Geek: a definition...
"But just what is a geek?" you ask. Well, I'll tell you. At
least, I'll tell you my definition... which may be different from "general
usage" of the term, webster's definition,
and even the definition used by other geeks.
A geek is someone who spends time being "social" on a
computer. This could mean chatting on irc or icb, playing multi-user games,
posting to alt.sex.bondage.particle.physics, or even writing shareware. Someone
who just uses their computer for work, but doesn't spend their free time "on
line" is not a geek. Most geeks are technically adept and have a great love of
computers, but not all geeks are programming wizards. Some just know enough unix
to read mail and telnet out to their favorite MUD.
Geeks are generally social outcasts from mainstream america. The ranks of
geekdom are swelled with gamers, ravers, science fictions fans, punks, perverts,
programmers, nerds, subgenii, and trekkies. These are people who did not go to
their high school proms, and many would be offended by the suggestion that they
should have even wanted to. Geeks prefer to socialize with other geeks, the self
proclaimed weird. Therefore they go online to organize parties, food runs, drink
runs, and movie nights, and be assured that their companions would rather talk
about superheros as modern mythology than the latest football scores.
Geeks are their own society: a literate, hyperinformed underground. The
community accepts people from all walks of life, assuming they have access to
the net and the skill to use it. Geeks are rather openminded with regards to
nonstandard lifestyles. Many geeks are queer, more practice non-monogamy, and
the most common religion is neo-paganism. You can't tell if someone is a geek
just by looking at them, there is no dress code. Some dress casual, some prefer
silk - but few pay attention to current fashion. You are more likey to see a
geek in a renaissance bodice than a dress from glamour magazine; or a tiedye
instead of suit and tie.
The unwritten geek credo states that originality and strangeness are good,
and that blind conformity and stupidity are unforgivable.
Take care not to confuse the terms geek and nerd. A nerd is
a person with no social skills, usually obsessed with science or technology
(geek is more computer specific). Nerds are known for their pocket protectors,
taped glasses, and plaid shirts. Many nerds are also geeks, using the net as a
safe screen to hide behind while practicing their social skills. However they
rarely come out to be seen in person at live geek events, so there is little
reason to be concerned.
The term hacker tends to refer to the more programming
intense set of the geek crowd. However the term is overused in the popular
media, and therefore is no longer much used among "real geeks". Hacker also has
negative connotations related to cracking, or illegally obtaining
access to computers and accounts.
Geek can also be used as a verb. "To geek" is to sit online
and read mail, news, chat, and otherwise waste time in front of a keyboard. This
"geeking" often consumes many hours, even if the intention was
to "just log in and check my mail." Some would say this time would be better
spent being social in person or even just being curled up in a sunbeam.
There was once a special breed of geeks known as b-geeks
after the computer ucscb.ucsc.edu, where they gathered. However, many of these
b-geeks graduated, more failed out, and ucscb has waned in importance in the
ucsc computer system. Now spread to the winds of computer access, they still
gather in electronic forums and do lots of fun stuff. The group is now known as
scruz-geeks, and you can find out more about them on the santa cruz geek social scene page.
Haker: a definition...
Hackers aren't crackers
Chris Lichti, a 26-year-old senior system
designer at a computer company with offices near Pittsburgh, told me in no
They are a dedicated, workaholic group of aficionados who
spend much of their time helping to create and expand the digital world for the
love of it, often pro bono, for no other reason than they believe it will help
humanity. And mostly, they are getting tired of being equated with the crackers
who steal our data, run up bogus phone bills, and send us e-mails whose lips say
"love you" while their actions say "fuck you."
And so, without further ado, here are eight things hackers hate about you:
You don't know a hacker from a cracker.One of the biggest pet peeves
among hackers is the casual assumption that they are all data-thieves and
system-attackers."Crackers" is the proper term for those people.
"My code controls a product that can, and often does, either improve the
quality of medical care, reduce the cost, or both," says hacker Robert
Bickford on his Web site, "Are
YOU a Hacker?" "When some ignorant reporter writes a story that equates
the work I do with expensive but childish pranks committed by someone calling
himself a 'Hacker,' I see red."
Hackers are partly to blame for the confusion, because they themselves
don't use the terms consistently. "It's an understandable etymological leap,"
says Pittsburgh-area hacker Mike Weber. "If a computer system has been
compromised, you say it's been hacked. But a hacker is not a person who hacks
in that definition of 'hack'."
