July 20, 2009

A Nerd Bomber HIGH on the 1980s

Category: Aesthetics,Geekitude,Nerds,What Sorts of People,Wholesome — Biella @ 9:30 am

HIGH on the 1980s, originally uploaded by the biella.

One does not spend their adult life thinking about, hanging with, and writing on hackers and geeks if one did not have a bit of hacker, geek, or nerd inside of her own self. Well, since I did not own a computer until I was 20 (the horror), I was no computer tinkerer. I was pretty geeky about my hobbies but foremost and between the ages of 9 and 15 I was a full on nerd bomber as evidenced by the photo above…

Recently, as I was cleaning out a closet in Puerto Rico, Micah called me away from the dust to check out a new awesome site oozzzing with awkward family photos. It was a moment of total zyzygy (what a great word..) as I was JUST pulling out this very photo to show Micah the proof of my nerdliness.

So I quickly scanned the picture and sent off to the blog only to be quite disappointed (truth be told, offended) that they never published it. Well, about a week after I sent it, I got an email that the photo, being so classically awkward, is being reserved for the coffee table book. As my friend put it, the photo will be famous, awkward famous.

This photo means a lot to me and signifies a whole lot about my life back then. Though I grew up for the most part in the tropics, I went every summer to visit my very Jewish American grandmother and grandfather known as “Ruthie and Abe” in Cape Cod. It was delightful not only because I got to escape the scorching heat but it represented the land of Great Abundance. There were things there that I could not get on the island. Notable among many were: Captain Kangaroo (the show), root beer and naturally root beer floats (now available here though Seltzer water for some odd reason is not), rock candy, homemade cookies (my mother did not bother) and a constant parade of geese/ducks. It was pretty neat to be showered with the constant hugs and cookies that a Jewish granny can deliver with a serious punch, all the while chasing ducks in the backyard. I loved it.

As you can see, I am also donning a pretty flashy Pacman shirt, which I probably wore 4 times a week for at least a year. At the time I thought I was so bad ass for owning and wearing it. I was really into video games (especially Galaga, but I guess we found no teeshirt to represent the love) and I guess, I was into ridiculously looking slicked back hair and white sandals and white socks. (I just can’t believe my mom let me out looking this way, she had a much better fashion sensibility).

People have asked me what I was laughing at and really I have no recollection. Perhaps I was pointing at the ducks going across the lawn, which made me instantly happy. Most likely, I was making fun of my sister, who is wearing the braided head band (wow, the hipster kids in Williamsburg won’t even touch that sartorial Sh*t; it is that tacky) and who was clearly pissed. In fact, it seemed like childhood and pre-teenhood was marked by me being the happy goofball and my sister being… pissed (which has amounted to some serious karmic battles in our life).

Though happy in this photo, being a nerd, especially in Puerto Rico was no walk in the park. Most of the girls in my school were hawt stuff even as pre-teens (take a walk down the beach in PR and you immediately realize why a disproportionate number of Mizz Universes have come from a island the size of Rhode Frekan Island) and if you looked like I did, you stood out. Luckily, just as in the great show, Freaks and Geeks, I had a crew of geeks and we were tight, which shielded us from the worst forms of verbal abuse.

When I turned 15, however, I had enough of the nerd bombing and turned full on Freak, which entailed horribly frizzy hair aided by peroxide, a love for heavy metal and reggae, and other things which shall remain nameless. It was the year, as my friends like to remind me, I don’t remember due to all the partying and the like.
When I turned 16, I managed to unite the freak and geek in total harmony, and live out my high school with some pretty good times and now I can look back with nearly only fondness for the nerd, freak, and nerd/freak years.

December 10, 2008

The Only Winning Move is Not To Play

Category: Academic,Geek,Hackers,Nerds,Wholesome — Biella @ 8:13 pm

nice-game-chess, originally uploaded by the biella.

