Rules for life

February 4, 2011 • 11:36 am

When I was about ten years old, I, in my youthful hubris, decided to write a book on “Rules for Living,” telling people how to best improve their lives.  Fortunately, it stopped after only two rules, which I still remember:

1.  When you run a bath, put the cold water on first and then the hot.  Otherwise you might burn yourself.

2.  When you button your shirt, start at the bottom.  That way you won’t wind up with buttons in the wrong holes.

About ten years later, having a bit more experience of life, I came up with two more “rules”—which were really observations:

1.  Everyone thinks that “they’re a little bit nuts”—in a good way.

2.  Nobody thinks that they’re a complete jerk, as people with such a self-image could not live with themselves.  But since some people are complete jerks, that means that lots of people don’t have an accurate self-image.

Well, take that for the “wisdom” of a twenty year old.

Driving back from the grocery store last weekend, I suddenly remembered my dumb “rules for life” book, which I hadn’t thought of in at least two decades.  And immediately a new “rule” struck me, something that I’d been subconsciously chewing on for a while:

A large number of the people who call themselves “geeks” and “nerds” don’t use the term in a winsome, self-deprecating way.  Rather, they use it to imply that “I’m smarter than you are.”

Let me hasten to add that I don’t think everyone who calls themselves geeks or nerds are intellectually arrogant. Just some of them—but not an insignificant number.  When I was young, people who fit the “geek” stereotype of somebody interested in things scientific, and also socially inept, would rarely apply these terms to themselves.  “Geek” and “nerd” were derogatory terms applied to you by others.  But increasingly I see them used as self-branding signs of intellectual superiority.  And when people apply these terms to themselves, the words grate on me, precisely as the word “brights”—meaning “atheists”—grates on me.

Agree or disagree, but add, if you will, your own “rules for life”.  Oh, I just thought of one more:

If two friends tell you the same thing about yourself, it’s probably true.


p.s. It’s still a good idea to button your shirt from the bottom up.

160 thoughts on “Rules for life

  1. Uh oh! I call myself a nerd when I mean to indicate my hermitish tendencies. Do I have to stop?

    I choose nerd rather than geek precisely because it’s more pejorative, at least I thought it was. I think I take my idea of its connotations from the Jeff Goldberg character’s line in The Big Chill – “he was hospitalized for being such a nerd.”

    1. Yes, you have to stop. The term implies EITHER that you’re intellectually arrogant OR have traits that others find noxious. Either way it’s BAD!


      1. But it’s not bad to ADMIT that you have traits that other people find noxious! I use it to admit, not boast.

        Well not really noxious; more like inept. Can’t I admit to being inept?

            1. I see this as pointing out one’s own flaws before others do.

              A way of saying, I know I’m like this, I don’t need you to tell me.

              Tends to take the sting out of the intended insult. Defense mechanism.

          1. I’m completely behind Jerry Coyne on this one. Oftentimes it annoys the heck out of me hearing a person say, for liking a documentary or two, (especially the hip new ones), “oh, I’m just nerdy”….or something along those lines. Or, “yeah, I’m kind of a nerd/geek”…when they are in fact, not really or not at all.

            But it’s true, those terms should only be used when describing others, as a derogatory term or even in praise of someone else, but it should not be used when describing oneself, because it does come off as arrogant or something very much like it.

            I think the same goes for calling oneself “weird” or a “weirdo”.

            I’m not saying people shouldn’t do it or say it, (I am not a militant atheistic manner correcting fundamentalist), but it does irritate me, probably to the same degree that it seems to bother Mr. Coyne.

            And I just want to say that I am glad that a prominent voice of reason has finally broken the silence and begun the push back against this travesty that has gone on for far too long, far too long….

    2. I too use nerd to describe myself, as a means to warn others that I have various character traits they might find odd & because I enjoy science (I know a lot of people have much greater knowledge than I do, but I think it’s the enjoyment of science that makes me a nerd).
      I say it with a smile though so people aren’t too put-off 🙂

  2. I love #1 in the second series though; I’ve noticed the same thing. I’ve learned to recognize a certain kind of covert boasting signaled by a phrase like “everyone thought I was totally crazy.” Anybody who says that often…well, I’m sorry, but there it is.

  3. No fun allowed. I tell my kids this is the rule of the house. They ignore it blatantly. Perhaps the implied rule is to question authority, or to look at the facts and draw your own conclusions?

      1. You find “geek” flattering? I suppose I known many people who do and use it for themselves (including my wife), but for me, the old meaning of “sideshow freak” looms far too large over “geek” for me to think of it as complimentary.

      2. This to me is evidence of a word in linguistic flux–the same way that “impressionist” and “fauvistes” were originally derogatory terms applied by art critics to describe art they didn’t like, but which were later taken over by the artists themselves and eventually lost any derogatory meaning. I wonder whether “geek” isn’t in the middle of the same sort of process. I rather hope, actually, that that *is* the case. If, however, “geek” does do a 180-degree turn in meaning, then it *will* spell the end of referring to oneself as a geek (unless one wishes to be thought an intolerable braggart).

        As an aside– Paul Graham has an interesting essay called Why Nerds Are Unpopular. He uses the word “nerd” throughout, however (and I’m not sure whether he’s using it as interchangeable with “geek”. It would be interesting to ask him whether he sees those terms as different).

        1. p.s.–with regard to the term “bright”…I’ve read nearly all Professor Dawkins’ books, admire him tremendously, and I think he’s adorable. But. I can’t stand the term “Bright”. I would rather have my hair cut by squirrels than have the term “bright” applied to me (or, *mercy*, apply it to myself).

    1. Geeks are people who get paid to be smart.
      Nerds not so much.

      Lots of companies even use the word in their names or at least advertising.

