The USS Quad Damage

On Boffin'ry

Betwixt a sandwich of cleverness and abrasiveness lies Audrey Hepburn.

Less Wrong (who is obviously a woman 1) has written defecation by accident about — and let me just translate it into plain english — how nerds are abrasive dickwads. Here’s the thing: She’s not wrong. Nerds concentrate on what’s wrong and ignore mentioning what they like; they even do that badly. Even I think that when you amass nerds their more annoying features are magnified to a point where they become unbearable (e.g. LAN parties, conventions, the internet). However, I take issue with her suggestion that we should solve that by being nicer.

Let me follow her trail, roughly, and quote Paul Graham:

Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn’t want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn’t want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.
But in fact I didn’t, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart.

Here’s the key finding, and it’s right there in the metaphor: Telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn’t want a glass of water. By the analogy then, there’s something nerds want more than a glass of water when they’re dying of thirst. We don’t want to do it to the point of death. To put it another way: we don’t want to do it to the point of it’s just too friggin' hard.

This is coming from a guy who tries from time to time. It’s too hard to be nice. The mental effort it takes to be nice completely destroys any cognitive ability you may have. Introverts talk about personal interactions as “stressful”, because that’s what it is: Stressful, difficult, brain hurting stuff. I suspect Paul Graham understands this intuitively, and didn’t put it explicitly in the article: Nerds would rather die than have personal interactions2.

You could say similar things about Maths and non-nerds. Telling a nerd to be nice is the same as asking a non-nerd to love Maths. It hurts their brains, it’s too damn hard, they’d rather just die.

However, this doesn’t stop nerds. We’ve been “succeeding” despite ourselves. You can look to the open source community for that — AFAICT it’s created more value to society than any other community, ever. And people get along amicably enough, even though it takes a few emails of “hey let's not be such huge dick-wads” every now and then3. We’ve just gotten used to not having any water when we’re thirsty in a desert.

You may have seen proto-rom-com My Fair Lady. It’s a classic Audrey Hepburn film. In it, a boffin (which is an old word for “nerd” I think) linguist bets that he can make a poor uneducated woman sound like a lady, and that’s enough that no one will be able to tell. The only reason the movie “works” is that it’s set in the context of a woman when women weren’t really treated that well when that woman is also poor.

Also it’s a romantic comedy and they never have plots which make sense.

So substitute As good as it gets to taste, but then you’re going to ask yourself “wait why am I substituting Audrey Hepburn with Helen Hunt”? My point is, boffins are intensely anti-social; they get by through their stereotype: The boffin! So you don’t need to work so damn hard at being nice, just play up the nerditry. Wear a top-hat and monocle, or heavy nerd glasses and braces. Play the part and you can be as nasty as you like4.

Let me move briefly onto Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Assange is a strange man and a nerd, and he’s leaking secrets about the government en masse, which isn’t polite according to the author. If we extrapolate, Assange should talk in private to the government so as not to make them look bad. Whatever you’re thinking, there’s arguments on both sides, and this is hotly debated. The idea that you gloss public perceptions (show people up, instead of down, etc.) is one that doesn’t just regard pleasantries, but has real ramifications. I think there are real parallels between what Assange is doing on a global scale and what nerds do on a personal scale.

I could go further, and say something like: If you tell a non-nerd about an error in her presentation in private, maybe she’d appreciate it, but if you were to tell a nerd, maybe the nerd would think that you’re implying that the nerd is corrupt or otherwise managing a false representation of themselves publicly, which is offensive5.

Onto the examples and how they are tweaked:

> I wizened up,

I don’t think that’s the word you want to use, unless you’re talking about how you finally lost those 20 pounds by not drinking anymore.

Hilarious! I’d reply by saying something like “I've finally realized how wrong I was for being an American.” Witty re-par-tee for all!

The fixed version:

An email that says: "Hey Sebastian, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled “wisen” as “wizen” - easy spelling error to make, since they’re uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. “Wizen” means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

So... not funny, and even if it was it’s only sent to the Author. If it was me I’d feel insulted. Here’s how I’d read it: “I know you're a thin-skinned pansie, so I'm letting you know you're a special snowflake, just the way you are, and I totally don't think you're mentally retarded.” and “Oh by the way, there's a website you can use, called '', you might want to take a look some time.”

Then I’d be all "why the fuck is this in an email?"

FWIW, I think posts like this are more valuable the more they include real-world examples; it’s kind of odd to read a post which says I had theory A of the world but now I hold theory B, without reading about the actual observations. It would be like reading a history of quantum mechanics or relativity with all mentions of things like the laser or double-slit experiment or Edding or Michelson-Morley removed.

At this point the author acts all high and mighty about producing content for free, but I’m totally just going to suck it up and not have a whinge. The comment is abrasive, but more because it’s written like a school teacher marking a paper, complete with what adds “value”. Implicit is the “I love to read your stuff and obviously consider it as valuable”. The “fix” is simply to add some social lubricant at the beginning, before inserting the social [REDACTED].

I’m personally a bit “meh” on this. I’m starting to do it myself now, but it does feel extraneous. Having said that, the comment itself isn’t just abrasive, but a bit smarmy, which is the real problem. I’d fix it like this:

Can you add some real-world examples? It’s kind of odd to read a post which says I had theory A of the world but now I hold theory B, without reading about the actual observations. It would be like reading a history of quantum mechanics or relativity with all mentions of things like the laser or double-slit experiment or Edding or Michelson-Morley removed.

Still abrasive but without the “I'm marking your paper” at the beginning.

An interesting start, but I would rather see this in Discussion — it’s not fully adapted yet, I think...

The comment’s basically saying the article’s not finished baking. It’s more of a back-handed insult; “slightly too little salt” to compliment a meal rather than appealing to add more salt.

So in conclusion, I would advise against liberal use of social lubrication when communication with others if you’re a nerd. At best you’ll feel disingenuous and at worst you’ll offend your own people. Instead, try and advertise yourself as a harmless boffin. Someone who says things but means them in the best way possible. Someone who enjoys having a bit of a laugh, and may be socially awkward at times. Frankly, it’s not that hard.

And the alternative is worse than dying.

1 Ha! See how you like it, feminists! Also it’s a man, but his name is “Sebastian” so it’s fair game.

2 If you change “personal interactions” with “public speaking”, then the stress makes more sense. I actually believe that nerds would rather do public speaking than interact, purely because you can pre-cache that stuff.

3 And every time the email goes out all the nerds are like “yeah so true”, and eventually go back to old habits. I think being nice is just non-intuitive and too much work. Eventually people will get lazy, which means “being dicks because the alternative is too hard”.

4 I hear “the gays” do similar things.

5 Before you pooh-pooh this idea, I’ve actually felt this when someone does something they think is polite, but I’ve reacted violently against it, sort of like a "wait, did they think this information was so embarrassing that they couldn’t just say it in public?"