Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Enterprise - 16

The application – the Product – could be conceived of as an assemblage of subject areas – domains – within which content was aggregated from one or more sources. It was unclear to me who had devised this breakdown, and on what basis. Had there been market research? Focus groups? At first it seemed that the subject areas had arisen organically, by some collective intuition. It then grew clear that more prosaic factors were at play: The availability of content. The cost. The degree to which deploying it as a new domain within the Product would turn into a goddamned pain in the ass.

In the Product as it stood you could, among other things, get your horoscope for today or search words and phrases in the Holy Bible.

Each developer under Brett was in charge of one or more domains. These had been distributed according to some combination of interest, proclivity and seniority. Sports belonged to Kevin and his sidekick Jim. Movies to Julie. News to Rob. Stock quotes fell to Peter, games to Lucy. Each fiefdom was defended with wary pride. They were all, perhaps, a little bigger than they had to be. More complex. For there was an unspoken competition to lay claim to the most end-user requests and session time, statistics that were scrupulously culled, parsed and displayed each day on an internal reporting site. The traffic to one's domain became a measure of the self.

The developers became adept at using little tricks to exploit the algorithm at the heart of the Product. Liberties were taken in the definition of synonymous words and phrases. Dubious predicates and key words were added. Matching scores crept up. The entire department existed in a state of cold war over language. Not over meaning – at the expense of meaning, really. Over raw language.

There was a rolling whiteboard in the middle of the room, beside an island of cubicles. On it, Brett had listed guidelines to remember in red:

1. Synonyms. Did you think of every fucking synonym? Add synonyms!!
2. Predicates. Check the score of your predicates. Is your predicate too sticky?? TEST!!
3. Matching. Add alternations! Add optionals! Does every query you can think of match?? WHY THE FUCK NOT!?
4. Ambiguity. RESOLVE AMBIGUITY.
5. Last but not least: Does your domain suck? Ask yourself. MAKE SURE YOUR DOMAIN DOES NOT SUCK!!!
6. See #5!!!

At first I lived on the periphery of this world, making occasional, meek requests for copy changes. I had no programming skills, after all. I was on the creative team, the builders of images and concepts. I was not meant to get dirty. But the editorial process was absurd. I'd write up and format a Word document, send it to the right person. They'd have to lift their heads out of their code long enough to tediously copy and paste my edits. So Brett and Bob agreed to give me access to the web-based domain editor, a mostly foolproof tool, with the understanding that I was only to touch the output.

I deleted a word. And another. I deleted a sentence. I wrote a new one. I saved the file. It was queued for production.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Enterprise - 15

Cindy Metzger was in charge of public relations, or press relations, or whatever you want to call it that amounts to PR. She was friendly, attractive. A bit discombobulated. She always had a sleepy look, like she'd just spilled out of bed. The following morning, she sent me a draft of the name-change press release from her room at The Prison. She called me up a few minutes later. It was seven something, her time.

"Did you get it?" she asked.

"Looking at it now."

"Ugh. Ugh!"

"What's wrong?"

"Judy wants the final draft on her desk, first thing in the morning. I was up all night writing this."

"I think it looks pretty good. I–"

"God fucking dammit."

"What?"

"My hair. My fucking hair. There's no fucking hair dryer in this fucking place."

"I'm going to send you back a version."

"Does it look OK?"

"It looks good. There's just a couple of–"

"Can I just tell you what a cunt she is?"

"Sure."

"I got here late yesterday. I was supposed to meet her at the office. The plane was late. She acted like it was my fault."

"Damn."

"THE PLANE WAS LATE."

"I know."

"Do I fly the fucking plane? Am I the pilot of the plane?"

"Right."

"Am I the co-pilot? Am I that other fucking person in the cockpit?"

"Exactly."

"Am I the air fucking traffic controller?"

"Yeah! No."

"Do I look like the guy who waves the fucking little sticks around? Do I look like that guy?"

"You do not."

"The fucking little orange sticks?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"So HOW IS IT MY FAULT THAT THE PLANE WAS LATE?"

"I don't see a way how."

"So then she sends me all these fucking changes to the press release. Like she couldn't have sent them last week. For Christ's sake."

"Good Lord."

"And so here I am, at the fucking Prison, with my hair still fucking wet," she concluded in a weary singsong.

"Yeah. God."

She broke into soft sobs.

"Are you OK?" I asked.

"I don't know how much more of this I can take!"

"It'll be OK," I reassured. "I'm sure it'll be OK, I think."

"Thanks Paul," she said with a sniff and a halting sigh.

"I'm sending you the doc in five minutes."

"Thank you. Thank you."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Enterprise - 14

The clock had counted down and read zero for a few days now. Weeks, maybe. It was hard to keep track without its steady, reassuring decrementation. The bright-red digits saying: There's still time. Or: It will happen soon. Depending on your point of view.

I stood beside Bob's desk as he reviewed a hardcopy of my website edits.

"The clock's at zero," I remarked.

"Hmm? Oh, yeah. Yeah," he replied, and looked back down at the marked-up pages.

"Are we going to reset it to something?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Isn't zero when we launch?"

"Zero came and went."

"We launched? The Product?"

Bob grimaced and rolled his head from side to side. "Not exactly. Sort of."

"Did we blast off into space?"

"The current strategy is to soft-launch," he said.

"When's the soft launch?"

"Super-soft."

"But did it happen? Or is it going to happen?"

He sighed. "It's happening right now."

I looked around us. The office was enveloped in the characteristic hush of digital industry, everybody seated, pointing, clicking. Occasionally a desk phone emitted a soft, electronic burble.

