15 Fun Facts About Hackers

Hackers is turning 20. The movie, which stars Angelina Jolie, is about a group of hackers framed for a conspiracy involving embezzlement and a red herring computer virus. While not exactly Oscar-winning material, Hackers is still beloved by many for its dramatic—and sometimes silly—portrayal of hacking and hacker subculture. Here are 15 things you might not know about the film.

1. It was Angelina Jolie’s first leading role in a major film.

Jolie plays Kate Libby, a.k.a. Acid Burn, a hardcore hacker who also happens to be gorgeous and wear tight-fitting clothes. And thus a thousand fantasies were born. Katherine Heigl was offered the role first, but was already scheduled to make Under Siege 2. The studio also reportedly considered Liv Tyler, Hilary Swank, and Heather Graham before giving the part to Jolie. She has complained that the movie typecast her to play “tough women with guns, the kind who wear no bra and a little tank top.” 

2. Jolie and co-star Jonny Lee Miller got married 6 months after the movie.

Miller, who plays Dade “Crash Override” Murphy, met Jolie on the set of Hackers. Both were newcomers to Hollywood and would soon become famous. (Miller was in Trainspotting.) They were married in 1996. According to The New York Times, Jolie wore “black rubber pants and a white shirt with the groom's name written in her blood across the back.” She wrote his name herself with a needle. They were divorced in 1999.

3. The eclectic cast includes Penn from Penn and Teller.

Penn Jillette plays a character named Hal, a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other cast members include Lorraine Bracco from The Sopranos, Fisher Stevens from The Grand Budapest Hotel, Matthew Lillard from Scream, Wendell Pierce from The Wire, and Jesse Bradford, the hot brother in Bring It On. Felicity Huffman has a small part as a lawyer, and Jennifer Lopez’s ex Marc Anthony plays a Secret Service agent.

4. The Gibson computer is a nod to William Gibson.

The unhackable computer mainframe is called the Gibson after the author William Gibson. The movie draws heavily on the cyberpunk world of Gibson novels like Neuromancer. He also coined the term “cyberspace.”

5. The “hacking” scenes weren’t made with computers.

The computer sequences in the movie are swirly, psychedelic graphics or Tron-like cityscapes. Ironically, director Iain Softley used “conventional methods of motion control, animation, models and rotoscoping” to make these images instead of computer technology. “Computer graphics alone can sometimes lend a more flat, sterile image,” he said.

6. The plot is similar to Superman III.

The movie’s villain, Eugene “The Plague” Belford, writes a program that embezzles small amounts of money from the company at a time, thus amassing millions of dollars in a secret bank account. He tries to distract from his crime by framing the hackers with a computer virus set to capsize an oil tanker. The embezzlement-by-increments plot is called “salami slicing.” In Superman III, Richard Pryor’s character does the same thing. 

7. Emmanuel Goldstein references 1984—and a hacker.

One of the hackers is named Emmanuel Goldstein, who is a character in George Orwell’s novel 1984. It’s also the pen name of the publisher of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. Screenwriter Rafael Moreu hung out in the 2600 offices in New York while researching the script. He interviewed real hackers, including Goldstein and Mark Abene, a.k.a. Phiber Optik, who’d spent time in prison for hacking.

8. Phone phreaking is a real hack.

The characters in the movie are shown hacking pay phones almost as much as they’re seen on computers. This is a real category of hacking called phone phreaking. For example, a person would play tones with the same frequency phones use to communicate, thus tricking the switch and getting free calls. 

9. Dade uses Eddie Vedder’s name in a social engineering hack.

Social engineering is when a hacker manipulates a person, such as a company employee, to get information to access a computer system. In the movie, Dade tricks a security guy by introducing himself as “Eddie Vedder from accounting” and asking him to read a number off a modem. Vedder, of course, is the lead singer of Pearl Jam. 

10. Rollerblading is a major part of the movie.

Hackers gives a glimpse into the brief period of time when rollerblading was cool. All the characters rollerblade in the movie, which makes them appear to hover and float through the scenes. The Plague, on the other hand, skateboards—a sure sign of evil.

11. A character read from The Hacker’s Manifesto.

In a scene, an agent reads The Hacker’s Manifesto, a real document written by Loyd Blankenship. It was published in PHRACK magazine in 1986. 

12. The Technicolor rainbow books were real.

The hackers test Dade’s knowledge with a series of books that they call the “Technicolor rainbow.” These were real books coveted by hackers because they contained information on how the Internet worked. They were full of scintillating information such as standards for trusted DOD networks. 

13. The Cookie Monster program was also real.

The hackers take over the Gibson computer with a Cookie Monster virus that starts gobbling up all the data. “What do I do?” Hal asks. “Type cookie, you idiot,” replies The Plague. This is based on a real program from the era. Cookie Monster would come up on the screen and demand a cookie. You would type “cookie” and it would go away for a while. If you typed “Oreo,” it went away for a longer period of time. 

14. "Arf Arf!" is a real hacker thing.

When the hackers prevail and gain control of the Gibson, a notice comes up on the screen that says “Arf! Arf! We gotcha!” This is a reference to a program called EGABTR, which would delete your information and then bring up the phrase “Arf! Arf! Got you!” 

15. The movie is a cult classic.

Hackers made only $7.6 million at the box office and was panned by critics. By comparison, The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, came out the same year and grossed $50.7 million. Yet Hackers is still referenced by a whole generation of computer geeks today, 20 years later. Some might even say it was ahead of its time

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Finally! Windows Notepad Is Getting an Update for the First Time in Years
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iStock

While some of Window's core programs have evolved dramatically over the years, or disappeared all together, Notepad has remained pretty basic. But as The Verge reports, the text-editing app is about to get a little fancier: Microsoft is updating it for the first time in years.

Since it debuted in 1985, Notepad has become a popular platform for writing out code. One common complaint from programmers working in non-Windows coding language is that Notepad doesn't format line breaks properly, resulting in jumbled, messy text. Now, both Unix/Linux line endings (LF) and Macintosh line endings (CR) are supported in Notepad, making it even more accessible to developers.

For the first time, users can zoom text by holding ctrl and scrolling the mouse wheel. They can also delete the last word in their document by pressing ctrl+backspace. On top of all that, the new update comes with a wrap-around find-and-replace feature, a default status bar with line and column numbers, and improved performance when handling large files.

The arrow keys will be easier to navigate as well. You can now use the arrow keys to deselect text before moving the cursor. And if you ever want to look up a word online, Microsoft will allow you to connect directly to Bing through the app.

The new Notepad update will be made available first to Windows Insiders through Windows 10 Insider Preview, then to everyone on the forthcoming update, codenamed Redstone 5, likely later this year.

[h/t The Verge]

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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