OpenBSD Journal

[c2k10] Travel/Startup (Part 7)

Contributed by jcr on from the non-travel-savvy dept.

When I think about the names of people on mailing lists who have helped me solve difficult problems or learn something new, often I have no face to go with the name. In my day to day life I may have walked right past them without knowing, or saying hello, or more appropriately, asking to buy them a beer or lunch as a way to say thanks for the help they've given me. If you've been communicating with someone for years via email or even phone, and you finally get the chance to meet them in person, it is always an strange combination of both fun and unusual, or more accurately, both familiar and unfamiliar. It's the contradiction that seems a bit troublesome at first, but it fades quickly. There's a lot of this for people attending their first hackathon, but even those who have attended many hackathons probably experience a little of it due to the new people they're going to meet for the first time.

Wondering "Who are these people?" is only natural but keeping the event organized really does help. A great deal of thought and effort goes into planing and organizing each hackathon. One of the smart things done is keeping a master list of arrival and departure flights so people can coordinate meeting, sharing rides and similar. From the master list, I knew I would be on the same flight from SFO as Chris Kuethe (ckuethe@), so we traded emails to confirm and just assumed we'd figure it out at the airport gate.

Knowing one of the developers would be on the same flight was reassuring. I almost never travel and this was the first time in almost a decade where I was traveling alone without the assistance of a family member or friend. As a novice traveler and first time hackathon attendee, I made plenty of poor decisions in picking out what to bring and I seriously over-packed for the trip. Showing you how stupid I was may save you from making similar mistakes.

[c2k10] Article Series: 1 2 3 4 5 6

The only thing I did not take with me was a large screen display with lots of inputs (VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort) but this was mainly due to the display being too big to fit in my hard shell suitcase. I figured I'd buy while I was one up there if it was really needed. None the less, my fully packed suitcase still weighed about 30kg/66lb. It was painful to move, but it had the magic of wheels! Wheels are good. Wheels are great. Wheels are the path to all happiness. Wheels allow you to move far too much computer hardware through an airport in a suitcase. On behalf of all non-travel-savvy idiots, I would like to publicly thank the inventor of the wheel.

Of course, being a *proper* non-travel-savvy idiot requires not only over-packing your main suitcase, but it also requires over-packing your supposed carry-on bag. I exceeded expectations. Not only had I picked out two of the most humongous laptops available, but I loaded both of them into a padded laptop backpack along with their power supplies and tons of assorted electronic widgets. The result was a backpack weighing about 20kg/44lb, about what most people's big checked-in suitcases usually weigh. Since healthy and fit people can carry that much weight hiking, brutally excessive optimism led me to believe someone like me could carry this pack in one airport and out of another on a simple non-stop flight.

I made it though the airline check-in, and gave them my weighty suitcase but I was still struggling with my misinformed decision to lug a backpack full of laptops around. Due to getting a very early ride to the airport, I had plenty of time to waste before my flight, so I was in dire need of a few hours of entertainment. As always, the US Department of Homeland Theatrics kindly provided the much needed free entertainment.

Real security is useful, but fake security is purely entertainment.

If you didn't already know, according to some genius in charge at the US Department of Homeland Theatrics, carrying more than one laptop on a flight is supposedly a sign of a very dangerous person. This was one of the primary reasons why I decided to lug both laptops rather than put one or both of them in my big suitcase. Of course, wearing metal hand/arm braces and intentionally wearing entirely useless magnetic shoe inserts to mess with the scanners always helps to ensure lots of free entertainment.

I was reasonably satisfied with my high score with the US Department of Homeland Theatrics. I had been, as always, selected to be "Johnny Random," the supposedly random passenger picked out for super double advanced screening. I just had cleared level one effortlessly. I managed a fairly good score of 30+ minutes of line-clogging in level two. Much to the annoyance of the other "Random" passengers waiting behind me, everything I had with me was scanned, disassembled, inspected, and rescanned multiple times. By laughing during this supposedly serious event, I made it to level three, body scanning, where I had my choice of a simple pat down search or a ride in their fancy new naked-chamber body scanner. I opted for the latter and got bonus points for making a screening officer blush by accusing her of wanting to see me naked. I got to level four, being asked to boot systems and the threat of inspecting my files. They had just seen me naked and they now wanted a closer look at my scrotwm(1). Perverts. Here I earned even more bonus points for complex befuddlement of a whole group of screening officers since they had no clue how to use the system and were afraid to even touch it. All in all, I had managed a very respectable score for a novice traveler and got a full hour and a half of free entertainment.