"Really?"

"The idea is to let the Product seep into the world rather than to inject it. It's more authentic that way. It's organic. The virality should really benefit."

I nodded.

"It's a known strategy," he continued. "I think it's Japanese. Possibly Finnish."

"Seeping?"

"Not sure what they call it. And plus, the feeling at the tippy-top was that the Product is not ready. You didn't hear it from me."

"The feeling out west?"

"The feeling out west. Back east, too."

I stared at the expired clock and pondered it all.

"We did change our name. I'm working on a new logo for the business cards. By the way, they're going to need you to weigh in on the press release. Cindy's going to reach out to you tomorrow morning."

"Prizm? With a Z?" I asked.

"No. Our lawyers did some investigating and there's a conflict with some fucking consulting company. Probably not a big issue but they judged it to be imprudent."

"So what's our name?"

"Intracto."

"Intracto," I repeated.

The Enterprise - 13

On the way back down to the Valley, we'd been talking about – debating – the home screen issue in the product interface when David suddenly fell silent.

"What's up?"

No reply. He shifted in the driver's seat, staring straight ahead with a vaguely pained expression.

"Hey," I insisted.

"The windmills," he stated hollowly.

"What?"

"There are windmills on that hill."

I peered through the darkness toward the indistinguishable horizon. Frankly, I could not see a thing.

"Really. So?"

"Windmills spinning in the dark make me uncomfortable," he muttered.

I scrutinized his face. The light from oncoming traffic produced a greenish pallor.

"Really?"

"One day–" He gulped nauseously. "One day, I was driving back to Berkeley from San Jose. I started feeling weird. Pulled over and puked out my guts."

"Jesus."

"I had a migraine the rest of the night. Trembling and sweating. I went to the doctor the next day. He ruled out food poisoning, the flu."

"Yeah?"

"He asked me where I'd been, what I'd seen. What I hadn't seen."

"And?"

"He determined that the presence of windmills along the highway, spinning in the–" he shuddered in disgust – "dark had made me sick."

"How is that even a thing that can happen?" I asked.

David shrugged. "There's lots of people like me. It's an environmental sensitivity."

"How about windmills in the daytime?"

"Not a problem."

"What is it about them, do you think, at night?"

He sighed and answered through clenched teeth. "It's dark. They're spinning. They're spinning in the dark. I don't know what else to say."

"All right."

"It's awful, I'm telling you. Awful."

"Want me to drive?"

"Could you?"

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Enterprise - 12

You get a special feeling in San Francisco. It's airy and isolated, impervious to the dreary ailments of other cities. I cannot imagine a wisp of trash blowing in its streets. As we approached it from the south dusk fell upon it gently, like a hallowing.

It probably didn't hurt that the place was inundated with capital.

David had wanted to rent a motorcycle, ride it into the hills and up and down the PCH. I don't know. I contemplated what an afternoon at The Prison might feel like, drifting into evening and finally, night. The microwave food. The cheap booze. The pornography. Time distending, collapsing into silence. Is that what I wanted? It was almost what I wanted.

But for all his enthusiasm David was frustrated in his quest. And so now we found ourselves parking the rental on Haight Street, two guys on a detour from business, anonymous, without a purpose.

The sidewalk was peopled with what appeared to be runaway kids. It was impossible not to think back to the so-called Summer of Love. That's what everyone thought about when they thought about this street, even those who weren't alive in '67. Especially them. For myth has greater power over those who did not witness fact.

A scrawny boy with spiky black hair and a face both acne-scarred and studded approached us, hand outstretched.

"Gimme some money," he demanded.

"Why?" I asked.

"Fuck you."

He walked with us for another fifteen feet or so, hand still out, as though the interaction so far had been perfectly normal and might well result in the dispensing of a dollar or two. I glimpsed his girl behind us, by the wall. She wore a wild tangle of dreadlocks, a lip ring, a granny dress, nothing on her feet. She clutched a trembling dog and kissed him between the ears. Finally her boy broke away and returned to her.

We pressed on, nowhere to go but forward, nothing to do but this. We wandered in and out of bookstores and cafés, their entranceways festooned with calls to demonstrate for this and that, against the other thing. The neighborhood itself seemed to be a living bulletin board. Behind the latest tract was last year's; and behind that one, the year before's. No one ever bothered to throw anything out. It'd be disrespectful. Or worse yet: negative. Nihilistic. The anarchy flyer's OK, just don't tear anything down, man. If you have a new idea, pin it on the past. And any surface that wasn't covered had absorbed the smoke of all the fires it had seen: peace marches, feminism, black power, animal rights, environmentalism, gay rights, whatever. You could drill out a sample like a scientist, read the history of our time.

We had a drink at a tall-ceilinged, decrepit bar.

"Now what?" said David.

"I don't know."

We sat in silence for a while longer.

"Let's drive around," I said.

"OK."

We drove to the Presidio and stopped where a street took a right angle to the right and straight ahead the earth just fell away. In the distance was the Bay. We parked the car and got out and walked down the steps, the Lyon Street Steps, shouldered by ornate, shuttered Venetian-style homes with terra cotta roofs. It was all beautiful and precious and I wondered what it would be like to be one of these joggers, rich, healthy San Francisco people, running up and down the steps and stretching against the stone walls of the garden.

David had gone to Berkeley and lived there after graduating. He wanted to drive by his old haunts, the Greek Theatre, the old chemistry building. We ate at the most famous and expensive place in town, a legendary bastion of locally sourced and seasonal cuisine. We spent lavishly.

