No! Alderaan is peaceful. We have no weapons. You can’t possibly…
“Can you hook me up?” I would hear in quiet whisper.
People thought of pirates and hackers as having epic security complemented by measures of extreme secrecy. They always spoke as if they were trying to find a new drug dealer.
We all played it up. “Shhh! Not here… Have you heard the new Bowie album?… Quiet, let’s take it outside… Fewer ears…”
I wish the truth had been so dramatic, but reality has a subtlety to it. We didn’t have secrecy so much as we had inherent privacy.
Privacy is a rare kind of inverted luxury. The rich or famous pay exorbitantly for it, but the obscure and insignificant get it for free.
In my high school everyone gossiped about who might take each cheerleader to the prom. There were false rumors. Denials. More false rumors. True rumors and later public confirmations through the hallway social network.
Geeks went to the prom too. I had a stunning date and it was the farthest thing from a secret. I told everyone who’d listen. I couldn’t have been prouder. Yet, from the first to the last, each announcement was met with the same mild astonishment. There had been absolutely zero broadcasted gossip.
Geekyness was a type of camouflage that rendered most of us functionally invisible. Early hackers ran BBSs from their bedrooms. Their BBS phone numbers were published on a haklist.bbs mirrored everywhere. It was almost mandatory. Hackers always craved a decent conversation, but only from someone worth talking to. Someone who knew the subject and could hold up their end of a detailed discussion. Someone who shared their passion and helped push their limits. The quickest way to find those people was to let them find you.
There was a certain air of elitism but initially it was more technological than sociological. Most early boards had only a single phone line and modem. One user at a time meant it simply wasn’t possible to let anonymous noobs download cracks at 300 baud. If your modem was tied up all day, you’d never meet anyone interesting or learn anything new.
Once you met, however, there were few actual secrets. The respect you received from other hackers was in direct proportion to the information you shared, not the secrets you kept. There were no hacking classes. No formal training programs. Sharing was learning. Learning meant sharing. It was graduate school rediscovered by young geeks who conferred their own degrees.
Learning what others had done before you, then going them one better was a never ending process. Some graybeard traced a ’70s Playboy centerfold onto fanfold paper, then fed it back into a teletype so he could retype his trace in ASCII characters. A dozen others thought it was cool but they were way better artists. Then someone decide to combined the best 12 girls into a giant ASCII calendar. Another guy complained it was so last year and wrote code that could generate printouts for any year.
Even if you just started out to collect and show off some of the old stuff, eventually every self respecting geek went, “Shit. If they could do it in ASCII, I can do it better in hi-res color! If I lay this graph paper over… where’s that magazine?”
“You want me to do what?” I asked incredulously.
“You read off the hex values. I’ll type them in.” Mike repeated.
“It’s three solid pages. That will take forever.”
“But there are two voices. I want to hear what it sounds like. I’m just going to do it without you and it will take twice as long.”
“You’re a pain in the ass Mike. What’s it play?”
“Shit! I’ve got the Revolver album. Want me to play it?”
“No thanks. Just read the hex.”
The Apple II had a rudimentary speaker. Technically it only made clicks. But if you clicked it really fast it sounded like a simple tone. You could click the speaker from BASIC, but programs ran so slowly you only got a low pitched rumble. It took assembly code to make anything that sounded like music.
The Apple II came with a demo program called “Applevision” written by Bob Bishop. It played music using an assembly language tone generator embedded inside an AppleSoft program. It was an opaque bit of magic few understood. People just copied the generator block and changed the note pokes and calls around by ear. The played their creations over and over, tweaking a little each time, until finally something tolerable came out.
Bob’s generator only played one note at a time. That meant every song sounded like something played on a toy organ using one finger. But its rudimentary nature never stopped music geeks from converting new songs and passing them around. I had a half dozen of these tunes. They came from a BBS where people were collecting them all.
The listing Mike found printed in a computer magazine couldn’t have been more different. It played the organ with TWO fingers! Simultaneously! Not only that, each finger played a separate melody like two people playing “Heart and Soul.”
It was magic no ordinary BASIC program could perform. That meant the entire listing was printed out as a hex encoded memory dump. Line after line of random looking hex pairs. In four columns. Across three pages! I’d read and Mike would type. When my eyes blurred, he’d read and I’d type. It took more than an hour to type it all in.
