Running with the infovis geeks

This afternoon the geeks and the grad students who drove the IEEE InfoVIS (information visualization) conference with their clever but mostly useless inventions swarmed into the hotel lobby for some reason that only their well-wired brains understand. They are a different crowd from the one I’ve seen lately.

This year I’ve only been to business intelligence conferences. That bunch is mostly from business but also has many from the technical end of the house, IT. Compared with the geeks, most of them are boring. They talk about “goals and objectives,” they tell the same stories, and they wear the same clothes, by which I can tell they also have more money.

The geeks are more fun. I’m sure they too speak in jargon, but it’s none I recognize. They dress the way I used to and would all the time if I weren’t afraid I’d be judged “unprofessional”—more jargon—by potential clients and sources. That is, blue jeans, running shoes, and plain cotton shirts.

What distinguishes them, though, is their lively air. Also, their accents. They seem to be from Belgium, France, Turkey, Germany, China and other places.

Their English isn’t always so good. I talked to one guy from Germany who actually seemed to know English well until I asked him what use his 3D modeling software might have. I tried the question several different ways, but he just couldn’t understand.

Of course, they’re mostly younger than the business people I’m used to. A chart of the age data would have a bulge in the 20-40 range. After 50, many fewer. Or maybe I should say that such a chart would not represent chronological age but emotional or behavioral age. As on other college campuses I’ve observed, many men in their 50s speak with the bubbly enthusiasm of those in their 20s.

I don’t think I appear too conventional despite a few concessions, and inside I feel like a 30-year-old. So I wondered why I found it so hard to strike up conversations.

It wasn’t just that I knew exactly one person there before I arrived. I’d faced that before and usually ended up having chatted with half a dozen people.

Finally, on the last night, I found comfort. I had just joined a long line for the dinner buffet when a slinky young woman with a generous neckline glided up beside me and said, “Long line, huh?” The programmers in the crowd could only hope to write code as sleek as she was. She was bright and interesting, too.

After two glasses of wine, she mentioned that not one of those geeks had seemed to notice her over the conference’s two days. Such dedication! Those guys may not yet understand what use their work may have, but with this kind of geeky concentration I’m sure they’ll figure out how to sell infovis to the safe, boring old business people.

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