On Wetware and Cybersmut — A Future Sex Retrospective

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on January 9th, 2018 It has been posted here for safe keeping.

Of all the cyberpunk magazines I’ve ever come across, Future Sex is definitely the strangest. From the cover of the first issue, you know immediately that you haven’t seen anything quite like this before. A naked brunette with headlines screaming “Electronic Masturbation,” and “3D Digital Orgasms: Virtual Reality Sex,” all imposed over a candy-colored gradient background. Make no mistake, when you peel open the pages of this magazine, you’re going to get porn. Lot’s of porn— with several photo spreads and articles featuring not-so-modest coeds in each issue. But in the sea of smut, phone sex hotline advertisements, and good old-fashioned sex on CD-ROM lies a stockpile of futurist, sex-positive cyberpunk journalism. With articles on teledildonics and smart aphrodisiacs, Future Sex was covering subjects formerly delegated to the dark corners of the ‘net. Now, you could buy it all for $4.95 off of the newsstand.

Cover for the first issue of Future Sex. Read the whole issue here.

I bought my first issue of Future Sex in 2013 or 2014, decades after the magazine folded. It was most likely on eBay, though I have no idea how I was originally made aware of its existence. Shortly after receiving the issue in the mail, I made a quick scan of it and uploaded it to the Internet Archive before sharing a link online. At this point, I only had the fifth issue of the magazine but found the premise of it utterly fascinating. I couldn’t believe that something like this existed, and part of me still can’t.

Over the next few years, I collected a few more issues piece by piece but never thought much of it until I was contacted by Kyle Machulis, aka qDot, in 2016. For those who don’t know (much like me at the time), Kyle Machulis is something of a celebrity in the world of DIY sex toys and sex technology, running projects like Metafetish (formerly Slashdong) and buttplug.io. We became friendly over the topic of Future Sex and embarked on a project where we would track down every issue of the magazine to then scan and upload to the Internet Archive for everyone to read. With both of us getting magazine shipments and rapidly performing scans, we quickly completed the project after a few months and received coverage from VICE Media’s MOTHERBOARD and SexTechGuide. Speaking with Machulis about how he first found out about Future Sex, he revealed a much longer relationship with the publication:

I remembered seeing ads for it in the back of magazines (like Mondo 2000 and others) I was reading around the time it was published. I was at the horribly impressionable age of 13-14, so of course it stuck.

Some of the images from it, especially the Virtual Sex hardware layout, kept coming up over and over again, in articles about the future of tech, memes, things like that. That’s what got me thinking about it again 20-some years later. Since I’d gone from being confused-and-online teen to confused-and-online-and-sex-tech-website-running adult, it seemed relevant to dig it up again.

As great as it was to achieve a complete archive of Future Sex, there is still a lot unknown about it. The magazine was relegated to the dustbin of history, and many stories of its short life went with it. At the beginning of the 1990s, San Francisco was a hotspot for technology, as well as sex. It was where you went if you were weird and had off-beat interests— or kinks. “The early ’90s were a formative time for the Internet we know today, and I wanted to help in making sure that history was archived properly,” Machulis reflects, “While Future Sex would look fairly mild compared to the range of content available today, there was certainly some groundbreaking stuff in it at the time.”

R U into cybersex? Image from Future Sex issue 2.

Future Sex was started in 1992 and driven by Lisa Palac, a former film student, and senior editor at On Our Backs (1985) lesbian magazine, helmed by Susie Bright. Palac wasn’t always into such suggestive work. She was originally an anti-porn activist, though she ultimately changed her views as she began to question her Catholic upbringing and investigate the various taboos around sex and sexuality. While in school, Palac would go on to create erotic films, and even publish her own sex-themed pornographic zine before entering the literary world. As the cyber ethos spread through the Bay Area, it eventually hit Palac in a world-changing way.

Clip from the Virtual Reality episode of Futurequest, featuring Palac discussing “telesex” in 1994 (No, that’s not her in the thumbnail).

Journalist Jack Boulware, founder of satirical magazine The Nose (1988), shared an office with Future Sex in the early ’90s. Boulware claims that Future Sex was originally helmed by novelist, and godfather of cyberpunk, John Shirley before he was replaced with Palac by Kundalini Publishing after the first issue. While the masthead of the premier issue lists Shirley as a contributing editor, Palac receives top billing as Editor, and her words are the first you read as you are introduced to the publication. The staff of this issue reads like a list of guests you might find milling about a Mondo 2000 party at 3AM: Gracie, Richard Kadrey, St. Jude Milhon, and Bart Nagel to name a few. The familiar names make for a comfortable first issue of any publication— as long as your level of comfort was smart drugs and anarcho-leaning techno-counterculture.

