HoHoCon '94 December 29, 1994 - January 2, 1995 Ramada Inn South, Austin, TX
A Review, released to the Net on 1/25/95
By Netta "grayarea" Gilboa
(This article appeared in Cult Of The Dead Cat, Computer underground Digest, Phrack, Gray Areas, alt.2600, alt.security, etc.)
I flew to Austin, TX after spending Christmas with some hacker friends. I arrived a day early, unsure if the Con was gonna come off and how many people would show if it did. HoHoCon had almost been cancelled this year after someone called the original hotel and said a bunch of mean, evil hackers were gonna descend on the hotel and that several federal agencies would be sending feds there to monitor it. If you ask me, some kid's mom said he couldn't go so he decided to try to make sure none of us could either. Lame. It also taught me that everyone in this community has enemies. Maybe someone just doesn't like Drunkfux. Supposedly, right after this phone call the hotel got another, this time from Dateline NBC who wanted permission to film the Con. Rumor had it the hotel panicked and cancelled. The truth is that a regular client of theirs offered to pay higher room rates and the hotel stood to make over $20,000 extra by getting rid of us and having them there instead. So they used the phone calls as an excuse. I can only imagine the hassles Drunkfux went through to find another hotel that was empty on New Year's Eve weekend.
But Drunkfux came through with flying colors and when I got to the hotel they told me other people had started to arrive. They gave me a list of these people to look at, complete with their real names and room numbers. It's possible they would even have xeroxed the list if I had asked them to. Uncool. Even more uncool, almost shocking, was that the hotel had a clipboard on the counter with people's real names, assigned room number and credit card number complete with expiration date. It was listed in alphabetical order and I was on the top page in the third spot. I freaked. I told the woman behind the counter that she must move the clipboard as some of the people coming specialized in attacking people's credit and that I would surely be a target given my position on the list and my all too well-known real name. She said okay but when I returned my luggage cart, some twenty minutes later, it was still on the counter. I told her again, nastier this time, to move it. An hour later she still had not. I then asked to use a phone and was told there was one in my room and another down the hall. I explained that I wanted to call right from the counter to change my credit card number and to call the national offices of Ramada Inns to have her fired. In a nasty tone of voice she told me she'd move the clipboard. She did. However, the next day they threw the pages in the trash and, of course, had the clipboard on the counter again with a new list of the people due to check in that day. I argued with them again and they moved it. A few hours later (surprise!) their trash was invaded and they went out and bought two paper shredders. This was a good investment on their part although it's a shame it took us to teach them that. If you intend to stay at a Ramada Inn anywhere in the U.S., especially for any sort of meeting or conference, I would strongly advise you not to prepay with a credit card. They can't be trusted with your data. We invite readers who may have experienced credit card fraud after staying at Ramada Inns (or other hotels) to contact us. It was a sobering lesson in how vulnerable the average person is in society.
I had plans to hook up with Stormbringer and Holy Spirit, two virus writers I love talking to. Stormbringer had recently retired from virus writing after hearing from someone in Singapore who got infected with one of his non-malicious viruses. I had read his retirement text file and was anxious to talk to him about it. He assured me on the phone all was well and they agreed to meet me at Mr. Wasabi for sushi and I ate more sushi than I ever had before in one sitting. Then we walked to a coffee house and they drove me back to my hotel around 1 a.m.
I was invited to Novocain and Joe630's room so I headed up there and ran into Veggie, Onkel Ditmeyer, Count Zero, Buckaroo, etc. Onkel showed me his way cool laptop and I finally got to see what an IBM demo looks like. These are programs which demonstrate the sound and graphics capabilities of a computer. He copied a few of them on a disk for me along with some electronic magazines I had never seen. Onkel is the author of a well known phreaking program called Bluebeep. We spoke a lot over the weekend and I found him brilliant, honest, charming and not afraid of girls who know way less than him. He was one of the coolest people at HoHoCon this year.
At 6 a.m. a few of us went downstairs for free breakfast and the conversation turned to the various women who hang out on #hack. There was some dissing of one girl who has slept her way around the scene and in the past had given a number of hackers herpes without telling them first. Eeks. I tried to get out of the guys I was eating with what she had that I didn't (besides herpes). I message most of her old lovers on IRC but none has ever made a pass at me. We talked about the other girls on IRC, who has slept with whom, and how they got treated afterwards. We talked about why people might have slept with those particular girls at the time they did and I suddenly felt both very lucky and better about myself that the one hacker I had slept with was a decent choice. Quality might beat quantity. To know for sure, I guess I'd have to ask the girls <wink>.
