The anti-CES: Creating a community of hackers in Vegas

Jeff Rosowski at work Mr Rosowski at work on one of his pet projects

Las Vegas is a city like few others. Every year more than 35 million people visit and lose themselves in the casinos, bars, shows and shopping malls on Las Vegas Boulevard, aka The Strip.

The vast influx of visitors, coupled with the insatiable desire of those hotels and casinos to set themselves apart, means that many of the 1.8 million people that live in the city do so only briefly.

Some stay for a year or two as a new hotel goes up or a show is in town. Many have briefer stays allied to a big conference or a busy holiday season.

The net result is that it is a city where a lot of people live, but in which communities are hard to find.

"It's not a social city," said Vegas resident Evan Pipho, a programmer who, with Jeff Rosowski, is trying to find a way to bring the city's hackers, makers and coders together.

Thanks to the pair, Las Vegas has its own Dorkbot chapter and they are in the process of setting up a hackerspace in Mr Rosowski's garage. They hope this will become a common space in which those who want to tinker can come and find all the tools, components and advice they need.

Hackerspaces are popping up all round the world as the unofficial town halls of local hacker groups. They bring people together and make it cheaper for those who join to get at tools, such as laser cutters, that they would never be able to afford if they were working alone.

Impressively huge

Any hacker visiting will know they have found kindred spirits because there is a PDP-11 sitting in Mr Rosowski's front room. It was bought off eBay, and he, along with Mr Pipho, are currently working on putting it back together.

Produced by the Digital Equipment Corporation, the PDP mini-computer challenged the hegemony of IBM mainframes by being smaller and cheaper than those computational giants.

The PDP-11 was the most long lived of all the models and the one hulking in the front room was still in use in 1994 - a year before Google launched.

The machine is impressively huge. Its memory disks are as big as dustbin lids and hold a whopping 10 megabytes of data.

"Enough for a couple of MP3s," said Mr Rosowski.

metal d-20 The metal dice, intended to make programming even more challenging

Repairing the beast might prove tricky, said Mr Pipho.

"Most of the machines pre-date the internet so there's not a whole lot of the documentation around," he said. The work is slow and steady, said Mr Rosowski, but they can now get the computer's terminal prompt to appear.

"We've got it to do some basic stuff, but nothing really useful," said Mr Roswoski.

There is an unmoveable deadline for getting it working - the Defcon conference in August which sees hordes of hackers descend on Las Vegas to eat, think, code and listen to talks about the art and science of computer security.

Every year Mr Rosowski and Mr Pipho take part in one of the competitions at Defcon known as Crash and Compile.

This turns programming into a spectator sport by adding a drinking game. Competitors are given a task for which they must turn out working code. The penalty for making mistakes or code that won't compile - or be understood by the machine - is to take a drink.

In a bid to make the 2010 Crash and Compile more visual, Mr Rosowski created a metal D20 (a 20-sided dice), each face of which had on it the name of a programming language or an instruction to take a drink.

They did not win the contest, instead the title went to some programmers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"They were machines," said Mr Rosowski.

The dedication of the MIT pair became apparent during one of the variants of Crash and Compile called Team Distraction. In this, pretty girls are present in a bid to put the coders off their keystrokes.

Not fazed

This did not faze the MIT folks, not even when one a show girl sat on the lap of one of the coders blocking his view of keyboard and monitor.

"The other guy was telling him what to type and they were still kicking our ass," said Mr Rosowski.

In 2011, the pair hope to go one better than the metal D20 thanks to the PDP-11.

"This year we have to top ourselves," said Mr Rosowski. "Instead of picking languages we decided to pick a computer system that was designed in the 1970s."

The plans for the PDP-11 do not stop with its scheduled appearance at the Rio Hotel on Flamingo Road in Las Vegas for a limited season.

"We're thinking about hooking it up to the internet and letting people play around with it," said Mr Piphpo. "It has an ethernet card so we would not have to proxy it or anything."

If the pair have their way then it is not just the PDP that will be on the map, the hackers, makers and coders who live in and around Las Vegas will be too.

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