Language

I’m So Tense

PhoneMonkeyPNGI’ve been tempted over the last few weeks to post about the horrible things customers do and say. I’ve also wanted to air out grievances regarding terrible and (borderline) criminal management practices, and the terrible toll that customer service takes on one’s physical and mental health. In short, I want to whine. But why whine when there are so many beautiful things out there, just waiting for someone to notice?

Take, for example, the following line from an email I received today:

“It always has been happened.”

Whaaaaa? you say. Or perhaps I’m being an ass for making fun of someone’s ESL issues. Oh, here goes the jaded know-it-all, right? Perish the thought! As a verb tense, this is a thing of beauty, so let’s cut it open and see how it ticks.

It happened. Once. At some point in time, possibly never again.

It always happened. Routine instances. Points on a line, most often in conjunction with another event. Here. Here. Here. Here and here and here. Up until now, at which point, for narrative reference, it may be happening.

It has happened. At least once, though possible more than once. It may also be “it happened” with “has” as an emphasis, though this would be less formal, more colloquial.

It has been happening. From some point in the past up until and including the present moment. Sometimes incidental, sometimes continual. Typically, set in motion by an outside actor.

It is. Exists now. It was. Before now. It has been. Before–could be again–might even still be.

It has been happening. Continually, from some past point through the present moment.

It has been happened. Before. Passive voice. The connotation is that an outside, unnamed force made the past event or identical events happen.

It always has been happened. In conjunction with other events in the past, the above outside force made it happen over and over again, the most recent instance terminating just before the present moment. Probably, it will have happened again in the near future.

Additionally, it is a permanent affixing of the past tense on a moveable event. The event will never happen. In fact, it never seems to happen. It has always been and will always be finished before it begins. Time, in most other tenses, is the reason for the tense’s existence. We unravel time into a string, and place on its length an object or objectified chunk of time. In this tense, we drop objects like marbles into the malleable mass of jelly that is time. They may move with the internal currents to new locations in time, but inside they always have been what they were.

Hey, at least it is not always having been happening. Unless it’s Groundhog Day.

Okay

PhoneMonkeyPNGHere I am, taking your requests. It’s a busy day, but I have a moment. Can I help you?

Okay.

That’s good to hear. Your request seems simple. Would you like to give me the details, so I can put them into the system?

Okay.

Great. It seems there’s a considerable sum of money involved here. Would you like a copy of the transaction details, for your records?

That’s okay.

It’s okay?

Okay.

Yes?

It’s okay.

So yes, then, or no?

That’s okay.

No?

Okay.

Okay. Will that be all?

Yes, thank you.

 

Open Letters

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve begun to loathe the open letter, as practiced on the Internet, so I began searching around for open letters. Here are some of the ones I found.

A working mom’s open letter to Gwyneth (New York Post).

An open letter to the teachers of my daughter (Times of India)

Dear Harvard: You Win (The Harvard Crimson)

The public feud between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow (The New York Times: Part 1, Part 2)

An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself (LA Weekly)

And for crying out loud, McSweeny’s has an entire page of “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond.”

But why, you might ask, does this man hate the open letter? With a few possible exceptions, which I will talk about in a moment, the answer to this question is sleaze. Now understand: I am not saying that Harvard’s rape victim is sleazy; nor do I necessarily think that Gwyneth is all that sleazy (because I really have zero opinions about her either way). The sleaze (and I promise to stop using that word) is the gross spectacle. While, in the Internet Age, we are all becoming accustomed to losing our privacy as more and more of our private lives becomes digitized, the open letter exposes for public consumption something that could and should have remained private.

It’s not always a Bad Thing, though, as the “Dear Harvard” letter shows, for it, like some others out there, are the contemporary equivalent of Langston Hughes’ “Open Letter to the South” or Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, essentially an open letter nailed to a church door (though, not so much with the Hughes poem). While the side-effect of their publication may be a thorough public shaming, what sets these kinds of letters apart from their monstrous counterparts is that the intent is reform.

What separates these brilliant, rare, reformative open letters is the other intent, to play to a crowd–particularly an unruly Internet mob. From the letters that aren’t the reformative type, if you took away the public aspect, they would more often than not operate just as well as a closed, private letter. But the intent is to draw attention to the writer. The subject of the letter is typically not as important as the raising or lowering of social status, which is why the McSweeny’s letters, meant to be comic, are the other exception.

There is a whole genre of open letters that, while addressing a personal gripe, aren’t particularly serious. They operate on the same level as any other open letter, but with a few changes: a public shaming roux and a heaping tablespoon of self-aggrandizement, but with a pinch of self-deprecation, and a sprinkling of bons mots. Tongue-in-cheek rants, like the very lovely “An Open Letter to Bearded Hipsters” (and the subsequent apology, which fits well with another article I’ve written, speaking of self-aggrandizing), take those weirdly pornographic public displays of meanness and strip them of their import. Perhaps it’s why taking a legitimately reformative open letter seriously is increasingly difficult. I mean, why would I take the Gwyneth letter seriously when I seriously want and expect it to be a little something like this:

Right?

Of course, that brings up the last kind of open letter, which like the jackalope is extremely rare, and, oddly, often musical–or at least often enough to worth noting. What do I mean by often?

Often enough for me to embed two YouTube videos in this post:

Until tomorrow, you crazy kids.

