(Photo by Maximillian Lawrence)
My name is Maximillian Lawrence and I guess you would call me an artist since most of my inventions don’t actually work.
If my inventions worked, you would instead refer to me as genius billionaire and a job title wouldn’t be nearly as important at defining my social worth. I have a background a degree in painting, some undergraduate dabblings in biology, chemistry and computer science and a lot of experience in 1970s Tandy RadioShack computers with a minor in MIDI synthesizers. I cofounded and still co-run an artist co-op based on the Menudo Method of Governance in Chinatown called Space1026.
For almost a year now, the Ryskalczyk brothers, David and Phillip, had been encouraging me to attend a biannual “hacker” conference called HOPE that occurred in July. Let’s talk about a truly terrifying idea: Spend a whole weekend with 5,000 exceptionally abusively condescending children stuck in men’s bodies wearing obscure black T-shirts with snarky punchlines, who all had some magical power to make me wink out of existence through some finger banging on a keyboard while muttering “Winter is coming” and tracking their phones taped to drones hunting Pokémon. Only a graffiti-writing conference sounded more painful.
“No fucking way” is what I silently said in my head while I nodded yes. If David and Phillip said I needed to go, I would have to get over my insecurities, drink the Club Mate (bizarro hacker drink of choice) and get on the bus to the Hotel Pennsylvania, across the street from Penn Station.
Just to give you context, David and Phillip are the sons of parents that immigrated from Eastern europe at the height of Cold War tensions to the Northeast of Philadelphia. Both of them are incredibly gifted in different ways and despite the age difference of 15 years between them and myself, I consider them my mentors. They are also by far the coolest nerds I have ever met. No, they aren’t cool like a swarthy sexy schizophrenic drug-addicted revolution-generating Remi Malek (aka Mr. Robot) is cool. They are the real fucking deal.
David does shit like grind down chips from old computers, has them electroscanned and deconstructs their function based on the unbelievably small transistor arrays on the inside. He then reverse engineers them into software emulators. Phillip is on the macro side. He uses CNC routers and makes robots. I don’t mean LEGO Mindstorm floppy kids crap. I mean hundreds of pounds Boston Dynamics, NSA, DARPA battle bots. The brothers have a secret design dungeon in Kensington.
As it turns out, The Hacktory, the organization that I was an artist in residence with in 2014 and that introduced me to Phillip and David, had tickets for its employees for the HOPE conference. These aren’t cheap. If you buy them a year ahead, they are $150. By the time you reach the conference date, they can be as much as $300. So it was decided that myself, among many others, would be emissaries of the Hacktory at the HOPE conference 2016! If it were not for the guidance, peer camaraderie and opportunity presented to me during my artist residency at the Hacktory in 2014, my experience at the HOPE XI conference would have never occurred.
So what is HOPE? Some say it is an acronym for Hackers Of Planet Earth, others will tell you its a contraction of HO-tel PE-nnsylania. Its been running at the Hotel Pennsylvania for the last 20-plus years. Even the bed bugs are on a first name basis with the conference directors. (OK, we didn’t actually find any bed bugs, but we did check.)
Attendees are constantly reminded to follow the '5-2-1' method: five hours of sleep, two meals a day, one shower a day.
The location of the conference is as important as the conference itself. Upon first inspection, the Hotel seems contemporary and modern. There are so many foreign tourists bustling about the lobby looking for that NEW YORK experience. When you get your room, its pretty apparent that the building is something like Dorian Gray. Pretty on the outside, absolutely terrifying curses, mummies and bugs on the inside.
So you register in the hotel lobby to get your “all access” pass and they hand you a booklet with the schedule and descriptions of everything being presented at the conference. Imagine its your first day at Hogwarts. All arts, dark and light are presented for your edutainment. Esoteric classes such as “How To Torrent a Pharmaceutical Drug,” “Matehacking: Legalizing Autonomous Production and Permaculture — Establishing a Hack Farm” to more colloquial “Chinese Mechanical Locks — Insight into a Hidden World of Locks,” “Come into My (Biohacking) Lab and See Whats on the Slab” and “Women in Cyber Security.” Things with physics like “Orbital Mechanics ate my Webblog” to the downright grimy “The Silk Road to Life without Parole,” which included the mother of now incarcerated Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht. His mom was there. Simultaneously humanizing and weirdly poetic.
Anyway, theres a lockpicking village, a bunch of vendors selling books and tools, workshops on biohacking and building circuits. A bunch of hammocks. Some shitty artwork. And a bunch of Soylent giveaways, the drink that’s supposed to replace the need to eat. Truly overwhelming wonderful melange.
