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Great Hacks and Pranks Of Our Time 315

Luther Blissett writes "There's a history of pranks and hacks in the year-end issue of the Economist, including MIT hacks, the Bonsai Kitten, and the Pentagon hack by my favorite, Abbie Hoffman." From the article: "At Harvard's neighbour, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 'hacks', as the MIT crowd calls them, are more serious. So serious, in fact, that in 2003 the institute's best hacks were assembled in a 178-page book, 'Nightwork'. The pranks at MIT tend to be feats of engineering. They are positively encouraged, because they teach students to work in teams, solve complex problems and, sometimes, get a message across. Mr Peterson's book includes an 11-point code for pranksters: leave no damage, do not steal, do not drop things off a building without a ground crew, and so on. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, at least, student pranks have become an establishment activity."
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Great Hacks and Pranks Of Our Time

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  • by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @02:45PM (#14359668)
    ... has to be the Harvard "WE SUCK" prank. It's there for everybody to see, it's during the Yale-Harvard football game when everyone who cares about Yale-Harvard is out in force, it requires a non-trivial amount of planning and good execution, and, last but not least, it is self-inflicted. An absolute thing of beauty. I wish people would do that at a Raiders or Yankees game. Although that might end in a brawl. Which would make it even better. :D
  • by ScaryFroMan ( 901163 ) <> on Thursday December 29, 2005 @02:45PM (#14359669)
    I think the best of them all still has to be the Caltech rose bowl prank. [] Nothing I've read about even comes close to the level of skill and amazingness that they pulled back in the sixties.
  • Caltech pranks (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kelson ( 129150 ) * on Thursday December 29, 2005 @02:50PM (#14359703) Homepage Journal
    Caltech has a long tradition of pranks as well. Not sure if they still do it, and even these stories are second-hand, but senior ditch day was a tradition in which seniors would go off campus and booby-trap their rooms, while underclassmen tried to break in. Depending on the fiendishness of the defenses, the underclassmen would carry out various levels of pranks upon entering the room.

    One example: Someone once poured a concrete barrier behind his door. An underclassman, catching wind of it, messed with the mix beforehand so that it wouldn't set properly and was easily removed.

    My favorite, of course, is the group that disassembled a car and reassembled it inside the room, in working order.
  • It's a shame... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TheOneAndOnlyOzzy ( 876070 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @03:00PM (#14359765)
    It's a shame that so many schools discourage pranking. At my college, a big prank usually resulted in kids getting booted out. My highschool started expelling kids who pranked after my physics class turned all the trophy display cases into fish tanks.

    But, I understand that a lot of pranking can easily get out of hand... still it's a shame.

  • by Geoffreyerffoeg ( 729040 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @03:07PM (#14359812)
    The pranks at MIT tend to be feats of engineering. They are positively encouraged, because they teach students to work in teams, solve complex problems and, sometimes, get a message across... and how to run from the authorities.

    The recent Wright Flyer hack - the same one that gave the university much positive publicity [] - resulted in severe consequences []: the students have a mark against their permanent record, and were fined $50. They were about to change the fine for being caught on the roof to a maximum of $500, but the students succesfully petitioned to change that to 10 hours of community service [] - because students said that if there was a possible $500 fine, hackers would be more willing to run and seriously injure themselves than risk getting caught by the police.

    Of course MIT has the legal responsibility if someone falls from a roof, but there ought to be a way to cover that without punishing the same hackers that the university celebrated. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
  • Re:It's a shame... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Alex P Keaton in da ( 882660 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @03:08PM (#14359814) Homepage
    My experience with colleges/universities (I went to 4- 2 undergrad, one masters, one Doc) has always been that (for non felonies) uniqueness is what gets you kicked out. For example, getting drunk and hurting someone (fistfight, whatever) won't get you kicked out... underage drinking wont get you kicked out... Common things.
    But urinating off the top of a 4 story dorm will get you booted.
    They have to boot some people out to set an example. But they cant boot you out for something common, because they need the tuition....
  • by n00tz ( 926304 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @03:28PM (#14359954) Homepage
    ever heard of George [] P. Burdell? []

    Plenty of pranks have happened at the account of this name. You might even check your employee database for existence of him. He almost made Time's Man Of The Year 2001, before Time found out about the ficticious character.

    Moral of the Story: Ramblin' Wrecks from Georgia Tech are Helluva Engineers, and are VERY creative.
  • by F_Scentura ( 250214 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @03:36PM (#14360015) []

    He's pulled some *GREAT* hoaxes on the media and general public.
  • My Yale prank (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kongjie ( 639414 ) <> on Thursday December 29, 2005 @03:46PM (#14360074)
    It was in the early nineties, on April Fools' Day. Warning: a bit of explanation is required.

