Adventures in Ethics and Science

It’s a nerd-off.

Perhaps not every ScienceBlogger is hot, but almost all of them are nerds. The time has come to see just how high those geek flags fly.

It’s time for a nerd-off.

My opening volley after the jump, starting where one does: my momma.

The nerd apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My momma programs in COBOL.

Circa 1989, my momma emailed me ASCII cow-art. Some of it was NSFW.

When I was little, I thought all holiday wreaths were made out of computer punch cards, ’cause that’s what my momma used to make wreaths.

Momma raised a nerd.


  1. #1 John Wilkins
    September 6, 2006

    Pah! I learned to program in COBOL, and Fortran. Of course I immediately erased that knowledge as soon as I could so I could recall all of Terry Pratchett’s plots and devices, but I was on the nascent internet in… wait for it… 1983! I accidentally typed “rn” at a unix prompt and found myself following the cold fusion debates on sci.physics. Then I discovered the evolution groups… end of social life.

    I first programmed on punch cards, and had to wait three weeks for the local uni to run the program (I made an error in my logic) while at high school in 1972. So there. I am nerdier than thou…

  2. #2 Thomas Winwood
    September 6, 2006

    That makes you a geek, not a nerd. Nerds are sad people with pocket protectors, thick glasses and no life. Geeks are awesome people who like to keep their pockets safe, often have bad eyesight and choose not to concern themselves with stupid crap like popularity. See the difference?

  3. #3 Bill Hooker
    September 6, 2006

    OK, but could your momma get a 97 on this test?


  4. #4 James
    September 6, 2006

    > I first programmed on punch cards

    Pah – punch cards, we used to dreaaaam of punch cards.

    Seriously. I learnt to program on a PDP 8 at age 11 where the teacher bootstrapped the thing by toggling the loader in via the front panel, which then loaded the “monitor” via paper tape on the attached teletype, which then ….

    By the time I got to uni they’d retired punch cards the year before for undergraduates and replaced ’em with ‘mark sense’ cards (you use a pencil) which were incredibly unreliable. By the time you’d lined up and put your deck in 3 times and corrected the syntax errors the reader was starting to erase your pencil marks.

    So we used to wait ’till lunch time and then sneak in to the postgrad rooms which had punch card machines – we could use the same cards and the computers (PDP 10 by that time) had readers that understood holes (with/out hanging chads) as well as pencil.

    Much more reliable.

    ‘Course next year they installed the PDP 11/780 (2 Mips!) with 300 baud terminals and we forgot all that nonsense. (Left us with a stack of cards for use as filters for illegal substances for several years after, but I digress)

  5. #5 Nick Anthis
    September 6, 2006

    Check it out: Science-themed valentines

    My friend Jen Dulin came up with the idea a few years ago, and we’ve been writing them ever since. Here’s one of my favorites (from Jen):

    If I could draw a structure of our love,
    I’d draw it in Lewis dot.
    Fuck the Fischer projections, baby,
    Cause your lone pair gets me so hot.

  6. #6 parkrrrr
    September 6, 2006

    OK, but could your momma get a 97 on this test?

    I tried, but I got a 98 instead.

  7. #7 Rob Knop
    September 6, 2006

    When I was a student at Harvey Mudd, I wrote “the complete guide to nerdology” as a way of defining the various terms for “nerd” as I understood their usage at HMC at the time. This was before 1990, and at the time I didn’t read “geek” as a computer-specific term, and it *definitely* wasn’t a sort of cool term the way it became during the dot-com boom. So, many of the terms are misdefined now. What’s more, the most common HMC term, “squid”, is no longer even used at HMC, according to my understanding. I no longer have this text any more… but one need only type “definitive guide to nerdology” into Google to find other people who have archived it.

    However, I suspect I get some nerd props for just writing it.

    I also wrote, with two other people, “Nerds in n-Space,” a skit that we performed at the “talent” show one year….

    And, while I’m touting my creds, I do have to point out that I got a 100 %ile on a computer savviness test.

