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William Gibson's AGRIPPA Recovered and Revealed 98

Posted by kdawson
from the gripping-hand dept.
Bud Cook writes "While the text of William Gibson's elusive electronic poem AGRIPPA is widely posted around the Web, it has not been seen in its original incarnation — custom-built software designed to scroll the poem through a single play before encrypting each line with an RSA algorithm — since 1992. Today is the 16th anniversary, to the day, of the poem's initial release. A team of scholars at the University of Maryland and UC Santa Barbara used forensic computing to restore the code from an original diskette loaned by a collector and have placed video of the complete 'run,' as well as never-before-seen footage from the night of AGRIPPA's public debut in 1992, up on a Web site called the Agrippa Files. There's also a detailed essay documenting the forensic process, plus a mess of stills, screenshots, and a copy of the disk image itself."
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William Gibson's AGRIPPA Recovered and Revealed

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  • Harold AI? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PakProtector (115173) <cevkiv.gmail@com> on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @09:27AM (#26058935) Journal

    We finally found the Epitaph of the Twilight?!

  • by contra_mundi (1362297) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @09:30AM (#26058959)
    Could this be the first DRM? It's much more draconian than the 3 activations and buy a new game from EA.
    • by Qzukk (229616) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @09:58AM (#26059293) Journal

      It's much more draconian than the 3 activations and buy a new game from EA.

      And apparently just as ineffective.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by gEvil (beta) (945888)
        And apparently just as ineffective.

        Considering it took 16 years for it to become widely available in its original form, I'm not sure I'd exactly call that ineffective.
        • Re:Could this be.. (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Lisandro (799651) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @10:54AM (#26060027)

          Considering it took 16 years for it to become widely available in its original form, I'm not sure I'd exactly call that ineffective.

          Maybe it's just no one cared too much about it...

        • by WWWWolf (2428)

          Considering it took 16 years for it to become widely available in its original form, I'm not sure I'd exactly call that ineffective.

          But considering the better-than-original no-obnoxious-copy-protection-whatsoever edition was published in no time flat and everyone was happy with it all these years, I would guess that people who want the "original form" are in minority... =)

          As it often happens, life imitates art, huh?

    • by STrinity (723872)
      Somebody obviously never played pirated computer games in the '80s. The "cracker" who had defeated the copy protection on the original software would add a splash screen with his name when he distributed the game. Similarly (although perhaps not strictly digitally), you couldn't just hook two VCRs together and copy a film you rented at Blockbuster onto a blank tape.
      • by awright69 (821812)
        Let me introduce you to the 733T nibble-mode VCR pair I hacked together in the 80s..... Helical scan-signal direct copying! State of the art - copied MV right along with control and audio track information..... 100% source-compatible!

        Wait, it's here in my garage SOMEwhere!

        Ahhh, the heady days of the 80s...

  • by The Ultimate Fartkno (756456) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @09:30AM (#26058969)

    ...it's quite heartbreaking to see a work that intentionally removed itself from your grasp. It's quite the change from people who expect immortality simply for having cameras pointed at them or semi-literate fiction aimed at people who think MTV is the height of culture.

    • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

      by theaveng (1243528)

      Worse it was stored very poorly:

      >>>UC Santa Barbara used forensic computing to restore the code from an original diskette

      This is why you should always print your source code to PAPER for backup. Diskettes lose their magnetism, and CDs fade, but paper can last 3000 years even if buried underground (Dead Sea Scrolls). Retyping everything from the paper is a chore, but still preferable to permanent loss.

      • by Splab (574204) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @09:58AM (#26059289)

        Except the dead sea scrolls is hide from animals, not paper from your printer. Normal printing paper has a very short life span (comparatively).

        • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

          by theaveng (1243528)

          Hmmm. So how long is a paper's lifespan?

          I have Bibles from my family that are over a hundred years old. They are still in very good shape. I wouldn't be surprised if they were still readable at age 1000. Replace "Bible" with "source code" and I could easily imagine someone trying one of my ancient programs in the year 2900..... by which point the original disks would have long been erased.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by xouumalperxe (815707)
            Modern mass produced paper is comparatively low quality and has a much higher acid content than older paper, thus aging much, much worse, to the point where early 20th century books are much worse off than much older ones (I assume modern high-end paper has better durability than that though, and old paper is, by definition, the high-end stuff because that's all there was). Not sure how the printer ink itself ages.
            • Don't forget that the only old books you see are the ones that survived. There are countless others that were destroyed by any number of means.

              I have a few books from the seventies that are as new, and a few pockets that are at most five years old that are yellow and crumbly.

