Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — Sidebar

As an aside, it’s worth noting that in one of those unexpected alignments, the same weekend that this was written also saw Steve Jackson Games celebrate the roll-out of their newest version of Ogre, the Ogre Designer’s Edition. The Kickstarter that they launched to gauge support for the game generated more than $900,000 over the asking price. It’s been immensely popular both in American and internationally; they’ve just put out a draft copy of the rules in German, for example.

I’m hoping to have my copy of the Ogre Designer’s Edition in about a week. It looks massive, like it needs its own room. I don’t know where I’ll put it, but it will get played.

Now back to the story.

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 3

Steve Jackson Games was well known, long lived, and respected in the adventure gaming industry — again, I hope I’m not spoiling the story to say that they still are. At the time, though, they were still smarting from the Secret Service raid. They needed a hit. I’d just laid out and sent to print about $10,000-worth of color posters promoting the game. It was game on, seriously, and I had been trusted with this.

I took a deep breath.

“This is a one-gigabyte drive,” I said. I’ve added a picture of the drive in question, just above this text; I keep it on a shelf in my office even today, as a reminder. “How much do you think this costs?” I asked.

“I dunno, about two grand?”

“About two-thousand dollars. That sounds like a lot of money to me. I don’t have extras lying around. I didn’t just happen to make a mistake and bring you the wrong drive. This is the only one I’ve got, and it’s the one I’m very confident has the full-color book I’ve been slaving away on, night and day, for the past three weeks.”

The guy started to look nervous. I smiled, hoping to put him at ease.

“I think I know what the problem is,” I said, genuinely being a huge enough geek that I had intuited the solution to the problem. “I had my project folder on the drive’s Desktop. In the last version of the Mac OS, there was a small bug that made files on the Desktop seem to disappear, but everything is still really there. An update came out a couple of months ago; maybe you haven’t upgraded yet, for some reason. But, cool. All you have to do is reboot the machine and hold down Command-Option after it’s done starting up, ’cause that’ll force it to rebuild the Desktop, and then you’ll see the files, no problem.”

I thought I was saving this guy’s life. What I didn’t know was that he’d already lobbed a one-gigabyte bomb into mine.

“Well,” he said, “yeah, I think I remember hearing something about that bug. I think we had that problem a couple times, a while back, I just never got around to upgrading that machine.” He winced from somewhere deep inside, as I glanced back and forth between him and my hard drive as though I was glancing back and forth between his hand and a desk-mounted vice grip, wondering how to get the two together.

“So then we reboot the machine,” I said.

“Do you have a backup?” he asked.

I took a deep breath. “Of the six-hundred megabyte project? No.” Three years later, I’d be able to burn that much data onto a CD for $15.

“Well,” he said, “there’s a problem. Last night, I needed to move a bunch of projects around. And I needed to get them from one place to another place. And I thought your drive was blank, so I copied everything over to it, moved the drive to another machine to copy everything off. It was about…a gig.”

I felt my eyes narrowing. “And because your computer didn’t know that I had stuff on the disk, it wrote over everything that was there.”

He looked as though I’d already put his hand in the vice grip. “Basically,” he said.

I could hear a rush, like a hurricane coming up behind me. Our partner had in fact already shipped their miniature tanks to the world’s game stores. We were already a couple of weeks late getting the book out. Steve had approved the final artwork from Japan, where he was still traveling on business. I was going to have to tell him that the book would be delayed by as much as a couple of weeks — longer, in fact, given what I’d learned about big printers. You don’t just send something to a large-scale printer and have them print it. You schedule it, as far in advance as you can. They probably wouldn’t have an opening in their schedule again for more than a month. They probably wouldn’t be happy about me creating a hole in their schedule by failing to ship them film at the last possible moment, either.

I might have to find another printer. I might have to fall back to someone who would only produce the book in black and white. We had already solicited orders for a full-color book. We might have to start all over, a three-month process of canceling the outstanding orders and asking distributors to place new orders for the suddenly black-and-white book. Our partner might take a gigantic hit on the brick wall that the miniature sales would hit. It might be years before I got anyone at the company interested in considering going digital again.

“I see,” I said, staring intently at the drive, as if that might bring the data back. It was right there — I just had it last night.

“I’m really sorry,” the guy said. “I am, I’m really sorry.”

“You didn’t know,” I said, disconnecting the drive.

“I didn’t know.”

I nodded. “I know. It’s my fault for not having backed everything up. I have all the actual layout files — all the pages and the text and the placeholders for all the images — on a backup back at the office. They’re big, but not as big as the giant color photos that I spent two weeks scanning and color-correcting.”

“I’m really sorry—”

“I know. Here’s what I’m going to do, though: I’m driving straight back to my office, as fast as I can, and I’m going to start scanning. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I’ll put the whole thing back together.” I looked around. “How busy are you right now?”

He winced. “Pretty busy—”

“The moment I’m done with this, I’ll call you. After I call you, I’m going to drive straight over, and I’m going to sit down with you, or with whoever’s shift it is, and I’m going to wait until the film starts to come out. Then I’m going to go home, and when the film’s all done I want you to next-day that shit straight to my printer. I’ll have the address for you.”

He blinked several times, rubbing a phantom pain in his hand.

“Can you help me out, here?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, confused. “Of course. I mean, yes.” But he only looked more confused. “You’re being really cool about this.”

“All I know,” I told him, “is that I have a book to get out.”

And that’s what I did. Design school, while run out of the School of Fine Arts, was not a walk in the park. I guess I could’ve let it be easy, but that wasn’t like me. I wasn’t a lazy person, and I could no longer imagine being any other way.

Only in that gray area, beyond where sane people stop and before the hard and fast limits of reality are guaranteed to smack you down can you find anything close to real magic in this world. Still, it’s easy to forget that the far side of a gray spectrum is fraught with darkness.

Two and a half days later, though I probably shouldn’t have been driving, I made it back to the bureau with the drive. I had eaten a lot of take-out; I had not showered. This time the manager was there, and he eyed me curiously.

“I hear you may have something for me,” he said. I gave him the drive and he hefted it in one hand, frowning slightly as if judging its weight. “Everything’s there?”

“It’s all there,” I said.

“Sixty-four color pages —”

“I had the pages backed up. It was just the art —”

“Sixty-four color pages, you scanned all the photos. They’re all set? Good to go?”

“Good as they’re going to be.”

He nodded. “I heard you’re a pretty cool guy. Some people, when they have a problem, they get mad. I had a guy last week pick up that tall stool over there and throw it down the length of the room.”

“Not my style.”

He nodded. “I’m really, really sorry about what happened. We’ll be very careful with this drive.” He sighed and checked a piece of paper on the table beside him. “Here’s what else I’m going to do for you.” Pointing at a line listing my job, I could see that he’d cut the price down to a fifth of what it had been. “I can’t do it for free but, you know.” He smiled. “Cool guys deserve a break.”

“Thanks,” I said, getting lost in what the expression on his face was saying.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “You know, we’ve got a bed here. Maybe you ought to crash out for a little while.”

I told him I was fine, and I made it home alive, and when I woke up in the middle of the night — the following night — it occurred to me that I’d done it. I’d made produced something that wasn’t great, but it looked as professional as its peers at the time. And it was a full color book. that was going to be printed, in thousands of copies, and sent all over the world. Even better, with the discount we got on the film, the book ended up costing less for us to produce than a black-and-white book.

