Hallucinations For Accelerated Mutants — A Mondo 2000 Retrospective

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on August 28th, 2017. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

It’s difficult to explain Mondo 2000 to someone who hasn’t experienced it before. That’s really what I would call it at the end of the day: an experience. Like a hallucinogenic trip, or a roller coaster ride, or that tingle that you get after a first kiss — it’s something you just don’t really get by having it described to you.

I first became aware of Mondo 2000, the glossy cyberculture magazine which ran from 1989 to 1998, in the much more recent year of 2012. Late to the party, I admit, but sometimes you just can’t get there on time. In 2012, I began to research hacking magazines as I was getting worried that some of them would soon disappear from the world without a trace. Somewhere out there sat old, possibly moldy magazines full of articles and stories that once appealed to the hacking subculture. Nobody was saving them, so I decided to start. I began patrolling. Amazon, eBay, and basic HTML sites that haven’t been updated since the early days of the web became my usual haunts. Between monitoring auctions and mailing old email addresses,  I was able to begin buying these publications. The ones I could find, I would wrap in archival-grade plastic and scan into my computer when I had the time; a slight pit stop before pushing them to the Internet Archive. Now, five years later, I agonize over the magazines that I haven’t even heard of yet. I learned a lot about the technological landscape of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, but I didn’t have anything really resonate with my until I came across Mondo 2000. Sitting right on the border between the then-bleeding-edge and the surrealistic not-so-distant future, Mondo fostered a generation of tuned-in misfits who were making their way through hyperculture. This could have been me in a different time, but all I can do now is read the back-issues while wearing a bootleg Mondo t-shirt. Looking back, it feels like some sort of technophilic fever dream for kids with psychedelics and a ‘net connection. Drugs, sex, and the digital revolution dripped from the warm, colorful pages. Would you want to wake up?

Mondo 2000 issue 15 cover.

For many, Mondo 2000 was seen as just the thing a sharp-tongued, budding cyberculture needed. Others saw it as pseudo-intellectual nonsense, fabricated garbage that didn’t really mean anything. To the Mondoids, the dedicated followers, it didn’t matter if the normies didn’t understand. Mondo 2000 was playful, eccentric, irreverent, and brash — it worked on its own terms and it worked well. Yet, Mondo 2000 did always have a built-in expiration date. With a name like that, it could never go on forever. After 14 issues, Mondo ceased publication. The print was dead, but the ideas would live on — the infection would keep spreading. While Mondo hit the scene at an interesting time in the advancement of technology, it has a much more ludicrous origin story. Author Jack Boulware once reported in a famous 1995 postmortem, “Mondo’s history reads as if fabricated on another planet, spewed forth by a sweaty cyberpunk novelist tripping on nasal-ingested DMT.”

He isn’t wrong.

The Edge Of A High Frontier

Mondo 2000 didn’t just pop up one morning out of nowhere. The roots of Mondo go all the way back to 1984. Ken Goffman published the first issue of High Frontiers, your source for “Psychedelics, Science, Human Potential, Irreverence & Modern Art,” in a small run of 1,500 copies. The first issue embraced mind expansion with interviews featuring Terrence Mckenna, Bruce Eisner, Timothy Leary, and even Albert Hoffman, the father of LSD. Goffman, an ex-yippie, former New York musician who had since moved to California, had already adopted his dadaist R . U. Sirius persona when he decided to embark on a publication that combined psychedelic exploration, science, and high technology. The premier issue, published in a newspaper format, featured his moniker on the cover alongside co-conspirator “Somerset MauMau.” The innards were packed with walls of text and tongue-in-cheek photographs that looked like cut-outs from Life magazine. The next issue would need to keep up the energy, and the fun.

