The Making of a Geek

Well, I’ve spent the past couple days crashed abed. After dragging myself to work today, I’m still not in top form. Basically, my brain-pan is full of snot, so I’m certainly not up to a great deal of psychoeducational analysis about much of anything. But until the green elixir kicks in (so I can get some sleep), I’ll natter away about how I got to be such a geek.

The original outlook wasn’t promising. In fact, I was quite the disappointment to my father for not being a chess whiz, and to my mother for getting poor marks in nearly all my subjects. The maths particularly eluded me — I was 13 before I had a firm grip on my multiplication tables — which for reasons that still escape me, led people to decide that in secondary school I should take a year of Bookkeeping as preparation for future employment.

However, I did better with a variety of hands-on pursuits, such as building model airplanes from balsa and silkspan, collecting rocks and stamps, and spending endless hours assembling buildings and laying out track for my HO-scale train (which I still own). My other major past-time involved reading masses of science fiction. Even in the 70’s, these past-times were still considered the provenance of boys, which meant that I had nothing to discuss with my female peers.

Not that I had much to discuss with my male peers, who at that time in history were on the cutting edge of the PC revolution, learning to write BASIC scripts for their “TRaSh-80” computers. That is, when they weren’t chewing on calculus problems, or debating the fine points of D&D strategy. I felt so left out — I wasn’t just geeky, I was archaicly so, if not downright nerdy. ::sigh::

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. At the time, my uncle the electronic engineer worked at Texas Instruments, and in high school I received as a gift one of the early models of pocket calculators. It was the size of a sandwich, but heavier, and had all of four functions. I amused myself by doing things like typing in 0,7734 which upside-down read hELL’0. But unlike my uncle the engineer, I was not especially adept at the maths, nor did I do well at my introductory programming class. We typed out our short BASIC programs on punch cards, which were then sent to a nearby university to be batch-run at night. The next day we would get our cards and the green-striped printouts back, and I discovered how annoying my innate ability for typographical errors could be when something would not run because I had omitted a single comma, and would have to re-type a card and have the batch sent out again. The whole experience turned me off computers for several years.

Meanwhile, the PC industry kept plowing ahead with innovations. By the late 80’s, I made friends with them when I got my first Compaq Portable II with dual floppy drives and a whopping 256K of RAM. The thing was “portable” only in the broad sense of the word; we called it The Luggable. But I loved it, because with WordStar running on one floppy (and document files saved on the other), it was the “magic typewriter” I’d dreamed of for years. My antique Remington Rand #5 typewriter was retired to the basement, as I was finally freed from the tyranny of perfectionist typing.

And that’s where I stayed in the realm of geekdom for many years, relegated to the wallflower world of the Users.

Then I went to graduate school, and found myself needing to acquire a variety of odd skills that went way beyond the realm of my usual haunts of growing vegetables and watching butterflies. In the lab I had to do a variety of things with some electrophysiology equipment, notably setting up a jumbled box of parts and getting it into working order, which involved debugging the equipment for faulty parts. Doing that led me to start visualising the electronic parts in mental flow-charts of systems and signals. Investigating the problem of signal-to-noise ratio, I stumbled across the Shannon-Weaver Transmission Model of Communication, which concepts I increasingly applied to mental flow-charts of systems and signals in human communication. I also found out that my visual memory made me an excellent candidate for learning to identify patterns in wave formations, even when they were distorted along either axis.

Something else I got to do was to teach myself to solder. Doing that reminded me of some things from a previous part of my life, and I dug around in our basement for a box of antique watch-repair tools that had belonged to my grandfather, and took back to the lab with me some Swiss forceps as a family heirloom that connected my past to my future. My concept of heritage broadened: “I come from a fine line of geeks.”

I found that the clerks down at the local Radio Shack were too young or inexperienced to be familiar with much of anything that predated 1995, and also that by perusing electronics catalogs on the Web I could figure out what I needed, and the various attributes of different parts even before I walked into the store. This increased my self-confidence. I also fell in love the the well-designed efficiency of BNC connectors, and the multimeter and oscilloscope became my friends. I stayed in late one night in the lab as I figured out a technical issue that had eluded me all afternoon. My half-eaten slice of pizza sat cold and forgotten as I rolled up the sleeves of my white oxford shirt to keep the dirt off my cuffs while I tinkered. Soon the reflection of the green waves sliding across the gridded screen of the oscilloscope was shining on my new bifocals, and in a quintessently geeky moment, I felt connected to decades of young electronics techies who had successfully assembled and debugged their own equipment.

Being older, I found had other benefits — when we needed to use older computer equipment, it turned out that I actually new more than the self-important young man my adviser had borrowed from the IT department. He had assured the prof that he could help me install the software drivers for the AD board that converted analog to digital signal. Previously I had carefully opened the cover to the older desktop computer and installed the AD board, but wasn’t familiar with installing the software driver to accompany it. However, it was soon apparent to me that this brash guy was simply too young to know how to do this particular job. He had never before seen a “live” floppy disk, which was apparent when I handed him the disk, and he inserted it into the drive backwards and then couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working.

