What is this conference all about?

The first conference was held in 1984 in Marin County, California. It was organized by Stewart Brand and the people at Whole Earth and The Point Foundation. The conference was catalyzed by the publication of Steven Levy’s book “Hackers: The Heroes of the Computer Revolution”. Stewart felt that it would be really great to get some of the people mentioned in that book together for a weekend and “see what happened”. It was a resounding success resulting in a video documentary which aired nationwide on PBS.

In early 1986, the subject of the conference came up in an on-line discussion on the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link). “Why not do it again?” In late 1986, we had managed to put together the second conference which was held at a summer camp in Saratoga, CA. Since then, we’ve been holding the conference each year, and no longer at a summer camp.

What’s in a name?

Back in 1984, there was one meaning for the word Hacker. it was a very complimentary, very positive word. Sadly, there’s now another definition, with quite the opposite meaning. The definition created by the media means something very negative. Because the attendees to the conference feel very strongly that we should not give up the original positive meaning of the word, we decided to have two very different names for the conference.

Who is Invited to the Conference?

Prior attendees suggest people to invite who will bring something to the conference: some idea, contribution, energy, or whatever it is that makes the conference succeed. We believe that the attendees are hackers: people who enjoy pushing the envelope, bypassing limits, discovering knowledge, inventing solutions, and adventuring into uncharted areas. We try to find people from all domains / professions, from around the world, who are the tinkerers, who take a hands-on approach to actually creating and doing what everyone else thinks is the impossible. We actively encourage diversity in our attendees, in who they are, where they are from, and what they do. If you’re an artist, musician, designer of prestidigitational effects, bio-engineer, etc., then you are appropriate for this conference and this conference is appropriate for you.

What’s a Hacker?

An expert in their field who tries to do the impossible… who pushes the envelope of technology. They are not the people who break into computer systems. These are the people who created the Personal Computer industry and who actually built the Internet.

Even 18 years ago there was one meaning for this word… it was a very complimentary, very positive word. Sadly, there’s now another definition, with quite the opposite meaning. The definition created by the media means something very negative. Many people still use the term as a compliment while some news reports and governments use the term to mean a criminal.

The original meaning of the word was a very positive one, someone who is excited (intrigued, interested) by the challenge of doing things that other people say are nearly impossible; someone who has great fun finding the way to succeed by inventing an interesting solution; someone who enjoys just trying to find a way to do the impossible even if they don’t actually succeed. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology these people were referred to as hackers and this is the term that has survived.

Computer hackers find it challenging to figure out how operating systems and networks work, and to make them do things not thought possible. The telephone system became the challenge for a few who discovered undocumented features. Even though very few people broke into the phone system, they caught the attention of the news media and the police. Unfortunately, the media began using the term when referring to virtually all such crimes, totally ignoring the original positive meaning of the word and the fact that very few real hackers in the original sense of the word were involved.

What’s the conference like?

The weekend is a continuous, high-powered, energetic exchange of ideas among the movers and shakers from a wide variety of disciplines - a catalyst for the future. Most conferences have an audience and invited speakers. At this conference, everyone is expected to contribute and share – it is a conference of people sharing with their peers.

Although you will occasionally hear someone say something like “Wow, I was just talking with Don Knuth”, everyone treats each other as a peer. Some famous attendees have said that it was great to be able to just be “one of the attendees”.

And “peer” is a critical word here. Everyone attending is considered to be a peer – we do not have “speakers” and an “audience”. Everyone attending is expected to be speak on topics in which they are expert. Some people speak every year, some people speak every few years that they attend.

There are demonstrations or impromptu sessions going on all day and all night. The free exchange of ideas is important to making the conference work. Partly for that reason, the few press attendees are told that everything said or overheard outside of the plenary sessions is strictly off the record unless otherwise specifically arranged.

What subjects are discussed there?

The agenda changes every year based on who’s attending, what they want to present, and what they want to discuss. Because the attendees come from many different domains, you will find a wide range of topics. Here are just a few session topics from past years: Landmines (how might they be detected and/or neutralized), game design, sculpture, cooking, musical instruments, music, computer graphics, performance art, virtual reality, cryptography, security, bio-engineering, bio-technology, genetic engineering, neural networks, science fiction, wireless, wireless crypto / security, user interface design, space launch vehicles, ham radio satellite technology, investing, power grid self-sufficiency, living in an analog world, living in a digital world, wearable computing, open systems / software / hardware, chaos theory, nanotechnology, etc.

What The Conference is not…

The conference is not a “computer conference”. It is not dedicated to any one computer, to any one technology, nor even to just technology.

