I went to DEF CON again this year. I had fun and would like to go again in the future. Just like last year, I don't think I have any reason to do write-ups on my experiences as if they are unique or particularly interesting. Even if I did, I'd have a personal preference for keeping some details in Vegas. My intention for this post is to provide insight into how the conference was, and things I'd have wanted to know as someone who overthinks and worries about everything. A lot of that type of thing ends up sounding pretty negative, but do remember that I did have fun, meet nice people, and look forward to an opportunity to do something like this again.
The Vegas airport (LAS) has basically the same atmosphere as a casino, and it really makes you feel "closed in" in an uncomfortable way. Probably my least favorite airport to my memory.
I didn't get stopped by TSA despite having soldering stuff and various small, but sketchy looking tools before either of my flights to/from Vegas.
My first impression of Harrah's was really negative. The lobby was dark, the casino floor was dark, the hallways of the hotel were dark, my room was dark (pitch black!), because the curtains were pulled shut when I arrived. The reason for that became immediately obvious when I opened them and saw the view out the window (shown later below). It has an eerie, uncomfortable feeling and it took some time to get used to.
It cost $60 extra to check in early for some insane reason. Go in expecting this and just add it to your budget, or at least plan around it, because it seems like check-in is intentionally late (4PM for everyone as far as I could tell) just to get people to spend the money. You could go wander around the strip for a few hours, but I'd rather spend money on the early check-in than do that lol.
There was some kind of construction, drilling sounding noise in my hotel room CONSTANTLY. I ended up thinking it was probably an air conditioning unit or something, but regardless of what it was, it was insanely loud and persistent.
The room itself was sub-par by any standards that aren't set by shitty Las Vegas. Like my experience last year, you aren't even given proper hand soap in the bathrooms. The room was "clean enough", and ultimately all I need from a room there is a bed and a desk with serviceable lighting. Ideally I'd want a view that isn't miserable, but the views out of half the rooms at Harrah's are particularly bad - almost comically bad.
The Uber pickup / valet area was secluded enough it made me feel a bit on edge. In the daylight there were always some people not too far away, but I'd be careful about wandering around that section at night because it's definitely outside the action of the strip.
The layout of the casino was even more challenging for me than Paris and Bally's last year. Casinos are designed to limit your straight lines of sight to the greatest extent possible, and this casino was especially hard for me to get used to navigating. I was thinking about looking for something fun to do on Wednesday, but ended up wandering around the areas the conference would be and I think that was a really good idea. Otherwise, the first day or two of the con would have been more difficult.
The Linq was also awful, but for completely different reasons. While Harrah's felt "sleazy", the Linq seems to go for a fever dream surrealist vibe instead. Really gross and unnatural; like something out of A Clockwork Orange, but not in a good way. I did not see the rooms but heard they were comparable to Harrah's.
The atmosphere of the Flamingo is so much brighter and cheerful than either Harrah's or the Linq so if that were a good enough reason on its own, staying there next time would be a no-brainer. However, having to frequently make the walk from the Flamingo to the Forum would not be fun. I think how long that walk takes has been slightly exaggerated in some complaints I've heard, and doing it was not a big deal when you only do it once or twice a day, but I would not enjoy doing it every time I went back to my room (something I could quickly and easily do at Harrah's).
The convention areas of the Flamingo are a complete maze and I didn't spend enough time there to get used to it. One morning I was thinking I was in line for the Hardware Hacking Village only to end up realizing I was in line for the Blue Team Village instead. Wrong floor! And getting off of a floor and navigating the rooms and villages is already difficult enough. I ended up sticking around the BTV and listening to a talk because why the hell not?
Harrah's, the Linq, and the Flamingo all had convenience stores in them with snacks, beverages (alcoholic and otherwise), fresh fruits, necessities, and so on. I don't remember anything like this last year at Bally's and Paris and it could be a really helpful means of getting some food in a pinch.
Vegas seems to be completely lacking in infrastructure to deal with heavy rainfall, because the flooding was absolutely wild. It didn't impact the conference in any way luckily, and it was pretty entertaining (in a dystopic way) to watch the casinos fall apart.
DEF CON's concessions had actual ingredients and allergy information on the menu this year which was fantastic! I was planning on getting something from there just for how convenient it was, but I guess I got there too early and they were only serving breakfast sandwiches and nothing else on the menu. The single, very annoyed sounding, hotel staff member working there said they "only had what I saw." It seems silly to restrict what food concessions is serving based on such conventions given that people are coming from around the world to spend barely enough time in Vegas to stop feeling jet lagged until they leave again. What meaning does time have when I'm in a completely different time zone and at a conference which encourages night activity and has very little do to in the morning hours? Also the half-sized water bottle was $5 when a name brand full-size bottle in the vending machine a short walk away was only $3 lol.