              Quality paper lasts longer than cheap paper. Well, colour me surprised.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by iocat (572367)
            Use an inkjet for those prinouts! -- Ink on paper, good. Toner on paper, not so good -- it loses its grip after just a few dozen years. A lot depends on the paper too. I have pulp magazines and books that I have compared to AGRiPPA simply because as you turn the pages they basically disintigrate.

            As for AGRiPPA itself, I get the point, but it always struck me as Gibson's shark jumping moment. An extremely unegalitarian artwork that only a few people can see in its intended form is certainly the artist's rig

            • by Bryansix (761547)
              Only if the ink doesn't just fade away. Older inkjets were notorious for this. One year of use and the print was basically gone.
              • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

                by theaveng (1243528)

                Those sound like thermal jets. They don't use actual ink, but just apply heat to a thermal-sensitive paper. Lay a hot pizza on that paper and it will turn black!

                A true inkjet "squirts" ink on a page which then absorbs the ink like a sponge. That type of printing will last very long..... perhaps not as long as the old impact printers, but still longer than any of us will survive. I recently found my old 8th grade science notes which were printed over 20 years ago and are still the original white color (e

                • by iocat (572367)
                  Actually some old inks would fade, but these days they are much more permanent. Thermal printers that used thermal paper fade quickly, but thermal printers that used wax-based ribbons last a long time. I too have old fanzines I made 20+ years ago that I made with my Apple Scribe wax/thermal printer that still look perfect. -Chris
          • by Bryansix (761547)
            Family Bibles are printed on PH neutral lignin-free paper and sometimes there is a coating on the edges to keep out dust and chemicals.
          • Replace "Bible" with "source code" and I could easily imagine someone trying one of my ancient programs in the year 2900..... by which point the original disks would have long been erased.

            I hope they use MLX [wikipedia.org] to aid in typing them in, mistake free.

          • Most printer paper these days is essentially throwaway stuff, like much of the rest of our society.

            Archival paper is special. Not only is it acid-free, but it is made with a base reserve of alkaline to resist later exposure to acid in the environment. It also has a different composition, most notably low amounts of lignin (from wood pulp). Basic stuff should last 100 years, good stuff maybe 500 years, the best maybe 1,000.

            I bet your Bible is yellowed and the paper is slightly brittle. I have one like that.

      • by smoker2 (750216) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @10:31AM (#26059701) Homepage Journal
        - 1 Missing the point.

        The whole point of this was to show you it disappearing. End of. No more. Done.

        Putting into a medium designed for longevity would be precisely against the intention of the work. How do you demonstrate the effect of a highly mobile medium on literature if you protect against that effect ? Do you (can you) see DRM in action through the medium of paper ? It is impossible because you can always go back a page - not so with this. This is ice sculpture for the modern age.
        • How dare you preserve something That Must Die!

        • by jvkjvk (102057)

          Well, perhaps not missing the point.

          How do you demonstrate the effect of a highly mobile medium on literature if you protect against that effect ?

          Well, perhaps there is less of an effect to be demonstrated since this clearly rebuts your premise.

          Certainly it may be against the intent of the artist but perhaps the point to be made is that the work is much more resilient than you think.

          Do you (can you) see DRM in action through the medium of paper ? It is impossible because you can always go back a page - not so with this. This is ice sculpture for the modern age.

          Yes, we can do so even with this. period. We now know experientially that the "ice sculpture for the modern age" can be placed in a "modern age refrigerator" and be kept indefinitely, DRM or no.

          The true issue of DRM is the legal ramifi

      • by Gilmoure (18428)

        The Sumerians [ancientscripts.com] had a pretty decent system, as far as longevity goes. I think I'm going to have my autobiography printed up on clay tablets and stored in a salt cave in southern NM. Should get some longevity out of that.

    • So the collector had resisted the temptation to view the poem? I wasn't quite clear about that. I once went to an exhibit which had a parcel (wrapped up) from the 1920's which hadn't been opened due to the death of the person to whom it was intended. The person was famous, although I had never heard of her and don't recall the name. It reminded me of Agrippa. It's not the contents that matter, it's the decision (if you owned the parcel or the disc) of do I open it or not. I, of course wouldn't have been abl
  • Yawn (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Bucc5062 (856482)

    I know this is art, but what's the big deal. So a poem scrolls up a screen and dies. Talk about read once approach to processing.

    Is this a big deal because it got marketed well, it had big names associated with it? I feel like I did when I walked through the Delaware Arts museum, stopped to look at a canvas with colored straight lines and thought...huh? I love art, I love the idea of creativity (which is why I love programming), but Agrippa? it is a 5th grade programming project or a hackers toss off.

