When I was in high school

When I was in high school there were two cultures of computer science. On the one hand, there were the official “computer science” courses, where we learned serious languages like Fortran, as well as lots of math.

On the other hand, we had the timeshare terminal. I’m not sure who made the decision to get one of these for our school, but it ended up being totally gangsta.

The kids who hung out at the timeshare terminal were rebel outcasts, hackers, nonconformist anarchist agitators. If it helps, think the A/V club from Stranger Things, but with a lot more attitude.

So I ended up spending time in two vastly disparate cultures. The first one was a sort of prep school for a well paid but boring future job at IBM. The second one was totally rock & roll, set in some hypothetical alternate universe where Jerry Garcia was a programmer.

My friend David was the keeper of the terminal. He was our self-appointed sys-admin, troubleshooter, general go-to guy. If this had been a game of D&D, he would have been the Dungeon Master.

At one point David noticed a problem: Some kids where registering inappropriate four letter words as their user name. So, in typical hacker fashion, he fixed it in software.

David installed a look-up table. If you incorporated one of the forbidden words on that table into your user name, you were booted from the system.

The very next day we got a visit from the school Principal. He told us that the people who ran the time-share system were not happy. It seems that one of our students was putting four letter words into a look-up table that was stored on the time-share servers.

My friend David was called into the Principal’s office. He was told that he was being kicked off the system for using inappropriate words.

David explained the actual situation to the Principal. The Principal then agreed to let David keep running the timeshare system, if he would just remove the damned four letter words.

David then wrote an encryption algorithm, which scrambled the four letter words in his look-up table. He could now check for naughty words in user log-in names without those words ever appearing in his own computer program.

I’m sure that there is a profound lesson in all of this, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe you can figure it out.

2 Responses to “When I was in high school”

  1. Adrian says:

    A strikingly similar story:

    VAX/VMS had feature to generate passwords that were random but pronounceable (and, therefore, theoretically, easier-to-remember). A side-effect of “pronounceable” was that naughty words sometimes appeared as substrings of these generated passwords.

    DEC took the same approach as your friend: They added a look-up table of naughty words (in several languages!) to use as a filter. It was baked into one of the system libraries.

    Some VMS customers bought “source” licenses, which meant that they got copies of the source code of the OS on microfiche. Some of these customers spotted the naughty word table in the sources and complained.

    For the next iteration, DEC lightly encrypted the table (if not ROT13, then something along those lines). There was a utility on one of the DECUS (DEC User Society) distributions that would locate the table and decrypt it.

    One of the newsgroups had a thread where people identified the various languages and provided definitions for those of us who wanted to learn how polyglots swear. I’m not sure if that’s the kind of profound lesson you were looking for. 😉

  2. admin says:

    Maybe the profound lesson is that this sort of thing is a lot more common than anybody thought.

    Reminds me of the old saying: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

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