Just Another Geek

… though I don’t wear sweatpants.

Well, it’s official. I’ve reached the third milestone of computer geekness. At some point long ago, I held out hope that the course of history could be changed. But it’s too far gone now. I am a condemned man. I’m going to be a geek for the rest of my life.

Milestone #1: Cracking open a computer case without having the first clue about what I was doing. It was moving-in day of my junior year; our college had just switched from possibly the most incompetent networking technology invented, LocalTalk, to what the rest of the world used, plain old (fast) Ethernet. For me, the change entailed sticking a cable into a port on the back of my PowerBook that had a mysterious symbol over it, as opposed to one with a picture of a printer above it.

The transition to faster online porn was more difficult for other people, though. A female friend of mine had just been given an eMachine computer (eMachines being a company that offered up extremely cheap PCs, possibly by using slave labor or robots) that didn’t come with an Ethernet card already installed. Without one, she couldn’t get any porn at all.

She showed up at my door with a small box containing an Ethernet card and a lot of other weird dangly bits and possibly a screwdriver in her other hand. I was the geekiest person she knew, she reasoned, so obviously I must know how to do it.

At that point, I was an Apple geek, which meant that my knowledge of computers came to a crashing halt as soon as I opened the case of a computer. Apple computers, with a few exceptions that appeared on the scene a couple years ago, were not designed to be opened. Having parts changed and new things added should only be done by those who would do it while you weren’t watching and then charge you money. To allow otherwise would demolish the illusion that awesomely serene pixies were in charge of the goings-on inside.

It was quasi-sexual, sitting on her bed with her computer’s guts wide open. She sat on the other side of the bed as I puzzled over the instructions supplied first by eMachines (helpful Lego-style directions on how to open up the computer case) and then 3Com, the company that made the Ethernet card (terse directions with primitive caveman diagrams).

The funny thing about messing around with the insides of computers is that it’s all so fragile and expensive in there. You have to be very gentle; before you even start, you have to touch a metal part of the case so that any static electricity you happen to have in your body gets discharged. Otherwise, you’re liable to fry the delicious, important chips in there.

Yet you have to use a good amount of force to make things fit right — to “seat the card correctly,” in the words of Ethernet card manuals worldwide. If you have things lined up the wrong way and you push hard enough, you break it. If you have it lined up right, you still have to push hard and long enough until you hear that final click, of copper bits meeting copper bits in a design created by engineers who have probably long since passed from this earth.

Like I said, it was kind of a sexual experience. Especially when I wasn’t sure which slot the card was supposed to go in and my friend started offering advice from across the bed. I got it right eventually, after having to go back and push the card in a little harder when it didn’t work right the first time.

(Inexperience.)

I still have the piece of metal that I had to pop off the back of her computer to expose the new Ethernet port to the outside world. Part of it is that it’s so symbolic of that bizarre technology/sexuality connection. But also it reminds me that I can figure things out, even if it does take a pretty girl’s help.

So much of being a geek is not really having a clue about what you’re doing. The normal person will either ask for help or give up when it comes to new territory. The neophyte geek will plunge on recklessly and end up with a smoking heap of silicon. The wise geek heads off to the library for a few days and comes back a Zen master.

I try to apply this strategy to my life as a whole as much as possible.

Milestone #2: Using Unix. You’re not really a geek until you’ve at least tried using Unix. It’s an operating system that was originally designed in the 1970s, but unlike most every other piece of software created then, it’s still around now. Instead of being relegated to piece of crap machines that lie in wait in closets everywhere waiting for the human race to die out so that they can have their day in the sun, Unix just grew. It will probably exist as long as there are computers — and even if an apocalypse does come, there will still be tubby bearded men mumbling the word “fsck” to themselves in corners of caves.

Unix, in short, is the wheel. As in “don’t reinvent the wheel.” Its design is rich and primal. It comes from a time before mice you could plug into a computer, before computers could make sounds greater than a single tone of beep. Before icons, before graphics entirely.

Only words.

When I finish the first draft of this essay, instead of dragging a sheet of dog-eared paper from a floppy disk to a hard drive, I’ll type:

cp /mnt/floppy/geek.txt ~/words/crunchable/

And the end of the world is only one sentence away:

rm -rf /

The commands are obscure and sleek, the way poetry is. If you want pictures of pieces of paper and hard drives, there is software that will give them to you. But the words at the core of Unix will never be erased. Because of that, the pictures eventually feel like vanity.

Unix is also different from Windows and the Macintosh in that it relies entirely upon you. You can completely screw up your system with a single command, and it won’t stop you. It won’t even warn you if you don’t want it to. If you want to add a new piece of hardware to your computer, it’s up to you to figure out how to make the system talk to it.

