HOPE XI - This one went to eleven!

02 August 2016

It's mostly been radio silence for the past couple of days. If you're reading this you've no doubt noticed that Switchboard (one of my constructs) posted the slides from my talk earlier this week. As sophisticated and helpful as she is, Switchboard can't yet pick thoughts out of my wetware to write blog posts. And so, here I am, my primary organic terminal sitting at Windbringer's console keying in notes, saving them, and then going back to turn them into something approaching prose. I've just now had the time to sit down and start writing stuff about HOPE XI, largely because after getting back all hell broke loose at my dayjob (per usual) so I haven't had the time. In point of fact, this writeup will probably happen over the course of a couple of days so it might come off as a bit disjointed.

It felt kind of strange attending this HOPE. I missed the last one two years ago because I was in the middle of moving into our new place on the other coast so I felt a little out of the loop. I missed just about everything that happened there and I keep forgetting to go back and track down the video recordings (so I'll have another part of me do that). It didn't take long to get back into the stride, though. Once you start attending hacker cons regularly it's easy to find how everything comes together, dive in, and get out of it what you're looking for. There weren't many vendors there because HOPE is largely a talks-and-talking to people kind of conference but I did come home with a few things to practice with as I always do. I also went out of my way to not buy another full wardrobe of t-shirts because, even after getting rid of 4/5 of my collection (including, I hasten to add, much of my collection of hacker convention shirts) space in my dresser is still at a premium. So goes the life of a self-admitted clothes horse. I also found one of Seeed Studio's FST-01 ultra-miniature 32-bit computers for sale at a table and snapped it up to use it with NeuG as a random number generator in a few of my projects because my Geiger counter died some months ago, but that's a writeup for another time.

After landing, picking up my luggage, and catching a cab to the hotel I met up with Seele, Genetik, and Nuke, whom I was splitting a hotel room with. I was a bit chagrined when Seele told me that there'd been a booking mixup and the Hotel Pennsylvania had to give us a different room. What I hadn't expected was that they gave us what amounted to a con suite, two full-sized rooms hooked together like a smallish apartment that easily had room for twice as many people as would be staying there. There was sufficient room that we were able to spread out as much as we liked with room left over so sleeping was quite comfortable. I never really got over the jet lag this time so my sleep schedule was all messed up. I may have averaged about four hours of sleep a night all weekend, modulo having to take a nap for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon because I could neither concentrate on anything nor tune out background noise for very long. Either one left me with a dizzying sense of sensory overload which left me unable to see straight. It also meant that I spent the next couple of days trying to catch up and crashing hard after work for ten to twelve hours, with very strong but fragmentary dreams as my primary long-term memory optimized itself. It was the kind of sleep deprivation that you didn't know you had, as opposed to the kind of sleep deprivation where you know full well you've been awake for three days straight and you feel it in your bones, your fingers, and even in your hair. I didn't make it to all of the talks I wanted to but I did make a point of picking up a couple of DVDs before I left of the ones I really wanted to hit; I also downloaded most of the livestream recordings to watch later on the media box, probably after I get off the road the week after next.

A colleague of mine once remarked that there comes a point where you pretty much level out of most of the stuff that happens at hacker cons and you get more out of interacting with everyone there than you do from attending talks or seminars. I was somewhat skeptical at the time but open-minded about the possibility. Now I'm wondering if that's not the case because, from reading a whitepaper or two and having part of me do a search I can pretty much reconstruct the content of the talk (as verified by actually watching a recording of the talk later) and get the same thing out of it. I definitely came away from most of the discussions I found myself in with new perspectives on a lot of things.

So it goes.

After getting my badge Genetik and I configured our hand-held amateur radios (Baofeng UV-5r's) for HOPE's 70cm amateur radio repeater, which was running with the event callsign H2S/r. After a few minutes of testing I was politely informed by someone else using the same system that I'd transposed the send and receive frequencies on my radio, a mistake that, upon rereading the posters all over HOPE was very easy to make. So, before switching up our settings Genetik and I wandered into the radio shack on the 18th floor of the Hotel Penn behind the merchandise table and commenced geeking out about repeaters and antennae with the folks running the hardware back there. We found out later that we'd been hanging out with a fairly well known civilian cryptographer, a turn of events that floored us. It's always surprising who you find yourself hanging out with at HOPE... later that day Seele was experimenting with NFC-enabled temporary tattoos and nail art that reacted whenever a suitable reader was nearby. Seele stuck one chip to me that chirped out a redirect to my website, and a second one on a fingernail that lit up in response to an NFC reader emitting a signal. The temporary tattoos were remarkably fragile but that may also have been due to the fact that the NFC tags themselves weren't adhered to my skin so they could move around a bit and put stress on the very thin sheet of foil. It would seem that where the flexible chips are located and how well stuck down they are affect how long they stay in place and how long they remain in good shape. As for the NFC nail art, it lasted until my next shower, when it came off while I was washing my hair, and was presumably washed down the drain. Late Saturday afternoon I was hanging out on the repeater again and struck up a conversation with an older operator who informed me that he'd stumbled across the signal while scanning, and it was coming through quite clearly in Queens. We chatted about amateur radio a bit, and I was surprised to find that he used to go to the New York City 2600 meetings back in the day and hung out with some of the old school. He was surprised to find that I'm involved in scanner hacking and that I regularly play around with software defined radios and map the signals I find. He put me on to a couple of Polish restaurants in the Greenpoint neighborhood of New York City, which I hope to visit the next time I'm in the area.