While there's some small cross-membership between hackers and crackers,
Lichti says, "I think there is a growing animosity between the two groups," as
hackers increasingly feel targeted by society and the law for the activities
of crackers. Most reviled are the "script kiddies": often young, always
unsophisticated crackers with flamboyant aliases who do great damage using
cracking programs they downloaded from the Web, the workings of which they
"I can say that a lot of attacks are launched by people who don't
understand technology," says Jed Pickel, a technical coordinator at Computer
Emergency Response Team (CERT) Coordination Center, Carnegie Mellon's national
anti-cracking war room. Pickel has seen evidence of crackers trying to give
commands in one computer language while cracking a computer that uses another.
"These are people who take a hacker's discovery and put it to ill use,"
Hackers consider crackers to be malicious poseurs who have fallen from the
true path of hacking. Some use the term "white-hat hacker" to underscore their
"good guy" role and further distinguish themselves from crackers.
You don't appreciate a good hack.If a hacker isn't a cracker, what is
he (or, increasingly, she)? That's a moving target, too, as hackers sometimes
use the term in the sense of a life philosophy that could apply to any number
of hard-core workaholics with a passion for their calling and an
anti-authoritarian streak. In fact, the very idea of a unified voice repels
some in the hacker community, who feel that nobody has the right to "speak"
for hackers. But most people who call themselves hackers are dedicated to some
aspect of computer software or hardware as well.
Hackers don't completely dodge the geek stereotype. "Contrary to popular
myth, you don't have to be a nerd to be a hacker," says Eric Raymond on his
Web site, How to
Become a Hacker. "It does help, however. ... Being a social outcast helps
you stay concentrated on the really important things, like thinking and
With characteristic forthrightness, hackers generally embrace geekdom; it's
a kind of repudiation of a society that they feel mistreats hackers and other
Bickford's Web site defines a hacker as "any person who derives joy from
discovering ways to circumvent limitations." Usually, legit hackers use
the word "limitations" to apply to problems, often practical problems in
making computers and networks work better. Sometimes, however, limitations
include security systems. Exactly what a hacker is willing to do" and where he
or she draws the line "is an important part of the gray area between hacker
"Sometime in the last year, someone I will call a cracker for now
discovered a weakness in [Microsoft Windows]," Lichti told me. This person,
possibly with no motive worse than warning the computer community about that
weakness, created a "worm" called VBS.Network.
Symantec AntiVirus Research Center's online encyclopedia defines
a worm as "a program that is designed to copy itself from one computer to
another over a network (e.g. by using e-mail). The worm spreads itself to many
computers over a network, and doesn't wait for a human being to help. This
means that computer worms spread much more rapidly than computer viruses."
And VBS.Network did just that: It spread like wildfire throughout the
Internet. But VBS.Network was essentially harmless: It spread, but didn't
damage the unsuspecting recipients' data.
The problem with VBS.Network was that, once someone had invented it, it
took little skill to turn it into a digital weapon. Someone else, with far
less skill, created an imperfect but destructive worm based on the same
general idea. Unlike VBS.Network it reproduced itself via e-mail instead of by
network connections, and it required the victim to open an attachment that
said "I Love You." Since no one acted to close the gap in digital security
revealed by VBS.Network, the earlier worm only enabled the malicious cracker
who authored the Love Bug and its many copycats.
To be sure, computer law in many states defines unauthorized access to a
computer system to be equivalent to damaging it, whether or not damage was
done. (Laws elsewhere in the world can vary from nonexistent to highly
draconian.) In much of the U.S., the author of VBS.Network is no less guilty
than the creator of the Love Bug. But a spectrum of activities lies between
Love Bug, VBS.Network, and legitimate hacking, posing an ethics problem
regardless of the law.
"I want to know how a system can provide secure access to some people, but
not others," Lichti says."Can we improve the system to prevent it from being
broken? Do I explore these issues by cracking into a corporate system? Do I
crack into my own system, or those of my friends? This is the ethical fine
line most hackers dance around."
"I don't think I'm in a position to be defining a line between hackers and
crackers", says CERT's Pickel. He and his colleagues don't even like to use
the words "hacker" and "cracker": they say "intruder" or "attacker" for a
cracker. "You could even go as far as to say that people who ... do all kinds
of damage raise awareness," eventually leading to better computer security.
Pickel never really told me what he calls hackers " but he did begrudgingly
admit that many of his coworkers at CERT fit the benign definition of the
Many hackers would like to see attitudes about nondestructive hacking
change. Damaging someone's data or computer is always wrong, they say; but
sometimes, breaking in can be a wake-up call and a warning that prevents real
cracking " which leads us to our next point.