      Geek Squad
      Triad Geek
      Geeks on Call

      Around here we even have Park Geek–they provide info about local events.

  4. In my former job in an STD clinic, I was the only person with any kind of computer background at all. (I took on the job in 1987, when the 386-33MHz was king).

    I always described myself as a geek, or computer geek – and always in a self-deprecating manner. The implication was that the staff were incredibly, amazingly good at getting people to open up about their most intimate details, while I was the dipshit in the back that could only talk to machines (and it was true).

    That connotation of “geek” still hasn’t left me, and I hadn’t bothered to think about as a term of snobbery until now.

    A truism that I learned from long experience in STD/HIV epidemiology: “the capacity for self-deception is infinite.”

    1. …another is (for guys): “be really careful when zipping your fly. You do not want to do that incorrectly, even once.”

    2. Both interesting and explanatory. (And poignant, so that’s three.)

      People at large have a lot of reason to be grateful to geeks these days, so the word is not as harsh as it used to be. But that’s only fair, surely. That “geekishness” enables empathetic etc people to use their talents in new and expansive ways. Geeks tend to help out their less talented fellow-humans, like me. Thank you geeks.

      1. On behalf of me fellow geeks, you are welcome. And the strange thing is, it’s not a lack of empathy in my case – near as I can tell. (or my SO can tell) It’s just not being so fast on the uptake — not being able to think on my feet fast enough to deal with the multifaceted kinds of crazy that exists out there when you are running a successful disease control program. I’d bend over backwards to help anybody, and because of that, I was constantly on loan throughout the larger organization.

        1. That’s what “etc” was meant to imply – whatever the skills are that the staff had. They’re ones I don’t have, for sure; multiple kinds of human crazy make me fly to bits in a matter of seconds.

  5. Hmmmmmmm.

    I have to say, Jerry, I think you’re wrong on this one!

    The words can’t grate in exactly the same way “brights” does because “brights” never had a career as an epithet. “Geek” and “nerd” have been (partially or wholly) rehabilitated, or rather taken over and flipped by the former objects of scorn. That has a different kind of resonance from that of “bright” (which I agree is simply awful).

    I do know what you mean though about pretend self-deprecation that is actually bragging. I do know people who are constantly “self-deprecating” which actually means they’re constantly talking about themselves in a very un-humble way. ICK.

      1. I see the proud acceptance of the “nerd” label more as “hey, knowledge is good and I enjoy seeking it” rather than “I am more intellectually capable than you”.

        It is one thing to be faculty at the University of Chicago. It is quite another to live in a location where people are excited to see Sarah Palin speak.

  6. I had actually made up one such rule, and a pretty serious one a couple of weeks ago.
    If you do not get enthusiastic consent from your partner, do not have sex with them. If they are under 14, do not rape them.
    Or something like that. It’s a pretty serious one, but being a rape survivour it’s a concern close to my heart.

    Also, I tend to call myself a geek for the self depricating factor, as I have interest in many things, but lack the memory to be actually smart assed about any of them.

  7. I have three rules:

    I. Do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto.

    (The First Rule may be broken only to the minimum degree necessary to otherwise preserve it.)

    II. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

    III. An it harm none, do what thou will.

    The rules must be applied in that order. For example, following the second rule is not permissible in circumstances which require violating the first rule (except as provided for by the Exception).



    1. At first I feel that I would switch the order of your first and second rules. For instance, I often make my children take medicine. That is something I would like men to do unto me, assuming the medicine is truly in my best interest according to the best doctors, even if I haven’t the presence of mind to desire it–just as my children often do not wish it.

      But is that case covered by the exception? If so, it seems that your second rule is what defines the exceptions to the first rule. Originally I interpreted “preserving the first rule” as covering cases when the interests of two others are in conflict. It allows me to sometimes inconvenience Paul in order to avoid harming Peter. That is different than forcing the medicine on a reluctant Mary.

      1. Torquemada had my second rule as his most important. Better to torture people into salvation than let them spend an eternity in Hell.

        The rules assume a certain level of competence. In the case of your children and their medicine…well, we know that children aren’t competent in many ways. In particular, they’re often incapable of choosing short-term discomfort to prevent long-term pain.

        I would support forcibly preventing somebody who’s drunk from committing suicide. I’m firmly against preventing rational people from making a well-considered conscious decision to end their own lives, especially (but not exclusively) in cases of terminal diseases.

        I’ve yet to come up with a clear and concise way of expressing that, though….

        Anyway, that Exception is designed to permit you to rescue those in need. The thug doesn’t want you to stop him from raping the little old lady, so the First Rule says you shouldn’t. But because the little old lady doesn’t want to be raped, the Exception puts stopping the thug back on the table. The Second Rule says you should if you’d rather not be raped, yourself. If you have a choice between killing the thug and handcuffing him, the Exception says you should do the latter.



        1. Ah, yes, good point about Torqemada. I suppose I rule out that sort of Augustinian conclusion with a caveat that says no consideration of unprovable consequences allowed! Unprovable in a statistical sense, that is, which would also prevent a paranoid from imprisoning you in order to hide you from imaginary government agents.

        2. …So is there an equivalence between inserting “competence” in your ordering and mine?

          That is:
          I. Don’t do unto a competent other what they wish not, unless necessary to preserve this rule.
          II. Do unto others what you would wish done to you, unless this breaks rule I.


          I. Do unto others what you would wish done to you, if you were competent.
          II. Don’t do unto another what they don’t wish, unless this breaks rule I.

          1. That’s a tough one. There’s lots of room for unintended consequences — such as Torquemada correctly interpreting the Golden Rule to demand torture. You have to think of ways to break the rule.