We picked up a bunch of food that was apparently not included in our free breakfast coupon. The waitress didn't know how to handle it and neither did we. I offered to put the food back and she finally agreed to let us eat it. I suggested they put up a sign to warn others and, of course, they didn't. Later I heard they let us all eat the bacon and other food for the rest of the Con. I never made it back down there again even though for American food it was pretty good. I was pretty tired and so headed off to sleep when we were done chowing down.
I woke up Friday afternoon when Joe630 and Novocain knocked on the door. They had a car and took me to a chinese restaurant nearby with a killer buffet. When we got back there were many people in the lobby listening to a tape of prank phone calls made by Phone Losers of America. I wanted the tape bad as it seemed highly appropriate for us to review. I was promised a copy which materialized in under an hour. W0rd! For all the shit I take for it, there are advantages to being press.
I felt pretty comfortable with all of the people I was talking to and since my room was very close to the lobby I invited everyone there and even left the door open for others to enter my room (which almost everyone who passed by did). It was kind of odd where they had situated me. You could watch my door from the counter where people checked in. I had asked for a smoking room but got dealt non-smoking instead. I inquired about changing it and was told some crap about all the rooms being accounted for already. It crossed my mind at the time that maybe some feds had purposely put me there but I discounted my gut feeling and remembered most hackers thought I was too paranoid about things. I told people to go ahead and smoke in my room with no ashtray. They did. All told about 15 people were in there and one of them pulled out a toy to show me. It was a box that hooked up to your telephone which allowed you to change your voice into that of a male, female or child. I had seen these boxes before in catalogs. They sure work great! I made two calls with it, one to a friend and one to my ex-husband. I snickered at how surprised they'd be when they heard my message and later regretted not telling either of them to save it so I could hear it back. Honestly, playing with this legal box was every bit as cool as great drugs or sex. I vowed to buy one. Watch out!
Talk turned to dinner and people started to leave my room. Joe630 was the last one out and he showed me something about how the hotel room locks worked. Hackers spend hours trying to figure out how things work and although I had little interest in the subject it was clear Joe630 was struck by the techonology and not the idea of breaking into someone's room. I started to organize people who were willing to eat sushi. Just as we were about to leave Joe630 and Novocain were gathering everyone into a room to tell people to chill their behavior. It later turned out that Joe630 had played with another lock after I made him stop touching mine. He had the misfortune to be seen by a member of the Austin Police Department who wisely agreed not to arrest him in exchange for Joe630's agreeing to talk to people in an attempt to curtail the usual HoHoCon hotel destruction. I should have attended this talk although I had no idea at the time why it was being organized. But I was starving and the people I took to eat sushi were not those who would consider trashing a hotel. Laughing Gas, Thumper27, Slyme, El_Jefe and I checked out Kyoto sushi which was good but expensive for what you got. I spent part of dinner wiping the free space on the hard drive on my laptop. I had never used this feature before, but had been told about it at the con and it sounded like something I should start doing regularly to protect other people's privacy so that erased E-mail and articles were truly erased. It was a good thing I had sushi to eat to keep me busy as it took a good twenty minutes to do on a Pentium laptop with a 500+ meg hard drive.
When we got back to the hotel I ran into Drunkfux who had cut his hair and dyed it bright red. I hardly recognized him but it looked great.
It was clear by the police presence in the lobby that the Con had officially started. We were told that signs hung on room doors (I had put up a copy of one of the magazine covers with a small piece of scotch tape) would be taken down. This made it much harder for us to find each other (I'd estimate we had 90% of the hotel's rooms) but so it goes. Some people were told specifically that they could not use their modems and for hours on Friday night the phone lines were so busy with modem usage that there was no way to make an outgoing call or to receive an expected incoming one. All sorts of security guards appeared. The ones I spoke with were police officers too. I'd guess there were 1-3 dozen around at all times and apparently hotel personnel were told they were all on duty until we left and none of them were able to go home for the rest of the weekend. I wish I could say this was utterly unwarranted. But some lamer broke the lock on the door to the hotel's phone system. And remember that another person had trashed the hotel's garbage and must have made a mess or been spotted.
The hot party that night was in Erik Bloodaxe's room. Loki, Ice-9 and Ophie were staying with him and Loki was in charge of the door.