There is no guided help built in. No balloons will pop up to tell you what

[klimas@sandcastle floppy] $

means, and no wizards will step you through finding files you misplaced. There are companies that sell these kinds of things, but the only signposts built into Unix’s core are man pages — “man” being a shortened version of manual. Man pages are dense, often confusing pieces of documentation. Sort of like the back pages of your car’s owner’s manual in that they’re intended for people who already have a clue or two, but need more information.

Some people would call this system unnecessarily obtuse. I call it a challenge. And that’s what makes Unix a geek rite of passage. You’ll only get as far in Unix as your knowledge extends. You don’t get much of anything for free.

Using Unix also means embracing computing’s history, understanding that all of the new features that are touted every time a new version of Windows or the Macintosh OS comes trotting out are nothing but an insulting slight of hand. “My goodness!” Microsoft’s imaginary girlfriend cries. “Now when my computer crashes, I don’t have to sit there for a few minutes as some program called CHKDSK runs.” “Holy cow!” Apple’s dream date exclaims. “Now I can run a Web server on my computer.”

The Unix geek says to them, “Glad you could finally make it to the party! Unfortunately, the chips and dip ran out about three years ago.”

It’s kind of strange how they ask you for money for software that doesn’t do as much as it could, and give the good stuff away for free. Thing is, you don’t have to pay a cent to get Unix if you want it — there’s a version of it that you can get for free from the Internet called Linux.

You just have to be willing to learn completely something new. Something that’s older than you and will probably exist after you’re dead.

(Like a religion? some cynics would point out here.)

I made the leap to Unix when I graduated from college. Dell used to sell computers that had Linux pre-installed onto them — actually getting Linux to work where Windows or the Mac operating system once was is really the biggest hurdle to getting Linux to work — and so I plunged headfirst into it.

In a way probably only a few poor souls could relate to, it is a paradise.

Milestone #3: Having more than one computer in your life at a time. A couple months ago, I tried going to a Linux users’ group meeting. “User group” is just another word for geek club — but I hoped maybe that it would be different. In a world full of Windows and Macintosh, to use Linux in itself is an act of rebellion.

I was sort of hoping it would be like Fight Club, only without the bloody noses. Instead I mostly found chumps in sweatpants and middle managers who had an unhealthy amount of angst against Microsoft.

But one thing that made the trip worthwhile was watching as one of (I am fearful of using the phrase “my fellow geeks” here) the participants brought in an ancient computer that had been kicking around his house. Its origins were unclear and it looked like it came from that hallowed monochrome green screen era, but a bunch of people got out of their chairs and looked curiously inside it, trying to determine its age and how incredibly glacial its processor must be.

When it was all over, a man who had said very little during the meeting but had a face that seemed to speak of gentleness cultivated in hours in a silent room decided to take it home, presumably to join a couple others of its ilk.

Aha, I thought, this is the line that separates me from these losers. I only have one computer.

Oh, but I am a sorry, sorry man indeed, for am I as guilty as any of those chumps. As I mentioned earlier, I have my Linux box that does everything I could ever want a computer to do for me. I can edit up text in increasingly arcane ways, browse the Web with style and grace, see what Pluto looks like when you’re standing on its moon, Charon, and even shoot people on the Internet. It does all of these things more or less instantaneously and without complaint.

Compare the machine I had before this one, an Apple PowerBook. It is basically a piece of crap. It’s broken itself on three separate occasions; in the final account, everything in it save the screen and keyboard has been replaced. Twice it ate my senior thesis, which I managed to save through sheer dint of will. I, in turn, have knocked the thing off a desk once and cracked the case (which was later fixed by an anonymous Apple engineer, who perhaps took pity on my plight and put a new case on it). I also ripped a key off the keyboard by accident while cleaning it; it took me about two days of frantic head scratching to figure out how to put it back on.

The PowerBook is horribly underpowered. It is ten times as fast as the Apple II I used to play Number Munchers on, but then again, it’s also ten times as slow as a computer you could buy now for $800. Its operating system is so shockingly naïve that if I try to play Solitaire while listening to an mp3, the sound will skip.

But guess which computer I’m using to write this article?

Part of it is that it does have a spacious, bright screen, and that the keys require so light a touch that if you closed your eyes, you could pretend that your thoughts conveyed themselves onto the screen without the help of fingers at all.

But I also like it because its spartan nature is a boon, in a strange way. I can’t really browse the Web very well with it, and shooting people on the Internet would be more slide show than massacre.

In other words, I can only do things with it that matter.

I can write.

Geeks ask a lot of their computers. We learn about new uses for computers and immediately want to try them out — we want to make our machines do things they never even thought of wanting to do before. We want more than the reasonable. We want five kinds of fantastic all happening at once.

Typing these letters on this computer in the dark is different. There are no distractions. Nothing teasing me away from my thoughts.

Only words.

Article © 2002 by Chris Klimas