Better late than never: The Next HOPE

27 July 2010

I got home from work early last Thursday afternoon after putting in a couple of hours at work to wrap things up and ensure that nothing would crash, blow up, or spontaneously develop sentience and go on a rampage through the city while I was taking a long weekend in New York City to attend The Next HOPE conference, thrown by 2600 Magazine once again. Unfortunately, this meant taking a couple of phone calls on the way home and throwing a suitcase of stuff together at the last minute so that Hasufin, Mika, and I could then drive to the train station downtime for the trip to New York. We nominally ran into Elwing and Irregular while standing in line and Bokunenjin joined the team a couple of stops down. For what it's worth, Hasufin had packed a thermos of coffee in his luggage and I grabbed a couple of jaw-breakingly tough slices of Sbarro pizza from the food court. In hindsight I probably should have skipped that and just napped for a couple of hours.

It's worth noting that we didn't stay at the Hotel Pennsylvania this year. The lower levels look great, don't get me wrong, but the rest of the hotel... well... let's just say that between the barely controllable air conditioning, carpets soaked with water from the bad condensers in the AC units, oppressive humidity, and case of bronchitis I caught last time I stayed there, I can't recommend it to anyone in good conscience. Thus, most of us stayed elsewhere in New York City and walked or took the taxi (which wound up being impressively cheap) to and from the convention. Mika, Hasufin, and I stayed at the Helmsley a couple of blocks away and very much enjoyed our stay (for what little time we actually spent there). It's a bit more pricy but well worth it. Just pack light if you're going gallivanting because it's not fast at all to run back and forth just to switch out your kit.

After settling into our room it was decided that we didn't have it in us to go running around the Big Apple, so we turned in to get a few hours of sleep before the con started the next day.
Oddly, I think this was the first con I've been to where I got up at decent times to catch things in the morning (around 0930 EST5EDT). Awakened by the sound of Hasufin's smartphone going off we took our turns showering, getting dressed, and figuring out what kit we'd been carrying for the day. I left all of my books in the hotel room (no time to read at a con, you see) alongside my ham radio gear (largely useless because I hadn't finished studying for my exam in time) and just brought Windbringer, my travel kit, and a toolkit (should it be necessary). We then hailed a cab and found ourselves among something like two thousand hackers who had invaded the Hotel Penn. The three of us split up and went off to presentations on our respective interests, keeping in touch with text messages periodically throughout the day. We rarely saw each other as a group. I didn't run into Elwing and Irregular Expression again until Saturday and only saw Bokunenjin napping on a hammock in the hackers' village late Friday night.

The only real presentation I went to on Friday afternoon was entitled SHODAN For Pen-testers. SHODAN, if you're not familiar with it, is a search engine that scans IP addresses on the Net and stores the banner information it finds. If you're looking for a particular Juniper router in Great Britain, chances are you can find it. If you're searching for machines running Windows NT v4.0 and Internet Information Server 4, you can find a bunch of them with a single search query. There are also a few canned popular searches, such as one for Cisco routers that require no login credentials. The presenter outlined briefly what sorts of things you could search for using SHODAN (some silly, some downright scary) and some of the stuff he's found. He also related a story about discovering that an ISP's infrastructure could be logged into from the outside without any effort at all, which meant that all sorts of havoc could be wreaked by someone. Imagine a big-bore router suddenly having its routing tables flushed in the middle of the workday. Not good. Thankfully, the ISP was understanding and fixed its problems without giving him any hassle.

Not too long after that I ran into Punkin 3.14, a very old friend of mine (eleven years online is a long, long time) from the Serial Experiments Lain mailing list (a moment of silence, please) and her husband Cedric, who are also the founders of Kwartzlab, a hackerspace in Ontario, Canada. This was the first time that any of us had met face to face before so it actually took Kernel Panic to break the ice. We wound up spending much of the afternoon geeking out - complaining about compilers, out-doing and being out-done by professors in college, stuff we'd done... at one point we walked a couple of blocks to a really nice kosher deli for a late lunch followed by a side-trip to one of the many cheap high tech stores in New York City to wonder if we were going to spend more money than we had. Punkin 3.14 needed a US SIM card for her phone so she could call without incurring international charges and... well, I've been pondering adding another netbook to my field kit. At $150us, they're hard to pass up...

I didn't buy one, for the record.