R. U. Sirius.

Sirius’ life would change one night as he was distributing the first issue of High Frontiers at a birthday party: he would meet Alison Kennedy. Kennedy, the wife of a UC Berkeley professor and daughter of a wealthy California family, captivated Goffman. Soon, Kennedy would come to join the band of “Marin Mutants” (named for High Frontier’s Marin, California headquarters) that worked on the publication, sporting names like “Lord Nose” or “Amalgum X.” Meeting in a local pizza parlor with oddly-abysmal foot traffic, the High Frontiers staff would plot out their next articles. The second issue of High Frontiers, published a year after the first, would go on to include interviews with physicists, research on hallucinogens, and reviews of art and literature. By issue three, science and technology had become more of a main focus with articles on memory enhancement, psychoactive software, and quantum physics. Of course, drugs were still held in high regard with articles like “MDMA: Safe As Ice Cream,” and Kennedy’s own gonzo-anthropological “Tarantella And The Modern Day Rock Musician,” about hallucinogenic tarantula venom. Kennedy would soon go on to adopt a new persona of her own: Queen Mu, Domineditrix. After issue four of High Frontiers, Sirius and Mu would change the name of the magazine to Reality Hackers, which better represented the mix of articles on mind-expanding drugs and computer-based technology. As the magazine mutated, so did the staff. New additions included anarchist hacker Jude Milhon (who would become known as St. Jude) and the in-your-face Michael Synergy (real name unknown), a cyberpunk keen on toppling all of the powers that be.

High Frontiers issue 1. Read through all of the issues here!

With operations now moved to a large wooden house in the Berkeley Hills, Reality Hackers became a lightning rod for new, more diverse happenings of the psycho-technical fringe. There were articles on smart drugs, virtual reality, chaos theory, and isolation tanks, some featuring leading experts in these new and/or obscure fields.

Distributors, however, had no idea what to do with Reality Hackers and thought it was a magazine about literally hacking people to bits. Sirius would eventually be approached by Kevin Kelly of Whole Earth Review, the magazine spawning from Stewart Brand’s seminal Whole Earth Catalog, to work on a new digital culture magazine called Signal. Sirius ultimately declined in order to pursue a new mutation of Reality Hackers, honing-in on the young cyberpunk movement. Sirius and Mu would soon change the name of the magazine again to Mondo 2000 after publishing only two issues under the Reality Hackers name.

Reality Hackers. Issue numbering takes place where High Frontiers leaves off. Read all of the issues here!

At first, Mondo 2000 still resembled Reality Hackers between the cover art and black-and-white interior. After Bart Nagel was brought on as Mondo’s art director, things took a turn as he completely reworked the design of the magazine. Featuring colorful layouts, expert photography, full-page illustrations, and surreal covers, the new magazine was as stylish and beautiful as it was informative. New content went hand-in-hand with the new design; there were articles on cyberspace, computer viruses, and conspiracy theories. Authors that would grace the first issue include Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and John Shirley, each notable for their work in the cyberpunk sub-genre. Gibson, an ex-hippie who had published the ground-breaking Neuromancer in 1984 (the same year the first issue of High Frontiers premiered), particularly resonated with the Mondo style. While Gibson would write about fictional high-tech outsiders who took smart drugs and jacked into cyberspace, the Mondoids were living it.

Mondo 2000 issue 6, featuring cover art by Bart Nagel. Read a selection of Mondo 2000 issues here!

Mondo 2000 embodied the cyberpunk subculture, and often served as the premier source for trends and news within the space. It wasn’t long before the rest of the world was trying to catch up. Sirius was starting to get quoted by mainstream sources like the Boston Globe or the Chicago Tribune who were dipping a toe into the bizarre cyberpunk waters for the first time. If John Shirley is known as being the “godfather of cyberpunk,” Sirius may have entered public eye as the crazy uncle. The Mondo 2000 house was regularly a who’s who of the eclectic Bay Area characters. Aside from Sirius, Queen Mu, St. Jude, and Synergy, regulars included contributors like subscriber-turned-music-editor Jas. Morgan, psychotropic-explorer Morgan Russell, and the drug-loving bankers Gracie and Zarkov.

Much of the content development for new Mondo articles stemmed from outrageous parties thrown at the Mondo house. It wasn’t uncommon for different rooms to be filled with active interviews, parlour games, or conversation between unlikely guests. A virtual reality expert might discuss politics with a smart drug theorist. Timothy Leary could discuss virtual sex with a computer hacker. Someone might suddenly get up to dance or go to the kitchen to try a 2CB analogue mixed with piracetem. As Mondo helped those on the fringe meet the like-minded, the culture only grew and evolved with each new issue. More and more reporters from publications like Newsweek or The New York Times were flocking to Mondo for a controversial opinion or unconventional view of the future. Before long, zine writers and editors like Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder of bOING bOING, and Jon Lebkowsky and Paco Nathan of FringeWare Review started contributing to Mondo. Authors like Rudy Rucker, Robert Anton Wilson, and Douglas Rushkoff began submitting work as well. While the Mondo 2000 parties could only exist locally, articles came in from every corner of cyberspace or alternative plane of existence. Mondo had become a hub of interaction for those beneath the underground.

