got plowed and hung out and tossed around ideas, just flailing in the blindness because we were so drunk, and so desperate.

And Chris, god bless him, suggested road kill — he suggested producing a fake road kill.

The Art building was directly across a very small, one-way, one-lane, inner-campus drive from the Fine Arts building. Between the Fine Arts building and the inner-campus drive there’s this nice creek with a small bridge that you cross over before you actually enter into the dark, early 70s-constructed Fine Arts building, which was a very peaceful building: low, set back and dark and brown, and in fact integrated with its environment rather well, I think.

Chris suggested that in that inner-campus drive, we set up some nasty piece of road kill. The consensus was that “dog” was the best idea, so I got a bunch of stuff that night from a nearby grocery store after everybody left — god, it was like 2:30 in the morning. (I was coming back from dropping off Michelle at her house. That was the time we made out in my car.) And I cut out of foam core an underlying base for it to set on, like a dog lying on its side — a small dog, like a petite frou-frou dog but not super tiny. So you would have to step around it.

(On the tape, I start to chuckle.)

Michelle brought the little rhinestone-studded collar and the pink leash, like someone was out walking this little frou-frou dog and it got hit. (Now I laugh.) And it was just laying there. And I got a Tupperware container full of blood and little jiblet guts from the late-night butcher at the grocery store across the street from my complex into which I’d moved just recently, having just arrived in Austin and still getting my feet on the ground. (I’d been in Austin for nearly not quite two months, and I’d only been single for a few weeks.)

That morning first thing I went to Cloth World and bought some kinda gray-black frou-frou dog hair, a square yard of it. Went up to school and cut the thing out, wrapped little (fur) legs around the base so that they would have something to be anchored to, like they were kinda stiff, and stuffed it with crumpled up and shredded pieces of the Daily Texan, the campus newspaper that they conveniently left lying around near the Art building to be used by students in their projects.

The girl, whatever her name was — dark, Greek girl — contributed a black marble which I gummed up with all of the hog’s blood that I’d left out overnight (along with some real hamburger that had gone bad), stinking it up in my kitchen, exposed to the low heat of a Texas summer morning. Really pretty ripe. She’d contributed the black marble, which I cut a little slit out for, and with the coagulate I’d gotten at the grocery store, we then stuffed its shredded, open dog belly —

(more laugher)

— with the rotten, mixed-up hamburger meat —

(even more laughter)

—and entrails.

(laughing very hard now)

The Tupperware container of blood, we then flecked onto the shredded edge of false dog hair that surrounded his belly. The blood poured down —

(giggling uncontrollably)

— the small one-lane street, down to the white concrete curb, dripping off into the hot mid-day sun. Me and Chris sat on the side of the inner-campus drive by the stairs going directly up into the Art building and watched people pass it for a couple of hours before class started. Actually, we met at noon and we watched for an hour until the class started. We sat up there and watched people walk by it and just laughed and laughed and laughed, because it looked so fucking real —

(losing it again)

— and people just freaked out when they saw it — and, more importantly, smelled it.

(choking on laughter)

That was really the best reaction.

(choking on tears and laughter)

When their nose confirmed what they saw, they freaked out.

I really did like startling people. It was a lot of fun. I couldn’t hold back my excitement too long, though. I went upstairs to get David Erwin, who was a friend of mine I made in the class and who I’d really go through most of design school with. We’d remain in touch intermittently for the rest of my time there in Austin. I really liked him.

I went up (to our classroom and found David), and asked if he wanted to go across the street to the cafeteria in the Fine Art building’s basement, and he said, “Yeah —yeah, sure, man.” So we walked on over, and we walked out of the Art building and went down the steps, and there, as we were crossing the street — you would have to step around it to get to the Fine Arts building — was this dead dog.

As we approach it, he slows and he gets quiet and he goes, “Oh my god, I think it’s a dog. Oh my god. I think he’s dead. I think that’s a dead dog.” I bust out laughing, and his eyes get big and he looks at me and he says, “I don’t think that’s a real dog. I think you made that dog.” And I just lost it completely.

Chris (off to one side by the bushes) saw what was happening and laughed again, as David said, “You know, I was just thinking, ‘Somebody loved that dog.’” I think he was kind of upset with me for having done that. He ended up taking it in good spirits.