Also, I got my hands on a large backup drive. But that’s another story.

Steve was impressed, so he had a new challenge for me: he wanted to start a magazine, a full-size magazine about gaming and the game industry, with as much color as possible.

He didn’t have a lot of faith that it was possible, though. “If I can make it affordable,” I asked him, “can I do it?” It seemed like a low-risk proposition for him to say yes, which he did.

And that’s how I started a game magazine. I designed it, I scanned or tweaked or swiped the art from other books in production, I went through the slush pile for articles, I leveraged Steve’s name to cold-call famous people in the industry in order to get news from them — and to fill the pages with paid advertising.

I produced the first three issues of Pyramid essentially on my own. It didn’t make much money and it didn’t lose much money, but it was terrific advertising, and clearly it was a hell of a lot of fun. It told people what we were doing and it showed off good work by people we liked. It went on to be nominated for and to win a crazy number of awards, which is cool. As I think back on those days I find I’m a lot more proud of it now than I thought I would be, or that I remember letting myself feel at the time.

A few months later, we hired a new print buyer and I moved from the operations side of the small company into the creative side, and it felt like coming home.

For the first time, I didn’t question what they could possibly be thinking when people called me cool, because it no longer mattered to me whether or not I was cool.

Then six months later came the Secret Service trial, then the victory, then the Secret Service’s money — and with the money came certain challenges.

This is where I should probably tell you about Doug.

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 2

As a designer, I had a serious problem working at Steve Jackson Games: I hated how everything looked, and not art-school-jokingly despised it but genuinely, deeply held the design output of the whole place at the time pretty seriously in contempt, mostly because they were doing things the old way. Clearly, I still had a lot to let go of. But let me give you some idea what I was up against.

Here’s how the old way worked. After pouring text into a page template, computers were not really involved. Instead, a really nice laser printer spat out a copy of the page, after which a human being covered its back with wax and stuck it to a piece of cardboard. Any art that needed to go on the page was scaled up or down or otherwise duplicated using a super-nice photocopier, and someone had to cut out the copy and wax it to the board-mounted page. Then the ten-inch stack of cardboard pages were shipped to a printer, who laid them out in the proper order for printing and took a photo of them — no joke, with what was basically an enormous camera — and from this film a proof was made. The printer then sent the proof back to us; we checked it for errors, sent back any corrections, and maybe three weeks or a month later a truck would pull up bearing between two- and five-thousand copies of a 128-page black-and-white book with a heavy, color cover.

I thought this was primitive, in terms of wasting a lot of human time, but also because it made experimenting with layout and design very expensive. I wasted no time dragging into the office the great big monster Macintosh I’d put nearly all my money into upgrading. I called it Frankentosh. Over my two years in design school, there would be weeks when I literally starved myself so that I could afford a 1 gigabyte hard drive, which cost nearly $2,000 new at the time. (As long as we’re throwing numbers out there: I had a 28-inch waist.) The climate in the office at the time was distinctly anti-Apple, so as bad-ass as I proved my machine to be it was impossible to get traction for digital publishing.

Even worse, I had the classic designer-brought-in-from-the-outside problem: my client, in my mind, had terrible taste. I wanted to explore the clean lines and the beautiful sense of balance that I saw in Dutch design at the time (and before, and ever since; long live Dutch design), while people at Steve Jackson Games wanted skulls stuck to spikes along the bottom edge some book’s pages.

These were not computer games. SJ Games still today prints board games, card games, and role-playing games, usually with a fantasy or a science-fiction bent. Think Risk meets Star Trek and Dungeons & Dragons, done differently.

No, that’s a terrible comparison. The reason that Steve Jackson Games was actually pretty close to great was that we did our own thing. In the same industry that contained things like Dungeons & Dragons, Steve put out some really great stuff that people who really care about games almost always really know about. I’d been following their growth for more than ten years at that point, myself, and they’re still doing well today.

What was I actually doing there at the time? Clearly I wasn’t doing design, at first. I’d been hired on as a print buyer. This was both crazy and important for two reasons: one, printers have their own bizarre language that they use to describe a print job — “I need a two-over-one on that ten-point matte you showed me, using Pantone 323 as the spot, with a one-over-one, 32-page saddle-stitch insert, okay?” and the companies that run monster printing presses are just like computers in that they will do exactly, precisely, unwaveringly what you order, so if you get it wrong then you live with the consequences, with no Undo; and two, I figured that the only hope I had of changing people’s minds about going digital would be to do it on their terms, literally in the language that they spoke.

I’m not simply talking about the language of printers, of course. I’m talking about the language of publishing, which eventually boils down to money.

More even than a chance at professional validation, what I needed from the job was money. After suddenly moving to Wisconsin, my parents paid my $600 University tuition twice a year, for which I was thankful. My first year, they gave me $500 a month; the second year, $250 a month. On one of our Sunday calls, after the first year, my mom told me to ask dad to cut it in half because they were doing very poorly — the company for which dad had moved my family to Wisconsin had folded — and he was too proud to impose that on me as his idea. She passed the phone to dad, and I proposed it, and he gratefully accepted, and I worked many more hours at my terrible job in order to get through design school.

The terrible job, not-good as it might have been, was actually where I learned most of what I needed to know in order to pull off the print-buyer job at Steve Jackson Games, though I nearly got shot a good number of times in the process — which was wholly unexpected, given that there was nothing illegal about what we were doing. In fact, the workplace where I saw and heard more guns than ever before or again in my life was a law firm — though it was a Texas law firm, of course. But that’s another story.

I was luckier than most just getting to and then through college, I know, but walking in the door that first day, I also knew that the idea was to do things that people would like and that would make money.

Not a week after I started, Steve Jackson was finishing a new version of his classic game, OGRE. For the game itself, imagine grown men standing around a large kitchen table, pushing small futuristic tanks around at one another. Each tank is maybe three or four inches long, with a lot of smaller units zipping along around them. There were rules, of course. Luckily, it was fun. For a decade, it had been a terrific game, a classic.

For the new edition, he’d partnered with another company to produce a line of miniatures to go along with the game, which meant he had a big stack of beautiful color photos of sample tanks, professionally painted and tricked out, on miniature landscapes sculpted to model train geek-level.

It was too bad that printing a whole book in color looked fantastically expensive, and time consuming. Except for the cover, his photos would only show up in black-and-white. Even if we wanted to do it in color, having a manufacturing partner also meant that the book’s shipping schedule was carved in relative stone. There was only a little give. If the miniatures spent much time in stores with no game to play with them, it would probably screw up sales, which would probably screw our partner, who had made a much more massive investment in tooling and physical production and packaging and shipping lead-like miniatures that they had cast themselves than we would spend in producing a 64-page book to sell their miniature science-fictional vehicles.

“I can totally make a full-color book,” I said to Steve.

“For how much?” he asked. So I found out, and it was too expensive. So I started asking other printers, and I got back some outrageous quotes. Everyone was thinking about things the old way, which involved lots of cardboard that they would photograph to produce enormous sheets of film from which proofs would then be made. I kept saying that no, there was another way to go about it.

