"He and Miguel climbed down into the pit and set their birds down on the
short lines so that they faced each other. They held them by the tails and
waited for Earle to give the signal to let go.
"'Pit them,' he ordered." --Nathaniel West, Day of the Locust
I don't know what I was expecting. Probably something resembling Nathaniel West's dark and ghoulish description of cockfighting in
the California scrub country in "Day of the Locust." Grown men doing
violence to each other by proxy, this time with homemade animals of
plastic, aluminum, and steel, wielding sharpened pneumatic hammers and
screaming spiked flails.
I was supposed to be writing an article on the Worldwide Apple Developers
Conference. It had all gone wrong from the start, a doomed
cross-current of misconstrued email and eerie legal threats. It was clear
that Fate had no intention of putting me anywhere near the smiley plastic
Applefest in San Jose, but that still didn't explain what the hell I was
doing in the middle of San Francisco Bay, watching robots fight.
It started innocently enough. Robin Miller asked me if I'd like to buzz
down to San Jose and check out the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference,
an annual shindig where Jobs and Co. spread the gospel to all the Apple
faithful, and introduce them to that year's new crop of APIs or standards
or "experiences" or whatever it is they're pushing. OSDN was supposed to
be a special guest this year, with the advent of the BSD-based OS X, a new
age of openness and software freedom was purportedly spreading from
Apple's Cupertino headquarters.
This new spirit of freedom was first communicated to me via email
forwarded from some Apple minion, which read, in part, "Keep in mind that
the person attending MUST sign up with the Apple Developer Connection in
order to get the ticket. This means that they will have to go online and
agree to the nondisclosure agreement contained in our terms and conditions
I went to the Developers Connection sign up page, and read the NDA that
such special effort was made to draw my attention to. It said, in standard
vague legalese, that any information about Apple or any of its products
received by a "Registered Developer" may or may not be top-secret, and
that no information was to be repeated to anyone, ever, lest this be the
case. To be fair, they did specifically exempt information about open
source software they might be using.
This didn't bode well. Suddenly the oft-repeated exhortation to "Think
Different" took on new and ominous notes of command in my mind. I
certainly had no intention of signing a non-disclosure for this. Hell,
NewsForge wasn't even paying me to do this. I tried to work my way around
it. Robin made a developers account, but the Apple overlords didn't even
respond to my requests to issue a ticket to "Robin Miller, Assistant
Treleef Woozler for Intergalactic DeOxygenators Inc." Clearly, I was going
to have to go about this assignment in a somewhat more unorthodox way.
The conference was from Monday through Friday. It was already Thursday,
and I was exactly nowhere. Luckily, I happened to catch a notice in the
paper that BattleBots was being
taped all weekend out on Treasure Island. Something clicked. My
journalistic integrity demanded that I be there. I knew there was a
connection here, but what? Where?
"The dwarf had been watching Earle's lips and he had his bird off first,
but Juju rose straight into the air and sank one spur in the red's breast.
It went through the feathers into the flesh. The red turned with the gaff
still stuck in him and pecked twice at his opponent's head."
To get to Treasure Island from the Haight, you take a bus all the way
downtown to First and Market. You pass the strip joints and all-night
movie theaters, the hulking Virgin Megastore, the old men, freaks and
junkies playing chess by the Library. The tourists clustered, shivering in
their shorts and tank-tops, in line to ride the cable cars at Powell.
Get off this bus, walk a block down First street to the Trans-Bay bus
terminal, and go upstairs. The trans-bay terminal is one of those creepy
bus stations that seems more like a wharf than a place for land vehicles.
Naked iron girders hold up a translucent roof of corrugated plastic, which
filters the foggy sunlight and makes everyone look green and ill. Sit down
on the bench next to an enormous transsexual smoking Virginia Slims, and
The bus rattles and clumps halfway over the Bay Bridge, pulling off at the
Treasure Island exit, where suddenly everything goes quiet. The roar of
lower-deck bridge traffic is replaced with chirping birds and shushing
wind through the trees. The feeling of peace and serenity lasts exactly
thirty seconds, because that's when you pass the first guard post and
realize that Treasure Island is basically one big military base.
BattleBots is a tournament, televised on Comedy Central, in which
individuals and teams build remote controlled fighting vehicles and pit
them against each other in an aluminum and plexiglass ring called the
"BattleBox." Tickets for the preliminary rounds are ten bucks plus bus
fare. This is clearly not a big money deal. The venue is what appears to
be a small airplane hanger, anomalously placed nowhere near any kind of
airport. The military is always doing that kind of thing. Who knows what
it's normal use is. We just know it as "Building 180."
