23 Jul
2010

The Next HOPE recap

Category:Events, Hacking

The Next HOPE, Hackers on Planet Earth, held in New York, at the Hotel Pennsylvania Jul 16-18th. HOPE is a bi-annual conference, which concentrates on technology and other subjects (..everything?) that interests the hacker mind. This year’s event was my first, and my first time in the United States. I’ll try to sum up, in fairly chronological order what happened during the last week.

I flew to New York via Amsterdam, on KLM / Delta. Security was a main concern from the get-go. To start off, you had to fill out a form on the web, where you basically state that you are a good person, and not up to bad things. Or that you were involved in Nazi activity during the second World War. Normal questions such as that. Completing the form gives you a 12 month permit to travel to the USA; this does not however stop them from turning you back if they don’t like you for any reason. ESTA is something that Visa Waiver countries have to fill out these days. No I-94 forms though, which makes traveling a bit easier, i suppose, since you don’t have to physically fill in forms, and keep part of it for flying back…

The ride to Amsterdam was largely uneventful, but in Amsterdam, security was ramped up. First you had to pass regular Airport Security, to get into Terminal .. C? to fly to the US in the first place. When I got to the gate, there was a secondary security checkpoint, set up just for that gate. Each traveling party is asked individually to come talk to an official about who you are, who packed your bags and where you are going. Kind of a personal interview. After that, you’re taken through a standard security checkpoint, though everyone was frisked and patted through, no matter what the metal detector said. Some people had their carry-on bags opened and checked separately.

The interesting part about this security checkpoint was the fact that they had two of the full-body scanners present. They were not used however, which was curious. Two phone-booth sized things in the middle of the floor, which could be closed around a passenger, and supposedly, used to “nude-scan” a person. It would have been nice to see that in action.

So, get on the plane in Amsterdam (767-300ER), and during the 8 hour flight, you fill in the US Customs form, which declares what you are bringing (and leaving) in the US, whether you are carrying samples of biological material, whether you’ve had contact with farm animals (yeah, right), and such questions. The form was collected by customs agents at the airport when you arrive.

We flew into Newark. Upon landing, we were taken through a security checkpoint, and then sent to queue for the actual Border Control checkpoints. Here, we are once again asked the same questions (Who are you, why are you here..), and then given the final go-ahead to step on US soil. They had ominous looking “Screening rooms” for people who looked suspicious, or who just wanted to have their assholes probed, i guess. Didn’t see anyone get taken in there, but i did see Border Patrol agents, or whoever, DHS-people looking at travelers, supposedly for signs of nervousness etc.

Take the Airtrain (a monorail system) to a train station, and then the NJ Transit train into Penn Station. 15 dollars for the entire trip, which wasn’t bad at all. Trains were fairly clean and air-conditioned, which was nice, because the heat was nigh unbearable.

At Penn Station, we had at least three different agencies at work, all with different uniforms, weaponry and bad-assery. The Department of Homeland Security had these bad-ass looking guys in tan BDU’s, thigh-holsters for their pistols and sunglasses inside. The National Guard had standard beige camo, and assault rifles. NYPD had their guys in blue and whatnot, and i think the Transportation Security Administration had some officers as well, though not armed. There were “soldiers” everywhere. I felt like, if i was running for some reason, i would just have been shot.. No incidents to report though.

There were signs everywhere at Penn Station, in the style of “See something suspicious? Report it”, with pictures of “abandoned bags” and other such horror. Just felt like they were creating an atmosphere of fear, instead of an atmosphere of security.

Hotel Pennsylvania was at the corner of 33rd street and 7th avenue, opposite Penn Station / Madison Square Garden. A central location in midtown Manhattan, with easy access to all areas of New York, either walking, by buss or by subway. Everything seemed to flow through midtown. The Empire State Building was a few blocks away, and so was Time Square.

The Hotel had an offer for conference visitors, which made the place even cheaper, and for midtown Manhattan, 129 dollars per night *is* cheap. The rooms were pretty basic, some would even say run down. Paint had chipped on many walls. There was a disgusting black splotch of mold on the roof (probably below the A/C device in the room above), and a missing lock (i mean there was no lock, no mechanism, and the handle was lose) in the bathroom door. The good things were: Clean and comfortable bed, hot shower, working A/C and a working TV. I was pleased, and after i got off the initial shock, i had a pleasant stay. Hotel personel was nice and polite, and the services of the hotel in general were good.

The Conference

The conference started in earnest on Friday. I however, decided to take the elevator up to the 18th floor, where the main speaking areas were, and sign up for some volunteer work. I walked up to the desk, “manned” by Lindsay (Nick Farr’s right arm during the conference), and signed up to do some AV work. I took the elevator down to the Mezzanine level, where the Vendor and workshop areas were going to be, and started helping out by unloading trucks and carrying stuff. Later that evening, we put down some (read: a lot!) of cable for speakers, video, light and whatnot. By the end of Thursday, things were looking awesome and we were ready to start the conference the following morning! We had lots of people “from different walks of life” helping out with all kinds of stuff. As for the AV and lighting stuff, guys from Carnegie Mellon university (college?) were present to co-ordinate stuff, and they had lent/rented most of the equipment from different places. I met loads of interesting people during the volunteer work, including Lindsay, Nick Farr, Rudy, Daydreamer, Slowpoke, Kelly, and loooads of other people whom i can’t even start naming here, due to the sheer volume.

Volunteering was a great job, as you got to see the inner workings of the conference, meet people, and see the hotel “backstage”. As a hacker, seeing how something works is always interesting. Helping out and learning new things in the process is even better! I learned a whole bunch about AV-tech, and ended up doing a bunch of the video work. In all, i clocked in nearly 30 hours of volunteer work, most of that spent either building or tearing down the conference, and the rest video-taping the different talks. They will all be online later at the HOPE website, at http://www.hope.net.

In all, there were close to 100 talks, running on four different tracks, in four different rooms, all named after significant inventors and innovators in the technical field: Bell, Tesla, Lovelace and Morse. There was no way to see them all, as they ran in parallel, but that’s why there will be audio and video (some of it filmed by me! so when it sucks, you know who to blame :)).

The Mezzanine level had the vendor and workshop areas, as well as the “administrative” areas, such as the Information desk, the Security desk, and the noc NOC. You could try out Segways, solder some stuff in the hackerspace area, grab a Club Mate or just chill out on the hammocks. Later in the evening, there were some “chiptune” concerts and movies being shown. You could learn how to lockpick, buy some books, pick up cool stickers or just talk to people. Just sitting down on Saturday evening with some people, i had an 8 hour discussion about all kinds of issues ranging from the Metrocard system in Finland, to politics to mandatory military service. These were people i didn’t know from before! Spontaneous contact with nice people was… nice. Just sit down, and start talking.

Oh boy… there is so much to say..  I’ll probably split this post into two or more pieces. Too much to say. Still jet-lagged, and tired from the whole ordeal.

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