About the Manual

The Nerd Manual is meant to be both a useful resource for nerds and a guide for the people involved with nerds. If you're a nerd you can find information here that will help you improve your life and perhaps better understand yourself. If you're close friends with, dating, or married to a nerd, I want to give you insight into things nerds do that a lot of people have difficulty understanding.


I hope to avoid offending anyone--either nerd or non-nerd--but please understand that the manual will get into some sensitive topics, stray into contentious territories, and even use stereotypes to illustrate points. It's OK to disagree with something, but keep your comments civil.

2017-08-25

Nerdism: Headcanon

No, this isn't about a gun installed in your skull.

Headcanon was originally a term similar to fanon that is used in fanfiction circles to refer to the way a person views a character’s backstory. It originates from the term “canon” meaning a collection of formally approved materials and facts within a fictional universe established by the original creator or subsequent creators who have been given authority to add to that universe. The term was firest used in literature to refer to Sherlock Holmes stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle, and it is currently used to establish a continuity between characters and events within fiction that encompasses multiple books, movies, games, or other media.

Headcanon takes this concept away from the approved universe, but still applies continuity to the creative process, so that a writer (artist, director, etc.) who has not been sanctioned by the original creator of the materials can adhere to a character’s motivations and fictional life, thus maintaining the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Basically, headcanon means that a story follows the rules already officially established, even if the story’s creator is just a fan.

The term has come into heavier use with the popularity of Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Star Trek, and other media with a significant number of characters and events that need to be tracked so that plot holes don’t inadvertently develop. Even official creators use the term. Often fans will ask creators and writers questions, such as if a certain character is actually pretending to be evil, or if a particular location was actually known by another name in a previous part of the story. If these questions can’t be answered “in canon” by referring to existing material, a creator might say that the answer is yes or no according to her headcanon, meaning that she operates according to rules she has set in her head, even though they have not been officially established at that point.

Nerds take an official creator’s headcanon seriously, because it can provide clues to where a story is going, or where it may have come from, allowing us to adjust our own headcanon to fit. We tend to speculate about the meaning of even minute details in our favorite books and movies, and while referring to headcanon doesn’t carry as much weight as referring to an actual passage from a book or scene in a movie, it’s still more reliable than sheer speculation.

It’s likely that you have your own chronology of events and imagined character backstories for books, movies, or games, and even if you weren’t aware it existed until today, now you have a name for it.

2017-07-30

So Much Classic Sci Fi, So Little Time: Galaxy 1950-1976 Free Online

Galaxy Science Fiction was one of the defining publications for mid-20th century science fiction, and it printed stories from sci-fi greats like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and one of my favorites Harry Harrison.

Galaxy eschewed pulp elements and took a somewhat more mature approach to the genre than contemporary magazines like Astounding Science Fiction, focusing on stories that incorporated plausible science and addressed current social issues. 

There are now 355 issues of Galaxy Science Fiction available for free at the Internet Archive and this series contains an early version of Fahrenheit 451 called "The Fireman" and Heinlein’s "The Puppet Masters". The collection ranges from 1950 to 1976, and while it's not quite every issue of the magazine, there's plenty of material to keep you entertained for a long time.

2017-07-22

Real-Life Nerds: Saving Video One VHS at a Time

Everything currently stored on magnetic media is slowly corroding away like old cars in a junkyard. Magnetic tapes, such as audio cassettes and VHS tapes (including those purportedly multi-thousand dollar Disney black diamond VHS cassettes) store information on plastic tape embedded with metal oxides. As time passes these tapes lose their magnetic fields, and the information can't be read anymore. Experts give tape data 15 to 20 years before it's unsalvageable.

Fortunately, the preservationists at XFR Collective are working to transfer information from magnetic tape to digital formats.

XFR Collective is a non-profit, all volunteer group who focus particularly on rescuing tapes containing material from underrepresented communities like people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, and activists. Everything they digitize goes to their Internet Archive page where the material is publicly available. They also lend equipment to community organizations (such as a local folklore/storytelling project called Los Herederos) to help them with in-house digitization projects.

They have also partnered with the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) to design and build an AV transfer station for METRO’s 599 Studio space in an effort to support digitization services for the community. The new transfer station has to include a variety of equipment to work with everything from professional 1-inch tape to the 1/2-inch open reel tape commonly used by activists and community artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

The fact that analogue video decks are no longer manufactured was a hurdle the XFR Collective leapt by scouring the listserv of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) for used equipment, including a CRT monitor, an S-VHS/miniDV deck, and a 1/4 inch reel to reel audio player. The group also tapped into the e-waste recycling store at the Lower East Side Ecology Center, where they discovered a corner of the warehouse devoted to functional analog A/V equipment.

