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John "Captain Crunch" Draper, the Hacker's Hacker (wikimedia.org)
53 points by raganwald on Nov 17, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 41 comments

I met John Draper at SCALE 5x, eventually a huge group of us went out to dinner at some asian restaurant with him. He was talking about some new anti-spam venture he was starting up and how he would love for us (I was a student at the time) to help him start up his company and sort spam.

All we would have to do (without monetary compensation) would be see if an email was spam and file it as such, and then he would sell the data we were generating to other companies that could then provide actual anti-spam solutions based on human interpretation of messages rather than just computer checked.

Overall I didn't like him. It smelled like he hadn't showered in at least a couple of days, and he was making rude sexual comments regarding the wait staff, overall my gut feeling was to get away from him as he was nothing good.

Here was someone who was a hero to so many people making an absolute fool out of himself and presenting himself as someone who has no social skills what so ever.

When I saw him at DefCon 17 it didn't seem like he had changed much, a friend of mine said she went up to him to just talk to him, seeing as how he is a legend, and all he did was make rude comments regarding taking her upstairs to his room and whatnot and she just turned around and walked away disgusted.

It is pretty cool he is still out there working on various projects, but overall he could use an overhaul on his social skills and learn that when you gain some sort of status in a community you have to act appropriately. Ultimately while John Draper used to be one of the guys I looked up to as having done some really awesome things I was saddened in how he acted in public.

I've never met him person, but from the videos I've seen it is pretty obvious the man is pretty far on the aspie spectrum.

Perhaps with massive intervention early on he could have learned to be almost normal. But at his age, I think we should all keep in mind that as much as he is a geek stereotype we're all trying to overcome, and as much as people like him can be dicks and sexists, and hurt others, it is not easy being him.

This does not excuse his behavior. I think his work is worth of admiration and his social skills of, not scorn, but pity.

Quite a few famous hackers seem to have this problem, eg Richard Stallman. I suppose there's a reason the "UNIX guy" stereotype exists.

I sat near him at HoHoCon (I'm thinking it was '92).

Apparently someone smelled like cigarette smoke and he really didn't like that. He stopped the conference in the middle of a talk, proclaimed fairly loudly that if we wanted him present, we would eliminate the odor at once; if not, he would leave. Then he sat back down and we all just kinda shrugged.

Wozniak paints a similiar picture of him in iWoz. Smelly, eccentric, skilled (pp. 108).

He's not a savory character, and it goes farther than just bad social skills. Your friend made the right choice.

I'm guessing he is one of the few that really doesn't mind the TSA's new backscatter opt-out policy.

Suddenly the idea of him having the power to prank call anyone in the world seems a little less cool.

At times like this I'm deeply saddened. Nobody is doing anything wrong, but yet... Focusing on Draper's awful social presence at the expense of discussing what he actually did or didn't do during his heyday... Seems so very un-hacker to me. I feel like we killed the farmer, took over the farm, but we're the pigs saying that all hackers are equal, but some hackers are more equal than others.

Why? Because we seem to be saying that getting along with others is more important than hacking. Of course it is when it comes to making friends, finding love, selling a dream, building companies, and almost everything we do as humans.

But yet... Hacking is somehow not one of those things to me.

Obviously the man should not get a free pass for unacceptable behaviour--I have unbearably strong views about certain programming personalities who express racist, sexist and other views I find abhorrent--but I wish that his social misbehaviour was a footnote and his hacking was front and center.

For whatever reason, discussion of what he did or didn't do is attracting way less attention than discussion of his personal life.

Oh, well. Too late to delete the submission.

(If I'd thought that we are going to end up talking about full body massages and whether having a shower makes it acceptable to invite a stranger to your room at a computer conference... I'd have judged it as being "Not Hacker News.")

The reason I bring it up is that while we as hackers may choose to only look at the accomplishments of someone as a hacker it is how they are perceived socially that matters to the rest of the world.

As a hacker I also understand that social skills comes with the field. If I want to become someone in the world and I want to present then I have to have some hygiene, I've gotta be socially presentable. It is not acceptable for me to walk around in a banana hammock covered in dirt and grime and then expect people to still look up at me.

