Going to California

Life by the Valley — 5.1

In Neal Stephenson’s model of Silicon Valley as Lord of the Rings, if the corporate folk were Humans — doing the social thing, waging war against other corporate folk — and the engineers were Dwarves — working diligently when not bickering, sniffing out veins of gold in the hard rock through which we dug — then the third group of us, the consultants, were Elves.

They were Elves for several reasons. They were the one making the actual money, of course, so everyone seemed to defer to their opinion. But they were the ones who brought something like real magic to the table. The security consultants seemed to have gone places and done things beyond the ken of the average person. It would turn out that nearly everyone in the office had some terrible story in their past, some strange thing which had led them where we all were then, practicing information security for outrageously well-funded customers all over the world. But the consultants were on a different level. Unlike the other people around the office, I ended up being close to only a few of them, over the years. Most of them didn’t end up staying very long, especially after what would happened to us shortly. Still, the air of mystery behind their smiles made me wish I’d known a few of them better.

One guy had been twice been named employee of the month at the NSA. One guy could look at a sheaf of print-outs listing patterns of encrypted data and tell you how your encryption was weak. I’m not kidding. This other guy looked like an impoverished wood-paneling salesman nearing retirement, but one day in the kitchen when someone absentmindedly set his coffee halfway off the edge of the counter, he caught the falling cup without looking directly at it — with total grace, as though he’d been expecting it — and placed it securely on the countertop without drawing any attention. The cup’s owner didn’t even register that anything had happened. Quickly scanning the room, he caught me staring. My mouth was probably open. He grinned like a little boy who’d been caught playing a trick on a friend.

One day I came into the kitchen to find three guys sitting solemnly, nodding to one another. They were all Lear jet pilots, it turned out, and news had hit that morning about a disturbing situation. A Lear jet had deviated from its established flight path, following a straight trajectory in radio silence over an uninhabited area rather than angling off toward its metropolitan destination.

“Safest jets in the sky,” one of the men said quietly.

“Long as you don’t run out of air,” said another.

“You know they didn’t run out of air,” said the first.

“Of course,” the third agreed, smiling distantly. “And that’ll turn out to have been the vulnerability: you’ve got sensors checking for high levels of bad air, but not for low levels of good air.”

“It just went down,” I interrupted. “I heard it on the way into work.”

The first consultant nodded. “Over a forest,” he said. “I heard, too. They flew alongside it and saw the windows were all fogged up. If it’d been headed toward an uninhabited area, they’d have shot it out of the sky.”

“Slow cabin leak,” the second one said. “Takes away the oxygen, hypoxia robs you of your ability to think, everybody drops off to sleep.”

“I really hope everyone just fell asleep,” said the third, tugging a corner of his mustache.

“On auto-pilot,” said the first, “that bird’ll fly true ’till it runs out of fuel.”

Quietly, the third man said, “Could’ve happened to anyone.”

They nodded as one.

I enjoyed my little windows into the lives of the consultants, because they got to do the most interesting things. Rather, they had to do the terribly tedious bits that you wouldn’t have to pump up too much to turn into a gripping scene in an action film. It was still pretty tedious work, and maybe even because of the tedium, sometimes the consultants asked for help from engineering. So it was worth getting to know them, to let them know what you knew in case it ever occurred to them that they might be able to use someone like you.

Most of the consultants, and nearly everyone in engineering, were ten or more years older than I was. It was an interesting change from my previous office experiences, where people older than me had been the exception. The older people had a patience I admired. They also taught me to be tight-lipped about any sort of details that might expose what anyone was actually doing there, beyond general labels like “consulting” and “research”. The culture of the quiet secret was something I embraced with a tremendous sense of relief. Being free from the burden of worrying about what I should and shouldn’t tell people was a real gift, and it’s a sense I’ve kept with me, even today, at least about some of my own stories.

Other people’s stories, I can probably tell — at least a few of them.