Between the high-tech sex talk and multiple photo spreads, the sex-positive, feminist ideals of Palac are at the forefront. This isn’t your normal porno rag aimed at men, nor is it entirely aimed at women; it hits a more general group of sexual beings, poised to look towards the future of sexuality and new ways to get off. Palac is blunt, sarcastic, and snarky, but she’s honest about what she wants and where she sees things going in the world of sex. The next few issues showed refinements in layout and design as the magazine hit its stride. Content boomed with articles on cybersex, teledildonics, high-tech sex toys, and everything in between. Interviews with cyberculture personalities like William Gibson and R.U. Sirius lined the pages, along with discussions of the latest BBS or Usenet group to check out and meet like-minded individuals.

William Gibson gets in on the fun in Future Sex issue 4. Read the whole issue here.

In a lot of Future Sex articles, the technology seems alien. We bounce back and forth between industrial-looking equipment that would feel familiar in a 1970’s wood-paneled den, as well as more Cronenberg-esque devices like the CyberSM, which, well… you just sort of have to see for yourself. The virtual sex and teledildonic wet dreams of Ted Nelson and Howard Rhinegold never seemed more real. With models clad in leather, latex, steel, and chrome, we received a salty taste of what the next frontier in sex could offer us in the not-so-distant future.

Photos like this are some of those most memorable from Future Sex. Originally from Future Sex issue 2, this scan was actually taken from a 1993 issue of Australian games magazine named Hyper where the images were reused.

With page upon page of advertisements for sex software, expensive bulletin board access, and phone hotlines, you never forgot you were reading a pornographic magazine. Even Future Sex itself advertised all of the different credit cards it could accept for subscription via a full-color banner in the first issue. Though Future Sex had seemed to target all genders and sexual orientations, the advertisements felt old-fashioned and predictable, almost exclusively aimed at heterosexual males.

Future Sex wasn’t seen as a success by everyone. Carla Sinclair, then-editor of bOING bOING, critiqued the first issue, wishing that the publication would do a better job of melding sex and future tech together. While we do get a dose of sex technology in many articles, there are still articles that are clearly about sex or future tech, but not with one another. Sinclair further pondered if there was enough material to squeeze out of high technology being infused with the primitive, basic act of sex, something she saw as two opposites. While issues regularly featured high-tech sex articles, they came out in less and less of a trickle, eventually getting more flaccid over the life of the publication.

Lisa Palac once interviewed Mike Saenz, author of the first erotic software title for the Macintosh, MacPlaymate. Image of the software in action from wowbobwow of reddit.com/r/retrobattlestations.

By the end of the magazine’s run, articles seemed to focus less on our cyber-future and more on the general, alternative-sex scene. Future Sex ended its run in 1994 with a mere seven issues. Issue 7 makes no mention of being the last, which undoubtedly left readers wondering what had happened when nothing arrived in their mailboxes. Internally, Palac was cutting her ties from the magazine, being replaced by writer Lily Burana. While Burana began work on an eighth issue, it was ultimately never released before the magazine shuddered.

Though Future Sex was no more, Palac’s career was still on its way up. While at Future Sex, Palac was constantly bombarded for interviews or photoshoots about the hot new topic of cybersex. Between 1991 and 1993, she worked with Ron Gompertz to produce two Cyborgasm albums that used binaural audio technology in conjunction with erotic stories (Palac actually met Gompertz at Mondo 2000 party, and the two would later become briefly engaged). After Future Sex, Palac continued a career in journalism, and ultimately published a memoir The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life in 1997. Later, she would go into television, producing episodes of HBO’s Taxicab Confessions from 1999 – 2001. She currently works as a therapist in Los Angeles, California. Other Future Sex alumni such as Richard Kadrey and Jack Boulware have continued to write for various publications, and also release their own books.

While Future Sex has long been out of print, it certainly hasn’t aged gracefully. “I feel like the magazine is very much of its time, so a lot of the topics covered would really be seen as anachronistic today,” Machulis suggests when asked if Future Sex is still relevant. “That said, a lot of internet users these days are stuck in between extremely dated views of sexuality and an online society constantly shoving the newest, latest thing at them. The best I hope for with the archive work done is to establish maybe a history that can be referenced for trying to bring people up to date.”