Later that night I spent a couple of hours up on the eighteenth floor of the Hotel Penn where all the panels and presentations were being held. The first I hit (which happened to be of strong interst) was Tor and Internet Censorship by Jacob Appelbaum. In it he talked about some of the evolving threats trying to counter Tor and what's been going on with the project. He also discussed the technical aspects of some Internet censorship systems (many of which are developed and sold by companies based in the United States... food for thought). Unfortunately, I didn't get an opportunity to talk to him afterward because HOPE security took him aside to talk to him about something. After that was the Extreme Lockpicking panel with a few of the guys from TOOOL who work as penetration testers in the United States. They specifically spoke of hotel shenanagins, such as the mechanical overrides of the electronic locks of hotel rooms and by picking those you can bypass having to jackpot the electronics. For the record, the maglocks at the Helmsley can be found on the bottom of the brass wedge on the front of the door. They're not blocked and they actually feel like tubular locks rather than keylocks. Caveat traveler.

I've never been shy about being a fan of chiptunes, music composed for and played with 8- or 16-bit computer systems and game consoles. Because there was so little to work (compared to today, an age of 128 kilobit prerecorded music) game programmers (in particular, the musicians) had to be extremely clever and creative in their work, and it really shows. Anyway, there is still a thriving chiptune community and in fact there are concerts held in various cities around the world which draw quite a few people. I keep meaning to go to the ones held periodically in Philadelphia but haven't made it out there yet. At any rate, Peter Swimm of the website True Chip 'till Death, musician Animal Style, and video artist NO CARRIER explained the origins of the scene in the warez scene of the 1980's all the way up to hacking game consoles to use as live instruments today. They showed footage from a couple of concerts from a few years ago, and they even did a two night chiptune concert down in the hackers' village (which I missed, unfortunately).

You know, I think I'm going to give my guitar another shot and see if I can get something together for the HOPE conference in two years...

Following the presentations I found myself at loose ends so I spent the rest of my time that night hanging out in the hackers' village with Rob T. Firefly, whom I've known for years from the Information Society fandom and more lately 2600's radio show Off the Hook. We spent some time catching up and hanging out. At one point some folks from Baltimore Node came over to see what we were up to. A bit after that a rather more major problem was discovered and I did what I could to help out. Without going into too much detail, I've made some mistakes in the past and did what I could to help clean this one up. After the excitement was over and what needed done got done, I pinged Hasufin, who had gone on ahead a couple of hours before. He'd gotten a small group of people together for a late dinner at a diner a few blocks away. However, between my inability to navigate and the fact that I don't know my way around New York City I didn't trust my ability to get there. It wasn't too far off, so Hasufin walked back to get me. I don't remember what diner it was, though I can probably dig the receipt out. Suffice it to say that it was your average four flaregun diner and I got to see a couple of people that I haven't seen in a while.

Saturday morning brought with it a quick breakfast at Pax, the little deli next door and a cab ride back to the Hotel Penn for day two of HOPE. Once again we split up and I headed back to the eighteenth floor to catch a couple of presentations. The first one I wound up at, mostly because I was jockeying for a seat at the keynote, was Grand Theft Lazlow of Rockstar Games. His speech was about the generally dodgy state of journalism and publishing and network neutrality. His presentation seemed to oscillate between how awesome he is at Rockstar Games, how online publishing has been a bust, and how we need to do something about it. Unfortunately, he didn't offer any solutions, just more reasons that we're all fucked. He also complained about how software piracy is dragging the gaming industry down and how people need to stop downloading stuff and just buy it. It should be noted that Lazlow did not mention any of the studies whose results state that DRM that abuses the players either drives players to consoles or causes people to buy games but download cracks to strip the malware out. He also neglected to mention the studies that suggest that the music industry has also reported record earnings since a) people could listen to things to see what they like before they buy them, and b) they're lumping the iTunes, eMusic, and downloads from other online music stores in with illegal downloads. In short, he really didn't make a whole lot of sense.

I met up with Hasufin in the Tesla room to jockey for a good position for the keynote on Saturday, which was supposed to be given by Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. However, word swiftly got 'round the night before that the Department of Homeland Security had dispatched a couple of agents to The Next HOPE, ostensibly to detain Assange for questioning. So the story goes, Emmanual Goldstein and the rest of HOPE security prevented them from entering because they didn't have a warrant (interesting...), so they went to the registration desk and paid $100us each in cash to get in. I'd like to point out that, as paying attendees they were then held to the rules of the con, which would have seriously limited anything that they could do. Then word got around that Assange wasn't at HOPE, let alone in the country; the confusing bit is that there was a guy hanging out between the Bell and Tesla rooms on Friday afternoon who looked a lot like him, though with a bit of geek muscle. Had me fooled.

