Fear and Hacking in Las Vegas
by Joel Deane
July 25, 1997
Part Four: Saturday Night
So much for dressing up. I swan into the Ricardo Room in my double-breasted black suit, look around, and-- yep, you guessed it-- the vast majority of Defheads are still slopping around in T-shirts.
At least they're clean T-shirts.
There are a few fashion try-hards. One gent walks into Def Con's main room, resplendent in jacket and tie; why, he even has on a pair of those two-tone gangster shoes. A few Defheadettes are gliding around in (mostly black) dresses, usually set off with combat boots. But over there, laced into a crushed velvet tuxedo, which, in concert with his long locks and pale complexion, gives him the air of an Interview With the Vampire extra, has to be the winner: The best-dressed hacker in town.
Def Con attendees are milling around, talking in small groups; some are sitting in ones and twos amid the room's chaotic seating. The Ricardo Room's neat rows and tidy, if not tasteful, carpet is now littered with the debris of empty half-yard cocktail glasses, soft drink containers, day-old newspapers and assorted fast food wrappers. The atmosphere is decidedly low key.
Suddenly, there's a commotion. A clutch of Defheads are gathered around a half-open door, peering waif-like into another room.
Not wanting to miss a scoop, I head over-- needling my way to the front of the pack. As I get closer to the door, I hear music. But not just any music. This is 1980s dance music-- the nostalgia music of late twentysomethings like myself. I push closer, then, over someone's T-shirt-clad shoulder, see it.
It's like some mirage (and I don't mean the casino).
Through that door is another, darkened, conference room. Only this conference room is not a Fantasy Island affair. No. In this room, the lights are low. Streamers and balloons drip from the ceiling. Instead of a seating arrangement that resembles a riot, there are neat tables and chairs. The men wear jackets and neat trousers; the women, ladylike frocks.
"It's the Tele-Sales dudes," somebody says.
He's right. I recognize the Tele-Sales cowboy who booted me away from the sales conference the day before. He's standing on the perimeter of the lit dance floor, where couples circle round and round-- the centerpieces of a parallel universe.
I eat a slap-up, celebratory breakfast this morning. Eggs benedict with coffee and orange juice and fresh grapefruit-- a breakfast of champions.
I've only slept three hours, but feel sharp. Perhaps that's due to my blackjack foray. Last night, after sticking around for most of the Hacker Jeopardy, I couldn't wait any longer. I slipped out of the Ricardo Room, strolled through the Aladdin's gaming area-- past the Barbara Eden lookalike, who was engaged in a heated discussion with an Andre the Giant of a security guard-- and onto The Strip.
First, I wasted some time shopping for tacky Vegas souvenirs. The Vegas snow bubble was tempting, but I opted for the $1.49 souvenir shot glass.
Now it was blackjack time. Crossing the boulevard, I tried out New York New York, but couldn't buy a seat at anything less than a $25 minimum-bet table. After a pit stop in the Motown Cafe, I head for Monte Carlo, which has a football field for a gaming area. Without too much trouble, I find a chair at a $5 minimum-bet table, and settle in for the night.
I don't know how long I sat at that table. I don't recall how many free margaritas I drank. I don't remember the name of the dealer who stood in front of me for all that time, yawning between hands, then snapping "Don't touch that card!" All I want to remember are two things: After being behind most of the night, I ended up with a respectable $40 profit; and the ace and king of hearts I netted on a $25 bet. It's a good thing there are no casinos in San Francisco.
After breakfast, I head back to the Ricardo Room.
The speeches are decidedly techie on this the last day of Def Con. Sameer Parekh gives a cryptography talk, but I already went into that with him over beer and piña coladas on Friday.
Se7en, a Berkeley, Calif.-based hacker who frequents the corporate speaking circuit, gives his spin about what the Feds think of hacking. (His basic premise: The FBI are nice enough, albeit technically retarded, folks who wish digital crime would just go away.) "Managers don't understand the nature of computers, let alone the computer crime," he tells me afterwards. "The Dilbert principle is in extreme effect in government."
Carolyn Meinel heads a panel set to discuss whether rookie hackers should be left to fend for themselves. Dan Veeneman delivers an overview on the wonders of low-earth-orbit satellites.
Breaking free from the speeches, I step into the hallway. People are standing in groups, drinking cocktails and beer; sitting around, leaning against the walls. Walking down the hall, I notice a flier pasted to a wall. It reads: "John Sieh, 16. $500 cash for proof that he is alive." I dial 1-800-355-6569 and find myself speaking to John's mother, Susan, in Iowa. Susan says her husband, Greg, is in Vegas looking for their son, who's been missing since June 30. John, a teenage hacker who spends "24 hours a day almost" on his computer, planned to attend Def Con Five, Susan says, but hasn't accessed his computer account since going missing with the family's 1986 Cadillac Seville. "We don't know what to think," she says. I hang up and walk back down the hall. There are teenagers everywhere; some look younger than 16. Much younger.
Next, I corner Bruce Schneier, who reprises yesterday's speech for me-- the part about how the Net's infrastructure is too fragile and can be trashed at the click of a button, leaving Web enterprises like Amazon.com extremely vulnerable. For the most part, though, Schneier, who's rushing to catch an early afternoon flight, seems distracted. Admittedly, after three days casino-crawling, my attention span's not what it used to be, either.
Gradually, as each speaker punches the clock and, in the adjoining room, the same musty hacking crews play Capture the Flag, it dawns on me that the conference is over. Sure, there are still a few hours' worth of workshops, speeches, motherboard and T-shirt giveaways to be had, and maybe I could go out to the hall and place a free call to-- where? Australia?-- but, really, it's all over, bar the shouting.
I catch the elevator back to room 2308, pack, check out, leave my bags with three middle-aged bell boys, then step out into the heat.
Out here, away from the air-conditioning, it's well over 100 degrees; an embracing, dry baked heat. The sun, reflecting off the bleached-white concrete, is so bright my head hurts.
I start to sweat, which is a good thing.
I want to sweat. I want to walk The Strip up as far as New York New York. I want to see the Statue of Liberty one more time.
This is Part Four of a four-part series on Def Con.
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