Of the presentations I did attend, one in particular jumped out at me - Shaf Patel's presentation on accessibility for the visually impaired. Patel has been blind since birth and he talked about the accessibility challenges presented by the publishers of materials. One company in particular refused to give him access to OCR-able text so he could follow along in their textbook, citing copyright reasons, and repeatedly used visual-only tools in their classes despite paying students showing a clear need. As one might imagine this is not only frustrating but it's kind of a dick move to force someone into a situation where they either can't take your class or have to pirate your work just to get their money's worth out of it. On the other hand, Patel demonstrated an OCR application running on his iPhone that photographs a page of text and converts it into spoken speech in just a couple of seconds. It's multi-column aware and even handles grammatical edge cases, like ellipses. Something I noticed during his demonstrations was that several times during his talk he had to stop and slow down the output of his laptop and phone (which were connected to the PA system) so that the rest of us could understand what it was saying. I overheard him remark later that, due to the fact that he's been using text-to-speech software almost since he was born he can hear and assimilate something like six hundred words per minute, well in excess of what most trained and experienced speed readers are capable of.

During Friday and Saturday I ran into some of the folks I knew from CatCon at MIT. I knew that a few would be attending HOPE but, schedules being what they are it might not have been a sure thing. Due to the fact that CatCon was explicitly a "no devices during the con" kind of conference to keep everybody focused on what was happening there, I didn't feel it was appropriate to blog about it. That said, I spent a goodly amount of time catching up on everything that's been going on with everyone and making sure everybody was okay in light of recent world events. Later on Friday night on the repeater when most of the talks were over, shenanagains shenanagains started on the 70cm band. Nothing too outre', certainly nothing nasty, but it was a hacker con. As one might expect on a Friday night, somebody started asking questions about parties in the hotel. One joker quickly mentioned a party at the pool on the roof... unfortunately, the pool on the roof sprung a leak and put the kibosh on things. I did, however, stumble across a very nice party a couple of floors up from where I was staying and spent some time discussing urban exploration with some new friends. Unfortunately, I missed Mitch Altman's Queer as HOPE gathers on Friday and Saturday, due to previous commitments that ran rather later than expected. Maybe I'l catch other ones in the future. Maybe I'll hit up QueerCon in a couple of days.

On Saturday night was a thing that I'm very glad is a recurring event at HOPE, the chiptune dance party on the bottom floor by the escalators, featuring live artists. There were no samples, all live synths and hacked devices were played through the PA system in realtime. Lots of bleepy, crunchy, glitchy goodness to cut a rug to for a couple of hours. After the concert was over I spent the rest of Saturday night on the hotel Mezzanine, hanging out with friends from the 412/724 scene and random folks who happened to wander by that I haven't seen in a while. At one point I ran into Zard Biomatrix and we spent a while catching up on what's been happening in our lives because we haven't really hung out since Lyssa and I got married in 2008. As it turns out he's working with another guy I've known in the scene for about as long as we've been friends; it never ceases to amaze me how small a world it really is.

