faking it

Scientistjenluc_1My "blog fodder" file is bursting with fascinating, thought-provoking half-finished posts on all manner of super-cool topics. But it’s just too damned hot for my brain to function sufficiently to actually bring one of these posts to fruition. My neurons are quite literally wilting. Besides, it’s Friday. So I thought I’d give the little gray cells a break and indulge in one of those online quizzes that always seem to be making the rounds of the blogosphere: in this case, one entitled, "How Nerdy Are You?" Really, how hard could it be, given how totally uncool I was in high school? I figured, "Easy A."

I didn’t even finish. Seriously. Halfway through, I realized I no longer even understood the questions sufficiently to come up with a feasible answer, even though it was all multiple choice. It was like one of those recurrent nightmares where you’re suddenly back in high school, wander into the classroom, and are hit with a pop quiz. Not only have you not studied for this quiz, but the test paper, when it’s handed out, is either blank or written in some strange foreign language. There’s a moment of horrifying clarity: You Are Going To Fail. And then you wake up in a cold sweat.

Apparently, I am not even close to being a true Nerd. Or even a hardcore GeekGrrl. This seems a vital prerequisite for someone in my profession of science writing. If only I could figure out how to, you know, "fake it" whenever it’s to my advantage to be deemed a geek. Fortunately for me and other Geek Wannabes, some Uber-Geek in the blogosphere named Penguin Pete has a handy guide on "How To Totally Fake Being a Geek." (Jen-Luc Piquant is far more geeky than I am, and intuited immediately that Penguin Pete’s moniker is a reference to Linux and its telltale penguin logo.) Per Pete, it’s ultimately all about attitude: "To fake it, you have to feign interests and opinions, and then be smugly confident that your ‘choices’ are superior to the mainstream’s."

Still, in order to be convincingly smug, it helps to have some insider tips, particularly when it comes to things like math and computer programming. Also calculators: the older the model, the better; it’s all about one-upmanship, after all. Penguin Pete recommends a slide rule, or possibly carrying around a portable abacus: "Slide your beads around… and comment how you saw these things in a whole new light after you read Feynman about computing cube roots on them." Brilliant! There’s even a useful cheat sheet on counting bases; I now can pretend to understand the word "hexadecimal." Can’t wait to drop it into the conversation at my next cocktail party.

When it comes to computer stuff, I’m not too unhip: I know better than to have an AOL account, I use a Mac, and Firefox is my preferred browser. I have a passing familiarity with the various programming languages that are out there, even though I can’t keep them straight, and couldn’t begin to list them according to Penguin Pete’s accepted hierarchy. Furthermore, Apple has switched to Intel chips, so I can no longer "heap scorn" on Intel commercials with any convincing degree of self-righteousness. And not being a hard-core programmer, I’m stuck with the Mac standard operating system. Even the comparatively user-friendly Linux is beyond me. But no matter, Pete assures me I can fake geekdom just by uttering the following phrase: "I run Yggdrasil on a PDP-11. Boy, it was a bitch installing all that from tape!" I have no idea what this means. It appears to be a reference to Norse mythology. Who knew Odin and Thor had computers?

Sadly, I also play all the wrong computer games. I kick ass at SCRABBLE, and do pretty well with my Poker Academy 2 Texas Hold ‘Em software, but these are not, it seems, acceptable options in the Geekosphere. (At least I’m not downloading Monopoly onto my cell phone. Yet. It’s kinda tempting.) Instead, I should be playing any game ending in "Quest" or "Craft", or engaging in first-person-shooting games. I do know about Role Playing Games (RPGs), but have never actually played one, and frankly I find the whole concept a bit strange. I once went to the big Otokan anime convention in Baltimore and checked out a few of the RPG sessions. The Ranma people were pretending to know martial arts and engaging in half-hearted "matches." It struck me as a bit sad, but they were certainly better than the vampire fans of Kindred: The Embraced. For the "Kindred," the whole point was to "blend" with the "humans" in attendance, so they pretty much walked around in normal clothing, with knowing smirks on their faces. If attitude is paramount, they were the pinnacle of geekdom.

When it comes to pop culture, though, I can hold my own in the Geekosphere just fine. My DVD collection alone gives me stellar credentials. I own every complete season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel — hell, I wrote a book about them — plus Seasons 1 through 7 of The X Files (once David Duchovny left the show, the series was dead to me), and naturally all episodes of the tragically canceled Firefly (struck down in its prime), although Penguin Pete warns that the latter is so supercool, "Even its fans disown it for fear of being flamed by the other fans. It’s like the name of a deity: never say it out loud."

