July 17, 2001

Walking barefoot with Geek Cruise Capt'n Neil Bauman

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people -
Owning your own company may be hard but it offers more than the
potential financial rewards. For one, you get to make your own rules, which means
Neil Bauman has been walking around work barefoot for at least the last
20 years. OK, sometimes he wears socks but even on those days it's a
pair of sandals that he deposits by the entranceway. He says he stopped
wearing shoes around the office years ago when he discovered that he moved
faster without them, but I think it's his aura's natural aversion to anything
that might hint at corporate huffery. For Bauman is nothing if not a
hundred percent approachable.
Three years ago, after he and his family returned from an inspiring
trip aboard a Celebrity Cruise ship with decks full of fellow Trekkies
attending topical talks and reliving favorite episodes while lounging by one of
the ships' many pools, Bauman began planning the first Geek
Cruise
, which was centered around the programming language he would
most enjoy discussing over umbrella drinks, in the buffet line or while
strolling the promenade deck -- Perl.

Cruise ships are big, but there's no mistaking that you're on a boat,
adrift on the seemingly endless waters of earth's calming seas, stranded, trapped, forced to leave the main land and all its contingent demands behind. For a culture incessantly on the go, where technology renders the office a seemingly boundless location, a forced
reprieve, a physical removal from the daily grind, is the only reprieve.

Not necessarily a vacation, time away from work is not only about
rest and relaxation but about perspective, rejuvenation, all for the sake of productivity. It's intuitive, really, to stage a conference on a cruise
ship, free of the pressures of time and transportation that disrupt the
learning at a land-based conference. Allowing attendees to access the
specialists at meals or while lounging on the deck in between daily
talks and workshops, it's a setting that encourages calm and a mindset that
maximizes absorption and participation by melding fun with learning.

After all, not everybody has the spirit or good fortune to have
forged a path like Bauman's, a path in which work and fun and stimulation seem
to naturally combine to give him the perpetual tone of possibility and
ease.

No doubt it is a disposition at least partially due to his New York
roots, traces of its influence still evident in his speech 46 years
and 3,000 miles away from his Manhattan-based beginnings. Born, like
both his parents, in New York city, they eventually moved to New Jersey, but
Bauman would spend weekends in the city.

A geek from the very beginning, Bauman would ride the train into the
city and make his way to the Manhattan Chess Club alone, spend the day
playing and observing and evenings with his grandparents. He has always loved
chess. He was in Europe on a high school Foreign Study League during
one of the matches between Bobby
Fisher
and Boris
Spassky
.

"I remember on one of our days off in Athens, most people would do
something interesting, I took a cab down to the Hilton, which was a
place I knew there would be air conditioning, and I bought a newspaper and
brought my little chess set and played over the most recent game while sitting
in the lobby drinking orange juice."

He distinctly remembers World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov looking him
straight in the eye while answering his questions in the gallery after one of
Kasparov's championship matches in Philadelphia. "I was in heaven."

When I asked Bauman what he would do if for some reason he could
never work with computers again, he gasps in mock pain. He is both owner and
sole employee of Geek Cruises, and his office is his laptop. Wherever it is, that's where he both works and plays. He cannot imagine a life without a computer. But once the sting wears off, he admits he'd be reasonably consoled by working in the chess industry, writing books, competing,
doing commentary.

In 1972, Bauman discovered computing and chess has since taken a
back seat. It was his first year of high school and he joined an Explorer
post (sort of a senior arm of Boy Scouts) dedicated to using the Spectra
70, a mainframe computer in the basement of the David Sarnoff Research Center in
Princeton, New Jersey. Always interested in anything to do with math,
in which his proficiency earned him accolades at an early age, he was
curious about this group he knew was heading to the research center one
evening a week to play with some computer.

"And within a year I was programming. Once you get started, if
you're sort of geeky, you really take to it in a serious way. I think it's
the same thing that appeals to everybody. It's how you can control the
machine. How you can create this program out of nothing but a blank sheet of
paper and then hit the run button and something concrete and significant
happens. It's sort of mind over matter, your mind over the matter of the
machine. You made it do what you wanted it to do.

"One of the first programs I wrote spit out the day of the week.
You typed in the month, day, and year in numerical form and it spit back
what day of the week, like say, Friday.

"At college, micros just started appearing. Intel and Zylog were
first appearing and back then they were initially four-bit machines. By the
time I was a senior in 1977, the eight-bit microprocessor chips were just
appearing. At that time, these were simply hobby computers. You really
had to build it yourself. DECs were too expensive. My first job out of
college I had my first terminal, the old CRT terminal, in my house, lent to me
by the company that I worked for at the time.

He earned a bachelors in physics from Franklin and Marshall College which,
though it did not actually offer a degree in computer science, he chose for
the quality of its computer room, then occupied by an IBM mainframe, which
the college used for administrative purposes.

"I was the only student using it. The director of academic
computing had a Ph.D. in electro-engineering. He encouraged me to do some
complicated projects. I wrote a text editor and an assembler. His name's Dr. Paul
Ross and yeah, we're still friends. In fact, I just found out that up until
a few years ago he was using the assembler I wrote in a class he was
teaching on computer science."

After college Bauman got a job outside of Philadelphia programming
in Fortran on Prime. Around 1980, when the rising popularity of DOS
rendered his work increasingly peripheral, he got a new job selling
mini-computers to pharmacies. Inexpensive in the 1980s at around $40,000, they were two terminals plugged into one box. Eventually, pharmacists could pay extra
and get customized software that was written in Pascal. It was a
burgeoning market and his boss, noticing the amount of educating their clients
required in order to purchase knowledgeably, approached Bauman with the idea for
ComputerTalk. Bauman co-founded
and continued to build ComputerTalk Associates Inc. as president and
editor for the subsequent 20 years, until he left to work on Geek Cruises
full time.

This was all in Philadelphia, where he met his wife shortly after
college, at a pre-Eagles game party he
hosted with his roommates. About two years ago, Bauman moved with his
wife and two kids to California where she accepted an offer with a startup.

He says the climate in California is better suited for his wardrobe
of sandals and Hawaiian shirts which makes him look more like a Parrot Head than
the Grateful Dead and rock 'n' roll fan he
really is. Though he prefers silence while he codes, it's the jazz
records, actually, that elicit the most enthusiasm. The list of vocalists he's
seen on stage in New York or Las Vegas reads like he's been a legit member of
the Rat Pack -- Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin.

Despite his apparent sociability, love of football, and the fact
that he's been to at least half a dozen Dead shows, there's no doubt that
Bauman is an authentic Geek. His insight on why a Geek
Cruise is the best way to recognize and reward your geeks
is not an
exercise in recognizance, he's just sharing his personal preference.

More about Neil Bauman

Favorite video game: Chess and Go

Favorite book: Currently digging his way through Object Oriented Programming with Perl

Text editor: BBEdit

Email reader: Mailsmith

Snack food: Coca-Cola

Movie: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

TV: Star Trek (The room right off his office is lined with more than 200
Star Trek videos, and he and his family have watched each one at least three
times.)

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