TAP: The Legend is Dead

by Cheshire Catalyst

There are lots of ways I can start this article.  But mostly I'm sad that I have to write it like this - as an explanation as to why I let TAP die.

TAP was founded as YIPL, the Youth International Party Line.  There were two facets of this name.  The Youth International Party, or YIPpies, was a loose group of anarchists founded by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who later went on to become defendants in a trial in Chicago (called "Czechago" by those in the know at the time, just as the country was called "Amerika").  And there was the pun on the telephone form "Party Line."

As this is meant to be a historical account, I'll even define Party Line, since it is pretty rare, even today.  It is where the Telephone Company (Telco) strings a line to the farthest party on the network, and everyone in-between them and the central office is connected to it, like extension phones.  By using "selective ringing" you know when a phone call was meant for you.  It was common for people to listen to their neighbors' conversations, and thereby share the information.  YIPL was to be such a sharing of information among members of the "party."

The Yippies realized that revolutions don't travel on their stomachs anymore, they don't even travel (if they can help it).  After all, traveling costs money (dirty rotten capitalist money, of course).  While there were methods for avoiding payment for travel (see Abbie's book Steal This Book for techniques), telecommunication was where it was at.  With telephones, you could keep in touch with the revolution from the comfort of you Bleeker Street digs.  And as the sixties ended, so did the monopoly of Pa Bell, The Phone Company.

In 1969, the Carterfone decision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) declared that people could hook up their own "devices" to the phone network.  Yet before all this, there had been experiments playing with The Bell System.  These people called themselves Phone Phreaks, and had their own little underground deep in the heart of Bell's own network.

In 1971 (legend states on May Day no less), Abbie Hoffman got together with a phone phreak who called himself "Al Bell."  They got the idea of a newsletter so that members of the technological underground could have their own "journal" to share information in, just as the Bell System publishes information for its own engineers.

The newsletter went along in a pretty random for about two years, and contained some rather anarcho-techno stuff.  Basically how to mess up The System, picking locks, making pipe bombs, and other radical stuff.

So one day in 1974, Al Bell said to himself, "What's all this political shit doing in what should have been a technical newsletter?"  A good question, he thought, and promptly left the fold of the Yippies, changed the name of the newsletter to TAP, and set up shop in a cheap, rundown office building on Broadway.

When Al Bell first "wrenched" the newsletter away from the Yippies, he called it the Technological American Party.  It was called that for a while, and then the name changed to Technological Assistance Program (so as to keep the acronym).  When I asked Tom why the name was changed, he said that they had difficulty opening a bank account with "party" in their name, without being a bona fide political party.

This rundown office is where I found the newsletter when I walked into the office in 1977.  Where was I before 1977?  Well, I grew up in Western New York State.  I later moved to Boston, and after a year in Beantown, moved down to The Big Apple.  I had been a subscriber while living Upstate.  I filed by change of address to my new Boston P.O. Box when I moved to there.  I resubscribed when I moved to New York City, but I never got around to "dropping by on a Wednesday evening" for about a year.

When I did, I found that Al Bell was no longer affiliated with the newsletter, and that "Tom Edison" had taken over the publication.  What a rundown hovel.  But what fun!

If you got the newsletter in those days, it gave you the address of "The Mail Drop," a place where no one lived, but where the disruptable could collect their mail.  It also said that if you wanted to help fold issues, stuff and lick envelopes, and all the other assorted jobs associated with putting out a newsletter, just come by to the office any Wednesday.  So, one Wednesday, I did.

What I found when I finally showed up was an ancient, smelly copier that made copies on expensive flimsy paper (the kind that libraries always have for 25 cents a copy) that constantly broke down (just like the ones in libraries), a drafting table for layout out the issues, an old wooden desk full of "Distructory Assistance" information and unanswered mail, and a pile of articles waiting to be laid out.

There was also a motley assortment of people there, like Number 6 (name for the protagonist in Patrick McGooham's 1960s TV series The Prisoner), Computer Wizard, Dave Bowman (named for the computer defying astronaut in the movie 2001), and Mr. Phelps (named for the leader in the TV show Mission Impossible), and me, Cheshire Catalyst.  Others dropped in from time-to-time, but these made up "The Regulars."

