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Growing Up Geek: Thomas Ricker


Welcome to Growing Up Geek, a new feature where we take a look back at our youth, and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. This week, we have our very own Senior Editor, Thomas Ricker.

I'm old. In fact, I'm so old that I predate geek chic. In my awkward years, a period that spanned into my early 20s, the term "geek" was a slander; a word reserved for boys with thick glasses, red hair, pale skin, freckles, and a talent for math and science. In other words, me. The kid whose mother made him wear a white t-shirt in the public swimming pool. The kid who wore a patch to help correct a lazy eye. Or, as my best friend described my condition at St. Peter's grade school, "you're everything that I hate." Fortunately (at least that's how I felt at the time) I was also athletic so I ran with the jocks -- the cool kids, the boys whose hair stayed feathered even after the helmet was removed -- both on the field and off, within the highly competitive social circles laced with adrenaline and cheerleaders on the cusp of becoming Cosmo girls. A John Hughes anomaly, to be sure. Desperate for acceptance, I all but abandoned intellectual discourse for the homoerotic embrace of my squat-thrust spotters in the weight room. This left little room for nerding out anywhere but home. I certainly wasn't going to build a variable voltage power supply with our fullback. That's where my father stepped in.

Without a doubt, my secret nerdism was seeded by regular visits to Radio Shack with my pops, an engineer who actually built radios for a living. No, not the consumer variety, but top-secret stuff developed for the US military during the height of the Cold War. A man with intimate knowledge of Area 51 and so steeped in classified technology that he saw very early on how CDMA and GPS technologies, once commercialized, would revolutionize consumer electronics. It was during these visits to The Shack that I was first exposed to bins of colorfully-banded resistors and tightly-wound spools of solder. The foundation was set, the outcome was inevitable.

At home, we lived in an early adopter's paradise. When I was just five, my father brought home HP's first "pocket" calculator, the HP-35. It was amazing and mysterious and wonderful -- a truly magical and revolutionary device of its time. When I was a bit older and finally allowed to touch it, I spent countless hours making the $400 reverse polish scientific calculator spell dirty words like 5318008 and 7734. Next, my father, my hero, brought Pong into the house when I was seven. Yes, Pong, the world's first household gaming console. It was connected to the old Hi-Fi television console in our basement, positioned directly across from our fully-stocked cocktail bar and the Japanese Pachinko machine my father picked up on a business trip. The stand-alone console housed both the bulbous-paneled television and flip-top turntable with integrated stereo speakers. Although it's hard to imagine it now, believe me, this was the 50-inch LCD and 7-speaker surround sound setup equivalent of its day. A suburban Ohio chill-out room hep enough to give Don Draper pause.

Our first computer was an Apple ][e. It was awesome -- I still remember helping my father pick it out, or at least feeling like I contributed to the decision. My pops sprung for a pair of floppy drives and a screen that illuminated my passion in a rich green phosphorescent glow. On the wall behind it my father pasted a glorious 20x10-foot raised graphic relief map showing a world seemingly dominated by the mighty USSR. Remember, this was some twenty years before Google Earth. I immediately started gaming with a neighbor kid who quickly turned me on to software development. We started writing code in BASIC at the age of fifteen for a game of our own. He moved away and the development stopped. This is pre-Internet mind you, no email let alone Facebook to stay in touch. With my one and only pure-geek friend gone, I returned to the safety of sports where if / then results were governed by the size of your pecs -- behavior that continued all the way through my university years.

Fast forwarding ahead, I somehow graduated with a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering without making a single ECE friend over the 4+ years (the "+" on account of the innebriated ten weeks wasted playing collegiate rugby) I spent at Ohio University. In other words, I did it alone, afraid to embrace my inner geek publicly. My final project, was to build a rather simple computer-controlled robot. The project splayed wide my childhood fascinations to expose the enchanting world of robotics within, something that has stuck with me ever since.

It was my first job that would establish my absolute disgust with poorly designed user interfaces. I graduated OU and immediately went to work for General Motors in Detroit, and later in Flint. Yes, Michael Moore's Flint where I've seen rabbits sold as both pets and meat. A work / life experience that would shape the person I've become. Not only did I develop my true self -- an edgy bastard with a taste for the subversive who cries while watching Rocky -- I also evolved a very real physical revulsion to poorly designed user experiences (reference Nokia N97 review). A reaction triggered by the fact that I drove a Honda while working at GM plants as the "IT guy" during the early 90s -- a time when the entire US automotive industry was blaming the Japanese for its crumbling empire. Although fist fights and "keyings" were always a threat (and occasionally, a reality), I simply wasn't going to "buy American" just to, well, buy American. An argument so contrary to my free-market capitalistic thinking that I purchased a used Honda in economic and philosophical retaliation -- I just wanted the best product I could afford (which wasn't much).

Now imagine for a second what it was like to drive a typical GM car at the time: seated on a bench of matted foam, you crane your neck to check the convoluted instrument panel obstructed by a needlessly chunky steering wheel. You then reach far across the dash to adjust the impossibly small volume knob of the Delco radio and nearly hit the curb as you slush around a corner on a suspension of coagulated cheeseburger fat. Now, imagine stepping into a comparably priced Honda from the same period: you're seated in a cockpit, the ergomomic experience thoroughly thought through from the perspective of the driver. Everything's within reach and all the information you need is ready at a glance. It feels innovative, obvious, fun even. It makes you think, why hasn't anyone done this before. The difference between a GM car and a Honda in the early 90s was as dramatic as the difference between a RAZR and the iPhone in 2007. The fact that the US automobile industry couldn't see this was incredibly frustrating and I was powerless to change it. So I learned UNIX system administration, bought a first generation Saturn, landed a job in Silicon Valley -- the cradle of nerdilization -- and outwardly embraced my inner geek. The rest, as they say, is mystory.

P.S. Although I'm a recovering jock, I will never EVER subscribe to the notion that a nerd must obsess over Star Wars or Lego after the age of 14. In fact, I will fight anybody brazen enough to gift me with a George Lucas minifig. That includes you Dad, I mean it.

Thomas has written 1,130,288 words on 5,039 posts since he started writing for Engadget 1,912 days ago. He can be contacted on Twitter @trixxy if you'd like to insult him about his appearance in these photos.

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Clayton Morris
Paul Miller
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