Episode 56

I’m so grateful that people like Chris Cochran exist – people with the giant brains for the tech world who are also committed to keeping the rest of us safe from the nefarious criminals. Lucky for us, Chris is a tech geek with a wicked book habit. I loved talking to him about “Ready Player One,” the appeal of gamer culture, and escaping into good storytelling

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Host: Julie Strauss

Guest: Chris Cochran
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Books discussed in this episode

Discussed in this episode:
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine
The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
The Matrix
Ready Player One movie

Discussed in our Patreon conversation:

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Chris Cochran on “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m so lucky to be talking to Chris Cochran. Chris is a director of security engineering by day and host of the award-winning Hacker Valley Studio podcast by night. I met Chris at a podcast conference last year and was immediately intrigued by this nuanced approach to storytelling and well being within the tech world, and I couldn’t wait to ask him about the role that books play in his life. I really enjoyed talking to him today about why Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is the Best Book Ever.

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Julie Strauss: Hi, Chris. Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast. 

Chris Cochran: Thank you so much. I’m super excited for this. 

JS: Chris, pretend you’re talking to a kindergartener here. 

CC: Okay. 

JS: Please tell me what you do. 

CC: I help protect people from the bad hackers out there that are trying to steal information, trying to steal money. I protect organizations from bad things happening to them. 

JS: Now I need you to tell me that there aren’t that many people out there trying to get all my stuff.

CC: Oh, there, there are hundreds of thousands of people trying to get everybody’s stuff. It happens all the time. But you have a lot of folks that are focused on protecting organizations, protecting applications, protecting people in their homes. You have a lot of people. 

JS: So when you work in cybersecurity, do you focus on one or the other? Like, do you either focus on corporations or individuals in their home or do you do it all?

CC: It’s kind of a mix. When I was talking about applications, really what you’re doing is, to secure an application you’re securing the people. So you don’t want any information to leak outside and be used for nefarious purposes. So, it really depends on your role. Sometimes you’re focused on protecting a company from being breached, but then you’re still protecting other people because a lot of times there’s that money in the data that people give to companies, whether it’s their credit card, information, personal personally identifiable information. All of that stuff is a treasure trove for bad actors that want to steal this information and sell it to people that might want to buy it. 

JS: How’d you get interested in this? And the reason I’m asking is because I think like, I think it must be one of two types of people: either techies or law enforcement people. Are you one of those too? 

CC: I’m kind of a blend. Both. I was in the United States Marine Corps for about five years and I’ve always had this call to duty, to protect people, but I’ve also been interested in technology for the majority of my life. I thought I was going to build terminators when I was a kid. I thought robotics was so cool. I never got to robotics, but I found the next best thing in computers and seeing how I could talk to someone halfway across the world just by popping in front of this box. I wanted to see how things worked and how things get connected. And then I found out that there are people out there that could do really nifty and sometimes bad things with computers. That got me curious about who are these people called bad hackers or good hackers. So there’s good hackers and there’s bad hackers. And, uh, I wanted it to be a good hacker. So that’s the path. 

JS: You have to really get to know the mind of the bad guys, right? You have to understand their motivation. Like, do you get into that? He must’ve been abused, or whatever? I’m always looking for the story.

CC: Because I actually specialize in a very specific form of cybersecurity for the majority of my career, which is threat intelligence. Threat intelligence is all about understanding the attacker, what they can do, why they would want to do that, understanding what do they get out of it? What are the resources that person might have? And so that really gets into a lot of the psychology, a lot of coming up with assessments as to why you think this person might attack us or what they’re looking for. Coming up with all those different assessments and predictions is what I spent the majority of my career doing.

JS: So you have a podcast. Tell me about that. 