Then there were the authors who wrote articles for the newsletter.  People like Alexander Mundy (named for the lead in the TV show It Takes a Thief) who wrote about locks, and Agent MDA who wrote about fabricating drugs in the privacy of your own home laboratory.  Authors didn't come by the TAP offices much.  After all, TAP just published the stuff.  Heaven forbid anyone should actually do any of the despicable acts written about.  Those acts were probably illegal, immoral, or at the very least, fattening.

TAP had a checklist of things to make sure were published in every issue.  Things like the mailing address, the postage indicia, and those infamous words "Published for Informational Purposes Only."

TAP had a real "bad boy" attitude, which was one reason it was such fun to read.  It was mischievous.  Tom said he once got a letter from some little old lady in the Midwest renewing her subscription saying, "I'd never do any of the things you print, but it's so good to know that someone is out there getting back at the phone company."

Let's face it.  Telco was "The Company You Love To Hate."  In the classic motion picture The President's Analyst starring James Colburn, there was an organization out to control the world called TPC, which turned out to be The Phone Company.  I still make out my check for phone service to The Phone Company.  They never bitch about it, and the computers at the bank don't care either.

So what did I do at TAP?  I wrote a few articles especially in the days when the TWX teletype network was "hackable" from the telephone network.  I made my reputation on the fact that I could reach any Telex machine in the world from by home computer terminal.  Not completely for free, mind you.  I did pay Telco my one message unit for the phone call.  But I mostly became TAP's press agent.

I like playing with "The Publicity Machine."  It helps to have a computer to keep the mailing list on.  That computer can also word process the press release and the all-important cover letter.  Tom Edison didn't like the press.  TAP mostly got new subscribers by word of mouth.  A subscriber showed it to his friends, and they'd maybe subscribe.  Underground newspapers mentioned us occasionally.  And of course, there was the annual race.

Every year, in January, phone companies around the country would send their customers their new credit card (now called "Calling Card") for the year.  There were methods for devising your own credit card number that would be acceptable to the telephone operator, but would be unbillable.  Since the billing cycle was much later in the month, this left the Telco holding the bag, and if the called party knew enough to "play dumb" when Telco's flacks called asking who made the call, everything would be alright.  Of course, these calls were always made from payphones, since the calling number was on the toll records.

The Yippies were still around, and still understood that telecommunications was the key to the revolution, but they'd realized that the only technology they needed to make their "Freedom Fonecalls" was this credit card information.  So each year there would be a race to see who compiled the complete code first.  It was a matter of honor to tell the other guy what the code was, because the first guy to get it would have to be credited in the other guy's publication.  The Yippies had always put out their irregularly published tabloid Yipster Times which later changed its name to Overthrow.  There were years when we got it to them first, but they'd get it in print first.

TAP was published bi-monthly, but it was mailed out with two issues in the envelope to save postage, one of the biggest expenses of the newsletter.  This meant that three times a year, you'd get two newsletters, each printed on an 11" by 12" sheet of paper, folded into four 8-1/2" by 11" pages.  Bulk mail subscribers got one issue folded up inside the other one, and the back of the second issue had space at the bottom of the last page for the postage indicia, the return address, and the mailing label.

Al Bell used to run off the mailing address at a college he used to go to that had an "open" computer center.  For years after he dropped out, he'd drop back and do the label run.  After he left TAP, getting labels from him was getting to be a progressively "iffy" situation.  Tom Edison took out a loan, and bought a Sol-20 personal computer, and learned to use the WordStar and MailMerge programs for keeping TAP's mailing list.  Since there were never more than 1200 names on the list at any one time, it was manageable on the Sol-20's 8-inch floppy disks.

TAP's mailing list was never loaned out to other movement groups.  Ours was a paranoid bunch of people.  We were writing articles about bugs and taps on telephones, and in people's lives.  We knew better than anyone what "the wrong people" could do with a list of people who knew how to take technology into their own hands.