Though registration was on the first floor and the vendors were in the mezzanine, the real action was on the 18th floor. So we meander out into the throngs of regular folk waiting for one of the ancient elevators to shuttle us up to the top floor. That can take awhile. I make it into my first seminar and it’s absolutely packed to the gills. I missed three quarters of it but it didn’t matter to me.
Sitting on the floor, illuminated by ultraviolet futuristic DMX lights, my dandruff glows like sparkling diamonds (glad I washed my pants). I listen to the people on the stage and there’s an image of an onion projected. Someone starts talking about the thunder god Thor, which I realize later they were saying Tor but with an accent, and it becomes clear I have absolutely no clue what they are talking about. I was willing to learn though. I googled all the terms being tossed around getting definitions, like I was a cryptographer during World War II intercepting missile commands through the enigma. Arriving at the following realization: if I simply read the description of what they were talking about, iI wouldn’t need to do any of these translations. So I read it. Turns out the nerds on the stage were actually the founders and super awesome people who invented Tor, the anonymous browser (which has roots in Philly).
So onto my first real lecture, “Crypto War II: Updates from the Trenches” featuring Matt Blaze and Sandy Clark. Of course, I had never seen the original Crypto War but I figured I could wing it with the sequel. I mean, how much happened in the first Terminator movie that couldn’t be inferred by the later films? Boy, was I wrong.
The seminar starts with all lights on and a friendly announcement from HOPE management to please follow the prescribed 5-2-1 method. I actually became momentarily anxious during this announcement — I didn’t know what the 5-2-1 method was! Luckily, the announcement includes its definition: five hours of sleep, two meals a day, and for god’s sake, one shower a day. Btw, it was announced repeatedly through out the conference. There goes dispelling that nerd stereotype.
What struck me first after the lights dimmed and the speaker came on stage was the absolute magnetism he commanded. Hundreds of locked eyes , laser-beam Adderall-like focus, absolute quiet, on this man. This man was Matt Blaze. As I learned, Matt hacked the clipper chip. I guess this is what they meant by Crypto Wars I.
The NSA introduced the clipper chip as a way to create secure communication via encryption. Matt broke it. Then he became an associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, and on the board of directors of the Tor Project. This man was the real deal as well as an academic with his fingers still in the onion dip. As they would say, an O.G.
He was also extremely funny. A great speaker with a lot of street cred. Then he introduced Sandy Clark, who had recently finished her Ph.D. in cryptology under his mentorship at Penn. Sandy talked about how the FBI continues to push a policy of implementing a “backdoor” to all software and hardware that would be “only” accessible by law enforcement.
The buzzword biohacking has been floating around the past couple of years. It’s whats predicted as the future of the future, of what future I was not sure but I figured I should learn so I hunted for biohackers and I found them. They are rad.
I spent time with a Sebastian S. Cocioba of New York City’s Binomica Labs. He had set up a pop-up DIY bio lab of sorts. There was some janky fan blowing out air, a bunch of petri dishes with little plants growing in them, some scalpels, tweezers and what looked like 200 green jello shots waiting to be devoured by thirsty hackers wiling out.
Sebastian was an excellent teacher. He never allowed me to feel dumb — no question was too silly and he had incredible patience. He walked me throw the cloning process of a non-GMO tobacco plant through utilizing a gooey cocktail of sugar, agar and two hormones cytokines (BAP) and auxins (NAA). These chemicals and their relative ratio to each other can charm the plant cells into something best akin to a fetal stem cell in a human. The hormones are able to reprogram cells that would seem already dedicated to a specific task, let’s say the top of a leaf, and allow them to become roots. Really fascinating. The green color of the jello growth was simply for coloring .
Side note: There is a fabled West Philadelphian who is an artist of synthetic biology. When people speak about him, it’s always in a whisper, almost conspiratorial. His name is ORKAN. He collaborates with a huge spectrum of scientists and all I can say is I want to make what he makes. Why? Because he makes extraordinary artwork and in the back of my mind, I left the HOPE conference thinking that my Roy Rogers ketchup cup filled with green jello and tobacco was gonna be my big entrance into synthetic Biology and then ORKAN and I could be chums and he would refer to me as MAX. Talk about hubris.