As technology has grown and changed over the years, we see advancements in how it can impact and augment sex. Sex toys and related technologies like virtual reality have only become more sophisticated, and future of sex tech is continuing strongly. With pioneers like Machulis out there, it will likely continue to do so. When asked about the future of sex tech, Machulis has thoughts on that as well: “People are now getting so used to connected technology that the idea of remotely connected toys is becoming feasible to the mainstream, versus being the fever dream of tech nerds . . . we’ll start seeing some really interesting things happen. The thing I’ve learned is that I can’t predict what those things are, though. I was around through the Future Sex days and wouldn’t really have considered the rise of social media and the sociological trends it has kicked off. The future of the early ’90s underground tech magazines is the future I wanted and believed in, but certainly not the one we got wholesale.”

 

The New Wild West

This article was originally written for and published at N-O-D-E on August 3rd, 2015. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

THE NEW WILD WEST

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to work professionally with low energy RF devices under a fairly large corporation. We concerned ourselves with wireless mesh networking and were responsible for tying together smart devices, like light bulbs or door locks installed in your home, into an information-driven digital conglomerate. You know those commercials you see on TV where the father remotely unlocks the door for his child or the businesswoman checks to make sure she left the patio light on? That was us. At the touch of a button on your tablet, miles away, you can open the garage door or flip on the air conditioner. These are products that are designed to make life easier.

In research and development, we view things differently than the stressed-out, on-the-go homeowner might. We don’t necessarily think about what the user might want to buy, but ask the question, “when we roll these things out, how will people try to exploit and break them?” In the confines of a tall, mirror-glass office building, my packet sniffer lights up like a Christmas tree. Devices communicate in short bursts through the airwaves, chirping to one another for all to hear. Anyone with the curiosity and some inexpensive hardware can pick up this kind of traffic. Anyone can see what is traveling over the air. Anyone can intervene.

wildwest

EXPLORATION

Things weren’t so different a few decades ago. Back in the ‘70s we saw the rise of the phone phreak. Explorers of the telephone system, these pioneers figured out how to expertly maneuver through the lines, routing their own calls and inching further into the realm of technological discovery. We saw innovators like John Draper and even Steve Wozniak & Steve Jobs peeking into the phone system to see how it ticks and what secrets they could unlock. It wasn’t long before people started connecting their personal microcomputers to the phone line, lovingly pre-installed in their houses for voice communication, and explored computerized telephone switches, VAXen, and other obscure machines — not to mention systems controlled by third parties outside the grasp of good old Ma Bell.

This was the wild west, flooded by console cowboys out to make names for themselves. The systems out there were profoundly unprotected. And why not? Only people who knew about these machines were supposed to be accessing them, no use wasting time to think about keeping things secure. Many machines were simply out there for the taking, with nobody even contemplating how bored teenagers or hobbyist engineers might stumble across them and randomly throw commands over the wire. If you had a computer, a modem, and some time on your hands, you could track down and access these mysterious systems. Entire communities were built around sharing information to get into computers that weren’t your own, and more of these unsecured systems popped up every week. It seemed like the possibilities were endless for the types of machines you would be able to connect to and explore.

Today, many will argue that we focus much more on security. We know that there are those who are going to probe our systems and see what’s open, so we put up countermeasures: concrete walls that we think and hope can keep these minds out. But what about newer technologies? How do we handle the cutting edge? The Internet of Things is still a relatively new concept to most people — an infant in the long-running area of computing. We have hundreds if not thousands of networked devices that we blindly incorporate into our own technological ecosystems. We keep these devices in our homes and on our loved ones. There are bound to be vulnerabilities, insecurities, cracks in the armor.

UBICOMP

Maybe you don’t like the idea of outlets that know what is plugged into them or refrigerators that know when they’re out of food. Maybe you’re a technological hold-out, a neo-luddite, a cautious person who needs to observe and understand before trusting absolutely. This may feel like the ultimate exercise of security and self-preservation, but how much is happening outside of your control?

When the concept of ubiquitous computing was first developed by Mark Weiser at Xerox PARC in the late ‘80s, few knew just how prominent these concepts would be in 25 years. Ubiquitous computing pioneered the general idea of “computing everywhere” through the possibility of small networked devices distributed through day-to-day life. If you have a cellular telephone, GPS, smart watch, or RFID-tagged badge to get into the office, you’re living in a world where ubiquitous computing thrives.

We’ve seen a shift from the centralized systems like mainframes and minicomputers to these smaller decentralized personal devices. We now have machines, traditional personal computers and smart-phones included, that can act independent of a centralized monolithic engine. These devices are only getting smaller, more inexpensive, and more available to the public. We see hobby applications for moisture sensors and home automation systems using off-the-shelf hardware like Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. The technology we play with is becoming more independant and increasingly able when it comes to autonomous communication. Little intervention is needed from an operator, if any is needed at all.