He made sure to keep me out just as he does when he acts like a bully on IRC. I knew in my heart it was Loki's doing not ErikB's, but that didn't stop me from getting majorly upset about it anyway. I went downstairs to be alone and Joe630 knocked on the door a few minutes later. I gave him a piece of my mind and then some about how shitty some of those in the computer underground are. I went on for at least an hour and drew great comfort from the fact Joe630 thought I was not crazy and that things are as awful as they seem sometimes. Finally he told me that since I kept claiming to love hackers despite all of the grief, there were dozens of nice ones out there who would be thrilled to talk to me if I'd only leave my room and go try to have a good time. W0rd. I took his advice and had a good time in the lobby with the other rejects from Bloodaxe's party. The conversation was so good it was hard to tear away to go to sleep. I went to my room at 4:30 a.m., got under the covers, thought about sleep for 10 seconds. Then I pulled out my laptop and wrote a speech to deliver to the crowd the next day.
The two people I had counted on to wake me up didn't show and it was a stroke of luck that made me jump up at 9:45. The speeches were supposed to start at 10 a.m. and even though they surely wouldn't start till later I was selling magazines and was due there pronto to claim my table. It took a luggage cart to get all those magazines downstairs. I shudder to think what my life will be like when I have 30 issues to lug around instead of six. The folks from Fringeware were selling books and T-shirts and someone else had old Atari game units and cartridges. People came by to say hi and to buy magazines. I plugged my speech and told people not to dare miss it.
It was impressive that Drunkfux had gotten so many original speakers on such short notice. They mostly said what the crowd wanted to hear and shared thoughts on digital cash, the regulation of the Internet, recent laws, etc. Damien Thorn showed a video clip to the tune of the current rock hit "21st Century Digital Boy" which had cellular phones, scanners, etc. in it. It's part of an upcoming video that looked awesome. Veggie talked about dealing with the media after an old text file of his was used to harass a BBS sysop who got more than twice Phiber's jail sentence just for having a file around.
Someone sent Erik Bloodaxe to talk to me as part of my speech referred to him. It was an uncomfortable talk and I was probably correct in feeling that half the room was watching us and not whoever was speaking. I told him he could pay me back in print or elsewhere but that I was going to go ahead with what I planned to say and he surprised me by saying that what I had written was fine and he even added to it. He also told me that Loki had gotten too drunk and had been a pain in the ass to room with the night before. He assured me that although way too many people had been in his room, and way too many had tried to get in after it was full, it had not been his intention to keep me out. I felt bad that I even cared, and that he knew I cared, and that he and I even had to discuss it. I was unhapy that he had no intention of staying to hear my speech or the fight with Loki that he knew was coming but didn't mention to me. We left things with the fact that we'd go out for dinner or something the next night with Ophie (who also had an early flight) after the bulk of the Con was over. It occured to me then it would never happen because plans are hard to keep at Cons but I mentioned it in my speech anyway.
My speech went over very well. It was about what's been going on at Gray Areas since I spoke at HoHoCon last year. It was also about the behavior of certain elements of the community and how that behavior has affected me. And it was a stern warning about some busts that are coming down. I know a few people got the message. I could tell from the gasps and laughter at key points. But perhaps the highlight of the speech was the confrontation between Loki and I when he chose to bully me before anyone else could even ask a question.
I answered his accusations and managed to do a decent job even with no warning. Whatever he hoped to accomplish clearly wasn't working and from somewhere deep inside of me I found the courage to ask the entire room to vote on whether or not they really never wanted to see me on #hack again. The only vote opposed in a room of about 250-300 people was Loki's. Hours later I regretted not thinking to ask how many people never wanted to see Loki there again. Four people had come up to me and told me they would have voted him out. Loki left the room with his tail between his legs and ran to IRC. By the time I got on hours later word had spread a story that I picked a fight with him and he had won. The proof is in the videotape which will be available soon from Drunkfux. It's highly recommended for both friends and foes of mine. Drunkfux said demand for this portion of his footage was very high. I promised to give him better footage and an even better speech next year.
Later Count Zero wrote this about my speech in Cult of the Dead Cow: "Grayarea gets up and begins to read off a pre-prepared speech on her laptop. Her speech is too quick for my alcohol-byproduct-sodden synapses to register accurately. I keep staring at her dress...bright tie-dye...mesmerizing...it's actually quite cool. Suddenly, Loki gets up in the audience and the accusations fly back and forth between them. You kicked me off IRC. You called my office at work. You are doing this, you are doing that. Both are getting into this verbal slugfest in a major way. I feel the bad karma in the room hanging heavy like blue-green cigar smoke. "Can't we all just get along??" I yell, but noone seems to hear me. I don't know who is right or wrong (it's probably somewhere in between...the truth's always gray, right?), so I don't hypothesize. All I do know is that I'd never want to piss off Grayarea...she's damn strong on her convictions and won't take shit from anyone. I think she'd look better up there wearing a big ol' leather jacket with studs...terminator style. "One tends to assume that people wearing tie-dye gear are quiet, meek, very soft spoken, non-confrontational types....it is a camoflage that suits her well," I think. Bahaha! I liked your comments, Count Zero. And I did hear you yell that.
