Hacking History – A Brief Look Into Philly’s Hacking Roots

Monday, November 4th, 2013

This article was originally written for and published at Philly2600 on November 4th, 2013. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

The tech scene in Philadelphia is booming. We have local startups like Duck Duck Go and TicketLeap, and we have co-working spaces like Indy Hall and Philly Game Forge. We have hackathons like Apps for Philly Transit and Start-up Weekend Health, and we have hackerspaces like Hive 76 and Devnuts. We have user groups like PLUG and PSSUG, and we have conferences like Fosscon and PumpCon. We have events like Philly Tech Week and TEDxPhilly, and we have security meet-ups like PhillySec and, yeah, Philly 2600. The hacker spirit is alive and well in the city of brotherly love, but where did all of this pro-hacker sentiment come from? What came before to help shape our current tech-centric landscape?

It’s surprisingly difficult to approach the topic from the present day. I haven’t been there since the beginning, and the breadcrumbs left over from the era are few and far between. We are left with hints though, but usually from more analog sources. The first issue of 2600 that includes meeting times is volume 10, issue 2, from 1993. Philly 2600 is listed here with numerous others (making the meeting at least 20 years old), but how long did the meeting exist before this? We also know that Bernie S., longtime 2600 affiliate, was the founder of the Philadelphia 2600 chapter. Other than that, there is little to find on paper.


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First listing of the Philadelphia 2600 meeting in 2600 Volume 10, Issue 2 (1993).

But what else can we dig up? We do have some other little tidbits of information that apply themselves to the history of Philly 2600. The film Freedom Downtime (2001) has some footage taking place at Stairway #7 of 30th Street Station, the original meeting location. There are also mentions of the meeting in the book Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers (2002), where one story places a student at the 30th Street meeting in the late 1990′s. More recent references, such as the current 2600 magazine meeting listings have the meeting location moved to the southeast corner of the food court – the location used previous to the current location some 50 feet away.


Mention of Philadelphia 2600 meeting from The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers (2002).

Mention of Philadelphia 2600 meeting from The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers (2002).

But what about the people who attended? It’s hard to keep track of this aspect, and as time goes on people come and go. Some come for one meeting and are never seen again, but some stick around a while. Eventually, there are no remains of the previous group – the meeting goes through generations. We can get a little information from simple web searches. Old Usenet listings can be a great source for material, here’s a Philadelphia 2600 meeting announcement from 1995 by The Professor. Even more interesting, here’s a Phrack article by Emmanuel Goldstein (publisher of 2600) talking about how he and three others brought Mark Abene (Phiber Optik) to the Philly 2600 meeting before having to drop him off at federal prison in Schuylkill.

Using Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, we can get an interesting perspective on the members from ten years ago by visiting an archived version of the old website (also at this domain). This is actually something we can explore. It appears that as of mid 2002 to regulars were JQS, Kepi Blanc, Damiend LaTao, Dj`Freak, The Good Revrend Nookie Freak, and GodEmperor Daeymion. Before this, regulars included Satanklawz (former site admin at the time) and Starkweather before the site was passed on to Kepi Blanc. The archived website offers an incredible amount of information such as a WiFi map of the city, several papers, and even (incredibly tiny thumbnails of) meeting photos. It’s clunky and full of imperfections but this website offers a time-capsule-like look into Philly 2600′s past.


The old Philly 2600 logo

The old Philly 2600 logo

But what about other hacker origins in the area?

We know of Pumpcon, one of the USA’s first hacker conferences started in 1993 (almost as old as DEFCON). Pumpcon has been running for over 20 years with an invite-only status. It is often overshadowed and left in the dust by the larger conferences in the country, despite its stature as one of the first of its kind. Pumpcon has not been exclusively held in Philadelphia since its inception. The conference has previously been held in Greenburgh, New York and Pittsburgh. Pumpcon has no central repository of information (why would it?) but a lot of history can be found scouring the web through old ezine articles like this one about Pumpcon being busted and notices like this one announcing Pumpcon VI. I’m currently compiling as many of these resources as I can, but there is an immense amount of data to sift through. Below I have some hard copy from my collection: A review of Pumpcon II from the publication Gray Areas and the incredibly recent Pumpcon 2012 announcement.