I didn’t go it alone. I found a young, upstart group of guys who’d opened a service bureau in town — basically, they took out a loan to buy something that was part giant laser printer and part enormous film maker. You could print straight onto film, side-stepping the whole photocopying and waxing process. Even better, producing color pages only meant printing four pieces of film, one for each plate of color it took to reproduce the basic range of colors onto a printed page. Those guys helped me figure out what I needed, and they wanted the business so they gave me a really good rate on printing the film.

A lot of printers weren’t set up to trust that I would be sending them good film. For a cover, maybe, but for a whole book’s interior? I began faxing the question to other printers, people I’d never heard of, until I found someone in Canada who didn’t think I was crazy. They only wanted to know how many books I wanted and how quickly I could get them the film.

The photos were color slides, so between the cost of the slide scanner and the film output and the printing, I was able to get the job cost down to only maybe twice the cost for black and white. Steve went for it.

After an intense three weeks, on my own equipment (and Steve’s newly purchased slide scanner) I’d designed and laid out my first real book. I’d produced all the graphics, either by color-correcting the terrible scanner’s output or by drawing things when necessary, and it looked like a real book. I was as surprised as anyone.

It was a good thing there were two days left in the schedule. The next morning, when I called the service bureau to see how things were going, they said they were puzzled. When they hooked up my drive, they’d found it empty.

I drove immediately over to the bureau. Lo and behold, the gigantic, gigabyte drive where I’d done all my work said it held zero files.

I took a deep breath.

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?”

Because I know I’ve made it confusing, it went:

  • I spend two years learning how to actually be a student;
  • then there was the SJ Games raid and the hacker crackdown;
  • weeks later, I moved back to Austin;
  • after taking two years getting a design degree, I take a job at Steve Jackson Games;
  • then six months later was the Secret Service trial, and everything after;
  • eventually I end up in California, and the whole story changes again.

First, here’s how I arrived at getting a design degree.

For about a year after getting suspended after my first year in college, I’d tried to press on into computer programming but I was frightened as hell that I would only ever be mediocre.

A big part of me still insisted that whatever I ended up learning or doing, there should be some aspect of it that was somehow fun, and all the programmers I knew were much, much better than I was, and it didn’t even look they were having any fun. I was even dissuaded by my dad, who had essentially been an early computer programmer in the Air Force. He was in personnel, which in American business culture we now call Human Relations or HR, and while he never one time thought of himself as a programmer (that I remember hearing about) it was his job to take mission requirements — such as must speak Vietnamese and also be diving-certified, to make up an example — and find the right personnel for the job.

It was a nice desk job, I’m sure, punching a series of long cards in exactly the right way to form exactly the right request which he then fed into a computer, which then did a search of all the folk it knew about and turned up the best people for the specified job. He was kind of like a recruiter, for people who kill people, though I thought he was undeniably a programmer. I think he didn’t think he’d ever been a programmer because in his world you only used a computer if you didn’t have someone more junior than you to use it for you, that’s how much of a pain in the ass it was.

If there were actual great programmers who were cool people and happy most of the time and easy going and reasonably well-socialized, I hadn’t met them. It didn’t sound fun being a mediocre programmer, is what I’m saying. Having already made peace with myself as a mediocre dancer, I had a hard time seeing a path forward. Luckily, I had a chance to get my basic courses out of the way before worrying about what I’d do for an actual college degree.

I’ve no memory of when the answer came to me. It’s too bad that, unlike when the Grinch got his wonderful, awful idea, we rarely have single, life-changing realizations which in one moment shift us radically and irrevocably down one long path or another. There’s usually a build up, or a long burn down, into change. Maybe it feels sudden, but with me, at least, it nearly always turns out to have been a series of cascading thoughts, one after another, like building a Lego sculpture without instructions, or a model, or any clue as to either how many or which pieces you have in the box. Then suddenly the true shape of the thing comes out and you race down the then-obvious path toward completion.

Still, by late 1989, it occurred to me that I was lucky enough to love computers, in a world where most people didn’t yet get how awesome they are, so I figured I should work with that. Computers were not going away, they’re only getting more interesting and more accessible to people who hadn’t yet gotten how awesome computers can be.

Computers were mostly becoming more accessible to average people by laying a graphical interface on top of the normal complexity. I wasn’t going to be a programmer, yet it felt crucially important to understand what the computer does under the hood, beneath the graphics, because knowing what’s really going on with something gives you power that people can’t usually tap into.

While most people saw users and programmers and nothing much in between, I imagined a kind of super-user, someone who knew how the system worked in its deep, dark details and who could use that knowledge to bend the system, to make it do something that other people couldn’t do.

Only years later did I realize that I’d taken a twisty path back around to rationalizing a career as a kind of hacker, all because I refused to let go of the stupid dream that had led me to want to combine computers and dance in the first place. The root of the dream was wanting to tell stories. In the early 1990s, the clearest intersection of art and technology in the service of a kind of storytelling was in what they called Desktop Publishing, which we now simply call “How everything gets published.”

But the scope of what was then desktop publishing wasn’t serious enough for me. I didn’t want to make baby shower invitations. I wanted to tell stories. So moving back to Austin, I first enrolled in the School of Art in order to improve my eye, then I quickly moved into the graphic design track in order to improve my mind.

It went really well. For the first time, I was doing work I really liked. Also, I was learning skills that would get me not just some random job out of college, but likely a decent one.

When I called the Mentor, while wrapping up my final college courses, he asked me what I wanted to do with my degree.

“I wanna make stories, really,” I said.

“How about games?” he asked. “Would you wanna make games?”

Yes, I did, I simply never thought it an option.

I would not end up working at Steve Jackson Games to make games, not at first, but I would — though as with most good things worth trusting, it would not come easily.

Going to California

True Names — 3

It was a game, definitely, though because I was an otherwise quiet boy and those rebellious streaks had to get out somehow, it was also something more. But before anyone had a chance of getting that far, the first thing people noticed was the system felt eerily smooth to use. Here’s why.

Let me start with a little background. Thirty years ago, after your computer made a connection to another, text slipped across the wire to you one line at a time, each new line appearing across the bottom of the screen, pushing the previous lines up. It could not scroll back up to show you something you’d previously seen, and the spewing of text could not reliably jump backwards at all without deleting everything that it had fed to you previously. It could clear your screen and start over again at the top, but that was it. To make things even more tedious, you were fed each row of text only a little bit more slowly than most people could read.

When this is your only interface to a remote machine, certain delays became really, really annoying. Over time, system operators came up with all kinds of little tricks to help reduce these terrific irritations, and these modifications would eventually get shared with or copied by others.

I used to spend a lot of time being very concerned about how to make my board the best possible experience, given the constraints. One of my favorite tricks was the spinner. It was so successful, that one way or another it’s still leveraged in modern apps, even if it’s slightly different now than it was then.

