[Dailydave] The dream of the LISP machine is alive in the 90ies

Bas Alberts bas.alberts at immunityinc.com
Fri Feb 15 16:20:30 UTC 2019

I ate some bad chicken last night.

Really it all started a few days ago when I saw a chick-fil-a
commercial about their heart shaped 30pc nugget Valentines day
special.  That's where that particular piece of data first entered my

I didn't think much of it at the time.

If you're wondering how I could let delicious chicken trump my ethics
I would counter that, if you're reading this, you are probably an
information security professional as well.

So, as it turns out, heart shaped chicken nugget containers are a super
popular token of affection in the greater Miami area, and I ended up
with 2 spicy chicken sandwiches instead. Well that and a 12pc nugget
combo. And a small vanilla milkshake. Nothing says I love you like
small vanilla milkshakes.

I don't know if the chicken was bad, per se, or if I'm just too
Northern European to deal with spicy things, but here we are. 5am. My
wife and dog are both vast asleep and I'm thumbing this on my phone in
an email to myself. Waiting for the waves of agony to pass.

Ironically this is probably the only way you'll get a DailyDave post
out of me these days. Locked in the bathroom, tethered to a phone that
I'm not allowed to browse the Internet with. Also, you can only read
the back of the wet wipes container so many times, so let's have at

I like to think I'm as good an armchair philosopher as anyone else that
watched that first season of True Detective.

So let's talk about data as code or, more generally, input as

Halvar has always been great at formalizing the intuitions of a
certain generation of exploit developers.

His ideas about programming the weird machine harken back to the
operating paradigms of the LISP machines of lore, but in a way also
formalize a class of thinking that is fundamental to not only exploit
development, but input based influence on algorithmic processes in
general. I would posit the concept extends far beyond the realm of
computing. Team Russia is programming the weirdest machine ever right
now and to astounding effect.  Treating an entire populace as a
programmable entity through orchestrated manipulation of its
information sources.

Input as influence.

I don't know if algorithmic process actually means what I think it
does. I got the Knuth boxset, but mostly because Amazon had that
pricing glitch on it way back when. In fact I got two. One for me, and
one for a friend. He, in fact, did read all of it. We lost touch
because he's insane, but I think he's out there in the world somewhere
doing things more productive than porting PaX to MIPS these days, or
at least I hope he is. I'd like to think I had some small part in
that. Or at least that me and Jeff Bezos together, did.

Tangent aside, having a novel thought on exploitation is hard. Heck,
having a novel thought, period, is hard. Hive mind and all. Halvar
would probably be the first to tell you that a lot of what he's saying
is a mere representation of a certain zeitgeist.  Not in the least
because he's German and Germans say things like "zeitgeist". That and

But what you perceive as hard is relative. Generally a result of
context, experience, repetition, intuition, aptitude, and whether or
not someone actually told you something was hard to begin with.

It's about having insights that simplify your understanding, and
carrying those insights forward into ever more intricate layers of
what it actually is you are doing. Abstraction as
simplification. Collapsing large ideas down into building blocks. Most
of those ideas probably aren't your own. But it's hard to be novel, or
so I hear.

Sometimes all it takes is a simple context switch.

I remember when I first started looking at heap corruption as a kid
and, growing up in a small Dutch village in the 90ies, my access to
formal computer science resources was pretty limited. I had an old
beat up copy of K&R and I knew some assholes on IRC. That's about it.

Over and over I'd juggle logical vs physical representations of memory
layouts in my head. I remember looking at something as simple as an
unlink operation, and all the pointer dereferences would just not
stick without me having to look them up constantly.

For a while I just committed entire chunks of the allocator algorithms
to rote memory. Writing down the parts that were relevant to the
primitives I cared about over and over. That worked fine. I was never
a Dvorak or a Scrippie, but I was stubborn, angry, and obsessed with
problem solving. Enough to get the job done.