            For example, “Don’t do unto a competent other what they wish not, unless necessary to preserve this rule” leaves open any sort of mistreatment of those you deem incompetent. And how have you determined competence in the first place?

            And, “Do unto others what you would wish done to you, if you were competent” means that masochists must become sadists.

            If we handwave away the question of competence, my original three rules don’t suffer from any of those side effects.

            If you’ve ever done any network security design, the same kind of thinking can be helpful. I started with a “default deny” stance: Don’t do anything. Then I modified it. Don’t do anything to others. Again: Don’t do anything to others that they don’t want you to do to them. This puts others in control of deciding their own fate, which is exactly the control you wish for yourself.

            One of these days I’m hoping to get the chance to properly study Game Theory. I’m convinced — one might say that I have faith — that morality is nothing more nor less than an expression of an optimal strategy. I believe there are deep insights into morality to be gained from Game Theory, and that our current fumblings will one day be seen as primitive as we today consider mechanical engineering without the use of calculus.



            1. It does seem that while our two versions of ordered rules above are theoretically equivalent, your ordering is safer. Misusing my order leads to persecution, where misreading yours might lead to neglect, and that only if you misjudge someones lack of competence.

              Those misreadings may be why we need rules like “work for the increase of the well-being of all, without undue abuse of individual rights” with suitable definitions of well-being. The nice thing about “golden rule” formulations though is that they come with a heuristic for decision making. If you can’t calculate the optimization of well-being, you can at least go by personal preference.

  8. Hi! Lurker here. I don’t know about ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ being associated with arrogance – maybe people use it that way and I haven’t met them yet. Or maybe they use the terms more on the internet. Everyone seems more arrogant than they really are on the internet. It’s just the way we perceive what we read, versus the impression we imagine we’re giving when we write.

    Okay, that’s my rule of life: everything sounds more arrogant than intended when it’s on the internet.

    However, I have recently begun describing myself as a geek (both on and off the internet) as a kind of warning shot – letting a new acquaintance know that references to biology, astronomy, literature, etc. may work their way into the conversation, just in case the person would like to be forewarned. After all, sometimes I think that the thing I just read about the Burgess Shale is an excellent metaphor for their teenager’s homework problems, or whatever. And I’ve found that some people hate to be unprepared for that sort of interjection.

    Announcing I’m a geek also offers the person an opportunity to reply, “Oh, I’m a geek too!” And that’s always nice. If I find I’m talking to someone who likes science and literature too, I can turn it up a notch!

  9. “If two people tell you the same thing about yourself, it’s probably true.”

    So does that mean you’re really an accommodationist?

  10. Some people will like you in spite of yourself. Some will never like you no matter what you do. Stick with the ones who like you.

  11. I often refer to myself as a “dork”, which can in no way be taken as boast. To me a dork is kind of a socially awkward nerd who, despite best intentions, ultimately ends up making everyone in the room, including themselves, feel uncomfortable.

    1. Hmmyes. “Nerd” includes obsessiveness or intense interests or similar, which dork doesn’t. Maybe that’s why Jerry thinks it sounds like “I’m smarter than you.” But really – if we can’t admit to being interested in stuff without sounding as if we’re boasting…well it’s not fair, that’s all.

      I mean I might as well say Jerry sounds as if he’s saying “I’m smarter than you” whenever he does a science post! Or whenever he teaches a class for chrissake!

  12. “geek” was an insult in the ’80s. At my engineering college, electrical engineering (EE) majors were taunted with the saying “you can’t spell ‘geek’ without double E”.

    If someone asks me what kind of girls I go for, I always say nerdy ones.

    Obviously the transformation of these terms from insult towards compliment reflects society’s increasing focus and enthusiasm for knowledge and technology.

      1. I don’t think of this in any way as a “contest”. I post what is on my mind, and then see what people say about it–both to me and to each other. Usually I learn a lot, and often modify my views, which is what is happening here. I still maintain that some people use “nerd” or “geek” as a way of boasting, but I see that few (none?) of the readers do.

    1. “Obviously the transformation of these terms from insult towards compliment reflects society’s increasing focus and enthusiasm for knowledge and technology.”

      True enough, but most of them can’t be bothered to do the intellectual heavy lifting to UNDERSTAND “STEM.” (Re: Lawrence Krauss’s statement that for the last several such surveys by the NSF, 50% of Amuricuns can’t correctly answer: “T or F: The Earth goes around the sun and takes a year to do it.)

      “Dork,” “nerd,” and “geek” were originally negative, non-complimentary terms. So, what would be complimentary terms? Non-dorks, non-nerds and non-geeks? A-dorkists, a-nerdists, a-geekists?

      “Jocks” has frequently been used in opposition to “Nerds.” If “nerd” is undesirable, I gather that “jock” is desirable? Jockist, a-jockist?

      (Re: Bill Cosby’s athlete to kid: “Throw it to me, the ball; pick it up first.”)

      How about Philistines? But they wouldn’t understand the term nowadays. How about Rednecks? Willful Ignoramuses? Trendy Poseurs who couldn’t change a flat tire if their lives depended on it?

  13. I forgot to mention my rule from when I was 20:

    Don’t play a game you can’t win.

    That mostly meant stop trying to figure out women, they don’t make any damn sense.

    1. “stop trying to figure out women, they don’t make any damn sense.”

      Indeed, it would be a good idea to not bother trying to find an answer to the question “what do women want”, unless you are an anthropologist. And if there is a particular woman about which you have that question, you could always try asking her.

      [disclaimer: I am both a geek and a nerd (wearing the terms proudly now after paying my dues with years of being denigrated), so I am completely unqualified to give any advice about social interactions, but I have a very bad reaction to the idea of one gender trying to “figure out” the other one.]

