IT on a Stick

The popular press calls it the Great Minnesota Get-together. Every year in late summer, for the two weeks before to Labor Day, a few acres of run-down buildings and empty fairgrounds in St. Paul, Minn., transform into a unique, thriving, energetic community of vendors, shoppers and strollers.

The Minnesota State Fair is the second largest event of its kind in the U.S. On any given day, between 90,000 and 150,000 people walk through exhibits, ranging from farm animals to rock concerts to machinery hill to Midway barkers hawking questionable games of skill and cheap stuffed animals. By the time it was over this year, about 1.6 million people passed through the turnstiles.

Name the food -- if it can be fried or put on a stick you can probably find it here. The latest innovation: deep-fried chocolate bars on a stick. Other popular dishes include pronto pups -- similar to their more famous cousin the corn dog -- pork chops on a stick and, of course, foot-long hot dogs.

My wife likes the animal barns the best. Every year, she forces me to trudge past hundreds of cows, sheep, goats, hogs, horses, chickens, turkeys and other creatures. We always gawk at the world’s record 1,000+ pound pig, so fat it can’t or won’t stand up. I think people win awards for raising the fattest pigs.

Another experience is the milk barn. Here, people watch as groups of cows move to the milking machine and wait as the machines pump milk from their bodies. It’s neat to watch these biological factories in action, and the milkshakes and soft ice cream are unmatched anywhere else.

The midway is a world unto itself, crammed with rides, freak shows and games of questionable skill. In 1974, when I was in high school and had much more hair, I walked through the midway with my date and tried to impress her. If I had gotten a few quarters to land on the lids of a bunch of glass jars in the middle of a pool of water, I could have won a giant stuffed animal. After spending over $50, a few quarters at a time, I walked away flat broke with a little panda bear. She wasn’t impressed and, since I was now broke, I couldn’t afford dinner and a movie. I’ve avoided the midway since that day.

The local television stations broadcast their news shows from outdoor studios during the fair, and hundreds of people wait hours for free seats to watch Don and Amelia do their show. This year’s highlight occurred when weatherman Paul Douglas cut the legs off anchorman Don Shelby’s pants because Don made fun of Paul’s shorts the day before. This is what we do for excitement in Minnesota.

Tucked away on the north side of the event is a building called the Wonders of Technology. Despite my wife’s objections, I spent some time wandering around and talking to people. Microsoft and some local technology companies operated booths here for the past several years, and I wanted to understand the attraction.

Nobody, however, seemed amazed by any of the exhibits, although some were impressive. Best Buy was there with HDTV. Lockheed Martin had live radar showing air traffic near the airport. The local cable companies handed out flyers announcing we will soon have a choice for local phone service. Some local ISPs talked about IP Telephony, DSL and domain names. Seagate was there displaying the guts of disk drives: The guy in the booth knew his facts, and nobody seemed lost or intimidated when he started talking about gigabytes and milliseconds.

I spoke with a lady from a company that sets up video cameras and beams the pictures to a secure Web site. Customers can log into this Web site and look at pictures of their kids in daycare or animals being boarded. Neat ideas -- I hope they catch on.

The biggest change from a few years ago, however, was that everyone knew what was going on. Have we come a long way or what? You know computing is mainstream when you can fill out a Web page form in the Microsoft booth at a state fair to register for a free home computer -- and nobody thinks this is new or unique. Go figure. We may still eating food on a stick, but it is definitely not the same fair we knew growing up. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of Cross Consulting Group (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at