The Forum looks great; it feels cyberpunk in a corpo kind of way. Really great venue and has a way better, brighter feeling than the shitty dark rooms with psychedelic rainbow puke carpet that Vegas venues usually have. Really nothing bad to say about the venue itself.
Getting in line super early was pretty fun. I'm young enough that as of now I see very little reason not to. Caesar's requesting no drinking in linecon is pretty lame though.
Merch took virtually no time at all because I was early in line for registration, but it's been a huge source of complaint this year. Not sure there's a magical solution to getting rid of lines. Maybe they could start selling merch in linecon so people can buy what they want as the line moves?
Please stock women's sizes hoodies lol
The badge is one thing I was looking forward to a lot. I'd love to get more into firmware reversing and embedded programming so the badge challenge is a compelling way to try to learn. Unfortunately, the badge had an issue this year where the metal clip of the lanyard would make contact with the metal side of the 3.5mm jack and cause a short circuit that fried the amplifier IC responsible for making the speaker loud enough to hear. This happened to my badge within the first 5-10 minutes of me getting it after linecon while I was standing in line for merch. I never got it fixed, but I did manage to get a hold of the spare parts. IF the traces and pads under the amplifier are not destroyed I might be able to fix it, in theory. If I manage to get this done I'll make a post about it, but I don't think I have the skills for this work.
If you want to be helpful, bring spares of common cables and tools. Small parts, Ethernet cables, HDMI cables, extension cords, power strips, etc. I heard a lot of requests like this and I was glad for the extent I could help because it's worth trying to give back to a community you're benefiting from as well.
I had good experiences with the Goons. They were always helpful to me, and some gave me beer one night. Don't like beer though, but I drank it anyway because it does the job. I guess the main advantage to masking is people not seeing the faces I make when I drink the shitty alcohol flowing out of the con (seriously what were those vodka canned cocktails? disgusting).
Last year I never got ID'd within the DEF CON venue areas, so I was a little surprised to be ID'd about half the time this year. There are people of all ages around so I get why they're careful and the bartenders were professional about it.
There are too many damn people at DEF CON. It doesn't seem like most of the people crowded around in the day are attending because of a connection to the culture, lifestyle, history, or technical skills of hacking, but are just IT workers who want to (or are being paid to) wander around a unique IT conference for a weekend. I've only just now come to realize I was taking the mellow interactions and slower pace of DEF CON 29 last year for granted. The most negative thought I had all weekend was probably how overcrowded the conference feels with people that don't seem to care much about hacking or its sub-culture. I'm trying not to be overly provocative with this, but if there's one problem with the conference it's probably the ratio of randoms to people seeking the remnants of the punk analogous hacking community; or to put it another way, the ratio of SERIOUS BUSINESS to shenanigans and lulz.
I try to be super careful with what kinds of pictures I'm taking, let alone what I upload online, but most people aren't. DEF CON has a reputation for being very privacy conscious, but the vibes have shifted and these days there aren't enough people with a hacker/privacy advocate mentality and this is one area it really shows.
The place where DEF CON felt the most alive to me personally was the contest area. I was amazed by so many things going on in there, and it was a really nice atmosphere in general. Hack Fortress (TF2 LAN with a team of hackers on each side supporting their teams and attacking the other team) in particular reminded me of the episode from Haruhi where the Computer Research Society challenges the SOS Brigade to a rigged video game and Yuki hacks the game in order to balance the game back.
Hacker Jeopardy is still probably my favorite event of the year. So much fun, and very in line with what I think about when I think DEF CON.
I find the fact people comfortably go by handle's instead of their "real" names to be very charming. In general there are many attendees that I could imagine I would not get along with online but who I love the presence of at DEF CON. Diversity is a strength of hacker sub-culture and it's one aspect of it I've really come to cherish. People come as they are on the Internet with no need to filter their self perception to fit the lens of broader society, and I think it's really artistic and humbling.
Talks I particularly enjoyed this year and would recommend to the visitors of my site are "How Russia Is Trying To Block Tor" and "Tor: Darknet OPSEC By a Veteran Darknet Vendor" (will update with links when they're up).
The parties should go on later. DEF CON has a history of people saying "if you're sleeping you're doing it wrong", but most of the on-site activities are over around 2 AM in my experience. You could easily get like 6-7 hours of sleep and not miss anything important the next day as it is. In general, the parties were very fun and always highlights of the year for me.
A lot of older staff/attendees have a "take no shit" attitude even when they aren't being given shit. I get that there's supposed to be an endearing "graybeard" aspect to it, but it can be kind of annoying.
As much as I hate Vegas there's something to be said for enjoying its hectic hyperrealism for a few days a year. It's really a perfect amount of time so that you have fun but are very glad to be getting out.
Excuse the poor writing and rambling in this post, it's just the result of some brainstorming over the last few days.