For all of the benefits we see from ubiquitous computing, there are negatives. While having a lot of information at our fingertips and an intuitive process to carry out tasks is inviting, the intrusive nature of the technology can leave many slow to adopt. As technology becomes more ubiquitous, it may also become more pervasive. We like the idea of a smart card to get us on the metro, but don’t take so kindly to knowing we are tracked and filed with every swipe. Our habits have become public record. In the current landscape of the “open data” movement, everything from our cell phone usage to parking ticket history can become one entry in a pool of data that anyone can access. We are monitored whether we realize it or not.

FUTURE

We have entered uncharted territory. As more devices make their way to market, the more possibilities there are for people to explore and exploit them. Sure, some vendors take security into consideration, but nobody ever thinks their system is vulnerable until it is broken. Consider common attacks we see today and how they might ultimately evolve to infect other platforms. How interesting would it be if we saw a DDoS attack that originated from malware found on smart dishwashers? We have these devices that we never consider to be a potential threat to us, but they are just as vulnerable as any other entity on the web.

Consider the hobbyists out there working on drones, or even military applications. Can you imagine a drone flying around, delivering malware to other drones? Maybe the future of botnets is an actual network of infected flying robots. It is likely only a matter of time before we have a portfolio of exploits which can hijack these machines and overthrow control.

Many attacks taken on computer systems in the present day can trace their roots back over decades. We see a lot of the same concepts growing and evolving, changing with the times to be more efficient antagonists. We could eventually see throwbacks to the days of more destructive viruses appear on our modern devices. Instead of popping “arf arf, gotcha!” on the screen and erasing your hard drive, what if we witnessed a Stuxnet-esque exploit that penetrates your washing machine and shrinks your clothes by turning the water temperature up?

I summon images from the first volume of the dystopian Transmetropolitan. Our protagonist Spider Jerusalem returns to his apartment only to find that his household appliance is on drugs. What does this say about our own future? Consider Amazon’s Echo or even Apple’s Siri. Is it only a matter of time before we see modifications and hacks that can cause these machine to feel? Will our computers hallucinate and spout junk? Maybe my coffee maker will only brew half a pot before it decides to no longer be subservient in my morning ritual. This could be a far-off concept, but as we incorporate more smart devices into our lives, we may one day find ourselves incorporated into theirs.

CONCLUSION

Just as we saw 30 years ago, there is now an explosion of new devices ready to be accessed and analyzed by a ragtag generation of tinkerers and experimenters. If you know where to look, there is fruit ripe for the picking. We’ve come around again to a point where the cowboys make their names, walls are broken down, and information is shared openly between those who are willing to find it. I don’t know what the future holds for us as our lives become more intertwined with technology, but I can only expect that people will continue to innovate and explore the systems that compose the world around them.

And with any hope, they’ll leave my coffee maker alone.

––
BY MIKE DANK (@FAMICOMAN)

 

Helping Aaron – A Vintage Computer Adventure

This article was originally written for and published at Philly 2600 on December 23rd, 2013. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

It’s rare that I get overwhelmed. I’m not talking about stress or anything like that. It’s rare that my senses get overwhelmed, specifically my sense of sight. This past Saturday, that sense became overloaded.

I’ve known Aaron for a little while now. We met online somehow in 2012, and while I don’t remember the exact details, I think he started following me on Twitter and things went on from there after I followed him back and we started replying to each other’s tweets. We quickly figured out that we lived pretty close to  one another, which I found humorous considering we were both into archiving and preservation. Who would think that I’d be geographically this close to another person who idles in the #archiveteam IRC channel, online headquarters for the team dedicated to rescuing any and everything in the way of data? Aaron and I hit it off pretty well, and we eventually ended up meeting (somewhat unexpectedly) at Pumpcon 2013. Later, I ran into him again at the BSides Delaware conference and shortly thereafter he started coming to the Philly 2600 meetings which I’ve been frequenting for some time.

About two weeks ago, Aaron approached me via an online message and asked if I would like to go through some old computers at a local nonprofit he is on the Board of Directors for, NTR. NTR is in itself a fantastic organization which provides both refurbished computers (done in-house from donations) and hands-on computer training to low-income Philadelphia residents. If you are employed by or know a company in the area that is retiring their current fleet of workstations, consider donating the old machines to NTR. And, if they ultimately cannot use the machines, they will ensure that they are recycled in an environmentally safe fashion.

