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Cracking the Agrippa Code: How the Disk Worked (Discoveries From the “Cracking the Agrippa Code” Contest in 2012)
In July 2012, Quinn DuPont—at the Information Science department at University of Toronto—ran a “Cracking the Agrippa Code” contest offering hackers “every William Gibson book ever published (except Agrippa)” for solving the mystery of how the code on Agrippa’s disk actually worked to scroll Gibson’s poem up the screen and then, famously, “encrypt” it forever. The contest produced surprising discoveries.
Source: original 1992 Agrippa 3.5″ diskette, 1.4 Mb, loaned by collector Allan Chasanoff.
Process: » Disk image (bit-level copy) made using the “dd” copy process. (See Item #D50 on this site: downloadable disk-image file.) » Run of the disk-image copy on a computer using Mini vMac emulator with System 7 book disk (to emulate the functions of the original 1992 Mac platform for which the software on the diskette was created). » Video capture of the resulting run of the poem.
More info: Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, with Doug Reside and Alan Liu, “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa.”
- Allan Chassanof (for loan of original diskette)
- Kevin Begos, Jr.
- Matthew G. Kirschenbaum and Doug Reside, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities
- Alan Liu
- Robert Maxwell, Digital Forensics Lab and Office of Information Technology, University of Maryland, College Park
- Bini Tecle and Allan Rough, University of Maryland, College Park.
- Permissions to copy, run, and reproduce the diskette online received from: Kevin Begos, Jr., Allan Chasanoff, and William Gibson.
I have been a long time fan of William Gibson, and was very excited about Agrippa when it appeared, long ago. At the time I was a Mac hacker. However, as I did not have access to the disk in the Agrippa art-book, I could not play with that. Of course I dutifully downloaded, read and stored the “Agrippa” poem once it was “hacked”, but that was it. (It took a long time before I had an idea what the book itself looked like, though.)
So recently I discovered The Agrippa Files site, and downloaded both the disk image and the movie of the Agrippa disk running in emulation.
So then I wondered whether I could have gotten the text of the poem out of that disk myself (without retyping it, just by hacking.) Of course my “classic Mac” skills are very rusty by now, but I still wanted to try. And I indeed did manage to “hack” Agrippa relatively easily, in a crude but effective way.
I did this in three steps: (more…)
This disk image was created by the Digital Forensics Lab and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland, College Park. For more information, see Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, with Doug Reside and Alan Liu, “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa.”
See also an independent technical analysis of the disk image performed by François Grieu, an engineer based in Paris (who also provided the screenshots, audio files, and other resources from his analysis at the left).
This was the diskette used to create The Agrippa File’s disk-image (bit-level) copy of William Gibson’s poem and its accompanying software, as well as the emulated run of the whole package. In the Digital Forensics Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park, multiple copies were spawned from the original diskette and run through a computer emulating the platform of a 1992-vintage Mac. Multiple instances of Gibson’s poem thus came back to life, ran, and died (disappeared at the hands of the disk’s included encryption program) in the effort to capture the experience of reading the original poem—the experience, that is, minus the sense of one-time-only uniqueness that was part of the core work.
The diskette was loaned by Allan Chasanoff from his copy of Agrippa (editioned “10/95″). Chasanoff’s copy of the book is part of a collection of “book art” he began aggregating in 1990 that has grown to 275 works. The theme of his collection is “the artist and the new ‘disrespect’ he had in opposition to the older cultural devotion to the integrity of the book” (email from Chasanoff to Alan Liu, 5 December 2008).
The creation date of the software on Chasanoff’s diskette is “Wed., Sept. 23, 1992, at 1:13 pm; Modified Wed., Oct. 7, 1992, 10:50 pm.” The Post-It note on the wrapper of the diskette is Chasanoff’s original note (apparently dating from the time of acquisition). For discussion of the digital forensics used to recover and run the software from this disk, see Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, with Doug Reside and Alan Liu, “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa.”
This 3½”, 800 Kb diskette was sent to The Agrippa Files by Allan Chasanoff together with the original 1992, mint-condition, 3½”, 1.4 Mb diskette included in his copy of Agrippa. It is possibly also vintage 1992. Sliding the shutter of the diskette open reveals white plastic underneath the black spray paint. Efforts in the Digital Forensics Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park, to recover code from this diskette were unsuccessful, possibly because the disk was originally blank. As discussed in Matthew G. Kirshenbaum’s “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa,” the painted diskette “may have simply been a prop, perhaps intended for display with one of the project’s prototypes.” (See other early prototypes of Agrippa.)