ASCII by Jason Scott

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An Interview with Krakowicz —

This interview will also be on the main textfiles.com site, to join the archive.

TEXTFILES.COM: AN INTERVIEW WITH KRAKOWICZ
Conducted by Jason Scott, February, 2005

It’s hard for me not to sound superlative about Krakowicz, and there’s a good set of reasons why. He is a member of a relatively small but memorable community, that of Apple II Crackers from the early 1980s.

In much the same way that a lot of troublemakers and brigands from the past take on an almost nostalgic haze with the passage of time, so it personally seems to me with these software pirates of old. Groups like the Midwest Pirates’ Guild (MPG), 1200 Club, Digital Gang, and many others would take commercial software, remove the copy protection on the floppy diskette the game came from, and distribute the now-easy-to-copy software to waiting hands and drives across the country. They started a tradition which has continued to the present day, of acting less like criminals bent on smash and grab crimes, but more like flamboyant masterminds, able to take the time to leave distinct calling cards on their work before sending their “wares” along to the world.

These calling cards manifested themselves in elaborate “Crack Screens”, which branded the now-cracked software into a work at the mercy of the crackers, ready to do the bidding of whoever copied them. The race to get their hands on a piece of software, crack it, and distribute it made for some intense battles in those now-gone days.

I collected many dozens of these “Crack Screens” on textfiles.com at this location: http://artscene.textfiles.com/intros/APPLEII/

Krakowicz’ handle shows up on a large collection of “warez” from the period, and certainly has some amount of fame (or infamy) for that alone. But beyond that particular trait, he also did something very few other crackers did: He gave away all his secrets of how he was accomplishing it.

These manifested themselves in Krakowicz’ Kraking Korner, a collection of files written and distributed on Apple II floppies which provided hints, tips, and instructions on the sort of work Krakowicz was doing to accomplish his craft. They are both witty and accurate, and they leave the reader feeling smarter, far beyond the ability to make an arcade game copyable, but knowing some of the core concepts of programming itself. They are, in a word, a treasure.

I had stated publically that Krakowicz was one of my great unknowns, one of the few figures from my youth who I had either not contacted or heard from, who I would love, given the opportunity, to meet or have a conversation. In late 2004, that wish came true.

Krakowicz contacted me through a double-blind anonymous account, and after
some sharing back and forth of information, we confirmed each other’s authenticity, so to speak. What follows is a question and answer e-mail interview conducted in February, 2005, where I’ve asked Krakowicz a number of questions about his craft, the world that he lived in when kraking was his hobby, and what he thinks of some of the modern day.

For the record, he himself pronounces his handle “Crack-oh-vitch”.

THE INTERVIEW

Do you remember the time or the time period where you came to realize that it was possible to make a game function as a copy-able program instead of a
monolithic, protected disk? That is, was it an outside inspiration or something
you devised?

It was probably when I first came across a kraked game disk that was
previously uncopyable, and thought: “I could do that!”. I was introduced
to “shared” programs by teenagers in the local Apple user’s group.

What do you think are the most forgotten aspects of the Apple II period
(1977 – ~1988) that really should be remembered and understood?

For me, it was the extraordinary fellowship of Apple owners, the way they loved
to work with computers hands-on, and the joy of sharing experiences and knowledge
about it. Also, the incredible genius of Woz in creating the Apple hardware (as
well as integer Basic), and the unbelievable efficiency of the disk drive
interface card. Third, very few people remember that a fledgling Microsoft
corporation wrote Applesoft, the floating-point Basic that was put in ROM for
the Apple ][+.

The most forgotten program is likely "Cattlecar Galactica." Bruce Tognazzini
(who wrote "The great probability machine" that everyone got on tape with an
early Apple, and which was possibly the greatest achievement ever in low-res
graphics) put together a hilarious, comprehensive disk that took command-line
inputs and corrupted them in very funny and clever ways. If you typed in "HGR,"
the response was "RCH," the acronym for the smallest known measurement in the
English language. The original disk was copyable, but when you tried to load it,
it switched back and forth between two disk modes, and just went "swish-swish"
endlessly in the drive. You had to sector-read it and fix the intentional
error to play the game--in other words, you had to be an Apple cognoscenti
in order to appreciate his humor and genius. One instruction would give the
plaintive response "Free the Milpitas 8!"