    As for nerd jokes:

    I’m fond of: If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the precipitate.

  8. #8 SMC
    September 6, 2006

    You want nerdy?

    During 6 (and counting) years of happy marriage, my wife and I have had precisely one real argument.

    It was over the nature of “hydrogen bonds” and whether or not there really was such a thing or if it was simply an unneccesary term for ordinary Van der Waals forces…

    How’s THAT for nerdy?

  9. #9 Russell
    September 6, 2006

    I have all of y’all beat. I first programmed on an analog computer, using jumper cables to hook together integrators, pots, and basic logic, to solve PDEs and do orbital simulations.

  10. #10 zwa
    September 6, 2006

    You all are using punch cards as if it was a sign that you a a nerd. However, its obvious that its only a sign that you are old.

    Whats a definatively nerdish identifier (like punch cards for old people) for someone born after 1980.

  11. #11 Biggs
    September 6, 2006

    I am someone who was born post-1980. I can say that perhaps my most nerdy achievement is learning to use MS-DOS to get into Dinosaur Coloring Book long before I actually learned to read.

  12. #12 Matilda
    September 6, 2006

    I was part of a team that won a programming in BASIC contest held by the City Colleges of Chicago. We were the only women at the contest (I went to an all-girls Catholic high school).

    I met my husband at a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fan convention.

    I am the go-to relative when a child needs to know how to make a brain for her mummy school project or when no one else will give your child’s dinosaur habit the care and feeding it deserves.

    I am the terror that geeks in the night.

  13. #13 Super Sally
    September 6, 2006

    OK, but could your momma get a 97 on this test?
    ONLY a 94 *** Sorry for letting you down, Dr. F-R.

    I keep telling my manager that I gotta get back to science. This admin stuff is:
    a) warping my brain
    b) stunting my nerd quotient
    c) making me grumpy (not sneezy, doc, or even sleezy)
    d) not what I left 4 kids at home to go back to school for

  14. #14 Mooser
    September 6, 2006

    Janet is teh hott!

  15. #15 Phil Plait
    September 6, 2006

    My title at work is:

    NASA Education Resource Director.

    What do I win?

  16. #16 Kayla
    September 6, 2006

    I’d say that just means your mom’s a nerd. (As opposed to my mom, who has a hard time copying and pasting…) Anyway, don’t feel too bad, I think you’re cute.

    Oh, and I feel like a bit of a loser (or actually… I really don’t) that I “only” got 83% on that test.

  17. #17 Jim in Chicago
    September 6, 2006

    You all are using punch cards as if it was a sign that you a a nerd. However, its obvious that its only a sign that you are old.

    Yes… But how many people actually have them? Who you callin’ old?

    I collect slide rules. Is that nerdy? Or is it just Geeky? Sometimes I show the kids how to use them to show them what we old geezers did when we lived in caves.

  18. #18 Azo
    September 6, 2006

    True nerds are chemists. SMC (post above) gets high points, which increase if he
    argued that H-bonds are special, and not just vdw interactions.
    For halloween my son was a carbon dioxide molecule. He was the carbon atom, with two soccer balls (oxygen atoms) covered by aluminum foil projecting out from his body on tubes (the C=O bonds).
    All told he was a trillion nanometers across and had to turn sideways to go through
    the door. He was supposed to be scary (“I am going to warm the globe,” etc) but none
    of the neighbors could understand. My son is a nerd. So are his parents.

  19. #19 Dboy
    September 6, 2006

    Oh please. You youngsters have it so easy. Punchcards? How I WISH we had punchcards. In MY day we programmed donut memory by hand, using real donuts! But that was later on. Before that we had to carve our 1’s and 0’s onto clay tablets with pointy sticks and then fire them overnight using open lava beds.


  20. #20 sya
    September 6, 2006

    Azo, I was a carbon atom for Halloween one time as well (although this was when I was an undergrad). But I was part of a group costume for a molecule of sarin. You’d think nerve gas would be pretty scary but nobody understood it either.

