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Austin Actors
Marco Perella

Geek Fest
by Marco Perella

September 2000

Heaven help me they’re everywhere. Crawling in and out of virtual reality tanks. Hovering over computer graphics displays and standing in line to watch the Industrial Light and Magic demo.

They’re geeks and they own the world now.

I’m at SIGGRAPH...the world’s biggest computer graphics convention. I’m in New Orleans but who would know? You see one convention center you’ve seen them all. Big fluorescent caverns with air conditioning ducts. Air conditioning ducts with no air in them right now because it’s set-up day and the worker bees don’t rate air conditioning. They’re saving that for the conventioneers. New Orleans in August is el-muggo in extremis and everyone is sweating all over their nice new terminals as they feverishly set up the enormous displays with which they intend to entice the masses into parting with their graphics dollars. This computer graphics thing has gotten completely out of hand if you ask me.

THEY’VE GONE TOO FAR!

It was okay to make that liquid metal man ooze around in Terminator II and dinosaurs are very cool, but these clever little guys have almost figured out how to make artificial actors who do everything us flesh and bloods can do without needing a Winnebago. Then won’t those producers be happy!

THEY MUST BE STOPPED!

Meanwhile they’re having a convention for these cybernuts so everybody can check out the new stuff. Oh, excuse me. I mean, "define the prevailing paradigm", "push the envelope", "expand the heterogeneous environment".

These folks get real carried away when they talk their geek talk.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself, "Marco, what’s a complete technical non-compis mentis like you doing at a geek fest?"

Simple.

They hired me!

Yes, despite all their technology these geeks still need a human who can stand in front of a crowd and play down to the lowest common denominator in a naked, visceral effort to SELL COMPUTERS.

IBM has a booth here to show off their big brainiacs. Bob and I are doing forty shows in three days to sing the praises of the RS/6000 and other marvels of the silicon fundament. Trouble is IBM is still in the stone age graphically speaking. While all the sexy companies like Alias/Wavefront and Industrial Light and that ilk are showing two story demos of dinosaurs and space ships charging around, IBM’s display consists of me and Bob and a slide show.

Oh, we have a script of course. The script boils down to something like

"We’re IBM! We have big computers! Won’t you buy our big computers? They’re so...BIG!"

Meanwhile everybody at the convention will be out looking at dinosaurs and cybermuffins. (Cybermuffins are curvaceous young women in short skirts hired by software companies to sit on stools in front of their booths and pass out literature to hordes of panting geeks. This is called "getting out the message").

Right now our crew is having trouble getting our act on line. The problem is, too much electronic interference. Our radio signal mikes are on the fritz because other companies keep co-opting OUR frequency for THEIR radio mikes. Also, our teleprompters go down every other page leaving us to cope with all the geek talk by memory alone.

Worried IBM brass watch us stumble through our dress rehearsal. The slide show is not coordinated to our script, and pictures of red sports cars accompany our spiel on molecular engineering. Bob actually works for IBM and wrote the script and is having a hell of a time remembering all the lines he so generously gave himself. Most of my lines are things like "Tell us more, Bob!" and "Just how big IS it?" and I deliver them from the audience in true infomercial style. (Professional shame is something I sacrificed many lucrative miles back down the show business road.)

My main function is to give away the door prize. This is a jazz CD which fits in with our theme: "Assembling a great graphics solution is like putting together a great jazz mix!" Of course we have to listen to this same noodling jazz tape a hundred and sixteen times and we’re still in rehearsal. However if we didn’t give away the CD nobody would sit through our stinking little show on a bet so there you have it.

The other companies are having about the same luck we are in preparing for tomorrow’s opening. The Alias/Wavefront display next door currently features a two-story video with the words "system error" starkly centered on the fifty thousand dollar screen.

Serves them right for stealing our radio frequency.

I go backstage to see if we can fix the sound. Our techies Jim and Paul are wedged into a crevice full of malfunctioning equipment. They’re trying to retool the slide show. Forget the sound. I go back to the hotel.

The Marriot is packed with the flower of geekdom. Now that it is evening they are massing for an attack on the fleshpots of the Crescent City. Some of these are readily available out the side door of the hotel where as you exit a hawker across the street opens the door of a dive to give you a view of the pole-humpers inside.

