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When Being A Geek Is Chic

Encore broadcast originally aired on March 24, 2009


Why are geeks the new chic? And how will they dominate the world? We'll talk with the author of "The Geeks' Guide to World Domination" to find out how you can empower your inner geek.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Could it be that geek is the new chic? There's evidence to support that claim. Consider the fame and wealth of the man who may be the chief geek of our time, Bill Gates, or the Hollywood honors bestowed on “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. There's the popularity of TV's geeked-out “Ugly Betty,” and there are some who suggest President Obama has a soft spot for geeks in his administration. My guest, Garth Sundem, has seen geekiness move from the outskirts of society to the mainstream, and now, he's ready for more. He's written "The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination," a book filled with lists, puzzles and pop culture that he claims can guide anyone to achieve geek Nirvana. Garth, welcome to the show.

GARTH SUNDEM (Author): Hi, Maureen. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing very well. Now what is your definition of a geek?

SUNDEM: You know, I think a geek is anyone who is so passionate about any kind of information that it pushes their ability to function socially off to the side. So, you know, you have tech geeks, of course, but I know fantasy football geeks and chess geeks and, you know, art geeks and anyone who cares so much about one informational thing that, you know, they can’t get through a dinner conversation without bringing it up. That’s a geek to me.

CAVANAUGH: Now we have an – also an idea that geeks sort of look a certain way. Can you tell a geek when you see one?

SUNDEM: You know, I think it’s changed. The ‘80s model geek sort of in, you know, the “National Lampoon” movies or whatnot was very recognizable but I think geeks have infiltrated society at every level now. I think that geeks don’t care so much about their appearance because they care about their geek specialty more. So you’re likely to see the taped glasses and flood pants but that’s a – that is sort of a – the – a symptom but not necessarily correlated to being a geek. Yeah, you know, it’s funny. Geeks now, you know, the guy riding his longboard down the road wearing a green foam E equals MC squared hat, that guy’s a geek but he’s also cool. Something strange has happened where recently geeks have – geeks have coolified.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, that’s very good. You do, however, have the taped glasses right on the front of your book, “The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination,” so that’s still something of a symbol.

SUNDEM: Yeah, coming at you, a little bit of the old, a little bit of the new, a little bit of everything. 314.15 pieces of grandtastic geekery.

CAVANAUGH: In the book. Now you are known in some circles as the alpha geek. How did you get that distinction?

SUNDEM: Oh, man, I – I don’t know. I think I was destined to be a geek from genetics. My dad’s a former president of the American Economy Association.


SUNDEM: My mom is a Ph.D. psychoanalyst. So not only am I painfully geeky but I’m also very self-aware of said geekiness. It’s a tough combination.

CAVANAUGH: And so it’s not even something you can keep in the closet, it’s in front of you all the time.

SUNDEM: Yeah, I’m afraid I’m – I’ve – I’m unable to successfully repress it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, in your book, “The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination,” there are some of the best secrets, the geeks’ best kept secrets are revealed in your book. What are some of them?

SUNDEM: Well, you know, if I – when I sat down to write this guide, I pretty much just listed everything I’ve ever thought was cool from, you know, Latin phrases to shout while riding into battle to, you know, words you can spell on a basic calculator turned upside down, all the way to like sort of fun descriptions of Einstein’s relativity and what it means about your ability to pop a cap in a carp. Relativity and refraction and science and cool parasitic behaviors. Well, check this out. Let me offer – let me offer a haiku, if I could.

CAVANAUGH: Please do.

SUNDEM: This is very – This is very serious. I’m going to put on my very – my very serious voice. Ah. And you’ll have to tell me what this haiku’s about, okay?


SUNDEM: So, silent former pig, one communal awareness, myriad pink bricks. Can you…


SUNDEM: …figure out what that…


SUNDEM: That is a Spam haiku. That is about Spam. I think that – I think that geeks appreciate things that the population at large may overlook. WWF wrestling stars of the 1980s, Spam, cornfield mazes, but also, of course, you know, hacking in abstract emoticons and all sorts of good stuff. We geeks, it’s information and we love it.

