How I Became a Geek

When I was a boy, I was interested in just about everything — like most children. Science, art, literature, candy, you name it. And it seemed perfectly natural for me to play with computers. Back around age 8, my father was working for a company that contracted with the DoD. I still remember playing ADVENT on a terminal that Dad brought home for a few days and hooked up to the phone with an acoustic-coupler modem. (I now realize I was playing that game on a mainframe somewhere in the Pentagon!)

But somewhere along the way, my interest in science and technology waned. I got more into music and theater, and writing poetry and stories. By the time I reached college, I was solidly ensconced in the liberal arts and humanities. I’d occasionally dabble in a soft science like psychology, or in linguistics (since language is important to a writer or poet), but for the most part, my concerns were creative writing, music, theater and philosophy.

I still retained the orderly, logical mental processes that early exposure to computing and science had fostered, though, and people frequently told me that I’d be a great programmer, if I’d just learn a programming language or two. I was having none of it. I’d reply that I didn’t want to be a “computer geek”. (This was in the mid-to-late ’80s, when that phrase’s only connotation was negative.)

I still used computers occasionally — for word processing, and that was about it. Even if I didn’t want to be a programmer or geek, I was no Luddite, and word processors were a fabulous boon to any (would-be) writer.

So, when I ran out of tuition money and left college before completing a liberal arts degree, my most marketable skill was my knowledge of WordPerfect — a very useful skill in the early ’90s, before everyone and their dog was expected to be able to use MS Word.

My distaste for repetitive chores led me to figure out WordPerfect’s macro “feature” — I carefully avoided noticing that it was really a primitive programming language — and my skill at writing macros (of a size and complexity that pushed the envelope of what WordPerfect could handle!) secured me a job with a small publishing company, using WP5.1 for DOS as a typesetting and compositing system.

It was while I was employed there, in 1993, that the second book edition of The New Hacker’s Dictionary came out. The Washington Post ran an article on it, including excerpts from Eric Raymond’s “Portrait of J. Random Hacker”.

I can still remember sitting at my company’s lunch table, reading the Post’s summary of “J. Random”, becoming slowly more disturbed as I saw more and more parallels with myself: “Likes Chinese food”... “Hates Ewoks, Smurfs, and other forms of offensive cuteness”... “highly curious, neophilic”... “tend to have terrible handwriting”... It was downright eerie. It was like someone had been following me around, taking notes on me.

Since I worked in a company with its own print shop, it even occurred to me to briefly wonder if someone had created a mockup of an entire Post page, complete with a fictitious book that seemed to be a perfect description of me, then carefully left it where I’d find it, as some kind of practical joke.

But it quickly became obvious that this was just too much effort for a single prank, and there really was such a book, and I really did fit the profile... and maybe I’d better quit denying it and just admit that macros were programming, and I was a programmer, and I’d be a damn good one if I’d just learn some programming languages.

And, I supposed, getting a computer might not hurt, either. A few months later, I’d gotten myself a 486/DX with something like 8 MB of RAM — I don’t even recall what its cycle rate was, something below 100 MHz. Three VESA local bus slots (remember VLB?), and about 4 ISAs. 200 MB hard drive. It came with nothing on that drive except the COMMAND.COM, IO.SYS and MSDOS.SYS for MS-DOS 6.0; I got to install the OS myself, from scratch.

As the years progressed, I continually upgraded the system, swapping out first one component, then another. Back around 2001, I finally changed out the case, moving from AT to ATX. I still use “the same” system, though none of its original components are still around.

In the meantime, I worked on learning languages. I pushed the envelope as far as it would go with high-level macro programming languages, from WordPerfect’s to MS Word’s (originally WordBasic; they later switched to VBA). I also tried learning C, an endeavor in which I still haven’t succeeded. Instead, I’ve gone with more high-level languages, such as Perl, PHP, and JavaScript. My real joy comes from coding web apps, because I can see people getting use and enjoyment out of them (and doing that for people is pretty much the alpha and the omega of my coding philosophy). I’ve written a variety of web software in various languages, even some things that I’ve released for public use.

And I still keep up with the Jargon File, for old times’ sake.