ASCII by Jason Scott

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A Touch of the Shmoo —

The weekend was spent, as mentioned previously, at Shmoocon, which is either a hacker conference, a security conference, DEFCON East, or The Potter Family Speech Extravaganza. Here’s some Potters for you.

I’d normally go off here on a multi-paragraph description of Shmoocon, but knowing about Shmoocon isn’t Shmoocon’s problem. Every one of the three years of Shmoocon has sold out, often at a terrifying rate. In the 2007 round of ticket selling, it sold completely out of 800 tickets without having a speaker schedule up. This might take a few seconds to truly believe, but they basically provided no information about the coming event with regards to who would be there or what was happening, and it still sold out. There were three rounds of sales, and some sold out in less than an hour. If I recall the opening comments properly, one round sold out in less than 10 minutes.

Therefore, I instead try to get in by being a speaker. Did I mention Shmoocon pays speakers?

The original plan was to get into Shmoocon by speaking about the One Laptop Per Child project. Why choose this? Well, I’d been at an event for game designers a month previously (relating to GET LAMP, and someone brought a prototype OLPC to the event. I was playing with the little sucker, and my first thought was “this would make a really devious bomb”. Why? Well, mostly it was the happy little face it presented, the fact it was going into all these countries that had nothing this powerful before, and the whole social aspect of giving millions of laptops to kids. Anyway, I’d filed it away and when I started to think of attending Shmoocon, an idea popped into my head and I submitted a talk entitled “One Weapon Per Child”.

As it was, the talk was sort of accepted; what was counterproposed was that my talk be combined with two other talks being given about the OLPC, and they’d expand it out into one big event just before the closing ceremonies, collapsing all tracks into ours. Now who am I to argue with that?

As a bonus, a set of coincidences (one of the advisors on GET LAMP had a party at the apartment of someone on the OLPC project) allowed me to bring along an actual OLPC laptop with me to the event. Here’s the lovely Heidi Potter modeling the thing:

If nothing else, these laptops get instantaneous attention. At the event, which is held in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, the Largest Thing In History That Has Eaten 3 Smaller Hotels, people were constantly queuing up to see the laptop up close, play with it, and of course ask lots of questions I was totally unqualified to answer. People like the idea of this thing. They want it. They’ll do whatever they can to have one, if someone just offers them one.

I never attend many talks at these events, instead going to common areas and striking up conversations with old friends, colleagues and “con buddies” i’ve gathered up over the past 10 years. In fact, of the many talks, not counting my own, I attended probably a half dozen. These included the aforementioned Hacker Foundation talk, wherein I got to stare at the organizers talk about all the great ideas they have and what their goals are, and then be floored by the Hackers On a Plane travel planning, which is pretty out-of-the-box thinking.

The best talk that I attended is far and away A Hacker Looks at 50, which was G. Mark Hardy’s nostalgic harkening of his nearly 40 years in computers, high school, the Navy, and as a consultant. A beautiful pastiche of memories and of lessons learned; the kind of speech I love to give and to sit through. There was talk of whether this should have been the actual Keynote, but I think this sort of talk is best given to a willing, volunteer audience, and the room was well and truly packed. The recording will be an excellent purchase or download when I can acquire it.

I’m always happy to sit through the Own the Con presentation, which is a naked re-examination/explanation of the money, organizing and management of Shmoocon, held during Shmoocon. Nice! You get the funny stories of things going wrong, an understanding of the stuff nobody thinks about (for example, the carrying bags provided to each attendee arrived at the Potter home in three pallets on the back of a semi), and you get a chance to thank the group for putting the whole thing on.

So, one of the interesting situations with my own talk was that two of the guys in it (Sean and Scott) knew each other well, while I’d never met them, and none of us had met Ivan, the fourth member of the “group”. This was also the first time for Sean and Scott speaking in front of a group like this, and what a trial by fire to suddenly address hundreds of people! We talked on the phone a bit, and it didn’t take long for Sean to suss out my “seat of the pants” style; I pay a lot of attention to the venue being addressed, and I tend to approach things in chunks, like “introduction”, “danger expressed here”, “funny story about guy I know”, and so on. I never use Powerpoint or any visual aids. All this said, though, we hammered out some rough ideas and agreed to meet at Shmoo on Friday.

