Wrapping Up The First Half

Wrapping Up The First Half

The academic year flew by. If you’re a college student you know what I mean. If you’re not, you probably also know what I mean. When you get physically, emotionally, and sometimes spiritually, involved in your work, you tend to lose track of time. I’ve been really slacking on writing these posts — the last time I wrote one of these was nearly a year ago after my experience at DEF CON. Since that post, I’ve traveled to another country, hacked endlessly, done 1 year’s worth of research on machine learning, lived in San Fransico, and moved in with Emma. A lot has happen, and I think a highlight reel of the major events may be warranted. So buckle up, we’re taking a speed racers approach to a stroll down Memory Lane.

August – October: The Come off

To keep things simple, in the hacking community we refer to online hacking
competitions as CTFs. Often these CTFs have online qualifiers and in-person finals. The in-person finals usually pay for each competitor to come to the competition.

After coming off DEF CON, I was absolutely revitalized to continue my weekly 48-hour CTFS. As I competed in more CTFs I felt as though I was becoming more and more accepted as a vital member on the famous CTF team Shellphish. Due to this involvement, I was invited to come to the Shellphish team retreat in Sacramento. This was an absolute party of a retreat. I never knew hackers, whom were some very distinguished academics in security, could get so wiley. To keep a promise, I will only say that this retreat was a bonding experience and a “coming of age” for me as a hacker.

Shellphish Retreat

The high of the retreat resonated with each hacker on the team, and motivated us to take 1st place in the three consecutive hacking competitions after the retreat — which resulted in being qualified for 2 different international events. We dominated a local CTF, Cactus Con, and came in first by nearly double the points of second. Each of these experiences garnered my skills for hacking.


This hacking prowess allowed me to get funding from two different locations to start my research on Neural Networks and an automated form of hacking. The premise of the research was teaching a virtual brain to learn how to hack any given application without ever knowing the purpose of the application. This was pretty interesting since I’d never felt like I’d ever contributed something new to the world — then all of a sudden I was doing cutting-edge work.

Erik and Zion

November: Naaaaaahm!

As a result of the locational split of Shellphish, when we at ASU want to play alone we play as a team called pwndevils. For all intended purposes, each of the players on pwndevils are on Shellphish, but are all geologically located at Arizona State University. In a continuation of the earlier paragraphs, pwndevils qualified for a finals competition in Viet Nam. I was one of the five players that was selected to go to the finals by the captain.

Zion in Nam

The journey took us to Hanoi in Viet Nam, but allowed us to journey half of the country with organized tour guides. The funding party of the CTF was the Viet Nam government which intended to have the best hackers in the world meet up in the capitol and show off Viet Nam’s cyber power. It indeed was a meeting of the worlds best, which included: Americans, Russians, Koreans, Japanese, and Ukrainians. Together, this CTF was an interesting experience to interact with both the culture in Viet Nam, and my hacking counterparts from around the world. Russian hackers are less scary then I expected.

We stayed for one week on an all expenses paid trip, where the tour guides hired by the government showed us the most pristine parts of Viet Nam. I know this sounds North Korean-esk, but I swear it wasn’t. The country was legitimately amazing to see, with a small suffering undertone. The Vietnamese people are very strong, and consider their strength to be their clearest characteristic. No truer words have been spoken, as most Vietnamese people do not even have hot water with which to shower. I could write an entire post about just this trip, but to keep it brief, I will just say that this experience in an asianistic country was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in the United States.

November ended with me and Emma spending Thanksgiving together in Colorado with her sister. It was cold.

December – March: Vacations are nice sometimes

Speaking of cold, I spent the three following months in the cold. I spent the first half of my Christmas break in Colorado with my research mentor, his wife, my dad, 2 good snowboards, and 4 decent skis. We spent an awesome amount of time skiing together, but sadly ended the vacation with my mentors wife breaking her leg while skiing. This was traumatizing. When I made it back to the lab in January, my research mentor had spread not-so-serious rumors that I broke her leg. Ha. Maybe I did… DUN DUN DUH!

I also spent my spring break traveling to Boston and Wyoming with my roommate. As you guessed, we did more skiing — I snowboarded, he skied. My roommate so happened to be on the ski team all through high school, so he completely left me in the dust. I nearly smashed into 10 trees trying to keep up with this maniac.

