The Questors

by Frederick Rustam



If you haven't read the previous parts of this story, follow the links below:

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five


Questor Institute is a new, experimental technical school where

bright-but-poor high-school graduates on full scholarships spend

two years seeking to become wizards of Internet sorcery by studying

the science and philosophy of information retrieval from textual

databases such as the World Wide Web. In Part Five, "What Does

Information Want?," Kevin and Marylou learned that judging the

reliability of Internet information is not an easy task, that the

Internet can be a self-referential place, and that information is

animated by a widespread desire for its freedom. Then, they were

assigned to discover an academic example of "information transfer."





During their first year at Questor Institute, Kevin and Marylou had

been unable to uncover one of the two school secrets about which

they were inordinately curious. The reasoning behind the wooden block

aptitude test they'd been given before beginning their matriculation

remained a professional secret.


"I could probably find a testing manual somewhere in the Student

Counselor's office," suggested Kevin. "It would explain things."


"Nothing doing," vetoed Marylou. "Burglary is out. Forget it."


"Hacking is a kind of burglary, and we're doing that."


"It's different. You're a computer whiz---you aren't a black-bag

man. Besides, they might not forgive us for an office hack."


The two had had better luck in hacking The Benefactor. A few weeks

after his matriculation, Kevin had been selected by the Rector as

one of a few students to help maintain the school's computer network

infrastructure. For awhile, he played his new role straight, making

himself very helpful in solving hardware and software problems, and

saving Questor the cost of contracted maintenance. He had access to

the cable room where the school's servers were located. In there,

he hotwired a secret connection between one of the student-access

file servers and the isolated faculty server where the school's

confidential records were stored. With this hotwire woven into the

cable tangle, plus some opsystem finagling, he and his girlfriend

could "explore" in relative safety. Marylou did most of the document

exploration among the files of the faculty server, while Kevin kept

an eye out for her possible detection.


"The online security in this place is minimal, he declared. "It's

as if they want to see which students will take advantage of that."


"Yeah. I have the feeling that the school is testing us in several

subtle and secret ways. We're the experimental class. They have to

study us to refine their pedagogical techniques," agreed Marylou.

She ended the conversation with a caution. "We mustn't be the ones

to find out what they'll do with serious rulebreakers, though. Are

you sure there isn't any access-logging on the faculty server?"


"The software provides for it, but it's disabled. I've never heard

of an outfit which does that. Do you think they're drawing us in?"


"Maybe. But perhaps we're just too anxious about what we're doing.

We aren't exactly career criminals. I'm not, anyway," she joked.


"Very funny. How close are you to finding out who The Benefactor is?

When you do, we can let up on our hacking for awhile."


"Finding a file with his unknown name isn't easy, Kevin. But there

ought to be something filed, some clue to his identity."





Then Marylou did retrieve something from 'official' text.


She hustled Kevin out into the garden behind the school building

in the frosty night when the other students were either studying

or socializing in the Rec Room. "You're not going to believe what

I've found."


"Let me guess: our Benefactor is Bill Gates."


Marylou ignored the not-entirely-inappropriate jest. "I discovered a

file folder full of Web stuff about the infamous hacker, 'Crackola.'

He's the only hacker the administration has any accumulated info on.

Why?... And why is this folder in the central records instead of

in the Computer Ethics teacher's resource material files?"


"Our Benefactor is Crackola?... Where'd he get the money? I thought

he was flipping hamburgers, now."


"Why else would Admin collect info about him? To try to understand

and anticipate him, I think."


"I think we need more evidence."


"There is more. One of the webpage articles in the folder was an

obscure gossip piece about Crackola's rumored involvement in a gilt-

edged commercial website that's made zillions for its entrepreneurs.

The article claimed the other entrepreneurs gave Crackola a piece

of the pie because they felt sorry for him, and because they wanted

his security know-how. The story claimed that he doesn't care about

mansions and yachts, that he intends to spend his bundle making

amends to society by establishing a 'foundation for the study of

ethical computing.'"