Recap: Taipei

Back in March, I went to Taipei for a birthday vacation and to visit my parents. My mother is teaching art at one of the local universities for a semester, and my dad, along for the ride, is spending his time trying to learn Chinese. On Skype, I could see that one wall of their tiny apartment is papered with pale yellow Post-Its, on each a different Chinese character. In person, that wall revealed itself to be merely a half a wall, the rest occupied by cabinet space and a kitchen counter. But aside from watching my parents move around in a far smaller space than they’re used to, I had a couple other observations about Taipei that I’ve been rolling around like a hard candy on the tongue.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived is that there’s some English in use, but it is definitely not Kuala Lumpur, where you can stagger around vomiting English and expect everyone to have at least a vague notion of what you’re on about. Mandarin, particularly the Taiwanese variant, is definitely the way to go. You obviously can get by with the typical pointing and numbering, but if you have a scrap of dignity it helps to know basic stuff. Even if you can talk like a caveman (“Eegah shtemlo!”), you’ll save a lot of time and awkward stares. I learned a something about myself through this: even with the beginning-level Mandarin I have under my belt, I can understand a lot more than I thought I’d be able to; on the other hand, the crippling fear of failure that has plagued my personal and professional life for as long as I can remember applies to speaking. On multiple occasions, I’ve stood in front of a room of people and performed some truly terrible comedy, but faced with one waiter and an empty coffee shop, not one word of anything remotely Chinese sounding passed my lips. If I’d wanted chicken wings, I’d have ordered a breast or thigh instead. That said, the layout of the city and the way people conduct themselves is very reminiscent of a city like San Francisco (at least the 1990s version that I remember), which alleviates some of the language-barrier complications.

The other thing I noticed when I was there was the love of doors. Seriously, doors–and gates, too–are a thing. Walking down the street, it’s difficult to find houses or apartment buildings in close proximity that have the same style or design of door. Instead of carrying on about it, I’ll just post my favorites below. They all link to the original photo on my Flickr page.

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_MG_3575Maybe it’s obsessive, but I found myself drawn to this little intricacy. I’ll probably come back with more doors because I’m due to return in about a month to pick up an engagement ring I ordered.

Oh. Did I bury the lead there? It’s only under about 450 words–a pretty shallow grave. Don’t worry. I have 50-something more days of this, so I might make a game of seeing how deeply I can bury a lead.

A Brand New Set of Synapses

I don’t know if Chinese New Year resolutions exist, but if they don’t, I’m giving birth to them right here on my desk. While you live with that image for a moment, I’ll tell you about my CNYR. I am learning Mandarin.

I’ve always wanted to learn Chinese, and now that I’m within scud missile range of China, I figured I’d give it the old college try. Actually, I tried to learn Japanese in college, so perhaps that isn’t the best idiom. I’m going to cram Mandarin into my skull, with the butt-end of a broomstick if necessary. There. Much better.

Practically, Cantonese would be the better version to learn while in Malaysia, since it is far more commonly spoken, and Hokkien, one of its dialects, would at least be semi-intelligible. It would be nice to be able to speak to people here in a language that I could take elsewhere (Bahasa Malaysia is pretty specific), so maybe I’ll find some way to learn it before I leave. That’s not to say I can’t take Mandarin with me–I’ll definitely try to use it when I travel–I just don’t know how much mileage I’ll get from it here.

Unfortunately, the way my life is scheduled at the moment, I don’t have time to go to a physical classroom and learn Cantonese. So Mandarin it is! To start me off, I got the full five-course set of Rosetta Stone instruction while it was on sale. It still cost a pretty penny, but honestly, the system seems interesting, and I’ve definitely had moments where I can pick a few words and phrases out of eavesdropped conversations. I think I should probably start consulting different sources for phrases like “white devil” and “hairy one,” but first things first.

I had an idea how tough it would be to pick up any Chinese language, mostly because they are very tonal, and while I’m not tone deaf, my few bouts with karaoke could be described as bizarre or off-putting. Even hearing the tonal differences is difficult, though. As a native American English speaker, the part of my brain that picks up on subtleties of inflection is severely atrophied. Picking up on the variations fěng, fèng, féng, and fēng when they’re alone is pretty easy. In context, in a sentence, next to other words? It kind of hurts at first.

But, hey, perhaps adding a bit of inflection to my monotone drawl will be a good thing.

One last thing about this whole venture. I had a weird thought today about the act of learning a different linguistic structure. Maybe I’m afraid of commitment, or maybe I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of reorganizing part of my brain, but learning a language feels a little like entering into a long-term relationship. Most of it is good and shiny and happy, but you find yourself in a position where you have to share your space and occasionally clean up the other person’s mess. And the longer you stay with it, the more permanent it feels. In a relationship, that just means reorganizing your life a little (or a lot, like moving to Malaysia), but with language, it means rewiring your brain. Not only does this color ♥ has different sounds and symbols attached to it, but the place it appears in a thought is different. It’s like letting an electrician into your home, blindfolding yourself, and telling him to rewire all the switches.

It’s bananas, man.

香蕉

Totally.

Nerd

Just a note before we start: I know I said I was going to change the visual theme of the blog because of formatting concerns, but the theme I had in mind (and several others, too) were not able to properly display an em-dash. Seriously, I tried a half dozen, and all of them failed the test. I am keeping this theme until I can find a readable, em-dash-supporting layout.

Recently, I was wondering what was becoming of nerd culture–was it kaput, still running along, or had it been completely corrupted and appropriated to sell people stuff? But I quickly ran into a roadblock. In my mind, I know what “nerd” means, but when I try to pin down a definition of the word, it keeps slipping away like a buttered eel.

Sort of like the laughs from that joke.

Not a little cynically, I’d had a thought in my mind that the word had been made meaningless, or at least its definition had changed beyond recognition, by becoming part of the mainstream. I spent some time digging and asking around, though, and have come to the understanding that “nerd” has no set definition. Not yet, at least. It has undergone a fluid transition since its creation, but, oddly, because of nerds’ acceptance into the main stream, we may finally see a permanent definition settle into place.

To find the first instances of the word “nerd,” we have to go back about sixty years. Most sources claim that the word first appeared in 1950, in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo. The character Gerald McGrew lists more creatures he would add to his zoo, if he were in charge:

Then the whole town will gasp, “Why, this boy never sleeps!

