Musings

Coverless

Crazy clients have drained me of my creative will today, so I’m going to jumpstart my brain and go after the daily prompt.

Does it ever make sense to judge a book by its cover — literally or metaphorically? Tell us about a time you did, and whether that was a good decision or not.

I haven’t bought a physical book in a long time. I think it started as a way to thin down my ever heavier load, because transporting an entire library is a pain, especially when I’m still moving around a lot. Some books I like to have physically because they or their authors are special to me. I have my nearly completed Philip K. Dick and Hunter Thompson collections stored away back in the States, but the content stays with me digitally.

Thing is, I never bought a single one of those books, even the first one of each collection, because of the cover art. In fact, I can’t remember a single book that I bought because I liked the cover. Something you may have figured out about me after all these posts is that I’m cautious by nature. I start at one point and feel my way around until I can prove to myself that a suitable second step is solid. Outside the world of books, this has failed me on multiple occasions, when things I thought were perfect (or even good enough) proved not to be, typically in a spectacular fashion. And it has prevented me from pursuing opportunities that, in retrospect, would have changed my life for the better. But it seems to have worked well in general. I’m not a complete wreck, so that’s something.

With books, I will read a bunch of work from one author, and then jump to a different book related to that author in some way. It could be an author who cowrote a book with the current author I’m reading. It could be an author with a similar style, or from a similar era–like the Hunter Thompson-Tom Wolfe- Terrence McKenna-Thomas Pynchon-Philip K. Dick nexus–or the Davis Sedaris-Sarah Vowell-David Rakoff trifecta. From there, branching out is fairly easy. I can go back and find the works that influenced those writers, go forward and find the next generation, who used those authors as influences.

With digital publishing, it seems that more and more, cover art is far less important than how an author is connected to a reader’s current library, whether through genre, co-authorship, or writing style. Partially, this is because digital books don’t have true covers, but mostly, it’s because there are fewer and fewer physical spaces to browse for books. In the digital space, say on Amazon, you don’t walk down aisles of a genre, looking for a cover that pops out–you have an algorithm linking your past purchases and stated interests to certain other authors and titles that are guaranteed to be a hit with you.

But that doesn’t let us branch out very much, does it? We get stuck circling the drain in our genre of choice. We’ll satisfy ourselves with things that we like, but there’s not much room for growth to different genres or to books that might challenge us a bit more. It’s easy to put down a digital book and never come back to it. You never have to explain to guests, with at least a little shame, why you have a book on your shelf or on your coffee table that you know nothing about.

Perhaps cover art is a necessity of sorts. It appeals to us on a level that we don’t get from the cold science of digital marketing. In a way, maybe we do need to judge books by their covers more.

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It Happened One Day

Well, it finally happened.

I don’t know if it constitutes a sickening betrayal of principles, but I’ve finally made myself a Twitter account. Sadly enough, I’d been debating this decision for much longer than I waffled on the idea of posting a politically relevant observation a few days ago. I guess we’ll just mark this little episode as unfettered narcissism and move on, because that’s what we do now. Because that’s what Twitter is.

I had literally the entire world to choose from when picking the people (not known to me) who I’d follow first, and I picked people who think exactly the same way I do. Never mind that it’s kind of a sick thing that there’s sort of an institutionalized Following of the Celebrity when joining Twitter. But of course, why else would you join Twitter if not to hear what your favorite pop icons are doing at every waking moment? And then I move on.

Sure, I could dig deep and find tweets from people who’re about to die in a war in some far flung corner of the globe, but the fleeting nature of both cuts too deeply. I’d always thought that the superpower of being able to read people’s minds would be incredibly useful, if not a horrible curse from time to time. Ye gods! I could use Twitter so well to find out what other people really think! But screw it, I can pay attention to whichever person in the States is being super racist in public at the moment. But no–I didn’t join up to watch a squalid freak show. This is the Internet. My cup runneth over with bigger and better freak shows.

So that begs the question: why the hell did I sign up in the first place? Was it just sick curiosity, or was there a plan? Am I just hoping for that self-indulgent dopamine rush when I see a little blue circle in my inbox? Is it just a misguided attempt at real human contact? All? None?

