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Book Review: Terrible Nerd 66

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 @03:54PM (#42351729) Homepage 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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 20, 2012 @03:57PM (#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 spire3661 ( 1038968 ) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @04:17PM (#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 Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 20, 2012 @04:28PM (#42352111)

    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 @04:35PM (#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 mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Thursday December 20, 2012 @04:49PM (#42352299) Homepage Journal

    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 barrel end first, the ones who think puting money into space science is foolish... those are the ones who annoy me.

  • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @05:47PM (#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.

Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. -- Dr. Laurence J. Peter