Though I was successful at keeping the container sealed and intact for two days in NYC as well as on the Bolt Bus, fate had another idea. I got home and my English bulldog Lily knocked my hand and the cups split open spilling goo all over my floor. Not to be deterred by something as minor as contamination, I scooped it back into the cups and pretended nothing happened. As of today, I can officially announce that what was once tobacco and jello is now weapons-grade mint jelly with a suspicious white mayo mold and some black spiky growths I am gonna assume is normally something benign off the floor that turns terrifying when put into hormones and super growth serum.
Mary H. B. Ward and her crew are a powerhouse of sisters in science. They are from Oakland and run a couple of organizations. The first one I will mention is called Counter Culture Lab. Thats Mary’s hustle. The second is Omni Commons, which is Jenny Ryan’s thing. I would talk about what they do there but you should just go to their websites. What I am more interested in talking about is their energy.
All three of them exude the type of confidence of someone who has worked in the Peace Corps overseas and seen the shit but is still able to smile. All three of them are also very bright. In a sea of guys flopping about, these individuals were a breath of fresh air. The gender gap in the sciences is very real and particularly depressing. I asked them, “What’s the percentages gender-wise inside of your organizations?” They responded with “though the membership is changing, the board who run it is all women,” which prompted me to say, “That’s whats up.” (Shoutout to Georgia Guthrie who runs The Hacktory.)
Late Saturday morning, I find myself sitting on the floor near the registration table and a person catches my eye. He was DIFFERENT. It’s almost like I have developed the fashion equivalent of NSA facial recognition software and profiling. This man was wearing a onesie, long-sleeved, made of some sort of wonderfully thin-looking, light denim and best described as a pair of orange designer Crocs, glasses and short hair. Yassss, queen!
Not realizing who he was, I complimented him on his attire like somehow my unsolicited recognition mattered. Three hours later, I’m waiting the big deal keynote address and guess who walks on stage? His name is Cory Doctorow and is to date one of the most concise speakers I have ever had the pleasure to listen to.
I left the Doctorow keynote with a lot to process. For those not familiar with Cory, which I was not at the time, either, he is the co-editor of Boing Boing, a truly time-burning website in which every article is interesting. He’s also an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction. In the context of the HOPE conference, Cory has been extremely vocal about changing current copyright laws. His voice can be heard through his advisory role at digital rights org the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“The sin of the werewolf isn’t that it was born a werewolf. It’s the fact it doesn’t lock itself up every full moon.”
That was the statement from Cory that is still reverberating in my head. He spoke about protecting our idealistic current selves from our future selves that will at some point be tired, worn out and or broke under a full moon and end up making a decision concerning intellectual property and/or ethics that will end up being super-compromised. So, prevention is key to save your current self from your future self. Sublimely simple quantum haiku.
Another thing that struck me about Cory’s presentation was a story from his childhood. When Cory was a kid, he had a friend who had extremely severe epilepsy. The seizures had gotten so bad that they had to perform a last-ditch surgery in which they separated the two hemispheres of the child’s brain. The post surgery result had a list of unusual effects. One of them being that when the child would have one eye covered or the other, he was able to describe the object or image in from of him but was unable to tell you what the object was. If both eyes were able to see the object and the child described the object out loud, he was then able to identify the object. In a bizarre feedback loop of transformation, the vocalization was being interpreted by the hearing part of his brain and able to process it and identify what he had described.
One of the things that separates the HOPE conference from other hacker conferences is the wide range of topics covered. A perfect example was the “Hacking Housing” presentation by Bay Area residents Luke Iseman and Heather Stewart. In less than an hour, they were able to walk you through how, for $10,000, could buy yourself a metal shipping container, have it delivered where ever, plasma cut some windows in, toss in a bamboo kitchen floor and some solar panels and there you have it. An episode of Tiny Houses Oakland.
Keeping in mind that you still have to shit into a Home Depot five-gallon bucket with a special toilet seat attached on top, it was impressive. It became even more impressive when they talked about how they started what looked like a 19th-century ship factory filled with shipping container homes inside of a massive warehouse. It even turned a profit for the duo. And it had a microbrewery in it. A massive amount of trial and error had to have gone into that project but they had the right attitude — that the second this project stopped being fun, they were gonna be done with it.
The absolutely jaw dropping moment was when they mentioned in passing that they had build one of these and dropped it in Africa somewhere. Huh? Yeah, Africa. Part capitalist, part humanitarian, 100% Bay Area.
Of course I was gonna go to the “Hacking Sex Toys” presentation. Shit, it’s the Internet of Things, right? What’s the internet without sex?
