4 Nights in Tornio

Train going through northern Sweden

Prelude

I am in a sleeper car in a train going through Norrland. The surrounding landscape is full of trees, birch trees intermingled with other kinds I do not know by sight, patches of rock, windfarms, small lakes and water streams. It feels like a vision of what the remainder of Sweden was like ages ago. Well, excepting the windfarms.

If I would have booked a refundable ticket, I would have probably stayed home. Always book a refundable ticket for these kind of costly-and-uncertain ventures. Particularly during a pandemic.

Train computing in progress

It would suck, of course, if I can't attend the event. On the other hand, it has been nice to have had forced time to think about the things I care about. Relationships, friends, family. For a change in scenery. I don't know why it is like this, but it seems like separation and a lack of things to occupy the mind is almost always required to realize what it is you have in your life, and how much it means to you.

(I have, of course, had an N95 face mask on when around other passengers.)

Rewind

Let us step back for a moment. The train was heading to an event, Extrasolar, organized by the Secure Scuttlebutt, or SSB, community. Secure Scuttlebutt is a protocol, and sort of a database as well, for creating peer-to-peer local-first applications. You can use the architecture to create social media-style applications which continue to work even when the internet is in short supply. Data exchange in the network functions without requiring maintenance of massive server farms (or even of small ones). SSB is also a worldwide community of friends and peers, grown out of the protocol over the past 5 years. Arguably, the protocol-mediated community is the most cherished part of the SSB stack.

Andre Staltz, hard at work during the event

I am on the train because I am a part of the community, and have been for roughly 3 years now. Back then, I found out about the protocol in a blog post, written by Andre Staltz, also of SSB, when looking for ways to create sustainable software. Applications that could continue to function without necessitating heavy-duty maintenance, as is typically the case for self-hosted software services.

Tornio & Hoodownr

The event itself is hosted in Tornio, Finland, by a newly returned resident. Tornio is a border town in the northern half of Finland, bordering on the Swedish town of Haparanda. The Extrasolar instigator is Hoodownr, aka Sami, who was living in Kobe, Japan until recently, when the Covid-19 crisis made life hard living. Looking for a distraction, and sensing a need in the wider community for a physical meetup to gel ongoing efforts, Sami started to organize the event.

Earlier in the week, I decided that I couldn't attend the event. The uncertainty was too high. Crossing into Finland from the Swedish side looked difficult, Sweden having had restrictions placed on it due to its number of Covid-19 cases. I would also be taking the 24h trip to the event alone, as the local butts (butt being a term of endearment for people in SSB) were busy with other things in life. The cost for the trains there and back again were bordering on prohibitively costly for someone, like me, who quit their job 9 months back to focus on peer-to-peer related open source research. No, I was not going.

Ontop of a hill in Malmö, looking out over Öresund, the strait between Sweden and Denmark, I declared to a friend my reasons for not being able to go. I decided to inform Sami by posting in Patchwork, a social media client for SSB, so as to not ghost the delightfully sounding event.

Having made the post, I went on with life. On checking Patchwork again the following day, I had notifications from people in the community, voicing their support in drawing on communal funds for my train tickets. A gift from the commons. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of support and kindness; despite my other reasons for unattendance, such as the uncertain border crossing and the 24h of solitude, I decided I would accept the gift and go on the journey.

Luleå

I made it across the border. Yesterday, after my bus ride from Luleå to Haparanda, I got a text from Hoodownr saying he was waiting at the bus station. It turns out his plan was to attempt the border crossing as early as possible, and that it would be easier if a local was along for the occasion. We went to the border, Sami explaining in Finnish to one of the border cops for a long while - I hearing snippets of "dat" "bitcoin" "ethereum" - and we were through. Apparently the cop he talked to was familiar with p2p, and started asking if the event was bitcoin-related. Sami rapidly explained the ins and outs of the event, and how Scuttlebutt differed from the infamous blockchain, and that was that.

The author, dressed in the official tshirt

This of course meant that I had to shaft the Haparanda Airbnb I had booked to recoup in. But hey, you don't leave Hoodownr waiting ya know?

Just shy of the border, Hoodownr hands me the Extrasolar shirt which had traveled from the pen of Glyph in South Africa, to Hoodownr's Futeng printing friend in Kobe, to my hands in Tornio. We hung out at his mother's place, who was very kind, and whittled away the time talking about data solidarity, and emergency modes of SSB.

A beautiful painting from Aine art museum

I'm writing this up in Andre's hotel room, where I got to crash after a long day of hanging out, and an even longer journey getting here.

Highlights

Conversations before the event
The venue

It's Saturday. I'm sitting in Aaltonen, the venue Sami managed to hustle for the event. In the background ambience is Andre, setting up his Linnstrument, Hoodownr walking around, searching for coffee, Meghan ambling around as well - the others out and about.

Yesterday we had the first day of the event, a soft start. Andre, Keks, and I kicked off the first session with an introduction of the European Scuttlebutt Collective. The European Scuttlebutt Collective (ESC) is an open group formed to push progress forward within the protocol, initially spearheaded and proposed by Zenna. Membership is vouching-based, meaning that you need 3 vouches from existing members to join the group (and a desire to join, of course). People of the collective recently managed to secure a 200k euro grant from the Next Generation Internet Pointer fund. The ESC, the grant funds, and the general wants and visions we each felt around SSB provided much of the backdrop for the conversations cropping up during the event.