Whatever it is, I chickened out and didn’t sign up under @BloodSharts, though now I’m kind of wishing I had. You can find me @HiDefFantasy.

Phone Monkey: A Liar’s Dilemma

PhoneMonkeyPNGI’ve touched on part of what follows in a previous post, so rather than rehash much of what was said there, let’s just pretend that this is a continuation of that thought. If you haven’t read it, and want to, feel free to pause now. I’ll put some white space here.

The Internet, as a means of doing business is a Devil’s Bargain. You can reach farther than you might otherwise, but with the extra coverage you dredge up more scum. This “scum” isn’t people, necessarily, but the kind of human interaction that takes place. As anyone who has ever browsed reviews of Yelp!, skimmed through YouTube comments, or read a random cross-section of tweets will know, anonymity on the Internet allows people to forego the social contract and sink into a weird Hobbesian “state of nature.” When it comes to business, I have seen kind, rational people lose their sense of perspective at the slightest inconvenience.

Below are three complaints that have completely lost their meaning to me:

  1. “Unacceptable” adj.: a bummer; not what was expected; arrived later than expected. Generally, if you give the verbal equivalent of a hug, these issues become acceptable.
  2. “This is the worst experience I’ve ever had!”/”I’ve never been treated so poorly!”: No it isn’t. Yes you have. If it is or if you haven’t, you’ve been a very sheltered person. Did you even go to high school? Maybe take the bus occasionally, or stand in a TSA line at the airport.
  3. “Ice cold”: It’s July. Knock it off.

Why? Maybe it’s the hyperbole, but the wizard behind that particular curtain is the pathos. I’ve worked a dozen different jobs, some customer service, some not, and each had its own set of lies and liars. Apologies, as discussed in an earlier post, are one kind of lie, designed to smooth ruffled feathers. Hyperbole, on the other hand, cranks the energy level up, and it works; drill sergeants use it to motivate recruits, and pundits use it to churn up outrage. But there are diminishing returns. Like any other drug (probably because of a chemical reaction in the brain), with frequent use it has less effect over time. After a while, the response to even a serious complaint like, “The delivery driver called me a whore!” (an actual complaint and a legitimate use of “unacceptable”) is a resounding shrug. Yes, we will do what we can to get that business to reprimand/fire that person, and we will try and get your money back. But it all just starts to feel a little too automated.

As your lowly phone monkey, it’s my job to try and make sure you are happy, and failing that, that you don’t go away angry, and failing even that, that you don’t go on a crusade. We don’t get paid a lot, and we don’t get sick days, vacation days, or health coverage. Like working in the food service industry, if you want a shift off because you’re getting married, or because you’re sick and throwing up, you have to find someone to cover for you. The point is, we spend a lot of time interacting with a diverse, multicultural, multilingual customer base, and yet, the homogeneity of not just complaints, but the wording of them and the level of hostility behind them becomes numbing after a while. In a way, the Customer becomes an interchangeable part. Some are more durable than others, but viewed in the same unfiltered light of the Internet, they begin to look pretty much the same at their core. Disturbing is the moment when I’ve found myself being an interchangeable Customer.

The real trouble comes when we have to deal with the real liars. Far from the angry customers spewing righteous hyperbole, these are the seasoned professionals who have spent a lifetime making an art out of lying. As Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski might say, these people are a “worthy fucking adversary.” Typically, they’re the people committing credit card fraud, or just trying to weasel a free meal out of us, and just as typically, they’re super obvious about it. Threats of lawsuits, never using our service again, and Twitter campaigns are generally met with an eye roll and a “meh.” Lawsuits are never filed, they place an order the very next day, and Twitter action is met with a tidal wave of derision. But we occasionally get someone special.

Recently, I was contacted by a pair of guys, who after losing a battle with a restaurant’s management over a refund, decided to try and pull rank with me, claiming they work in their state’s Attorney General’s office. This is hyperbole of a different sort. It says that I am the pawn and they are queens, and that what they do to earn money gives them power over me. What a lot of people forget when entering into a customer service situation is that, for a moment, there is no social rank. I am obligated to do what I can to help you, and to go above an beyond when I can, but one of the liberating parts (well, maybe the only liberating part) of being a pawn is limited liability. My hands are tied by company policy, contracts, and my job description. This is essentially like having bulletproof glass between you and a gun-toting psychopath. If you continue doing your job and following the guidelines set out for you, the scary monster on the other side of the glass can’t hurt you. The instant you engage, though, and come out from behind that glass–madness.