Occasionally there would be a letter from some local newsperson in Oshkosh or somewhere, asking to be put in touch with TAP subscribers in their area.  Tom would get in touch with them (usually calling collect), and tell them to send 25 copies of the letter in 25 stamped, unsealed envelopes.  He'd enclose his own note saying that he'd mailed the letter, and it was up to the individual subscriber to get in touch with the newshound, if they wanted to.

I got such a letter when I was living Upstate so I was familiar with the routine.  I actually got in touch with the guy from the local "underground" newspaper in my town, and showed him back copies of TAP, and explained some of the jargon to him.  This was the start of my education in "playing the publicity machine."  From this I learned to have short, quick quotes that are tight, concise, and get the point across.  A good quote that has the right "ring" to it has a better chance of getting your point of view past the reporter's editor (the guy who finally decides whether your quote gets printed), than any long-winded "educational" rhetoric that you might spout off with.

In 1983, I was working for a "Large Manhattan Bank" in midtown, and I heard from an editor at Technology Illustrated magazine.  They featured a largely unknown person in the scientific and/or technical community, and would I like to be interviewed for an article?  "Sure, why not."  Little did I know how well their marketing had been.  Even though the photographer had photographed my face in shadows, or behind rays of light, on with my features blurred by motion, anyone who knew me well could have picked me off.

A number of people in the bank recognized me, since I was a technical troubleshooter for the data communications department.  The word was getting around.  There wa a "hacker" working for the bank.  Since the movie WarGames had come out, the term had been given connotations of "evil intentions" by the press, and there was little I could do to stop the tide.  No one would listen to my boss who was trying to explain to anyone who would listen of the various security holes that I had pointed out to him for fixing.  Within a week, I was fired.

My landlord hassles had started up a few months before.  Now I had an excuse for not paying the rent, I didn't have the money to pay.  I could even go into TV interviews without "shadow masking," since there was no more job to protect.  I was getting by on unemployment checks, and not much else.

In August of 1983 I got a phone call from Tom Edison.  "My house just got broken into and firebombed.  Get this TAP stuff out of here by Friday, or it all goes into the dumpster."

Tom had been spending a bright summer's day riding roller coasters, which are pretty numerous in the New York area (if you know where to look and you have a car).  He got home to find fire trucks and police cars.  The cops said it was a real professional break-in.  They took the Sol-20 computer, all the disks, the printer, the disk drives, and other assorted computer gear.  The fire marshal said it was a real amateur arson.

The blackguards had poured some flammable liquid (gasoline more likely), lit it, and run.  But they didn't open the windows to let it get air, so the fire upstairs died out quickly when the available air was used up.  In the living room downstairs, however, the heat was intense enough to cause the picture window to shatter, feeding the fire in that part of the house.  Neighbors called the fire department.

Tom's insurance was supposed to take care of the damage, but the insurance adjuster was coming that Friday, and Tom wanted to have the stuff out of his house by then.  So my roommate, also an unemployed ex-hippy, helped me schlep what was left of TAP from Tom's basement (untouched in all the brouhaha).

This included boxes full of back issues, the damn copier that still didn't work (we put it in the dumpster), the exhibits of the 1972 Phone Phreak Convention that included a working Red box that "sounds" to the central office like the electronic tones generated by modern payphones when money is dropped in, and the Distructory Assistance files.  DA was service that Tom ran.  If you sent some neat information, and mentioned what kind of stuff you wanted in return, he'd run off copies on the ancient, decrepit copier, and pop it in the mail to you.

My roommate, J.P. McClimans, worked with me to get the next few issues of TAP out, and in the mail.  It was a bitch.  Everything took longer than expected, and there were few people we could call on to help when we finally got around to things.

Then came my own eviction.  I rented a storage locker in Flatbush, and what I couldn't get into it, went (can't you guess?) into the Dumpster.  All those precious back issues.  What a pain.

Since the eviction, I haven't had the resources, or the time, since I still have yet to find real "gainful" employment.  I've been surviving lately by selling articles on data communications to a New York-based magazine, and I teach every few months at a local college (datacom of course).  I also occasionally find a few microcomputer (read "IBM-PC," since that's the only market around) consulting clients.

