Should anyone ask, I am coming back from 24C3.

I’m coming back from the Chaos Computer Club Congress which has been a wonderful way to end the year and get through the “barse” (the useless part between the balls and arse) between Christmas and New Year. I met some interesting people there and the idealism that I encountered reminded me of my own during my stint at Linuxcare. Only this time the focus was more on electronics and politics with the odd bit of hardware hacking thrown in for good measure.

I strongly urge everyone who reads this to attend. It’s a great group of people and I’ve never really come across a conference similar to it. This year it cost just 80€ for 4 days of really good speakers. As Taska mentioned, you won’t come close to the level of knowledge and insight for the same amount at any other tech conference. And I doubt you get a barefooted man walking around (see picture) at something like 3GSM or DDL. Didn’t someone tell him it’s the middle of winter. But don’t let that misrepresent the event: there are lots of very smart people doing some very interesting work. Indeed Mr barefoot may be too. But he had a cold (wonder why?) so I stayed away.

The conference lasted for 4 days. An average day saw me arriving at around 10:30 and grabbing a seat on the front row of the podium in hall 1. There were 3 halls, each running a different track. So even though I was in one hall, there was still a video stream that could be watched by laptop from the other halls. A pair of headphones and you’re set.

I chatted to loads of people. Everyone seemed a little shy and it was always me striking up the conversation. Once started people seemed very happy to be drawn out of their shells and explain their project. Today I sat between 2 interesting gentlemen. One the right side sat a security researcher for an independent firm doing penetration testing and security consulting. On my left side, someone who writes flight simulators to teach pilots how to fly massive blimps (he wrote the simulator for the 1000 ton heavy lifter project located near Berlin). It turns out this is very hard to do. The teaching that is. The lack of immediate feedback upsets people. Indeed he mentioned the only person who could fly an airship was another person who wrote an oil tanker simulator and understood the need to measure changes every 10 seconds and extrapolate input and output results from there.

Another notable person to meet was Mitch Altman. Founder of 3ware and now the, far more exciting, TV-B-Gone. TV-B-Gone is a small remote control that will send out the “Off” signal for all know TV sets (and some stereos too). Mitch’s pet peave is TVs that are on in public spaces. I tend to agree with him. I can’t stand it when I go to a bar or restaurant to spend time with someone and there’s a screen flashing away in my peripheral vision. I find it very distracting and disconcerting when there’s no one else in the area is even watching it. With TV-B-Gone it’s off.

Mitch helped me build one of the mega powerful TV-B-Gones. This one comes with 4 infrared transmitters and works from further away. I tried it at Mediamarkt which was just around the corner and had 100s of TVs on. It really pumps out a signal: in one press of the button I must have turned of 20 sets. Nobody noticed and I made a switfish exit before they did. The ciruitry is incredibly compact. More incredibly was to see how Mitch gave so freely of his time helping countless people solder, explaining the circuit and spreading useful technology. Thanks Mitch and I hope you get some sleep one of these days!

I noticed different herds of tech geeks there. Firstly, there were the hardware hackers: This group further broke down into the pretty hardware hackers (think das blinkin lights project) and the das-labour team. Another sub-strat of hardware hackers were the UAV and helicopter hardware hackers. This was a large group building (mostly) 4 rotor helicopters that could fly unassisted on pre-determined flight paths (think 1. take off, 2 hover outside hot neighbours bathroom window, 3. return. 4. Profit???). Yet another group of the hardware hackers were the radio guys. Lots of freifunk radio experts and the team designing the mesh radio for the OLPC were also hacking together.

The network herd were easily identifiable as those running some sort of packet sniffer. It was either a packet sniffer of variant of NMap. I was thankful for my VPN transporting my naked packets securely out of the in-house network where they were released onto a slightly less hostile internet. Wow, I never thought I would think of the internet as “more” secure than a LAN but hey, this is CCCC.

While on the topic of networks, I was impressed with the network provided. Each table had a 24 port switch wired back via gigabit ethernet to some big router and a couple of 10GigE connections to $REALWORLD. Wireless was about as good as could as could be expected with so many people in the area simultaneously connecting. Given the shared time-slots that WiFi relies on, the experience was similar to what happens when too many hubs are daisy chained. It kinda works, sometimes not, people connect and disconnect and then it works again. For awhile. Rinse, repeat.

Back to the heard identification: We have the hardware and network people covered. Next, the software herd. I met some intersting people hacking away on software projects while tuning in and out of talks. One was writing a peer to peer distributed hash table.

All very interesting and I urge you to attend next year (27-30 December 2008)

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