College pranks. A clear example of why you shouldn’t marginalize knowledge

A friend on mine tells the next story from his college days. Apart from being hilarious, I think it is a great example of why knowledge should not be marginalized but instead embraced.

I preface this with: I’ve never been a hard-core programmer, certainly wasn’t Matthew Brokerick in War Games, but I had a trouble-maker’s instinct and just enough knowledge to be dangerous under the right combination of circumstances.

In my second year I was a Resident Advisor and I got stuck with rounds the first weekend – the best weekend, great parties, etc. I was bummed. I was also way bored, because whereas usually there’d be people on the hall, that Friday – nobody, everybody was out partying. The only person hanging around was me.

At some point I turned on my blacklight and noticed that Pert Plus shampoo glows like radioactive waste under blacklight.

Over the next couple of hours I proceeded to render the cover of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album pink-floyd wall-to-wall on my ceiling using Pert Plus as paint. I am no artist but I spent hours on it and it was amazing – regular light: nothing; blacklight: bricks and that epic script writing. It became something of a well-known showpiece on our little campus – for the rest of the year people would knock at all hours wanting to see it.

My artistic talent exhausted, I was again super bored, so I started looking through stuff from the first week of classes. I’d started a Tu-Th stats class, and on Thursday they’d given us a temporary account on the VAX system, where you had to do your homework, usually in a computer lab. I had discovered the year before that you could log in to the school’s VAX system remotely via modem and terminal software, which I’d done and browsed around but not much to see. Remembering that, I proceeded to spend an hour or so figuring out how to get connected to the right place for stats homework, and writing out a macro command in my modem’s terminal software to automate the login and navigation. No need to go to the lab now – YAY.

[It’s also important to note here that I had tried to get, and been denied, a position as a computer lab tech on campus three times in a row over the past year. I was way more computer knowledgeable than half the guys in there, and I hadn’t understood why I kept coming up short, until a friend of mine who was a lab tech told me that he heard the reason was because they were afraid I was ~too~ computer savvy and would have access to too much. I had been stewing over that all summer.]

So, I’m bored again. I’m reviewing my little login script and it strikes me that the login is based on the course, session and student count: ST281 students in session one got logins ST2810101-ST2810130, ST282 students in session 3 got ST2820301-ST2820330, etc.

The password is the same as the login. You can see where this is going.

I looked at the login. I looked at the password. I looked at the script. I smiled. The path to my revenge over not getting the gig coalesced in my nerdy little brain.

I pulled out the course catalog and spent another hour writing out a series of macro command loops for my modem’s terminal software to iteratively login to every ST course, every session, accounts 1 through 40 (just for good measure), and change the password. When I went to bed a little after midnight, I kicked it off and pretty much forgot about it.

Chaos the following Tuesday. Lab techs have been working with people FOR DAYS on the same issue – no one can log in, no one in a stats class has been able to do any homework. Professor – who was a great guy – comes in, makes a big statement about how they understand there have been problems, and something must have gone wrong with the setup, and they’re going to fix it so just hang tight.

Thursday, Professor comes in with new logins for everybody. Same logins, but the passwords have been reset, he says, but it is still just one password for the entire class. I notice that the password happens to be the name of one of the dorms. After classes that day, I head home, tweak the script to try using the 7 or 8 different dorm names as password, plus a handful of other prominent buildings on campus, and kick it off before bed that night. The next day I check the logs and see that I managed to score on about 70% of the courses using the dorm names.

The following Tuesday, more chaos, lab techs are in revolt, still no homework done, an announcement that now they are aware that someone is up to shenanigans, dire threats that THE PERPETRATORS WILL BE CAUGHT, and a promise to get it sorted. Thursday they had a printed sheet of logins and unique nonsense passwords, which they had made up for all classes, and which we passed around class so everyone could write theirs down.

I never got tagged and there appeared to never have been any follow up thereafter. Fast forward 15 years. I’m having lunch with two of my former professors from the business school. Somehow the topic comes up and I can’t avoid laughing and owning up to being the one that did it. One looks at the other and says, “well, that’s $10 you owe me”. Though it wasn’t their department, and they’d never been able to find out for sure, back in the day he had been convinced it was me and had bet his coworker $10 that it was. 🙂

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