There are no signs at all, and the will-call desk is a folding church
table. The whole experience reeks of a college band-night, right down to
the blue wristbands that designate you a paid ticketholder. It all looked
appropriately seedy and dangerous. I went inside.
Earlier in the week, I had read about the new Apple Store in Tyson's
Corner, Va. As we've come to expect from Apple, it's as sleek an experience
as you're likely to get anywhere. It's open and friendly, artsy and cool
and restrained. Customers (I have to forcibly restrain myself from
reflexively calling them "guests") are encouraged to wander around, play
with the hardware, watch the techies at work at the "Genius Bar."
Apple has taken to copying Disney's winning formula of providing fun
through corporate fascism. Beneath the clean perfection of both Disney and
Apple's corporate images lurk phalanxes of jack-booted lawyers and
handlers, carefully spinning and controlling every bit of information to
present one unified squeaky-clean face. Disney is about Childhood (TM),
and Apple is about Art (R).
I emailed a journalist friend and pointed this out, asked him what he made
of it. While conceding that "Apple will always be a creepy company in
artsy drag," he also pointed out that artists are always roots-down
freaks, and Steve Jobs is an artist, whose canvas is the IT industry. So
maybe Apple is run by a "psychotic and paranoid control nazi." Open source
darling of the week IBM, he said, is "a patent-crazy industrial drone with
whole buildings full of lawyers who can't wait to end the honeymoon. Just
"Juju climbed again, cutting and hitting so rapidly that his legs were a
golden blur. The red met him by going back on his tail and hooking upward
like a cat. Juju landed on him again and again. He broke one of the red's
wings, then practically severed a leg."
Sitting on the hard uncomfortable metal bleachers in Building 180, I am
reminded of that email. There are no amenities here, unless you count
porta-johns and three dollar hot dogs. There are hardly any ordinary
spectators at all. The bleachers are filled with violence-prone nerds in
robot-related T-shirts. Bill Nye isn't on the scene, and there's only one
lonely looking cameraman taping the action. These are the preliminary
rounds, the rounds where the cheap, the weak, and the pathetic get stomped
and go back home to Tucson or the Upper Peninsula and get to work on next
But there's no feeling of danger, no edge-buzz, like I expected. There are
lots of children here, and no money is changing hands over the outcomes of
the matches. Dangerous drunken thugs are nowhere in sight, and the most
prominent host is decked out in metal arm-guards and gauntlets, and would
almost certainly get hammered to a pulp if he showed up in any
self-respecting biker bar wearing that sci-fi crap.
This is the IBM of sporting events. Dumb and mean-spirited, yes, but
unabashedly nerdy and unvarnished, too. If Apple were a sporting event, it
would be a cross between this and the XFL. You'd still have machines
bashing each other with stone-age weapons, but they'd be dressed in sleek
plastic shells and driven by young men in black turtlenecks and
wire-rimmed glasses. Half naked supermodels would strut around the
BattleBox whipping the crowd into a frenzy of drooling fury. "KILL!"
they'd scream, "BASH ITS WHEELS OFF! USE THE SAWBLADE!" At just the right
moment, the laser light show would fire off, inscribing "Think Different"
in the smoke-free air above the crowd.
My recollections from the event are a little hazy, and I wasn't keeping
notes. The basic format is this: Two robots go into the box, when cued by
a drag-race style christmas tree, they surge across the ring at each other
and attempt to smash, grind, or pierce the other into oblivion. A robot
that can no longer move is declared a knockout, and loses, so many
builders opt for a wedge shape, hoping to sneak under a taller lumbering
opponent and incapacitate it. There is, unfortunately, nothing less
interesting than two wedge-shaped fighting robots blindly ramming into
each other for three minutes. At the end, if there's no clear winner, some
judges award points, usually to the robot that garnered more crowd
A few matches stick out in my mind. Like the fight where a robot named
"Count Botula" was so brutally maimed by its opponent, which resembled
Vlad the Impaler's colander, that by the end of three minutes it only had
one functioning wheel, and its batteries were dragging by wires behind it.
But astoundingly, it was still moving, still trying to clamp down on that
pasta strainer from Hell. Every time it got near enough, it lost some
more pieces. By the end, three event staff were in the ring picking up
scattered chunks of it. Ordinary people spend hundreds of hours in the
garage and thousands of dollars creating these high-tech platforms which
carry and deploy, essentially, either clubs, spikes, or sawblades.