When Hasufin and I heard that Assange wasn't going to be presenting we hatched a plot to find a good headshot of Assange, print it out a couple of dozen times in the hotel's business office, and hand them out to wear as masks at the keynote. Sadly, we didn't go forward with this plan, least of all because we wouldn't have gotten back into the Tesla room; it was already standing room only half an hour before the keynote started. Also, HOPE security was in fourth gear and showing no signs of slowing down. It's usually not good to see security moving fast; it's never good when they look worried. Ever. As Hasufin and I stood at the back of the Tesla room, we spotted Nick Farr's shaven pate and trademark tan business suit hustling toward us. He gently ushered us up near the front of the room along the left-hand side, just behind the PA speaker stack, and in perfect view of not only the stage but stage left and the black curtain that partitioned off the back of the stage from everything else. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I pulled my camera, fiddled around a bit to figure out what would give the best images, and stood at the ready.

Nick, I owe you the drink of your choice.

Emmanual Goldstein of 2600 came onstage to introduce Saturday's keynote address in his familiar, jocular manner. We waited with bated breath to see if Julian Assange would appear, all of us knowing full well that agents from DHS, the FBI (their attendence of HOPE has never been a secret), and possibly other law enforcement agencies were in the audience. Much to our astonishment Jacob Appelbaum, who works as an engineer on Wikileaks took the stage. Moments after taking the microphone, he announced that he had nothing illegal on him; the laptop on the podium was not his and he had only some money, a copy of the Bill of Rights, and a driver's license on his person. No means to access or threaten anyone at all.

And then it began.

Have you ever been to a revival? A devival? Have you ever had an experience that "put the spirit in you", that made the hair on your arms and on the back of your neck stand up? That choked you up a bit, or made you feel that peculiar pressure behind your eyes that meant that, if you weren't careful, you were about to start sobbing? That's what it was like standing there. I'm ashamed to admit that, when asked what good the truth has done for me, I didn't have an answer.

I/O Error took time explaining why Wikileaks was founded and why it was taken offline for a time earlier this year. He also outlined some of the history of Wikileaks and why he does what he does. The Tron quote was both a nice touch and very appropriate. There was even a Superman reveal when he tore open his hooded sweatshirt to reveal a certain t-shirt. If you want to listen to the whole talk I highly recommend that you take the time to watch the presentation (downloaded using BitTorrent from here) or download the audio from someplace online (my mirror is over here). He even spoke of some of the changes that have been brought about in other countries because people had the original documents to make informed decisions, and even discover that they'd been had, plain and simple. He also took the time to refute the criticisms leveled against Wikileaks by Wired Magazine and a couple of people quoted on Cryptome.

Much to everyone's surprise, a rail-thin figure dressed in a dark pinstriped suit paced like a caged cat up and down the side aisles of the Tesla room, a few times right past Hasufin and I. A few times HOPE security moved him toward the back of the room. A few times he moved back on its own. I don't know if he was trying to get on stage to give his side of the story, or confront I/O Error, or what. What I do know is that for some period of time he stayed on the far side of the room (stage right). He never got on stage, not until the informant's panel held later. It's worth noting that Appelbaum called him out by calling for his ostracism for breaking the first command of the hacker community - thou shalt not squeal.

You've already heard my take on that, so I'll say no more on this topic.

At the end of the presentation, I/O Error left the stage and Greg Newby started playing the Collateral Murder video on the big screen. I/O Error headed backstage and through the curtain separating it from backstage. A few minutes into the video a group of HOPE security officers strode past us down the stage left aisle and vanished behind the curtains. A few moments later they reappeared as a flying wedge cutting through the crowd with a figure wearing a 2600 Magazine hooded sweatshirt inside. I might have heard a couple of people charge after them through the hallway but I can't say for sure so please don't quote me on that. I might have been caught up in the moment. As it turned out, whomever it was who charged past me with a cadre of HOPE security around him wasn't Appebaum. Appelbaum had left the building and the convention (canceling the presentation he was supposed to give later that day) through the maintenance hallway behind the curtain. The security cadre was escorting a decoy. One supposes this was due to the fact that certain federal agencies are known to shoot (or arrest, as the situation demands) the messenger. Appelbaum, as someone who works on Wikileaks in a technical capacity and probably knows a couple of things about Julian Assange (having traveled and lived with him for a time on the road) would be a person of interest one would think. When last I heard he was still somewhere out there.

