Like a lot of my stuff, this *sounds* better than it *reads* on a page. At some point, I’ll pop an audio file on YouTube. Didn’t make the memorial – said goodbye to Nick on Thursday, October the 3rd at the First Night of Kali Light Celebration at the Hanuman Temple in Taos, New Mexico. Hanuman helped me with grief better than any med – but the meds are working again, praise goddess.
Nick Frost: Hacker Ethic Ninja.
I’m typing this with one finger on my iPhone keypad at 12:45am on Saturday. Since I got a smart phone, I hardly open my laptop at all. What was once an idea on a drawing pad for Steve Jobs 20 years ago has now become the most ubiquitous item on the planet. Its generally known as a “smart phone” and that’s because it was built by smart people – known to the world as hackers – who wanted to bring everyone up to speed to work with the central tenet of the “Hacker Ethic.” And no, its not that information wants to be free. It’s something much more novel and exciting than that – and it’s the code of honor that every hacker – white, grey, and black – lives by on a daily basis, whether they know it or not.
I first met Nick Frost in about 1995, when the World Wide Web was a little over a year old and the only way to reach it was with a dial-up connection that was painfully slow and websites were built to match those speeds. He was the system administrator for Studio X, and I was a writer who hung around trying to figure out what to do with the web. It’s an issue I’m still working on, even as I log into it on a daily basis, but beyond our screens – and often through them, Nick and I quickly discovered that we had many things in common. We were both from Massachusetts. We both had degrees in creative writing. We both shared a fascination for new technology and we were – like everyone else – trying to figure out if it really would level hierarchies and radically change structures. And it has done all of that, but with a much bumpier ride than anyone could’ve imagined at the time.
Nick admired my writing – I admired his willingness to learn unix, cgi scripting, perl, and dozens of other weird languages and protocols that rose and fell in value and significance like the commodities exchange on acid. As the years went by, we maintained constant contact – now often known as “co-presencing” – via email and chat lines. He and about six other people from that period are people whose positions on the globe I am constantly cognizant of, and while I have notes to remind me of their birthdays and other trivialities, I also know what issues they are working on – with data, with families, with partners, with children and pets.
Early on, for reasons I can’t recall, when we met in person we would generally address each other in fanciful Irish brogues, such that when I would enter Studio X and see him hacking at his monitor, I would invariably screech out,
“Ayyyyye, laddie. Its me old lad neeeeeck Frost! Top of the morning, lad, and how are ye?”
To which he would reply, “how’s me matey, Gregory p? Have you written that wonderful book that’s going to get us out of the web shops and off to a fine island paradise yet, boyo?”
In the early 1990s, there was a book published called 13th Gen, a precursor to the term “Generation X”, that attempted to define our generation. Even then, the notion that the defining characteristic for our people would not be artist, not musician, not film-maker, not radical, not rebel, not drop-out, but would instead be the hacker – as the book’s subtitle was “Abort, Retry, Fail?” a common program crash error to see on the computer screens of the era of the 386 and PCs prior to it.
There are two quotes from within that book that always stuck with me that have been swimming through my mind since last Saturday, when I first heard about the death of my old friend Nick Frost. The first was simply “we’re a secret generation – no one knows what we think.”
In the 25 years that I’ve spent covering Gen X in their art, music, politics, business – and technology – I can tell you a little something about what we think, and what we value, and Nick Frost embodied all of these things in spades.
1) Radical self-sufficiency: Nick Frost was literally one of those people who could pull wireless signals out of the sky with a pocket knife and some stray gizmo that he found in a bucket for a quarter at the Black Hole of Los Alamos. If you handed him a gig that had anything to do with data – it was a no-brainer that you’d get your job done right the first time – and if he did screw up something, he wouldn’t bill you for the overtime. He would point out his mistakes long before you could see them. Radical self-sufficiency meant that you had tools – literal and metaphorical – for whatever job you were hired to do – but it also meant maximizing your tools to gain online social capital so you’d have access to minds that were equal to – and sometimes better than your own.
2) Selective Socialism – if Radical Self-Sufficiency was all about the tools you owned – literal tools and metaphorical ones in your head, like scripting languages and unix, IP numbers and the arcane reaches of cyberspace – Selective Socialism was all about knowing when to share, what to share, and with whom and for what purpose. Nick Frost had so many security clearances that we used to joke that he should never be seen with me In public, since I’m a loud mouth journalist and he was a tight-lipped white hat hacker. His willingness to share and help people sort out issues ranging from the mundane to the outrageous – like knowing how to set up satellite dishes to pull encrypted data from remote outposts and into mobile rigs – operations often done in secret but which nevertheless were downright legendary – but he was always around to help people cut to the chase on trivial issues like redundant backups across the globe with a few clicks on a keyboard. Selective Socialism ranged from taking a few moments out of your day to toss a link at someone regarding their issue at hand – an action that everyone with a web presence does all day long now – to recognizing a peer who had a better idea, to recognizing a mentor who could cut your work load in half with a few lines of reply by helping you re-phrase your question – to assisting a struggling noob working on his first script – because in cyberspace, you never know if that noob will someday surpass your skill set and leap high above you on the food chain – and then be in a position to answer YOUR questions or even land you a gig.
