Chaos, robots, and Faith and the Muse - all in DC!

01 May 2010

Last Friday evening brought with a second attempt at the Chaos in DC meetup in Silver Spring, Maryland. I'd driven out there straight from work because I wound up leaving the office late, and when you factor in travel time it really wasn't a good idea to to do too much driving that night. In other words, there was no way I was going to drive two hours home through rush hour traffic on the DC Beltway, get there when the meetup began to pick up a few things and meet up with Jason, and then drive two hours back to Maryland. Mercifully, the Borders was pretty easy to find. The most difficult bit was finding somewhere to park in Silver Spring, but thankfully there was a public parking garage a few blocks uphill from the bookstore. I probably should have checked the time before depositing a couple of quarters in the meter (parking after 1900 in Silver Spring is free) but I'd rather have some extra time on the meter and not need it than be caught wanting. After a short hike down the hill I curled up in a corner near a power outlet with Windbringer and a cup of coffee to read until people started to arrive. Jason jandered in around 1950 that evening and after exchanging a few pleasantries we headed over to the table in the middle of the cafe' to grab a few chairs and get acquainted.

All told, the Chaos In DC meetup was well attended, with about fifteen people having come and gone by the end of the night. It's safe to say that there were nerds of the esoteric as far as the eye could see, and even a bit of overlap with other circles. A lot of well read people from a lot of different parts of the spectrum of experience came out that night, and it was a pleasure to spend time geeking out with them. I thought it interesting that plainclothes police were keeping an eye on us in the cafe' all evening - maybe it's SOP for the area on a Friday night. I don't hang out enough there to be able to say one way or another. We wound up calling it a night around 2300 that night and going our separate ways, just as Borders began closing down for the night. We split up and I hiked back to the parking garage I'd left the TARDIS at for the trip back. En route, I caught a late dinner at the Silver Diner on my way home to get a few hours of sleep.
On Saturday morning I got up early to go to the DC Robotfest at the National Electronics Museum with Jade, Mark, and Keely. After a little basic maintenance I trudged off to the local watering hole to get breakfast and read a little before hitting the DC Beltway once more. The drive to pick Jade and Mark up was a short one as they were relatively close by that morning, and then we set course for Baltimore. The Museum appears to be an old warehouse with a number of large radio antennae out front, probably military in origin, so if you're looking for a landmark on your way there it's hard to miss from the road. After parking and walking up the first thing we saw were kids launching compressed air rockets in the front parking lot. Windage was a bit dodgy that day: a few went straight up and then fell back to the ground almost along the same trajectory, a few landed on the roof, and the majority of them drifted to one side or another and landed thirty or forty feet away. About what you'd expect, in other words.

It was a bit of a trick finding the front door because most everything looked like the front door (read: loading doors of a warehouse). It was only $6us to get in the front door, and we were greeted with an active Jacob's ladder and a robotic marrionette with speech synthesizer describing the museum. All of the exhibits were still up during the fair, everything was just set up in front of the other stuff where possible. Among the exhibits of the museum are the history of amateur radio from the early 1900's up to today (represented by the functioning state of the art ham rig at the back), some hand-cranked electrical generators demonstrating basic principles of electricity, and even a pair of crypto machines from World War II - a field unit employed by the US Army and a captured German Enigma machine, both on loan from the National Cryptologic Museum. We also walked through a hallway of transportable military radar sensors (for certain values of 'transportable'; most of them were probably originally mounted to military aircraft).

I found it interesting that the Museum contains a detailed history of ECM (electronic countermeasures) and a little bit about the military unit that pioneered the field (called the AOC (Association of Old Crows)) during World War II. There was even a small display of disarmed combat ECM hardware (read: chaff pods from fighters); I didn't know there were so many versions out there.. in addition the displays, Robotfest attracted many organizations as presenters, including a number of hackerspaces (HacDC was there running electronics classes for kids, as was Hack Pittsburgh, the Hartford Hackerspace, and Baltimore Node). I was surprised to find out that there is an R2D2 Builders Club in DC and they had some of their projects on display as well.

A number of Makerbot 3D printers and outputs from same were on display at Robotfest though none of them were operating while we were around. HacDC's RepRap wasn't on site, unfortunately. There were Lego Mindstorms as far as the eye could see, including two battlebots (forklift-type) slaved to Nintendo Wii controllers fighting it out on one of the tables. We also saw a tracked rover controlled with a dataglove rigged up with accelerometers and a couple of combat robots out front, probably in the heavyweight class. There was even a hacked Roomba parked between two of the display tables. Make Magazine was running a silent auction of back issues and t-shirts and Raygun Robyn was vending not too far away. The four of us spent a couple of hours wandering around looking at all the exhibits, sometimes together, sometimes alone. I snapped a couple of dozen photographs, which I'll probably get around to posting this weekend. After the Festival wrapped up that afternoon we got together with the folks from HacDC and went for an early dinner at the G&M Restaurant and Lounge, a few miles down the road from BWI. We had a bit of a wait due to the size of our party and they had to split us up a bit to make room, unfortunately, but I think it's safe to say that a good time was had by all. The G&M (review pending) has excellent, amazing crab cakes. Crab cakes that appear to require the deaths of an entire family of Maryland crabs to construct and are held together with only a thin crust from the broiler and not much in the way of a binding agent. Crab cakes that are too big to finish, actually.. we wound up talking about the history of RPGs and wargaming through most of dinner, with the odd discussion about Voice-Over-IP providers and Apple's slow descent from hackable platform to walled garden. On the way back my GPS accidentally took us through downtown DC while driving Jade and Mark home but thankfully traffic was light that afternoon. It took a little longer but we spent the time talking in the car, which isn't a bad thing by any means.