After the keynote was over a few of us met up again down on the mezzanine floor, over by the lockpicking village and TOOOL's sales table to hang out. Once again, the world is safe from my mad larceny skills, and by 'mad' I mean 'largely fictitious'. At some point Mika, Hasufin, Joe Silver (who is now a resident of New York), Elwing, Irregular Expression, and I got together in the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania to get dinner. We wound up at a nice little French restaurant a couple of blocks away (most everything's a couple of blocks away in Manhattan) that specialized in crepes of all kinds. I wound up getting a sun dried tomato and goat cheese buckwheat crepe for dinner which was surprisingly tasty. I figured, since I was out of my element in New York I may as well push the boundries back a bit - it keeps you young, you know? I've got a business card and receipt laying around somewhere, I really should give that place a review when I've had a chance (nevermind the fact that I've been writing this post for nearly a week now...)

I made it back in time to catch a presentation called Hackers For Human Rights with Adrian Hong. In it he spoke of some of the things going on in other countries and some of the things that he and others were doing to make life better for everyone. I wound up talking with him afterward about some of the stuff I'd been doing locally with Tor and offered to help teach in any way I could. I found myself in a most interesting conversation with a couple of people that turned into a hallway-clogging breakout that was pushed over by the lightning talk rooms because so many people were standing there. During that time, I got to learn some things that I simply had no conception of because I'm not that well traveled. I also had the unique opportunity to explain that yes, I can be wrong and yes, please tell me how if I am. In that same moment, just this was done. I met up again with the DC contingent and we went hiking again to get a late dinner and then hit a few pubs around New York. We eventually wound up in a small bar not too far away from Hell's Kitchen swapping horror stories and making sure that we had enough cab fare to get home.

Sunday morning brought with it shaking the cobwebs out, taking our luggage down to the bell-check to be held until we picked it up later that day, and checking out around 1100 that morning. We split up after taking a cab back to the Hotel Penn - Mika went in to catch a few panels while Hasufin and I set off in search of what wound up being very difficult to find if you're actively looking but practically everywhere if you weren't: bagels and lox. I've always had a thing for salty stuff, from soft pretzels to popcorn. Bagels and lox, on the other hand.. I think I've been spoiled by getting them in New York City. Kind of like getting a cheese steak sandwich when in Philadelphia. Once you've tried them in the place they originally came from you just can't go back. The thing is, it took us four tries and a couple of city blocks to find a deli that actually served them. We got lucky just as we gave up by finding a little restaurant whose claim to fame is that it was in a spy movie (I think) from a couple of years ago. No matter, we got what we were looking for and I have to say, I wouldn't mind another round of bagels and lox sometime soon. I might have a new favorite...

We made it back to the hotel just in time to catch another couple of presentations on the eighteenth floor. I was interested in Burning and Building Bridges: A Primer to Hacking the Education System by Fabulous, who is an ex-teacher with inside knowledge of what the public education system has been up to these days. Apparently, it's worse off than when I was in high school; teaching kids logic and reasoning before teaching them math earned a motivated schoolteacher a lawsuit because the companies who publish textbooks didn't like his deviating from their curriculum. And to think that it was the teachers who decided what the curriculum was going to be and how it was to unfold in the course of a year... I discovered at the end of her presentation that threatening the kids lucky enough to be placed in GATE (gifted and talented education) programs with taking them out if they didn't shut up and act like the rest of the class was actually rather common, something that never fails to make my blood boil. I wound up talkking with Fabulous and a couple of other folks afterward, some of them based out of DC interestingly enough. I had a few things to say about the district that I'd graduated from (few of them particularly flattering) and asked around about Project RIGOR (which I've been able to find no information on in the decade and a half that's passed since I escaped).