Today I wrapped up both of my classes. Usually the end of class/semester represents and is experienced as nothing short of pure, unadulterated joy and at both ends of the stick (student and professors alike experience similar emotions :-) . Like my students, I am pretty beat and more than ready for a break. But I have to admit, I experienced the end of my hacker class with a tinge of sadness. This is the third time I have taught this class and each time, it seems like it becomes harder and harder to contain the class conversation and I enjoy them through and through. The last few classes were brimming with talk, which is what should exactly happen because by the last month students are walking/talking on a foundation built over the course of many weeks.

There is not much I would have changed about the syllabus (most of the readings were great-to-stellar) nor the class. But if there is one thing I am sorry about it is that we never watched War Games. The last time I taught the class, I was able to arrange various movie sessions and we watched War Games, Tron, and Sneakers (among a few others) and the students not only learned something about hacker media representations but did a little out-of-class bonding with the movies and lots of food.

Since space is such an issue at NYU, I decided not to forage or hunt for a suitable room (I have since found a connection who I think can hook me up with a room). But by missing War Games, we missed an important event in the history of hackerdom. The movie undoubtedly led to many a kids asking for a modem for xmas and I am sure led to a spike in hacking and phreaking 9 months later (or however long it takes for a kid to plead for a modem, get it, learn some new tricks etc).

It is also the case that while it helped usher in the image of the hacker as nefarious computer trickster, David Lightman was also a pretty cool, cute, and likable kid. Not a nerd but a geek. It perhaps represents the glimmerings of the transformation of the negative nerd into the positive geek (oh and the list keeps the list of girl geeks growing ), signaling the spread of the computer into mainstream society.

So next time I teach the class, there will certainly be more movies, War Games on the top of the list so that we can learn that “the only winning move is not to play.”

December 7, 2008

Nerds, Geeks, and Nerd/Geek Grrrls

Category: Academic,Geek,Geekitude,Gender,Nerds,Teaching — Biella @ 10:13 am

I have not sat behind the helm of teaching for very long but I already have a few tricks up my sleeve. One of them is that I assign some of my favorite readings at the end of the semester so as to counter the downtrodden and tepid spirit and mood (not to mention attention) of my students, which drops precipitously with each passing day. Let’s face it post Thanksgiving, we are all a little tired and I try to find the readings, which uplift, intrigue, and challenge cherished assumptions about marriage and sex.

So far it seems to pay off and I often can tell because the conversational pitch and excitement in class is high and the student writings are good, great, even exceptional, which, again, is hard to produce/induce this late in the semester. Readers of this blog would probably be most interested in one of these lively readings, Ben Nugent’s American Nerd (and it might be interesting to hear how the European Nerd story would diverge or converge with this one).

One of my students, an audio geek and Free Culture President/Free Software junkie, by the name of John Randall produced a very nice little response (not research) paper on the Nugent reading as well as a short piece by Sarah Seltzer from Bitch Magazine
The(Girl) Geek Stands Alone (and thanks to Joe> for cluing me into this piece). Seltzer piece basically argues, in her own words, the following:

Imagine this scene from a comedy: a group of female friends sit around smoking a bowl and working on the Wikipedia page for Lord of the Rings. Their fashion sense is decidedly iconoclastic and several sport thick-rimmed glasses. Without a trace of self-consciousness, they have a hilariously ribald discussion on the relative traits of elves and orcs.
Awesome as it is, you’ll never see this scene onscreen. No mainstream movie or TV series would dare group so many female nerds together, or celebrate them so unabashedly

So John’s whole response paper is here and here is the pdf. In the paper, he makes a number of excellent points but what I loved most about it was his very geeky move at the end of the paper to prove Sarah (somewhat wrong) by listing all the girl geeks that do and have appeared in mainstream (and not-so mainstream) entertainment venues/shows, etc. They are as follows and in his own words:

I will now showcase my own geekiness through my knowledge of geeky female characters. Why? Because I can. But also because I want to demonstrate that if you look hard enough for representations of female geekyiness in pop culture, you will find plenty. Moreover, if you pick the right ones, you can make them support your argument about gender relations, whatever that argument might be.

