Book Report: The Best of 2600 (a Hacker Odyssey)

I used to read a little newsletter called 2600. It billed itself as The Hacker Quarterly, which makes it sound like it was full of sploits for breaking in to computer systems. But it wasn't really about that. It described a bunch of computer and telephone systems. For each system, the point of view was someone exploring it, who'd figured out a few things. I eventually figured out that the article authors mostly weren't breaking into the computers. Rather, they'd got some student account or one of their parents had let them mess around. And I wasn't even into cracking into computer systems (and still ain't). And yet... And yet... yet, it was still an interesting newsletter. This was before the web, and there wasn't much good high-tech journalism out there. Most of that was aimed at specialties, at businesses. 2600 talked about many different kinds of devices.

Nowadays, I get my tech news off of the internets. Still, when I heard that there was a "best of" anthology coming out, I figured that it would be good for nostalgia. And it was.

TelCo minutiae in How to Get Into a CO, "The Kid" describes how he and some phone phreaker friends arranged to get a tour of their local telephone company facility. The most important thing that they learned "the mystery of the billing tape! Exactly what does it contain? The tape contains records of the following types of calls: 0+, 1+, and 7-digit numbers out of your local calling area." Uhm, yeah. If you want to work around phone company systems or social-engineer phone company employees, you need to learn how the phone company works. These kids got excited about billing system administration.

Voice Mail Systems Phone phreaks had phones. They didn't all have PCs or email accounts. So instead of sending emails or going onto computer BBSs, they liked voice mail systems and phone conference systems. Some company would get a voice mail system. Every employee got a mailbox with a default password, maybe "1234". Most employees never used the system, never changed their password. So... the phreaks used these systems as message drops. Looking back now, in these days of free email accounts all over the place, it's hard to imagine that folks would need to "hack into" a system just for a place to exchange messages.

Not by "Crackers" A "how to" article on privelege escalation on VMS systems--which mostly consists of debunking some obviously-bad advice which, apparently, was going around at the time...the article ends with "...If you have not guessed by now, I am a VMS system manager. I am assuming that many of the people who are reading this are other system managers who, like myself are trying to keep hackers off of their systems."

Civil Liberties In 1997, spreading the news that cellular phone operators in India were providing help with phone taps to the government. Raids by the FBI and the Secret Service. (You want to know why American security folks keep mentioning "subpoena" in their threat models? Geeks of a certain age grew up hearing about the Secret Service raiding... raiding a game company, seizing their computers... Not even a computer game company, but a reputable paper-and-pencil game company... And plenty of other raids, similarly dubious. High-profile arrests which probably got some federal agent promoted. Charges eventually overturned. Or the incredibly valuable stolen data turns out to be available from the local college library and we find out we paid millions of dollars in taxes for a raid and a trial over a crime whose stakes were less than grabbing the till from a lemonade stand. Or... or... Ahem. Sorry, was I ranting?) Various attempts by the USA government to popularize key escrow encryption--in which the government is the escrow.

The Pay Phones go Away Remember pay phones? They used to be all over. Now they're in... they're in... they're in BART stations, I guess. Not many other places. Mourned in conversation, but largely overlooked by the news. But 2600, bless their phreaker hearts, noted their passing.

2600 is still a going concern, but I stopped reading it as various web tech news sites got better. Still, for me, this collection brought back memories of the late 90s, the early aughts. Though the systems have all changed, we're still applying lessons from those days. (Like, "1234" is not the greatest default password.) Geeks of a certain age might like this collection. I did.

Labels: ,

Book Report: Killing Neighbors

I used to work for a lady named Lee Ann Fujii. She was pretty cool, so when I heard that she wrote a book, I figured I'd read it to see what she's been up to. She's now a foreign policy wonk specializing in Rwanda... so this was an intense read.

Before I ever heard from LAFujii about this stuff, I knew what "everybody knows": the Rwandan genocide was the result of ancient tribal conflicts between the Hutu and Tutsi once again boiling over. Except, it turns out, that's not quite right.

Back when Belgium had a big colonial empire, they spread that story of the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. But those weren't ancient tribes. They were recent creations--but it was convenient for the Belgians to say that they just wanted to deal with the Tutsi. So they kept re-telling the Hutu/Tutsi/Twa thing until it seemed natural.

But that's stuff that I'd heard years ago. There's more in this book. In this intense book.

This book has interviews with folks who were there during the killings. This book has interviews with witnesses. This book has interviews with killers.

The book has a thesis. These killings--they weren't really a genocide. This was mass murder, but not necessarily directed at a tribe. If a local gang leader wanted someone killed, they could probably have that person killed, no matter what tribe that person was in. It was easier if that person was Tutsi, but... But people switched tribes. If you were a Tutsi, you could follow the survival strategy of saying your were Hutu and, you know, go find some Tutsis to kill. Or you could just bribe gang leaders to overlook you. The official story was racial conflict--but when you looked deeper, it seemed more like killers used racial conflict as an excuse to kill enemies, to boost prestige, to pillage. There was even a, uhm, community-building aspect--one way to build community is to share experience--like, say, killing your neighbors.

