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How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho

Written by Jon KatzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jon Katz

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: April 18, 2000
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-50518-8
Published by : Villard Ballantine Group
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Jesse and Eric were geeks: suspicious of authority figures, proud of their status as outsiders, fervent in their belief in the positive power of technology. High school had been an unbearable experience and their small-town Idaho families had been torn apart by hard times. On the fringe of society, they had almost no social lives and little to look forward to. They spent every spare cent on their computers and every spare moment on-line. Nobody ever spoke of them, much less for them.

But then they met Jon Katz, a roving journalist who suggested that, in the age of geek impresario Bill Gates, Jesse and Eric had marketable skills that could get them out of Idaho and pave the way to a better life. So they bravely set out to conquer Chicago—geek style. Told with Katz’s trademark charm and sparkle, Geeks is a humorous, moving tale of triumph over adversity and self-acceptance that delivers two irresistible heroes for the digital age and reveals the very human face of technology.

Excerpt

From: Jesse Dailey
To: Jon Katz

When I was looking on the Tribune, there were 433 jobs under ComputerInfo Systems, under every other category I looked in there was an average of 15-20.... A total of about 40% computers. The problem now isn't finding a place in which those jobs are in demand, because like you say ... they are everywhere. The problem is finding a place that wants to hire someone like me. In a Human Resources kinda way I'm defined as 19 w one year of experience.... In reality, I am an ageless geek, with years of personal experience, a fiercely aggressive intelligence coupled with geek wit, and the education of the best online material in the world. Aarrgghh!! too much stress being a geek on the move.:)

?????????

Jesse and Eric lived in a cave-an airless two-bedroom apartment in a dank stucco-and-brick complex on the outskirts of Caldwell. Two doors down, chickens paraded around the street.

The apartment itself was dominated by two computers that sat across from the front door like twin shrines. Everything else-the piles of dirty laundry, the opened Doritos bags, the empty cans of generic soda pop, two ratty old chairs, and a moldering beanbag chair-was dispensable, an afterthought, props.

Jesse's computer was a Pentium 11 300, Asus P2B (Intel BX chipset) motherboard; a Matrix Milleniurn II AGP; 160 MB SDRAM with a 15.5 GB total hard-drive space; a 4X CD-recorder; 24X CD-ROM; a 17-inch Micron monitor. Plus a scanner and printer. A well-thumbed paperback-Katherine Dunn's novel Geek Love-served as his mousepad.

Eric's computer: an AMD K-6 233 with a generic motherboard; an S3 video card, a 15-inch monitor; a 2.5 GB hard drive with 36 MB SDRAM. Jesse wangled the parts for both from work.

They stashed their bikes and then Jesse blasted in through the door, which was always left open since he can never hang on to keys, and went right to his PC, which was always on. He yelled a question to Eric about the new operating system. "We change them like cartons of milk," he explained. At the moment, he had NT 5, NT 4, Work Station, Windows 98, and he and Eric had begun fooling around with Linux, the complex, open-source software system rapidly spreading across the world.

Before settling in at his own rig, Eric grabbed a swig of milk from a carton in the refrigerator, taking a good whiff first. Meals usually consisted of a daily fast-food stop at lunchtime; everything else was more or less on the fly. There didn't seem to be any edible food in the refrigerator, apart from a slightly discolored hunk of cheddar cheese.

Jesse opened his MP3 playlist (MP3 is a wildly popular format for storing music on computer hard drives; on the Net, songs get traded like baseball cards) and pulled down five or six tracks-Alanis Morissette, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Ani DiFranco. He turned on his Web browser, checked his e-mail, opened ICQ chat (an also-rapidly growing global messaging and chat system) looking for messages from Sam Hunter, fellow Geek Club alumnus, or his mother or sisters.

He and Eric networked their computers for a few quick rounds of Quake 11. Racing down hallways and passages on the screen, picking up ammo and medical supplies, acquiring ever bigger guns and Wasters, the two kept up their techno-patter about the graphics, speed, and performance of their computers. "My hard drive is grungy," Eric complained. Jesse gunned Eric down three times in a row, then yelped, "Shit, I'm dead." A laser burst of bullets splattered blood all over the dungeonlike floor.

Meanwhile, the two of them continued to chat with me over their shoulders, pausing every now and then to kill or be killed. All the while, Jesse listened to music, and answered ICQ messages. Somebody called and asked about ordering an ID card, the cottage industry that at fifty bucks a pop will help underwrite their contemplated move to Chicago. Somebody e-mailed a few additional MP3s; somebody else sent software and upgrades for Quake and Doom. I was dizzied and distracted by all the activity; they were completely in their element.

The game was still under way when Eric moved over to the scanner and printer and printed out something semi-official-looking.