So (minutes later, back in class) we walked through almost all of the other students’ pieces. Since ours was outside, it was going to be one of the last ones. We went into the bathroom and we saw the giant thing of lipstick, and we went out and into the hallway and inside one of the studios and saw some crazy piece of shit in the corner — and it was all kind of interesting and fun, and here we are, we’re hanging out, we’re students in this 3-D design class, all proud of ourselves.

Then we drop outside to go look at ours, which Chris and I tell them is across the street in the gully, in the creek bed of the Fine Arts building across the street.

Our teacher, however, knows what’s going on, as she had to drive up the inner-campus drive so that she could park her little pickup truck near the sculpture department, which was on the far side of the Art building. Man, she was really cool, too. She actually drove right past it. It was a little off to the side of the road so that cars could drive past, but they had to go out of their way just a little bit to get around it on the left-hand side. It was on the Fine-Arts building side, so that coming out of the Art building you had to cross the street towards it, and you had a little time to suck it in as you approached it, coming down the stairs of the Art building. She drove past it and then stopped —

(more laughter)

— and saw us laughing, and then busted out herself laughing, gave us the thumbs up, and drove off to park.

So she completely went along with our charade of our thing being across the street.

Other people naturally had reacted to the thing in the meantime.

There was one guy who was this crazy-haired art student Master’s candidate who was doing I don’t even know —

 


 

This part of the tape ends here, for no obvious reason. But the rest of the story’s details are indelibly burned into my mind.

Other people naturally had reacted to the thing in the meantime.

There was one guy who was this crazy-haired art student Master’s candidate who was doing I don’t even know what, and walking across from the Fine Arts building he saw our little sculpture and yelled, “Goddammit,” stomping straight over and grabbing it by the leash to dispose of it. Blood and entrails fly everywhere as Chris and I leap out and shout, “No — it’s Art!”

He froze, looked at the bloodied fake fur and shredded newspaper and foam-core base dangling from the pink, rhinestone leash, and his face transforms. “I’m so, so sorry, man,” he said, and to his credit he helped us reassemble it.

Several people saw it and steered clear of the thing completely. At least one of them called the campus trash patrol, who drove up in a pickup truck and tried to scoop it up. We kept them from destroying it, with the promise it’d be gone well before sundown.

So. We all walk out of the Art building, down the short stairs, and I’m at the front of the pack so I stride headstrong across the street toward the Fine Art building’s little creek. But something marvelous happens: everyone else — except David and Chris and the two girls, who hang back to observe — slows as they approach the dog, forming a loose circle around it. I heard emotional muttering, and then a shriek — then the whole group yells, and everyone in the circle spins on their heels, groaning and scowling and shaking their heads, while I laughed hysterically, literally squeezing my sides together.

Dog Art

Our teacher took a few photos for us. We got an A in the class, and for the first time I felt like I had won — like I wasn’t a loser with nothing to point to, I was finally the cool guy I’d always wanted to be.

I was so wrong, and I’d find out for sure a few weeks later when I ran into a girl from that class late at night in the back of the grocery store. She was really something: smart and fun-sounding and pretty-looking, exactly the girl from whom I desperately wanted validation.

Rolling my cart over toward her, I caught her eye and did the cool-guy chin nod, saying, “Hey, good to see you again.”

Her mouth curled to a half-smile at first glance, before freezing as full recognition settled in. “Oh,” she said, looking me up and down. “You’re that dog boy.”

She turned away, redirecting her cart and rolling off. One small moment and I felt completely eviscerated, everything raw about me spilling out onto the grocery-store tile.

I never saw her again.

Too often, the things I thought I needed to do to prove myself were exactly the things that held me back. This would come up over and over when I moved to Silicon Valley, until I finally learned my lesson and was able to take the first step beyond, into the real world.

 


 

Four years ago, I began writing about my life and how I got to California. Starting today, I’ll be posting weekly updates until I finally get to the end.

Thank you for reading. Here now is the rest of story.

 

* I made extremely light edits, mostly dropping some repeated, irritating words. Frequent offenders: “just” and “like” and “really”. I trimmed a bit of detail for focus, and I also moved two paragraphs around to make the story a little less convoluted.

