In all these many years of working on Chenla, we've re-launched the site three or four times. Each time was the same. We launched because we thought we had to. That there had to be a public face to our work. But the truth was we weren't ready. And no shiny new web site was going to change that.
It wasn't for a lack of effort. I've been working on Chenla since 1997, when I was living in Osaka, having just been deported from Hong Kong, for overstaying my visa for six years. Better get out before the handover. There was no telling what the Chinese might do after the bombastic silliness during the negotiations with the UK. They were calling Chris Patten a running dog. For his troubles he got a knighthood and a cushy job back home after it was all over. But at the time there was no telling if they'd be tanks in the street. The timing was right, the dotcom bubble was about ready to pop, and we'd just sold our startup to the suckers who were then bought out by one of the Telcos a year later. So on the flimsiest of excuses I found myself at a desk on the top floor of an office in Osaka. The place stank of mildew and stale cigarettes as I looked for something worthwhile to work on.
The answer came in the form of an article in Wired magazine which talked of Steward Brand's project to build a clock which could run ten thousand years without human intervention. They wanted to build a library to go along with the clock. I was in. That's what I wanted to do. They could have the clock. I wanted to build the library.
But how to begin? Building a library that could last ten thousand
years was easy, chisel it in stone, micro etch it in nickel plates,
encode it in dna of bacteria and store it in amber. But how to build
a library that could still be
Answering those questions led me down a rabbit hole from which I fear there is no returning from. Everything leads to something else, and you tie off one loose end, only to find that the other end has frayed over time into a score of other loose ends. It was intellectual wack-a-mole without any hope of winning a prize after you'd blown all the spare change in your pocket. Clearly this was some sort of insidious chinese finger trap designed by shadowy characters to screw me over. But rather than wising up and quiting, I dug in like a tick, convinced I'd crack the sucker in a couple more years.
I had no clue of what I was getting myself into. And it's not as if I wasn't warned. I clearly remember pitching an early version of the project to a good friend, Bob LaQuey, a barking mad particle physicist from Texas, who now sleeps in a hammock in a bamboo tower on a beach in the Philippines and is a member on our board. The man designed chips for ballistic missles. Bob might be crazy, but on these matters he could be trusted. He'd know if I was on to something or not.
It was one of those annoying sunny San Diego days that Californian's insist on calling perfect. But it was Mark Twain who got it right, "the coldest winter I ever spent, was summer in San Francisco." San Diego wasn't much of an improvement. I found Bob in his back yard working on a boat that he'd been building for years. I don't know much about boats, but to me, it didn't look altogether seaworthy. But I kept my opinions to my self. I wasn't sure how the locals would react.
This was only the second time I'd been back to the States in more than ten years and America was already a very different place from when I left. I didn't expect it to be the same. But where did all these goddamned coffee shops come from? And where was the coffee? All they had was lattes and espressos and a bewildering array of roasted beans that had been shat out of a cats ass. I kid you not, I couldn't make stuff like this up if I tried. I remember on the same trip finding myself at Defcon in Vegas, only to find a bunch kids covered in tatoos and piercings sitting on the floor staring into laptops encrusted in layers of skull decals, unix logos and startup swag. What this had to do with hacking was beyond me. I escaped into the lobby and tried to buy a cup of coffee from a bored looking girl with a midwestern accent.
"What kind of coffee?" she asked with a blank expression. I looked at the menu on the wall looking for anything that looked familiar.
"I just want a cup of coffee," was all I could manage. Flyover girl looked at me like I had two heads. "You got any coffee flavoured coffee?" I asked like a moron. She gave me a dirty look, like I was being a asshole, looked over her shoulder and shouted,
"One house!" whatever that was. I took the paper cup, forked over the cost of a gin and tonic at a five star hotel bar back in Hong Kong and slunk away.
It was at that moment that knew I would never crack their code. I could never blend in or pass as one of them. I was exposed, a sitting duck, just waiting to be picked off by any of the heavily armed civilians, that seemed to be always passing you in pickup trucks with gun racks, who I might accidently piss off. I desperately wanted to get back on a plane and as far away from this madness as possible.
A week later Bob was listening politely to what I was proposing, and calmly told me he thought it was a good idea but it would be a huge undertaking and wondered if I'd be able to see it through. But all I hear was that he liked the idea.
I was cocky and told him that I wanted to work on an important problem. I was scared of finishing and being too old for another big project, but too young to die. After a long life, when the time was right I wanted to drop dead at my keyboard. That's the only fitting way for a hacker to leave this world. But I was in my mid-30's at the time and still too young to comprehend the magnitude of what I was attempting. Bob might not be much of a boat builder but he was dead right. I've now been working on what later became Chenla for twenty years. And if I live that long, I easily have enough work to keep me busy for another twenty.
Another decade passed and I was still at it, bashing my head bloody against the wall like a chump playing a slot machine. Each step forward was like a payout, blinding me to how much deeper I had to go each time to be able to get the next trickle of change from the machine.
The undertaking grew to breathtaking proportions. I knew I had delved into things that bordered on lands where unspeakable horrors gobble your soul and leave you a slobbering institutionalized idiot being told to shut up and eat your jello. Surely the path I'd taken would lead to madness, or worse, failure.
And then, about 8 months ago, a couple of pieces of the puzzle fell into place and I could almost see a shape in my head of how it all fit together the way I had always hoped, but feared I would never find. Since then, everything has been gradually coming into focus. But the payoff has come at a terrible price. My life is a shambles, I'm dead broke, I've been living for months at a time on a dollar a day.
This site that we're unlaunching today, will be my attempt to lay it all out for the world to see. So I can find out if it's been worth two decades of my life, my family disowning me, three marriages and four countries. With some luck I will live long enough to get things to the point where others can continue after I am gone. It's gonna be close.
And you know what? It has all been worth it, and knowing what I know now, I'd do it all again. Philip K. Dick, who was no stranger to living in poverty and obscurity was once asked why all of his stories had bleak endings with no hope. He responded, saying that all of his stories ended with a little bit of hope, like in Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, with the wife buying electric flys to feed to her husband's electric spider that he thought was real. "How much hope," Dick asked, "do you need?"
The kicker is that all of this, is just get to the beginning. The yellow brick road starts here. It took me twenty years to find it and I'm not turning back now. As Hunter Thompson said, you buy the ticket, you take the ride. So here goes nothing. Follow the bouncing ball:
The temple drum booms thrice before dawn,
rattling the loose glass in the window,
and I'm awake.
The fan thumps a steady beat,
as I push past the mosquito net,
trying to ignore the same bloody dream
I have almost every night.
It never ends well,
but I'll keep at it,
hopeful that someday it might.
I slouch into a shirt and jeans,
my wife still curled beneath wrinkled sheets,
to head down stairs,
not knowing where they may lead.