  21. #21 clvrmnky
    September 6, 2006

    Ok, let me be the first to say it: Your mom is teh hot.

    Remember, kids: COBOL is seXy!

  22. #22 idlemind
    September 6, 2006

    I met my husband at a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fan convention.

    We have a winner!!!

    (Actually, I think that’s pretty cool.)

  23. #23 SMC
    September 6, 2006

    Thanks, Azo – yes, I DID argue in favor of real Hydrogen Bonds. My wife is actually substantially more educated (but I’m working on fixing that) than I am, but she’s a geophysicist. She doesn’t get to play with real chemicals, just a bunch of silly rocks and subatomic particles.

    I’ll go for bonus points here and mention that I’ve been trying to decide: given that if one is an organic chemist it’s “tetrachloromethane” but if not it’s “carbon tetrachloride” – if one is an organic chemist, should the infamous greenhouse gas be “methanedial” or “methanedione”?

    (I’m not actually an organic chemist beyond having taken two semesters of it, but these kinds of questions amuse me…)

  24. #24 Rob Knop
    September 6, 2006

    OK, here’s my entry:

    I try to pimp my Nerd Cred there.


  25. #25 Wooble
    September 7, 2006

    For people born in early to mid 1980’s, “real programmer” computer nerdiness from school years probabaly correlates well with x86 assembly language coding, to make graphics demos using mode 13h (and later SVGA… no accelerated graphics yet). It certainly applied to several people I knew from various schools. And knowledge of “Ralph Brown’s Interrupt List”…

  26. #26 Ron Avitzur
    September 7, 2006

    My dad started my programming life on his HP-65 when I was 9. A little later, he started leaving me in front of a keypunch typing out punch cards to learn Fortran on Lehigh’s CDC-6400. I got off to a running start and never looked back. I named my company after the school in Real Genius. My personal contribution to the mythology of nerds is posted here.

    It’s midnight. I’ve been working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. I’m not being paid. In fact, my project was canceled six months ago, so I’m evading security, sneaking into Apple Computer’s main offices in the heart of Silicon Valley, doing clandestine volunteer work for an eight-billion-dollar corporation.

  27. #27 M Petersen
    September 7, 2006

    OK, but could your momma get a 97 on this test?

    99!!! Supreme nerd God… Yikes, I need to make a few changes.

  28. #28 Amos
    September 7, 2006

    “For people born in early to mid 1980’s, “real programmer” computer nerdiness from school years probabaly correlates well with x86 assembly language coding, to make graphics demos using mode 13h”

    I think you’re right on the money. I was born in 1981 and learned to program in my pre-teens with Turbo Pascal and x86 assembly, but it was mode-x for me. (I like square pixels.) I also formed a prejudice for speed and size at the cost of clarity and abstraction, which interested me in democoding.

    Oh, and this is my first time here. I just wandered in from “Good Math, Bad Math”, where MarkCC is clearly winning.

  29. #29 James
    September 7, 2006

    Ha! You folks have no idea (well, actually some of you may have a glimmer).

    It’s spelled “knurd.”

  30. #30 Occams Edge
    September 7, 2006

    OK, I accept the challenge – I know a day late and a few $’s short

  31. #31 Joseph Hertzlinger
    September 8, 2006

    “Knurd” is, of course, “drunk” spelled backwards.

    BTW, do I get any nerd credits for having programmed in Z80 assembly language?

  32. #32 The Cheerful Oncologist
    September 8, 2006

    Ahem…you youngsters don’t stand a chance against those of us born before 1960; to wit:

    Have you ever owned a slide rule as a toy (and used it correctly?}

    Have you ever killed your mother’s flowers with various concotions made from a home chemistry set?

    Can you draw the structure of tetramethyl chickenwire?

    Did you laugh hysterically during the one “Superman” movie when he flies around the world fast enough to go back in time and save Lois Lane’s life?

    Have you ever gotten into an argument with a date over whether the formation above your head was altostratus vs. altocumulus?