I got up a bit earlier then usual on Sunday morning when I heard my phone ring in the next room. Mika was calling to find out if I wanted to go with her and Hasufin to get a late breakfast at our usual watering hole a couple of blocks away. We hung out for a while drinking coffee and talking about the DC Robotfest the day before, and somehow went off on a tangent about why consumer robotics haven't taken off the way they have in Japan. Part of it lies in the difficulty of making multifunctional devices usable, and part of it seems to be our cultural perception of robots as things that work in factories but are buggy as all get out when it comes to home use. Then again, I might be wrong... there's probably a paper in there somewhere. Anyway, after lunch I went to get Lyssa's wedding ring inspected per the warranty (who would have thought that a wedding ring would come with a EULA from the jewelry store?). It took two tries - I had to go back home to find the sales paperwork so that they could look up the warranty and ownership information. To be fair, I did have the date of purchase off by a good six months, but why they couldn't search on my name at the store I can't fathom. I spent the rest of the afternoon lazing around the house reading and playing around with the media server and doing some reading up on the nightclub that Lyssa, Laurelinde, and I would be going to later that night.

Late that afternoon I got suitably dressed for a night on the town and headed for Maryland to pick up Lyssa and Laurelinde. We split a hasty dinner at Laurelinde's place - pizza from Trader Joe's in the oven - before piling back into the car for downtown DC. We were going to the Faith and the Muse show at the Fur Nightclub, their DC stop on the Ankoku Butoh tour. Earlier that afternoon I did some checking to find out a little more about the club; call me crazy, but I like to know what I'm getting into when going outside of my usual stomping grounds. They have a no cameras rule there so I didn't bring one with me though I did take some pictures later that night with my smartphone after seeing a number of other people openly get away with doing so, plus the photographer I keep seeing at goth clubs down here. Anyway, their dress code is pretty well defined so rather than take a chance of getting turned away at the door I dug out a button down shirt, minimally offensive necktie, and waistcoat. I probably should have worn more because it was on the cold side that night and most of us got stuck waiting outside because the doors weren't open yet. They also have a weapons and implements policy (going so far as to prohibit pens and hairspray in addition to what you'd expect to be verboten), so I left most of my kit at home and the rest of my stuff in the car. I'd have felt safer if they'd checked my hair and necktie in addition to frisking me as thoroughly as I ever have on the job because there is a considerable amount of contraband you can buy around here that can be hidden in such places.

Fur's a nice place inside - they work hard to keep it looking nice and it shows (which explains the 'no implements' policy). The floor is covered with this springy black stuff that probably keeps it from being damaged, the walls are painted a flat, nonreflective black, and the VIP booths off to the side are upholstered in red fabric with tasteful furnishings. Drinks at Fur are a bit on the pricy side - $9us for my usual one-shot libation over ice, which is nearly half of what I pay for a one litre bottle of Goldschlager, but then again DC is an expensive city no matter how you cut it. We actually saw three bands that night: Retrogramme, blindtillnow, and Faith and the Muse. First up was Retrogramme, two guys based out of Virginia who play a blend of synthpop and darkwave with some all-instrumental tracks mixed in. They are seemingly influenced by Gary Numan in places (which isn't a bad thing by any means) with a little New Order for spice. Their music has a pleasant sound, and coupled with their seemingly friendly but serious stage presence served as a good warmup for the night. The next band up was blindtillnow, a duo consisting of guitar-playing Seth Polansky and the operatically trained Carolyn Powers. While they were operating off of a netbook off to one side (to unintentionally humorous effect - at one point there seemed to be a power cell failure) it's clear that they know their craft and work well together. Seth's guitar work, while a bit understated in the venue was crisp and Carolyn's vocals were most impressive. They appear to have been influenced by Depeche Mode and Massive Attack (also to good effect) and even did a DM cover near the end of their set.

Faith and the Muse took the stage last that night, probably between 2230 and 2300 EST5EDT. It only took a few minutes for the stage kit to be rearranged and instruments to be brought out and tuned. Faith and the Muse are an extremely theatrical band, from their Japanese-inspired (this time) stage costumes to their props and onstage equipment. It isn't often that a goth band plays taiko drums the way they were meant to be played and burns incense in their stage show. Faith and the Muse wore very diverse stage costumes during the show, from EBM military uniforms to black-on-black business suits to hakama and warpaint to kimono to.. you know, I'm not sure how to describe Monica Richards' stage costume. Gypsy seer meets the Far East might suffice as a description. Faith and the Muse played very eclectic styles of music during their show that night: metal was represented, as was darkwave, kodo drumming, and even a few improvised instrumental pieces that involved drums, cello, violin, and viola. Their encore song also gave one a lot of food for thought, and I'll probably be buying : ankoku butoh : for this one song alone. As part of their stage show they featured Aradia and Lucretia, two members of the dance troupe Serpentine who wore ghostly white dance costumes and, at one point, feathered gloves that gave them the appearance of having inhumanly long digits, or perhaps tentacles. All in all, they put on an amazing show at Fur, one which deserves to be called an amazing return to the DC metroplex after six years.