Hacker Perspective: Synystr

To answer the question of what defines the word "hacker" is to take on a seemingly impossible task, one that arguably still has yet to be resolved.  Just as the media wrongly portrays hackers as evil, lawbreaking individuals, so do the hackers themselves often question what exactly the term means.  I am going to attempt to answer this question in a way that will not actually define the word, but instead share what the word means to me, as a person.

As long as I can remember, I have had an extreme passion for technology - computers and the Internet, in particular.  When I was just five years old, I had the privilege of owning my own computer.  It was a Commodore 64, and I primarily used it to feed my growing addiction for video games.  One day, my grandfather (rest in peace, grandpa) came over to our house to visit, and in the process, he brought me a huge case of floppy disks that each contained one or more games on them.  I was ecstatic.  As happy as I was to see grandpa, when I found out that he had brought me video games to play, I wanted to boot them all up right then and there, and play all day and night.  And he knew it.

I played my heart out that day and, eventually, grandpa ended up showing me how to use a program called Copy II 64.  Initially, I thought it was quite boring - I mean, it wasn't a video game - how fun could that be?  However, I let grandpa finish telling me about the program.  It was the least I could do.  After all, he brought all of these cool games for me to whet my appetite with.

It turned out that, using this Copy II 64 program, I could take a blank floppy disk that I bought from the store and copy a game that grandpa brought for me onto said disk so I could have my own copy.  Suddenly, this "boring" program became much more interesting to my 5-year-old mind.  I could get floppy disks from the store, copy all of grandpa's disks, and keep the copies for myself so I could play them anytime!  I think grandpa was able to tell that computers were going to be big in the coming years, and he realized while watching me play all of those games and loading them up by myself that, with little assistance, my profound interest in them would benefit me in the long run.  So grandpa let me keep all of those games until I had copies of all of the ones I wanted.

It took a few run-throughs with dad helping me out to learn exactly how to copy the disks the right way, but after about five or ten disks, I was able to do it by myself.  At 5-years-old, I was inadvertently a part of the "warez" scene - a scene I never even knew existed, one that I didn't even know I was a part of until many years later.

Dad realized, like grandpa did, that I had a certain "knack" for technology.  He realized this as soon as I was 3-years-old and able to go outside and tune our satellite dish to the Disney Channel so I could watch cartoons.  So dad encouraged my experimentations with our C64 - he supplied me with the floppy disks, and I copied damn near all of grandpa's collection.  Soon, I had my own archive of video games.  And I was a happy kid.

Fast-forward a year or two and, after exhausting my entire archive, I began to instinctively question things.  I had this entire collection of games at my disposal, games that I played until I knew every nook and cranny.  I knew everything about them.  But eventually, a question came to mind: how were the games created in the first place?  How did the Copy II 64 program know what to do to get the games from grandpa's disks onto mine?  Was it magic?

During these periods of questioning and wonder, I had access to a lot of magazines of dad's and grandpa's, such as Compute! and other such publications.  These magazines often included games that you could type into the computer and save onto a tape or disk.  I never typed any in because my young mind felt that playing these games wouldn't be worth the work it would take to type them in.  However, as I was curiously scanning over the lines of so-called "BASIC code" that had to be typed in, I wondered why they had to be typed in to get the game to work?  How do these lines of "code" create the game?  As far as I knew, the white-headed dude named "Jumpman" in the Epyx classic of the same name just appeared from thin air, and it was my job to help him disarm the bombs and save Jupiter from being blown up by the bad guys.  I knew I had to control him with the joystick - I never knew why he couldn't move without my help, nor did I care.  I just wanted to win the game!

Then, one day as I was playing, I noticed something on the title screen that I never really noticed before.  In white text below the colorful Jumpman logo, were the following words: "CREATED BY: RANDY GLOVER".

