Black Hat and Def Con

(aka the much-awaited post from Dave!!)

Last month I went to Black Hat and Def Con in Las Vegas. Mary was intrigued. A conference and convention about hacking! So I promised to do a blog post about them.

Big mistake.

Now I understand a lot more about writers’ block. The problem here wasn’t that I didn’t have enough to write about; on the contrary, there is too much, and I didn’t even know where to begin. So I am giving myself permission to leave a lot out and just post some random thoughts.

Black Hat is a computer security conference and is very legitimate. It’s also expensive, as all computer conferences tend to be these days. It has been held at Caesar’s Palace for the last several years. I got to go on the taxpayer’s dime, but I registered far in advance so I got the best deal on both the conference and the hotel. I even emailed the conference to get a special alumni discount. But even with all the discounts, the conference registration was about $1100. Ouch.

Def Con is a computer hacker convention that occurs right after Black Hat. It’s a lot cheaper, and it is generally held in a much less fancy venue. The venue also seems to change every year, as the Def Con people are maybe not worth the trouble they cause.

view from my hotel room

My conference-rate hotel room was pretty nice. It had a great view of the fountain in front of the Bellagio, which was fun to watch, especially at night. It was a good 10-minute walk from the room to the conference; casinos are not exactly known for efficient travel. We eventually came up with a “shortcut” that avoided the casino floor entirely and went between the pool and the buffet. It also turned out to pass by the spot they were using to interview potential employees. Every day there were chairs along the sides of the halls filled with hopeful applicants. Clearly, the casino is a big business. Just as clearly, no special space is set aside for the ongoing task of interviews. Weird.

Black Hat was an interesting conference, as always. There is a vendor hall and enterprising attendees can get themselves invited to parties after the conference every night. I didn’t do any of those, as I find geocaching more fun than drinking, and we went out late every night do that instead. There is also swag, which is an important part of any computer conference. I got a couple of cool things, including a T-shirt from a company that was offering a $1000 prize to the first group to break their encoded message.

We wasted about 5 hours trying to break it, and gave up after dinner. Turns out it was such a stupid encoding that we had passed right over it. Typical.

Anyway, I learned more about cross-site scripting attacks and a really cool thing called “bitsquatting” where you get domain names that differ by one bit from popular domains (such as for and wait for people to have memory errors and come to your site instead. You would think that it would be incredibly rare, but the guy who gave the talk got 31 domain names and got something like 50,000 hits in 6 months. And there is no way to defend against it.

the line for getting a Def Con badge

Black Hat attendees get first shot at Def Con badges, assuming that they prepaid. Def Con badges are awesome and they usually run out of them. In the past, they have generally been electronic and hackable, and I was really looking forward to playing with mine, as I have recently been doing some hardware hacking of my own with an Arduino (maybe another blog post on that, if I can get to it). So I went to get in line about a half-hour before the announced time they were going to start giving them out.

The line was about 1,000 people long already. Wow. So I found the end and figured I would wait it out. It turns out I was right next to a great guy from Oak Ridge and we knew a lot of the same people and had a fine conversation. By the time the badges started getting handed out, the line was probably 3,000 people long and completely filled the top floor of the convention center. But it moved quickly and I got my badge. This year there was no electronics to it. It was titanium, instead. They did run out, as usual, but not until the first day of Def Con. Everybody who pre-registered got one.

Def Con was at the Rio this year. We found a parking structure that turned out to be at the other end of the complex and sent about 15 minutes walking in. Black Hat was big (about 4,000 attendees) but paled in comparison with Def Con, which I think hit 12,000 this year.. Not the greatest place for somebody who doesn’t like crowds, but I had prepared myself and managed not to freak out. At least not until Saturday when I lost my rental car keys and had to try to sort that out in the midst of a mob.

