2) Hackers and Crackers

1982

There was no organization to the meetings. Nobody ran them. There were no speakers. Just geeks coming together. And for a covert pirate lair, surprisingly, there were no secrets. You could ask anybody anything. If they didn’t know the answer they could usually point you to someone who could.

“What are those switches?” I remember asking someone.

“Just a hack so I don’t have to cut a notch in the disk to write on the back.”

I was flummoxed. The Apple drive was single sided and everyone bought single sided disks they were way cheaper. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Do you buy double sided disks?”

“All disks are double sided,” he replied. “They’re made on the same lines. If you turn them over and punch a notch in the other side, you can format the back easy as the front. I kept losing my hole punch so I put in this switch. Up for writable. Down is read-only. The middle position uses the write notch.”

I must have replied the 80’s version of you’ve got to be fucking kidding me because I remember him smiling. “Live and learn,” he said. “Welcome to the group.”

I had goose bumps, it was brilliant! It also kind of pissed me off. I’d read every magazine on the stand. Been to every computer store within thirty miles. In four years no “expert” had ever mentioned this. I felt like every time I’d bought disks I’d been cheated out of half my money. But suddenly I had a huge stack of upside down blanks to take the sting out.

Backlit by understanding the stained glass suddenly looked majestic. It showed not a den of larceny but a digital library. Told not of pirates pillaging but of a guild of engineers cooperatively learning their craft. Enlightening.

Even with all the new pirate booty it turns out my most fascinating gem was not EDD nor any of the games I had craved. It was a tiny bit of magic hidden on the game disks.

Games were traditionally sold one to a disk. It was a huge waste of space but copy protection required it. The pirated games, on the other hand, were cracked. Separated from their disk copy protection schemes each game became a binary file normally less than 30K. You could easily get five games on a standard disk.

Yet somehow these disks were magically non-standard. Their command line was replaced with a type of control panel user interface I had never seen before. When the disk booted it displayed a listing of all disk’s files. You could load, run, copy, rename, lock or delete any file with two keystrokes. Now there were lots of little BASIC programs that did menu systems in a kludgy way, but this was binary fast and elegantly cool.

Most curiously it was also magically invisible. It simply wasn’t a file. I could format another disk to propagate it, but I couldn’t inspect or copy it. It simply wasn’t there. Asking around the group I learned that it was a modified version of DOS with the utility hidden inside the boot code.

It sounds pretty corny to say, “A boot loader changed my life!” But that quickly became a theme. This boot loader became my personal incentive to learn binary, assembly, machine code, or whatever digital magic made it so cool!

I’d been typing in binary files from magazines and newsletters for years. But hex listings didn’t contain comments like BASIC programs. They were opaque to a novice. I knew that Woz had written a disassembler into ROM. It could turn binary code back into assembly code. Very cool in the sense of the word cool that gave me both hieroglyphics and Latin. Now I just had to find a way to learn Latin!

A shortcut came in the form of a program called “The Visible Computer.” It was brand new and promised a hi-res animation of the 6502 CPU as it ran. I happened across the first magazine review and knew immediately that I had to have it. To my amazement it was written by a company named Software Masters on Hillcroft not 5 miles from my house! It took every penny I could muster to come up with the $50. But I was out the door within 30 minutes. I wanted to get there before 5 o’clock.

Software Masters turned out to be small industrial strip center. It wasn’t a retail store so I felt nervous just walking into the place. There was only one guy there at the time. He wasn’t used to walk-ins either. He said he didn’t have any in the box but he would make one.  Now I felt really out of place!
He took me in the back. There on an industrial shelf was an Apple II with six disk drives busy copying. I wasn’t sure what I expected to see, but one Apple II at the heart of a software company seemed simpler yet more awesome than I expected. He took out the first copy to finish, grabbed a box, manual and those omnipresent registration cards from the assemble table an put a package together. He offered to shrink wrap it but I wouldn’t let him. Just seemed silly because I was going to open it before I got to the door.

TVC proved as enlightening as the review promised. By the next group meeting I’d worked through a good chuck of the tutorials. Writing anything substantial in assembly language requires a good assembler. I figured the group would be a good place to ask opinions about which to use. They were split between Merlin and LISA. I decided to tryout both myself.

While making inquiries I happened to mention TVC to a veteran programmer. It was so new he had never heard of it. I was momentarily surprised when he ask for a copy. No one had ever wanted my stuff. He wasn’t going to use it, “but you never know…,” he repeated the now familiar refrain. I told him he could try to make a copy but it was protected and hadn’t found a program that would do it. I felt a twinge of guilt as I handed over the factory disk. It didn’t last long.

As I looked on, he booted the disk and almost immediately dropped into the monitor. He disassembled the boot loader, scrolling and no-oping in ram a few instructions as he read. A quick restart of the modified code to finish it booting. Then back to monitor to dumped memory to a blank disk. He rebooted the floppy and confirmed it worked. Then flipped his write-enable switch, wrote the cracked version to the back of my original, and said, “Thanks.” Total elapsed time, 5 minutes. It was mind blowing!

I never booted the copy protected side again. In fact I replaced all the copy protected software I had purchased with cracked versions. Sometimes to analyze how the program worked. Other times to reclaim the wasted disk space. Most of the time just because it sucked to have paid for something designed to actively frustrate me.

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