Thursday, December 30, 2010

Skeptic Tales of Nerd Culture

Patton Oswalt and Phil Plait topped my despair with whipped cream and put a cherry on top. Here I am on vacation in my little house in the woods, remembering how unpopular I feel here, trying to get back in my hermit vibe with the internets and my chores. And all over Twitter is commentary after commentary about Patton Oswalt's Wired story about Geek Culture.
I’m not a nerd. I used to be one, back 30 years ago when nerd meant something.... I can’t say that I ever abided nerd stereotypes: I was never alone or felt outcast.
Well 30 years ago I sure as hell was alone and felt outcast. I took a test online recently and it said I am 100% pure nerd. No dork, no geek, pure nerd. Right now. And finally I am starting to feel less alone and outcast. Well, I mean I did back in Austin, but not so much today.

Phil Plait is having a contest where he's invited people to sum up the story of how they got to be a skeptic in a single tweet with the hashtag #SkepticTale. Here's his.

Telepathy. Clairvoyance. I believed them all… until my life got a little Randi. #SkepticTale

Well fabulous. Like I didn't feel like a loser already. I don't have a TALE. I never did believe any of that woo-woo crap. I was raised out here in the freaking woods by an engineer and an English major and a naturalist grandmother and similar aunts and uncles who identified every plant and animal I ever saw and taught me how things work. Sure they took me to the Episcopal church, but I didn't ever take it seriously. I thought it was like Santa Claus. Just a story they tell so they have an excuse to go hang around in the fellowship hall after church and visit with their friends and make business contacts. I would look at the portrait on the wall of my great- grandfather, an Episcopalian missionary, and remember stories my mother told of what a great asshole he was, always trying to gain the admiration of his congregation by giving them his own children's food and clothes. When I was in high school and became adept at analyzing English literature it became more and more annoying to sit through church because I disagreed with the sermon based on simple matters of language interpretation. I started paying attention more and it dawned on me that some of the people really BELIEVED whatever the man up front said, even if he was obviously wrong. That kind of gave me the creeps and I didn't really want to participate anymore. I didn't make a big deal out of it. It was just sort of like Office Space. "I'm not going to quit, I'm just not going anymore." I had a couple of cousins and aunts and uncles that seemed to feel like I did, but we didn't talk about it. It wasn't like we had a non-believer support group, but there was at least an example that made me think I could get away with it. As for the UFOs and telepathy, really? No, I never fell for any of that. It just didn't seem logical given what I knew about nature.

My home town is too small to allow for any kind of culture other than the one standard American Dream conservative one. I was always an outcast in school, but I wasn't part of any nerd or a geek culture. Oswalt describes himself as otaku, which as far as I can tell is basically addictive personality disorder. I just don't have that kind of attention span. Unlike Patton Oswalt my '80s were a wasteland of being isolated and alone with nature and writing, science and English. The only example of otaku in my world were ornithologists and herpetologists. There was a shy man obsessed with red-cockaded woodpecker man who would lurk around our woods with his binoculars and a charismatic rattlesnake expert who would dissect the specimens we saved for him in our freezer. There were no people my own age interested in anything in particular that I could tell. I knew a few guys who were good at video games and knew one kid who could do a Rubik's cube in 3 minutes. But that was middle school. By high school nobody did anything but go fishing and chew tobacco, get drunk and listen to country music. My best friend in high school got a Holy Grail script book and we studied the lines, but we didn't really obsess over it. She was addicted to starlight mints and Diet Coke and had otaku potential but I think it was squandered in our town.

I was the only kid in my school who had a computer. I used it to write the copy for the year book. I had to figure out how to get the carbon typewriter forms to go through a dot matrix printer. That's pretty damn nerdy, but with nobody else doing the same thing it was devoid of any kind of culture or coolness. It was just what I did. My dad was an early adopter and would hand down technology. My mom's side of the family was writers, so writing seemed like a normal thing to do -- using a computer to do it was the logical combination. I didn't know what else it could do. It was an IBM PC with Wordstar and two floppy disks. My dad had Zork on his Radio Shack computer when I was in middle school but by the time I got to high school it was of no interest. I was the only kid in high school with a reverse polish notation calculator, and the only one with straight As. I was unpopular and summarily abused, but it was all just inconvenient and not that big a deal. Bath oil slipped into my purse or a feminine napkin in the pages of my Calculus book were clearly a sign that somebody was trying to embarrass me, but I didn't really even care who did it. I suppose after 12 years in school with those same people I knew they weren't going to get any more interesting. Some that were interesting early on actually STOPPED being interesting on purpose to be more popular. This baffled me entirely.

While Patton Oswalt and his friends were consuming media I was actually entertaining myself with creating. I learned to knit when I was just an infant. I did cross-stitch and got a sewing machine for Christmas when I was 11. I would stay home alone in the summer and make horrible, ill-fitting, clothes. I became a photographer in the 7th grade after I took a shop class that included darkroom techniques. I learned to read sheet music in middle school band and played French horn. When I got to college I immediately joined the newspaper staff and kept writing and doing photography while struggling to become a bona fide engineer. That didn't pan out so I settled for scientist. Even at Georgia Tech, a place that should have been full of nerds and geeks I guess I fell in with the ones that weren't otaku. They were kinda well rounded people. We worked out at the gym, went to band parties and football games, played intramural sports and studied like crazy. It was 1990 before I met anybody that played Dungeons and Dragons and I was pretty apprehensive about it. The whole thing seemed quite silly to me. I was busy with my creative pursuits and it seemed kind of dumb to me to spend that much time and energy on anything that didn't MAKE anything. Plus I was uncomfortable with any kind of ceremony. The whole thing just smacked of pomp and circumstance and I was a little embarrassed for those people. Of course that role playing guy now gives talks at video game development conferences and has made a better career than me off his geek culture teenage years.