So that’s where we seem to be in the world of customer service now. Everyone’s lawyered-up and looking at each other through that bulletproof glass. We expect to give and receive lies all day long, and that makes us immune to the ones that keep our personal lives running. In real life, at a party or some other social gathering, holding down a real conversation with another person is a monumental feat. You have to accept the lie (assumed or real) that the person you’re chitchatting with is actually interested in what you’re saying, and you have to not let on that when they’re talking, all you’re trying to do is figure out what they want from you and how to give it to them with the least amount of conflict, because that’s what you do for eight hours a day.

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.

◊◊◊

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.

Irony

Last year was full of strange cultural moments, but one that sticks out in my mind is the Great Kerfuffle–capitalized because it would be a great name for the apocalypse–surrounding Miley Cyrus at the Video Music Awards. I’ll say this right up front: I don’t care one way or the other about Miley Cyrus. In fact, I don’t care about Robin Thicke, either. I’m not about to sit in judgement of either of these people as people. And if I did, I would be missing the point.

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past nine months, Robin Thick and crew put out a song called “Blurred Lines,” which is basically a rape song we can dance to. More on that later. At the VMAs, Miley Cyrus dressed like a crazy person and did a little interpretive dance number that a lot of people thought was inappropriate for television. Obviously, these were the people who turn on MTV only to watch the Awards, otherwise they’d already have been desensitized to twerking. (It may be the word of the year, but my spellchecker still refuses to acknowledge it. I tried spelling it “twercking” on the off chance that it might act like the word “panic” when shifting it to the present progressive. The hard “k” ending theoretically makes that unnecessary–viz “baking”–but I’m not sure about the roots of the word, so sometimes it’s best to just try and fail.)

There were two main interpretations of this. One was that Cyrus is to blame because she demeaned herself by acting like a sex object and associating herself with the legitimization of rape. The other is that Thicke took too little blame for being the cultural legitimizer. Unfortunately, while people were busy assigning blame, the song got more and more traction. It is still so popular that you can hear it in grocery stores, malls, and on TV. It even played on my Air Asia flight back from the Philippines once we’d landed in Kuala Lumpur. Pretty good for something that caused such a controversy.

Below is a segment of the lyrics to “Blurred Lines.”

[Chorus: Robin Thicke]
And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
You’re a good girl
Can’t let it get passed me
You’re far from plastic
Talk about gettin blasted
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

[Verse 2: Robin Thicke]
What do they make dreams for
When you got them jeans on
What do we need steam for
You the hottest bitch in this place
I feel so lucky
Hey, hey, hey
You wanna hug me
Hey, hey, hey
What rhymes with hug me?
Hey, hey, hey

[Pre-chorus: Robin Thicke]
OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you
Hey, hey, hey
You don’t need no papers
Hey, hey, hey
Than man is not your maker
Hey, hey, hey

[Chorus: Robin Thicke]
And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
You’re a good girl
Can’t let it get passed me
You’re far from plastic
Talk about gettin blasted
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it
I hate them lines
I know you want it
I hate them lines
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

Ladies?

Ladies?

Next are the lyrics to “Sex Type Thing” by the Stone Temple Pilots.

I am, I am, I am
I said, “I wanna get next to you”
I said, “I gonna get close to you”
You wouldn’t want me, have to hurt you too, hurt you too

I ain’t, I ain’t, I ain’t
A buyin’ into your apathy
I’m gonna learn ya my philosophy
You wanna know about atrocity, atrocity?