CC: Hacker Valley Studio is my baby. We’ve been doing it for about two years. I do it with my good friend, Ron Eddings. Ron is one of those super brainiac technical people. And I’m more of like the, the leader soft skills, emotional intelligence person. When we come together we create this dynamic duo of Hacker Valley Studio. And we do it as we live in the fringes of cybersecurity. There are people that listen to our podcasts that are cybersecurity professionals, and people that are not. A lot of the times we’re bringing in folks inside of an out of cybersecurity to look at the fringes of cybersecurity. We bring in chess grandmasters and talk about strategy, looking at the opponent as something to get around. How do you try to make moves that are going to be thwarted by an enemy? And then counteract that. We’ve brought on world champions in wrestling. We’ve brought on martial arts analysts. We brought in authors, we brought in people from all around the humanity biome, and we take those learnings and we apply it to cybersecurity and try to inspire people to do more in the world that we live in.

JS: I have to bring it back to books. Given that you are in front of a screen all the time, how do you read? Do you read paper books or are you an ebook reader? 

CC: I do Audible now. I used to be a big, big book reader. I can’t do the e-readers; it’s really hard for me. I just started doing a note-taking on a Remarkable, which is kind of like an e-reader type device. So that’s how I take notes now, but I really love tangible books. Like the smell of the paper, the flipping of the pages. That’s my favorite thing, even though right now, I listen to Audible books and I love it. I always buy the paperback or the hard cover book. Maybe when I get some more time, after my kids are out of the house or something, I could go back to good old fashioned paper books. But right now, Audible audio books is the way.

JS: What kind of reader are you? What, what genres do you tend to go for? 

CC: So I go through phases. I would say more often, in the past, maybe 10 years or so, I’ve been a self-help junkie. I just constantly reading different self-help books, but I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that even though there are so many self-help books out there that probably have so much to offer, that a lot of them kind of overlap. And so once you’ve read a hundred self-help books, you probably have the gist of what you need to apply to your life, to kind of move forward. So what I’ve kind of done is, is like I’ve refocused on reading for entertainment, because that’s really how I got started. I started reading Goosebumps books. That’s when everything changed for me. You know, we had the Scholastic Fair, like, oh, wow, this looks interesting. And I’ve always been interested in the spooky, scary stories. I was like, let me get one of these books. And I remember instantly being addicted because it allowed – I’m an escapist. I love to disconnect from reality and dive into this world that has been created by an author. I’m also a movie person. I love movies. Really, books is where I found that that disconnection. Being able to use my mind. Because I get my creativity from my mom. She’s an author and we used to kind of freestyle stories and I still do it with my girls today. I say, give me a bedtime story and I’ll just come up off the top of my head and I’ll create this big adventure. But what I found is books really allow you to tap into that creativity yourself. You’re able to create the world as the author is explaining it. And I was doing that through these books, through these Goosebumps books. And it would get to the point where I was getting so versed at reading through these books that I would enter a flow and I would no longer see the words. I would only see the images and it would just fly by. And it gets to the point where I could read a Goosebump book in an hour or something like that, and now like, all right, now I need another one. And I was so addicted to reading. That whenever I was anywhere where there was nothing going on, I would read shampoo bottles, or I would read the junk mail that would come in into the house. I was just so addicted to just ingestion of data in the form of book.

JS: So, what do you read now after you grew out of that? Or maybe didn’t! Do you still read the Goosebumps books? Do your kids read them? 

CC: I have like 150 of them. I’m just waiting for one of my daughters to get interested in them. Hey, there you go. Here’s a whole treasure trove of Goosebump books for your disposal.

JS: They’re going to be so excited when they get into the Goosebumps, when they they’re going to look up and go, oh my God, there’s so many. That’s awesome. 