"Too dark," was Jesse's assessment, without seeming to look away from the screen. So Eric went back to his computer and called up a graphic program. Jesse took another phone call, still playing Quake, as Joni Mitchell gave way to Jane's Addiction, then the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

At any given point, he was doing six things almost simultaneously, sipping soda, glancing at the phone's caller ID, watching the scanner and the printer, blasting away at menacing soldiers, opening mail from an apartment manager in Chicago, fielding a message from his sister in Boise.

He wasn't just a kid at a computer, but something more, something new, an impresario and an Information Age CEO, transfixed and concentrated, almost part of the machinery, conducting the digital ensemble that controlled his life. Anyone could have come into the apartment and carted away everything in it, except for the computer, and Jesse wouldn't have noticed or perhaps cared that much. He was playing, working, networking, visiting, strategizing-all without skipping a function, getting confused, or stopping to think.

It was evidently second nature by now, which explained why he looked as if he hadn't been out in the sun for years. It was more or less true: A couple of weeks earlier, he'd gone hiking along the Idaho River on a bright day and landed in the hospital emergency room with his arms and legs severely sunburned.

He carried himself like someone who expected to get screwed, who would have to fend for himself when that happened, and who was almost never surprised when it did. Trouble, Jesse often declared, was the building block of character. Without the former, you didn't get the latter.
Jon Katz

About Jon Katz

Jon Katz - Geeks

Photo © Maria Heinrich

Jon Katz has written nineteen books—seven novels and twelve works of nonfiction—including Soul of a Dog, Izzy & Lenore, Dog Days, A Good Dog, and The Dogs of Bedlam Farm. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Rolling Stone, Wired, and the AKC Gazette. He has worked for CBS News, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Katz is also a photographer and the author of a children’s book, Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm. He lives on Bedlam Farm in upstate New York with the artist Maria Heinrich; his dogs, Rose, Izzy, Lenore, and Frieda; and his barn cats, Mother and Minnie.
Praise

Praise

Praise for A Dog Year

“A great book that dog lovers will definitely enjoy.”
Booklist

“The story line of Katz’s latest book can be summed up very simply–two dogs die and two new ones join the family
but its charm comes from an intricate blend of witty anecdote and touching reflection.”
Publishers Weekly

“A surfeit of tail-wagging, face-licking love.”
Kirkus Reviews

Praise for Running to the Mountain

“A wonderful book — personal, moving, funny… to call a book a perfect gift always seems slightly patronizing, but I already have a long list of names — yes aging baby boomers — I’m intending to give Running to the Mountain.”
USA Today

“A funny, moving, and triumphant voyage of the soul… Katz finds faith not by running away, but by realizing that spiritual sustenance comes from within — from the decency with which we handle our roles as spouses, parents, and friends.”
Boston Globe

“You’ll love this book…. In the end, we admire Katz, not for the spiritual grace that he seeks but for the grace he finds: the grace of fatherhood, husbandhood, of tending fully to those who depend on him to be a source of stability in their world.”
Men’s Journal

“Candid and inspiring… Katz has much to be proud of: he faced himself, he rearranged himself, and he came back to write movingly of the experience.”
Washington Post Book World
Praise for Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho
“In Geeks, Katz displays a deft reporter’s touch and shows us the geek truth, rather than simply telling us about it…. Too often, writing about the on-line world lacks emotional punch, but Katz’s obvious love for his ‘lost boys’ gives his narrative a rich taste.”
-New York Times Book Review

Geeks is a story of triumph, friendship, love, and above all, about being human and reaching for dreams in a hard-wired world.”
-Seattle Times

“A touching page-turner about social outcasts using technology to wriggle free of dead-end lives.”
-U.S. News & World Report

“An uplifting and hugely compassionate book.”
-Philadelphia Inquirer
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

Jon Katz's book, Geeks, has a freshness and an immediacy that will appeal to your advanced readers as well as your reluctant readers. In fact, a segment of the book appeared in Rolling Stone magazine before publication. Geeks looks into the lives of two boys who are on the outside of the social world of high school and captures their perspectives about their lives at a unique period in history.

At first glance, this appears to be a book about technology. Teachers who did not grow up with websites, e-mail, jpegs, gifs and java (unless it was a cool way of saying coffee) might be nervous about leading a classroom discussion on such topics. But Geeks is less about RAM and hard drives, and more about the willingness of desperate people to take a chance. It's the story of adventurers, pioneers, and gamblers.

