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Please share your (non-computer) system hacker stories
30 points by Tichy on Jan 27, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 37 comments
The new question from the yc application "Please tell us about the time you (...) most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage" filters me out right there, so far I can't think of anything. How about you? I love that kind of stories, and I suppose giving them away now won't hurt the applicants chances?

I can only imagine that my whole live is a kind of hack: I hacked my girl-friends brain so that she actually went out with me. I hacked my own brain so that I managed to learn Computer Science, exercise regularly and eat reasonably healthy. I twisted my CV in the right way to land that job etc. And so on... But I guess that is not quite what YC is looking for... But I mean, people's life are essentially an attempt at optimizing their standing in the system, are they not?

I guess I am also not quite the "real world" systems hacker, because often it seems to entail taking advantage of somebody else? Ever since I read "The Art Of Intrusion", I remember it's lessons in all sorts of situations. Like today I was standing in line for cinema tickets, which were likely to be sold out before my turn. It would have been fun to try something, but not really fair towards the other queuing people. Not that I had a really great idea, but who knows, something might have worked (art of intrusion style, discover name of some employee of the cinema, then call cinema and pretend that person was supposed to reserve some tickets for me - one idea).

I assume that the PG et al. mean "hack" in the positive sense -- as much as news.yc occasionally sounds cultish, I don't think they're following the usual cult scheme of having prospective members confess their crimes in order to ensure that the cult has blackmail material on everybody. :-)

That said, I'm having trouble coming up with a good example of what would qualify here -- the best I have so far is when I was a new graduate student at Oxford and dug through the Exam Decrees And Regulations (also known as the "big grey book") to discover what nobody else in the Computing Lab was aware of: That instead of writing a 50 page dissertation at the end of my first year and being examined on it, I could count the fact that I had a paper published in a major journal as equivalent to holding a Master's degree, and thereby transfer from Probationary Research Student status to D.Phil. Student status six months early and with hundreds of hours less work.

I would personally call this "reading the rules and understanding how they work" rather than "hacking the system", but maybe that's what they mean.

That is exactly what we mean.

In that case, could I suggest making the question a bit clearer (perhaps s/hacked (.*) system/made $1 system work/ or by giving an example of what you mean)? The fact that I apparently had exactly what you were looking for, yet wasn't sure if it qualified at all, is I think a good indication that the language is ambiguous.

If it had been me doing the application (haven't seen it) I would probably build in some ambiguity. It gives a greater degree of freedom for the applicant, and also in the real world you have to deal with ambiguity on a daily basis, so I would like to see how an applicant deals with it.

Sorry, that means you didn't pass the test. Best luck next year.

;) nah, just kidding.

Yeah, it pays to find out what the real requirements are. At my last job I found out that a couple of our network requirements, which would have cost us $1M to meet, were going away in the next edition of the specifications in a couple months time. Says more about how the government works than myself, though.

That sounds excellent to me.

Years back, I helped run 6.270, the LEGO Robotics contest. The winners got a very cool Lego watch. One of them was a friend of mine. She was more than a little bummed because the stem on her watch didn't pull out far enough to allow the time to be set.

Recalling that an adage that "even a broken clock is right twice a day", I suggested she remove the battery. Then, when the current time was the same as the time on the watch, reinstall the battery.

I've never seen her so delighted!

Quality. Plus one just for mentioning 6.270.


I volunteered with my (then-) future wife to help build a big community playground.

At one point there were maybe 5 of use moving this tube slide into place. It was a very big, heavy, very twisty-shaped tubed. And we could feel it starting to slip.

We were all struggling to hold it up. It wasnt working, and there was noone else nearby to help.

Suddenly I leaped up and grabbed a hold onto an edge at the top. As I leaped I could hear and feel people being like "wha..?" because the shape was so strange, it was really hard to tell where the center of gravity was and how to adjust it.

But in that moment, all my physics and calculus classes merged with instinct like never before. I was hanging from this very counterintuitive top edge with all my weight, and it stopped it slipping. The group then had time to organize how to ease it - and me - down.

I am generally a non-athletic geek. That morning I felt like a sports star. The best part was, I needed no external validation for it. My intellect was no longer relegated to the exam halls.

I travel very frequently by plane and almost always in economy. At one particular airport that I regularly fly through there's always a really long line for security, except for business and first class passengers.