Pumpcon II Review (Page 1/2) from Gray Areas Vol. 3 No. 1 (1994)

Pumpcon II Review (Page 1/2) from Gray Areas Vol. 3 No. 1 (1994)


Pumpcon 2012 Announcement

Pumpcon 2012 Announcement

Other groups are harder to find. Numerous groups started up, burned brightly, and were then extinguished. Who knows where those people are now or the extent of what they accomplished. There are of course a few leftovers. One of my own pet projects is the development of an archive of older hacker magazines. A previously popular publication in particular, Blacklisted! 411, sheds a little light on some long-lost Philly hackers. A few issues make reference to Blacklisted! meetings taking place at Suburban Station in Philadelphia and another at the Granite Run Mall run by thegreek[at]hygnet[dot]com (long defunct) in neighboring Delaware County (and surprisingly about five minutes from my house). The earliest occurrence of these meetings I can find of this is in volume 3, issue 3 from August 1996 but either may have started earlier.


Philadelphia/Media Blacklisted meeting listings from Blacklisted! 411 Vol. 3, Issue 3 (1996).

Philadelphia/Media Blacklisted meeting listings from Blacklisted! 411 Vol. 3, Issue 3 (1996)

There are a few other loose ends as well. The recent book Exploding The Phone (2013) by Phil Lapsley catalogs the beginnings of the phreak culture, and makes reference to several fone phreaks in PA, some more notable than others, including Philadelphia native David Condon and some unidentified friends of John Draper (Cap’n Crunch) around the time he was busted by Pennsylvania Bell. We additionally know that some of the main scenes in the previously mentioned Freedom Downtime were filmed in Philadelphia. We also know that there are were hundreds of hacker bulletin board systems in the area from the 1980′s through the 1990′s.


Bell Pennsylvania joke advert, from Exploding the Phone (2013)

Bell Pennsylvania joke advert, from Exploding the Phone (2013)

Let’s change gears now. Our main problem in moving forward is what we do not know. Stories and events have been lost as time goes one, and the hopes of finding them becomes dimmer with each passing year.

If you had some involvement with the Philadelphia hacking scene in the years past, tell someone. Talk to me. Let me interview you. Get your story out there. Share your experiences – I’m all ears.

Those of you out there hosting meetings and starting projects, keep a record of what you’re doing. This is my one request.

We’ve already lost a lot of history. Let’s try saving some.

The Summer Backlog

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Every Summer I speculate that I’m going to have an unbelievable amount free time. It will always be so fantastic and freeing. I’ll be done school, working a stress-free job, and there will be so much unscheduled time that I’ll just get bored and come up with hundreds of new tasks for myself.

This never happens.

Well, the having-free-time-thing never happens but I do take on new activities anyway. After enough time, I end up with a bunch of things I’ve been meaning to do, and work on them impulsively at sporadic intervals. Everything moves forward, slow and steady, but in an agonizing and chaotic fashion.

I do make time for my projects, but the available time is fluctuating as the years go by. When I started these projects all I had was time and energy, but no money. Now, I seem to find myself with a modest amount of money and energy, but no time. Eventually, I’m doomed to have time and money, but no energy. This is the vicious cycle, and here I find myself in the second stage.

Without organization, every project falls on its face. I’m a big proponent of organization, especially when I have so much going on. After a while, you just need to keep track and work smarter (or risk meeting some men who want to put you in a straitjacket). Below, I’ve outlined (to the best of my ability) the various projects I’m working on, and where they need to go next. Hopefully this not only helps me stay on track but also gives you something to yell at me about the next time you see me.

