Authors: Tracy Kidder
You used keys on the keyboard to move the cursor to the right spot on the screen. You typed in the letters of your username and password, and up came a menu of things that you could tell the computer to do. It was like magic the first time this happened, like a picture appearing on the surface of the blank piece of paper that came out of his father's Polaroid camera. But this happened faster, and when the menu appeared, it was just a beginning. You could
a computer to do any number of things.
The instructor showed Paul and the other students how to begin to exercise this power. This computer's customary language was called FORTRAN IV. Within a couple of sessions with the instructor, Paul knew the basics.
In grade school, one of his friends had given him the nickname Speed. He chose Speed for his username in the computer room. Messing around down there was already much more fun than anything in any of his classes. And then one day early in the fall term he happened to be standing behind the computer teacher, and he saw the teacher's menu appear on the terminal's screen. Paul couldn't make out the words on the list, but he could see that the teacher's menu was much, much longer than the one that came up when a student logged in.
Paul's thoughts came fast and in a package.
He has more commands than me,
how do I get those commands?
The ride home from school required two MBTA buses, the first to Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain and the second to West Roxbury, out on the southwestern border of Boston. It is a part of the city that didn't feel like the city to Paul, especially not on his walk home from the bus stop. His street, Perham Streetâ“Per-ham” was how everyone said itâhad asphalt sidewalks lined with maple trees and mostly small, wood-framed, two-story houses with gabled roofs and tidy patches of grass and front porches two or three lawn chairs wide. In these days of early fall, when the maples were on the verge of turning into flowers, the street after school was filled with kids and with joyful-sounding yellsâgames of street hockey, dodgeball, kick the can breaking out every few hundred feet. Paul loved walking down his street then, as if through a huge birthday party, full of different entertainments, which went on and on until the voices of mothers and older sisters began calling from the front porches, calling kids home to dinner.
According to a story Paul had seen in
The Boston Globe,
the city's most populous intersection was only a block away. All four houses on that corner contained eight kids or more. But he knew a lot of other houses just as crowded. There were seven kids in his. It was a small house, consideringâone bathroom and three bedrooms for nine people. Paul and his next-older brother, Danny, slept in the attic. The house felt even smaller when his parents weren't getting along. They didn't yell or hit each other, but their silences were almost worse. And one of his brothers seemed always to be getting in trouble, and another seemed dark and brooding and unhappy. Paul was the sixth of the seven. His parents had told him it was his job to take care of his little sister. As his brother Danny would say, Paul beat the
out of the last kid who had picked on her. Paul was skinny but tall for his age, and lately he'd been getting into a lot of fights. Some were bruising draws, but he hadn't lost one yet, and he always thought he would win because he was always angrier than the other kid. At home, however, he would look around the house and wonder, “Who's angry today?” It was also his job to keep the peace. Not that anyone ever told him this. It just felt like his job.
Mornings were hurried. His turn in the bathroom was fifteen minutes, starting at a quarter to six. Then it was out on his bike to deliver
, then onto the buses for school. Several thousand of the city's twelve-year-olds had taken the admission test for Boston Latin last spring. Paul had scored eighth highest and felt surprised and irritated that seven others had done better. He had always been a quick study. It took him a night's sleep and a morning's thought on the buses to come up with a plan for stealing the computer teacher's password.
His solution was like a little true story that hadn't happened yet. It went like this: The teacher sits down at a terminal in the Computer Club lab and doesn't realize that a program has been loaded into itâPaul's program, which produces on the screen not the real log-in but a nearly perfect fake. The unsuspecting teacher types his username and password into the fake log-in. Then he presses the Enter key, and Paul's program tells the computer to send those lines of text to the printer, which prints out the teacher's username and password. Paul retrieves that printout. Meanwhile, his program has already started covering its tracks. While the printer is still clacking across the room, Paul's program tells the computer to send an error message to the teacher's terminal. The teacher sees these words flash up on his screen:
INCORRECT PASSWORD. PLEASE ENTER AGAIN.