Here’s how it worked. When you, as a user, asked for some information from the remote system, and the system had reason to believe that it might take a couple of seconds — such as checking to see which of a system’s boards have how many new messages since the last time you logged in — then while waiting for the information to load from a slow-ass floppy disk, the system would loop what it was sending across the wire between a series of characters, like this:

– / ! \ – / ! \ – / ! \

… but the trick was that it would send a backspace after each character, giving the impression of a line spinning in place. Crazy. In case that’s not super-clear — and I remember people freaking out the first time they saw it: “How do you do that?!” — here’s the breakdown. First you would see the hyphen, then it would be replaced by the forward-slash, then the forward-slash would quickly be replaced by the exclamation point, then the backslash, then the hyphen again. And this was cool because it was one of the rare times you ever got feedback from a remote system while it was in the process of doing something for you. You could be sure that your call had not accidentally been dropped, maybe because you forgot to disable call-waiting before you dialed out with your modem, since the system was clearly telling you that it was doing something. It was genius.

The only thing smarter than that, I figured, was not having to show a spinner at all because your system was faster than anything anyone could imagine at the time. Through my RAM disk, I had found a way to avoid having to reach out to a floppy drive and start it spinning, and then move the head to the right track and read the right sectors off the disk as it spun around beneath a tiny magnetic head. Instead, after I added the first chunk of memory to the card, I began running the entire system in the RAM drive, and it was insanely fast because it never had to hit the disk.

You had to be careful, though. I had to copy the contents of the RAM disk to one or more floppy disks before restarting the computer, because when power was interrupted, anything in its electronic memory would be lost forever. Still, it was worth it. Soon I had the equivalent of several disks worth of space to spread out around into. Most boards had two floppy drives, some had three or four, but I soon had nearly ten disks worth of unreasonably fast space. It was so fast, in fact, that people thought it was faked, that they were having a text file streamed to them, until they started interacting with it.

I promise this is going somewhere.

Some people told me that my system’s speed genuinely freaked them out, and that made me feel good. I began to get more users. The line started staying busy outside of work and school hours. As on most systems, users were limited to thirty minutes a day, though people more and more often rang the chat bell on my end, wanting to ask me some question or other, or just to catch up. With all that typing, I did more talking in those evening and weekend hours than I did in most of the rest of any given day, and by that point I had begun to get better at acting more normally chatty. It all came back to the acting, I think, in the end. When I was playing a role, I could stick to my lines and things very often came out okay. Typing, I could get out nearly anything and it didn’t seem to matter one way or another how I tried to say something, I never got stuck. It was as close to a pure expression of my thoughts that I could imagine.

There was always that moment, after you had gotten to know someone fairly well on a system, when it’s proposed that you meet up in real life. And at this meeting, if not a little bit before, maybe while talking on the phone, you shared your real names. My name was Patrick Dennis, because in a stage production four years earlier I had played a character named Patrick Dennis, and I knew who he was, and I knew my lines, and I could play his part. And luckily, my mother was relieved to know that I was not selling drugs, and she believed me when I explained how I was doing something with my computer that had inspired these people, mostly adults, to give me money. Not a ton of money, but slowly more and more. She saw the hand-colored maps of the fantasy game world that I had created, which I would mail off to those who had donated at least $10 so that they didn’t have to keep track of where everything was on their own, and so she believed me, even if she didn’t understand me. If she didn’t think it was an especially great use of time, to her credit she didn’t lecture me about it.

I installed another expansion card in my system, one that essentially replaced the Apple processor with one that was nearly four times as fast. After filling up all the memory sockets on the original memory expansion card, I expanded the card itself. I’ll say that again another way: They let you hang a memory expansion card from the memory expansion card. Soon I had filled that one, too, with what I had made, and I thanked the guys who wore brown ties with blue, short-sleeve shirts.

What I made was a game, basically, something that played a bit like Wizardry and a bit like Ultima III, but entirely text-based, fed to you one line at a time. After logging into the system you could read the message boards, check your email, browse the limited text file directory, ask to chat with the system operator, or you could play the game. Once in the game, you could not return to the rest of the board in the phone call. In the game, you were either exploring the terrain or you were walking through a city. In either of these places, you could fight things when they were there to be fought.

By exploring the terrain, you moved north, south, east, or west through different types of landscape, from deserts and ice and grasslands and forests, to hills, which meant you were coming close to some mountains, and mountains, which you couldn’t move through. There were a few secret paths that cut through some shallow mountain ranges, which might be more obvious if you bought a map, but in general you had to do a bit of walking around to get from place to place.

This really is going somewhere.

While exploring, you could randomly have an encounter with a kind of monster native to that terrain type. So, you might fight a polar bear if you were in an square on the map marked as being ice. The monster would be about as big and as tough as you were, so in your first random forest encounter you might find a goblin, but later on you might be surprised by a bugbear.

By walking through a city, you moved essentially from room to room, one stretch of street or hallway at a time. Each room had a paragraph’s description, and some rooms had people or monsters in them. I only ever completed one big city, and I never fully got it the way that I had it drawn out on the square meter of cardboard that I kept tucked behind my bed. Before my grand plans eventually hit a wall, though, the city you could explore had a decently large number of houses and avenues and markets and apartments — and people, their names all butcheries of characters I loved most from whatever I was reading at the time.

When you got killed, or your daily time limit ran out, my computer would drop the connection and you’d have to call back and start over. At first, yes, I didn’t keep your character once you died. It was easy to make a new one, though yes, eventually I saved people’s characters.

As you killed more things, your character became harder to kill, giving you access to and a chance at surviving an encounter with higher-level monsters. You also collected more and more powerful swords and armors, all of which I spent way too much time naming. I used to work on the lists and the names of the items over the long drives out to the country those Sundays when we went to visit my father’s parents.

Similarly, each bad guy, from a random bugbear in the forest to a giant worm in the desert to the evil priest at one of the temples in the city, had a custom “death” message. As with the weapons and the armor, I spent time making list after list of different messages — I got there while saving money for my modem, thinking how boring it would be to see the same “You killed a (monster’s name)” over and over again, and decided to show a special message for each monster. So to my table of monsters, which I’d written out in rows and columns to make sure that the less powerful monsters remained easier to kill than the more powerful monsters, I added a “death message” column and filled them in so that I wasn’t repeating myself.

I don’t now remember exactly when I first hit upon the completely insane idea, it was so long ago. However, I do clearly remember reflecting on that moment, a year or so afterwards, wondering if in my madness I hadn’t maybe pushed things more than a little bit too far.

I didn’t have that many monsters, really, but I had to have an equal number of different monsters for each terrain type, so that different levels of characters would always have something to fight wherever they were. And I wanted all the “You killed it!” messages to be different, though I felt like making the messages consistent somehow for monsters within any one type of terrain. At some point I must have run out of different ways to declare the death of a monster — like, by the time I got to deciding what to say about monsters killed in the hills, for example — and instead I started putting in phone numbers of less common but interesting underground hacker boards.

Clearly, it was unexpected for each monster to give up a different piece of information once slain, but I figured that I’d already done it so I guess I felt I had to keep doing it.

I mean, I know that there were a lot of people who didn’t realize — and I’ll make something up to give you an idea — that when you killed, for example, a bugbear, you got the number for a phone company test line, where two or more phone company employees could attempt to call into in order to troubleshoot network problems as a group, from different parts of the network. There were a bunch of these numbers, and hackers shared them, both locally and across area codes, we would hijack them as little chat rooms where we’d hang out for hours shooting the shit and maybe bragging a little and trading other interesting numbers. Then maybe when you killed a sandworm, you’d get the death cry of the creature followed by a username and password and phone number for some system.

