You Really Don’t Know Nerds

Nerds StereotypeFor the last couple of months, the most popular article on Frankly Curious is, This Is Not a Math Joke. I assume it is being passed around on reddit or something. I really have no idea if people like it because they agree with it or because they find it amusing that people like me exist. It is about a “math” joke that appeared on an episode of The Simpsons. And I claimed that it was not a math joke but a joke for non-nerds to laugh at what they think of as the kind of thing nerds think of as funny.

I’m more idiosyncratic than most nerds. And I’m definitely not a “science nerd.” But I’ve spent most of my life in and around science, so I can pass. And when I came upon the following bit of computer code, I was amused:

int i;main(){for(;i["]<i;++i){--i;}"];read('-'-'-',i+++"hell\
o, world!\n",'/'/'/'));}read(j,i,p){write(j/p+p,i---j,i/i);}

A Computer Science Joke

Now a true computer science nerd would probably be able to explain all of this little bit of C code. But I can’t. I do, however, understand it enough to find it hilarious. For example, it pretends to increment through i and do nothing but decrement i. That is very funny. But it’s even more funny that it doesn’t actually do that. To even start to explain what I think it does would require knowledge that 99 percent of my readers don’t have. And it would take a long time to explain.

This was one of the winners of the first (1984) International Obfuscated C Code Contest. And part of the problem with this bit of code is probably found in the README about that year’s contest, “Restrictions against machine dependent code were not in the rules in 1984.” You see, one of the great things about C is that it is basically just a micro-step above assembly language. And compilers do allow you to take a normal variable and use it as a pointer to the memory address of that value. Hence, i["]<i;++i){--i;}"]. And where exactly "]<i;++i){--i;}" would point relative to the original memory address would indeed be machine dependent. (I told you that you wouldn’t understand.)

What Nerds Are Really Like

The thing is, when I was in graduate school, people were crazy about the Obfuscated C Code Contest. It’s similar to the way that grammar geeks love the sentence, Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. This is what nerds do. Actually, this is what nerds are. Popular conceptions of nerds are based largely on what children who were into science acted like. It’s equivalent to assuming boiler techs must all punch women they like in the shoulder, because that’s what they did when they were six years old.

It’s this idea that has always made me hate films and plays about mathematicians: where’s the math?! Because, you know, for mathematicians, it really is all about the math. That’s not to say that they don’t have regular lives too. But the math is the reason anyone wrote a script. These things are like a film about Jacques Cousteau where he’s never on a boat.

All I’m asking is that society give nerds their due. I suppose that The Simpsons can be forgiven, because that particular “math” joke involved kids. But let’s be very honest: “i 8 sum pi” is what society thinks of us. And I hate society for it.

11 thoughts on “You Really Don’t Know Nerds

  1. I remember 20 years ago reading some Hindu-American advocacy group saying why they’d never complained about Apu on “The Simpsons” — because, the spokesperson explained, everybody on “The Simpsons” is ridiculous. Apu isn’t comical because he’s Hindi (he’s actually one of the least-deranged characters), he’s comical because he’s in Springfield. It’s probably fair to say the same for nerds on the show.

    There’s always been a tradition of mocking nerds in America — think of the Cary Grant character in “Bringing Up Baby.” (What nerd wouldn’t want to be Cary Grant!) It was usually very gentle mockery, though. I think you start to see nerds portrayed as antisocial geeks in the 80s because many of us were, and not by choice. In those glorious Reagan years, teenage alpha males were just vicious to anyone who played chess, dabbled in computers, etc. So we did retreat into our own subculture of “Star Trek,” fantasy novels/games, etc.

    None of my nerd friends were into comic books, but I’ve met grownup nerds who said they were. I think it depended on the group you were in. Just something — anything — to signal to fellow nerds that you didn’t see “Top Gun” or watch football.

    In all my time in nerddom I only knew one teenager who fit the “Big Bang,” aggressive smarter-than-thou stereotype. And he was homeschooled until age 15. (He was also aggressive about decrying evolution.) The rest of us were antisocial because of rejection. Hell, after a few years of college, even the super-nerd homeschool guy was a mellow fellow to drink beers and joke with.

    We’ve been on quite an anti-intellectual tear in this country for four decades. Not a new thing, but it’s gotten severe. As Neil Tyson put it after the election: “we need to make America smart again.”

    • “I only knew one teenager who fit the “Big Bang,” aggressive smarter-than-thou stereotype”

      From this I conclude that you were not in the math specialist program where I went to university as a mature (+15 yrs) student.
      Kids of academics, more used to adult company than other kids their age, went to math camps from early age, been told since age 12 “it’ll be different when you go to university”, etc. From all over North America. SO MANY.

      • Oh my goodness, that must have been wild! Congrats for not losing your mind!

        No, thank the Gods, I never had to be in such a group of social maladaptives! I went to a pretty rough junior high, just a regular school, in a poor neighborhood. And at that school, we nerds were beaten & molested. It was horrible. It happened. Sometimes life sucks.

        So my group of nerds weren’t Smarter Than Thou. We bonded into packs to stop the bullies. We couldn’t fight back, but we could circle the wagons, make it harder for the bullies to abuse us (bullies who themselves were probably bullied at home, but we didn’t know that, we were kids).

        Did we use certain secret signals to identify which new kid should be trusted in our group? Oh, yeah. But there were a bunch, you didn’t have to know them all. Everybody was a nerd over different things. Generally, I recall the questions being about chess openings, “Star Trek” episodes, and Monty Python quotes. If you couldn’t cite at least one of those, you’d better come up with a damn good explanation of your nerditude before you could sit at our cafeteria table.

        It was self-defense! And a lesson I keep forgetting to remember. The cool kids are out to get you. It’s happened more times than I can count. Stupid, stupid me …

  2. America has always been anti-intellectual to be honest. We aren’t a smart country over all but we do produce some insanely smart people for some reason. And sometimes randomly someone can be an intellectual and “cool” like Neil Tyson.

  3. Most of the math jokes I know are really just puns on math terms. “What’s purple and commutes? An Abelian Grape!” “What’s yellow and equivalent to the axiom of choice? Zorn’s Lemon!” They’re terrible, but kind of satisfying because less than one percent of the population gets it. I can’t think of many genuine math jokes, though I do like that joke about the deer-hunting statistician you posted in the linked article.

    Oh, I just remembered a great one from xkcd:

    A: I used to think correlation implied causation. Then I took a Statistics class, and now I don’t believe it.
    B: Sounds like the class helped.
    A: Well, maybe.

    • I love that causation joke!

      I love the deer hunting one, too, but it’s too shallow. Here’s my revised version, see if you like it:

      A statistician, a sociologist, and an economist go out hunting. They spot a deer and raise their rifles.
      The sociologist misses the deer by two feet to the left.
      The economist misses by two feet to the right.
      The statistician yells, “we got him!”

      Tell me that’s not better!

      • I’m not really sure how that joke is different than the original version. Is there a hidden dig at economists and sociologists that I’m not getting?

        • Yes! Sociologists tend to lean liberal — hence, left — and economists conservative. Sorry, I was just amusing myself. I don’t amuse anyone else, so I have to amuse somebody!

      • As I said in the original article, I really don’t like the joke. The reason is probably that it should be, “A sociologist, an economist, and an average American go out hunting…” Because statisticians understand distributions. :-)

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