Ax0n's Insight

I can't vouch for all hackers. I can't even vouch for my fellow HiR contributors. All I can do is tell you where I came from and what shaped me into who I am today. I must tell you that the mainstream image of "hackers" has obviously strayed a great deal from reality. Think of Matthew Broderick in WarGames. He wasn't malevolent. He was a bit mischievous, perhaps, but not a cyber-terrorist. He was curious and brilliant and he got in over his head.

I define "hacker" somewhere between any person who, by virtue of curiosity, must know everything about something and any person who refuses to blindly accept posted limitations. I also think that "hacker" is a strong word that usually shouldn't be used introspectively. I call myself a tinkerer.

My personal motto is this:

If something is broken, I can usually fix it.
If something is not broken, I can usually make it faster, better or easier to use...
or I can break it.

My parents were kind of technical. My mother comes from a long line of tinkerers and engineers. My father comes from a strong mechanical discipline, and knew the advantages that computers would offer in the future.

One of the very first truly affordable and personal computers was the Timex Sinclair 1000. It was released in Europe in 1981 as the Sinclair ZX-81, and found its way to our side of the pond a year later through a partnership with Timex. It was powered by a Zilog Z80 CPU, was about 6 inches square, about 3/4 inch thick. It had a tiny touch-membrane keyboard mounted on the computer case itself, and had composite video output (Black and White) for a Television as a monitor, and used a cassette tape for data storage. Out of the box it came with a scant two kilobytes of RAM. To put things into perspective, this paragraph would fill more than half the RAM of my old Timex. My dad purchased the $100 kit from a local department store and had to solder all the parts together himself. For an extra $25, if I recall correctly, he could have purchased one that was as ready-to-run as they come (which wasn't all that ready-to-run, it just didn't require assembly)

This isn't about my dad's old Timex, though. I was about four years old when he bought it. Most of the programs for it were found in magazines and required the user to type them in by hand. As you can imagine, this wasn't a difficult task with only 2kB of RAM. Before I was 5, I was already messing with the Timex. I had learned how to turn it on and load programs that my dad had recorded to tape. The programs sounded faintly like a modem handshake, and I liked that sound, despite its cold, harsh tone. The whole experience was mysterious and magical to me.

By the age of five, I was modifying programs and saving them to tape. I started by putting my name on the side of a bomber plane (which was drawn with block characters on the screen) in one of the games. Later on, I made my own text programs. I was also rabidly taking apart anything I could find screws on. This included mechanical spring-wound alarm clocks, radios, TV remotes, my toys, and anything else I felt like opening up. Curiosity had gotten the best of me. A firm grasp of mechanical synergy had not quite bestowed its wisdom upon me, yet. My parents often ended up having to re-assemble or simply throw away things that I'd broken with hand tools.

I have to give a lot of credit to my father and to my grandfather on my mother's side, as they were my earliest inspirations for mechanical hacking. As any Father should, my dad used me as early as possible for my extra set of hands. Sometimes it was to fetch a beer, but more often it was to hold a screwdriver or wrench while he worked on his truck. I observed while he replaced a timing chain, serviced his transmission, did oil changes, and even patch a hole in the gas tank.

My grandfather was the bona-fide definition of an Optics Hacker, even back in the 1940s. His team took and refined the crude fresnel lens to come up with the paper-thin magnifying surfaces found today in projectors, on cheap bookmarks, etc. On top of microscopes, telescopes and photography equipment, he also had a full machine shop in his basement where he spent hours and hours crafting devices made of wood, PVC, glass, metal, and plexiglass. Furthermore he was an electronics tinkerer. His basement was a mad scientists laboratory of anything and everything you could think of (even a kitchen sink!) It's easy to see where I got the itch to tinker beyond what's normal for a kid.

I was born a little late to really savor the experience of the technology of the early 1980s, but that didn't stop me from finding dial-up BBS systems, mainframes and UNIX servers in the mid-to-late 1980's. My first foray into dial-up servers (as opposed to BBSs) was the local library. Using some trickery at the library itself, I found the unprivileged account information to allow me to log in to the library with my modem. This resulted in me being able to reserve books, browse the card catalog, view full magazine articles, and even request inter-library transfers all from the comfort of my home as if I were in the library. I eventually found the IP Address for the server by using one of the more privileged "research terminals" to telnet out to somewhere that would show my the IP Address I was coming from. Via the Internet, the library's server had even more interesting things to show me. I spent a great deal of time not just using, but tinkering with the library's software. I used their services "under the radar" for many years before they replaced the entire system with a more modern Web-Based solution.

While still in high school, I was accepted to take certain classes for high-school and college credit at the local community college. I always made sure to enroll myself in a few classes that would require UNIX shell access. This was great, and really helped me sharpen my shell scripting and UNIX userland skills. My dad and I had tried Linux in 1994, but with only one Linux-capable computer in the house and not enough space to really dedicate to a Linux partition, we abandoned the project early on. Legitimate shell accounts were the only way I really could play with anything other than DOS.

In parallel to this, I was learning how to solder, and how to build circuits using schematics I'd find printed in books. My mechanical interests were becoming more refined as well, leading me away from Lego creations and repairing broken power tools, and into working on two-cycle engines and picking locks. In college, I took classes that would allow me to practice what I liked doing while earning high marks. This included small engine repair (four cycle), photography, networking (IT) and even a few programming classes. Oddly enough, I met Asmodian X, one of HiR's contributors, through one of the IT classes.

It's important to note that I didn't learn a lot from my coursework in these classes. My instructors were often my mentors, and I would often use the class time as an opportunity to mess with similar things of a more advanced nature. Some of my professors thought of this as goofing off, but I usually scored well on tests, so they let me be.

I'm at a phase in my life now where I'm still striving to know more about everything I'm interested in, and I'm constantly looking for more things to be interested in. I've chronicled a few stories from my life which brought me here. Just remember, it's not about how many web pages you can deface. It's not about how many uber-secure servers you can weasel your way into or how good your social engineering skills are. It's about a lifestyle of curiosity and constant learning.

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