Aaron thought that I would be the right guy to help out. Being someone that preserves old technology, rescues it from unknown fate, and is a general enthusiast about it, I couldn’t resist the urge to come out and see what I could uncover. The details I got about what I was to do left a lot to my imagination. I got a location, we  settled on a time, and I was told to wear clothes I wouldn’t mind getting dirty and bring a set of work gloves. Hardhats would be provided.

The dirt and grime never bother me. Just what I would be working with, I didn’t know. But, I was excited nonetheless and on the morning of Saturday I walked on over to NTR and met Aaron out front. The building we would go on to enter was the former site of the hackerspace The Hacktory before they moved to a larger location. The building itself is a big old warehouse that is much larger inside than it looks from the street. The parking lot to the side is encased with giant stone walls almost as high as the building itself and easily fits a dozen cars without having anybody blocked in. Aaron tells me that the building has also been declared a historical site, meaning they can’t do a lot of modification to it directly, but they do keep it nicely maintained.

As Aaron lifts one of the giant metal doors encased in the building’s western wall, I get my first look into NTR. He shows me bins of donated computer equipment: smaller stuff like peripherals lovingly stacked in re-purposed milk crates and small amounts of desktop computers stacked together up the side of the two-story wall. I get a tour of all the classrooms, a look into the computer thrift store they run out of the same building, and dozens of other rooms and hallways that wind around the giant space, separated by heavy opaque sliding doors. Eventually we make our way into the main computer storage area where there are pallets upon pallets of donated machines on giant shelves that Aaron points out to me with a flashlight. It’s dark in this part of the building.

We then go up to the second floor to see Stan, who is the Executive Director Emeritus of the organization, having initially been the Executive Director starting in 1980 and taken on the Emeritus title more recently. Stan himself is energetic and charismatic and goes on to tell me about how he set up a community information store on South Street in the 1970’s as we head down to where we came in to the building to the relatively new looking wooden steps that will lead to the area that Aaron and I will be looking through for the next few hours. Aaron later explains that much like me, Stan has been collecting and preserving technology and computer history, though he has been doing it for considerably longer. Some of his collection is also mixed in with the stuff we will be digging through.

I put on my gloves and snag a hardhat out of milk crate on a shelf by the stairs before Aaron and myself head up. The stairs are steep and don’t seem to be spaced consistently. You feel like you could fall down them easily but the railing is firm enough to keep you steady. As we make it to the top, I peer into the sea of computers which I will be acquainting myself with, lit by a pair of metal lamps that are clipped on to the wide beams of the underside of the roof – an afterthought in this 40×20 foot space.

A shot behind me after I made my way off the stairs

A shot behind me after I made my way off the stairs

I quickly realize I can’t stand up all the way and have to hunch over, but that isn’t nearly as assaulting as the dust that comes out from seemingly everywhere and permeates through the air thick like smoke. Aaron walks slowly forward with his flashlight in hand and I follow close behind as he points out different areas of the space. We see newer stuff like a few Dell servers and stacks of Intel-based PCs at first but as we go further in we take more steps back in time. Aaron shines his light on a pile of all-in-one Macs before going further to the more interesting artifacts. On the left are some more modern machines, followed by boxes upon boxes of various documents, computers, and peripherals. I see Kaypros with Commodores with IBM clones and crazy displays for systems I can’t even fathom. There are tons of Macs, a few Mac clones, Apple ][s, and some old portable computers the size of suitcases. There are bags of electronics: half finished projects from decades before, muddled in with 8-bit personal computers, a pile of Sun workstations, and boxes of 5.25″ floppy disks. On the right side are more Macs: G5s, G3s, a dozen classic Macs, some older desktops and a seemingly endless collection of obscure monitors and terminals to other systems. This is where we start.

A view of the left side

A view of the left side

A claustrophobic shot of the beginnings of the right side

A claustrophobic shot of the beginnings of the right side

We navigate down the narrow path separating the space straight through the middle and get acquainted with the Mac area. We line up rows of milk crates and start digging, sorting along the way. Put the classic Macs here, put modems in this bin, mice in that bin, terminals over here, MIPS-based hardware over there. We sort and sort and sort, moving the heavy machines slowly as we work another path into the mess. The day was a cold one, but we quickly discarded our jackets as we carried hardware along the narrow aisle we carved out; we were warm enough simply moving back and forth, ducking beneath low hanging beams and swiveling around waist-high stacks that created our own personal obstacle course. As we went, we stopped to appreciate anything interesting we happened to find. Almost immediately we come across a monitor for a NeXTcube (though we didn’t find the cube itself) and we dug up other odd monitors and software packages and interesting little add-on boards that most people have probably long forget. We pooled our expertise and our energy and sorted in a long sprint.

