Saturday, 26 February 2011

Everybody Needs a Geek

My elder daughter phoned me the other evening.

“Papa, I have a problem, I think my computer’s broken.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Windows won’t start.”

“Have you got a recovery CD or DVD or something?”


To be fair, she bought the laptop around four years ago in Spain and quite a lot has happened in her life since then, including a move to Germany. But no, she couldn’t remember doing anything like making a recovery back-up – something you’re advised to do, somewhere in the heap of paper you got when you bought it; guarantees, directions for a quick start, users hand-books in 37 different languages for 6 different models, etc. Nowadays, where operating systems are usually OEM versions, you don’t get installation CDs any more.

“Papa, there’s another problem …”

I make some kind of encouraging noise.

“My term paper, it’s about two thirds finished and …”

“It’s on the computer.”


“I suppose you haven’t done a copy … onto a USB stick, or something … maybe sent yourself an e-mail regularly with the newest version of the paper as an attachment …?”

No, she hadn’t. I can’t blame her. We all know that computers can crash, most of us who’ve been around a while longer can tell all sorts of nasty stories about broken computers and lost files and work that had to be done all over again. And we all know, in theory, about the importance of backing up our files but, be honest, when was the last time you did so? Come to think of it, when was the last time I did? If you like, you can take this as a friendly reminder and do so as soon as you’ve finished reading this.

“Right,” I said, frantically thinking. “There’s a good chance that you’ll have to give up on the computer. The main thing is to try to get the files. I’ll see if I can get in touch with Marcel tomorrow …” This would take a bit of organising; my daughter lives in one town, I live in another, Marcel in yet another. They’re all not that far from each other, but still …

However, a little while later, she phoned me again to say there was no need to call Marcel. Through a friend of hers, she’d already organised a geek of her own.

Geek: A person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance. … Originally, a geek was a carnival performer who bit the heads off chickens.” 

The key phrase here is technical skill. While there was a period in linguistic history (and perhaps cultural and sociological actuality) where the terms geek and nerd were often used interchangeably, today nerd has a much larger component of social incompetence whereas the term geek is more neutrally used for people with technical competence, especially those in the computer area with skills in both hard and software.

Apart from the distinction between geeks and nerds, a further qualification is necessary – the difference between real geeks and wannabe geeks. There are, unfortunately, quite a few of the second category around and one should be extremely wary of them. Wannabe geeks tend to talk loud and long in company about technical, particularly IT subjects. They use a lot of jargon and frequently boast of their prowess. Although some of the members of this group may, through a process of painful trial and error, actually have succeeded in doing some of the things they pontificate about to their own computers at home, it is not advisable to let them near yours. Otherwise, the resultant state of your computer can turn out to be an object lesson in the dangers of believing people who suffer from inflated views of their own competence.

Marcel is my geek, a real bona fide geek and his friendship and goodwill are extremely important to me. He’s a trained IT electrician and works with computers for a living. He is one of those people who genuinely enjoys his work and, being also immensely friendly and obliging, is always prepared to drop round when I have some kind of computer problem that I can’t sort out on my own.

His obliging nature, as those of us who know him better agree, can lead to him being exploited. Being with him at parties over the past few years, I have the feeling that people have started to treat such IT specialists the way they treat doctors; “Oh, you work with computers! … [Oh, you’re a doctor!] … I’ve been wondering whether I can put a new graphic card on my mainboard … [I keep getting this peculiar pain here …].” By the end of the conversation, more often than not, he’s promised to drop by some evening and “have a look.”

For that reason I try not to call him (about computer problems) except when it’s absolutely necessary. In the past couple of years, we’ve got into a pleasant kind of habit where he comes to visit with his wife and kids on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon a couple of times a year – when I can manage it, I usually try to have my daughters and grandson there too. After we’ve had coffee and cake, and the girls are happily talking and the children contentedly playing together, he usually gives the computers a quick going over. He always has a CD case with lots of useful software in it, for example (“Just ignore it if it tells you it wants to look for on-line updates, because then you’ll have to buy a licence.”), or other creative ideas to “optimise” things. The last time he was here, the annoying Windows 7 Starter OS on my younger daughter’s netbook underwent a miraculous transformation to Windows 7 Home Premium inside ten minutes (No, I won’t tell you how, I’m sure you’ll understand I’ve got good reasons not to – let’s just say it was a miracle and leave it at that). But I know that if I get into real trouble I can call him – often we can get the problem sorted out on the phone.

The whole business with my daughter showed me once more how dependent we’ve become on computers (and the internet) for all sorts of things in our everyday life. In the past twenty years or so, a revolution has been sweeping the world – and it’s not over yet. But dependency also brings its own problems, because we tend to organise our lives more and more on the basis of the assumption that the things will always work and we start to encounter major problems when, for some reason, they don’t.

So knowing a competent geek has become as important as having an auto repair shop you can trust. You know, the kind of place you can go to when you have a problem with your car where they don’t immediately start shaking their heads and muttering all sorts of Cassandra-like phrases about possible, costly, time-consuming replacement of large components where you start to wonder if you’re dealing with someone with that Scrooge McDuck syndrome, the dollar signs becoming visible in their eyes. How are you supposed to know whether these guys are telling you the truth? Maybe all that really needs to be done is to change a small part, something that will only cost a few euros and can be done in five minutes.

I’ve been lucky in that respect too. Though it took me a couple of years to find them, I’ve found a small, independent place to deal with my car where the two owners will actually explain to me what’s wrong – in comprehensible, layman’s language – and will frequently tell me things like, “We could replace that with a new part and that would cost you a lot; but one of our guys has to go the scrap-yard this afternoon anyway and he can pick a good used one there for a fraction of the price – if that’s all right with you …” These guys have understood what doing good business is really about; they keep me as a satisfied customer and I recommend them to others.

And I’m very glad I’ve got Marcel; my geek and – much more importantly – my friend. I know that if I’d called him he’d immediately have been prepared to help my daughter with her problem. But her geek was already working on it.

The diagnosis wasn’t good; the hard drive was wrecked. But he managed to save the files all the same. And she’s quite happy with her new Sony Vaio laptop. She figured it was about time to buy a new one anyway and she’d had some money put aside.

It’s white.



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