Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hacking, before the Internet

The term hack has existed for quite a long time in various forms. MIT uses the term to describe playful pranks some members of the community have played. These tricks are intended as benign although they have sometimes played out in unexpected ways. If you want some samples, you can find summaries around the net (for example, click here) or you can see the movie Real Genius, which is a lot more true to life in many respects than you might imagine.

When I arrived on the MIT computer scene in the latter part of the 1970's, the term “hack” had taken on an even more generic meaning than this prank sense. For all intents and purposes, a “hack” was simply a synonym for “do”, often with a sense of cleverness or inventiveness, though at MIT that aspect was so taken for granted that it was rarely spoken. Not surprisingly at an engineering school, it was all about doing things, leading someone later on to coin the phrase “hackito ergo sum”—that is, presumably, “I hack [or do], therefore I am.”

Note: The New Hacker's Dictionary will describe the meaning of the term slightly differently, but not in what I think is a material way. Even so, since I lived through the era, I'm exercising my right to describe things as I perceived them directly and not to be burdened by references written by others.

In that era, which was still that of an older, non-public network called the ARPANET that preceded the public Internet, someone might routinely be heard to ask, as a simple greeting and with no intent to challenge, “what are you hacking?” It meant, literally, “what are you doing?” but really in a more figurative and non-confrontational way, as if the speaker had asked just “what's up?”

A hacker, then, was just someone capable of doing something, and the term was often used with great reverence as in a doer of great deeds. Our online profiles on one of the computers contained the fill-in-the-blank “Hacking task-name for supervisor” where you would fill in the task-name and the supervisor, where mine might have said “Hacking the time/space continuum for the future of mankind.” (We weren't always very good about putting in actual supervisor names.)

Of course, as these things go, the computer community got bigger and not all deeds done (not all hacks hacked) were good. After a while, there were people doing bad things, too. I was around when this happened generally, but did not witness whatever event it was that caused the sudden shift of the use of the name. I've only managed to piece together what I think must have happened.

I imagine that one day someone finally did something bad with computers, and someone from outside the community asked who had done it, my bet is that a terminological confusion resulted from someone responding “probably one of those hackers,” leading the listener to believe that the purpose of being a hacker was to do something destructive, perhaps with a machete, rather than that the purpose of being a a hacker was merely to do things and that some things one might do are good and some things one might do are bad.

I do know that it was around the time of the movie Wargames and that I was working at the MIT AI Lab as a programmer. I had gone out for a walk around Boston, as I often did in the afternoons then. I returned to the lab and a bunch of people rallied around me and said, “Kent, Kent, Ted Koppel called. He wants to interview a hacker about the movie Wargames. We said they should talk to you.” (To this day, I don't know why in such a community of much more talented folks than I, they picked me, especially since I wasn't to be found, but so it goes.) I tried to call back, but we couldn't get them on the phone. I later figured out they'd gotten someone from Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) and so didn't need me any more. Ah, the chance for fame can be so fleeting.

But it was just as well because they were apparently operating under this new meaning of “hacker” and I would have been totally thrown by the questions they were asking, which seemed to presuppose that if I was a self-identified hacker, I was the sort who'd be breaking into computers or something. That wasn't what hackers I'd known did, and I didn't either. We had things to build. So they interviewed this guy from CMU. It was someone I knew of, I just don't now recall his name.

This is how we came to the belief they don't do those things live, because we saw he was logged in to his console in the interview and we all quickly scrambled during the broadcast (hackers came out at night, so we were all watching from the Lab) to try to send him a message (the equivalent of an instant message) hoping it would come out on his screen while he was on the air. But it didn't. Another chance at fame lost.

Fortunately for ABC News, this person seemed to know the new meaning of “hacker” and gave them a competent interview. But we were all saddened at the tarnishing such an important word had taken. It was part of our daily vocabulary and veritably wrenched from us for this stupid use.

There was an attempt by a number of hackers to get the media to use the term “crackers” instead, but it failed. And the term was essentially lost. From time to time, you'll still see someone of my generation refer to themselves as a “hacker (original meaning)” in some wistful attempt to reclaim the memory of a time when hacking was just doing.

The moniker “netsettler” that I use in some discussion forums (such as Slashdot) harkens to that era. I often feel an empathy, even if the experience is only metaphorically equivalent, with the displacement Native Americans must have felt when the modern world moved in and took their land. The net, and indeed the whole world, was such a different place before it was the Internet. Most people see the arrival of the Internet as the beginning of something, but some of us saw it also as the ending of something.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

This article was originally published November 16, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman. A discussion thread is attached there which I did not port forward to here, but you can still read by clicking through to the version on the Internet Archive's “Wayback Machine.”

Tags (from Open Salon): hackito ergo sum, hackity-hack, hacks, hack, cracker, hacker, clever, programming, technical, prank, pacific tech, caltech, mit, history, linguistic evolution, linguistics, language, terminology, jargon

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Recycling Theater

I'm very worried about the environment and Climate Change, and am always trying to think of useful things we could do to effect useful change. This problem is getting worse as we speak, and we really need some serious public dialog on the matter.