"Seems an unlikely project for Crackola." Kevin was disappointed.

"Is that all you found?"


"It's the clue we're looking for! We have a hypothesis.... All we

need to do now is verify it."




"By using the same 'social engineering' Crackola was famous for.

We call him, pretend to be a Questor Admin person, and trick him

into revealing that he's The Benefactor. You can do that. You've

studied and used this guy's techniques."


Kevin ground his teeth as he wrestled with her challenge. He almost

regretted beginning this search for the mysterious Benefactor. His

Questor scholarship was seriously at stake, here.


She persisted. "Well, will you? I've done my part."


"Okay. I'll do it. But how do we get his phone number? Surely,

Crackola isn't listed in the white pages under his real name."


"No, but his number may be listed in an Admin computer file.

I figure they wouldn't put it into somebody's desk Rolodex."


"Good luck."





"I've got it---I think I have, anyway." Marylou flourished a scrap

of paper. "I found a file of important phone numbers. Crackola's

name wasn't listed there, but I did find a number for... get this:

'Oversight.' That's just gotta be The Benefactor."


"Could be. Let's try it."


After the other students had retired for the night, Kevin and Marylou

crept downstairs to the public phone in the Rec Room.


"In his hacking days, he was a night-owl. I hope he still is."


"Keep it short. The longer you talk, the more likely you'll reveal

yourself," warned Marylou.


Kevin punched 'Oversight's' number as if the keypad were hot to the

touch. The phone rang only once at the other end of the connection

before it was answered.


"Good evening, Kevin. Why don't you and Marylou come over here

for awhile, and we'll have an illuminating discussion."


Kevin clapped his hand over the mouthpiece, and his eyes widened

with shock at the surprise greeting he'd received. "It's him!"

Marylou knew right away that her file exploration had been

successful. Kevin removed his hand and replied.


"Okay. Uh, where exactly is 'over here'?"


"The house next to the Institute."


"You mean the Rector's house?"


"No. The ordinary-looking house on the other side. Don't tell

anyone where you're going. It's our secret now." Click!


Kevin's hand shook as he replaced the handset.


"He knows everything. He's still The Great Crackola."





"But now I only hack Questor Institute---my school." The Benefactor

was only in his forties, but his hair was gray and his face gaunt.

His years of on-the-run hacking and imprisonment had taken their

toll. He was ironically dressed in a workman's gray coverall, but

he relaxed in his leather easychair with an air of authority.


"Ernest...?" Kevin recognized, uncertainly, one of the school's

janitors. The man's wig, mustache, and dark glasses were missing.


"Yes---but not really. Ernest is a disguise I use for on-the-scene

observation of the happenings at Questor. Using it and my monitoring

equipment, I've had you two under observation for days, especially

since you installed that hotwire to the faculty server. Brilliant;

but the best hacking is done purely remotely. I was a master of the

remote hack... but that was way back then. Now, aside from my primary

hobby of watching the school, I get my kicks from doing what you're

doing in your classes: searching the Web. It's not as exciting as

cracking system security, but it can be more challenging."


The two students sat on the edge of the sofa facing The Benefactor

across a coffee table. They were enraptured by his words and were

impressed by the simplicity of their surroundings. His preference

was still for things electronic. Kevin wanted in the worst way

to visit the man's secret Questor-monitoring room.


"The World Wide Web was just getting big when I went to prison for

the last time. After I got out---and during the agonizing period

of time when I wasn't allowed to use a computer---it had become the

People's Medium, a playground for all who can exploit it in some way.

I fell in love with the Web. I switched from being Crackola to being

'Webola.' Now, I hack the Web, so to speak. After I got rich and

respectable, and no longer watched by the FBI, I decided that what

the Internet needed was a tech school for training kids intensively

in the art of retrieving information from it. You're my first class

of guinea pigs. I'm paying your school expenses while you learn how

to retrieve like online professionals.


