A Hackers Convention at the Hotel Penn

Written by Alan Cabal on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

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

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.