Exhausted from Social-ing… A lot.

I’m sure weekends like this used to be pretty normal… in the before times. But I’m out of practice, and I’m totally knackered.

Dawnise found-out on Facebook post that a neighbor of ours from Seattle was moving to London. She arrived (and made the aforementioned Facebook post) earlier this week. She got settled into temp housing, got a clear COVID test, and we had her around for Saturday brunch. I made brioche french toast and we sat and caught up for a couple hours. It was fantastic.

Saturday night we caught the DLR to a “do-over” birthday party for a friend, at a gastro pub in east London, along the Thames. They had arranged a room – food, drinks, and more people than we’d been in one place with in quite a while. At some point, somehow, Dawnise and another extroverted friend ended up chatting with a group of very well dressed folks who turned out to be quite interesting. Two were musicians, one in media, and the last a bit of a serial entrepreneur.

This morning we got up, made breakfast, and caught an early afternoon train to Guildford, to meet up with friends and former colleagues we haven’t seen in far too long. We spent the afternoon chatting, eating and drinking with friends with better weather than we had any right to hope for. We got a ride back to the station, fortuitously arrived just in time to catch an express train back to London, and got home just on time to feed and medicate the diabetic cat.

Tomorrow we’ve got tickets for a play we were scheduled to see just before the theaters were closed, with friends who’ve since moved back to the US.

Put a fork in me. I’m done.

But also, more of this, please-and-thank-you.

A Path Not Taken

Occasionally, life nudges you to look over your shoulder, and wonder about what might have been.

I finished reading This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, by Nicole Perlroth. It made me look back at a moment when the choices I made left clearly visible ripples in the pond.

In 2002 I was working for a startup that was running out of runway. I was asked to stick around and wrap things up, as much as they could be, but knew before long I’d be looking for “the next thing.” I started talking to companies in the Los Angeles area, and had a couple prospects.

I chatted with a company then called Overture, formerly known as GoTo.com, that pioneered the pay-for-placement search model. A few years later they would be acquired for billions-with-a-b dollars by Yahoo!, but I didn’t join them. So the story doesn’t go there.

One afternoon I headed out to UC Riverside, where I’d done my undergraduate degree, to say hi to some of the faculty I stayed in touch with, and have lunch. That conversation set the wheels in motion for me to return to UCR, work on a DARPA funded research project, and get my Masters degree. It also meant I got to kick the job hunt down the road by a couple years, which was fine with me. This was set against the backdrop of the “1st dot com bubble burst,” and while I was fortunate to have options, none of them were particularly compelling.

Over the next two years I met some fantastic folks, learned a bunch about topics that were new to me, taught a couple classes, got my first experience leading and mentoring people in an academic setting, publish a few papers, and even managed to build a system, write a thesis and defend it. Not bad, really.

For part of that time I’d been flying up to Seattle, at the invitation of a friend and repeat colleague to consult.

All good things come to an end, and I once again had to turn my attention to “the next thing.” Over a few months, I would interview with Amazon (didn’t join them, but that decision would turn out not to stick), was asked to turn my consulting role into a full time role in Seattle, and got connected through former colleagues to a little “cyber security” company called @Stake. I had worked at the same company as some of the principals before that ill-fated startup, and that was enough to get a phone interview, which turned into an on-site interview, and looked to be on track for an offer.

In 2004 the “cyber security” landscape was very different. Microsoft was investing heavily in improving security, catalyzed by Bill Gates’ annual memo in 2002. Break-ins at large companies that leaked sensitive data weren’t yet commonplace. The world hadn’t yet seen a nation-state weaponize software to attack physical infrastructure. That sort of plot was reserved for Tom Clancy novels, and bandied about by us tin-foil hat types. And Snowden hadn’t yet shown the tin foil hat types that there were threats in heaven and earth even they hadn’t dream’t of.

And in this “left-of-boom” moment I was seriously considering joining a software security firm. Helping customers defend their networks from bad guys and… well, who knows what else.

But that’s not what happened.

