We're Back! Sort Of.

We're Back! Sort Of.
Photo by DICSON / Unsplash

2020 was all about the theme in this cover image. 2021 was a slight improvement for everyone, although that thing still lurked. COVID, of course.

For those that remember, and let's face it we all do, when signs like the one above started to appear in places like supermarkets, along with masking advisories, hand sanitisers and so on, you started to think life had FUBAR. Because it had. The shit advice coming out of Government and their 'experts' was absurd and on reflection had no basis in medicine, or science in general. Remember, we had a period of 'herd infection' proposed as a method of delivering general immunity across the population. That was quickly replaced with "Oh shit, get vaccinated, or else".

The people that stood up week in, week out with their Union Flag shag faces on were all ultimately made life Peers in the UK Houses of Parliament. As were their friends who got VIP mainlined into either providing defective / inadequate protective equipment to the health service, or indeed creating an also defective / inadequate method of testing and tracing people infected with this wretched virus.

But they're all wealthy now, so that's fantastic. Good for them.

I remember watching a bloke being interviewed on the local news, claiming "The Nazis didn't beat us, and neither will this thing". I sort of get the spirit of this viewpoint, but perhaps more than the bloke understands how pathogens work.

As 2021 began to unfold, the restrictions placed on citizens of the UK began to loosen somewhat. There were mixed reasons - some didn't believe COVID was even a thing (when it's reported that roughly 230,ooo people to date have died with the illness. N.B. the causes of some of those deaths may well indeed have been as a result of other illnesses, but if they tested positive for COVID that was thrown in as a cause of death, or at least a contributing factor). Some got vaxxed up to the hilt (myself included) and felt reasonably protected from infection. Anyway, that's not my area of expertise, so I speculate.

The UK Government also rather cynically and typically late to the show realised the absolute decimation of the 'fun' services industries (pubs, restaurants etc), so invented a thing called 'Eat Out To Help Out'. These industries were already on their knees if not totally snuffed out, thanks to things like the cigarette smoking ban introduced in 2007, and the fact supermarkets now sell alcohol far cheaper than pubs and bars do, so why go out? If you're also skittish about getting ill from COVID, stay in, make your own food and get the beers in from Asda.

The Government did this because they eventually clocked that this illness that they were handling rather like a young child does with a paint set, was making a mess and hurting the economy. They're good at that. Or bad at it, depending on which end of the shit stick your hand is.

This isn't intentionally a political narrative, but of course it's my reflection on a really grim period of life (which in many ways continues in the UK, some time after COVID ceased to be all over the news and in itself stopped being apparently important to anyone).

Anyway, what about the cyber stuff?

When lockdown was eased somewhat, we started our usual conversation about what to do in 2021 as The Beer Farmers. We fully intended to run another BeerCon and that's exactly what we did.

Thematically, we kept to our roots established the previous year - let's give some exposure to those inexperienced in presenting, and that in the main was what we did. We peppered the schedule with a mix of rookies, those that had perhaps done one or two previous gigs (including at previous events we'd hosted), and also threw in a few better known figures.

We came up with a wholly original new name for the show, and called it BeerCon3.

It was a bit different though, this one. For a start, we could get together in person whereas the previous two BeerCons had been 100% virtual. While we ran the conference in the main virtually again this time, we were able to assemble as a band for the first time since 2019. The exception to this was John, who couldn't physically make it over from Belgium. It did however mean we could meet Scott for the first time, in the flesh. He'd been a member since the year before but we hadn't actually met face-to-face before.

At the time, Ian was renting a place in Southeast London - Forest Hill. It was a studio, domestic property, with the studio on the ground floor and the living quarters in the two floors above. It was a cool joint and Ian had decked it out in keeping with a project he was running at the time called Havelock Studios. It was literally a fully fledged audio production facility, with space, acoustic padding and all the equipment needed to put on performances, either by bands or DJs. He put on plenty of those shows, so we knew we had the tech to do a studio based (at least for the presenters) BeerCon.

Ian, Scott and I helped put on these shows and I'm pretty sure there's plenty of recordings out there you can find and enjoy. Scott helped a lot with things like audio engineering and the piping of music and video out of the venue and onto computer screens. I mainly did things like say "It's not loud enough!" or "The A/V sync is shite!". I'm a music guy too, so am qualified to make such statements. :D

But in the context of BeerCon3, it meant we had a venue, equipment and lodgings for the band (at least) to run the event. And of course we had the skills.