The “wall of sheep”

I didn’t go to many talks at Def Con; other stuff was way more interesting. The ones I did attend were pretty disappointing. People-watching was incredible; some mohawks and lots and lots of black. We went to the lock-picking practice room and spent some time there; I wandered through the Capture The Flag room where there were several groups of tables with people madly working 24/7 to be first to hack a supposedly “secure” system and solve a series of incredibly difficult puzzles on the way. I went to the contests room and decided not to do the geocaching contest; it would have taken all our time. Some of the other contests looked like fun.The “Wall of Sheep” was there; the passwords of anyone stupid enough to log on to anything over the network in the clear are displayed for all to see.

You would have to be very brave or very stupid to use the Def Con wifi network, which is offered to all for free. I thought I was being safe by turning off wifi and bluetooth on my Android phone. Hah! It turns out that wasn’t enough. Within 5 minutes of each other, my friend and I both experienced spontaneous reboots of our Verizon Android phones. We were pretty sure we’d been hacked. There is some information out there that it was a man-in-the-middle attempt, and it’s not clear whether the attack on me was successful or not, but just to be sure I wiped my phone and re-installed everything when I got home.

I spent another hour or so in the hardware hacking room, talking with a guy who is making cheap sound effects processors using ARM chips. Then I discovered my car keys were missing and my Def Con was over.

It was an enlightening trip. I understand a lot more about hacker culture; heck, turns out I am a part of hack culture without even knowing it. I learned some interesting lessons and got some new insights, but those will have to wait because I promised myself I wouldn’t put everything into one post!

The Swiss paradox

Switzerland often strikes me as a country of paradoxes. 

At first glance, people seem so strait-laced and conventional. Nobody wants to stick out. The other day, a friend was describing an encounter with a slightly mentally unstable guy who lives near her. Her kids had seen him on the metro, “wearing a woman’s fur coat and a pair of red converse high tops.” He drew plenty of attention. She sighed. “In New York or London, nobody would bat an eye.” Actually, I said, in New York or San Francisco he’d probably be pretty mainstream.

Just yesterday, I was in town with Brendan, renewing his annual public transport pass and showing him all the amazing functionalities of his new ATM card.

— Rotten parent confession digression — 

Yes, at the ripe old age of 18 Brendan has just opened his first personal bank account. Yes, I know I’m a rotten parent.

What can I say? I’m horrifically lazy. We never did allowances because I’d always forget. When the inevitable time to open the account came (he’s an adult, for heaven’s sake), I followed some innate Swiss-tuned instinct and called my personal bank advisor. Americans are a special bunch, it seems. We made an appointment. 

On the dot of the appointed hour, we entered the hallowed halls of UBS Lausanne. There are no tellers in this building, just a vast shining hall of marble with a man standing serenely behind a tall counter at the far end of the vastness. This is a place for Important Transactions. Millions and trillions change hands here. I was surprised the man wasn’t wearing white gloves. I imagined I was a rich heiress, come to transfer a few thousands into the kids’ trust fund accounts. I had put on my freshly ironed white crop pants for the occasion, although regrettably I hadn’t gone so far as to add a necklace. We were ushered suavely into a private room. 

When the advisor came, I quickly disabused him of the idea of credit cards for the boys and said we’d just like regular accounts with an ATM card. He took our various pieces of identity and vanished, returning twenty minutes later with a multitude of forms for the boys to sign. The Bank of Mom is now officially closed. Ah, liberation. Maybe I’ll even get some extra spending money myself, from the one-franc fines I’ve just established for towels left lying on bathroom floors. 

— end of rotten parent confession digression —

Anyway, as we walked around downtown, we noticed that all the teenaged girls were dressed alike – short shorts or short skirts, tight top, ballet flats or greek-style sandals (the ones that buckle up around the ankles, not over the instep).

“I’m so glad you’re not a girl,” I said. “I don’t think I could handle it.”

I’ve been wanting to try the Vibram Five Fingers shoes. Or run barefoot. But I’m leery of doing it here. It’d be like standing up on an airport ticket counter and mooning everyone. I don’t mind being labeled an American – I am one, after all – but in our seven plus years in this country I have gradually internalized the Swiss penchant for blending into the background. I feel uncomfortable attracting too much (welcome or unwelcome) attention.

