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Saturday, July 26, 2008

I Heart NY

What a bunch of geeks.

I've never seen so many misfits in my life. Then you haven't been to downtown Royal Oak lately. Yes I have, I was just there, this is worse.

Hey, check out the guy with the beard over there. No, that guy. Yeah, the guy with the four-foot beard. Wow. Don't these people own mirrors?

What are they doing over here? Lock-picking. Why? Let's check it out. Yep, they're picking locks all right. Why? Who knows?

Will I stick out if I carry my notepad around? Yes, but there's all kinds of people here, and you're going to belong to one demographic or another no matter what you do.

So, what's weirder, the people at the hacker convention, or the ham radio swap meet? There are more weird people at the ham swap, but there are weirder people at the techie convention.

Nothing sadder-looking than a hooker in the morning sun.

There's a certain shorts length on a man below which you just shouldn't go. Well, in case you haven't figured it out… Yes, I figured it out.

World Trade Center: how exactly does one look at something that's not there?

…and on it went, the conversation between Bruck and son of Bruck last weekend in the Big Apple, where we attended the 2600 (hacker) conference along with a couple thousand geeks, nerds, misfits, tools, anarchists, lemmings, bohemians, mods, and rockers. And a few normal, healthy-looking people, just to mix things up.

We both learned quite a lot. For one thing, a hacker is not necessarily a law-breaker. The positive side of their activity is to expose vulnerabilities. And hackers aren't necessarily computer geeks, either. Geeks, to be sure, but there are phone geeks, privacy geeks, communications geeks, even legal geeks. It's not so much a skill set as a mindset.

Of course if you cared what goes on in the mind of a hacker, you'd already know, so for now I won't tire you with my amateur psychological deconstruction. Instead, let's talk about our weekend!

We took a bus to NY and back, between a stop in DC's Chinatown and NY's Penn Station. The bus ride was dirt cheap, $35 round trip for each of us. None of the usual amenities one would find on an airplane or train, such as toilet paper in the latrine, but for that price…! And no worries about traffic, tolls, parking, etc.; it probably won't be the last time I use the DC/NY bus.

NY is pretty much the same as when I used to go there to visit college friends in the '80s; if anything, there's just more of it. Well, less of it if you count the World Trade Center, the site of which we visited on Saturday morning. If I saw nothing else in NY, I had to see the WTC site. Right now there's nothing left of the wreckage of course. The foundation is in place for some new towers that are being erected there, and a lot of construction activity was evident, even on a Saturday morning.

The conference itself was quite entertaining and educational, and I don't mean that in any kind of condescending sense. Well, maybe a little condescending. The attendees were mainly young non-conformists who all managed to look, dress, and think alike. The speakers were a mixed bag, some good, some terrible, but the actual topics - some of the coolest stuff you could imagine. The ones I attended were on privacy, copyright laws, lockpicking, safecracking, surreptitious surveillance, social engineering, and a rather strange one by a group that harasses the Church of Scientology.

Yes, you heard that right, safecracking, as in how to open actual safes without benefit of the combination or dynamite. I've never been offered the opportunity for a primer in safecracking, and probably never will again, so naturally I jumped at the chance. Very informative! It's not like I could go help myself to the contents of Fort Knox based on what I garnered from a one-hour seminar, but it was cool to see how safes work and how their weaknesses can be exploited. As it happens, safes are rated by how quickly an expert safecracker could open them. Your basic hardware store-bought safe will protect your valuables from such a person for 15 to 30 minutes. The state-of-the-art lock, on the other hand, would protect the same from all known methods of attack for 190 days. In this case, it would be easier to exploit other mechanisms for obtaining access, such as:

Social Engineering

Social Engineering, as the hackers define it, is simply using psychological tools to extract information to which one is not entitled. We attended a fascinating panel discussion on this topic, in which several experts discussed their techniques and traded stories. One such expert demonstrated his techniques by calling (and patching the conversation to the PA system) airlines, and through various ruses, extracting information on passengers of certain flights. Pretty tame, all things considered, but a good example of how easy it is to exploit helpful, trusing people. One of the panelists also claimed to make a pasttime of calling various businesses, getting them to voluntarily release sensitive customer information such as credit card numbers, and then informing them what fools they were for doing so.

But the really weird topic was the panel discussion by an anonymous group that calls itself "Anonymous" and harrasses the Church of Scientology. I won't go into too much detail, as I don't think all of their activities are completely above-board, but you're welcome to give yourself a webucation on the subject by googling "anonymous" and "church of scientology" or "scientologist." The Anonymous group stages various protests at Scientology events and attempts to publicize the religions's ludicrous claims and practices that it would rather keep secret. Actually, the panel discussion could have been a lot better - they were not very good public speakers, and were not pretty well prepared, but they still did manage to convey their basic message.

Some of you may be wondering, is NY now part of the Bruck Empire? The answer is no, I didn't really want NY all that badly, so I decided not to challenge the rights of the myriad bums and winos who stake that claim daily.


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