Many of us look forward to visiting a summer hacker camp, as an opportunity to immerse ourselves in some of the coolest and most stimulating stuff that comes out of our community. The names trip off the tongue, ToorCamp, CCCamp, EMFcamp, BornHack, and more.
There’s one major event that doesn’t trip off the tongue in the same way though, because though it’s one of the oldest in our calendar it doesn’t have the same name every time. Since the end of the 1980s the Netherlands has seen a sequence of hacker camps with three letter names such as HAR, OHM, and SHA. Every four years these events delight and amaze us, and every four years they need a new name. Do you think you can help them pick one for 2021?
There are a few ground rules to observe, for the would-be coiner of a new moniker. The tradition is of a three-letter acronym, usually one with a meaning somewhere in technology, and so far always containing the letter H somewhere to stand for “Hack” in some form. The idea is that it should somehow encapsulate the spirit of hacker camp culture rather than simply be three words containing “Hack”. HAR for example was Hacking At Random, OHM was Observe Hack Make, and SHA was Still Hacking Anyway. So if you can dream up a TLA within those parameters, there is a group of hackers in the Netherlands who might like to hear from you. We suspect that HAD is already taken.
If you’ve been to a few hacker camps then you’re aware they are not the products of giant corporate entities but volunteer run community groups. You may even have volunteered yourself, and done all sorts of interesting tasks that go towards the running of the camp. But few of you will have been on the orga team of a camp, the people who put in the hard work of making it happen from start to finish. Julius ter Pelkwijk has, and at the 2018 Electromagnetic Field camp in the UK he gave us an insight into the experience.
Of course, Julius isn’t a member of the EMF orga, instead the camp that gave him the experience was last year’s SHA2017 in the Netherlands. This was over twice the size of EMF 2018, on the Dutch polder at Scoutinglandgoed Zeewolde, a scout camp in a forest next to a dyke, and while from our perspective it was a huge success, it was fascinating to pull back the curtain and hear from the other side of the event.
When I presented myself at the SHACamp 2017 info desk bright and early on the first full day of the camp, I was surprised to find that I was to be assigned a volunteer along with my press badge. Because of the way our community is sometimes covered by the traditional media, it was necessary that any journalists touring the site have a helping hand to ensure that they respect the privacy of the attendees, gain permission from people likely to be in any photographs, and generally not be idiots about the whole Hacker thing. I pointed out that I was working for Hackaday and not The Sun, and that as an active hackspace member and former hackspace director I was very much a part of the community attending SHA 2017 who would simply be wasting the valuable time of any volunteer assigned to me. Fortunately for the next volunteer in line they agreed with my point of view, so one of the angels was spared a day of my breakneck walking pace and impenetrable British colloquialisms.
It’s interesting therefore a few weeks after the event, to investigate how it was portrayed through the eyes of people who aren’t coming as Hackaday is, from within the bubble. To take a look at that disconnect between what we know about our community and its events, and how the traditional media sometimes like to portray us. Are they imagining the set of a Hollywood “hacker” movie in which assorted geniuses penetrate the computer systems of various international institutions by the simple expedient of banging wildly at a keyboard for a few seconds, or will the reality of a bunch of like-minded technology enthusiasts gathering in a field for several days of tinkering and other fun activities be what makes their reports?
There are a series of stages to coming down from a festival. After the hectic rush of travel there are the several days of catching up on lost sleep and picking up the threads of your life again, then once a semblance of order has been regained there’s that few weeks of emptiness. Your life will never be the same again, it’s all so mundane.