You make it too easy.Hackers are amazed at how little the vast
majority of computer users bother to understand the technology they depend on
so heavily. Hard experience doesn't seem to steer people from stupid errors,
such as assigning obvious passwords or opening poorly explained e-mail
attachments from people they don't know.
Ease of cracking is even more of a major bone of contention between hackers
and the establishment computer corporations. In one sense, the law has to
protect people from being victimized, even " especially " if they're easy
targets. But many hackers believe that a combination of malice toward hackers
and plain old arrogance makes industry types too slow to admit they've made a
mistake " and too quick to kill the messenger. Microsoft is a perennial and
favorite, but by no means the only, target of this kind of criticism. Some
hackers claim its products are inherently easy to crack.
VBS.Network, which should have warned people the Love Bug was coming but
didn't, is a perfect example of industry hubris, says Lichti. "Perhaps network
security specialists were not as concerned about it as they should have been."
Sometimes a hacker will inform the vendor of a problem in a software
product's security. The company's response can vary from a thank-you letter
and free software, to ignoring the hacker and denying the problem, to
threatening a lawsuit.
"To report the problem to the vendor is no longer an option," says Lichti,
because of the companies who have "attacked the hacker as if he'd exploited
the problem" rather than merely discovered it. One arguable example of this "
depending on whom you ask " is DeCSS, a computer program designed to decode
the encryption that the entertainment industry used to prevent people from
copying (and pirating) digital video discs.
"DeCSS was developed because the company that did the encryption for DVDs
did [such] a shoddy job ... that any student could decrypt it," says Lichti.
"And they did." The industry has responded not by improving the decryption,
but by suing a number of hackers and others.
In your eyes, we're guilty until proven innocent.The most common
refrain among hackers is that, contrary to media stereotypes, they're not out
to get the rest of us " but our paranoia makes us dangerous to them. Often
intelligent and introverted, hackers grow up as outsiders. They claim that a
few cracking incidents " as well as school shootings completely unrelated to
hacking " have been used by industry and government to create a witch-hunt for
hackers and other misfits of all ages.
Slashdot, an online hacker
newsletter, is, according to the hackers I spoke with, arguably a voice of the
moderate hacker mainstream. Slashdot has run a number of features, many
written by print- and cyberjournalist Jon Katz, in which self-proclaimed geeks
tell stories of harassment and worse from fellow students, teachers, school
boards and the law. Aside from the questions these stories raise about how
officials are using their authority over kids, it also underscores hackers'
self-image as besieged by the outside culture from an early age.
"I remember the basic assumption people made about me in [high] school 10
years ago," Lichti said in an e-mail. "When I expressed interest in learning
more about computer systems I didn't understand, the assumption was that I
intended to do harm."
Nowadays, "If I found a flaw in some Microsoft software, I wouldn't report
it to Microsoft myself; I'd report it to network security experts I know. That
might delay the time it takes for a fix to come out," he admits, but if it's a
choice between a "happy life versus my facing lawsuits from an out-of-control
bureaucracy ... I'm just not willing to take that risk."
To be fair, Pickel says that CERT is willing to act as a middleman for
hackers wanting to warn manufacturers anonymously.
Lichti's worry, bordering on the paranoid, merits some background on him:
meticulous, married, holding a responsible computer industry job, and a deacon
in his church, he's not exactly the unkempt, wild-eyed cracker who you might
expect from those statements. Something has given him what he feels is good
reason to believe that being an otherwise responsible citizen with good
motives wouldn't protect him if someone in power decided he was an evil
cracker who needed to be brought down.
You kill the messenger.The difference between hacking and cracking is
hazy and hard to define. Yet the law does insist upon clear definitions,
sometimes based on a shaky understanding of the technology. And the
consequences for cracking " or hacking near the edge " can indeed be severe.
Consider a story in 2600: The Hacker
Quarterly, an online magazine Lichti tells me caters to those on the hazy
border between hackers and crackers.
Ed Cummings, a hacker caught with equipment and a computer configured to
phreak " steal telephone service " spent most of the time between spring 1995
and fall 1996 in prison. The Secret Service found an online book on bombmaking
and some material they thought might be plastic explosives in the house
Cummings was living in (the latter turned out to be a dental compound used by
the dentist who owned the house). Cummings may or may not have erased
incriminating data in one computer device when the police made a visit to his
The Secret Service used this evidence to argue that Cummings was a threat
to the President.