So... that was bleak and cynical.

But it gets more intense than that.


Because when you look at the details, it seems like something that could happen here. It seems like something that could happen anywhere. If you say "ancient ethnic hatred", that sounds unlike where I live. But when you break it down into cases, and you see how killers can talk themselves into killing.

On 9/11 2001, Islamic fundie terrorists killed many Americans. Some Americans responded by attacking Sikhs. That was tragic, ignorant, and awful. It stopped. What if it had kept going. What if local leaders had seen a way to consolidate their power by demonizing "towelheads"? What if our government had spread rumors that secret cells of turbaned terrorists were plotting to aid an immanent invasion?

That didn't happen. But when you see how it went down in Rwanda, you think "Yeah, I can see how people would react that way. Yeah, and I can see how that could lead to that." All the way up to killings.

Read it on a day when you'll be out with friends later so that they can cheer you back up again.

Labels: , ,

Yosemite Photos

I went to Yosemite earlier this month. While I was there, I took some Yosemite photos, which I now make available to you, the internet. Thank goodness, right? I mean, the internet totally suffered a dearth of Yosemite photos until I came along. Next, I might try taking some cute photos of cats.

Labels: , ,

Book Report: The City & The City

It is a new book by China Miéville. It has a creepy premise, and is very paranoid. There are two cities which occupy the same geographic space. How do they coexist? Citizens of each city have to pretend not to notice the other city. Anyone caught noticing the other city gets disappeared by a mysterious force called "Breach." I rather liked this book. I thought I'd figured out its final twist about halfway through. But I guessed wrong; there was less end-twisting than I expected. Which is fine! It's not like you're going to come to the end of this book and say "I expected one more gratuitous complication. It is supposed to be a thriller, right?" No, no, really, there was plenty of complexity here; complexity, paranoia, and magic.

Labels: ,

Posted Chicago Photos

I went to Yosemite! But that was this week. Last-last week my parents and I went to Chicago. I posted some photos, some mine, some other folks'. They're more likely to interest you if you're related to me. Or if you like to look at photos of tourists who are looking up. A lot of stuff in Chicago is tall. Tourists look up a lot.

Labels: , ,

Book Report: Amazonia

Memoirs by some guy who was employee #55 at He was an in-house editor. Amazon wanted to have some folks on staff who could write up book reviews. This was before they let any bozo with an account write a book review. Folks were supposed to trust these reviews--sort of like when you go to a physical bookstore and there's a piece of paper stuck to a shelf saying "STAFF PICK!". It seems like a silly idea, but these were the beginning days of Amazon, and nobody really knew how a retail site was supposed to work. Merchants and customers were still figuring that stuff out. Are still figuring that stuff out.

This guy used to pick some book that appears on the Amazon front page. I found myself thinking, how presumptious to think that he should do such a thing. But recommendation engines weren't so great back then. Having some human pick one book a day to show to everybody--that was probably the best option they had at the time... Nowadays, I ignore the Amazon front page and click through to the recommendations. It's not exactly clear to me why there's still a "front page".

What? Oh, right, the book.

The book. He talks about the scandal when customers found out about the payola. Book publishers wanted their books to appear on the front page and on category pages. Depending on which books the Amazon editors picked, the book publishers would fork over payola. You might think that the big publishers are sleazy when they lie to authors about copyright--but they're sleazy in plenty of other contexts, too. Anyhow.

So there was this big editorial staff at Amazon. But they weren't as good as crowdsourcing. There are too many folks on the internets who will write book reviews for free. (Maybe I should point out that I found Harriet Vane's customer review of this book particularly on-target.)

So there was this big editorial staff at Amazon. And then there wasn't.

So this is the story of someone working at a fast-growing start-up--who finds out that he's part of an experiment that's not working out... This would be a pathetic story, but the author, James Marcus, is an engaging writer.

And it's a reminder about the entrepeneurial throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. I like this approach, it's a great thing to do with software. If you write some software that doesn't catch on, that's not a problem. But this approach, it doesn't work so well with people. If you say, "Hey, I know, let's hire a bunch of in-house editors" and that experiment doesn't work out, you're going to have to lay a bunch of people off. And that's hard. So I guess I'm saying don't throw people at the wall to see if they stick. Or something.

(Beware: Chapter 14 of this book is all about literary crap: What would Emerson have thought of the internet? You might not think you care about that idea now. You will care much less about it after you drag your eyeballs over Chapter 14. Things get going again after that, though.)

Labels: , , ,

Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere simultaneously

I posted some notes on DASH #1. There's a photo. This would be a good time for me to mention: "playdash".

(My DASH photo is not as cool as the photo of Jack o Lanterns including one with a hidden message which might be more topical now that we're in October. But what can you do?)

Labels: , ,

home |