    Like most grad students in liberal arts, I spent an inordinate amount of time in Sterling Memorial Library. A wonderful building but at that time still fairly antiquated: the electronic book database didn't extend to pre-1975 titles, there was no air conditioning in the stacks (meaning book rot was even more accelerated) and there were two systems a book could be indexed under: Library of Congress or the "Yale system," a maddening combination of letters and numbers that was sure to send you in the wrong direction.

    If I recall, and it has been a while, the library has 6 floors accessible by elevator and within those 6 more "between-floors" accessible only by twisty staircase. You would find your book's call number on the main floor (especially since the few computers within the stacks were either malfuctioning or being used) and then delve into the stacks.

    To guide you on your way, there were one-page charts posted throughout the stacks and in the elevators that indicated which floor your book could be found, based on its call number. It was a common sight to see a confused student looking at the chart, then at the paper in their hand, then back at the chart, ad infinitum.The library also left a handy stack of these guide charts by the front desk for students to take.

    I took a chart home and set about changing the floors for about half of the call number groups on the chart. Since this was way back when I worked off a grayscale Powerbook 520 with no Photoshop etc., I had to use exacto knife and photocopier.

    I printed off a shitload of the fake call number charts and then, first thing in the morning on April 1, replaced every posted chart in public areas throughout the library, including within the two elevators. Then, for good measure, I replaced the helpful "take one" stack with my own version.

    I left a few clues on the chart--for those who had looked for their books and then returned to look again, more carefully--indicating that it was a prank. By April 2 all the bogus charts had been replaced, but I had gotten a good laugh out of it, even though it was a subtle prank that didn't have a large, noticable payoff.

  • Cornell Pumpkin (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Big Bob the Finder ( 714285 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @03:48PM (#14360086) Homepage Journal
    I'm a little surprised nobody has mentioned the Cornell Pumpkin [] story yet.

    I had a co-worker that was at Cornell at the time, and claims to know the perpetrators. Further inquiries were met with vague comments about the statute of limitations.

  • Re:Roadworks (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Leontes ( 653331 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @03:49PM (#14360093)
    When I was on Slashdot.Org I heard about this prank which supposedly happened a few years earlier, although its a marvelous urban legend []. Believing something as true makes it a much better story, admittedly, but it's very interesting how the urge to believe leads us to retell rumors and stories as if they were true. Human nature fascinates me. Are the best pranks we can come up with ones where we have to invent and personalize the story?
  • by P3NIS_CLEAVER ( 860022 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @04:02PM (#14360168) Journal
    A prank article with no mention of Cal-Tech? []
  • by snowwrestler ( 896305 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @04:07PM (#14360205)
    ...escalation? After all if you're risking $500, it better be one hell of a hack. Maybe harsher penalties will just bring out the real hardcore pranksters. :-)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 29, 2005 @04:29PM (#14360322)
    Current student at the University of Alabama chiming in here. The political band of greek organizations is commonly known down here as The Machine. []

    Every year is a battle between those who hate The Machine and those who cry it doesn't exist. Politics in Alabama are fascinating.

    (For the record, I haven't heard the BK coupon switch story.)
  • by belmolis ( 702863 ) <billposer AT alum DOT mit DOT edu> on Thursday December 29, 2005 @05:00PM (#14360523) Homepage

    I did my thesis research at Bell Labs. There was a postdoc in our group who was just learning to use computers. One day, two of us hacked his account. We arranged for him to be immediately transferred to another machine. Then we changed all of the standard commands so that they did one of two things: either they printed their normal output but with every printing character replaced with an s or they printed the error message "s-inode overflow" followed by screenful after screenfull of s's. We did this one night and came in early the next morning so as to be sure to be there when he logged in.

    We waited and waited but no outburst came. We hung around all day, wondering when he would log in, but nothing happened. We were terribly disappointed. Finally, the next day, around noon, we found him huddled with a technician. It turned out that the previous day he had logged in, noticed the weird behavior, decided that it was just one of those days, and logged out, figuring it would probably clear up! He was so mild-mannered and so inexperienced with computers that he had not reacted as we expected him to.

    The other hack we did that year went better. One of the statisticians had a Monroe calculator in his office. For the younger generation, a Monroe calculation was a large electromechanical calculator, like an adding machine, but able to multiply and divide, and able to handle more digits, 16 I think. We used to go up to his office at night and play with it. It made a lot of noise as it calculated: kachunk-kachunk-kachunk-kachunk-kachunk-ching! Different calculations would make it play different "tunes".

