Tag Archives: Novell

Power Plant Networks to Condor Passwords

It had been established early on at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was generally a troublemaker.  All three of the Plant Managers that managed the plant during my tenure can attest to that.  One Plant Manager, Ron Kilman, who reads this blog has been learning over the last couple of years, just what troublemaker I really was, as he reads these posts (oh.  He knew I caused trouble when he was there, but not everything).

I was the “computer guy” at the plant.  Though I was an electrician, the IT Support Department in Oklahoma City, 75 miles away deferred daily computer issues to me.  The IT Networking Department had me run all their networking cables all over the plant, as I have mentioned before.  Anywhere someone wanted a computer installed, I was the only person at the plant that would be assigned the task.

Even though I usually tell you stories about great Power Plant Men and their outstanding achievements, today, I must confess will be solely about myself.  It will illustrate why I never could categorize myself as a “True Power Plant Man” like all the Heroes of Power Plant Fame.  Even though there are countless ways I can demonstrate this, I will focus on the Plant Computer network and the role I played.

I was pretty much a self-study when it came to computer networks.  A few trips to Hastings Bookstore, and I had enough Networking books to be dangerous.  Though I never took a test to be certified, I read the Novell Netware 4 CNA (Certified Netware Administrator) manuals.

Novell's Netware 4 Administrator Guide

Novell’s Netware 4 Administrator Guide

I also read books about different ways people hack into networks, such as the book, “Hacking Exposed”.

 

A good book to read in the bathroom

A good book to read in the bathroom

After pulling the 100 pair telephone cable from the back of the main switchgear to the coal yard by myself for the most part, and crawling through the ceilings in the office area stringing network cable through the rafters and punched down all the wires connecting them to the switches in the telephone room, I sort of felt like I owned the computer network at our plant.

After the server rack was installed, and the Novell Netware was up and running, then suddenly, I realized that the networking people downtown didn’t want some electrician poking his nose into their network.  This was different than the mainframe.  When we just had the mainframe, I had free reign to reek as much havoc on the system as I wanted…. Of course…. I never wanted to do that, it just happened sometimes.  I chocked those times up as learning experiences.

The networking people downtown in Corporate Headquarters at that time had one major weakness….  They couldn’t administer the network remotely (this was 1995 and Windows servers were something new).  So, when something needed to be done on the server at our plant, they had two choices.

They could get in a car (or truck) and drive 75 miles to our plant, then spend 10 minutes working on the network at our plant, then drive 75 miles back to Oklahoma City during going home traffic.  Or, they could call me and have me connect them to the server using a modem and PC Anywhere (A software that allowed a person to remote into a computer and take control of it).  Then from a computer on our network, they could log into the computer and access the server.

 

PC Anywhere software

PC Anywhere software

Needless to say, about once each week, I would go up to the engineer’s office to a computer that they would dial into. The computer had PC Anywhere installed and I would start up it up and grant them access to take control.  While they were doing this, I would be talking to them on the phone.  I could watch everything they were doing.

I could see the username they were using to log in, but like today, I couldn’t see the password they were using as it just came across as asterisks.  I really wanted to be able to access the network myself.  I thought it would help advance my knowledge so that when I did take the Netware CNA tests, I would have some hands on experience.  I really wanted to become a Network Administrator.  I guess I was sort of a Network Administrator Groupie at the time.  I looked up to Network Administrators like they were guru’s with special knowledge.

I talked to the networking people in Oklahoma City to see if a lowly electrician like me could have some kind of limited network administrator account on the network so that I could learn about networking.  I told them I was studying to become a System Administrator.  They looked into it, but never came back with anything.

I had read about how hackers would capture passwords by capturing keystrokes from the keyboard.   I had done something like this, only the other way around when I was writing little DOS prank programs that changed the values on the keyboards so that when you pressed an “A” it would come out as a “B” instead.  I had one that would turn your caps lock on and leave the cap lock light off.  I would have it on a timer, so that it could randomly make you type everything in CAPS in the middle of your sentence.  You know… just fun little things like that.  I suppose today, these would be categorized as viruses, if I had made them so that they would propagate across the network.

