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This newsletter has devoted plenty of coverage to the ongoing legal dispute between one of the world’s most valuable companies and the nation’s law enforcement over these past few weeks. If you’re looking for updates on that front, skip to the news below. You’ll find plenty on Apple versus the Federal Bureau of Investigation there. As for this essay, I need a break. So time for a different subject.
Recall that analogy one computer forensics expert used to describe how the Feds might unlock that San Bernardino shooter’s contested iPhone? Jonathan Zdziarski, an iOS hacker, said that by backing up the data stored on one of the phone’s memory chips, an investigator could try as many passcodes as needed on the device without fear of triggering a data wipe. How? Simple: continuously rewrite the chip to its original state, thus bypassing the handset’s “self-destruct” feature. Genius, really.
Zdziarski compared this hypothetical technique—which he demonstrated himself—to a game of Super Mario Bros. The method is similar to how a video game player might keep reverting to a previous save point, allowing her to continuously replay a level to her liking. (Unfortunately for Zdziarski, whose metaphor has been quoted just about everywhere, there is no last save point.)
Anyway, I raise the analogy once again not to dwell on Apple AAPL 0.92% vs. FBI (nor to impugn Zdziarski’s reputation) but as a preface to a segue. At the same time as investigators were attempting to unlock that iPhone, another hacker was at work reprogramming his game of Super Mario World as well as his Super Nintendo Entertainment System game console to do something positively whacky.
Now, this other man’s hack did not reveal the content of any encrypted correspondences from a terrorist. It did not leak any government top secrets. Nor did it expose anyone’s personal information to the world. What it did do is something really freaking cool.
“I used a series of Super Mario World glitches to inject 331 bytes of processor instructions into system RAM,” says the gamer, who goes by Seth Bling. “It was the source code for Flappy Bird.”
Yes, this man transformed a classic Nintendo NTDOY -2.42% game into that super popular, pixelated, avian side-scrolling phenomenon that rose to prominence out of seemingly nowhere, and disappeared just as quickly after its Vietnamese creator inexplicably yanked it from app stores two years ago. Computers have executed similar Mario code exploits before, mutating the Italian plumber’s quest into games of Snake or Pong. What makes this one so interesting is that the guy did it all by hand: power-upping, red shell-spitting, and spin-jumping his way into portions of the console’s unused memory. Byte by byte, he rewrote the data therein until he achieved his ultimate aim: Flappy Bird. That’s hacker ingenuity at its finest.
Watch a recap of the marvelous feat on YouTube here. And remember: hacking doesn’t always have to be a hifalutin good versus evil kind of thing. In some cases, it’s just plain old fun.
Speaking of which, I’ll be stopping by HackNY today to mentor some students as they select projects for a weekend-long hackathon. Hope to see you there?