I’ve just read “Spaghetti hacker”, a book by Stefano Chiccarelli and Andrea Monti, which tells many stories from the Italian hacking scene, from the early eighties (“1982: the death of flipper”) to 1997, the year the book came out. The authors are unsure of which word to use for the protagonists and are uncertain even of the existence of someone that can really be called ‘Italian hackers’ in that period. There is an interesting and useful word in Italian which they can use – ‘smanettoni’, which refers to those who like to experiment, study, repair, those who prefer the hands on approach to things, those who won’t take just anyone’s word about how things work or what the limits are. That might be the right term for this particular ‘spaghetti’ approach to computer hacking. Each chapter of this book tells a part of the story, then adds some notes about the more technical and legal aspects, and in the end includes the most interesting parts – stories written by the ‘smanettoni’ themselves telling their experiences in the first person.
This is the first in a series of posts about this book. I will mostly try to summarize and include some excerpts, hoping to inspire. And I will try to describe what I personally find inspiring about it. I hope that I am describing this book as precisely as possible. I certainly can’t tell the story as well as the authors of the book can, but I did have this post proof read by someone who had personal experience of that period, and he says it’s OK.
Why am I writing about this on my ‘learning to program’ blog? I have no intention of getting into the debate about hackers and about the word ‘hacker’. I am not a hacker, never was one, probably never will be. It’s just a fact. I rarely think about that word. I am writing about this book because it inspires me. The part that motivates me the most is the story of computer enthusiasts who, after years of experimentation, get a proper connection to the Internet, that is, get enough of a connection to download a Linux distribution (Slackware) that they can install on their computer (with difficulty, there wasn’t as much documentation and help online as today). Finally they can study Unix, and they see it as a great gift, as a wonder. At last they can use a machine that is an open book, that they can learn from, study, tinker and play with, really work with, that is not a black box, a machine that doesn’t leave them out of the loop or treat them like idiots. This story reminds me not to get lazy or take for granted the wealth of information and software and all kinds of networks I have at my disposal today. If they could stand up all night to study that one machine with Slackware, then I really need to get to work and learn as much as possible. And there is so much I could learn every second.
If you understand any Italian you can get the book from the editor, Apogeo. Or in a library, for example it can be found in the Sormani library in Milan. You can find some excerpts here (I right clicked the link and then clicked ‘copy link location’, since the link in the navigation toolbar never changes), on the book website. If the dark background and small font exhaust you, feel free to switch off the CSS – style sheets (in Firefox it’s View->Page Style->No Style).
This is not a rant about the good old days and against the ‘lazy spoiled new generations’ that aren’t up to much. I’ve heard that too many times, and as reasonable as it may sound, that is not my story. Ironically, the good old days weren’t so good for me – I used to find the old school mentality discouraging, as everyone was always trying to make everything sound difficult, throwing technical terms and acronyms around all the time, treating the computer as more important then its users and uses. I tended to prefer keeping a low profile in order not to make a fool of myself, avoiding overly technical topics. So, although my first computer was a Spectrum ZX and I even got to use the BBSs for a while before switching to the Internet (in the 90’s, though), and although I worked as a PHP developer, I had never really launched myself as a tinkerer until now. And as confusing and silly this Web 2.0 world may be sometimes, it is also liberating for me.
But this post is not about me (I’m not even Italian, although I do feel I’m becoming Italian after living here for 10 years now). This post is about this interesting book that the new self-confident tinkerer me has found inspiring, now that these old hackers’ tales don’t intimidate me anymore but motivate me. Not to become a hacker, but to remind myself simply never to take technology for granted. Here are some non-exhaustive summaries (the book is too complex to be summarized in a few blog posts) and translated excerpts (the book is in Italian). Keep in mind that this is just my reinterpretation of the story, I probably won’t get it all right. I repeat, if you understand any Italian, do read the book.
1. Part one: The dawning of a new era
1.2. 1982: the death of flipper
The tinkering with computer starts with video games. After the preface, the very first phrase describes the enthusiasm when the author encounters the game of Pong at the age of eleven. He remains “fascinated (hypnotized?)”. Games are crucial.
“The challenge is not in completing a level or saving the virtual skin of donkey-kong: for the smanettoni it is more important to understand the game in itself, and this is their entertainment, and it’s the desire for knowledge that makes a difference between vulgar pirates and ‘spaghetti hackers’, a difference that still persists but that no one acknowledges.” (p. 16) (donkey-kong italic in the original, smanettoni italic because left untranslated)
There are moments like that, when tinkerers’ solitary technological activity gets a boost from being shared with like-minded individuals. The intensity and concentration combined with competition and brain-storming produces interesting results. And in this early period the games exit the living room and appear in bars (games like ”Break-out”, Space-Invaders, Asteroid). Joining forces is a must – the coins are few, and the games are difficult.
“Video games aren’t simple, they weren’t simple then, they weren’t ever simple and they never will be, even the most idiotic shoot’ em’ up game. An easy game is a contradiction in terms.” (p. 11)
So the answer was “Ask, people know!” The more talented individuals studied the games to the point of doing a sort of a reversed engineering of the game logic, until they were able to anticipate the game behavior.
And then the Italian market gets invaded by the microcomputers. With all sorts of standards, peripheral devices and operating systems – ZX Spectrum, Commodore Vic-20, Commodore 64, Atari, MSX, … With BASIC, and later, the Assembly language, interesting things could be done. But where can you learn?
“There are no courses, schools or anything similar that teach about the z80a or the Commodore processor Assembly language or about interfacing a device to the C 64 port; the courses are still treating old programming languages like FORTRAN or COBOL, which aren’t useful for the home computers, so the smanettoni have to do things on their own, and exchange information in more or less official ways.
Their meeting places take shape – as we have said – inside tiny computer shops, where the tinkerers offer their skills to the new users who are still having trouble even turning on the computer, and where the tinkerers spend nights studying English-language manuals found who knows where. This makes them, on one hand, more advanced then the Italian average, but also slows down their development, which might have had been less laborious and approximative with an an adequate response from universities and from the market.” (pp. 17-18)
The technical part of this chapter deals with ‘psychoanalysis of the software’, and ways of cracking it (copying tapes, programs for copying, turbo-headers, dongles, etc.) The legal part discusses copyrights. And the ‘hackers tale’ part tells the story of an anonymous individual who started modifying devices when he was six, moving on from toy cars to electric circuits, constructing a rudimentary telegraph at age of seven with a school friend, to then send each other messages in Morse code. At eleven he becomes intrigued with stereos and HI-FI – LED lights that follow the rhythm of the music and similar modifications. At fourteen he gets a Commodore 64 (Apple II costs too much). Then comes an obsession with programming, the high-school where he specializes in accountancy and programming. But the tools at his disposition aren’t enough – the tape recorder that once upon a time was used to save programs couldn’t handle the graphical subroutines and sprites, so he thought to “social engineer” his way into the data center where only senior year students were allowed. That sums up his motivations for hacking – getting around the lack of resources adequate to his needs. So he learns FORTRAN and COBOL. Then come the magazines about programming. The C 64 / ZX Spectrum rivalry. The first floppy drive and the first printer. And a prank played on his friends with a “War Games” simulation. And then the future, more complex then that, and not a simulation.
This chapter is inspiring. Not for the myth of the hacker. But for the myth of the game. I’ll work hard, learn a lot, and even if it won’t always be easy, I’ll try not be get discouraged. Because an easy game may be a contradiction in terms, but it’s still a game. And things that can be made fun, and things that we can manage to stop being afraid of, are much easier to do well.