People kept calling, more to explore the game than for any information they might have been getting out of it. Like I said, I don’t think most people knew what I was showing them. I kept it going for years, and I loved it, I loved every hour of it: the yawning sense of my social life outside of my electric community shutting down, then the weeks and even months that I would let the system run without hardly paying it any attention, and all the people I met and the dramas I ran through. It was a crazy time, but I made something for myself. Within a year of getting that first copy of bulletin board software I’d completely re-written it, and it was tight, and I’d written a game from scratch, and it wasn’t great and it was breaking a lot and I would go a while without updating the content because I had to get a job and do other things at some point — but eventually something happened and I outgrew it and I couldn’t stand it any more, and I was very relieved, somehow, that as myself, as Derek, my true name, I never had to say goodbye to any of those people. I’m sure they simply wondered whatever happened to Patrick.

I will have to write about them someday.

The week after I graduated from high school, my parents took me and my sister to Hawaii for a week. It was our first time off together as a family in years, and the day before I left I turned my computer off and I sat in my room and I listened to the tiny noises in the silence. I left it off the whole week we were gone, and when I got back I didn’t turn it back on. I plugged the phone in when I wanted to make a call, which wasn’t often, and otherwise I left it unplugged. That summer my parents moved houses, and I didn’t move my line with it. A few weeks later I went away to college to take my first real computer science classes and I never looked back.

Twelve years later, when my boss’s boss asked me if I was a hacker, I knew enough to deny it. But I couldn’t say what the truth was, not without stuttering — which I refused to do in front of other people, not anymore, not if I could help it. I knew my lines, I had them down. The stage had been set, the curtains drawn. I was ready, I thought.

I had no idea how little I still knew.

Going to California

True Names — 2

In my teenage years, the only thing more precious than a computer and a dedicated phone line was the amount of information you could afford to make available at any one time on a computer with a dedicated phone line. Even running some highly customized, super-trim code, the contents of a floppy disk could only hold so many conversations and isolated buckets of people’s emails and text files of questionable legality.

There was no way to send email from one system to another — that was madness at the time, though a couple of small systems eventually networked themselves together enough to offer some sharing, before the Internet as we now know it took off — so once your email was dropped by a system to make room for other things, it was dropped forever. You didn’t keep a copy of all your emails on your computer. You hardly had enough space for the things you absolutely needed in order for your computer to be useful to you in the first place, so you left all your email on the server, always. As a system operator, I felt worst when I had to delete someone’s email, even if it had been read. But I was building something, and I had to have priorities.

It was hard for me to say exactly what it was that I made. It was a game, definitely. But it was a peculiar kind of thing.

I called my mom on the phone tonight.

“I’ve really enjoyed reading all your posts,” she told me.

“Thanks so much for reading,” I said.

“I remember,” she said, “I don’t know if it’s true, but what I remember is that three times one day, while I was ironing, three people came by, and they had $20 for Patrick.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, that happened.” That kind of thing happened more than once. “You know where the story is going.”

My mom and dad were normal parents, around as often as they were supposed to be, so I couldn’t always control whether or not they were home when some adult with whom I was at least passing friends would drop by with a donation toward the keeping the board up. Once I figured out the most straightforward and awesome way to get to where I wanted to go, I flat-out asked for money. Hey, man, if you like it around here, and you can spare anything, I’d totally appreciate it. And what do you know, I got money.

One time, it was red-haired woman, maybe in her early-30s, and she had two kids who were only a few years younger than I was. She gave me money and blinked back her surprise that I was who I said I was, alternating between gushing and being restrained about how much she liked the system. Her boys stood partly behind her, looking at me with a confusing sort of mistrust. God knows what she’d told them she thought I would be like.

And I’ll admit, it looked bad to a parent. Imagine this: You have a son named Derek. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by naming myself at this point. And every once in a while, sometimes a couple of people relatively close together — after normal work hours but before dinner time — would ring the doorbell or knock. The houses in our neighborhood were not especially close together, this being Texas and space being as widely available as it is, so this is not a random caller, but neither is it an expected knock. You answer the door, and a woman only a few years younger than you presses $20 into your hand, smiles, and says, “Tell Patrick it’s great stuff.” To a parent, it sounds pretty bad. I think the only thing that saved me was my complete obliviousness to how bad it sounded.

Like I said before, the Apple IIe had a bunch of card slots, and there was a good number of small companies who made a good living producing boards with different specialized components on them. One of them, Applied Engineering, was in the area, so their catalogs were floating around. One of the sysops for one of the other underground boards had made friends with a guy who worked there, and could get a good discount on their hardware. At half-off the retail price, I bought an expansion card that would let you add memory to it — not storage, like on a spinning disk, but all-electronic and highly volatile memory. The processor couldn’t address this memory directly, though. It had to go through the card slot to get to it, so it wasn’t quite as fast as the memory that came built in with the computer. But you could play a mean if effective trick on the computer by telling it to treat the card like a disk drive. The only snag was that, of course, the card didn’t come with any memory on it. You had to buy it, and it was expensive.

But it was an awesome plan because unlike with disk drives, you didn’t have to take up another card slot every time you wanted to add the equivalent of two more disks-worth of access. The memory expansion card could host the equivalent of 15 floppy disks, on the one card, with no moving parts. It wasn’t as expensive as a hard drive, which started at $700 for cheap crap and which was still far enough out of my league as to be an alien artifact kept in a private hanger by the Air Force somewhere. I had never even seen one with my own eyes, and I had come across a lot of computer equipment by that point in my life. The RAM disk was the way to go.

I kept mowing yards. I could add memory to my system’s expansion card by buying four chips at time and carefully plugging their tiny little delicate metal legs into the small sea of empty sockets on this massive expansion board. The chips came in plastic rails; uncap one end and chips would slide out. I could only ever afford four chips at a time — and it would cost me three weeks of lawn mowing. So for a while, every three or four weeks, I’d ask my mom to drop me off at the comic book store along the edge of the university, and after checking out what was new I would cross the street to buy another rail of chips from a small, bulk electronics parts vendor.

They used to look at me funny when I came into their office. I don’t think they got a lot of walk-in traffic. I used to think, “Come on — don’t look at me. You’re the nerds here.” But I think it was my age, and how excited I was about picking up my fourth rail of RAM that summer. Someone finally asked me what I was doing, 128 Kilobytes at a time, and knowing that I had never given them my name — though they knew me at the comic book story across the street; oh, shit — I began to tell them what I was doing and was quickly waved off as being insane. That kind of reaction was why I never talked about it, or about many things, really, so I shut up and I split because all I cared about was putting that new memory in the card and seeing what else I could do with it, and I couldn’t care less about a bunch of middle-aged dudes with bad, greasy hair who wore brown ties with blue short-sleeved shirts. You’re using an actual pocket-protector, for God’s sake. Why the hell was it so humiliating to be completely and utterly rejected by those people? Why did I not allow myself to feel validated when, on my next visit, one of them very quietly asked for the board’s number, and then thanked me with a quiet sincerity the next time I came in?

But I still haven’t told you what it was.

Going to California

True Names

“True Names,” by Vernor Vinge, is one of the few things I can point to and say, “That thing there, it changed my life.” It was dressed up as science-fiction, though it could hardly have been more accurate in depicting the world as I saw it — or at least, as how I saw it was going to be.

