HOPE 2004, Day 3

One last day of HOPE 2004, and then it's back to my social life!

First up were folks from the Institute for Applied Autonomy and the Yes Men, going over their various pranks and hacks. I missed the first half where the IAA went over their "contestational robotics", but I caught the second half, in which the Yes Men discussed how far they'd gone in pretending to be from the WTO.

During the talk, the Yes Men discussed the case of Steve Kurtz, and I felt like the audience discussion on this point was oddly muted, with people more interested in debating the fine points of biotech than in wondering how to help with Kurtz's defense. Since there seems to an obvious common interest between the hacker community and Kurtz's case—namely, the fight against the social perception that scientific and technical innovation belongs only to large organizations—so the apathy surprised me. But then, I could've been entirely misreading the crowd. Maybe those in the audience were too inured to these cases now? Maybe we were just tired from being in the last day of the convention?

Next, we went to the Indymedia talk, and one of the interesting things they mentioned was the problem of being infiltrated by undercover police. ("While we welcome sports fans into the Indymedia network," one speaker said, "a large percentage of them happen to be cops.") One of the speakers said they were trying to use the web of trust to solve this, but I have to confess to being skeptical of this solution. Webs of trust are neato, but they're also really difficult and intimidating for non-techies. Is it possible that there's a way to explicitly sacrifice some of the web of trust's security for convenience—and a bigger web?

After that, The Prophet gave a talk on hacking CDMA phones to change how they handle roaming. You can use this to do subtle things like change the priorities a cell phone uses as to which network to use; however, if you do obvious stuff like use a network you'd never normally be able to use, your cell provider will notice pretty quickly.

Jello Biafra gave the Sunday keynote, in a talk that was reliably laced with insults and criticisms, calling out Howard Dean on his privacy stance, calling Al Gore a coward for not fighting harder in Florida, and calling Michael Powell a "pasty doughboy". Mr. Biafra is a bit of a Luddite, and although that doesn't affect most of what he's saying, small mistakes would probably stand out to this audience. He argued about the inherent untrustworthiness of computers by citing the example of a screenwriter friend who lost years of work when his laptop was stolen, but anybody who's serious about the subject will hector you like a schoolteacher if you admit you don't make regular backups. And I don't share his paranoia about the extent to which digitally altered images may be affecting the news: While I'm sure it happens constantly on minor cosmetic issues, the recent case of Brian Walski, fired from the L.A. Times for submitting a doctored image from Iraq, gives me some hope.

Technical nitpicks aside, Jello Biafra has a confident, oddly sing-songy orating style that's been honed after literally decades of ranting for a public audience. This was the first time I'd heard him speak, and I found it pretty enjoyable.

Next was the Social Engineering panel, in which Emmanuel Goldstein did some social engineering right before our very eyes. First he called a Taco Bell on Broadway and convinced them not to ring up any orders from 9 p.m. to 9:05 p.m., in order to allow the cash registers to "update their firmware". Then he called Blockbuster pretending to be an angry customer, and managed to get some other customer's phone number and address—and would've got their rental history if the Blockbuster system hadn't been acting strangely. The last call, which was an attempt to get the direct number of American Express' call center in India, took maybe 15 minutes as Emmanuel was transferred possibly 10 times to different people all around the world. At some point, they also talked about how to spoof Caller ID or override a Caller ID block, which later led to lots of audience members swarming the mike to share arcane phone phreaking tidbits.

The last talk I caught was two guys from the Carbon Defense League and Conglomco, talking about their various projects. They went over the history of re-code.com, which facilitated barcode relabeling until Wal-Mart had them shut down. They also talked about Fuck The Vote, their sort-of prank website about having sex with Republicans in exchange for a pledge to vote Democrat. They also mentioned that one of the Fuck the Vote models was in the audience: Voyeur that I am, I snuck a peek at the model page to see if I recognized any faces, but alas, I did not.

Speaking of fuckability: Before HOPE started my friend Christine wanted to bet that I couldn't pick up a girl at the conference, which is not a bet that I took. The boy-to-girl ratio throughout the weekend was maybe 50-to-1, which is to be expected at a hacker convention. Curiously enough, quite a few of the girls were cute, particularly if you're into girls in the goth/punk/crunchy spectrum. (Us boys were hideous and pustulent by comparison; that's to be expected as well. Also, a lot of us were wearing shorts, and I think men look pretty fucking ghastly in shorts. I may have been the only metrosexual at that conference.)

Overall I had a great, if exhausting, time. There are a few things that could've been improved. The schedule in the program could've been printed in a more easy-to-read format: I kept on wanting to see a side-by-side schedule of Areas A and B to make it easier to decide where to go for the next hour. And I have no idea how this would happen, but if the next HOPE could arrange to allow all us roving laptop users to plug into wall sockets while watching the talks, that would make as happy as a little girl. This year, the poor volunteers had to keep running around telling us we weren't allowed to plug in, and of course a few minutes later everybody would sneak back to the wall.

I'm glad it's over, though: All those talks wiped me out. My next techie event is RubyConf, at the beginning of October, so I guess I've got more than two months to recover …

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