So I am exactly who Patton Oswalt is complaining about in his article. I am a fraud. I am not a geek. I am some kind of pathetic geek groupie. I follow Oswalt on Twitter but I've never read one of his books. I enjoyed Neil Gaiman at w00tstock but I had to look up who he was before I went. I follow Felicia Day on Twitter, too, and I enjoy The Guild, but I've never played World of Warcraft. I love Firefly and Dr. Horrible and even have a trompe l'oeil lab coat t-shirt. But the only line I can quote is, "Home is where your heart is, so your real home's in your chest."

I'm not a real good skeptic either. I'll watch Phil Plait's TAM talk on YouTube, but I would be nervous about buying a ticket to go hang out with all those people in person. I'm just too much of an introvert to think I'd enjoy meeting them when I can just read what they say online so much easier. But I like knowing they exist. I'm experimenting with the idea of fitting in. Being able to skip ahead and get the Cliff's Notes for geek culture online opens up doors I never had before. Some of these geeks and skeptics might be friends with me even if I'm not a gamer or a comic book reader and have not stood up to any anti-vaxxers. There is some real science and technology crossover with some of this geekiness and skepticalness. I know my Monty Python enough to be puzzled by the cheese launched by SpaceX, the bizarre crossover of technology news and geek culture where Elon Musk amused himself by putting a secret cargo on the first commercial craft to go into orbit and come back. There was no cheese in the cheese shop. Why would you use ACTUAL CHEESE as a tribute to a sketch about not having any cheese? What were they trying to say? They envision being added to the sketch? Something like this:

After John Cleese waiting for his Camembert says, "I don't care how excrementally runny it is, hand it over with all speed!"

Michael Palin replies, "Yes, sir. Ohhhh."


"The cat's eaten it."

"Has he."

"She, sir."

 Then Elon Musk imagines, "Le Brouere?"

"Sorry, sir. We've shot that into orbit."

Really? That's not adding anything.

But I digress. Oswalt's idea for A-pop-alypse that obliterates otaku is fine with me. I support the elimination of this kind of obsession. I never did trust it. I am wary of people who go to intense effort to copy stuff. Like the cosplay people who recreate costumes from video games and TV shows. I am not scoffing at it. I spent about 40 hours helping a friend make a very excellent Bender.

I found the engineering challenges rewarding. But it niggled me a bit that we put that much effort into something that was utterly derivative. But because my friend understands geek culture better than me he knew Bender would make him beloved. So I'm still just a groupie, or maybe a roadie, or even a consultant to geek culture. I wonder how many other people are like me? Not committed to the obsession, just amused by it obliquely? Are we worse or better than the truly obsessive ones?

All the other reactions I read today were otaku types who seemed to take personal offense to some characterization of them in Oswalt's article. I think they're missing that Oswalt's JOB is to say stuff like that. If he gets you riled up, better press for him. He's doing a show in Austin in a couple of weeks. I bought a ticket a while back. I have to go by myself, though, because all of my friends think $40 is too much to pay for entertainment. Well, huh. Let's see. If we make it sound uncool to get all your geek cred online then maybe some people will decide they'll get better cred by shelling out for the actual show and ticket sales increase? I say brilliant, Patton Oswalt. That may be what I did -- buy a ticket to a show for better geek cred -- I'm not sure exactly. I am just on a mission to try to get out more and that seemed like fun. I really like the Paramount.

I am not the least offended by his article though, even though I'm the one he's talking bad about. And I do not think he'll begrudge me coming to his show. Those people who are misinterpreting it as a personal attack on their culture are no better than the minister who was twisting the gospel to suit his theme. Oswalt may have just put me down by implying I'm inferior to him because I didn't read Watchmen in the '80s. But I don't care. We were clearly in different situations then and we have to both make the best of what we ended up with. I choose not to take offense. I like him enough to pay $40 to see him just because I like the word usements that he structures. (That's a Steve Martin line from LA Story, which isn't listed as one of the geek qualifiers, but it's a quote I use a lot. I'm such a wanna-be half-assed geek.)


  1. Ah, Barbara, I see we disagree. You *do* have a story, an interesting story. It just won't fit into 140 characters or fewer!

  2. "Woo: never had it, never will."


    I just watched the Craig Ferguson Dr. Who song (courtesy @BadAstronomer) and it reminded me that my brother and I used to watch Dr. Who on PBS every day after school in the early '80s. It was the Tom Baker years mostly. That show was our secret. We figured nobody else would get it. Does that give me any more geek provenance?

    I think I saw one episode of the new Dr. Who when I was in a hotel for work and the blue tardis threw me off. I guess I need to acquire these new episodes and catch up if I want to be cool.

  4. Sounds like me and my friends who play this game.

    I don't really have any ability to play it, but it's fun enough to see it done. I wouldn't bother to get any good at it though since it doesn't tell a story or do anything for me though.