A Little ReWiring

As Mondo 2000 hit its stride, a new publication was just starting to take shape. Years earlier in 1987, Electric Word (originally launched as Language Technology) became a prominent linguistic technology and computer culture magazine in Amsterdam. White it generally focused on linguistic technology, and computer culture, Electric Word featured such pioneers as Xerox PARC’s Alan Kay, AI expert Marvin Minsky, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, and even Mondo-regular Timothy Leary. After three years the magazine shuttered, leaving editor Louis Rossetto and ad sales director Jane Metcalfe without jobs. Partners in business as well as life, the pair decided to return to the United States and embark on a new magazine about cyberculture and technology. They wanted to call the publication “Millennium” to highlight the new technical revolution, but the name was already taken by a film magazine. John Plunkett, then the creative director, wanted to name it “Digit” (a play on “dig it” and “digital”).Eventually, they settled on Wired and started developing a prototype with a mission to decipher the new digital revolution.

Cover for Language Technology issue 3. Read select issues here!

When Rossetto and Metcalfe arrived in California after shopping the publication around New York, they were soon introduced to the Mondo 2000 team. Things appeared to be friendly enough, and Queen Mu would often visit Wired’s offices and engage Rossetto and Metcalfe in conversation while handing out fresh issues of Mondo. Just starting out, the Wired team did its best to differentiate itself from the madcap, already-successful Mondo 2000. Both the Wired and Mondo groups were well aware of what one another was up to, and there was care taken to not step on any toes. The Wired team didn’t want to compete or be compared, they wanted to come into their own.

Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, via wired.com.

Not all was well within Mondo 2000 at the time. As Mondo grew, celebrities were vying to get into the magazine in an attempt to appeal to a more underground audience. When The Edge, guitarist for rock band U2, wanted to be examined for an article, Sirius recruited his friends from the band Negativland to conduct the interview. Negativland, who U2’s management had recently sued for copyright infringement, was a logical choice for Sirius. During the interview, The Edge didn’t know who he was speaking with and mentioned his views on intellectual property. At that point, Sirius revealed the band and trapped The Edge in his own hypocrisy. This resulted in one of the most well-known Mondo 2000 articles, but at the time it was strongly opposed by editor Queen Mu. After she refused the piece, Sirius had reached a tipping point and left Mondo, stepping down from his position as editor-in-chief. While Queen Mu eventually relented and published the article, Sirius never returned to his previous position. While he did eventually come back as a contributor, he also divested his share of ownership in the magazine.

Photograph of the band Negativland.

Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die

Though Mondo 2000 may have still been holding on to its popularity, there were increasing struggles to draw in advertisers. Mondo’s strong drug-friendly stance didn’t mix well with button-up businesses that had money to spend on product promotion, and the magazine suffered because of it. There was less cash on the table when writers looked to Mondo as a potential place to submit their articles, and many opted to go with other publications. While some continued to contribute to Mondo out of passion, outfits like the new Wired could afford to pay more per word. Looking back, Mondo was never truly run as a business looking to make as much profit as it could. Instead, it resembled an art project assembled by a hodgepodge of culture jammers and social engineers.

Still riding high in 1992, Mondo published Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, a book containing 317 pages of compiled articles and artwork from past issues with new content mixed in. In February of 1993, Time magazine featured a “Cyberpunk” cover story, complete with art from Bart Nagel and numerous mentions of Mondo 2000. Cyberpunk had gone mainstream with Time’s article reaching households all throughout the USA. Much like Ron Rosenbaum’s “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” article published in Esquire in 1971, the Time article inspired hordes of new people to invade a subversive subculture. While Mondo received a boost from the story, it might have been a little too much attention.

Time Magazine’s February 1993 issue. Read the story here!

When Wired’s first issue came out in March of 1993, it was largely dismissed by the Mondo crew. In the eyes of many, it watered down the content Mondo was known for and passed itself off as a sub-par imitator. At the end of the day, Wired was appealing to a largely different audience. They didn’t need the hardcore console cowboys or smart drug pioneers to like them, they could get by with weirdo weekend warriors and flirt with the “normal people.” Mondo may have been a bellwether for the digital revolution, but it was on the decline. Many thought it was circling the drain.

