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Book Review: Terrible Nerd 66

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
tgeller writes "It's hard to believe that today's nerdier children will one day bore their grandkids with stories of primitive mobile access, household robotics, and 3-D printers. Some will become rich and famous by latching onto tomorrow's winners; others will find themselves irrelevant as the objects of their obsessions fail in the marketplace. But all with the energy to remember will come away with stories from the dawn of creation. One such witness is Kevin Savetz, a 41-year-old technology journalist and entrepreneur whose new book Terrible Nerd recounts 'true tales of growing up geek' during the '80s computer revolution. It's a rich chronicle that deftly mixes details of his beloved technologies with the zeitgeist a particular time and space. As such, it's an entertaining read for technologists and non-techies alike." Keep reading for the rest of tgeller's review.
Terrible Nerd
author Kevin Savetz
pages 256 pages
publisher Savetz Publishing
rating 7/10
reviewer Tom Geller
ISBN 978-1939169006
summary Kevin Savetz' biography of personal computing, gaming, and online adventures as a child in the '80s
Savetz' background was a perfect storm of nerd-incubation factors. Suburban, Californian, white, middle class, and with a statistically improbable number of engineers in the family, he suffered through "special" gym classes and illnesses that drove him further into indoor pursuits. The family's first "computer" appeared around late 1976 in the form of a Fairchild Channel F video game — the first to use ROM cartridges. It was followed by an Intellivision in 1981 before Savetz gained access to his first "real" computer a few months later: an Atari 800 at his father's house, available to him only on bi-weekly visits.

As the Atari opens Savetz' world, Terrible Nerd traces his progress into a computer-geek community that existed even then. Between epic sessions playing text adventures (like Zork) and 8-bit classics (like M.U.L.E.), he discovered programming, software trading and, ultimately, modem-connected bulletin-board systems (BBSes). This, I think, is where the book is at its most interesting: it charts not only the nascent technology, but also a young man's blossoming into an engaged, social animal.

Not that the book is short on personal insights elsewhere. Overall, Savetz does a good job interweaving technology, personal development, and his feelings at the time. It's certainly a personal book, and the author isn't afraid to come off as the bad guy once in a while. He admits to sundry misdeeds, including piracy (ubiquitous then), hacking, forgery, and even rigging a church raffle. But he also shines light on the turbulence of adolescence, from a rocky relationship with his stepfather, to a deceitful boss, to an attempted molestation by a family friend who'd given him a valuable package of software.

In this way, it's far more readable than purely technical histories, such as Peter Salus' otherwise fascinating Casting the Net: From ARPANET to INTERNET and beyond . I would have liked greater cohesion among the stories, though — a story arc, a sense that they were all driving toward something bigger. Without a crystal ball, one doesn't have that sense of purpose at the time; but as this was written in retrospect, he could have done more to tie it all together.

On the other hand, one can't fault the author's dedication to recording details of this time — a venture he nobly continues through sites such as atariarchives.org and Classic Computer Magazine Archives. Given his archivist's heart, it's surprising that the book didn't include a much-needed index.

For me, Terrible Nerd started to slow a bit when Savetz related his college experience in the late '80s. Admittedly, this sense of detachment is partly for personal reasons: my own involvement in computers died down for a few years then, so tales of the IBM PC XT and such awoke no memories. Perhaps those years were just not as technologically interesting, as "hobbyist" computers disappeared, and the focus moved from the family den to the office. Or perhaps adulthood is intrinsically less dramatic than adolescence. In any case, this period of the book is not without its great stories, such as the author's accidental denial-of-service flood that shut down Europe's internet connection, or his involvement with the famous multi-user LambdaMOO. (I regretted that he didn't comment on the attention that that MOO got, first from a notable 1994 Wired article, then from the 1999 book My Tiny Life.)

Around then, his longstanding interest in writing and journalism started to pay off. Advice from established computer journalist John C. Dvorak and a lead from war reporter (and fellow MOO-er) Jacques Leslie led him to his first gig with MicroTimes. That led to many other jobs, including a lucrative position as America Online's "AnswerMan" (for a cut of the service's substantial hourly fees). Writing a FAQ on internet faxing got him into entrepreneurship with FaxZero.com and several other endeavors, and he took part in founding an early community internet service provider (ISP). He continues to write, and to oversee several online businesses, to this day.

Like most personal narratives, Terrible Nerd has its slow moments — some phases of one's life just aren't as interesting as others. And unlike the best of them, it lacks an overriding theme beyond "It was cool to be a computer kid in the '80s!". But that was enough to keep me hooked. For those of us who shared that time and space, it's well-presented nostalgia; for those coming up now, it's a roadmap for enjoying emerging technologies in today's time and space.

You can purchase Terrible Nerd from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Book Review: Terrible Nerd

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  • by bluefoxlucid (723572) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @02:54PM (#42351729) Journal
    Apple will fold, LiveScribe pens will never catch on, those flexible phone things will finally be dismissed as bullshit, tablets will again vanish because they're stupid.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      tablets will again vanish because they're stupid.

