What Makes You So Smart, Geek Dad? - Pacific Standard

What Makes You So Smart, Geek Dad?

Noah Davis talks to computer programmer and GeekDad.com editor Matt Blum about algebra, old computers, and teaching his kids how to be geeks.
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(Photo: Araya Diaz)

(Photo: Araya Diaz)

Matt Blum spends his days working as a computer programmer and his nights as the editor-in-chief of GeekDad.com. It works out nicely as he is a self-described geek and a dad. He talked to Pacific Standard about learning algebra in sixth grade, embracing his geek status, and raising children who proudly carry on their father's legacy.

What was your education like when you were younger?

My parents were very big into education. My father has a doctorate in chemical engineering, and my mother has a master's in English. There were always technical books and literature around the house. I read Shakespeare at a fairly early age because it was there, and it looked like fun. The technical books were a little dry when I was younger [laughs].

The whole family is going to a Dr. Who convention in late March. I successfully converted my wife into a geek. She will even admit it.

I was in the Gifted and Talented program at the local public schools growing up. That's where I met Owen [Thomas] and Andrew [Kirmse]. We were friends from elementary school. I went to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. I had a blast there and got a really great grounding in technology. I decided to become a programmer. Even before high school I was doing a little bit of programming. That was the 1980s, so there wasn't a lot of ability to get programming out there. If you wanted to produce software to sell to people you couldn't just put it online. You had to have a company.

You decided you wanted to program very early. How did you come to it?

My interest in computers started when I was seven or so. My elementary school had Atari 400s and 800s. The Atari 400 didn't even have a real keyboard. It looked kind of like an iPad keyboard, except not as useful. The Atari 800 had the five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy drives that made it sound like they were chewing the disk. I really enjoyed them. I learned how to program in BASIC on those. In 1983, my parents bought an IBM PC, the original one that didn't have a hard drive. I found ways to program on that, first in BASIC and then in Pascal.

I took a couple classes here and there. I took one at American University in Washington, D.C. It was so long ago that they taught us how to read punchcards. That technology became obsolete very quickly. I remember taking another class where we used TRS-80s. You had to write out to a drive that was basically a tape recorder. The good old days.

You were surrounded by a lot of smart kids. Did you consider yourself smart? Smarter than most of the kids in your class?

I definitely did. I knew that there were a lot of other smart people there but especially when it came to math, Owen, Andrew, and I, and maybe one other kid were way ahead. They had to get somebody from the county schools to teach us math. We were learning algebra in sixth grade. That obviously made me feel a little special, but I didn't think about it too much.

When did computer programming become a career?

When I was in high school I really enjoyed it and seemed to be pretty good at it. It also seemed to be a pretty good prospect for earning a living. My mother had an MA in English, and I used to read a lot. I enjoyed writing quite a bit. When I went to college at Brandeis University, I originally wanted to have a double major in computer science and English. Both of those programs were fairly rigorous at Brandeis, and I realized that if I was going to do them both, I wasn't going to have time for a life. I decided that that was probably not feasible. I went with a major in computer science and took a lot of English classes as well.

When did you get involved in Geek Dad?

I blogged a little bit online when that started to get going, and then in 2007, I was reading a blog called Geek Dad on Wired.com. I was a geek and a dad, and I really enjoyed it. Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired, founded it and put out a call for new writers. I thought it sounded like fun so I applied and started writing for them. Eventually I became one of the editorial staff. We split off from Wired almost two years ago. It's been a lot of fun. I'm the editor-in-chief at the moment. I love being able to have an outlet for my writing and my tech at the same time.

Are you still doing software programing?

Yeah, that's my day job. Unless you're Stephen King, writing doesn't really pay the bills.

You embraced your geek status early.

I've always been a geek. Growing up in the '80s, it was not as well accepted. Back then, if you played a video game people questioned you. Now you have multi-billion dollar games coming out. It's ridiculous. It hardly has any stigma. It is a lot easier to be a geek. But I've always been a geek, and I tried to be proud of that. It was a little tough some times. I did get a little bit of bullying here and there. It helped that I was in the Gifted and Talented program and then at Jefferson where a lot of other people were also geeks.

I had an older brother. He got into the geeky stuff first. I got interested in it. My mother was a little bit into it too. She's not as much of a geek as I am, but she is definitely a geek. I got into watching the original Star Trek with her. My brother had Tolkien, Bradbury, and such. I would grab those books from his room and read them, especially when he wasn't looking. I saw Star Wars not when it first came out but when it came back the next year in 1978. Unfortunately when it was first out, my parents decided that I was just a little bit too young. I absolutely loved it and got totally immersed. I was a huge Star Wars nut. I dressed as Darth Vader for Halloween. I had action figures. I made up stories for them. Basically any time my grandparents wanted to buy me a present, they'd get me a Star Wars toy.

Did you keep up the reading into adulthood?

I've kept myself fairly well read. These days I don't get to read quite as much as I'd like to because I have to have time, but I do try to keep reading. A lot of it is on my e-readers because it's more convenient. I'll have my iPad with me, and I'll pull up my Kindle app and start reading if I'm waiting for something to happen. Also, I'll play games.

My wife and I have definitely tried to instill a love of reading in our kids. We've read to them every day from when they were very little, even before they had any idea what we were doing. They were two months old. Every night before bed, we would take out books and read to them. We'd make it a ritual. As they grew up, we'd advance the level of the book. I read The Hobbit to them. We read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. They got very into reading and very specifically into the geeky stuff, which of course I was hoping.

Was that your plan all along?

It's not so much a plan as [it is] if you love something, you want other people to love it—and you especially want the people that you love to love it. I've loved this stuff since I was a kid, and I wanted to share that with them. It's a big part of my life and I hoped they would find it as interesting as I did. To my delight, they did. They both are very proud of themselves as geeks. They wear shirts that identify themselves as geeks. They love it. They both have Sonic screwdrivers. The whole family is going to a Dr. Who convention in late March. I successfully converted my wife into a geek. She will even admit it.

Who should I talk to next?

Oni Hartstein. She's a Web cartoonist and runs geeky conventions, including an upcoming Doctor Who con in March. She's become a remarkably successful cartoonist, blogger (mostly about haunted houses), project manager (for her day job), and convention-organizer.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.

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