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The 2009 Ninja Badge / Ninja Party

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  • YenTheFirst
    Re: The 2009 Ninja Badge / Ninja Party

    I suppose I should read twitter more. I totally would have helped out at the solder party. :)

    Very interesting write up, thanks for posting!

    quiet areas for talking, and quiet areas for talking.
    very much agreed. I guess I'm not much of a party person, but one of the best times I had this year at Defcon was mentioning something off-hand to another attendee in an elevator, and that evolving into a 2-hour conversation in the hallway.

    Leave a comment:

  • barkode
    started a topic The 2009 Ninja Badge / Ninja Party

    The 2009 Ninja Badge / Ninja Party

    (If you're just here looking for the Ninja Badge assembly video, it's here: )

    This post is broken into two sections - the party, and the story about building the badge, and how it very nearly didn't happen. If you're just looking for information on the badge, scroll down to that section.

    -- The Party (or, how we learned to stop worrying and go off-site.)

    Each year since DEFCON 7, Ninja Networks has thrown an party of sorts at DEFCON. Over the years, we've always tried to step it up year to year, making sure each year offers a little more than the previous year. What started as thirty kids in a room at the Alexis Park with a stripper has certainly turned into something more of a DEFCON tradition, and we're happy to be a part of it.

    After being unable to throw an event at DEFCON 16 due to issues with the hotel, we knew that coming back this year meant we needed to really bring something more to the table than we had in previous years. A skybox with free booze is fine, but we really wanted to break away from the typical "hey-lets-get-a-solo-cup-full-of-booze-and-mill-around-aimlessly-in-a-loud-dark-room" party that is all too common at DEFCON. That was fun when we were teenagers, and there's certainly still a place for it, but we thought it was time to do something a little more.

    We really wanted a nice, attractive venue with a full bar, dedicated staff, room for technology exhibits, outside smoking areas, lots of seating, quiet areas for talking, and quiet areas for talking. Yes, quiet areas for talking is in there twice. Being unable to hold a normal conversation in a skybox party always bothered me.

    Those needs, along with our general distrust of the Riviera when it comes to private events, along with their lack of a quality venue on-property, meant going off-site, which was a big deal for all sorts of obvious reasons. It meant finding a venue that was extremely close to the Riviera, as well as providing painless shuttle service to get there, and hoping people would be smart enough to do the math and realize it takes just a couple of minutes to travel 2500 feet to the new venue around the corner. Thankfully, people were in fact smart enough to realize this, and happily got on the shuttles.

    We chose the Artisan Hotel, right behind Circus Circus. Depending on traffic luck, it took between 5 minutes and 10 minutes to get to the Artisan on a shuttle, and we ran multiple shuttles constantly all night. We expected about 250-300 people to come to the event, and to our great surprise, more than 750 people showed up, almost 500 with Ninja Badges and about 250 with either real or fake "+1" passes (more on that later.)

    We timed it, and it literally took about the same amount of time to walk from a room in the Mediterranean tower to the skyboxes as it did to drive around the block to the Artisan. It was a few minutes longer if we hit all the lights, but generally, it was very very fast.

    Needless to say, we were thankful that people realized this, and got on the damn shuttles. :)

    The venue itself was an old favorite of ours - somewhere we usually went to decompress after the actual Ninja Party. We figured it would be a great venue for the event, and thankfully it worked out very well.

    stits put together a nice gallery (appreciate the gallery comment, stits):

    Vissago has some great shots in his gallery as well, and also grabbed a nice panoramic:

    We did screw a few things up - we did not get all of the technology toys working mostly due to venue limitations. Two big ones were the SMS Wall and the ShadowSmoke machine. The SMS Wall didn't work because there's no T-Mobile coverage at the Artisan (total fail on our part) and the ShadowSmoke machine simply wouldn't fit with the amount of people we had there.

