It's Sunday night at Tegel airport, Berlin, and I'm a little bit sad. Sad, because my partner Katie has left to go to Calcutta for a week but also because we've both just left CCCamp2015. And what a good festival it was!
I'm not really much of a festival or conference person, but I've never been to any of the big events in the hacker calendar before (except, of course, EMF ). I've never been to Defcon or The CCC Conference or Blackhat, so I felt it was finally time to take the plunge. Being based in London and helping out with EMF and the London Hackspace, I tagged along with these guys and gals. CCCamp is held every four years and has been going since at least 1999. It is held in Germany, with the venue being the Ziegeleipark in Mildenburg, just outside Berlin. It's the daddy of all the hacker festivals and draws people from all over the world. There are roughly 4000 people on site (I believe), with representatives from hackspaces, academia, fablabs and the press. It's quite the highlight of the hacker calendar.
The camp is sort of half festival, half conference, with two main tracks of talks, held inside two massive tents. The setup of these tents alone is quite impressive, with three huge screens and a large stage. In addition to the talks, the festival proper, is made up of villages. This is a concept not really familiar to British Festivals I think. The idea is that any group can rock-up and run sessions with some support from the organisers. One example would be the CCC Munich Hackerspace, who brought some interactive sign-age, the crazy festival badge (more on this later) and ran a cool workshop on OpenGL, among other sessions. Another was a bunch of Dutch hackers who brought a massive bus, fitted out with a workshop for hardware hacking. All through the festival they were running sessions on FPGAs, basic soldering and all manner of things.
The talks themselves were only so-so really. I wonder if the days of the big exploit talks have gone? I think the scene has grown to the point where places like CCC talk more about hacker culture in a wider sense? I suspect if you want to see some proper hacks you can go to Blackhat, or DEFCON. If you want to see some epic graphics hacking, you go to Revision. The hacker scene, as we know it, really started around 30 years ago. In that time, hackers have grown up and changed, and so, I suspect, has the scene. I could be wrong. I saw a few hardcore people at the camp, and I also saw a few tourists and non-hackers. Probably a sign of something but not sure what.
The self hosted sessions were more the thing I reckon. It is my regret that I didn't go to more of them really. To really get the most out of a conference you need to talk to people outside of the various talks. The self-hosted sessions are sort of a middle ground. Someone decides to run a small session on anything and it gets posted to the main festival page. They tended to be small and informal. Some were good, others were less good, but it really added to the flavor. I regret not talking to random strangers doing interesting looking things. I saw a massive 3D printer in a field, several telescopes, an automatic pancake making machines and more massive aerials than ever before. Whilst I was wandering around, my partner Katie was working on her writing in our tent. Several people apparently just wandered past and asked her what she was doing. I think thats the way forward for next time. You get the feeling there is an awful lot of the world's talent in one place.
Our EMF tent was a small affair, that served as the nucleus for the London Hackspace Crew and a few people from Cambridge. We had power (which of course, we extended to our own tent), ethernet and some lighting. I was a bit sad to see we had little in the way of projects. In some ways, the EMF festival is a project of the London Hackspace (initially perhaps, but definitely not so now), but we had little in the way of lights, handouts, projects or really cool things. Next time, we need to drive over with a van, loaded with cool things. Having something to show off is definitely the right thing to do.
The weather at the camp was pretty damn hot. I believe the temperature peaked at 36 degrees. We'd known this in advance so I packed a Hawaiian shirt and some swimmers, as the site has a bathing lake! Yup! At the north of the site was a small lake where you can just jump in and swim. It wasn't actually too cold, and pretty much saved the day for all us pale geeks, more used to colder climes.
Hacker festivals tend to pride themselves on their information infra-structure. We had at least 2 wifi networks to choose from (I was generally playing around with Spacenet), ethernet connections and power, all from the lovely Datenklos scattered around the site. Not only that, but we had a full DECT system available across camp, courtesy of Eventphone. At one point we called a number that, if you whistled into your bottle of club-mate it would tell you how much you had left. Silly? yeah. Awesome? Definitely! Of course, there are the normal things like a good Wiki page and IRC Channel, along with the blog and various social media feeds. One day, festivals like Reading and Glastonbury will offer something similar, but for now, it's something glorious that we have ourselves.
