Ihnatko at Expo: Andy Arrives!

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Well, the Macworld Expo Curse seems to be in full effect. This is the localized quantum phenomenon which ensures that somehow, when I board that plane for San Francisco, the newspaper tucked under my arm will demonstrate Nature or Society's tendency to make everything go all random on us. It was January Expo when an out-of-season blizzard paralyzed the Northeast; it was January Expo when one Olympic figure skater had another skater's knee bashed in, a master plan as subtle and successful as your average Scooby-Doo villain's; this is also the time of year when Grateful Dead band members drop dead.

And so it was that I found myself in transit to another Macworld Expo on the very day that the world's most successful and beloved cartoonist drew nearly fifty year's worth of "Peanuts" to its conclusion. And thanks to the vagaries of connecting flights, on that exact day I travelled from my hometown to Charles Schulz' hometown and finally to the town where he spent the rest of his life.

It's just a reminder that if there is indeed a higher power at work,well, sometimes he she or it can't find anything good on TV and just like us is forced to go to extreme lengths to find alternate forms of amusement.

The other unusual aspect of this January outing is that for the first time in ten years, I depart Boston not at the unholy hour or 6 or 7 AM but at 1:40 PM. It's scary and disorienting to be so rested and of such sound mind while making this trip. Normally, the importance of being awake in time to get my ride to the airport outweighs the value of getting a whopping 90 minutes of sleep, so flying to San Francisco means staying up all night and boarding the plane in that sort of hit-in-the-head goofy trance that leaves you in the proper frame of mind to experience a week at a Macintosh trade show. It also deposits you in San Francisco early enough in the afternoon that you can spend the day loading in needed supplies (two cases of Coke for the hotel room minifridge; bottled water and PowerBars for the week's labors on the show floor; replacements for the Walkman headphones which are destroyed during the flight with the same sense of ritual as the ceremonial glass at the end of a Jewish wedding, etc.) But this time, I'm not in The City until 8:30 or so, which means it's time for a judgement call: should I race around to unpack and get settled so I can see Fantasia 2000 to night at the Sony Metreon down the street, or should I just relax, dammit, and enjoy the few hours of peace I'm going to get before Expo begins?

Before I can really decide, the phone rings and it's Deb Shadovitz, fellow MacCentral columnist and one of the uniformly-agreed-upon Mary Tyler Moores of Macworld Expos. Before I really have begun to enjoy being off my feet and out of my stinky travel clothes, she's been invited to my room to share some of the pizza I've ordered to supplement the Tainted Poultry Jubilee I had on the plane, and a half an hour after that,having determined that her friend has planned to see F2K, I'm committed to going.

Well, that can't be a bad decision. I've watched the Metreon -- Sony's megahypersuper media consumer palace -- shrug its slow way from foundation through steel framework over the past few years, and knew I was gonna have to check it out. As an Old San Francisco Hand who made his first visit as The City was still cleaning up the rubble from the 1989 quake, it gives me a smug sense of satisfaction to be able to recollect the Old Days when movie goers here had to visit as many as three theaters to be able to choose from thirty different films.

The fact that it also presented me with my sole opportunity to see an IMAX presentation of "Fantasia 2000" sort of sealed it.

My impressions of the flick should probably wait for later. Suffice to say that the cable system here at the She raton Palace doesn't have HBO and yet I probably would have been better entertained by watching "Smokey and the Bandit" on TNT. It's not the movie itself so much as the fact that IMAX just isn't the way to present the thing. The flick was designed for a standard movie theater (or a TV screen), which means that on IMAX, trying to see all of bits necessary to follow what's going on will undo all of the positive effects of a year's worth of chiropractic visits, and that on top of everything else, the detail of that huge image means that every curved line is broken down into jaggy pixels and in the case of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the sole number recycled from the original sixty-year-old "Fantasia," the image is so grotesquely grainy that Mickeys at times looks like a swarm of bees wearing color-coordinated sweaters. Yecch.

Tuesday, 7:45 AM. Along with my PowerBook and a copy of the latest Babylon 5 novel, I've brought with me the last gasps of the bout of influenza that kept me in bed on New Year's Eve. It no longer has veto power on my agenda, but this morning it makes a convincing case that staying in bed another half hour drinking fluids would be a wiser course of action than making an 8 AM social date to breakfast with some MacCentral people. My first obligation of the week is to speak at the Kickoff, and I don't have to be there for another hour yet.