"I think the first thing the user needs to do is type 'home,'" said David between bites of mesclun.

"I agree," I replied.

"If they don't see the home screen right away, they have no idea as to the scope of functionality."

"Clearly."

"If they don't type 'home,' we should force them to type 'home.'"

"How?"

"Deliver a message. Telling them they should have typed 'home.' Type 'home' now. Please."

"No matter what they typed?"

David nodded.

"I'm not sure I agree."

After dinner we drove back across the Bay Bridge. We sat at another bar, a posh one this time. Ornate and old-timey. Might've been a literary haunt some time ago, or might've been  made to look like one. Some of the ritziest bars in the world are the ones where broke writers used to drink. David had expected some old friends to be there. We drank expensive and pretentious martini-style cocktails. Nobody came.

Finally, there was nothing left to do but cross the Golden Gate. Up in the hills beyond it lay Marin, home of rich musicians, artists, free thinkers of privilege and means. I wondered what it might feel like to cross this bridge at the end of every day.

As soon as we arrived on the other side we pulled in to the vista lot and turned around.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I thought I'd hate "Avatar" but I liked it slightly better than that. Sure it was hokey and stupid and formulaic. But I appreciated the savagery of its attack on American militarism and imperialism, the notion that we're essentially entitled to the world's riches and we can run roughshod over other countries, races and species to feed our greedy maws.
The sun found all of Brooklyn today, every shuttered commercial tiling warehouse, every precious little park, all the waterfront condos and the pita joints on Atlantic Avenue.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Enterprise - 11

"The sensei is a friend of a friend," Bill declared. "We let him come in and use a computer sometimes."

"And he gives lessons in return?" asked David.

Bill nodded. "I think he's homeless."

Conversation quieted for a few minutes and our attentions drifted to the television, where a bicolored mosaic crept across the national map from east to west, favoring red. We balanced paper plates of takeout Chinese on our knees as Bill's little boy and girl ran around smacking into things and scaling the furniture.

We were in a ranch-style house on a tiny patch of grass beside a busy street, near a vast and gleaming shopping mall. Bill volunteered that the place had cost one point two million dollars.

"Did you enjoy it?" Bill asked.

"What?" I replied.

"The sword training. Audrey! Come here!"

We made favorable sounds and expressions.

"It's my team-building exercise!" he beamed.

Later, back at The Prison, I lay on the stiff bed clutching a flask of scotch. Things were getting weird in the election. Al Gore had called George Bush to retract his concession. It was not immediately clear whether Bush understood the meaning of the word "retract." Florida had been declared but now was back in play. I drifted off to sleep to the increasingly surreal metaphors of Dan Rather, sounding like a drunk Mark Twain.

The following day we concluded our testing, the final user exiting after having provided the same ingenuous and anodyne feedback as practically all the others. We sat with everyone for a midafternoon conference call with New York. The contested election shadowed every conversation. Someone put up CNN on the projection screen and we watched the gap in the tally narrow by the minute.

It was early Wednesday afternoon and we had nowhere to go, nothing to do.
Rachel Maddow's interview of Jon Stewart tonight was curiously depressing. He seemed obstinate, touchy, ornery. His defense of his neutral posture was obviously practiced, and not without validity or insight, but there seemed to be an emptiness at the heart of it all, one that he, more than anyone, perceives. He kept saying things like, "That's true," or "That's a fair point," or "Fair enough," in the manner of a too-reasonable boyfriend who, despite his erudition, is losing the fight. "That's a valid point, honey, I fucked the babysitter." Or more like: "You're right. I want to fuck the babysitter. But I never have and never will." What I mean to say is that his points were too fine.

And Rachel didn't take him sufficiently to task. Occasionally she ventured the observation that they are in the same line of business, but she didn't make it stick. The fact is, Stewart is in her business when he wants to be in hers and in his when he wants to be in his. What a privilege! What an opportunity! He should embrace it honestly, make the most of it. He claimed that he was in one of the oldest professions in the world (satire - second oldest?). But maybe he's in one of the newest. Why not celebrate that? Why not see where it takes him, where it takes us?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sometimes I look out the kitchen window into the apartment across the street, the things on their walls, the furniture, the back of a speaker in the den. An old man in a red shawl, seated in his usual chair. Other people live their lives in there.

Sometimes I watch the cables hanging from the roof and swaying in the breeze.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Enterprise - 10

We checked in to the sad little hotel across from the office, a distressed outpost from another time, from when people did not come to town to tinker with machines but passed through to hike the Russian Ridge, maybe. Or God knows what. To escape on a doomed tryst with the secretary. To light out for the desert with a body in the trunk. It was inappropriate, it would seem, to the bright-shiny character of our endeavors, to say nothing of our cozy sense of privilege. So we chose to laugh about it: the nickname for the Pacific Inn was The Prison. If you were going to spend a few nights out west, it was said you were going to prison. One of the rooms – you'd have to be awfully unlucky to get it – was equipped with a Murphy bed.

Dinner was a selection of plastic-wrapped burritos, stacked beside the microwave. The yellow one, the red. The jumbo for the bigger appetites. Atop the microwave sat a Mr. Coffee machine with a perpetual pot, darkening by the hour. The Styrofoam cups were stacked up beside the sugar and the Sweet 'n' Low, the half-and-half, the Coffee-Mate. You were free to help yourself anytime of the day or night.