Kit Stubbs makes gender more fluid than J-lube. Kit presented a range of inventions from their lab in Boston that was fascinating. Maybe at first glance they seemed like a Spencer’s gift gag not to be taken seriously in the realm of design and science. That leftover puritanical garbage is quickly dismissed when you realize that not only do these devices have to be able to not harm the user, but they also have be dishwasher-safe. And, in many cases, electronic. Can you tell me of how many electronic products have to have that many hurdles to hump in order to be consumer-safe? It’s essentially having to design a miniature wireless submarine out of hyper-allergenic floppy silicone.
— Kit Stubbs, Ph.D. (@vortacist) July 31, 2016
One of the most interesting ideas presented by Stubbs was the orgasm denial device in which an artist had developed an inflatable balloon bladder that went in the user’s rectum and an electronic fifi of sorts that went on the user’s wang. Through some amazing feat of science and technology, the device identified when ejaculation was about to occur and inflated the bladder in your ass to dead it. Almost like mechanical tantric sex without having to read any books.
The second interesting device was referred to by Stubbs as “teledildonics” and was developed by an artist named Franklin. They had made a long dildo with sensors on one end and mild electrodes on the other. The result was after inserting the electrode side of the dildo into your hole of choice, the stroking sensation on the sensor end sent a analogous electrode stimulation on the inside. It was stated that with some practice, a phantom limb effect could be experienced and orgasm achieved. Mindblowing.
Jason Scott is a legend. He wears top hat, a suit and is wacky. He’s also the person behind the Internet Archive, the MAME emulator, and a bunch of other ELECTRO-ALAN-LOMAX types of technological preservations. You should Google him. Then watch whatever video comes up. It will be good, I can guarantee it.
What Jason presented at this midnight presentation was really unexpected for me. The second part started off with slides of number of artists and engineers who had committed suicide recently. Many of them had Kickstarter campaigns that financially were extremely successful but ultimately couldn’t actually be fulfilled by the individuals offering them. Some from cost overrun, others from unfinished or untested technology. All of them felt so hopeless and trapped they didn’t know where or who to turn to for help.
Jason had the opportunity to help an individual who had been in exactly that position. The individual had undervalued and oversold a product that wasn’t finished and had reach their goal of funds plus some. Feeling trapped, he posted a suicide note that Jason saw and ultimately intervened. Jason pulled together a group of volunteers and organized and fulfilled the majority of the project. It was inspiring to see a human side of something that can feel cold and far away.
Tom Keenan’s presentation, “Come into My (Biohacking) Lab and See What’s on the Slab,” was a perfect way to end my conference experience. He’s a Canadian scientist who’s on first-name buddy basis with Ray Kurzweil. Ray started a cult called the Singularity. Scientists join it. It predicts that it can’t make anymore prediction after 2026 (or something like that) because Ray’s algorithm for prediction fails at this point. Ray speculates that the failure of his predictions at this point means that either technology gets smart of gets rid of humans or humans merge with technology and enter into a new evolution. So either The Terminator/Matrix scenario or Frank Herbert’s Dune. Fair enough.
The terrifying part is Ray is actually now the head of Google’s engineering department. Yeah. Seems like a bad idea.
Anyway, Tom is of equal stature and presented the terrifying future of CRISPR genetic engineering. Keenan recalls a recent eBay occurrence in which an individual had won an X-Ray machine in Vancouver. It was from a salvaged hospital medical lot. As it turns out, the winner had set the X-Ray device up in his house. He had positioned it out his home window directly at his neighbor’s house. Turns out he was attempting to use the unshielded X-ray as a death ray to kill his neighbor. Ultimately, the authorities found out as the result of radiation/electrical usage (he had to install a very serious air-conditioning unit in a residential neighborhood, one that’s typically only used for machine shops or industrial needs).
After having meals exclusively from free promo items such as Soylent meal in a bottle and Hackaday black and white cookies, paranoid, unable to sleep from (the fear of) bedbugs and hotel trolls, I was pretty much fried. I had what conference speaker Johannes Grenzfurthner referred to in his talk as Trump’s “Mouth Lard” — there’s a German term that details the white foam that appears on the edges of your mouth from too much talking and too little water. I was ready to go back to Philadelphia.
And if you’re wondering, I am a little different after the experience. In a counterintuitive way, I’m almost more human. With that many people, that much personality and brilliance, in such a short period of time, I’m just now starting to get my vision back. It’s clearer now, like i got some excimer laser surgery on my inner eye and now my techno chakras are in quantum alignment.