There are two types of hacking, and they go hand in hand, hacking in the sense of accomplishing something great (whether that be technological, code wise, or anything along those lines) and social hacking. Any well adjusted hacker knows how to balance the two to make society believe he is a productive member and can be related to, yet at the same time bending the rules that society has set forth to do great things!

1. Nothing in what you say here or elsewhere is factually incorrect.

2. I agree that it's appropriate to give people information so that they do not find themselves in a situation not to their liking.

"At times like this I'm deeply saddened. Nobody is doing anything wrong, but yet... Focusing on Draper's awful social presence at the expense of discussing what he actually did or didn't do during his heyday... Seems so very un-hacker to me."

Let me know if you feel the same way once you meet him face to face. Points if you actually partake in the stretching exercises.

I have met a great number of people whom I admire for their accomplishments, but nevertheless dislike their habits and actions at the same time.

If I met the man, and he put his hand on my ass while breathing fetid, rotten words into my ear, I would absolutely knock him on his ass. But I would still admire his hacking.

You may choose to roll everything up into a ball and believe that people are binary: Good or Bad. That being unbelievably creepy in person somehow invalidates whatever else someone does that would otherwise be admirable. Your call. I suspect that argument will find a lot of favour with the kind of people who won't hire an athiest, or who cut up their Amex cards when they discovered that Tiger Woods was a philanderer.

But I'm not that guy, and that isn't my argument. I'm not saying he's a great man on account of being in the right place at the right time, having a smidgen of the right talent and right motivation to do something that was a crime a the time.

I'm saying he was a Hacker's Hacker, and that the definition of the word "Hacker" doesn't have the word "beloved" in it. Wozniak is beloved. Draper isn't.

But more importantly, what does it say about us that we consider being likeable more important that what you do or don't do with the technology? It tells me that we haven't really changed anything. Once upon a time we were the geeks in high school that the cool kids ostracized. Due to an accident in history, we're living in a time when a few of us gained fame and fortune, and now we're the cool kids.

So what are we doing now that we're in control of the social apparatus? Kicking John Draper for being a creepy old man, that's what we're doing.

I stand by my words, which describe my feelings. I say that it's sad that we're more interested in his social behaviour as an old man than we are in whatever he did or didn't do to gain his noteriety as a hacker.

We laud hackers for their curiosity. What does this thread say we're curious about. Systems? Or people's nose hair?

p.s. It's ridiculous to ask me to have sex with him. It shows that your argument is rhetorical, a kind of populist trick spoken to the audience and not to me. I don't admire his accomplishments because I think he's attractive, and I don't say that his social behaviour is excusable because he's a great hacker.

Linking admiration of his accomplishments with disgust for his behaviour is exactly what I'm arguing against, so implying that I'd lose admiration for his accomplishments if I had what you expect would be an unpleasant sexual experience with him underscores the kind of thinking that I'm arguing against.

EDIT: Just to be clear, I am absolutely not saying that you or anybody else is wrong to discuss his behaviour. He behaves this way in public, it's fair game to be discussed, and you're entitled to find interest wherever you like.

My sadness has to do with the proportion, which is really a group behaviour, or perhaps it's something to do with the dynamics of a forum discussion. Maybe if we each had to pick a topic to discuss blindly, we'd end up in a different place than given the current threaded comment and reply UI. I find that question interesting: Does the character of the threaded discussion really correspond to the priority or importance we place on various sub-subjects?

No. Both my post and other posts like ax0n's are not arguing that Crunch is a great hacker, nor are we just focusing on his demeanor and hygiene. I can't speak for the other posters, but I was just doing a PSA, so he doesn't take advantage of any other people through his fame and the misrepresentation of "yoga". I witnessed this first hand, but was too shocked and horrified to do anything about it since I was late to the meeting in Palo Alto (not to mention they were just finishing as I got there). Crunch was actually angry that I refused to do "yoga" and fix his back, which is really unreasonable for someone you don't really know.

Although it wasn't overtly or criminally sexual (at least from what I saw), the guy he did it to, said he felt violated and taken advantaged of after wards when I dropped him off at Bart. Others have recounted similar experiences to me.

You've made light of that, to the point where I feel you're condoning his behavior just because he's a great hacker; which really pisses me off

I don't know what pisses me off more: your posts or remembering that I was too paralyzed to help that poor guy even if I only saw just 2 minutes of it.