Standard
Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.1

During one of Jim’s short stays back in California between extended trips away — he wanted to use all his vacation time before leaving Yahoo to work full-time on his startup, Mojo Nation — there was time to get back to our preferred rib place, only to be confronted with a terrible reality. They were closing.

“They raise my rent,” said the restaurant’s proprietor, a massive, middle-aged Caribbean man. He was maybe a head taller and more than twice as wide as I was from any angle. We’d become “hey”-level friends after Jim and I had eaten enough ribs there that we didn’t strictly speaking need to order after sitting down — and it wasn’t because we stood out as the only two gringo dudes in the place, but because we were some of the only-ever dudes in the place. Once, I saw diners at as many as four other tables while we were there. Usually, the place was empty, or nearly so. This in itself should’ve been strange, just blocks from Stanford University and high-class downtown Palo Alto. Why was there never anyone else there? Never mind: we’ll have the ribs again, please.

“That sucks,” Jim said.

The big man gripped his heart and lowered his head, grimacing as if speared. “Closing party, end of the month,” he said. “Fifty dollars gets you in that night, and anything, everything. All the drink —” He waved his hand over the bar, and it was finely stocked. “—whatever you want.”

Jim knew what he wanted. “Aw, I can’t make it,” he said. “I’ll be out of town.” Africa, I think it was, actually, on safari with his father. “Can I get some of those ribs?”

The guy paused for a moment. “It will be a buffet, for all the food we have left. Will be much, but no ribs.”

Jim pulled out his wallet. “What if I paid you now for two orders of ribs? Could you wrap them up for me that night?” He pointed at me. “He can pick it up.”

The guy was a big man, like I said, but not so big as to avoid taking Jim’s money. I had enough love for the place that sure, I’d be there for its final night.

There’d been a lot of sketchy people working there, a revolving door of folk who didn’t seem interested in eye contact and who I may have never seen again, but there had been this one waiter who’d seemed like a decent guy, the kind of person who looked back at you honestly when you looked at him. I thought of him as the cool dude.

As I walked in the door that early Saturday evening for the rib-joint’s final party, with a friend who’d probably prefer to remain nameless, I immediately took it as a bad sign when the cool dude held the door open for me but wouldn’t look at me. Okay, I thought, maybe he’s preoccupied. He’s basically losing his job with no notice. It’s his last day of work, and it’s a party where everyone’s paid $50 a head to consume as much of what remains of the place before the doors close forever. He might not expect to rake in the tips. So I figured maybe that would explain it.

There were a surprisingly large number of people there. About two-thirds were white couples in their 60s, oddly, with a couple of black guys flanked by outrageously over-proportioned blondes and a small crowd of somber, younger Hispanic guys, with the occasional young woman darting in and around between them.

Huh, I thought. My friend had never been there before, so he didn’t sense anything out of sorts. Then one of the older guys approached our table, gripping a larger, old-style camera with a massive flash mounted on top.

“Do you mind,” he asked us, “if you, ah, end up showing up in the background of some of the pictures from tonight?”

My friend and I looked at each other.

“No,” we said. He smiled, mopping his brow, breathing more quickly, and walked off. An older woman at the table to which he retreated saluted us with a shaky thumbs-up.

“You have to admit that was weird,” I said.

“I’ll gladly admit it. When is the food coming out?”

“In just a bit, I’d guess. The kitchen looks busy as hell.”

“Will someone come by to take our drink order or what?”

I looked around. Cool dude was working the bar.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, and moseyed on over.

He smiled thinly as I approached.
“What are you having?” he asked, lips pursed.

“I don’t know. What do you recommend?”

“I make something,” he said, turning away, rustling through a three-deep shelf of half-empty bottles. Over his shoulder, without looking at me, he asked, “Are you planning on staying…for the whole night?”

“Sure,” I said, and it echoed in my head like the voice of the naive farm boy in the horror movie who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. “And you?” I asked, trying to shake the feeling.

He shook his head, cheeks creasing with a forced smile. “Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “I’m here for an hour, then that’s all.” He held up the drink he’d poured into a plastic, 64-ounce cup. “I’m gone.”

I stared at the drink. “Would you mind making another one? For my friend?”

