I went to the MCH hacker camp. This post describes my non-technical, personal experiences while on MCH.
I also have a technical post about the talks and workshops, which may also be interesting to you.
In July 2022 I went to MCH, which is an outdoor hacker camp. On a large terrain in a Dutch polder thousands of people assembled to have a good time and share knowledge.
I did not prepare properly. I had my own vacation just before MCH, during which I didn’t bother reading the MCH wiki or schedule. Then I had a busy week. We decided to go earlier to MCH to avoid traffic, which gave me even less time to pack my bags.
I signed up for MCH months ago, but I didn’t really know what is was. So I dove in. This worked out great, but I still wished I had planned a little bit better.
My company paid for the ticket. I guess they also sponsor the time off on the days I am at MCH instead of working. I heard from another company that they get two free days and have to take time off if they want to stay longer.
I didn’t bring a laptop. The laptop from work contains important sensitive information, and bringing that to a hackers camp comes with certain risks. I have a couple of laptops at home, but these are pretty crappy and in varying state of maintenance. I could pick up a clean laptop from work, but then I would have to find time to travel to the office. Also, the laptop and peripherals would add weight to my already heavy luggage, which I had to carry through public transport and over the terrain. Combined with the little time I had to pack my bags, I decided to not bring a laptop. This turned out pretty OK. A laptop was needed for some workshops, and to do the CTFs or any hacking on the badge. But I still had a great time without a laptop.
When looking at the schedule, it is pretty hard to judge which talks are good and which are mediocre. It helps to look up speakers before the event. By looking at their publications about what they have hacked, and perhaps on YouTube to hear whether they speak well, it is a bit easier to pick out the nice talks.
The terrain is hard to reach by public transport. I drove there with a colleague, who picked me up at the station. We had to make a stop at his house because he forgot the beer, but then we went to the terrain. We waited around 10 minutes to be assigned a spot on the parking place, so it went pretty fast. Already there were helpful people standing around and pointing us in the right place.
For parking, you have to buy a parking ticket of €42. There’s also a shuttle bus from a train station to the terrain. More on that later.
On arrival, we received a wrist band and a badge. The badge is more like a small computer that you could also hang around your neck, and not really a suitable way to show your name to strangers. It is a great target for hacking, with two microcontrollers and an FPGA. Also, there’s an app store where you can download programs to run on the badge.
There are several “villages” on the camp site, and we joined Milliways. The village provides a community tent, food and drinks. Villages are assigned to an area, and I set up my tent in this area.
I am not sure about the social economics around Milliways. Some guy was trying to get me to buy a coin for €25, more or less in exchange for the food and drinks. My company paid for a grocery run, so that we also contributed something to the village. I checked with a colleague that we weren’t freeloading, and apparently we weren’t. But I am still not quite sure how it works.
I brought a tent, some clothes, a hammock, and a chair. My back and I were happy I brought the chair.
I am generally a little bit afraid to start conversions with strangers, but at MCH I did my best to do just that. This went well, and it was a relaxed setting to practice this.
Diverse and inclusive
There were many different kinds of people at MCH. People with illuminated colanders on their head, crossdressers, stoners, transgender people, nerds, people with a disability, children. Most of the participants are white men, but there seems to be an unusually high amount of queer people. As far as I can tell, these people are treated with respect and feel accepted.
I met many people I knew from my previous employment. It was like a reunion. I haven’t seen these people for almost two years, but everyone was happy to see each other again. We went to talks together (or baked waffles together), and it was really nice.
One of my ex-colleagues, Jamie, had a Flipper, and one of his colleagues had a car with a keyfob. So one day we went to the parking lot to try to hack the keyfob. It didn’t really work, but when we left all charging ports of all Teslas were open.
Evan was also on the Milliways field. He had his tent in the shade of the trees, and I guess we met him when we went to sit in the shade when it was very hot. Evan is originally from the US, which is most apparent when he asks “How are you doing?” without waiting for a reply. He did many hours of volunteering for the Chaos Post, as a mailman. He cycled around the terrain to deliver postcards. Due to lack of addresses this was pretty hard sometimes.
There was one card addressed to Gaelle in Milliways (silent part). Evan asked around in our part (which was not silent), but nobody knew Gaelle. I pointed out that he should ask around in the silent part, but Evan said that anytime he asked around there, people told him to shut up and be silent.
Evan also delivered mail to places where they had a cheese tasting event, or where they made waffles and pancakes. With his mail he could skip the line and get free cheese, waffles and pancakes. This seemed to be a big motivating factor to him to keep delivering mail.
Julia had her tent on the Milliways field. I saw her somewhere else on the terrain, and basically said as much: “Hey, you’re our neighbour on the Milliways field”. Then we started talking and talked some more later on.
One time I met her at night, while I was walking pretty bad because of a big blister on my foot. I was limping a bit, and she assumed that I was drunk. She said: “Hey, you just look about as drunk as I feel! You can’t even walk straight!” I laughed.
