Chapter 1: The Break

(This is the first chapter of my new memoir of the Internet industry.)

I didn’t become a computer programmer because I wanted to. It was the door that opened for me.

I was a Philosophy student at Albany State, but my stepfather Gene kept reminding me that I was eventually going to graduate and nobody was hiring philosophers. Gene (a successful businessman who still gives me good advice whenever I need it) made me a better offer after my sophomore year — a summer job in the software department of the aerospace electronics division he managed, at General Instrument in Hicksville, Long Island. My brother Gary already had a summer job with Gene, so I decided to tag along. It was a better paycheck than McDonalds.

Back at Albany State for the autumn semester, I noticed a strange and growing convergence between the Philosophy department and the Computer Science department. My Symbolic Logic professor (who’d given me an A+) James Thomas suddenly resigned his full professorship in the Philosophy department to become a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in the Computer Science department. I asked him about it and he said “Are you kidding? This is what’s interesting in logic right now. This is where I want to be.” The fact that he was demoting himself from professor to grad student didn’t bother him at all. That’s the kind of “logic” I admire.


I then discovered that Professor Robert Meyers, the chairman of my Philosophy department, was very interested in artificial intelligence, and he and I put together an independent research project in natural language programming using LISP. I spent the winter semester making my LISP program parse, store and respond to sentences like “the duck is brown”, “all ducks are brown or white”, “is this duck white?”. The final implementation was impressive and Professor Meyers was fairly knocked out. What I mainly learned, though, is that simulating language feels like doing card tricks.

I ended up spending an extra year at Albany State and adding a Computer Science degree to my Philosophy degree. Then, dear reader, I joined the workforce.

Nine to five, like they say. I’d been cubicle-bait all along, wandering in pursuit of my muse, and now I was hopelessly trapped in a “good” but conventional and extremely demanding job. I worked long hours and fought rush hour traffic. I bought shiny shoes at Thom McAn, three suits at Robert Hall, and a cheap American car. I wanted to quit, but I kept getting promotions and raises, and I was learning cool things like Unix, object-oriented design and C++. The fact that I’d also always wanted to be a great novelist didn’t fit into the equation at all.

Fast forward to the summer of 1993. I’m 31 years old, married with kids and a mortgage, and approaching the top of my field, earning $72,000 a year as a Senior Consultant for Sybase, the industry leader in networked database systems. Now I’m more miserable about my work than ever, so bitter and angry that I have to take long walks around downtown Manhattan three or four times a day to keep my cool. I’m stationed in the Global Markets Trading Systems department at JP Morgan’s headquarters on the corner of Broad Street and Wall Street, now wearing an $800 suit I didn’t buy at Robert Hall, and now I hate my co-workers twice as much as I did before.

Looking back, I realize the extent to which I was in the belly of the beast. New York banks were (and probably still are) notoriously insane places for information technology professionals to work — the combination of Wall Street greed and Aspergers Syndrome pretty much guaranteed an aggression level constantly through the roof. Management styles were deeply inconsistent, inter-department sabotage was rampant, and long overtime hours were always required, which I found particularly aggravating because if I got home late I wouldn’t see Daniel and Elizabeth (two and seven, back in the summer of ’93) before bedtime, and this would make me even more depressed. I don’t think I was much fun to live with around this time, and I sure wasn’t getting any good writing done.

And then there was was the ultimate, horrible, horrible irony: the book deal. In the summer of 1993 I was approached by a friend who had written software books for McGraw-Hill, one of the top technology book publishers, to write a book on Client-Server Programming for Sybase SQL Server. Yeah, impressive. That’s my fucking novel. Client-Server Programming for Sybase SQL Server. That’s the one book contract that actually came for me in the mail.

I was in bad shape.

And then something good happened.

It came out of nowhere. Tim English, one of JP Morgan’s many VPs of research and development system administration something-or-other and a person who’d never talked to me before suddenly showed up at my cube with a request. “I’d like to set up Usenet access for my sys-admins”.

“Usenet?” I said.

“You haven’t heard of it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Find out about it. It’s good. My guys want to look at the Unix newsgroups out on the internet.”

“I’ll get back to you.” I said.

Usenet. Huh.

When the internet came into my life — about two years before it came into everybody else’s life, because I had this headstart — it felt like a break in the sky. I knew it was going to be important, whatever this Usenet thing was, whatever this Internet thing was (and I couldn’t just Google “usenet”, you see, because there was no Google back then, because back then Al Gore had just barely finished inventing the internet in the first place, which was why I was only now first hearing of it myself from this stranger named Tim English who obviously knew more than I did).

