Wednesday, April 20, 2011

#26 Not Using the Phone

No group dislikes talking to other people on the phone quite as much as nerds do. Surely there is a generational component to this dislike as well, but the average twenty-something is generally willing to phone to order pizza, where the average nerd will order something revolting on Foodler to avoid such a conversation. At one engineering office where close surveillance is possible, many of the employees choose to eat at what is uniformly recognized to be the worst of the nearby food options, solely because said greasy spoon has an online order system.

The iPhone is a dreadful tool for placing and receiving phone calls, and yet the amount of concern over that fact is remarkably limited given that it pretty much sucks at being--well, a phone. But since nerds make up a substantial component of its user base, the iPhone sails merrily along being a fantastic mini-computer and a substandard phone.

It may be that nerds require more social cues than the average person, and thus losing visual cues makes conversation impossible. It may be that nerds recognize that there are more efficient ways of communicating most pieces of information—ways that make use of the ability to type 100 wpm and don’t involve a guy named Vito mishearing sausage for cilantro. It may be that no human being has ever liked talking on the phone, but that most are better at hiding it. It may be that the nerd’s ideal phone is a iPod Touch.

Friday, April 1, 2011

#25 April Fools

Remember when Google debuted their PigeonRank system in 2002? It was a delightful diversion that illustrated what a vibrant and playful company Google is. It was unexpected whimsy, and there were a few--though not, I think, amongst the nerd community--who even wondered if there was any way it might possibly be real.

Fast forward to 2011, and we are embroiled in all-out April Fools Day war. Every tech company with a shred of humor (and even some without) now has a gag of some sort on their website. Google has one for each of its myriad beta projects. While some are still funny (I expect to have a lovely golden glow when I get back from here), the sense of surprise has been lost.

As a community, nerds have the tendency to jump on a clever piece of humor with a Mozartian number of variations. And why not? One of the most defining elements of nerd-dom is it's non-traditional sense of humor combined with a level of social awkwardness; no surprise that these jokes get repeated year after year having gained traction when they were new and shiny.

None of this will stop me from pre-ordering Angry Nerds of course.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

#24 Replacing Pencils with Computers

Last week I started writing my first iPhone app.  It will make neither fart noises nor angry birds fly.  It will not provide entertainment on its own, nor will it harness the power of the internet for good or evil.  It will replace a pencil and paper.

I suspect most gamers will know what I mean when I say that the last ten years have seen a marked trend amongst the nerd populace to use computers to do in a convoluted fashion what is easily done with paper.  The last D&D run I went to was a sea of noses peeking out over the top of laptop screens, pushing the hardware aside only to roll dice (because, as previously stated, polyhedra are cool).  What will happen when this trend extends itself into the LARP scene?

My hypothetical app will replace making tick marks on a sheet of paper when my character in Oblivion or Morrowind (or Skyrim!) levels up.  Some of you know <i>exactly</i> what that sentence meant, and are probably nodding your heads in agreement.  The rest of you... this is going to sound a bit insane.  The very short version is that in Elder Scroll games in order to optimize stats, one has to keep track of every skill that has increased since the last level.  That's all.  Instead of trying to figure where in the couch the pencil has rolled to, I will instead be fishing my iPhone from its cushy bowels.  And, because I am a nerd, it will seem like an amazing improvement.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

#23 Dancing Under Constraints

Nerds can't dance.  I have been to enough MIT weddings not to pause in making such a blank and potentially offensive statement; for every nerd who beats the odds and looks comfortable and fluid on the dance floor, ten of his compatriots are bobbing awkwardly or watching enviously from the fringes.

I am a West Coast Swing dancer.  The person who first taught me WCS is an engineer.  The person I danced with the first time I set a toe on the dance floor is an engineer.  I've introduced quite a number of my friends to Westy, all of whom are mathematicians or engineers.  My studio's founder... is a Professor of Psychology, but you get the idea.  The floors are swarming with those whose professions tend them towards nerddom.

We have, at the very least, an odd Venn diagram.