Brianna came from the US, and worked at Atlassian. We talked for a little. Then I got distracted and went somewhere else, but she shouted “Hey, don’t go away, come back!” I went back and she introduced me to her colleague (of whom I immediately forgot the name) and we talked some more. I liked the feedback I got from this, that she signalled that she would like to talk to me some more. I opened the conversation, and apparently it was well received.
Sipke apparently worked the same company as I do now, but left before I joined. But that meant we could really talk in-depth about the company and how things are going. We also talked about semgrep, which I recommended he started using, of course.
Jeffrey & Heather
In the Milliways tent, I talked to a couple of people, of which I didn’t get the name. The girl was supposed to write a dissertation on the inconsistency of the Hubble constant between the early and late universe, but was actually playing FreeCell. The guy was first trying to do some Verilog on the FPGA on the badge, but quickly stopped to focus on the conversation. I think I started the conversation just by asking them what they were doing.
At one point I cautiously asked what his opinion was about blockchain. I said I was a little afraid to ask that, because some people won’t shut up again when you ask them about block chain. As soon as I said that, some guy behind me who was apparently listening in said “Yeah, that’s so annoying!” and joined the conversation to rant about block chain. Of course this continued for quite some time. Even though everyone agreed that people talking continuously about block chain are annoying, these people wouldn’t stop complaining about block chain. At some I abruptly asked if they had any other hobbies, at which the conversation went away from block chain and onto photography, scouting, microwave background radiation and the expansion of the universe, and more such light conversation topics.
We went to MCH with several colleagues. I still learned new things from them while talking to them at MCH, some of them relevant for work. On a hacker camp you can learn from people from all over the world, but also from your co-worker. Besides, it is nice to get to know people outside of work, in a relaxed setting.
There are people from all over the world, and when talking to strangers you often talk in English. Sometimes, you discover halfway through the conversion that you are both Dutch, but have been talking in English for a while. Or you start out in English because some non-Dutch person is present, and then you keep on going in English even when that person left.
Becoming the waffle people
There was a waffle tent, where people baked and gave out waffles. It was suggested that you gave a €2 donation per waffle, but that was not obligatory. When we went there, the tent was empty. The guy normally baking the waffles in the tent was now baking waffles somewhere else (on the ferry). We went ahead and just baked our own waffles. While we were busy making waffles, people lined up before the tent, waiting until they could buy a waffle. They thought we were running the place, while we were just hungry people figuring out how to make waffles.
Anyway, we spent more than an hour baking waffles for many people. We figured everything out ourselves and quickly became waffle experts, and sold waffles to like a hundred people. We recruited some new volunteers from the line to take over. After that we really smelled like waffles and were a little bit sick of the smell.
MCH is for the most part organized by volunteers. During the event, volunteers help to transport waste, serve drinks, drive things around, provide power and Wi-Fi, and many more. These volunteers are called angels. Being an angel comes with certain perks, such as access to the volunteer mess hall (called heaven, of course). I heard that they have great food there. I didn’t volunteer for anything, mainly because I didn’t really know what was involved or how to do it. I regret that a little bit, because I think it would be great fun. They could really use more volunteers to help things go smoothly.
There was very little marketing on MCH. There were no company logo’s shown, no flags or banners. There were strict rules about marketing, in such an extent that you couldn’t even see which company a tent belonged to. There were no marketing stands, so typical of other conferences. Speakers would mention which company they were from, but generally not hold an selling speech, with one or two exceptions.
I was on MCH from Friday until Tuesday. Every one of the four nights I partied until 2 or 3 AM. Every morning I woke up at 8 or 9 AM. Being on a hacker camp is hard work. It’s important to eat and drink enough, and to take enough rest.
The MCH people know this. Every talk they instruct you to drink more water and to take care of yourself.
It went pretty well for me. I had some backpain, some bowel problems, and a blister on my feet that hurt a lot when walking. But otherwise I felt pretty good.
On the especially hot days, I would take my hammock into the forest and hang it somewhere between two trees to take a little nap. That was very nice.
Several people self-tested positive for COVID and had to go home. People were encouraged to wear masks and test daily, but this advice was often discarded.
The terrain spans hundreds of meters in either direction. It is mostly grass fields, with concrete and gravel roads in between.
Most people get around by walking, and you can easily walk about ten kilometers in a day. Some people have a bicycle, which works well. Transport of goods is done with utility vehicles (Gators).
I walked around with a backpack containing essentials such as a water bottle, sun screen, hat, phone charger, map, and snacks. It was a little bit of a hassle to keep carrying this around, but it also meant that you wouldn’t have to walk a kilometer to your tent and back just to get your sunscreen.
There are many things to do on and around the terrain, and when I left I was still discovering new things and tents with things to do.
It rained on Thursday, and I heard that the ground became pretty muddy. I brought high sturdy shoes, which worked well except that I got blisters. The last day I walked on slippers. That worked as well but sometimes I would get hooked in a network or power cable that was lying on the ground.