Attending BattleBots is like watching a Noh drama about the entire
While I was sitting there, it finally came to me. I had to get into the
conference, and nothing had worked so far. I had to get the story somehow.
I'd just fake it. I'd walk right in and go up to the counter.
"I'm from OSDN," I'd tell them.
"I'm sorry, you don't seem to be on the list..."
"What? How's that? Let me see. Hmm. No, I should be right there between
Forrester and Fowler. Dammit, they told me this was all taken care of!"
"Well, if you're not on the list..."
"Ok," I'd say, leaning close, conspiratorially, "I'm not supposed to
tell you this, and you have to swear to secrecy..." I'd break off and
"What? What is it?"
"No, no, I've already said too much. They might have cameras. Shotgun
mikes, infrared. Forget it."
"There's no one around. What is it? You can trust me."
"Ok. If this gets out, I know who leaked it." You can always count
on a sense of paranoia when Apple's involved. Anyone who's not walking
around like a secret agent is either dumb or really scary. "I'm here on
orders straight from Steve himself. He wants to make sure that all the
developers are getting their proper dose of different thinking. We can't
afford to lose anyone! Not one! So I'm here to wander around, make sure
everything conforms to the Apple experience."
"Oh, you're making this up."
"Am I? Am I indeed? Well, you can believe that if you want. But
I'm not the only one. I can personally guarantee that you've dealt with at
least one of Steve's other moles, just today. I've been watching, and
don't think he's not watching either!"
At this point, the keeper of passes would tremble with the knowledge that
Steve's people are everywhere, all the time. Nothing escapes his steely
eye. Nothing. I would be in like Flynn.
I had had enough of robot fighting. These brutes could go on pounding the
silicon snot out of each other all night, for all I cared. The next day I
was off to San Jose, to fish sleeker waters. To join the sharks.
"Once more the red tried to rise with Juju, pushing hard with its
remaining leg, but it only spun crazily. Juju rose, but missed. The red
thrust weakly with its broken bill. Juju went into the air again, and this
time drove a gaff through one of the red's eyes into its brain. The red
fell over stone dead."
San Jose is hot and ugly. The reason there are so many conferences and
trade shows there is because no matter how boring or painful the event is,
going outside where its not air conditioned is unthinkable. San Jose is
the forced-corporate-networking gulag of the United States. Siberia in
I crawled down 101, through the evil moribund sprawl of the valley, but I
hardly even saw it. I was going to get into this conference, despite the
lawyers and confusion, and even despite having to go to San Jose to do it.
Traffic crept slowly south, four lanes of winking plastic glacier, and
when my turn to rubberneck finally came, I saw that the holdup was due to
a three-car crash in the northbound lanes. A white pickup had gone into
the cement barrier, and ambulances were on the scene. Looming high above
all was another of the omnipresent Apple billboards ... Martin Luther King
Jr. urging us to Think Different. I just hoped no one had been killed.
In San Jose, you can drive for an hour and still be within view of where
you started. It's like if LA were jammed into a black hole, and compressed
to a tiny, super-dense pinpoint of heat and smog and traffic and bad
manners. Every light was red, and car horns were banshees wailing of my
I never even found the conference, let alone had the chance to crash the
thing. I thought I'd just look for all the convention-goers, but everyone
in San Jose looks like a convention-goer. It's a kind of hell as imagined
by Tony Robbins. After an hour and a half of this, I admitted defeat,
and fled north on 280, back to the blissful fog of the city.
I don't know what the real story of the Worldwide Developers conference
was. I never got there. I can't tell you much about Apple's plans for open
source, or it's commitment to software freedom. Apple remains, for me, an
enigma, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in an egg-shaped plastic shell the
color of smurf puke. Apple is a fundamentally schizophrenic entity. It is,
by turns, open, paranoid, generous, litigious, artsy, and thuggish. It's
certainly not the worst company out there, and on bad days, I still think
it might be one of the best.
The San Jose feeling of evil was just starting to dissipate when I got to
Cupertino, where the 280 goes right by Apple HQ. Another giant MLK mural
presides over the freeway, surrounded by the blank stare of turquoise
glass and white columns. Apple was still watching me, and I looked right
back at it, wondering if behind those blank windows there was cunning and
love, or only madness. For better or for worse, looking at Apple is like
peering into the future. Hope, fear, beauty and crazed excess, all wrapped
in a curtain of possibility.
Right then, though, I didn't care. I flipped it the bird and mashed the