Some board members of a Silicon Valley came to us with a peculiar problem. They had soft evidence which had led them to believe that their CIO and his director of Information Tech had become corrupt, and were taking terrible advantage of their power and authority. It wasn’t made clear to me how, only that they believed hard evidence was available on some old backup tapes. They’d tried a few different ways to get the tapes out of them without pushing too hard, but nothing worked. They came to us for another solution. They could offer the key to the tiny IT room where the backup tapes were kept, and one of them could arrange to a back door to be left unlocked for one night. That was all they could offer.

Impoverished wood-paneling salesman guy took the gig, and enlisted the help of one of the guys I worked with on the scanner project, Chris, who’d worked with that kind of backup mechanism before.

After entering the office through the back door — they parked a few blocks away and walked over, so that they wouldn’t attract attention by leaving a car parked behind the building all night, which was how long it’d take to copy the tapes — they walked quickly to the IT office and let themselves in. Once they’d locked the door behind them, impoverished-looking guy pulled out a handheld video recorder and made three sweeps of the room: one at eye height, one at waist height and one at knee height. The office of your average tech support guy might look trashed out, but those people are super sensitive to any minor changes in their environment. After spending all night copying the tapes, they played back the tape and made sure to tuck every pencil, every cable, every crumpled-up piece of trash exactly as it had been when they got there. Then they locked the back door behind them and turned the tapes over to our guys back in the office. That’s all I know.

One afternoon, late in October, three of the consultants were sitting around a table. Oh good lord, I thought, not another jet disaster. But no, these guys weren’t pilots. They were straight-up network security guys.

“My wife would never let me go,” one guy said.

“I have kids,” said another.

The third guy put his head in his hands. “Unbelievable,” he said.

I asked Mary what was up.

She shrugged. “Client has a problem,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“Something like a quarter-million dollars is going missing from their cash-machine network every month. They want it to stop.”

“What? Who?”

“South of here.”

“A South American ATM network is losing a quarter of a million dollars a month—”

“I didn’t say South America.”

“A Mexican—”

“I didn’t say Mexico.”

I thought. “L.A.?”

“South of the border. Look, forget about it. You’re not going.”

“I—what? You need someone to go to South Am—” I saw the look on her face. “—south of the border and catch the bank robbers?”

“No,” she said. “The customer doesn’t care who’s doing it. They only want it to stop.”

“So it’s South America.”

She waved the thought aside. “They’ve offered to have armed bodyguards pick the consultant up at the airport and escort him from the hotel to the bank every day. It sounds reasonably safe. I don’t see what the problem is.”

The problem, I realized right then, was that it was a very real situation. I’d been jumping out of bed every morning so I could dance my way ten minutes to a cushy geek job, and here were some guys who might get killed simply for recommending that a server get a security update. I don’t care who it is, if you take away a quarter of a million dollars a month from someone, they’re going to notice, and they’re going to want to know who you are.

“Huh,” I said to Mary, and I left it there. I shouldn’t have said anything in the office, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to blog about it at the time. Here it is fifteen years later, and I still had to think about whether I should tell this story. So that was when I began respecting the office culture. You simply don’t say anything you don’t have to say.

Quieting my chatty inner voice was easier than I thought. As a result, I spoke less, as well — at work, at least. In the meantime, a good number of other things had been going on, not entirely work related.

Standard
Going to California

Life by the Valley — 3.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“They buy it from us,” Doug said.

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

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

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

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

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

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mojo Nation,” I said. “I like it.”

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

“If you’re lucky,” Jim added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is indeed,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever happened with Amanda?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. I’m sorry, that sucks.”

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

“Water, please,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Indeed,” he said, bowing slightly.

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

 

Standard
Going to California

Life By The Valley — 2.75

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what happened?” I asked my boss.

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

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

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

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

“Uzbekistani, I think,” my boss corrected.

“Whatever. They really don’t care?”

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

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

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

“Or school.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the plan.”

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

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

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

“I’m in,” I said.

 

Standard
Going to California

Life By The Valley — 2.5

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

“You know about ports, right?”

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

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

“I think I know about ports,” I said,

“Like, how many are there?”

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

“Per protocol,” he added.

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

“How can that be possible?”

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

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

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

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

“Firewalls?” I asked.

