Getting a grip on paper planes
Participants at the inaugural GeekCon conference tried hacking the digital lifestyle, to give the creative part of the brain a chance to let loose.
It was the wind that prevented any scientific breakthroughs at the GeekCon event held for 28 consecutive hours at Kibbutz Shefayim last weekend. There was no lack of motivation to find the "optimum angle for launching a paper airplane," and tools for solving the puzzling riddle were available in abundance.
The organizers of the experiment, Adam Donsky and Oren Ben Kiki, folded paper airplanes, put up a colorful board behind the runway outside the conference center/hotel and set up a digital video camera to record the planes' progress and relay data to software they had written.
Unfortunately, when the moment of truth arrived, after many hours of feverish work, the experiment was sabotaged by excessively strong wind. The organizers were disappointed, but nevertheless they were applauded by the other geeks who had come to watch the accelerated development process. Even without an unequivocal solution that might forever have changed the way paper airplanes are gripped, the project achieved the conference's primary objective - "Thinking outside the box."
The inner workings
Only 100 people - an eclectic group of millionaires, programmers, systems analysts, robotics experts, artists, musicians, writers and people "who just have to take apart any item they come upon in order to understand how it works," as Ilan Gritzer, one of the organizers put it - were invited to the event, which was inaugurated this year and is supposed to become an annual tradition. "There wasn't anyone invited whom one of the five organizers isn't acquainted with. We created a meticulous social network. Even the people I didn't know beforehand whose names popped up in all sorts of places, I spoke with them in advance to make sure they were appropriate," says Gritzer.
"The spirit of the conference, or the day camp, as we prefer to call this event, is `hacking the digital lifestyle.' The intention is to bring together in one place creative people who are constantly engaged in changing themselves and the environment, providing them with all the conditions they need and enabling them to carry out interesting projects. At most technology conferences, you see only the finished product and a PowerPoint presentation, but not the innards of the product. At GeekCon, the idea was to come with a concept and transform it into something real on the spot. I'm much more interested in the process of creating something than I am in the actual product."
What prompted Gritzer to create GeekCon was the vacuum he and other leading technology geeks in Israel felt after attending a similar Kinernet conference held over three days by Ohalo College on the shore of Lake Kinneret in late March. The organizer of the Kinernet conference, Yossi Vardi, the founding investor and former chairman of ICQ maker Mirabilis, decided to import to Israel an idea technology guru Tim O'Reilly implemented three years ago in the U.S. at the Foo Camp conference: invite the local creative and technological elite to a closed and isolated camp for a few days, give them a bit of nature, food, high-speed Internet access and a tranquil environment - and together they'll shape their own agenda and brainstorm to produce interesting understandings and groundbreaking developments.
The two Kinernet conferences succeeded beyond expectations, but some participants, Gritzer among them, decided that waiting an entire year for the next conference would be too hard and with Vardi's blessing, organized GeekCon.
Last Thursday evening, after gathering in the secluded complex at the Kibbutz Shefayim hotel and having a light supper, the geeks got together to present the list of projects to be carried out. In a very light and informal atmosphere, very different from that at any other technology conference, they went up to the podium and briefly explained the ideas.
Eldad Barkan, a doctoral student at the Technion's Faculty of Computer Science, promised to present research that would expose the vulnerability of the GSM cellular network to break-in and threatened to demonstrate how to steal calls or tap into them "if anyone happens to have a bit-stream receiver that they could lend us": Zvika Neter and Yuval Tal, software people, described how they would connect an old dashboard from a Nissan model police patrol car to a computer to make computerized driving games more realistic, and "if there is time, we'll also try to build an invisible joystick that opens a drawer. We have everything we need, but if someone can arrange a drawer for us, we'll be very happy."