No keeper before ever kept what he keeps!

There’s no telling WHAT that young fellow will do!”

And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo

And

Bring

Back

an It-Kutch

a Preep

and a Proo

a Nerkle

a Nerd

and a Seersucker, too! (51-52)

Remind you of anyone?

Remind you of anyone?

At first glance, this makes sense. That Nerd is unkempt, and generally looks like it’d rather be doing something else. Additionally, it is also the only creature in the story that wears clothes, so we’re inclined to think that it is at least humanoid, if not explicitly human. The theory continues on with an often cited observation: in 1951, Newsweek printed the sentence, “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve.” If you were a nerd in 1951, it was terminal. Through his surprisingly thorough research, Jim Burrows, in his article “The Origin of the Nerd,” found that this was not the only citing of the word coming out of Detroit at the time. In five years, he found, four more usages of “nerd” popped up in popular media around Detroit, and spreading outward through the Midwest and then east to Boston and south to Arkansas. He admits it’s a small sample, but it’s actually fairly significant, considering that ’50s-era media was still largely localized, that new slang was not generally accepted in journalism at the time, and that, without going to local libraries all over the US and spending some serious time melding with the microfiche machine, this kind of detailed information relating to that era can be hard to find.

I have to agree with Burrows’ assessment, though, that the Dr. Seuss origin story might be a happy coincidence. While a picture might be worth a thousand words, to draw a substantial conclusion that the word “nerd” as it was used in the 1950s, came from Seuss, we would need to back up the visual description with words. Since there are none, only artistic interpretation and conjecture apply to this origin story.

Additionally, the explanation of the word being derived from “knurd” (“drunk” spelled backward) is largely considered to be wholesale poppycock, since the derivative does not match any existing definitions or connotations of drunkenness.

Sadly, it is far more likely that the etymology stems from the use of the word “nuts” or “nut” in the 1940s, meaning crazy or a crazy/undesirable person, respectively. The transition would go something like this: nut, nurt. It then may have branched off in either of two re-convening paths: nert, nerd; or nurd, nerd. It was Gershberms before Gershberms. Still, with the recent popularity and acceptance of nerd culture, this interpretation, like many others, may be simply an example of contemporary culture trying to divine significance out of the past. The takeaway here is that “nerd” was likely in American vernacular for quite a while prior to showing up in print, but is still a relatively new word. But what does it mean?

nerd
noun Slang.
1. a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person.
2. an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd.

That’s quite a range, so let’s get a second opinion. On his site, wordorigins.org, Dave Wilton writes, “In today’s parlance, a nerd is an exceptional studious or technically proficient person, but the original sense was that of a boring or very conventional person.” The entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary confirms this: “1951, U.S. student slang, probably an alteration of 1940s slang nert ‘stupid or crazy person,’ itself an alteration of nut.”

The past definition of “nerd” is very specific; it replaced an existing slang term for someone who was conventional to the point that they could not or would not fit into mainstream society. Now, though, we can see that the definition has changed. The personality type–socially awkward, irritating, conventional–may still apply, but the intelligence level is reversed. Although not the definitive source for cultural information Urban Dictionary does have a tendency to keep updated records of slang through crowd sourcing. Check out its entries on “nerd,” and you’ll see that almost all of them refer to someone who is highly intellectual or intelligent. Trouble begins, though, when people begin using the word “geek.”

It seems that there is a minor cultural battle over the differentiation of “nerd” and “geek,” and whether they can be used interchangeably. At first, it would seem that they can. According to The Online Etymology Dictionary and Dave Wilton (using the Oxford English Dictionary), “geek” gets its roots in the Low German “geck,” meaning “a fool, dupe, simpleton,” and one can find written examples going back to the early 1500s. Just for fun, though, take a look at the modern definition:

geek

noun

1. a digital-technology expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often used disparagingly by others).
2. a person who has excessive enthusiasm for and some expertise about a specialized subject or activity: a foreign-film geek.
3. a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
4. a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken. (dictionary.reference.com/browse/geek)

We’re going to come back to #4, don’t worry. For now, though, hold on to your socks, because we’re about to get nonlinear. First, let’s acknowledge the change in meaning from stupidity to expertise, speciality, and intellectualism. As with “nerd,” that’s a huge shift. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Something big must have happened to change the fundamental definition of a word,” you’re absolutely right. Something big did happen. At the end of the 1970s, led by notable names like Gates, Jobs, and Wozniak, the microcomputer revolution exploded. It was also around this time, that the terms “geek” and “nerd” referred almost exclusively to the kinds of guys who had created the machines that would worm their way into almost every aspect of our lives for the next thirty years. But that still doesn’t explain the one-track-mind aspect of either word.

From the definition above, version #4 takes care of that missing piece. Cue the Online Etymology Dictionary:

“sideshow freak,” 1916, U.S. carnival and circus slang […] The modern form and the popular use with reference to circus sideshow “wild men” is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley (made into a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power).