I knew how to manipulate the keyboard using things called “Interrupts”.  So, I just reversed that process and using Debug, I was able to create a small assembly language program that would capture all the keystrokes from the keyboard and log them to a file.  I had learned Assembly Language from Peter Norton, the same guy who later created Norton’s Utilities and Norton’s Anti-virus.  Here is my book:

 

Peter Norton's Assembly Language Book (1986)

Peter Norton’s Assembly Language Book (1986)

So, one day when the network guy from Oklahoma City dialed into the modem I tested the program to see if it would capture keystrokes even though they weren’t coming directly from the keyboard, but from PC Anywhere.  To my surprise, when he had finished doing his task, and had logged off, I opened up the log file, and sure enough, all the keystrokes were logged.  I could plainly see where he logged onto the server by typing in his username and password.

The password reminded me of a friend of mine from High School, because his e-mail address was Condor… something…. The password was: condor.  So, I quickly logged into the server using the username and password and created a new Network Administrator account called something like:  “Admin_sa”  I gave it “God” access.  So, after that I could log into the network and look around to see how the system was configured.

I know this was underhanded, and today would be highly illegal, but back then, all this network stuff was new and I was learning this along with the rest of the IT department downtown.  The only difference was that I was an Electrician at a Power Plant many miles away.  I only used that new Administrator account a few times to look at configuration settings as I read through the Netware books.  I never changed any settings or did anything devious…. at least not when we were on the Novell Netware Network.  I think the thrill of capturing a password and setting up my own account was enough.

My philosophy changed later when we moved to a Windows NT Network.  That had so many holes in security that it deserved to be played with.  It wasn’t too long later that the Netware Network was replaced, which made all my studying for the Netware Administrator useless.  I couldn’t understand at the time why we would want to move away from such a secure network to one that had such a bad design that it left itself wide open to hackers (even today, 20 years later Microsoft still has to patch their servers every month!).

I could quickly write a Word document that would reformat your hard drive just by opening it up.  In fact, Charles Foster one time asked me if I could come up with a way to install AOL on his aunt’s computer in California (or some such place), who knows nothing about computers.  So, I created a Word document (since she did have Word on her computer already. and added a macro to it, that installed AOL and other software, and all she had to do was double click on the Word document icon.  By the time it opened up to where she could read it, it had installed all the software she needed.

Once we were on the Windows network, the attitude of the IT network people changed.  They were more flexible.  They could maintain the network from downtown, so they only called me when they needed someone to log directly into the front of the server, which I did for them whenever they needed it.  They began to feel more comfortable with me over time, and the support people downtown sort of granted me all the access I needed at the plant.

I think the reason I finally gained the trust of the IT Support team was because I would listen to their personal problems.  This was something I had learned as a kid.  I used to go around the neighborhood and make friends with all the dogs.  That way, when we were playing hide and seek in the middle of the night, I could creep around behind houses, and the dogs wouldn’t bark at me.  They would come up to me wagging their tails.  It gave me a great advantage.  So, by letting the IT Support people tell me about their personal problems, they would trust me.  And then when I asked them for favors, they were happy to help out.

At that point (when we were on the Windows Network), I could sit in the Electric Shop and access every computer in the plant.  For a few things, I had to actually visit a computer, but for a lot of things, I could just access the computer remotely.  I have a few stories that I will tell this year that will give you some insight into how I used this power to better mankind…. well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it.

Later on, when I went to work for Dell in 2001, I put away all my “trouble causing” hacking stuff and decided that now that I am working in IT, I should join the Good Side of the Force.  That didn’t mean that I didn’t do some fun stuff.  Actually, some of the really good hacking stuff I had learned at the plant became very useful when I was in IT and could create applications on my own using the knowledge I had gained.

There was one time at Dell that I had to hack into database files that had crashed in order to extract the data.  I would never have had the confidence to even try that if I hadn’t first learned programming from the ground up at the Power Plant.

I think it was Leslie Hale, a consulting manager from Concur (an expense reporting application) ask me at a Concur conference in 2010 how I hacked all of our credit card account numbers from their database when they were encrypted.  He said his team had been trying to figure out how I could have done that so quickly.  They normally charged $30,000 to migrate the credit card account numbers from their on-premise system to their hosted application.  Of course, they have the encryption keys.  I told them, I could do it myself by tomorrow and save the $30,000.  They didn’t believe me, until the next day I uploaded a file to them with all the employees and account numbers.  Dell was happy they didn’t have to pay the $30,000 for something that should have been part of the migration costs already.

