tgeller writes "Book Review of "Terrible Nerd"
Contact: Tom Geller, 415-317-1805, email@example.com, Slashdot username "tgeller"
(Note: Slashdot editor Tim Lord and I discussed this review a bit in email. -TG)
Title: Terrible Nerd
Author: Kevin Savetz
Pages: 256 pages
Publisher: Savetz Publishing
Reviewer: Tom Geller
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.
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.
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