Eurovision and Enigma Kerplunk at Over The Air 2011

An absolutely lovely weekend at Over the Air has just finished (with some nifty train timetable work, I was back home in Edinburgh before 1am), and as usual, I can’t wait until the next one, even though the wait makes them so special.

The glorious weather meant that the grounds of Bletchly Park were overflowing with coders, on the grass, deadlines ahead, playing around and trying to see if they could get the latest API’s, ideas and dev tools to work. As David Vella pointedly asked on Twitter, “…when was the last time this many coders were working overnight in the Mansion at Bletchley Park?”

With such historic surroundings, arguably the birthplace of British Computing, it seemed the perfect venue, and after the sunshine and excitement, I’d agree.

After some brainstorming in the middle of the week after the logistics (and dare I say it, the entertainment and presentation) of the original hack idea just felt wrong, myself and the #OTA hack team hit on the idea of recreating the Enigma coding machine. Which I thought might be a bit obvious and picked up by other hacks, but turns out only one did so (using NFC chips to act as digital notes of the decryption setting).

Just in case, I decided to give it a little twist. This wouldn’t be a computer program, a representation of the machine, it would be real, it would be physical, and it would work. Thus was born Enigma Kerplunk, an Enigma machine with rotors made of wood, using tubes and funnels to move marbles around to encode and decode the messages. Something like this…

Enigma Kerplunk from Over the Air 2011

As per usual, I’m never allowed near power tools, and a hack like this is almost impossible to do on my own, so a huge thank you to Leeky and Cazm¬†for pitching in. Leeky of course is a regular volunteer for these ideas, while Caz picked up on something mad¬†happening and was “volunteered” by Leeky (what can I say, I taught him well). Without them I would have likely sawn my hand off or screwed something down on a potential world heritage site. Again, thank you.

Strictly speaking, it’s a Lorenz Cipher machine, and not Engima, the primary difference being the lack of a reflector under the rotors to send the signal (er, marble) back up the rotors again, adding to the complexity. With more time, there could have been a one way capture on the cups at the base, and the machine would spin 180 degrees, but Over the Air is always a tight schedule, so explaining the workings, and how the reflector worked, was the route forward.

As it was the machine was finished just as the introduction to the presentations started, I don’t think I’ve cut it that close before.

The other presentation I made was on the Friday night at Ignite. Speakers are asked to present for five minutes on something they are passionate about (with no blatant product pitches), the catch being they have 20 slides in the PowerPoint deck and it will automatically advance after 15 seconds.

What else could I talk about than “Everything I Ever Learned About European Politics I Learned From The Eurovision Song Contest?” With everything from busting the myths of the Song Contest and the effect of diaspora on voting, to the cultural blocks, major and minor chorded pop songs and international relations, it was fast, touched on a number issues, and with a dash of humour as well.

To a certain extent my reputation at these events does precede me – there’s an assumption that there will be some use of pyrotechnics, that the idea is going to be something physical and not just computer code, and it’s going to be fun. I’m pretty sure that I delivered all that this year, and that there seemed to be another truth lurking under the surface. Speaking to people after both the Eurovision and Enigma presentations, many commented on how much they had enjoyed what they saw, but also how it made it sound simple – especially the workings of the Enigma machine and some of the mechanical flaws that Station X exploited.

Everyone’s Over the Air is different, but the great thing is that everyone enjoys it, everyone looks forward to it each year, and I suspect we’re all wondering where the 2012 edition will be held.

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