Evan and Zion

I concluded my visit to the east coast by visiting my dear friend Leinani at Brown University in Rhode Island. Brown University was very nice, and the people there were surprisingly very friendly. These students struggle with the same complexities every other student does. It was refreshing. Ben from NYC, if you’re reading this, know you are an awesome person! In addition to seeing Lei, there so happened to be a Native Hawaiian Activism event that Lei had setup for that weekend months in advance. This was the first activism event I’d ever been to, and by far, a Native Hawaiian event with future Engineers, Doctors, and world changers was amazing. Shoutout to the endless amount of grads from Kamehameha who came down.

The Filipino card shark herself, amungst her home (Brown Engineering Building)

April – May: Changing Tides

I changed up my hair style. Emma got a tattoo near her shoulder. I taught an Intern in my lab from Viet Nam how to kick flip a skateboard. I also started doing some research in a grad course for Automated Drone Exploration using quadcopters and machine learning. I learned a lot about how to fly a drone by giving it the power to understand the world around it. I went to Santa Barbra to compete in a DEF CON Qualifier — which we qualified for. Academics was good.

At Arizona State University, pwndevils hosted an event to bring the best Academic hacking teams in the United States into one location for an all out discussion about cutting edge CTF research, skills, and stories. It was extremely fun and informative and hosted three other teams coming from Carnegie Mellon, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and University of California: Santa Barbra. In combination this made up the best teams in the United States and the world (thanks to the CMU team being present).

Hekerz in their natural habitat of eating pizza

The school year ended with me being elected to be the new captain/president of the pwndevils — which also meant I was a large voice for the ASU team of Shellphish. It was an honor to be elected for the position but also terrifying. As one of the youngest members of this team, I was determined to prove myself as a capable captain in the new coming school year.

Me and Emma wrapped up May by taking a 4 year anniversary trip to Disney Land. Yes that picture below is of Channing Tatum and Jessie J, but look behind them. Yes, Emma and I got caught strolling Disney Land in the presence of Celebrities!

June – August: Simulating being a Grown Up

At the very last days of May, I started an Internship at a successful tech startup in Palo Alto that was a direct derivative of the Carnegie Mellon hacking team that I mentioned earlier. The companies name was ForAllSecure. It featured many of the best ex-hackers in the world. The company allowed me to continue my research field in automated hacking as a consumer product for the U.S. Government and large companies. I lived in RedWood City for around 3 months, and commuted to Palo Alto daily. I cooked my own meals daily and did meal prep for the week’s worth of lunch.

Emma, Zion in SF

This was the most money I’ve ever made in my short lifetime, and the closest thing I’ve ever done to being a real adult. It was a good experience, but was augmented by my impeding diagnosis of Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS), which is essentially just constant pain in your stomach for no reason. For anyone else that lives with this incurable disease, I understand your struggle and pain now. Indeed IBS has been the hardest road block I’ve experienced. It is painful and never goes away. But the grind stops for no one, and so the story continues.

Zi & Em House

Living in Palo Alto was really fun. Living without Emma, not so fun — which is a perfect transition. Me and Emma started this new school year by moving in together into a nicely sized 1 bedroom apartment. We love it here, and have already made a very nice little home for ourselves.

August (before moving in): The Grind Begins

Zion being a scary L33T boi in a mask

Right before moving in with Emma, I concluded this 1 year story loop by
finishing of the article back in DEF CON. Again, I attended the world finals in Las Vegas at DEF CON CTF, but this time I competed in the finals with Shellphish. This was a large achievement, since I finally put on my big boi hacker pants on and contributed to Shellphish, securing 8th in the world for the team. This competition was exceptionally fun because of the people. I stayed up till 4 AM one night working on a challenge to hack a 1980’s Lisp Machine Computer which hosted a website. IT WAS WACKY, and only made possible by the fearful organizing committee of DEF CON CTF, known as the Order Of The Overflow (OOO). I also got to take part in hacking into an iPhone remotely through an insecure messaging app known as Telooogram (if you know, you know). I got interviewed by NBC and by a research of a Canadian college. I’ll link the posts when I find them.

The hackers on this team continuously inspire me to become better in my
field and better in life. Many of the hackers live entire lives while also being successful hackers. I hope to keep the success I’ve had in this last school year rolling. I write this post from a flight back from NYC — so maybe I’ll be on time with my promises this year and write posts in a timely matter. If there was anything in this post you wanted to hear more about, feel free to comment below and I will make a separate post just for that event :).

Thanks for everything family.
Best in your endeavors,

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About Zion Basque

Zion is a Native Hawaiian Hacker and side hussle writer.