3) Ad-Hocracy – generally speaking, hackers work alone, or they seem to anyway, showing up on site with a laptop, a smart phone and a dongle for wifi in case yours is on the fritz – but from the moment a hacker like Nick logs into cyberspace from your location, he is literally seconds away from a global network of peers, mentors, and students that he can ask questions of regarding this problem or that. We don’t just read CNN or Wikipedia articles or surf Facebook all day long – all of us who live and breathe the ‘net are online all day long in a constant stream of chatter about problems with the LAN, the WAN, or the interwebs as a whole, because even though DARPA started it, we are always building on it all the time. If you get a hacker like Nick on your issue, you don’t just get him, you get all the minds he’s worked with for the past twenty years, because each of those minds are logged in all the time too, on Facebook or irc or via email, ready to add their two cents as to how to solve the problem you’re facing at any given point in real- time, net-time, and physical space.
How many people did Nick Frost interface with on a daily basis across the limitless reaches of cyberspace? We’ll never really know, and we’ll never know how many of them are pinging him for answers to problems right at this very moment and have yet to google him to find his obituary. What we can be sure of is that despite whatever tools he had at his disposal in his own head, he also had a global network that he could draw on – and that his mind will be greatly missed when those other minds know as we know that he has left us behind for whatever the mystery of death is offering him now – as a wonder to behold – and perhaps, as a problem to be solved.
The central tenet of the Hacker Ethic as written by uber geek Eric Raymond is simply this – “the world is full of interesting problems just waiting to be solved.” The other quote I pulled out of my head from 13th Gen is similar, which is “that when Generation X is faced with the problems that previous generations have warred over, fought over, and deadlocked in Congress, we will not waste time fighting – we’ll just roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Nick Frost was just such a man. When I was in Thailand I had a laptop stolen but I had my entire life backed up with time machine. Being unaware of how a time machine restore worked, I simply dragged folders from the backup to the new machine. Then I reformatted the backup disk. Then I began to notice a lot of things were missing and pinged Nick about – and he and I both learned a very expensive and time consuming lesson – one that may have cost me up to ten grand on the retail market. But Nick INSISTED on reverse engineering the issue because nick was very interested in my archive. We had a crazy project planned to take every last weird thing I’ve ever written that we could grep off the Internet and pull from my backups – shoddy at best – and make some weird web “retrospective” homage to my work and to Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu – and you’ll really have to google that because its an obscure reference to the early development of hyper-text and we don’t have time for that kind of arcana – but Nick Frost knew all that history, all that folklore, all the legends and myths of a once “secret culture” that in 20 years has become *the culture*, the dominant force that is shaping everything we do – whether we like it or not.
That “the world was full of interesting problems just waiting to be solved” was a code of honor that Nick Frost lived and breathed 24-7. When he was off work, he was at home tinkering on something – like the elaborately weird and somewhat paranoid security system that rang a bell on his phone everytime someone drove by his house. As much as I embraced “global transparency” in corporations, governments, and my private thoughts scattered far and wide across the web, Nick Frost was a privacy and security nut and its really a wonder that we loved each other so much.
Just as Nick was sick of IT and wanted to work on different types of problems, i also have become deeply disenchanted in writing anything for anyone because no one reads and no one ever pays enough for good data.
But writers are a dime a dozen, when it comes right down to it, and guys who can design a killer security system with high speed fiber and a satellite Internet delivery system AND dig the trenches for the cable AND drill all the holes AND work with multiple layers of bureaucracy and not explode in frustration and despair are very rare indeed, but for the most part, Nick Frost had all those skills and he was cut down in the prime of life. Nick Frost’s untimely death means to us that we didn’t just lose a fantastic mind and a brilliant geek – we’ve all lost an incredible friend. The conversations we might’ve had, the projects we may have conceived and never finished, the weird little ideas that might grown into something big – they’re all gone now, but what we have left is the legacy of someone who took on some very interesting challenges – and who pushed himself to the limit to solve every last one of them.
My phone has just told me that I have less than 10% battery remaining, so clearly its time to bring this to an end. I will close with something from my Facebook wall the night I went bananas with sadness and tears over the loss of my compadre. Its short and to the point, and i really could’ve just said this and nothing more:
You know – I’ve had a lot of friends in my life and I suspect I’ll have a lot more friends in the future. But the friends you made when you were young and a nobody and idealistic and not cynical and you didn’t know a damn thing about what kinds of bumps lay on the road ahead – those are the kinds of friends you want to keep forever and who you miss the most when they just…go.
Gregory J. Pleshaw