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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Crack this, but don't you dare stop keyboarding

I've been asked to do some strange things with computers over the years. There was a point when I attended a school which had Apple IIs in the lab. Most of the time we would just plod away at a "keyboarding" thing where the teacher recited letters and we had to type them. We were just doing this in the BASIC prompt, and that would always lead to syntax errors.

Once in a great while, we'd either finish early or otherwise had some kind of "free day". That's when we could break out the box of disks in the closet and start up Oregon Trail or whatever. There was a bunch of random stuff in there: some commercial, and some with unknown origins.

One day, one of the other students tripped over something which started asking for a password. It seemed to be blocking the way to some kind of game. She asked the teacher for help, and the teacher went and asked me (!) to come over and take a look. I knew a thing or two about BASIC in general, albeit from a Commodore perspective, so I figured I could give it a shot.

I forget exactly how I broke out of the program, since again, I was never an Apple person. Maybe it was CTRL-RESET? It was the equivalent of a ^C in Unix or a RUN-STOP+RESTORE on equivalent Commodore machines. Anyway, we wound up at the "]" prompt, and I was free to LIST this program's code to see what it was doing.

Somehow, I found the prompt and saw it doing something dubious involving a bunch of numbers between 65 and 90 or 97 and 122. I forget exactly how they had encoded things, but the solution wound up being to just "PRINT CHR$(num)" over and over to get it to spit out the characters. Then we just re-started the program, keyed it in, and it worked. I went back to my machine and whatever I was doing, like a dumb clock program.

Thinking back on it now, I guess that probably blew some minds. To me, it was just what you did when you encountered an electronic blockade. First, you see what you're up against, then you figure out how it thinks. Then you duplicate it and give it what it wants to see, and move on to whatever it is you were trying to do. I never attached any sort of Hollywood "super 1337 hax0r" thing to it. It wasn't special for me.

Strange things happened later with that particular computer lab and teacher. One day after this event, we were doing yet another dumb keyboarding class. I obviously knew how to type adequately by this point, and was just bored to tears. I noticed that while the teacher kept passing by to see how people were doing, she never looked at what I was up to.

I decided this meant that she was giving me the implicit OK to go ahead and go do other stuff. I mean, I had a disk full of random experiments and would much rather be poking around at them instead of typing ASDFGHJKL; over and over. So, I booted my disk to get DOS going and started working on something.

Of course, a few minutes later, she passed by and said "you aren't keyboarding, you get detention". I had never gotten in any sort of trouble with any teacher or class or whatever at any point in my life, and now this happens in computer class?

I thought she was joking. She was not.

I served my time, but that was the end of helping her with random problems. After that point, for some reason, I didn't have any idea what to do with their strange techno-hiccups, and didn't have free time to help with the school's AppleWorks projects.

It's funny how that goes.