The distinction lies in the difference between blank paper and a coloring book.  Given no constraints and the impetus to move to the music, we bob awkwardly.  Given exact technical instructions on the particular movements that will look good... we look good.  Or at least, substantially less awkward.  The feet suddenly lock into rhythm, because for some inexplicable reason alternating triple-steps with steps makes it easier.  The hands, now forced to make a lead-follow connection, no longer hang listlessly at the sides.   In short: if you want to get a nerd on the dance floor, tell him exactly what to do.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

#22 MIT Mystery Hunt

The first 21 entries of this blog comprise a puzzle used in the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt (Solution can be found here:  If the language appears stilted and odd in these entries, I choose to blame it on the awkwardness of the puzzle construction with a hint of sleep deprivation, rather than an actual inability to write coherent English.

For those not in the know, the MIT Mystery Hunt is a giant puzzling event held over MLK weekend every year at MIT.  The number of man hours that goes into constructing it is absolutely unreal--for this Hunt we wrote 129 puzzles including metas, and that doesn't even begin to touch the work that goes into organization, choosing a theme and structure, building tetrahedra out of plaster, and all the other bizarre tasks that help Hunt be the epic event that it is.

I had the idea for this puzzle the weekend before Christmas, which was rather an awkward time to have a puzzle idea as all of our answers were assigned and we didn't really need any more ideas.  The idea came to me at a test solving session when the conversation drifted to Tom Lehrer and I mentioned that I was excited to get the CDs because they had two songs not on the records.  A teammate's response was "right--Silent E and L-Y."  Which is sort of a bizarre piece of information for a person to carry around in his head, let alone two of us in a group of six.  I started thinking about all the things that make perfect sense to the nerd community that would seem insane to those outside of it, and this puzzle was born.

I wrote it frantically over that weekend, my kind an generous editors and test solvers found the myriad of bugs and red herrings in it, and one set of test solvers finally solved it.  Special thanks in particular to Aaron Dinkin who spent a lot of time making my English coherent when his time was already at a premium.  Because of its late timing, its nature of being as much activity as puzzle, and the potential for bugs we hadn't found, it was left as a floating puzzle to use as a replacement should anything fail during Hunt.  Sadly, around 6pm on Friday the puzzle Funny Farm started to take down our server and this puzzle was put in to replace it.  Funny Farm is really fun, particularly in a group, and I encourage everyone to go play with it (I'll have a url listed as soon as the puzzle is back up).

It has been noted that this puzzle has a lot of references to concepts that are used in other Hunt puzzles (ER Jokes, Breadboarding, etc).  While not explicitly intended, this shouldn't be a complete shock as one might imagine what the last months of 2010 were like for a lot of us.  In particular, as I was writing this puzzle I was sitting next to someone else test solving Electronic Love, and the "zener diode?  but I..." joke was born.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the 2011 Mystery Hunt, and congratulations and good luck to Codex--I hope you didn't need those 20,000 hours!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

#21 RPGs

I think that nerds have a great deal of trouble accepting that magic isn't real.  I'm sure that everyone goes through a depressing disillusionment at some time in one's life, as the realization dawns that riding a dragon, summoning fireballs out of thin air with graceful gestures, apotheosis, and looking stylish in a pointy red hat are just not going to be possible in the real world.  It seems to be the case that most people are able to accept these harsh facts, and get on with the business of working 37 hours a week so as to have enough money to buy large televisions for escaping the real world.  Nerds, however, cling a bit tighter to the illusion.  They band together in order to pretend for hours at a time that they have the strength to assault a massive dork tower, or the mental power to kill a troll with a thought.  The use of dice is key here.  Polyhedra are the faberge eggs of the nerd world; the opportunity to combine that with a long-held dream of owning a flamberge is just too tempting to resist.  It would be remiss of me not to add that the personal interaction over a table top is too intense for some nerds, and for this variety the notion of banding together is satisfied far better by clicking in frenzied fashion on the computer.  To each his own.

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#20 Using 'One' as a Pronoun

This is about the American nerd, as any Brit will do this without thinking.  In American English we sadly lack a gender-neutral singular third person pronoun, and so we compensate with grammatic monstrosities like using 'they', alternating 'he' and 'she', or the worst--using 'you'.  This last example is particularly prominent in quotes from athletes and rock stars: "We did definitely get some breaks and took advantage of them. That's what you've got to do here" (quote from curling champion Jeff Stoughton).  What *I've* got to do? All I need to do is sit on my couch and solve my Nurikabe.

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