      Ahh elementary school, where grouchy kids call anything they don't like stupid. s/elementary school/the internet/g

    • by spire3661 (1038968) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @03:17PM (#42352001) Journal
      If by 'tablets disappear' you mean they will become so ubiquitous and cheap as to not even register as 'devices' anymore, then I agree.
      • by geekoid (135745)

        You need to send in your Humor and sarcasm Detection Module of a tune up.

        • by kainalu (1758320)
          Tune up? Time to replace yours. The new models do live firmware and definition updates. Simply connect to wifi.
      • They're not even useful for anything. Slow typing and everything is handled on my phone just as well, except maybe playing Go... except Godroid does that fine. Kindle is better for reading, because eInk display rocks; though I've read books on my phone too, with the Kindle app.

        Back with Microsoft Transcriber/Calligrapher, handwriting recognition was ridiculously accurate... then Samsung made a concerted effort to get rid of the stylus because "consumers hate the stylus" (biggest mistake ever), and now

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 20, 2012 @02:57PM (#42351759)

    I'm probably considered one myself and I am very much interested in old technology, but I can't stand people using these terms. I can't take them seriously. Do they think that they're being "hip" or "clever" by using these terms against themselves? People like that really bug me. I get "poser" and "hipster" vibes from them, just like I did when the average late teen started wearing shirts with the NES controller printed on it, or when people had to wait in line for the LOTR movies in spite of never even having read the books.

    • by Spy Handler (822350) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @03:15PM (#42351967) Homepage Journal

      the book's author seems to be a genuine nerd. Computer and electronics wizard? Check. Physically weak and dreaded gym classes? Check. Withdrawn and indoors most of the time? Check.

      • "Nerd" doesn't have to mean "physically weak".

        • by geekoid (135745)

          Yes, it does. Find some other bandwagon to glom onto.

          • Oh, so physically powerful or fit people can't be part of the club? I see. Tell me though, I'm curious, where do you draw the line, is it by BMI, height, weight, gender, or what? Are there lower standards for women? I know a couple of very small and light Asian (and one African-American) ladies with all sorts of martial arts qualifications who would be considered very physically competent while not being at all physically imposing, how about them? This really is through the looking glass here.

            • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Thursday December 20, 2012 @04:50PM (#42352933)

              I'm curious, where do you draw the line, is it by BMI, height, weight, gender, or what?

              Simple rule of thumb: If girls find you attractive, you are not a nerd.

              • by volmtech (769154)
                No, if girls find you attractive and you don't notice it, you are also a nerd. When the smoking hot, blonde, solo majorette, who's locker is directly above yours, dumps her damp gym clothes on your head every day for a week and all you do is get annoyed, you are a nerd. I know she was interested in because my brother was in one of her class and she ask him if he thought I would like to ask her out. When he told me that I asked him "You knew she wanted to go out with me AND YOU DIDN'T TELL ME! The next time
            • by timeOday (582209)
              Don't sweat it. You just started an argument over the definition of "nerd." You're in.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      or when people had to wait in line for the LOTR movies in spite of never even having read the books.

      ing read the books.

      You were highly indignant over the fact that there were Elves at the battle of Helms Deep and couldn't enjoy any part of the moves at all because of that, didn't you.

      We're talking about fiction here. Not about some religious nuts who insist on pushing their Biblical Myth as an alternate "theory" to scientific fact.

      And if someone wants to call themselves a "Geek" or "Nerd" or whatever, what skin is it off of your ass?

      Get a life.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Aspergers alert! Aspergers alert!! *whoop* *whoop* We have a level 5 Aspergers emergency here people!

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        Aspergers alert! Aspergers alert!! *whoop* *whoop* We have a level 5 Aspergers emergency here people!

        I think that just counts as background noise on slashdot.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by mcgrew (92797) *

      I'm probably considered one myself and I am very much interested in old technology, but I can't stand people using these terms.

      It's probably like gays now calling themselves "queer". What bothers me is the nerd wannabes that show up at slashdot who think Apple is the epitome of coolness and geekery, the folks who never tore a piece of electronics apart, let alone pu it back together with added functionality, never wrote a line of code, wouldn't know what a soldering iron is for if you handed them a hot one

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Apple IS the epitome of coolness and geekery,

        ", the folks who never tore a piece of electronics apart, let alone pu it back together with added functionality, "
        those would be nerds, not geeks.

    • Well, newsflash, there was a bit of a cultural shift. At some point back there we hit a critical mass. There were enough of us, and we did enough cool things, and we had enough culture-points that we overthrew the stigma previously associated with us. Geeky is the new cool.
      And as with this shift, you get the hanger-ons, the posers, the wanna-bes. Those who want to be cool, but just don't quite have it, for whatever reason.
      I'm pretty sure I can say I'm a geek; I was called one back when it was an insult. B
    • When I was a teen our NES club made our own controller t-shirts with Puff Paint. I was just way ahead of the hip curve. I think they call that the way too geeky curve.