  14. So, I generally don’t refer to myself as “nerd” or “geek” (though many probably would). But I think I would have to admit that the label “intellectually arrogant” kinda fits, at least a little.

    So what does that say about me?

  15. I have two slide rules:

    1. Pickett N-500-ES that I bought in 1973, the same year the HP-45 calculator was introduced. Suede case, of course.

    2. Picket N-300-ES pocket slide rule, also in a suede, but a handy sleeve, that I carried around until I was 30 just in case I needed to make a quick calculation. Somewhere.

    I wore the HP-45 calculator in its stylish soft black leather case on my belt for many years. Cut quite the figure with ladies, I did. All my deviations were standard, I assure you.

    1. heh heh heh heh heh

      I own a slide rule (a really nice one of my late Dad’s) but can’t remember how to use it. Though I do use some instruments with vernier scales (!!) so it shouldn;t be too hard to re-learn …

      1. My highschool boyfriend and I had matching TI-50* calculators that we both proudly wore on our belts. (We eventually got married.)

        And I do still have a couple of sliderules, but I would need to spend some time to re-learn how to use them.

        *yes, I will now freely admit that HPs were actually superior

        1. Yes, I would never marry a TI-50 owner!

          Seriously. Not even date them. Even a blind date.

          OMG, that reminds me of a girl I once fancied but she not only had a TI-50 but she was an Organic Chemist!!! A pot boiler!

          What was I thinking?????

          (Insert, “glands rule, brains drool”)

      2. Hey, I’ve got my late Dad’s old slide rule, too. Got him through grammar school and college in the 1930s, then got me through high school (before calculators were allowed on exams), then was my back-up during university in case my calculator died (never did, but it was reassuring to have the slip-stick with me). I also have a vernier calipers that was Dad’s.

        I use “geek” and “nerd” interchangeably, to indicate a social misfit who is, not necessarily smarter than everyone else, but has exotic intellectual tastes (seriously: outside of the local CFI crowd, almost none of my meatspace friends could give a damn about all the science and philosophy stuff I mostly read). And when you grow up a social misfit, it’s *really* *nice* to get to an age when you can wear the label proudly as a way of presenting the middle finger to all the jerks who made you miserable in grade high school.

        And BTW: I’m the TI-bearing geek who married Theo Bromine ;-).

    2. I remember getting a slide rule
      of some type or other during my 20’s but though I carried it around with me everywhere I never learned how to use it. How’s that for clueless arrogance?

    3. Heh. I still have the Post Versalog that I used in Community College and my skilled trades apprenticeship classes. Sadly, somewhere along the way, I have lost my dog-eared paperback book of seven place logarithmic and trigonometric tables. Try and buy one today.

      Some years back, I found that eBay has a lively market in old slide rules. I have had to stop collecting them until I can come up with a decent way to display the 75 or so that I have. (Google Image my username)

      Doc Bill and I must be a bit older than all you kids on our lawn that have your dad’s slide rules. ~{;>)

      I also have an HP-16 Programmers calculator. Used it some when I maintained DEC PDP-8, PDP-11/34 and PDP-11/44 MiniComputers.

      People used to call me a nerd and a geek. Now they just call me the old fart.

  16. Here’s 10 rules that I wish may someday will be posted in every courthouse, library and schools in the country.
    Rev. El Mundo

    I Thou shalt worship only reason

    II Thou shalt abstain from invoking supernatural deities in the affairs of humankind

    Thou shalt disdain all ritual and pretense

    IV Thou shalt abhor priestliness

    V Thou shalt loathe superstition

    VI Thou shalt reject all forms of
    spiritualism and supernaturalism

    VII Thou shalt regard skepticism as a virtue

    VIII Thou shalt reject all claims to a
    moral authority greater than man

    IX Thou shalt reject racism and sexism

    X Thou shalt, in word and deed, strive to improve the human condition

  17. I’m gonna have to disagree. I use geek or nerd to describe myself, usually when it comes up that I enjoy doing various sorts of math and my friends are making fun of me for it. So these words can also be adopted in a self depreciating yet defusing way, as has been the norm for a great many other groups and communities over the years (Grunge music, faggot, the N word, the windy city, redneck, etc).

  18. I think our culture has been thoroughly anti-intellectual for quite some time. One manifestation of that is to call someone who is intelligent or who likes science “geek” or a “nerd” where these terms were meant as insults. I think it is a good sign that some people are embracing the terms and embracing the idea that it is a good thing to be intelligent and/or be interested in science. Being arrogant is one thing. Embracing one’s good qualities as being good is another. Why not allow “geeks” and “nerds” to feel good about being intelligent (if they in fact are).

    1. I tend to agree with you, cj.

      Overall, though, I think it depends on who’s saying it (like so many other things!). Some are still truly self-deprecating, while some are boasting.

      I’d agree w/ Jerry that both have been losing their most pejorative connotations rapidly. When the richest man in the world is a geek, things change.

      I was going to say something like what Norm said about “dork,” but he beat me to it. And I loved Stella’s rule about arrogance and the ‘net.

      So I guess my rule would be–in today’s world, the probability that anything you do or say is original approaches zero.

      Oh, wait, that’s PZ’s principle of mediocrity…

  19. Folkloristic trivia: the habit of applying a originally pejorative term to oneself with pride is in Dutch known as using it as a geuzennaam. In 1566, a delegation of lower noblemen of the (then Spanish) Netherlands issued a plea to Margaret of Parma for a more lenient treatment of the protestants in the Netherlands. Allegedly, her advisor sneeringly remarked to her: “Fear not madame, ils ne sont que des gueux” (they’re only beggars). The Dutch delegation picked up the term ‘gueux’, dutchified it to ‘geuzen’ and used it quite literally as a nom de guerre in the ensuing Eighty-year War with Spain.