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

“I’m very surprised.”

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

“Sounds about right,” I admitted.

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

“Risk management,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Precisely.”

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

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 — 15.75

There’d been a young, auburn-haired woman on the plane, right across the aisle and behind us, who’d spent the flight deep in concentration on a book. She was reading quickly, occasionally pausing to underline a word with sharp deliberation.

When the printer’s rep let us stop at our hotel to check in before heading to the facility, we ended up in line for the front desk just behind the girl from the airplane.

“‘Scuse me,” I said.

She turned and let me see her smile.

“You were on the plane with us,” I said.

She nodded.

“Sorry for asking, but I noticed you were doing a lot of underlining while you were reading.”

She nodded again. “Every time I hit a word I didn’t know,” she’d told me, “I marked it. I flew out here for an interview, but when I have some time to myself tonight, I’ll look them all up to be sure I’m getting everything.”

“Wow,” I said.

“What are you here for?”

“Press check,” I said. Then, knowing full well the risk of ridicule, I said, “Have you ever heard of Magic: The Gathering?”

“I think so,” she said, eyes narrow.

“We’re doing one of the first games like it.”

“What’s it about?”

“Secret conspiracies trying to take over the world.” I wasn’t sure where to go from there. “It’s pretty cool.”

“It sounds cool,” she said. “You’re staying here?”

“Yeah,” I said, wondering why she was asking. Of course I was staying there. That’s why I was in line to check in. All I could think to say back was, “You?”

“Yes,” she said. “They got me a room here on my own, so I’m just hanging out.”

“Oh,” I said. We exchanged names; I don’t remember hers. “I don’t know when we’ll be back from the printer. It may be late, but I hope it won’t be too late. If you’re around in the hotel restaurant later, I’ll look for you there.”

“Okay,” she said, still smiling. Then it was her turn to check in.

As she walked away, keys in hand, she glanced back at me. She had green eyes, and she was still smiling.

Touring the printer’s facilities was a slideshow of impressive views. They couldn’t possibly have afforded enough space any closer to an urban center. There were warehouse floors with two and three rows of gigantic, German-made, multi-color presses, larger and more aggressive-looking than an armored tank scaled to the size of a bus. There were barrels of ink that would intimidate Donkey Kong. There were many palettes of unprinted paper and card stock.

“How many cards are we actually printing?” I asked Andy as we walked from one enormous, bright, airplane hanger-scale warehouse to another.

“You didn’t hear?”

“I heard that the numbers were high, but that with the new game some distributors were changing their orders.” A collectible card game based on Star Trek was hitting stores in something like a week, and it looked great. We were worried about two things: getting the game out before the company ran out of money, which would put most of us out of work, and getting the game out before too many of the oncoming competitors made it onto the market.

There were only so many people who were going to be interested in collectible card games, we figured, and it wouldn’t take too many games to saturate the market.

“They changed their numbers,” Andy said. “They raised them. You really didn’t hear? The sales on the Star Trek game is going so well that the stores raised their orders to the distributors. So we’re printing twenty-three million cards.”

I wanted to stop walking but I figured I had to act like nothing was wrong, even though I knew full well that retailers had been suffering terrible shortages of Magic shipments to the point that they’d started ordering far too many just to get a minimum amount. The Star Trek game wasn’t going to keep us out of the market. It was giving the stores enough cash and confidence to boost their orders for our game. They may be ordering four or five times as many as they can actually sell, presuming that supply will be a problem.

The distributors had the option to send back what they didn’t think they could sell.

“Oh my God,” I said quietly to him. “We don’t have to push it to the stores — it’s getting it out of the stores that’ll be the problem. That means the game has to actually be good.”

“It is good,” Andy said. “It’s going to be fine.”

And the press check itself was fine. Your basic Twentieth-Century color printing was a careful balance between four colors: Cyan, a kind of light electric blue; Magenta, a neon hot pink; plus Yellow and Black. We only had to make a couple of tweaks to the flow of magenta on one of the card-back sheets, and that was it.

But I knew what I was probably passing up as I was asking a guy with a black beard to tweak the flow of hot pink fluid on his massive, German-born press.

