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HOPE Number 9 Recap

Woot! I love going to HOPE, it’s always packed with great people, great talks, awesome vendors, and plenty of Club-Mate. The icing on the cake, for me, was having the honor of being a speaker!

So much happened I’m still struggling to process it all. Where to start? Maybe with Badges.


The badges for this year’s hope were essentially Hackerspace passports. The idea, I suppose, was for attendees to collect stamps and get visas to certain events (such as the keynote) as a crowd-control mechanism. Well the visa idea failed pretty early, and it seems like some of the other groups/hackerspaces didn’t get the memo so there were only a handful of stamps/stickers around for people to collect. For example, there was a stamp for Radio Statler, another which you earned for buying Club-Mate, a Toool stamp you could earn for picking a 6-pin lock, a stamp for being a speaker, and of course, we brought the HacDC stamp for visitors to our corner of the Hackerspace Village.

Repping HacDC

So people have probably noticed that since becoming the veepee I’ve been getting serious about repping HacDC. In addition to the passport stamp, I brough up an enormously heavy box filled with pamphlets, postcards, and stickers. A lot of them went home with visitors, but unfortunately for my back, I also had to drag some of them back with us afterwards. Still, I think overall HacDC was very well represented at HOPE.


So as I’ve chosen to continue identifying as “Ben the Pyrate” in the context of my involvement with HacDC and Byzantium, I was of course dressed as a pirate the whole weekend. P-)

I’m getting really comfortable in my pirate costume, though I still need a good pair of boots to really finish the look. It does turn a few heads, but most people found it amusing or even charming. I think the only person who was not so amused was ITG who I smaked in the face a few times with the feather in my hat. (Sorry!) And speaking of the hat, it got a LOT of compliments. So props to Holy Cow for making an epic piece of headgear.

Project Byzantium

Ok, now that I’ve finished that tanget, on to the meat of the matter. One of the primary reasons I was at HOPE this year (appart from HOPE being awesome) was for Project Byzantium. Both to present on what we’ve been up to, as well as connect with other geeks and hackers who are doing work (or interested in doing work) in the same or related fields. Our weekend was extremely productive for both of those goals.

Our talk was presented on Saturday at 7p in the Sassaman room. It seemed to go over pretty well with the audience, which I would estimate at being about 250 people. The presentation itself was pretty solid and I think we did a great job with the slides this time around. The practice run at CarolinaCon definitely helped out a lot, though we did add quite a bit of new material to this version. Especially significant was the official release of Byzantium Linux v0.2a! Immediately following the talk we headed back down to the Hackerspace Village in Mezzanine where we passed out most of the 500 CDs we had pressed for this release and helped people to setup one of the largest Byzantium networks we’ve ever tested. (Also, I’d like to give a special thanks to Hackers For Charity who took a large handful of our excess CDs to distribute at DEFCON this weekend, as sadly none of the Byzantium team will be able to make it this year.)

As for the networking, I think that was an even bigger success than the talk itself. Even from the first day we were being asked for interviews, getting offers of help, and answering lots of good questions about our project and about mesh networking in general. I think one of the most valuable connections we made was meeting Willow Brugh of Geeks Without Bounds, an accelerator for humanitarian projects like ours.

Also of great importance was meeting some hackers from Foulab in Montreal who are working on Reseau Libre, a community wireless network in Montreal that is modeled after the Freifunk project in Germany. I’m hoping that we can collaborate with them to achive mutual interoperability like we are doing with Commotion Wireless. As we are solving different problems in the same space, it would be most efficient for us to work together, rather than work against each other. I made sure they grabbed a bunch of CDs to bring back to their space.

Judging by the number of cards we received (and I’m still sorting through) and all the verbal offers of help I’m hoping that the pace of Byzantium development can really kick into a new gear and with luck we can hit a beta release before next summer. In our next couple of sprints I think we’re really going to nail down the last dangling bits of instability and start to focus more on usability, mesh services, and appearance.

As I said before, we were interviewed by a number of journalists and as those stories come out they will be added to our website and spammed on Twitter/Facebook/Google+ and our mailing list. Hopefull that also helps to draw interested and reliable developers to the project, as our limiting factor right now is just man-hours.

