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.
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.
“Everything is getting connected,” said essayist W. Brian Arthur, in my free copy of Fortune magazine, “devices, systems, machines, business processes, even networks themselves. Information technology’s task these days is to get these items to ‘converse’ seamlessly and remotely with one another.” A deep, almost unnoticeable change is happening, he said, as we build a neural system for the economy. As I listened to the conversations happening around me, the awkward mumblings of shy computer geeks, the slick showmanly voices of the power suits, the programmers speaking in obscure languages, it was like I’d stumbled inside a giant brain and felt it twitch. And for just a moment, I almost understood.
Taking a Spanking for the First Amendment
“Embrace the rights we have as Americans that people don’t have in other countries.” It’s a sentiment anyone could get behind, even — or perhaps especially — coming from a tall, blond woman in a skimpy zebra-striped bikini. The speaker, adult performer Kyra, is urging her audience to place a bid on her outfit, and the chance to pull it off of her with their teeth while she spanks them with a little, rather non-threatening paddle.
This is Spanking Censorship 3, a benefit for what may be the nation’s only First Amendment–rights group organized by and for members of the porn industry. The Free Speech Coalition made the news last year when it won its Supreme Court case against John Ashcroft over a law banning “virtual child pornography” in which no actual children are involved. It also defends adult video stores against restrictive zoning laws, brings porn actors to Sacramento for lobby days, and gets fans of pornography involved in defending their right to watch it.
The crowd defending free speech at the Westchester Sports Grill tonight is fairly young, racially mixed and composed mostly of adult performers, their friends and boyfriends, and people connected to the opening band, Living Strange. There are also some serious porn fans. Larry, who came into the bar tonight bearing roses for all the performers, says he comes to all the Free Speech events. “It’s a matter of supporting the industry and the people in the industry,” he says. “At least I can talk to them — other people in mainstream entertainment you can’t.” Larry later pays $30 to go onstage and expertly strip one of the performers with his teeth. As he walks back past my table, he says, “That was very enjoyable.”
The driving force behind tonight’s event is William Margold, former adult-film star, agent for many other stars, and a key player in the industry organizations Fans of X-rated Entertainment (FOXE) and Protecting Adult Welfare, a group that helps porn actors deal with job-induced stress on their physical and/or mental well-being. As the women are stripped, Margold encourages the rather subdued crowd to whoop and yell. His patter includes lines like, “If society refuses to admit it’s jacking off, it shouldn’t complain when Congress cuts its dick off.”
That sort of sentiment is what brought Erika Kole out to donate her time tonight. She’s a pretty, blond woman with credits including Gag Factor #9 and 1,001 Ways To Eat My Jizz, as well as a well-honed anger at the policies of Bush and Ashcroft. Onstage, she wriggles against the mic and breathes out lines like, “This outfit is oh, so hot.” Outside the bar, she gives me a firm handshake and answers my questions about women’s exploitation in porn with a classic sex-positive feminist response: “People don’t believe women [in the industry] have control over their own lives. I’ve done porn for two years, and I’ve never done a scene I didn’t want to do.”
“We’re all adults in the industry,” says Leo, who has been in porn for the past five years. “You can die for your country at 18. This work is no more exploitative than other jobs. On the minimum wage, a family of four — it takes almost three people to work to support them. If that’s not exploitative I don’t know what is.”
Throughout the evening, Margold makes occasional comments with questionable racial content — referring to Shocking Lee, a light-skinned African-American woman and the only nonwhite performer, as a “Halle Barry clone,” for instance, and adding that he imagines she would prefer that a white man wins the bid to strip her, or commenting as one member of the audience is spanked, “The black men in the room are hoping the white man gets beaten.” Some of the comments seem to be inside jokes directed toward Margold’s friend Rick Stone, an African-American adult-industry Webmaster who runs Margold’s Web site and is at the event promoting a new site scheduled to be up next year, www.succulent.com.
“I never take offense to what he says,” Stone says. “Talking about race, whether it’s negative or positive, it makes you think. The way he does it is good.” He adds that racism is a problem “in porn and beyond porn. I’m an African-American man in the industry; I see it every day in front and behind the scenes. But it’s like that in every business.”
Veteran porn star and Free Speech Coalition board member Selena Steele gets the biggest response when she takes the mic from Margold, gives him a spanking with one of the paddles, and performs a very-close-to-real simulated sex scene with fellow performer Janey. As the two women grind, Selena speaks porn dialogue into the mic: “I love the way your cum tastes.” She walks away, and then returns a moment later to tell the audience, “Don’t ever believe that.”