The videos that XFR Collective digitizes range from personal family tapes, to recordings from public access TV, to videos of police brutality, and they have transferred over 67 hours of video.

XFR Collective still needs equipment, so if you'd like to donate a deck or scope you can contact them through their Facebook profile

2017-07-05

Which Came First, the Computer or the Nerd?

Part of the Bell Telephone Network
Here's an interesting thought: computer nerds are fascinated with programming, hacking, and networking computers, but what did that type of person do before computers were invented?

There were networks and structured algorithms before there were computers, so the computer nerds of today would still have plenty of opportunities to explore their passions in the past. I'll set the mid-1940s as a starting point for computers because that’s when ENIAC was switched on, although there were much earlier calculating machines, but I'll mention those below.

Possibly the nerdiest thing with wires and switches prior to electronic computers was the telephone network. In the US, the Bell network started out in 1877 and the company started buying up all the smaller phone networks in the early 1900s. At one point, every telephone in the world was connected to the Bell network in some way. Think about that for a second. You had this device in your home or office that could connect you to any other similar device anywhere else in the world. Sound familiar? This was an awesome playground. Nerds figured out how to use their home handsets to connect to parts of the telephone network they weren’t supposed to access and from there they explored its inner workings. Some of these nerds went to work for the network, others became engineers, some were pioneers in the computer industry. Steve Wozniak was one of those telephone network explorers, and he went on to co-found Apple.

There were calculating machines before the 1940s, and some of them were called computers because they…well…computed things. But the computations were limited, for instance an entire machine might be dedicated to computing ballistics trajectories. These machines were developed, maintained, operated and improved upon by nerds who would probably be computer geeks if they had been born in the past 15 or so years.

Counters on the Difference Engine
I like to think that the pioneering computer nerds were Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace Babbage, who were designing mechanical calculators (proto-computers) in the early 1800s. Babbage was a flake, but a genius. He had these astounding ideas for a machine he called the difference engine that could tabulate polynomial functions. He managed to get funding to build some, but then he had these even more astounding ideas for a mechanical computer that had conditional branching, loops and built in memory that made his original difference engine obsolete--at least in Babbage's mind--so he gave up on building the original machine in order to develop the more complicated machine, much to the government’s consternation.

Prior to this, you had people programming looms using paper tape or punched cards in the early 1700s.

At some point back there in the mists of time we get too far away from computers to say what the computer nerds would be doing, but I’d put my money on some sort of engineering or inventing that involved connecting different inputs to get an output, which could involve broad fields such as mathematics and chemistry, or more specific occupations like railway engineering, managing electrical power transmission, and designing the Paris underground sewer system.

2017-06-24

So Excited I Can Barely Contain Myself

I've had a browser tab open to the solar eclipse page for so long that I've had to move it twice when I changed computers. You can guess how excited I am.


You can find out more directly from NASA, or if you're a teacher take a look at Starnet Libraries for classroom ideas. 

2017-06-18

Nerd Q&A: How do I Accomplish This?

Krystal Tubbs - Study
This isn't exactly a nerd-specific question, but I think it's worth answering if it helps someone meet their goals in life.

 I am 15 and I want to become a nerd and just focus on excelling at school, working out, and learning computer science. How can I accomplish this?

First off, the things you say you want to accomplish will not make you a nerd. You might consider them nerdy, but they are very good things to focus on that will help you do better in high school and later in college if you choose to go there.

You should also include making a few new friends and spending time with them. If you focus on computer science and working out, I think you might make some friends in the process, so that's sort of included in the plan, just remember that it should be one of your overall goals.

Here’s how you can make this happen:

1. Desire it. You’ve expressed your desire, so you can cross this off the list. Congratulations!

2. Make a 4 or 5 year goal list. (Make the goals real things such as making better grades, not becoming Batman.) In your case this might include specific things like:
  • raise my GPA to a 3.5, 
  • make one friend who is more physically fit than I am, 
  • make one friend who is better at computer science than I am, 
  • distance myself from Phil who always talks me into smoking with him, 
  • be able to program mobile apps, 
  • crush the 100 burpee challenge. 
Write it all down on paper and put it somewhere you can see it every day. For a multi-year goal you should have specific things to show you made it, and your list should have a lot of things on it. You will accomplish some of the things early. That’s great, cross them off the list so you’ll be able to see that you’re progressing.

