ContactCon 2011.

26 October 2011

As you've no doubt guessed, the reasons for my radio silence have been many and multi-layered, and now things have calmed down a little. I've been scrambling with the rest of the development team to get Project Byzantium in such a state that it was ready to show off at ContactCon. ContactCon, held late last week, was an unconference dedicated to showcasing and networking the developers of next-generation communication technologies that was driven by the attendees presenting their work rather than gathering to listen to people speak on stage. Most of us who attended are working on technologies that are decentralized and user-driven in nature, and not run by monolithic entities that can have a disproportionate degree of control over how they're used. In short, they are our technologies, not someone else's that we happen to be allowed to use. Most of the projects at the conference were software-based in nature (many of them implementing online services) but there were a few hardware projects on the docket that eventually cleaned up all across the board and not a few social projects, but I get ahead of myself. There were too many projects for me to list individually so I recommend that you check out the official list which has already been compiled.

The trip up to New York by Amtrak was, as usual, surprisingly short and productive. Compared to flying or taking the bus, there are few more enjoyable ways to travel assuming that one packs lightly. I'd sprung for business class when setting this trip up which gave me the advantage of both extra legroom as well as a pair of regular power outlets for equipment. On the Amtrak website, I recommend a little bit of patience and some flexibility in your plans because you might get lucky and find a good price on a basic ticket with an upgrade to business class for $30us-$40us more. That's what I did. I brought a power strip with me just in case two power outlets weren't enough (one never knows when one will wind up with a seatmate) but through an odd stroke of luck that wound up not happening. I worked the entire time cloning and testing bootable USB keys loaded with the pre-alpha of Byzantium Linux on them. Sadly, I think Dragonfly bought the farm by the time I'd tested the third or fourth key because my netbook stopped recognizing any USB storage devices and began having problems booting. Time will tell.

I'm not certain if this is usual or not, but the first thing that comes to mind about my trip to New York are the remarkably cheap cab rides. It only cost $15us to get from Penn Station to the hotel I stayed at, and another $20us to get from the hotel to the conference. For the record I stayed at the Hotel 41 in downtown Manhattan after selecting it from the list of hotels that still had open rooms in their conference block. The fairest thing I can say is that tiny hotel room is tiny. And expensive. The room I stayed in was just a little bigger than 12 feet by 12 feet plus a small bathroom, but not by much. I got a distinct feeling of claustrophobia staying there, but it's still better than just about every room I've ever had at the Hotel Pennsylvania but pack light because you won't have a lot of room to work with. The food in the restaurant/bar just off the lobby of the hotel is pretty decent, the service is friendly (during the day, at least), and at this time of year it's good to not have to go far for a hot meal. The average cost of a good meal there is about $10us. You could certainly do worse in New York City, so if you'll be in the area you might want to pay them a visit.

Not one to relax for very long when things need to get done I stayed up much of the night prepping for the unconference by going over (and reworking) some old presentations on the off chance that they'd be needed, reading source code to jumpstart my brain, and patching my frontal lobes to be less introverted for the duration of the conference. I'm not sure if I kept anyone awake into the wee hours or not with my muttering, and if so I apologize. Morning came 'round all too quickly and after a hot shower, some fussing with my clothes, and making the mistake of carrying too much kit I hailed a cab and presently found myself standing outside of the Angel Orensanz Center with a few other conference-goers until security opened the front doors and we began filing inside. Within minutes of my boots (well, dancing shoes) hitting the ground I was already neck deep in engineering and social projects. I got to meet Douglas Rushkoff and Vanessa Miemis, who are both extremely gracious as well as very interesting to talk to. For that matter, everyone on the conference staff was very understanding and patient, and I thank each and every one of you. All of you did a yeoman's job and your help was gratefully appreciated.

The Center is the oldest synagogue in New York City, and in fact is the fourth oldest such building in the country. It's really quite beautiful inside, something that every synagogue I've been in has over just about every other sacred space I've had the privilege of visiting. After finding someplace to put my backpack down I grabbed a quick breakfast from the canteen in the back corner followed by another round of talking with other conference goers about their projects and getting the odd autograph on a treasured text. In addition to the handful of books carefully stowed in my field kit I also brought enough gear to do a three-node demo of Byzantium, which wound up not happening because I hadn't gotten a demo table for the bazaar. It seems as if I'd put in a request for a table at the bazaar a little too late.

To get everyone firing on all eight cylinders that early in the morning the opening provocations covered the gamut of social interaction in the world today, from social advocacy to emergent economies and repurposing the free time and energy of gamers to accomplish difficult tasks, and even some devil's advocacy on the part of R.U. Sirius (of Mondo 2000 fame) and a gravity-assisted wakeup call for the Twitter generation courtesy of n0pants. After the opening provocations were over an emergency supply of coffee had to be airlifted in because the conference was still trying to boot itself up. Once caffeinated the agenda for the conference was set by Douglas Rushkoff and then came the mad scramble to get panels and roundtables on the schedule boards for the rest of the day. Competition for panel slots was brisk with not a few near misses as the microphone was passed around. Once the first couple of hours were established everyone was free to wander from panel to panel and participate (or not) as they saw fit. Recording of panels was encouraged and in fact required for later documentation on the ContactBBS under the theory that participants could go back later and see what happened in panels they'd missed, as well as keep in touch and further develop their ideas.