A couple of guys at the printer offered to take the time to crudely cut out a partial set of cards for us. It only took another twenty minutes or so.

“The final ones will have reliably straight cuts and rounded corners and everything,” said the guy with the black beard. “Hopefully these’ll do you for now.”

“They’re fine,” I’d said, transfixed by actual cards in my hands. “They really are fine.” And they were. Andy and I would take turns pawing them back in our room.

They looked at least good enough.

We got back to our hotel before midnight, fifteen minutes after the restaurant closed but while room service was still available.

There weren’t a lot of video-watching options in Holland, Michigan, near the end of 1994, but Conan The Barbarian was on, so we watched Arnold Schwarzenegger chew his script as we ate room-service burgers.

Early on, he is asked, “Conan, what is best in life?” And he delivers his famous answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

For some reason, that had both of us laughing like eight-year-olds, howling with relief. It was the deep laugh of people who were for a moment in the same place at the same time, who trusted each other like everyone should have someone to trust, who were free.

When Andy and I were done laughing, I said, “Wonder what happened to that girl.”

“She’s lamenting,” Andy said.

“Hope not,” I said. She didn’t seem like a lamenter. “Hope she did well on her interview.”

“Hey,” he said. “Hey, Derek, man: what the hell was it you did at the airport? That was bad ass.”

“Just a hack, a little trick that in most cities doesn’t even work any more. To tell the phone company that money has been put into a pay phone, it sends up a little signal, and if you can reproduce that signal then you can fake having put money into the phone. That’s all I did. Who knows, maybe by next year it won’t work at all. But it worked today.”

“That is fucking bad ass. I knew that Mentor knew about all of that stuff, but I never actually saw someone do it, like right there, right in front of me.” He frowned a little. “So you used to be a serious computer guy?”

“Yeah, I was a programmer, a while back.”

“And you’re a designer now? Why’d you stop?”

“Oh, I knew I’d never be that good. And I figured that there was something else out there that wasn’t programming but wasn’t sitting in front of a green-screen doing data entry.”

“And what was that?”

I fumbled to explain myself. It’d been years since I’d even thought about it.

“People look at computers and they have no idea what they’re actually capable of doing,” I said. “But the truth is that computers are extremely limited. People get frustrated with computers because they don’t know how limited they actually are. They figure they should be able to do whatever they want to do, and while they know that computers are getting faster and whatever, outside of being able to play Doom or not being able to play games at all, I don’t think most people truly understand what a computer can do. It’s either a really fancy abacus, or it’s magic.”

“I’m with you.”

“But in the space between what a computer normally does and what it will never be able to do, there’s a boundary. And the more you know about that boundary, the better you can press on it. And if you can press on it just enough, you can carve out a little pocket, and that’s where you find magic — the only real magic you’re going find in this world.”

As we turned our attention back to the film, in the back of my head I realized I’d finally actually done it — we had done exactly what I was telling Andy. We’d pushed our tech and ourselves far further than was reasonable. In a little over two months, we had made magic. I also realized I was wrong, and that it was far from the only magic in the world. If I could come out of the other side of where my head had gone and trust someone, anyone, I don’t know what else to call it other than magic.

On the plane the next morning, I couldn’t put down the samples. This is real, I kept telling myself, touching one card after another. From the nothingness of insanity I’d summoned up something really, really real.

I had done a cover story in Pyramid Magazine for the game, but suddenly that didn’t seem like enough promotion. Every quarter, we put out a quarterly newsletter to our retailers called “Where We’re Going,” which ended up being passed along to customers in small numbers, but we’d produced Illuminati: New World Order so quickly that it would hardly be promotion enough.

We needed a way to speak not only to retailers, like the newsletter, but to our customers, like Pyramid — not only for this game, but for everything, as much as possible. It couldn’t be at our invitation — meaning, we weren’t going to send people email every day to promote the game. The fans would have to drive the interaction.

On the plane, on the way home, the heavens parted and the sun shined down and an idea came upon me. I set down the cards and stared off into space, reveling in the joy of being given such a gift.

