biohacking 2008

HOPE is a unique experience. Not a colorful crowd, literally. Cargo shorts and black shirts, as if everyone knows the uniform. But while you’re there, you feel a sense of connection with those around you unlike any other conference I’ve attended. The commonality goes beyond interest in a single subject matter and has to do with plain raw curiosity and freedom. Including the freedom to just be yourself without having to worry so much about social graces or comfort. Showers and sleep are completely dispensable. The talks go from 9 AM to midnight. I’ve sat down at 9 AM and not moved until 6 PM, to slip outside and grab a slice of pizza and a cup of coffee, only to get back ASAP and sit in talks until 12, before ending up at Harry’s or Sally’s down the street with various members of the 2600 crowd, and then wandering back to the hotel mezzanine to ride a Segway or pick some locks in the lock picking village. People wander around at all hours. The sidewalk in front of the hotel penn is busy around the clock. It’s surreal to step outside at 3 AM and hang with a crowd of like-minded people, all taking a break, while people are shuffling along the sidewalk and the street vendors sell sticks of grilled chicken.
This particular conference was jam packed with adventure and odd convergences for me. Adam Savage was one of the keynote speakers. I used to work down the street from the Alameda air base where so many episodes of Mythbusters were filmed, and having left the bay area just as the show was getting started, watching it always made me feel like I was home from afar. Kevin Mitnick was also a featured speaker. I grew up reading about him, read several books in which he is one of the main characters, followed his travails along with the 2600 crew while he was in in jail , and because of that, decided to omit making a connection during my talk between the discoverer of a cool protein often used in biohacking and the person who led to his capture. I didn’t want to take the glow off the protein as I didn’t think the crowd would be too enamored. I was interviewed for a documentary on hacking. It will be interesting to see if it gets off the ground. I had a lot of great conversations with people, including Bernie S,  whose voices I had only heard on the radio while I worked in the lab at Berkeley. It’s an odd thing when you find yourself face to face with people you feel some familiarity with, because you hear their voices or follow their lives or work, yet you only see them in a bar for a couple of nights every two years.
On the last night after the closing ceremonies, a large portion of the crowd sticks around to stack chairs, disassemble the large lighting structures, wrap and package up all the audio visual gear. Cord wrangling can be quite a skill. Kudos to those who have a hex wrench built into their keychains. After everything was cleaned up, I found myself wandering through the streets with Bunnie and the rest of the crew looking for a place to eat. We walked West and settled at a Chinese place. Emanuel sat across from me. As the waitress was taking drink orders, most everyone ordered an “OB”. I was in the mood for a beer, but I didn’t want to break the cycle, and was intrigued at what a Jedi sounding drink might be. I was happy and somewhat giddy when the waitress placed an Oriental Beer in front of me. Years of listening to him on the radio and reading his editorials might have led me to believe that Emmanuel speaks eloquently all the time about interesting issues on a range of topics. But after days of sleep deprivation, and only a few days of chance encounters in bars or the HOPE mezzanine, there was more silence between us than I had hoped for. Eventually more and more people started showing up, and introductions were made, but I was among people who knew each other much more than anyone knew me. If nothing else, at least the turquoise blue badge chord gave me speaker cred.
My talk was on Saturday afternoon in the small room with the portable wall separating it from the large room. I think I was competing with Rambom. He gives the same talk every time. Three hours of all the ways he can find information about anyone because of the way people voluntarily give up information on themselves. My talk was really well received. I actually ran out of time and had to skip several slides at the end. Nonetheless, I was hoping I could do a sufficient job explaining that biology is a lot like executing programs encoded in a sequence of information, and via synthetic biology we can make new programs.
For now, at least, I know I can look forward to the next hope.

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