As I walk down to the French Quarter women sidle out and rub their breasts, promising who knows what delights if I only start forking over my Yankee dollars. (These delights will remain undiscovered by your humble correspondent.) The geeks are aquiver however, as they crowd into the hell holes of the Quarter.

It’s going to be some weekend.

New Orleans is quite happy to have 40,000 raving cybers visiting their city in August. It’s not exactly tourist season down here on the bayou.

The effect is like one of those nature films where huge masses of migrating wildebeest blunder mindlessly onward while ravenous lions, hyenas and crocodiles cut weaklings out of the herd.

The big event tonight is a free dinner being held at Mardis Gras World; a huge warehouse where they store the parade floats.

I ask for directions in the lobby and a party of geeks invite me to split a cab. The only hitch is that Mardis Gras World is across the river in some treacherous slum known as Sudan or Nubia or some such name that makes white people real nervous. I don’t remember exactly; I was too nervous.

Our Pakistani cabby has no idea how to get there. He knows where the airport is. Is it near the airport? No? Well then he’s helpless.

After a long conversation in Pakistani with his home base we take off. Sure enough, the moment we get across the Mississippi we are disastrously lost. The cabby begins wandering aimlessly up and down streets looking at signs.

Soon we are in a bad, bad place.

We feel somewhat secure only because nobody seems to live here in Sudan. They’ve all been murdered. We finally see a bum weaving his way down the middle of a side street. We stop and ask him for directions. This makes his day. Somebody needs him! We watch him make the supreme effort to clear his brain enough to help us. "First you go left....then left at the light....then straight on till morning!"

I really should have tipped that guy.

At last we arrive. My ride-sharing geeks immediately disgorge and leave me to pay the tab. I hope they catch a flesh-eating computer virus.

Mardis Gras World is a lot of fun except it looks a lot like a convention center with all the geeks running around. Great floats. Big fiber glass heads of Elvis and Marilyn. Actually it’s more like a bust of Marilyn if you know what I mean. We eat jambalaya and listen to the swamp band sing about Loupe Garou, the werewolf of the bayou. Being alone I sit down at the end of one of the long tables set up for the conventioneers.

"Hi there! We’re from IBM!"

Oh great.

"Hey! Aren’t you that guy? Hey look Iris, it’s that guy from the show today! What’s with that slide show? Can’t you do something about that? It really sucks!"

So went the rest of my evening.

Opening day. The flower of Geekdom arrives. 40,000 strong they come and they all want free T-shirts.

The first six shows are a nightmare of bad mikes and crashed teleprompters. Bob finally gives up trying to stay on the script and we wing it. This goes rather well.

Of course the IBM brass watching from the back row may not think so. The main problem is that every time we get the audience actually interested in something about processing nodes or bandwidth-stretching, the two-story dinosaurs across the aisle start roaring and everybody laughs.

This goes on for 15 shows back to back all day. We are whipped puppies. I’d planned to tour the floor and check out the exhibits but opt instead for an early dinner and bed.

Day two goes better. We completely ignore the fickle teleprompter and cruise. People are storming our booth trying to win a jazz CD and an IBM T-shirt. We also have an espresso machine and a bunch of notebook computers where people can surf the net. IBM calls this the "Cyber cafe".

The geeks love it, always preferring a conversation in cyberspace above all other forms of personal interaction save one.

The IBM brass is much happier.

At the end of our shift I check out the competition.

One popular exhibit features a cybermuffin with wires running out of her skintight rubber body suit into a computer bank. As she wiggles around, a cartoon frog on the monitor recreates her movements. I guess this is supposed to be more thrillingly realistic than just letting some cartoonist draw an animated frog.

The big outfits like Disney seem to be using their presence here as a cover for their recruiting. They cast out their nets and seine the river of geeks and take the fat ones back to Hollywood.

The only connection with New Orleans is a dark hallway called the "Virtual Bayou" where several exhibitors have set up monitors inside pirogues with stuffed gators and fake moss around them. They’re all selling the same tacky ersatz space age computer crap. What a bore.

The noise level in the convention hall is appalling. 40,000 people yelling in each other’s ears to be heard over the cacophony of bells, whirs, whistles and explosions coming out of all the demos. And the electro-magnetic fields in here must be giving everybody tumors. Think of all the electrons bombarding you from machines like our meal ticket, the IBM RS/6000.

