How I fell down a rabbit hole about hackers, and what I learned.

I don’t play video games, and therefore have basically no knowledge about them. But when my classmate mentioned she had gotten sucked into a game called Cyberpunk 2077, I actually knew what she was talking about.

I had read a profile on the game’s creator in The Atlantic‘s December 2020 issue: “We Are Living in Mike Pondsmith’s Dark Future.” In other words, I got my news on a video game from a magazine. You know those adults who try to use new tech or slang but always end of seeming outdated? I feel like I’m already a honorary member.

I remember downloading Snapchat around the beginning of high school and being so confused. Why could I swipe in so many directions? It was like looking at multiple control panels with unending rows of colorful buttons and switches. I’m pretty sure I asked my friend to explain what everything was. But my efforts were all for naught. After a few months, I deleted the app because I was too annoyed at the photos of walls, floors, and nothingness.

Okay, that’s enough of that. Otherwise this hacker-y blog post is going to turn into a long tangent about something else entirely.

Back to Cyberpunk 2077. The whole article about Mike Pondsmith, the video game’s creator, is really interesting. For example, here is Pondsmith’s explaination of writing: “Writing,” Pondsmith tells me, “is a lot like basically eating a pound of dough, a whole pepperoni, a couple of pounds of mozzarella, and a bunch of spices, then throwing up a pizza.”

But the part that pushed me into the rabbit hole was about technology, specifically “cellular-tower-impersonating stingray devices (IMSI-catchers).” I read that and went, what? Stingrays? Pretending to be cellular towers? What even is a cellular tower?

So I looked up what in the world IMSI-catchers were (this is the best explanation I’ve read so far), and that led to a bunch of other places. I finally learned what WikiLeaks was—if you heard about Hillary Clinton’s emails being leaked in 2016, that was through WikiLeaks. I also learned the Silk Road was this intense online black market that got shut down by the FBI.

This brief investigation into a side of the internet I knew nothing about probably would’ve passed as a fleeting curiosity, but then I found this book list: 26 of the Best Books WIRED Read in 2020. There’s a bunch of random crazy books in it (all non-fiction), including one about an author who knows nothing about poker but then actually gets really good after being taught by a Poker Hall of Fame player.

But the one that caught my attention the most was Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers. I don’t know if this is a widely felt phenomenon, but I react to the word “hackers” in a similar way as I do “spies.” I can’t help but to be intrigued. Usually I don’t bring up books I’ve ordered while talking to friends, but for this one, I told my friend while calling that I had bought a book about hackers and was so excited to read it.

The day Sandworm came in, I started reading it. It’s not a long book (around 300 pages), and the chapters are short so it reads fast, but it took me quite a while to read because there were so many terms I didn’t know. Over the course of looking things up, I discovered way more about cybersecurity than I ever thought I would want to know, but it was so interesting. Here’s some of the coolest things I learned whil reading Sandworm. (Heads up that this is only a hacker-y list, emphasis on the -y, because only some of it is related to technology.)

The Origin of the Word “Genocide”

I never would’ve thought that the word “genocide” was relatively new. I thought it had existed for as long as other -cide words, matricide, patricide, regicide. But genocide was actually coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who lost so much of his family during the Holocaust.

The “genos” is Greek for family/tribe/race, and the “-cide” is Latin for killing. He created the word because otherwise, it couldn’t be a crime. Did you know that the Nuremberg trials didn’t prosecute for genocide because the word didn’t exist? I had no idea. Raphael Lemkin spent his whole life fighting against an ungraspable horror by fighting for the one word that trapped it into language. Language is so weird and powerful.

The Hacker Who Saved the Internet

In chapter 22 of Sandworm, Marcus Hutchins shows up briefly. But in those ten pages, he helps to save the world as a 22-year-old in his bedroom. (Oh dang, I just realized those numbers match.) A hacking attack might not seem necessarily life or death, but on top of all the unforseen consequences, it can quickly become so when hospitals are attacked. He doesn’t show up again for the rest of the book, but then I saw that Sandworm‘s author had also written a profile on him. The article’s pretty long, but it’s really good. The story could be turned into a TV series. It would probably do for hacking (the good kind, hopefully) what The Queen’s Gambit is doing for chess.

Just look at this quote from it: That’s when her son came upstairs and told her, a little uncertainly, that he seemed to have stopped the worst malware attack the world had ever seen. “Well done, sweetheart,” Janet Hutchins said. Then she went back to chopping carrots.

Milquetoast and Boondoggle

These two words look fake but they’re real. Milquetoast comes from the name of a comic book character. It can be used as an adjective or a noun, and it means a “timid or feeble person,” or “timid, bland.” And the most amazing part is that it’s literally pronounced MILK-TOAST.

As for boondoggle, I don’t know what’s happening, but I’ve seen it used in two different places in the past few weeks. For such a random word, that doesn’t seem right. Boondoggle is both a noun or a verb. The noun version is “work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value,” and then the verb is doing the noun form. I really want to use the word in real life now.

Is there a rabbit hole you’ve gone down recently?
Do you play any video games?

Where are your favoirte places to get book recommendations?
Is there a word I should know?

5 thoughts on “How I fell down a rabbit hole about hackers, and what I learned.”

    1. Cas, thank you!! Okay, here’s a fact I learned about recently from the Netflix show, Connected. There’s this bird called the veery, and this scientist realized that the earlier they left in the summer to migrate, the worse the hurricane season was. They do a way better job than humans who have the same job. Isn’t that crazy??

      Liked by 1 person

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