The following day was Tuesday, November seventh, the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. I'd voted days before in Manhattan, dutifully filling out my absentee ballot on Varick. Still, of all possible days, it seemed peculiar that on this one we should find ourselves across the country, about to scrutinize a series of strangers as they interacted with the fruit of our labors.

The Sunnyvale branch was predominantly hardcore technical: guys who didn't see much light of day, who were involved with the Product at the seabed level: where it was darkest, coldest, forbiddingly dense. The New York office was full of salespeople, business developers, designers and the like, people accustomed to looking each other square in the eye and smiling.

Of course it wasn't that simple. There was a bit of the West Coast in the East. There was a bit of the East Coast in the West. There were aspects of the people themselves that you couldn't readily see.

The office itself was located at an intersection, on the ground floor of a dismal commercial building that also housed a roster of utterly prosaic small-town concerns: an accountant, a lawyer, a distributor of medical supplies. Behind the glass door lay a jumble of desks, computers, computer parts and idiosyncratic personal effects. Judy appeared from her office in the back and introduced us to whoever happened to be around: the joyless and matronly office manager, Nancy; an enormously obese programmer, Nick; the genial Frenchman Jacques and his introverted echo Julien, and finally, the famous Bill, officially the CTO but really just the famous Bill.

Judy took us to the conference room and introduced us to Lisa, from Interim Consulting Services. Lisa was attractive, officious, a little bit distracted. She had a file folder open before her containing several documents and pages of handwritten notes. A keyboard and monitor were set up at the empty head of the table.

"Lisa will be facilitating the usability study," Judy declared.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"I'll be asking the questions," said Lisa.

"What are we going to do?"

"I want you guys to observe," said Judy. "Note-take. I'll be asking for your thoughts later. Thoughts and impressions. They'll be invaluable as we take on board the feedback, reassess and reconfigure."

"So we sit. And watch?" asked David.

"Watch."

"Where?"

"Over here, if you like," said Lisa. "Or over there."

"Right where you're sitting now is OK," said Judy. "Is that OK, Lisa?"

"That's fine. That's OK."

For the entire morning and the better part of the afternoon, men and women, mostly young, perhaps recently unemployed, paraded in and took their turns in the seat of honor. They examined the screen with alacrity, eager to please, or at least to satisfy.

A rather large tray of catered snacks was on offer on the credenza: brownies, petit fours, cookies, strawberries, sliced melon. It remained largely untouched.

"What might you type, do you think, at this point?" was the first question Lisa would ask, or a variation thereof.

"I don't know," some replied, frankly flummoxed.

Others might meekly, tentatively key in an overture: "Hello." "Hi." "What is this?"

"Were you at all inclined to type 'home'?"

"Oh!" they'd reply, like chastened pupils. Or: "No." "I don't know."

"Type 'home.'"

They did as they were told and the interaction continued, sometimes veering into vexing dead ends, sometimes concluding more or less happily, it would appear.

"There!" Lisa would exclaim.

A bashful smile from the user.

"Do you think this is an experience you might be interested in having again?" she asked. Or: "Would you tell other people about this if it were available? Family? Friends?"

"Oh yes," was the inevitable reply. "Yeah. Definitely." And if any cookies were eaten it was on the way out.

It was only midafternoon, and we had arrived at the end of Day 1. Judy led us in an impromptu debrief after Lisa had packed up her notes and folders and left.

"I wasn't too happy with the quality of the usability testers today, guys."

We murmured vague noises of assent.

"I didn't say anything to Lisa but I will. Do you realize how much we're paying for this?"

We smiled and nodded, allowing the question to be rhetorical. Just then Bill walked over with some urgency.

"Training time, guys! Take your swords."

He handed each of us a practice Japanese samurai sabre, a sinister-looking, gently curving wooden object that seemed only marginally less lethal than its steel analog.

"Everybody out in the parking lot!" yelled Bill as he strode through the main room clutching his sword. "Practice time!"

The programmers stood up creakily, stretched, and took up arms as well. Soon we were all out back, between the dumpster and the cars, standing in traditional dojo formation before a bald sensei clad in a flowing, black robe.

"Transfer your swords!" he barked.

The others dutifully moved their swords from left hand to right and held them stiffly at the opposite hip, as though they rested in a sheath. I stood in the back, fumblingly imitating them.

"Pair up!"

Everyone found a partner and stood ten paces or so apart. Mine was Nick, the tremendously obese programmer. His face bore an expression of solemn concentration and a faint sheen of sweat.

"You'll get the hang of it," he said. "Just watch what I do."

"Does everyone remember the kata from last week?" demanded the sensei. "New people: pay attention!"

He grabbed Bill from the front row and demonstrated a series of swift, cutting motions, each time bringing the tip of his sword hard and fast to within a few inches of Bill's neck.

"Yoko giri! Side cut!" he exclaimed. This time he swung his sword laterally and halted it beside Bill's pudgy abdomen. "The objective is to slice your opponent in half like a ripe fruit. Cut briskly and cleanly, without mercy! You must be completely dedicated to your strike. Hesitate for a moment and your opponent–" the sensei grabbed Bill's wrist and forced it upwards, the sword hanging high overhead in a chopping position – "will come down on the top of your skull with one hundred percent commitment and cut you to the core."

He broke away from Bill and turned toward the class, his every movement self-consciously fluid, ritualized. His posture was immaculate.

"Your turn!" he shouted at us.

Nick and I came at each other haltingly, deliberately, and positioned our weapons in the prescribed manner. I brought mine down over his skull; he parried as instructed. I had the feeling of participating in a staid, courtly dance.