CC: Yeah. So right now I’m, I’m dabbling in a few different things. I just did the whole stint of self-help books. When we were talking about doing this pod, I couldn’t choose between my favorite fiction book or my favorite nonfiction book. My favorite nonfiction book right now is The Art of the Impossible by Steven Kotler. It talks about flow. It talks about performance. All the things that we talk about on the Hacker Valley side of the house to make people better. That was like an instant hook for me. And I got a chance to interview him actually, on his podcast, which was pretty cool. A cool experience and be able to talk about that stuff. But now I’m trying to go somewhere else. I want to go into a completely different world. So, Norse by Neil Gaiman, that’s what I’m working on now. And actually, I started the Audible, but I just bought the hardcover book. We’re about to go on vacation – we’re going to Mexico. So I’m actually going to be able to have the time to sit down and read this. Because I feel like those old mythologies, I feel like they’re super fascinating, because they were created at a time where there wasn’t a lot of distractions and there’s so much to the mythology, the Norse mythology. Being able to learn more about that, where things come from, like Thursday came from Thor, which is crazy. Right? You would have to think that all of this information, all of these stories, they play such a huge role in our lives on a day-to-day basis. But a lot of people haven’t heard them. I’m going to take a lot of time and I’m going to read that book all the way through. 

JS: Are you someone who re-reads frequently?

CC: I don’t reread frequently. I usually enjoy a book and I kind of move on to the next one. The only book I would say I re-read is the book we’re going to talk about today.

JS: And how did you find this initially? Ready Player One. How did you come across it? 

CC: Yeah, Ready Player One. I discovered it when I was on an Audible kick, way back when I had a hour and a half to two hour commute every single day to Washington DC, and then back. It was hard for me to watch movies over and over and over again. So I said, you know, maybe what I would want to do is get into listening to audio books. I had an Audible subscription and so I kind of went to my old favorites, just kind of get the feel of going through audio books. And then I said, well, what’s out therethat’s incredible. I looked at the list to see what has high ratings and Ready Player One had incredible ratings. And I said, okay, well, you know, thousands of people can be wrong. If they think it’s good, let’s give it a shot. And I related so much to the story in general, just from my own personal life, the way I like to enjoy certain things in fiction. It just hit a lot of those check boxes. From the very beginning to the end, I was hooked. 

JS: Can you describe the plot for our listeners who haven’t read it? It’s very different than the movie. 

CC: Very, very different from the movie. I would say they’re, they’re – they have essence of the same, but I would say it’s very different. And if you’re a reader and you’ve already watched Ready Player One, I encourage folks to go ahead and pick that book up and listen or listen to it or read it. The book is about Wade Watts. Wade is a probably, um, early adulthood. What’s going on is this almost post-apocalyptic, or at least a dystopian future, where a lot of folks are poor. There were wars that kind of went on. I think he’s in Columbus, Ohio. That’s now the most populated city in America and there’s a lot of poverty and they live in these things called stacks, where they have RVs that are stacked up on top of each other, almost like apartment buildings. The crazy thing about this world is that there’s this thing called the Oasis. Think of the Oasis like the internet of today, but a hundred percent virtual reality. So you get these goggles that you step into, and people wear different suits to be able to feel different things and have different abilities. But you make your avatar. Much like any other game, you can look a certain way. You can be a certain height, you could be a monster. You could be really whatever you want it to be. And what’s incredible about the story and really, I don’t want to give too much away, but I do want to say that in the very beginning, the creator of the Oasis dies. And this person is a mega billionaire, and when they die, they leave Easter eggs. So folks that are familiar with video games, they know what Easter eggs are, but Easter eggs are things that are hidden within games. Only the true hobbyists, the true practitioners of video gaming would be able to find, or care to find. So looking for things that, that are just kind of either funny or even things that give you additional abilities. But the owner of the Oasis, before he died, he hid these keys around the Oasis in order to find this ultimate Easter egg, which ends up giving you ownership of the Oasis and his fortune. That sets the tone for the entire story. So, you know you’re going to be in for an adventure. There are going to be puzzles that Wade is going to have to solve, you know, there’s obviously going to be some type of adversary. And just from the very beginning of the book, you’resucked in.

JS: So tell me why you like this so much. 