I know I often caused our plant supervisor’s a few mild stomach ulcers.  I think they just kept me around because either they felt sorry for me, or they thought that some day I might actually come to something.  I finally left the plant in 2001 to pursue a life in IT at Dell.  The journey to that end is another story, to be told later.  Without all the support I received at the Electric Company, I never would have been able to make that change in my life.  It all began one day when the Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson told me in 1988 that he wanted me to learn all I could about computers.  I guess, that was the moment when I began “expanding my bubble.”

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you.  In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant.  It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit.  Others found it funny.  Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed.  One person was totally surprised by the response (me).

January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day.  Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question.  He said something like, “Kevin.  Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?”  I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.

Alan Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves.  So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer.  When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”.  The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday.  He is 48 years old today.  Please wish him a Happy Birthday.  The Birthday Phantom.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!”  and the body of the email had the happy birthday song,  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday dear Wayne.  Happy Birthday to you.  The Birthday Phantom.

So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin.  Did you do this?”  What could I say?  So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?”  I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.

Alan said, “Well.  I just had to ask.”  I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face.  Something like this:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email.  Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails.  It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost).  Charles Foster was my witness.

What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I think it was Ed Mayberry.  Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important.  I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.

The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”.  As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line.  Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time.  Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail.  I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.”  Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.

I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question.  I could tell he was upset with me.  He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?”  I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day.  So both Charles and I looked confused.

I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private.  Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire.  Which I didn’t.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about.  He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office.  Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.

I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time.  I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails.  Alan accepted my explanation.  Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.

So, fast forward to November 6, 1996.  We were now using Outlook.  That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.

I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day.  I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”

Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person?  Well.  We don’t do anything now.  Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”

After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born.  I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that.  So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.

It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer.  Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.

The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day.  If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.

The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list.  We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things.  If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.

Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day.  If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on.  If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.

There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it.  First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct.  So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.

Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997.  So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff.  This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.

As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been.  Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.

For instance.  A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom.  David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom.  I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?”  David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?”  Well.  I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes.  I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.”  The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah.  right).

Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails.  Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.

Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from.  Jim Cave told me that  Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh!  That’s a Wiley One!”  I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).

I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee.  Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-….  You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.

Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom.  She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety.  Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason.  You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.

After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom.  I told her I would look into it.  I did look into it for about one second.  Linda was turning 40 on Friday.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old.  Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.

Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them.  She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier.  The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.

The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well.  Yeah.  The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day.  Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29.  In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.

Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“).  Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.

The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor.  She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29.  She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it!  Please wish her a Happy Birthday!”  I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom.  They were not able to find it.  The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.

I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program.  Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

Power Plant Networks to Condor Passwords

It had been established early on at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was generally a troublemaker.  All three of the Plant Managers that managed the plant during my tenure can attest to that.  One Plant Manager, Ron Kilman, who reads this blog has been learning over the last couple of years, just what troublemaker I really was, as he reads these posts.

I was the “computer guy” at the plant.  Though I was an electrician, the IT Support Department in Oklahoma City, 75 miles away deferred daily computer issues to me.  The IT Networking Department had me run all their networking cables all over the plant, as I have mentioned before.  Anywhere someone wanted a computer installed, I was the only person at the plant that would be assigned the task.

Even though I usually tell you stories about great Power Plant Men and their outstanding achievements, today, I must confessed will be solely about myself.  It will illustrate why I never could categorize myself as a “True Power Plant Man” like all the Heroes of Power Plant Fame.  Even though there are countless ways I can demonstrate this, I will focus on the Plant Computer network and the role I played.

I was pretty much a self-study when it came to computer networks.  A few trips to Hastings Bookstore, and I had enough Networking books to be dangerous.  Though I never took a test to be certified, I read the Novell Netware 4 CNA (Certified Netware Administrator) manuals.

Novell's Netware 4 Administrator Guide

Novell’s Netware 4 Administrator Guide

I also read books about different ways people hack into networks, such as the book, “Hacking Exposed”.