Unlike the Germans, the Dutch don't say things like "zeitgeist", but
we do say things like "schnitzel".

Anyways, one day instead of trying to treat my brain as a glorified C
compiler, I just started visualizing the ideas behind what it was I
wanted to do.  Imagining a chunks as just buckets of data that I
either fully or partially filled with liquid I controlled, coloring
the logical and contiguous memory layouts in my head accordingly.

Then it became easy. I mean you still had the implementation details
of whichever allocator you're dealing with obviously. Sizes here,
pointers there, bitmasks up and down. But that's just typing on the
keyboard. That's stuff you SHOULD look up by reference. Concepts and
big picture understanding are things you should be able to juggle in
your head.

And at the risk of fetishizing Halvar quotes to Dave Aitel levels, I
remember his original quests to visualize all the things because
"humans are designed to recognize the shape of the animals they hunt,
and turn them into schnitzel, not stare at numbers". I paraphrase.

Our generation of hunters just happens to track game around
allocators, kernel surfaces, and logic flows.

Of course they teach you that stuff in week 1 of most programming
classes. Linked lists operations that is, not German hacker

But I'm in my teens in a country side village in the east of
Holland. The closest thing I have to a computer science curriculum
revolves around people messaging me on IRC about how I should really
start grepping for syslog(3) calls that don't have quotes in them. The
closest thing I have to philosophy classes are Scandinavians preaching
about the gospels of non-disclosure. A potent recipe to build weird
minds, really.

Halvar things aside, I think that is the difference between someone
that looks at e.g. the V8 codebase and is like "oh Christ that is
entirely too much C++" and someone that, in a fairly pragmatic
fashion, just identifies where data is input, how that data is acted
upon, and how the algorithms acting upon that data are influenced by
said data.  The ability to visualize, collapse, and abstract whatever
does not matter to the problem you are trying to solve, away.

Unless you're a fuzzer of course, in which case I harbor some weird
late-90ies resentment towards you that is based on nothing but
spending too much time with a generation of hackers that read "fight
club" like it was the only thing available after eating some bad

Hard is relative. We dance the same dance over and over again in a
hall full of ghosts of exploits past. I am Jack's haunted ball room

One of my old friends who is probably one of the best exploit
developers I've worked with, never went after "hard" bugs. He just
found what he referred to as "simple bugs in hard to reach places".

That is a powerful concept.  If you're willing to dig deep enough,
shovel enough reverse engineering work, go deeper into the coal mines
than anyone else before you, chances are you will win. I mean you
might have black lung by the time you do, but still.

Of course one of my other friends is the exact opposite and he insists
on finding ridiculously complicated bugs in simple places.  I think it
kind of depends on what you're after. These days with the Google borg
spinning up trillions of cores and Google bucks to fuzz input into
whichever surface they can get their grubby little hands on, I'd tend
towards simple bugs in hard to reach places.

Having said that, beyond code isolation, rapid advances in branch
coverage by modern fuzzing approaches kind of moot both. But, it
appears that anno 2019, someone can still comfortably sit on a pile of
0day in the same code bases that everyone else is fuzzing CVE's out
of.  What is today's CVE if not yesterday's 0day?

It's probably some intricate dance between code flux, bug density,
surface exposure, and whether or not there's a strategy behind the
effort beyond "this is what Tavis felt like auditing this weekend".

Most of computer science is this weird struggle to emulate our own
biological processes either consciously or subconsciously.  It makes
sense because it's the only way we know how to solve problems,
perceived or otherwise.

Our problem solving paradigms are based on our biology. Collectively
pushing towards an understanding of the world through the filter of
being a part of it. It's hard to stay objective, if objective even
exists.  Consensus based reality is probably the best you can hope

But with the right inputs, it would appear you can influence almost
anything to the point of control. Programs, people, society ... and,
perhaps, maybe even reality itself.

It's 7am. Time for work.


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