Friday, of course, didn’t happen beyond chatting a bit in the lobby. Saturday did, but with no Ivan. This was fine, in some ways, because “our” part of the talk was different from Ivan’s; Ivan had facts and information; we had theory and speculation. Scott, Sean and I sat down in the pub and I gave them a crash course in public speaking and presentation, most of which they already knew. Sean, particularly, cuts an amazing profile and presence. He’s tall, he’s buff, and he’s smart. I see many years of him winning an awful lot of arguments. Scott is Chris Elliott’s previously-unknown smart brother. These were excellent team-mates to have.

For my own bit, I was quite happy to scale back (and back, and back) what my talk was going to be about, yielding the floor to the other presenters. Sean had nailed a whole ton of attack vectors to the OLPC project; I gave him a handful more to try out. Scott was going after the implementation of software itself, which is far out of my purview. I let Scott have the OLPC for most of the weekend so he could investigate; I heard it was a hit at a couple dinners Scott went to. Just to make it clear: it never got hurt and it never got broke. Good Scott.

I didn’t meet Ivan until about an hour before the talk. Ivan is a plastic Silly Putty egg of brilliance and energy, holding back the incredible flexibility and knowledge within. He’s also quite young, although I had to be told his age by others, so I was cheating. You would think he was in his 40s when you dealt with him. I sprung upon him our idea, to have him be the opening introduction and talk and then the other three of us punch OLPC in the face for the rest of the time. He was fine with it, and he adapted his talk flawlessly for this.

Looking at the schedule, I knew we were asking for it. Four people schedule for an hour; this almost never works, especially if you accept questions at the end. As a result, we knew we’d have to be time-aware. I took that on, and my intention was for my talk to be less than 15 minutes.

In a nutshell, my small presentation was this: I made a “One Lapdance per Child” joke, I said I would bring together the important events of Molasses, Electrocution, and Goatse, and then told a story in which each of these were the center of the story. In all cases, the events were hilarious, but if you imagined yourself in the thick of them, they were well and truly horrible; it’s one thing to think of the Molasses Flood of 1919 and yet another to imagine those poor horses stuck and covered in the goo screaming their heads off until someone could shoot them. Security, I said, was just the kind of situation where you have these hilarious-sounding events but which could easily and quickly turn to ones of horror. Security, in fact, was the intersection of the ludicrous and the dangerous; people spend all their time dreaming up infinite bizarre scenarios to prepare against them, and must justify this time, and also are expected to respond near-instantaneously for entirely unexpected variations of these events. I then said we were going to do a little bit of this ludicrous speculation against the OLPC, but that underneath it ran the current of danger and horror that can potentially come with any cultural shift.

This all took seven minutes.

Therefore, I was the highest paid guy at Shmoocon.

In fact, we all came in way under time; not because our talks were short, but because we kept on track, slammed out the facts, didn’t lollygag at the audience with lame self-conscious meanderings. We blasted out that info, love it or leave it. Oh, and I even managed to get one fact wrong in such a short time: The Flood was in January, not June. So anyone who eventually hears that.. remember, I really meant to say January but my mind was moving onto the next thought.

Ultimately, we had a ton of time for questions, and I had to answer basically none of them; it was almost entirely Ivan getting the shit pounded out of him; brave, brave Ivan. Dan Kaminsky complained about the overabundant security. Others complained about not enough security. One particularly beautiful Oprah moment was the woman who stood up and said “Throughout this presentation, I never heard the word PARENT.” followed by those delightful golf claps that accompany any open-ended murmur that mentions family. Ivan handled all this brilliantly, I thought. In 20 years, I’m going to get free drinks when I mention I once was on a “panel” at a “conference” with Ivan Krstic, I may even get a few saying I was at Sean Coyne and Scott Roberts’ first major panel, as well.

Cons get me out from behind my desk and into a world where people talk about dreams and hopes and plans and implementations. I like them for that reason, and I’ve always benefitted from them. And who could ask for more.

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