Tradeshow Culture, Part 2: The Silent Street

The busy street out front
The busy street out front

There’s a new trend at trade shows, and it really creeps me out. I call it The Silent Street: a long stretch of pre-fabricated meeting rooms, parallel to the main aisle of booths. It’s just like the back alley: so close in space to the fancy street out front, but so far in look and feel.

The pre-fab meeting room has become a popular trade show booth option. The really big vendors will often incorporate a meeting room into the main booth structure, but smaller booths can rent a pre-fab: all you have to do is walk around the corner to the Silent Street to use it. The rooms are roofless, carpeted not just wall-to-wall but also floor-to-ceiling, and have only one tiny window on the locked door. The carpeted wall panels muffle the hubbub from the main aisle so that you feel much farther away from the action than you really are.

The silent street, just a few yards away
The silent street, just a few yards away

No one walks down the Silent Street except to go into a meeting room, so it’s both quiet and deserted. Obviously the rooms are useful—for some even necessary—but the marketing department must hate them: you’re taking customers away from the carefully crafted buzz of a show floor and walking them into a quiet, undecorated locked room.

To me, the Street was  strange enough that I remembered a passage from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, where astronauts explore an alien spaceship and walk through silent “cities” consisting of featureless cubical buildings.

Where the Girls Aren’t

Hi-tech has always been male-dominated. It is no longer Caucasian-dominated, I’m happy to say: I work with people from all sorts of ethnic persuasions. But there are still far too few women in the field. I just returned from a business trip where my ten customer meetings included a total of just two women. For many years I was a Unix systems administrator, and I regularly attended the Usenix LISA conference. Over a twenty-year span, the number of women attendees slowly grew from a tiny fraction to about 10%, but of course it should be 50%.

Today the San Francisco Chronicle ran this article about Black Girls Code, a San Francisco non-profit. Founder Kimberly Bryant writes:

By launching Black Girls Code, I hope to provide young and pre-teen girls of color opportunities to learn in-demand skills to at a time when they are naturally thinking about what they want to be when they grow up. That, really, is the Black Girls Code mission: to introduce programming and technology to a new generation of coders, coders who will become builders of technological innovation and of their own futures.

Bryant was a community college EE student, but had no role models: she was one of few women, and often the only person of color in the room. Her own daughter Kai grew up a heavy-duty gamer, but Bryant wanted her to learn workplace skills as well. And so she started Black Girls Code. She received a grant from Google and has mentored over 300 girls to date.

Much has been written about why so few women, and particularly minority women, pursue careers in math, science and engineering. I agree with those who believe it stems from both implicit and explicit social pressures that steer women into “traditional” women’s fields, or away from a career altogether. This can change if enough of us work to make it so. As Bryant says, “Imagine the impact that these curious, creative minds could have on the world with the guidance and encouragement others take for granted.”


The little program that foreshadowed the Web

On 10 August 1987—twenty-five years ago yesterday—Apple Computer unveiled a revolutionary new program called HyperCard. Tonight the Hillside Club in Berkeley hosted a 25th anniversary celebration of HyperCard, with BMUG co-founder Raines Cohen interviewing Bill Atkinson with a large crowd of grizzled computer geeks in attendance.

Soon after HyperCard’s Boston debut, developer Bill Atkinson demonstrated his new program to the Berkeley Macintosh User’s Group. At its peak, BMUG was the largest user group in the country with over 13,000 members, and gave away book-sized “newsletters” each year stuffed with free software. I was in the BMUG audience that night, inside the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall (now Pimentel Hall) on the UC Berkeley campus—the same cavernous room where I had taken chemistry from Dr George Pimentel a decade before. The image that sticks in my head was Bill displaying a picture of a fish and clicking on the fish’s eye, which immediately jumped to other eyes on other pictures.

Atkinson was already famous among Macintosh afficionados, as he had written both QuickDraw and MacPaint for the original Apple Macintosh in 1983. One might say that HyperCard version zero of the World Wide Web: a program whose raison d’etre was creating links between various elements in a database. Tim Berners-Lee drew upon this concept when he invented HTTP, and computing has never looked back.

My personal favorite stepchild of HyperCard was the game Myst. I’m not a gamer, but I was captivated by the evocative landscapes, steampunk and spaceships, all with a fantastic soundtrack. Atkinson’s own favorite stepchild was his iOS app PhotoCard, an attempt to save the postcard from extinction by offering a postcard delivery service. Bill is a talented nature photographer and edits many of PhotoCard’s images himself.

And the winner of the gold medal is: Curiosity!

While my wife Arlene is in the other room watching the Summer Olympic Games in London, I just finished watching NASA TV’s live coverage of the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars. After years of engineering work, then an eight-month flight to Mars, all the hard work came down to a seven-minute landing sequence where the entire team can only watch helplessly as their work either succeeds brilliantly or fails miserably.

