HOPE X Wrapup

This past weekend was the once again amazing Hackers On Planet Earth conference, which I've been attending since 2004. My friend Jim J came in for the conference, and this year probably had the most attendees ever, because it featured a live video link from Edward Snowden in Russia. I've subscribed to 2600 magazine (sponsors of the conference) since about 1985, and this was my 6th hope, and I spoke at the last three.  Each year it's a great mixture of tradition and new stuff.

HOPE is always inspiring, surprising, and exciting. There's a hacker village area, lock picking, vendors, etc, on the 2nd floor, and then on the 18th floor there are three main rooms of talks. This year we made it to only a few talks, and most of them were excellent.  NSA whistle blower Thomas Drake was inspiring, since he (like William Binney who spoke at the previous conference two years ago) both sacrificed their own livelihoods and careers in true allegiance to the constitution.  (Sorry about the crappy camera phone pictures--I didn't drag my big DSLR around this year):

This year for the first time they streamed the whole conference (they had so much bandwidth they kept urging everyone to use more--I put my phone on the secure wifi and seemed to survive OK), and checking the stream before we even left Brooklyn on Saturday they were announcing that the 18th floor was full minutes after it opened, even though Ellsberg and Snowden wouldn't appear for several hours. There weren't any other available overflow areas so Jim and I decided to spend some time picking locks, and watch the talks later. Then--showing true hacker ingenuity--someone brought in a projector and a laptop, and someone else ran out to Radio Shack to buy a little speaker setup, and whipped up an overflow area to watch the live stream on the second floor:

Daniel Ellsberg spoke first for nearly an hour.  He was great, but then unfortunately kept talking through much of the time allotted to Snowden, so we didn't get to hear from him as much as I would have liked. After the crowds cleared, we went back up to the 18th floor and checked out a couple other talks, including Steve Rambam's biennial expose on the latest ways that our privacy and anonymity have been sold. Rambam is a very right-wing guy, and it's pretty cool in this conference mostly of liberals, anarchists and independents that he comes and shares his insider knowledge.

Sunday we came in for the fantastic two-hour Elevator Hacking discussion by Deviant Ollam and Howard Payne.  This was probably the highlight of the con for me--it's fascinating the parallels between elevator control and the kind of stuff we do for machines on shows. 

Later that day I caught part of a couple talks, and then gave my talk, "A Story of Self Publishing Success".  That seemed to go well, and I now have it online here.  At the end of my talk, I gave a copy of my book away and, being a hacker convention where you don't have to give anyone your real name, "Sri Swami Steve" won the book copy:

The closing ceremonies were an informative (if long) celebration, where they did thank City Tech students from the stage (I had arranged for a group to volunteer to help out our alumna Erin Grabe on A/V).  Jim J and I stayed late to help strike the audio/video/lighting systems.

I thought during the overcrowding of the Snowden talk that the conference had outgrown its venue, but it seemed by the end that it all worked out, as usual.  

So I'll be planning to be here in NYC again two years from now, to be exhausted and inspired....

My writeups from 2008 here, 2010 here (my talk here) and my 2012 here.

Beautiful, Baffling Cuba-Part I

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The keeper of the light house at Havana’s Morro Castle welcomed us, and reached up and grabbed an old crank on the beautifully maintained, antique drive mechanism for the light. I thought he was showing us some history, but through our interpreter instead discovered that in fact, this lighthouse is still manually operated. In 2014.

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It’s not like they don’t have electricity which could be used to automate the system; the operator is able to watch TV (they probably get pretty good reception up there) during the five hours that the lighthouse mechanism will rotate after being cranked.  He also has a telephone, and even a fan for hot weather:

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It’s just that this is Cuba, and that’s just the way things are here, in this beautiful, bizarre place, full of contradictions and surprises, and with a history virtually impenetrable to outsiders on a brief visit like the one I did in January. It's not like what I expected--some sort of totalitarian dystopia--nor was it like other countries I've been to, like the Dominican Republic, where you see extreme poverty alongside great wealth. 

Cuba, of course, has been behind an American wall since before I was born (and I turned 50 last year). I've had many friends who traveled there illegally through Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas; it’s apparently not illegal for US citizens to travel there, but it is illegal to spend money without permission from the US Department of the Treasury (and even when you travel legally you can't use a US credit or debit card anywhere in the country). I've long wanted to go there, and as a photographer, when I heard about a photography-based “people to people exchange”, which was licensed by the US Treasury, and taking place when my City Tech classes weren't in session, I jumped at the opportunity.

I went through a company based in western Massachusetts called Common Ground Travel, who navigated the incredibly byzantine bureaucratic maze set up by our government, basing our trip on a license granted to the NYC-based Center for Cuban studies. The trip had been developed with the great photographers Joe Dimaggio and Joanne Kalish and featured time in and around Havana, with a outing to Varadero, the land of all-inclusive resorts and home of a beautiful beach, and also the beautiful Viñales Valley, a UNESCO world heritage site.