He nodded, and much more quickly poured equal amounts of Coke and rum together into another equally large cup.

“Good luck,” he said, and turned to the next person approaching the bar. I left him a giant tip, and time seemed to slow as I walked back to the table. I rewound the conversation in my head as I walked.

I played back what I’d heard again for my friend.

“What?” he said. “Come on. You’re fine, dude. You’re making a big deal about nothing.”

“I don’t know, man. What about that camera guy? Wasn’t that a little strange?”

“He’s an old dude, dude. They act weird.”

Some food came out. They gave us little paper plates just big enough to fit in our palms, which we greedily piled with shredded chicken and fried plantains and grilled carrots. The lights dimmed. The Caribbean music grew louder. A lot more people must have shown up when I wasn’t looking.

Then another guy from the same table as camera guy came over to us.

“I haven’t seen you boys around here before,” he said, raising his voice over the music.

“It’s my first time,” my friend half-shouted. The guy’s eyes grew wide.

“I’ve been here a bunch,” I said quickly. “Made a few friends.” I waved at the massive proprietor, who’d taken up a position near the front door to welcome new arrivals. He wasn’t receiving anyone at the moment, so he waved back, a smile nearly as wide as my actual head.

“Oh!” the man said, shoulders relaxing visibly. “Oh. Well that’s fine, then.” He laughed. “How silly,” he said.

We smiled, nodding.

“So, are you boys staying…for the whole night?”

I avoided looking at my friend directly, but all the energy seemed to go out of his posture.

“Sure!” I said. “Sure, why not?”

The old guy laughed. “Why not?” he repeated back to me, striking a dance pose before shuffling off across the room. Three people back at his table waved at us, thumbs up.

“Okay,” my friend said, face down low against the table. “I did not like that.”

“There’s something going on here.”

“Oh, you think? You think? What the fuck, man?” He picked at a plantain. “They haven’t even brought out the good stuff, yet.” He took a sip of his drink and nearly spat it out. “What is this?”

“I think it’s all the rum they can’t sell after tonight.”

“Jesus Christ! Someone actually made this drink for you?” He leaned over to peer into my cup. “Did you really already drink half of that shit? Who made that?”

“The guy who also asked if were were staying for the whole night. Besides, my drink didn’t have nearly as much booze as yours.”

“Really?” he asked.

I glanced around. It had gotten dark in there while we were talking. A crushing paranoia descended upon me which in retrospect I’ll call the distant scream of good sense.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

My friend stood. “I gotta go to the bathroom,” he said.

“Cool.” I slapped my forehead. “Shit! Shit. Jim’s ribs.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Bathroom’s that way. I’ll see you over there.”

We split up. Walking over to the kitchen was like swimming through syrup. This was not the effect of alcohol. What the hell?

The guys in the kitchen did not speak English. I got it into my head that I could speak Spanish, and they didn’t understand that, either. I’d have to appeal to higher powers.

Massive man was still standing by the front door, though now he seemed to be greeting people who were leaving, not arriving. I was confused. He had his back to me, so I moved to tap him on his fat shoulder when suddenly a young, dark-haired woman, her face the portrait of fear, leapt in my way to wave me off. Then she stuck a smile to her face and spun around, facing the increasingly long line of dudes who were exit-greeting massive man. She discretely waved me over to one side, holding up a finger in the universal symbol of “please hang on” while helping attend the dudes. One by one they stepped forward to greet massive man, strongly shaking his massive hand. From my vantage point, I could see the swollen rolls of twenties and hundreds that each young Hispanic guy in turn pressing into his palm with each handshake, quickly passed off to the young lady, which she in turn was stuffing in a paper bag just as smoothly as she could.

Once the ritual line emptied out, she went up on her tip-toes and tapped him on the shoulder, pointing him over at me. For a moment, a frightened look passed across his face.

“My friend had paid for some ribs,” I said, pointing at the kitchen, “but the guys back there—“

He swept in, gripping me in a fierce hug. “You like-a my ribs!” he shouted, clapping me repeatedly on the back, pointing over to the kitchen and yelling something that was not exactly Spanish but which threw the cooks into a commotion. He slapped me once more on the back and like a partially tranquilized elephant turned away, lumbering back into the restaurant. I never saw him again.

