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HOPE 2004, Day 1

When it comes to hardcore technology conferences, New York sucks ass. Sure, you get lots of new media arts events, and if you want, you can go to events where sales reps tell you how to "Unleash Enterprise Synergies with Streaming Content and Viral Marketing" or some similar balderdash. But when it comes to the straight geekout, NYC has so little that we even lose out to strange little burgs like Boston and Seattle. HOPE, the biannual hacker conference organized by 2600 Magazine, is a big exception, and it's been years since I went to a hacker conference, so I paid my 50 bucks and planned to spend my entire weekend in a Midtown hotel listening to men talk to other men about computers. Awesome!

HOPE takes place at the Pennsylvania Hotel, near Penn Station, and fills two floors. I'm sure official stats are forthcoming, but judging from the crowd at Kevin Mitnick's Friday keynote, I'd guess at least 500.

Visually, HOPE is a jumble of symbols borrowing heavily from Nazi imagery and George Orwell. Red banners hang from the pillars, black armbands serve as registration badges, and behind the podiums hang giant posters with Hitler's face on it reading "Big Brother is Watching You." It's ironic and it's not; Big Brother really is Watching You, most attendees would say, but they would probably not take the Godwinizing step of calling the government the next Nazi Germany. It's also worth noting that the shadow of the upcoming RNC Convention hangs over this HOPE: It's one month from now and will be in exactly the same neighborhood.

The attendees themselves have their own look, sporting lots of gadgety cell/pager/PDAs, and the first tablet PC I've ever seen off of a showroom floor. As far as the prosaic laptops go, iBooks and Powerbooks seem to outnumber other laptops by about 3 to 2, which is probably an auspicious sign for Apple.

Those laptops didn't get a lot of use on Friday, though, as the network admins battled with upstream problems for most of the day. At one point I went up to Coliseum Books (42nd Street between 5th & 6th Avenues) to eat lunch and surf on the Bryant Park network. Even when the HOPE network was working (intermittently during the evening) I was pretty careful about how I used it: Since you have to assume your network traffic is being sniffed by about ten other people in the room, I got really paranoid about which of my passwords go out unencrypted.

I went to a lot of sessions. Started the day with Viki Navratilova's "Today's Modern Network Killing Robot", in which she gave a basic rundown about what sort of IRC bots the kiddies use these days for their DDoS attacks. Then I listened as John "Captain Crunch" Draper talked about how far you can go to harass spammers if you decide to be completely obsessed with it: He discussed a pretty cool (though not public) system that maps IP addresses to ISP abuse emails in order to automatically send out notifications to ISP admins.

Bruce Schneier gave an unsurprisingly great talk about post-September-11th security. A lot of what he said wasn't so different from what you get out of reading his fantastic Crypto-Gram newsletter or his books, but he still had some fascinating anecdotes and examples. He offered a great quote to distill how the media overexaggerates rare, spectacular risks: "If it's in the news, don't worry about." He also talked about visiting a major bank in Manhattan and marvelling at the ground floor's ineffective X-ray system, paired with guards so disinterested that Schneier himself was able to take his backpack through without getting it X-rayed. When he brought this up with the head of security, he was told "We got a $5 million reduction in insurance for installing that X-ray system and having dogs sniff around once a week."

Next, I listened to Bill Xia give a sobering talk about the Chinese national firewall. Besides blocking certain IPs and domains, the Great Firewall of China also blocks certain keywords and domains in Google searches and web proxies. (Maybe it would be sufficient to obfuscate those domains for web proxies in Javascript, so they wouldn't show up in the GET?) Ask for a verboten keyword and your connection will crap out for a while and then go back up. This firewall is pretty high-powered stuff, seeing as to how it has to filter traffic for the biggestcountry in the world and all. So there's quite a bit of speculation as to whether any U.S. tech companies like Cisco or Nortel have been making money by consulting for China's thought control program.

At some point in his talk, Xia had a slide with a picture of the Matrix, and I realized why I dislike so much of the discussion I hear about the Matrix, among hackers, academics, artists, and others. (I've ranted about this subject before.) It's because most of those discussions try to draw a parallel to the Matrix and information flow in the industrialized West, but comparing the situation of, say, the U.S. to China shows how poor that parallel is. The U.S. is full of an astounding amount of bullshit and misdirection, but if you have the good sense and curiosity to turn off FOX News and look for real journalism, you can find it: On newsstands, online, even sometimes on the radio or on TV. It doesn't have the best graphics or the prettiest faces, but it's there, and usually nobody in this country gets arrested for reading Howard Zinn or listening to Rage Against The Machine.