Wired Magazine issue 1, March 1993.

Mondo 2000 was able to survive for another five years under the leadership of Queen Mu and her assistant-turned-editor Wes Thomas, ending with issue 14 in 1998. It may not ever be known if Mondo finally closed down due to infighting, failure to rouse advertisers, dilution of cyberpunk culture, or some perfect storm of those factors. Its legacy and influence, however, cannot be questioned.

Mondo 3000

In 2010, R.U. Sirius announced “MONDO 2000: An Open Source History”, a multimedia-driven Kickstarter project that attempts to capture the history and lore of Mondo 2000 — and all of its previous incarnations. Between a web document, a printed book, and video footage (that may ultimately become a documentary), Sirius hopes to save all of the stories, viewpoints, and ephemera that made Mondo what it was. He is currently in contact with past contributors, and continues to work on the project. In line with Mondo 2000’s whimsical nature, Sirius created a project reward that allowed one backer to be written into Mondo 2000’s history. Some of the events surrounding Mondo may not have happened, but all of them are true.

While we may not see a new issue of Mondo 2000 ever again, Sirius is hard at work. Within the last month, he has re-established Mondo’s Twitter presence and created a brand new website at mondo2000.com featuring reprinted and expanded articles from Mondo’s past, as well as new content.

For those who remember it, Mondo 2000 is something equal parts special and weird. For many, it changed everything, and then it faded into the ether organically as the world changed around it. Browsing the new site, my mind starts to wander. Maybe there is a void left in the world that could only be filled by Mondo 2000 coming back. Maybe the world needs a “Mondo 3000.”

Somewhere out there, hackers and cyber-mystics are typing away furiously on computers in coffee shops and bus stations, creating new virtual worlds and building communities.

Maybe someone else has already created a Mondo 3000.

Maybe this time I’ll be around to catch it.


Keep your eyes bulged and your cybernetic implants on alert for a follow-up article featuring an interview with R.U. Sirius.

 

(Re)Hacking a Boxee Box

I recently purchased an Amazon Fire TV Stick and love that it allows the ability to sideload applications like Kodi (I still hate that name, long live XBMC!) for media streaming. I mainly use Samba/SMB shares on my network for my media, with most of my content living on an old WDTV Live Hub. The WDTV Hub works great and is still pretty stable after all of these years (except for a few built-in apps like YouTube, I wish they kept going with updates), and the Fire TV will gladly chug away, playing any video over the network. However, I had the need to have my media stream to a third television and I didn’t want to uproot an existing device and carry it from room to room.

So I needed a third device. I already have a second generation Roku kicking around, but it doesn’t appear to be able to run anything other than the stock software at this time. I also considered a Raspberry Pi and wifi dongle, but this puts the price up to around $50 (which is more than the Fire TV Stick. I do want something cheap). I looked for a less expensive option with older media streamers and found a lot of information about the Boxee Box appliance put out by D-Link in 2008, discontinued in 2011. I first encountered this box in around 2012 when I was tasked to do some reverse engineering on it, but that’s another story. In the time since, a Google TV hacking team figured out they could do simple shell command injection when setting the Box’s host name, which eventually evolved into a group developing Boxee+Hacks, a replacement operating system. Since Boxee+Hacks, other developers have been working on a port of Kodi which you can install onto the Boxee to give you more options and better compatibility over the operating system’s built in features.

After some eBaying, I was able to get a Boxee for around $15, shipping included (Make sure you get model DSM-380!). The item description said that the box already had Boxee+Hacks installed and upgraded to the latest version, so I figured I was on my way to a quick installation of Kodi and could get up and running in minutes.

When I first booted the Boxee and checked out the Boxee+Hacks settings, I noticed that the device only had version 1.4 installed while the latest available was 1.6. The built-in updater did not work anymore, so the box never reported that there was an available Boxee+Hacks update.Navigating the Boxee+Hacks forums was a little cumbersome, but I eventually found the steps I needed to get updated and launch Kodi. I’ve outlined them below to help any other lost travelers out there.