Yariv Nachshon, an online entrepreneur, and Sharon Carmel, a start-up person, offered participants a chance to attend a workshop entitled "Pimp my PC ," in which standard beige-colored computers would get a face-lift that would transform them into colorful creations emitting bluish neon light. Carmel, who says he "grew up in Rishon Letzion and developed in Ariel," stressed that providing a computer with a pimp-like appearance would help it better connect to its roots (the name of the project was taken from the MTV program, "Pimp my Ride," where ordinary cars are transformed into motorized monsters with lots of unnecessary accessories). Shahar Tal was planning to give a workshop on artificial intelligence for virtual warriors in computer games.
The list of ideas and workshops gradually got longer. Nimrod Lahavi promised to challenge himself by taking apart disposal digital cameras to convert them to multiple-use cameras; Alex and Vitali Sirota, who developed Foxy Tunes - a supplement to the Firefox Web browser that enables control over several media players and has so far been downloaded by 1.5 million surfers - planned to explain why the open code browser is ideal for hacking; Gil Rimon planned to create a machine that would generate a dialogue between a saxophonist and frying pans, and Michal Rinot and Michal Rothschild said they planned to build a special seesaw that "is meant to be very problematic from a safety standpoint and therefore can only be used at one's own risk."
In between all this, ideas were put forward for projects like developing an algorithm to create cute slogans to print on shirts and building a music player that plays awful songs, ending the musical terrorism only when it is paid. Hanan Cohen of the "Not Relevant" Web site, which deals with verifying online urban legends, warned the participants that he would wander among them throughout the course of the conference and use his video camera to collect "geek stories" from them.
Another activity suddenly popped up from out of nowhere: a tightrope-walking seminar on a rope strung between two trees out on the lawn. Immediately after the presentation of the ideas and plans, the geeks dispersed to the lawn and several rooms and got to work. At the workshop run by Ariel Shamir of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, there was a demonstration of software that transfers acting clips into comic strips while making sure to build the narrative and generate drama.
In the meantime in the corridor, Neter and Yuval Tal worked on connecting the old dashboard to their laptop, which was placed atop a toolbox surrounded by bits of cable, soldering irons and dismantled electrical circuits. The geeks crowding around the two asked questions and made suggestions that included a lot more English acronyms than spoken Hebrew. Everyone nodded conspiratorially in reaction to sentences like, "I made the micro-controller into an extension of the PC because the parallel wire didn't give any pulse."
Thirty-something geeks may no longer be socially ostracized the way they were when they were kids, but the fact that the people around them understood what they were talking about certainly excited them.
The circuitry of laughter
Sometime round 1 A.M., on the lawn, Rothschild and Rinot's idea began to take shape. The two women, a video artist and a cognitive psychologist, built a swing with two loudspeakers attached to the lower part of the seat. The swing was attached by two long ropes to a thick tree branch and an acceleration meter was installed that served to measure the angle.
Immediately after a volunteer (with no insurance) sits on the swing, loud chuckling noises sound out from the speakers underneath him, and these grow louder and eventually turn into wild laughter as the angle of the swing increases. "We were sitting and eating calamari two weeks ago and we thought about something we could do at the conference and decided that what we felt like doing was to look into the origins of laughter," explains Rothschild. "What interested us was the circuitry of laughter and we said to ourselves that it would be interesting to build a swing that would laugh upon contact from the user and then to see if the swing's laughter crossed over to the user."
After auditioning six volunteers who were asked to laugh at five different levels of intensity - from a chuckle to a roaring laugh - the chosen laugh was recorded and synchronized with software installed in the acceleration meter. The first trial of the project took place just a few hours after it was presented at GeekCon. Needless to say, there wasn't anyone who didn't burst out laughing immediately after starting to use the swing.
At around 2 A.M., Vardi moved among the groups; he seemed excited by the inventions that were taking shape and described the conference as "a place where one can exercise the right lobe of the brain, in a world where its left lobe has been replaced by algorithms and programs for automatic drafting and creation. Not everything in life has to be important," said Vardi.
"I could have been at a communications conference at the Dead Sea now, with all the Who's Who of the economy, but you see where I'd rather be. Things can be challenging and nice and amusing, and what we're doing here is giving the creative part of the brain, which cannot be replaced by algorithms, a chance to let loose and surprise and create things that inspire amazement."