    “Nerd” and “geek” certainly can fall in that category of self-assigned heroic pejoratives, but the bearer would have to yield evidence of nerdishness, for instance a freaky knowledge of unimportant facts on some trivial topic, a disturbed day/night rhythm, and/or an absurdly oversized pair of glasses. People using ‘nigger’ as a geuzennaam have a slightly easier burden of proof.

    Class dismissed.

      1. Nope, and neither am I responsible for Gueuze Lambic.

        I brew my own beer but I don’t care to name it because, in the place where it’s going, noone speaks or listens.

        1. Cheers! ;^)

          I love Lambics as well! More or less anything from Belgium (except for a few really traditional, really acetic Lambic brews.

  20. Intellectual arrogance is a tough one. Objectively, I know I’m smart. I qualify for membership in MENSA, though I’ve never felt compelled to join. An awful lot of people I know struggle with mental tasks that don’t even register on my radar. Yet, what good is it to rub such things in? Better to help them muddle through — or, better still, figure out some way around the problem that they don’t even have to deal with it in the first place.

    Is it arrogance when you have an accurate self-assesment of being significantly better than average? Or does the term only apply when you think you’re better than you really are?

    And there’re lots and lots of things that I’m totally clueless about that other people breeze though. I do a lot of database programming in accounting systems. I haven’t a clue what the accountants do, even though I’ve written programs they use all day long. Then again, I really have neither need nor desire to know.

    I am both idiot and savant. The trick, of course, is knowing when I’m the one or the other….



    1. Better to help them muddle through — or, better still, figure out some way around the problem that they don’t even have to deal with it in the first place.

      A noble and admirable sentiment. Without making any claims about my own intelligence, I’ll say that whenever someone really wants help, and I’m able to give it, I’m more than happy to do the same.

      But perhaps, if not arrogance, a certain kind of indignation might be appropriate when confronted with walking, talking examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect (or, indeed, the willfully ignorant). I’ll venture as far as to say that, according to objective criteria, my competence in my field is above average. I despair to witness not just the toleration, but the positive celebration of mediocrity. Sometimes I think “rubbing it in” might be the thing to do – as a sort of “consciousness raiser” to say: “look, we can’t continue to put up with these hacks!”

      Gosh, I’m feeling cynical tonight.

  21. I realized at an early age that “comparing marks” or broadcasting my good grades was a recipe for making enemies. On the other hand, athletic skill seemed to earn friends and allies. The reason for this apparent dichotomy is surely not simple, but one factor must be the prevalence of team sports. Athletic ability is an asset to the team while intellectual ability is a threat to the grading curve. Is this a necessary evil?

    1. This is an interesting idea. On the other hand there is only a limited number of players allowed on a team, and if you have a place then someone else doesn’t. And intellectual activities are often done in teams but this doesn’t make it more acceptable to be clever. I’m not sure this idea holds water.

      I think people know that brains actually matters whereas sporting talent doesn’t. How many people are actually are going to be able to make a living out of sport? Almost none. Brains, lots of people. But a hundred years ago the opposite was true, most people lived by manual labour. I think it’s a result of culture moving too slowly to deal with the changing reality that a strong back is no longer the best guarantee of a reliable income. Nowadays marrying a geek will get the babies fed and geeks are getting trendier.

      1. Right, there are probably several interacting factors. There is a lot of importance put upon the intellectual ability of the individual, and this contributes to individual competition in school and in careers. That’s why ruining the curve for the rest of us might be threatening behavior and deserving of persecution.

        However there might still be biological reasons too, from evolutionary prejudices towards valuing strength and fertility.
        Not to mention the apparent corollation between brains and social ineptness.

        I have been in some groups of engineers, or pure math researchers, where cleverness is valued by the team. I just wonder what would be the positive outcomes of grading groups of students in school instead of individuals? The groups could be periodically reformed so that the smart kids always have new partners, and thus eventually still get the highest scores–but in the meantime they enjoy the status of desirability. Might even help with the social skills.

  22. The greatest rule of all is this: If it’s not broken don’t fix it. Of course it’s ignored by geeks and nerds, who go out of their way to fix things especially when not broken.

    1. My Dad has a sort of corollary to that one–if it’s already broken, you can’t make it any worse. I.e., go ahead and try to fix it!

      I’ve proven him wrong a few times…

  23. A rule of life I’ve been unpicking nerdishly recently is:

    “People judge themselves by their intentions, and others by their actions.”

    It seems to apply to everybody, including me.

  24. Heresy! Shirts must be buttoned from the top down! Buttoning from the bottom is the evil fruit of weak-minded liberalism, directly at odds with the greatness intended for us by the Founding Fathers, who were, to a man, button-downers.

    PS. Rule 47: Never underestimate teh stoopid in others – it noes no limitz

    1. Top down is much easier since there’s no mistaking the top button, while the bottom can be confusing, especially if the shirt-maker has considerately provided spare buttons below the lowest functional one. But then I usualy have to button the top button to put on a tie.

  25. Social intercourse…

    ** Someone who asks you for advice often just wants to talk

    ** Don’t start/invent/repeat gossip

    ** Two eyes, two ears & one mouth. The more you look/listen & the less you say the smarter you sound & the more you learn

    ** Avoid asking closed questions

    ** Someone who asks you for advice is usually not asking for advice ~ they’re trying to impart information, make an impression, manipulate you or give YOU advice

    ** Don’t complete another persons statements/anecdotes unless they’re being particularly boring/repetitive ~ in which case tell ’em to their face

    ** If you rubbish Alice to Betty when Alice isn’t there, then Betty may think you rubbish her too

    ** Someone who asks you for advice is occasionally seeking advice

    ** Don’t invest more cash/time/emotions than you can afford & don’t expect or depend on a return

    ** Empathy & compassion trumps intelligence

    ** To thine own self be true

    ** Have fun


    1. To which we can also add, “tis better to remain quiet and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt…”

  26. #1: Things change.
    #2: People are weird
    #3: Don’t take things too seriously
    #4: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow …
    #5: Read a lot, and widely
    #6: Pay attention to what people do, not what they say

    Rules of work:

    #1: Show up
    #2: Support your boss (as long it’s legal and ethical)
    #3: Never lose your temper
    #4: Leave it at the door as you leave for home
    #5: It’s just a job for goodness’ sake!

