ASCII by Jason Scott

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Entry written on August 11th.

I could probably stretch post-defcon discussion into a bunch of entries, but let’s just go with one big one.

From the Thursday evening of the 2nd of August through to early morning of the 6th, I probably walked 20 miles. You can’t get much of anything done in Vegas for any amount of cross-hotel activity without walking a bunch. I stayed at the Wynn Casino and attended Defcon in the Riviera, visited Cesear’s Palace and the Mirage and Bellagio and Paris and generally made my way around a lot of locations. Trust me, I got a bunch of miles in there. And so I hurt.

This was the second time DEFCON was held at the Riviera, which is a dump, but on the other hand its got a lot of space and they used this space much better than last year. More talks were near the entrance to the conference area, and there were five tracks of talking. The odds were that you would have two talks you’d want to hear at the same time, but it was a risk they were willing to take. I didn’t experience this problem myself, because I don’t ultimately go to many talks.

What problem I experienced in droves this time around was time management. DEFCON serves so many purposes for me at once that I simply don’t have any time to do anything. I have friends who I only see at DEFCON/Las Vegas, I have events that I want to attend, and I have people who want to talk to me who I don’t know who I want to make maximum time for.

It might or might not surprise you to know I have to use a flashcard-like system to remember names to faces; I have a pretty bad visual memory problem so I have to keep track of people who I only see 2 or 3 times a year by keeping a collection of names attached to pictures. So this becomes a problem with people who I met at a previous convention who are now coming up going “remember me?”. The thing is, I want to remember you but I am simply not that good at it.

I have fans. It’s nice to have fans, as long as they’re not fans for the wrong reasons or I start to judge my self-worth based on the existence or non-existence of fans. I can go shopping at my local grocery stores with no harassment, so I am quite happy with my level of fame. And at places like DEFCON and HOPE, people notice figures they’ve conversed with and read about and so on, so they strike up conversations. The problem for me is that I actually talk to thousands of people a year in e-mail, and so I won’t easily remember you that way, and if I’ve never met you before, I’m not so good at knowing that either. So when someone walks up and talks to me, I appreciate it and like talking, but I also won’t know who you are just by osmosis. I’m just not that good at names and faces.

At Shmoocon a while ago, I found out someone had attended Shmoocon just to see me talk. When I found out who he was, I hung out with him at the hotel bar, chatting, for a few hours. I know that if I’d gone to a show just to hear someone, it’d be a great thing to talk with them about the stuff they do and get that much time; I’d really treasure that. So there we go.

So poor planning meant that a combination of friends, fans, commitments and parties ensured I did everything about half as well as I’d have hoped. Next year, I’m going to do my best to juggle all that much better.

I gave a talk, “The Edge of Forever”, which was about computer history; I got a nice large room and a few hundred folks (somewhere in the 400-500 range) who sat through most of it. The talk was an hour and a half; it would have been an hour except I threw in a few extra stories to give what may or may not have been a bonus. I was very happy with how it came out, all told. I like it enough to want to publish the notes and write out further ideas on what I was talking about in it, with regards to history, personal narrative and perspective.

Attending other talks at DEFCON is not something I entirely do; I tried to show support for my buddies’ talks but more often than not the fuckin’ things were packed so tightly that my presence was neither comforting nor necessary. In at least two cases it was a fire hazard! But one theme continued through a lot of the talks I did glance in or sit through: The Slide Ride, where a person puts up slide after slide on some powerpoint or keynote presentation software and then just dully reads off most or all of it to the audience. No sense of timing, no dramatic pauses, no improv based on audience reaction… everybody’s locked into a poorly designed amusement ride. Half the time I want to give classes in presentation, although I have set in presentations that utterly and completely kick the ass of anything I’m capable of. But if I’m minor league, at least I’m aware I’m minor league and what I do well or don’t do well. Maybe I ought to put my money where my mouth is and do something about it….

Enough about me.

That DEFCON continues to function well at all with over 7,000 attendees is a tribute to its organizing staff; people who don’t know what it takes to put one together are inclined to complain about this aspect or another aspect but at the end of the day, nobody was hurt and pain was minimal. That says something for the skill of the people involved in running and maintaining this party year after year. I salute that.

The Hacker Foundation created a “hacker space” in a side room to show what they were trying to accomplish; this I thought absolutely brilliant, and while the version 1.0 they did lacked some aspects of what people might look for, it was quite an incredible 1.0 regardless and I expect 2.0 to be even better.

The hotel, like I said, is a dump, a holdover from “old vegas” that feels like a worn-out-sock and which imparts all the grandeur of a lunch pail full of twinkies. I realize the reasons for DEFCON being there but I doubt I will ever rent another room in that place. It’s like having a bed in the back of a convenience store. That said, there’s something about those skyboxes…. those little rooms of pleasure and sight over the conference floor just seem to capture my imagination and I love being up there.

It is a rare place indeed where I really do feel that dozens of little stories are playing out simultaneously, tons of parallel locations which are experiencing fully-formed events with many contributors; at DEFCON I feel this all the time. The hundreds of milling attendees are a pleasure for me; I love walking among the crowds, seeing all the smarts, knowing people are having a good time, and envying the youth who walk the hallways when all I could do at their age was dream of such a place existing.

All in all, this was a wonderful time; I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

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  1. Attending ours was no fire hazard; in fact, when I looked out into the crowd, it looked more like someone had yelled “Fire!” right before we began! Actually, considering the non-technical nature of our presentation and our less-than-desirable time slot (Friday at 3pm), we ended up with a bigger crowd than I was expecting. I’ve estimated somewhere between 100-200 people, although I’m notoriously bad as estimating crowd sizes. Anyway, it was nice to see you on the sidelines during our presentation. There were so many people at yours that I don’t know if you saw us there or not, but we were there in full support.

    I would call Defcon’s organization nothing short of amazing. At least three times I saw plans fall through when trying to get more than three people together at the same place at the same time; having 7,000 people under control (who are known for not liking to be under anyone’s control) for three days is pretty astounding.

  2. Tyger says:

    The thing I always went to defcon for was the social aspects. Last year those skyboxes sat in some of my fondest memories of the con. The talks, I could take or leave them…in fact, most of the time I wasn’t even in the con area.

    As to the quality of the hotel, well, it’s no Hotel Pennsylvania. 🙂

    So sad to have missed it this year, and by the sounds of things I might not be going back again. We’ll see what next year brings.

  3. You’re a damn funny guy. 😛
    Saved By The Bell anyone?