Apr 29 2012

The Glorious Cyberpunk Handbook Tour (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #9)


The book project, How To Mutate & Take Over the World, which we were to complete for Ballantine Books in six months was complicated enough — considering that we, at first, took the title seriously — and we were way too young, in terms of technology, to compose a handbook for a victorious fusion of transhuman enhancement with Anonymous revolution.  As St. Jude and I fluxed and floundered and she pinned the entire hope of a hacker revolution on cryptography (see cypherpunk), another branch of our own book company interrupted our flow.

We were contacted by Random House, the very parent company of Ballantine with an offer.  It seemed that Random House had contracted with Penn Jillette and Teller to write a short humor book titled The Cyberpunk Handbook.  They were pretty into this stuff, but they got too busy and dropped the project.  Somehow I was the second choice.  And since  I wasn’t going to be able to just  fill even a short humor book up entirely with bullshit (Penn and Teller will appreciate this), I again invited hacker genius St. Jude to be my partner in this minor crime against decency (both countercultural and mainstream, as you’re surely able to think through for yourselves).

Anyway, after at first trying to force me to get my agent to talk to their own imprint for approval (which would have cost us 15% of the entire $25k on offer), they caved and someone walked down the hallway in Rockefeller Center to make the arrangements.  We would have an extra two months to finish Mutate.  Meanwhile, we would rush to get them The Cyberpunk Handbook. 

I had a doomed feeling about the whole thing. Billy Idol had made his cyberpunk album and a billboard ad had appeared in the BART stations admonishing us all to “Join the Cyberpunks at AT&T.”  Virtually everyone within the culture was saying that the word Cyberpunk was no longer hip.  I was gonna get caught in the backwash… for half of 25k.  

Or less than that.  We got Mondo 2000 Art Director Bart Nagel on board for design, so now the book take would be split in thirds.  I visited Jude and hatched my simple minded scheme.  “Let’s get the advance and then insist on changing the title.”  Jude harrumphed vaguely.  And while I hunkered down still working on Mutate while awaiting the advance, Jude sat down and wrote many thousands of words of hilarious material that embraced the entire cyberpunk handbook concept.  Not only was I defeated, I was happily defeated.  She wrote so much great stuff that I hardly had to write anything!   Bart did a sweet design, the book was turned in, and we went back to making a hash of Mutate.

It took forever for Random House to finally print the book, putting it out barely before the release of Mutate, so that we would practically be competing with ourselves. And then they set up a short three city book tour…

In one appearance, in Northern Virginia just outside of DC, a paparazzi dude showed up, thinking we were celebrities!  “Dude, you took a wrong turn,” said I, while Jude cornered the fellow raving excitedly about the similarities between hacking and taking unapproved photos of famous people. I finally shooed him away, assuring him that nothing more interesting than a book reading to a handful of people was likely to happen.  Actually, something interesting might have happened.  This local couple — long time Mondo fans to be sure — had brought along their young daughter… if I remember correctly she was 14 and, well… I have to be honest, unfairly beautiful.  After we read and spoke and took questions, the three of them approached us.  The daughter, it transpired, identified with cyberpunk and she was going to throw a pie at me for selling out cyberpunk and turning it into a joke for Random House.  But she decided not to. “Damn!  Why not?!”  I asked.  After all, it would have made great theater and this would be about as close as I would ever come (hopefully) to fulfilling the Valerie Solanas part of my Andy Warhol fantasy.

So we had her go out to the car, get the pie and scrunch it in my face.  Bart took photos and I hope I might excavate them in time for the finished Mondo 2000 History Project.

Listen Up

Anyway, the inclusion of these fragments of my own memoir part of the M2K History Project here is all by way of introducing these enjoyable audio segments sent to me by Patrick Di Justo about meeting Jude, Bart and myself while we were in New York City for the tour.  The fact that Patrick thinks it was a long tour and that we were sick of each other is a perfect example of the contradictory memory aspect of the history project… and/or it only took us a few days to get sick of each other.