It’s now a couple of weeks since the SHACamp 2017 hacker festival in the Netherlands was in full swing, and the write-up below has slowly taken shape over that time amid the other work of being a Hackaday scribe and editor. It’s early morning here in Southern England as I write this, so on the equivalent day while I was at SHACamp at this time I would have been carrying a large pack of stickers for distribution on the swapping table through the rising sunlight of a camp still largely asleep after the previous night’s revelry. Past our German and Dutch immediate neighbours, down the ramp from the dyke, the cardboard tent depot on my left and the food court on my right, to the information tent. Greet the bleary-eyed volunteer at the end of their graveyard shift, and spread plenty of Hackaday and Tindie stickers on the table for the masses. And then? Find a coffee, and sally forth into the field for another day among one of the most stimulating communities on Earth. My community. Your community.
The sticker table is a good place to start if you wish to get a handle on a large hacker camp. On it you will find the logos of a cross-section of the diverse organisations and groups present. There are a few commercial ones like my Jolly Wrenchers and Tindie the puppy, there are some from voluntary organisations or interest groups, but mostly they are the logos of a continent’s — even the wider world’s in some cases — hackspaces and makerspaces. Here you see the breadth of the attendees, as the logos of spaces from thousands of miles away you’ve never encountered before mingle. This isn’t quite a global gathering, but there is a sense of global community around it.
How Do You Describe a Hacker Camp?
So before I take you through my experience of SHA, it’s best to start by describing a hacker camp in more general terms. When I’m describing a camp like SHA to the kind of people who don’t read Hackaday, I put it as similar to the music festivals they are used to but without the bands. Instead the audience provides the entertainment through the work they bring to the event or do at the event, and through a comprehensive program of talks and lectures. Oh — and this is the bit that makes their eyes open wide — every structure on site from the smallest one-man tent to the largest marquee has mains power and high-speed Internet. Sometimes people grasp what SHA is from this description, sometimes they don’t.
Different groups, be they individual hackspaces, people from a particular country, or other special interest groups, congregate in villages, collections of tents, marquees, and gazebos in which they set up whatever cool stuff they’ve brought along. My tent with its Hackaday flag was in a village composed of a mix of British hackspaces up on the dyke, which [Michael] from MK Makerspace had marked with a sign consisting of a huge BS1363A mains plug. More than one person pointed out it would have been better lying flat on the ground with pins in the air, ready to catch an unwary Monty Python foot.
What do you do when your keenly anticipated hacker camp releases details of its upcoming badge and you really want to have a go at coding for it, but there are no badges for you to try yet? If you are [Artdanion], this is not a problem, you simply build your own.
He found his requirement to interface with genuine hardware exceeded the abilities of the emulator that the SHACamp 2017 badge team had thoughtfully provided, so he reached for breakout boards for the ESP32, the MPR121 touch sensor, and the e-ink display, and assembled his own clone on a piece of stripboard. Not only did it provide him with enough to develop his own apps, he found when he brought it to the event that the public release of the official firmware ran on it with only a few configuration tweaks. He had an official event badge, that wasn’t the event badge. Is this the first time this has been done? We think it might be.
The home-made badge is an impressive piece of work, but it ties into an observation we made at the end of our review of the official version of the SHA2017 badge. The use of an ESP32 with well-designed peripherals and a solid firmware means that this is a design that is likely to form the bedrock upon which some future badges are built. [Artdanion] has proved how straightforward it is to clone, we’d like to be so bold as to make the prediction that we’ll see more developments of this platform at future events. Meanwhile this home-made badge is a neat achievement, and we can only imagine the surprise of the SHA2017 badge team on being presented with a clone of their work for reflashing.
The badge has become one of the defining features of a modern hacker camp, a wearable electronic device that serves as both event computer and platform for some mild software and hardware hacking. Some events have had astoundingly sophisticated badges while others are more simple affairs, and the phenomenon has even spawned an ecosystem of unofficial badges which have nothing to do with the event in question.
The SHACamp 2017 badge is the latest to come the way of a Hackaday writer, and certainly contains enough to be taken as representative of the state of hacker camp badges in 2017. It doesn’t have a star turn like CCCCamp 2015’s software defined radio, instead it’s an extremely handy little computer in its own right.