As I cruise the exhibits, the hairs on my arm ripple in sympathetic sine waves.

Tonight should be a treat. Bob and his entourage and I are going to Tujagues for din-din.

Tujagues is a restaurant on Decatur street that’s been open since 1850. My folks used to eat there in the 40’s. The waiters have all worked there forever and my parents got to be friendly with one of them named Blackie.

Blackie wound up dropping dead right in the resturant one night, but not before carefully placing his tray on the floor so he wouldn’t spill the etouffe. When I mention this to the current owner, all of a sudden we get the star treatment.

"You knew Blackie?! Hey! Maurice! These people knew Blackie! Right this way!"

We get a private room upstairs and are served in courses with extras thrown in at no charge.

All the bisque we can eat. Triple entrees. Double desserts.

Four hours later we stagger downstairs and out into the night.

We have tickets for the Disney party; supposedly a hot item.

We decide to walk off the crawfish and our trail leads us into the nether world of the city. Tarot card readers on every corner. African-American children tap dancing for tips. Blind accordionists sitting in alleys where the acoustics are good.

Sex shows everywhere. Actual STORES for witches. Voodoo shops. ("Honey...I’m goin’ down to the corner to pick up some gris-gris. Go ahead and tie the chicken around your neck will ya?")

New Orleans must be the only town in this country that actually features black magic as an INDUSTRY.

I mean it’s in the tourist literature!

"Take the Ann Rice Garden District vampire tour!"

The Disney party caters to the same. It’s being held in a convent, of all places, and the theme is "Saints and Sinners". Indeed.

The guests are teeming all over this place gawking at the religious artifacts and statues of St. Theresa while that same Loupe Garou band from the other night plays the werewolf song and everyone stuffs their face with more crawfish.

Even I am appalled at the tastelessness of these proceedings.

Last day of Siggraph.

Bob and I are now the Abbott and Costello of IBM:

"The RS/6000 delivers the key applications you need, Bob!"

"And it fits seamlessly into your heterogeneous environment, Marco!"

"Gosh, Bob! I didn’t know you cared!"

This kind of banter can become irresistible when you’ve been doing the same show forty times in three days.

The final spectacular is the film graphics award show being presented at a big old theatre downtown. As usual it’s THE hot ticket and all the conventioneers are falling all over themselves trying to get in. The IBM heavies throw a couple of tix at me so of course I have to go.

The hotel concierge is shocked and appalled that I am actually contemplating WALKING five blocks down Canal Street to get to this theatre. Evidently there are people on Canal Street who will hurt me. I am an urban survivor however and I assume the protective look of haughty disdain that I learned in New York as I stride boldly down the avenue.

I arrive safely in front of the theatre where the hordes are disgorging from the safety of their tour busses. Everybody has slicked up. In fact the geeks are almost indistinguishable from the movie/music crowd. They all wear black everything. The fabulosity is excruciating.

The films themselves are a revelation in that I understand almost nothing of what is going on.

I mean I GET it.

The cartoons are 3-D and all the effects are very sharp and it’s all so neat. But everything is so loud and busy and violent and just damn peculiar. It seems like if you are a state of the art computer graphics artist what you have to do is make as much noise and explosions and real fast jumps as you can so the audience is overstimulated to the point of seasickness.

Didn’t anybody ever tell these guys that panning to the left makes the audience nauseous? And they do it every time.

And nobody is allowed to do anything pretty with all this computing power.

If animals dance they must be cockroaches. Heads must explode and disgorge magenta snakes. It’s bad trip acid art is what it is. And the audience of geeks sits there rapt. Worshipful.

One of the films has a narration track that mentions polygon avoidance and everybody cracks up. That’s when I realize I am totally out of it. Left behind. From the boulevard called relevance I have turned off into a cul de sac.

And the geek shall inherit the earth.

The new paradigm.

The truth doesn’t hurt or anything. I’m out of it but I don’t care. Not my MOS like they say in the army.

Rave on you geeks. Take the world that seems to be yours for the taking. I’ll be reading a novel or something. I’ll call you up when my computer breaks down and I can’t play solitaire anymore.

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