    I could go on, but that’s enough bashing for today…

  33. #33 Zuska
    September 8, 2006

    I’m not nominating myself for this honor, but I’d like to suggest Ellen Spertus as a top contender. She’s already won the Sexiest Geek Alive award, while wearing “a PVC corset with a printed-circuit board pattern and a black slit skirt, which allowed [her] to holster a slide rule to [her] leg.” Here’s Ellen’s take on the nerd/geek controversy:

    I’ll admit I’m more comfortable with the term ‘nerd’. I think there’s a coastal difference in connotations. On the East Coast (where I went to school), nerd was positive and geek was negative. On the West Coast (where I now live), the reverse seems to be the case. I would be interested to know at what point in the country the shift takes place.

    My feeling is it takes more than just a few programming creds and a history with punch cards to make you a winner here. Any garden-variety nerd can proclaim technical competence and social inadequacy. A champion nerd is one who revels in her nerdy competency and the ways in which it completes, complements, and acts in synergy with all her other talents and abilities. Ideally, when one is in a state of beatific nerd-bliss, one is also at a peak of love for one’s self, and a peak of sexual energy. Far too often nerdhood seems to be sold as that which requires the LOSS of bliss in all other areas of life. Don’t buy that bill of goods!

    Okay, my few nerdy credentials: I once dreamed I was a distribution function, and was trying to normalize myself. Also, in my lab days, I used to talk to my cell cultures. It really did give me better results. I swear. My favorite nerd joke: The MIT cheer – E to the x, dy, dx/E to the x, dy/ Cosine, secant tangent sine/ 3 point 14159.

  34. #34 Uncle Fishy
    September 8, 2006

    I can’t claim to be a contender for this here competition, but I was really hoping that when the Houston Oilers moved to Nashville they’d keep the name and put an e^x on their helmets.

  35. #35 Kent G. Budge
    September 8, 2006

    The nerd apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My momma programs in COBOL.

    Heck, that’s nothing. I learned to program in Fortran-3. 😉

  36. #36 TheFallibleFiend
    September 13, 2006

    Supreme God of Nerdiness?
    I reject this assessment.

  37. #37 TheFallibleFiend
    September 13, 2006

    Heck. I started on a pdp/8, too. It was marketed as an edusystem 25, I think. It had actual core memory and I recall our teacher had to load the OS from paper tape by toggling it in at the front panel. It had actual core memory. We interfaced via two 300 bd teletypes. Deja vu all over again.
    But I was 14 or 15, not 11, and a sophomore in HS. We programmed not in fortran or C, but in basic. Not VB, not qbasic, not basica – basic. There was no construction like “if then ” . You had to write “if then “.

    Of course every statement required a number. We saved our programs to paper tape, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk. This version of basic could not handle string manipulations very well without crashing. One mistake and dear Mr Sipes would spend maybe 45 minutes rebooting the OS.

    Dear god, the old days sucked so bad.

    Now, if my computer takes more than 1 minute I’m screaming at the monitor like Bobcat Goldwaith.

    Switching to FORTRAN on punch cards on an IBM/360 was a big advance – except the fact that you had to hand over your cards to the man behind the curtain.

    Favorite Slogan: FREE THE DEC 10!

    Favorite Joke:
    I heard an apocryphal story that someone once asked Nicholas Wirth (inventor of PASCAL) how to pronounce his name. He responded, “You can call me by name, which is ‘Veert’ or you can call me by value, which is ‘worth.'”

    Now THAT’s a gut-buster.