CC: I like it so much because I love stories about normal people that become extraordinary in some way. And it could be in the form of powers, it could be something like this where someone gets so good at gaming that they meet this awesome level. I like stories like Rocky, a very normal boxer that has been given this opportunity to become something bigger than himself. My favorite movie of all time is The Matrix, about a regular hacker who goes on this incredible journey and becoming a person that can be in reality and break the rules of reality in the simulation. I’ve always been fascinated by folks that start off as normal people, but become something great. Probably around middle school, and I’m sure this is the same story for most people, I got made fun of. I didn’t have any friends. I was the dorky kid with glasses. I was pretty intelligent. So I knew the answers to questions. And I didn’t know how to show my value to these people. I thought maybe if I answer enough questions or get good enough grades, people would like me, but that didn’t seem to work out very well over time. I saw there are things that I need to develop. At first, it started as developing myself for these people. I want to be seen as someone of value and that I found that initially, that that did help. I got in shape. I was on the wrestling team, you know, I did all these things, but it really didn’t fulfill me in any type of way. I thought that once I have these things of value, that’s where the value for me will come from. But as I’ve gotten older, I put less value on the value that people see in me. And I put more value on my ability to make an impact on people’s lives. So that’s why I do the things like the Hacker Valley Studio podcasts. There are so many people that reach out to us about how some information was impactful for them, or a story changed how they thought about a particular topic. So I find that to be the reward now. And it’s funny because now, I’m trying to keep people away from me a little bit because people reach out to me all the time. I get overloaded with questions and things like that. And I wish I could reach and talk to everybody, but it’s getting really difficult, especially in this time of, of Zoom fatigue, where everybody sits in meetings all day long. Which is why I haven’t been able to spend the time I went to reading physical books, but that’s the world we live in.

JS: As I was reading this, and thinking about you reading this, I was wondering, are you able to read it as a story and just get into the plot? Or, because of the brain that you have, do you spend all your time thinking about the techie stuff? Thinking, soon, we’re going to be able to do that or this technology will never exist. I have no idea about that stuff, so I kind of skim the techie stuff. I was curious, how you see the story and if you’re able to separate from the tech stuff. 

CC: Yeah, I’m definitely able to separate from it. The only time that something takes me out of the story is if I know something so well and they do it so wrong that it’s like nails on a chalkboard. But I, I give a lot of people grace. Even movies. I was in the Marine Corps and I’ll see movies where the uniforms just off or anything like that. But it doesn’t ruin the story for me. But if they do something that’s just completely wrong, like almost like they didn’t do any of their homework, that that would bother me. But with, with this story, I really didn’t start thinking about the technology and all that until after I finished reading it, because I was just so immersed in this story. And my favorite things are when those stories like suck you in and there’s no other thoughts going on. You’re not thinking about your house. You’re not thinking about your bills. You’re not thinking about anything but being in the story, and all you can see is the story. All you can hear is the story. So I was able to be really, really present. 

JS: I kept thinking throughout this book about the levels of reality and how there are points in this book where you don’t know where Wade is, if he’s in his headset. I didn’t know if he’s in his headset or if he’s actually outside of his headset and talking to humans. This is a book about a kid who video games, and then a movie was made about a book, about a kid with video games. And I kept thinking like our layers of reality are wild right now. And it’s hard to know where human context starts and stops 

CC: A hundred percent. There’s a part in the matrix where Morpheus simply asks the question, what is real? Because in the matrix they’re living in the simulation, but Neo had an entire life in this simulation. Like, was it real or was it not? Right? So when you think about, even in the context of Ready Player One being in that VR world, the mind has a hard time decoupling what is virtual reality versus what is real? I don’t know if you’ve played virtual reality games where they’re scary, like the scary games. My brain, even though I know it’s fake, there’s a lot of anxiety that enters into that reality, because your brain doesn’t know it’s fake. Your brain doesn’t know that the birds that are flying at you are aren’t real and they’re not going to hurt you. There are some real guttural reactions that happens in virtual reality. And so I feel like even though the everything is fabricated and it’s fake, your mind takes on some of that with you. I remember some virtual reality games more so than I remember some of the memories from my real life. So I feel like when you’re talking about you can’t really separate the two and Wade Watts’s mind they’re one and the same. And in fact, he felt like his real life was just the time in between the game. 