3. Set objectives that you can meet in a shorter time frame and will get you closer to your goal. This is where you look at your list and figure out how to make each thing happen:
  • I want to raise my GPA, so I have to make 5 As and 1 B each term this year (or whatever your school curriculum works out to). 
  • I want to crush the 100 burpee challenge, so I need to take a body conditioning class. 
  • I want to make friends with one person who is more physically fit than I am…wait…I can do that in the body conditioning class, etc.
4. This is the hardest part. For each objective you must actually do the thing you decide will get you there. You will be sorely tempted to do one more day of stupid shit than start on your objective, or to give up at the first sign of difficulty or the first setback. You know what? It’s fine if you give in to temptation. That’s your choice. But you won’t accomplish what you want if you give in. Think of it as “present you” being a friend to “future you”. Present you can be a crappy friend who never shows up on time, lies, and steals crap. Or present you can be a great friend who gives future you things to make him stronger, smarter, and better prepared for a healthy life with a well-paying job.

5. As you complete objectives, cross them off your list and make new ones that are closer to your long-term goals. As you complete long-term goals, make new ones.

6. Evaluate your progress each year. Start now, not on January 1. See where you’ve accomplished a lot. See where you can work harder. Perhaps you will need to commit more time and energy to some objectives than others. Figure out where you’re not as strong so you can make yourself stronger there.

That’s it.

You might think that writing stuff down isn’t the same as accomplishing what you want, or that it’s lame, or that it won’t work, but what have you got to lose? Get some paper and a pen right now and start writing out some goals and figuring out how to reach them. Make sure to include one goal you can make a small start on right now, even if it’s reading an extra chapter for homework tonight or finding out how to sign up for Body Conditioning tomorrow.

What are you waiting for? Get started!

2017-06-10

Get Involved: Comment on the FCC Net Neutrality Proposal

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has pushed through the "Restoring Internet Freedom" proposal. The name sounds great, right? Let's keep the Internet free!

Actually, the entire proposal is designed to revoke net neutrality regulations, which means your Internet access can then be legally manipulated by Internet providers.

One example of what could happen without net neutrality regulations: the cable company that provides your Internet access can cripple the bandwidth on your Netflix or YouTube streaming if those companies don't pay extra to ensure they have the same download speeds as Comcast's own content.

Currently, regulations ensure that equal access is given to all consumers and providers, regardless of how much money they have. The RIF proposal gives providers carte blanche to restrict or promote access, and the proposal suggests removing the regulatory body set up to handle complaints about companies that unfairly restrict Internet access.

Every US citizen can comment on the proposal, the comments become part of the public record, and the FCC has to review every comment. If the public makes a big enough fuss, the FCC can't ignore what we want and has no recourse but to keep net neutrality in place.

When net neutrality was first being established, public commenters were so active that the website crashed. The FCC expects “significant public engagement and a high volume of filings” but it would be a huge statement about our desire to keep the Internet open to everyone if we crashed the system again.

Techcrunch has an excellent guide to making comments on proposal 17-108, so take a look and follow the steps.

It's easy, except for the part where you read the proposal, which is pretty long, but please read it because it should infuriate you to see how the FCC makes vague and hypothetical statements about how net neutrality might hurt businesses, but insists on concrete research-based evidence to support any claims as to how corporations could impinge on consumers' rights.

Get in there, browse the proposal, use the paragraph numbers to make a specific point, leave a thoughtful comment, and don't let them ignore us.

2017-06-09

Real Life Nerds: UPDATE--Protecting Public Data From Big Brother

Data scientists, archivists and librarians are still hard at work preserving government research and information that they fear could be lost or removed under the Donald Trump administration.

I'm not trying to make a political statement here, but I have to point out that within hours of President Trump's inauguration all mentions of climate change were removed from the White House website, and since then climate data has disappeared from other government sites.

You can read about the roots of this data preservation movement in our previous post.

The movement has grown, and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative--an international network of academics and non-profits addressing potential threats to federal environmental and energy policy, and to the scientific research infrastructure--has been formed to protect the public's right to know, maintain the United States' standing as a scientific leader, ensure corporate accountability, and maintain environmental protection.

To further their agenda, the group created an extension that can be added to the Google Chrome web browser that allows users to nominate data sets for archiving. Preserved data sets are downloaded to DataRefuge, where the information is available to the public.

Justin Schell, director of Shapiro Design Lab at the University of Michigan, points out that collecting the data is only the first step. Everything must be verified, organized, properly described, and put into an accessible format. In some cases the people collecting data find multiple copies of the same information, and sometimes the information doesn't agree with other versions, which means the data preservationists have to contact scientists and academics knowledgeable about the data to verify it.

If you'd like to take part in the data preservation movement,  you can contribute to DataRefuge in a variety of ways:

Fill out their survey if you use climate data for your own work, so DataRefuge can prioritize efforts to save valuable and vulnerable data.

If you see data on the web that needs to be preserved, check the Internet Archive to find out if it's being archived. The Internet Archive offers a guide to 6 ways to preserve information in the Wayback Machine--If You See Something, Save Something.

