2020 - Cave Life: Part I

2020 - Cave Life: Part I
Photo by Jon Parry / Unsplash

2020 started a bit like 2019 ended. Weird. The Beer Farmers had completed our first BeerCon event and that was cool, on the back of a busy year gigging and podcasting. I'd been quite ill before we rocked BeerCon1 and it's not really got much better since. I'll come to that in due course, and in another post.

As the year kicked in, we started hearing rumours of an alien invasion, from a planet called China, with the first victims being Italy and other areas of southern, central Europe. I am of course talking about COVID-19. At the time, we sort of laughed it off as a classic 'flu' or nothing burger SARS thing, but at the same time remembering that the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 led to the death of up to 100 million people worldwide, so the 'laughing off' was really a matter of "fucking Jesus Christ!"

At work, we started to nervously discuss this soon to be World changing event and what we might do about it. Maybe die? Maybe survive? The stories emerging in mainstream media weren't particularly encouraging. The UK Government didn't exactly help, but that's another conversation entirely. In around two weeks, Zen had moved from office-based to home-based. Pretty much text book business continuity in operation.

Anyway, the last public engagement I got involved in ahead of lockdown was with Ian at a CompTIA event in Manchester. It was a great day out, I hijacked Ian's talk and complemented the session with some of my experience. It was almost scripted, but actually it wasn't. It was just two blokes that know each other so well we chime perfectly. We'd done similar at BSides Leeds in the January of 2020, where neither of us were presenting, but we did 'hold court' in the main social area of the event and entertained / educated some 20 folks with our tales and war stories. We have loads of those.

It's worth mentioning BSides Leeds, as it was one of the last physical community conference events in the UK (as far as I know) that happened before we entered lockdown. It was also the last time Mark Carney helmed it. It was also the first show The Beer Farmers presented at, the year previously.

I think Abertay went ahead with their show (as lockdown wasn't enforced at the time), but what we did start seeing emerge was other conferences pressing the caution button. Many just cancelled outright, or put their events into a sort of stasis - we'll get back on our feet once this hideous thing goes away.

This all sets the scene perhaps for BeerCon2, and we'll get to that eventually. Amazing that we're about to run BeerCon5, but hey.

Lockdown was weird. In Britain it was handled in what felt like a different way every week. You couldn't go anywhere, you could only go to get essentials (you know, like food and stuff). Then you could have visitors, but they had to stand behind a fence or at least n feet away from you and so on.

Then we had other fucking nonsense like 'care bubbles', which were dreamt up I can only imagine by the then incumbents in Cabinet to stave off a possible UK revolution, because families by this time had not spent quality time with each other and indeed had to attend funerals online. Can you imagine that level of bullshit? I'm sure some of you experienced it. I attended two funerals online during this time.

I want to press this point because it's really important - the way the UK handled the pandemic was at best incompetent, and at worst criminally negligent and somewhere even worse - an opportunity to line its pockets and those of its pals.

The relevance here, in terms of cyber is like it was for everyone else - it left us bereft of socials, methods of physically meeting up and letting off, letting go and having some fun. And being human.

Meanwhile, parties raged on at Number 10... Anyway.

If you read my last post, I talked about the idea that some bands contain writers of hits, whether they're the lead singer, bassist or whatever. And that's The Beer Farmers.

So, Sean came up with a suggestion, which like Ian's vision of BeerCon again became legend. "Why don't we do a social thing?". I mean why not? Everyone was depressed, stuck at home, conferences were cancelled and all that shit.

The plan developed really fast - What we'll do is setup a Friday evening Zoom call (we had some skin in the Zoom game by this stage), we'll call it 'InfoSec Happy Hour', and everyone's welcome. Well, perhaps not everyone.

I say we had skin in the Zoom game, but actually we had skin in the 'inviting people privately to Zoom' game. When we advertised Happy Hour, we got a lot more interest than we expected on the very first evening.

Out went the announcement from The Beer Farmers' Twitter account, I think we started it all off in April 2020, after we'd realised that effectively life had been put on hold. But with the announcement, the Zoom link went out with it, including the password.

Anyway, it was 8PM UK time and a Zoom meeting erupted. And then erupted some more. Sean and I opened the 'bar' to a few people we knew well and started things off, but then out of nowhere / everywhere, around 300 people rocked up (Zoom wasn't in control of its user limits at the time). But these weren't Happy Hour punters. They were Russian scambots who quickly flooded the chat with porn. We canned the session and setup another one, and again shared the password and again, the bots came back with porn.

So much for us being security pros. :D

After those two false starts, we got to grips with how Zoom works when you want to moderate who joins your sessions. And so we did, and we shared the details with people who were genuine and wanted to be involved. And my, did this start something special, and also nuts.

Sean came up with the idea of Happy Hour. It was me that developed it into something bigger than he originally conceived and sadly ultimately hated and wanted to abandon. But then we all abandoned it in the end.

To start with, it was just us and perhaps half a dozen other folks getting together on a Friday evening - a bit like the olde worlde snugs you'd find in a pub of yesteryear. That was it. We'd chat about the week, what lockdown was like and have a drink and a laugh.

There was some crossover between this and The Many Hats Club, so a good few of the folks that rocked up on Happy Hour were from that community. We didn't see it as competing, rather more complementing and just adding our own clownishness really. Plus the video capability of Zoom meant we could do some silly stuff.

As Happy Hour developed into a regular and reliable weekly thing, so did its attendees, so we went from a handful of folks pretty quickly to a shitload of folks. As Meadow Ellis once said "InfoSec Happy Hour is a cyber conference every week" and I can't think of a better compliment than that. But its primary objective wasn't about cyber really. It was about attaching the detached and let's face it, at this time we were all fucking detached.

Calling it Happy HOUR was a bit daft as it turned out, because we'd kick off at 8PM on a Friday and I know for a fact there were still people on the catch up at 8AM on the following Saturday. That included Scott McGready. Who he?

Scott appeared in episode 38 of BeerCon1. We interviewed him as part of the show. Scott had cropped up as a vocal contributor in The Many Hats Club and I think found his form with Happy Hour, delivering wit, intelligence and also a Morse code meme that to this day makes me piss myself. It very quickly became obvious, at least to me, that Scott was a Beer Farmer.

You just know when you know, sometimes. Anyway, more on that in time. This post has already reached almost 1500 words and the boredom threshold. Next up, I'll talk about how Happy Hour evolved, the impact it had, how it got to the point that we could no longer do it and also its lasting legacy.

Cheers for reading!