There were surprises from the first minutes of the trip. We had to meet at the Miami airport at 4am to have time to check in for our 8am flight. Common Ground’s amazing fixer, Debbie, greeted us there at this heinous hour and navigated for us the four-part check in (first ticket voucher, then passport, then baggage weighing and then baggage payment). While Debbie was working her magic, all around us Cuban Americans waited (under Obama, family travel restrictions have been eased) to check in for the next flight with 100’s of pounds of goods (and, presumably, cash) shrink wrapped into their suitcases. We saw coffee makers, TV’s, clothing, canned goods--you name it. The flight time was less than a ¼ of the length of the check in process, and we flew right over the Florida Keys and Key West (which I had just visited--photos here and here and here).

The Havana airport was like any other fairly modern Caribbean airport I've been to, and once again Debbie worked her magic and navigated us right through the Cuban customs and border protection without incident. We then were met by our excellent Cuban crew: tour guide Ismelys and bus driver Ernesto who worked for a Cuban tour company, which (like most things) was owned by the government (something that's still very hard for an American to wrap his head around). During a pre-trip conference call, they mentioned that we would be riding around on a bus in Cuba, and I thought this would be some old beaten down wreck, but we were surprised instead a comfortable, shiny new Chinese bus, with A/C and everything. Going into the trip, I figured our experience would be tightly controlled, and that our government minders would be telling us what we could do and what we couldn't. Instead, throughout the trip, we were given honest and direct answers, and nothing was ever off limits. We did travel on a specific agenda, but that has more to do with our US license than anything in Cuba. 

Riding from the airport was a bit surreal because the area was immaculate but also desolate, with workers cutting the grass with machetes and the only blatant (and to me, hilarious) propaganda billboards we saw on the trip (sorry for not having pictures of that, I was still groggy from the 3am start to the day). After we finally got checked into the hotel (with the 8am flight we were there way, way before normal check in time), I was again surprised, since the Hotel Nacional, while old, was very nice and I even had CNN and the Weather Channel on the TV (others had plumbing problems but my room was very nice). 

I rarely spend time in any hotel room, so I immediately headed out to check out the surrounding neighborhood. No one told me where or when I could go, and, beyond standard group trip logistics, this was true through the trip. I moved to New York in 1990 at the peak of the crack/crime wave here, so I have a pretty well-developed sense of street risk, but during my entire time in Cuba, even when wandering, alone, far from the tourist areas, I never once felt threatened or even uneasy. I certainly got some strange looks, and in the tourist areas there are definitely aggressive swindlers and beggars, but I had worse during my last trip to Paris. And the camera I was carrying was worth 20 years of a typical Cuban salary of about $12 a day.

Leaving the hotel grounds, I was immediately struck how the the entire, crumbling infrastructure of Havana is one huge monument to the failures of the socialist economic system. It’s like a much cleaner and more lively Detroit (my Detroit photos here). From here out, I’ll let the pictures do the talking, with a few notes here and there.

The hotel:

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The old cars that are shiny and well maintained are for tourists, and they charge a lot more than regular taxis (which are a mixture of old Russian and Chinese cars, and a few Mercedes):

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I never turned my phone on in the country, but without weather radar I spotted this storm anvil in the distance:

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The sunset with the storm clouds was incredible:

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Later, I took the tripod out to the Malecon, the ocean front highway, and got a bit of a distant lightning display--my first thunderstorm in months!

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I woke up the next morning way too early so I went back to the Malecon at sunrise (facing east,  obviously--Key West is 100 miles to my left):

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From a distance this looks like a modern waterfront until you look closer.

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I met the group and we headed to the Casablanca area:

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Everywhere you look, there are street dogs and cats. With so little money, I don’t think pets are high on the average Cuban's priority list:

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Tourism is the number 1 industry in Cuba, so they didn’t seem to mind that we crashed their church service:

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Throughout the trip, it was demonstrated to us that in Cuba there is freedom of religious expression; we even had a show demonstrating dances rooted in several different religions. These ladies are at a store for religious articles.

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These people were apparently waiting to buy their food rations:

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We saw dogs on roofs in several places, I still don’t know why:

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We rode a deathtrap of a ferry across the harbor:

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Apparently, there were life jackets in the back, but we would have never had a chance if this thing capsized.

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The guy to my left has a Led Zeppelin shirt and is holding a semi-nude painting he said he made.

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People can afford very little electricity, so the meters are tiny and the wiring would never pass inspection in the States:

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The non-tourist busses were often jammed; this passenger was helping the driver merge:

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It’s an island with a big harbor, and yet we hardly saw any boats.

