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Book Review – ‘Dear Hacker’

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Dear Hacker is a collection of readers letters to a magazine called 2600, put together by Emmanuel Goldstein (Eric Corley) who happens to be the editor of 2600. “It’s just a pile of letters written by random strangers to a random magazine with a freaky name”. That can be what comes first in one’s mind, reading the first line of this article. But no. It’s more significant than it sounds. At least for a certain group of people who are well known to be different. Yes hackers.

The word hacker probably doesn’t sound very nice in your ears. If that’s the case you represent the majority. Otherwise you are different. I believe Dear Hacker can be an interesting read for both majority and the different. Read along to find out why.

2600, pronounced ‘twenty six hundred’ is a magazine for hackers started in 1984. Started as a 3 paged news letter it slowly grew in to a magazine which hackers not only loved but also honored. It represented, educated and defended hackers despite all the problems the world had against it. And 2600 did it in a noble way that no one could raise a finger (and get them in troubles, legally) accusing them doing the evil. That makes 2600 stand out of the rest of it’s kind with few others. Emmanuel Goldstein being the editor of 2600, being the man who drove it all through three decades (of course with others help) is undoubtedly honored for the great work he did being on sword tip all the time. Having the fortune of being exposed to 2600 at the beginning of my technical curiosity, I can assure that Goldstein is very capable of wording things a way only a few others would do. Besides all these, the best certificate that 2600 and Goldstein has is being the best for three long decades among hackers, who are never impressed with any sort of lousy work.

With that little introduction about the source of content and author of Dear Hacker, I think it’s time to proceed with more about the book. Dear Hacker, published by Wiley publications in 2010 has the ISBN number 978-0-470-62006-9. When I say ‘details of the book’, you didn’t expect the ISBN number for sure. So why it really is not just a pile of letters? And how it would be interesting to most of you, if not all? Let’s see an excerpt from dear hacker.

Eric Corley aka Emmanuel Goldstein, the editor of 2600

<excerpt>
Of course it wasn’t just hackers who took interest in all of this. The mass media, the members of corporate America, law enforcement people and even parents, all wanted to know just what we are getting up to. And then there was this inevitable criminal element who who saw opportunities through hacking to benefit themselves. We got questions from all of these groups, and we did our best to give as succinct and direct a response as we could, regardless of the source or intent of the questioner. Because that’s what the hacker world is all about.
</excerpt>

That gives you a glimpse of the wide range of people who cared to write to 2600 and the attitude 2600 editors had in answering them. Feel a bit better about ‘hacker world’ already?. Standing for a controversial topic, 2600 attracted many kinds of curious people. So you can expect many typess of letters, some praising their work, some asking for help, some with hidden agendas and so on. But what did Goldstein do to Dear Hacker to make it ‘not just a bunch of letters’ is categorizing them. The letters are categorized under nine well thought categories helping to understand the ‘story’ behind the whole hacker culture thing. Not only that, under each category the letters are lined up by the year. This gives the reader a very good idea how technology evolved and how hacker culture adapted with that over the years. And Goldstein hasn’t forgot to add a brief and some spice at the beginning of each category.

Alright, it’s categorized and ordered by the year. But seriously what’s so great about some letters?. This is a good question I kept not answering all this time. And answering this might look like imposing my ideas on you. Please bear with me. The hacker culture in it’s right meaning is a pretty innocent and (arguably) a good thing. There I said it, “the right meaning”. OK what is the right meaning of the word hacker?. That’s a question that Dear Hacker gives a solid and clear answer for, throughout the book. The book makes you explore, feel and understand what hacker culture is really about. This is why I said that the book has something for the majority who thinks ‘this hacking thing is foul’.

Most the time the letters are written in good, appealing language since they are written by hackers who normally posses good writing skills. However a few will turn boring to read because the content of some letters look totally outdated or out of interest for the particular reader. I too found few such letters. Just don’t let them come between you and the book. And here’s something I forgot to tell you. You are not going to read just a bunch of letters. You read the replies, written by 2600. This is the interesting part. I found it very intriguing to read these neatly worded replies. One thing I noticed on these replies is that they have always been up to the 2600 principals of hacking, encouraging ‘learning and questioning’ and being ethical in the seemingly evil hobby. Since a good portion of letters Goldstein chose represent commonly and frequently asked questions about hacker culture, the replies will give clear and insightful answers to those. And I should mention the sarcasm in some of the replies. It makes reading dear hacker a lot more fun.

