What is a geek?

Wednesday, June 16th, 1999

An interesting thought occurred to me today. People think of me as a geek, because I know more about computers than nearly anyone (at least that's the common perception, not really true), and because I spend most of my time with them. I work at an Internet Service Proivider doing technical support; my job is to solve people's problems when they can't connect to the Internet. At home there are at least ten computers in the apartment, most of which are networked together and sharing an Internet connection. But the interesting thought that occurred to me is, I do exactly the same thing with computers that other people do with other things, like sports.

Take baseball. At one level, you can occasionally watch a game on TV, possibly rooting for your home team (if you have a home team, and if they're playing). If you're inclined to do so, you can play - on a school team, or something like that. But, how many people have you met who truly immerse themselves in baseball? These are the people who read the Sports section of the newspaper every morning, check out scores on the Web, read books about baseball players, follow current political trends as they relate to baseball and other sports (for example, taxpayers voting whether or not to pay for a new stadium, etc.), and have a deep understanding of the history of the sport? These are the people can tell you, out of the blue and off the top of their head, who the starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs was in 1978.

I've run in to some of these people; I'm sure you have too. They usually lead normal, ordinary lives, but they know obscure details about baseball that most people wouldn't even know where to find in a book. They can answer seemingly any question about just about anything related to baseball, and they may have strong opinions about various baseball-related topics.

That's what I'm like with computers. I know so much because I don't just use computers on a day-to-day basis, I study computers. I've read books about the history of the computer industry, I read a few Web sites every day with news about current developments, I periodically read Web sites with opinion columns relating to computers. I talk to people about computers and the Internet, and speculate about the future. I don't just read about the Justice Department's investigations into Microsoft's anti-competitive business practices, I read about the things that Microsoft has been accused of doing, and I read the testimonies that some of the witnesses have given.

I don't standardize on one computer system to use; I use a mix. On a daily basis I use Windows 95, Windows 98, Mac OS 8.6, Slackware Linux and BSDi, and lately I've been playing with Mac OS X Server. I also have access to DOS 6.22, Windows 3.1, Windows NT 4.0, Mac OS 7.5.3 (in Spanish), Mac OS 7.1 and Mac OS 6.0.7. In the past I've also used the Apple II, Commodore 64, older versions of MS-DOS and the Mac OS, and a TRS-80 Model 100 laptop.

I've read books about the history of the computer industry. I've read about the first personal computer, the Altair, and about how Bill Gates and Paul Allen sold a version of the BASIC programming language to the company that made it, promising that they were halfway done writing it - then proceeded to borrow (steal?) time on their school's mainframe to begin development. I've read about how the original Apple computer was assembled and sold. I've read about how Bill Gates was once pulled over for speeding (he likes to do that when he can), and how after he paid the fine in cash on the spot, the police followed him around for three weeks because they thought he had to be a drug dealer. I've read about Steve Jobs' visit to Xerox PARC, and about what kind of technologies Apple incorporated into the Lisa and the Macintosh (using a mouse to point to icons on the screen) and what they invented themselves (using an icon to represent a file on a disk that can be moved around). I've read about IBM's response to the Apple II (the IBM PC) and the effect the Justice Department's antitrust investigation affected their decisions (they outsourced the operating system to Microsoft to try to keep the DOJ happy).

I also follow current events and speculate about future trends. Although the Pentium III may be the fastest processor avaialble in a consumer PC now, I've read about the AMD K7 and the IBM G4. Although it's not available yet, I understand why Motorola's AltiVec technology is far superior to Intel's MMX and SIMD. Although Microsoft Windows may have an 85% market share in the desktop operating systems market, and many people expect it to stay that way for many years to come (in fact, many people don't realize there is another 15%), I can see that within the next few years the landscape is going to change dramatically, as other companies and organizations step forward to promote alternatives - either offering their own operating system (Red Hat, Caldera, Apple, Be) or ramping up their support for non-Microsoft operating systems such as Linux (IBM, Corel, HP, Intel, Creative Labs, id Software).

I also have a pretty good grasp on how the Internet works - not just on how to send e-mail and surf the Web, but how TCP/IP, DNS, HTTP, FTP, SMTP and POP3 work, how HTML has evolved over the last five years, and of course the meanings of all those abbreviations. I don't know everything, and I'm probably just plain wrong about a few details, but I generally understand the concepts. Let me tell you, that comes in handy at work.

Why do I know all of this? Is it because I have an IQ of 295? (I don't!) Is it because I have a photographic memory and have read entire encyclopedias cover to cover? Of course not! I simply choose to study computers, rather than simply use them. In my spare time, I don't read books about baseball players, I read Web sites about the computer industry. I don't go to baseball games, I figure out how to do new things with computers that I've never done before. I'm just like the baseball nut who tell you which teams are likely to do well next season based on the history of the coach and each player on the team over the last decade, but I'm not into sports - I'm a computer geek.