HacDC at the USA Science and Engineering Festival.

30 April 2012

A week or two ago it was announced on one of the HacDC mailing lists that we'd been given a pair of tables at the second USA Science and Engineering Festival which was held this past weekend. It was a call to members who wanted to exhibit their work during the festival, and not a few of us threw our headgear into the ring. Rather than hold a Byzantium development sprint this weekend Sitwon, Haxwithaxe, and I met at HacDC to mass-produce demo CDs of Byzantium Linux to give out at our table along with the HacDC stickers, postcards, and brochures. It took us an hour or two to figure out how to work the CD duplicator but once we got it going (which consisted of finding the unattached plastic bit that was hanging up the duplicator's robotic arm and forcing an unhandled error condition in the software) we manufactured, tested, and labeled a spindle of Byzantium CDs. We also spent some time hanging out with a visiting hacker, Matteo Flora from Italy who is on a hackerspace tour in the States this month.

The next day I woke up far too early on a Saturday, attired myself suitably in my ceremonial labcoat and loaded my gear into the TARDIS for the jaunt to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown DC. The drive to the Center wasn't too bad; finding parking proved to be something of a challenge but I found a lot a block or two away for a reasonable price ($20us/day - reasonable for downtown DC, anyway). Finding the HacDC table proved to be the problem, however. I arrived more or less on time but wandered around for the next hour in search of our tables. Nobody at the info desk knew. None of the staff wandering around knew. None of the exhibitors I spoke to knew. A helpful woman representing the ARRL got me pointed in the general direction of where it would be but, much to my panic, the row of booths where HacDC's tables should have been was practically barren. Later, I discovered that we'd been moved with the other hackerspaces and DIY groups, such as Parallax, the Astromech Builder's Group, Sparkfun, and Baltimore Node. Total time spent lost wandering around a standing room only convention center that covers two city blocks: One hour. Those of you who know me are entirely unsurprised. Those of you who know me but got lost for several hours: I'm not laughing

The HacDC table had a number of projects on exhibit, so many that we never ran out of things to talk about. One of our members had a 3D printer running from opening to close on Saturday running off keychains (I still think they look like dogtags) with the HacDC insignia on them. Spaceblimp-5's chassis was on display with most of its guts gone (the cameras were left in place). We didn't have a whole lot of space so the other four iterations of the design were left on display in the HacDC classroom. Martin's laptop was set up to run a continuous montage of photographs and videos shot of and by Spaceblimp. Some of our members had on display LED and video hacks that they'd developed, ranging from very simple blinkylights all the way up to full motion video running on scavenged miniature displays. Our stack of Byzantium Linux disks was on the table next to the stickers, postcards, and brochures that we use as hand-outs. I don't think I stopped talking once during either day we were there because we were mobbed with visitors from start to finish of the festival.

Mostly curious people stopped by to ask what we were all about; lots of kids were there (the festival was mostly oriented toward kids though adults were very well represented as well). A few individuals concerned about us also stopped by to visit, and it's my considered opinion that I think we helped to change their minds, much as the hotrodders of yesteryear helped change the public's opinion of them by helping stranded motorists by the side of the road. We talked about the classes and workshops we hold every week, our bringing in guest speakers once a month, the HacDC Amateur Radio Club meetings on Wednesday nights, the high altitude ballooning project, our lab space, and our software design working group. I talked a little bit about Project Byzantium (as is common these days we're pentuply booked every weekend - I don't know where Haxwithaxe was but Sitwon was at Broadband Bridge that weekend) and handed out copies at most every turn. I think the 3D printer and Spaceblimp-5 got the most attention because they seem like the least possible of all of our projects even though we've been successful with them for sevearl years apiece. Doing the impossible is the stock in trade of hackers.

I didn't have much time to explore the other exhibits at the Festival because of how busy we were. Still, I found the time to wander around a bit and see who else was on site. Lockheed-Martin was all over the place; their exhibits were gargantuan in size, rivaled only by the combined floorspace occupied by just about every branch of the US Armed Forces. From what I could tell every military branch, from the US Army's SPAWAR and Go Army Ed projects to the Air Force's cyberwar booth and jet (yes, the Thunderbirds were represented). The US intelligence community had booths all over the place, with the noteworthy exception of the NSA. Defense contractors and engineering firms had exhibits alongside colleges and research institutes galore. The partial list of partners is considerable. I found a little time on the second day to pick up some swag but most of it was kid-oriented so I picked and chose as I made my rounds.

Early on Sunday morning we switched up the 3D printer's output. Rather than printing handouts a suitably complex mathematical shape was fed into the printer as a day-long demonstration of what consumer-grade 3D printers were capable of these days. It's not a fast process though it is a strong one; after three hours we had a fairly complex curved shape made out of plastic to show people. Unfortunately, partway through the second batch of shapes (Space Invaders action figures) the printer had to be taken offline for reasons I never found out. Still, the 'printer made a good talking point as visitors came and went. As a practical demonstration of Project Byzantium on Sunday afternoon (largely as a reaction to the convention center's usurious cost of wi-fi) Ag4ve and I set up a Byzantium node and offering free wireless to everyone at the Festival. We tethered his cellular phone to my netbook as the backhaul and set up a mesh gateway (resulting in the creation of this ticket in our bugtracker, incidentally) to the rest of the Internet. Our mesh node was serving a copy of the HacDC website in case anyone wanted to learn more about us during the Festival. Due to the fact that Byzantium Linux logs as little as it can get away with, we don't have stats on the number of people who accessed the mirror or the Internet that afternoon. In the process we discovered a few things that need to be fixed and added the to our roadmap for v0.2a.

In the spirit of full disclosure, purchase neither wi-fi nor food at the convention center. They charge $27us/day for wireless access (one would have thought that connectivity at the Science and Engineering Festival would have joined the rest of the exhibits in the twenty-first century) and the food is simply not worth the inflated prices. $3us for a small bottle of water and $14us for the most lousy chicken tenders on the planet are just too much. Bring your own provisions and rely upon your cellular provider if you find yourself at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center of Washington, DC.

On Saturday night Makerbot Industries organized a dinner down the street at a restaurant called The Passenger. The food there seems pretty good, I didn't sample the drinks because I was driving, but the back room we were in was even more packed than the Festival that day. Not a few of us decided to depart in something of a hurrry after a short period of time, following our thanks to the Makerbot folks for organizing the meetup. I still don't know what their Replicator was fabbing at the rear of the private room we were in because I left before it was finished but I'm somewhat curious to find out.

On Sunday afternoon a group of artists set up their display a few feet away from our tables. Sadly, this put them right behind the Angry Birds shooting gallery run by Baltimore Node, so they found themselves being periodically shelled with stuffed toys fired by children from a very large slingshot. When the convention wrapped on Sunday afternoon a misunderstanding lead to some of us at HacDC helping them pack up and haul their exhibits to one of the loading docks for transportation. It wasn't that they were heavy per se, but they were bulky and difficult to transport without bits falling off. Ag4ve and I eventually improvised a drag with a borrowed piece of cardboard, moved the exhibit, and after loading it onto the truck promptly got lost in the convention center for an hour or so. We then loaded up the rest of HacDC's exhibits and departed for our respective homes.

On the first day I bought a Festival t-shirt, and promptly lost it on my way back to the booth. If anybody found a blue XXL #scieng t-shirt, please leave a comment on this post.

ITechGeek uploaded his first batch of photographs taken at the Festival on Saturday night. I'll get my uploaded soon.