Every hacker conference has an amazing badge. Badges have really become a star attraction in their own right, and have become something else entirely. The first EMF badge was basically, an Arduino with many, many extras added onto it. The second took that further, and added a screen, faster processor and more. At this CCCamp, the badge is nothing short of a complete software defined radio. It's about A5 in size. If the badges continue to get any larger, it'll be full on flava-flave medallion clock style badges next :P It's quite a smart bit of kit. Katie and I decided not to assemble ours at the camp. My reasoning is that I still have the second EMF badge to mess before I move on to learning about SDR (the first EMF Badge has been converted into our Rick Rolling Doorbell). We had to queue for about 45 minutes to get one but it was worth it!
There are quite a few kids at the camp. A whole village is setup for them at the north of the site, near a small farm, complete with pigs and sheep. It's strange to think of hackers having kids. I don't really know why but it's quite sweet. It's another symptom of how things change and how things have moved on. The age range is something I've always thought is a strength of the hacker community really. There are young-uns here, some yute and a few proper grey-beards too. Most do seem to mix with each other, which is a lovely thing.
There is an air of self-affirmation through-out the camp. Some of the talks erupted into applause at the mere mention of open-source. At one point there was a marching protest through the camp against surveillance online. I am totally against surveillance online, and so is probably 99.9% of the camp. There is a sense of preaching to the converted, and it felt a little odd. I can understand it though. In some sense we are in a bit of a niche. It's worth having some perspective over these things. Of course, there is a sense that some people at the camp have been to the edge of this arena. There were plenty of Snowden posters around the place, and a chance to write postcards to Chelsea Manning. I spotted a couple of folks I know to have had run-ins with both the law and some nasty regimes.
Of course, being one of the first-aid crew at EMF, I had to checkout the CERT team. They run a good outfit, with more vehicles than we have, though they run shorter shifts and have a higher turn-over of volunteers, which I think is a bad move, or at least, it wouldn't work for us. Fire-fighting is also part of their remit. They have professional fire-fighters on hand, as well as a couple of doctors and paramedics. Their pro-active approach to informing the camp of storms, drinking more water and wearing the correct footwear due to the high incidence of foot injuries, is quite a good move.
Volunteering is big part of the festival. Sadly, the CERT team were full-up so I decided against doing any volunteer shifts. I think next time, I probably will. A few of our crew seemed to get some joy out of it. There are some perks, not least of which is getting to meet some new people. The volunteering process is a lot more up-front than many other festivals I've been to. I suspect this is both because of costs and the general hacker principle of getting involved in making a thing. The system CCC have setup is pretty good and well organised with a combination of online sign-ups and an entire Angel lounge where volunteers are pooled for general jobs.
I was disappointed at the beer selection at camp. This is something EMF does a lot better. I'm really surprised that the Germans, of all people, dropped the ball on this one. There was one Weisse in bottles, which was quite nice, but nothing like a cold, crisp dunkle on draft. Thankfully, the Dutch Hardware Hacking Village saved the day, by having a fridge full of Belgian beers. I was quite pleased with myself for finding that one out. Food on camp was pretty good, with a variety of food vendors. Sadly, there was no general shop on site, which is quite a big oversight. I felt myself wanting fruit pretty quickly. Having a shop on-site that stocks things like blankets, tampons, gaffer-tape, condoms and the like, is a really useful thing. Something I'm sure CCC will consider in the future.
CCCamp was a great festival. I felt like I was among my peoples. That said, I didn't really bring enough to the table or talk to enough people, and I regret that. Nevertheless, I went to a variety of talks, had quite a few thoughts, made plans and came away feeling keen to learn and make many more things. I reckon that's a result. If you like camping, meeting people from around the world and love hacking things to bits, then CCC is for you. You'll have to wait for four more years sadly. In the meantime, there will be the CCC Conference and EMF Camp to look forward to.