The cooks passed over a pair of to-go containers, nodding fearfully, smiling hesitantly.

“Dude,” said my friend, returning from the bathroom. “I was wondering if maybe we should give it another—“

“Drug front,” I muttered, like a cough. “We’re gone.”

“What?!” he said, following me out the back door of the place. It was dark out, with rain coming down surprisingly hard. We bolted toward my car; I tossed him the keys — “You drive!” — and in minutes we were back at my apartment wondering what the hell had happened.

I don’t remember what time it was when it occurred to me that I should do something with the two boxes of ribs. My friend had only stayed for a little while before heading home — I think he only partly believed what I’d said I witnessed while he was in the bathroom — and the same album was playing that I’d put on when we’d come in. To be fair, though, it was the same music I’d been playing when we’d left originally, so it could just as easily have been on repeat.

Ah, crap: and, of course, there were the cats. Jim had been gone two days already, and I hadn’t stopped by to check on his cats. For whatever reason, it felt important to do it right then, slipping the ribs into Jim’s freezer at the same time. I still had no idea what had been in that drink — I wasn’t much of a drinker, but it didn’t feel much like the effects of alcohol — but I felt fine to drive. I probably wasn’t. I was probably doing something stupid. Jim didn’t live more than a quarter mile away, accessible through small suburban roads, so it felt low risk if my perception of my driving skill turned out to be skewed.

Jim lived on Rich Street, humorously enough. For a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire, he’d kept his humble digs: a one-bedroom rental in a two-story complex that probably hadn’t seen much maintenance since the late 1980s. That was the weird thing about Silicon Valley at the turn of the Twenty-First Century. The fastest computers in the world? Check. The greatest storage density available to mankind? Check. Buildings less than ten years old? Hardly anywhere. The whole place seemed build in the mid-80s and left to fend for itself against an annual brushing of light rain. I reckoned it was smart because it probably made him less of a target, in any case.

I got there just fine, walking up to the back door through his apartment’s rear parking space. Unlocking and swinging the door open, though, my paranoia flared up again, like a black bird on my shoulder, cawing madly.

That’s when I realized I was looking into Jim’s small apartment, but I was also looking out at the night sky beyond. Across the living room from the back door, the front door was half open.

A backed out, closing the rear entry in front of me. Again, suffocating in what I thought at the time was my own paranoia but which now sounds a lot more like good common sense, my flight instinct was strong.

Naturally, I walked around to the front of the apartment to the open door. After all, I’d signed up to watch Jim’s apartment. This was my responsibility.

I pulled out my cell phone. “Yeah,” I said to no one. “Hello? Hey. Yeah. Me? Nothing. Stupid evening. Feeding your cats now.” With a soft toe press, I swung the door fully open before stepping inside.

“Uh, huh,” I said, scanning the apartment. It didn’t look like it had been ransacked though, meaning no disrespect to Jim, it could be hard to tell. When you’re the guy who picks up all the toys, it can be a hassle figuring out where to pile it all neatly. But I easily counted six things that I’d have taken if I were robbing the place. Maybe Jim had been in one of his usual hurries to the airport and didn’t swing the door fully shut? When did he use the front door, anyway?

I walked slowly toward the bedroom. My jaw began to jitter, teeth chattering.

“There’s this guy named Doug,” I said. “Oh, you know him. Yeah, well, he’s got a new girlfriend. Official photographer of some Indian cult guru. No, come on, I’m not kidding.” There was no one in his bedroom. The closets were closed. I wasn’t going to open them. If someone walked in on you robbing a place, and your first reaction was not to run out one of the two available exits when you had a chance but instead tucked yourself away in a closet packed tightly with startup t-shirts and tech toys, then you’re dedicated enough to get away with it.

I fed the cats. “Sure,” I said, “he seems happy. Of course that’s all that’s important. I agree, he certainly deserves to be happy after all the crap he’s been through.” I tucked the ribs in the freezer. “Oh, what’s that? You’re coming back tomorrow morning early? Ah, cool. So I’ll just lock up then.”

I drove back to my place, still holding the phone to my head.

