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.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cool, man, the dude is in the grid! Tron Legacy Review

I just got back from seeing Tron Legacy at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin. I talked a friend into letting me go to his office Christmas party. He works for Red Fly Studio, the kind of place that gives everybody a Friday off and rents out a theater for them all to see Tron together at 9 am. I think a lot of those weary game designers just decided to sleep in. But Daniel and I took full advantage of the menu on the company tab and had mimosas and french toast and the whole bit. I was really excited to be anywhere but at work. I had a blast.

So what's the deal with Tron? I prepared for my outing by watching the original. It was a little bit weird with the reverse-religious overtones to renounce the creator. And the idea that a programmer can make a program that is good enough to boss him around yet he isn't smart enough to quit the damn thing exceeds my ability to suspend disbelief. Other than that it was ok. I did note at the end that the soundtrack was recorded by the London Philharmonic. Real instruments. Make a note.

Tron Legacy then is set in some kind of present-day timeframe but in an alternate reality where Ducati and Coors are a logical product placement combination. That made me laugh out loud. Once the scene shifted to The Grid I started getting more and more amused. Apparently it was just me though. People jaded by video games had no reaction to the blatant sex-role stereotyping of this imaginary microworld. The notion of gender was summed up in stacked wedge heels and eyeliner. Of course there were only 5 female type characters in the whole film, but every one of them was wearing heels and fake eyelashes dammit!

Most other reviews make reference to the bad screenplay and the good effects and soundtrack*. The screenplay didn't bother me. There was precious little dialog and it was all expected quips a la James Bond or any other action movie. But so what? I was already so distracted by the visual and sound effects I was immune to it. The inked-in effects from the light cycle races of the original were upgraded visually to liquid metal a la Terminator and sonically with flanger pod racing effects a la Star Wars. Then for good measure they threw in a lot of 20-50 Hz signal generator for low bass whenever something big moved. This sounded awesome at the Alamo with plenty of subwoofer power. But it just cracked me up because they kept talking about stuff on computer scales, like cycles on the order of microseconds. There is nothing in that frequency realm that has any business in low bass range. Again my suspension of disbelief was challenged. Not in a bad way, it was just funny. It got me in the mood for Jeff Bridges to deliver one of his lines a la Lebowski.

This one didn't have any of the awkward intelligent-design nonsense of the original, it had another corny moral at the end. It was somehow proper that the whole thing be summed up in a platitude I flatly don't believe in it since I couldn't take any of it seriously the whole time. But since 99.999% of people do believe that children are then end-all be-all of existence I hope it doesn't offend them that this silly movie ended that way. It didn't bother me a bit. So much fun.

Now I have to go to work, dammit.
The Alamo Drafthouse on S. Lamar has a free-to-play original Tron game in the lobby.
* Soundtrack note: The Daft Punk soundtrack is on sale on iTunes and there's even one song you can download for free. I must admit the whole time I was thinking, "How are these guys cooler than Tangerine Dream?" They sound the same to me.

Addition: Rotten Tomatoes interview with Quorra character says her character was androgynous. ?!?!?!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why Do People Seek Information About Environmental Health Risks?

Guess what?! I am offering you the opportunity to advance science communication from the comfort of your own computer! Just fill out this survey for my friend Sonny's pilot study. It's for his doctoral research at UT. (Yes, I have a friend. Stop acting surprised.)

* Update: Survey is closed. Next part of the study is underway. Thanks for your help.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Steve Martin at the 92nd Street Y

I was going through the Dr. Fun archives to see if I could find something to go with my catty blog about Ironlisa and I found this one that perfectly suits todays news about Steve Martin. Here are two good stories he linked to on Twitter so you can read what happened on NPR and and I'll add this comic as a "Here, here!"

My Self-deprecation Pet Peeve

***** As an early career scientist, striving to move humanity forward with solid, data driven results I want to thank the memebers of the media- both conventional and virtual, who chose to respect the embargo of my research. I am excited to share my results in person today, Dec 2, 2010 @ 2pm EST. This is only the begining...****.

From the website of Felisa Wolfe-Simon, PhD

This is the scientist that presented her paper at the NASA press conference today, the one that got all the buzz from mainstream press guessing NASA was gonna bring out Marvin the Martian like that zoo guy with the adorable cubs on The Late Show. It was definitely a let down for the USA Today crowd. And frankly as a person that has probably taken all the same chemical oceanography classes she has I don't really get it either. Plankton are all the time taking the wrong element out of seawater and putting it into their shells. They can make do with something else in the same column on the periodic table. So what she did was try to make something living in mud she collected from Mono Lake, where the pH is 10, take arsenic instead of phosphorus out of the growing medium she put it in. Not a great leap for an oceanographer to think of that. And it worked. She grew some bacteria in an arsenic broth and tested the DNA. The big news today was that the arsenic was substituted for phosphorus right in the DNA.

Well ok. That's a good topic for a paper. I don't know that it's a whole lot more interesting to me than ordinary stuff like Dr. Hay's discovery that seaweed poisons coral if the parrot fish aren't there to eat it. It just happened to be funded by NASA so she got a press conference.

