As editor of the and author of a few other well-known documents of similarnature, I often get email requests from enthusiastic network newbiesasking (in effect) "how can I learn to be a wizardly hacker?". Back in1996 I noticed that there didn't seem to be any other FAQs or webdocuments that addressed this vital question, so I started thisone. A lot of hackers now consider it definitive, and I suppose that means it is. Still, I don't claim to be the exclusiveauthority on this topic; if you don't like what you read here, writeyour own.
There is another group of people who loudly call themselveshackers, but aren't. These are people (mainly adolescent males) whoget a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phonesystem. Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ andwant nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers arelazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being ableto break security doesn't make you a hacker any more than being ableto hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, manyjournalists and writers have been fooled into using the word‘hacker’ to describe crackers; this irritates real hackersno end.
When I originally wrote this how-to in late 1996, some of theconditions around it were very different from the way they look today.A few words about these changes may help clarify matters for peoplewho are confused about the relationship of open source, freesoftware, and Linux to the hacker community. If you are not curiousabout this, you can skip straight to the FAQ and bibliography fromhere.
Train in a martial-arts form. The kind of mental discipline required for martial arts seems to be similar in important ways to what hackers do. The most popular forms among hackers are definitely Asian empty-hand arts such as Tae Kwon Do, various forms of Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, or Ju Jitsu. Western fencing and Asian sword arts also have visible followings. In places where it's legal, pistol shooting has been rising in popularity since the late 1990s. The most hackerly martial arts are those which emphasize mental discipline, relaxed awareness, and precise control, rather than raw strength, athleticism, or physical toughness.
If you're asking this question, it almost certainly means you'rethinking about trying to hack under Microsoft Windows. This is a badidea in itself. When I compared trying to learn to hack under Windowsto trying to learn to dance while wearing a body cast, I wasn'tkidding. Don't go there. It's ugly, and it never stops beingugly.
Finding good code to read used to be hard, because there were fewlarge programs available in source for fledgeling hackers to read andtinker with. This has changed dramatically; open-source software,programming tools, and operating systems (all built by hackers) arenow widely available. Which brings me neatly to our next topic...
Peter Norvig, who is one of Google's top hackers and theco-author of the most widely used textbook on AI, has written anexcellent essay called . His "recipe for programming success" is worthcareful attention.
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Hackers are naturally anti-authoritarian. Anyone who can give youorders can stop you from solving whatever problem you're beingfascinated by — and, given the way authoritarian minds work, willgenerally find some appallingly stupid reason to do so. So theauthoritarian attitude has to be fought wherever you find it, lestit smother you and other hackers.
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Being a native English-speaker does not guarantee that you havelanguage skills good enough to function as a hacker. If your writingis semi-literate, ungrammatical, and riddled with misspellings,many hackers (including myself) will tend to ignore you. While sloppywriting does not invariably mean sloppy thinking, we've generallyfound the correlation to be strong — and we have no use forsloppy thinkers. If you can't yet write competently, learn to.
It used to be that personal computers were rather underpowered andmemory-poor, enough so that they placed artificial limits on a hacker'slearning process. This stopped being true in the mid-1990s; any machinefrom an Intel 486DX50 up is more than powerful enough for developmentwork, X, and Internet communications, and the smallest disks you canbuy today are plenty big enough.