You know that guy who drives *just* annoyingly under the speed limit in the fast lane? That's not me, but he's a good friend of mine and we often get together for beers to laugh about humanity.

When the screening officers finally refused to entertain me any further, I got everything packed into the backpack again and struggled under the weight of it as I made my way to the gates. Due to a poorly designed airport, it was a long walk. At that point, I would have paid a small fortune for anything with wheels. As I was looking for a place to sit down to rest for a few minutes, I saw a miracle. Yes, there was a store inside the airport selling wheels. Actually they were selling small travel suitcases in a place where most people already had suitcases, so their logic was dubious, but the important thing is their suitcases had the magic of wheels. I walked in and said, "Wheels! Please sell me wheels," and of course they thought I was a foreigner failing to speak English correctly. We got that sorted, and after the exchange of a small fortune, I left comfortably with my oversize backpack stored within a small carry-on suitcase with magic of wheels. Sure, I was now sporting the luggage equivalent of a matryoshka doll but I had wheels and stood a reasonably good chance of making it to my departure gate without passing out from exhaustion. Life was good.

When I got to the departure gate, I started looking around at all the people waiting for the flight in hopes of spotting Chris Kuethe (ckuethe@). I was wearing an OpenBSD t-shirt, so if I didn't spot him, figured he might spot me. It wasn't very difficult. There was one guy in a google t-shirt with ear phones around his neck , working on a small laptop with an android sticker. It had to be Chris. After introductions Chris said, "I figured if I just sat here looking geeky enough you'd find me." It worked. We still had a half hour to wait before our flight, so Chris showed me an interesting auto-mount script he was working on which leveraged both hotplugd(8) and device IDs. We also got to talking about traveling.

I noticed Chris only had a hiking pack with him, so I told him about my novice packing mistakes and my quest for wheels. At least it was good for a laugh. In stark contrast to me, Chris travels frequently and has mastered all the tricks and tips for doing it right. As for proof of his prowess, he only had a single carry-on bag with him, the hiking backpack, and it had everything he needed. He suggested reading the website for tips on traveling light. He had also built up enough traveling points/miles for a special elite status, so the airline had upgraded his seat to first class. Since he was going to be one of the first to get off the plane, and I was going to be one of the last as well as needed to wait for my checked luggage, we both figured we'd just meet up again at the shuttle or the hackathon. As it turns out, this was a very good idea since unbeknownst to me, my entertainment for the day had only just begun.

If you thought getting out of a country was entertaining, getting into another country is even more entertaining. Customs officers tend to be far better trained and far more serious. I was instructed to gather my bags and proceed to an office for extra super double advanced quantum screening by Canadian Customs. I felt special. I managed to gain even more bonus points for 60+ minutes of line clogging in the question and answer portion of level five Customs. Eventually they caught on and asked me to sit at the back of the office and find my invitation.

As I sat there trying to fix a corrupted tar archive and get to my email, two interesting characters wandered into the special entertainment office. The long hair guy stood in line, while the short haired guy took a seat near me at the back of the office. Yep, it seems they were traveling together but the typical nonsense profiling only picked out one of them for special entertainment. Life is so unfair. The two of them were talking back and forth, and as I dug through email I heard a magical word. No, not "wheels." I heard another magic word, "port." Naw, it couldn't be, but I was still curious, "If you don't mind me asking, why the two of you are in Edmonton?"

"We're here for an OpenBSD conference," said the short haired guy very smoothly.

"Conference?" I said in a disbelieving tone. "It seems you intentionally avoided the term `hackathon`?" I continued with a wicked grin. He opened his mouth to respond, and then closed it without a word. He was obviously reconsidering his options, but I just couldn't keep a straight face and I started laughing. He laughed too, nervously at first but very quickly realizing he had just been had. The only people you could possibly meet in a customs office in Canada that knew the term `hackathon' would be the other people attending. All of us know the terms hack, hacker and hackathon carry dubious connotations for most people since their original positive meanings are mostly unknown. Using these terms with the general public, or worse, police officers trying to interrogate you is a recipe for disaster.

jim jake and jon
After a good laugh and introductions, I found myself with Jacob Meuser (jakemsr@) in line, and Jim Razmus (jim@) sitting next to me still shaking his head and smiling about being had. He was a good sport about it, and luckily, Jim had a printed copy of the invitation. When Jake was "helped" by the very same Canadian Customs officer that previously help me, all three of us were called up to her counter, even though Jim hadn't qualified for special entertainment. Even more hilarity ensued, but unfortunately, it only took another 45 minutes. With three against one odds, we should have done much better. Slackers.