Lately, though, there have been people who wanted to take over TAP.  One group I'd even have liked to help, since they seemed to understand what TAP was about.  Now, I'm not so sure.  The kids that are getting into TAP these days aren't realizing that unless they watch their step, they could get into very serious trouble.  And of course, "It can't happen to me..."

I recently attended a communications security conference in Washington, D.C. where a number of exhibitors were former subscribers to TAP, and in fact, had gotten into the business because they had so much fun as kids with tapping and bugging gear, that they had to get into the business to legitimize their interest.

In fact, this is why I don't feel there is as heavy a need to publish TAP, or TAP-like things anymore.  The readers who need TAP and others like it are in the corporate arena, wondering what those kids are up to now.  The kids have the electronic Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes).  Today, any 12-year-old with a Commodore 64 thinks he's the best system cracker to hit the scene since WarGames came out.

I'll admit that computerized "publishing" of information may not yet have the First Amendment protection that print media seems to enjoy.  And if these kids keep trying to get into the computers of government installations, they shouldn't be surprised that some Fed takes it into his head to "take out the threat."  Remember, he's expecting Ivan and his cronies to be at the other end of the modem.

I realized a long time ago that if the Soviets ever came over Lake Erie, people like me who knew how to manipulate the communications network on behalf of otherwise unorganized freedom loving rabble would not be looked kindly upon.  That government certainly isn't my friend.  My own government seems to emulate them a lot in its paranoia, but as the old 1960s adage states, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."  Even in grade school, when I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, when it got to "And to the republic, for which it stands," I would think to myself "not what it's become."

As a result, I looked at TAP as being the "Boy Scout Manual" for the days when a "technological underground" might be needed.  For this reason, I'm sorry that TAP couldn't go on longer.  But the kids don't realize how much power those C-64s and Apples represent, and therefore, how much responsibility they should carry.

When you top to think about how much computers can do, and how people believe a computer printout, whether it displays facts of fiction, the power to destroy people's lives is also available.  The case of the Newsweek reporter harassed by some TRW crackers who made his life miserable is a case in point.

I spite of what I said earlier, I look forward to reading publications like 2600 and Processed World (which calls itself "the magazine with the bad attitude", 55 Sutter St. San Francisco, CA).  They point out what had been done with computers, and point out that life should not be made miserable now that the technology no longer belongs only to the corporations, but that computers and communications can make better lives for those who apply the technology for themselves, and for others (sorry for getting the schmaltz all over your shirt, it will wash right out).

So that's the basic story.  There's some stuff I've left out, and some things we'll never know.  Tom Edison still had a job to protect, so we couldn't ask for a full investigation of those we'd liked to have had checked out.  At least not without more coming out than would have been healthy for him and his job.  I haven't seen him since the day I drove the U-Haul out of his driveway.  I hope he's doing O.K.  J.P. moved to the West Coast after the eviction, where he's doing fine.  And if anyone needs a microcomputer support person with a datacomm background, just give me a call, and my resume will be sent to your nearest BBS.

Keep smiling.

There is no doubt that TAP is dead.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story that has just been related.

Old TAP is as dead as a doornail.

In fact, since 1983 it's been pretty obvious that TAP's future was in serious question.  But it wasn't until July of 1986 that their maildrop was closed.  Up until then, by his own admission, the cash that unwitting subscribers sent went right into Richard Cheshire's pocket.  TAP has certainly left us all with a rather bad taste in our mouths.

There have been many claims and rumors with regards to starting a new TAP.  Since we began publishing in 1984, we've heard at least two dozen such reports, not one of which has come anywhere close to fruition.  And we think that's fortunate - TAP should be allowed to rest in peace without others attempting to cash in on their name.  Actually, anyone who tried to do that would probably face more a hassle from all of the outraged customers who were short-changed by TAP.

So consider this the end.  We'll always remember TAP.  We'll always be passing back issues back-and-forth among ourselves.  And some of us will even go to the weekly meetings still known as TAP meetings held in New York City.  But there'll never be, nor should there be, another TAP magazine.

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