 

A good book to read in the bathroom

A good book to read in the bathroom

After pulling the 100 pair telephone cable from the back of the main switchgear to the coal yard by myself for the most part, and crawling through the ceilings in the office area stringing network cable through the rafters and punched down all the wires connecting them to the switches in the telephone room, I sort of felt like I owned the computer network at our plant.

After the server rack was installed, and the Novell Netware was up and running, then suddenly, I realized that the networking people downtown didn’t want some electrician poking his nose into their network.  This was different than the mainframe.  When we just had the mainframe, I had free reign to reek as much havoc on the system as I wanted…. Of course…. I never wanted to do that, it just happened sometimes.  I chocked those times up as learning experiences.

The networking people downtown in Corporate Headquarters at that time had one major weakness….  They couldn’t administer the network remotely (this was 1995 and Windows servers were something new).  So, when something needed to be done on the server at our plant, they had two choices.

They could get in a car (or truck) and drive 75 miles to our plant, then spend 10 minutes working on the network at our plant, then drive 75 miles back to Oklahoma City during going home traffic.  Or, they could call me and have me connect them to the server using a modem and PC Anywhere (A software that allowed a person to remote into a computer and take control of it).  Then from a computer on our network, they could log into the computer and access the server.

 

PC Anywhere software

PC Anywhere software

Needless to say, about once each week, I would go up to the engineer’s office to a computer that they would dial into. The computer had PC Anywhere installed and I would start up it up and grant them access to take control.  While they were doing this, I would be talking to them on the phone.  I could watch everything they were doing.

I could see the username they were using to log in, but like today, I couldn’t see the password they were using as it just came across as asterisks.  I really wanted to be able to access the network myself.  I thought it would help advance my knowledge so that when I did take the Netware CNA tests, I would have some hands on experience.  I really wanted to become a Network Administrator.  I guess I was sort of a Network Administrator Groupie at the time.  I looked up to Network Administrators like they were guru’s with special knowledge.

I talked to the networking people in Oklahoma City to see if a lowly electrician like me could have some kind of limited network administrator account on the network so that I could learn about networking.  I told them I was studying to become a System Administrator.  They looked into it, but never came back with anything.

I had read about how hackers would capture passwords by capturing keystrokes from the keyboard.   I had done something like this, only the other way around when I was writing little DOS prank programs that changed the values on the keyboards so that when you pressed an “A” it would come out as a “B” instead.  I had one that would turn your caps lock on and leave the cap lock light off.  I would have it on a timer, so that it could randomly make you type everything in CAPS in the middle of your sentence.  You know… just fun little things like that.  I suppose today, these would be categorized as viruses, if I had made them so that they would propagate across the network.

I knew how to manipulate the keyboard using things called “Interrupts”.  So, I just reversed that process and using Debug, I was able to create a small assembly language program that would capture all the keystrokes from the keyboard and log them to a file.  I had learned Assembly Language from Peter Norton, the same guy who later created Norton’s Utilities and Norton’s Anti-virus.  Here is my book:

 

Peter Norton's Assembly Language Book (1986)

Peter Norton’s Assembly Language Book (1986)

So, one day when the network guy from Oklahoma City dialed into the modem I tested the program to see if it would capture keystrokes even though they weren’t coming directly from the keyboard, but from PC Anywhere.  To my surprise, when he had finished doing his task, and had logged off, I opened up the log file, and sure enough, all the keystrokes were logged.  I could plainly see where he logged onto the server by typing in his username and password.

The password reminded me of a friend of mine from High School, because his e-mail address was Condor… something…. The password was: condor.  So, I quickly logged into the server using the username and password and created a new Network Administrator account called something like:  “Admin_sa”  I gave it “God” access.  So, after that I could log into the network and look around to see how the system was configured.

I know this was underhanded, and today would be highly illegal, but back then, all this network stuff was new and I was learning this along with the rest of the IT department downtown.  The only difference was that I was an Electrician at a Power Plant many miles away.  I only used that new Administrator account a few times to look at configuration settings as I read through the Netware books.  I never changed any settings or did anything devious…. at least not when we were on the Novell Netware Network.  I think the thrill of capturing a password and setting up my own account was enough.

