My experience at ToorCamp

The prime dome for presentations

A few months ago, friends mentioned that they were going to ToorCamp and thought it was the sort of event I’d enjoy. As I looked into “The American Hacker Camp: for hackers, makers, breaks & shakers” I started getting very excited about going and mentioned it to someone at work. He and I help teachers cover computer security, networking, and robotics in their classes. This was a perfect connection and he thought work should pay my registration which sounded great to me. My boss had two requests: first, bring back lots of knowledge to share with our students, and second, pass out some promotional pens in the hopes we could encourage someone there to apply for a tech teaching position. I admit, I wasn’t super excited about passing out these pens, they felt a little cheesy to me, but it’s a small price to pay.

Since ToorCamp is held on Orcas island, the primary way to get there is a ferry from Anacortes. But I’ve been doing a lot more kayaking this year so the 11 mile crossing sounded much more interesting. That meant everything I planned to have for the five day event had to fit inside my kayak. After finding out that I could easily get food there, I decided to pack fun stuff rather than food. This included ~15kg of pewter, an electric melt furnace, and everything to make stomp rockets. Clearly these are more important than food anyways.

The first lesson I learned was not to trust the person who told me to launch my kayak from the ferry terminal. This meant carrying my boat, paddle, all my gear, too much pewter, and those silly pens about 3/8 mile across the ferry loading lanes to get to a small bay. Instead, go to the Washington Park Boat Launch less than a mile away. With the difficulty launching, I got on the water late which meant the tides were not what I expected. On the paddle over, I got on the wrong side of an island and struggled to correct that. At one point, I’d been paddling for about ten minutes and didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. As soon as I stopped to look around and verify I was going the right direction, my GPS announced, “Activity resumed.” I was only moving when I stopped paddling? That wasn’t good. I eventually made it around the southern tip of the island and started paddling with the tide which made everything much easier.

I eventually got to camp and set up my tent in a corner of a field labelled “Misfit Toys village.” It sounded like the perfect spot for me. After registration/check-in, I wandered around to get a feel for the camp which was divided into two main areas. Lower camp was where a lot of the activities and socialization took place. The upper camp was mostly tent and villages with the prime dome for main stage presentations in the upper corner of the upper camp. This meant a lot of back and forth over the next few days, but also gave me an excuse to see what others brought to camp to share.

My Shadybucks card just after I embossed my card number

As the official program and all the unofficial activities that groups brought began the next day, I quickly met a bunch of people who I would continue to connect with throughout camp. I also got my official Shadybucks credit card which I had to emboss myself. This monetary system was just for camp and even had instructions warning you not to hack the system… although it mentioned that such hack would probably be beneficial to you. By the end of camp one of my friends had realized that the “bank” had a rounding error in its program. If he transferred 0.005 Shadybucks to himself, it rounded up to the closest penny. With each transaction, he made half a penny so he quickly wrote a script to transfer two cents a second.

ShadyTel, the extremely local phone company, was also busy running phone lines to any tent that had the correct paperwork filed. I wasn’t sure why I needed a phone line to my tent but I was sure I did. Although it took some time, our village finally got phone service which not only allowed us to place important calls (more on that in a moment) but we could also get dial up internet service set up in the field. Through this we could access the hacker version of capture the flag on a bulletin board service. I didn’t spend enough time trying to hack the BBS, but it was fun to see how far others were able to get.

There were plenty of important places to call at camp. You could call to request a song on the pirate radio station or check on your Beerocracy paperwork or call the phone booth and just see who picks up. But, the most popular number to call was 4-NFT because as everyone knows, NFT stands for Nifty Flying Tacos and this is how you would place an order. Let them know how many tacos you wanted and where you were at camp, within minutes, a quad-copter with a basket underneath was zipping towards you carrying tacos. Just wait for them to hover close enough to grab the tacos and they’d zip back for the next order.

Even though this was my first time going, I knew I couldn’t just arrive and receive content without offering something of mine to the group. It is a maker gathering so I brought stuff to make. On the second day, I pulled out my mini electric melt furnace, several kilos of pewter, and some floral foam. I offered an impromptu pewter casting workshop for anyone who wanted to participate. They came in, grabbed a piece of foam, and pressed or carved their design into it. Some even used the CTE pens to design and carve the foam. Once they were happy with the look of it, we carved a pour hole and two vent holes then let the pewter flow. Different designs had varying degrees of success, but overall, I think they had some fun. We had several heart designs cast; we cloned one Shadybucks credit card; and even cast the world’s first two Shadycoins. The virtual currency was now physical. We didn’t get though as pewter as I’d hoped but about 15-18 people made castings.

The next day, I took my other activity over to the kids camp area. I had met a couple of the kids already and encouraged them to make stomp rockets out of a piece of paper, masking tape, and a paperclip. When they launched them, the rockets went about 15 feet. As they went back to improve their designs, I encouraged other kids to participate. Two hours later, I was exhausted and we’d built over 100 rockets. The best ones were flying about 130′ and most of the kids at ToorCamp had built at least one rocket. We even convinced a few of the parents to build them as well.

So many of the workshops I attended were great. I got to build a Blue Box which was used in the ’70s and ’80s to trick the phone systems into allowing you to make free long distance phone calls. We explored desktop milling machines for creating custom circuit boards. I heard from a team developing autonomous sailboats they plan to use for moving cargo throughout the inside passage and around rural Alaskan islands. We got a crash course in a block-based programming language for machine learning. All of these are topics that have come up in student interest surveys back at work (ok, maybe not the Blue Boxes, but they’re still cool). I also got to practice my lock picking and sample some good whisky. Through it all, I was able to pass out or trade away a lot of the CTE pens I’d brought. They turned out to be pretty popular with the crowd at ToorCamp.

The paddle back to Anacortes was much less eventful and significantly less fear-inducing than the paddle over. On the drive home, I started planning projects I could bring to the next ToorCamp in 2024. Whatever I do, I’ll have to leave room to pack more CTE pens.

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1 Response to My experience at ToorCamp

  1. Pingback: Four Lost Cities | A Runner's Ramblings

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