In porn or in Washington, even free speech defenders don’t always tell the truth.
Vertical strings of green apples — 7,000, in all — formed the backdrop to the bar at Larry King’s 70th birthday party last Wednesday night. The party’s “ambiance designer,” Edgardo Zamora, said that King’s wife Shawn had helped to inspire the decoration: She loves Granny Smith apples. Zamora, who has also designed premiere parties for a couple of little films by the Wachowski brothers, said that once the backdrop had been erected, he noticed that his strings of apples bore more than a passing resemblance to the Wachowskis’ iconic strings of numbers. “I stood there and I was like, ‘This would be pretty good for The Matrix.’”
At 6 p.m., the first wave of guests arrived at the Museum of Television & Radio to watch the broadcast of Larry King Live. King appeared to be genuinely shocked when his interview with Regis Philbin (Q: “What do you make of the Jackson story?” A: “I kind of feel sorry for everybody involved.”) was hijacked by Dr. Phil and transformed into a tribute, à la This Is Your Life, with satellite feeds and phone calls from the likes of Nancy Reagan, Ross Perot (with the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders), and Celine Dion (singing “Happy Birthday,” backed up by her 4,000-member audience in Las Vegas). Clustered in front of one television set were King’s sister-in-law, his mother-in-law, his personal assistant, and his personal assistant’s mother. Behind them stood two balding men from Sweden.
Pekka Johansson, who like most men at the party was wearing black socks, but unlike any other men at the party was wearing shorts, and Ingvar Ohman, who was the only man there wearing sandals, said they were freelance writers, visiting town for two weeks to “see how Hollywood works.” They are both regular contributors to a Swedish magazine called Music and Audio Technology, and they said they had not yet decided whether they would try to write a story about King’s birthday party. It was delicately asked what, then, they were doing here.
“He’s like Number One in news, right?” Johansson said. “Yeah, isn’t he?” Ohman said.
“We more or less just walked by here earlier this afternoon,” Johansson said. “We presented ourselves at the front desk, and they said, ‘Why don’t you come by here later?’ ”
The first guests to trigger a flash of lights from the TV crews in the arrival area were newly former Governor Gray Davis and his wife, Sharon, who chatted for a while with Kaye Coleman, the waitress who serves King’s breakfast most mornings at Nate & Al’s. Shortly thereafter, producer George Schlatter wrapped Priscilla Presley in a bear hug and said, “We are gonna have that lunch! We are gonna have that lunch!”
Standing nearby were Jackie Collins, Barbara Sinatra and Michael Milken. Noting the surroundings and the cross around her neck, studded with what looked to be diamonds, a reporter was moved to ask whether Presley believed in purgatory. “That’s a strange question. I don’t know how to answer that. I honestly feel that, I mean I have my own beliefs, but — I definitely, definitely do. Yes.” She turned to her date and asked, “Do you believe in purgatory?” and he said no.
Barbara Eden, in a stop-sign red pantsuit with twinkly stars sewn on, said that she came to Larry King’s party “because I love him.”
Why do you love him?
“Because he’s a wonderful man.”
What’s wonderful about him?
“I think he’s a very good person.”
Don Rickles, looking dapper with a crimson pocket square in his navy blazer, was seated on an aqua leather chair. The Swede Pekka Johansson stood next to him, but was absorbed by the television sets, which continued to play Larry King Live in a loop, with the sound off, after the broadcast had ended.
King, who had been led to believe that he would be having a quiet dinner with his wife at the Peninsula Hotel, arrived at the surprise party and made his way upstairs, where Burt Bacharach was hanging out on the landing. ‰ A camera crew from 60 Minutes II rolled tape.
Just before he went onto the dance floor that had been erected under a tent outside, King reflected on his evening so far: “Tonight was a total wack-out. I was totally prepared to go for the hour with Regis. But then, Oprah and Cher and Madonna and Sharon Stone. I couldn’t believe it.” He continued a litany of names that scrambled the well-known and the unfamiliar: “Kaye from Nate and Al’s, my first producer, my best friend Herbie from Washington. Tim Robbins —”
“Tony Robbins,” his publicist corrected.
“— Tony Robbins — Ted Olson the solicitor general, Colin Powell. . .”
Johansson and Ohman approached King and said, with swooping inflection, “Congratulations from Sweden. You are our media hero.”
—Michael Joseph Gross