JS: Yeah, it’s, it’s an interesting philosophy to think about. His entire school is online. All of his friendships are online. It was bizarre reading that in a pandemic year, when all of our kids’ schools online and all of our work is online and it was wild thing to think – this is a really cliché thing to say, but we’re not that far away from it really. I mean, I don’t know technology-wise, but experience wise, we’re not that far from it. 

CC: I don’t think we’re far from it at all. I think someone somewhere is working on an Oasis for sure. 

JS: Oh God. So what do you think about, are you a big fan of the eighties? You’re younger than me, so I can’t imagine you lived through it. For me, it was wild reading it because I lived through the eighties. 

CC: So I was born in ‘85. I lived through the very tail end of the eighties and just the whispers of the eighties and the early nineties. I got a lot of the references of all the movies, obviously being a movie buff, I’ve seen all the movies they brought up. The video games, of course, because I was a really, really early video game adopter. And that was basically from my mom. She had to have herself a Nintnedo and her love of video games was imprinted on to me, my brother and my sister. So yeah, everything in that book I can relate to. Obviously I couldn’t relate to the same way as they could in the book, because when they were going through some of these things, the main guy that created the Oasis, he was a teenager, a young adult when he was going through a lot of these memories. So obviously couldn’t relate on that level, but definitely understood and recognize a lot of the stuff that they were talking about. 

JS: The technology all went forward, but all of the cultural references backward. And I thought that was so interesting. And I was thinking, is his Ernest Cline saying, are we going to stop producing art as our technology gets better? And all we’re going to have to do is look back and be nostalgic for the old pop culture? 

CC: I think what’s interesting about it is that James Halliday is interested in the eighties and the clues are locked into all of these artifacts from the eighties. And so James is really the influencer that brought back this. If you really think about it, if Ernest Cline is talking about anything, when it comes to anything deeper from a social level, it’s really the power of an influencer. Like if you think about it, the influencers of today, the people that are on the TikToks, Instagrams and things like that, people are subscribing to their way of dressing, the way they act, the items that they buy, because there are the ultimate influencer. I want to do what the people are doing. And so in this context, because James Halliday had so much money and influence,  built though Oasis. There’s not just because he was an influencer, but because there is a big ticket item at the end of this journey, people dived back into the eighties and they found an appreciation for it, which I find to be pretty fascinating.

JS: It was funny to read because I was thinking as I was reading it, this says, these are the guys I went to high school with. I just remember these guys so clearly. The Dungeons and Dragons, the guys who were into Rush, the guys who were just at the arcades all the time. I’m saying guys, there were a few of the girls I went to school with who did it too. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s a mostly male thing, right? Maybe not anymore. 

CC: I don’t think it is anymore. The landscape, I think it’s changed quite dramatically over the years. If you look at some of the folks that are doing like cosplay these days or into comic books, I think it’s so much more these days than ever before, but I would have to agree with you around that time. I would say it was probably a male dominated hobby. But I think there were definitely some early adopters back in the day from a woman’s perspective. But now, it’s, yeah, even in the, in the game playing you have Twitch streamers, male, female. Like it’s just me from the inside looking out, I would say it’s about even. I don’t have any hard, hard data on that, but I think it’s definitely a come to like an equal.

JS: Have you seen the movie

CC: I have seen the movie. I’ve watched it a couple of times and you, you kind of have, it’s still a good movie. I was concerned when they said, Hey, we’re going to turn this into a movie because I thought, number one, how are you going to get away with all that product placement? That seems almost impossible. But also, it just seemed like it’d be a really hard movie to make. I think from a technology perspective, they made it a good time because the CGI was pretty incredible, but they had to change a lot of the actual story. Especially with getting the different keys in order to make it fit this hour and a half. It’s a really condensed format. I think they did a great job. They added some cool surprises, from my perspective, but very, very different from the book. 

