The year was 1984, and the place was the author’s local “Radio Shack” store. We had already succumbed to the siren song of the aether, and this unassuming store front in a 70s vintage strip mall was our first stop on the long, strange trip. Perhaps there may have been an opportunity to turn away when that VOR was tuned into while spinning the dial, its Morse Code ID showing evidence of a hidden world on electromagnetic wavelengths, but that, alas, is a tale for another time. In the 1980s, the first stop for an aspiring techno-freak was the local Radio Shack, believe it or not. So, the author found himself on a blustery Spring weekend crossing the threshold of the country’s ubiquitous purveyor of electronic parts and gadgets.
Despite being everywhere, and having everything, there were a few tings that were best acquired elsewhere. Tools, for example. For the then princely sum of $15, one could buy a “Science Fair Electronic Tool Set” that contained the following:
• 30-Watt Soldering Iron
• Needle-Nose Pliers
• Three Screwdrivers
• Various soldering aids
The quality of the tools left something to be desired, and many astute beginning techno-freaks sought their tools elsewhere, usually at Sears & Roebuck, the local hardware store, or via the used equipment route. Despite the lack of quality in hand tools, “Rat Shack” was still the go-to place for common electronic parts and other fiddly bits. The one thing they did have, however, was the source of knowledge on how to put it all together and make it work. They had the Mims books.
It was 128 pages long, softcover, 8 ½ x 11 in size, and only cost $2.49! It’s name was Getting Started in Electronics, by Forrest M. Mims III. Over the next couple years, Mims and Radio Shack would expand the selection to include a number of Engineer’s Mini Notebooks, slim little digest-sized collections of various interesting and useful schematics. All for only a Dollar! Thirty-four years later, they not cost $20 and $13. The good news is that if you can find a Radio Shack that’s still open, they might have them in stock. It would not surprise the author if earlier copies have been scanned into digital format and wandered their way onto The Mesa.
Mesa… That’s probably the best word to describe the process. A steep climb to a barren landscape where you can see a few like-minded individuals here and there off in the distance. A blank canvas waiting for your vision. Back then, the author considered Radio Shack to be the frontier trading post located on the edge of civilization on your way out to The Mesa. Like any other place out on the fringe, sometimes you come across fellow travellers who help you find the trail up there.
The author’s first experience encountering a fellow traveler was a few years before he set off down the path to The Mesa. Remarkable, the building is still standing to this day. For how much longer, who knows? The interaction was all too brief, the author wishes he could remember the traveler’s name, but his demonstration of a bug that occurred with payphone wiring was one of the author’s first indications that there was an invisible parallel world out there. It granted knowledge of the path’s existence, and knowing such a path exists is the first step towards finding it. It was the author’s second encounter, right after finding the path, that defined the journey.
The author shall call this particular fellow traveler “SD”, from the initials of the “handle” I first knew him by. SD still resides on a far-flung region The Mesa, one of those places few people find yet alone visit with any regularity. I suppose you could say he’s now sort of retired. The first time the author met SD was right after finding the path. A few years went by, and we crossed paths again. By then the author had reached the Mesa and started looking around. SD was a true guru and systems expert extraordinaire whose influence permeates this book.
By now the reader is wondering on world domination plays into this. The first part is understanding the systems, how they work, and all the little flaws in them that can be used to one’s advantage. We called this “hacking.” The second part was about creation. Taking something that at one time only existed in your head, adding some parts, and using your knowledge (understanding) to make things. Essentially creating your own world in a sense. Electronics was simply one such path, albeit a fairly accessible one for a young person at the time. The author believes that perhaps it was easier back then, as there was no World Wide Walled Garden directing youth down the safe marked path of groupthink. There were no nanny-ware filters blocking the view of the badlands leading to The Mesa. Modern “kits” often allow little room for bashing, and such unconventional behavior is often discouraged. Out on the old frontier, they gave you a handful of parts and 128 pages of knowledge and interesting ideas. How interesting did the ideas get? A simple 555 Timer IC with a handful of support components could be fed into a 9-volt transformer and then a chain of 1000V PIV rectifier diodes and capacitors to build a high-voltage power supply that runs on batteries and could throw you across a room. In 1985 the parts were readily available off the shelf. Actually, any TV of that era or older had similar components that could have been salvaged out of it. Oil furnace transformers plugged into your standard household AC line, and have you 10,000 Volts output. The current was only in milliamps, but it all was still enough to throw out a nice spark for a Jacob’s Ladder.