    One more thing that didn't occur was the XeroBank live demonstration. They were going to do demo of their de-anonymizing of anonymous networks, but the place was so busy that we couldn't put their kiosk anywhere without running the risk of it being knocked over and/or otherwise futzed with. So, we just scrapped it.

    Overall, the event was a huge success, and also answered the question "Can off-site parties at DEF CON work?" We sincerely thank everybody that came out, very cool of you all.

    Now, as far as the fake +1s go - when we determined that we'd need to do "plus ones" this year, we made some nice flyer-style plus ones, knowing damn well that we'd have some fake ones show up.

    I don't really mind if someone tries to make *themselves* a fake party invitation in good fun, that's in the spirit of DEFCON. What I do mind is when people make them in *bulk* and hand them out, or worse... sell them. That part really bothered me. We apparently had a guy selling fake Ninja invites, and at least one guy for sure that had a huge pocketful of them, standing in the lobby at the Artisan, handing them out. They weren't perfect, they were actually noticeably shorter than the actual invites, and once we saw them it was easy to detect them from that point forward.

    I ended up confronting the guy in the lobby, and asking not so politely that he hand over the remaining fakes. He handed me about 50-ish fakes, from a pack that clearly had contained many more. Ultimately, I think he was honest with me about the situation, and we had a frank conversation, and in the end I invited him back next year and told him I'd be happy to hand him a badge myself. He apologized and that was enough for me, we're square as far as I'm concerned. He also told me that the Kinkos on Paradise was full of people trying to make good fakes, which I thought was interesting.

    In previous years we did holograms to minimize the fake pass issue- and next year we'll probably return to something like that to minimize the financial impact of bulk fakes. Having one-off fakes from time to time is in good DEFCON-style fun, but the bulk aspect sucked. :(

    But in any event - even with the fake pass issue, it was a great event, and we really appreciate everybody that came out to be a part of it. Thanks so much.

    I'd especially like to thank those that contributed by either walking up to me and handing me cash, or putting money in the jars on the bar. This helped tremendously, as it does every year. We really appreciate the consideration, it matters. Thank you.

    -- The Badge (that almost wasn't)

    For DEFCON 17, Ninja Networks designed and built a electronic badge to be given out as the event invitation. Historically we've done everything from stickers to holograms to etched aluminum. This year, we figured if we were going to dramatically step up the event, we should step up the badge as well.

    The following is the story of how the badge came to be, and how we damn near screwed it all up.

    It started as an idea fleshed out on bar napkins at an Irish Pub called "The Field" at Toorcon in 2006. Myself, Caezar, cnelson, avarice, and a smattering of ninjas and friends were talking about what we could do for a really exceptional party invitation for next year's DEFCON. We developed two ideas over the course of about 5 hours and 50 drinks - the complex idea that we may be using next year, and the relatively simple one we used this year.

    Executing the idea this year started in February of 2009. Myself, cnelson, and cstone began the process by fleshing out the idea more thoroughly, and developed a preliminary list of components that would be necessary to build it.

    The plan in February was to obtain most of the components from China, build prototype boards domestically, then ship everything to China for assembly. Cstone would rope in Amanda Wozniak aka "Woz", a local friend and MIT alum, to help with the design process. Woz would be more or less in charge of the hardware design itself, and cstone would be assisting Woz as well as writing all of the software.

    At the beginning the badge had additional functionality that is not currently present on the final model. The badge had USB storage, as well as a radio receiver that would synchronize with the nationwide Atomic Clock signal, allowing every badge to run perfectly in sync. Our budget was about $12 per badge, depending on USB storage considerations.

    Over the first few months, we sourced components, and started experimenting. One of the first things we found were the LED displays known to us as the "YETDA"s, after their manufacturer. These 16-segment HIOX-format displays were affordable and in-budget, and we eventually found someone in China to sell them to us.

    Around April, we settled on a Freescale processor (MC9S08QE8), and a Temic U422B for atomic clock sync, and had a few options for the remaining ICs we'd need. The radio chip would have an all-in cost of less than fifty cents, and the processor was cheap. We were on-budget.