The terrain is owned by Scouting. There were also a couple of scout groups having their summercamp during MCH. During the opening, Stitch said this was because of an error in scouting’s planning. But the scouting guy I talked to said that MCH moved their date, and that some scouting groups had already reserved for those dates. During the opening, MCH people were instructed to leave the scouts alone. I guess it went well, except that we were loud and slept late.
Someone asked me if we scared away the scouts, because many left on Saturday. But I figured that is just a typical day to start or end the summer camp for scouts.
Everything was in tents. There is a building on the terrain, but that was not available to us. You could request a cardboard tent to sleep in, which worked surprisingly well. Tents get pretty warm in the sun, and the MCH people advise to bring a space blanket to protect your tent from the sun. This works well against the sun, but when it is windy this makes a lot of noise.
There were water points, toilets and showers on several places on the terrain. These were generally clean and stocked with toilet paper.
The showers were not always sufficiently used. There was one talk where the wind would occasionally blow a whiff of body odour along, where I smelled things that nobody should smell at an event that has showers.
You could get food at your own village, or on the food court. In the villages, people would cook food and eat together. There wasn’t really a fixed time for this, and if you got hungry on another time you had to find something else. Our neighbours were Italian and were often selling pasta.
The food court consisted of food trucks and stands, but these were not really designed to feed everyone on MCH. They opened during the afternoon, just a little bit too late for lunch. During the warmest days, they had to close in the afternoon because it was too warm in the stand to cook food. Sometimes they were open, but were still busy preparing the food and had nothing to serve. So this was a little bit unreliable.
The food court also had a little supermarket, where you could get food that you could prepare yourself.
There were talks, workshops, parties, stands where you could just drop by and do something, and CTFs and badge hacking which you could do on your own laptop.
The schedule showed which events are when and where. Occasionally the schedule changed. I wasn’t always aware of this, and two times I was at the wrong tent or at the wrong time to attend the event, because the schedule had changed.
Many of these events were technical, about hacking, infosec and computers. But there were also many non-technical talks, or on the intersection of infosec and another subject. There were talks on climate change, maps, and mental health. Workshops covered public speaking, balloon folding or making dough figurines.
The talks and workshops were held in large tents. Sometimes it got uncomfortably hot inside these tents. The slides were presented on several screens, but could still be hard to read if you weren’t in the right place.
The party on the main stage was always heavy on lasers and flame throwers. One night there was also a performance with tesla coils and flame throwers, which was spectacular.
One group of flamethrowers had buttons that you could press yourself to trigger the flamethrowers. That was exciting. If you hit them just right they would make a noise like a fog horn. Perhaps that inspired someone, because next day there was an actual horn, that you could trigger by calling an internal phone number.
Besides the official events, villages would also organize events such as talks, workshops and parties. I attended a talk in the Deloitte tent, and danced wildly at a Geraffel party. Another village had an 80s party, and a charity auction which brought up at least €1500 for Ukraine. The Italian neighbours would have a grappa-tasting party every night. I tasted grappa infused with hot peppers there, which was a strange sensation.
The hardware hacking spot had a bus with a workshop in it. In the harbour was a barge with a theater and a maker space in it.
In the tents in the back of the terrain it was possible to play video games. I played Bomberman (won), Quake II (lost), and a Japanese game where you had to hit drums at the right time (quit).
There were all kinds of crazy devices all over the terrain. Someone combines his cardboard tent with a go-cart, and could now drive his cardboard tent over the terrain.
Tuesday morning I packed up my tent, said goodbye to a few people that were there at that time, and left for home. There is a shuttle bus from the terrain to the nearest station (which is not that near). The signs at the bus stop literally say: “It goes when it goes,” so the timetable is not that strict. The first bus was already full before I was in it, so I had to wait a little longer. I guess I waited about 40 minutes before I was on my way. I already had experience with shuttle busses taking a long time, so this didn’t really suprise me.
At the train station, some other MCH visitors missed the train because they had trouble buying a train ticket at the machine. I didn’t help them, because I was afraid that I would then also miss my train.
I was on MCH from Thursday till Tuesday. This is kind-of the full period of the event, but people come and go whenever. Some people are there two weeks in advance to help prepare, and some people only come for a couple of hours.
- Before the event, look up speakers on the internet, so you know before the event which talks are interesting and which speakers are good.
- Subscribe to a village and contribute to that village. Bring food, buy a coin, volunteer to do the dishes.
- Volunteer as an angel to or on a team to help organize the event.
- Generally, help more people.
- Talk to more people.
- Bring a hammock to chill out in the shade.
- Bring better shoes.
- Bring a normal badge with your name on it, that’s comfortable to wear.
- Also indicate on your badge or otherwise that you speak Dutch.
- Take more pictures. All of the pictures shown above are from Twitter or from other people.