In grad school I had a group of friends who liked to relax on Friday evenings by playing board games and role-playing games Apparently that alone made us geeks, even if most of us hadn’t also been studying computer science and engineering.
Back in grade school (long enough ago I don’t remember which grade), most of my classmates hated “word problems” — things like
That’s a paraphrase of a GMAT prep site (which I’m not criticising at all, since it’s exactly the sort of thing you need to be able to do for the GMAT (which I’m also not criticising at all)). When I started teaching introductory programming in the 1980’s, a lot of problems we set were of the same sort: Here’s a very simple problem you care nothing about that you have to solve in a particular way because there’s one basic technique we want you to learn. For the math-talented, solving the equations was easy, but they hated translating the words into the equations. For the math-impaired, the equations were boring or scary and the “story” wasn’t the least bit compelling.
I think we can do a lot better.
I’ve never met Michael Spivak , so don’t know much about him, personally, but I think many people would consider him a geek. He is a calculus professor whose textbook was widely adopted for many years; two classmates of mine in grad school, from widely separated parts of the USA, had used it. If that wasn’t enough to qualify him, consider this: Many geeks like to take things apart, see how they work, and put them together in a different way. Spivak’s research field is differential geometry , which uses calculus and algebra to study geometry. Not quite like taking apart a streetcar to make a rocket sled , but still in the spirit of geekitude. He also wrote a guide to using TeX , an enormously complex and hard-to-learn text formatter aimed at getting every black spot of a mathematical formula in exactly the right place.
He also displays the kind of quirky I-don’t-care-what-others-think attitude some geeks have. In the front matter of that textbook appears the phrase “Dedicated to the memory of y.p.” If you look in the index, you might trip across the entry ” Pig, yellow” There are only three references: to the dedication page, to the index page ( self-reference being a favourite thing of many math geeks), and to a page in the middle of the text that does not contain the phrase “yellow pig”. You have to apply abstraction, another math geek thing, to realize that “whole hog” counts. That guide I mentioned above was called ” The Joy of TeX ,” a similarly quirky name to call a technical manual.
I’d like to think Spivak will be remembered for a long time — and since he was born in the 1940’s he likely has some good years left. His whole body of academic work counts as a good legacy among geeks, but textbooks go out of fashion, and the undergraduates you mentored go on to other things. I wonder if Spivak might actually be remembered longer for something that has nothing to do with mathematics.
Sometimes geekish skills can help with non-geekish things.
Once upon a time there was a professional meta-geek I’ll call Jon. He was a professional because he got paid to do geekish things, and a meta-geek because he advised other people how to do geekish things. One day a small impoverished group — a charity if I recall correctly — asked him the best way to sort a million records. This was back when sorting a million of anything was a big deal; we were running units of 80+ people on computers less powerful than my cellphone (which is likely less powerful than your cellphone). In the course of asking about what they were up to, it dawned on Jon that “sorting a million records” wasn’t the real problem; it was an overly-specific partial answer to something a heck of a lot simpler. Jon was doing what system design geeks call ” requirements elicitation ” — talking to clients to figure out what they really need.
Well, we’re in the midst of a federal election here in Canada, and one thing is certain: somebody’s going to say “the result was unfair, because we don’t have proportional representation” — a system so obviously superior to ” first past the post ” that when given the choice recently, the people of British Columbia and Ontario rejected it outright.