I grew up in the 80s and 90s in a small town in India in a middle-class family. During summers, due to high demand, we would get electricity about half of the time. Many nights we would sleep on the terrace due to power failure. The fresh air and fragrance from night jasmine trees my father planted worked like melatonin supplements. Because the power was sporadic, life didn’t revolve around it. There was no concept of microwaves. There was no hot running water. But it was great because life was simpler those days, although, if I go back in time, I would say that life was complicated and the materialistic luxuries will make life simpler. It is quite easy to look back and make comments which sound profound and thoughtful.
Since childhood, I had been very inquisitive. I loved learning new things and especially how they work. Mostly, it meant that I would break my toys and decompose them. As I grew up, my toys became more and more expensive. I was probably nine or ten years old when we used to have a portable power generator at home. One day I “opened” it. It had like a million parts. But I couldn’t put it back together. I really enjoyed unscrewing its various parts. But I “screwed up” and my father had to call a mechanic to get it fixed.
When I was in the 5th grade, I saw a “dancing doll” at my school’s science fair. The doll, made out of plastic, had iron-based paper clips in her shoes. She was suspended by a rubber string. Just below the doll, there was an electromagnet operated by a switch that would basically complete the circuit activating the electromagnet which would then pull the doll down (because of the iron-based paper clip in her shoes). She would basically dance at the press of a button.
She was the catalyst for whatever I have done professionally in my life.
That project got me interested in electronics. I started reading electronics-related magazines. While my friends were video playing games, I would be reading up how circuits work. But there was a problem which goes back to my personality- that I like to go to extremes. My parents prohibited me from buying electronics-related magazines because I wasn’t studying. I didn’t listen. I would save pocket money and buy these magazines anyways. To read them discreetly, I would hide them in a huge atlas book. My parents were getting suspicious that how come I am suddenly so much interested in Geography. But somehow I managed to get drown in the world of transistors, capacitors. That was a magical world.
We used to have an FM radio. I was always curious about how the tuner works. It was able to tune it as low as about 88 Mhz or as high as 109 Mhz. As someone who likes extremes and likes to break things apart, it was quite obvious to me that one day I would open up this radio and perform surgery. Only that I was worried about repercussions if I can’t put it back together. I managed to get enough courage and did what I had to. I opened it up and found that there was a string that would wound up as you tune and when there is no more string left, you won’t be able to tune any further. In simpler words, the frequency range 88 Mhz to 109 Mhz was limited by physical control. I managed to work my way around it so that I can tune without being limited by the length of the string. I felt so free that day. I was liberated from the shackles of the tunable frequency band.
As it turns out when I tuned to a frequency higher than 109 Mhz I could listen to some secret radio channel that no one knew about. It was like a talk show where two peoples were talking. Soon after I realized that I was wrong and I felt so happy to be wrong. The FM radio which I just modded was actually capturing my neighbor’s cordless phone communication.
That was the first unintentional hack of my life.
It was the year 1995 and I started playing with computers. Playing might a mild word. It was more of teenage lust. I was obsessed with them. As I had a keen interest in electronics, it started out as innocent flirting with electronics which turned into a long term relationship with software. Memories of using 5.25-inch floppy disks are as fresh as a freshly plucked mint leaves. When I first saw 3.5-inch floppy which could store more than 1 MB of data, I was blown away.
One day I got to know that my school has upgraded all of the computers to Novell Netware. I had no clue what a computer network was. That got me hooked into networking. Talking of hooks, I read up on Terminate and Stay Resident (TSR) programs and was fascinated with them. I wondered what would happen if I could hook into keyboard interrupts. I still remember keyboard interrupt value 0x9. I wrote a TSR which would write the keyboard key value to a file. Turns out, I had written a keylogger unintentionally. It was probably like 5 years later that I even got to know that there is something known as a keylogger.
I was introduced to the Internet by the cacophony of dial-up modems. I was in high school when I started reading Tennebaum’s book on networks. It was my bible. I would go to bed sleeping with it. By the time I completed my teenage, I was well versed with various network security concepts. I could set up a Snort IDS, configure IPTables Firewall rules etc.
Once I had the job of a network security admin. One day I come to the office and people are fanatically looking for me. The Internet was down. I rushed over to the router/firewall server. I could hear the hard disk spinning as if it was getting ready for take-off and the hard disk LED indicator was continuously lit. Even before I could login to the server, I knew what was wrong. I had configured the IPTables in such a way that anytime the DROP target is matched, it would log to a file. My intuition was that there is malware somewhere on the network and it is trying to propagate and the firewall is dropping the connection. I was right. One of the boxes was infected and as soon as I unplugged the ethernet cable, the Internet came back on for everyone. (so the Internet was down because the server had run out of disk IOPS and was slow enough that it couldn’t even perform network IOPS).
I always wanted to build not just things but a cult of people who like to build things. This cult is formally known as a start-up. I had many many failures and then a success. I still know how to fail more than I know how to succeed.
You get the idea.
If you would like to reach out to me, you will find a way.