As for movies: Blade Runner? Check. Monty Python movies? Holy Grail is one of my all-time faves, closely followed by Life of Brian. Rocky Horror Picture Show? I can sing along and do the "Time Warp" with the best of them. My anime tastes run to Fullmetal Alchemist and the recently discovered Naruto, although I’ve been known to enjoy the sublime silliness of Ranma. I am pining for The Tick to be released on DVD. Ninja Scroll moved me to tears. Plus, I have loads of books with vampires, planets, robots and equations on the covers. I’ve read Snow Crash, the entire Hitchhiker series, and Neuromancer (didn’t love it — I though Pattern Recognition was far better). My collection of graphic novels includes the entire Sandman oeuvre and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Anyone with a strong sense of curiosity is bound to have a few esoteric interests, but it never occurred to me to just make some up to improve my standings in the Geekosphere. Penguin Pete suggests uttering phrases like, "I collect cephalopod footprint fossils," just to savor the sudden respectful hush in the room. Except I think P.Z. Myers has that esoteric hobby cornered with his weekly cephalopod photo (can a pinup calendar or squid porn be far away?).

The only fault I can find with Penguin Pete’s guide is in his list of scientific names to drop. He rightly excludes Einstein as way too mainstream, but c’mon — Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Asimov are hardly obscure. Pete gets points for bringing up Buckminster Fuller and Blaise Pascal, but any true geek should also be familiar with names like Ludwig Boltzmann, Nikola Tesla, Michael Faraday, Alan Turing, and Charles Babbage, just to name a few. Bonus points if they also know about Sophie Germain, Ada Lovelace, and Emilie du Chatelet. (Marie Curie is too mainstream.)

Thanks to Penguin Pete, I re-took the Nerd quiz and emerged with a respectable score of 88%. Whew! Sure, I wasn’t entirely honest in my answers, but I successfully pretended to knowledge I didn’t have which Pete swears is the whole point of the exercise. So I feel I am well on my way to achieving at least the illusion of True Geek Status.

But I have my limits. I will never, ever wear sandals with socks. I don’t care if all the lab folks are doing it, as reported by Alex Palazzo at the Daily Transcript. (Check out the photos of people flaunting the look — oh, the horror!) Alex finds this trend as baffling as I do. In the comments section, Rob Knop (of Galactic Interactions) gamely tries to offer excuses for this most unforgivable fashion faux pas, but we’re not buying it. No, Rob, no — put the socks and sandals down and back away slowly. Go buy a nice pair of loafers or Doc Martens instead. Don’t force Jen-Luc Piquant to come out to Vanderbilt and kidnap you for an emergency fashion intervention!

That goes for the rest of you sock-and-sandal-wearing criminals, too. Trust me, you don’t want to be on our bad side. See, we also took the "Which Star Trek Character Are You"
quiz. Jen-Luc Piquant, predictably, came out as Captain Jean-Luc
Picard, but I found that I am Worf: "You are trained in the art of
combat and are usually intimidating." It’s true — here’s proof:


32 thoughts on “faking it”

  1. Shhh, Jen!
    The first rule of Firefly is DON’T TALK ABOUT FIREFLY!
    I should add that if you liked Stephenson’s Snow Crash, you might like Cryptonomicon, and the Observer help you if you do, but consider reading the whole Baroque Cycle.
    Though I had to let my brain cool down for a month or two between books for that last, though the bits with Newton, the Royal Society, Hooke and Leibnitz were pretty great stuff IMO.
    And how could you not like a character called Half-Cocked Jack?
    By the way, Lt. Commander Ouellette, I think you’d make one hell of a security officer (re: pic). I know *I’m* going to stay out of your way when you’re leading a landing party.
    BTW, things don’t look so good for Mr. Landis tomorrow. Too much testosterone is one thing, but if I understood correctly for there to be “artificial testosterone” present, though I confess that I didn’t see which one was said to have been detected. I also saw something about an 11:1
    Testosterone/epitestosterone ratio which sounds, um, really, really manly.

  2. Please excuse the poor sentence construction, I’m typing this while I’m on a phone meeting.
    I just might be the Jackson Pollock of the English language.

  3. You’re not faking it well enough yet. You wrote: “plus [I own] Seasons 1 through 7 of The X Files (once David Duchovny left the show, the series was dead to me”
    To properly convey the geek-level scorn for a show with the temerity to carry on without a character you feel defines the show, your sentence should read: “plus [I own] the entire series of The X Files on DVD — all seven seasons.”
    And then wait for some hapless fool to “correct” you, so you can scorn him loudly and publically for his weapons-grade stupidity.