Suddenly the sensei was behind me. He pulled back my shoulders and oriented me directly ahead.

"Face your opponent! Face your opponent!"

"Right, right, right," I said.

"He wants to cut you to ribbons!"

"I know."

"The kesa giri is like casting a fishing line. Try it! Try it!"

I pulled the sword over my head and brought it down in what I imagined to be a clean and graceful manner.

"No! No! No! No! No!" shouted the instructor.

Again he grabbed my shoulders, then my hips, my elbows, my hand, my wrists, and again my shoulders, shaping me and shaping me again, as though I were made of uncompliant putty.

"Don't force the blade."

"OK."

"Don't force the blade!"

"Got it."

"Let it fall. Let the blade do the work."

"I see."

"It's very sharp! Trust the sharpness. Trust the blade!"

"Yup."

"Move quickly, decisively. Bring the blade down through Nick's skull."

He grabbed my wrists and moved them for me, bringing the sword down with them.

"Collapse your wrist before the point of impact. Move your body through. Move your body through!"

I leaned far forward, holding the sword loosely with the tip in the vicinity of Nick's forehead. I was off balance and out of breath. I hoped desperately I would not fall over.

"Better. Better!"

"Thanks," I said, returning to the ready position.

"Chiburi!" the master howled.

"What?"

"Chiburi! The blade!"

"Hmm?"

"You've just cut clean through the body of another man."

"Yes?"

"Shake the blood off that blade before you sheath it!"

He took my wrists again and shook them up and down. The sword bobbed in the air a few times and we all imagined fat, crimson drops falling from it onto the tarmac.

"Good!" he declared, satisfied, and continued on his rounds.

Beyond the parking lot fence the Caltrain roared by, whistle blaring, on the way to San Francisco.
Jon Stewart's interview with Texas governor Rick Perry last night was excruciating. What a glib, glad-handing asshole Perry is. His mocking suggestion that people couldn't possibly prefer living in India to living in Texas was repugnant. It felt racist.

As is too often the case, Stewart was feeble, fawning. He undercut his own lines of attack with tension-cutting schtick. The liberal critique of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is correct: it presented a false equivalency between the loudest voices on the left and right. Stewart was disingenuously trying to seize the moral high ground. The story of the 2010 election season has been the resurgence of right-wing extremism: fear-mongering, race-baiting, bullying, intolerance and, above all, the cynical wielding of lies as propaganda. The craven outrage over the "Ground Zero mosque," the lies about health care and financial reform in the service of corporations and millionaires, the continuing vilification of immigrants. All of it is disgraceful and odious. And is there anything more reprehensible than fake populism? The tea party groups paid for by oil billionaires, lobbyists, corporations. There is no equivalency between these forces and the "unreasonable" voices on the left. Stewart's "can't we all just get along" message came off as pathetic and dishonest.

Monday, November 08, 2010

I'd just missed a train. I walked the empty platform towards the near tunnel, for some reason. From deep within it I heard a clank, as though some cantankerous old man were beating on the sides of his steam pipes with his walking stick.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Enterprise - 9

David and I had twenty minutes or so before our flight to San Francisco. I followed him up the stairs of the Continental departures terminal at Newark Airport.

"Let's go to the lounge!" he exclaimed like a child, and led me to the hushed and privileged sanctuary. We'd used our miles to upgrade to first class, at his insistence. An elegant woman welcomed us between the double doors and showed us in with a gracious bow.

Inside, we sat in silence at the bar. It was like any other airport bar. More or less. But you couldn't see out a window to look at any planes. I liked to look at the planes.

David's left leg fidgeted maniacally. He checked his watch.

"Guess we better get going!" he said.

We were on a mission to better understand our users. Or to better understand our product, as there were in fact no users yet. To understand what a prospective user might expect from the Product, such as it was. In anticipation of launch – with the shot clock in the lower twenties – an idea had been floated around senior management that David and I should fly out to assist in the conduct of a round of usability testing. We were at our desks on a conference call with them – Sam, Neil, Bill, Elaine and Judy, the West Coast-based Vice President of Product Development.

"We need some end users to poke some holes," Judy explained.

Mutters of approval and encouraging sentiments followed. Judy proposed a Tuesday and a Wednesday in early November, not two weeks away, and David and I were told to make plans.

Now we floated high above the Rockies in vast leather seats, warm nuts and whiskey arrayed on the wide flats of our armrests.

David drove us in the rental from the airport down Route 101 to Silicon Valley. As we approached our destination we gazed left and right at the gleaming industrial parks, immaculately landscaped, housing the intrepid startups that would still beat back against the season's dismal tide, repositories of vain aspirations and tragic dreams, some, perhaps, destined to be spared.

One of these companies was ours.


The Enterprise - 8

One day a man appeared in place of our regular masseuse. She was on vacation maybe, or had quit, or fled town; I don't know. But now there was a man. Young, slight, slender-fingered. The men in the office were nonplussed, almost indignant. Many did not respect their appointments, pretending instead to be so lost in work that they'd lost track of time.

Lucy took her turn as scheduled. When she walked back into the light of the workspace, past the metallic reaches of the sculpture, some perverse impulse must have struck her. Some mischievous idea. She walked to the far wall where Brett and Tom sat.

"That fucking dude touched my ass!" she declared.

"What?!" Brett replied, aghast.

Tom lept brusquely to his feet, his chair swiveling and rolling errantly across the glossy floor.

"He fucking did what? That motherfucker what?"

Tom and Brett were both up now, peering intently at the darkness down the hall.