Jim and Jake had to answer all of her typical nonsense questions about occupation, reason for traveling, location of stay, shoe size and whatnot. I had previously informed her of the "Conference," the OpenBSD project, and also the OpenBSD Foundation. The latter was important since it's a registered Canadian non-profit she could easily look up in formal records. She still didn't believe people would spend their free time having fun programming, let alone travel to Canada to have fun in a group, so she really hoped to trap us into admitting we had come to Canada to work illegally. She repeated the sickeningly sweet complement-trap question she had previously tried with me, "Why are such smart and nice guys like you donating your time but are not on the board of directors for the OpenBSD Foundation?"

Though not true with the OpenBSD Foundation, in many organizations the board of directors are paid and hence, a form of employment. I was half tempted to hear the answers Jim and Jake would come up with, but since it was a trap, I interrupted, "You already tried that question with me. Board positions are just unpaid volunteers, and if we were asked to help, we would but more importantly, do you ask what your church or union does with your contributions, or ask to be in charge of how all donations are spent? If you didn't trust them to do the right thing, then you certainly wouldn't contribute." She obviously did not like the interruption, and liked my reply even less, but she knew I had a point. She was looking at three different people, from different parts of the US, all coming in on different flights, all with the same story, and one properly prepared with a printed invitation. She gave up and let us go. Though disappointed I couldn't prolong this any further, I had still managed a very respectable hour and forty five minutes of free entertainment from Canadian Customs.

Of course, on the way out of the baggage claim area, Jake was again singled out for extra special entertainment, namely a baggage search. I tried in vain to volunteer for the same free entertainment, but I was rejected. Double Bummer. At that moment, I really missed having long hair, was a bit jealous, and no longer felt so special, but I quietly resigned myself to trying to make up for it on the flight back home.

It was the first hackathon for all three of us. Both Jim and Jake are very easy going and a lot of fun. As we took the shuttle from the airport to the hackathon, we laughed about customs and talked about our expectations for the event. "With all the amazing hackers around, I just expected to be the dumbest guy in the room," said Jim humbly.

"Well, you probably thought that until you met the idiot trying to get to a place that doesn't exist," I corrected with a smile, "If it wasn't for the two of you, I'd still be chatting with customs and could have improved my high score significantly." Of course, I had to explain my theory of entertainment, but it went over with a lot of laughs.

As we were unloading the shuttle at the hackathon, I looked across the parking lot and saw a huge white rabbit. I blinked, did a mental cold boot, cleared my POST, made sure I had properly reacquired normality, and looked again only to *still* be looking at a huge white rabbit. "Evidence!" I thought, and quickly took a picture as I desperately tried to remember whether I was supposed to take the red or blue pill. For a moment, I wondered what would happen if I took both pills, but decided I had much better things to think about, like those trivial but annoyingly important things such as finding food and shelter. After all, this *IS* Canada, where their definition of "Summer" is identical to my definition of "Winter" and their definition of "cold" is well beyond my meager comprehension. It seemed best to worry about the rabbit problem later, and since I was invited to the hackathon to be a test-bunny, I should just consider it a good omen.

There are a staggering number of silly rules regarding what you can and cannot take with you across an imaginary line. The idea of bringing enough to share with a group of other people is beyond the comprehension of the silly rule makers and hence, is strictly verboten. Failing to perfectly comply with all of these silly rules typically results in undesirable consequences and dirty words like "smuggling" being tossed in your direction. I prefer to call it "creative misimportation" to be more clear.

The only creative misimportation I did was making sure Peter Hessler (phessler@) had more than enough blank discs of various types for adding and testing Blu-Ray support. Most blank recordable media in Canada is burdened by insane taxes from organized crime cartels (i.e. copyright monopolies bribing politicians). With buying blank Blu-Ray media in Canada being prohibitively expensive, a bit of creative misimportation was required. I was only concerned when Peter announced, "I will not be wearing any pants at the hackathon," since there might be some untold correlation with his Blu-Ray plans. Luckily, he just meant he was planing to wear shorts during his visit to the frigid Canadian "Summer."

As expected from a project with a deep history of collaboration, there were quite a few joint efforts of creative misimportation afoot amongst small groups of developers traveling from roughly similar locations. One of the more challenging efforts was attempting to bring in enough Icelandic Brennivín for a BBQ of 50 or more people. This amazing feat was accomplished by the organizational efforts of Thordur Bjornsson (thib@) and Peter Hessler (phessler@), the latter of which appropriately dubbed their creative misimportation process as "load balancing."

bacon cheese tube
Much to the elation of one of the Canadian developers, Bob Beck (beck@), a number of Bacon Cheese Tubes were somehow creatively misimported from Sweden. With all of the writing and ingredients only written in Swedish, I suspect they managed to convince customs it was tooth paste or something similar. Needless to say there were many jokes including an intentional mistranslation of its ingredients as reading, "May contain traces of bacon."

