OK, I’m a geek.
I admit it: I know a lot about computers: I build them, I fix them, I experiment with them, I try lots of different software and hardware, not all of it absolutely necessary to my survival. OK, almost none of it really necessary. OK, none of it.
Two or three weekends a month in my town, we have a humongous computer swap meet, a tribal gathering of hundreds of fly-by-night vendors*, thousands of bargain hunters, pocket protector types, retired engineers, students, geeks and cool guys like me, all searching for that hard-to-find ISA SCSI adapter, that one magical piece of software that will change their lives, or maybe a brand new computer because they have had it with the old one crashing all the time.
This mob crowds into exhibit halls at the L. A. County Fairgrounds, which is in Pomona, California, as far away from Los Angeles as you can get and still be in Los Angeles County. Usually the “computer show,” as most people call it, occupies two high-ceilinged football-field size buildings at the fairgrounds, and despite the enormous space available the crowd is shoulder-to-shoulder within minutes after the gates open at 10 AM, and it stays that way until closing at 5 PM. The treasures for sale are previous-version software applications, OEM peripherals, beige-box computers, off-brand flatbed scanners, oddball cables and adapters, motherboards, sound cards, hard drives and all the individual components needed to build a PC from scratch. On a good day it is a chaotic bazaar, a sweaty, shouting, frustrating, pushing and shoving experience. Saturday was not a good day.
On that day I drove forty miles of bad road through a torrential downpour to get to the fairgrounds. My mission: Find a software firewall to protect my home network (I said I was a geek), and buy it cheap. My home is a fortress, digitally speaking, and I guard my network jealously. The old firewall was, well, old, therefore possibly breachable, and I had planned this trip for more than a week. Who knew the Storm of the Century would be going on? OK, the century is young, but still. I could have called it the Storm of the Millenium, so lighten up. When I parked the car, the rain had let up a little, and I hopped out and headed for the gate.
For some reason, this was the day the promoters of the event had decided to tighten up security, and I mean they tightened it up. 600 mild-mannered technophiles were standing in line in the rain, while two rent-a-cops checked everybody for weapons! They had an airport-style walk-through metal detector and metal-detecting wands! Almost everyone had to go through two or three times, because, you know, this wasn’t fucking LAX, and no one was expecting to be scrutinized. Shucks, we were just there to shop, not hijack the fairgrounds. It took almost a half-hour to get to the front of the line, during which time the storm kicked up again, drenching all of us. A somewhat overly friendly older man with a striped umbrella struck up a conversation with me, and edged close enough to shield me from the rain. I was feeling a little nervous about this attention, but any port in a storm. Five minutes after the rain died down I had to remind him that it was OK to close the umbrella, and get the hell away from me. Call me a tease, or an umbrella whore, if you must. After a while we noticed that there were three lines, and the other two were going much faster than ours. They were the lines for the Easyriders Bike Show and the LA Tatoo and Body Art Expo ’05, which were taking place concurrently with the computer show. We passed the time debating whether it would be OK to stand in the faster, shorter lines, since it appeared that everybody ended up in the same place once past the gates, but the signage was clear — Computer Fair Here — and being the law abiding computer nerds that we all were (except me, I’m not a nerd), we decided to stay put. I noticed that all the babes were in the other two lines, and had to ask myself again “Where did I go wrong?”
Finally at the metal detector I emptied my pockets into a little plastic basket and went through the gate, which sounded an alarm because of… my belt buckle, maybe? But no matter, because the rent-a-cops had found my pocket knife in the basket, a miniature Swiss Army knife with a 2-inch blade, used primarily for cleaning fingernails and opening mail. They got so excited about the knife that they forgot to use their wand on me to find out why the alarm had gone off. They escorted me to a girl seated at a folding table and told me I had to give the knife to her, but that I could have it back upon leaving the venue. Thanks guys.
The girl took my knife and my name, and placed the former in a little ziplock plastic bag and the latter on a list of names. She tossed the baggie containing my knife into a cardboard box on her table, wrote my number on a card and let me know that I would have to present the card to her (and picture ID, please) to get my knife back. I was number 34, and I could see in her box that almost all the other “checked” items were knives like mine, in identical baggies with small numbers on them.
The fairgrounds are big — 487 acres, to be exact, and I walked about two blocks (through the rain) to the first of two exhibit halls. My elderly protector with the umbrella was nowhere around, probably having been detained by the guards for carrying an umbrella. I was getting wet, and I was no longer packing my weapon, but looking around at the bikers and the body art people I was relieved to know that we were all similarly disarmed.
Once inside the actual computer show, and confident that terrorists weren’t about to hold us all hostage by threatening to beat us with umbrellas or clean our fingernails with little Swiss Army knockoffs, I made quick work of my mission. I got the new firewall and headed for the door, when I noticed a disturbing anomaly: One of the largest booths, surrounded by one of the largest crowds, was selling knives! Buck knives, gut hook knives, fillet knives, carving knives, “police” knives, hunting knives, daggers, non-reflective stealth tactictal knives, “assisted opening” knives as well as a wide selection of samurai-type swords and shorter blades. Outside, the guards were confiscating knives. Inside, the vendors were doing their best to replace them. I had to leave my 2-inch blade at the door, but I could walk out with a fully functional switch-blade if I wanted to.
I didn’t want to, though. I still had to get back to my home network with my new firewall, and it was raining harder every minute. So I beat feet back to the main gate, stopping to get my pathetic little pocket knife. By this time the girl had figured out that, while it was pretty easy to officiously confiscate and toss peoples’ stuff into a box, it was a little bit more demanding to retrieve said stuff and return it. She was frazzled from pawing through her box of identical-looking knives in baggies with tiny little numbers on them. It took way longer to find my knife than it had to toss it in the box, and while she was looking more people were pushing their numbered cards at her and asking for their stuff back. One guy suggested that we be allowed to look for our own stuff, but she didn’t like that idea, so we just had to wait. This part of the stupidity was totally her fault, but she was too innocent to harrass, and I was a little peeved at the guy who informed her about the brisk knife and sword sale that was going on inside and repeatedly asked “Are you aware of that?” as if she should do something about it, and pronto.
I don’t know why you’d set up a knife booth at a computer show. Maybe somebody misunderstood what the term “hacking” means. Or maybe somebody thinks that computer geeks need weapons, or want them. From the look of things on Saturday, they might be right. I also don’t understand why you’d want to frisk people who only want to shop — I thought the President said we had to shop, or the terrorists would win. If the terrorists’ goal was to cripple our country by making us all stupid, it looks like they are on to something out in Pomona.
In the meantime the real security is at my house, on my network. Just try to hack me.
*To be fair, the vendors at computer shows are honest and hard-working. I just wanted to use the phrase “fly-by-night.”