I was about to find myself liberated in ways I’d never expected. But incredible frustrations and disappoints awaited me as well. In the summer of 1993, someone a few blocks north of my building on Wall Street was about to invent the name “Silicon Alley”. A little thing called the dot-com revolution was about to explode, and my life was about to take some turns I’d never imagined.

Oh, and … I wasn’t going to be writing that book.

As threatened, my memoir now begins. I guess this was chapter one. Stay tuned, my friends … for lots and lots more to come.

20 Responses

  1. Well now we know the meaning
    Well now we know the meaning of “One White Duck”. Cool picture of Doug Henning, though. Oh. Ahem.

  2. Lev,

    Yours is one of the
    Lev,

    Yours is one of the blogs I always keep up on. I’m way more of a Late Bloomer than you, but not because I got swallowed by the beast… but cause I spent so many years running from it.

    20th C Modernists was for youth and youth lost… now’s time for the other half of life to register our impressions.

  3. And hey, I was two years
    And hey, I was two years short of 50 before I’d made (gross) 50K… in a lifetime. If you have a moment of clarity before the shades drop, the question won’t be, how much money did I make… but how did I spend my time?

    Always believed in that. Only time I accepted overtime was working in a hospital in a snow emergency when my replacements couldn’t make it it in. Otherwise, quit first.

  4. The prose flows.
    Will it all

    The prose flows.
    Will it all be first person point of view?

  5. Oh, HELL, yeah!

    This is
    Oh, HELL, yeah!

    This is good, very good.

    I can’t believe I never guessed the “m” stood for “memoir” because I’ve said many times that you should write all the stuff down that you have alluded and touched on, at various times, for several years.

  6. Thanks, all, for the votes of
    Thanks, all, for the votes of confidence! Much appreciated.

    Yes, Warren, this will all be first person, though I hope I’m not just telling my own story but rather a universal one.

    Bill, this is actually not the secret “M” idea I’ve spoken of (that book proposal remains with my agent) but rather the “I” idea (“I” is for “internet industry”). The “M” idea remains under my hat!

  7. Is this the book that you
    Is this the book that you mentioned that people would want to buy a 100,000 copies?

  8. Ha ha, Warren, I think I’d
    Ha ha, Warren, I think I’d better keep my bragging in check but yeah, I do think there is an audience for a good popular history of the early days of the internet industry. If I do finish writing this whole thing and publish it as a book, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that many people interested in business or culture or technology will want to read it.

  9. I agree, Levi. There are a
    I agree, Levi. There are a few books like that, but not many, and I believe the market could easily support another good one.

    Caryn…doug henning…hehehe…

  10. Ian Fleming cornered the
    Ian Fleming cornered the market on ‘M’ Kafka’s got ‘K’ buttoned down, and Pynchon has taken ‘V’ to places that resepctable consonants shouldn’t go, and ‘O’ is not a letter I could write about without going to confession.
    Now ‘E’ is becoming a novel vowel,is any letter safe from literary appropriation.
    Can the rest of us still use them without footnotes delineating their exclusivity.
    Or, is this just a case of small lower case envy of higher upper case erudition.
    An’, what about numbers an’ punctuation an’ stuff, any novels out there?

  11. And a very promising start so
    And a very promising start so far. I’m wondering, however, if you’re sticking with the truth or plan on incorporating a few grandiose lies along the lies of Anthony Burgess’s two-part Confessions. 🙂

  12. Good question, Ed … and my
    Good question, Ed … and my decision is clear: truth, truth, truth! Given the cloud of suspicion that has hung over the memoir form due to the shenanigans of James Frey and others, I pledge to walk a very, very straight line here. Truth, and nothing but!

  13. Wow, this might be more truth
    Wow, this might be more truth than I need to know. But, as always, I look forward the coming events.

  14. The truth is, people tell
    The truth is, people tell lies-except George Washington
    How about that, John Keats; and the sins of omission.
    Whose not going to tell them?

  15. There’s absolutely a market
    There’s absolutely a market for a book like this — I’d love to read it. Looks good so far.

  16. Wow, Someome with a ‘real
    Wow, Someome with a ‘real life’, a story worth tellin’ and readin’. Hopefully you won’t mind if I tag along, I assume that’s why it’s here.

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