  4. I’ve received some email about how unseemly it was of me to speak so highly of Miss Funicello’s admirable qualities (in a past comment). In rebuttal, let me just state for the record that my admiration can not be seen as substantially different than that of our female contingent’s dedication to John Cusack.
    So there. Or something.

  5. OMG, “The Tick” is finally coming to DVD! That just made my weekend. sadly I could not get through “Cryptonomicon” — I can barely spell it, and the plot never really grabbed me.
    Clearly, I shall have to work on setting traps to heap scorn on other geeky wannabes. And ladies, lay off Matt for his Funicello Fetish! True, women could argue that they love Cusack for his Soul, but then how do they explain their fondness for Brad Pitt? Let s/he who is without sin cast the first stone. 🙂

  6. Jen, You are most welcome as ‘security officer’ on my fleet anytime you are footloose and fancy free. We don’t encounter many alien lifeforms and our remit is to avoid contact remain ‘distant’ and not interfere with mortals, but the Captain has asked me to inform you he would sure like to have you close by and on his side in any future engagements.

  7. Well, took the quizzes, ended up as 93% nerdy which wasn’t a surprise.
    However in the Star Trek Quiz, I ended up with 80% Mr. Scott, 80% Will Riker, and 70% Capt. Kirk.
    “You are a fun-loving foreigner with an
    amazing ability to get any job done on time.
    Often described as a ‘Miracle Worker’.”
    On second thought, that does fit. But I ain’t no furriner.

  8. Having just taken it, I don’t think the ‘How Nerdy Are You?’ test is anywhere near good indicator. Possessing a good amount of knowledge in a variety of areas doesn’t necessarily make someone a nerd. And there are a number of unasked questions that I’m sure would disqualify me. I’m not even sure what a nerd/geek would be, other than someone who seems to be oblivious to ‘current standards’ of social behavior, fashion, or ‘style’.
    High school is such a variable state of change, and I would have to say that I was definitely considered a nerd. This, I think, was due in large part to my being one of the youngest in my class on top of being a very ‘late bloomer’. So I didn’t enjoy high school. I did my knowledge thing, but other than that, I didn’t like it at all.
    But that was many, many moons ago, times changed, and tables have turned…

  9. Hi Jen, I’m not to good at faking this geek thing either, and my greek is not as it ought, but let me hazard a guess that if computers run on maths and light >>> then it follows Odin & Thor were most certainly computer literate. Amazing how much computing power & time is spent on make believe, don’t you think. After all even the screens, plasma or not, are a trick of the light.
    Here’s wishing you a great weekend – and looking forward to news of more Taikuondo sesions, other non-contact sports or non-friction physic(al) activities, and more mental aerobics or gymnastics.
    PS I don’t find you intimidating, I find you scintillating, and I too would much prefer to have you at (on?) my side at any future engagements.

  10. Matt raises an interesting point. Perhaps we should come up with our own nerd/geek quiz, based on personal criteria. Except, as he said, hard to know what that criteria would be. Does a strong sense of individualism automatically make one a nerd? Considering how many of us would probably fit the “late bloomer” description, that’s definitely a criteria. 🙂

  11. Wow, what a tirade about socks and sandals. Personally I hate foot-covering shoes. I can’t imagine wearing Docs–people who wear them must have no feeling in their feet. I began wearng socks with my sandals in cold weather, oh, about twenty-five years ago. And it only took one good sunburn to add them in high summer. I never cared about style-nazis like you–if you care about style, then you obviously have none–it’s like being hip–but I’m glad to hear the nerds have picked up mine. I always was a trend-setter.

  12. I must protest: I think it far better for a science writer not to be a nerd, geek, or otherwise as defined by the culture of anime and roleplaying games. Why should you be? And in what circles would you need to pretend that you are if it pertains to science writing? Your layman reader won’t appreciate it, and as a scientist, I’d much rather deal with someone with a kernel of real understanding and no symbols to wave around.
    It’s a slight non-sequitur, but Paul Graham’s “Why Nerds are Unpopular” (http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html) seem somehow relevant.
    And as for sandals with socks: I’ve lost the habit because I work in a biohazard level 3 laboratory and we’re required to have closed in shoes under the big white suit, but what’s wrong with it? Especially if you’re on the trail, a light layer of fabric will prevent a lot of contusions and abrasions .