Fittingly, he's now a sage, sooth-sayer and user-interface consultant, still in
California's Bay Area (http://www.asktog.com/).

Among your kraking solutions was to do actual hardware modification to the
Apple so that it could turn on the programs and then take out memory snaphots.
The Freeze [another Apple II cracker] told me of actually having a custom
setup where it could act like a regular apple until the program was loaded,
and then he would flip a switch and it would go to the modified chip. Do you
remember the process of coming to use hardware solutions to deal with this
problem?

Yes–this and other hardware modifications came from my first personal
computer experience in the late 60′s–a Linc-8 system in a hospital
laboratory moonlighting job I had in college. The Linc-8 was a DEC PDP-8
implementation of the Laboratory Instrument Computer developed at
Washington University in St. Louis. It was way ahead of its time; had dual
DECTape drives, a CRT with a character generator, a 12-bit multiplexed A
to D converter, sense switches for program branching, and a teletype for
programming I/O. With the sense switches, you could make a program do
different things by changing the switch position, and I extended that to
the Apple ][.

The other thing I loved to use on the Linc-8 for program debugging was a
variable clock (you could run at 1 Hz up to 1 MHz, or single-step, just
like the system I implemented for the Apple in the "bus rider.") There
was also a pair of pre-set address registers ("E-stop" and "F-stop")
that would halt the computer when a given location was Fetched or Executed,
allowing you to examine the stack, flags, or memory location contents.

Because the 6502 had an "NMI" (non-maskable interrput) line, it was
possible to halt the machine and examine its contents under different times
and levels of a game. That was an irresistible early hardware mod, as was
the custom F8 EPROM. I had just enough electrical engineering training to
know and describe how to implement the debouncer circuit so it would work
correctly (I started as an electronic hobbyist by building a radio out of
Popular Electronics magazine when I was about 10).

Was there ever a program, disk, or other project for the Apple II that you
looked at and ultimately felt, for whatever reason, that even though you COULD
crack it, you wouldn't do it?

No--this was not a punitive or commercial activity, it was a learning
experience. I think part of it was to teach the software publishers that they
were irritatiing their customers as well as wasting a lot of their money
coming up with protection schemes. The other part was to better understand
the apple, its hardware and operating system, and to inspire others to learn
what I had learned.

I actually owned or copied very few programs, and probably played fewer of
them than most pirates. However, I always considered Beagle Brothers software
to be inviolate--they had great humor in their work, and really clever programs
(and they were smart enough not to protect their programs). I always thought
those traits should be rewarded.

What inspired you to make the Kraking Korner guides?

There were several driving forces. Realizing how much I had learned about the Apple and its software from The Blue Manual, The Red Book, Beneath Apple DOS,
and other sources, I felt that it could be a conduit for instructing others in
the engineering skills, as well as the creativity, that was inspired by the
hidden phrases in protected programs like "Bet you can't crack this one!" I
thought that as long as there was an inspirational driving force (free game
software) that caused bright young minds to look more deeply into technology, it
could add knowledge and insight as well as hours of fun.

Also, although I didn't intend or realize it at the time, the series became
excellent training and practice in effective written technical communication.
When I look back at those articles, I see the seeds of a writing style that
served me well as I progressed to more significant positions in industry over
the decades.

Do you have any thoughts on the art of programming and working in machine
language?

I'm not a programmer; not even an engineer, but since the first assembly language
program I wrote, I found particular challenge (and later satisfaction) because
you had total control over what the computer did, AND, it had to be exactly
right! Now, even if you can't spell, Google will forgive and correct your
inadequacies. The 6502 was fun (even with its page-boundary bug that I once saw
exploited for protection), and the memory-mapped I/O structure allowed simple
interaction with the Apple hardware.

