Friday, January 16, 2009
My wife sent me this story from the Associated Press:
WASHINGTON — Get ready for the geek-in-chief.
President-elect Barack Obama used to collect comic books, can't part with his BlackBerry, and once flashed Leonard "Mr. Spock" Nimoy the Vulcan "Live Long and Prosper" sign.
That and other evidence has convinced some of Obama's nerdier fans that he'll be the first American president to show distinct signs of geekiness. And that's got them as excited as a Tribble around a Klingon.
Obama is good at "repressing his inner geek, but you can tell it's there," especially when he goes into nuanced explanations of technical matters, said Benjamin Nugent, author of the book "American Nerd: The Story of My People."
"One imagines a terrifying rally of 'Star Trek' people shouting, 'One of us!"' Nugent said, in an interview conducted by e-mail, of course.
Others see only some geek qualities, qualifying the president-elect as merely "nerd-adjacent." After all, he's an athlete and kind of cool, some experts demur. Still, there's enough there for geeks to celebrate.
Psychology professor Larry Welkowitz of Keene State College in New Hampshire hopefully speculated that there's a shift in what's cool and that "smart can be in. Maybe that started with the computer programmers of the '90s. The Bill Gateses of the world are OK."
The Obama transition team would not comment on the president-elect's geek qualities, even when it was suggested those could be positive. And his old college friends give the geek idea a split vote. While Margot Mifflin, now a journalism professor in New York, said she saw no geeky signs in Obama as a freshman at Occidental College in California, Amiekoleh Kimbrew Usafi recalled it differently, despite the lack of technology back in 1979.
"He's a geek because he was smart," Usafi said, noting that Occidental was a geeky school to start with, billing itself as the Yale of the West. "I remember he would be hitting his books. I would see him in the library. ... There were a lot of girls that liked him because he was cute, but he kept his head in the direction he was going in. I would see him studying all the time."
Wired magazine first crowed about Obama the geek, complete with five reasons in its GeekDad blog. A lot depends on definition of geek, which to Wired is more a compliment than insult.
GeekDad contributor Matt Blum, a software engineer in Reston, Va., defines geeks as having high intellects, embracing technology, "getting excited about things in the future especially, particularly fiction," having a science viewpoint and being steeped in the geek culture of science fiction and fantasy.
Geeks know and use references from "Star Trek," "Dungeons and Dragons" and comic books. And, he added, they are nit-picky, unafraid to correct mixed science fiction metaphors, such as confusing Star Trek's Andorians with "Star Wars" Iridonians.
So a quick geek cultural check for Obama:
• Technology. Click that icon. He's the candidate who tried to announce his vice presidential pick by text message and embraced Facebook as a campaign tool. He's seldom seen without a BlackBerry and talks of a chief technology officer for the nation.
• Comic books. As a youngster, Obama collected Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comic books. His Senate Web site used to have a photo of him posing in front of a Superman statue, and in October at New York's Alfred Smith dinner he joked: "I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet Earth." Jor-El was the father of Superman, born on the planet Krypton.
• "Star Trek," the long-running TV show. According to the actor Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in the series, Obama flashed him the split four-fingered Vulcan salute when the two crossed paths last year. In May in Des Moines, Newsweek caught Obama teasing wife Michelle about her belt buckle, saying it was studded with Star Trek-powering dilithium crystals and adding, "Beam me up, Scotty!" As he laughed at his own joke, Michelle Obama rolled her eyes, as geek wives often do.
Yes, geeks have wives. That's one of the things that separates them from nerds and dorks.
"A geek is someone who has the knowledge of the geeky type stuff and has social graces," Blum said. "A nerd is someone who has the knowledge but not the social graces and a dork is someone who has neither."
By that definition Obama is a geek, not a nerd or dork, Blum said. Nerds are the type who live in their parents' basements until they're 45, whereas geeks are more normal, he said.
"I'm a geek because I'm a dad," Blum said. "I managed to find a woman who wished to marry me and have children with me."
Blum said Obama qualifies as the first geek-in-chief because George W. Bush was too much a cheerleader and Bill Clinton too wonky and not technological enough. The other presidents came of age before geek culture did, so don't qualify.
But don't discount John Quincy Adams as a geeky guy who steeped himself in government as a teenager, contends author Nugent (who just by adding that historical reference reinforces his geek expertise).
In some ways, though, experts say Obama is just too cool, too athletic, too normal to wear the geek cape. Obama did use drugs and was a high school athlete, missing out on two prime nerd qualities, Nugent said.
Dan Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University, said calling Obama a geek is unfair both to the president-elect and geeks.
"He's too cool to be a geek; he's a decent basketball player; he knows how to dance; he dresses well," Sarewitz said. "It's too high a standard for geeks to possibly live up to."
All the nerds at home can at least try, though, courtesy of a heavily muscled "beach blanket Obama" action figure for $29.95.
So is Obama a geek?
In the words of Alan Leshner, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which had two past leaders appointed by Obama to high posts: "I hope so."