New York Anonymity

Tim Bray and I met for lunch and a software CTO synchronization in the Big Apple this past Wednesday. Getting us together in the same time zone is difficult, with my north/south travels and Tim's shuttling between the Far East, the Northwest and center of the journalistic universe (city names have been elided so that you can interpret this as you wish). If you're a blogger, or an XML hound, or you dabble in RSS feeds, it's likely you know who Tim Bray is, and appreciate his modicum of celebrity. If not, technorati aggregates a nice collection of his latest output, and you can see the XML cat in his hat.

Despite the throngs (busloads!) of tourists in town for shows, filling Times Square to a density mid-way between 4:00 AM and New Year's Eve, Tim wasn't picked out of the crowd, even when sporting his sporty chapeau. Add in the employees of major investment banks, publishing houses, sports leagues and public relations firms ringing Times Square, and I'm sure there were people in the crowds who could call Tim Bray by name, if not by value as well (sorry, old Pascal jokes die hard). On our way to lunch, we walked down 48th Street, between 7th and 6th Avenues, home to Manny's and Sam Ash and the most likely place to see a visiting rock star of the musical kind. But we had a quiet and uneventful lunch, no star sightings in either direction.

I'm convinced that people love to drop celebrity names. Live in the same building as a TV star? See a baseball player on the street? It's something to talk about. But I'm thoroughly convinced that most people don't recognize 90% of the fame that intersects their path. I once lived across the street from Rick Cerone, during his Red Sox stint. I didn't recognize him once. The New York newsies had a field day with the Big Unit's first sojourn through the city, but would you have spotted Randy Johnson out of uniform? Unless it's a face you see in film or television, you're not going to pick it out of a crowd.

My all-time favorite non-recognizable event involves Rob Pike and Lou Reed, the "New York City Man" himself. Pike and Reed, the story goes, are having lunch in New York, and a star-struck person comes up to their table, gazing first at Reed, then at Pike, then at Reed. "You're Rob Pike!" the engineer blurts, to which Pike answers "But he's Lou Reed." (If you're trying to figure out how these two cross paths, it involves Penn & Teller and some higher-order derivatives of the Bell Labs Labscam.)

What's the point? On any given day, more people touch Rob's work indirectly through Google (or parts of Unix variants) than listen to Lou Reed, I'll venture. More people use systems dependent to some extent on Tim Bray's work on XML than play professional sports. XML might even edge out sports viewership, quite possibly in the Bay Area and other markets. Do we celebrate fame in what we use or what we watch and hear? Techno-celeb-sighting may be the sole domain of MaryMary. That's OK; it lets the celebrities have the occasional lunch with their managers.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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