"I've got some mega-wealthy men backing this project now---names

I can't speak but who have a big stake in the commerce of the Web.

Questor will jolt the world of academia as they find out about

it. My guys don't want the professors to get their noses too far

out of joint about a non-college information science school, but

it's inevitable they'll grumble about Questor.


"I don't know about you, but I feel the Web's future is not only

more wonderful than we imagine, it's more wonderful than we can

imagine." He smirked at this variation of the "queerer universe"

quotation the students had searched as homework. "Decades from now,

you and I'll be viewed as pioneers. And---my good works revealed---

I'll be in the history books as a good guy and be admired by more

than just adolescent hackers. I'll never reach the Bill Gates level

of historical significance, but I won't only be remembered as 'that

damn Crackola.'


"From being bewitched by system security, I've evolved to being

enraptured by the many aspects of the People's Information: its

formats, its indexing and retrieval, and its significance. When I

was Crackola, I took all that stuff for granted. Now, I appreciate

the hard work that so many were doing to make it all work for us

while I was just stealing files and leaving snotty notes in

people's computers."


The Benefactor paused. "I'm sounding like one of your teachers.

I wish I could be one of them and have fun teaching you retrieval.

I wish I could shock academia by matriculating for an IT degree.

But my past has caught up with me and left me behind in its dust

and stink. I'm condemned to be an information hobbyist."


"And a benefactor to our generation of Internet information seekers,"

added Marylou, charitably.


"Yes, a benefactor... Now, what am I going to do with you two? You've

winkled me out. You know who The Benefactor is and who he was."


"Your secret is safe with us, sir," said Kevin, hastily.


"Absolutely safe," added Marylou. "Mum's the word."


"I made it easy for you to discover me; you must have noticed that.

I hope to identify and rechannel all the wild hacker talent within

Questor's student body.... I don't know, though: hacking may be

a basic skill in tomorrow's security-conscious society. It's

paradoxical that as information receives greater protection from

those who would swipe it, an ability to hack it may be necessary

even for honest infotrievers if they're to compete with those who

aren't on the up-and-up.... Maybe my old memories are influencing

my thinking. I wish I could see further ahead---and not so far

into the past."


"Questor is the only atonement society needs from you," insisted

Marylou. "It's what you'll be most remembered for, I'm sure."


"So here's how I'll reward you for your enterprise in discovering me

through the hacking techniques you shouldn't have learned: upon your

graduation, you two and any others who find me out, will have nice

gold medallions of meritorious accomplishment hung around your necks

---instead of hemp ropes---and you'll get to keep your school laptops.

The other students'll wonder what you did to win all that, but you

won't be able to tell. It's what you deserve for violating the

school's nonexistent rules against hacking."


The students found his logic amusing. "Thanks," they said, in unison.

Kevin added, "I guess that means you aren't going to show us the cool

setup you use to hack Questor."


"Correct. And you'll have to progress through the school with the

guilty knowledge---knowledge you gained on your own initiative---

that Big Brother is watching you. If there's to be any punishment

for your gratuitous hacking, that'll be it.... Now, get back to

your workstations, get good at infotrieval, and make me proud

of what I've wrought."



The Transformative Nature of Information


In retrieval class the next day, the teacher began his presentation

with some unusual philosophic remarks about information and life.


"I want you to think about the transformative nature of information.

When you're in some real-world place, especially an outdoor place,

all your senses absorb its features. Sight, sound, smell, touch---

these provide you with information about your surroundings and give

you a real-life experience.... If, on the other hand, you watch a

sound video of that same place, you're several steps removed from it.

But information about it still reaches you through two of your senses,

via the fidelity of the video system. Watching a video seems less of

a life experience, though, and more of an information experience.


"A still photograph of that place seems even less like life and more

like information. A text about the place seems to be only information.

But life is never removed from any information experience because all

information experiences are abstractions from life experiences....

Think about that.


"An abstraction of life is a depiction of it in some conventional

information mode: a video, a photo, text, speech. Informational

abstractions of life can themselves be further abstracted. An

'abstract' briefly summarizes the contents of document's text.