  13. HE, said tirade was very much tongue-in-cheek, although I am delighted to be pegged a “style-nazi”, given all those years being derided as a fashion victim. That said, sandals and socks are a definite no-no. Incidentally, it’s not enough simply not to care about being hip — you still have to actually BE hip, you know. 🙂
    As for being on a trail — sandals are not sensible footwear for a woodland hike. Invest in a decent pair of hiking boots and Smart Wool socks, which wick moisture away to keep feet dry and cool. There are also specially designed mesh “breathable” hiking shoes, if you’re looking for even more comfort. Any local REI store would carry these items, and they are well worth the investment.

  14. Once at a technical conference I was standing on the mezzanine balcony overlooking the main action, taking a break. Two female hotel workers were standing 10 or 15 feet away from me, also looking down upon the assembled geek throngs. “Did you see what all the women down there are wearing?” one snickered to the other. “Skirts with Bass sandals! Har har har!” Naturally I was wearing a skirt and Bass sandals. Maybe wearing socks with them would have made things better.
    For what it’s worth, I scored 94% on the quiz.

  15. Alison, I, too, have been the victim of women’s ridicule at my fashion sense, going all the way back to junior high. And not just from strangers. Once, I met a pal at a cafe in NYC’s East Village. She looked me up and down and then said, “Can I ask you something? When you left the house this evening… what the hell were you thinking?” She meant well, and because of her, I try to pay attention to little details like, oh, coordinating colors, and appropriate footwear. 🙂
    Okay, my friend was just trying to help. But when strangers do it? They’re clearly threatened and insecure….

  16. I didn’t hate high school exactly. I was sent to military school, and while it certianly wasn’t pleasent in the traditional sense, I did get an immense amount of satisfaction from not fitting in there, and yet still succeeded in besting my classmates in pretty much all measurable indicators.
    I have to assume that it indicates a fair amount of nerdiness that I somewhat enjoyed not fitting in.

  17. I’ve been tempted to wear sandals with socks, especially since I seem to be unable to escape a new pair without getting a blister somewhere on my foot. But there is a happy medium between a patchwork of Band-Aids and full flaunting of nerditude: the foot tube!
    Yes, ever since I discovered these stretchy spandex cylinders I have been able to avoid fashion faux pas and still be able to walk home in my sandals at the end of the day. There *is* a third way.

  18. Jen-Luc, I got the same score as you, no faking, but I remember taking a different geek test when I was in school and you had to list the physical constants that you knew by heart (and their values of course), that gave me lots of pleasure…e and pi and h and h-bar while we’re at it, electron mass and charge, proton mass, G, it made me very happy to take that one….socks and sandals are fine with me, I think it is cute when people do not care if they look ridiculous. I aspire to be just like that. Once in Vegas I was walking through a casino with my beau, we were both physics grad students at the time, wearing our birkenstocks, and 2 cleaning men leaning against the wall starting humming a Dylan tune as we walked by, can’t remember which one, but they were definitely laughing at us, the new hippies, and it made me laugh. I adore not caring what other people think (it’s kinda rare).
    Ok – RPG – you’ve got to try Neverwinter Nights, actually a new one is coming out in September so you might want to wait. It is the coolest game and I’ve never played computer games ever. Once you are a high enough level wizard or soceress (sp??) and if you’ve chosen your affiliation wisely (i.e. are able to craft armor) you can spend a million gold pieces on turning your awesomely powerful magic robes into string bikinis. Ideally you’ve chosen the appropriate body type for the gear. Then you can watch yourself running around taking care of business looking totally adorable. It was addicting, even though I haven’t played in months I still have fond memories, and times when I’m going about my life and one of my characters lines will come into my head, with her voice (por ejemplo, “my attack did nothing??!” in a breathy low voice) and no matter how crabby I am it makes me laugh…

  19. I am such a poser that I complain about Stephenson not being able to end books without actually having made it to the end of a single Stephenson book. (Sort of a self-fulfilling poser prophecy.) **Cryptonomicon** palled on me; I picked up a friend’s copy on an idle summer day perfect for reading, but I never felt compelled to tie up the nonlinearities and finish the gorram thing.
    Now, **Gravity’s Rainbow**, on the other hand. . . .