After the speeches I sold more magazines thanks to Loki who inadvertently made way more people interested in me. Bahahaha! Some of them said they liked or loved my dress, some of them hugged me and some of them signed up for subscriptions and gave me their data. I then headed off for dinner at yet another sushi restaurant. Laughing Gas and Slyme came again along with Mr. Spock who agreed to lose his sushi virginity to me and jokingly said that way he'd get mentioned in my review. I thought he was one of the three kewlest people I hung out with at the Con. I hope I get to spend more time with him at a Con in the future and I'd even be willing to go try his favorite type of food! The sushi place we picked was awesome. I was sorry I hadn't found it sooner. It's almost too bad HoHoCon will be in another city next year. I also wanna mention the elite, Jak_Flack, who drove us to the restaurant when cabs were scarce on New Year's Eve. He didn't want any sushi or any money. He even got lucky and gave a ride to people who probably would have done the same thing for him under the same circumstances. Thanks.
After dinner I did what Drunkfux begged us not to do. I spent New Year's Eve on IRC. I messaged Mr. Spock, in fact, who was typing from the other side of the room. I also messaged some hackers I talk to all the time. Some were lonely and glad to see me. I thought a lot about loneliness. Some of us prefer to be with computers than people. Some of us can open up more easily to people on a computer. And some of us need computers around even when we're with other people. I was typing from an account at hohocon.org and there were several people in the room having fun with their "site" as X and Y tried repeatedly (and succeeded) to get root there. I had never seen root before from the position of the person protecting it. I should have paid way more attention but I got too caught up in having conversations. I should also have paid more attention to the people in the room with me. Loq and Fool were there and they seemed really kewl but I got too lost in IRC. Oh well, at least I wasn't hopelessly drunk. And I wasn't kicked or banned once. People were delicate with each other on IRC. They were often drunk, vulnerable and more likely to reveal things when conversing. Those who were on were more than willing to talk to anyone who showed up. People apparently intend to make public the hohocon.org logs. If they include IRC chats it would be very shallow. I will never again take the chance and IRC from a Con again. Although I have mostly come to terms with the fact that I am a semi-public figure and people will always want to see whatever I type on the Net, but it's not fair to expose the words of the people I messaged.
I dragged myself off IRC about 4:30 a.m. and went downstairs to clean off one of the beds. Novocain and Joe630 had checked out of their room and were gonna stay in my room for one night. I was thrilled at the idea of having company. But when the bed was empty it looked tempting and I lay down for the 90 minutes till I was due to meet them at the breakfast buffet. Next thing I knew it was Sunday afternoon. Oops! I wondered where they had slept. Apparently they hadn't wanted to wake me so they slept in another room. I felt bad but at least their stuff had been safe which is all you really care about at a Con. SORRY! Next time, guys, wake me.
I stumbled into the lobby and joined the conversations that were going on. A hotel employee asked if we'd mind moving to the conference room and we agreed. We figured the room was bugged just as the hotel phone lines had been. But we weren't talking about anything secret and a few of the hackers answered all of the questions asked by the cop/security guard who hung out for about half of the time we were in there. It was a very fun time there on the floor chatting with Voyager, Ophie, Onkel Ditmeyer, lgas, Deadkat, Drunkfux, etc. There were way more people but I'm drawing a blank on specifically who. I went upstairs to get more magazines and ran into Bruce Sterling. He was growing facial hair and looked great. He said he felt lousy which shows what I know. I hugged him before he said he felt lousy. We talked about the book he is working on. Then Ophie and I went off to be interviewed about female hackers and the treatment of women by hackers. It could have used Cori and Noelle but it made some good points. We came downstairs and I saw Drunkfux at work videotaping an interview with the guys from TNO in Colorado. This was priceless footage of them discussing how a group decides policies and handles politics and how they have applied political thought to hacking. I was sorry I had missed half of it and sorry I had spent so much time socializing with them that it had never occured to me I didn't know much about their group and I should have interviewed them too. I hope Drunkfux includes every word of their interview in the video.
Ophie brought up the idea of photos and so I grabbed my camera. Everyone there got into it and I got a whole roll of film of people hugging and kissing me, looking at porn mags with Ophie and generally playing around somehow. They came out great. If you want yours passed around or published, let me know. Until then, they're private.