In the old fairy tales and fantasy stories, knowing how to make magic was the most powerful thing you could do. You were a walking, talking plot-device, not just a game-changer but a world-changer. However, your success hinged on remaining untouchable. If someone knew your real name then they could control you.

In “True Names,” a group of hackers meet secretly in an online fantasy world, using fake names like Mr. Slippery, where they share information, raid computers, and do all the other things that hackers are classically thought to do. Our story begins with a guy getting busted by the cops, because they were able to trace him back to his online hacker identity. Eventually, of course, he comes to see that the cops are right, that one of his hacker buddies is a terribly bad guy who he has to help take down, but the story kicks off with him being forced to take their side because they know his true name, and they threaten to destroy him if he doesn’t do what they say. Not a great beginning to a partnership, but a great start for a story. I had a special fascination for a part of the story where something terrible had begun to grow in the unused spaces between systems, in this near future where tens of megabytes could go unused, unnoticed. These spaces had to be explored, because there was no way of knowing what you’d find there.

Having my inner life lain so bare gave my fantasies an external reality much more powerful than I could have built them up to be on my own. The expensive modem I wanted had begun to feel very far away. As “True Names” settled into a space in my mind, saving money for that modem acquired a life-threatening urgency. Dwelling deeply on what my eventual plans should be as I mowed our yard week after week, I could not shake the one thing about the story that angered me. It wasn’t that the hero turns on his hacker buddies and works with the Feds. It was the word that he has the hackers call themselves. The author calls them warlocks. I’m sure it was meant to echo back to the origin of the idea behind the power of “true names” in fantasy literature, but let’s be honest: it was stupid. It was an example of the problem I had even then with most fantasy and science-fiction. You don’t have to make up dorky words when there are perfectly good words that people use every day. I mean, come on. It grieved me to the point that I wanted to type in the whole damn thing, replacing “warlock” with the real words I knew, the true true-names.

Then as now, most of the people walking around in my world knew the word “hacker,” and they had some idea of what it meant, and they were wrong. There were four general groups of people in the digital underground at the time.

There were pirates, who largely limited their activity to copying software and helping spread it around. It was acknowledged that this was probably at least a little illegal, but no one had ever heard of anyone being arrested for it, outside of racketeering-scale piracy, more often counterfeiting schemes, specifically to make money. Real pirates, we all agreed, were not doing it for the money. Being a pirate also required the least amount of specialized knowledge and effort, so most people in the underground identified as pirates.

There were phreaks (pronounced “freaks,” sometimes called “phone phreaks” just to be clear, especially when talking out loud). Phreaks could do amazing things with phones, starting with free long-distance and growing more sophisticated until you were rerouting pizza delivery calls to your ex-girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. Not that I ever did that, but that was the kind of thing that happened. We presumed that the phone company would be enraged about some of these things, but most of what we were doing wasn’t strictly illegal at the time. Still, after enraging your ex-girlfriend’s father with an inundation of Saturday night calls demanding pizza, you might not have thought of yourself as a criminal even if you were definitely an asshole.

Then there were crackers, the people who got up to the actual, undeniably illegal tricks. A pirate could help you copy a game, and could probably even figure out how to copy something that had been copy-protected in a way that he’d seen before, but it took a cracker to dedicate the long and tedious hours to figuring out how to defeat some new form of copy-protection. And more often than not, the focus and dedication and curiosity that made an expert copy-protection cracker would eventually get turned toward cracking any number of other kinds of systems — for, as they say, fun and profit.

The term “cracker” didn’t really catch on. I thought it was a little lame, myself, but from within the underground I could see the need to differentiate between a hacker in what we imagined to be the pure sense — someone smart and curious and interested in exploring for the love of knowing more — and someone driven by selfishness or even by malicious intent.

Whenever there was a news story about some hacker who’d broken into a system to change his grades, or who had been caught downloading documents from a corporate system, or something similar, it almost always kicked off a new round of underground indignation along the lines of, “You should call these people crackers, like safe-crackers, because they’re trying to break things, and not hackers, because it’s an insult to the hackers who just want to look around and have fun and don’t want to hurt anyone and aren’t in it for the money.”

The actual hackers — the real geniuses who weren’t malicious, or at least not very much, who were obsessed with learning more about the systems, who simply felt compelled to code all day and spend their spare time exploring connections, the spaces between the systems — seemed rare. But they were out there, a small but decent number of them.

Thirty years later, we talk about white-hat hackers and black-hat hackers in order to call out the difference in motivation and intent. But really, most of us knew that what separated the people we thought of as hackers from the people we dismissed as crackers was opportunity and perspective. Most hackers I knew were never actually given the opportunity to find out what they would do when faced with the chance to pilfer a corporate system. In the same way, most hackers I knew never allowed themselves to objectively consider how far they had in fact already gone in violating the privacy and the security of some systems and people. Most people seemed to be pretty cavalier about it.

Given the opportunity, though, I think a lot fewer people would have risked serious jail time through outrageous exploits than talked about it. From a more honest perspective, though, I think vastly fewer people would have been able to call themselves merely hackers. If you spent enough time on the scene, and you had even the slightest idea about and interest in what you were doing, eventually you were going to crack something.

Ideologically, I sympathized with the pirates, but I trained with phreaks, which relates to why I suffered without a modem for so long. Most modems back then used a super-cheap way of dialing a phone, pulse-dialing — imagine the simulation of an old rotary phone click-click-clicking around its actual dial in order to tell the phone switch what number it wanted to be connected with — because tone dialing, the sounds we still today associate with pressing numbers on a keypad, was very expensive to simulate. Computers back in the day could not generate arbitrary tones, not cleanly. Now, your phone can store and play back a sample of any kind of audio you’d ever want to play, spooled down at fantastic speed from a server who-knows-where, but when I was fifteen, if you wanted to dial a phone using touch-tones then you needed a modem with a special and expensive tone-generating chip. And the great thing about those was that once you can generate touch-tones, you can generate all kinds of tones.

The phone system back then was driven by tones. It lived and died by them. For example, you’ve probably heard how a guy who goes by the name of Cap’n Crunch — whose true name is John Draper — discovered that a whistle, included as a free toy in a brand of cereal marketed to children, produced a clean-enough 2600 Hertz tone to trick the old analog phone switches into thinking that a call had just ended, which left the whistler with an open line. Once you have an open line, you can call anyone, anywhere, for as long as you’d like to make the call, because the phone company won’t log it to your account. Then there were the tones that switches expected from pay phones when someone puts in a nickel. Fire the correct tone enough times, and you could make whatever call you wanted, since you’ve convinced the systems that you’ve paid for the privilege.

So if I saved my money for a more expensive modem, I would have touch-tone dialing, which was super fast relative to pulse-dialing and which made it much more likely that I’d be able to get through to some busier sites on busier nights while I let auto-dial do its dirty work. Plus, I’d be able to generate a number of interesting tones, starting with 2600 Hz and working my way up. And that way, I would only be ripping off the phone company. And no one likes the phone company, anyway. And since it’s not like I ever would have paid to make those calls in the first place, I reasoned, then it’s not like I’m robbing the phone company of anything. Fourteen-year-old boys can reason with a very specific flavor of self-serving precision.

