Old Skool Hackers Reading List

I took a break from game making tonight to focus on a subject that fascinated me in the 80’s and early 90’s but absolutely scares the bee-jeezus out of me now: Hackers! (always with the exclamation points, FULTON!). Anyway, the word hacker means many things to many people. In the early days in was applied to dudes who just wanted to explore computers and technology. They started out exploring the early time sharing punch card systems at universities, and later entire networks. Before long, the term started to be applied (by clueless media) to all nefarious activity that included computer technology of some sort – game pirates, virus creators, and now even email spammers and kiddies running automated sql injection hacks. To me, those are criminals plain and simple, and the term hacker really applies to people who like to explore technology for the fun of it. So, how does this relate to games? The first computer and video games were created by hackers. From early space war games to Pong, and all through the 80’s, individuals with a desire to explore technology were are at the forefront of game creation. And most were in fact, hackers. Anyway, the reason I bring this is up is because I always kind of considered myself a hacker, even though I never broke into any systems or applied any of my skill to even moderately nefarious activities. To me hacking was just exploring my computer and software. I would later find that I unknowingly was following a “hacker ethic” and still do to this day. The hacker ethic, started by MIT and other university hackers in the 60’s, focused on free use of technology, free exploration, free information of how things work, and tinkering (or hacking) things to make then better.

In the 80’s, if you had any type of home computer, you were in for a really wild ride. Also, you were invariably, a hacker. In some cases, just finding software was an adventure as there certainly weren’t mall stores that catered to home computing. There were a few chain shops that focused on business PCs and even a few that would stock the odd game here and there, but mom and pop shops and mail order PO boxes were the bread and butter locations for home computer sofytware. Anyone who bought an early 80’s machine had to be a hacker in some way. Just getting software to run was sometimes a cryptic chore, but it was always rewarding to see your freshly purchased game or app fill the screen for the first time. All machines came with some type of basic built in and in most, the disk operating system (or tape system) was controlled by commands in the basic interpreter. It was like having a different flavor of incompatible Unix for each companies’ machine. In 1984, Steve and I joined the even smaller collection of ultra nerds who were using 300 Baud modems to connect to local BBS. This certainly was an explorers realm early on that was later taken over by pirates, virus creators, and script kiddies. Early on though, ingenious hackers (the right kind) were creating their own BBS software, running boards, and keeping the hacker ethic alive in the 80’s. Since users all had access to a language of some sort, the entire world of that box sitting on their bedroom floor was open to them for exploration. From small games to peeking poking memory locations to see what havoc could be brought, home computers were fun tools aimed at the bedroom hacker.

So, besides just playing with my Atari computers, I was always fascinated by stories of the ultra skilled hackers of the day. Certainly, the movie War Games played a huge part in that fascination. It is definitely worth your time if you haven’t seen it. Sure some of it is corn ball, but it was much more realistic depiction of early 80’s hacking than the travesty that came out in the late 90’s called Hackers was to 90’s criminal hackers.

If anyone else is interested in reading about the explorer style hackers that fascinate me, then you should check out the 8bitrocket Hacker Required Reading List .

1. The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage – By Cliff Stoll – My mom bought this for me when she found out I was interested in computers (she didn’t realize it all through the 80’s). This original came out in 1989 and it tells the story of Cliff’s real life tracking of a hacker through Berkeley astronomy computer systems. This is the book that peaked my interest to anything hacker related. It set in place my fascination with the explorer hacker (and the tracker of those hackers). It turns out the hackers in this book were criminals, and they were caught, so it made me feel good about the world of computing. There might be some criminals in the computer world, but they were getting caught, so it all made sense. To me, Cliff was the right kind of hacker – an explorer of systems and a computer enthusiast as well as a scientist, while the “hackers” were actually just bad dudes who used a computer to commit crimes.

2. After reading The Cuckoo’s egg, Steve found Cyberpunk at the library he worked for. The book was written by Katie Hafner with help from New York Times technology columnist, John Markoff. Host hackers consider it a hatchet job but it certainly is an enjoyable read. It is broken up into three separate stories on 80’s computer system explorers. They were all considered criminals by the authors, but to me only one of the stories included a real criminal. That part ironically was a story about the actual West German hackers that Cliff Stoll tracked down in his book. The other two stories included a fascinating account of the early exploits of the Kevin Mitnick, and an unfortunate story of a worm release by Robert Tappin Morris. Kevin Mitnick is one person whose unfortinate story stuck a chord with me. Simply put, he was vilified as the computer devil at a time when NO ONE in law enforcement or media understood a thing about computers. Today, his exploits wouldn’t amount to much more than a slap on the wrist, but back then, he was unjustly used as a poster boy for a scared society coming to grips with the end of the cold war and the emergence of a new digital age. He scared people because they didn’t know what to be scared of.

3. Hackers By Steven Levy. This certainly in NOT a novelization of the terrible Angelina Jolie movie. It is a well told set of biographical stories depicting 3 distinct eras of computer hackers (not the criminal types) who were exploring technology. Part one consumes the 60’s and the MIT Model Railroad club who were some of the first to coin the term HACK. It meant a clever improvement on a system (the same as it does in some circles today). All the characters in these stories were devoted to the “Hacker Ethic” – open systems, free exploration, and information sharing among other things. The second story concerns the 70’s mavericks who were born from the 60’s Hacker Ethic and went on to build the first personal computers. The third story was the most fascinating to me as it concerns the original Sierra On-line’s game development, and one of my heroes, John Harris. He was an Atari 800 game programming genius, who was able to use his considerable skills to write the most optimized games the system had ever seen. This was the first book that taught me what a hacker really was, and that the criminals who were getting the moniker in the press were nothing but computer hooligans (probably smarter than most West Ham firm members though).

4. Just for fun: the story of an accidental revolutionary – By LINUS TORVALDS. This isn’t easy to find. but it is an inspiring story of the creation of Linux written as an autobiographical account. Linus is one of the major modern day flag wavers for the “hacker ethic”.

5. The Soul Of A New Machine – by Tracy Kidder. We were assigned this book in college, but I never read it. About 3 years ago  I broke it out and found an absolutely fascinating story of how mini computers were built in the ’80s. Anyone interested in computers or exploring technology should give this a read.

6. Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date – By Robert X. Cringely. This is a much longer and more detailed account covering the same time span (roughly) as Steven Levy’s Hacker’s second act. This book is somewhat controversial, but it is a good read. Steve Wozniak, especially, refutes some of the stories in this book, so it is best to also read the next one…

7. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It – by Steve Wozniak. This book is written in a very conversational tone by someone who knows he is brilliant. It gives Steve’s account of his early years and especially the creation of the Apple I, and II. Steve’s hatred of design by committee, and his love of computer games (he created the arcade game Breakout by Atar,) drew me from page 1.

8. The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick – by Jonathan Littman. I know this one is about a supposed criminal, but after reading this account, you will probably feel otherwise. There were about 3 or 4 books written about the 1990’s capture of Kevin Mitnick, and this one is the best of the bunch. Jonathan Littman’s account comes from actual conversations he had with Kevin as the supposed Dark Side Hacker was on the run from a parole violation (he never should have been in jail in the first place). Anyway, no matter the actual legal circumstances, or the questionable legalities of some of his actions, Kevin Mitnick was actually more a part of the hacker ethic than anything else. I can’t wait until his personal account can be published.

There are more, but this is a pretty good start. If you are interested in the subject, but don’t want to buy any books, then Google “The Hacker Ethic”, “Cliff Stoll”, or “Kevin Mitnick”. You will find some very interesting reading.

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