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Mid-Winter Hacker Camp In Civilised Surroundings


Imagine a weekend of opulence in which you meet your companion at the railway station and whisk away across the continent in a 190mph express train for a relaxing couple of days enjoying the ambience of a luxury resort hotel in the fresh surroundings of a woodland in midwinter. Break out the Martinis, it’s a scene of elegance and sophistication from a byegone era! This is the general idea of Hacker Hotel 2019, and I had a wonderful time!

On a recent February weekend I broke out the Club-Mate instead stea of a Martini. My companion for the Eurostar and Thalys trip was my local hackspace friend Matt “Gasman” Westcott with his keytar in a bulky suitcase for a chiptune gig, and we were heading for the Netherlands. It’s a pivot from the summer’s hacker camps as over 200 hackers fill a resort hotel for the weekend, scoring comfortable beds instead of dust or mud!

What follows is my experience from this weekend. Join me below and find out why you simply can’t miss the next one!

Straight Off The Train…

The Westcord Hotel De Veluwe at Garderen, in the Netherlands countryside not far from Amersfoort was our temporary home, and the majority of attendees came from that country’s vibrant hackerspace scene with a scattering of visitors like us from other countries.

Dimitri Modderman delivering the opening talk.

Arriving at a hotel after a long journey one is usually interested only in the bar and then bed, but on the Friday evening after checking in and receiving our badges and wristbands it was down to business. Orga head honcho Dimitri Modderman started proceedings with his launch talk, and then it was straight into the program of talks and workshops of which they had assembled an impressive array. With so many to choose from it was impossible to be present for all of them, fortunately for us all but a few of the talks were captured on video and are being released over the next few weeks for your enjoyment via YouTube.

Certainly for me fatigue won over desire to watch talks on the Friday, after Dimitri’s opening and the spectacle of some outdoor fun with high voltages I was fit only to recover from my long day with a meal and a glass or two of the exceptionally fine local Veluwse Schavuyt (Google Translate link) beer in the bar before turning in.

…and Into The Talk Schedule

Now that I’ve admitted one person couldn’t catch everything, it’s best to take a look at the talks and workshops and name the ones that created a buzz, the ones I managed to see, and the ones I wished I’d managed to see.

Top among the last category was the headline talk which will not appear on video, a representative of the Dutch law enforcement community talking about “How to become a darkweb admin”. This was the tale of how as part of an international investigation into the so-called “Dark Web” of TOR sites selling drugs and other criminal activities they compromised a marketplace and ran it for a few months posing as its criminal owners before using the evidence they had harvested to take down the crooks. Why did I miss it? I was assured that it would be Dutch-language, which despite Duolingo’s best efforts I can’t speak to a good enough standard, so I sat in the bar and hung out with a few other Brits. My disappointment was huge when I discovered it had been delivered in English after all. Happily The Register has a good summary of the events from closer their time, but it remains a fascinating story which shows the callibre of the Hacker Hotel schedule.

It's not every day you hear from someone who bought a water tower by accident.
It’s not every day you hear from someone who bought a water tower by accident.

Most of the videos are scheduled for the coming weeks at the time of writing and some of them are in Dutch, but to give you all something to watch let’s start with Ben Fitzgerald’s “101 Hacks for Late Soviet Era Water Towers“. This talk created a buzz, detailing as it did how he accidentally acquired a Latvian water tower, and what he intends to do with it while incidentally providing us with a bit of Soviet and Latvian social history.

I mentioned my traveling companion was Matt Westcott, aside from giving a chiptune concert on the Saturday night he also gave us the tale of how he had a hand in the recent Black Mirror interactive episode, Bandersnatch. If you noticed the Easter egg of a Sinclair Spectrum game concealed in the audio at the end of the show, you now know who created it, because when Matt isn’t playing chiptunes he’s also a well-known ZX Spectrum demoscene coder.

Of the ones that aren’t yet on YouTube, watch out for Niklas Fauth and Jan Henrik Hemsing describing their TranspOtter electric transport platform, readers with long memories might remember when we featured this on Hackaday. A surprise one that didn’t attract many in its audience but which created a buzz from those who did was Klazien Schaap’s “Love hacks”, Dimitri tells me she may return with more active billing at a future event.

Plenty Of Workshops To Keep Everyone Occupied

When blacksmithing is in the blood, you'll risk your officewear.
When blacksmithing is in the blood, you’ll risk your officewear.

The workshop sessions ran in parallel with the talks, and were spread throughout the hotel’s various function rooms as well as in the hotel grounds. My former OxHack member friend Igor was running the RevSpace forge, which of course as a blacksmith’s kid I had to have a go on despite wearing comically inappropriate clothing. Outdoors there was also thermite casting, the impressive collapse of an oil drum using the steam and air pressure trick, and a workshop using bleach to imprint logos and patterns onto clothing.

Indoors were a selection of workshops on topics as diverse as lockpicking and key impressioning (in which to my shame I was the only one in my class who didn’t open their lock!), soldering classes both through-hole and surface-mount, creating cyberpunk helmets, and a flamethrower building workshop. The flamethrowers were tested outside the hotel, sometimes their sound could be heard as the talks went on.

There’s A Social Side To Hacker Camps, Too

The Helpful Otter is no ordinary Shitty Addon adaptor!
The Helpful Otter is no ordinary Shitty Addon adaptor!

Meanwhile the normal process at a hacker camp went on, of hanging out with friends both old and new, looking at the work they’d brought with them, and catching up with interesting stuff. We’ve already covered the conference badge and the launch of the badge.team firmware running upon it, there was also a busy badge hacking area to service that. If you read our report on the badge you may remember its Shitty Addon connector was at 90 degrees to the board rather than the usual 45, so a special mention goes out to [OpeRaptor], who had designed an adaptor PCB called the Helpful Otter to cope with this problem. There have been other multi-Shitty-Addon boards, but never one this artistic!

And I’m not going to lie, we were in a well-appointed hotel for the weekend, a lot of time was spent in the bar with good beers and good company. The most hacker-friendly pub quiz ever and then Matt’s chiptune gig on the Saturday, innumerable fascinating conversations, and of course an international competition of great importance in which the British BS1363 mains connector triumphed over its European equivalent.

We boarded the train on Monday morning and made our way back to the UK with the usual post-hacker-camp blues, this had been a particularly good antidote to the interminable chill and damp of a maritime European winter. It was a very different camp from the norm in its situation, but that made it a bit special. I am much indebted to Dimitri and the rest of our Dutch hosts for the hacker camp, to the Hotel de Veluwe folks for putting up with so many hackers for the weekend, and to the rest of the attendees for putting up with a Brit with a camera and a load of stupid questions. I’m told Hacker Hotel will be back next February, and I fully intend for it to be on my itinerary.





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