Who was Randy Glover?  And how did he create Jumpman?  How did he make Jumpman move, dodge, and most importantly, jump?  Did it have something to do with these codes, like the ones I saw in Compute!?  How did he know which codes to put in to make all of this happen?  I had to find out, I was too curious to let it slide.  So I began reading everything I had to get clues: issues of Compute! and the other magazines I had, and the manuals for the Commodore itself. I eventually unearthed the Commodore 64 Users' Guide from the cardboard tomb it laid in.  This book eventually became my Bible.  I saw commands within its pages that I was familiar with from the magazines: PRINT, GOTO, IF...THEN, etc.  This manual, however, told you exactly what each command did, and how to use them.  Being a child at the time, I had no idea what the commands meant, even with the detailed syntax descriptions of each one, but I'll be damned if it did not blow the roof off of my curiosity.

As I read this manual, I found a command called LIST.  According to this manual, you could use the LIST command to show you all of the codes that comprise a program.  Bingo!  This was the holy grail I was looking for!  The key was to LOAD the program into memory first, which I was already familiar with from booting all of my games up.  So, I put in my Jumpman disk I copied from grandpa, typed LOAD"*",8,1, and after the game loaded, instead of typing RUN to run the game program, I typed LIST.  My screen started flooding with BASIC code, and my eyes lit up like a Christmas tree as I watched them all fly by.  I had absolutely no idea whatsoever what they all technically meant, but at that point I didn't care - because I knew I had just found what made Jumpman jump!

These codes whisking by my screen were Greek to my child mind, but I knew that they were what made Jumpman come on the screen, acknowledge what I was doing on my joystick, react to it, avoid that pesky white bullet-thingy, and defuse the bombs on every stage.  This was how Jumpman knew what to do when I told him to do it.  And the fact that I was able to find all of this out on my own was a catalyst not only for my future synergy with technology and computers, but also for the very foundations and principles I would build myself upon.  It sparked the beginning of my way of life.

My research did not stop there.  I looked into BASIC coding a little more and, while I didn't go too far with it initially, I did code my own program eventually.  It was a program that acted like a clerk at a store.  It would greet you with a message, then ask you for five things you wanted to buy.  After entering what you wanted to buy, it would thank you and say "here's your receipt:" and list off all five things that you bought.  It wasn't much at all, but the fact that I was able to write this, save it to a floppy disk, call it my own creation, and achieve this feat all by myself filled me with joy.  I created my own computer program, just like Randy Glover did with Jumpman!

We got rid of the Commodore 64 eventually, along with my game archive, passing it on to my aunt and cousins for them to use.  We moved into the Windows world, which carried on well into high school, where I met another friend who was into computers.  Until then, I had been the "computer guy" at my school.  Everyone would see me and think "there's the computer kid."  But as I talked with my friend, who had the same creative writing class in tenth grade as I did, I realized that he knew way more than I did.  I kind of looked up to him.  He told me about all kinds of computer tricks he did, and introduced me to something that I knew of, but didn't know too much about: hacking.

I figured that hacking was something I would never be able to do.  I didn't possess enough know- how to be able to do it.  While never telling me outright, he showed me that anyone could do it.  He even brought in old issues of a publication called 2600 Magazine for me to read.  The stuff in this magazine blew my mind.  It kind of took me back to when I was browsing through Compute!.  I had no idea what the articles in 2600 were actually talking about but, man, did it ever interest me.

One day during class, I was on the computer that we had in our classroom.  I made a joking comment about how I wished they hadn't locked down Internet Explorer so I could play Flash games on the Web.  My friend kind of smiled, and then proceeded to tell me how easy it was to "break" that lock.  Knowing his technical aptitude, I didn't doubt that he was able to do it.  Hell, he brought in pirated movie bootlegs of movies that were still in theaters, and watched them during class.  I figured anyone who knew how to do that knew what they were doing.  So I asked him how he defeated the security locking down the computer, because I wanted to try it too.  His response was that he was not going to tell me outright how to do it, because he wanted me to learn how to do it for myself.  Frustrated, I tried everything I could think of: opening the Fortres security program itself and trying different passwords, removing the program outright, finding alternate paths to the Internet Explorer executable...  Nothing worked.

My friend, knowing that I would eventually learn and succeed, and that I was genuinely interested in how it worked and not just being a "skript kiddie," gave me a hint.  He told me there was a certain file in the Windows operating system that made the program start when the computer boots up.  He didn't tell me the file nor how to access it, just that it existed.  Grateful for the tip, and his mercy towards my undying will to find out how to break the security, I researched the issue.