At the end of the listing Mike banged into the monitor a triumphant go command. Three magical notes and a long sick buzz. “There must be a typo,” Mike frowned.
He was right. After five minutes of searching we changed a 2 to a 5 and got twelve notes. Arg! It took another half-hour of finding typos. Each fix let the song play progressively longer. Finally, after almost two hours, we got to hear the full two and a half minutes. The Beatle’s “Eleanor Rigby” in glorious two part square-wave harmony.
Mike was right. It was pretty darn cool.
Later that night, reading Mike’s magazine, I learned the story of Steve Dompier.
Five years earlier, before a live audience at the Homebrew Computer Club, he hand toggled a program into the front panel of his Altair computer. When he ran it, to the surprise of everyone in the room, a nearby AM radio magically played “Fool on the Hill”. His computer didn’t even have a speaker. Steve generated his tones from the radio static caused by the Altair memory bus.
His performance was so cool he got a standing ovation.
Keep in mind I’m using the geek sense of the word cool. It’s different from the musician sense of the word cool. Cool has its audience. Neither Steve nor I would have played our carefully engineered tunes to impress a date.
Geeks do things for reasons that seem completely counterintuitive to the general public. They’re rarely the reasons reported by the media. Mike and I didn’t spend hours typing and debugging because we wanted to hear Eleanor Rigby. Much less because we were too cheap to buy a legal copy. We did it because we wanted to watch the machine dance.
“Watch it dance.”
It was a phrase I’d heard watching a guy fix a player piano. He was an old school geek who also collected piano rolls. He was totally deaf but he got a bang out of seeing the keys fall and the hammers pound. Even without the music, watching it dance still made his blood pump faster.
I kept the program Mike and I typed in for two decades. I kept the cruder old ones too. It wasn’t as a playlist to avoid radio commercials. It wasn’t because LPs were going away and the music companies wanted me to re-buy everything on CDs. It was because I never knew who else might want to watch it dance.
I uploaded the program to a BBS but it remained effectively invisible there as well. I’d known it would from the start. Steve Dompier’s public performance of “Fool on the Hill” was reported in every newsletter. Not once did the Beatles complain he hadn’t asked permission. Eleanor Rigby’s source was published in a national computer magazine. Nobody cleared the rights. No agent bothered to call.
Our program was downloaded countless times over the years. I have no doubt most noobs thought it was stupid. That’s ok, I didn’t upload it for them. I did it for the tiny few who appreciated watching it dance.
“No man. It doesn’t matter that you’re already a member at Pirates Cove. I can’t get you in. But really, it’s not what you think it is. It’s just a bunch of docs. I don’t think you’d find it cool.”
I always told people the truth. They never believed me.
People still laugh when I tell them elite boards were made up mostly of manuals.
Instruction manuals distilled from discarded paper manuals dug from dumpsters. Help texts downloaded from unusual operating systems, listing of command, parameters and defaults. Scripting tutorials. How-to guides summarizing handy use cases more lucidly than the OEM. All formatted neatly into a text file by a geek who’d found and analyzed the original documentation.
These manuals were rarely company secrets. They were simply insignificant instruction manuals for obscure pieces of equipment that no self respecting person would ever gossip about. Just common business machines used by phone companies, computer companies, banks, airlines and even government agencies. Boring stuff. S
tuff barely worth mentioning. Invisible bits of each employees’ infrastructure to be ignored each day they worked correctly.
The rest of the site was filled with snarky comments about the companies who used the equipment. “If you dial (888) 555-6666 you’ll get NASA’s voice mail. Its a PBX model ABC123. They changed the default password, but the morons will gladly let us use their out-dial to bill long distance BBS calls to the government. Score!”
Facepalm! “So that’s what made them so elite? They read the fucking manuals?”
Yup, that’s the deep dark secret. Well, partly. I’m not at liberty to mention the rest. It’s extremely confidential and only discussed in secure environments…
The only real secret was: We really loved this shit! Every byte. Every circuit. Every line of code. Every system utility. Esoteric, shit that nobody else cared about.
If that made us invisible… Well, even better. Privacy was empowering. It made it easy to forget the war.
Experienced hackers routed their own phone calls. Noobs wardialed. Everyone explored and copied whatever struck their fancy. All of us fearlessly secure in the knowledge that few people cared what computers were intended to do, much less what we could make them do.
…until 1985, when I learned some did.