"I'm kidding, I'm kidding, I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" Lucy protested.

"He fucking what?"

"I'm kidding! I'm kidding!"

The tumult ended in laughter and finally everyone was seated once again. Work resumed under the enormous countdown clock.

The Enterprise - 7

The year two thousand had begun auspiciously enough: when the clock struck midnight and the planes stayed in the sky, the grid kept humming and the burble of data crisscrossing the planet did not quiet, we all thought we had it made. A two followed by a zero followed by a zero followed by a zero! If you paused to think about it you might just lose your mind. It was the year two thousand for Christ's sake! We'd finally arrived in the long-promised future and it was magnificent, more than we'd imagined.

But a curious thing occurred before spring, even. A hiccup in the markets. A collective hesitation, as though someone had seen something that spooked them and everybody else reacted. An entire generation, ambitious and accustomed to success, tiptoed through the summer, hoping it had been a false alarm. This was our time, after all. The new millennium. How could we be doomed so soon?

That fall a second darkness encroached upon our days. Dot-com ventures were collapsing all around us, companies whose names were not long ago plastered on city buses, whose fresh-faced employees used to spill out on the streets at night, giddy and oblivious, and parade from bar to bar. They thought they'd stay young forever. Now they were packing their bags and riding the Peter Pan bus home.

We watched it all happen from our little enclave on 25th Street. By some dumb luck, Sam had secured our money very late in the game. We were swimming in it, still. Living the startup fantasy while our contemporaries' careers were devastated, their theoretical fortunes eclipsed. You could almost hear their wails of uncomprehending grief through the exposed brick walls of our hundred-year-old building.

In the meantime we were knee-deep in candy. Enormous bucketsful. Candy to make a child quake with desire. We had Sugar Daddies and Mary Janes. Jawbreakers, Necco Wafers, Gummi Bears. We had Bit-O-Honeys and Hot Tamales, Now & Laters, Lemonheads and Jolly Ranchers. Good & Plenty. Squirrel Nut Zippers and Root Beer Barrels. Tootsie Rolls, Atomic Fireballs and Zotz. It was all arrayed in psychedelic rows on the counter in the kitchenette. In the unlikely event that we ran out of something there were boxes and boxes and boxes stacked up higher than you could reach in the supply closet around the corner. What was it all for? I wondered. Surely it was not meant to be eaten. Were we trying to tell the world something about ourselves? To tell each other? This was the currency of our childhood: early indicators of wealth, privilege and pleasure. Was it there to remind us what we wanted?

Should you care for a beverage, Sam had arranged for the shipment of Coca-Cola in the iconic eight-ounce glass bottles from a distributor in Mexico at, it was said, substantial cost.

Every Tuesday we had a catered meal, sometimes every Wednesday too. Several cuisines were in rotation: Indian, Thai, Japanese. Grumbling was sometimes heard when one was expected but another provided.

Thursdays were massage day. If you signed up earlier in the week your travails would be punctuated by a half-hour of deep stroking and caressing by a cheery young woman. She'd set up in the morning in the reception area between the couches no one ever sat on, by the window overlooking 25th Street. She'd smile and indicate her table, a forbidding apparatus suggestive of a Guillotine, with a welcoming gesture of the hand and an instruction as to where to put your head.

The Enterprise - 6

The company was not limited to the cozy office in New York. We had a twin out west, in Silicon Valley. In Sunnyvale. The reason for the split went to the root of the company's existence: the two founders, Bill and Sam. Our Romulus and Remus. Bill was the wiz behind the enterprise, the one who engineered the prototype. His accomplishments in the field of computer science were at once spectacular and obscure. He'd won an Academy Award for his breakthrough in the digital representation of animal fur. Sam was the idea man. The concept was his idea. The framework, the skeleton. The very notion that it could be done at all. That was Sam. In our foundation myth the light bulb went on over his head. Sam was never in the office.

Bill lived in California. Sam lived in New Jersey. Neither one was inclined to budge. So Bill lorded over his fiefdom in California, hiring trusted confederates from the hifalutinest realms of West Coast innovation, the venerated tech schools, the esoteric startups. For some reason this specifically meant a close-knit group of expatriate French software developers. And Sam's the one who separated the venture capitalists from their money, not a nickel too little, not a minute too soon. And Sam hired the people I worked with. Us.

There was push and pull between Sunnyvale and New York. We pushed, they pulled. Generally.

One day an explosion of staticky rage erupted from the glass-walled conference room in the corner of the office. It was Bill on the speakerphone, addressing Brett's crew.

"There is no fucking excuse! No fucking excuse!"

Protests were meekly stammered around the table.

"You did not follow the test plan! You did not follow the test plan!"

Brett tried to interject. "Bill –"

"Brett! Brett! Brett! Brett! Brett! Did you receive my test plan document? Did you receive my test plan document?"

A sheepish pause. Then: "Yes."

Bill, even louder now: "Then WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED!? WHY DIDN'T YOU FUCKING FOLLOW IT?"

The team sat around the table in stunned silence, staring at the triangle.

"THERE IS NO FUCKING EXCUSE!"

As I peered over the horizon of multicolored cubicle walls into the conference room I noticed something odd: a woman with long blond hair hovered around the table. She was carrying a cumbersome apparatus on her shoulder which she pointed towards each chastened face in turn.

I swiveled my chair towards David. "Who is that in there?"

"Hmm?"

"Who is that in there? Standing around. Is that a camera?"

"Oh," he said. "That's Debbie."

"Who's Debbie?"

"Debbie is our documentarian."