“No, I can’t explain what happened at the rib joint. But I think we were the only people going there for the ribs. No wonder he loved having us. Cocaine, I’ll guess. And there had to be some sex angle. No, I’m not driving back over there.” I walked into my place, checking the clock. “I know it’s not even eleven. Sure, they’re probably still going at it. Yes, I know I’m just sitting here talking on the phone.” I pulled the phone away from my head. “And there’s not actually anyone on the phone, so I’m not sure who I’m arguing with. Yes, I know I sound like a paranoid delusional. You say that like it’s a new thing.”

I set the phone down on my dining room table and made sure the window blinds were shut tight. “Yes,” I said, “I know I’m still talking to the air. It’s because for weeks now, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that someone’s watching me, somewhere. And days like this do not help me, not at all.”

Wherever Jim was, he probably wasn’t paying attention to Yahoo’s stock price. For five days at the end of March, it had reached and then slightly exceeded it’s value at the time of early February’s denial of service attacks. It would never be that high ever again. After cresting 100, in three weeks it dropped to 57.

Still, that was the least frightening thing I heard all month. Only a few days later, I found out who was spying on me — on all of us — and why.

Standard
Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.7

While I didn’t see whoever came by our office from the FBI, it didn’t sound like they were in a playful mood. That afternoon, I caught up with the Packet Storm guys in their natural habitat: in a dark lab, disco ball spinning.

“How’d it go?” I asked. All four of them were there.

Shawn looked at Lineman. “They want Mixter,” said Lineman. “They think he did it.”

“Did he?”

“No way,” Shawn said. “But the Feds want his personal information. I mean, we sent him ten grand, so we know his real name, where he lives. Phil’s asked if they’ll be okay with him calling them instead, just to talk.

“And they wanted all our logs,” Lineman said. “We told them we don’t keep logs.”

“You don’t keep logs? All these attack-tool downloads, and you don’t—” I thought about it. They had been awfully busy that morning. “—keep anything?”

“Not anymore,” Johnny said. Shawn threw a pen at him.

Lineman turned back to his keyboard. “We showed them how we don’t log anything.” He threw a look at Johnny. “We make things available, but we don’t need to know who everybody is.”

“Huh,” I said. Everyone turned back to their keyboards.

“What about the German hacker guy, Mixter?” I asked.

Shawn swung back around. “I emailed him and he said he’d talk to them.”

“Huh,” I said.

A few days later, a U.S. Senator visited the office, under invitation by or with introduction through Kroll, our corporate masters. I forget which one. He specifically wanted to speak with the Packet Storm crew, who seemed at the same time flattered and terrified by the attention.

Mixter’s $10K DDoS papers were posted on Packet Storm not too long afterwards. You can read them here, and here. They basically say, “There’s pretty much nothing you can do, sorry,” albeit in an extremely well-informed way. I don’t think anyone was comforted.

When the FBI talked to Mixter, they claimed to have been convinced that he hadn’t done it. Which was good. But they still had to pin it on someone, and after some snooping it seemed they suddenly knew a lot more about the Packet Storm gang. Which was bad.

I got a late night knock at my door. It was Shawn and Lineman.

“Did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said, ‘Dead hacker storage’?” I said. “Cause it ain’t there.” This was a twist on a quote from Pulp Fiction, meant to be funny.

Shawn chuckled softly, then his face settled into a low sort of grimace. Lineman was unreadable.

“The FBI arrested Johnny’s father, back in Chicago,” Lineman said. “The ATF, actually.”

“What?”

“Said he was a domestic terrorist or a cop killer or something,” Shawn said. “Some other stuff. Totally bogus charges.”

We sat down. “How’d that happen?” I asked.

Lineman took a deep breath, then looked at Shawn  He glanced around my apartment and then in a low voice, he said, “Let’s go for a walk.” He pulled a baseball cap down tight, his eyes barely showing under the brim. “No reason.”

Standard
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.”

“What?!”

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.

Standard
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.

Standard
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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“Sure.”

“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.”

Standard
Going to California

Making Magic — 15

Soon, September passed by. It was no longer Summer though, situated as we were in the middle of Texas, still the heat would not relent. I was working 10-16 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

I spent a lot of my time with Steve.

“No,” he said one day. “I don’t want to see any more of this?”

