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Crashing Comdex 

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Fifty thousand nerds are going to Sin City, and I want to be with them. But I’m not an IT girl. (That’s Information Technology.) The most complicated program I run in my day-to-day life is Microsoft Word. I am not authorized to buy anything, explore anything, learn anything, or network with anyone. My total venture capital expense budget for acquiring new technology to enhance my business-to-business application: $0.

I do, however, love computer geeks. I would have loved Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Scott McNealy before they became multibillion-dollar tech overlords, simply because they wore eyeglasses and knew their way around a motherboard. Plus, I find bright and shiny plasma-screen monitors unbelievably sexy. I am, in other words, exactly the kind of person the Comdex 2003 officials want to keep out of their convention.

In its heyday, some three years ago before the dot-com bubble hiccupped into sobriety, the weeklong Comdex computer convention in Las Vegas was a wild and crazy technolust orgy. Two hundred thousand geeks. The Barenaked Ladies and Macy Gray playing to worshippers in an airplane hangar and an Internet porn convention running simultaneously. This year, organizers promised a leaner, meaner Comdex — more business, less glitz, and no screwing around.

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I arrive on a Tuesday, with the convention already under way. After swearing a blood oath not to do or say anything stupid, my friend Normal (not his real name), who works for the government, agrees to bring me with him. At the check-in point, I’m handed a plastic badge with bar code to wear around my neck at all times. Instead of having to physically collect brochures and flyers, I can simply scan in my bar code at each booth and have the information mailed and e-mailed to me automatically.

Tech nerds of every iteration flit from booth to booth examining displays — from middle-aged X-Files Lone Gunmen types and bespectacled Internet startup survivors to pimply teenage gamers who look like they’ve just rolled out of bed. There are nerds passed out on bean bags, huddled together against walls and squatting on the floor next to power outlets for their laptops. In the Asian pavilion, there are all manner of blinking, spinning, strobing lights and neon cases for “tricking out” your computer. There are gadgets aplenty — squishy, foldable keyboards that feel like floppy place mats, USB storage devices no bigger than lighters, tablet laptops that work like electronic sketchbooks.

“Last year was way bigger,” Normal sniffs.

Back at our hotel that evening, I sprawl out on the bed circling things in the Comdex Program & Exhibits Guide. Normal and his wife channel surf through TV news reports of the Michael Jackson police hunt — he’s supposed to be somewhere here in Las Vegas, too, though probably not at Comdex. For tomorrow, I’ve decided on the Fastest Geek computer-building competition and a lecture on “Combining the Hacker Mind with the Professional Methodology.” Briefly, I consider a conference on robots in the real world, but it conflicts with Hacker Mind. Everything else in the guide mostly reads like Greek. Geek Greek. There are “install parties” where people get together to install stuff onto their laptops. There is an educational program called “CIO Bootcamp,” which is probably not what I think it is. When I mention this to Normal’s wife, who is not an IT girl either, she giggles.

“What is CIO Bootcamp?” I ask.

“Well, duh,” she says, “it’s where they drop you out in the wilderness and leave you to survive with nothing but your laptop.”

As we laugh, Normal groans. He is a CIO. He’s been to boot camp.

“And when they come back a month later,” he says, reconsidering, “you have a fully networked business setup.” Outside of our window, the neon lights of casinos on the Strip glitter in tantalizing patterns.

On Wednesday, the Fastest Geek is a 21-year-old named Jeremy who assembled a working PC — memory chips, video card, internal drives, a fan, a motherboard, a mouse and keyboard — in five minutes and 18 seconds. I never did see him in person, though, because I got lost trying to figure out the correct orientation for my convention floor-plan map. I stood in the middle of the exhibit hall, map in hand, in front of a booth for a cell-phone GPS navigation system. The tiny glowing streets were labeled in Chinese characters. Several booths after that, I was waylaid by a miniature 360-degree video camera submerged into a fish tank shaped like a doughnut. It is like having eyes in the back of your head, the brochure explained. On a flat-screen monitor, a goldfish swam in endless circles.

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