Building a Jacob’s Ladder out of an oil burner transformer was one of the rites of passage for a novice techno-freak, along with passing the test(s) for one’s ham radio license, and acquiring a genuine lineman’s “butt set.” All little accomplishments that signaled your level of skill to your fellow hobbyists. Another form of signaling was one’s choice in computing iron, their cyberspace deck, so to speak.
You could tell a lot about a hacker by their choice in hardware. This was when hardware had not yet devolved to variants of MS-DOS IBM PC clones, and before the renaissance of Open Source operating systems and software. You could tell alot more if the machine was actually purchased by the individual in question, as opposed to being a gift from someone. In these heady days, computers were sold everywhere. A computer store or Radio Shack graced every mall and shopping plaza. Department stores like Sears & Roebuck, Service Merchandise, and Caldor had demonstrator models that prospective buyers could touch and try out, despite the fact that one would have to been proficient in BASIC to do anything of substance.
10 PRINT “WHAT IS YOUR NAME? “;
20 INPUT N$
30 PRINT “HELLO, “;N$
The most popular personal microcomputer of the era was probably the Commodore 64. The more skilled hackers, however, had their own system preferences that had little to do with popularity. Usually their choices were based on system performance and feature set, and resulted in choosing some of the more obscure systems. One of the best hackers the author has had the privilege of knowing used a Radio Shack TRS-80 MC-10. The author cut his teeth on a Timex Sinclair 1000 and Commodore VIC-20, later migrating to the more powerful (but less popular) Atari 800XL and 130XE machines. Another uber-hacker the author was friends with started with a Coleco Adam before migrating to a Morrow CP/M machine. Yet another started and stayed with a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A throughout his hacking hobby.
While overall system capability and performance played a part in deciding on a hacking system to acquire, skill level was equally important, as the relative lack of support for the more obscure machines required one to develop their own tools. Of course, when DIYing it, one wants the heaviest computing iron they can get their hands on for optimum function. It was also a plus that the more obscure and sometimes powerful machines were able to be purchased for less money than the more popular models, especially when the systems were discontinued, and sold at clearance prices.
With the exceptions of obsolete/vintage and esoteric systems used by a niche of the hacker community, the default hardware choice at present is IA-32 (i386) and x86-64 architecture. Fortunately, this hardware is fully supported by the various flavors of Linux and BSD operating systems. With said combination, the following programming languages are available for experimentation:
• ASSEMBLY: IA-32 (i386), x86-64
Other, more common and mundane, programming languages are also available. However, for the purposes of this report, the author has decided to mention only those programming languages he deemed most suitable for the purposes of world domination.
A somewhat more recent development is the ARM processor-based “Raspberry Pi” microcomputer. The devices is inexpensive, uses common support hardware, and is fully supported by both Linux and BSD operating systems. An initial evaluation by the author determined that the Raspberry Pi is a suitable implement for education and small-scale world domination.
Depending on the operative’s skill level, degree of paranoia, and willingness to build his/her own tools from scratch, there are a number of older, some may say obsolete, systems that may suit the operative’s needs. Depending on the source, such systems can be had at extremely reasonable prices, provided the venue is not frequented by “retro-computing” enthusiasts in possession of more money than common sense. The author advises no less capability than that provided by an Intel 386, but not to quickly disregard smaller systems with classic CPUs such as the Z-80, 6502, and 68000 that enable easy machine language programming.
Much like with electronics, there are a few texts that the author recommends regardless of one’s choice in computing iron and operating system. That, however, shall be the subject of another report.
END OF REPORT
AGENT T.W. LEE