An 'annotation' or a shorter 'caption' describes a graphic such

as a photograph or a drawing. You saw this when you searched Web

image databases for a picture of the inspiring Mt. Ben Lomond.


"So when we absorb information from the Internet, especially from

the graphic Web, we're having a kind of life experience beyond our

immediate environment. When Internet information enters our minds,

it transports us elsewhere, mentally, transforms us into infonauts.

Those who find real life to be an enjoyable experience should find

the Internet enjoyable. The Internet is a comprehensive abstraction

of life.


"For your homework, then, I want you to retrieve a webpage which is

an abstraction of life in a particular place, at a particular time.

This page consists of one photograph and an annotation for it. I

want you to gather information about that photograph, info which

the photographer neglected to gather when he took the picture. He

solicits this info---but you'll give what you find to me instead

of him. Bring up my assignment webpage:

There's a citizen webpage with a photo of a San Francisco

MUNI trolleybus making a tight right turn at an acute-angle

intersection of two streets. The turn is so tricky that the

bus driver has a switch on his dashboard which controls the

intersection's traffic signal. With this, he can stop traffic

on the street he has to turn into---at a stopline well-back

from the intersection---so he can make his turn without hitting

a vehicle in the oncoming lane. The photo depicts this situation

nicely. Imagine yourself being there and photographing it.


"None of you is from San Francisco, so nobody'll have an unfair

advantage in solving this one. I want the URL of the webpage, the

route number and name of the bus route, and the names of the two

intersecting streets. Since you won't be able to read the street

signs or the bus sign in the photo, you'll have to consult other

Web sources to obtain these data by a process of discovery,

examination, and deduction.


"The photograph contains a clue you'll need to verify the names of

the two streets. But I want more than that: I want you to discover

and quote verification information from two documents you'll find

on the Web---citizen webpages not found on the MUNI website. These

two verifying webpages probably won't turn up in your search for

the assignment page; the key for finding them is contained in the

photograph's annotation.... I found them by accident, so to speak.


"To save you time on this problem, I'd like to give you a hint about

where in San Francisco the intersection is located; I really would.

But information professionals don't usually get hints from someone

who knows where on the Web information is to be found. They have to

use their own resources to find it. I want you to strive to answer

this problem so you'll know how difficult it can be to find info

on the Web which you know is there.


"View yourselves as information detectives, people. List in your

report the main steps you took to solve this retrieval problem.

Your reports are due tomorrow. Happy hunting!"



As they left the classroom, Marylou sighed. "The honeymoon is over

in this guy's course. Now we have to spend our nights searching

the Web to recreate his personal information adventures."


"And enjoy 'em the correct way," added Kevin. "Who the heck would

want to know something like this? I know it's supposed to train us

to find information---but a bus making a turn? A streetcar named

'94 | Jette'?... This guy's some kind of transit freak."


"People will want us to find odder stuff on the Web than transit

info. Today's retrieval problem sounds fairly easy. His problem

statement probably contains some textwords from that webpage with

the photo. To save time, we should use those significant words,

like he did in his 'biggest ocean wave' example."


"I think you've caught a bad case of my overconfidence, Marylou.

Remember his 'queerer universe' example? What if his turning-bus

problem statement deliberately uses words different from those in

the text on that webpage? I smell a deception here. If anything,

this assignment seems too easy."


Marylou ignored Kevin's skepticism. "You know, I think this example

is a metaphor for our personal progress at Questor. Last night, we

made a tight turn, we made it without colliding with anyone, and we

used a special device to do it---just like that bus driver did."


"Yowzah. It's a clear road and full speed ahead for us, now."


"Right. So long as we keep our trolleys on the wire."






2002 by Frederick Rustam. Frederick Rustam is a retired civil

servant. He formerly indexed technical reports for the Department of

Defense. He writes science fiction for Web ezines as a hobby. He

studies and enjoys the Internet as a hobby.