  27. I’ve always treated “geek” and “nerd” as compliments, because people say that’s what I am; and I like who I am.

  28. I have to agree with Ben. I know I am smarter than some people. I also know I’m way dumber than some people. I try to pay attention to the latter group and ignore the former.

    Personally, I think I use “geek” to indicate my propensity for deeply diving into topics that a lot people don’t care or know much about. So I’m a geek about Latin and Late Republican Roman History, various topics involving computers, most sciences, and soccer, and could thus talk your ear off about them. Other topics, such as popular music of the last 50 years or so, I’m much more vague about.

  29. I really like the “new ten fourteen commandments” that Dawkins lists in The God Delusion:

    1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.

    2. In all things, strive to cause no harm.

    3. Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness, and respect.

    4. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.

    5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.

    6. Always seek to be learning something new.

    7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to the facts.

    8. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.

    9. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.

    10. Question everything.

    11. Enjoy your own sex life, so long as it damages nobody else, and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclination, as long as it harms nobody else, which are none of your business.

    12. Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race, or (as far as possible) species.

    13. Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.

    14. Value the future on a timescale longer than your own life.

    I think all of us would like to try to live by these.

  30. the word “brights”—meaning “atheists”

    Um, no. You can be an atheist and still believe in the supernatural, in which case you’d not be a Bright, but a Super.

  31. I’m with Ben too.

    Smarter than the average bear.

    However, I try to never, ever let people know that. I am very self deprecating. I try to never flog people with my knowledge, which is easy to do. I often preface an answer to a question, “I don’t know. But I think the correct way to find out is …”

    I am also an artist (several media), musician, writer, reader, lover of nature, lover of exercise (nature and exercise combine nicely), in addition to the technical work I do to pay the bills. So I try to keep a variety of interests in my life. I keep learning new things, so being a beginner at something is familiar to me: This makes it easy to avoid being arrogant. Music is very humbling (as well as a great joy).

    I well remember the requirements for being an instructor in a kayak club I used to belong to:

    1. You had to be willing and a competent boater (having a bomb-proof roll was good too.)

    2. You had to have learned something completely new to you within the last year (so you can understand being a beginner and be patient.)

  32. On the “geeks/nerds” thing: I see that as a blowback against a culture that disparages intellectual things. So when I call myself that (mostly “nerd”) I am not talking about being arrogant; I am saying something like what Richard Dawkins is saying here (at the end of the clip, where he quotes the NS editor):


  33. Oh yes, my “rules of life”: “entropy is merciless” and, in a relationship (friendship, marriage, whatever): “if it feels that you are getting your way 40 percent of the time, then things are probably equal”.

  34. When I was still doing surgery, the BIG rule was: Don’t do anything in the OR that causes you to say OOPS!!

    1. Didja ever see the episode of Northern Exposure where Holling was thinking about getting circumcised and he had a dream about it which featured Shelley saying “Oops!” just before he woke up?

  35. My 15 year old calls himself a nerd but not out of arrogance even though he is an intelligent kid.Kids embrace the word which to them also means a person that does not care about latest fashion or the latest trends.A nerd is a person who is into her/his “own” thing and they dont care what others think. My kid is into Robotics,tech/electronic stuff and is a member of the math and science club.
    In a country where young Black males are not seen as geeks or nerds but as thugs,I am proud that he is proud of his academic achievements and interest in all things so called “nerdy”.

    1. Yeah.

      Come to think of it, hasn’t Obama “admitted” to being a geek or a nerd or both? And isn’t that partly why? And (I’m looking at you Dr Coyne) isn’t that a good thing?

  36. For some reason I’ve always remembered a line from a Roger Ebert review of “Igby Goes Down,” several years ago:

    “…the world sucks, people are phonies, and sex is a consolation.”

    In another vein, this one applies to my husband: Measure once, curse twice.

  37. I’m a geek, but only in the old school, bite the heads off chickens in a sideshow kinda way. Is that bragging?

    As for rules,

    Timing is everything.

    If you don’t know what you are talking about, then stop talking.

    Be nice to cats, five out of six ends are pointy (hat tip to Calvin and Hobbs.)

    Treat dogs like you deserve the way they worship you.

  38. I’m not a geek. I’m not a nerd. I am, though, an editor of a triviagame and I know the most absurd things about a horrifyingly large amount of subjects. I can answer questions about the most surprising things – but if you ask me two questions about the same thing (unless it’s dressageriding, classical music and the works of Charles Dickens)you will see a slightly perplexed look on my face – and then I’ll begin to look impressed. I am the polar opposite of a nerd.
    My rule:
    Curiosity never killed anyone unless they added stupid. Stay curious – don’t be stupid.
    (And yes, now that you ask, I have had a few drinks before writing this)

    1. Oh who are you trying to kid? You’re on this blog aren’t you? Of course you’re a geek or a nerd, maybe both! 😉

  39. Courtesy of Douglas Adams:
    It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.

    Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

    See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting.

    Don’t believe anything you read on the net. Except this. Well, including this, I suppose.

    Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

    Anything invented before your fifteenth birthday is the order of nature. That’s how it should be. Anything invented between your 15th and 35th birthday is new and exciting, and you might get a career there. Anything invented after that day, however, is against nature and should be prohibited.

  40. Never take advice from someone who will profit from that advice.

    If you must eat in the hospital cafeteria, avoid the brown meat.

  41. The official scientific method for determining your geek, nerd, dork status:

    I’m glad you brought up the topic of self-labeling oneself as a “nerd” or a “geek.” These were still completely derogatory terms when I was growing up and didn’t refer to just intelligence (Though the fact that it did shows that a pro-stupid, anti-intellectual sentiment has existed in the United States for some time), but also to social awkwardness, shyness, and some sort of unacceptable appearance. I realize that many people – particularly those ten years or more younger than me (i’m 41) – embrace these terms, but given that I don’t think I was called these “names” based on my intelligence, I’ll never be able to embrace them. I have trouble imagining anyone who went through the torture of being a social pariah being able to embrace these terms. However, maybe the embrace of these terms by a younger generation has lessened their negative impact a bit.

    That said, I still agree with your assessment, Jerry, of many individuals using the terms as indications of intellectual superiority. The interesting thing (for me, maybe not anyone else) is that I’d never consciously thought about it in that manner before; I’d always assumed it was a term of self-deprecation. In many cases though it’s faux-self-deprecation used to cover up the “I’m-smarter-than-you” attitude.
    The following is not so much a rule as a truism:

    No matter how bad things get, they can always get even worse.

    1. I have trouble imagining anyone who went through the torture of being a social pariah being able to embrace these terms.

      Hey, see my comment above: at 53yo, I make a good living out of what’s in my head, I get to hang socially only with people I choose to, my fellow geek and I have loosed a couple of young geeks on the world (one of whom has found his very own geek to hook up with) — life is sweet. Am I a geek? Hell, yeah! And in another few years I’ll be old enough to qualify for “eccentric” or even “crazy old coot”.

  42. Never try to repeat your successes.

    If anyone says anything with “but” in the middle, ignore everything before the but.

    Always answer a rhetorical question.
    Never answer an implied question.

    At a meeting, If there is not a motion, move one.

  43. Interesting observation about using the term “geek” or “nerd” in a self-aggrandizing way. I’ve noticed the same thing, and while it used to bug me, now I see it more as people trying to show pride in their intellect and/or social independence. As long as pride doesn’t slide over into hubris, that’s probably a good thing. I think the two words have overlapping, but different meanings; “geek” seems to have more to do with intelligence, and “nerd” seems more related to social skills, or lack thereof. I could see the term “geek” becoming a high compliment one day, but “nerd” still seems to carry some baggage. Never having been smart enough to be a geek, I don’t apply the word to myself, and having definitely been lacking in social graces at various times in my life, I refrain from calling myself a nerd, because I never liked it when other people applied it to me, and it doesn’t feel dignified. If social outsiders are using it as a way to reclaim dignity, though, then more power to ’em! However, if that word changes it’s meaning to something positive, another negative one is going to come along to take it’s place, because, let’s face it, people can be cruel and they will find a way to single out and torment those who don’t “fit in”. I don’t like that, and don’t advocate it, but I think I’m being realistic.

    As far as rules for life, there’s already been some great ones here, but I’ll add my half-cent’s worth–I got this from a fortune cookie, but it works for me, and I keep it by my desk:

    “There is no wisdom greater than kindness”

    Two other old sayings work well as esthetic guides:

    “F*ck Art, let’s dance”, and “I don’t
    know Art, but I know what I like” both work just fine for me.

    If I’ve figured out anything by myself, it’s this:

    We’re all ignorant about something, and the best way to remain ignorant is to try to act smart and hide your ignorance, but the best way to get smart(er) is to admit your ignorance and ask questions and make statements that might expose it. You might even get called a nerd or a geek! That could be a bad thing, or it could be a good thing, most likely it’s what you make of it! =0)

  44. Hmm, interesting. I do indeed use geek to mean what you said, but only when someone is trying to bully me for liking science and engineering.


    Colleague: Oh ember, you are such a geek for being interested in particle physics. We LOL at you! Why can’t you talk only about fad dieting and American Idol like normal people?

    embertine: Yes, I am a geek, WHICH MEANS I AM SMARTER THAN YOU.

    I think that’s reasonable.

    1. Indeed! I stopped watching TV entirely over 23 years ago. Haven’t missed it a bit. When someone gives me the jaw-drop and says, “why?!” I say, “I don’t have time to watch TV” which is tru eand usually shuts them up about it.

      1. When someone gives me the jaw-drop and says, “why?!” I say, “I don’t have time to watch TV”

        Sometimes I consider the fact that I watch very little TV (and do not have cable or satellite) to be a virtue that encourages better uses of my time, but then I contemplate the amount of time I spend on the internet – blogging, reading blogs, commenting on blogs, and looking at pictures of cute kittehs.

  45. I don’t consider geek to have anything to do with brains, just vocation. I’m a geek/nerd (definitions vary with location, but work with me here) because I’m a computer programmer. In my spare time, I program computers a different way, or play computer games.

    Note that I haven’t said I was actually smart, just that I’m the hi-tech equivalent of a car nut.

    The step up from geek is Alpha geek. This is the geek that all of the other geeks point at and say “That guy’s a geek.” They know how to program assembler and maybe machine code. Your computer automatically fixes itself when they come near, out of fear.

    Still no comment about brains, just vocation and level of knowledge about computers. In the end, who cares if they’re smart – so long as your computer works?

    Interestingly, as a programmer, I consider myself superior to people in IT. Unfortunately, no one outside the geek world knows the difference.

    The geek shall inherit the Earth.