The conference isn’t a science fiction “con”. Nor is it a gathering of crackers, phone phreaks, or criminals. The term H is used in its older and respectable form rather than in the way that the media have abused the word.

The conference also is not a trade show with booths, exhibits, and “marketroids”. We do have a large area dedicated for the many attendees who show off their own works-in-progress, and their newest and greatest toys - especially those things that they have created.

When is the conference?

The conference traditionally falls on the first weekend in November. It starts on Friday with the first session scheduled to begin at 16:00 (the registration begins at 13:00, but the sleeping accomodations won’t be ready until 16:00 or so). The concluding session is Sunday ending at about 15:00 unless you’ve also signed up for the optional Sunday evening program which ends at about 22:00.

Special Dinner and Sessions Sunday Evening

We’ve got Sunday afternoon and evening sessions and events planned – all as an optional extra-cost package. You can add this optional Sunday package either with or without a sleeping room. We’ll have a smaller block of rooms available for Sunday night. This is a good chance to unwind a bit after the conference and to drive home the next day more relaxed… or perhaps to even see some of the area.

When do things happen?

We have sessions going almost continuously for the entire weekend from 16:00 on Friday through 15:00 or so on Sunday (although the optional Sunday program will have sessions going much later on Sunday, some likely after midnight).The sessions planned for and on the agenda generally start at 09:30 and end at 24:00. Some other sessions happen at all hours. These might be very informal get-togethers, and others are informal Birds of a Feather (BOFs) sessions that are placed on the agenda throughout the conference. It is not uncommon to have BOFs starting at 01:00 or 02:00. While there are people up throughout the night, many people end up getting some sleep between 04:00 and 08:00.

Because we have to schedule meals with the hotel, the meals are some of the only events that happen at specific times that are unlikely to change. We have dinner Friday at 18:00, a midnight buffet, breakfast Saturday from about 07:30 through 09:30, lunch at noon Saturday, dinner on Saturday at 18:00, and another midnight buffet on Saturday night. Sunday morning there’s a light continental breakfast from 07:30 through 09:00 followed by a large buffet brunch at around 11:00 before the concluding sessions. For those signing up for the optional Sunday program, the dinner on Sunday will be at about 18:30 (check the agenda for the exact time of the Sunday dinner).

Where is the conference?

We’re at a great conference site in northern California near the coast, with either San Jose or Monterey airports being the closest commercial airports. Once your registration for the conference has been accepted, we’ll tell you exactly where we’ll be this year, but trust us, you’ll like it… the rooms are what you’d expect for a business traveller or executive retreat, and the food’s great too.

We want a site that has a warm, friendly atmosphere; that allows us to virtually “take over” the site; where we can have sessions 24 hours a day; food that some people describe as a “cruise ship on land”; that is within an hour and a half drive of an airport served by major airlines; and that’s at least an hour and no more than a four hour drive from Silicon Valley. Our criteria is very difficult to achieve, and is not like what most other conferences are seeking.

We feel that it is important for all attendees to stay at the conference site as much as possible. When you’re there, you’ll have more opportunities to schmooze with others – and they with you. When the conference is too near, people don’t have to make a commitment to the conference and can just drop in for a few hours which detracts from the entire conference. When the conference is in the mountains, the drive itself tends to get people to “shift gears” from the hectic work life to a more thoughtful time at the conference. Although many people spend almost all of their time indoors, we believe that being surrounded by trees, crisp clear blue skies, mountains or the ocean, and feeling that we’re away from the hustle and bustle of freeways and cities does have a positive affect on the entire conference. There is something quite refreshing and mentally invigorating to walk out of two back-to-back sessions and step outdoors to look at the sun setting into the Pacific ocean . You just can’t get that ambience at a downtown or airport hotel.

For quite a few years we met in Tahoe. A few years ago we decided to make a change and picked a nice site about one hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Santa Rosa. We stayed there several years, and then three years at a very nice site near the south entrance to Yosemite. After that, we changed venues to a location in norther California near the coast.

We’re always actively seeking appropriate sites. A perfect site would be a secluded mountain or beach retreat with very nice hotel rooms (including private rooms), a few dormitory-style rooms, and gourmet food priced very low. Ideally, we’d be the only people at the site the entire time. One of our site-selection challenges is that we need sufficient meeting space and sleeping rooms including the need to have a plenary session for 250 people break and go directly to a meal without any change in room setups.

What about the facilities and food?