Finally, Paul's program deletes itself from the central computer's memory. Whereupon, automatically, the legitimate program takes over, the instructor's screen goes black, and the real log-in message appears. All of this happens fast, and the teacher, in Paul's story, doesn't think anything untoward has happened. He assumes he made a mistake typing his password. He logs in again and goes about his business.
It took Paul a few after-school sessions in the clubhouse to create the actual program. The job was complicated by the fact that when you turned off one of the terminals, everything you'd created on it disappeared for good. To save your work, you had to tell the terminal to instruct the computer to send your program to the punch-card machineâit converted your code into patterns of holes cut into stiff pieces of paper about the size of business envelopes. When you wanted to reenter your work into a terminal, you slid your punch cards, one after another, into a slot in the machine. Paul had finished an entire version of his program and saved it on punch cards when it occurred to him that he shouldn't assume the teacher wouldn't be suspicious. The printer was a noisy dot matrix. What if the teacher heard it start running and went over to find out what was being printed, and saw his own username and password appear?
Paul revised his program so that the computer would encrypt the teacher's information before sending it to the printer. If, for example, the instructor's password was
123, the program would add three letters to the letters and three numbers to the numbers, and if the teacher looked at the printout, he'd just see gibberish:
Paul sent his revised program to the punch-card machine and received thirty cards, which he numbered because they would have to be inserted into a terminal in the correct order.
There was one further complication. He had studied the teacher's habits. The man came to the lab in the morning before the first bell and logged in and did some work, but he didn't always use the same terminal. So Paul would have to load his program into each of the six terminals. He did this on a morning in late September. He got to the computer lab very early, with his punch cards concealed in his bookbag, and he went from terminal to terminal, inserting the cards one after the other and in the proper order. He finished loading all six terminals while the lab was still empty.
Everything went according to his plan. The instructor arrived a while later, logged in, saw the error message, and evidently thought nothing of it. He simply logged in again and didn't seem to notice the printer's brief clacking, or Paul's walking nonchalantly to the machine and tearing off the tongue of paper it had just produced. Later, in class, Paul took the paper out of his trousers pocket and decoded the teacher's username and password.
He took his stolen secrets to the lab right after school. A few other boys were still there when he entered. Their presence made the dismal room feel dangerous. He liked that feeling, like a color change inside him. Paul had been practicing at nonchalance forever, making himself look confident when, as usual, he was feeling shy, and calm when, as at this moment, every sight and sound was amplified. In this, his father was his model, a master of studied nonchalance. Paul and his brothers and sisters liked to say that if their father was telling a story at the dining room table and a bomb went off across the street and they turned to look, the old man would be disappointed with them, even insultedâthey thought a bomb was more interesting than his story?
Paul sauntered into the Computer Club lab. He glanced at the other kids staring at their terminals. He didn't hurry. He picked an unoccupied terminal, entered the teacher's username and password, and then at last the teacher's special menu rose up on the screen. Paul had to clamp his lips shut.
There were at least a dozen special commands and new places to go. Paul opened each. The most interesting was labeled
. Somebody, probably the computer teacher himself, had created an electronic system for recording attendance.
Figuring out how
worked took a few daysâa little exploration in the computer, a little watching in classrooms. Every day the computer, the locked-away IBM machine, generated a list of students who were to be excused for arriving late to school. Each teacher got the printout in the morning. Paul now had the power to add any name he wanted to that printout and get a kid excused for missing a morning of school. Within a month Paul had made friends with a classmate nicknamed Psycho, a daredevil who took matters a step further by stealing the nurse's official notepad and ink stamp, which you could use to get excused in the middle of the day.
Paul's next computer program was a hangman game. It worked perfectly. His friends thought it was cool. But one day he dropped the punch cards that contained his game. Looking down at them scattered around his sneakers, he realized he hadn't numbered them. “Fuck this!” he yelled. His anger cooled eventually, but by then programming a computer seemed like something he'd already done. For years, until he got a machine of his own, he visited the computer room only to make arrangements for playing hooky.