After we cleared a new path

After we cleared a new path

Cleared path continued

Cleared path continued

Aaron told me that a lot of this stuff will ultimately be cleared out. The newer stuff didn’t necessarily belong there and could be assimilated downstairs or recycled while the less valuable systems would be readily sold at their retail store. Some of the rarer pieces would be donated to museums or sold to enthusiasts and collectors who appreciate them to  ensure their longevity. I hope when the time comes I might fit into this last group. The amount of history in this room is simply breathtaking.

View from the far corner

View from the far corner

After a brief break, we pushed back against the section we were using for trash so we had more room to sort. Ultimately, we successfully cleared space more terminals and bins upon bins of manuals – hard copies are always under-appreciated. We then moved around, more slowly, to some of the more obscure hardware – testing a few things as we went. More time in this stretch was just spent digging as opposed to organizing. We wanted to see what was in some of the giant boxes at the bottoms of the stacks. We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. Who knows what would be tucked away? We sorted through some IBM clones, found an Amiga 2500, a Wang Terminal, a Vector Monitor, a Silicon Graphics Indy, a whole mess of Kaypros and some more interesting items like a computer for those with disabilities and a strange keyboard or computer that neither of us could quite figure out. Down below us, people were trickling in for a computer class in one of the many rooms. “Who here has internet access at home?” I heard an instructor ask before I accidentally knocked over a PowerPC Mac. Hopefully they didn’t mind the noise.

Delta Data IV "Cherry." Keyboard or 8-bit computer?

Delta Data IV “Cherry.” Keyboard or 8-bit computer?

SGI Indy

SGI Indy

Stack of Altos 580's on some Kaypros next to a Commodore 128

Stack of Altos 580’s on some Kaypros next to a Commodore 128

We finally succumbed to the tech and called it quits for the day. We got a good idea of what was up in the area and talked about the next steps which are likely to be inventorying and testing (though there can probably be some more organization in the meantime). The space itself serves as a fantastic time capsule and it is a breath of fresh air to know that some of the stuff in there is just in there – and in good condition. However, there is much to be done and many more hours to devote to make sure everything is handled properly.

As we rounded out the end of our excavation, we threw down the hardhats and unhanded the once-clean work gloves before walking around the corner for a cup of coffee. As we took our first steps away from the building, I felt a sense of accomplishment. We were archaeologists returning from our first day at an excavation. We uncovered some great finds, having fun along the way.

With any luck, I’ll be asked back. There’s a lot to go through and I can’t help but think that there’s more I can offer. Never before had I been able to lay my hands on some classic pieces of hardware that I had only read about, and it was quite an experience being able to put the pieces together.

Univac / Sperry Rand keyboard

Univac / Sperry Rand keyboard

“Age means nothing today,” Stan told me earlier that morning. “In this day and age, things are moving so fast.” I can’t say that I disagree, but I consider myself lucky to have the experience and knowledge under my belt when it comes to vintage computers.

And with any hope, I can keep expanding it.

 

 

A shot of the left side from out path in the Mac section

A shot of the left side from out path in the Mac section

Another shot of the left side

Another shot of the left side

Some newer Intel-based PCs

Some newer Intel-based PCs

More of the Mac area

More of the Mac area

Newer computers tucked away

Newer computers tucked away

More Macs, pink note states that this Mac was the second produced

More Macs, pink note states that this Mac was the second produced

Sun workstations, Macs, Apples, old laptops

Sun workstations, Macs, Apples, old laptops

RadioShack diskettes. Think the warranty is still good?

RadioShack diskettes. Think the warranty is still good?

5.25" diskettes

5.25″ diskettes

Close-up of the Altos 580's

Close-up of the Altos 580’s

A lone Kaypro II

A lone Kaypro II

Wang terminal

Wang terminal

A Tandy and a terminal

A Tandy and a terminal

The Amiga 2500 and an Apple monitor

The Amiga 2500 and an Apple monitor

Unknown brand keyboard

Unknown brand keyboard

Vector display

Vector display

Timex personal computer

Timex personal computer

Another Kaypro II and a Kaypro 10

Another Kaypro II and a Kaypro 10

 

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

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.


IMG_0871

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.

 

Hacker Zines

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.

IMG_0735

Mondo 2000

IMG_0737

Gray Areas

IMG_0738

bOING bOING

IMG_0739

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.

 

 

TechTat: An Online Tech Museum

Say you have a few friends. You all share similar hobbies and interests, and want to work together to start a project. Now, say that your project is hardware based, and you want to create some sort of outlet to showcase your hardware. One problem though: you are scattered across several countries.