Still a derogatory term, we have, however, found our point of inception for specialization. It’s a base connotation at this point, but it’s there and is destined for denotation. In Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he makes five references to the word “geek” (none to “nerd”). I was going to cite all five, but upon closer inspection I’ve decided that I’m going to subject you to just three:

  1. I am still vaguely haunted by our hitchhiker’s remark about how he’d “never rode in a convertible before.” Here’s this poor geek living in a world of convertibles zipping past him on the highways all the time, and he’s never even ridden in one. It made me feel like King Farouk. (17)
  2. By ten they were spread out all over the course. It was no longer a “race”; now it was an Endurance Contest. The only visible action was at the start/finish line, where every few minutes some geek would come speeding out of the dustcloud and stagger off his bike, while his pit crew would gas it back up and then launch it back onto the track with a fresh driver … for another fifty-mile lap, another brutal hour of kidney-killing madness out there in that terrible dust-blind limbo. (38)
  3. They were having a bang-up time–just crashing around the desert at top speed and hassling anybody they met. “What outfit you fellas with?” one of them shouted. The engines were all roaring; we could barely hear each other.“The sporting press,” I yelled. “We’re friendlies—hired geeks.” (39)

A caveat to the following analysis is that it may, of course, be biased toward the current definition of the word “geek.” In the first quote, geek seems to take the meaning “square,” but it can also mean someone who is sheltered or socially dysfunctional. The second quote seems to imply “specialist,” since the drivers are there to do one thing and do it well. But considering that Thompson painted this event (and most of Las Vegas) as a kind of freak show, the “specialist” aspect gets blended with that of “circus freak.” Quote number three is probably the closest he comes to the modern definition, referring to writers and photographers as harmless specialists, not particularly aware of the rest of the world around themselves. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the existing term “geek” absorbed meaning from the word “freak,” due in part to hippie culture mixing with the mainstream. It is entirely plausible that Thompson was using these words almost interchangeably, with only slightly different shades of meaning.

One such example of this interchangeability is Brother Power the Geek, a two-issue comic created by Joe Simon (Captain America) in 1968. The eponymous character was a tailor’s dummy brought to life to protect hippies. Originally, according to Jim Burrows and several other sources, the character was supposed to be called Brother Power the Freak, but at the time “freak” (and especially Hunter Thompson’s oft-referenced Freak Power movement) connoted drug references, so the descriptor was changed to “geek.” Regardless of the connotations, both terms denoted separation from the mainstream. This may be just one example, but it does show an active redefining of words in popular culture during this time period.

Let’s jump forward to the 1980s and, now that we have a better sense of the evolution of where these words are coming from and how they’re intermingling, get back to the tech boom. As in the cultural revolution in the ’60s and ’70s, the technological revolution of the late ’70s and ’80s led to some further redefining of terms via popular culture. While Tron (1982) never specifically called any of its characters nerds or geeks, it did portray them in a new light, as adventurers and warriors of a different stripe. A reversal of If I Ran the Zoo, it gave the idea, but without a name–priming its audience for what was to come. In 1984, we find a nexus. Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles came out that year, and helped to create the definitions of “nerd” and “geek” that would last until the turn of the century.

In Revenge of the Nerds, Gilbert says, “I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd, and I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. I mean uh, all our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior. And tonight, those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Cause we’re smart? Cause we look different?” And Lewis adds, “[…] When you went to Adams you might’ve been called a spazz, or a dork, or a geek.” Right there, we have equivalency. In this case, they’re talking about regionalisms: the terms for those who don’t fit in because of interests, intelligence, looks, or personality quirks. In Sixteen Candles, Anthony Michael Hall’s character is called The Geek, and he refers to himself as “the king of the dipshits.” On the surface, this seems like rough treatment, but what’s really happening here, between these two movies and Tron, is a redefining of the “freak” as one who, while awkwardly non-adherent to the social graces, is highly technically proficient in one specific area.

Now, though, we have redundancy: freak, geek, nerd, square, and dork. I’m only really here to talk about “nerd,” but am required to talk about “geek” in order to draw contrast. So, quickly, I’ll take these other terms out of play. “Freak” simply lost its drug reference after the ’70s, and went back to meaning “nut” and “outsider,” which Paul Feig explored in his 1999 TV show Freaks and Geeks. The titular separation of these terms again helped to narrow the definition of “geek” into something more intellectual than simply acting strangely and not being cool. Freak, more recently, has gained a specifically sexual definition, depending on context. Granted, the phrases “she’s a freak in the sack” and “she’s a nerd in the sack” could and (often enough for me to notice) do mean exactly the same thing. So there’s that.

“Square”: no one born after 1980 uses “square” to describe anything other than a equilateral quadrilateral. If it does get used, it’s usually as a throwback, and means “boring” or “stuffy.”

“Dork” is often associated with “nerd” and “geek,” but the Online Etymology Dictionary dates this term back to the ’60s, and notes that it’s probably an alteration of the word “dick,” for the male genitalia. Unlike “nerd” and “geek,” “dork” is always derogatory, as it always carries a connotation of stupidity, obtuseness, or unintellectual single-mindedness.

Dork.

Oh, Kurt, you’re such a dork.

Before I move on to the part of this wall of text in which I ask, “What does this all mean!?” and rock back and forth, chewing my fingernails, I need to get the final differentiation of “nerd” and “geek” sorted out. To do this, because the words evolved together, I had to look to contemporary sources. The problem with this is a distinct lack of authority. The dictionary definitions (above) don’t help because they are too similar. Urban Dictionary is helpful, but only in a limited way, since there is generally no vetting process, and definitions tend to be wildly subjective (“One whose IQ exceeds his weight,” while clever is neither true nor helpful).

Not satisfied to take the word of the Internet, I asked some people I know and got a few responses.

Sarah:

Hmmm. Nerd, to me, always carried more of a subtext of introversion–being a ‘nerd’ about something meant you obsessively collected and curated information on a topic, but maybe didn’t proselytize your interest or even communicate it that much. Whereas ‘geeking out’ is by definition public; it’s bringing your interests into your social interactions. Basically, nerds are quiet and geeks are loud. At least that’s what the terms always meant to me.

Kent:

To be entirely unhelpful, I don’t have a good personal sense of the difference. Growing up, both were used as insults toward kids (or people in general) who were too academic, too sciency, too computer-savvy, too interested in Magic cards or D&D. As an adult, I’ve read several little blurbs and articles explicating the differences, most commonly between “nerd,” “geek,” and “dork.” But I don’t have a strong gut sense that I belong (or don’t belong) to one category or another. Nerd probably has the most positive instinctual connotations–I’m a book-nerd, in terms of loving books, but a music-and-poetry-geek, in terms of knowing excessive amounts about both, and a joke-dork in terms of enjoying stupid awkward humor that makes other people uncomfortable at dinner parties (much the way whale dorks make people uncomfortable at dinner parties, especially when worn as three-piece-suits).