    • Re:Yawn (Score:5, Funny)

      by morgan_greywolf (835522) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @09:57AM (#26059285) Homepage Journal

      it is a 5th grade programming project

      So, let me get this straight. You were writing programs that RSA encrypt data embedded within its own executable in the 5th grade?

      Wow. And here I was just writing programs in LOGO that made a turtle move around the screeen. :(

      You were a gifted child, weren't you?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Abcd1234 (188840)

        Actually, interestingly enough, RSA is about as simple a cryptosystem as they come (next to OTP, that is). Really. The complexity is actually in the key generation (and even that is pretty simple once you've got a couple large primes). But once you have them, the actual encryption algorithm is dead simple.

        'course, that's not to say it ain't still an impressive accomplishment. But it's no DES implementation. :)

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Otto (17870)

        RSA encryption: c = m^e mod n.

        It really is something a 5th grader could write. The security is in the selection of e and n (and d, for decryption).

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by HTH NE1 (675604)

          RSA encryption: c = m^e mod n.

          It really is something a 5th grader could write. The security is in the selection of e and n (and d, for decryption).

          Assuming of course you wanted to decrypt it. That doesn't seem to be part of the design in this case.

        • I think I can get it down to 1st grader level:

          include rsa;
          rsa_encrypt(stuffToEncrypt);

        • Man. You guys keep focusing on the simplicity of the alorithm, completely ignoring key generation and the fact that the data is embedded in the executable. That's a lot harder than it sounds.

    • by Kalvos (137750)

      Wait, this poem was 1992? What makes it special?

      When I programmed Rando's Poetic License (premiered at the Washington Project for the Arts in 1978), there was deliberately no storage. The poem was not recoverable at all, and needed not algorithmic protection. That's it? Protection? Rando would scroll poems on the screen and be gone. Each time the program was re-run, a new poem was created -- sometimes a few lines, sometimes dozens or hundreds of lines. The only way to catch it was to run it to the printer,

      • by kv9 (697238)

        Or am I missing some geeky thing that Gibson did?

        problem is you're some old guy from the internet that back in his day walked uphill both ways, while this is Gibson.

        • by Kalvos (137750)
          Sorry. Gibson, though one year older than me, was a bit of a latecomer in a lot of things that other people did much earlier and had grown past by the time he discovered them. But cult fame allows history to be rewritten, doesn't it?
          • by tsm_sf (545316)
            When you get around to defining a cultural point of view let us know, ok?
            • by Kalvos (137750)
              Gibson made his niche. My comment is only about historical fact, in this case Gibson being given credit for something others did first. Being all shivery over Agrippa is cultish, not cultural.
              • by tsm_sf (545316)
                Worrying about who did something first is the trade of the hack critic and the hallmark of the art world poseur.
    • by denzacar (181829)

      I found some CDs with old DOS games that I thought were lost.
      A friend of mine that has been collecting them since the late 80's once burned me a copy. CD Writer it was burned on was a powerful 2X Traxdata SCSI drive.
      And I have kept them safe all these years, but one of them still got lost. Probably borrowed to someone who forgot to return it.
      BUT...

      Since he has recently decided to make another backup on a DVD, he gave me his original CDs. Didn't have the heart to throw them away.
      And what do you know - his co

    • I love art

      Thanks for clarifying that.

      Lookit, I'm no expert on the topic, but as I recall the whole thing from when it debuted in '92, the use of the self-scrolling, self-encrypting gimmick was Gibson's toe-dip into a whole new creative medium.

      The poem was about his mother, memories for whom were very dim, ephemeral even. Gibson selected this new "self-destructing" medium as a metaphor, to facilitate the poetry: Once you had read the poem, you could not go back and re-visit it, you had to rely upon your me

      • by Kalvos (137750)

        RobotRunAmok: as I recall the whole thing from when it debuted in '92, the use of the self-scrolling, self-encrypting gimmick was Gibson's toe-dip into a whole new creative medium.

        If the encryption algorithm was the whole deal, then you may be right. Otherwise, this process of poetic generation went back 20 years or more earlier -- several technology generations, with multiple approaches to the poetic algorithms. I first encountered it on a Teletype-based machine connected via a phoneline from New York to

      • by PitaBred (632671)

        A woman who had never read Shakespeare went to a performance of Hamlet and complained, "I don't know what anybody sees in that play. It's just a bunch of cliches strung together."

  • by krou (1027572) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @09:40AM (#26059083)
    "The 2008 incarnation of the poem consists of custom-built software that, when /. readers try to read the poem, it is encrypted in a weird Web-based algorithm that transforms the text into a message saying 'Error establishing a database connection'.
    • by Sanat (702)

      Obviously, it is a substitution code.

