Cool nerds

An interesting article by Carl Wilson (apparently the start of a month-long series) in Slate looks at the word “cool” in its past and current incarnations. It’s a lot more readable and to the point than jazz critic Ted Gioia’s fundamentally trivial book The Birth and Death of the Cool, but I found myself hung up on his comment

 You’d be unlikely to use other decades-old slang—groovy or rad or fly—to endorse any current cultural object, at least with a straight face, but somehow cool remains evergreen.

As it happens, I was just recently having a conversation about the word nerd. I have a very clear memory that when the ’50s nostalgia wave broke in the mid-1970s (so I was about 8 years old), I encountered the word in TV programs like Happy Days as an antiquated idiom. I had never heard anyone use the word, and I associated it with my parents’ childhoods. When I was a student the prevailing word for someone too bookish to be cool (such as myself) was weenie. As late as 1993, according to an OED citation, Scientific American felt the need to explain

 ‘Nerd’ movie shorthand for scientists, engineers and assorted technical types who play chess, perhaps, or the violin.

And I remember encountering the word again in the self-righteous name of the Society of Nerds and Geeks (SONG), an undergraduate club that popped up at Harvard about 1989 (when I was a graduate student in mathematics). This was a self-conscious attempt to co-opt these words, which at the time were exclusively terms of abuse, along the lines of the way what was formerly the sexual invert community, or whatever, renamed itself gay, and later queer. Harvard mathematics graduate student Leonid Fridman, who advised the club, published an op-ed on Jan 11, 1990 in the NY Times arguing that the popular disdain for the brainy and bookish would put the US at a disadvantage in competing with its economic and military competitors. (Remember, this was still the Cold War.) The article concluded with this plea:

Until the words “nerd” and “geek” become terms of approbation and not derision, we do not stand a chance.

This dream has come to fulfilment more than could have been imagined in the linguistic sense, but my impression is that there has been little change in the effective social status of academically-inclined American youth. Fridman’s NY Times op-ed is mysteriously unfindable in the Times online archive, so I have copied the text below: Continue reading “Cool nerds”

Civil wars in US and British memory

I commented a while back on the NSA and GCHQ naming their most secret programs of spying on their fellow citizens after battles of their civil wars (American and English respectively). I didn’t remark at the time, but this clearly shows the dominance of the NSA, since it is striking how little memory there is of the English Civil War, in comparison to the omnipresent shadow cast by the American Civil War over US politics. It’s hard to imagine a British nerd making a playful reference to battles of the English Civil War, except in an attempt to anglicise a prior US nerd reference to the American Civil War.

A minor example of the latter is the comment by a Republican congressman, enthusiastic that his party was steering the country toward a government shutdown, and responding to a skeptical question about the (Democratic controlled) Senate’s response by saying

Ulysses S. Grant said, ‘Quit worrying about what Bobby Lee’s doing and let’s focus on what we are doing,’ ” Culberson added. “We are focusing on what we need to do and not worrying about what the other guy is going to do. . . . That’s how Ulysses S. Grant won the war.

It is a telling statement about the current state of US politics that one party is portraying the other as their opponents in a civil war. (And, in return, they are being compared to terrorists and hostage-takers.)

I see this as an improvement over Republicans invoking the spirit of the Confederacy. Oddly, Representative Culberson is from Texas. Even more oddly, he preceded this invocation of Civil War strategy by saying “We’re 100 percent united!” I guess that’s the effect of civil war, to make the residue seem more unified.

Wrangling the 8-ton UNIVAC

I was reading Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the recent Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (and, by extension, of bans on same-sex marriage). I was struck by this passage:

She applied for a job as a research assistant, programming an eight-ton UNIVAC computer for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Why “eight-ton”? She wasn’t carrying the UNIVAC around with her. If she’d been a maintenance engineer at the Empire State Building I doubt Levy would would have bothered to mention the weight of the building. If the story had happened today I doubt she would have said “she applied for a job programming Google’s 8-ton server cluster.” The complexity of programming the UNIVAC — if that is what is supposed to be brought out — would be brought out by mentioning the number of switches and vacuum tubes, for example, something that is only indirectly related to its weighing 8 tons.