Somehow, though, in the midst of this comfy conformity, the Swiss also excel at being truly and certifiably nuts. They love it. There is something about this culture that encourages over-the-top craziness. In just the past two days, three news items caught my eye.

First, the International Alpine Beard Competition that was held last weekend in Chur. Here you have 60 old, gnarly alpine types (think Heidi’s Grandpa) wearing dorky hats and sporting a lifetime’s growth of disgusting facial hair. Check out the Daily Mail article to see some pictures. This is considered quaint.

Then yesterday’s paper had an article about a Swiss guy who tightrope-walked 1,000 meters up a cable car wire, untethered, in Germany (see photo below). (I wonder why he had to go to Germany? there are tons of cable cars here at home…) It made Gizmodo in the US, as I found out from Dave this morning. I had glanced at it in disapproval yesterday, thinking it would give kids bad ideas. “But I saw that guy in the paper, mom…”

Freddy Nock scaling the cable car wire…

This brings to mind the famous Swiss Jetman, Yves Rossy, who straps a jetpack and wings to his back and does insane things like fly over the English Channel and the Grand Canyon. He’s living everyone’s childhood fantasy. He’s so popular here, the national telephone network, Swisscom, uses him as an advertising icon. (Actually, I heard they tried to use pictures of him without his approval, and had to backtrack and sign him on officially.)

credit: Yves Rossy

It’s like if you’re going to be crazy, it’s better just to go all out. Don’t bother with garden-variety craziness. Mind you, I don’t know if this is Swiss or European in nature. The French seem pretty nuts to me, too. Runners in the Mt Blanc race do in a single day what it took our family 11 days to do hiking. But they also seem a little more relaxed in their day-to-day lives, kind of “live and let live.” But then I don’t live in France, so who am I to say? It’s just hearsay. (Plus they have their own paradox already, involving lots of red wine and rich food and an astonishing ability to not gain weight despite these nutritional no-nos.)

The third article covered last weekend’s paragliding championship at the far end of the lake, in which the world’s best paragliders jumped off cliffs, flew over the busy autoroute in various complicated formations, and then touched the lake gracefully with one tip of their parachutes before landing. 

The article revealed that Switzerland has 20,000 registered paragliders. That’s enormous, given that the population of the whole country is only 7 million or so. The article also reassured everyone that “since the creation of the Swiss Acro League, there hasn’t been a single incident, nobody’s even broken a nail.” Heaven forbid!  I certainly hope not.

Switzerland isn’t the world’s most conventional country, not by far. People are very tolerant on the whole. So I don’t buy the argument that these extreme types are balancing out an overabundance of conformity, and people welcome them for that reason.  I think there is just something about the landscape, the culture, perhaps even the freedom the Swiss have to determine their own political system, that encourages dreamers and wild types to just go for it. 

Personally, I strive for the middle ground, a comfy level of ordinary crazy. I’m not about to take up paragliding (I know people who have broken their pelvises this way), ultramarathoning or tightrope-walking. I’m also not going to put makeup and heels on to go to the grocery store, wash my car every weekend, or place bucketsful of geraniums on every available exterior surface in the summertime. 

I’ll still swim in the lake once summer vacation is officially over, I’ll run barefoot on the sand all year round, I’ll let my hair go grey and I’ll eat something other than bread or yogurt for breakfast. I probably see the other extremes so much because it’s not my native country, and I feel a need to figure out how I can find my place in it. But I love living in a country where such different approaches to life can coexist in mutual respect.

I mentioned to my other brother (the crazy one) that I was writing about crazy Swiss people, and he said, “Oh, have you seen the video of that guy who set the world speed record climbing up the Eiger?” All I can say is Watch This Video. Ueli Steck is totally amazing. You think you’ve seen it all, and then…

I’m off to buy some flippers to swim in the lake. That ought to turn some heads on the beach.

Cancer and coincidences

Sometimes coincidences just jump out and tackle you. Yesterday, as I was perusing the New York Times, I came across an article entitled “Cancer’s secrets come into sharper focus” and I was hit with no less than five (5) amazing coincidences.