Jon Katz was a reporter who wanted to write a book about kids on the Internet. When he got an e-mail from teenager and self-proclaimed geek, Jesse Daily, something in it compelled him to drop the idea of a survey and focus the book on one individual. Katz quickly lost his professional detachment and advised Jesse and his friend Eric as they struggled to understand who they were and who they might become. The boys set off on an odyssey of self-discovery with a former teacher, Mr. Brown, and Katz as their guides. Jesse and Eric credit Mr. Brown for saving them in high school by creating a safe haven for the boys to escape the pressures of the social scene. They stayed in touch with Mr. Brown even after they graduated.

Geeks is right on time. As we move farther away from the tragedies at Columbine High School and continue to learn of high school shootings from angry, frustrated, isolated young people, we must read Geeks in order to understand what life is like for someone who is outcast for being different.

TEACHING IDEAS

Preparing to read

Katz begins the book with seven definitions for the word geek. The ascendency of Geeks in our society through our reliance on computer technology has put the issues of difference at center stage. Students should be encouraged to examine themselves and their actions on a daily basis. What does it mean to pick on someone who is different? How does it affect them? Students need to pay special attention to their feelings toward Jesse and Eric. At the beginning of the book, Jesse is guarded toward Katz and others. By the end of the story, we feel as if we have a new friend we might just drop an e-mail to. All this because we've taken the time to get to know Jesse through the book. Might this approach work with someone in school who's labeled an outsider? What if more people invested themselves in the lives of lost boys or girls?

DISCUSSION AND WRITING

Questions for Discussion and Comprehension

The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to guide students and teachers as they approach the issues raised in Geeks.

Introduction

How does the ascension of Geeks correlate with the rise of the Internet and the world wide web?

How does Katz define the notion of other?

Why do people need Geeks today?

What happens in the radio station which changes Katz's notions about Geeks?

Who is Louis Rossetto and why is he a pioneer?

What was it about Jesse's e-mail that intrigued Katz so much?


Chapter One: First Encounter

Where does Jesse work?

What comparison does Katz make between computers and cars?

Katz has a notion of parenting. How is that notion different from the world in which Jesse and Eric live?

Jesse says "The Net is my safety. It's my community. It's not a substitute for life for me. It is life." How does this play into daily decisions that Jesse and Eric make?

How do Eric and Jesse make extra money?

Why do the boys ride bikes?

How does the loss of the car propel the boys into action?


Chapter Two: The Cave

Describe Eric and Jesse's apartment. How do they work on their machines?

How did Eric grow up?

How did Jesse grow up and what is the mantra that he has developed because of his upbringing?


Chapter Three: The Geek Club

How did the Geek Club start?

What does it mean tobe idea starved?

Describe each boy's approach to his frustrations?

What does Jesse doin high school before he joined the Geek Club?

What happens when the two popular kids show up during a session of the Geek Club?


Chapter Four: Leave Fast

What does it mean that the boys only have $10 extra in their budget for the move to Chicago?

How did they arrange everything?

Jesse and Katz enter a discussion of intellectual and material property. What is free according to Jesse?

"the ascendant geek culture [is] in increasingly direct conflict with such institutions as the legal and medical professionsÉ" (p. 42) Why is this significant?

Why did they chose Chicago?

What are the journalistic boundaries that Katz explains to Jesse?

How does Katz step over those boundaries?


Chapter Five: The Trip

What sight greets the boys in Chicago that they hadn't expected?

What conflict does the tie represent for Jesse?

What idea does Jesse mention for the first time?

What shock dothe boys receive in their phone bill?

How do they resolve the issue?

Even though the boys made it out of Idaho and have jobs in Chicago, how are their lives basically the same?


Chapter Six: Thanksgiving

How do the boys and Katz celebrate Thanksgiving?

What book does Eric buy?

How is their apartment responsible for their isolation?

In Jesse's e-mail to Katz, he changes his mind about something?

How is this pattern of thought echoed from what we already know about Jesse?


Chapter Seven: The More Things Change

How is the Dickens' quote significant in Jesse's life?

Show examples about how a geek's passion for knowledge crosses traditional culture. What is cartoon-ish about Eric and Jesse's office jobs?

What two major events are the boys oblivious to?

What concerns does Katz have about the boys' personal lives?

Who stays with the boys in their apartment?

What is this guest's predicament?

What does Jesse tell Katz about his visit tothe University of Chicago?


Chapter Eight: Escape from Richton Park

How dothe boys afford the move toa funkier part of town?

What does the move get them?

How are the boys taking advantage of their new domestic life?

What does Jesse begin toconsider more seriously?

What does Jesse do to convince the Dean of Admission that he would be a good student? How does Katz help?


Chapter Nine: The Dean

How does Katz feel about Jesse's application?

"Colleges, though most have invested in massive bandwidth togive their students easy access tothe Net, remain collective enterprises. You study and live and socialize in a community." (p. 118) How is this statement difficult considering the way Jesse and Eric have spent the last few years of their lives?

