Hackers Hacking Conway’s Game of Life

There were only a few talks scheduled for Saturday morning, since we were all going off to the party at Tom’s house that afternoon, but they were very good talks.

Al Seckel, who wrote Neil’s favorite illusions book, gave a talk about the Nature of Belief: how our own biases affect our perception, and how easy it is to set up different cues which will make the same picture completely different.

And then Pablos Holman gave a funny, and surprising demo of what hackers can do. First of all, he showed us the HackerBot, which his group built. They’d set it loose in a public area offering free wi-fi, whereupon it would roll up to people and show them their passwords, which it had picked up off the network. Next, he told us he would hack into the cell phone voice mail of someone in the room. I didn’t want it to be me, so I switched off my phone, and Al Seckel got himself spoofed, and a new sexy-sounding outgoing message, thanks to Pablos. Now, if that wasn’t enough, he asked if anyone in the room had one of the new “secure” credit cards with an RFID tag. Bruce Oberg did, and foolishly approached the podium, whereupon Pablos waved a small device near Bruce’s pocket, and popped his credit card number and expiration date up on the screen. And then Pablos showed us how to use a snap key which would get us past any Schlage lock. Oh, and that electronic key you have for your car–it can probably open lots of other cars, if you just walk around a parking lot pressing that button.

Just to show us hacking isn’t just good for quasi-criminal acts, he told us his group had worked on a smart bug zapper, which would send lasers to zap out of existence only bad bugs and let good bugs survive, i.e. for smart organic gardening. But when I told Peter about this, he thought it was a very bad idea. What happens when you walk into the zapping zone and one of the bad bugs lands on you? Oh, those UI people, always putting a damper on great ideas!

The next lecture was on why you shouldn’t use quantum probabilities to play poker, but I missed it, because Bill Gosper pulled out Neil and Julian to go talk to John Conway with him.

They talked about Conway’s Game of Life, and Conway seemed happy to see the next generation of cellular-automata-philes coming up.

As delighted as Neil was to talk to Conway again, he was eager to get back to the talks, which had moved on to an overview of the sculptures at Tom’s house. As it turned out, one of the sculptures was made by Dale Seymour, who lives in this house near Bill Gosper:

If we’re very nice, we may have a chance to go see it, and other groovy architectural details on the grounds some day.

And then, before we knew it, it was time for us to go out to waiting buses and get on with the big party.

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