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I guess the flight risk is too great. Apparently, under Raul Castro things for the Cuban people have improved greatly, and now they are allowed to travel out of the country. But on a $12/month salary, it would take a lifetime to get enough money to take a trip. Tourism is the #1 industry in Cuba, and because of that, everyone wants to work in this industry where they can make tips. 

All around Havana we saw many seemingly abandoned construction sites; this one actually seemed to have some work going on:

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This was like the worst-stocked bodega in New York , but we were told it’s kind of a typical Cuban store:

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This is a wedding hall:

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There was a strong north wind for several days:

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These were apparently wealthy homes along the Malecon, “abandoned” after the Revolution. Now they are apparently like public housing. Even though the state owns most of the businesses, our tour guide told us that she inherited her house and that under Raul she was now allowed to sell it. 

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The decay is so prevalent that you don’t even notice it after a while. I only noticed it again after a friend on Facebook commented on one of my photos.

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After dinner we went to a (tourist) club:

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The driver of this car told our group he paid $26,000 for the car. We assumed he got the money from relatives in the states.

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The next morning, we took a run out to Varadero, a town along a beach full of all-inclusive resorts. Along the way, we stopped at an old fort. I checked out the fort and then others in the group wandered across the street to a garden. I headed over after, and I’m glad I did:

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We met this man, although I didn't catch his name:

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This is his home (and that's JoAnne shooting him, I have my version of the shot here):

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It was spotless. He had a couple light bulbs and off to my left, a TV. 

The fort had--for Cuba--a pretty nice bathroom. Outside the hotel or tourist restaurants there is rarely a toilet seat, and never toilet paper. I guess both are too expensive.

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These are the electrical linemen:

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In a town and at the resort we saw young girls getting their sweet 15 “Quinceañera”shots. I guess leopard print is popular.

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The coast was beautiful, even on a cloudy day:

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We stopped to check out a baseball game and fellow New Yorker John I crashed the game:

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That night Debbie took us to a privately-owned restaurant:

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Apparently, under Raul Castro, Cubans can now start and own a business, you just have to give 30% to the Government (actually not a bad tax rate by our standards).

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I woke up again way too early the next day so I headed out once again to the Malecon:

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We visited a synagogue to drop off medical supplies that some of the group had brought down. 

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Debbie asked some of the Cubans we were working with if they needed anything of the supplies, and while they would never have asked, they really appreciated things like extra shampoos from the hotel, and even aspirin. 

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We visted the way too touristy and yet beautiful old Havana section:

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I wandered away from the main area and found a small factory:

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Google translate of the sign says:

bring water to drink 
wash hands before eating 
keep staff hygiene 
the containers should be clean 
wash hands with aqua chlorine

In the main square, they were setting up for a concert the next night, and it looked a lot like a US production--in 1985.

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And yet they had a brand new forklift:

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I've been working in entertainment technology for a long time, but I had never seen these dimmers before:

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But from Googling it seems they come from Malta.

Scary wiring:

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It’s not all old cars in Cuba:

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We visited a market:

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I wandered into this bizarre old building, which is apparently a giant ice cream shop:

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I wandered in the back door but when I went out the front there were people waiting in line to get in.

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A bike rack:

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Squarespace (my web host) seems to be getting pretty unstable with a post this big, so I'll stop here and pick up in Part II.


Many more photos here and here and here and here.

NFL Super Bowl Boulevard

I took a quick walk last night through the "NFL Boulevard", on which many of my friends have been working.  It was packed even in the cold, and there was some interesting stuff, and a lot of work for our industry, which is great.  I started with the Super Bowl Virtual Theater son et lumière at Macy's by Moment Factory, who always does great work (more of my writeups of their shows here).

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It actually took me a long time to find the projectors, which were in two floors of a building across the street (Google Maps says it's a Residence Inn.)   I wonder how they got all that power up there?

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More info from Moment Factory here.

Moving north to Times Square:

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It's a great event and great for the NYC Production community.  It's still remarkable to me how good we, as an industry, have gotten at pulling off these events.  

More photos here.

Interactive Lasers at LDI 2013 Pangolin and LaserNet Booth

I missed LDI this year, and so I missed this interesting booth from LaserNet/Pangolin:

From all the breathless hype in this press release, it's hard to tell what's really going on here, but it looks like he's controlling the upper and lower scanners by putting his hands in the blue vertical beams.  If anyone knows details, please post a comment.

UPDATE December 4, 5:43pm:

One of my students, Irene Iarochevitch, found information on the control aspect of the show, she says, "The blue vertical beams are actually "The Hydra" - an interactive instrument invented by John Laraio (MOBIUS 8)."

Here's a video I found of it in action with a little behind the scenes info:

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