My philosophy changed later when we moved to a Windows NT Network.  That had so many holes in security that it deserved to be played with.  It wasn’t too long later that the Netware Network was replaced, which made all my studying for the Netware Administrator useless.  I couldn’t understand at the time why we would want to move away from such a secure network to one that had such a bad design that it left itself wide open to hackers.

I could quickly write a Word document that would reformat your hard drive just by opening it up.  In fact, Charles Foster one time asked me if I could come up with a way to install AOL on his aunt’s computer in California (or some such place), who knows nothing about computers.  So, I created a Word document (since she did have Word on her computer already. and added a macro to it, that installed AOL and other software, and all she had to do was double click on the Word document icon.  By the time it opened up to where she could read it, it had installed all the software she needed.

Once we were on the Windows network, the attitude of the IT network people changed.  They were more flexible.  They could maintain the network from downtown, so they only called me when they needed someone to log directly into the front of the server, which I did for them whenever they needed it.  They began to feel more comfortable with me over time, and the support people downtown sort of granted me all the access I needed at the plant.

I think the reason I finally gained the trust of the IT Support team was because I would listen to their personal problems.  This was something I had learned as a kid.  I used to go around the neighborhood and make friends with all the dogs.  That way, when we were playing hide and seek in the middle of the night, I could creep around behind houses, and the dogs wouldn’t bark at me.  They would come up to me wagging their tails.  It gave me a great advantage.  So, by letting the IT Support people tell me about their personal problems, they would trust me.  And then when I asked them for favors, they were happy to help out.

At that point (when we were on the Windows Network), I could sit in the Electric Shop and access every computer in the plant.  For a few things, I had to actually visit a computer, but for a lot of things, I could just access the computer remotely.  I have a few stories that I will tell this year that will give you some insight into how I used this power to better mankind…. well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it.

Later on, when I went to work for Dell in 2001, I put away all my “trouble causing” hacking stuff and decided that now that I am working in IT, I should join the Good Side of the Force.  That didn’t mean that I didn’t do some fun stuff.  Actually, some of the really good hacking stuff I had learned at the plant became very useful when I was in IT and could create applications on my own using the knowledge I had gained.

There was one time at Dell that I had to hack into database files that had crashed in order to extract the data.  I would never have had the confidence to even try that if I hadn’t first learned programming from the ground up at the Power Plant.

I think it was Leslie Hale, a consulting manager from Concur (an expense reporting application) ask me at a Concur conference in 2010 how I hacked all of our credit card account numbers from their database when they were encrypted.  He said his team had been trying to figure out how I could have done that so quickly.  They normally charged $30,000 to migrate the credit card account numbers from their on-premise system to their hosted application.  Of course, they have the encryption keys.  I told them, I could do it myself by tomorrow and save the $30,000.  They didn’t believe me, until the next day I uploaded a file to them with all the employee and account numbers.  Dell was happy they didn’t have to pay the $30,000 for something that should have been part of the migration costs already.

I know I often caused our plant supervisor’s a few mild stomach ulcers.  I think they just kept me around because either they felt sorry for me, or they thought that some day I might actually come to something.  I finally left the plant in 2001 to pursue a life in IT at Dell.  The journey to that end is another story, to be told later.  Without all the support I received at the Electric Company, I never would have been able to make that change in my life.  It all began one day when the Electric Supervisor told me in 1988 that he wanted me to learn all I could about computers.  I guess, that was the moment when I began “expanding my bubble.”

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you.  In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant.  It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit.  Others found it funny.  Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed.  One person was totally surprised by the response (me).

January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day.  Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question.  He said something like, “Kevin.  Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?”  I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.

Alan Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves.  So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer.  When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”.  The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday.  He is 48 years old today.  Please wish him a Happy Birthday.  The Birthday Phantom.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!”  and the body of the email had the happy birthday song,  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday dear Wayne.  Happy Birthday to you.  The Birthday Phantom.

So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin.  Did you do this?”  What could I say?  So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?”  I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.

Alan said, “Well.  I just had to ask.”  I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face.  Something like this:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email.  Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails.  It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost).  Charles Foster was my witness.