Obsoleet
I’ve actually had most of an episode filmed for a long time by this point. The only problem that I faced was the audio cut out at the end of one of the shots. After I redo it, which I wanted to do anyway, the footage should be mostly set to go into editing. Additionally, I’d like to film a little skit for the intro if I can manage it. Editing usually doesn’t take a whole lot of time, though I do want to try out some new software and I have to cut a brand new introduction. High definition video also proves to be more of a hassle and take some more (read unplanned) time.

Anarchivism
This one is going along pretty well, especially recently. On the scanning side of things, I have plenty of stuff coming in but not a lot going up. The scanner I have is awful when it comes down to conducting magazine scans and I’ll have to look for something beefier before going full tilt on my library. As an aside, I’ve more or less created the most complete wiki of hacker magazines complete with information on them as far as I can tell. With my current rig, I can pump out some more Blacklisted! 411 issues without much hesitation.

Going after Revision3 has slowed a little, but I can get back into it with some one-liners soon. Getting to other odds and ends comes and goes as I find them. The only section that could have hours poured into it is the hacker con category. The videos I find not only have different ways of being obtained but also get updated with a new crop annually, so everything is constantly in flux. I’m trying to hunt down some of the more difficult stuff as well as fill in actual information about the conferences. If you want to help out, please do.

TechTat
This one is more or less dead due to lack of interest. While it was cool having a collaboration site for retro tech, it lost its luster after a few months. I considered turning TechTat into an audio podcast but I’m not sure how that would turn out. I’m certain I can find some use for the concept.

ChannelEM
ChannelEM keeps trucking on, but is prone to frequent crashing. It does seem to get more stable after software updates, but still ultimately hangs. I want to take a look at the scripting done to run the station and see if I can put in any fail-safes to stop the crashing. CEM also needs a rotation update with any new episodes. Further, the idea of getting new shows to join up is a bit fruitless now, but the site does well as it stands. For no real reason at all, I’d like to see if I can add on to the existing scripts and create a JSON API with scheduling information.

Moonlit has also been working on some very interesting video projects that I’d like to integrate which would completely change the look and feel of both the site and the content.

Raunchy Taco
More or less in a standstill. The stability fluctuates and there isn’t that much going on there anyway. The IRC server is really only kept up if Ethan, Pat, and myself need a place to chat. For a network that has been off-and-on for 6-7 years, we have empty periods like this all the time. I’d like to just keep it up if I can.

The IPTV Archive
More or less in waiting. I put up a hefty amount of content, and then ultimately mirrored it to Internet Archive where it can live forever. If I had the time, I’d spend it doing more detective work for the missing shows- there is always more detective work to do. There are probably a half dozen more smaller shows I could throw up at some point but nothing too pressing.

Additionally, when I started the site I used Blip because it had (arguably) the best quality at the time. Now, YouTube has eclipsed it. There was a bit of panic a few months back about some Blip channels being closed down for no reason and I have to entertain the idea that this could happen to me. If that happens, the whole library would likely need to be moved to YouTube. A big move, but likely a nice one for the content.

Moreover, I’ve also considered moving the content over to Anarchivism as it would be a much more flexible platform.

House Keeping and Solo Projects
I enjoy writing and I’d to do more of it. Besides just being more active here, I’d like to get back into writing for other outlets. I’m thinking of more for The New Tech, and another for my local 2600 group. I’ve also been playing around with Medium (I like the concept but it still might be pretentious dribble) and would like to publish another article through it. I’m looking into 2-3 print publications as well if I can come up with the right topics and go into those pieces with the right energy.

Aside from my web work, I have a bunch of little, lower-profile things going on that I need to get out of the way.

I recently got a display for my Apple G5, so I can let it run as a capture PC for video transfers. I already have an ADVC box hooked up and the machine captures great… but it needs a monitor hooked up to run. Then, I can do more video transfers which can ultimately pop up in other places (Maybe a found footage section on Anarchivism).