I was out having lunch at the Japanese place by myself when the press conference started. I got a link from Spaceflightnow's twitter feed for live streaming to iPhone and I put in my headphones and watched and listened while I ate my bento box. The video kept dropping out but I could still hear them. I laughed out loud when she said there was only 20something femtograms of phosphorus in her sample. FEMTOgrams? She said that's not nearly as much as you would expect from adding up all that should be in the component parts. I got what she meant, but that still cracks me up. Femto is the one after pico, 10 to the -15 power. That's a decimal point, 12 zeros and a 1. A quadrillionth of a gram. Sometimes in the electronics biz we used capacitor values in femtofarads, and that is about the only time I've EVER heard anybody find a use for that little of something. I'm actually more impressed that they can measure elemental ratios that precisely than I was with the actual ability of the bacteria to grow in arsenic.

In the body of her talk and in the question and answer section Felisa Wolfe-Simon, PhD kept pointing out how much younger she was than everybody else. She would remark that somebody else was "VERY experienced" and how she was "an early career scientist." It started to get on my nerves. I'm sure people don't do this on purpose. One of my favorite professors at FSU, a good 10 years younger than me, introduced a Professor Emeritus speaker at our Thursday Chemical Oceanography lecture one day -- "Dr. Winchester is very experienced and has been around so much longer than me..." and I muttered under my breath, "Oh, stop bragging." Dr. Froelich next to me BURST out laughing. I was so embarrassed. But I get that they mean it to show respect to the older people, it just comes across weird to me.

So how old is this woman? What is she going on about? I googled "How old is Felisa Wolfe-Simon" and I got a link to her website. Oh how cute, her banner is the symbol for iron with lisa after it. That would be like if my website was named Somehow it doesn't have the same ring to it.

Her CV is on the website, so I can kind of guess how old she is. She got a bachelor's degree in music and one in art in 2000, so if I'm generous and figure she finished when she was 21 like I did then she's 31 now. Seriously? And she's going on about early career? By the time I was 31 I was a complete washed-up has-been! So yeah it kinda tweeked me when this lively speaker kept pointing out to all her weathered colleagues on the platform that she was planning to build a whole career on this one discovery that frankly reminded me a little bit of 8th grade science fair when the person next to me at the state science fair in Athens did "The Effect of Alcohol on Earthworms." I was expecting a terrarium with a community of earthworms and they would routinely dribble some alcohol on the soil and see if the earthworms would crawl away from it. Yeah, no. They got a styrofoam cup of red wrigglers at the bait store, picked some worms out and dropped them in a glass of gin. It wasn't even a beaker or a flask or something sciency looking. It was along the lines of a Flintstones jellybean jar. "Conclusion: Earthworms sink in alcohol." Now I grant you her conclusion, "Bacteria grown in arsenic without access to phosphorus will use arsenic in their DNA instead," is a lot more advanced than "They don't float." Especially given that whole femto thing. But she did PUT them in ARSENIC. They don't normally live like that anymore than earthworms live in gin.
I'm just in a pissy mood and have been for a while if you can't tell. Probably since about 2000 honestly, when my career options dwindled to varying degrees of demeaning. I'm annoyed that this ingenue got paid to go to graduate school in Oceanography without even a Bachelor of Science degree and I had to pay my own way. I'm annoyed that at 21 she understood the hoops you have to jump through to be a professional scientist and I just skittered off on some doomed entrepreneurial path of destruction. Why didn't anybody TELL me?! I guess it wouldn't have mattered. I can't just go along with stuff like that -- career paths laid out like a damn board game. I just never was one to grab the tail of the elephant in front of me and walk the line. I mean, that's his TAIL! I'm not touching that with my NOSE!

Of course maybe things would be different if I'd spent my 20's gestating in the womb of academia. Instead I was out there making the world safe for digital television and cell phones and shit like that. By the time I was 31 I had already made the most money in a year I will probably ever make. It was already becoming difficult for me to get consulting work because I was too old. People were glad to hire a new grad to do something they'd never done before, but at 31 they expected me to have an specialty -- to have done one thing over and over again. Well fuck that. That's just not what I do. I do things that haven't been done before! I'm an innovator, a problem solver, a generalist. Well I was. I guess that's just how I think. Clearly the opposite of Ironlisa who looks at people as occupying different steps on a staircase of ... what? I just don't get her model. In my experience if you have a bunch of narrow niche experts and no generalist who can translate one to another the real innovation never happens. They can't communicate. As an relative imbecile I can still advance the process. Let's call me the enzymes. Or for the people that didn't take chemical oceanography, I'm the Chance cards in the board game. Or I would be if I was allowed to play.

I waffle between wanting to be involved in interesting things and wanting to be a hermit. Today I guess I was forced to think about whether I feel like swimming after all those ships that have already sailed. I know I could catch up and scramble up into the dingy and tag along. But the water is cold and choppy and nobody messes with me here in the lagoon of my virtual desert island. There is foraging to do before dark. Bon voyage, HMS Career Path!