As we'd assembled and announced the schedule, the thing remaining was to actually put the conference on. Piece of piss, right?

Similarly to BeerCon2, we'd landed a selection of sponsors - mostly firms we've been great friends with over the years and to be fair we didn't ask for a lot of money from them, but collectively it helped us (again) do things like produce swag / mementos of the event. We did however do something a little different, and that was to attract a recruitment partner, in the shape of Robert Walters, who not only sponsered the event, but also deployed their advisors throughout it on our Discord to help people looking for new opportunities. That was super cool.

In terms of the operating model, it was business as usual - a single track of back to back presenters. Again, like BeerCon2, there were around 30 individual folks that rocked up. And again, like previously, our mentoring team swung into action to provide that comfort and wisdom to ensure those presenters had a great time and gave an excellent account of themselves through their testimonies. The playlist of the event is here.

Scott did his usual, of producing the visual materials (including again a pro teaser / intro video and the usual speaker cards and broadcast overlays). It felt like another polished thing was on the cards!

Because we were able to get together, it meant we could bring along more than just the band (sans John). We also brought along the 'r0adies' that were based in the UK, namely Dave and Ger. Both are long-served members of the band's crew and also great friends. I first met Dave in Edinburgh in 2019 at Cyber Scotland Connect and it's fair to say he's been as involved in everything The Beer Farmers has done for the community as The Beer Farmers ourselves. We met Ger through InfoSec Happy Hour, like we did so many other wonderful folk.

We had remote roadies too. So by that I'm talking about Lennaert and Maya. They've been part of our gang for a long time as well and continue to be. In the context of BeerCon3, they'd typically be moderating our socials, but more importantly, running our 'green room', so soothing the nerves of our presenters while also cueing them into the main talk environment.

Swinging back to the mentors, as I'm dishing out namechecks, then James, Claire, Sam, Zoe and indeed Dave (he's all over our work and I'm sure it's part of some sort of subtle takeover operaton...). But they're lovely, lovely people, giving of themselves so that others can flourish, and they do this above and way beyond the stuff we do as a thing. And they do it well outside of their livelihoods, as volunteers. Like the rest of The Beer Farmers.

Everyone loves a road trip.

Well, I do. The conference was fully organised, and apart from Ian, we just had to get there - down to his London HQ. Because we had a few quid in the bank thanks to our kind sponsors, it meant we could do things like hire a car, put Dave and Ger up in a hotel and so on. This wasn't vanity - we'd decided to run BeerCon3 as a live production with us in a room together, and we needed some physical crew with us to help make that happen.

So, Scott hired a really nice Audi estate (station wagon if you're American) and He, Sean, Dave and Ger headed down to pick me up. They started their mission in Glasgow, collected me in Manchester and we then slogged down to Ian's place in London.

It was a hilarious trip, but also a pain in the arse (I'll get to that). It was fun because a load of mates (some whom had met and some whom had never) got inside a vehicle for a very long time in a sort of live experiment to work out how well we got on with each other - spoiler: famously. We just had laugh after laugh on the way down. The satnav in the car was apparently configured in Russian, so that was a thing. My bad legs meant I had to sit in the front seat, with much taller people than me bunched in the back seats (sorry, lads). My sense of humour occasionally caused Scott to nearly crash the ride. The list goes on, including us passing a little Bedford Rascal van on the A1 with a leafblower in the back window. Anyone that knows Scott will get the signifcance of this. Oh, and we also ran out of motorway at one point, as the satnav hadn't caught up with the fact a major section had been closed and indeed fucking removed entirely by construction people as part of a new junction being installed. That lead to a literal drive around the houses to get our bearings back.

Lewis, the dude from Robert Walters had been so kind as to invite us out to dinner on the evening before BeerCon3, at a cool steak place called 'Knife' just in west Brixton. The problem was that the road trip became a fucking nightmare. The missing motorway was one thing we fairly quickly recovered from, the actual nightmare was getting into London itself. By the time we'd reached Ian's place and loaded in all our gear, we were dangerously late for our booking.