The first coincidence is that I was thinking about cancer, because two years ago, my dad died after a 15-month bout with pancreatic cancer. Ever optimistic, he tried every treatment he could in the hopes that if he could hang on a little while longer, a better treatment would come out. He was a firm believer in the possibilities of science, being a scientist himself. In the two years that have gone by since then, I have not read about a single promising new treatment for metastatic pancreatic cancer. And I keep my eye out.

The article agrees with me. We have based a large part of our cancer research on looking into the human genome for the explanation of what goes haywire in cancer cells, it says. And maybe that’s not the right approach, or at the very least, not the whole story.

This brings me to coincidence #2 – the article mentions a “landmark paper” entitled “The Hallmarks of Cancer” (published in 2000) by Douglas Hanahan and Robert Weinberg. It is the single most cited paper of all time in the scientific journal Cell. The coincidence is that Hanahan is now director of EPFL’s cancer center and I had Thanksgiving dinner with him and his family and some other biology types last year. I didn’t know he was, like, the Albert Einstein of cancer research. He seemed perfectly normal.

I read the paper (you can too, it’s not one of those pay-per-view scientific articles and it’s actually quite readable, for biology). It sums up six characteristics of all the various types of human cancers.

Briefly, in a cancer cell, a whole host of genetic things go wrong, which screws up the biochemical communications both inside and outside the cell. It’s like having a Republican Congress and President. The checks and balances don’t work any more. And like the bad kid in the class, cancer cells also co-opt normal cells and get them to do stuff they wouldn’t normally do, like create blood vessels and scaffolding for the tumor. Cancer cells also break cell rules and go AWOL, setting up outposts in other organs. All the different kinds of cancers act out like this. Very bad behavior.

Near the end, the authors write:

Two decades from now, having fully charted the wiring diagrams of every cellular signaling pathway, it will be possible to lay out the complete “integrated circuit of the cell” upon its current outline. We will then be able to apply the tools of mathematical modeling to explain how specific genetic lesions serve to reprogram this integrated circuit in each of the constituent cell types so as to manifest cancer.

Okay, so we sort all these signaling pathways out, we should be able to take a logical, physics-like approach to fixing the problem. Got it. Go get ’em!

Except that eleven years later (today), it’s still pretty much a mess. We know a lot more than we did about cellular signaling pathways and the “oncogenes” that encode the rogue proteins that screw them up. Problem is, there are just so many of them. It seems like every time I open Newswise there’s another press release about a new discovery of a gene or a signaling pathway and how it will lead to a “promising avenue for cancer treatment.” It’s like LA – around every corner, there’s another gang member. Can you neutralize them all? Not likely. If you take out Osama Bin Laden, does Al Quaeda die? Not likely. Same with cancer.

Now back to the NYT article. Coincidence #3: the author is George Johnson, who also happens to have written a book entitled Fire in the Mind in which he mentions my dad and the Santa Fe Institute (dad was President at the time). I once attended a science writing workshop in Santa Fe taught by George. He’s a really smart guy and I like him a lot. So I know the article is going to be good.

George went to the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Orlando this spring, and sat in on a bunch of talks and interviewed some researchers. He found out that there are a few things they’re realizing we haven’t taken into account when looking at cancer. As usual, we humans have been pathetically self-centered. Remember the microbiome? Well, this is coincidence #4. I wrote about it back in this May 3 post. Ninety percent of the protein-encoding cells in our bodies are not our own cells. They’re microbes. You’d think we’d pay attention to what they might be doing.

I think I was quite prescient in my blog post when I said: “We thought disease was about us, about our genes. It could very well involve a batch of rogue bacteria.”  You heard it here first, folks.

Scientists are finally getting around to thinking that all those microbes might have an effect on our cells’ biochemical surroundings and, hence, cancer.

“We are massively outnumbered,” said Jeremy K. Nicholson, chairman of biological chemistry and head of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London. Altogether, he said, 99 percent of the functional genes in the body are microbial.