The Enterprise - 5

I sat for a few minutes at my desk, dicking around with the configurations. Making sure the Internet worked. Reading my home e-mail. The New York Times. This was the privilege of every new hire: to sit for a requisite period staring idiotically at the screen before the work begins in earnest. To settle in. It was an unspoken tradition in the modern workplace to begin a job by ceremoniously killing time.

Finally I wandered back across the floor to Bob's desk to request my very first task.

"We need you to work on the obscenity filter," he said.

"Obscenity filter?"

He nodded. "This is language that we must recognize for what it is."

"We?"

"We the Product."

"Obscenity in the input?"

"Precisely. We added as many words as we could think of. I don't know who worked on it before you. Brett. I don't know. Anyway, add as much as you can."

"Add…?"

"Add obscenities. I will e-mail you a file of obscenities."

"Alphabetical?"

"Absolutely. Alphabetical."

"I'll think of some more and add them," I asserted.

"That's right. Thank you, Paul."

When I returned to my desk my first work e-mail had arrived, the message from Bob with a text attachment. I opened it up and maximized it on the screen. I read it from the top:

ass
asseater
assfuck
assfucker
asshole
assmunch
bitch
cock
cockeater
cocklicker
cocksucker
cunt


And so on. And for the rest of the day I added to the list.

The Enterprise - 4

On my first day Bob introduced me around. There was his assistant graphic artist, Lowell, also known as Mr. Fun. Mr. Fun was ornery, overweight. He grumbled a little at me before returning to his mouse and screen.

There was Brett. A former aspiring rock star, dressed in leather, frayed jeans and attitude. He was rail-thin, manic. A stud pierced his brow. He lurched around the office on a gimpy foot, his Doc Marten shit-kickers clomping and shuffling on the wooden floor. Every now and again he'd lean back in his chair and strum a few loud chords from his acoustic guitar. Almost always someone shouted for him to stop.

Brett led the development team, an amorphous group that seemed to include everyone who wasn't in my department or sales. His right-hand man was tall, quiet Tom. Tom's hair was short, spiky and green. He and Brett had been in a band together. Now they were doing this.

And then there were the others: Lucy and Julie who sat together in the middle, Sally the human resources director, André the database guy from Quebec. Kevin the sports specialist, and someone who worked for him. Peter, the militant open-source programmer, who did a little bit of everything but was the IT guy when one was needed. A hippie named Allison. Also in charge of data. I tried to smile. I tried to act like I belonged.

Bob passed me off to Peter, who set me up with a desk and a computer. While Peter sat punching in settings and fiddling with the cables my new neighbor wheeled over.

"I'm David!" he exclaimed, and heartily shook my hand.

"Paul," I replied.

"What do you do?"

"I'm a writer," I said. "I'm an editor. My realm is personality."

He smiled and nodded genially.

"What do you do?"

"I'm the information architect!" he said. "It sounds like we'll be working a lot together."

Peter got up from my desk and indicated my chair with a grand sweep of his hand.

"It's done," he said. "Now get to fuckin' work."

The Enterprise - 3

Over the weekend I told everyone I knew about the Product. The nature of the Product as I understood it. The present and future names of the Product and the launch date of the Product. I told them about the shot clock hanging on the wall and the number on it. Family. Friends. Everyone. In sobriety and in inebriation. I told it all to everyone.

On Monday, as I swam at the New York Sports Club pool on 91st Street and Third Avenue, my heart grew heavy with dread. Surely they'd find out. The mysterious little company in Chelsea would never contact me again. Or worse, initiate some obscure litigation. It was just my luck. To be so lucky and to fuck it up. Out of vanity. Intemperance.

Back home, I somberly checked my emails. There was one from Bob, responding to the ideas I'd sent him – an impressionistic, somewhat rambling document that alluded in equal measures to ironic postmodernist culture, retro-'50s style motifs and Japanalia. It was written in his language. He loved it.

I was hired.


The Enterprise - 2

When I came back out Elaine was waiting.

"Let's meet Bob. He leads the creative department. You'd be reporting to him."

"As an editor?"

She smiled as though she hadn't heard my question. Or hadn't known it was a question. She led me to the far corner of the office and introduced me to Bob, a gruff, bald man. He peered at me warily.

"Do you like anime?"

I thought fast. "Yes."

"Let me show you some concepts," he said, indicating that I should sit beside him. "Here are some personifications of the Product."

Bob paged through a series of digital sketches on his screen. They depicted the same cute robot that Elaine had shown me, but in a variety of settings and attire. The robot in a tuxedo. The robot playing tennis. The robot in a Native American headdress and warpaint, wielding a bow.

"These are merely representations of the Product," he stated solemnly. "Not the Product itself. Do you understand?"

I said that I did.

"Your job would be to extend these representations into the editorial realm."

"That's exciting."

"Not analogs. Not companion pieces. Your mandate would be to codify the spirit of the enterprise as expressed by management. The owners of the vision."

I endeavored to give him the impression that I understood perfectly.

"We'd like to task you with nothing less than establishing and maintaining the personality of the Product," he stated gravely, making sure I heard each word.

It did have a pleasing ring to it.

"Can you outline some ideas and shoot them back to me? Maybe we can talk again next week," he said, and we shook hands and parted ways.

I took the elevator back down with a man who appeared to work with the company in some vaguely senior capacity. He was tall, thin, handsome. Bored. He carried himself with the mix of nonchalance and ennui that can only come from a lifetime of entitlement and privilege. He introduced himself as Derek.