    Next favorite joke:

  38. #38 WiseWoman
    September 14, 2006

    All right, here’s another nerd grrrl speaking (got 99 on that test, but I could figure out what the correct answers were 🙂

    * My mother was a math teacher taking computer courses in the summer. She had to go to the hospital, so I took over, taking notes, having her write the programs, punching them to paper tape and feeding them to some beast that had a paper tape bootstrap – I understood the term right away.
    * We moved, the next school had an agreement with a local IBM 360 shop. We punched cards, sent them off, got them back two days later. Man, did that ever teach you to look for typos! This we programmed in FORTRAN IV. We had a programmable calculator at the school, too, that took little punch cards that you punched out with a pin (hanging chards!) in octal! And there was one “interactive” system with Basic, we fought a lot over who got to use that. That’s were I first sharpened my elbows.
    * Since they didn’t have computing at UCSD yet, I applied for Applied Physics and Information Sciences. Me and Nate slipped into some lab with a teletype some evening and managed to get a computer at Stanford (!! The place I wanted to go and which rejected me!) to answer us. It only asked for a login, which we didn’t have, but it was talking to us. That was mind-blowing, and the beginning of an interest in networks. We programmed with punched cards in this funny new language Pascal on a big old mainframe. The other bunch of students got to play with the PDP-11, lucky guys.
    * I moved to Germany and started to learn Siemens BS 2000 and PDP-10, at least we had “glass teletypes”. I worked as a student in an IBM 370 shop (with punched cards) programming in PL/I. We had an ancient card sorter for when you dropped a box (and had hopefully acutally numbered the cards).
    * Gosh, from there I’ve gone over various Unix versions to my thesis on a “Personal Computer” with 64 K (as in Kilobyte) main memory with an additional 64 K usable for storing data. I got a 5 MB “Winchester” disk and wondered what on earth anyone would need 5 MB for in their lives.
    * 20 some years later (and lots of hacks like taking down a system at the CEBIT fair just by demonstrating for the guy that their system had an error that he would not believe was there) I just got a MacBook Pro and installed Parallels, so I have Unix/Mac/Windows at my fingertips. It is not yet a month old, and the 120 GB disk is half full.
    * And yes, we used to have Christmas wreaths made out of used punch cards, too. They don’t look half bad when sprayed with gold paint.
    * Does it count that I decorated my son’s room for Halloween once with a spool of magnetic tape draped along the walls? Looked creepy.
    * Yes, I have a slide rule. It is on the shelf next to my abacii.
    * I have a necklace with a working abacus and a pin made of circuit board cut in the shape of a punch card, as well as my name spelled out in keys from an old keyboard in my office.
    * I like to hang out with the Wikipedia people at c-base (now *that’s* a nest of nerds!)

  39. #39 JB
    September 14, 2006

    -Fortran was a prerequisite in college.
    -C++ was the new language when I was taking Cobol.
    -Witnessed the emergence of PC’s.
    -Worked part-time as a keypuncher in a data entry firm while in college. The data were saved in tapes and processed into those large page print-outs in the locked-room where the main-frame is. Had to use punch-cards for some of the projects. I actually enjoyed the sounds the unit makes when you type.
    -A colleague got married and we used the hole-pieces from the punch cards (are they called chads?), instead of rice, to throw on the bride and groom as they were leaving the church.

  40. #40 Sacha
    September 16, 2006

    Does choosing gym locks based on nice prime numbers count?

    How about this: one year, I shelved library books while studying for my PhD. It was very boring. While shelving journals, I coded patterns into the journals, eg one pattern was
    1 bound volume, right way up,
    1 bound volume, upside down,
    1 bound volume, right way up,
    2 bound volumes, upside down,
    1 bound volume, right way up,
    3 bound volumes, upside down,
    1 bound volume, right way up,
    5 bound volumes, upside down,

    and so on, I coded the prime numbers (ok, apart from 1) in the orientation of the journals. Got up to 19 or 23 if I remember correctly.

  41. #41 Sacha
    September 16, 2006

    Hey, I used to print out ASCII art at school – felt naughty making the dot matrix printers print out two or three pages of low quality art, although they would have taken a long time to “draw”!

  42. #42 Farley
    February 10, 2007

    I gotta agree with “zwa”, Some of these things just make you old. Not that you aren’t also a nerd. But hey I’ll take a crack at it.

    I have a couple terabytes of external hard drive space….

    That I filled

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