This One Time at Camp

Getting Geek Speak

Every summer, starting from age ten, I went to computer camp. For someone whose previous campy experience had been entirely outdoors, this new routine was a strange change of pace. It felt weird to call something a “camp” if it didn’t involve picking ticks off your skin and taking midnight trips to a sketchy latrine. And the college cafeterias where we ate seemed like royal banquet halls to my 10 year-old self. Plus, I learned a lot of things I loved at computer camp: some Java and C++ programming, how to build a computer, the basics of Photoshop and Flash animation, and so on. But mostly, computer camp taught me how to break the rules.

During the school year, I was the furthest thing from a rule breaker. I kept quiet during class. I turned my homework in on time. If I wasn’t paying attention to the teacher, it wasn’t because I was pelting my neighbors with spitballs or hacking away at my desk with a pair of safety scissors; it was probably because I was just engrossed in a good book.

But at computer camp, the rules changed. Just about everyone there was a “good kid” during the school year—math geeks who aced every test, technology-savvy preteens who helped fix the teacher’s computer when it broke, and other young “gifted” types. I might’ve assumed they were just as law-abiding as I was. But they were just sneakier rule breakers.

For computer campers, simply being disruptive was too easy, too predictable. Anyone could pick a fight or act obnoxiously. What was really fun was finding subtler, more creative ways to spark mayhem. One night I was wandering around the computer lab, dying to play some Unreal Tournament, but all the computers were taken. My friend David asked what I was doing, and I explained my plight: “None of the computers are free!”

Kevin laughed. “Never stopped me. Which of these computers do you want?”

“What?”

“How about that one over there?” he asked, pointing to one of the nicer machines in the lab. I still wasn’t sure what he was getting at, but I nodded in assent. Then I watched as, while sitting at his own computer, David took remote access of another kid’s machine—hijacking the kid’s mouse and controlling it with his own from afar. He logged the kid out of Unreal Tournament, then gave the control back.

The kid blinked, puzzled, swore under his breath, and logged back into Unreal. David logged him back out, and the cycle repeated a couple more times until the kid, muttering something about the “stupid broken computer,” stormed away. David was grinning. “Hey, that computer’s free now.” I didn’t even care about Unreal anymore; what I wanted to know was what the heck had just happened. “How’d you do that?” I sputtered.

I think David was in a rather indulgent mood—rather than blowing off my query, or refusing to reveal the secrets of his computer magic, he started explaining to me exactly how he’d pulled it off. He probably shouldn’t have—by the end of the week, I was the one signing him out of his computer, much to his chagrin. But it was too late: the knowledge was mine, and I went on to troll the network every year thereafter.

That wasn’t the only instance of such hackery, of course. One of the most memorable hacks was the year some kid found out how to enter “PRICE SET MODE” on a campus vending machine. I was there when he hacked it; he just stared at it mutely for a few moments, surprised at what he’d just managed. “Well, I do love M&M’s,” he said at last—and set the snack’s price to zero dollars. “And I hate pork rinds,” he added. Bam! Pork rinds were now 65 dollars.

Some other campers had noticed what we were up to, and soon a small crowd formed, calling out prices. Pop-Tarts for a nickel! Doritos for a dime! It was only a matter of time before we drew a staff member’s attention—soon enough, a counselor sauntered toward the crowd, and everyone turned quiet very quickly.

The counselor wasn’t an idiot—he looked at the panel on the vending machine that still read “PRICE SET MODE” and the fistfuls of M&M’s half of us were holding, and he put two and two together. But rather than reprimand us, the counselor said instead, “Hey, that’s neat. How’d you do that?”

So, yes, at camp I learned to break rules—but it was never just being a rogue or causing trouble. It was a way of experimenting and showing off your knowledge, and if your hack was smart enough, even the staff would approve with a wink and a nod.

—Columnist Julia E. Hansbrough can be reached at jhansbrough@college.harvard.edu.

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