Then there was the issue of booking taxis from there to 'Knife'. Then there was the issue of us having Dave and Ger with us as extra diners. I didn't think that would be a big deal - two other people eating, so what? In the end we turned up way late, they couldn't accommodate us anyway because the place is like a shoebox, and so we adjourned over the road to a pizza joint. That was great, probably a lot kinder on Lewis's expense claim, but I must say, the menu at 'Knife' looked amazing. Ah well.

Cocking about socially was fine, but actually, we had a conference to put on in not all that many hours' time. So we ate the pizza, had some drinks and said farewell to Lewis (lovely bloke by the way) and off we went back to Havelock to actually do some testing and setup.

"I know what the problem is and I know how to fix it"

Not my line, Scott's. So, we're in the studio and testing the tech. All seemed well. I say "we" - I was obsessed with the synths Ian had collected (I helped him pick them), so I was fucking around with those. I did play a mean techno live cover of New Order's 'Blue Monday', which was probably neither entertaining or very helpful.

Scott, Ger and Dave were busy trying to get everything setup, with Ian providing air cover as the owner of most of the equipment. We had issues, like you might expect. Things not talking to each other, audio not reaching where it should and all that stuff. I was providing very little help, in fairness as my days of doing audio engineering are dated at around 1999. I can still push out a melody though, but having said that, no one gave a shit. Rightly.

In hindsight, we should have gotten down to Ian's far sooner ahead of the event, not bothered with the meal out and just cracked on and nailed the tech. But, folks, you live and learn. I went to bed, totally not helping the situation. Scott and the other guys laboured on until around 3AM to try and ensure we had it all set for the 9AM go live. It was, or so we thought.

Up we got on day one, probably about 7AMish, which for the lads that stayed up late swearing at and punching sound gear and computers meant a really shit night. Not really the start you want ahead of a major undertaking. It's a bit easier when it's all virtual, as the tech is relatively simpler, you can rock out of bed and get on with it. This was way out of our comfort zone.

Ian made us breakfast. It was quite nice. As I recall, eggs and the strongest coffee I ever drank, and I'm not into coffee.

As we raised the curtain on BeerCon3, it quickly became apparent we had a bad problem. There was an echo feeding back to the presenters whenever we spoke. I noticed it first, whereas the other guys didn't seem to have the same problem, or at least not as bad. For me it was terrible and then after the first speaker was brought in, it turned out that the echo had bled out into the broadcast, which in itself created a meme on the Twitch. [ECHO].

Scott had to abandon presenting duties while he tried to work out and fix the problem. It was horrible and also meant that we couldn't do justice to the first couple of presenters with a copy of their talk recording, because it was just simply unlistenable. All that setup and testing, but you never really know until you switch from off-air to on-air.

In the end, we figured out that the root cause was a drone Zoom account we had connected to the broadcast that wasn't muted and was thus relaying the studio sound in a loop. Thankfully we identified it and fixed it before it ruined the whole event.

This is why I fully get in person events being reluctant to run hybrid with virtual talks. It's a fucking ballache. We know. We did that. And yes it was a ballache. Remember, we're not the BBC or Sky. We do these things on limited or zero budgets and we're infosec pros, not Netflix production crews.

That said, once we'd got that gremlin out of the way, the conference ran as smoothly as the previous ones we'd done. We had the usual bunch of newbies sharing their cool stuff, a few catch ups with previous BeerCon guests and also a fun quiz that the crew had put on that made fun of us, in a funny way. It's all there in the videos.

We also had some music, as is the form with cyber shows, so with BeerCon3 we had three DJ sets, one each from Dan Conn, Navi and Defcon's resident DnB DJ Miss Jackalope. That was fucking brilliant and a great wind down from the stress of the event itself.

Because lockdown was now a thing of the past, it also meant we could have people round for an afterparty, so we invited anyone in the area along. Folks rocked up and we ate, drank and laughed into the night. People such as Sam, Sebastiaan, Phelim, Mark and others. It was wonderful, although after that effort, we were all pretty wiped out.

Other visitors that rocked up at Havelock included James McGough, the MD of Clarion Events, the firm that put on the DTX series of shows in the UK. That led to something that became... BeerCon4 and I'll talk about that next time.

Long read this, so if you got as far as here - well done.