  46. Maybe Jerry and I are the only ones who have to talk to these people. I have to deal with a person (who you may have guessed can get on my nerves) who refers to himself as a nerd. He does it in such a way that he’s purely saying that he knows more about a topic than you. You’ll be talking about science news and he’ll explain it to you because he’s “a bit of a science nerd”. It just does not feel genuine. It’s like he’s trying to sneak in a pejorative term to make it more socially acceptable to say that he’s smart. Sometimes people know more about a topic than you and there is no problem with that. It’s the way they are calling themselves nerds but using it in such a way that it is clear they take no negative connotations from the word. It can get on your nerves.

      1. No, I just deal with it. It’s slightly annoying but I have to work with the guy, don’t want to make it any more uncomfortable.

    1. Yeah, I understand how annoying that can be and I know people like that. Perhaps I’m a bit like that myself. But try to think about it from the other person’s point of view. We’re talking about people who often really *do* know a lot. People who read a lot and have a need to understand what they are reading on a fairly deep level. And people who want other people to understand cool stuff too.

      I frequently catch myself correcting people when there’s probably no need and I realise I can come across as a smartarse because of it. But it is sincerely not meant this way. I’m not trying to show off what I know, I’m just genuinely and enthusiastically trying to help people understand cool stuff, because I assume (often wrongly) that they’re as interested in it as I am. Often, the reason they’re wrong about something is more interesting (to me) than what they were saying in the first place and I get carried away. I understand why this pisses people off, but it’s not something I do on purpose and I don’t realise I’m doing it until afterwards or – awkardly – half way through.

      Perhaps, of course, your guy is just a bit of a dick, but it’s possible that he’s actually sincerely trying to tell you cool stuff. Using the word ‘nerd’ might be a defense mechanism as someone else suggested. Perhaps he’s aware that he does this kind of thing but finds it hard to control or to recognise and he uses the term as a kind of excuse. “I’m a nerd, I might seem like I’m trying to look clever, sorry.” Or he might be a dick, who knows?

      Don’t underestimate the power of the compulsion many people have to correct others!

  47. I’m the guy who always sets up the presentations and web conferences at meetings, and (if I’m feeling generous) who sorts out my colleagues’ computer issueus, but I seldom if ever use the term “nerd” or “geek” for myself.

    I suppose since some of the richest and most powerful people on earth are “geeks”, it’s not a slur anymore.

      1. Indeed, and I would be a happier man if I learned to do that. Instead, I tend to take compliments as flattery or politeness, and critiques as devastating condemnations.

  48. I call myself a geek, but I don’t think I use it to imply intellectual superiority. I’m just identifying with a culture that celebrates many of the things that interest me and the behavioural traits I exhibit.

    Admittedly, this is also probably a tacit claim that yes, I probably can fix your computer, but it’s fun to be able to admit to and even celebrate all the things I was bullied for as a child. It’s fun to be able to admit that I love Star Trek despite how awful it is and great to be able to explain why the technobabble of the day wouldn’t work. Better still, I can GET AWAY WITH IT because I make no secret of being a geek and people make allowances for it!

    I don’t identify as a nerd though. Although I have some nerdy tendencies, I think ‘geek’ carries the implication of finding things interesting that lots of other people don’t. That’s not an insult, it’s something to aspire to. Nerdiness is an insult because it seems to imply that there’s something automatically wrong with having such interests and obsessive behavioural traits.

  49. In tenth grade we had an american exchange student (I’m norwegian) that talked about the different types of ‘groups’ among youngsters, e.g. sports jocks, people way too fond of cars, etc, and of course, the nerds and the geeks.

    From this, I realised that you could just as well apply the term ‘sports nerd’, ‘car nerd’ etc, but the differing factor being how socially accepted this all was.

    This later made me come up with the term ‘looks autism’ for the stereotype blonde woman who spends all her time on her great looks, but essentially doesn’t know or care diddly squat about anything else.

  50. Michigan has a new Republican Governor. He ran his entire campaign on the theme that he was “one tough nerd”.

    Former CEO of Gateway Computers, he bragged about how he had created “thousands of jobs”. His opponent pointed out that most of those jobs were in China and North Dakota, but apparently being a tough nerd was more important than that.

    An early ad campaign showed Rick Snyder bragging that “he has a plan to re-invent Michigan, but it is so complicated that no politician could understand it.” So he ran for 10 months, and never once mentioned the specifics of his “plan”.

    So yes, I agree. Many arrogant SOBs have come to use the term “nerd” to make the implication that they are way smarter than everyone else.

  51. #1: Do not piss off 4chan.
    #2: No, seriously. Do not piss off 4chan.
    #3: Never feel too clever. In six months time you’ll look back and think your current self is an idiot.
    #4: If a year goes by and #3 doesn’t happen, start worrying.
    #5: The long term cost of pretending to be something you’re not always outweighs any short term benefit.
    #6: Enjoy your pet peeves, it’s what they’re for.
    #7: Humanity is worth the effort.
    #8: Your assumptions are more likely to be wrong the less you’ve thought about them.
    #9: Choose a career you enjoy – but if you manage this, never tell anyone else as it will only make them more miserable.
    #10: Before responding to an argument, always think first: If I held that person’s position, how would I respond to the point I’m about to make?

  52. These were developed over 20 years at IBM.

    Rules of Management
    1 Never say anything you wouldn’t eat
    2 Never call an asshole an asshole
    3 You can pick up more dead flies with honey than with vinegar
    4 Don’t rub the boss’ nose in it especially if it’s the boss’
    5 Don’t expect a slug to have a backbone
    6 If you can’t find your butt with both hands, you can’t find it with eight
    7 Burn no bridge before its time

Leave a Reply