50 minutes later, I've assumed my normal Expo costume and begun the trek to the Moscone Convention Center. The Kickoff is one of the newish additions to Expo brought by Paul Kent, the guy who organizes the show's seminars and presentations. In some ways it's like an orientation session for the week of Expo, covering the highlights of what'll be going on. In other ways it's like the frenzied bonfire rally before the big Home coming game. The program's half-dozen or so speakers each getten to twenty minutes to speak on more or less any subject. I'm fairly sure that something will hit me during the ten-minute walk from the hotel.

If all else fails, I'll make an opening remark and then collapse into a coughing fit and get helped off the stage. As I walk into the convention center, I know the specifics of what I'll be saying but the bit about collapsing into a coughing fit starts to seem less and less like a voluntary thing as I go along. Thank Heavens I brought that handkerchief with me, though as I stick it into my back pocket I wonder if the legendary "Hankie Code" is still in effect in San Francisco these days.If so, a red bandana sticking out of my left-back pocket might cause me to propositioned by some guy dressed in rubber and wearing a chicken puppet.

David Pogue, Macworld's back-page columnist, gets the honor of the leadoff position on the roster. I have specifically remembered to have a dollar bill in a convenient pocket in anticipation of his usual theme,which is to play a Mac-themed song parody on his Casio keyboard. My annual tradition of approaching him as he's setting up his gear and drunkenly jamming a dollar into his shirt while asking him to play "Evergreen" for my wife amuses no one but myself, but tradition is tradition.

Alas, he has jettisoned his keyboard in favor of some Mac-themed magic tricks this year (David is also the author of "Magic For Dummies," which in my humble opinion is one of the better introductory magic books available). No doubt aided by Steve Jobs' reality-distortion field, he does a version of the cut-and-restored rope trick that illustrates Apple's transition from the doormat of the Industry to the public's (and stock market's) golden boy once again. This is preceded by a delightfully snarky reading of news clippings from a few years back which arrogantly announced with finality that Apple would shortly be out of business. All I know is that I'm glad I jettisoned my first idea for my presentation, which was to have used the needle-through-the-arm trick as an allegory for Mac users.

Digital music and digital video seem to be ready to become the themes of this year's Expo, as reps of those fields took to the podium and eagerly outlined some of the showcase items on the conference schedule. I normally give most of the seminars a miss, myself (too many business meetings and other stuff crowding my schedule) but they made the how-tos of Final Cut and demonstrations of live performance driven entirely by PowerBooks interesting enough that I might try to swing by.

Bob "Dr. Macintosh" LeVitus took the stage to poll the audience -- this year found a hell of a lot more Mac users who use DSL to access the 'net, but a lot fewer "new" Mac users -- and present Apple with his biannual report card. When trying to evaluate Steve Jobs' performance,the only question is how many pluses to put after the "A"; when evaluating Apple's service and documentation, it only comes down to whether we give 'em a D- or force them to repeat the course again next semester.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting in the front row, watching four or five people before me do their schtick. I'm last on the menu, which I suppose is good and bad. It's good in that you can see what everyone else is doing. If they responded to Pogue's magic trick with angry silence, I suppose I would have felt some pressure to jettison my plans to make balloon animals (joke) and switch to something more practical. You also get extra time to revise and edit your remarks. You also, however, get to talk to an audience that's been sitting on those plastic chairs for nearly ninety minutes now, which means that as a simple humanitarian thing you feel that you should just let this nice people go home already.

I am introduced and so I grab my satchel and the few props there in,take the stage, open my Newton 2100 (which contains the revised outline of my talk) and go to it, winding it up in a cozy fifteen to twenty minutes. Whenever I give talks, ranging from little bagatelles like this to keynote addresses to three-hour presentations, I don't like to describe things as having gone well or poorly. Speaking up there in front of hundreds and hundreds of strangers, my mind is too occupied to say with confidence whether or not the person in Row 33, Seat F felt they got their money's worth. At the end, all I can say to myself is whether or not what I said Went Over Well or not -- quality of my remarks notwithstanding -- and it seemed to go over well. No one threw anything at my head directly (there was one drinking glass, but it was an inadvertent carom shot off the podium) and afterward there was as mall crowd around me asking questions. Which always gives me the pleasant impression that I didn't waste their time. I'm no great sage or philosopher, but it gives a certain satisfaction to think that I raised some points that merited further thought and discussion.