Contrast that to China, which is a genuinely Orwellian state: Surveillance is real, constantly present, and terrifying. You search for the wrong thing on Google and your internet goes down for 20 minutes. One woman got information about Falun Gong through email and was arrested for it. (This isn't limited to Communist states, of course: Back when anti-Communist paranoia was much higher in South Korea, an acquaintance of my mother's was jailed when he left a socialist pamphlet he was reading on a city bus, and somebody else turned him in.)

This is not to offer one of those bullshit conservative relativist defenses of the U.S.: "Well, we're not as bad as China so why don't you hippies shut the fuck up." It's just to draw a contrast between the two situations. In China, information is locked down and centrally controlled. In the United States information is plentiful but wrapped in a cynicism that short-circuits the individual belief in politics. The Chinese suffer from a lack of information. USians have plenty of information, we just don't know how to make any of it matter. Two different societies, two different problems.

After Xia's talk I went to Coliseum Books, and came back in time for Kevin Mitnick. I didn't stay for long. As his talk got going it sounded like he was just going to tell funny stories from his life, which isn't my thing unless the speaker is, say, Muhammad Ali or Siddharta. Also, the room was packed with sweaty computer guys carrying big backpacks, so the heat was unbearable. Even as I left I could feel the waves of rancid body heat rolling out of the room. d00d, we totally 0wn3d that air-conditioning system.

The next talk I saw was "Bloggers at the DNC", moderated by Brad Johnson and with panelists Adam Mordecai, Matt Stoller, and William Mutundi. Focusing on the fact that the upcoming Democratic convention is credentialing some bloggers as media, this panel discussed the upcoming impact of bloggers on the political process, and cited Jay Rosen's excellent article about the narratives of the nominating conventions.

I didn't get to ask my question in the spirited Q&A, so I'll raise it here: Is it guaranteed that the DNC will expand this experiment in the years to come? In contrast to docile, zombie-like mainstream journalists, bloggers are wildcards liable to go off-message, as evinced by the Dean insurgency and Kos' anti-mercanry comments. I can't imagine the Democratic centrists liking that one bit, especially since the Dems already have the image of being the more fragmented of the two big parties, and since you could argue that the robotic military lockstep of the Republicans is part of the reason they're running the country. Of course, giving bloggers access increases the chances that they'll find personal stories that will renew interest in what's now considered a long infomercial--but at the expense of controlling the script. I suspect that the old way will not die so easily.

After the DNC talk, ShapeShifter talked about his experiences protesting the 2000 RNC convention in Philly, and offered cool tips for infiltrating and disrupting RNC 2004. You can get into most hotels by making an appointment at their hair salon, even during high-profile events. Also, a charter bus has a kill switch in the back, by the engine, and the RNC delegates will be traveling around the city via charter bus … It was a funny talk, but I would've liked more discussion, especially since I'm starting to worry that the protesting will be effective ammunition for the RNC to cast the left as smelly hippies. Is that a stupid timid centrist question to ask? Maybe I'm getting old.

Jim "Cipz" gave a talk called "Hack Nano" about building your own tools for playing around with nanotech. It started slowly but then ended with some pretty nuts lab experiments, including lighting up a florescent tube by sticking it into a microwave oven. The tube fit in the oven, see, 'cause he had cut a hole in the side of it. Apparently this was supposed to be safe, and I guess I believed him, but I was happy to be sitting near the back all the same. Then Nothingface talked about the software used to control newer cars, and the beginnings of OpenOtto, a project to make it possible to write your own automotive software. It all seemed cool, though pretty abstract to me, seeing as how I haven't owned a car since I left the Midwest. Now, talk to me about the subways, and I can relate.

Nothingface's talk ended at 10 p.m., which is when I went home. I'm sure there's all sorts of amusing nonsense happening at the hotel now, but I've got to finish this up and then go straight to bed. All these talks are huwting my bwain. And there are still two more days to go!

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