First, though, go through your Boxee settings and clear any thumbnail caches, local file databases, etc. We need all the free space we can get and there will be installation errors if you don’t have enough free space. The installation script we will run later automatically clears the device’s temp directory, but doesn’t remove these cached files.

On the Boxee, go to Settings –> Network –> Servers and enable Windows file sharing.

If you already have Boxee+Hacks, connect the box and your computer to your home network and check the IP address for the box on either the Boxee’s settings page or by checking for a new device on your router’s console.

To make things really easy, telnet to your Boxee on port 2323 using your box’s IP address (Mine is 192.168.1.100).

 telnet 192.168.1.100 2323

Once there, we need to download and run the installer script.

curl -L http://tinyurl.com/boxeehacks | sh

If you DO NOT have Boxee+Hacks installed already, never fear. On the same Settings –> Network –> Servers page on your Boxee, locate the Hostname filed and enter the following into it.

boxeebox;sh -c 'curl -L tinyurl.com/boxeehacks | sh'

Then, navigate away from the Settings page.

After executing the command through telnet, or through the Boxee settings page, the logo should glow red on the front of the box and you should receive on-screen instructions to perform an installation.

Boxee+Hacks installation screen, from http://boxeed.in/forums/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=1216

Boxee+Hacks installation screen, from boxeed.in forums.

The installation guide works pretty well. Here, you will be prompted to install Kodi in addition to Boxee+Hacks. At this point I chose NOT to install Kodi. From what I read, once you install it though the script, it can be difficult to remove, and I didn’t want to deal with the possibilities of a difficult upgrade.

Instead, I decided to install Kodi on a flash drive. I’ve had a cheap 512MB drive that has been kicking around for close to ten years, and it is perfect for fitting Kodi. To setup the flash drive, I formatted it as FAT32 and labeled the drive as MEDIA. I’m not sure if either of these matter, but this configuration worked for me. I downloaded the latest Kodi release built for Boxee from the boxeebox-xbmc repository (Version KODI_14.2-Git-2015-10-20-880982d-hybrid at the time of this writing) and unzipped it onto my flash drive. Make sure that the all of the Kodi files are in the root directory of the drive, and not within the KODI_14.2-Git-2015-10-20-880982d-hybrid directory you get from extracting the archive.

It might also help to label the drive

It might also help to label the drive

That’s all there is to it, just plug the flash drive into the back of the Boxee and it is good to go. If you leave the flash drive in, whenever you boot the Boxee it will go right into Kodi. Leave it out and it will boot to standard Boxee+Hacks. If you boot into Boxee+Hacks and then want to load up Kodi, just plug in the flash drive and it loads automatically.

This turns a seemingly unassuming and thought-obsolete device into a pretty powerful media center, and is a quick inexpensive solution to streaming your content to yet another television.

 

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)

 

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.

 

Stay Firm

Every once in a while, I find out a cool way to add some functionality to a standard piece of tech I have by feeding it some custom firmware. Custom firmware might be one of the most overlooked ways of enhancing your devices. Don’t let the idea of running third party software scare you. Though you do run the risk of bricking your tech, most of the procedures for installing custom firmware are well documented and take a matter of minutes.

Here are some of my favorites.

DVD Players

I have always had good luck with Philips brand DVD players for reliability, and most of them also tend to support DivX, which I also like. Anyway, most of these DVD players have region free codes, so you can hit some buttons on your remote and instantly play discs from any region. Taking this a step further, you can also find custom firmwares for your DVD players that you can flash via USB or a disc. These firmwares give you more options for subtitles, longer file name display, volume control, display options, CEC functionality and more.

If you have a Philips DVD player, check out this site for some excellent custom firmwares by vb6rocod. If you have another brand, do some Google searches. You never know who is out there messing with DVD players.

Digital Cameras

As I mentioned in previous articles, I have a Canon 600D. And as I also mentioned, I am a huge fan of the Magic Lantern firmware. The Magic Lantern firmware is atypical in the way that it doesn’t replace the stock firmware. Instead, it runs along side it offering an expansive selection of new features such as HDR video, increased shutter control, and other little gems like microphone levels. Something else that might comfort or annoy you: Magic Lantern runs off your SD card. So, you have to format each SD card you have the way ML wants you to. A pain, but it also ensures that if you need your (or not your) camera to appear stock, you can just pop out the card and be good to go.