What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I think it was Ed Mayberry.  Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important.  I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.

The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”.  As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line.  Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time.  Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail.  I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.”  Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.

I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question.  I could tell he was upset with me.  He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?”  I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day.  So both Charles and I looked confused.

I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private.  Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire.  Which I didn’t.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about.  He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office.  Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.

I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time.  I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails.  Alan accepted my explanation.  Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.

So, fast forward to November 6, 1996.  We were now using Outlook.  That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.

I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day.  I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”

Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person?  Well.  We don’t do anything now.  Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”

After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born.  I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that.  So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.

It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer.  Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.

The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day.  If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.

The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list.  We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things.  If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.

Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day.  If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on.  If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.

There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it.  First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct.  So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.

Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997.  So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff.  This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.

As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been.  Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.

For instance.  A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom.  David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom.  I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?”  David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?”  Well.  I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes.  I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.”  The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah.  right).

Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails.  Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.

Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from.  Jim Cave told me that  Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh!  That’s a Wiley One!”  I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).

I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee.  Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-….  You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.

Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom.  She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety.  Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason.  You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.

After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom.  I told her I would look into it.  I did look into it for about one second.  Linda was turning 40 on Friday.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old.  Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.

Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them.  She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier.  The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.

The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well.  Yeah.  The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day.  Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29.  In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.

Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“).  Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.

The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor.  She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29.  She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it!  Please wish her a Happy Birthday!”  I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom.  They were not able to find it.  The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.

I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program.  Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you.  In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant.  It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit.  Others found it funny.  Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed.  One person was totally surprised by the response (me).

January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day.  Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question.  He said something like, “Kevin.  Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?”  I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.

Alan Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves.  So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer.  When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”.  The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday.  He is 48 years old today.  Please wish him a Happy Birthday.  The Birthday Phantom.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!”  and the body of the email had the happy birthday song,  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday dear Wayne.  Happy Birthday to you.  The Birthday Phantom.

So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin.  Did you do this?”  What could I say?  So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?”  I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.

Alan said, “Well.  I just had to ask.”  I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face.  Something like this:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email.  Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails.  It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost).  Charles Foster was my witness.

What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I think it was Ed Mayberry.  Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important.  I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.

The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”.  As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line.  Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time.  Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail.  I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.”  Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.

I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question.  I could tell he was upset with me.  He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?”  I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day.  So both Charles and I looked confused.

I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private.  Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire.  Which I didn’t.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about.  He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office.  Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.

I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time.  I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails.  Alan accepted my explanation.  Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.

So, fast forward to November 6, 1996.  We were now using Outlook.  That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.

I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day.  I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”

Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person?  Well.  We don’t do anything now.  Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”

After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born.  I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that.  So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.

It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer.  Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.

The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day.  If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.

The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list.  We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things.  If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.

Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day.  If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on.  If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.

There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it.  First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct.  So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.

Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997.  So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff.  This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.

As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been.  Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.

For instance.  A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom.  David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom.  I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?”  David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?”  Well.  I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes.  I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.”  The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah.  right).

Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails.  Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.

Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from.  Jim Cave told me that  Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh!  That’s a Wiley One!”  I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).

I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee.  Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-….  You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.

Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom.  She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety.  Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason.  You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.

After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom.  I told her I would look into it.  I did look into it for about one second.  Linda was turning 40 on Friday.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old.  Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.

Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them.  She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier.  The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.

The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well.  Yeah.  The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day.  Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29.  In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.

Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“).  Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.

The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor.  She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29.  She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it!  Please wish her a Happy Birthday!”  I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom.  They were not able to find it.  The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.

I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program.  Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

Power Plant Networks to Condor Passwords

It had been established early on at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was generally a troublemaker.  All three of the Plant Managers that managed the plant during my tenure can attest to that.  One Plant Manager, Ron Kilman, who reads this blog has been learning over the last couple of years, just what troublemaker I really was, as he reads these posts.

I was the “computer guy” at the plant.  Though I was an electrician, the IT Support Department in Oklahoma City, 75 miles away deferred daily computer issues to me.  The IT Networking Department had me run all their networking cables all over the plant, as I have mentioned before.  Anywhere someone wanted a computer installed, I was the only person at the plant that would be assigned the task.