It was at the largely ad-hoc panels that the real work happened at the conference. People were presenting not just ideas but the things they've been passionately working on. There was a lot of "this worked" and "this didn't work because..." going on, and a fair amount of people trying to fit their projects together if it seemed as if they had compatible goals or functionality. As adhocracies are wont to be there was little actual organization - no hierarchy, few defined roles, but just about everyone was involved in both the decision making and development processes. In point of fact, getting results was goal of each panel. From what I could tell when wandering from panel to panel the panels were very productive and a lot of connections were made as different projects came together to collaborate. I hope that Project Byzantium was able to grow by a couple of developers, but only time will tell.

Lunch was provided by a small group of vendors from around the city and paid for with one of the two red lunch tickets we were given along with our conference badges. We only had two so you couldn't try much unless you were dead-set on grazing back at the canteen but between my own experiences and those of everyone I spoke to, there was nothing bad there. The pulled pork bread bowls from Sunday Gravy were amazing, and the papusas weren't too shabby either. Between lunch, trying to see the schedule boards at the front of the room, and navigating the bazaar it wasn't easy to keep track of what was going on at a given time. ContactCon was standing room only so moving around without causing any minor disasters was challenging. Worming between demo tables required a little strategy, a little backtracking, and a lot of patience to get between arbitrary points. Also, dehydration was a problem due to the lack of air circulation, density of people in the building, and amount of equipment running full tilt. Now granted, this might have been due in part to the multiple layers of clothing I was wearing (it's fall in New York City city right now, mind you) but I was also not the only person to note that they stopped bringing in coffee and started hauling tubs full of ice and bottled water into the building instead around 1300 EST5EDT. I didn't keep track of how many times they had to refill it because I was too busy drinking most of it.

Through the course of the afternood I'd gotten into not a few discussions about what everyone was working on and presenting. I got a lot of good advice regarding Byzantium from the people at the bazaar and I hope I was able to help in some small way as well. I also gave the five bootable USB keys containing the pre-alpha release of Byzantium to a few people to try in the hope that they like what they see and will be interested in helping the project, or at least will be willing to work with us to help with interoperability. In truth I was also trying to get attention for the project so we'd be on the radar of the "right people" (for however one chooses to define "right people"). I got to attend and participate in a couple of teach-ins, such as n0pants' hacktivism 101 class. After the third round of panels were over the town hall, at which we were supposed to select the most actionable and potentialy helpful projects of all of those presented. This resulted in more milling around, jockeying for position to get up front, and somehow winding geeking out yet again on the finer points of wok-fi.

The closing benediction and blessing of the grant recipients were given at the after-conference reception given by the Reverend Billy and wound up having a bit more audience participation than any of us had really expected. The reception after the 'con was well and truly over included a live performance from Death By Screens. I missed most of it because I was hanging out with n0pants and a few other people, which I'll post updates about when I find out more. Yet again, after that a large group of us stood outside of the Angel Orensanz building discussing reputation based economies and scaling until the security officers (whose patience was considerable, let me add) finally shooed us away in the general direction of the afterparty at the Sutra Lounge, which is a small and up-scale nightclub in Manhattan not much bigger than the lobby of the Hotel 41. The rest of the eveningt was spent hanging out with some of the Tor Project's developers and some other activists from Washington, DC and New York City, including a few allies flying below the radar. The entertainment for the afterparty at the Sutra Lounge was as eccentric as any I've come to expect while on the road - live reggae and freestyle, followed by Tuvalu throat singing of all things. I didn't really have any preconceived notions about what I was in for so all I could do was take it as it came and reflect later.

By the end of the night I was dreadfully short on sleep, tired and sore from hauling 40 pounds of equipment around, and in need of some time in the rack. So I said my good-byes, hailed a cab, and headed back to the Hotel 41 to practice my impersonation of a dead whale laying on a beach. Eleven hours and a shower later I stumbled downstairs in search of lunch and found myself locked out of my room 15 minutes early (checkout time is at 1200). Another few trips up and down the elevator were required along with some negotiation to get my keycard turned back on so I could get my luggage and clear out. I wound up killing time at Penn Station for a couple of hours until my train for home departed, something a lot less comfortable than it sounds. The bathrooms in Penn Station are horrifying. I was afraid of catching something just by looking at the walls and I've already made an appointment to get my shots updated. The trip home was spent doing little more than reading and drinking just enough coffee to stay awake so that I wouldn't miss Union Station when the train got back to Washington, DC. I nearly missed it anyway but all's well that ends well, as they say. It's now Wednesday, nearly a week later, and I'm almost recovered from ContactCon. I'm still short of sleep (because my desk and inbox blew up at work, but them's the breaks when you go out of town) and I really need to get back to everyone I was working with back there. I also need to get ready for the Byzantium development sprint this weekend; I have a feeling that lots of coffee is going to be involved.

I'd like to take this time to congratulate the three winners of $10kus grants through IndieGoGo, the Fayetteville Free Library FabLab, the Free Network Foundation, and the Freedombox Foundation.

For those of you who weren't able to attend, here are some of the official ContactCon media resources assembled by the participants of the unconference. No doubt more will appear as people hit their stride again and begin uploading things.