Art:

The words seem to be conflated in today’s culture, with geek edging out nerd, I think, in terms of overall usage. If I were to try to distinguish them, I might say that a nerd is one who is intelligent, scholarly, into science and/or art, etc. A geek, on the other hand, is one who is deeply involved in fandom related to comics, games, movies, and the like. Not necessarily scholarly in the way I would expect a nerd to be, but I also don’t think a nerd would necessarily need to be into fandom. I guess that sums up how I think the words can be distinguished, but I also think they are probably used interchangeably more often than not.

Josh:

To me, both are used to describe a passion for a complex non-mainstream subject, but where they differ is the subjects they relate to. A nerd is into intellectual subject matters like math or computer science. A geek is more cultural, like comics or film. [Author’s note: I’d argue that he meant “technical” instead of “intellectual,” but I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth.]

Mike:

The best I can tell is a ‘geek’ is someone who is into something (comics, Star Wars, Cooking, Sports, Old movies, writing, or whatever) and will build friendships around that interests. They like to talk about the things they are into and will do so at length.

I think nerds tend to be like geeks, but without the social element. Also that the things that they are into isolate them from others reenforcing anti-socializing tendencies. They dive into the topic and do not talk to people about it.

I think its easier to find groups of geeks that all share the same interest, whereas a group of nerds come together from their shared social awkwardness.

Ron:

The answer is, however, a little complicated, as in our lifetimes the meanings of each word have, at least in my mind and my experience of pop culture, become at times synonymous and at times quite different, at other times even swapping their definitions as one or the other came into vogue.

At the present time, I am inclined to define nerd as someone whose advanced interest in a subject inhibits, hinders, or precludes his or her ability to be a social creature.

I am inclined to define geek as someone whose advanced interest in a subject does not inhibit, and at times and in certain circumstances may well enhance his or her ability to be a social creature.

While I would like to venture a few thoughts about whether the sciences or the arts are more for the nerds or the geeks, or whether there are areas that are only nerdy or only geeky, they would be wild conjecture.

Amanda:

The main difference between nerd and geek for me is connotation. The term “nerd” tends to be used in a positive way, whereas I feel like “geek” is often used negatively. For instance, a computer nerd is someone who knows a lot about computers, whereas a computer geek is often thought of as socially awkward and not as approachable. Additionally, nerd refers to someone who has a lot of knowledge, whereas geek tends to include an obsessive/fanatical/devoted aspect to a particular area or subject.

So there you have it. Seven is obviously not the best sample size, and all respondents are 28-34 years old, but the general consensus–that “nerd” connotes technical proficiency, scholarship, and social ineptitude, whereas “geek” connotes enthusiasm, collectorship, and a higher level of sociability–conforms with most of the definitions one might find.

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Now that I’ve spent a good deal of time on defining and sorting, why, you might ask, does any of it matter? Why should anyone care about the splitting of hairs in some minor culture battle? Generally, it doesn’t matter and no one should care, since in about twenty years, these words will be relegated to the same obscurity as “square” or “dip.” That is, it’s moot if all we care about is the definition of words. But we don’t, do we? As with so many terms, especially slang, the development of a word is at least as important as its final meaning. I went into excruciating detail about how these words formed, where they came from, and how they evolved and differentiated themselves from similar terms over the past half century. Now that we’ve caught up to the present day, we should keep in mind the kinds of factors that changed these words as we continue to refine and solidify their definitions.

One such factor is branding and popular culture. As discussed earlier, “geek” split from it’s “freak” roots mainly because someone in the mainstream wanted to make a profit off of a large subculture without having to acknowledge the touchier social issues bound to it. Today, nerd/geek culture is in full swing, due in part to the ever increasing need for specialists in various scientific and technological fields–specialists who have a lot of disposable income and who have instant access to a web of likeminded people. That large, monied subculture attracts a lot of attention, and over the past few decades, producers of popular media have begun catering to it.

This poses a couple problems. First, while something might be gained in the translation from subculture to mainstream, something is also going to be lost. We can see this happening now. For better or for worse, there are TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, which portray nerds and geeks in a positive light. Obviously, the characters are stereotypes and the plots are formulaic, but it’s a sitcom fantasy world. Nerds and geeks should appreciate the role-playing aspect to it. If in D&D, one can kill the badass skeletons (all of them), find the magical key to the mystical chastity belt, and rescue the fine-ass lady elf, why shouldn’t a supermodel physicist be able to date a supermodel waitress or supermodel biologist? While the intensity of the social awkwardness gets lost in translation, the definition is gaining a more positive connotation.

The other problem might be called hipsterism, but is really a conflict over ownership. If we take the modern definition of “geek,” which I separated from “nerd” above, it might be more appropriate to say that this is not so much a problem as it is a more modern divergence of the terms. Ideas and genres, among other things, come with cultural capital. As these social phenomena wax and wane in popularity, so does their cultural capital. As creatures of culture (at least more than nerds are), geeks would be more prone to claiming ownership over the subculture. While intelligence and accumulated knowledge might positive, the down side to a battle over ownership is the social awkwardness that defines both cultures. In arguments about these cultures, there is a tendency to bring in the idea of suffering. Like the idea of suffering for one’s art, those who claim ownership over these terms tend to espouse the idea that one isn’t truly a nerd/geek if there hasn’t been some sort of trauma–bullying, severe social awkwardness, a crippling lack of self-confidence, and so on. While there is a limited point to that argument, it sets a weird precedent, encouraging those who want membership in the subculture to adopt the affect of these traumas, and allowing those who have already claimed ownership to be cultural gatekeepers.