Back in Austin the next day, as Steve was looking over the sample cards himself, I shared my thought with him.

He listened carefully. “That,” he said, “is an excellent idea.” He pointed downstairs. “Do it.”

“Okay,” I said.

You won’t believe what it was.

Standard
Going to California

Making Magic — 15.5

Once Andy and I were on the plane, seat belts snapped, I was almost able to relax, though my memory of the ten or so days before were not especially clear.

The final rush to completion had been a frenzy. The enormous sheets of card layouts looked fine, the art was as decent as it could be with what little sanity we’d had remaining — our earliest work was making me cringe, by then — and I’d put finishing touches on a stripped-down design for the various cardboard boxes and other packaging needed to hold the products together.

The last few pieces of art we made were for the Illuminati themselves. Jeff threw several together in a day in Photoshop, while I went the roundabout way to produce a few myself, such as borrowing some high-end 3-D software to render a golden apple.

I have no memory of actually turning the game in, of sending it off to the printer. I remember us standing around downstairs, saying, “Okay, well, what do you think? Is this it?” But we must have. I don’t think I did a lot before getting on the plane.

Unfortunately, after landing outside of remote Holland, Michigan — home to many large printers as well as three of the largest American office furniture companies: Haworth, Herman Miller, and SteelCase (which we were later told was technically in Grand Rapids, less than 30 minutes from Holland) — we hit a fundamental impasse.

Neither of us had any money. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, because we had bank cards and credit cards.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Andy said. “There are no ATMs here.”

It’s not as though we needed a lot of money. We only needed a quarter, to call our printer’s office so they could send over someone to meet us.

Imagine, if you can, being one of the few people traveling through a small airport in a relatively remote part of Michigan, when up walks a shaggy, sleep-deprived guy in torn jeans, sporting a bright nose ring and a look in his eyes of unparalleled paranoia. A bristle-headed companion stands by in a worn, black leather jacket, cooly staring you down.

The first guy says, “Motherfucking do you have a quarter?” While you have no way of knowing how hard it is for him to start a sentence with a D — like trying to pick up a house of cards; even using both hands does not help — you can imagine it being hard to be sympathetic.

You can imagine not giving him a quarter.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Andy. “I can’t believe how old this place is.”

Something sparked in my mind. I began digging through my backpack.

“How old would you say this place is?” I asked.

“Green-shag-carpet old. Dark-wood-paneling old.”

I pulled free a device, grinning so hard that it hurt.

“Fucking watch this,” I said, not only because starting to talk with a W-sound was like buying a first-class ticket to Porky-Pig land, but because, well, fucking watch this.

The thing I held up to the pay phone receiver was an Apple Newton, which looked like this:

apple-newton-110-dev-edition-01

As far as I knew at the time, it was the most powerful portable computer in the world. Even though I was nearly always broke, when Jim McCoy heard that Apple was releasing a special, small batch of this new, incredible hardware in transparent plastic, he let me know. He and I and another io.com guy each bought one, making the three of us the only people we knew who had Newtons, and so even with the terrible press that the first device had gotten we were the only people we knew who understood how awesome its newest incarnation had become.

Because there wasn’t a lot of software for them at the time, we’d share whatever software we came across. Through the usual secret three-way-handshakes and esoteric quote exchanging, Jim and I came to understand that we shared a specific background. One day, he’d buzzed my office.

“I got a new piece of Newton software,” he said. “It makes Red Box tones — that mean anything to you?”

I blurted, “Can I have a copy?”

That’s why a few months later, in Holland, Michigan — which was so far behind the times that the phone company had probably not updated their infrastructure in well over fifteen years, I was able to hold my Newton up to the phone receiver and tap an image of a quarter, which triggered the device to make a series of high-pitched “budda-dudda-dink” noises.

“What are you doing?” Andy asked, glancing around to check if we were being watched.

“What’s the number?”

He gave me the number. I told the printer rep that we were at the airport. She said she’d send someone right over.

Walking to the airport exit, Andy whispered, “Holy shit, dude. What did you just do?”

“Magic,” I said.

Standard