A Hackers Convention at the Hotel Penn

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:57

    My relationship with computers is tricky, at best. I was very excited by the advent of the personal computer revolution back in the 70s. I was a big fan of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, and I remember a book of his called Spacewar or something, detailing how people who called themselves "hackers" were playing games and exchanging messages over something called ARPA Net. Meanwhile my friends and I were saving a fortune in long-distance charges by scamming telephone credit card numbers from pay phones. Every year the Yippies would get the code for the construction of these numbers and publish it in their newsletter.

    I remember a story about a blind kid in a college dorm somewhere in Florida who figured out how to get free long distance for his roommates by whistling into the telephone at 2600 cycles per second, the frequency it took to trip the relays and override the billing process. Then John Draper revealed that the cheap little plastic whistle being given away in boxes of Cap'n Crunch cereal produced the same effect. Draper became the überhacker, the bogeyman of his time, and the focus of a fair amount of unwanted attention from law enforcement acting, as always, at the behest of its corporate overlords. He was really the first hacker to get tarred as an evil genius by the cops, and it really rattled his cage. He took to calling himself "Cap'n Crunch" and moving around a lot. The more they harassed him, the weirder he got.

    I bought a Commodore VIC-20 back in 1983, shortly after they were first released. I dumped a bunch of rare first editions by Aleister Crowley and bought the machine. I thought personal computers were going to be instruments of personal liberation; of course, in 1968, I thought that if we could just get everybody eating LSD, there'd be world peace. Bill Gates, meet Charles Manson. No one has time to drop acid anymore, and my watch has more memory than that cheery little VIC-20. There are refrigerators with more computing power than that now.

    I've never been a technically minded guy. "Don't tell me how it works, just show me the effects," is my attitude, whether it's toasters, cars or computers. Hackers fascinate me. They always have. The monastic devotion to esoteric systems, the occult nature of the phenomena involved, the outlaw status?these are all themes that I've been attracted to all my life. I've made the acquaintance of some of these folks over the years. A fellow I'll call Ozzie lived in my building back during the late 70s and early 80s. He was involved with an obscure journal called TAP, an outgrowth of the old Yippie "Youth International Party Line." In San Francisco in the mid-80s I met a small clique of hackers who were also into mind-altering substances in a big way. Among them was a fellow who called himself R.U. Sirius, who went on to found a magazine called Mondo 2000, kind of like Wired but moving at about 10 times the speed.

    So I am not altogether unfamiliar with the hackers; I just don't know a damn thing about computers. I can turn one on. Sometimes I even remember to plug it in first. Frankly, they've become the bane of my existence. It was with mixed feelings that I went down to the Hotel Pennsylvania on Frii, July 14, to register and take in a few of the presentations and events. The Hotel Pennsylvania is a dump. It was best described by one of the youthful attendees as "a cross between The Shining and Fawlty Towers"?a charmless, decrepit old wreck that ought to be torn down and replaced. It's where Frank Olson took his final flight out a 10th-floor window after the CIA spiked his Cointreau with LSD back in 1953. It was called the Statler Hilton then, and it was considered a class joint. No more.

    The attendees were an interesting bunch. I'd guess their average age to have been no older than 20. They were dressed in the sort of very functional, comfortably antifashion mode that I myself have preferred all my life: lots of pockets, loose and comfortable, sneakers, boots and sandals predominating in the footwear department. They seem very focused, very sober. There were many more women in attendance than I expected. The presence of significant numbers of women on this scene is an interesting development. The hacker subculture is a pure meritocracy, maybe the purest I've ever seen. You don't get any special breaks for belonging to some sacred designated victim category. The women at the HOPE conference were there because they belonged there, not because somebody lowered the bar for them.

    Registration was painless, and I got a copy of the H2K guidebook. This had a schedule of the events, biographical material on the speakers and a terrific little list of "Rules of the City," as follows:

    Do not laugh and point at people you don't know.

    Do not stop short while crossing a street to marvel at the splendor of the tall buildings.

    Avoid staring no matter how unusual the people you're staring at are. It will only lead to woe.

    Get used to the fact that cop cars and garbage trucks run red lights at night at full speed and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

    Remember that you do NOT in fact "own" the sidewalk.

    Respect the rats and they will respect you.

    Don't stand at a corner waiting for the "Don't Walk" sign to change if there are no cars coming. That REALLY pisses people off and you may even get a ticket.

    We don't recommend buying illegal drugs from some stranger on the street somewhere. If you do, be sure to ask to see their business certificate.

    (The previous item was a joke. Please don't do that.)

    Don't even think of looking for hookers in Times Square anymore. It's all Disney now. Do not criticize Disney in Times Square.

    Do not taunt the police by waving wallets at them.

    And PLEASE do not encourage the pigeons.

    It would be nice if every New Yorker knew those rules and lived by them.

    I ran into my old friend Ozzie, who is now a good deal grayer and calling himself "The Cheshire Catalyst." He's living in Florida, where he somehow managed to get his own area code, 321. He was at the conference to do a presentation on just how he did that, which included footage of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush placing the very first phone call to the new area code.

    I tried to attend a seminar on identity theft and fake ID, a subject that's been near and dear to my heart since I was a little sprout back in Camden, but the room was overcrowded and the air conditioner was broken and, well, I'm only willing to refrain from smoking if I can breathe.

    I wandered over to a press conference being given by the Electronic Frontier Foundation regarding the upcoming trial of Emmanuel Goldstein, founder of 2600. It seems that the MPAA has decided to make a scapegoat of Emmanuel under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for posting the DeCSS code on the 2600 website, despite the fact that it had been posted on numerous other sites first. DeCSS does not allow any form of "piracy" or copying of DVDs; it simply allows one to play a DVD on a home computer running Linux. Apparently that loathsome media whore Jack Valenti and his corporate owners think they should be able to force people who buy DVDs to buy only sanctioned DVD players, which is a braindead greedhead crock of shit reminiscent of Sony's addled attempt to foist Betamax on the VCR market while refusing to allow other manufacturers in on the game. Nature has a way of correcting this sort of idiocy, and I'm sure Emmanuel will prevail.

    There were some problems. The ventilation in these rooms was hideous. It wasn't the fault of the conference organizers, who made plenty of complaints to hotel management, to no avail. The organizers had planned on having a vast ethernet set up in the main network room, but despite weeks of advance notice and all the usual promises, Bell Atlantic somehow managed to fuck up and the T1 didn't get installed until sometime Friday afternoon. Bell Atlantic is a company that will surely be late to its own funeral.

    There were feds, naturally: FBI and Secret Service lurking around, some in really shitty disguises, a couple in suits making no effort at concealment, striding around with their Darth Vader vibes, wearing expressions that looked as if they'd just bitten into a couple of lemons. It fascinated me that I saw feds, but no corporate recruiters. Corporate America is running around shrieking like a 50s housewife with a mouse in the house, "Eek! The hackers! Eek! The hackers!" and siccing all manner of law-enforcement types on these people, who happen to be the brightest and the best when it comes to working with computer systems. The only corporate presence anyone detected at the conference was Hewlett-Packard. Bravo for them. At least somebody out there knows where to send its recruiters.

    If there is one lesson that capitalism has to teach us, it is this: if you can't beat them, buy them. The waste of Kevin Mitnick's talent by the absurd and draconian restrictions imposed on him by the court is a crime against progress. Mitnick isn't allowed to touch a computer. The demonization and criminalization of the hacker subculture is a move that only very stupid, very greedy and very shortsighted people would attempt. It is a war that cannot be won, fought in a distant and unfamiliar territory: cyberspace.