Sunday afternoon was my presentation in front of an unknown audience. I don't mind admitting that I was scared as hell beforehand, so much so that my hands were shaking. I kept having to look at the keyboard to advance to the next slide because I wasn't able to find recognizable keys by touch alone. It took me a while to settle into the public speaking groove and I'm sorry to say that I was definitely not at top form at the time. In hindsight I wish I'd taken an hour beforehand to hole up in the hotel room I was sharing and practice my talk one or two more times to shake the last of the bugs out along with some anxiety over sounding like I'd gone 'round the bend. Per usual, when I'm not presenting with a group I used Landslide for my slide deck, simply because I hate using Powerpoint. If you've got a web browser, use a web browser, right? I also made my slides more note-like so that people who didn't have access to a recording could get a better idea of the talk's content, unlike a lot of conference slides out there. Some might consider that poor style but one can never count on there being a record later. While on stage near the end I extemporized a bit about some non-Google Maps mashups I've had knocking around in my head for a while, which is to say they use presentation media that aren't visual in nature (phone calls, recordings, text messages, what have you). I really need to set some time aside to play around with them a little but I'm booked for the next week (as I write this) at the very least. One of the things that somebody asked me had to do with what information I let the modules of my exocortex handle, and what information I keep inside my head. My security model is very compartmentalized; not all functional modules on all servers have access to the same data in the same ways, so if one module does get compromised the information that could be exposed is limited compared to the net volume. Additionally, I keep the most sensitive stuff in the safest place of all: Behind my eyes. I'll be the first to admit that security degrades and attacks always get better, regardless of how on top of things I am or how much I automate things. I'm also very concerned about privacy, both online and offline, so I keep information that's within two or three blast radii (so to speak) of a breach in the event that part of me gets cracked stored inside my wetware, where I never let it out.

Somebody else asked about anxiety that I might feel about having such an information flow. In truth, I don't feel a whole lot of anxiety as a result; just the opposite, actually. The thing about the world these days is, word about terrible things happening gets around insanely fast, much moreso than word of something good happening. That said, in point of fact my exocortex filters out an amazing amount of bullshit before it ever gets to my awareness (as confirmed by occasionally taking a stroll through my killfiles - flak I didn't even know I was taking was handled automagickally, sort of like my body's immune system fighting off a flu that everybody around me is starting to feel the first symptoms of). At this time, let me thank everyone who's ever had anything to do with the various pieces of software I've pulled together over the years to build my exocortex... the thing about software is that it's modular in nature, and a lot of it can be tied together in novel and even more useful ways to accomplish tasks the original authors may never have considered.

While wandering around at HOPE I found myself getting into conversations about my talk now and again. Between those questions, taking questions afterward, and my interactions with everybody during the remainder of the con I think my talk went very well. None of me have seen a whole lot of feedback on it through the usual social media channels, which is a little disconcerting but I'm going to choose to take it as a good sign and run with it. Outside of the Noether room after my talk was done I ran into Andrew Cantino, the original developer of Huginn, where we talked with a couple of people about the event-based internal architecture of Huginn and gave more details about why it's not well-suited for long-running and processor-intensive tasks.

To bring up the summary-style stuff about HOPE, over the weekend I made some new friends that I'm keeping in touch with through the usual channels. I took very few photographs because HOPE has a photography policy that requires announcement and consent of everyone in frame, and, all things considered, enough pictures get taken of us every day that it's nice to have someplace with minimum visual records. The few pictures I did take either involved no animate things at all, or required an announcement and some negotiation to photograph.

Emmanual Goldstein said something at closing ceremonies that stuck with me. At HOPE this year, several thousand very talented hackers were on one of the fastest, most stable networks at a USian hacker con in history (that I can recall, anyway - I gave up trying to use them years ago). We could have done anything we wanted. Anything. We as a group could have taken over or down just about whatever we wanted, anywhere in the world. We didn't. Instead, we chose to teach each other about what we knew, and we came up with some amazingly cool stuff that we shared with everybody at the con and watching on the livestreams. We've made the hacker community a little tighter, a little more tightly knit, and a little more creative. I think that says a lot about the hacker community.

After closing ceremonies I got together with an old friend from DC who'd moved to New York City some years previously for dinner and to catch up after a couple of years of being out of touch with each other. It seemed that we'd always just missed one another while on travel so the next few hours were spent eating dinner and catching up on old times and new projects. We walked into Koreatown to find a restaurant and spent the next few hours there talking. Afterward he helped me figure out how best to get to the airport so I could make my flight the next morning with enough time to spare because, in hindsight, it may not have been terribly wise to catch an 1130 flight back home. As it turned out I made it to JFK with three or four hours to spare, including navigating the security snarls and jam-packed crowds at the airport flying out for the work-week. I did the usual "getting read to fly out" stuff, including getting breakfast, browsing the bookstores, and trying to find a nice pair of slippers for the flight home so I could take my boots off. News flash: When the packaging says that XL slippers will fit size 10 or 11, they probably won't. Oh, well. The flight home was almost anticlimactic, I read a couple of books, napped for an unknown period of time (certainly not the entire flight), and made it home in time to get to bed the next day (which means I faceplanted and didn't get up until the next morning).

Most of the livestreams are online thanks to the Internet Society (here, here, and here), modulo some talks from the Noether room (including my own talk) and much of the content from the Friedman room. Word has it that they'll re-upload the videos some time the week you read this post and 2600 Magazine will crosspost them to their own Youtube channel for archival some time after that. I'll put up a copy of the video for my talk at some point.