Happily, my airline offers online checkin and the print out is a PDF file. So I download the PDF file and print out my genuine boarding pass and put it in my bag, then I doctor the boarding pass in Acrobat so that it says Business instead of Economy and I change my seat assignment from something like 125H to 2D to make it look legit. Obviously, my name, flight, date, etc. are all genuine.

I have another one for the application, but this one would have been a better hack had it worked.

I use to work at research lab where they named all the buildings after numbers. No rhyme or reason. Building 1 was next to Building 9, which connected to Building 42. For the important buildings, they were named after famous ex-directors. They were building a new building, and I decided to name it after my roommate (who is no director), Ian Montoya (name changed), who also worked there.

The whole campus is connected via walkways between buildings, so you can walk to the cafeteria from your office without going outside. So, you often ended up walking with other employees on your way to lunch. What Ian and I would do when we found ourselves in a cluster was to act out a scripted conversation as if it was normal conversation:

  me: did you hear about that new building they're building?
  Ian: You mean BUILDING 23?
  me: yeah, THAT'S THE ONE.
  Ian: Yeah, what about it?
  me: I hear that they're going to call it the Ian Montoya Building.
  Ian: huh, I should remember that, the IAN MONTOYA BUILDING.
I'd correct people when they mentioned it, at meetings, in the hallways, at lunch, hoping it'd spread, but alas, I only was able to get the new hires to call it that.

The only other one off the top of my head is a small one. From June until April of next year, whenever people would ask, I'd tell them my birthday was on April 1st. I also changed it on friendster, and other places mentioning my birthday that friends would see. Come April 1st, I got a couple calls for my birthday. "Happy Birthday!" they'd say, and I'd go, "Thanks! April Fools!" After that, I had to convince them that I wasn't joking.

Wright State?

My dissertation involved segmenting and rendering brains from 3D MR images of the head. One of the ways I checked my software was by hacking the head off a cadaver, imaging it, hacking out the brain, and then successfully matching volumes and photographs of the brain sulci from various POVs with the 3D renderings generated from the segmented images. That's probably my most successful hacking of a non-computer system :)

Interesting twist on the theme - kind of savage, though ;-)

Has anyone ever placed speakers or moving parts in the cadavers? I often wanted to do this at my college.

We must pay respect to the people who donate their bodies for educational and scientific studies. So if the speakers or moving parts don't increase our knowledge, the keeper of the cadavers should veto their use. The excellent book "Stiff" by Mary Roach describes many interesting uses of cadavers, from crash test dummies to Death's Acre in Knoxville, TN.

Good point, that was wrong of me.

Hmm. I was bored in high school, and wanted to keep up my summer job. So I enrolled in a dropout prevention program intended for people who had to work to support their families & such. My high school career was a short morning of advanced-placement classes & then my "real" job. The counselors and teachers didn't like it, but couldn't do much about it.

Well, you don't always have to subvert the system to take advantage of the situation. For instance, last time I was at the airport I skipped two lines because I was just more aware (probably more awake:).

As for fun hacks, during college and group of friends and I put together a raft from an old futon frame and trash bags instead of studying one night. We sailed 14 people out to a small island in a nearby pond and planted our flag.

In high school, I filled out some form on the Princeton Review's website claiming I was a high school teacher in order to download sample Advanced Placement tests. I worked through them and thought nothing more of it.

A month later the teachers in my AP classes gave me those same tests, unmodified. I did pretty well.

I went to a community college for a year and then transferred over to university to save some money, and it turned out by taking a calculus test with about a month more of material in it, I could get out of an entire extra semester of calculus classes. I taught myself the extra stuff and skipped an entire year of math.

...I got nothin'. Good thing I'm not applying for YC funding!

Sometimes when visiting big cities I'll check google maps/city newspapers for big construction projects and high end hotels - then get reservations at them for a fifth the price. It's how I ended up in a penthouse at a swanky hotel in Toronto for an eighth of what it would have cost me otherwise.

Besides, when you're twenty stories up and can sleep through anything who cares what's going on outside?

Did a nice real-world hack in Ibiza some 10 years back...

A friend of mine and I went to Ibiza in may hoping to land some kind of bar job, thinking it would be pretty easy.

It turned out that we weren't the only ones to have gotten this great idea, and all the bars and clubs in the place had already hired for the summer season, so getting a job was near impossible. After having been there for around 2 weeks we had no money, no jobs, no food and no money to get back home. And we didn't even speak the language..