I didn't go to the informants panel because, after the keynote yesterday there was no way in hell there would be room. Plus, I didn't expect it to be all that civil and really didn't feel like a) watching things get ugly, and b) I had the distinct impression that dissenting opinions or big pictures would not have been welcome at all. So, a bunch of us wound up down on the mezzanine talking about networking and the education system. I wound up cutting out early to hit Myrcurial's presentation, which was to be one of the last of the conference. His presentation was called The Black Suit Plan Isn't Working, and he had some highly interesting things to say to all of us. As someone who changed jobs back in December for a different world (one might say), there were definitely some things that he said which struck home, and which I wish that I'd heard some time ago. There was a measure of good natured heckling from the audience of rather high quality; at one point Myrcurial said that he'd wished that the audience was mic'd because it would have made a nice addition to the archival recording. After it was over Kernel Panic and I went up to have a brief word with him (because, after all, we IT geeks have to stick together) and then went our separate ways.

After the next HOPE wrapped I met up again with everyone in the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania and we spent Sunday evening bumming around New York City, seeing some of the sights while searching for someplace to have dinner before leaving. We eventually settled on a restaurant called Tir na Nog, an Irish pub and restaurant a couple of blocks away (yes, I say that a lot about Manhattan; this makes it no less the case) for one last dinner before we had to get back on the train and return home to DC. The food there was pretty good, the service friendly and responsive, and we had a good time hanging out around the dinner table. It isn't often that I get to see some of those folks and it was good to see everyone. We spent so much of the conference running around to different presentations and doing our own thing we didn't really spend much time talking.

All too soon, Mika, Hasufin, and I had to hop a cab back to the Helmsley, pick up our luggage, and then get back to Union Station to get our train back home. The ride home was less comfortable than the ride up because we'd wound up in a dining car. When you're tired and just want to stretch out for a while and rest, dining benches aren't the most comfortable thing. At any rate, we napped when we could, read when we could, and passed the hours back home however we could. Bokunenjin was the first to leave the train as she lives the farthest east of everyone; the rest of us got off at Union Station downtown. Because Hasufin, Mika and I had left the car in long term parking it was only a couple of escalator rides to get back, load our luggage into the back, and then head for home. It was about 0130 EST5EDT when I got home and 0200 when I finally crashed for the night. All too soon morning comes 'round, and with it a new week, which is why it's taken me so long to write this update.

Unlike the last couple of HOPE conferences I've been to I didn't spent a whole lot of time at the lockpicking village or the hackerspace. I've come to the conclusion that, in such an environment, I'd much rather be social and interact with people than sit in a corner working on something. I can hack around whenever I like (or nearly so) at home or at HacDC; conferences present the chance to talk to people from far afield and learn from other experiences. It was for that reason that I wound up in a lot of hallway breakouts talking with people. I don't think that I would have learned some of the things I did just sitting at a table soldering.

A couple of things, though: first of all the sheer number of complaints about con funk Twitter started to get to me. I've heard from a couple of residents of New York that this is one of the nastier summers they've had in the past ten years so all of us were sweating. All of us. Those of you complaining vigorously about people's body odor and wishing that all of us would carry deodorant on our person at all times would do well to give yourselves a quick sniff test before saying anything.

As for the Next HOPE schedule smartphone applications, while they were fun to play with beforehand I really didn't find them all that useful. All things being equal I got a lot more use out of the printed conference programme because I didn't have to turn it on, clear the screensaver, and then scroll back and forth to figure out what was where. I found it odd that there didn't seem to be too many scanner freaks like me running around the con; if there were I didn't run into them. The ham radio station was manned every time I walked past but aside from some synaesthetically pretty noise coming from a monitoring speaker I didn't really hear anything. Prior to the conference beginning I'd tried to set up OpenVPN on the netbooks of Mika and Hasufin running Windows XP. Specifically, I'd cut them certificates for authentication and encryption but the Windows port of OpenVPN demands a config file, the nature of which I hadn't thought to figure out beforehand. In hindsight I wish that I'd thought to prototype it on a Windows box ahead of time. I'm also surprised by the relative lack of shenanagins at the conference this year. All things considered the con was actually rather quiet - the only things I saw were the papercraft dinosaur invading the diorama at the top of the escalator and the wanted posters.

All things being equal, we had a great time at HOPE this year. The presentations were of slightly higher quality than past iterations of HOPE. The hackers' village was packed every time I went through there and I frankly lost track of the number of hackerspaces who had displays, tables, and representatives there hanging out. Adafruit Industries had a table set up in the village which was doing brisk business selling HOPE badge hacking kits among other things (such as my AWOL Waveshield kit). I got to see some people that I haven't spent time with in far too long and I got to meet some new people (who I really need to ping when I get a chance).