The judge threw the book at Cummings. Among other prisons, he spent time in
the maximum-security wing of the Northampton County Correctional Facility near
Philadelphia. Also in that wing was Joseph Henry, who had, according to 2600,
"bit off a woman's nipples and clitoris before strangling her with a Slinky."
Worse, they transferred Cummings " a procedure usually reserved for snitches "
several times during his incarceration. Cummings claimed to have been harassed
by guards; there seems to be no dispute that he was beaten by other prisoners.
Remember: All they ever really proved was that the guy was stealing
The Northampton County Correctional Facility didn't return my call. It's
not exactly a secret that federal laws can punish minor criminals more
severely than violent criminals convicted under state laws. But the hacking
community looks at this story and sees a guy being punished not because of his
crime, but because he's a hacker.
A more recent case, and one that's appeared, among other places, in the New
York Times and Village Voice, is that of Eric Corley and DeCSS. You'll recall
that this program allows people to crack the encryption of DVDs. Corley, among
others, ran afoul of the Motion Picture Association of America when he posted
the code for DeCSS on his 2600 site. Eight MPAA member studios have sued
Corley " along with at least one other suit against others who had posted the
software on their sites. The Corley suit is ongoing.
Nobody accused Corley, who is an Internet journalist but doesn't even
consider himself a hacker, of pirating DVDs, or of writing DeCSS. Only of
posting it on his Web site.
At first, the case seemed a slam-dunk for the industry; the judge
immediately granted an injunction forcing Corley to remove the program from
his site. The plaintiffs have requested another injunction, to prevent him
from linking to other sites containing DeCSS. (For now, at least, Corley
offers these links at www.2600.com/news/1999/1227-help.html.) As the facts
came out, the picture grew murkier " and less flattering for the industry. For
starters, DeCSS is neither needed by nor necessarily the tool of choice for
DVD pirates. DeCSS can be used to pirate DVDs by translating them into
electronic form and sending the resulting files through the Internet. But at
the time Corley posted DeCSS, the size of the average DVD was so large it
would have taken up most of a computer's hard drive and been prohibitively
slow to transmit " although new compression technology recently changed that.
By contrast, known large-scale piracy operations copy disks bit by bit,
without bothering to crack the code, and so don't need DeCSS.
DeCSS can, however, be used to play a legally purchased DVD on a Linux
computer or other hardware that the movie industry hasn't anointed as DVD
players. Linux is the operating system of choice for most hackers " they use
neither the Macintosh or Windows operating systems found on most PCs nor the
UNIX OS on most mainframes.
Linux is what's called "open-source" software " it's essentially free for
the asking, group property. Hackers as a community created and continue to
develop it. Open-source software, and its egalitarian virtues, is something of
a religion among hackers. The entertainment industry hasn't produced Linux DVD
software yet. The two Linux projects it is developing will run only on certain
proprietary versions of Linux sold by the computer industry.
You won't set computer code free.The industry's objections to using
DeCSS to, in effect, make a single copy of a movie so that an open-source
Linux computer can play it " arguably analogous to the quite legal practice of
making a single cassette copy of a purchased CD for use by its owner " reveals
another, not so savory, possible motive for the suit. Some hackers say that
the industry is trying to expand control over copyrighted materials by way of
controlling what systems and computers can play DVDs. Potentially, it's a kind
of monopoly in which DVDs and the ability to play them are inextricably
attached to certain vendors.
"The real importance of DeCSS is not that it could be used to make a Linux
DVD player," said Robert Link in a Slashdot discussion. "The real importance
... is to make DVD an open format ... to make sure that we retain our right to
use material that we have legally purchased however we see fit ... It means
that when you buy something you own it."
In a way, say some hackers, the industry is trying to have it both ways: to
enjoy the legal protection of copyright or patenting, which normally requires
making the information public, while retaining the secrecy of a trade secret "
which, in the non-digital world, is up for grabs to any one who
In the physical world, you can copy a book you own as long as you don't try
to sell the copy or distribute it in large enough numbers to undercut the
vendor's ability to make money off of it. In the digital world, thanks to laws
like the federal Millennium Digital Copyright Act of 1998, such "fair use" may
or may not exist.
Martin Garbus, Corley's high-powered attorney (thanks to money from the
Electronic Frontier Foundation), has said that DeCSS is merely a fair-use
tool. He also argues that Corley, as a journalist, has the right to post the
DeCSS code as an expression of free speech. Industry lawyers argue that the
MDCA and other laws trump fair use " and, ominously, the First Amendment " in
the digital world.