@Stake, it turned out, had started doing a bunch of work with Microsoft. Their offer was for me to move to Seattle and they expected a bunch of travel. I had two other offers to move to Seattle, and neither of them involved much travel, which seemed preferable when uprooting your spouse and moving to an unfamiliar place. When I said thanks-but-no-thanks to @Stake they didn’t push back on my summary of “moving plus heavy travel sounds like a great recipe for divorce.”

We did end up moving to Seattle. I turned the consulting gig into full time for a few years. I worked on music and media streaming, not keeping bad guys out of networks.

Perlroth’s book gave me a peak into the world I nearly joined. I’ve had a few brushes with that world over the course of my career. And there were moments in the book that resonated sharply.

Being on the defending side when a bad guy was actively trying to do things they shouldn’t. Working with a wicked smart group of colleagues to clean up a mess when defense succumbed to attack. Spending a few weeks in a windowless room, following the digital footsteps of a sneaky intruder to reconstruct a timeline of events. Finding digital fingerprints that led a colleague back to the intruders name, and address, and photograph. Sharing a look of shock when a coincidental power outage during an event made us all wonder if we were in well over our heads. Laughing when we realized that power outage had inadvertently neutered an otherwise persistent threat. Working closely with security professionals in private practice and in US federal law enforcement. Seeing the look of confusion when my wife said there was a call for me from the FBI one Sunday afternoon.

I’m not sure I’d call them “fun” times. But they were memorable.

At several points in the book, and while reading the closing chapter this morning, I found myself intensely curious about what might have been.

How life might have turned out had I made different choices.

That’s a Name I’ve Not Heard in a Long Time…

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but it turns out you can decide to read one based appearance alone. Which is how, despite having no idea who Flint Dille was, I found myself reading his biographic.

It was all about the cover. And the title maybe might have helped.

How do you pass on a book called The Gamesmaster: My Life in the ’80s Geek Culture Trenches with G.I. Joe, Dungeons & Dragons, and The Transformers?

To be clear, I like transforming robots as much as the next male geek growing up in the 80’s, but it was the Dungeons & Dragons bit that sealed the deal.

My first foray online was via a 1200 baud modem (or maybe it was 300 baud, I forget) and an Apple ][+. The computer and modem had been handed down by my uncle, when he upgraded to an Apple //e.

I started calling BBSs from the listings in the back of the free computer magazines that had started appearing at the local public library. I learned that the ones with lots of phone lines – that didn’t just buzz busy all the time – generally charged for access. I learned that lots of them had basically the same games, and that just because a number was in my area code didn’t mean it was free to call.

This last bit turned out to be really important for a kid with no source of income.

One day I saw a listing with a promising name:

The Belching Dragon Inn & Tavern

You can’t judge a BBS by its name any more than a book by its cover, but this name had my attention. Having learned about “local toll calls,” my first move was to flip open the phone book to the list of local exchanges. As luck would have it, it was a free call from my parents house. I dialed in, and ended up “finding my people.”

These days finding like minded people on-line is basically a given. Doesn’t matter what esoteric interest you’re trying to match, there’s a community out there. Not so much in the 80’s. Finding a group of people who were also into pen-and-paper Role Playing Games, Computers, fantasy and science fiction… It was pretty incredible.

I had no idea, when the system asked me to choose a “nom de modem,” that my choice would still be with me over two decades later. Or that many of the people I connected with – first as glowing green characters on my monochrome display, and later in face-to-face living color – would leave such a lasting mark on my life.

By the late 90’s the BBS had succumbed to the siren song of the Internet. Connections and conversations shifted to email lists, then to Facebook. I could say that shuttering my Facebook account made me lose touch, but in reality the threads connecting the group had frayed before that. Most threads just wore thin. Some were snapped, cut, and occasionally set alight.

Communities are more than the net of the relationships of the people in them – but those relationships are key, and relationships can be fragile.

At any rate, just as I couldn’t pass up a book called The Gamesmaster, it turned out I couldn’t read it without thinking about those times, and about those people.

It nudged me into reaching out to a few folks I haven’t spoken to in too long. And when I was writing a message – tapping someone on the shoulder from half a world away – I realized I should probably use the name they knew me by best.

And that’s the titular name I’ve not heard in a long time.

One of my own.