One aspect of a great conference is that the attendees shouldn’t be disappointed with the food or facilities. Over the years at this conference, and at dozens of other conferences, we’ve found that the when attendees have no problems with the facility and no problems with the food, they can better spend their energies participating in the conference itself. When people have a problem with food or facilities, it detracts from their energy in participating in sessions and discussions. In addition to all of the meals, we also have continuous “munchies” with a variety of drinks – that’s so that whenever you want to you can grab a handful of cookies or candy, some chips and salsa, or other “junk” food. Of course, there’s also a variety of other “munchies” such as fruit, cheese, crackers, etc.as the variety changes throughout the weekend.

Why so many meals?

In addition to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there’s also a midnight buffet each night to help you stay up for a 2 a.m. session. We’ve found that some people get up early and want a full breakfast; some stay up until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. and think that the midnight buffet is their dinner meal to keep them going all night. By having all of these meals, you can choose to eat as much or as little as you want when you want it, with your peers… remember, even the discussions at the dining room tables are a part of the conference.

Why so much food?

We try to have a large variety of good food at each buffet so that you can choose to satisfy your diet (or lack thereof). We’ve found that by having buffets with a large variety of foods we stand an excellent chance at meeting almost everyone’s tastes from rich to low fat, to low carb, to vegetarian. Anyone with special dietary needs not met at a meal or people with allergies can just ask one of the serving staff for assistance – they’ve been very helpful in finding solutions. We strive for a wide variety so that people can taste many things, but that also means we might run out of some dishes too.

What are the facilities like?

In addition to the dining areas, we have areas for small groups to gather, hopefully with a piano, maybe with couches, but definitely with tables and chairs. These are good places to sit and talk while grabbing a handful of cookies or candy, some chips and salsa, some coffee, or a soda.

We have a variety of meeting rooms: a large room to hold everyone comfortably for plenary sessions, various smaller rooms for the many parallel sessions, and a “demo” room where attendees can set-up and show-off their recent projects.

The sleeping accommodations are typical of an upscale business hotel room (or of an executive retreat). Shared and private rooms are available. The site, and some sleeping rooms are wheelchair accessible.

What about the price?

The conference fee is a complete package price that includes your room, meals (including two dinners, two midnight buffets, lunch Saturday, brunch Sunday, breakfast Saturday, and light breakfast Sunday), munchies, drinks, a shirt, the roster, and all events at the conference. Virtually all of the basics are provided once you arrive. We also offer both full and partial scholarships for those with a financial need. Over the years we worked out a complete package price rather than having each item separately charged. This means that you know exactly what the conference will cost you. But equally, since we’re paying the same per person, it will cost you the same whether you arrive on Friday or late Saturday. In part, we do that to encourage everyone to attend for the entire conference.

What are the hours of the conference?

The conference begins at 15:00 or so on a Friday afternoon and runs for 48 continuous hours with the concluding session ending at 15:00 on Sunday. Yes, there are impromptu sessions starting at 1 and 2 a.m. We also have an optional Sunday evening program that includes dinner on Sunday with that program concluding at about 22:00 Sunday evening. The only planned breaks are for meals.

Why should I attend the Conference?

One of the key aspects of this conference is that it is a catalyst for solutions to challenges and the creation of new ideas. Something special happens when a group of creative people from quite different fields get together to discuss interesting challenges – they often come up with unexpected solutions. Flowing out of almost every year’s conference something happens, some contacts are made, some ideas are formed, some project is initiated, some company is formed that changes the world.

Yes, there are many “computer people” attending the conference, but most of them have quite varied interests and expertise in other disciplines – some of them were invited not because of their profession in computers, but for their experience in other things often having nothing to do with computers. People from varied disciplines have found this conference to invigorate their creativity and have found the variety of sessions and discussions to be helpful in their own fields.

This conference is for people who are “hands on”, who “tinker”, who find ways to do things that other people say is impossible… in all domains / professions e.g. computer hardware designers, musicians, genetics, neurology, medicine (medical devices, procedures, treatments), education, computer programmers, artists, dancers, toy designers, magicians, etc. We try to have a program that will have a wide variety of sessions appealing to many attendees. We actually have sessions that are added to the schedule during the conference because of what people are talking about in the halls and at meals.

Here’s one person’s answer to that question

“The conference for me is a way to come out of my daily life where I usually get to fit my unusual solutions and talents in to little bits and cracks in to a breath of fresh air. People can challenge my notions. Present me with whole new areas that I had neglected. Even if nothing directly relates, I come out of it with totally new approaches to problems I have been faced with that are hybrid notions brought up at the conference.”