    One night we lugged the thing down to the speech lab, set it up to play a particularly nice tune, and recorded it. We then modified the C compiler so that when invoked itwould play the Monroe calculator sound over the loudspeakers. People were surprised at the new auditory indication of how their compile was going.

  • by wallingford ( 740882 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @05:11PM (#14360596) []
  • by SnappingTurtle ( 688331 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @05:48PM (#14360830) Homepage
    For years I've been fascinated with the persistence of a local urban legend. When I was a freshman at Virginia Tech in the fall of 1985 I moved into Tech's infamous Pritchard Hall []. Pritchard has the reputation of being a sort of Animal House dorm, so when I moved in I was immediately told that "a couple years ago" some guys had thrown a Coke machine out of the window into "the pit" (a courtyard in the center of the building). Like most immature barely post-pubescent guys I thought that sort of thing was pretty cool and immediately passed on the story to other people.

    A decade later I still lived in Blacksburg (and still do today). I happened to get into a conversation on the bus with a freshman who lived in Pritchard. He told me the same story about the Coke machine, including the fact that it was "a couple years ago".

    I'm fascinated with the story's persistence. A coworker who went lived in Pritchard in the mid 1970's told me that he had heard the same story at that time. Some kids in my church who live in Pritchard this year have heard the same story (including the "couple years ago" part). The legend has lasted thirty years now.

    A couple years ago my friend Tom Angleberger [], a columnist for the Roanoke Times, asked his readers for help on tracking down the legend. He got some reliable appearing (but not fully verifiable) evidence that the incident happened in the early 1970's. He even tracked down the alleged culprit (who, supposedly, was expelled for the prank), but the guy wouldn't return Tom's phone calls. Can't say I blame him, really.

    So... it's not like it was a very good prank, but somehow it's survived the test of time.

  • by slashname3 ( 739398 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @06:05PM (#14360925)
    students have a mark against their permanent record,

    OH NO! Not a mark on my permanent record! How will I ever find a job!

    The permanent record belongs in the myth category.
  • Agreed... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @06:25PM (#14361031)
    Reading some of these stories makes me think than noone has ever been caught. That there are no consequences. If you don't feel like reading my post it can be summed up as: Don't do pranks on the computer. Do something physical and do it intoxicated.

    I've been booted, I have to say that it's disrupted my entire life. It hasn't been a fun experience. I went to a small engineering college in Indiana. My sophomore year was the year that the Olsen twins were choosing where to go. At this time the fake CNN news generator was out.

    We recieved an e-mail from admissions that the Olsen twins thing was a joke (apparently they had a huge issue with alumni believing this.) On the way home from dinner my roomates and I sketched "Welcome Olsens" into the snow on the lake in 30' letters. Then I thought it would be a funny prank if I photoshopped the Olsen twins in front of one of our buildings. [] It was a quick and dirty job. I never intended for anyone to believe it. Not to mention the best photo I had found had them in the wrong age frame.

    Our school had a "allstudents" e-mail address, however it could only be accessed by a few people. In addition it required a *.instudent.*.edu address. I did some scanning and found some computers that were turned off at night. I spoofed my MAC address and sent out the e-mail from the person that had originally sent the "it's not true" e-mail.

    Nothing. No e-mail recieved. Nothing. A week later the dean of students called me into his office. They suspected me of sending the e-mail. What happened was the attachment was too big and bounced back to the woman I spoofed. She freaked out and contacted computer services. I guess how they caught me was my computer requested an old IP address in the DHCP negotiation. The dean forwarded the case onto the "Computer Use Policy", their ruling was that I had committed a felony: identity theft []

    I put up a fake news story [] on my away message to relay what had happened to my friends. At this point I wasn't suspended, but I was on probation.

    One day the DHCP servers went down, so I did what any intelligent person would do: I set everything up on manual. The way I had done it a year before when the SAME THING happened. I got a call from the dean again. I had violated my probation, I was stealing IP addresses []. This has elevated my case, and I was suspended by the Dean. I appealed, but on my appeal there were a few more 'charges' than a fake e-mail and a stolen IP address. Somehow someone forwarded on the fake news story on to the dean; in addition a year before I was running BitchX on my shell account. I eventually went before all of the faculty to beg (literally) not to kick me out. Explain to a room full of very intelligent Ph D engineers that know very little about computers (other than the CS/CO teachers) how 'BitchX' is nothing more than a chat client, how manually assigning an IP address is not stealing it, etc.