Was there ever a time you met someone who had created a game you had cracked? Or,
conversely, were you contacted by anyone whose game you had cracked, positively
or negatively?

I never met any of the authors of the games, and they never contacted me. If you
still have the description I sent of the Arcade Machine incident, I felt that was
one of the most ironic episodes in the entire experience--a manufacturer makes a
protected program, sells it to kids for generating other game programs which it
intends to distribute, then unwittingly ends up distibuting a game developed on
a cracked version of its generation software. I called their offices to tell them
how stupid they'd been, and the person who answered said "Can I place you on hold
for a minute or two, while I find the right person for you to talk to?" They
really thought I might hold while they traced the call!

[The description of the incident that Krakowicz speaks of follows]

My all-time favorite story of this era, however, concerns Arcade Machine. If you
don’t recall, it was a game creator to make left-right shoot-em-ups of your
own design, which the publisher (I think it was Broderbund) would then
re-distribute if they were good enough (to run the games made with it, you
were supposed to have the original disk of the program, but I also removed that
requirement so the games would auto-run without the presence of the program
master). The program inserted a hidden splash page so the publisher could tell
if your game was indeed made using their software. After I kracked it(and it
was quickly distributed by the usual suspects), people started using the
pirated version of it to produce games, some of which were subsequently
distributed by Broderbund. Apparently, not all the people knew about the
hidden screen (and the publisher didn’t bother to check) to see if it was
intact. It wasn’t. I altered it to reflect the unprotection, then stuffed
it back where the original had been. When the publisher sent out one of
the games, it had actually been written using the kracked version, then
sent in for publication. Cursory examination of the commercial game showed the
“unprotection” screen. I wrote a press release entitled “Publisher Pirates
Publisher,” and mailed Broderbund a copy. The press release made it to quite
a few bulletin boards, but I don’t know if it survived the ages.

Were there any other crackers or cracking groups you looked up to or admired?
Were there any specific qualities about them that particularly appealed to you?

There was one game (whose name has passed from memory) that was kracked by
someone who went by “The unknown kracker,” and drew a picture of a brown bag
with cut-out eyes using ASCII screen characters as part of his logo. The game was
a tour de force of protection, and used almost every single scheme ever devised
to protect it. The problem was that you had to be good enough at playing it to
get to each level to find out that there were yet more protection schemes, and
then go about removing them. I think he found and removed them all, while I had
to give up because I wasn’t adept enough at playing the game.

I greatly admired the author of the boot-tracing techniques, but I’m no longer
sure who that was. I seem to recall that Mr. Xerox took credit for it, but I’m
not sure he was the originator.

Was there a particularly difficult, involved, or brain-crashing crack you still
remember to the present day? One where the software company laid an unusually
involved technique or process in your way to cracking the game?

I kind of answered that earlier (they told us to read the entire test paper
before ansering the first question, but I was always impulsive), but the system
that was most challenging to me was SSI’s RDOS. They had very cleverly disguised
the boot-up (it was called “qwerty” so you might think it related to keyboards
only), and the routines to read, write, move the head, etc., were very arcane.
Deciphering all the code, and making sense of it so I could explain it to others,
was probably the hardest task I encountered while kracking.

Was there an uncrackable game, one where you finally turned away from it,
considering it too much time lost to finally and totally crack it?

Other than the one I was unable to play well enough to complete (cracked by
“The Unknown Kracker”), I don’t recall one that was too hard, or took too long.
The more complicated the protection, the greater the challenge it provided, and
the more fun it ws to krack. Besides, as Neitzche said, anything that doesn’t
kill you makes you stronger, and each technique mastered made the next one easier.

Were there any particularly clever software protection methods you still hold
admiration for?