CAVANAUGH: Silent former pig, that’s really rather beautiful.

SUNDEM: One communal awareness, myriad pink bricks. Yeah, there’s a bunch more in there.

CAVANAUGH: Now some of the geek information in your book is actually incredibly useful, like how to program a universal remote control and Sudoku strategy.

SUNDEM: Yeah, you know, there’s some useful stuff in there. I hope that it’s useful with a smile. Oh, here, I’ve got something. Okay. Let’s see. Do you want to do a quick – Can I drop a finger calculator trick on you real quick?

CAVANAUGH: Oh, no. This is just – I’m so hopeless. Go ahead.

SUNDEM: Yeah, no, no, no, we’ll geekify you. What do we have? Another seven or eight minutes?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, we do.

SUNDEM: We’ll get you fixed up in the next – Okay, so, people listening, if you – Okay, this is if you are not driving. Okay? Lay your hands in front of you with your palms up. This isn’t going to make a lot of sense unless you do it. So lay your hands down in front of you, palms up.


SUNDEM: Look at your fingers. Pinkies are six. And then ring fingers are seven. Eight, nine, and your thumbs are ten. Okay?


SUNDEM: So as we’re looking at them, and now you can use this to multiply any numbers six through ten.


SUNDEM: So here’s how you do it. If you’re going to multiply like six times nine, touch your pinky to your first finger. Now anything above that and touching counts as ten and multiply anything below it. So six times nine comes out to 54. Okay, anyway, anyway, anyway. There’s all sorts of usable fun stuff. It’s in there; you can check it out.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Garth Sundem and he’s the author of the book “The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination.” I think you actually really have to be a geek for that to make any sense to you whatsoever.

SUNDEM: I know, I think you’re probably right. But, you know, I love this stuff. And I hope that that is what comes out, is geeks – You know, I think we used to be defined by what we couldn’t do and now I think we’re defined by what we can do. Geeks love this stuff. We love information and we love – You know, it’s being passionate about something. You know, I know bug geeks, I know, you know, obviously math geeks and science geeks and tech geeks but, you know, I know surfing geeks, people who know where exactly the perfect wave is going to be, you know, based on wind currents and the geography and whatever, you know, real time buoy forecasting. These people are geeks.

CAVANAUGH: Now your first book, “Geek Logik,” was about math equations for solving everyday problems like if you wanted to know if you should continue dating someone or if you wanted to get a tattoo. Can you give us some of your favorite equations from that “Geek Logik” book?

SUNDEM: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, so I started writing that. Me and my geeky friends were sitting around on a plaid couch at university and we were trying to figure out, you know, people were saying, oh, I should go to the library, oh, I’ve got this test. And other people were saying, no, I just want to stay here and drink, you know, crème soda…


SUNDEM: …as college students are wont to do. And we decided the only thing we could use to make this decision for us that we could all agree on was an equation. So we thought, okay, let’s write an equation for should we go to the library or can we continue sitting here drinking beer? And we based it on, you know, how long it was until the test and how hard the test was going to be, how much studying we’d already done, you know, how wretched would – the material was, and we built this equation. And it actually worked pretty darn well. So I started building these things for stuff like what are your chances with that girl across the bar? And I hate to admit that we actually used these in college. Imagine, if you will, four or five guys sitting there, looking across the bar at somebody, saying, oh, I know that girl from, you know, from whatever, from differential equations class, whatever. And everyone saying, oh, you should go talk to her. The guy’s saying, no, I don’t have any chance. And we would say, okay, we’re going to calculate your chances. If this comes out to over 75%, you gotta do it. The guy would say, yeah. We would calculate it and I hate to – I hate to even admit that we actually followed the advice of these equations but we did.

CAVANAUGH: Did they work?

SUNDEM: Yeah, well, you know, I – I’m married, so that says something.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I’m speaking with Garth Sundem. And tell us a little bit about – there’s a TV series that you’re developing for Discovery?