The fact that, unlike words describing concrete physicality–black, white, short, tall, blue-eyed, and bald–“nerd” (and “geek”) describes a social perception of a personality type or state of mind. But as long as the world keeps spinning, there will always be a constant shift in perception. A nerd today is not the same as a nerd sixty years ago, or twenty years ago, or ten years ago. It would be ludicrous to expect that calling a 30-year-old person a nerd now would mean the same as it did when he or she was in high school. And for those self-applying the term, it’s best to keep track of how the word has evolved since you first started to use it, so you don’t end up stuck in the past. But if you’re a nerd, you’ve probably already got that taken care of.

My intention here was to draw meaning out of process. There were many more aspects of this issue that I could have tackled, but didn’t because I like to pretend that I have other things to do. I suspect that there were parts of this that were overly dense and scattered, but after several days of looking at this over and over again and not finding a way to restructure it, I decided “to hell with it” and now we’re here.

A list of citations for this monstrosity can be found here.

Making the Perfect Grilled Cheese

The trick to making the perfect grilled cheese is simple: γνῶθι σεαυτόν. The Oracle in The Matrix had a sign above her door with (confusingly) the Latin translation: temet nosce. Know thyself. In its original context, the aphorism did not ask one to look inward and ask the question, “Who am I?” It wasn’t a question, after all. Instead, it implored the reader to find his or her own path–to know the destination before taking the journey. Applying this principle to grilled cheese is easy and can save you a lot of aggravation down the road. And one of the beautiful things about grilled cheeses is that, like pizza, there are many, many combinations from which to choose.

First off, you need to pick the right bread. Some people like a lot of bread, and may go with a focaccia or ciabatta, but some people may not like bread very much at all, and for that, there is a beautiful solution: quesadillas! And for the gluten-allergic or simply picky, there are myriad options out there. They may be harder to find, but they’re out there.

Next, you have to figure out how you want the bread to cook, and this can be a bit more tricky. Some people like their grilled cheeses cooked so that they’re very firm and crunchy. For this, the trick is dehydrating the bread by making sure the pan is dry. The bread may not brown evenly, but you’ll know it’s ready to turn over when you stick the spatula under it and hear a rasping sound like sandpaper. Some people like crispiness, but not the gum-cutting hardness of the previous method. For this, butter the bread. The more butter, the longer you have to cook it before browning and crispiness, but the tastier it will be. Some people, though even like a little bit of sogginess, which you obtain by frying the sandwich in oil or rendered fat.

Next, and perhaps most important, is the cheese. Typically, you’re going to find that most grilled cheeses made for mass consumption will be made with either American or cheddar, and sometimes jack cheese. Privately, though, people make grilled cheeses with just about any kind of cheese. Most people will use only one kind of cheese per sandwich, but some may put two, three, or even four–sometimes even five!–cheeses in one sandwich. The danger in mixing is that all cheeses might not get enough representation. It requires a thoughtful approach to sandwich building, but it can and has been done.

But wait! There’s more! You can even throw in little extras. For example, grilled cheese and ham is one of the most popular variants out there. But you can get as creative as you want. Bacon, tomato, avocado, onions, spinach, pesto, truffles (if you’re feeling decadent)–all of these and more are good. In fact, there aren’t, with probably a few obvious exceptions, any objectively bad extra ingredients. It’s a matter of taste.

Now that you’ve cooked your sandwich, enjoy it. It’s a simple food with endless potential.

Creating your grilled cheese was easy, but sharing it can be hard. Pretty much everyone loves grilled cheese, but it’s hard to find someone who will like it the way you make it. Most people can come to a compromise. “You can put avocado in it, but just cook it a little crispier, OK?” I think we’ve all heard that one at one point. But sometimes you just can’t find any middle ground. Pork products can really make a grilled cheese interesting, but some people can’t or won’t eat pork.

The option, then is to make two different sandwiches, which is fine–totally doable–and it won’t necessarily ruin the meal. It raises an important issue, though: the notion that you aren’t really sharing the same meal, and that you have to keep your pork to yourself. On one hand, great, more pork for me. On the other, not being able to share something you like is kind of a bummer. This goes for any aspect of the grilled cheese, and even how often you want one, so it’s important to choose carefully the people you eat with.

So, know yourself. Know your grilled cheese. Cook on!

Guilty Pleasures

“Guilty pleasures; Billy put, ‘half a melon heated up in the microwave’, very creative Billy!”

-Dr. Venture, The Venture Bros.

There’s something strange and off-putting about the term “guilty pleasure,” and for a long time I couldn’t put my finger on it. At first, the issue seemed to be that it is an overtly backhanded compliment. For example, I could say that The Sing Off is a guilty pleasure, because normally I loathe singing competition shows and am generally uninterested in reality television in general. What I’m saying is that while I find a certain medium irritating, this iteration is all right. It’s kind of an emotionally cheap thing to do, to avoid airing a real opinion about something by avoiding the word “because.” We say something’s a guilty pleasure and that’s the end of it because it leaves any and all reasons implied. I like The Sing Off because the judges display extensive knowledge of the subject matter and give constructive criticism to the contestants, because the quality of the performances is generally very high, and, emphatically, because it’s not a freak show. The latter, I refer to in the television sense of the word. I’ve been to a real Freak Show, and it was awesome. The television version typically showcases people you just end up feeling sorry for. The only time I’ve ever felt sorry for someone on The Sing Off is when I couldn’t decide which group had a better performance.

More damning, perhaps, is the idea that the “guilty” part comes from the idea that whatever thing you take pleasure in is not socially acceptable. I’ve heard “guilty pleasure” applied to everything from Britney Spears and colorful cocktails to ’80s hair metal and porn. Never have I heard it apply to something that might realistically cause a serious sense of guilt. For a complete list of actual guilty pleasures, consider Dan Savage’s column archive and imagine what it might be like to not be able to act on certain desires or to know that there might be one person in a hundred million with whom you could share your desires. That’s about as bad as sucking down lemon drops while listening to “Toxic,” right?