Enter TechTat:

tech /tek/ Informal. noun, Technology.
tat /tat/ Informal. noun, Rubbish, junk.

TechTat is a slice of vintage esoterica. Okay, okay, we’re really just a retro tech museum. You don’t come visit us though, we are an online retro tech museum. Established in August 2011 buy a bunch of friends who have known each other for years (but never even met), TechTat is a centralized place for some decentralized folk who share a love for old technology… and end up with a lot of it on their hands.

If you can’t have a physical museum, why not go with a virtual one? Easier to manage, more exposure, and the rent is a lot less expensive.

We founded TechTat a few weeks ago, and are just starting to get the content rolling. Pretty simple concept: Have/had a cool piece of old tech? Pull up a picture, talk about the item, and add any personal memories. We currently have an in-house team of “curators,” but if you happen have some tech you are fond of, get in touch with us.

 

Payphones

Over the past few months, I’ve been noticing something. Payphones are disappearing. We all know they are “dead” already. For years, we have been fed stories online and otherwise that payphones are phased out, the phone companies are taking them all away because they are too expensive to run, and other similar stories. Honestly, I didn’t see any of this until February. For the longest time, I still saw phones where I’ve always seen them (the exception being public schools, but that’s another topic). Phones at the corner store, by the post office, on the street in the city; they were all there.

Here stands an empty phone kiosk in Philadelphia (the corner of JFK and Market it you want to be precise). I remember there being a phone here, but it’s gone now. I was by this spot not three days ago, and the kiosk still stands, but seems more or less forgotten in plain view. Just another eyesore of the city. A monolith to inefficiency in the modern world, but everything at one point in life.

This next image is from Philadelphia again, at 30th Street Station (At the regional rail platforms). I wanted to take a picture of the empty kiosks I saw, but by the time I showed up, only the outlines of the bases were left. Now, the station is still full of pay phones. Banks of them line a wall leading to the police station. Cubes of them are situated near customer service. Two are outside the food court bathroom. While I’ve been to this station several times a day over the past year, I can’t see I’ve seen them used much, but there they stand, ready for your quarters.

A few months later, I noticed that payphones were disappearing from other places as well. The local train stations had them gone over night. Not even silhouettes or outlines of old paint. No exposed cables or junction boxes leading to nothing, just no record of them ever being there. While I’m not opposed to the concept of removing payphones (considering that is how I got a few), I’m wondering just how long it will be until all record of them are wiped from view. Will there be a day when I can walk the length of a city and not see a burned out kiosk or a graffiti covered blue “Phone” sign hanging off an awkward steel post? Only time will tell, but they don’t seem to be completely disappearing any time soon; just slowly and silently fading away.

 

Get Lamp (Really, go get it!)

A few months ago, I mentioned Get Lamp in a post about Kickstarter involving Jason Scott. For those of you who don’t know, Jason Scott is probably one of my favorite people. Not to sound creepy or anything, but this guy is really awesome. My first brush with the world of Jason Scott came through one of his many websites, textfiles.com. When did I find it? I don’t remember. Why did I find it? I don’t remember that either. The site revolves around BBS data: text files from pre-internet, ANSI, door games, shareware, and much more from a long lost subculture. Without the efforts of Jason and others like him, a whole era in the history of computing could have been lost to the world.

If anyone knows me, they know I like it old. So the pairing of myself and this website provided hours and hours (probably days and days considering my use of dial-up at the time) of entertainment. Only after discovering this website did I find out that Jason also produced an appropriate documentary, BBS: The Documentary. I’m not going to lie, when I first saw the page for it, I thought spending $40 was completely ludicrous. If you consider that I was about 14 at the time of finding it, this doesn’t seem like a strange thought. After my Bittorrent skills improved, and I found out that the documentary had been released through this medium, I was more than happy to spend a day watching all eight parts back to back. Shortly thereafter, I bought myself a hard copy, and it has been a staple of my DVD collection ever since.

I watched that documentary over and over, and in the meantime Jason was busy. Over the next five years, he gave numerous presentations at hacker conferences, organized Blockparty (a demoscene con), started a widely popular twitter profile for his cat, founded archiveteam and spearheaded a project to preserve geocities, and more recently released his second film, Get Lamp.

Get Lamp is a film about interactive fiction. If you ever read one of those “choose your own adventure” books, you get the idea. Interactive fiction is not limited to the paper world, and shows up in the earliest of computer games from the 1970s. Without interactive fiction, who knows where we would be technologically, considering how the ever-growing development of computers mirrors the interest of people wanting to hunker down and play video games.