Desperate measures were needed, So I thought up a plan...

Back home I had been to this club where a guy was running a tequila slammer bar over in the corner of the club - basically just a slab of wood across two upright steel drums, a bottle of tequila, sprite and lemons and a couple of shot glasses. He would fill the shotglasses with half sprite, half tequila, slam them into the table so the sprite fizzed up, and people would gulp it down while it was still fizzing.

I noticed that noone did tequila slammers in Ibiza...

So my plan was to locate the club I most wanted to work in (the one with the hottest and most drunk chicks obviously), talk to the manager and tell him how amazingly cool I was, and that back home I was a huge celebrity with my crazy tequila slammer bar. And that he should be honored that he was the first one I offered to strike a deal with to do my stuff. He would make loads of money, and his place would be the most popular in town because of me and my amazing skills.

I had of course never done a tequila slammer in my life...

So I sent my friend down the club I had chosen pretending to be my manager with a handwritten letter explaining my successful (and faked...) track record as a master tequila slammer showman. He said that I would be along the next day, and that they had 24 hours to consider my offer, or I would move on.

The next day I went down to the club to meet the manager. He was impressed by the letter that I had written, and agreed that I had to be quite a star based on the experience and track record that I had made up the day before. So we struck a deal: I would get a 14 day period to show that I was as amazing as i said I was.

The next day my friend and I set up a bar in the back of the club and got ready for the action. I was scared shitless since I had set pretty high expectations for everyone, and the word had gotten around the club about this crazy guy that was supposed to be some kind of star. To top it off the manager of the bar had brought in the managers of quite a few of the other bars to show off his new amazing crazy new tequila bar. Everyone was expecting a huge spectacle of a show.

Since I had never done a tequila slammer in my life it was pretty obvious that I needed to do something drastic to survive this. So I went for broke and decided to start off by doing the first 10 shots myself, get totally drunk and just go crazy. And pray to god....

It worked: It went totally wild, I ended the night wearing nothing but underwear, having slammed tequilas on the bar, on the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and on peoples forehead. I think I broke at least fifty shot glasses, I was standing, sometimes lying, in a poddle of tequila and sprite. But people loved it.

After 14 days I got a sweet deal, making good money for being drunk, chatting up girls and generally having a splendid time. There was even an article in a major Spanish magazine about this crazy drunk Dane in Ibiza slamming tequilas on peoples forehead...

[...] So I sent my friend down the club I had chosen pretending to be my manager with a handwritten letter explaining my successful (and faked...) track record as a master tequila slammer showman [...]

As entertaining as the story is, I'm not sure that I'd count "being an effective fraud" as a skill I would want in someone I was considering funding. Some people may have a different perspective -- I've certainly heard it said that being able to lie with a straight face is a vital skill in business -- but given that the YC motto is "Make something people want", not "Lie to people to get them to pay for what you can offer them", I hope the YC crew doesn't take this view.

But on a more serious note...

The difference is intent. And there is a lesson to be learnt for startups.

If you go into a meeting with a customer and he asks for something that you think you can deliver, but are not sure you answer yes. And then you go back to your office, work your ass off and hope for the best. Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don't. This is not fraud, since you think (or hope...) that you can deliver - you have an intent of fulfilling your contract. It is merely pushing the envelope, which is what business people do. In a startup this is needed if you want to get ahead, the odds are stacked against you so you need every break you can get, even if that means exaggerating a bit to land the deal.

Good business people know this, as long as your intent is good this is OK. Developers often don't understand this, primarily because good business people don't bother them with how it works - just like good developers don't bother business people with what happens under the hood of their programs. As long as it works.

If you go into a meeting with a customer and he asks for something that you think you can deliver, but are not sure you answer yes. And then you go back to your office, work your ass off and hope for the best.

Yes, but you don't (or shouldn't) lie to your customer and claim that you have a successful track record of doing exactly what he's asking you to do.

If you're interviewing for a job and your interviewer asks if you can program in language X (which you have little or no experience with), it's one thing to say that you can learn it; it's quite another to have listed "10 years of experience with language X" on your resume when you first applied for the position.

Well I don't think myspace got to where they are today by being really great guys. And they sure as hell haven't got a great codebase and a a great product.

How do you think it happened?

I don't think cperciva's sense of morals is conditioned on wanting to be the next Myspace.