Problem is that we know squat about the microbiome. Add another decade to that estimate, Hanahan. This is gonna take some time.

Another thing George mentions is that we’ve handily ignored the large portion of our DNA that doesn’t code proteins, the “junk” DNA. Turns out that most of the genome is junk. Hey! Coincidence #5! I wrote about junk DNA back in April in my blog post about Craig Venter and the James Joyce estate.

These days “junk” DNA is referred to more respectfully as “noncoding” DNA, and researchers are finding clues that “pseudogenes” lurking within this dark region may play a role in cancer. “We’ve been obsessively focusing our attention on 2 percent of the genome,” said Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi, a professor of medicine and pathology at Harvard Medical School.

Have a little respect. The non-coding parts of our DNA may very well have a purpose other than providing space for clever quotations. In fact, I never bought the “junk” hypothesis. It doesn’t make any sense at all that 98% of our DNA would sit around just twiddling its thumbs. It’s like saying that unless you have a salaried job you are extraneous. What about changing diapers and paying bills and buying groceries? There’s a lot more to DNA than just bringing home the bacon (protein).

Problem is that we know squat about what the “noncoding” DNA does. Another decade, maybe?

The last thing he mentions isn’t a coincidence because I haven’t written about it on the blog yet. But George explains how little mini-strands of RNA roaming around the cell could interfere with messenger RNA’s delivery task. We don’t understand this too well, either.

I’d like to encourage you to watch this 5-minute video from the NYT, which sums it all up really well.

So, in short, not only does cancer suck, but it’s horrifically complicated and involves all kinds of stuff we know next to nothing about. We will probably never be able to cure it. But it would be really nice to figure out a way to live with it, like we live with the virus that causes warts.

One more thing I’ll throw out there — did you know that people who have Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases have a lower risk for developing cancer? As if the body can only take so much insult. Why would that be?

Hiker heaven

We’re back! What a hike. We did the “Tour de Mt. Ruan” — a four-day hike that straddles the mountainous border between Switzerland and France. I didn’t intend to do journaling on this blog, but I didn’t intend not to do it either, so here’s a recap of the highlights for anyone who’s interested.

Day 1: I finally find a map that covers the French portion of the tour in the gift shop at the Emosson dam, the starting point. What a relief. I am a map junkie. I cannot go into the mountains without a topo map. I need to know where the cliffs are and if we are going around or over them, and how many more meters of climbing we have to do at any given point in time, because I need to parcel out the chocolate accordingly.

We hit the trail at about 11 am. A couple of hours later, we pass by the famous “traces de dinosaurs”. A geologist from the Natural History Museum in Geneva is on site ready to explain that once this was a sea and the rock was a sandy beach and there was a medium-sized dinosaur that made tracks there going back and forth from the bar ordering Mai Tais. We didn’t stay for his exhaustive explanation, but made our own tracks up to the high point, the Cheval Blanc.

Silly us. We thought it was the pass you can see in this photo:

Turns out that was about the halfway point and the Cheval Blanc is the mountain off to the right, not a pass. Our boys power on up, undaunted by their loads of fresh apples, water and mandatory summer school reading. Near the top, a Swiss family bounces past us on their way back down. The picture at the start of this post is of the view from the White Horse.

On the long trek down to the refuge, we negotiate a ridge that’s swirling in fog, shimmying from one side to the other, wondering where the hell the refuge could be in this inhospitable landscape.  It finally materializes on a slope dominated by tame Ibex.

We wait in line for the shower-in-a-shed, drink in the sunset over Mt Blanc along with a couple of Corsican beers (the boys too; they’re legal here, after all), and fall asleep in a dormitory to the lullaby of a truly formidable snorer.

Day 2: Getting Brendan out of bed proves to be no small feat. He is accustomed to sleeping until at least 8:30 or 9:00, noon at best on weekends, but last call for bread and butter here is 7:30. We finally succeed, and at 7:29:59 he eats his slice of bread and we once again slather up with sunscreen and hit the trail.