JS: I liked the movie before I read the book, and then I read the book and honestly, I don’t understand the point. Like it’s not the same thing at all.

CC: What was going through your mind as you went through the book? 

JS: Mostly that I didn’t get it. Which, I don’t mind that, you know? I was reading it and thinking there is a world out there of gamers and people who are so into technology, and I know nothing about it, and I love stumbling upon things like that. I love stumbling on subcultures that I know nothing about and realizing that my world is not everything. That is so exciting to me. I felt through this whole thing, like what the hell? Just turn the game off. Who cares? Just because that’s what I would do. But I’m probably not the demographic for this.

CC: Right. If I had to guess, because it seemed like he over-indexed on the eighties stuff. I would figure it’d be stuff for people my age, a little bit older, that understand all that whole world. Because I mean, they name a bunch of movies that people from today, they’re not going to watch any of these movies. They are not going to just stumble upon this and be like, Hey, I want to check this movie out. I do think it does speak to the person that understands games and the appeal of, of gaming in general, because there’s levels to it with the newer age games. Now you have people that are playing online, so yeah, you have people that all want to be top of the leader board. I’ve never been the top of the leaderboard in anything. I don’t play games enough. There are people that their entire life’s mission is to be at a particular top of the leaderboard one day on whatever game that is. When you look at it, from that context, someone that gets really excited about someone making an achievement, that only few people can taste. That’s a part of this story because there’s only going to be one winner. There’s only one person that can. And what’s cool is that everybody can play at the same time. It’s almost like everyone’s at a base slate. And so you look at the adversary in this book, which is IOI, which is like, they’re an entire corporation and they hire people to play the game. And they’re trying to like use each other, resources in order to win, which is also something I like. I like the underdog story. Wade Watts is definitely the underdog versus this big giant corporation. But when you look at it from that perspective, it really just says everybody’s equal. Play the game and let’s see who wins. I find that fascinating. 

JS: The disconnect for me is in this book, there’s a gigantic prize at the end. But in our everyday life, there’s nothing like that. Except your name on the leaderboard. Right? So what’s the appeal of that? 

CC: The appeal of that is the game of competition. I would say of course it would be great if everybody could make millions of dollars. And in fact, some of these e-sports, they’re starting to. Earn crazy amounts of money. But I feel like in the book, it was more about control of IOI and not ceding control to making it like this corporate greed, like a weapon. But I feel like when it comes to that competition being number one, being the first, being able to do something that other people are trying to do, but you’re the one that accomplishes it, I think that’s something. They get to everybody’s endorphins running, whatever it is. Like maybe some people pick locks, some people go shopping, some people collect cards. Whenever you open that pack of cards, you see whatever’s in it. All of that stuff is appealing to different folks. And sometimes people won’t get it. Like who cares your name’s on the top of the board? That’s no big deal. But for someone else, that’s their gold medal. That’s their Olympic gold medal. That’s what they’ve been striving for the last four years. They’ve been playing this game eight hours a day. They’ve been sipping Mountain Dew, trying to stay up, trying to improve their craft. For some people that’s their championship.

JS: Chris, honestly, I could talk to you all day. This has been really fun getting to know you, and I hope you will come back anytime you have a book that you would like to talk about. Will you tell my listeners where they can find your work?

CC: Yeah, absolutely. The easiest way to get a hold of me and look at all the things we produce is at HackerValley.com, and you’ll see all our podcast stuff. You’ll see some of our other shows and be able to reach out to me on social media. 

JS: Thank you very much. And thank you for joining me today. It’s really been a delight talking to you. 

CC: Thank you so much. This was great.


Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode, and links to all the books we discussed, please go to our website. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me everywhere as JulieWroteABook. If you’d like to hear more from this week’s guest, become a Patron of the Best Book Ever Podcast. For about the cost of a latte, you’ll get exclusive interview clips, monthly book roundups, and curated reading lists. Go to Patreon.com/BestBookEver to learn more.

 Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.

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