I know you want what’s on my mind
I know you like what’s on my mind
I know it eats you up inside
I know, you know, you know, you know

I am a man, a man
I’ll give ya somethin’ that you won’t forget
I said, “Ya shouldn’t have worn that dress”
I said, “Ya shouldn’t have worn that dress, worn that dress”

I know you want what’s on my mind
I know you like what’s on my mind
I know it eats you up inside
I know, you know, you know, you know

Here I come, I come, I come, I come
Here I come, I come, I come

I am, I am, I am
I said, “I wanna get next to you”
I said, “I gonna get close to you”
You wouldn’t want me, have to hurt you too, hurt you too

I know you want what’s on my mind
I know you like what’s on my mind
I know it eats you up inside
I know, you know, you know, you know

I know you want what’s on my mind
I know you like what’s on my mind
I know it eats you up inside
I know, you know, you know, you know

Here I come, I come, I come, I come
Here I come, I come, I come
Come on
Here I come, I come, I come, I come
Here I come, I come, I come, I come
[etc…]

So they’re pretty much the same song, right? Wrong. The content might be similar, but in this case, the medium is the message. “Sex Type Thing” was, at its core, grunge: naturally dripping with bitter irony and angst, and generally ranting against the status quo. They lyrics may say one thing, but we know they mean another because we know what we’re listening to. With “Blurred Lines,” we don’t really know what we’re listening to, other than pop, which is not typically as strong a sounding board for double talk and embedded irony (not to be confused with fatuousness). When we hear rape-y lyrics in a pop song, our first notion is not to think, “Oh, this is about something else.”

In fact, “Blurred Lines” isn’t about anything else. In a GQ interview, Robin Thicke said, “We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, ‘Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!'” Because women love that. He then got weirdly ironical when talking about the video they made for the song:

We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, “We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this.” People say, “Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?” I’m like, “Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.” So we just wanted to turn it over on its head and make people go, “Women and their bodies are beautiful. Men are always gonna want to follow them around.”

I get it. They were being super lighthearted and funny. Great. But the song came out first. It’s super easy to see the light irony in the video, but it’s just as hard to apply that humor retroactively to the song as it is not to apply the rape-y vibe of the song to the images in the video.

The song is what it is, though, and like everything else, it will eventually fade away into obscurity. I often complain, to those who will listen, that Americans have a tendency to look for something to be upset about to the point that the real big crimes go unnoticed. The scandal here isn’t that a bunch of guys crafted something misogynistic, or that a young woman decided to have some fun with her sexuality in public. Those things have been happening as long as this globe has been spinning, and will continue until the heat death of the universe. Rather, it is that as a culture, we missed a teachable moment. In terms of cultural values, it was the perfect time for a wake-up call, to at least make people aware of larger trends in pop culture. And in language and communication, it would have been a great moment to stop and say, “See how they crafted that joke? Don’t do that.”

Bitches and Media Dickery

I spent last evening drinking with my girlfriend’s extended family. Toward the end of the night, one of her relatives told a story that I’m going to try and reproduce here from memory. It may not be accurate to the letter, but it’s going to be close, and as true to the story as I can get it.

You know, our generation of Filipinos is maybe the last one that speaks fluent English. There’s the accent, of course, but you can tell English is going away when you hear the younger people say one word: confirm. They say con-feerm. I always get this: “confirm” is when you know something, and “con-feerm” is when you really, really know it. But I have to tell them: it’s “confirm.” When something’s solid, it’s not feerm; it’s firm.

Another cousin, a teacher and former journalist, jumped in and added something more:

I hear that. I hear another one, too. Kids are always saying they’re going to go to the bitch. They’ve got a bitch house. This bitch is my favorite. It’s like they’re not listening to what they’re saying. ‘The Philippines has a lot of really nice bitches.’ Well….

I guess I’ll get to see for myself, when the family takes a trip to the bitch after Christmas.

The next item on my list is the article BuzzFeed posted about the whole Justine Sacco debacle. If you want to know about it, read it. My first rule of BuzzFeed is don’t talk about BuzzFeed, and I’m bending that rule enough just by doing a quick meta-analysis. The title of the article is: “This Is How A Woman’s Offensive Tweet Became The World’s Top Story.” AP style gripes notwithstanding, there’s something wrong with this whole concept. I’m not going to go down the journalism ethics road, because BuzzFeed isn’t journalism, but it is, unfortunately, news for a lot of people. I see far more articles from this website re-posted to social media than I see from any of the waning heads of the Fourth Estate. The Boston Globe did put out an interesting article on the Tsarnaev brothers, who were (I think we’re still supposed to use the word “allegedly”) responsible for the Boston Marathon Bombing earlier this year, but articles like it aren’t being produced in volume sufficient to keep pace with the more exciting, short-burst consumption that is BuzzFeed.