It’s a long day. Half of France appears to have noticed it is a beautiful day, and the gorgeous, waterfall-strewn valley called the fer à Cheval (“horseshoe” – yes it sounds a lot sexier in French) has become a superhighway of families and endless groups of earnest 60+ hikers. The far end of the valley, appropriately called “le bout du monde” (the end of the world) is like an ant hill. Could this be the rapture? Or is everyone headed to the edge of the world to drop off their Coke bottle, like in the Gods Must be Crazy?

Halfway up to the refuge, Luc announces he’s going to start complaining. Good thing he warned me. I give him one of my walking poles and we inch our way up. At the refuge, Marc and Brendan are waiting with beers. Maybe this is the rapture, and I have died and gone to heaven. Cool! I wasn’t counting on that.

Day 3: Today is the scary day. Marc’s freaked out even before we leave the refuge. His vertigo is on red alert, because we have to go down a “delicate” passage of ladders and chains, after having climbed a pass and negotiated a ridge. The whole morning, he keeps looking ahead and saying “Do we have to go up that?” and “Is that where we are going?” I keep reassuring him that we’ll deal with it when we get there. Nobody’s going back to the end of the world. We get up to a modest peak called the “Tete des Ottans” and I feel great. I love being on mountain tops and ridges. I’m sure in a previous incarnation I must have been either an eagle or a goat. Okay, probably a goat. Marc, on the other hand, looks like he’s going to puke.

We rest a little, eat an energy bar, and then head for hell. The guidebook said (I’m translating) “The hiker’s curiosity will be attracted by the sudden drop-off, and upon closer inspection, will see an empty hole with ladders and chains…” Marc was incredulous. “What moron would be attracted by a drop-off?” To make it even more stressful, we have an audience – a family below is waiting to climb up. Brendan heads down first. A few of the metal things holding the chains in place have become unanchored from the rock, but I don’t point that out to anyone as we descend. You lose your grip here, your brains are splattered all over the rocks below. Not a nice image to have in mind as you try to find a place to put your foot. Marc is fine here. He has something to hold onto. Go figure.
We all make it, and the other family starts up. Here’s a picture of the young woman, blocked halfway up. She has to get through that hole at the top. Personally, I think going up would have been easier.

As we scramble down the scree slope under the cliff face, we see a block of ice detach from a nearby glacier; it crashes down with a boom, and then like one of those fireworks with the popping aftereffects, we hear it break up into a million little pieces and scatter all over the slope. We see a mother goat and three babies scamper over another snowfield and join a big herd perched on ledges of the cliff. I wonder what they do there, other than work on their balancing skills. There’s nothing at all to eat, as far as I can tell. Every now and then a little goat loses his balance, falls, lands miraculously on all fours and then scampers back up to try again. Goat gym.

We stop at another refuge for a drink and our lunch, and manage to clear out before a helicopter arrives with a load of stuff. I watch it maneuver the dangling payload onto the porch of the refuge – quite the piloting skills.

We climb another 300m to the mythic moon-like pass where we almost got hypothermia a few years ago. Sure enough, it starts spitting rain on us up there. It’s jinxed.




Day 4: I’m sort of hoping the weather will be terrible, because I have an escape route planned. My feet and legs are killing me. I keep thinking “What was I thinking?” But the forecast is for a glorious day, and indeed it dawns as such. We offer the escape route anyway (1000m down to Salvan, where we can catch a train and bus back up to the starting point), and Brendan, bless his heart, says “I don’t want to take a train.” Luc looks like he’s contemplating fratricide. Here’s yours truly gearing up for the final day, clear skies beckoning:

We haul the packs up onto our backs and start the 500m climb up to the col d’Emaney. Luc and I fuel ourselves with chocolate the whole way up, and on the pass, we’re rewarded with a picture-perfect view of Mt Blanc flanked by two peaks in the foreground. But those peaks are on either side of the next pass we’re supposed to climb, appropriately called the col de Fenestral (fenetre is window in French and Fenster in German)… After extensive map consultation, we decide that this window is too high (600m more climbing!) and we will take the door (around the flank of the mountain), instead. We’ll avoid the train and settle for just the bus. Brendan’s okay with that.