Even though I usually tell you stories about great Power Plant Men and their outstanding achievements, today, I must confessed will be solely about myself.  It will illustrate why I never could categorize myself as a “True Power Plant Man” like all the Heroes of Power Plant Fame.  Even though there are countless ways I can demonstrate this, I will focus on the Plant Computer network and the role I played.

I was pretty much a self-study when it came to computer networks.  A few trips to Hastings Bookstore, and I had enough Networking books to be dangerous.  Though I never took a test to be certified, I read the Novell Netware 4 CNA (Certified Netware Administrator) manuals.

Novell's Netware 4 Administrator Guide

Novell’s Netware 4 Administrator Guide

I also read books about different ways people hack into networks, such as the book, “Hacking Exposed”.

 

A good book to read in the bathroom

A good book to read in the bathroom

After pulling the 100 pair telephone cable from the back of the main switchgear to the coal yard by myself for the most part, and crawling through the ceilings in the office area stringing network cable through the rafters and punched down all the wires connecting them to the switches in the telephone room, I sort of felt like I owned the computer network at our plant.

After the server rack was installed, and the Novell Netware was up and running, then suddenly, I realized that the networking people downtown didn’t want some electrician poking his nose into their network.  This was different than the mainframe.  When we just had the mainframe, I had free reign to reek as much havoc on the system as I wanted…. Of course…. I never wanted to do that, it just happened sometimes.  I chocked those times up as learning experiences.

The networking people downtown in Corporate Headquarters at that time had one major weakness….  They couldn’t administer the network remotely (this was 1995 and Windows servers were something new).  So, when something needed to be done on the server at our plant, they had two choices.

They could get in a car (or truck) and drive 75 miles to our plant, then spend 10 minutes working on the network at our plant, then drive 75 miles back to Oklahoma City during going home traffic.  Or, they could call me and have me connect them to the server using a modem and PC Anywhere (A software that allowed a person to remote into a computer and take control of it).  Then from a computer on our network, they could log into the computer and access the server.

 

PC Anywhere software

PC Anywhere software

Needless to say, about once each week, I would go up to the engineer’s office to a computer that they would dial into. The computer had PC Anywhere installed and I would start up it up and grant them access to take control.  While they were doing this, I would be talking to them on the phone.  I could watch everything they were doing.

I could see the username they were using to log in, but like today, I couldn’t see the password they were using as it just came across as asterisks.  I really wanted to be able to access the network myself.  I thought it would help advance my knowledge so that when I did take the Netware CNA tests, I would have some hands on experience.  I really wanted to become a Network Administrator.  I guess I was sort of a Network Administrator Groupie at the time.  I looked up to Network Administrators like they were guru’s with special knowledge.

I talked to the networking people in Oklahoma City to see if a lowly electrician like me could have some kind of limited network administrator account on the network so that I could learn about networking.  I told them I was studying to become a System Administrator.  They looked into it, but never came back with anything.

I had read about how hackers would capture passwords by capturing keystrokes from the keyboard.   I had done something like this, only the other way around when I was writing little DOS prank programs that changed the values on the keyboards so that when you pressed an “A” it would come out as a “B” instead.  I had one that would turn your caps lock on and leave the cap lock light off.  I would have it on a timer, so that it could randomly make you type everything in CAPS in the middle of your sentence.  You know… just fun little things like that.  I suppose today, these would be categorized as viruses, if I had made them so that they would propagate across the network.

I knew how to manipulate the keyboard using things called “Interrupts”.  So, I just reversed that process and using Debug, I was able to create a small assembly language program that would capture all the keystrokes from the keyboard and log them to a file.  I had learned Assembly Language from Peter Norton, the same guy who later created Norton’s Utilities and Norton’s Anti-virus.  Here is my book:

 

Peter Norton's Assembly Language Book (1986)

Peter Norton’s Assembly Language Book (1986)

So, one day when the network guy from Oklahoma City dialed into the modem I tested the program to see if it would capture keystrokes even though they weren’t coming directly from the keyboard, but from PC Anywhere.  To my surprise, when he had finished doing his task, and had logged off, I opened up the log file, and sure enough, all the keystrokes were logged.  I could plainly see where he logged onto the server by typing in his username and password.