The Magic Lantern firmware is available for most Canon DSLRs. While Nikon and Panasonic camera lines don’t have anything as advanced as ML, people are working on firmwares for Nikon cameras. Who knows where things will be in another six months.

MP3 Player

About 2 years ago, I put Rockbox on my dying iPod Video. After a while, a bunch of little glitches in the Apple firmware got to become a daily annoyance and there were no updates in sight. Rockbox is simply fantastic. I can add files without having to go through iTunes, I can include my FLAC or Ogg files without needing to transcode, Last.fm support is included, I can completely customize my GUI. Rockbox is not just for your old iPod. It supports a slew of devices from the Archos players to the iRiver. Another little side benefit of having an iPod Video is that I can boot and run either the Rockbox firmware or the stock firmware if I ever needed as there is enough memory to include both of them. I haven’t yet, but it’s good to have that option.

Wireless Router

If you are anything like me, you simply amass wireless routers overtime. Okay, you’re probably not like me, but who doesn’t have a WRT54G of some generation somewhere in their house? Why would anyone want to run custom router firmware? The options of course. You can turn a cheap $5 Linksys router from a yard sale into a fully functional high-end device. For example, maybe you want usage graphs, ipv6 support, advances qos, overclocking, daemons, higher TX power, etc.

I currently run an early WRT54G with Tomato and an original Fonera WAP with DD-WRT. If those don’t suit you, check out OpenWrt.

 

There are tons of other devices that can run custom firmware that I just haven’t got around to toying with or don’t have to play with. For example: the PSP, iPhone, AppleTV, WDTV, etc. all have the capability of running custom firmware to run third party applications and homebrew software. Some other platforms have the ability to work around or through stock firmware such as the original Xbox, Wii, and others. While I still use my softmodded Xboxes once in a while and my letterbomb’d Wii, they aren’t true custom firmware installations (and not the easiest processes either).

Simple hacking of your everyday technology can be a great way to add life to your aging toys, and make the experience of some of your newer ones much more enjoyable. So, load up the SD card and get acquainted with the secret menus. And please, don’t remove the drive before the update is complete.

 

Wizzywig Volume Two

Ever since January of this year, I have been waiting for the second book in the Wizzywig series to be ready for distribution. The first volume, subtitled “Phreak” follows a young kid named Kevin Phenicle who goes by the handle Boingthump. Let me say, this isn’t some drab piece of writing you would find in the discount bin at your local book outlet. These are graphic novels, containing anything but a boring story about some kiddie hacker acting out a stereotype. This first book I read about Boingthump was a definite, and somewhat unexpected, treat. The bulk of the story was composed of little snippets of this character’s doings. From his first experience with blueboxing to social engineering pizza, the story is rife with creative scenarios that paint a vivid picture of an anykid in the golden age of phreaking. Suffice it to say I was impressed by just how much fact went into the story, and was curious to see where it would go… or where it would take me.

cover1-296x3001

Fast forward to November. I stumbled across Ed Piskor’s website after forgetting about it for a little while. I found out that the second book had been completed and was ready for purchase, so I quickly snagged myself a copy, which arrived in the mail quickly after my purchase. Upon reading the book, I was happy to see much of the same structure as was present in the first. The story bounced back and forth between present day (Kevin has been incarcerated) and his younger days when he started experimenting with computers, and became immersed in a new, exciting, and scary world found through his phone lines.

cover-295x3001

The story found in these books is not your cookie cutter hacker epic. Take your Hackers, your Die Hard 4, your Swordfish, and throw them out the window. Ed takes careful attention to detail, nothing here is a stretch of the imagination and you can see he has done his homework in the creation of these novels. Reading along, you’ll be able to see all he has done simply by what is alluded to. No Hollywood garbage trying to make hacking seem glamorous or news stories spewing out tales that this underground world is full of all kinds of dangerous people who can make a computer explode. Ed gives the honest, gritty perspective the genre has hardly ever been represented by.

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Summing things up, I don’t know anyone who is showing the world of phreak/hack culture in this fashion. Ed has truely honed his craft, and the fact that he himself is only an admirer of this culture, and not a participant only ampliphies his qualities. If you liked the first one, you probably already have the second, and are waiting patiently for the third and fourth. For those of you who haven’t jumped on the wagon yet, you can purchase both books directly from Ed at his website. There are also previews of both of the books, so you can read a few panels before deciding.