What does Jesse spend his money on?

How the does Columbine massacre affect Jesse and Katz?

What is Jesse's prediction about the way Geeks will be treated in the wake of Columbine?

What does the Dean of Admissions want Jesse to do?


Chapter Ten: Into the Hellmouth

What is Jesse's prediction about who will be blamed for Columbine?

How does Jesse describe his sympathy for the students at Columbine?

What is the Hellmouth?

What is the subject of the article that Katz writes?

What is Jesse's reaction to it?


Chapter Eleven: Don't Expect Miracles

What doKatz and Jesse think about while waiting for news from the University of Chicago?

What news does Jesse receive and how is he newly responsible for his own life as well as the lives of others?

What is "the ticket in" for Jesse?




Writing and Related Activities

Writing


1) "Technology is just the ticket in, the magic is in the discontent and imagination, never being satisfied, and being creative about it. Everyone can use a computer, not everyone is a geek." (Jesse's last e-mail toKatz, p. 179) How is this statement an example of Jesse's growth?

2) In his acceptance letter from the University of Chicago, the last paragraph reads, "You have the chance tobe a part of a school with a glorious history and an exciting present. We look toyou tohelp us grow, togrow with us, and tobe part of a tradition that elevates us all." (p. 177) Discuss the notion of privilege and responsibility implied in the acceptance letter.

3) There is a phrase in popular psychology called a "geographical cure." It's the notion that if you have problems, you can move away from them. Jesse and Eric move away from Idaho, but discover many of their social problems were brought along. Discuss how each grows up, becomes more outgoing, searches for healing rather than just running away.

4) Jesse credits Mr. Brown and The Geek Club for saving his life. What are the elements of the Geek Club that make it so powerful? How does it give the boys something that they lacked before? What dothey take from it and use in their lives thereafter?

5) At the University of Chicago, Katz notices a change in Jesse he hadn't seen before. "He was surrounded by a community of discontents, oddballs, free thinkers, and free spirits." (p. 203) Why is this community the goal for all outsiders? How can we make all of our institutions as accepting and accommodating as the University of Chicago is for Jesse?

6) Jesse and Eric realize that in order to progress tothe best geek jobs, they need college educations. Is this an idea forced on them by Katz, or does he suggest it and they investigate the truth of it. Is college necessary for Jesse? What event propels him toward the necessity of a college education?

7) "You start to get angry, then you start to hate. They just slice away your humanity, piece by piece, and the hate becomes bigger and bigger, until there's nothing left but hate. If you don't have good friends or a teacher or a parent to talk to, then one day, there's just no humanity left. You're all hate. You have no connection to the world. And so you snap." Jesse made this statement after learning of the Columbine massacre. Katz sees Jesse and Eric falling into similar categories as the suicidal Columbine gunmen. How does society recognize children and students who are in need, and not further alienate them with a type of profiling that is similar to a technological witch hunt?

BEYOND THE BOOK

Beyond the Book

1) In the novel, Great Expectations, Charles Dickens writes of a boy's good fortune. What parallels can you draw between the lives of Jesse and Eric, and the characters in Great Expectations? Who are the anonymous benefactors in each story and what effect dothey have on the boys' lives?

2) Jon Katz begins Geeks as a journalist, studying, investigating, learning and writing about twostrangers from Idaho. Through the course of the book, his position changes. Why are there journalistic boundaries and what happens tothe Truth when a reporter has an emotional connection to his subjects?

3. "Geeks was never primarily a book about computers, the Net, technology, or even Geeks. It was -- is -- a very human, almost classically American story about two plucky, brainy, rebellious outsider kids from a little godforsaken town who headed tothe big city to make their fortunes." (p. 206) Discuss other Americans who used new advances in technology to create great gains for society.

4. Look up the Napster ruling on-line. Jesse discusses never buying software or music. What is the difference between intellectual and material property? Discuss how our bedrock attitudes about property are undergoing seismic changes because of the Internet.

5. Early in the book, Jesse states that college was never an expectation for him. Is college an expectation for you? What kind of pressure does that apply to your life? What possibilities does it open and what doors may it close to you? Do you think you would end up being a better student if you lived on your own before going to college as Jesse and Eric do?

6. Katz asks Jesse if his life has been painful. Jesse responds by quoting from David Copperfield. (p. 79) Does the quote resonate with you? How does Jesse's ability to make painful things so absurd that they no longer matter a useful coping mechanism? What is it necessary for Jesse, and the rest of us, to do once the painful years are gone?

ABOUT THIS GUIDE

David Scott is a former teacher. He is a publishing poet and a free-lance writer. He lives in Delaware with his wife, novelist Julianna Baggott, and their three children. He plays soccer and loves pizza.


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