“Any more of what?” I was really confused. We were looking at an abstract design for a computer-centric cards. One of the secret societies was called The Network, so naturally we had a lot of technology touch points in the game as well, and I’d painted it up in shades of green.

“No,” he said, turning away from the screen. “I don’t want to see any more green.”

I don’t think I said anything.

“If it’s not something like a tree,” he said, counting exceptions off one finger at a time, “or grass, or money, or an Army uniform — something that is supposed to be green — don’t use green. It’s a dull color. Stop it.”

“Why?” I asked, and when his shoulders tensed, I almost wished I hadn’t.

“When I was in school,” he said, “a long time ago, I had to read ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.”

“Sure — all American school kids have to.”

“And the author described rotting wounds on the battlefield as green.” He shuddered. “It’s stuck with me. So I don’t want us to use anything green here. Please.”

“That’s—” I started.

Steve caught me in a strong stare. “Please,” he said.

I sighed. “I’ll tell the guys: no green from here on out.” I turned back to the computer. “As long as we still have red and blue to work with.”

“Thank you.”

Life went on like that, more or less, for nearly two months, in a blur of dark air-conditioned rooms, take-out meals, and computer-colored artwork reviews with Steve, peppered by the occasional playtest.

Pushing a mouse to color artwork for more than 80 hours a week — week after week — will do something to your brain. When the artwork you’re coloring is an extended vision of the power structures of the world and icons of your age and paranoid delusions, it’s possible to create in your mind a perspective that never before existed and may never should have.

The eye in the pyramid goes back at least as far as Ancient Egypt. In America, it most famously appears on the back of the U.S. one-dollar bill, though because it’s also been used for hundreds of years by the Freemasons, and it’s commonly believed that many of the Founding Fathers were brother Masons, some see the Great Seal of the United States on the back of the buck as a wink to the conspiracy that was the true force behind the birth of that new democracy.

The strength of the symbol is its simplicity. It’s a triangle with a circle in it — that’s all. It makes a perfect seed for paranoia because it takes two of the most simple shapes and produces something that crosses the lowest threshold of what our brains consider to be an actual signal against the noise of randomness around us. It’s a trick, exploiting the limits of our lowest levels of cognition to find a way into our minds. It’s a hack, bringing along whatever you attach to the symbol and giving it a stronger cognitive presence than the payload might have otherwise.

Every piece of art in Illuminati: New World Order has an eye in the pyramid in it, somewhere. Sometimes it had been spec’ed for the art, often I had to add it. In reviewing the art, Steve and I sometimes found even better places for them. It was fun. I spent essentially countless hours running a virtual brush along inked lines, watching as the forms abstracted out into their fundamental geometries: adding a subtle eye to a triangle that seemed to be begging for one, or adding acute angles in the shading to create a slanted cone behind a circular form.

What little walking around I did outside the office only made it clear to me how far gone I was. The eye in the pyramid was everywhere, when you were looking for it. The only pleasures I allowed myself were music and driving and comic books. The local comic book stores had begun selling collectible card games, given that everyone was buying them, so taking a break to walk around Dragon’s Lair or Austin Books was like walking through a story of economy and commerce that I was at that time myself living. The feedback loop was focusing in some ways, but in other ways not.

I stopped showering every day. I shaved rarely. I hadn’t had a haircut in months. I used to let the TV news run in my apartment, all the time, but by that point in the production I had to keep it off or my mind’s noise amplification would create too much signal. I even found myself struggling to avoid reading tabloid headlines at convenience stores.

There were secrets in the world, and if someone wasn’t going to tell me what they were, I was going to figure them out myself. I saw conspiracy everywhere, and it wasn’t just me. A lot of us were becoming similarly afflicted, one way or another, which only seemed to make the game deeper. A few of the things that bounced out of our heads in that time strike some people as eerily prescient today, like the card that shows the New York World Trade Center’s twin towers, cropped closely, with one tower exploding from its middle.

sb1nYZf

All I can say is that everything we put in the game seemed very plain to us at the time. I don’t know if that’s a reasonable explanation given that I had become delusionally paranoid.