You've made light of that, to the point where I feel you're condoning his behavior just because he's a great hacker

Your words keep linking the two together. Mine don't. Your words above suggest that I am saying that since he's a great hacker, his behaviour is less serious than were he Joe Average Citizen.

That is so far from what I'm saying that I don't know how to explain the difference using mere words. What I'm saying is that his hacking was his hacking and his behaviour is his behaviour. This one over here, that one over there. His hacking doesn't excuse his behaviour for exactly the same reason that his behaviour doesn't devalue his hacking.

which really pisses me off

I am not responsible for your blood pressure.

Unsolicited advice: Never, EVER allow the words of strangers to control your emotions. It's probably just babble, but I find it comforting to frame my own feelings at a time like this in terms of sadness instead of anger. I'm saddened about certain behaviour, but I'm not angry with certain people.

Makes all the difference to me.

"What I'm saying is that his hacking was his hacking and his behaviour is his behaviour. His hacking doesn't excuse his behaviour for exactly the same reason that his behaviour doesn't devalue his hacking."

Unfortunately this is how I understood your previous posts.

"hey guys it's not wrong that you talk about his misdeeds but I wanted this post to be about glorifying Crunch. Anyone talking about his misdeeds is lame and not a hacker."

You linked to an article about John Draper, the person. You didn't link to EasyWriter or his other work. Now you're surprised when people talk about all aspects of Crunch instead of just one? No one devalued his work. Everyone was just warning of his behavior. Next time do a post on his work, not the person so others won't get confused.

"I am not responsible for your blood pressure."

I'm only human, not a machine. I don't appreciate your patronization either.

I will not defend words I didn't write. I will repeat what I did write, which was to suggest that I was saddened by the proportion of interest, and to say for the third time that I do not believe anyone is wrong to have a certain interest or to talk about it here.

Since you have a suggestion for me, I have one for you: Update the wikipedia article about John Draper the person to include information relevant for people who wish to understand John Draper the person.


UPDATE: I don't appreciate your patronization either. You're right about that. I apologize.

"Focusing on Draper's awful social presence at the expense of discussing what he actually did or didn't do during his heyday... Seems so very un-hacker to me."

Agree, mostly. Smelly assholes are a dime a dozen; talented hackers with such a colorful story are rare. It isn't very hackerish to focus on a boring, easy, and unstimulating aspect of the man rather than the parts we could draw inspiration from. (Unless, that is, the people focusing on his bad behavior are doing so because they are learning not to behave that way themselves. That at least would make sense.)

On the other hand, what can we really learn from the Wikipedia article? It's great to be bright and accomplished, and we should strive to be so ourselves? The phone system used to run on tones? I think most of us know that stuff already. Maybe that's why people are resorting to gossip.

I met John at Hackers At Large in a field in the eastern Netherlands. The group I was with spent a fair bit of time with him, had some good chat and I thought he was alright at the time. I think his grip on reality wasn't that great, but to be fair at the time god only knows what people might have given him. Two days in someone asked him about Jobs and Woz, he said he thought Woz was a nice kid but he didn't really get on with Jobs. I didn't know he actually worked at Apple for a while though.

For the comments about him being creepy, fair enough. My experience of him in Holland was that he was definitely not the type of guy you introduce to your mother, and that he had social issues, but lots of people do. As for the comments on hygiene, wake up - we live in a world where people like Richard Stallman pick bits from their toe and eat it in the middle of conferences, don't judge an old man because he smells funny. Maybe one day you'll be a funny smelling old man/girl.

I may have been at the same conf as you, I met John there also while I was hanging out a good friend of his. I found him cordial, humourous, engaging, and not egotistical (though aware of his fame). It may depend on the time of day you meet him, but he has a certain charm and I always remembered meeting him with a fondness.

> a toy whistle that was, at the time, packaged in boxes of Cap'n Crunch cereal could emit a tone at precisely 2600 hertz... 2600: The Hacker Quarterly is named after this whistle frequency

Now I'm curious whether the Atari 2600 was also named after this. I've just done a little bit of Googling but so far haven't come up with any hints on the origin of the game console's name. Does anyone know?

