Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Cultural Diversion: Nerds 

As long-time readers might recall, I'm usually a little late reading our weekly New Yorker. My wife reads it first, then me. So it was only this past weekend that I read Burkhard Bilger's story on "Nerd Camp" in the July 26 issue. It's an occasionally amusing look at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, which is affectionately referred to as "Nerd Camp," and hosts summer programs for the brightest of the bright. Not just the top 1%, but the top 1% of the top 1%.

The article, like most New Yorker articles, isn't posted or disappears after about a week, so the only link I can point you to is an author interview which deals more with the competing theories of educational tracking, which I found to be the less compelling part of the article proper. What I enjoyed more in Bilger's article was the more "slice-of-camp" profiles of the kids, who early on in the article are divided into the "High Math" and "High Verbal" kids. The "High Math" kids are "sprawled on a patch of grass in front of their dormitory, waiting glumly for the games to begin." The "High Verbals," on the other hand are "waving banners in the sun, babbling excitedly and chasing one another around with high-pitched squeals." The "High Math" kids try to hack into the Johns Hopkins computer network; one of the "High Verbals" is described as being "surrounded by giggling girls, whispering confidences in his ears."

As a former nerd myself (though not in the class of these nerds) I read the article with amusement and faint recognition (though with not as much recognition as when I read another article in the same issue which briefly profiled a former professor of mine -- the shock nearly causing me to fall off the treadmill). It also gave me a convenient organizing theme to these reviews.

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract: I would characterize James as a "High Math," seemingly effortlessly coming up with elegant mathematical and statistical solutions to questions most commonly asked with a can (or bottle, depending on your socioeconomic status) of beer in the hand. To review Bill James' work seems odd -- the man might not have invented sabermetrics, but he sure could sue for royalties. So I'll just leave it at this -- there are way too many editing errors than I would like to see in a book with a strong emphasis on statistical evaluation. The verbal mistakes makes one wonder if there are numerical mistakes. (And, judging by the reviews on Amazon of the paperback version -- I read the hardcover -- I wasn't alone, and, yes, there were even a few numerical mistakes.) In addition, the strident tone ("moralist" he was described in one review, and that's not far off the mark) of some of the writing can be somewhat off-putting. Oh, and I could probably buy a copy of the out-of-print Win Shares book if I had a dollar for every time James writes something like "you probably already all know this" (I did, at best, maybe 1/3rd of the time). It's a shame that the little things get in the way, because James did a great job of getting me to look at baseball in a new way many, many times in the course of the book.

They Might Be Giants, The Spine: The two Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh) of TMBG, on the other hand, seem much more "High Verbal," spinning off little quirky songs for more than 20 years. The new album ranges a great deal across the stylistic board, even more so than their previous full-length Mink Car. I will fail here as a reviewer in conveying a sense of the album, other than it has some of their typical mid-tempo rockers ("Experimental Film," "Prevenge") mixed in with, oh, a house track ("Bastard Wants To Hit Me") and baroque snippets ("Spine"). If you're a TMBG fan, you may or may not like it (general consensus among long-time fans is that it's not their favorite), but I don't think it's that much different from, say, Mink Car. I like it, but it took 3 listens before I really hooked into it.

Napoleon Dynamite: I had a co-worker once who would occasionally walk into my office and say something like, "So... if Arizona lost a county, which one should it be?" Bright guy, nice guy, but, well, occasionally odd. Another former co-worker of mine pointed out the similarity between our former co-worker and the title character. I wouldn't really characterize Napoleon as a nerd in that he's not incredibly gifted at anything in particular (he draws nifty dragons, but that's about it). His gift, I suppose, is complete dedication and interest in whatever's he doing at the moment, which is certainly nerd-like. The movie isn't a masterpiece of teen-set movies such as Rushmore or Election, but is amusing in its own way. A character study more than anything else.

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