It turned out that there was a file called AUTOEXEC.BAT, which contained commands to load programs at startup.  Perfect!  This was exactly what I needed.  However, when I tried to open that file to edit it, I was unable to.  It was most likely the security that was preventing me from doing this.  As I was experimenting with the computer, I restarted the PC and, for some odd reason, it dropped me to a command line.  I had noticed that I had accidentally left a floppy disk in the drive and forgot to take it out, and that the disk must have triggered the command prompt for some reason.

Then it clicked.  I had a command line staring me in the face and the security had not loaded yet.  I had full access to the system!  I opened the EDIT program through the command prompt, and opened AUTOEXEC.BAT from the C: drive of the computer, and voilà!  There was the file, in plain sight.  After some searching, I found the line that contained the command to boot the Fortres security program that I wanted to disable.  I saved the current, unaltered AUTOEXEC.BAT to the floppy disk and then removed the line telling Fortres to start, and saved that as a different filename, also to the floppy.  I then exited EDIT.

Now, the moment of truth had arrived.  I deleted the AUTOEXEC.BAT from the C: drive of the computer, copied the altered version from my floppy with the Fortres line removed, and renamed it to AUTOEXEC.BAT.  I then restarted the PC and, when it booted up, I double-clicked on Internet Explorer, and the MSN welcome page popped up, ready to take me to any website I wanted!  Then I rebooted the PC again, this time deleting my altered AUTOEXEC.BAT and putting the unaltered one I saved earlier in its place, and restarted.  The security came back up, just like it was supposed to.  I could now turn the security off, do what I wanted, then turn it back on, and no one would be the wiser!

I hurriedly showed my friend what I did, and he gave me a pat on the shoulder, and told me something that would stick with me for the rest of my life, something that I will never forget.

"If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day.  If you teach a man how to fish, he will eat for a lifetime."

It was then that I realized that not only was hacking something that I could indeed do, but also that I had already done it prior to this feat.  What I had just done, finding out on my own how to disable the security and re-enable it, was exactly what I did when I was a child, when I found out on my own how to view the code of the Jumpman video game.  I embraced my curiosity, and never stopped learning and teaching myself how to do things until the task was done.

That is what hacking is to me - having a curiosity that you embrace, and using that curiosity to fuel your need to learn and accomplish a task, no matter how impossible it may seem.  It need not even apply to computers - it can literally apply to anything.

I just turned 28-years-old last month, and have never felt happier and more accomplished with myself and my life.  And the main reason for that is because the hacker mindset has been ingrained so deeply into my very existence that I know there is absolutely nothing I cannot accomplish, no obstacle I cannot surpass, and no problem I cannot solve.  Knowing that I can overcome anything life throws at me, one way or another, gives me the confidence to throw all of the sorrow and pain that often comes with the problems of life away, and focus on the positive.  Trusting my instincts, questioning everything, and staying true to myself are what carry me through life's hurdles.  And before I knew what hacking was, I did not realize I even had this power.

And implementing the hacker mindset is not only for a select few.  Anyone can do it.  As I said previously, and as many other hackers have said before me, hacking need not be applied only to computers and technology.  Whatever your passions in life are, you can apply the hacker mindset to them.  Maybe you like cooking, and experiment with different recipes that nobody has ever come up with before.  That's hacking.  Perhaps you like playing card games, and you came up with a game no one has ever played before.  That's hacking.  Perhaps you are into woodworking, and constantly use your skills to craft new types of structures or items that can be useful in everyday life, or solve a task in a way that no one ever thought of before.  You hack every time you do that.  Or maybe you are just a normal person, with a normal 9-5 job, who throughout your monotonous day, comes up with different little things to do or try to make the day go by faster and retain your sanity, while not impeding on your job performance.  That's an awesome hack!  These are just examples, there are many, many more ways to apply the hacker mindset to your life, no matter who you are or what you do.

As undefined as the actual term "hacker" may be, the hacker mindset is something that can be understood and applied by anyone.  And that is what I choose to focus on.

Synystr is currently enjoying life, working on a computer helpdesk in Michigan.  He is in the process of planning his most elaborate hack - hacking himself.

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