Goldstein is clever enough to make the first category (A chapter in a conventional terms) “Questions upon Questions” to be collection of letters and replies that gives a good introduction about hackers, 2600 and whatnot to anyone that reads the book. I see this category as a good foundation that makes reading the rest of the book easy, even for someone who is totally new to the topic. The second category “Tails from the retail front” gives a good reflection of technology becoming widespread with computers coming to the retail stores and how hackers reacted to this. “The Challenges of life as a hacker” is a category that should draw everyone’s attention. Because it shows a side of hackers life which many don’t get to see. Hackers have got bullied, arrested and imprisoned sometimes for just being curious. This category will allow you to peep in that past and perhaps have some sympathy. “Technology” is the love of hackers. And it qualifies as the fourth category of Dear Hacker. This will surely be interesting to someone who is interested in technology. The letters give a good picture of the way hackers think. It might even motivate the reader to think different.

I have only heard of corporate world hating hackers apart from the few moments they invited hackers to penetrate there system just to see what’s wrong. And naturally hackers hated them back. Hackers were so curious about corporate world because they had interesting stuff going under the hoods. Sometimes some unpleasant and evil things too (remember?, we are talking about ‘corporate’ here). “The magic of the corporate world” category has a lot about technology related politics and how hackers dealt with corporate world. There are few letters corporate business addresses to 2600. Some threatening letters too. The category is definitely as not boring as the word corporate sounds. Maybe that’s why it has the word ‘magic’ in it.

The category “Our biggest fans” is not a collection of 2600 fanboys letters as it may sound. Expect some hate mails listed with interesting replies. And also this category has letters from readers being worried about 2600 turning more towards politics than technology. For someone who is still not sure whether hacking is good or bad reading Dear Hacker all this long, this category will give a good balanced view of the matter.

What can a hacker do inside jail? Jail has not been an unfamiliar place to hackers. Hackers got locked up so many times. Including famous Phiber Optik and Kevin Mitnick. And 2600 has always been with them. “Behind the walls” is the category for the letters from or related to imprisoned hackers. You get to see that hackers stay hackers even in jail. Many letters will blow your mind with the details of things hackers did from prison.

Digital Rebels. That’s one way hackers are sometimes addressed. Hackers think radically, so no wonder that the idea of ‘rebellion’ attached on hackers. Hackers didn’t automatically turn in to the kind of rebels they are. The reaction they had from the parties they involved with made them rebellious. The category “A culture of rebels” reveals what digital rebellion is actually about. You will find some letters about hacker adventures. One thing special I noted about this category, there’s a reason why this category dug deep in the book. Because this one might look bad on the eyes of someone who didn’t go through the first categories to get a fair idea of who hackers are.

The ninth category, yes the last of Dear Hacker is again a great placement in my opinion. The name says it all: “Strange ramblings”. You see things that are funny, sometimes way out of topic and sometimes a little too stupid. Enough being serious. Finish the book with some fun reading.

So this is what I think of Dear Hacker. You should have noticed my compassion about 2600, Goldstein and all the ‘hacker’ thing. You can not judge anything without having a fair amount of idea of it. So when it goes to hacker culture, Dear Hacker will give a good insight as I’ve mentioned already. So if you are in ‘majority’, read the book to have a look in to hacker world. If you are the ‘different’ I don’t have to say that, you’ll be happy to have it in your bookshelf.

Dear Hacker: Letters to the Editor of 2600
By Emmanuel Goldstein
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-470-62006-9
Hardcover; 576 pages
June 2010
RRP: US $29.95
Available online and at all major bookstores

Image source:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eric_corley_bh.jpg

Author: Chanuke Senevirathne
Chanuke Senevirathne, a SLIIT undergrad, Blogger, Podcaster, tech geek, loves GNU/Linux, believes in Software freedom&dare to be different. And a web junkie too. A co-host of SinhalenFOSS podcast (sinhalenfoss.org).

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