Sometimes the journey is the destination. As each new technique was developed,
it was a real trip to find it, figure out what was being done, and eliminate it.
The first time I saw code that was set up to deliberately corrupt the Monitor’s
disassembler, I relly loved it! I’m an inveterate namer, and my favorite
expression of all the techniqes used was the “window shade” technique. A
sensitive piece of code was hidden by exclusive-or ing it with a garbage byte.
When it was needed, the routine was “rolled down” by exclusive-or ing it with
the correct byte, and immediately afterward, it was “rolled back up” with the
same cloaking technique. After the first few, you learned to look for the hex
value of the XOR opcode (it was rarely used for legitimate purposes in gaming),
so the protectors began to hide that instruction with other techniques.

What struck me most about the basics of kracking series was how you laid it all
out, did your best to bring people into an understanding of not just the
process, but the thinking behind cracking. Did you get feedback about this?
Did you hear from people who were cracking and getting their start thanks to
the series?

This was before the days of effective email, so most of what was said was through
posting on BBS’s. I saw a number of posts that indicated people had enjoyed the
series, or learned from it, but there were probably just as many posts telling
me to stop quoting soppy poems or Ricky Skaggs songs, and just get on with it.
I didn’t visit many BBS’s, so I don’t have a good feel for true sense of the chatter.

I think there were over a dozen episodes of the Kracking Korner, but I haven’t
been able to find them all, even searching various textfile archives. Most were
written with a primitive 40-column word processor, and contained embedded ASCII
graphics, so re-formatting has lost some of the material. I was touched when,
many years later, my son sent the link to your description of my original work.

Cracking groups continue to this day. Do you have any thoughts about them, or
do you pay attention to that world at all anymore?

I have to say I’m completely ignorant of current activities. The level of
sophistication of software has increased dramatically, and so much of what is
done now is in high-level languages, that it passed me by, technically, about 20
years ago.

Are there any social groups or projects that you see today on the Internet or
modern computer world that give you a similar feeling to the Apple II Cracking
days?

Certainly, today’s open source projects operate under the same egalitarian
perspective as the kracking community of those days. Also, the people who test
corporate and network security systems, whether gainfully employed doing it or
just having fun, as long as their motives are to protect rather than to steal
other people’s property or to create worms and viruses.

Is there any sort of message or thought you want the world to know from Krakowicz?

OK–you asked for philosophy, so here it is.

Sometimes, in base pursuits (getting free games, for instance), unintended but
nobler consequences result. Challenge, knowledge, training, experience and growth
were all a result of the pursuit of Apple software unprotection, and the
simultaneous technological development of bulletin board software (very much
the forerunner of the internet for most of us) allowed the sharing of those
desirable outcomes with others. If they learned, developed, figured things out
and grew in any positive way as a result, we are all the better for it. If not,
we sure had a lot of fun and comeraderie as we explored the ways in which the
earliest (and for many of us, the best) personal computer enriched our lives.

Krakowicz


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5 Comments

  1. CanadianLad says:

    Fascinating interview, even if I didn’t understand the more technical parts. Thanks!

  2. Krzysiek says:

    Really interesting, thanks!

  3. mafiasoft says:

    it’s a nice interview, but i’ve not finish reading it.

  4. Kevin says:

    This really got me interested in reading and understanding more low level details of Apple II hardware again. I was disappointed that it looks like there are missing articles from the Kraking Korner file up here.

    I’ve always liked cracking screens, I was trying to figure out a good way to archive movies of them as many had scrolling animation and some had sound…

  5. Jason Scott says:

    Over time, I hope to acquire the remainder of the Kraking Korner series that I’m missing. It’s all a matter of time, and people sending me stuff, really.

    I believe, with emulators, you can record the screen. There’s no reason you can’t. I dispute “many” of them, however; I don’t think it was the norm at all, considering when I created those screengrabs of all those Apple II crack screens, maybe a half-dozen were animated in any way.

    (One or two changed out text in previously-animated title screens from the games themselves, but I don’t count that.)