My main point was that while two years ago I urged us to take back our dignity and last year demanded that we reclaim our arrogance, this year I thought that it was time for Macintosh to pick up some sense of our former recklessness. These iMacs and iBooks and PowerBook G3's are all wonderful, but I'm eager to see Apple come out with something new and unfamiliar and ground breaking once again.

My cold is tapping its wristwatch and reminding me that I'm scheduled to be passed out in my bed in an hour, so if I want to get those supplies I'd better hop to it. Along the way I stop at a bakery and pick up as and wich and a slice of lemon merengue pie to take home for lunch, and after visiting a Merrill's store two blocks from the hotel and adding a boatload of cold-and-flu remedies to the list, I return to my room. I eat the sandwich, suddenly remember a story Roger Ebert tells of getting a violent case of food poisoning from a gas-station cream-filled donut,and so determine that a dessert topped with egg whites is a bigger temptation than Karma might be able to overlook and so I dump it in the trash. After dosing myself with cough syrup I am in bed and asleep.

I wake up to the strains of Biography's profile of Don Knotts, which is a good enough way to re-enter the world.Fortunately, I have an hour until I need to be at the Museum of Modern Art for the Eddy Awards and its pre-show reception. Unlike last Expo, I have come prepared and bought a wool blazer at a salvage store, so I won't need to hit up hotel security for the Proper Business Attire demanded on the invite.

If I were writing a thriller about Macworld Expo, this is just the sort of scene I'd use to kick off the week. The Eddy is the Mac industry's one really big and impressive award, which means that the reception and presentation attracts just about everyone associates with every serious(and less-so) company on the Macintosh radar. People come to Expo with one of a litany of different agendas, and as a writer, the biggest item on my list is Information. And this scene is like that bit during the James Bond movie where 007 is at the Ambassador's formal dinner and gets to chat with the head of the Soviet secret service, the general controlling the missiles, the Politburo member his power is reliant on,and the general's 19-year-old daughter with the pouty lips.

It's a time to mix and mingle. It's wonderful to hook up with friends you only physically see twice a year, but it's also a place where the simple question "So, what're you up to?" can result in the mostastounding answers. I now know of something absolutely incredible that will be happening in 2001, I know of a secret meeting between Famous Individual A and Pivotal Company B which could have some frisky consequences (and was evidently a hot enough revelation that twice during the remainder of the evening I was sought out and nervously told that if I value Individual C's job at Company B, I'd keep a lid on it),and an offhanded and completely innocuous remark I overheard seems to make a few ransom puzzle pieces snap together all of a sudden.

And they had these, like, miniature grilled-cheese sandwiches which were really tasty.

The Eddys were hosted by Star Trek actor John"Q" de Lancie, one of the Mac faithful. "This is the greatest awards show I've ever seen!" he marveled, as he whipped through the table of award statues. "Everyone says two sentences and that's it! We can be home in twenty minutes!"

The biggest buzz among the awards was for QuickTime 4 and for MP3. Hmm.Another check mark next to the idea that audio and video are going to be the big points of this year's show.

John "I'm Not 'Q', Really" de Lancie hung around for the post-awards drinks and desserts. I wished I was one of the presenters, just so I could tell him "Well, I know you've said 'I'm not really 'Q'' like three times tonight, but if you don't mind I'm going to just pretend that this whole thing is just another one of your little games, all right?"

I'm not a terribly big fan of Trek, but it seems like de Lancie was in all of the episodes that I liked. So I felt little shame in seeking out an opportunity to get a picture with the guy.

And just so I could play up the "No, no, it's not like I just wanted a photo of me with a Star Trek star" angle, I made sure my jacket was opened wide enough that my Babylon 5 Ranger badge was plainly visible.

Walk back to the hotel with Macworld pals. Return to room desperately in need of orange juice and over-the-counter medications. Both of these await me there, but there's also a pile of new email to be answered.

And a daily Expo report to be written.

I nap for an hour. My last thought before drifting into the dream of being back in high school during Final Exam time is that Tuesday seems to be awfully early in the week of Expo to be so dead-tired.

This is the first of three reports beloved Mac personality Andy Ihnatko will be filing from Macworld Expo for Macworld.com.

Go to: Macworld Expo Central
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