Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Hack a Hacker Conference (or Important Things I Learned at HOPEX)

About Me: (or enough about me, let's talk about you - what do you think of me?)

I have been using computers for a long time.  For as long as I have been using computers I have also been a hacker.  What is important to understand when I make this claim is that when I started using computers hackers and programmers and users were one and the same thing - at least in the culture in which I grew-up.

My father was an electronics engineer who worked at Grumman - one of a number of military contractors that vastly contributed to the local economy.  Growing up on Long Island nearby those facilities I knew many other children whose fathers were left scratching their heads when the postwar layoffs kicked in and they found themselves competing with other engineers over jobs making sandwiches in the early 1970's.

What this amounted to was being surrounded on all sides by people with unused skill-sets that they then inevitably applied to their daily lives in all sorts of creative ways.  The can-do attitude was a recurring theme in the fathers of many of my friends and it was something that they were all to willing to share.  From hi-fi systems built from Heathkit projects to insane custom speaker rigs to CB radios to radar detectors, etc. - there was always an undercurrent of techno-worship - but it would never have been viewed in that way from within.  It was all about the triumph of ingenuity.

Commodore PET computers with hard metal cases, chiclet-tab-sized keys on the keyboard and *gasp* a built in Cassette 'drive'; The Apple][ had a 1/8" mono TS jack so you could plug in any cassette player; The Apple //e had external 5.25" floppy disk drives bigger than Mac minis that had awkward ribbon cables running to a connector with raw pins on the interface board (that had to be installed in slot 6 a la PR#6) ...  And this was profound luxury.

OK so that's where it all started.  At that point - the idea of taking a soldering iron to your computer was not entirely far-fetched.  That idea has deep implications.

HOPEX: (Hackers on Planet Earth 10 - a hacker conference that took place in NYC in July of 2014)

The HOPE conference happens every 2 years and thus far has consistently been hosted at the Hotel Pennsylvania.  This is conveniently located across the street from Penn Station.

This is a conference where many kinds of self-proclaimed hackers come together to exchange information, make connections, give/see presentations, attend workshops & do all of those convention-y things.

What I learned:

It would take a very long post indeed (and we are already too close to that) to list everything that I came across at the conference, so rather than let this devolve into a page full of links to shiny things I will instead what I learned about attending HOPE itself so that you don't repeat my mistakes:
  1. Day one I wore suit-pants & a vest with a paisley shirt.  People were openly hostile to me.  Unshaven & shoulder-length hair worn down made zero difference.  I was the enemy and haven't been treated with such petty whispering, bumping into me or my table without apologies and glaring - literally since I was in high school.  Clearly nerds can be bullies too in spite of their high-sounding values to the contrary.  But this is completely fair because I knew what I was doing - I was trying to stand out in a crowd and Do My Own Thing.  There are limits to what is to be tolerated even amongst those who are treated as outcasts.
  2. On Day 2 & 3 I just opened my closet & saw nothing but black T-shirts & jeans - which is all that you see at HOPE.  It is the unofficial uniform and once I donned it I instantly started receiving compliments on my clever saying printed across my chest and open acceptance from everyone else there.  What was funny to me was that this in my default mode at home.
  3. When I was younger I had little to no social skills.  In that way my history was reflected back at me by people-watching as I saw so many people making all of the same mistakes that I used to make.  After my little clothing-based-social experiment I started to understand the inherent advantage that those skills granted me.  I started conversations rather than avoiding them and got other people talking by sounding off about interesting topics that they were excited enough about to overcome their own anxiety and join the conversation.
  4. When I was interested in a topic where there was a presentation I took note of who was giving that talk and I hunted them down one by one to actually talk to them.  This approach actually helped a lot with the problem of not being able to attend simultaneous sessions and I could steer the conversation towards what was relevant to me, rather than just a General sort of topical overview.
  5. Get a room!  The most interesting parts of the convention happen at night - the later the better.  It would also be very helpful to have a place to retreat to & rest instead of having to hump a backpack around all day.
  6. Walk the vendor floor early & often - the "good stuff" goes fast
  7. Bring a Posse!  By coming with your own hacker group - you can claim an area with tables & set up shop.  Instead of retreating to your hotel room or the Irish pubs across the street, you can sit down & relax in the middle of everything.
  8. Explore!  The WiFi network required a username & password, but it accepted anything as input.  If you didn't try to hack in and someone didn't clue you in then you missed out on free WiFi with a 10Gb backbone!  People put up all kinds of fun things in the hopes that you will find them.
  9. My social-snubbing aside, attendees of this conference were the most polite & well behaved densely packed crowd that I have ever experienced in my life.  So if you are the sort of person who sees a crowd & runs the other way - reconsider.
  10. Get lots of sleep before & after the conference as you will be getting very little during.
Only 728 days to go until HOPE11...

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