    • by i kan reed (749298) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @04:47PM (#42352913) Homepage Journal

      Oh my god, how dare someone self-identify. People aren't allowed to have their own identities, only the ones you give them.

      • by AK Marc (707885)
        As opposed to a nerd in school who self-identified as a jock, where he would be accepted by the jocks. Oh wait, he'd get the shit beat out of him until he self-identified with an acceptable group. People are allowed to have any identity they like, but if they pick one that fits a popular definition, that definition will be used to describe them.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    While the timeline of this story mirrors my era in time (and is my favorite one to read about), this isn't exactly the "dawn" of 20th Century geekery.

    However, I bet I would enjoy the hell out of this book, just because of my cohort.

  • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Thursday December 20, 2012 @03:15PM (#42351965)

    Our grandkids will still have shitty household robotics. They will have long ago given up on 3-D printers, since it will still only good for producing cheap plastic crap. And their mobile access will be better and faster, but not really any more useful. And they'll still be dreaming of the day man sets foot on Mars and of fusion power, both of which their government will be promising, as always, "In about 30 years"

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      They'll also look back at the days when there was oil and cars and grocery stores and electricity and curse their ancestors for wasting it all.

    • by mcgrew (92797) * on Thursday December 20, 2012 @03:35PM (#42352193) Homepage Journal

      Our grandkids will still have shitty household robotics.

      You mean like the shitty $250 computers that blow the $4000 ones we had thirty years ago away?

      They will have long ago given up on 3-D printers, since it will still only good for producing cheap plastic crap.

      Do you see anything in the stores that isn't cheap plastic crap? When was the last time you saw a TV in a wooden cabinet?

      And their mobile access will be better and faster, but not really any more useful.

      Like our cable and DSL are better and faster than 56k, but not really any more useful than the internet was 20 years ago?

      You have no imagination whatever. Today's youngsters will see scientific and technological wonders we can't even dream of today, any more than I could have dreamed of not needing corrective lenses some day, any more than I thought I'd have a phone, camera, sound recorder, sound movie camera, calculator, adress book, and more in a tiny pocket sized device that everyone has.

      Looking at the advances that have happened in my own life, well, I'm stunned and amazed. The youngsters will see even more. I envy them.

      • by Hatta (162192)

        Our grandkids will still have shitty household robotics.

        You mean like the shitty $250 computers that blow the $4000 ones we had thirty years ago away?

        Those $4000 computers are still going to be functioning when your grandkids have grandkids. It's unlikely a $250 computer today will last a decade.

        • Yes, but instead of 1 $4000 computer that is still the same old slow computer that no one writes software for running at some god forsakenly slow speed that no accessories, add-ons or parts, you can have 16. Lets say your $250 computer has a replacement cycle of 3 years, pretty common number. That means the 16 $250 you will buy instead will be spread out over 48 years.

          In some applications it makes sense for the expensive computer, in industry you don't want to switch stuff out every other day of the week. I

      • Do you see anything in the stores that isn't cheap plastic crap? When was the last time you saw a TV in a wooden cabinet?

        As cheap plastic becomes the norm, I foresee more of this in the geek counterculture

        http://forum.kizzume.com/technology-computers/wooden-and-steampunk-computer-cases-t1504.html [kizzume.com]

        It would not surprise me if there is a market for high tech disguised as historical devices out there.

      • You mean like the shitty $250 computers that blow the $4000 ones we had thirty years ago away?

        30 years ago, that would be 1982. That puts you out by several orders of magnitude.

        In 1982, the Cray 1M was the fastest supercomputer in existence, running at a blistering 83MHz, with an unprecedented 32M of RAM. I think in terms of raw FLOPS, they're about on a par (ignoring the GPU) but the Rpi would win handily at integer stuff and utterly trounce the Cray IM for anything requiring more than 32M of RAM. Oh, and

    • by KalvinB (205500)

      You know, there's a huge market for cheap plastic crap. All those lazy kids that just sit around playing video games might be able to make a living having their makerbot(s) print out a bunch of crap to sell while they continue to sit around playing video games.

  • by InsertWittyNameHere (1438813) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @03:36PM (#42352203)
    Ok, I'm interested. Where can I buy this as a DRM-free eBook? Not iBooks/Kindle, just a PDF or ePub or something similar that I can open anywhere.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Most nerds don't procreate

  • Sounds a lot like the world I grew up in. I remember spending several years running a BBS back in 80s. Just remember kids, REAL nerds play 1st edition rules.
  • I am not going to even download this book for free based on this review. I just hope, for the sake of whoever does get to read the book, it is not as full of cliches as this review.

    "perfect storm of nerd-incubation factors"
    "Savetz' ... blossoming into an engaged, social animal. "

    I am sorry, but the vision of a nice introverted kid turning into an engaged animal is too terrible to contemplate.

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