Anyway, listen up as Patrick Di Justo — who would go on to be a major contributor to Wired and Popular Science and a technology commentator for CNN — talks about his exciting times with us weirdos… and also Bart (nyuk nyuk nyuk).

1PDJ – Meeting RU Sirius – StJude-BartNagel-part 1 of 6

2PDJ – Meeting RU Sirius – StJude-BartNagel-part 2 of 6

3PDJ – Meeting RU Sirius – StJude-BartNagel-part 3 of 6

4PDJ – Meeting RU Sirius – StJude-BartNagel-part 4 of 6

5PDJ – Meeting RU Sirius – StJude-BartNagel-part 5 of 6

6PDJ – Meeting RU Sirius – StJude-BartNagel-part 6 of 6


Jul 26 2011

Podunk Cryptography


Forgive me, I am no code breaker.  But it struck me some time ago that we do passwords the wrong way.

We’ve witnessed the steady uptick in password requirements online since we got online big-time in the 90s, and it seems the upticking might morph into ways of “doing security” that are potentially much more intrusive, and much more sinister than “security theater”.  Witness this week’s NPR story (All Tech Considered, 25 July) about privacy and account hacking that pointed to what I see as only less-than-excellent choices — “stronger” passwords, objects (arphids?), or biometrics.

Stronger passwords means longer passwords, and/or passwords with increasingly novel characters.  Will debit card readers eventually require 9 character PINs with at least one in Cyrillic?  I reckon, post-singularity, we’ll have to use infinitely long passwords.  Objects keys are interesting, as is RFID.  But since being burned by thumbdrives earlier in the Century (and 5” floppies, diskettes, CDRs during the last) the notion of trusting a thing I tote to bear data I need seems not so robust.  And biometrics is where I don’t want to go — but, no doubt, it is where we will go. Retina, gait patterns, voice timbre, and even good old fingerprint recognition are abundant these days, and all are trending up.

Now it occurs to me that before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we should re-imagine ways to improve the simplest option.  Passwords aren’t weak, they’re just
dumb.  I propose smart passwords that we’ll here call “phasekeys”.

A phasekey isn’t a string of characters.  Phasekeys are formulae.

When you create a new account, you set a username, and you might still give the system personally identifying information (anything from a birthday, a maiden name, a fingerprint scan, whatever).  But the password section asks for an initial PIN or character string of some kind plus a mathematical operation.

You put in a password of “2000yippie” and select an operation like “multiply by x” to get a phasekey of 2080*x (2000259161695 is 2000 and the numerical correspondances of each letter in yippie: 25,9,16,16,9,5; the string of numbers is added to get 2080), where “x” is determined at each new login.  Upon each login, a user would determine the value of x.  The phasekey has 3 blank forms, where the login has just one.

Login:        podunk.cypherdellic
Password:    2000yippie
x equals:    4

Phasekey:    8320

This is a simple illustration of the idea, but you can imagine much more baroque operations.  Longer passwords with “special characters” acting as actual operators (“bbq^2” comes out to be 441) and more sophisticated choices in the “x equals” field (9x-[the cube of the second character]) would make breaking into an account really hard.  Phasekeys are also simpler, in that you can start with an intuitive password with real words and numbers.  You don’t even have to use special characters.  You could use “password” and still be safe.

Phasekeys are different from passwords because they describe movements and operations rather than static strings of characters.  They make “passwords” into a whole other category of thing by giving them some set (if changing and changeable) treatment.

Now it may be the case that all phones will shortly come with built-in biometric locks.  When you wink at it, it wakes up and sighs… when somebody else winks at it, it barks “Back off, Smurfette” in its best Warren Ellis.  The pros and cons of ubiquitous biometrics can be debated.  The uses and abuses will be myriad, funky, and surely sometimes fun.  But before we slip too far down that slope, let’s try a bit of phase-space tantra on a good old standard tool.  Let’s meta the password.

Attn cypherpunks: is any of this remotely realistic?