What matters is that I will never forget a most joyful if painfully over-long bike ride to and from the only electronics store within many miles of my house in small, suburban Texas. It was just after Easter, I think.

I returned to the online world to find that a lot of my favorite numbers still worked, and a lot of people were glad to see me back. That was cool. There was no longer a computer answering the phone number for the Southern Baptist bulletin-board system. I never called it again.

On one of the first boards I connected back into after nearly a year’s absence, I requested to chat with the system operator. This was a common feature back then. The person calling in presses C from the main menu, and the remote system would beep, flashing a message that the user would like to chat, if the sysop was available. The sysop had been both nearby and interested in chatting, so we typed at each other for a while. I was quick on the keys, and expressed myself much better than any kid near my age, stutter aside. I told him I was interested in running a bulletin board system and asked if he could share a copy of the software for one with me.

“Just the source code,” I said — or typed, rather. “If you don’t mind. I want to run my own system. I want to see what the code looks like so I can write my own.”

He was of a pirate mind, and was happy to let me pull down a full copy. I could not believe my luck.

That night, I set up my system the way I wanted it to be. I got stuck thinking of a name, though, until it hit me. What should I call an underground site, hidden inside a boring chunk of hardware, though which my happiness bubbled out into the world? I posted an announcement, with my phone number, on three or four local sites — THE SUNSHINE FACTORY — and then I went to sleep.

The next morning, I saw to my delight that the system had been busy overnight. Then I realized to my horror that the system was down, hard down, wedged in a bad state, and all because I had done something exceedingly dumb. There had been enough callers overnight, and between the posts and their uploads they had completely filled the digital space on my one disk drive. It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but it was a time when you could basically type a computer to death. Now, I’ve seen people look like they were trying to fill their phones with text, but I don’t think anyone’s ever succeeded.

I reached back out to the guy who’d given me the software.

“You gotta set limits on things,” he said. “You can’t just let people post any old thing, either. You gotta delete stuff. It takes time.”

Then I told him I only had one floppy drive.

“That’s your problem,” he said.

“Do you have anything smaller?” I asked. “If the code was smaller, maybe there’d be more space on the disk for other stuff.” An Apple II disk could hold nearly 19,000 words. That wasn’t a lot. When I’m on a roll, I write about 1,000 words an hour. A lot of the code that ran the bulletin-board system was embarrassingly straightforward, though big chunks of it made zero sense. I had now idea how much of it was absolutely necessary versus what I could happily delete in order to make room for another small list or two of interesting numbers.

He didn’t have anything smaller. I had to aggressively remove posts and completely restrict file uploads. People were happy to download without contributing, but the gears of the Sunshine Factory were grinding. I was failing before I’d even begun. I hadn’t set out to host a popular pirate site, offering up the hottest new games, because I didn’t want to serve users who would only connect so that they could kick off a download. I wanted to talk to people.

Something else would have to be done. I called another board that I’d been on for a while, chatted with the sysop. He also agreed that my problem was the storage, not the size of the software. We typed back and forth at each other for a little while, until he told me to call back with an actual phone to have an actual conversation.

I asked if he’d mind giving me a copy of what he was running, just a piece of it so that I could see how it worked. I told him I didn’t want to rip anybody off. “Why don’t I give you a copy of the whole thing?” he asked. He was going to be in my area that weekend. He said he’d stop by.

He ended up being a man in his mid-30s, red hair, mustache — the first person I ever met in person only after coming to know them online. I’m not sure what he was expecting but from his expression when a whisper-thin fifteen-year-old boy answered the door, I was not what he was expecting. He took it well, though.

“Come on back to my room,” I said. He stepped in, nervous, looking around for adult supervision. My parents were out.

In a black nylon satchel, he’d brought a spare disk drive and the cables it needed to hook up to my computer. Soon we were reading his bulletin-board software from one drive and copying to a blank disk in the other, while he thumbed through my small library of pirated software. He wasn’t interested in games, which cut out most of what I had. Evidently I had a sector editor he hadn’t seen, though, and he asked if he could copy it. I was totally surprised he hadn’t seen it, since it had been so useful to me.

Earlier that year I’d fought my way through a game called Ultima III, and once I got to the same point with it that I’d gotten to with Wizardry where it felt less interesting and more of a grind, I’d started wondering how the game remembered my progress. A sector editor was a tool I’d been told was used mostly by crackers to read and modify information on a disk at its lowest level. It usually looked like garbage, though sometimes you could find interesting things by scanning through screen after screen of the actual bytes on a disk. Scanning my copy of Ultima III eventually turned up where it was storing my game character, and through methodical experimentation I figured out what all the funny letters meant — this one told the computer how strong I was, this one was how hard I was to kill, and so on. I gave myself greater and more incredible powers until I sailed straight through the game’s finale, devastating it. Even weeks later, I kept tweaking my character, going back to stomp things that had previously been serious challenges for me in the game.

“It sounds like you’re trying to do something here,” he said. “What are you trying to do?”

I felt pierced. I wasn’t prepared to talk about what I’d been planning, especially not with a grown-up.

“Have you ever read a story called ‘True Names’?” I asked, stuttering badly.

He had not. Using as few words as I could, I told him what I was going to build.

He clearly wanted to finish my words for me, as most adults would when my stutter was at its worst. It was a relief to find him interested in what I had to say and patient enough to let me say it myself. It was a real kindness, and was probably one of the reasons we became something like friends, eventually.

When I was through telling him what I planned, he stared off into the distance, nodding to himself. Then he looked back at me and said, “That is completely bat-shit crazy. My name’s Frank, by the way.” We only knew one another by our online name.

“Patrick,” I told him, pointing at myself, because I was not about to give anyone my true name. I had a lot of work to do.

Going to California

From the beginning — 2

Previously, on “Going to California”

I’d worked with Douglas Barnes at Steve Jackson Games, where we had just gotten a bunch of money after suing the Secret Service for raiding us at gunpoint without a warrant — taking computers and printers and nearly putting the company out of business, which it turns out you’re not supposed to do. How that came to happen and how the whole mess turned out is a great story, covered well both by Bruce Sterling in his book The Hacker Crackdown and by Steve Jackson himself on his company’s web page: http://www.sjgames.com/SS/.

The short version of the story: A bunch of well-heeled, liberty-minded geeks got together to pay our legal bills. This organization was and still is called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. We didn’t win a ton of money — I like describing what we ended up with as the Secret Service’s annual sunglasses budget — but we did win, and it was enough money that Doug and Steve and some other guys thought to put it to good use by starting an Internet Service Provider. This was in 1993, the dawn of the Internet era, when AOL charged per-minute rates for a shitty, networked-but-not-actually-the-Internet experience. So it felt like we were really helping people. Also, we gave ourselves free Internet access, which was awesome.

There was a blurry line between who was working at the game company and who was working for the ISP. Or rather, it was a blurry boundary for me because I spent nearly all of my time at work doing whatever I could to push both of them forward. I was paid by the game company, but I’d stay up all night working on something for the ISP. It was a hell of a lot of fun for a guy in the most immature stretch of his early 20s, and it’s some of the most stressed out that I’ve ever been in my life, but I did love it.