Hactivism and Humanitarianism

So I don’t really like the term “hactivism”, because I don’t see it as being any different from regular activism. So you used a computer, good for you. But our project is inevitably lumped into that category because, well, we’re hackers and we’re activists. Though I don’t consider myself nearly as politcal as The Doctor, the very existence of our project is inheirently a political statement. That said, I always make a point to frame our goals from the perspective of humanitarianism rather than political activism. Honestly, I don’t feel comfortable picking a side in a political uprising that happens half a world a away where I can’t speak the language and don’t have the slightest clue about their cultural norms or local politics. Of course I don’t like the idea of a government massacring their own people for having the audacity to think differently, but ultimately one persons freedom-fighter is another person’s terrorist, and it’s not my right to pick sides in conflict where I hold no stake and may hold dangerous misconceptions about the vital issues.

That’s why I describe Byzantium as a tool for humanitarianism rather than activism. Byzantium is a platform to support communication, the type of communication will be entirely up to the people who are using it, but I would like to promote the idea of using it to save lives in situations like the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And that is an issue where I can feel a little justified in taking a side. Haitians were impacted by a natural disaster, they asked us for help to save lives, communication and coordination of the international releif response was complicated, in part, by a lack of reliable communcation mediums. I can fully support trying to save victims of a natural disaster when they ask us for help without feeling like I’m imposing my own values where they don’t necessarily belong.

But that immediate crisis is over. Which is not to say that Haitian recovery is over, there is still a very very long way to go on that front, but the necessity for a platform like Byzantium in the immediate wake of the earthquake has passed. Haiti would probably not make for an ideal test bed for our project. So why am I talking so much about it? Because while most of HOPEs talks focused on (h)activism, primarily in the middle-east, I did happen to meet two attendees who spent time doing humanitarian work in Haiti. Their work wasn’t about being high-tech, or using the latest and greatest hactivist tools, or subverting oppressive technologies. It was about helping people and making a positive difference in their lives. By any means necessary. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s really all about. Technocrats tend to miss this, but technology itself doesn’t save people. It’s other people who save people. Technology is just the means to an end. It’s important to keep the bigger picture, the people you’re tying to help, in perspective. I’m hoping to keep in touch with Darren and Christina Young, and hopefully the next time they plan a trip down to Haiti I will be able to join them and see first-hand what it’s like to do humanitarian releif work on the front-lines. Maybe Willow will join us too.

Picking Locks

Ok, that got really serious for a moment, so let’s just snap back to something fun. Reuven, Haxwithaxe and I had been planning to go to HOPE even before The Doctor had suggested submitting a talk, so we had already bought our tickets by the time we received confirmation that our talk has been accepted. This left us with two spare tickets. One of those tickets when to Reuven’s girlfriend, who he finally convinced to come up and join us on Friday night. As for the other one, I offered up far and wide, including to some of my IRC friends, and it turned out that one of them had a girlfriend who was interested. That friend happend to be Cody Brocious (aka Daeken). Daeken was over in Norway for a demo competition, but he’ll be back in the US this week to present a talk at Blackhat on how he totally pwned a very common type of digital lock found in hotels and other buildings all over the world. In the process, he also came up with the best use for an Arduino that I’ve seen to date. So what did I do with Maria when she came to visit me at HOPE? I showed her to the Lockpick Village and got her started picking locks. Unsurprisingly, she picked it up very quickly and was picking up to 5-pin plugs after only a couple hours. I believe she bought a set of picks and I joked that she should practice picking a 6-pin lock while Daeken is on stage at Blackhat giving his talk.

Speaking of locks, Bradford is planning to organize a locksport night at HacDC, so if you’ve ever wanted to learn check the HacDC meetup periodically to see when it gets scheduled.

Final thoughts

There is still a lot more I could write about HOPE. I’m struggling to decompress and sort it all out. I have a ton of business cards I need to sort through, and an equal number of people I need to touch base before I completely forget and lose their contact info. There were also a few people that I had hoped to see but apparently missed. For example, I had intened to sit down with Brian Duggan of Commotion Wireless and James Vasile of FreedomBox to talk shop on interoperability of our projects, but never got a chance. There was just way too much awesome going on to fit it all in, even with sleeping just 4 hours a night. And then there’s the story of the bus ride home. That’s a long story, so I think I’ll just make that a separate post.

Stay tuned for “Ticket to ride the FAIL bus.”

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