    Then things started going wrong.

    China started lagging and changing prices on us and taking more time than we allotted. Vendors accepted payment then couldn't ship components. Most of the delays were related to flash chips for the USB storage. This started eating away at our available time. Making things worse, Woz and cstone were in Boston, while cnelson and myself were in Los Angeles. Woz and cstone, under pressure for time and working entirely unpaid, had to let some deadlines slip, and ultimately made some judgment calls on changes to the badges, thinking they had no other option. This was the result of a systemwide communications failure between the entire group. A rare incident with this group, and a costly one.

    In the end, two weeks before DEF CON, we did not have any badges. Moreover, about 10 days out I got the news that the radio sync would not work because of interference issues, and it was unlikely the USB storage would work, because of the delicacy of the circuit. Also, our per-badge cost was now approaching $20, and due to obvious time constraints, we had no time to have the badges assembled.

    When I got that call, I just about shit myself. I'd been somewhat insulated from the finer details of the badge construction up until this point, and that was a mistake. We all should have been talking about the details on a daily basis, and we should have been shifting time-consuming logistics processes (such as sourcing components) from the build team in Boston to the project management team in Los Angeles, so that Boston had some breathing room. In reality, Boston was overwhelmed and we had no idea how bad it was until it was too late. Collaboratively, the whole team including myself blew it in this department. I should have been more aggressive with Boston about timing and deliverables, and in turn they should have been all over me about taking logistics tasks off of their shoulders so they could actually get things done. The problem that kept this from running like a normal job was that everybody had a bit of a Laissez-faire approach to tasks assigned to other people, due to the fact that everybody involved was doing this as friends in their spare time. We couldn't just boss each other around. That really changes the project execution dynamic, and you've gotta make the best of it.

    So, old plan out the window, and new plan. Badges would be assembled entirely by hand in the US, as the parts came in. The surface mount components would be placed on the badges using solderpaste and a hotplate from Target, instead of a reflow oven. The through-hole components, meaning the YETDA displays and the battery holder, would be inserted entirely by hand, and each badge would have every single pin soldered by hand (about 175-ish pins per badge, times roughly 500 badges, or 87,500 individual joints.)

    Also, hilariously, UPS had left the batteries (all of them) at the wrong address in Boston, and they had been apparently stolen. So we had no batteries.

    This was literally one week to the day before DEF CON.

    Fortunately, the batteries were eventually recovered, and the custom PCBs, (designed by Woz in Eagle PCB and built by Advanced Circuits) showed up in Boston without incident. Work began on badge assembly in Boston.

    Things were looking great! Assembly was working and badges actually functioned! I was sitting at Panera Bread eating a sandwich and thinking that we're gonna be ok.

    Then I got a phone call with bad news.

    Cstone had recruited a huge group of volunteers to come by and help insert the displays and begin soldering. It was expected that with 15 people going all weekend, we would be largely done by Monday. That's when the bad news came - the holes in the PCBs were almost exactly the same size as the pins on the YETDAs, with no coning. This made the insertion of the displays a highly precision job, because if any of the pins were even -slightly- bent, the display would not go in. What was supposed to take 5 seconds took 5 minutes.

    I'm a pretty mellow dude as anyone will tell you. But at this particular moment, time is of the essence, and I'm standing in the Panera Bread parking lot talking loudly and quickly into my blackberry, brainstorming crazy options and pacing quickly, probably looking like a crazy person. At that moment, an -actual- crazy person walks up to me in the parking lot, hands me a $20 bill, and says to me, "God told me to give you this, and tell you that everything is going to be alright." Then the dude gets in his truck, and drives away. This actually happened.

    Whether or not somebody's god had anything to do with it I can't say, but ultimately we did come up with a completely crazy-ass plan to get the YETDAs inserted and get these badges done in time for DEFCON. I also made $20 bucks.