With a sigh, I reached over, pulled out the floppy disk, turned it around, re-inserted it, and then clicked down the lever that keeps the disk retracted into the drive. (OMFG!) Then he was baffled when the computer booted to the C:\ prompt. “Install,” I explained. “No, no, you don’t click the mouse, you have to type the word ‘install’. That’s spelled with two L’s.” At that point I had an epiphany: you don’t have to know everything about a system to be competent, you just have to know more than others. And when you step outside of the world of techies, it’s not difficult to know more than the average user. Amazing.

So, yeah. Now at one job I’m somehow the mistress of the spreadsheets and newsletters, in addition to being chief spider wrangler (my, there are a lot of arachnophobes at school), local greenhouse expert, and primary behavioral data taker. I crack geek in-jokes with some of the students (thanks to my children keeping me up-to-date with geek culture trivia), occasionally teach students chess strategy (it’s the only time I ever beat my students), and get to drop oddball comments like, “You know, if we rigged up the classroom as a giant Faraday cage, we wouldn’t have to worry about anyone using their cell phones …”

So, I’m not a heavy-duty geek. I wouldn’t know a Perl script if it fell on my foot, nor have I ever played a MMPRPG, and I can’t speak a word of Klingon. But that’s okay. I’ve created a novel niche for myself as a jack-of-all-trades. I find I work best as a “geek interface”, providing translation between the students and the subjects they need to learn. I can come up with parallels between most any special interest and the scholastic topic du jour. My examples abound with puns and highly visual analogies that help the material “stick”. It works for them, and it works for me.

Life is good.


  1. Egg Donor : said,

    30 October 2010 at 18:59

    i have a classmate that is a very good watch repairman, watch repair is just like fixing a bike for him “”

  2. 10 December 2007 at 1:52

    […] MacBook. Years ago I got my first personal computer with word processing, and haven’t looked back. I store my music on it, create PowerPoints to show pictures and […]

  3. 21 September 2007 at 21:56

    Collecting old guns is not an option in the UK, even collecting sharp pointy things is frowned on.

    I have an old TI calculator c 1973 about the same age as my landrover, led’s and rechargable, nice keyboard.

    I also have one of these

    Just found it in the draw where it has been for decadesalong with my boots ringplan slide rule.

  4. Justthisguy said,

    21 September 2007 at 21:16

    I still have my huge yellow Pickett slide rule which my folks bought for me when I went off to college in 1968.

  5. qw88nb88 said,

    20 September 2007 at 21:50

    Hey Joe, I still have a slide rule! It’s one of my family heirlooms, along with an abacus, and Grandma’s china (-:

    I never did learn how to use it, though. By the time I got to intro physics and calculus, I had me a nice TI-83+, which I’ve since given to my son for his classes. You know, family traditions and all that!

  6. Club 166 said,

    20 September 2007 at 3:43

    Oh, dear.

    So many delightful memories. Waiting in line to key the punchcards, waiting hours for the turnaround, finding the fatal flaw… Kept me off computers until the late 80’s.

    My dad had one of those TI calculators for work. Big, heavy, and actually made in the USA. They were forbidden in our physics class (where did I put that slide rule?)

    I also read a lot of sci-fi during the 70’s and 80’s. My favorite was Asimov (especially the Foundation trilogy). All of his stuff made sense.

    Thanks for the nostalgia.


  7. Justthisguy said,

    19 September 2007 at 23:06

    P.s. I’m talking to you, Larry, about the URL.

    Tamara is a collector of old computers (and wonderful old guns, too.)

  8. Justthisguy said,

    19 September 2007 at 22:46

    I tried to put a couple of links in a comment, but that didn’t work.

    Try Tamara also has a really cool gunblog at

  9. 19 September 2007 at 22:39

    Larry, have a look at this:

    Her main site is right cool, too:

    I do love a gal who collects old firearms. And old computers.

  10. 19 September 2007 at 18:51

    Ahh yes the good old days, Wordstar and programming in basic.

    It amazes me to look at the progression of my laptops, from something less powerfull than a Sinclair spectrum via an 086, a 286, a pair of Tosh Librettos
    and my current generic heap of junk, notwithstanding diversions into the Psion Organiser, Palm and latest toy Ipaq.

    My flat is full of the relicts of derelict technology.

    Was thinking tother day what the child Larry would have thought of the 50 year old, and then I remembered the heaven of my geeky Uncles attic full of the technology of the day (he was a radio ham) and think I would have been equally fascinated by what my home has become.


  11. Justthisguy said,

    19 September 2007 at 18:13

    Say, ever try to start a model airplane engine on a cold day, said engine being slightly too heavily primed, with a nice sharp nylon propeller, and then get glow fuel in the propeller cut in your cold finger?

    OW! The scars have faded, but I still remember the owies.

  12. Justthisguy said,

    19 September 2007 at 16:07

    I always preferred Jap tissue to silkspan. Sure it’s more delicate, and you can’t put it on wet, but it’s lighter and comes in purty colors, and takes less dope to become impermeable. Nitrate dope is best, of course. The butyrate stuff, though fuelproof, doesn’t really have good shrinking properties. I will not speak of that Aerogloss crap.

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