I want to set up a dedicated headless Linux server for staging web projects amongst other things. I might also have it just run wget scripts all day or some custom web crawlers or who knows what else.

I have an old cocktail arcade cabinet that needs some love. If the original electronics are beyond repair, it would be nice to outfit the cab with new hardware and set up a MAME machine.

More Raspberry Pi projects would be nice. I like having the Incredible Pi set up as a PBX but I feel like I could do more with it. I have another Pi set up as a media center that I use often. I’m currently on setting up a Bitcoin mining rig with another and still have many more ideas. Raspberry Pi cluster? Telnet BBS? BBS hooked into the PBX? The possibilities are endless.

Paranoia kicks in with regard to my data. I have a dozen or so terabytes worth and I need to clean data off of old drives, sort it, duplicate it, and duplicate the data that’s already there. To make matters worse, I’m constantly downloading more.

A CJDNS Meshnet node has also been in the works for a long time. I tried to set up my first one on a PogoPlug and while I eventually got the software to compile, I couldn’t connect to anybody. It may be time for another try, and possibly on a “normal” box before adapting it to the PogoPlug.

I’m experimenting with a few more programming languages and development environments. Recently, I’ve looked into running some Go, and am learning a great deal of JavaScript. I’d like to look into C# and also play with the Unity engine. Aside from these, I’m reasonably proficient at Android development and might be tying this in with another project of a friend’s.

And the list goes on.

 

There’s a lot of things here- a hell of a lot of things. I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t going to be even more. Hopefully, as I now have a nice little outline, I’ll be able to zero-in my focus and get some work done.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the show.

Hacker Zines

Friday, February 8th, 2013

I have many projects. Too many, one might argue. Either way, they exist and I enjoy doing them.

For a long time, I’ve had something of a collection of magazines that I usually refrain from talking about simply because it doesn’t come up a lot in normal conversation. A few months ago when it was announced that Nintendo Power was halting production, someone told me that the cover of the last issue was a throwback to the very first issue from 1988. I was asked if I had the first issue (people tend to wonder just how much old stuff I have) and I do. Here’s a picture of it.

Nintendo Power #1

Nintendo Power #1

What you don’t see in this picture is the rest of my magazines. I have a lot. Hundreds. Most of them are video game magazines from the 1990′s and I’ve been accumulating them for over ten years. That isn’t to say that these sum up my entire collection. I have an almost complete run of 2600, six or seven years of Wired, a few dozen issues of MAD Magazine from the 1970′s bundled away, 10 or so issues of High Times from the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, and a few years of some more modern things. Besides those, I have a few other random magazines here and there and most likely some I’ve forgotten.

Magazine Shelf

Magazine Shelf

While I have a few current subscriptions, I’ve recently re-opened my magazine obsession. Why now? I don’t really know, but it was bound to happen. Every once in a while you get one of those “I should really do that, wouldn’t that be great?” ideas and they really start to stack up. One or two of those ideas end up toppling off the pile sooner or later and you just run with them. This particular idea started with Blacklisted! 411.

If you haven’t heard of Blacklisted! 411, I don’t hold it against you. If you know what 2600: The Hacker Quarterly is, then think of Blacklisted! 411 as a lower budget version of that. If you don’t know what 2600 is, it’s the most popular and longest running independent print hacker magazine. Blacklisted! has something of an interesting past. There are a lot of politics involving the magazine that are still something of a hot issue even for people today. There’s no doubt that it left a sour taste in the mouths of many. To briefly go through things, the zine started as a cheap black and white publication in the early 90′s. Initially monthly, the magazine switched to a quarterly release schedule to allow for more articles per issue (mirroring 2600 in this regard). Many criticized the quality of the articles and the publication in general, but it had a loyal group of fans and writers. In the mid 1990′s, the magazine up and disappeared (angering many) and reappeared in the early 2000′s. Throughout the life of Blacklisted!, a lot of people claim to have been treated unfairly by it and promised compensation for their articles which they never received  I wasn’t there, and I don’t know all the details for sure. Defending nor attacking the magazine are not my goals either way.

