~ Archive for March 8, 2005 ~

Business schools redefine hacking to “stuff that a 7-year-old could do”

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When universities created business schools in the 20th Century traditional academics decried the collapse of standards.  Instead of students studying Literature, Art, History, and Science they would be going through the motions of a scholar while occupying their minds with things that formerly had been learned at a desk as an apprentice in a dreary Victorian counting house.  Now in the 21st century the B-schools are degrading the term “computer hacking”.


Here are the facts:



  • Harvard and a bunch of other B-schools with a collective IT budget of maybe $50 million decided that writing Perl scripts was too hard so they outsourced Web-based applications to a company called ApplyYourself.
  • You’d think that the main advantage of a centralized service such as ApplyYourself would be that a prospective student could fill out one application and the information be sent simultaneously to many schools.  However, this is not how it works.  Each school has a totally separate area with ApplyYourself.
  • All the smart young Americans have gone to law, business, and medical school.  Companies don’t like to hire old people (> 30 years) to write computer programs because it saddens them to see old folks doing something so degrading.  Thus ApplyYourself hired whoever was rejected by professional schools to write up some Visual Basic scripts to process HBS and other B-school applications.
  • The ApplyYourself code had a bug such that editing the URL in the “Address” or “Location” field of a Web browser window would result in an applicant being able to find out his admissions status several weeks before the official notification date.  This would be equivalent to a 7-year-old being offered a URL of the form http://philip.greenspun.com/images/20030817-utah-air-to-air/ and editing it down to http://philip.greenspun.com/images/ to see what else of interest might be on the server.
  • Someone figured this out and posted the URL editing idea on the BusinessWeek discussion forum, where all B-school hopefuls hang out and a bunch of curious applicants tried it out.
  • Now all the curious applicants, having edited their URLs, are being denied admission to Harvard and, due to the fact that  universities form cartels to fix tuition prices and other policies, presumably to the other B-schools as well.

One interesting data point is that I once supervised a couple of MIT students building an online system for submission of essays to be graded.  MIT and a bunch of other schools have writing requirements.  Students submit essays.  These are held in confidence from other students.  A subset of users are authorized to grade essays and they are handed essays to evaluate.  One server with a single database is programmed to handle students and evaluators from many different schools and keep everything that should be separate separated.  The students building this system had never programmed in SQL before.  Nor had they ever written a Web script to glue their SQL code to an HTML template.  Nor had they ever written HTML before.  The entire project, which requires the same workflow and main features of the ApplyYourself service, took them three months at 20 hours per week.  Those kids are probably just graduating from med school now and preparing for their careers in radiology…


In the 1960s the term “hacking” meant smart people developing useful and innovative computer software.  In the 1990s the term meant smart evil people developing and running programs to break into computer systems and gain shell access to those systems.  Thanks to Harvard Business school the term now means “people of average IQ poking around curiously by editing URLs on public servers and seeing what comes back in the form of directory listings, etc.”


[Update:  People have been asking me whether I think the schools are justified in rejecting the applicants who mucked with ApplyYourself's URLs.  Had I been an MBA applicant and heard about this security hole I probably would have tested it out.  Not so much out of curiosity as to whether I'd gotten in but mostly to see if a school with nearly $30 billion in assets really was so contemptuous of quality in IT and also to see just how far the Web development industry has slid from its apex (probably 1994, when 5 reformed Lisp hackers built Amazon.com out of C CGI scripts talking to Oracle).  I did something similar when writing Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing.  I needed examples of Microsoft Active Server Page source code.  There was at one time a bug in IIS/ASP that enabled anyone to view the source code by appending "::$DATA" to any .asp URL.  Months after Microsoft had released a patch for this bug, I surfed around and found scripts at lots of prominent public servers, some of which scripts contained database usernames and passwords.  I published the results in http://philip.greenspun.com/panda/server-programming#ASP, which was turned into a hardcopy textbook by Harcourt.  So it seems that my curiosity into just how incompetent an institution with $billions in assets could be would have led to me failing the ethics test, being convicted of hacking, and being denied admission to a top business school.


Where would I personally draw the line?  A grad student at MIT figured out that Fandango, the movie ticketing service, was passing the price of the movie ticket as a hidden form variable in the HTML instead of doing the pricing on the server at the final page.  He was able to edit the HTML form in Emacs and submit it to Fandango and buy tickets for any price that he felt was fair (being a grad student, his preferred price for tickets was $0.25).  He invited me to try it out but it but I thought that either Fandango or a movie theater would end up having to make up the difference and it didn't feel right to take their money.  The HBS/ApplyYourself situation falls into the "poking around with a browser" category where you get to see stuff but the Web publisher hasn't been injured because they still have the stuff on their server (one of the strange characteristics of the digital age).  As progressively dumber programmers build progressively more complex systems we will see more of this kind of attempt to paper over coding mistakes with lawyers, sanctions, policies, and laws.  Hollywood and the RIAA are usually the most successful at getting the government to do their bidding.  Thus I predict that one day Disney will have a Web site where you can buy access to any of their movies.  Because all of their profits are being used to pay executive salaries this will have to be built at extremely low cost.  Deficiencies in the softwrae will enable vast numbers of Americans to download Bambi for free, their ISPs will be forced to rat them out, and they will all get to see Martha's Stewart's cell in West Virginia first hand...]

Aerial photos of the spiral jetty in the Great Salt Lake

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Having finally gotten Photoshop scripting sort of under control, http://philip.greenspun.com/images/20030817-utah-air-to-air/ contains some photos of my old airplane flying over the spiral jetty artwork in the Great Salt Lake.  These were taken by Jenny Reinman from a physician-piloted Cessna [a plurality of private aircraft owners seem to be MDs] while her husband Paul Reinman and I flew in the Diamond Star.

Syria is able to control Lebanon with 14,000 soldiers

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Syria and Lebanon have been in the news latelyLebanon has a population of 3.7 million.  Syria is able to control these people with just 14,000 soldiers, according to the latest articles, and to judge by the tens of thousands of supporters who rallied today in Beirut, Syrian control of Lebanon is just fine with most of the Lebanese.  This is a remarkable achievement considering that the U.S.-led coalition has roughly 150,000 troops in Iraq for their 25 million people and Iraqis don’t seem to be turning out in any great numbers to show public support for the foreign soldiers to continuing hanging around.  One wonders if we should not have outsourced the Iraq occupation to Syria…

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