Help spread the word if you're good at writing or using social media. Let other people know about DataRefuge and the importance of climate and environmental data on our everyday lives.

Get involved with the Libraries+ Network if you're in a library. The Libraries+ Network works to create a sustainable, systematic, and programmatic way to archive federal data.

Even if you don't think climate data is vital, the data preservation movement encompasses other government resources such as the CDC, the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Education, so there's going to be something in this archive that's important to everyone. 

2017-05-08

Nerd Q&A: Swimming in the Mainstream

I'd like to be able to send a message back in time to my teen self and answer this question: 

I am a socially awkward nerd. How can I become more social and mainstream?

Being social is something everyone learns, just like talking or writing, so you just need to approach it as such.

The number one thing to do is to get practice by talking with more people. It doesn’t matter if these are co-workers, members of a hobby club, or people in a class. Just get outside your home and talk with people.

Don’t worry about the “nerd” part of your question, focus on the “more social” part.

If you’re not sure how to behave, here are some tips:

2017-04-05

Nerd Q&A: Are You Offended?

Vasilis - Nerd Broche
Just in case anyone else was wondering:


Does it offend you if someone calls you a nerd or geek?

Not at all. 

Some people might feel hurt because of the negative connotations associated with those terms. Other people might be downright offended at being called a nerd if they identify as a geek (or the other way around). 

I'm fine with people calling me either nerd or geek because I identify with both. I realize that these terms have negative origins in the previous century, and some people still use them as an insult, but I have always taken them as terms indicative of intelligence and passion, so I have no problem with the words or even the people who use them.

Side note: if someone calls you a nerd or geek with the intent of insulting you, consider the fact that nerds and geeks pretty much control all the information on the planet, so you've just been equated with the most intelligent and potentially powerful people on Earth. That's a fairly poor insult, but a nice compliment. Maybe smile and say, "cool." Then walk away.

I openly call myself a nerd, associate freely with other nerds, and talk with both nerds and non-nerds about my nerdy interests.

I don’t call myself a geek because my interests are so varied that I don’t think I’m quite passionate enough about any single thing to qualify as a geek, but when people say I’m geeky I take it as a compliment because they’re implying that I know a lot about whatever I’ve just said or done.

If another nerd or geek calls me a nerd or geek…that’s like a professional acknowledging another professional, and I take it as the ultimate compliment.

2017-03-04

DIY Nerd: Atari 2600 Cartridge Wallet

What's nerdier than a wallet made from an Atari 2600 cartridge?

Not much.

Sure, you can buy a wallet with an Atari 2600 image imprinted on it, but if you really want to show your nerd cred, you'll make your own wallet out of an actual 2600 game cartridge.

It's actually pretty easy. Want to know how? Watch Bob Clagett's video (or just read the blog post on his website) and you'll have your own cartridge wallet in no time.


Now I just have to go dig up an E.T. cartridge from the landfill.

2017-01-20

Real-Life Nerds: Protecting Public Data from Big Brother

spent the day with a group of nerds who gathered at the University of Pennsylvania's Van Pelt Library on the Saturday before President Trump's inauguration day. Archivists, hackers, scientists, programmers, and librarians scraped data from government databases run by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other government sites threatened with deletion, alteration, or removal from the public domain by the incoming administration.

Some members of the group sent spiders to crawl web pages and send the contents to the Internet Archive (archive.org). Others worked through data sets looking for ways to download the information without breaking it and preserve it at DataRefuge.org. Librarians established a chain of provenance to ensure the data could be trusted if future researchers needed to rely upon it.

By the end of the day, they had everything from data on Ice core samples, coastal ocean current velocities, EPA air quality sensor data, the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility data, the Department of Transportation’s Hazmat accidents database, and EPA rules violations.

Was this a political action? A Quixotic task? Hacktivist preservation of vital data? Perhaps it was all of these things, and perhaps it was unnecessary. But considering the evidence--the Trump administration’s EPA transition team has admitted their intent to remove climate data from the agency’s website, incoming EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has sued the EPA multiple times to repeal air pollution regulations, and all White House website mentions of climate change were scrubbed at noon on the day Trump took office--perhaps it was a day well spent.

Read more about this diverse team of data preservationists in Wired article "Rogue Scientists Race to Save Climate Data from Trump"

2017-01-05

Nerd Q&A: Why Are Smart People So Quiet?

I've heard the phrase "still waters run deep" too many times to count, so I think most people (and I include myself in that group) consider intelligence and silence directly connected.

Before I go on, I need to get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way: not all smart people are quiet.

But this is still a fair question that has a lot going on behind it.