      You read 'Error establishing a database connection'.

      I read 'about the love of life, the lovely woman, and the angst of making a choice'.

    • Its art and can be interpreted in many ways. For example mine is "Network error, connection timed out" ! How exquisite !
      • by Endo13 (1000782)

        Mine reads:

        Connection Interrupted
        The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading.
        The network link was interrupted while negotiating a connection. Please try again.

        Fascinating stuff.

    • by mazarin5 (309432) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @11:40AM (#26060771) Journal

      "The 2008 incarnation of the poem consists of custom-built software that, when /. readers try to read the poem, it is encrypted in a weird Web-based algorithm that transforms the text into a message saying 'Error establishing a database connection'.

      Sorry, that was my fault. I was the first one to visit the website, and it consequently encrypted itself. I should have mirrored it.

    • With the added feature that the text will never get transformed because none of us RTFA
    • lol... i was going to mod you 'funny' but then found your statement to be true at 10:57 EST


      Network Timeout

      The server at agrippa.english.ucsb.edu is taking too long to respond.
    • Slow down, Poet Laureate! It has been 8 minutes since you last read a poem!
  • Que? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mrpacmanjel (38218) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @09:49AM (#26059187)

    I have to say the book is beautifully put together - a real work of art.

    But I have read the poem (a copy of it is on Gibson's website) isn't it a bit pretentious?

    However as a piece of art it is an interesting idea (minus the poem).

    • by k_187 (61692)
      it really is an interesting idea, particularly in today's age of "your data is around forever, whether you want it to be or not", current developments not withstanding. I always thought this was fascinating, for that reason. There's a certain amount of permanency to computers. They've been in use for all of my lifetime, and its hard to envision a time before they were ubiquitous (for me at least). I think this poem is really designed to show how ethereal bits can (and possibly should) be.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Magada (741361)

        Old enough to get it, are you? Hrm. haven't gone far enough in your thinking though. The text is not destroyed after reading. It is encrypted. It's the digital equivalent of locking something away and then throwing the key into the sea.

        It was probably Gibson's way of saying he's trying to forget whatever made him make Agrippa in the first place. I also think he did it knowing full well that the text will be recovered. Dunno what this means in the context of the work (it's not a poem, although it contains a

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          At this point, you're probably pondering if Gibson really gave that much thought to what was essentially a side-project for him. He did. He's careful like that.

          To this day I am still amazed at how prescient he was in Neuromancer. The details -- all wrong, killing each other over a few megs of RAM, the virtual reality helmet, yadda yadda. The real interesting part is the atmosphere, e.g., at one point they go to a site that where people have been scrawling passwords for various high profile computers eve

          • by PitaBred (632671)

            So what you're saying is that even if he doesn't have perfect clairvoyance as far as events are concerned, William Gibson really gets people, better than most people even understand themselves? I'd agree with that.

        • pay attention (Score:5, Insightful)

          by hal9000(jr) (316943) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @10:48AM (#26059959)
          an alternative interpretation is that in a world that Gibson envisioned where data is fleeting and we are deluged with it, there are times when you need to pay attention.

          This poem, for all intents and purposes self destructs after the first reading. Therefore, you should pay attention the first time--you won't get another chance.

          That was, I think, the intent. Whether he could have written a program that would have enforced that intent better is beside the point (apparently it was "broken"). For the average reader, you'd get one shot.

          It's still a compelling thought.
          • +1 on actually getting it. This is exactly what he was attempting to convey, the ephemeral existence we all share. I think he acknowledged that folks with the griefer-gene would recover it, but he wasn't targeting them anyway, was he?

            -BA

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Fnord666 (889225)
            Interesting iinterpretation, but it is contradicted by William Gibson's own blog post [williamgibsonbooks.com] about Agrippa. In that post Gibson says:

            Ashbaugh's design eventually included a supposedly self-devouring floppy-disk intended to display the text only once, then eat itself. Today, there seems to be some doubt as to whether any of these curious objects were ever actually constructed. I certainly don't have one myself.

            From this I would have to conclude that Gibson wasn't involved in the whole "one chance" aspect of the w

        • by metlin (258108)

          And I had the chance to meet him when I was in grad school, and he said that Agrippa was a dedication to his father (Gibson lost his parents at a fairly young age).

    • by Hatta (162192)

      But I have read the poem (a copy of it is on Gibson's website) isn't it a bit pretentious?

      It *is* a poem, so yes.