If we’re talking about the hangover, definitely.

The problem is a deeply seeded dishonesty, not just about the guilty pleasure in question, not just about what we find socially acceptable, but about our individual sense of guilt. If we’re lying to ourselves about what we like and don’t like, and are setting up obstacles to those things, those lies will mediate new experiences. I had a post some time ago about what is and isn’t authentic, and ended up being fairly inclusive about what was authentic or genuine, but this is one of the exceptions. When new sensory input is mediated by our own emotional and moral dishonesty, our experiences cannot be defined as authentic.

Whether it’s fluff, irony, desire, or something more sinister, let it be just that. Worry about the guilt later.

Science Fiction and the Soul

A friend and philosopher wrote in late to ask that I consider a topic for discussion: midi-chlorians. For those of you who aren’t big on Star Wars, those who scooped out parts of their own brains after the prequels, and for the rest of you, who purged the memories from your brain with alcohol, midi-chlorians are a newer addition to the Star Wars canon. I don’t want to blow through a full summary in the intro here, but to say that this addition was controversial is a gross understatement. If you really, really want to know what a midi-chlorian is in excruciating detail, you can find a suitable explanation on its Wookieepedia page. It’s nuts, and in case you don’t want your browser ever remembering that midi-chlorians exist, I’ll summarize it below.

You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let's get nuts!

You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!

To start, let’s get that brief summary out of the way. George Lucas officially added the idea of midi-chlorians as canon with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Apparently, he’d wanted to introduce them much earlier, but couldn’t find a good way to do it. Because there is no good way to do it. He wanted there to be a rhyme and reason for Force sensitivity, and the best way he could figure was to create a kind of cellular mitochondria, present in all living things, but super abundant in Force sensitive folks, like Jedi. The midi-chlorians are not the Force itself, but a connection between the Force and, as Yoda said of Luke’s meat suit, “this crude matter.” To emphasize that Anakin Skywalker (soon to be Darth Vader) was super-duper special, Anakin’s midi-chlorian count was the highest ever recorded.

In a way, on its own, the midi-chlorian is kind of an interesting idea–a physical link between the body and the soul. A lot of other science fiction writers and filmmakers have touched on the idea of a subjective versus objective soul. Clearly, Lucas was talking about the latter, which is fine. There’s no proving or disproving either side. The trouble begins with his inclusion of the idea in the Star Wars universe. Most other science fiction and fantasy authors, faced with ideas that they can’t fit into their current long-running series, simply start a new project or write a stand-alone novel. Much to his fans’ frustration, George R.R. Martin has a few side projects going, but we thank him for not trying to shoehorn those extra ideas into his Ice and Fire series. Unfortunately, Lucas created an empire on Star Wars and Indiana Jones and apparently couldn’t find the time or inspiration to explore his creativity outside of those realms.

The next bit of trouble harkens back to a post I made a few days ago about science fiction versus science fantasy. Star Wars is and has always been science fantasy. The root causes for many things in the original movies (IV, V, and VI) were never explained. We don’t really know how hyperspace works, nor do we need to; it gets our characters from one place to another nigh instantaneously, and reduces unnecessary exposition. The same is true with the Death Star, or any other space-bound craft for that matter. We kind of assume that the materials for the Death Star’s construction were strip-mined from somewhere. The Empire is a vast, black-gloved tyranny made up of thousands of worlds. Pull a few of them apart, and–bam!–instant Death Star. Just add sadness. A second one? Easy as eatin’ pancakes. How does gravity plating work? Who cares? Why don’t spacecraft need retro rockets? Who cares? Where does all the air come from? Who gives a crap? If we cared, we’d have more exposition than we ever wanted, and none of it would serve to advance the plot even a little bit. And that’s why Star Wars (the originals) works. It’s essentially Lord of the Rings in space–knights, wizards, unwilling heroes, trolls, and elves–except that instead of throwing the ring into Mount Doom, Vader’s has to throw the Emperor into the reactor core.

So what happens when we add midi-chlorians? Exposition, and a lot of it. Because they weren’t part of the original trilogy, we now have to tell half our audience (pretty much anyone born before 1994) why Anakin is Force sensitive, and why Luke is. This is time that could be spent in character development. In the Star Trek series, we get a ton of technical exposition about the ship, the inner workings of stars, Data’s brain, and the space-time continuum because these things are integral to the plot, because it’s science fiction–science as fiction. Mostly, anyway. We know that Betazoids are telepathic, but do we know exactly how or why that works? No. Why? We don’t need to. Geordi’s visor shattered the universe in Star Trek: The Next Genereation, and was also able to help the crew identify inter-dimensional newborns. In fact, his visor practically wrote more than a few episodes of that show. Midi-chlorians are introduced as a major reason that the Star Wars universe exists, but they end up playing no part in the driving action. We’re never going to need to know anything technical about them ever again. Seriously. There are plenty of books and comics, post prequels, of course, that mention them, but at heart all of these works are science fantasy. Wedging a science  fiction element into the existing science fantasy construct only serves to fracture the story and take attention away from the characters.

