Originally Published: Monday, 27 November 2000 Author:
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux Vegas: Fear and Loafing at COMDEX 2000

Michelle Klein-Häss and her husband Richie hit the road in search of Linux at COMDEX 2000. From the Mojave Desert to the Linux Business Expo to the Fremont Street Experience, Michelle and her faithful companion cover the best (and worst) of their geeky adventure in the glistening city of Las Vegas.

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Well. Where shall I begin?

I live in the Los Angeles area, and this is the first time I've ever been to Vegas. I had heard stories about the place, and of course read Hunter S. Thompson's magnum opus on the place, "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas." But this was my first time there.

It was me and my Significant Other Richie in a rented white Hyundai riding across the Mojave Desert to our destination. It was very easy to tell where California left off and the Great State of Nevada began... the lights of Primm, a cluster of hotels and casinos masquerading as a town marked the transition.

"Crap! We're being abducted!" shouted Richie. "Those damn lights! I'm blind!"

He swerved a little but then regained control of the Kimchee-burning import car. There was a preternaturally bright Jumbotron sign that we had to physically avoid looking at. "What point is a sign if it's physically painful to look at?" asked Richie as we put the sudden burst of light known as Primm behind us. I had to admit he had a point.

Primm was nothing compared to Vegas...it looked like we had entered a huge pinball machine. Our goal was not the Strip, but the older, seedier Downtown district. Raoul had booked us a room at Fitzgerald's Holiday Inn Hotel and Casino, right on Fremont Street, flanked by a bunch of other elderly hotels and casinos that had seen better days when the Rat Pack ruled the town.

When we got there, we saw several people, heavily weighted down with swag bags emblazoned with computer manufacturer logos on them. They were all checking out. Some had the hangdog look of someone who had lost their ass at the casinos, some just looked shell-shocked from days of wandering from booth to booth at the world's largest computer convention.

"So, how was Comdex? I just got here." I asked the person in front of me in line.

"Big...really big..." said this one guy who looked like an iguana. "You can't do the whole show in a day. Impossible. You'll have to narrow your focus."

"I'm here for the Linux." I replied.

"There's plenty." he said. "Linux Business Expo. Sands Convention Center. Takes up half the floor there. Have fun. I'm an MCSE myself and I never touch the stuff. Bill Gates is my shepherd, I shall not want..."

The weird iguana guy trailed off, murmuring about Bill Gates. Whatever, man.

We were surrounded on all sides by slot machines and little blue-haired old ladies playing them. There was some sort of "slots tournament" going on there that week, and most of the little blue-haired old ladies had Fitzgerald's t-shirts on. The concept of a slot machine tournament boggled the mind. Slot machines were straight games of chance...pure random number generators. No skill required. Poker? That requires skill and ability. Blackjack? That still requires some skill and ability, although with several decks of cards the skill factor was seriously diminished.

The slot machines were also extremely noisy and had lights on almost every exposed surface. One was sensory overload enough, but a whole room of them beeping and playing merry tunes at Korn concert volume was scary. I had just walked into that Twilight Zone episode where the slots were calling that guy's name, only I wasn't attracted by them. I was repulsed.

"Sleep. Now." I muttered. I knew that I would need a lot of it for the next day.

Well, nope, didn't get much sleep at all. A hotel bed always feels strange, particularly when you are used to sleeping traditional Japanese style on a futon on the floor. Still, I dragged myself out of bed and to the breakfast buffet, dodging blue-haired old ladies with buckets of quarters and those "Slot Tournament" t-shirts and trying to ignore the constant din.

"As your attorney, I advise you to try the fruit cup." said Richie as he came back from the buffet.

"You are not my attorney." I grumbled at him.

"I know, but I had to say that. I've been waiting to say that for years." he replied, sheepishly. It suddenly dawned on my sleep-deprived brain that it was another "Fear And Loathing" reference. I smiled and grabbed my tray.

By 10am we finally got to the Sands Convention Center. The Sands Hotel was long gone...casualty of the building binge that had consumed the Strip since the mid 1980s and continued to this day. Where the Sands had once stood, dominion of the Rat Pack, palace of the real king of Vegas, Frank Sinatra, was now the Venetian Hotel in all its conspicuously consumptive glory. Somehow or another the name of the convention center hadn't changed.

The registration area was silent as a tomb. I found the booth where we were to pick up our badgeholders, and there was literally nobody there. Would we enter an empty convention hall? Were we too late?

Nope! The first thing we were greeted by as we ascended the stairs to the convention hall was the very elaborate and well-equipped Network Operations Center that had been put together by EDS for the whole show. It looked like the points of presence I remembered one of my previous employers running, only crammed into a little area ringed around with plate glass. The NOC was there to provide Internet connectivity and a Metropolitan Area Network for the whole show. Impressive.

Certainly much of the more famous names exhibiting at Comdex were not there...they were about a mile away at the Las Vegas Convention Center. But my main quarry was there. I walked through exhibits from most of the Taiwanese motherboard manufacturers, surprisingly not ASUS, however, and many other makers of computer parts and miscellaneous tchotchkes. There were even the ubiquitous Razor scooters and their clones being sold there. The overall effect was not unlike going to a computer swap meet...in fact, I recognized a couple of vendors who frequent computer shows I go to on a regular basis.

