Dinner with Captain Crunch

It is a fairly rare occasion when one gets to meet one’s childhood (or to be more accurate, teen) hero. For me, growing up as a teenage computer geek in Israel, during the late 80’s, early 90’s, the electronic world was a bold new frontier of opportunities and challenges. I distinctively remember the original myths that were spread around the teenage geeks – there is a box, called a “blue-box”, it’s a box of wonders – enabling you to bypass the local PTT systems and call abroad for FREE. It was the early 90’s, long distance phone calls were expensive, beyond expensive – they were outrageous. Calling abroad was even worse, it could easily amount to $2-$3 per minute, doing it the normal way. The “blue-box” for us was a myth, a box of wonders that no one never get around to actually seeing one.

Then, late 1989 something happened, a friend of mine returned from the US with, what I could only call a magazine – back then it was called a zine. I can’t call it a magazine, as it was a group of dot-matrix printed pages, stapled together. My friend said: “This is a hacker’s magazine, but I can’t understand the blue-box thing”. My eyes lit, could it be, did the pages truly include description of what the blue-box was? I looked at it and replied: “Of course you don’t understand this, you are a computer science major – not electronics”. I studies electronics and the blue box made sense to me. The pages included the entire circuit diagram – I was fascinated. I built the my first “blue-box” using those diagrams, it was crude, it wasn’t pretty, but it worked – well, it worked for exactly 15 minutes, then the power regulator I used kind’a fried. That was my beginning in the world of Hacking and Computer security.

Following to reading about/building my first “blue-box”, I continued to consume information. I used the box, each time for short intervals and each time getting to download more information. I remember being connected to the Channel One BBS in the US, downloading the hacker’s chronicle and reading through like mad. I learned about the works of a man nick named: “Captain Crunch”. His work in investigating the various properties of the telephone network amazed me – at that age, for me, he was a modern day Robin Hod. Fighting the system, from within the system – showing how frail it is, and abusing it to the max. I must say something here, unlike the USA at those time, we didn’t have anti-hacker laws in Israel, thus, computer crime was so rare, they didn’t even know what to do with hackers – if they ever managed to catch them.

Fast forward 25 years, I’ll be 40 next month. Over the years I’ve learned that Captain Crunch is the alias of John Draper. I’ve met John first time in 2000, in a hackers’ convention in Israel called Y2Hack. I didn’t get to chat with him much back then, it was a busy event. This years’ Astricon was in Las Vegas, where John currently lives. After learning about John’s medical condition, I’ve decided I would like to pay the man a visit. Normally, you don’t get around to meeting people who had influenced your life in such a deep manner, but here I had a chance. So, Eric and I contacted John – who was more than happy to join us for dinner.

It is clear that John is not at his best, in severe pain from his latest surgery – and most surely medicated for his pain. However, sitting down with him for dinner, one thing is very much clear – when it comes to technology, John is as sharp as ever. The conversation rapidly moved from talking about history, to talking about modern day cellular technologies, how roaming works, phantom base stations, HTML5, WebRTC and more. At times, it would seem that the conversation would float away, but John rapidly closes in on the subject – and being in his physical condition, that isn’t simple (I guess).

John, very much like other visionaries that hadn’t been completely acknowledged by society – sorry to say, is far from what we would imagine him to be at this age. Normally, we imagine that people like John would be living a good life, after all, the computer age was very much built on much of his work and findings. But, the truth is that John’s friends started a qikfunder campaign to fund hi medical bills. Amazingly enough, John isn’t a rich man at all. For someone who was acclaimed as “If it hadn’t been for the blue box, there would have been no apple” (Steve Jobs, 1994) – it is somewhat discomforting to see him like this.

I truly wish John all the best and wish him a speedy recovery – as his mind is as sharp as ever, and I truly hope to see him back at the tech-helm as soon as he can.