After the ESC introduction, Hendrik Peter held a talk on lessons from a life spent programming and being interested in programming languages, and how they can be applied to SSB. Sami presented on the bamboo feed format, tying it into future efforts of improving the protocol and expressing a desire to coalesce multiple efforts into fewer.

The grilling cottage
The grilling cottage

In the evening, we were to grill in a house on the mainland portion of Tornio (the venue being situated on the island portion of Tornio). In order to have veggies to grill, Keks and I ambled around the town's only supermarket scoring candy, beer, zucchinies and eggplants in one of the most hilariously confusing shopping experiences of my life.

At Merja, the friend with the house and the Finnish grilling cottage, we spent the evening drinking beers, grilling slowly, and talking about the past, present and future of SSB.

Grilling and chilling at Merja's place

(Friday) Highlights

Journeying from Tornio-the-island to Tornio-on-the-mainland
Vibing in progress

On Saturday, Andre held a session on Life after the Tsunami. The purpose of the session was to bring up what SSB's possible futures might be after an unchangeable event (Eternal September being the prototypical example of one such tsunami, the Snowden revelations another). Basically, what if:

The Scuttlebutt Graffiti Sessions

During the session, it was brought up that the protocol's lengthy onboarding might act as a protective bubble around the current community, insulating the ecosystem from such a sea change. Towards the end, Andre proposed that we should think about what measures we can take now and put in place before the unchangeable event happens.

The Scuttlebutt Graffiti Sessions

Later in the day, during one of Hoodownr's fantastically planned events, we went graffitiing using large stencils based on Glyph's fantastic art for the event (the person in the space suit, and the extrasolar spaceship). It was an amazing experience.

The Scuttlebutt Graffiti Sessions

In the evening was the Consonance party. Cryptix played an excellent and long techno set, Andre accompanying him at the midway point, using his Linnstrument. We were joined by friendly locals, who had helped make the event a reality. Keks and I were scheming in a corner, talking about application ideas which could be useful to onboard entire communities and subcultures into SSB.

Cryptix and Andre, playing music during the Consonance party

After the party, we all went hunting for auroras in the Finnish night, as there was the possibility of them happening. We never saw one, but we did end up at a monument by the abandoned railway station, dedicated to Lenin's transit through Finland on his way back to Russia. One of Sami's friends told stories about the town's events and history, while we stood around outside, in the middle of the night, beside abandoned railroad tracks, and a monument to Lenin.

(Saturday) Highlights

Lenin was here
Finnish urban graffiti

It is Sunday. I'm feeling pretty socially exhausted after all of the non-stop hangs. But grateful.

Highlights

Crowsnest jamming out on his guitar

I ended my stay in Tornio at Crowsnest's apartment, hanging out with him and Hoodownr.

Marko was jamming away on his guitar as usual, when Sami brought out his massive art stash. The collection was composed of roughly postcard-sized pieces Sami had made during the past 6 months. Sami let me pick an art piece to bring back home to Malmö. I ended up picking two, as I had the hardest time settling on one (Sami graciously allowed this). My four candidates were the following.

The last page of Hoodownr's legendary art stash

The first depicted two pandas—panda being the term for a chubby asian man (often naked)—in red and yellow gouache, fucking. Albeit an abstract image, in which it takes a while before one can definitively discern that an act of fornication is, in fact, taking place.

The second was what seemed to be a very quick sketch, of a panda from the front. He is dressed in red, a fuzzy collection of glasses and bottles are in the foreground. The image felt like the lived reality of the aftermath of a long party.

The third candidate was of a golden face, austere and penetrating into the ages. As if taken directly from a propaganda piece for some ancient dictator.

The final, was a high-art specimen of a panda wearing a fox mask. The material, as opposed to the others which were white paper, was a pale yellow. The panda is close to the viewer, looking inward, with a reflection of the entire face being seen a bit farther into the empty background. The fox face and the panda's body are succinctly outlined with a thin, dark marker.

A single chinese name is depicted on the bottom of the page, the name of the account which provided the original inspiration. He is painted in orange, and red, with blue and green mixing together to form his dark hair. The eyes in the mask are the pale yellow of the paper. Pink sparkles are secretly scattered across the red areas, only visible when moving the piece against a lit backdrop. Sami informed me that I had spotted a good one, as it was one of his pieces which had ilicited the greatest reaction online, garnering attention in a niche art community.

I ended up choosing the first, for being a prime example of Sami's style and spirit in his current art practice, and the last one.

Epilogue

True journey is return

I am finishing up this gonzo journal of sorts upon having returned to Malmö.

I'm extremely grateful for the community of Scuttlebutts that I'm part of, and for having been granted the opportunity to come to this one-of-a-kind event, in the midst of a pandemic, located in the northern-most parts of the region I live in. I decided to document some of my subjective experiences, and gift it back to the community, and the larger world (whomever may come across it).

The author, returning home

Only a portion of what went on is captured, and human experience is so much messier than what can be captured in a hypertext document, thankfully.

~cblgh