Monday, November 12, 2007

The Nerd Handbook

You've probably already seen The Nerd Handbook on Digg, but just in case you haven't, go read it.  It's great stuff.  As a geek (I've always preferred geek to nerd) married to a non-geek, I'm always on the hunt for things that describe us (geeks, that is) that I can point to and say "See?  That's how we are."  Way back in the day, the Jargon File / Hacker's Dictionary came with appendices that described the typical hacker, the sorts of food they ate, music they listened to, and so on.

Then there was Seebs and his classic "Hacker FAQ" where we got the oft-quoted "managing hackers is like herding cats" and "if you get a hacker on a project he really likes, expect him to be 10x more productive than a normal worker."

The Nerd Handbook is different in that it is written for significant others.  It speaks of "The Cave" where your nerd/geek/hacker goes, and why you shouldn't touch his stuff.  Why he hates small talk, and loves a good puzzle.  If it works, the best part of this article is that the author offers advice for the SO on how to optimize interactions with the hacker ("advanced nerd tweakage").  In other words, don't stick your geek in normal situations and say "Be normal!"  Instead, figure out a way to position the "normal" situation as something that appeals to his geeky instincts.  Is there a puzzle to be solved?  Information to be learned?   

Sure, on the one hand it is totally patronizing - "Hacker shy.  Give hacker puzzle.  Hacker happy now."

But in a way, it's only fair.  Because in my experience, most geeks also happen to assume that they are the smartest person in the room, which means we're pretty damned patronizing too.  Start by assuming that no one in the conversation is as smart as you, and talk down to them.  If you sense that someone has some intellect, then immediately the game turns either into a pissing contest to see who is the alpha geek of the room, or else an immediate bond is formed and you've got a friend for life.  But either way, most of the bystanders are left by the wayside wondering what the heck the geeks are talking about.

Anyway.  If you want to see how patronizing the "give a hacker a puzzle" cliche is, try this.  Invite some friends over for a party.  Include a geek.  Now put an unfinished Rubik's Cube in the room.  Watch what happens.  It's like they can't help themselves.  I know I can't - I was just at a party last month where the host set the table around me because I couldn't put the damned thing down until I'd solved it.

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