sean cassidy : Privilege

January 2006: a friend and I were attending ShmooCon, a hacker convention in DC. It was our first one ever. Being high school students, we had to take the LIRR to Penn Station, and then a subway to the Port Authority to grab a bus to DC, since a plane ticket was too expensive. It took forever.

Every year, ShmooCon holds a charity event that's hacker-themed. That year's event was the hacker arcade: drop in a quarter, play a game, earn points towards a raffle. All proceeds to charity. My friend and I built a machine that would let you play Nethack for 25¢. To accept money and play the game, we built a container that would hold the money and sort coins. It had a switch inside that, when depressed, pressed a key on an attached keyboard. The game code would wait for that keypress before starting. It was simple. It accepted correctly-sized slugs, but we figured that was pretty unlikely at a charity event.

This is what it looked like:

Picture of our Nethack arcade machine coin

You can actually see that the function keys at the top are disabled. We disabled them because that's what the coin-op mechanism used to register a successful coin deposit in my horrible Perl ncurses program1. Here's some detail of the inside, you can see that there are different slots for different sized coins, and here's a picture of the instructions. It was to my great satisfaction that someone hacked our game, despite our "security precautions". It was my first lesson in designing secure software.

In 2006, 9/11 was still burned into our minds. There were soldiers with rifles and dressed in fatigues in airports and on subway platforms. This was normal. We carried this metal-tube-with-wires onto the LIRR, and then walked through the streets of New York City, and onto a crowded subway platform, past armed soldiers. One holding an M4A1 even nodded at me as we passed.

I was carrying a metal cylinder with wires poking out of it. No one gave us a second glance. What were they thinking? We nervously joked about it afterwards. That was the first time we even thought that our Nethack machine might look like a bomb. Maybe they could tell it wasn't a bomb from 20 feet away, but I doubt it.

My friend and I are white. We don't have olive skin, nor do we look Muslim. We would never have made it to ShmooCon if we did. I didn't realize it at the time, but we were very privileged to be white. It gave us a freedom we didn't even know others lacked. When I hear about Ahmed Mohamed being arrested for bringing a breadboard clock into school, I think about when I carried a metal cylinder with wires poking out past armed soldiers onto a crowded subway train, and I worry.

  1. If anyone has any pictures of our setup from the ShmooCon 2006 Hacker Arcade, please let me know! I'd love to see them. 


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  2. We, the Weapons
  3. The Practice Startup
  4. Code as Risk
  5. Sherlock Holmes Debugging
  6. Plural gTLDs are evil
  7. Your Interface is what Matters
  8. Write in the Margins
  9. Meditations
  10. Better Java
  11. When names outlive their usefulness
  12. Diagnosis of the OpenSSL Heartbleed Bug
  13. The Intuition Trap
  14. Ambition
  15. The Story of the GnuTLS Bug
  16. Wrong Solutions
  17. Host an infodump session
  18. So, you want to crypto
  19. Hackers and Engineering School
  20. Strings are untyped
  21. Don't Pipe to your Shell
  22. How to Organize Your Brain with Bookmark Tags
  23. You are not a 10x Developer
  24. Windows ruins everything
  25. Don't Give Up and Die
  26. On Being Nice
  27. Bus Factors and Walk Score
  28. Wiggle the mouse to fix the test
  29. A Difficult Bug
  30. The Origins of the Diluvian Network
  31. Zipf your variable names
  32. H.264 and VP8, compared
  33. On Accepting Interview Question Answers
  34. Rate Limiting per User
  35. Write your own Data Structures