As we head down off the pass, I hear a whooshing sound, and look up to see an enormous bird flying just over our heads. It’s a “gypaetre barbu” (bearded vulture), quite a rare bird. I take it as a sign. We have made the right decisions. We stop off at a super-friendly alpage where a man is stirring huge vats of cheese over a fire in a dark chalet and buy a huge hunk of wonderful cheese and some serac – which is pre-cheese, a kind of cottage-cheesey type substance. It’s full of whey proteins and apparently incredibly good for you. 

We pass a field full of wild blueberries which I can’t stop and pick, because if I do we’ll miss the bus and get stuck in Finhaut for two hours while the bus drivers take a break. The trail is truly lovely, winding through a larch forest. I decide to come back for the blueberries another time. We make the station with ten minutes to spare, and congratulate ourselves by sharing yet another bar of chocolate.

I’m amazed that Brendan and Luc still acknowledge us as parents, even when all the chocolate is gone. Nothing short of miraculous. They’re tough, patient (this trip involved a lot of waiting for us to catch up) sure-footed and good humored. We’re lucky to be related to them. Maybe someday they’ll torture their own kids just like this!

No pressure, Dave

My chief technical officer (aka brother) Dave is on probation. 

“Can you do a little post from the conference,” I ask, “while we’re out hiking? I’ve said you will on the blog.” 

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

Nothing like a commission to bring on a full-scale case of writer’s block, huh, Dave? I know the scenario all too well from my own experience. 

A commission! Wow! Someone thinks I’m a legitimate writer! I need to go out for a run and think about how I’m going to write this! Back home, showered, ready to work, I have to tidy up the kitchen. No way I can work with clutter in the periphery. It’ll only take a few minutes. Laundry, too. It can run while I’m writing. How efficient!

Okay, no nonsense now, I tell myself. I have a deadline, time to get started. I sit down and stare at the screen. It stares back. There is little in this world as menacing as an empty page in Microsoft Word. I hate Microsoft Word. 

“Blahblahblahblahblah,” I type, just to pierce that awful whiteness. Not the best lead sentence I’ve ever written. How should I start this? What amazing sentence can I write that will sum it all up and hook the reader for the next 5,000 words? 

While I’m contemplating this, I play a few rounds of scramble, nothing major, just to get my typing fingers warmed up. It has been at least five minutes since I last checked my e-mail, too. I’d better open it up to see if anyone else has sent me a more manageable task. Something smallish, hopefully. A little translation, a request for a tennis game, anything other than this article.  

I feel like the article has grown teeth and claws. It’s way out of my league. What was I thinking? Why did I think I was a writer? I hate writing.

Is it too soon to think about starting the taxes? I have been avoiding weeding the slope off the back yard, too. This suddenly looks enticing. Before I head out the door I scour the kitchen, devouring every refined carbohydrate I can find. After the weeding is done I clearly need to go grocery shopping. We’re out of cookies. No way I can tackle the article without brain fuel. 

I should also think about what to make for dinner tonight. Something complicated and healthy. We really should eat better. I’ll just sit down with my cookbook collection for a few minutes. I can even make a shopping list, so I won’t waste valuable time in the supermarket! 

Despite the ten-ton weight of the deadline wrapped around my upper vertebrae, I feel productive. Things are getting accomplished. The article is going to be great. I’ll get started on it first thing tomorrow.
So I do understand. Commissions are hell. Deadlines are hell times a million. But I got through them somehow, and I know Dave can, too.

As luck would have it, we postponed our hike until next week, due to a combination of an unforeseen feline medical situation (that’s another story) and bad weather, so Dave has miraculously earned an extra week to do his post on the hacker heaven conference! Nothing like an extended dealine to up the ante, eh? And now that he’s no longer in Vegas, with all the enticing, blank-screen-defying diversions offered by that city of sin, I just know he’ll do a great post. 

Either that or he’ll finally clean out his home office.