The documentary itself is well done and well presented. As soon as you open the package, you will know you are in for a treat. The artwork on the case is beautiful, the discs are nicely pressed, and the collectible coin included with the set is an interesting little addition to the whole experience whether you are a numismatist or not. The film plays out smoothly and is quick to capture the viewer. Though it is not as long as his previous film, you experience an equally engrossing movie, and have plenty of interactive features and extras to keep you coming back as you look to squeeze every glorious bit of content from the discs.

If there is not enough content to keep you occupied, it is likely that Jason will one day release the entirety of the interviews online, unedited. How can I make such a strange prediction? He did it before with his previous film. You might one day see hours of material from a guy that ultimately had a 20 second spot in the final cut, but whether or not this content will actually come to surface is anyone’s guess as of this moment.

If you haven’t been able to tell already, I consider Jason Scott a bit of a personal hero, and I know he has reached others in the same way. Without textfiles.com, I may never have been lead down the path that made me form the IPTV Archive or any number of projects that I’ve found myself involved in throughout the years. Now that Get Lamp is done, there is the question about what the next step is for Jason Scott. He is currently touring and screening his new film, but what could follow is anyone’s guess. Maybe he will pick up on his previously announced third film Arcade, or dive into the backlog of things to archive.

Whatever he does do, you can be sure it is going to be worth noticing.

 

Hackers Turns 15

Do you remember hacking The Gibson? How about that place where you put that thing that time? Last week, the film Hackers turned fifteen years old. Now normally, when a film turns fifteen years old (or more often ten years old) it gets some sort of special treatment with a re-release containing no less than three discs in some collectible tin case with little extras wrapped up in the package. With Hackers, this isn’t the case. The film isn’t even available on Blu-ray yet.

Now, while many people might brush this film under the carpet as a loose end of the 90’s, there still exists a small group fanatics that watch the movie over and over again celebrating it yearly. Who are these fanatics? You might be surprised to know that the people who keep this movie alive are probably the people who dislike it the most: hackers. Yep, above it all, people involved in the computer industry love this movie. It’s campy, it’s nostalgic, and it’s downright entertaining.

Despite this, there are many people involved in hacking culture that find this movie damaging. Not only does it perpetuate the use of the word “hacker” to mean someone who breaks into computer systems to cause chaos, but also detracts from the image with the almost “too hip” feeling of the movie. Personally, I’m a fan of the movie due to the fact that I find it to be very interesting. It plays into the fear of technology and provides something of a time capsule for the mid 1990s. There is humor around every corner of this movie if you know where to look.

Region 2 artwork

Despite this movie being forgotten by film companies, many still strive to keep it alive. For example, Infonomicon released the Hackers on Hackers commentary a few years back. The commentary itself is both informative and comparable to MST3K. There is also a planned anniversary party for those die-hard fans out there slated for next week in NYC.

Who knows if Hackers will ever get a proper DVD or Blu-ray release (Criterion, here’s hoping) but as long as there is one DVD or worn VHS tape, this film will continue to live on at hackerspaces and file sharing networks. Copying a garbage file has never been so interesting.

 

Flea Market Find – Lineman’s Handset

I recently purchased a blue lineman’s handset for $12. It is quite an interesting piece of hardware. At first glance, it looks like a standard handset, but upon further review there are characteristics that set it apart. On the back of the handset is a rotary dial used for dialing numbers, a hook to connect it to the belt, and two test leads with alligator clips. The alligator clips have a piercing spike in them to connect to insulated wires. No stripping is necessary. On the side of the phone, there is a switch that can go between TALK and MON. MON in this case stands for monitor. There is also a nice “Bell System Property – Not for sale” engraving.

I brought the handset home and plugged it in. I had the switch on TALK and instantly heard a dial tone. I decided to call my cellphone, and entered the number (which can take a bit of time using a rotary dial). I got connected and heard my voice mail message. I decided to try to use my old Radioshack tone dialer next. I punched in the number on my tone dialer, and held it up to the handset. I hit the dial button on the dialer, and heard the tones through the earpiece of the handset, but the tones did not register on the handset itself, and the number wasn’t called.

Next, I flipped the switch on the handset to MON mode. At first, I didn’t hear anything on the line. I hooked up a standard phone nearby, and picked up the handset of that phone. My lineman’s handset instantly had a dial tone, and was monitoring the line. The MON setting also turns off the microphone in the handset, so there are no slip-ups when monitoring.

Other than the cool factor, there are a few things I can do with it. I could use it as a house phone, though it does not have its own ringer. I could also do some wire tapping, but that is illegal. It is not a very practical piece of hardware, but it certainly does hold my attention. Maybe the web will end up lending me some ideas of what I could do with it.