Slyme and I headed back to Mr. Wasabi for dinner but to our surprise it was closed! New Year's day turned out to be a bad day to try to find places open to serve food. We should have stayed at the hotel. We finally ended up in a bar which served food, ordered hot chocolate and consoled ourselves on the lack of sushi. Back at the hotel a bunch of us went room hopping and tried to determine who was left. My flight was at 7 a.m. and I had no intention of going to sleep and taking a chance I would miss it. Several people had flights at 8 and 10 a.m. Others were staying on for 3 more days to get better airfare rates. I heard ErikB had left with Ophie and he told me later they had asked the hotel and had been told I checked out. One room we ended up in had a console copier running. I had heard about them but never seen one and was told it was okay if I photographed it. I went downstairs for my camera.
I hadn't been alone once since arriving in Austin. While this wasn't always planned, the thought did occur to me that my room might be watched and that law enforcement might be interested in any of the many people I was seen talking to. I had mentioned a controversial interview we had coming up with ILF and although I thought I was being overly paranoid, I was still nervous I would be questioned about it. But it was 12:30 a.m. or so and I felt too silly asking for someone to run downstairs with me. So I went alone. But as I was closing the door and checking it was locked I saw someone head down the hall towards me and I knew instantly something was about to be up. Hackers are right when they say you can't fully understand this until you have lived it. He asked if I was Netta and I said yes and then he reached towards his pocket. I knew he was going for either a gun or a badge and there was nothing I could do about either. It turned out to be a badge and as he got close enough so that I could see it read "Austin Police Department" I thought to myself "Kewl, it's not the Secret Service." He asked me to accompany him to a room and, holding my camera, I did. He told the two "security guards" that we'd be leaving the door open. I had asked whether he was the guy who had called me last March and he said no that he was his partner. I wondered whether I was under investigation or whether they had no one else to ask for information or whether they just wanted to meet me after talking to me voice. It didn't occur to me to ask. I thought several times about the fact I was supposed to be out with Bloodaxe and Ophie and that if I had made it a point to leave with them this wouldn't be happening. I wondered who else APD had questioned who had not told anyone. I wondered if they had even questioned someone about me. I also feared people would come looking for me and see me in that room and think I was talking to the police voluntarily. That I had sought them out. God forbid they should think I was telling the police about the console copier.
The whole thing only took about 8 minutes and the officer asked me nothing I had a problem answering. He treated me with respect and didn't press me to say anything I wasn't comfortable saying. I offered to give him some of my magazines at the end of the conversation and he walked me to my room and was clearly planning to wait outside. I invited him in and he watched me pull issues from three suitcases. It was apparent nothing illegal had gone on in my room. I'd lay odds it was the cleanest room there too. The day before, for example, my trash in the bathroom had been dumped at least three times. None were by me or when I was in the room. The only thing I couldn't answer, and it was simply from nerves, was what I had done on New Year's Eve. The answer came out that I didn't remember and since I stammered it, it must have looked like I had seen or done something I shouldn't have. But all I did was IRC and eat sushi and I do that so often I didn't even remember when asked. New Year's Eve had been almost like any other night.
Anyway, I got the console copier photo (hint: I could use a detailed article on how they work). We then moved on to other rooms and I ran into Drunkfux and Damien Thorn. I did a long video interview with Drunkfux, who would have made an excellent journalist. He resisted the idea of asking me petty questions about who I like and don't like in the scene and who I'd sleep with if I could. I would have answered anything he asked in the spirit of the HoHoCon video tradition, but instead we got into more serious issues and people who think Drunkfux is shallow or a less-than-serious dude due to his IRC reputation will be most surprised.
Then Damien did an equally long interview and Drunkfux got eleet footage of me closing my eyes when the talk got too technical. I did almost pass out as it was 3 a.m. or so and I felt really comfortable being with them but I snapped to attention just in the nick of time as Drunkfux had the camera aimed on me and Damien was making a joke. Damien took it in stride but I think it was the first time anyone had ever had the chance to listen to his most eleet technical tips and was bored. I hope he knows I love him, like most hackers, for the person he is and not for the skills or trophies he has. I was transfixed as he told Drunkfux his beginnings in the computer underground and his views on laws, ethics, writing, etc. I just don't lust to know what model of phones he respects most or what gadget he's tested last. Luckily for you, Drunkfux did the interview, not me, and he did ask lots on that sort of stuff. After they were done Damien and I went out to some fast food burger joint. It was dirt cheap and tasted like cardboard. We had a great chat, as usual, and then went to the airport with Slyme who had slept the night away and missed everything. My flight was first and they walked me to the gate and made a fuss over me and it was the perfect ending.
(Sample issues of Gray Areas are $8.00 each (U.S.) and $12.00 each (foreign) from: Gray Areas, Inc. P.O. Box 808, Broomall, PA 19008.)