Backstories in Code
Ian Urbina

My password and the Global Financial Crisis

I created my first real online password while living in Dublin at the tail end of a vast economic boom known as The Celtic Tiger. In its own way, the password I chose— ‘Upstart’ — embodies all the one-eyed, scheming profligacy that sent the Irish economy careering into oblivion.

‘Upstart’ was a pilot scheme for student entrepreneurs. Along with a friend, I wangled my way onto it straight out of college. It’d be nice to be able to say that the people at ‘Upstart’ saw something in us: two odd-jobbing wasters with no experience and a half-baked idea for a magazine. The truth is our only qualification was being friends with the guy who ran the scheme. It was geared for tech startups, and we wanted to start a print magazine. It was a student program and we weren’t even students anymore. The whole thing was a racket.

Still, our approach, unscrupulous though it was, should be considered in context. This was a devil-may-care era, stewarded by former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, a firm believer in cash stuffed inside briefcases. And ‘Upstart’ itself was funded by Allied Irish Bank, which went on to lose €18 billion lending in the property market, while inducing in what the bank’s own chairman described as “collective madness”. It’s one of three banks that lent so much so fast that the country is still assessing the damage. In the larger scheme, ours was petty graft.

It’s also not like we took piles of money from ‘Upstart’. We got a phone line and six months rent-free in a chilly attic office above a tattoo parlour on Talbot Street. A few doors down from the office was ‘Bonavox’, a hearing aids store from which U2 frontman Bono had taken inspiration for his stage name. Bono later became a target of the writers in our magazine for taking advantage of Ireland’s tax breaks for artists, while his band squirreled away millions offshore in a Dutch bank account.

Still needing money and equipment, we printed blurry maps of the city centre and tried to flog advertising space on them to businesses looking to hook tourists — another scam. Remarkably, it worked. Back then it seemed money was everywhere. Those maps funded the first issue of what eventually became a national monthly magazine. We used ‘Upstart’ as the password for all the company email accounts, and sat in our purloined office space organising fashion shoots and taking pot shots in print at the nation’s sleazeballs. It was the best job we ever had.

After the magazine finally closed down I kept using ‘Upstart’ as a password, for convenience and probably a little out of nostalgia. Recently, I retired it altogether. The word had been gradually altered and appended with symbols and integers to satisfy new security thresholds, until it became more or less meaningless. I suppose it also occurred to me that former colleagues, not to mention with any algorithm worth its salt, could easily guess their way into my bank account. And I’d like to think I felt a little residual guilt at gaming the ‘Upstart’ scheme. But really it’s just the passing years. The boom times are gone, and I’m beginning to feel less and less like an ‘Up$tart1!’

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