However, things changed when I got into the Linux Business Expo. I was in awe of the fact that there were so many people exhibiting there, and so many people were there checking out the exhibits. I have seen trade shows that were smaller than that show-within-a-show! It even impressed my non-techie, non-Linux user Significant Other.

Conspicuous in their absence, however, was Linux-Mandrake. Red Hat was there, SuSE was there, Caldera was there, Stormix was there, Slackware and FreeBSD was there, even newcomer EasyLinux. But where was Mandrake? Could they have been there but left before the end of the convention like a lot of the exhibitors? Maybe.

Corel was present and talking really defiantly about their commitment to Linux, making the news of their current intent to sell their Linux unit even more perplexing. I actually asked someone on the floor "So, with this Microsoft deal you aren't going to give up on Linux, right?" The answer was immediate and confident..."Hell no!" The guy spoke of future plans, of a new version of Corel Linux based on Debian's "Potato" release but with the brand new Kernel 2.4 on the way. But that apparently isn't to be now.

The big winner of the Penguin Playoffs at Linux Business Expo was Pocket Linux, a special distribution for handhelds. Not only did it impress the judges at Linux Journal, it impressed the hell out of me too. Pocket Linux was shown not only working on pricey Compaq iPaqs and Casio Cassiopeas, but on the very econo VTech Helio. According to Pocket Linux's website, Pocket Linux is not ready for prime time but will be in a couple of months. However, the Helio I saw looked pretty damn good and worked well. It looks strikingly like a Visor but is $100 cheaper when compared to a similarly equipped Visor: the Helio is $149 at Outpost.Com, where the Visor Deluxe is $249 most places, and both have 8MB of RAM. Pocket Linux is built around a Java compatible engine called Kaffe that will run most Java applets, and all configuration files in Pocket Linux are written in XML. Frankly, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around what all that implies. All I know is what I saw working was very Palm-like and it was running on Linux. And I also know I have fallen in techno-lust with the thing. If I wasn't so damn broke I'd buy one today and use their proprietary OS until Pocket Linux was fully ready.

Also winning the Penguin Playoffs: Workspot, Caldera eBuilder E-Commerce server, SuSE 7.0 Professional, Penguin Computing workstations, Red Hat Source Navigator and Hard Hat by Monte Vista.

Of course, the most important thing at a convention like this is not finding out about new technology or networking... it's the never-ending quest for swag. Some people went to great lengths to obtain swag, including myself... a company called Chilliware were giving away t-shirts, but only if you allowed one of the exhibit girls to give you a temporary tattoo on the face. This turned out to be a high price indeed... to paraphrase a catch term from the "Daria" episode "The Daria Hunter"... those temporary tattoo thingies hurt, Especially when you are trying to wash them off. It's like trying to remove a bandaid. The best bit of swag I got was from some nice guys at Walnut Creek CD-ROM... not one, but two copies of the full version of Slackware 7.1... one for me and one for the LUG I belong to, Simi-Conejo LUG. Least enjoyable swag, as always, was the many brochures shoved in my face whether I wanted them or not.

After spending the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon hanging out at the Sands Convention Center, we ditched our convention badges and basically were tourists for the rest of the time. We waited until nightfall and cruised the Strip, then got back to the Downtown area for "The Fremont Street Experience." Imagine a Jumbotron screen three city blocks long and curved concave to create a lighted canopy over Fremont Street, and you get the idea. The big video screen is illuminated every hour on the hour with corny little CGI animations that move to the beat of whatever music they inflict on us...actually the Motown salute show I saw had some cool tunes, but the animations looked like something a newbie would do in a 3D program...very crude, very artless.

Crude and artless kind of sums up Vegas, to be perfectly honest. The Strip is an endless Disneyland theme ride... all it needs is a chorus line of showgirls singing "It's A Small World After All." The theme hotels, be they attempting to clone Venice, Italy, Monte Carlo, New York City, Paris, Morocco, or wherever, all look like Disney Imagineering designed and built them. There is no sense of history whatsoever... the El Rancho, one of the first hotels on the Strip, had been imploded months ago and was reduced to piles of pulverized concrete and twisted rebar. The Desert Inn, another old standby, was closed and will probably be publically imploded very soon, quite likely as part of the New Year's Eve celebration this year. This is speculation on my part, of course, but that very thing has happened in the past.

To contrast, Downtown is sleazy and slimy and reeks of the desparation of gamblers looking for the big score, but it also seems a lot more real and a lot closer to the Vegas pictured in "Bugsy" and "Ocean's Eleven" and "Casino." There is even a hotel there that dates back to 1906, although not in its original form. Imagine someone letting a hotel from 1906 survive on the Strip? I don't think so. I don't even think the oldest surviving casino on the Strip was up before 1966, much less 1906. They say Angelenos have no sense of history, but Vegas openly quotes Henry Ford and declares that history is bunk.

Richie and I left very early Saturday morning. If we had stayed any longer we probably would see bats and flying electric snakes, for sure. We weren't there to gamble or drink heavily, and we certainly weren't the kind of high-rollers the casinos were all trolling for. There really aren't any places for geeks in Vegas, aside from people-watching, observing the worst aspects of the human psyche.

That is, unless Comdex is in town.

Michelle Klein-Häss is a Linux Enthusiast, Web Diva and founder of MsGeek.org.





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