  • Good art (Score:5, Interesting)

    by smoker2 (750216) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @10:13AM (#26059467) Homepage Journal
    Good art requires the viewer to think. What is more indicative of the state of social consumerism and the temporary nature of anything, than a document that allows precisely one viewing then removes itself from the page. Not to mention the indirect commentary on the transitory nature of language as a communication mechanism. It doesn't matter what the theme of the poem was, the art was the action of allowing one reading then visibly degrading the communication to the point where it was no longer communicating anything other than loss. What is poetic about a sunset ? The scientific fact that the sun is merely being hidden by the rotation of the earth ? Or the mental notion of the day coming to an end, time passing, out with the old, everything dies, sadness, hope etc. ?

    I would see Gibsons work as deliberately demonstrating the sadness of work being published, read, then being removed from view and denying future readings. Very nice work considering the date it was first published, and our current problems with DRM and copyright.
    • As a poet, I find the idea interesting...I have debated a similar idea for a while (this is the first I have heard of this particular poem or idea). It really makes one think about what makes art. For example, if I read a poem while blaring an air horn so you can't hear it, then destroy the paper so it can't be reread, would that still be art? Does art inherently exist or must it be witnessed and understood to be art? My only beef with reproducing the piece without the "DRM" is that it defeats the uniquen
      • strange, why do poets like steel, is it a hark to ozzymandis?
        • Well, the pen is supposedly mightier than the sword. At least until you get run through. Although my login is a reference to Harry Harrison. Since I forgot my password and login for the last 2 I setup...should have posted more often.
          • hence stainlesssteelpat as opposed to the rodent variety that is my family nickname. you're the first i've met. Nice to meet a kindred spirit.
      • Re:Good art (Score:4, Insightful)

        by fracai (796392) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @11:55AM (#26061029)

        I think the real trick is to display a work of art, while concealing said art, while also not allowing the act of concealing to turn into art itself. It seems to me that many would consider the "performance" of concealing the poem a work of art in itself.

        I also have a hard time stating that "bad art" is "not art".
        And I struggle over whether "not art" can be "accidental art".

        • Very good point, that could be why I haven't gone through with it...I dislike guerilla perfomance, where the performance becomes more of a point than the art. The idea would be akin to: if a tree falls in the forest and you aren't there does it make a noise...if a poem goes off in a crowd, and no one pays attention, is is still a poem? Bad art is still art...but it still sucks. Anything that makes one think beyond just the physical presentation (words, colors, sounds, etc.) should be art...but that is als
    • Buhddist sand art (Score:4, Interesting)

      by dazedNconfuzed (154242) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @11:48AM (#26060891)

      That's a major factor in Buhddist/Nepalese sand art (proper name escapes me): a great deal of effort goes into making an intricate work of art, only to have it brushed away a few days later.

      From the Japanese samurai classic text Hagakure: "In the Kamigata area, they have a sort of tiered lunchbox they use for a single day when flower viewing. Upon returning, they throw them away, trampling them underfoot. The end is important in all things."

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Omestes (471991)

      Though creating something and destroying is rather a cliche. How many artists have painted a picture, then dowsed it in gasoline and destroyed it forever immediately after? Or, like Duchamp, made intentionally made installations of materials that decay to add the aspect of time and temporariness to them.

      This isn't to rain on anyones parade, or say the idea isn't valid. Being that it is a common theme among modern arts, it surely represents something in society, some important concept.

      I was tempted to wri

    • by Alomex (148003)

      Good art requires the viewer to think.

      I call BS. Michelangelo's David does not require you to think.

      Thinking as part of art is a XX century affectation. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a piece of art that makes you go hmmm, but it should not in anyway be a requirement.

      What is worse, there is a lot of really bad modern art out there that tries to cover this fact by making you think a lot. A good piece of art moves you aesthetically. Some pieces of art have no underlying message beyond that, others d

  • by benwiggy (1262536) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @11:34AM (#26060707)
    This is only news if your opponent has studied his Agrippa.... which I have.
  • I don't understand why there are so many bigoted articles on this web site. You guys are a bunch of racist. Why the hell are you all throwing around racist slurs like "black holes?" Good grief. Why can't we simply refer to them as "luminescence-challenged singularities" or something else which isn't so racist? You've offended my hyper-sensitive politically-correct psyche!

    Now excuse me while I go emo and sulk for a bit.

  • I remember working on this for a bit. One reason it was a bit more difficult than normal to crack open is we replaced all the appropriate 68k exception vectors with RTEs, so you couldn't hop into Macsbug or do an NMI and disassemble anything.

    Once multifinder came out that method died, because the exception vectors were on a per-process basis. You could just break into another app and dump the RAM.

    I vaguely remember that it was a fun and interesting idea back in the day. Plus, it was william gibson, and his

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