Maybe it’s just a bit of meaningless historical colour, but I couldn’t help thinking that this fit in with the general tone of the article, which portrays Windsor as the classic type of the crusty old lesbian. (She is quoted complaining about the women she danced with at gay bars in the 1950s: “Lesbians can’t lead.”) The image of her doing data entry at a modern computer workstation would have seemed too dainty. There might be a huge server farm and the whole Internet at the other end of your Ethernet cable, but that doesn’t change the fact that sitting at a keyboard and typing still seems prissily similar to the stereotypical 1950s secretarial pool. Wrangling an 8-ton electronic behemoth, on the other hand, that’s work for a kick-ass lesbian.

This provokes me to wonder about whether there are two fundamentally different modes of stereotypes excluding girls by from male-dominated fields: Type 1, perhaps best typified by philosophy, but earlier by medicine (before women took over), and perhaps by computing, girls and young women are warned off — and women in the field may be undermined — by a supposition that women couldn’t be very good at this. But if they do it, it doesn’t call their identity as women into question. In other professions — the military and professional sports most prominently, but perhaps also engineering, construction, plumbing, finance, etc. — there might be even more dissuasion by the dual message, not only are you probably not going to be very good at it because of your lack of masculine endowments, but if you are good at it, it will prove that you’re not really a woman.

Just speculating here, because I’m too lazy to read the research by people who think for real about these things.

Reprobationist childrearing

This article about the differences between parental attitudes and obsessions in the US from those in other western nations (in this case, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and Spain) reminded me of my own perplexity about the general culture of childrearing among ambitious middle-class Americans. (When I say Americans, I really mean Anglo-Americans. I think the Americans would have seemed less of an outlier if the original study had included Canadian or British parents.) In particular, why are parents in these countries (and their governments — particularly in the UK) so concerned with training their children in age-inappropriate skills — reading at 4, playing violin at 3 — and so keen to find evidence that their children are prodigies? This despite the clear evidence of child development research that early training in reading is largely counterproductive.

The article points out that the Anglo-American parents are uniquely concerned with convincing themselves (and reassuring their friends) that their children are “intelligent”. Why? Well, in our increasingly winner-take-all societies, there’s obviously a lot of anxiety for the future status of ones children: Modest success no longer seems feasible, so one is left straining to heave ones children into the ranks of the winners, lest they sink into the vast mob of losers. Despite all the evidence that the main criterion for success is having successful parents, it seems to me that there’s been an enormous amount of propaganda in recent decades for the notion that intelligence determines all, and that intelligence is innate.

This is where reprobationism comes in, the Calvinist doctrine that God has chosen the elect, those who ultimately will be saved, from the beginning of time, and there is nothing a damned goat can do, neither faith nor good works, to ascend to the saved sheep. Continue reading “Reprobationist childrearing”

An Omnibus named Perdition

christian_bus Atheist-Bus

The famous atheist buses have come to Oxford. What do they mean — other than that the redoubtable Richard Dawkins has found a new venue for self-promotion? I have already commented on the peculiar place — or, at least, what seems peculiar to someone who has generally lived in basically secular, non-theocratic countries — of religion in the public sphere of the UK, which appears to outweigh by far its importance in the private sphere (but maybe that’s just Oxford). It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the Anglican atheists would crave public acknowledgement of their private obsessions. The public forum par excellence is the public bus. The Christians are already there, and the atheists now have their gospel plastered on the side, saying “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” (Or is it “no God”? Hard to say, given the typography…) For those craving more detail, there is a url for Dawkins’s website. (Which, interestingly, when I checked it just now, featured a large photograph of the man himself, next to the slogan “The Enemies of Reason”. He seems to be selling DVDs, which perhaps reveal whether he is numbered among the enemies, or the enemies of the enemies. I’ve heard he once had ambitions to be a scientist, which explains a lot, when you think about it.) Continue reading “An Omnibus named Perdition”