What troubles me about this particular article is that it involves at least one of BuzzFeed’s staff. If you’re going to claim that a shitty tweet was the world’s top story, even if the hype flared up and burnt out over the course of a day or two, it would seem like a conflict of interest to have your own people commenting on it and ginning up controversy within the same interactive medium. But again, BuzzFeed isn’t journalism. There is no conflict of interest because it is in their interest to keep page views up. They may not have been the ones to start the fire, but fanning the flames couldn’t hurt if there might be an article in it.

Sometimes, though, wish I had that kind of work ethic.

Scissor Kick My Rubber Suit, Baby. It Don’t Hurt.

Call it cheese. Call it shlock. Call it bad, and call me a hipster for loving the hell out of it. Actually, don’t do that. There isn’t an ounce of irony to my abiding adoration of old kung-fu, monster, and kung-fu monster movies. You might ask why this is, and you’d be right to do so. Watching these movies is a window into one of the most abundantly creative times in cinematic history, and you don’t need to look all that closely to see what some of the movies we consider to be classics have borrowed, stolen, repurposed, and improved upon.

But let’s start at the beginning. Gojira (1954) likely started the man-in-the-rubber-suit phenomenon, and how! The technology for fusing man and rubber monster was so primitive that the guy inside the suit occasionally passed out from heat exhaustion.

Whatcha got behind your back there, buddy?

Over the course of the Godzilla movies, the rubber suit became more wearable, but looked more and more human as it went on. This allowed for some awesome knock-down-drag-out fights, as in The Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). As soon as we needed to have Godzilla express consternation, amusement, and other emotions relevant to beating ass, technology improved. This made Godzilla’s purpose less the divine punishment for man’s hubris to something more akin to the guy you tag in when the saucer men from Planet X try to steal your women folk. Laudable, but not quite the same message–unless you’re from Planet X. Eventually, when technology allowed it, we kicked out the guy in the suit and replaced him with a computer-generated version of the beasts we wanted destroying our cities. The change allowed us to bring back a more lizard-like form, and allowed for greater destruction, but at the same time, the message of these films became more self-centered. While modern monster movies focus on survival and the triumph of the human spirit, Gojira asked if either of those two things are worth having. Maybe we’ll get it right again some day, but don’t hold your breath.

At the same time guys in rubber suits were clumsily duking it out, Hong Kong was producing some of the best martial arts movies ever made. Bruce Lee dazzled us with his lightning speed and “waaahhhh!”s and “wooooo!”s. But we also had guys like Sonny Chiba putting his fists in people’s faces as a less sympathetic, Yojimbo-type character. This was also the era of the style battles. Tiger! Mantis! Iron Monkey! Will anything defeat the Wu-Tang style? I hear it’s not to be trifled with. These movies are also on YouTube. Check out Deadly Mantis (1978) if you like watching guys learn the art of ass kicking from insects.

Generally, this genre evolved in two directions. Taking the fantasy path, one branch of kung-fu films bought up all the wires and harnesses available and allowed its characters to fly across rooftops and balance on the ends of swords. Notable examples are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010). From this category, following from movies like Dance of Death (1976), directors like Quentin Tarantino found an excellent villain in the aged mentor.

The other branch steeped itself in realism, focusing less on the importance of style and more on the end result. In that category, we ended up with Drunken Master (1978) and Ong Bak (2003). In spirit, we also ended up with The Raid: Redemption (2011), which you can see almost scene for scene in Dredd (2012).

Speaking of superheroes, a day came in 1975 when someone asked, “Hey, couldn’t we mix kung-fu with rubber monsters and insanely overpowered superheroes to make a pastiche of ’70s Hong Kong for the benefit of future generations?”

And they totally did.

Infra-Man was awesome not only because it blended all of these things into a great big cheese puff of a movie, but because it is essentially the model for the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Except that it’s only one dude. And he can shoot lasers from his nipples eyes.

All of this, together with Voltron, we now have the family tree that produced Pacific Rim (2013). As a movie, it accomplished exactly what it set out to, and if we want to argue about its nonsensicalness (why build giant robots to punch things?), we only need refer back to it’s lineage to see that its gaping plot holes are the product of generations of Bene Gesserit breeding.