Crunch Time

[First published at GoToXo as Crunch Time on December 31, 2007]

Software, like mathematics, is but a form of writing. I have been doing one or the other for several decades, and so have come to know some of the fellow authors who do this kind of writing. While authors of novels tell stories about people, the authors of software and mathematics write about other things, but they are also people, and have their own stories, as I was reminded by a recent post in Slashdot that brought back memories of a chance meeting back in the 1970’s, my “Crunch Time.”

I just noted via a post in Slashdot, A Look Back at One of the Original Phreaks, that the New York Times recently ran a story, Dial-Tone Phreak, that reported the death of Josef Engressia, one of the original “Phone Phreaks.” Though I never knew Mr. Engressia, nor had I heard his name before, on reading the story I learned he was an associate of “Captain Crunch” himself, John Draper, whose web site can be found at John T Draper (AKA Captain Crunch) .

I once met Mr. Draper, as they say, “back in the day.” This would be during the SETL project, around 1974 or so. I was one of the few people who were around for the entire history of the project, over a period of close to a decade. Many other people were associated with the project, some for several years, others for just a few months. For example, I recall that Lambert Miertens spent about a year with the project around 1978. On his return to the Netherlands, Lambert worked on a programming language called “ABC” that included some of the ideas from SETL, as well as some of the work he had done on Algol 68. Guido Rossum, the inventor of Python, was familiar with this work, and it played a role in the design of Python, the main programming language used in the XO Laptop.

One of the visitors who spent some time around SETL, though I think it was just for a few months, was Bob Bonic. His story was interesting in itself,in that he was a tenured professor of mathematics who gave up his career to open a bar in SoHo (the area in New York City just “SOuth of HOuston (street).” I just found mention of this episode via Google in DIALECTICAL MARXISM The Writings of Bertell Ollman. Several other stories about Bob can be found via this, that, and the other.

It was Bob who introduced me to Captain Crunch. Bob came into my office on the fourth floor one day accompanied by someone he thought I might like to meet. After a while, as the new acquaintance talked about some of his work, I realized I was talking to Captain Crunch himself. Later on Captain C. offered to teach me some of the tricks of his trade, but I politely declined. Though I had never been a Phone Phreak, I had been an undergraduate at Caltech, and so had some experience with activities at the boundaries of the law, as for several months I carried around a set of lockpicks, tools that were part of the curriculum at CIT devoted to an obscure ritual called “Senior Ditch Day.”

I declined the offer to learn how to make free calls. When I read a few months later than Captain Crunch had been indicted I realized I had made the right call.

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