IIRC it's because it's model designation was CX2600. They didn't use the 2600 designation originally (they called it the Atari VGS or something like that).I think they started using it because like Pong, they planned to release various versions of the system.

Whether the model number was a reference to that is hard to say. It's not like they have much to do with eachother, and Atari had been naming their products with C---- model numbers for years...but it's conceivable that someone said "let's make it model 2600" with 2600hz in mind.

Not sure, but the magazine "2600" is absolutely named after this. FWIW, Wikipedia suggests otherwise:

The console was originally sold as the Atari VCS, for Video Computer System. Following the release of the Atari 5200, in 1982, the VCS was renamed "Atari 2600", after the unit's Atari part number, CX2600.

"Draper wrote EasyWriter, the first word processor for the Apple II, in 1979. According to The Wall Street Journal, he hand-wrote the code while serving nights in the Alameda County Jail, then entered the code later into a computer."


Still amazing, but the paragraph right after that gives more detail.

"Draper's personal website furnishes a more detailed version[1] of the coding of EasyWriter. Draper was in prison, in California, at the time, but under a 'work furlough' program. This meant that while he had to spend every night in prison, he spent each day working a regular job outside prison. This job was at Receiving Studios, a small band practice studio, and while there he had access to a computer, where he coded EasyWriter. He did take copies of the code 'home' to prison overnight to work on it."

Wow, I suppose I chose the wrong Hacker News user name...

Yeah ... definitely did; wait a minute, is that you John?

Wow, I hadn't heard his name in years.

Just like that you sent me back to '99. 8th grade, me, a 1337 hacker wannabe. I used to subscribe to 2600 magazine.

As a side note, he got his name from the fact that he figured out that a toy whistle in captain crunch cereal boxes produced the frequency he needed to game the telephone system. I'm sure I didn't do the description justice, but that is the gist of it.

An alternative view of Captain Crunch: http://www.osnews.com/story/20606/_Captain_Crunch_on_Apple (see the snippet from the Recollection article). Read the full recollection article, this is an important read re: phreaking

I can now confirm that I've met Captain Crunch, or at least seen him in person. We were at DEFCON 17 and a friend of mine was talking to him. Apparently they had lunch together, and he's a really down-to-earth, fun guy.

One thing, though... make sure you politely decline if he asks if you want to do anything involving massages or exercise. Unless you're into having sex with old men, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Funny that you mention that ... I was at SCALE 5x and met John and he kept going on and on about going to get massages, and I've heard from others that this is a common theme with him.

PSA: Yes and also politely decline anything to do with "yoga"

I take it there's some kind of story here?

There's definitely a story here. I haven't experienced it myself. I met him a loooong time ago, and he seemed as normal as anyone else at DefCon (back in the late 1990s). But I've heard the stories, too, from multiple people.

For those looking for references to the "massage" stories, it's actually pretty well documented in an old CNN story covering the HOPE conference a few years ago: http://edition.cnn.com/2000/TECH/computing/07/24/paranoia.id...

Not to say that Capn Crunch didn't contribute greatly to the hacking/phone phreaking scene, but now a days it seems like he's pretty much just a rude creep.

Excerpt from the article:

"Script kiddies!" spits John Draper, 57. "Think they're hot (stuff)." The grizzled veteran got his handle, Captain Crunch, in the early '70s, when he discovered that a plastic whistle from a cereal box emitted a tone crucial to phreaking. In 1978, Draper spent four months in jail for his illicit proclivities and these days, tries to stay legit.

"You should try one of my body tune-ups," he says. "It's a great energy boost." Indeed, he spends a good deal of the conference enticing young attendees back to his hotel room, where he offers full-contact "stretching" sessions. And the Captain seems to have absorbed the lesson of the "Selling Out" talk all too well. "Did you get my URL?" he says. "ShopIP.com. It's e-commerce for the rest of us!"


I don't know if it's exactly equivalent--Draper's not just an old man, he's an old, crusty, rather unhealthy looking man with demonstrably poor hygiene.

As most women would say, a creep. =P

Have you met him in person?

John Draper was in one of my SQLAlchemy tutorials at PyCon a couple years ago. Very cool that he's still out there hacking.

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