Some suggestions about fixing the environment are technical in nature, some are social. It's in my nature to go meta once in a while, so here's a somewhat radical proposal to help break you out of your weekend stupor.

[hypothetical international symbol for: don't recycle]

Perhaps we should make it illegal to have places at which people can individually drive to drop off their recycling. That is, perhaps we should disallow personal recycling.

I'll skip right past whining about the whole notion of driving somewhere to be earth-friendly at the end-location. That's an issue, too, but it's “in the noise” for my purposes here. Let's cut straight to the chase:

It's really nice that there are scattered people who care about recycling, but their individual actions are not enough to save everyone. “Well, every little bit helps,” I hear you complain. Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

You see, I'm guessing that most of us are busy people who have only finite time. And in some cases that extra effort consumes the available free time one has. So if we told these very ambitious, very ecology-conscious people they were not allowed to solve problems only for themselves, it might leave them frustrated but I'm guessing they would vent that frustration trying to get the problem solved for everyone, like they should have originally. A town with 10% of its residents recycling is not really helping things. But the same town with 10% of its residents on the phone regularly to the city saying “why can't I recycle in this town?” might end up with 100% of its residents recycling.

Part of the reason we're in the ecological mess we're in is the failure of people to see the interrelationships between elements of the system. We reason about independent questions as if they do not relate to one another. In that light, personal recycling seems an unambiguous good because its cost on the rest of the system is not analyzed. But if the activity is taken in the context of a larger system, it isn't cost-free.

Yes, what I'm suggesting amounts to robbing the energetic, self-satisfied folks among us (which might sometimes include me, so don't get all huffy) of the smug satisfaction of doing it themselves and feeling superior to the ones who didn't. Tell them they're not allowed to do it that way in order to spur them to find better answers, a system that works for everyone, not just for themselves. We need answers that work for everyone, even busy or lazy or oblivious people. All of society has to be involved.

It's true that on this I don't really think anyone will take the part about making it a law seriously. But that doesn't mean I'm not serious when I suggest that it's a bad idea to rely on people to be super-ethical or super-energetic as the solution to a big problem like this. This is mostly just a thought exercise, to urge people to reconsider how they spend their time and to think differently about which actions are productive. The part about making it a law was just to wake you up and think maybe I was talking to you. Which I am. One oughtn't need a public law in order to ask oneself the question: “Does my spending my time doing cute little self-congratulatory things keep me from doing something that would have more impact?”

Some actions may feel productive and give us a sense of self-satisfaction while really doing little or nothing. In his book Beyond Fear, Bruce Schneier coined the term “security theater” to refer to “countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security.” When dealing with the ecology, let's not find ourselves needing a term like “Recycling Theater,” describing countermeasures to mounting environmental degradation intended to provide the feeling of having improved environmental quality while doing little or nothing to actually improve the environment.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published Nov 9, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, environment, recycling, recycle, public policy, environmental policy, suggestion, thought, law

If you don't want this post to go to waste,
please “share” it so it will be re-read by others.
It's the “green” thing to do.

Also, the logo above was intended to be a little attention-grabbing. But my wife said I would attract more attention at Open Salon with pictures of “doggies and kitties” so here's my alternative graphic:

[Dog (Cinnamon) with recycle symbol on her forehead]

Monday, November 3, 2008

Limiting Term Frequency

The notion of term limits comes up and people never seem to know what to do about that. On the one hand, having the same person in office for a long time risks that there's never a general housecleaning. It also may mean they have unfair power to abuse their office during the campaign. On the other hand, if there's a good person it's a shame to just tell them they can't contribute.

The idea I'm pondering is to split the difference: Limit term frequency rather than the number of terms. That is, prohibit incumbents from running for office—require them to “sit one out” before they run again. So people would be able to run for office a maximum of every other term.

The thought is that everyone should govern as if it might be their last chance. That is, not worry about re-election. Or, if you insist on thinking four years out, at least you're worrying about doing long-term good that would make voters, not next year, but down the road, think you've done well enough to bring back.

It would also mean you couldn't use the power of public office to directly assure your own re-election. Often, the person in power can call press conferences, can affect the focus of the public through attention to specific policies (snooping in files [Nixon/Watergate] [Clinton/Filegate (alleged)], changing the threat level [Bush/Cheney (Ridge allegations)] or even invading other countries [Clinton/Afghanistan/Sudan (alleged)] are examples some have alleged politicians to have done).

It would also mean that if people liked your party and wanted to re-elect it, they wouldn't have the very same people in. So at least some abuses of power, those that are not shared and adopted as party policy anyway, have a routine chance of being exposed on a regular basis, rather than having these things grow unchecked over longer spans of time as one set of office holders continues in office too long without oversight.

It might be that political parties would find creative techniques to get around this kind of rule. For example, they become suddenly very fond of having husband/wife teams alternate time in office, even taking advantage of spousal privileges not to incriminate their partner to assure procedural continuity of shakey practices. I could see that specific configuration needing to be prohibited. But I think these details could be worked out.

Something to ponder anyway.

Author's Note: Originally published November 3, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, elections, policy, election policy, term limits, reelection, term frequency, free speech