A Street Gang, controlled by the Mafia, attacked the Game Developer. The Local Police, controlled by the Servants of Cthulhu, attacked to destroy a Street Gang, causing it to lose its Safe House. The Archeologists, controlled by the Discordians, took over the Safe House, sharing its protection with the Game Developer. The Mafia attacked the Safe House, but George the Janitor, controlled by the Local Police, blocked the attack.

It all made sense, in a fragile sort of way. And while I was dropping card art into the layout, it struck me that the cyberspace I’d long anticipated, that I yearned for, had come true in the form of modern design tools. Those geometric abstractions of pictures and text and boxes that I’d spent days creating and flying over, and which I still struggled to control, described a virtual reality of locations and people and forces which had been designed for the sole purpose of fighting it out with one another.

I decided I’d been in cyberspace for years, and never even realized it.

All the fears that had welled up in my head for so long were wrung out into that production, and all the pieces that my paranoia put together culminated in an last, fevered round of color correction and art tweaking. The artists themselves, the illustrators, were beginning to feel exhausted, though we were close enough to the end that it didn’t seem to matter. We had what we needed to be successful. It didn’t take the whole two months for Rick to develop into a Photoshop powerhouse, and Jeff was turning in work that I not only didn’t have to touch up, but which I knew was better than the job I’d have done on the same thing. He was more than good enough, by then. He’d developed a genuine skill there, and in the darkness of my office it was impressive.

I wasn’t alone in those last weeks. Steve was there with me, and he looked close to as worn out as I felt. We spent an hour or two every day reviewing art, tweaking it there — between getting faster with the tools than I thought possible and lowering my standards slightly, I was often able to get Steve to sign off on a card at first glance by making quick changes right there in front of him. He’d rap on my war-surplus metal desktop that a piece of colored art was now good and we’d move on to the next.

One day, I don’t remember why, I stumbled out of my office. It was late, probably close to midnight if not past it — Steve regularly stayed in the office until at least two in the morning — and we were the only two people in the building.

“How did it happen?” I asked him.

He pushed himself back from his desk, squinted his eyes, and shook his head.

“How did what happen?” he asked.

Illuminati,” I said. “Ogre was your first baby, though — taking nothing away from how awesome it is — it’s kind of taking something that already existed to its logical conclusion. And GURPS is taking the point-balanced role-playing game and doing it right. You have this real knack for taking things that already exist and making them better — much, much better. But Illuminati is its own thing. I’ve never seen anything else like it. You’ve done some genius-level stuff, no doubt, but where did Illuminati come from?”

“It just came to me,” he said quietly. “I was driving down the road, back from a friend’s house, one of those long country roads out here, and—” He looked up with a widening smile, as if the heavens were opening before him. “I could see it laid out before me. I pulled off to the side of the road and I immediately began taking notes. And that was Illuminati.”

I don’t know if what he said was true, but it felt true.

The next night, not a week before I’d ship the game to the printer, Steve caught my eye walking past my office. I don’t know why I’d left my door open.

With no introduction, he said, “I’m color-blind.”

I’d like to think I made no response. “Not badly,” he quickly followed, “not in a terrible way. I can see color just fine, just a little less so than some people. So things look better when they’ve been pumped up a little.” He frowned. “I probably should have told you that earlier.”

“It would have made things easier,” I said.

The next morning I showered and shaved and I arrived early, where again Andy was kicking boards in half up in the rotting stable. Wordlessly I joined him, knocking down posts, busting open a knuckle on a too-thick board, working up a sweat.

“Good morning,” he said. It was the end of October.

I shook my head. “Not really,” I said. “But we’re almost done.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I am.” Andy waited for me to say more. “You know the story about the caterpillar and the, I don’t know, some other bug?”

“I don’t think so.”

“The other bug asks the caterpillar, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lot of legs, how do you even coordinate them all? How you even walk at all?’ So the caterpillar thought about it, and after that he was never able to walk again.”

“That’s fucking depressing.”

I checked my mind. Somehow, it was quiet. It was mostly empty, in order, like it hadn’t been in a very long time.

“What I’m saying is that I’m not thinking any more about how I’m walking,” I said. “So I feel okay. I don’t know why, but I’m not going to question it.”

He laughed. “Well, keep on walking, man. We’re flying to Michigan for a press check in less than two weeks.”

“It’ll be fine,” I told him. “Don’t be afraid.”

Standard