That phenomenon " copyright laws and the First Amendment changing when you
enter the digital world " makes hackers feel targeted. In some cases, mere
ownership or transfer of software or hardware capable of cracking is a crime,
whether or not the hacker makes use of it, and even when it has legitimate
uses. It's as if the government made photocopiers illegal because they could
be used to pirate books (the Soviet Union did this), or made ownership of a
book on the chemistry of explosive compounds illegal in the absence of any
bombmaking. By their nature anti-authoritarian, hackers see this trend as a
threat to themselves " and to all of us.
Of course, along with this anti-authoritarianism comes diversity. It would
be a mistake to assume that all hackers agree where the line between DVD
hacking and cracking lies. On Slashdot, Travis Beals, a student at the
University of British Columbia who moonlights as a software developer, openly
questioned the party line on DeCSS: "If someone can convince me that the
primary use of DeCSS is a Linux DVD player, I'll firmly support the effort to
fight the restraining order," he wrote. "Otherwise, I'm not so sure what's
You lump us in with that "Gen X" crap, but we work harder than
you.One of the most enduring stereotypes of hackers is that of the
teenaged boy, listless and apathetic at school, bringing down nuclear-missile
computers from his dad's rec room. Leaving aside for a moment that the very
concept of Generation X is something of a media creation, hackers especially
hate people to assume that they're all lazy kids.
"I would not say that it is true that most hackers are young," Pittsburgh
hacker Weber e-mails. "I would suspect that the average age of the group of
crackers is lower than the average age of the group of hackers."
In an amusing Web site written to help managers understand the hackers who
work for them (www.plethora.net/~seebs/faqs/hacker.html), Peter Seebach
explains how managers can mistake hackers' unconventional work habits as
slacking, while they're nothing of the sort: If a hacker takes a short day,
maybe it's because she put in six 12-hour days last week; if he's playing Doom
during company time, it may be because he's working through a tough problem.
"Hackers, writers, and painters all need some amount of time to spend
'percolating' "doing something else to let their subconscious work on a
problem," Seebach wrote. "Your hacker is probably stuck on something
difficult. Don't worry about it."
"The 'Establishment' may view the different approaches to
work/play/dress/etc. as 'apathetic and lazy'," Weber e-mails. "But the
judgment has no basis in reality, as any judgment based on a stereotype,
because stereotypes apply to those you don't wish to understand but [who]
bother you." Hackers often work long hours; complaining about the time
flexibility they demand (and often get) makes as much sense as complaining
when a co-worker demands and gets more money. It may be unfair, but it's a
part of the world hackers certainly didn't invent.
Certainly, the rhetoric of the hacking community gives one the picture of
an intense aesthetic philosophy rather than GenX listlessness. "Being a hacker
is lots of fun, but it's a kind of fun that takes lots of effort," says
Bickford on his Web site. "[T]o be a hacker you have to get a basic thrill
from solving problems, sharpening your skills, and exercising your
intelligence. ... Becoming a hacker will take intelligence, practice,
dedication, and hard work."
Not only do you not like us, but you won't just leave us alone.The
hackers I spoke with took pains to remind me that they weren't pretending to
speak for all hackers. In a group that prides itself on its
anti-authoritarianism, this is hardly surprising. What it means, however, is
that it's probably impossible to create a list of rules or cardinal beliefs
that hold for all hackers.
A source of debate among hackers is the self-appointed popularizer of
hacker culture. Many applaud Jon Katz, for example, for books like Voices from
the Hellmouth, which relates horror stories from kids who were targeted for
nothing other than being different. Others aren't buying it.
"I feel like we, the so-called geek community ... are placed behind glass
and shown off to the rest of the world by [Katz] ..." said a hacker,
identified only by the screen name "Anonymous Coward," on a Slashdot
discussion of Voices. "Doesn't he realize ... maybe, just maybe, we just want
to be left alone to do our thing?"
writer: KEN CHIACCHIA
HTMLized by email@example.com
First, if anyone is hiring or is aware of someone hiring a senior level
architect IT manager, or webdesigner with skills in web project management, team
leadership, and UNIX administration skills, please drop me an email with
relevant information at firstname.lastname@example.org
. A copy of my online resume will be placed online shortly.
. Currently I am located in the Milan area, I am however willing to
relocate and am willing to co-work out-of-country. Thank you.