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The Geek Handbook: A Review and History

© 2000 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, July/August 2000, pp. 77-78, reprint information

Companion review | I am not a geek

First, The History

Several years ago, someone sent me a very funny document via E-mail, titled "A Girl's Guide to Geek Guys." Written by Mikki Halpin and Victoria Maat, the document was otherwise unattributed. This was fairly early in the history of the "commercial" Internet of today, and E-mail was just beginning to replace fax machines as the tool of choice for sharing samizdat* bits of humor and wisdom.**

After a fruitless search for the authors (I wanted to reprint it in the Washington Apple Pi Journal), I decided to post it on the Pi's Web site:


It has been up there since September 4, 1995, one of the oldest entries in the Pi's famously odd and unusual "Infrequently Asked Questions" archive.

Then, on April 10, 2000, the Pi Webmaster received an E-mail from Mikki Halpin:***

I noticed you have an unauthorized copy of my and Victoria's article "A Girl's Guide to Geek Guys" up on your website..... it's fine--At this point I have given up on trying to deal with the republishing! but I would like to ask you to please put a sentence or something somewhere that mentions I now have a book out based on the article. It's called The Geek Handbook. You can link to the Amazon page for the book, or to the book website www.thegeekhandbook.com. I can also send you a little gif of the logo if you like.

Naturally, we put a link on the Pi Web site to Mikki's Web site. Then we read the book.

Now, The Review

As far as user manuals go, it has some common similarities and some common flaws. Similarities include a decent table of contents, appropriate (if somewhat startling) illustrations, and no index. The biggest common flaw: no index. Does a 113 page book need an index? Yes: it makes it easier to look up quotes.

For example, in the "Geeks and History" section, it has this entry for 1884:

Nikola Telsa arrives in America. He goes on to pioneer innovations in radio, electric current, vacuum tubes, and many other areas. Germphobic and really geeky (at dinner parties he often calculated the cubic contents of his plate), Telsa set a standard for brilliance and eccentricity which still stands.

Isn't that well worth knowing? If the book had an index, you could easily use it to see that this entry is on p. 31. Without an index, you'd have to puzzle through several pages, and run the risk of getting confused when looking up critical information ("Was that Nikola Telsa or Robert J. Van de Graaff?"). Similarly, without an index, it is harder to discover when the first Radio Shack catalog was published (1939) or the name of the first computer manual (Fred Gruenberger wrote the cleverly titled Computer Manual for the University of Wisconsin Press in 1952).

The book is "packaged" as a POP (Point-Of-Purchase) book, one of those things publishers hope bookstores will put near the register to attract impulse purchases. So you might find The Geek Handbook in the computer section of a bookstore, or you might find it in with the "Juggling for the Complete Klutz" books and other POP offerings.****

Though not without controversy (see the two accompanying articles), I can say this is almost perfect reading fare for taking long, trans-Pacific flights. True, your fellow passengers may look at you as if you are a loony but, let's face it, only a loony would be willing to spend 19 hours in the air during a 24-hour period. It will take only a fraction of the flight to read the book, and then you can entertain yourself by tormenting everyone within earshot by quoting select passages. (This, by the way, may result in an added bonus: your travelling companions may offer, even insist, that you be first off the plane when it lands. Or even before it lands.)

Learning about geeks is also a good survival skill. As one bit of Internet graffito recently noted, "Treat geeks with respect. You'll work for one someday."

* Samizdat is a Russian word meaning "self publishing." It originally referred to the underground press in the Soviet Union, duplicating and distributing banned books. In recent years the meaning has expanded to cover the ability of individuals to use laser printers, E-mail and the Web to publish material without benefit of formal publishing channels.

** Prior to fax machines, of course, people used bumper stickers. As almost everyone knows, bumper stickers lack the bandwidth of fax machines, and are not a safe medium for messages longer than, say, three to five words. And fax machines have but a fraction of the bandwidth of E-mail. If you want to get rich, find the next great medium for bumper sticker wisdom, something that will eclipse even E-mail. Then find a geek to create it, and make billions.

*** The E-mail said it was sent with "Microsoft Outlook Express Macintosh Edition - 4.5." We considered this a good sign, though she should probably upgrade to 5.0.

**** A sick bookstore employee with a sense of history might place it in the cookbook section. "But that would be wrong," as Richard Nixon said.

Mikki Halprin, The Geek Handbook: User Guide and Documentation for the Geek in Your Life. Pocket Books, 2000. $9.95. ISBN 0-671-03686-6

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Revised July 1, 2000 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/