Doug led the technical charge on getting the ISP off the ground, mostly because at a rather tremendous level of detail he understood exactly what he was doing. Doug made it fun to spend more time at work because he was always very excited about some new thing, and his excitement was infectious.

It was no surprise then when Doug was the first of us to move to California, mining gold in Silicon Valley. The ISP’s first employee was Jim McCoy, who shortly after Doug was the second one of us to move out that way, and before long the core group of people who shared that strange experience in that strange incubator had exploded out into the world in all different directions. But a good number of us ended up in California, eventually.

About seven years later, Jim McCoy and my sister would meet and fall in love and marry, but before that, by the summer of 1999, I was still living in Austin working for a start-up in Austin which had just been bought out. I’d declined to stay on with the new owners. The six months of watching the company get sold had been rough, though not for the reason you might think. I’d had so little work to do that I was afraid that I had let myself get lazy. I thought maybe I could move to France for six months. After all, I knew how to live cheaply in France, back then, which was convenient as I had little money. I figured I’d do contract work of some kind. At least it would keep me on my toes, as opposed to the half-year I’d just spent on my ass.

I never found it hard finding work. I found it hard to find something I loved doing, and I had my bar set pretty high. Also, like I said, I was still pretty immature, even for my age and my gender.

A few weeks after leaving my job, my car died—a broken timing belt executing a perfect murder-suicide against a good number of other breakable things in and around the engine. I put it in the shop. Then my little shack’s air-conditioner died, which in the Texas summertime kept my computer dead during the day. At night, when the sun’s last rays had disappeared, it would return to life before being crushed again by the heat of the following day. I still felt unsettled, even once the AC got fixed.

For the first time in maybe six months I got an email from Doug. I forget why he was checking in, though when I mentioned to him that I was considering moving to Paris he recommended I see Silicon Valley before I left. He was gracious enough to offer to host me. He had a spare room, after all. So why not?

Doug was the perfect tour guide. I got to catch up with Jim, too, who was doing quite well for himself at Yahoo!, and the weekend as a whole struck a very long chord in my geek hind-brain, like the last lingering tones on a Beatles album. It wasn’t the Silicon Valley of my dreams, though it did undeniably feel like a dream of some kind — so strong a dream that it seemed perfectly reasonable and not at all out of the ordinary when I heard that the company where Doug was working wanted to interview me the next afternoon. An opening had come up that morning, and he had put in a good enough word for me that they were intrigued.

It was an international private detective agency. Their information security group, a Silicon Valley acquisition, had some interesting ideas, as people do, and were hiring.

The only way to get through a dream, of course, is to accept its logic, however crazy, and move forward.

The interview consisted of talking to different people one at a time over four hours on a variety of subjects. I asked the final interviewer what it was like working there, a day in the life. I had a hard time getting any sort of a read off the other people so I dug into this one, in case it was my last chance to find out. He looked like he wasn’t sure how to answer, or even if he was supposed to answer, and then he said this.

“In my last job for one of our clients, we had been hired by a company’s board of directors. I had to pose as a Y2K consultant—” This was late 1999. “—so I could get a meeting with the company’s CEO. Big company. I had to talk convincingly with him about their Y2K coverage just in order to be sitting close to him, the CEO, when the Federal marshals burst in to arrest him for corruption. My goal was to prevent him from destroying any evidence there might be on his computer while the marshals crossed the long room to where we sat, and then I was to assist them in preserving as much of the machine’s state as possible to be used as evidence against the man.”

He sat back, letting me digest that.

A few minutes after I walked out of his office, they handed me an employment contract and a check for what to me today is still a lot of money. They urged me to stay there, to blow off the flight home, and to begin work the next day — they had a lot going on, and they wanted me to start right then. They could send people to my tin-roofed shack in Austin to pack it up for me, if that was what I was worried about. My return flight was scheduled to take off in less than three hours.

I told them I was sorry, but I had to take the plane. I remember the words coming out, though I could not tell you the thought process that led to me saying them.

We totally understand, they said. We know this is coming out of nowhere. But tell you what: this offer’s good for 24 hours. Go home. Sleep. And tomorrow, you think about it. If you want the job, all you have to do is deposit the check. Then — do you have a car? Why not just get in your car and drive? It’s not a bad drive. Put on some music.

Next thing I knew, I was on the plane, in mid-flight. I couldn’t remember anything between leaving the office and opening my eyes on the plane. Against the dull roar of the engines, I thought about what would make good driving music for a very long trip. I tried on Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” for the appropriately dramatic moment, and noted with interest how it made me shudder, and cry.

Oh my God, I thought, I’m going to have to get really mature, really fast.

As early as 7:30 the next morning, I began calling people. Several of my oldest friends said they knew what was going on just by the look of me. I was leaving.

My car had been fixed while I’d been gone. After making a wide, 7-hour loop around the city, seeing or at least calling everyone I still cared the most about, stopping at least briefly at every favorite haunt and every memory-filled bridge, driving every route through Austin that for whatever reason had come somehow to mean something to me, I swung by my bank’s drive-through. A moments before 5 PM, I put the check in a teller’s pneumatic tube and in one whoosh I was gone.

Going to California

From the beginning

Fourteen years ago, my life changed in less than a week. In that time, I went from being excited about the three-hour flight to visit friends in the Bay Area, to the terrible fear of driving alone for three days from Texas to California, a move I never thought I’d make.

While visiting a friend, I’d been offered the job of a lifetime — of my lifetime, anyway, hired right off his couch. The thought of an unprecedentedly awesome job held my fear at bay, more or less, though I could feel my mind straining under a previously unimaginable pressure: I was leaving everything I’d ever known, basically, with no notice, on a promise from a stranger that I would have a job on the other side. Earlier that summer, a grandfather had passed away, I had foolishly broken up with my girlfriend of two years, and I had turned thirty. Change was in the air.

Last month, cleaning out some old boxes, I came across a cassette tape from that trip, into which I had narrated what I’m sure was a stream of insanity as I drove from Austin to Mountain View. I can’t bear the sound of my own voice — even in my mid-forties, I remain troubled by the subtle signs of what remains of the crippling speech-impediment of my youth — so I don’t know how long it’ll be before I break down and give it a listen. Yes, I did go ahead and digitize it. No, I’m not posting it. Maybe next year.

Following the three-day drive, I washed up on the shore of Douglas Barnes‘s spare bedroom, where I stayed until I found my own place, and from which I checked in with friends back home. Two weeks before, the air-conditioning had gone out in the tin-roofed shack where I’d lived happily for two years. I’d been pouring sweat out into my keyboard. My computer kept crashing, overheating. It had been a powerful summer.

“They have this thing out here,” I said over the phone, leaning out through an open window. “It’s like air-conditioning, but it’s on the outside.” Which is to say that I liked the weather in Northern California, and was giddy enough to be a jerk about it, even if I still miss the lightning and thunderstorms of Texas, and even though I know I’ve only traded the oppressive heat for much worse things.

“Buy a digital camera,” one friend had said, a few days before I drove away, “and carry it around with you. That way, when you’re in your first earthquake, someone can take a picture of the look on your face.”

“And get yourself an earthquake-preparedness kit,” another friend said, “and always keep it available.”

“Is that anything like the alien abduction-preparedness kit that I keep in the backpack by the door?” I joked.

“Maybe,” he said. “Only, not so many condoms.”