The parallels to an Olympic athlete are striking: years of sacrifice and hard work towards a precisely-defined goal, with one final performance when it really counts. If you succeed, a medal is hung around your neck; if you fail, you must find consolation and fulfillment in the journey itself.

The engineers at JPL know all too well the Olympic parallel: I just heard NASA Deputy Administrator Laurie Barber refer to swimmer Michael Phelps as “not the only one to hold his breath the whole time.”

What a fantastic day for JPL, NASA, and planetary science.

Aug 7
Today Adam Frank wrote this excellent piece for about how seemingly impossible tasks can be solved, as long as we all work together solve them.

Aug 9
Watching the live stream from JPL was completely engrossing, and the ongoing data we are getting (full color photos! GAH!) is just astounding.  David is right…the parallels with Olympic sport are uncanny.  One other similarity is the months and years spent in training (development for the scientists) that no one sees or cares about until the event happens.  Even then, that training is merely a footnote. We, the general populace, have no idea what that is like.  It’s more than just a job; more than a career. It’s truly a lifestyle, something that is completely consuming for the athlete (or scientist). And something I have a hard time really grasping, but I do my best to appreciate the commitment.

The double-edged sword

Here are some recent headlines about Twitter, culled from the technology site slashdot:

What strikes me most about this collection of stories is how difficult it is to run a journalistic enterprise. Twitter, like any company, is fundamentally in the business of making money for its employees and stockholders, but I’m sure the Twitter brain trust believe they have a somewhat higher calling. Twitter is justifiably proud of its role in the Arab Spring and other revolts against oppression, but the dividing line is often a blurry and uncertain one. Do you let Thailand censor tweets in exchange for allowing the Thai people to use Twitter? Do you give a user’s tweets—all of them—to the US government just because it asks for them? After all, the courts have ruled that Twitter users have no expectation of privacy, thus there is nothing to keep secret. Not all questions have a right or wrong answer.

Twenty-three centuries ago, Ecclesiastes wrote “There is nothing new under the sun” and “There is a time for war, and a time for peace.” If Ecclesiastes were alive today, he’d probably nod and say it again. The technology has changed, but the human condition has not. The challenge is how we use our double-edged technology.

Au revoir, Minitel

On Saturday, France will turn off Minitel. Unknown to most Americans, Minitel was ubiquitous in France. Launched in 1982 and based on Videotex, Minitel was end-user information system provided to almost every home and business in the country. From its beginning, Minitel users could send email, buy merchandise, make train reservations, trade stocks, search the white pages: in short, do everything that people use the Internet for today. The article quotes Valerie Schafer, co-author of a book on Minitel: “People forget that many of the ideas that helped form the internet were first of all tried out on Minitel. Think of the payment system, not so different from the Apple app-store. Think of the forums, the user-generated content. Many of today’s web entrepreneurs and thinkers cut their teeth on Minitel. The world did not begin with the internet.”

I first saw Minitel in 1991 while visiting a friend in Paris; she showed us all the things it could do. I remember exclaiming “You’ve had this for ten years already, and there’s one in every home in France?” Back in America, .edu domains still outnumbered .com, and home computers still used modems to dial into bulletin board systems. And what was on those BBSs? Mostly chat rooms, email and Usenet. We certainly couldn’t trade stocks or make plane reservations. Minitel was way ahead of its time.

But is it education?

An interview with Bill Gates made headlines yesterday because he said that tablet computers in the classroom aren’t the solution: “Just giving people devices has a really horrible track record.” It’s a good read, although I confess my first reaction to the article was “Good grief, Bill Gates is looking OLD”. The comment feed on slashdot, where I first read about this, ran predictably along Gates-Jobs lines; we can wade into that swamp later.

And of course giving people devices isn’t the answer. The answer is education. Good teachers, paid well. More emphasis on science and math, way way less emphasis on standardized tests. In the 1960s the space race galvanized this country to excel in science, but that war is over and we have lost to China. Time to wake up and smell the reality, folks.

I really identified with the analysis of completion rates. University rankings have typically focused on whether or not the best and brightest attend, not on how well they do once they have students in place. In every society there will be over-achievers and really bright stars that succeed wildly regardless of what system they have to run through (or step outside, as in the case of Gates and Jobs). A more practical measurement is: What are we doing with everyone else? My evidence is anecdotal, but I see many college systems that create professional students, not educated and enabled adults; and I think the way we teach math and science in high school is the reason that we are so far behind in those fields. We make it a joyless slog…who wants to do that? And the culture of school is no help either. The closest analog we have to American high school is the American prison system. Sad state of affairs.

I think it’s funny that they decided to highlight device technology in their headline. Clearly, Bill falls into our camp: tablets are content consumption devices, PC’s are content creation devices. And that’s not the biggest part of it, as you so eloquently put, David.

By the way…reality smells like raspberries.