If it's a success, the way you run your startup and the lessons you learn will have a tremendous effect on the rest of your life. It takes a huge amount of effort to get something going. You don't have time to make dozens of businesses, and if you're not clear about your values early on, you can find yourself a success, but without a strong internal sense of accomplishment.

But the thing of it is that he DID make something people wanted, he knew it would work from past experience and just had to sell himself.

But still, it was a really risky move.

I absolutely agree...

But I was young and I needed the money :-)

> But I mean, people's life are essentially an attempt at optimizing their standing in the system, are they not?

Scary! But actually I used to think that way...

Here's a very minor hack. One time I was going to the movies at Shoreline (Mountain View) and I wanted to go and see "Spy Game". Unfortunately, it was sold out.

But I have really good eye sight and I could see from the door which movies were playing on the same side of the theater as Spy Game. There's one control point on each side of the theater and so I bought a ticket for a less wanted movie on the same side as Spy Game. Showed my ticket to the guy who let me through. Then I simply walked into Spy Game and found a really crappy seat near the back (all that was left).

Good movie, though.

I missed a large part of grade 10 because of moving and travelling. When time came to register for school (in Montreal, Quebec) the public school system wanted me to repeat grade 10 because I had missed so much. I and my parents found a private school that had entrance exams, and they let me take both the grade 10 and grade 11 exams. Passed the grade 11 one, and went right into grade 11.

During my senior year in highschool, I was taking my second year of film production. We had a new teacher who didn't really know everything he was trying to teach. My previous teacher was a big name in the industry (he animated the end credits to Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and a United Airlines commercial involving a dragon.) I learned more than I probably should have from him, but kept it a secret. At finals time senior year, most of the questions were opinionated (how many gigs does video take on a HDD, how many cuts does a typical commercial have etc..) I ended up getting 100% because I told the teacher he was wrong and proved how I was right. Everyone else did poorly.

Clearly not my hack, but worth mentioning: http://www.snopes.com/business/deals/pudding.asp

My proudest hack combines computers and the public school system. In 1998, going into my senior year of high school, I really wanted to take Computer Science AP. That year, the AP board was switching the course curriculum from Pascal to C++. Unfortunately for us, the school's computer lab was ancient-- a set of 8088 PCs with no hard drives, with each student given a floppy containing a bootable Pascal environment and all his/her code. The school didn't have any money for a new lab full of computers, and was planning to cancel the course. So I came up with the idea of building one reasonably powerful linux server, and networking the existing PCs to it using a bootable "dumb terminal" disk. Cost: about $2000 for the server and 20 network cards.

Several friends and I worked over the summer to set up our linux lab. It turned out the network card device driver, built for x86 boxes, wouldn't work on these 8088 CPUs. So we bought a big pile of old 386 motherboards with CPUs and RAM from a friendly alum for $200. It turned out the 8088 cases were not standard, with metal bumps that would instantly short one of our new motherboards. So we installed them on top of their anti-static bags, with only expansion cards to hold stuff in place. Everything except the server was overtly cheap and flimsy, like the 10-base-2 coax network we used instead of 10-base-T because it didn't require an expensive hub. But everything was also easily replaceable, and we built extras just in case the usual firm smack didn't fix a broken machine.

Then, on our last work visit at the end of summer, we got some discouraging news: the teacher who was supposed to lead CS AP in our new lab had suddenly departed for a better-paying job at another school district. We finished the lab, wondering how we'd get by without a teacher. The course remained tentatively scheduled and for the first few days we tried to teach everyone how to use the OS and compiler while supervised by a friendly but clueless substitute teacher.

Luckily, we ended up with a much better teacher. Brad Kuhn, a CS graduate student at the nearby University of Cincinnati, came to meet us and knew he was our only chance. Though I'm sure he didn't enjoy some of the disciplinary responsibilities that came with being a high school teacher, he shared with us a deep knowledge of CS and an honest passion for free software. (Brad went on to become director of the Free Software Foundation, and is now CTO at the Software Freedom Law Center.) We hung out after school playing netris and debating when (or if) Microsoft would start publishing free software. There was no shortage of disagreement.

That was ten years ago in Cincinnati, but my former classmates remain among my closest friends. We're now the age Brad was when he took that job. What am I going to do this year that will have as positive an impact on the world as Brad's decision to take that job 10 years ago? What are you going to do?

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