I wanted this post to be mostly on the subject of science fiction vs. science fantasy, but I want to take a chance and wrap it up with an idea I began earlier that I’m not sure holds every drop of water I’m about to pour into it. Which idea is that there is an almost de facto balance between the objective/subjective soul and science fiction/science fantasy within the sci-fi genre. As fiction within the genre leans toward fantasy, the soul is depicted more objectively, as an concrete thing that can be weighed and measured with the right equipment. And as literature leans more toward science, the soul is portrayed more as an abstract thing, mystical and necessarily outside the bounds of tangibility. Let’s start with the first two obvious examples: Star Trek and Star WarsTrek, falling well on the science side, mentions the soul, but almost every instance of its inclusion in canon, it is something beyond measurement or understanding. For example, Data’s journey, as an android, toward humanity is constantly fraught with questions of soul. Where inside that complex mass of circuits and flashing LEDs is the thing that makes Data Data? It was established by the end of TNG that the question was never going to be answered by a measure of his emotion (which is pretty much where the movies went horribly wrong in this aspect). In fact, it became clear after a while that there may be no answer at all. In Star Wars, even before the prequels, Yoda says, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” As a crazy-old crazy old wizard, he is a religious and spiritual figure, and as such, he has the ability to see and sense the soul–and thus weigh and measure it.

In literature, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon sits on the science side of the spectrum, while Frank Herbert’s Dune sits on the fantasy side. In Altered Carbon, a person can have their consciousness swapped from body to body like renting a car, yet the soul is somewhat of a stickier wicket. Those rich and powerful enough to have their consciousness ride through the centuries, changing out of their old bodies like dirty underwear, are known as Methuselahs (a reference to the Book of Genesis). Their minds are typically intact, but it becomes clear that their souls are twisted and corrupted. Yet the nature of how this comes to be or where the soul exists is left as a big question mark. In Dune, by contrast, the search for the Kwisatz Haderach is essentially a mission to find the galactic messiah by creating it. But what makes a messiah, if not the soul–in this case a very carefully weighed and measured soul?

It’s no secret that fantasy and science fantasy writing is typically tied closely to religion and mythology. Herbert, for example, uses a crazy mishmash of Zen, Islamic, and Judeo-Christian stories and iconography to sew the Dune universe together. But Altered Carbon uses mainly philosophy, borrowed and fabricated, as its foundation. Star Trek does the same, and really only touches on religion with any consistency in Deep Space Nine, and the writers pretty much made up the Bajoran religion from scratch, using old pagan practices as a guide. And it was clear that George Lucas always meant for Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader to be an exceedingly special character, the prodigal father, maybe. But then in The Phantom Menace, he wanted Anakin to have been possibly conceived by midi-chlorians. So then he’s Jesus with a lightsaber?

Speaking of robots with a soul...

Speaking of robots with a soul…

The point, I think, is that there is redundancy in the storytelling. Telling us how Anakin is supposed to be special does nothing for us. In A New Hope, we needed no expositional dialogue to tell us that Luke was going to end up a hero, nor did we need his midi-chlorian count to know that his soul was incorruptible (well, until Dark Empire, but let’s keep things simple). The same should have been true of Anakin. The mytho-religious science fantasy of Star Wars should have been enough to show us that Anakin was a troubled soul.

The end result of exposition is that it cheapens the sense of adventure. In a way, it’s why the Book of Genesis and its long lists of A begat B begat C begat D and so on is practically unreadable. It may lend a sense of realistic credibility to the endeavor, but ends up reading like the IKEA manual for my desk.

A Thanksgiving List on Birds

It’s that time of year again, so let’s talk about birds!

  1. Turkey: n. A large winged vertebrate that lays eggs and tastes delicious. Also, apparently, not halal.
  2. Turkey: prop. n. A country on the border of Asia and Europe, south of Russia, north of Iraq.
  3. Turkey: n. A three strikes in a row in bowling.
  4. Turkey: n. slang A useless, dense, ineffective, clumsy, gullible, or dimwitted person, possibly prone to accidents. Derived from the behavior of the domesticated versions of the above vertebrates (see #1).
  5. Turkey: n. slang A box office failure.
  6. Wild turkey: n. A non-domesticated variant of #1. Prone to territorial violence, even against humans. True story: I saw one loitering outside a 7-11 in Brookline, Massachusetts, directly under a “No Loitering” sign. Wild turkeys just don’t give a shit about the rules.
  7. Wild Turkey: prop. n. A brand of Kentucky bourbon whiskey that brings out violence and tomfoolery.
  8. This bird is so high he can see your molecules vibrating.

    This bird is so high he can see your molecules vibrating.

    Bird: n. A winged, feathered vertebrate that lays eggs and usually flies, though not at the same time. Class: Aves.

  9. Bird: n. According to Urban Dictionary, a brick of cocaine. Unknown origin, though perhaps the snowy owl?
  10. Bird: n. The word. Papa ooh mow mow.
  11. Bird: n. slang Chiefly British, a girl or young woman. Ex: “Oi, mate! That bird’s chewing denim.”
  12. The finger, the bird, the one-finger salute, the finger wave, the middle finger.

    The finger, the bird, the one-finger salute, the finger wave, the middle finger.

    Bird, the: n. A gesture considered rude almost universally. Means, “Fuck you,” because it indicated what you would like to do with that finger. Generally, though, most people don’t actually want to do that to the person, and the gesture is telling them to fuck off, get fucked, or is giving them a visual demonstration of how to go fuck themselves. This gesture is generally considered a cousin or even derivation of the primarily British two-finger salute, in which the middle and index fingers are displayed, palm facing the saluter. There are many theories on the source of the two-finger salute, but none of them, including the chopping off of the fingers of archers, hold much water. Chances are its origins lie, as do many things, in sex.

  13. Birds, the: prop. n. An Alfred Hitchcock joint. If memory serves, birds to make an appearance at some point.
  14. Bird, Larry: prop. n. A basketball player for the Boston Celtics during the ’80s. He was pretty good.
  15. Byrds, the: prop. n. A band from the ’60s, notable for their song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” from the album of the same name.
  16. B1-RD: prop. n. No, not a character from Star Wars. An ultralight kit aircraft produced by Robertson Aircraft Company. About as safe as it looks.

Anyway, I think I’ve run this one into the ground. I always like to be proven wrong, though.

Happy Thanksgiving!