    However as some people have posted, anything alcohol related is overlooked. Indiana Excise Police busted a party 3 weeks before I was suspended, however nothing was ever in the papers about it. My sophomore year someone, drunk, used an entire fire exinguisher in our dorm. It set off the fire alarms and everyone was evactuated at 3 am. Nothing ever came of it than a slap on the wrist. Someone 'stole' a fork lift that had its keys left in it and rammed it into one of the monuments on campus. Again. Nothing happened. People fear computers.

    It's still upsets me when I think about what I was kicked out of school for: An e-mail prank, a fake news story among friends, a stolen IP addresses, and an IRC client.

    It has disrupted my entire life. My ex girlfriend and I had a hard time with the distance. I lost quite a few credits and had to repeat course
  • by gnovos ( 447128 ) <> on Thursday December 29, 2005 @07:31PM (#14361359) Homepage Journal
    The only serious prank I ever did ended up as a one-liner in Time magazine. I has set up an elaborate system of personalities on all the "What it IT?" type websites (people trying to figure out what the segway was before it was revealed). It was full of secret insiders posting information, other "real" insiders negating what was said and posting the slightly more believable "truth", fake PR people from Dean Kamen's companies playing down the hype, invisible agents from major industrialists and venture capitalists offering bribes for more information, with cryptic responses, janitors who happened to "see something", bitter recriminations flying back and forth between both sides of my "regulars" and "hoaxers"... Man, it was great fun. In the end I had thousands, if not more, convinced it was a kind of flying surfboard looking thing that used very little power and would alter EVERYTHING.

    Even in the wee hours of the morning, after Time and Newsweek had published thier international copy on the web, people were still convinced that it was all part of a HUGE elaborate conspiracy to keep the true nature of IT concealed until the very last second.

    Sigh, good times.
  • by rickwood ( 450707 ) on Thursday December 29, 2005 @09:33PM (#14361901)
    Bob went to Gonzaga University [] in Spokane, Washington. Even in the early Seventies, when so many of the nation's college campuses were in turmoil, this was a quiet, Catholic Jesuit college. The most famous alumnus of Gonzaga is Bing Crosby [], and he made many donations to his alma mater, including a substantial collection of memorabilia. The crown jewel of this collection was his 1944 Oscar for "Going my Way".

    Even this serene campus in Washington had malcontents though, one of which was Bob's roommate. The powers that be had done something to offend him, and so they hatched a plan to get even. They would steal Bing's Oscar.

    Having seen too many episodes of "It Takes a Thief", they had an elaborate scheme for getting into the case where the Oscar was housed involving ventilation ducts, suction cups, and ropes and pulleys. In the process of casing the museum, one of them leaned against the case and it simply slid open. Astonished, they looked around and saw they were alone in the room, and then looked back at each other. Without a word, Bob stuffed the statue into his jacket and they walked out fore-and-aft with the statue between them, past all the folks at the student center in broad daylight.

    They then went back to their room, which faced the building where museum was, and waited. Not too long afterward they heard sirens, and when the police cars showed up, the old lady in charge of the museum came running out with her hand to her head and collapsed dramatically in a way that women don't do much anymore. Soon it was all over the campus, the Oscar was gone.

    After a couple of days, the pair released a "hostage photo" to the school paper, making a set of ridiculous demands. This only intensified the search for the guilty, and when the heat got to be too much, they dropped the Oscar into the mailbox, ending the "Great Oscar Scandal of 1972."

    Not quite ending, as it turns out. Several weeks later, Bob was called into the college president's office. Knowing what was coming, he swallowed hard and just went in. He got the expected lecture about, "I know it was you", "stealing is a sin", and "respecting the rights of others". Then at the end, the President made a confession: When he had been a student at Gonzaga, he resented the ass-kissing that the college gave the old crooner, and had always wanted to steal the statue. "How did you do it", he asked. Bob tells the story, and the old man just chuckled and sent Bob away with a stern warning.

    Months later, when Bob goes to the Registrar to pay for the next semester, he realized that there had been some kind of mistake involving the tution check from his parents, and started scrambling to come up with the money. The registrar stops him: His tuition had been paid in full, as he was the recipient of a full presidential scholarship.

    I know my old econ prof doesn't read slashdot, so he's unlikely to post his own story. I've called him "Bob", to protect the guilty. A quick Google search [] appears to confirm that the prank happened. Whether or not it was really my prof that did it, I can't say. The proceeding is my butchered recollection of his tale as told to me in his backyard many years ago, that almost certainly contains errors of fact and leaves out crucial details.

    At the time though, it was hands down, no bullshit, the God damned funniest story I had ever heard.

The last thing one knows in constructing a work is what to put first. -- Blaise Pascal