"I'm Paul," I said, shaking his hand.

"You gonna get on board, Paul?"

"Looks like I might."

His tone suddenly turned serious.

"This thing, this idea, this thing we have here," he said, indicating the third-floor office with an upward glance. "It's a big, big, big, big deal."

"I get the feeling."

"Lemme tell you something. The only other time I ever felt like this–I'm not lying to you. I sat with Jerry Yang when he founded Yahoo."

"That right?"

"That feeling, that electricity in the air."

"Yeah."

"Can you feel it?"

"Yeah!"

"So can I," he said. The elevator doors opened and he exited with a thumbs up and a smile.

The Enterprise - 1

It was the year 2000, before the crash and before the fall, when the Yankees and all of the city besides remained invincible. We all were young. Even those of us who were old were young.

The office was located in Chelsea, by the Flatiron, near the carpet district, where Broadway narrows and resembles the commercial center of some sun-soaked second-world city. Upstairs the reception area was dominated by a monstrous, many-tentacled sculpture of blond wood and pressed steel. I was later to learn that it cost fourteen thousand dollars.

The floor plan was configured in accordance with the prevalent trends in new media organizational structure. Each member of the team sat at a brushed-steel desk, some half-cloistered behind jauntily colored cubicle dividers. Purple was in evidence. As were lime and teal. It was a semi-open layout. Semi-closed. Piles of sawdust were visible in the corners, indicating hasty renovation, the eagerness for something new.

They didn't have a name for it yet. The thing, the Product. They were in deep stealth mode then, having only just secured the round of eight-digit financing that would allow them to enter low earth orbit, or pick your metaphor.

An NBA-regulation shot clock hung on the far wall, reading forty-seven.

My interview was with Elaine, the Vice President of Content Acquisition. Before we spoke she handed me a voluminous non-disclosure agreement to sign.

"The Product is in alpha. I'm sure you understand the sensitivities," she said.

I nodded as I perused the legalese. We sat beside a fern in the bustling center of the floor. All around us, attractive and industrious people sat quietly at their desks, scrutinizing whatever lay on their screens and occasionally, almost indiscernibly, budging their mouses with minute movements of their delicate hands.

"Initial, initial, initial, initial, initial. Sign, sign," she said, pointing to places on the pages with the back of her pen.

There was stark language regarding potential liability for revealing the nature of the Product or Products, the launch date or dates of the Product or Products, the present or future name or names of the Product or Products.

"The name of the company is Snickers?"

"That's not the real name of the company. Actually, it is the real name of the company."

"I'm not sure I understand."

"While we're off the map we're adopting it as a DBA. Moving forward, we'll be called Prizm."

"Prison?"

"Prizm, Prizm, Prizm. With a Z. But I didn't tell you that before you signed the document you're about to sign."

"Isn't Snickers a copyright of some kind? A trademark? A service mark?"

"Snikkers with two Ks. Here, have a look." She reached over to her desk and typed into the address bar of her browser. "See?"

On the screen there appeared a whimsical cartoon robot atop a rocket on a launch pad. An old-timey fuse coiled away from the bottom of the rocket, its tip pulsating red and yellow to indicate that it was lit. A caption read: STAY TUNED! WE'RE BLASTING OFF SOON!

"Snikkers.com," she declared with some pride. "Now tell me some of your weaknesses."

"What?"

"Tell me your biggest weakness."

"I… I…" I stammered. "I sometimes pay too much attention to detail. I'm too, uh, much of a perfectionist."

She nodded approvingly, taking notes like a shrink.

"I sometimes don't know when to stop, when to let go of a task. I guess."

She just smiled at me for a little while.

"Do you have any questions for me?" she asked finally.

"What's the clock for?"

"Oh!" A little giggle. "That's our shot clock."

"I know. But what's it for?"

"It's a countdown."

"Forty-seven seconds?"

"Days. Forty-seven days.

"Until what?"

"Until launch!" she exclaimed chirpily.

"What happens then?"

"The Product goes live to the public."

"Cool."

She asked me how much money I'd expect to be paid. I screwed up my courage and cited what seemed to me to be an audaciously ambitious target. It was far, far in excess of what I'd ever made before.

I could tell from her reaction that I could easily have asked for more.

"I'm going to have you meet the CEO," she declared. "Neil!" she shouted.

And out came Neil Kavanaugh from somewhere, smiling and extending his hand. He was appropriately just a little bit older than everyone, to such a fine degree that it appeared to have been somehow calculated. He wore stylish glasses, a goatee, an open-collared shirt, jeans with docksiders. He was overtanned, paunchy and rich; an overgrown rogue. His hair was fastidiously presented in such a way as to indicate carefree disregard.

"Come on in, Paul!" he said, indicating the open door to his office, one of only two on the floor. The other belonged to the president and founder of the company, who was not present.

He sat down at his desk, bare but for a keyboard and a flatscreen monitor, and I sat in the chair opposite. Behind him, a triptych of garishly decorated snowboards hung on the wall.

"Check this out," he said, typing furiously. "Tell me what you think." He spun his monitor so that I could see it.

On the screen there was an interface. A text-based input-output mechanism of some kind or other. Around it was a simple skin, a container application I supposed. Paul had input some text and there now was output visible.

He peered at me expectantly, smiling. I didn't want to let him down.

"It's awesome," I stated.

"Isn't it?" he replied delightedly. "We certainly think so!"

"I think you're really on to something," I added.

"And now it's your job to give this thing some zazz!"

"That I can surely do."

"Some pow, some pop."

"I can't wait."