Issues of 2600

Issues of 2600

For as long as I had known about 2600, I had also known about Blacklisted!. While I could easily get back issues of 2600 through their website, Blacklisted! was far more elusive as it went out of print. I was less likely to come across old issues out at book sales or flea markets when compared to something more popular like Wired. So, I forgot about it for a while and chalked it up to a boat that I had missed.

Fast forward to now. I’ve decided to take it upon myself to start gobbling up every issue of Blacklisted! 411 ever produced. Normally when you see someone take on a pie-in-the-sky task like collecting all of something from scratch you dismiss them with an “oh, that’s nice” and pat them on the head while taking bets on how quickly they tire of the project and go home. I already know it’s not something that will happen overnight, and will probably take years if I’m ever able to complete it at all. It’s a bit of a turn-key project either way, so it’s not much of a hassle. Initially,  I set up some aggregation online to see if any issues go up for sale, at most I might dig through a few more bins at the punk rock flea market. It’s something of a slow burn.

Blacklisted! 411

Blacklisted! 411

As I started doing research on Blacklisted! I came upon a few other hacker or hacker-related magazines that went into print. For example, I discovered Mondo 2000 (and its other incarnations), bOING bOING, THUD, Grey Areas, Binary Revolution,  and more. These were also low-number interdependent physical magazines that lived a short life of usually fewer than 20 issues. So, I expanded my scope. If I can find them for the right price, I’ll snatch these up as well. Are there more out there? Probably (And please, let me know what I missed). I can’t get to everything, but I have a pretty good idea of what print zines we had just by asking around.

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Mondo 2000

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Gray Areas

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bOING bOING

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THUD & Binary Revolution

You may raise the issue of me going after physical magazines exclusively. Where’s the love for the electronic zines? While I do have a fondness for ezines, I don’t consider them nearly as endangered a species as the print-only zines. While an electronic zine may have been copied hundreds of thousands of times with little effort, when a physical magazine goes out of print it can only slip further into obscurity. Some copies get mistreated and trashed, while others are packed away and forgotten. These are the ones I want to save. Right now at least.

So the next logical question is what am I doing with all of these magazines? While I admit that I do get a nice warm, fuzzy feeling from physical magazines, I have bigger plans than simple self-satisfaction. Scanning is the name of the game. I’m currently in the process of scanning in all these old issues I’ve already found, compiling each issue into a single document, and uploading the documents online to share with everyone. Through this whole scanning process, I’ve already learned a lot. Enough to write something on it actually, but it would fare better as its own article. My scanning workflow works well enough to actually yield results, which you can check out here and here. If you want to check out my overall progress on how I’m doing with all the zines I hope to find, you can visit this page. You might notice that in some cases, I’ve found magazines already scanned by people. These are few and far between, but save me a little work considering they are usually of good quality.

While my scanner might be slow and I might be busy, I’m happy to say that the wheels are in motion. Things would probably move a little faster if I had a more portable scanner, but for the time being I’m keeping things slow and steady. That all said, if you have some of these magazines and feel like donating to the cause, I’ll serve as a home for your wayward magazines (and I’m probably a decent alternative to the trash if anything). If you feel like scanning, you can contribute that way as well. The Anarchivism wiki linked above is editable if you create an account.

So as I’m picking up older magazines, I’m also starting to focus on newer ones. Consider something like Bitcoin Magazine. An independent publication about a decentralized digital currency? Who knows how much longer this will stick around. It’s important to apply a little foresight for things like this. Otherwise, who knows what you’ll be able to get your hands on down the line. Luckily, many current publications have bridged the digital divide and offer both physical and electronic copies. Other magazines are now entirely based online. Still, there are those holdouts that are only available on paper. These are what I’m after. These are what I want to save before time runs out.