Also, I happen to be “in” the second installment as an angry fellow on page 10.

wizzy1

 

Hacking around with the N64

So in my summer time, oh so long ago, I picked up with my N64 shenanigans again for the first time in years. Probably about seven years to be more specific. While the software is a lot more advanced then it was back then, we had another innovation called Windows XP which doesn’t really like the software, and a step back, Windows 2K really doesn’t like it. So I had a bit of success on Windows XP with some loopholes, and actually less success then I was supposed to have one one of my surviving Windows 98 boxes. Everything comes down to how the kernel locks down the parallel port of the computer. Windows 98 loves to give away the access, Windows 2K likes to hold onto the access, and Windows XP likes to hold onto it, but let you borrow it if you want to.

So the way it works, through the parallel port of my printer, I hook up a cord that goes to my gameshark, which sits between the N64 console and the game (With the software I have, Goldeneye was used). If you have ever used any console based cheat device, like a Game Genie, you know the kind of in-between cartridge I am talking about.

gstopcgamesharkport1

The Back of the GameShark, showing the SharkPort

So, after I connect everything and set it up, I went to the software side. The first thing I needed was DLPortIO which unlocks the parallel port for the purpose of writing data to devices on connected to the port. It comes with its own basic writing functions, but I only needed it to open access to the port, which it happily did. I then retrieved GE Face Mapper from http://rarewitchproject.com/ which is an excellent website that pushes the limits on games made by the company Rareware years after they come out. I also kept a copy of N64 Utils v3 on hand just in case my Gameshark decided to freak out and delete its own software. It was also useful for retrieving screen caps.

It might not look too nice, but this is one of the outcomes of a texture replacement

It might not look too nice, but this is one of the outcomes of a texture replacement

So I unlocked my ports, and booted up facemapper and started my N64. I turned on the code generator function of the Gameshark to use some of the in-game features, and loaded up Goldeneye, selecting the first level, “Dam”. Once there, I did a ram dump using the GE Face Mapper, which showed me which bitmaps of enemies’ were loaded in the level, and allowed me to replace them with my own bitmaps, overwriting their places in the RAM. After doing that, I was able to dump the screen capture (as you saw above) back onto my computer.


N64 Ram Hacking from Famicoman on Vimeo.

There is plenty more canned software to do texture recreations, but also do things like compeltely redesign levels to load and play on the console. However, my hardware limitations halted these ideas quickly. So unless I can get some stable incarnation of Windows 98 on a nice box, don’t think about it any time soon.

 

Hacking La Fonera

I had heard about the fon early in December I believe. For some reason, I wasn’t smart enough to order a load of free ones to toy with. For those of you who don’t know, the la fon, or fonera as it can be called, is a wireless router designed solely to be set up giving free wireless access to anyone and everyone that happens to connect. It creates 2 wifi networks. One public and one private WEP encrypted dealy for access to all your private whatnot. The reason most people flocked to these was because they were being given out for free by the company that makes them. So you got a free wireless router, and you could sign up a bunch of times and order a dozen of them. For some reason, I overlooked the link and got one right on the deadline before they stopped the free offer. And because of this act of karma, the power supply for my fon doesn’t work so I had to splice a D-Link psu together to get something workable. By the way, their tech support is lacking. They claim one day wait and I’m on the fourth day with nothing.

Anyways, the problem that many people had with these devices is that as soon as they plug a fon into the internet, the company locks it down and you can only use it for the fon service. There is an answer to this. Disgruntled or just perhaps curious people discovered a way to run DD-WRT on the fon making it a fully accessible wifi router. If you get all the files needed to do this ahead of time, its quite a simple procedure. Because I suck at gathering necessary materials, it took me near 5 hours to complete the install. Bear in mind that if you have ever used SSH , telnet, and know your local ip, this shouldn’t take you more than half an hour. There’s the golden question of “Is this worth it?”. Depends on your situation in particular. Am I gonna use this day to day? Probably not. If I need to set up a quick wifi for my laptop at a lan party, this small box may be just what I need.

Hopefully soon, fon will offer another free giveaway. I could use some more of these to screw with, along with one to actually use with their service. Its an interesting idea all in its own that I hope will catch on. For more information and perhaps the opportunity to obtain one of these suckers, check out The main fon website.

Fonera, post hack

Fonera, post hack