    This YETDA problem and its ultimate resolution would end up defining DEFCON for me entirely, bringing about one of the most inspiring on-the-spot hacker community responses I've seen since I started coming to Con.

    The first thing that happened is that cstone and his amazing crew assembled 150 badges (out of 500) in Boston over the weekend before DEFCON. On Monday before DEFCON, the rest of the badges (350) and related components were shipped to Los Angeles via FedEX. They arrived on Tuesday. All day Tuesday and Wednesday, a huge group of volunteers manually inserted YETDAs into each badge, a process taking approximately 10-15 minutes per badge.

    However, we did not solder most of these badges. We didn't have any time. Eliot from Hackaday knocked out a handful, but come Wednesday evening, just hours before DEFCON, we only had about 160 finished badges, most of which were in Boston, and 340 badges with all of their components, but in need of soldering. That's about 61,250 solder points to be done by Friday. It's Wednesday night.

    I got to DEFCON on Wednesday night with about 200 unfinished badges from LA. The other 150 would come at 2pm on Thursday, brought into town by cnelson.

    What needed to happen was something of a small miracle. We needed to get a huge group of volunteers to show up somewhere with soldering irons and solder 61,250 joints by hand between mid-day Thursday and mid-day Friday.

    So what happened? This happened:

    We sent out some twitters and text messages, as well as spreading the word verbally, and people came out of the woodwork like crazy. We had so many people show up to solder that we actually had to go out and buy more soldering irons. At one point, there were 15 people simultaneously soldering in one room at the Riviera. Most of these people I had never even met before, they were just cool people that were willing to devote hours of their day to helping us put these things together.

    This really put a smile on my face, partially because I was experiencing the effects of lead poisoning, but mostly because it reminded me why I started coming to DEF CON in the first place. It felt like an old 2600 meeting from the early 90's, or just an old computer club meeting. It is one of my top three favorite DEF CON moments of all time, without a doubt. "Ninja Badge Solderparty 2009" is definitely going be remembered and retold as DEF CON lore among those that were there, and I hope everybody took away the same positive feeling from it that I did.

    In the end, we had 500 functional Ninja Badges to give away. Each badge took about 45 minutes of time to assemble, accounting for everything involved. If you have one of these badges, it represents a lot of work by a lot of people.

    Some additional design and assembly photos are here:

    Wired mentioned it here:

    There's also some good hackaday coverage here:

    Woz and cstone did an amazing job on the badges, and they were ultimately a huge hit. They deserve the bulk of the credit for the existence of the badges, along with the hardworking people listed below.

    I sincerely thank everybody that came out and helped. Without all of these people, there would be no badges:

    If you've been left off of this list, please let me know.

    Diego Anzola
    Angel Caballero
    Brandon Creighton
    Nicole Danos
    Ashley Renee Foster
    Geoffrey Goodell
    Jenny Green
    James Harvey
    John Hecker
    Fiona Hughes
    KC Kerby
    Jeanette Lim
    Ian Martin
    Emily Melbourn
    Hayden Melbourn
    Jen Murphy
    Chris Nelson
    Jim Paris
    Feanil Patel
    Chris Pentacoff
    Eliot Phillips
    Michael Phillips
    Jeff Pool
    Scott Pool
    Cathy Saxton (Capt. Ahab)
    Tom Saxton
    Michael Scarito
    Sirus (Seattle)
    Joseph Sokol-Margolis
    Jesse Whitworth
    Amanda Wozniak
    Samson Yeung

    XeroBank ( provided financial support as our primary sponsor. Without that support there wouldn't have been a party or a badge.

    Redwire LLC ( donated a huge amount of space and equipment to the Boston team, without which we would have not had badges at all, as we would not have been able to do the surface mount work or much of the initial assembly.

    Technical Information on the badge, including schematics and gerber files, can be found here:

    Now, on to planning next year...
    Last edited by barkode; August 10, 2009, 18:04. Reason: Added additional external URLs.