Tag Archives: nerds


One more comment on “canonical,” promoted to its own post because the non-mathematicians presumably stopped reading the other one very early on.

It’s common for mathematicians to use the word “canonical” colloquially, to mean something like  “a choice universally or at least generally agreed on.”  For instance:

The clock in Grand Central Station is the canonical place to rendezvous with people in midtown New York City.

I always thought of this as an outgrowth of the mathematical use of the word; but actually, there’s a bit of tension, because I think in this sense “canonical” almost always refers to a choice which is conventionally agreed on, and for which there might be a good reason, but which isn’t really forced upon you the way that canonical things are in mathematics.  The canonical rendezvous might just as well have been the lobby of the Empire State building.

I found a definition of “canonical” in a Hacker Slang dictionary which roughly agrees with this usage:

The usual or standard state or manner of something. This word has a somewhat more technical meaning in mathematics. Two formulas such as 9 + x and x + 9 are said to be equivalent because they mean the same thing, but the second one is in `canonical form’ because it is written in the usual way, with the highest power of x first. Usually there are fixed rules you can use to decide whether something is in canonical form. The jargon meaning, a relaxation of the technical meaning, acquired its present loading in computer-science culture largely through its prominence in Alonzo Church’s work in computation theory and mathematical logic (see Knights of the Lambda Calculus). Compare vanilla…

Anyway.  Non-math readers, would you ever use the word “canonical” in the sense described here?  Math readers, can you give an account of its colloquial usage more articulate than my own?

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Reader survey: what is the great American nerd novel?

This year’s Pulitzer winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a candidate; it begins with an epigraph from Galactus, and there’s hardly a page without a nod to Marvel Comics, Tolkien, or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Like the many Spanish words and phrases, the nerd content isn’t translated. The Spanish you can usually work out from context — but if you’re a little shaky on the Witch-king of Angmar, or what it means to have an 18 charisma, or if you’re familiar with the Watcher’s role monitoring the timestreams from the Blue Area of the Moon but forgot that his given name is Uatu, you’re going to miss a lot.

Austin Grossman‘s Soon I Will Be Invincible, subject of this blog’s inaugural post, is in the running too — it’s not really a book about nerds, like Oscar Wao, but a book which inhabits a nerdy genre, the brooding supervillain autobio, and makes an honest novel out if it.

I don’t think the answer has to has anything to do with SF — one can engage with the soul of the nerd without raising the topic of hit points or Darkseid. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is devoted to the nerd’s characteristically fervent attention to minutiae (in this case, the minutiae belong to a fantasically detailed baseball simulation played with dice.) And probably no one has ever treated the toxic fury of the nerd gaze, directed at the jock, as well as Frederick Exley did in the USC sections of A Fan’s Notes.

You could also give extra points for novels especially beloved by nerds — who wins in that case, Neal Stephenson? When I was a young nerd it would have been Douglas Adams by parsecs and maybe that’s still true.

More nominations in comments, please!

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Two good lines

  • Today in a bookstore, a couple brushes by me. Her to him: “I’m judging you so much right now.”
  • My friend Lauren had the singular honor of judging the M.I.T. Nerdy Pickup Line Contest. The winner:

“Hey, baby, I don’t have a nerdy pickup line, but I can prove that one exists.”

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Do you like Richard Feynman?

Twice in the last few weeks I’ve had heated discussions with friends about Richard Feynman — more precisely, about the character of Feynman as he presents himself in his popular memoirs Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?

I read these books as a kid and found the experience profoundly off-putting — like being trapped in a room for hours with a guy who keeps saying, “You know, that reminds me of yet another occasion on which small-minded types were first startled, then chastened, by my unconventional yet plainly superior approach!” The second book, in particular, might better have been titled What Do You Care What Other People Think? Other People Are Stupid! It was very popular with the toxic nerds who liked to refer to science fiction non-fans as “mundanes.”

And yet: I have recently found that lots of gentle and thoughtful grownups find the protagonist of these books charming, and even admirable. So again, I ask: am I the weird one here? Am I selectively remembering these books as meaner than they were? Are normal people fond of Feynman?

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Justin Fox blogs from Madison, Lev Grossman blogs from Planet Nerd

Two quick notes on Time Magazine blogs.

  • Business columnist Justin Fox blogs from Madison where he’s the Business Writer in Residence this week. So far he’s observed that lots of people here sit in coffeeshops with Macs and it’s kind of cold. Reading about the place you live from an outsider’s viewpoint is almost always of real interest. Once I had a long wait in the Frankfurt airport and parked myself in the bookstore with a German travel guide to the United States. In the introduction it said
    • “There are two things a German visitor needs to be prepared for in America. First of all, you are not allowed to drink outside on the street. Strange as it sounds, you can get arrested for doing so! Second of all, Americans love to fly the American flag all over the place, even on buildings that have nothing to do with the government. Can you imagine if Germans did this? The world would go crazy!”
  • I just found out that my old friend Lev Grossman, book critic at Time, has been blogging on all things nerdy since January. I wanted to include a long quote from his terrific novel Codex, but my copy’s in storage with most of the rest of my books. You’ll just have to trust me when I say he’s one of the only people (maybe Umberto Eco is another?) who’s figured out how to marry the genre conventions of the thriller with a perfectly tuned and delicate prose style. By the way, he and Austin Grossman (whose new novel I blogged about here) are brothers. Between the two they constitute a kind of ultimate and frankly intimidating authority on nerdy subjects. I once made the mistake of going head-to-head-to-head with them on matters related to the early history of Alpha Flight. Let’s just say they knocked me around like they were Aurora and Northstar and I was a Montreal car thief. And I subscribed to Alpha Flight!
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