Growing Up Geek: Tom Merritt

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Growing Up Geek: Tom Merritt
Welcome to Growing Up Geek, an ongoing feature where we take a look back at our youth and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. Today, we have a special guest: journalist and broadcaster Tom Merritt, current host of Tech News Today on

I always hesitate to apply the term geek to myself. To me it's an honorific. Someone with super mad skills or knowledge deserves the term, and the superior of all those who deserve it is the alpha geek. But times being what they are geek has become a term of currency. Before I let this devolve into a debate about the difference between geek and nerd, let's move on to the evidence. You, dear reader can decide for yourself where on the geek scale I belong.

TI-30My love affair with things geeky begins with a pocket calculator and Star Wars. They were my two obsessions growing up. At first it was a little candy-buttoned calculator with an LED readout, my Dad used for his food science that I would use to spell hello by typing 01134 and turning it upside down. But then Dad brought home the TI-30. It had memory. It had Log functions. It taught me what sine and cosine were. It had a cardboard cutout that let me calculate my biorhythms. (It was the 1970s after all). I dominated the thing so much, that my Dad was forced to buy a second one in order to be able to use it for work stuff.

Then of course came Star Wars. I don't recall exactly why, but I first saw it at a drive-in theater in Springfield, Illinois as a double feature with Grizzly Adams. I loved it. It was space. It was adventure. It was everything movies had never been to me before. I was obsessed with the action figures. To this day I still drift through department store toy sections to look at the Star Wars toys, just to get a brief reminder of the jolt I had examining the ever-expanding collections available when I was 7. I had to split my collection with my sister at first. Thank goodness she hit puberty first and gave up her interest. But I still sort of think of C3PO, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca as weirdly belonging to my sister.

My movie and TV interest proceeded along a predictable path. I embraced Battlestar Galactica, including the PhotoNovel, as the heir of Star Wars on television. And of course, was glued to TV for all Star Wars specials, including the famous Life Day one. Superman, Buck Rogers, Tron, War Games and more all followed in good order. I watched Star Trek with my Dad on Sunday mornings at 11 AM on Channel 11. He liked it because he had been in the Navy. I liked it because of spaceships.
But I wanted stuff to be real. Which leads me to the two greatest decisions in my geek childhood.

The first came in the summer I went to "science camp" at Kaskaskia College and got to choose three courses. I chose futurism, chess, and computers. Futurism got canceled, because I was apparently the only 11 year old interested. Computers on the other hand was packed. Upon entering the room for the first time, I was confronted with two columns of tables. On the right side of the room sat tables with TRS-80s. On the other side were Apple IIs. I still to this day wonder if the teachers of that two week class knew what they were doing when they forced this choice. I made a fateful choice and sat on the Apple II side.

The next fateful choice came later that summer. I had saved for quite awhile to buy an Atari 2600. Several of my friends had it and I dreamed of playing Pac-Man and Space Invaders in my own home. I brought my bank full of money to the department store with it's $99 (a fortune!) in it and strode up to the shelves with the Atari boxes on them. My heart was beating fast. This was the moment I had been waiting for. As I reached with probably trembling hands to take the box off the shelf, my Dad stopped me.

"Before you decide, I have an offer for you."

My heart fell. He was going to stop me from getting the Atari 2600 somehow. I knew it.

"You can buy the game thing if you want. Or, I will give you an extra hundred dollars, and you can buy that." He pointed to the TI 99/4A. Which sat on the shelf next to the 2600s with a price tag of $199.99. I felt angry. How dare he! This was my moment of triumph and I would be left without the Atari I had dreamed of. But then, that was a real computer he was pointing at.

Manual"I can get the Atari if I want?" I asked. My Dad reassured me that would be fine, but he wouldn't give me any extra money in that case. He was offering me matching funds. A subsidy to get me to buy a real computer.

I realized I would be getting more for my money. Then I noticed the cartridge slot on the TI. "And I can buy games for the TI too?" Dad agreed that yes I could buy games. It was settled. I went home with the TI-99/4A and probably as a reward for my smart decision, Dad sprung for a copy of TI Invaders and Parsec.

I was off to the races. Soon I was filling up cassettes with slot machine programs, text adventures and who knows what. Eventually my programming skills, such as they were, outstripped the TI, and I either needed the Expanded Memory and Advanced Basic cartridge or a new computer.

I got a Commodore 64 for Christmas. And a 1541 floppy drive. By High School I was actively swapping floppies with kids in the neighborhood and running a fantasy baseball league out of my room, using Micro League for the C64.

Eventually I left home and got an IBM PS/2 and was a Windows person, active on Gopher, and Usenet and that darned graphical Web that brought all the problems I predicted but was worth it anyway. In the mid part of the 2000s Boot Camp lured me back to my roots and the world of Apple. And recently I bought the complete Star Wars on Blu-ray. I know, some of you will say not to encourage these Lucas changes, but I can't help it. That is also my roots.

Tom Merritt can be found on Twitter (@acedtect), Google+, and of course every weeknight at 2:30pm PT / 5:30pm ET as the host of Tech News Today.
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