Needless to say, there were many jokes about the Bacon Cheese Tube. Anyone who grimaced at the mention of Bacon Cheese Tube was promptly ordered stick out a finger, received a generous gob of the paste, and required to taste it... --I'm now convinced Bacon Cheese Tube must be an acquired taste that I'm yet to acquire.

shrimp cheese tube
Since I was one of the few so ordered into taste testing and I tried to be a good sport about it, one very intentionally unnamed developer gave me my very own Shrimp Cheese Tube to bring home with me. I was very much appreciative, and if I could actually get it home, it would be a very rare novelty. I still try to believe finding a "DO NOT EAT" packet next to it was just a coincidence, but you just never know about these sorts of things. The truly unfortunate part is knowing my highly coveted Shrimp Cheese Tube would undoubtedly be confiscated by US Customs on my way home. To keep it from being thrown out by US Customs, I had to leave it behind in Canada which seemed to pleased beck@ to no end.

In one of the photos above I am munching on a cookie from Japan given to me by Takuya Asada (syuu@). It was absolutely delicious. I really wanted know what it was made of, but sadly, I can not read Japanese. I still tried and helplessly stared at the wrapper for a few minutes wondering what all the characters meant. I could only recognize a few of the characters but really had no idea what they meant in context.

openbsd kitkat
I really have no idea who had them made and brought them to the hackathon, but one of the coolest items was a couple of boxes of OpenBSD candy bars. They were KitKat candy bars with OpenBSD puffy graphics and slogans on the wrappers, like "Secure By Default" and "Free, Functional and Secure!!" Personally, I didn't even know it was possible to get custom made candy bars, so these were quite amazing.

Though I've covered just a few things people brought to share with others at the hackathon, I've by no means covered all of them. There were many others including serial controlled power strips, BeagleBoards and lots of other great stuff. At times people see the words "Gift Culture" in regards to open source software development but still do not fully comprehend the entire meaning. Giving code, time and effort are all very remarkable contributions, but the culture of giving extends to cover many other types of generous contributions.

By the time we had checked in and got down to the hackroom, it was late afternoon, the room was almost half full and many people were already hacking. The start of the hackathon is very interesting. People wander into the hackroom at different times during the first day from all over the globe. They say a few hello's, find a open place to sit, set up their stuff and get to hacking. The seating is generally self-organizing but some developers working on similar areas of the tree tended to sit together to make collaboration easier. There were a few occasional seat changes, but people most stayed planted in one spot for the week.

Everyone is accustomed to seeing and using cvs account login names in email, so introductions were exceedingly uncommon. Typically a person would give their real name and then quickly follow with giving their cvs account name. I'm certain there were many times when others could see the light of recognition in my face when they finally mentioned their cvs account name and I saw similar in others with my initials since I'm not a developer. At a hackathon, your real name and account name are entirely interchangeable. If you are not accustomed to being addressed by a nickname, it might be somewhat odd at first, but for me it was easy. No one ever gets my name right, not even the US Passport Office, so answering to just about anything is normal for me. Heck, even my cousin accuses me of having a silent invisible "F" between my first two initials, and she insists on writing it.

Though I'm personally very much accustomed to being called by all sorts of (ummm...) "creative" names, here on undeadly getting every single name and login perfectly correct is very important. It's more than just typical journalistic accuracy. On undeadly, we try to always use the "Full Name (login@)" format to recognize and respect the contributions of developers, as well as denote the people who can influence the direction of the project. The tough part for me was suddenly needing to match a lot of faces to a lot of names. I'm sure it must get a lot easier with time, but the initial onslaught was overwhelming.

On the first day, most people were still running on a different time zone and tired from travel but as theoretical "evening" approached, the hacking stopped and everyone went out for the kick-off Pizza Dinner. Bob Beck (beck@) organized the c2k10 hackathon and had reserved a whole bunch of long bench tables at the local pizza place. When everyone had settled in at the tables, there was a friendly welcome to all, a few short announcements, and a note encouraging everyone to have fun socializing a bit and getting to know each other better. Bob said something along the lines of, "You're all geeks here so just introduce yourself and don't worry about it."