SUNDEM: Yeah, you know, we’re working on it. “Geeks’ Guide to World Domination.” It should happen. It’s going to be the geek behind everything cool. So, you know, if you want to be a pop singer, there is real time pitch correlation software that makes you sing on key, and if you want to be an action star, you know, we see Cho-yan Fat (sp) leaping from tree to tree but we don’t see the geeks behind the scenes, these riggers who make everything actually happen. So, we…

CAVANAUGH: That’s a great idea. Now…

SUNDEM: And – Yep.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, go ahead.

SUNDEM: No, no. I was going to say I’m on “Brink” a lot. There’s a fun show on the Science Channel called “Brink” and it’s a science news show, and I pop up there dropping geekery every once in a while.

CAVANAUGH: Now I wonder why the election of Barack Obama as president was important for the mission of geeks.

SUNDEM: Yeah, I – I think – Well, I’m not the first one to say this. This isn’t an original thought of my own but I think all of a sudden knowledge is respected again and geeks obviously ride the wave of this knowledge. So I think geeks were always doing what geeks were always doing but I think that there’s now a new appreciation for geeks. And I also think that we’re in a cerebral time right now with all this financial stuff going on and people realize that for better or for worse geeks are driving this whole mess. The world dom – Yeah, geek world domination may not be a good thing. I guess we’ll see.

CAVANAUGH: How do you think, Garth, geek actually became chic?

SUNDEM: You know, that’s a good question. I think that geeks were always behind the scenes, you know, since it became the information age, really, in the ‘70s and ‘80s when geeks started driving the show from behind the scenes. And then all of a sudden, I think, geeks sort of said, well, why are we making fun of ourselves, you know, in Hollywood especially. If you look at the new round of geek films, you know, “Superbad” and, you know, to an extent, “Juno” or, you know, “Napoleon Dynamite” or whatever, I think that geeks…

CAVANAUGH: “Napoleon Dynamite,” definitely.

SUNDEM: Yeah, yeah, definitely. But I think that was sort of the transitional film where in the old model of a geek’s film we were laughing at the geeks and I think now we’re laughing with the geeks. And so I think there’s this switch where geeks were dominating the world behind the scenes. We made things happen. But now, I think, geeks are able to step out of the shadows a little bit and take some credit. The curtain in front of Oz has come down a little bit.

CAVANAUGH: What – Garth, what is your specific geekiness, if I may ask. Is it math?

SUNDEM: Oh, it’s – yeah, well, definitely. I – I – Well, okay. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was in the math club, also in the jazz band, and the model rocket club…


SUNDEM: …and the chess club. And so my geekery sort of spans far and wide I’m afraid. But – But I was the MVP of my darn soccer team, too, so there we go.


SUNDEM: I hope that – I hope that there’s some redemption there.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve got a foot in both worlds there.


CAVANAUGH: Now we’ve been speaking about your book, Garth, “The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination.” How will you know when geeks have actually achieved world domination?

SUNDEM: If you don’t already know that geeks have achieved world domination, don’t worry about it. Don’t look any deeper than the surface. You don’t need to peel back the layers of the onion, just keep going about your lives as if some – as if nothing has happened, kind of like the Masons, I think. We – we – No, no, there’s nothing to worry about. Geeks will never really rule the world. Just keep going along. Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine.

CAVANAUGH: And, Garth, what’s a fast tip for the non-geeky who perhaps want to appear geeky now?

SUNDEM: Care about information. Whatever you care about, whatever you’re passionate about, you know, follow it. I think that people like information and there’s so much of it out there right now that whatever you care about, don’t be afraid to drop cool parasitic behaviors into dinner conversation and, you know, don’t be afraid to drop tidbits from extraterrestrial detection into your conversation. It’s cool now. People like facts.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Garth, I have to get into this book then. Okay, I’ve been speaking with Garth Sundem. He is the author of “The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination: Be Afraid, Beautiful People.” Thank you, Garth, very much for your time.

SUNDEM: Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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