: New: Book Report: Kingpin

This book was a tough read, but not for the usual reasons. It's a biography of l33t Hax0r Max Vision. It's good, it makes sense, the facts hold together (better than you can hope for in most technical reporting), it's compelling. It was just kind of disquieting: I lead a simple life, I don't expect to read a True Crime Thriller in which I've bumped into some of the participants. I got my copy of this book at a puzzlehunt promoting its release. It was a good puzzlehunt, run by Mike Selinker, other Lone Shark folks, and some local puzzle champs. So I was in puzzlehuntist hyper-aware frenzy mode for the final challenge: looking over a few pages of the newly-published book for words with certain interesting characteristics. I found myself reading about someone I'd met; cognitives got dissonanced. I brought the book home, eventually got around to reading it. Things got weird again: After skittering around the Mission following up on a Message from Z, I headed over to catch a streetcar back home. While waiting for the streetcar, I read about how Max Vision stole the Quake III source code before it was released. I thought Oh man, I'm about a block from that guy's apartment, that guy I met just after his apartment got raided by the Feds over the Quake source code. That felt weird, a big coincidence—too big a coincidence to be true, as it turns out; I'd remembered it wrong. That guy's apartment got raided by the feds later, after Vision was suspected of stealing the Half Life II source code. I wasn't actually reading about some crime just a block away from where it occurred.

Fortunately, as I kept reading, I stopped getting tripped up by all these connections. Unfortunately, that's because as Max Vision kept going, he fell in with a bad crowd. He hung out with Carders, i.e., people who stole and used credit card numbers. Forgers, fraudsters, and black-hat hackers. These people got together in BBS systems and internet forums to trade numbers and services, to do illicit business. Max thought like a system programmer, and he could see that many of these forums weren't set up well. And he had the engineering mindset, so when he saw this, he didn't think "Oh, those crooks are incompetent" instead he thought "Oh, I can make a much better system than this," and he did.

And he stole credit cards from poorly-defended restaurant computers. And he sold numbers to fraudsters. This book gives you a pretty good look at the operations of a credit card fraud ring. It's sordid; these people aren't nice. But it's good to remember that these people are out there. But you read this book and it's like a horror story where you want to yell out "Don't go in there!" You think, Max, how did you lose your way? Just walk away from these creeps, just walk away. But he didn't. In a few years, when he gets out of jail, will he consider how much scrutiny he's under? Will he force himself to stop?

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