The password reminded me of a friend of mine from High School, because his e-mail address was Condor… something…. The password was: condor.  So, I quickly logged into the server using the username and password and created a new Network Administrator account called something like:  “Admin_sa”  I gave it “God” access.  So, after that I could log into the network and look around to see how the system was configured.

I know this was underhanded, and today would be highly illegal, but back then, all this network stuff was new and I was learning this along with the rest of the IT department downtown.  The only difference was that I was an Electrician at a Power Plant many miles away.  I only used that new Administrator account a few times to look at configuration settings as I read through the Netware books.  I never changed any settings or did anything devious…. at least not when we were on the Novell Netware Network.  I think the thrill of capturing a password and setting up my own account was enough.

My philosophy changed later when we moved to a Windows NT Network.  That had so many holes in security that it deserved to be played with.  It wasn’t too long later that the Netware Network was replaced, which made all my studying for the Netware Administrator useless.  I couldn’t understand at the time why we would want to move away from such a secure network to one that had such a bad design that it left itself wide open to hackers.

I could quickly write a Word document that would reformat your hard drive just by opening it up.  In fact, Charles Foster one time asked me if I could come up with a way to install AOL on his aunt’s computer in California (or some such place), who knows nothing about computers.  So, I created a Word document (since she did have Word on her computer already. and added a macro to it, that installed AOL and other software, and all she had to do was double click on the Word document icon.  By the time it opened up to where she could read it, it had installed all the software she needed.

Once we were on the Windows network, the attitude of the IT network people changed.  They were more flexible.  They could maintain the network from downtown, so they only called me when they needed someone to log directly into the front of the server, which I did for them whenever they needed it.  They began to feel more comfortable with me over time, and the support people downtown sort of granted me all the access I needed at the plant.

I think the reason I finally gained the trust of the IT Support team was because I would listen to their personal problems.  This was something I had learned as a kid.  I used to go around the neighborhood and make friends with all the dogs.  That way, when we were playing hide and seek in the middle of the night, I could creep around behind houses, and the dogs wouldn’t bark at me.  They would come up to me wagging their tails.  It gave me a great advantage.  So, by letting the IT Support people tell me about their personal problems, they would trust me.  And then when I asked them for favors, they were happy to help out.

At that point (when we were on the Windows Network), I could sit in the Electric Shop and access every computer in the plant.  For a few things, I had to actually visit a computer, but for a lot of things, I could just access the computer remotely.  I have a few stories that I will tell this year that will give you some insight into how I used this power to better mankind…. well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it.

Later on, when I went to work for Dell in 2001, I put away all my “trouble causing” hacking stuff and decided that now that I am working in IT, I should join the Good Side of the Force.  That didn’t mean that I didn’t do some fun stuff.  Actually, some of the really good hacking stuff I had learned at the plant became very useful when I was in IT and could create applications on my own using the knowledge I had gained.

There was one time at Dell that I had to hack into database files that had crashed in order to extract the data.  I would never have had the confidence to even try that if I hadn’t first learned programming from the ground up at the Power Plant.

I think it was Leslie Hale, a consulting manager from Concur (an expense reporting application) ask me at a Concur conference in 2010 how I hacked all of our credit card account numbers from their database when they were encrypted.  He said his team had been trying to figure out how I could have done that so quickly.  They normally charged $30,000 to migrate the credit card account numbers from their on-premise system to their hosted application.  Of course, they have the encryption keys.  I told them, I could do it myself by tomorrow and save the $30,000.  They didn’t believe me, until the next day I uploaded a file to them with all the employee and account numbers.  Dell was happy they didn’t have to pay the $30,000 for something that should have been part of the migration costs already.

I know I often caused our plant supervisor’s a few mild stomach ulcers.  I think they just kept me around because either they felt sorry for me, or they thought that some day I might actually come to something.  I finally left the plant in 2001 to pursue a life in IT at Dell.  The journey to that end is another story, to be told later.  Without all the support I received at the Electric Company, I never would have been able to make that change in my life.  It all began one day when the Electric Supervisor told me in 1988 that he wanted me to learn all I could about computers.  I guess, that was the moment when I began “expanding my bubble.”