  20. Jen,
    I took the test and scored a 92% on the first try without attempting to fake anything, but I can’t help but wonder if my honesty on things like cleanliness, my tendency to have a low GPA (largely due to laziness when it comes to homework), and biohazard signs (can’t see how a 14-year old’s bedroom decoration makes you nerdy) might’ve hindered my overall performance as a true nerd. My opinion on the matter would be that a true nerd would know the stereotypes and defy them so they could claim their way of doing things was superior and non-conformist since they “obviously” know better than the typical nerd-like masses.
    On the subject of sandals: I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing them. They’re good for taking clothes to the laundry room, but I find myself in the elevator hoping to avoid other people in the building so they can’t see me in this vulnerable state. Just in case, I have some excuse ready to defend my appearance and will make sure that they understand this is only the unavoidable result of doing chores.
    I suppose this may be why I feel so at home in San Francisco with most of the other “hip geeks” in the nation. Since the nerds are so populous in these parts, there tends to be a lot of competition and not a lot of room for the socially-inept breed to strive. Most of my hipster friends, however, don’t seem to know much of anything more advanced than Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash.
    FYI: I bumped into your blog via SEED’s Daily Zeitgeist and have found your posts entertaining and far more readable than the ordinary discussions on Boltzmann’s Anthropic Brain and Wikipedia’s esoteric entry on black bodies. I believe it’s time for me to do some reading on Quantum Cats.

  21. On a side note: I love the X-files, but I haven’t been able to finish more than 10 minutes of a Buffy episode. Are you sure there can be correlations to thermodynamics and string theory in that show? I’ll have to discuss this with my buffy-fanatic friend tomorrow to see if she has any insight on the matter (and, of course, consult your book once it’s published). What episodes should I watch to pick up some of these things? Until then, I’ll stick to watching Stargate Atlantis and criticizing its inaccuracies when they attempt to use terminology like “event horizon” in improper context.
    …I don’t mean to flame you, if this comes off that way. I suppose it’s that “attitude” penguin pete was talking about that I find hard to keep in check.

  22. Buffy is an acquired taste, and people either love the show or hate it. There’s no right or wrong there — whereas it is, apparently, a mortal sin to dislike the Show So Cool We Dare Not Speak Its Name. But there are certainly (imperfect, admittedly) correlations to string theory and thermodynamics in the show(s) — my book includes “Angel” as part of the Buffyverse. No, the writers don’t always get the science right (although the string theory episode on ANGEL was surprisingly accurate), but as a means for discussing physics concepts, it makes for an entertaining read. That’s the idea anyway: to have a bit of fun with both physics and the Buffyverse, without taken either too seriously. That being said, even the inaccuracies — or “artistic license” — can be a useful means of explicating “real” physics.
    But really now… Stargate Atlantis?!? 🙂

  23. Ha, Pynchon and “Gravity’s Rainbow” *always* comes up when someone brings up Stephenson.
    I suppose you could sorta toss Joyce and some others in there under the file “Writers that Require some Serious Literary Investment to Read, in the Hope that This Tome doesn’t Suck in the End.”
    My own writing falls under the category of “Writers Who Spend Their Days Transcribing What they Saw in Their Bowl of Alpha-Bits.”

  24. Now why does it not surprise me that Buffy is ok fun geeky, charmed on the other hand a bit tooooo girlish? feminine? And of course Angel would be ok would he not.
    Not sure they are dealing with real string theory, unless you are going for the other ‘dimensions’ as meaning beings of our shape & size with superpowers which is not quite where Sussking is going with his Megaverse, and how to ‘physically’ travel across this vaste landscape without Eurotunnel Eurostar, Airbus (or Boeing) and hubs, well then we are really into beyond physics and the metaphysical. Aaah but that is my realm.
    Incidentally according to M-Theory there is no limits in ‘physics’ to shape shifters as in native american lore, but it does require certain codes that are not mathematical and there are no ‘cheats’ as in computer games … but we’ll leave that for another day – Oh Most Gracious One combat trained in the Martial Arts.
    I’ll just have to keep an eye on you if you pick up a stake, there are not many beings that can take one thru the heart and live(?) in the flesh, to tell the tale. lol!

  25. In Meta-morph-osis is it the same being goes thru all three stages. After all it is the same ‘being’ that was the phtsical you when you were one or ten or twenty or thirty or … have a nice day!

  26. What is this “dare not speak it’s name” business? I have never had any fear of directly discussing Firefly, and I know plenty of people who never liked it (there’s no accounting for taste). What irks people is not that FOX canceled Firefly but that they never really gave it a chance. Unfortunately, Serenity‘s theater performance isn’t likely to draw production money for sequels: it turned out to be a movie for dedicated Firefly fans that left newcomers a bewildered.
    As for the Trek quiz, I ended up with Will Riker, which is kind of embarrassing when you think about it. Still, I rather prefer him to Worf, who had a “badass” rep but never really lived up to it, getting beat down by almost every non-Klingon alien he ever encountered. I’d make you my security chief before him in a heartbeat (pitter-pat).

  27. Can I pay you to beat up Robin for me? Seriously that picture is pretty intimidating. Next time I see you I will be speaking in a very respectful tone…

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