Bob encouraging people to socialize and introduce themselves may seem a bit odd until you think about it. Hacking tends to be a solitary task but OpenBSD is a group effort, so everyone does a balancing act between hacking in isolation and interacting with others. At a hackathon you need to do a mental switch from interacting by text/email to interacting in person. It's a big change but it really speeds up development when you can look across a table and talk to the person you need to contact. The down side is you might be interrupting them when they're concentrating so you need to be careful and courteous about it and try to catch them at a good time. It's an acquired skill and takes practice but if you interrupt beck@ like I did, you learn quickly. ;-)

At this point, you've probably read more than enough about my first experience at a hackathon, possibly too much. All of the following c2k10 articles will be more conventional for undeadly and be about the developers and the things they were hacking. You only get one chance to be entirely new to something, so I can only hope I did a good job of providing an entertaining novice perspective to hackathons.

J.C. Roberts

(Comments are closed)

  1. By phessler (phessler) on

    When I entered Canada last year for c2k9, I made the mistake of saying "Hackathon" to the immigration officer. He immediately started asking me if I was going to break into systems. I of course realized my tactical mistake, and started spouting some bullshit about "to defend, you must know how to break". Of course, with a well-worn passport, extra pages due to the lack of space, and a half-dozen Canadian stamps; he figured I'm an experienced traveler and decided I didn't need higher scores in immigration.

  2. By phessler (phessler) on

    > frigid Canadian "Summer."

    I flew in from Germany where I have been living for the last 2 years. This winter was one of the coldest in recent history, so Canada felt very warm to me. I had lost the heat tolerance that I had when growing up in hot California desert summers.

  3. By Thomas Pfaff (tpfaff) on

    Great write-up. Fun and educational. Thank you!

  4. By Mike Erdely (merdely) on

    Great story, JCR. Keep it up.

  5. By Jacob Meuser (jakemsr) on

    I actually had just met jim@ about 15 seconds before we walked into that room ...

    this was the first hackathon for all 3 of us.

    I had communicated with jim@ and a jcr@ a little via email. jcr@ had
    sent me an audio device a few months prior. jim@ contacted me to suggest
    we meet up at the airport. that was basically all I knew of either of
    these guys, except for what they do in OpenBSD, which doesn't often
    tell much about the person.

    but within seconds of meeting in person, we all have something to
    remember and laugh about. that was quite the ice breaker :)

    big thanks to those who've donated to help make the hackathons a reality!

    1. By J.C. Roberts (jcr) on

      > I had communicated with jim@ and a jcr@ a little via email. jcr@ had
      > sent me an audio device a few months prior. jim@ contacted me to suggest

      Just for clarity; I do not submit enough code to warrant a project cvs account, so officially speaking, I'm not a project developer and I should not have an "@" symbol after my initials.

      The reason I don't submit enough code is due to NDA's, lack of skill, too much slacking and whatnot. On the bright side, normal end-users like me can always find other ways to contribute something to the project if they cannot contribute code.

      1. By Lennie (Lennie) on

        > The reason I don't submit enough code is due to NDA's, lack of skill, too much slacking and whatnot. On the bright side, normal end-users like me can always find other ways to contribute something to the project if they cannot contribute code.

        You may not write code, but you do write a lot. I really like reading all this. Thanks.

  6. By Rod Whitworth (yendor) on

    Well, the "land down-under" is set to spoil your fun in the security check at airports. Perhaps I should say that at least Qantas will.

    Todays copy of The Australian (newspaper) tells the story of no more fumbling at the checkpoint to get your laptop out, they just scan the bag with a new device.

    Read the whole story: HERE

  7. By J.C. Roberts (jcr) on

    We received many compliments on this article. Thank you. But please remember *EVERY* article on undeadly is actually a group effort. There's a ton of editing, proof reading, vetting, corrections and checking silently being done by a group of people, the undeadly editors. We don't get every article perfect, but a lot of effort goes into getting them as close to perfect as possible.

    We did receive one complaint on this article, but it was posted to the misc@ mailing list. I posted my reply to the mailing list.

    I'm still very new to writing articles, but I'm learning. I appreciate any and all criticism or opinions, and will try to learn from them. I've never been able to contain my sense of humor for very long, but across culture/language barriers I may not be very funny, so I'll try to keep this in mind.

    1. By Lennie (Lennie) on

      > We did receive one complaint on this article, but it was posted to the misc@ mailing list. I posted my reply to the mailing list.
      > I'm still very new to writing articles, but I'm learning. I appreciate any and all criticism or opinions, and will try to learn from them. I've never been able to contain my sense of humor for very long, but across culture/language barriers I may not be very funny, so I'll try to keep this in mind.

      Judging by the mailinglist not everyone was able to recognise the sarcasm written in English.


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