Some of these charters and personalities are hardly gendered, some are hyper-sexual. Some are incredibly attractive but completely asexual. Some undergo a transformation into/out of geekiness, while others to not. Some are powerful, while some are powerless. Some (most?) celebrate their geekiness, others are tortured by it. They are all geeks– take your pick:

Aeon Flux, a sexy geek who’s technological gadgets give her super powers (Comic drawings then Charlize TheronAeon Flux)

Wonder Woman, attractive pilot of an invisible plane

Lara Croft, a female Indiana Jones in short shorts, wielding guns and cracking computer codes (CGI and then Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider)

She-Ra, who was way smarter than He-Man (Masters of the Universe cartoons)

Gadget Hackwrench, beautiful chipmonk technician for Chip and Dale (Rescue Rangers cartoon)

Velma, featuring eyeglasses, awkwardness and brains (Scooby Doo),

Hermonie Granger, a geek who is temporarily rejected because she is a geek, remains a geek, and finds love and happiness (Harry Potter)

Barbarella, who, through comic strips and a 1968 film, helped introduce science fiction and sex to young women (Barbarella)

La Femme Nikita, a skillful, savvy, and very feminine girl who doubles as a covert spy

Kate Libby, aka ‘Acid Burn’, uber-sexualized hacker (played by Angelina Jolie in Hackers)

Kathryn Janeway, smart and powerful captain of the USS Voyager (Star Trek Voyager)

Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica),

Dana Scully, FBI agent with encyclopedic media knowledge. The bizzare subtex of non-realized sexual tension was part of the magic The X-Files.

Willow Rosenberg, geeky sidekick turned geeky supervillian (Alyson Hannigan in buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Michelle Flaherty, hyper-sexual band geek (Alyson Hannigan in American Pie series)

Dr Ellie Sattler, heroniene scientist (Jurrasic Park)

Ellie, scientis hero (played by both Jenna Malone and Jodi Foster in Carl Sagan’s Contact)

Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse

Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johanson in Ghost World)

just about every charater ever played by Jenna Malone (Donie Darko, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, The United States of Leland, Saved!, etc)

half of the charaters played within the last decade by Jodi Foster (Panic Room, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Flightplan, The Addams Family

half of the charaters played by Christina Ricci (Mermaids, The Addams Family, Little Red Riding Hood, The Ice Storm, Buffalo ’66, Prozac Nation, Pumpkin, Speed Racer)

half of the characters played by Natalie Portman (The Professional, Mars Attacks!, Star Wars, V for Vendette, The Darjeeling Limited, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Garden State)

Molly Ringwald. characters played by Molly Ringwald.

Rock musician Ani DiFranco and geeky Riot Grrls everywhere.

Sarah Vowell, NPR commentator celebrating her geeky life. Voiceover for geeky cartoon characters.

Rachel Maddow, for being Rachel Maddow.

First, awesome list, though he forgot a few (like one of my favorites, Bionic Woman and a more recent one, Juno) and it is nice to have it in one compact place. But, I have to say, I still agree to some degree with Sarah Setlzer, though I also agree with John. On the one hand there are representations and it is as important just to strut this stuff publicly as it is to claim that there is not enough female geeky representations in mainstream media. This is what John has done quite nicely.

One the other hand, as he himself says ” if you look hard enough for representations of female geekyiness in pop culture, you will find plenty.” I think those words, “if you look hard enough” also speaks volumes of the continued disparity that does exist. One should not have to look “hard,” and the only blockbusters, so to speak, which feature a female geek, is Tomb Raider, which for being so hyper-sexualized is not so geeky to me, no matter how good she is with the gadgets.

That said, what I find so important, and have emphasized in different contexts, is the need for what I think of simultaneous positive and negative form of critique, the former being about pointing to already exisitng examples to get people jazzed and excited and to put things in perspective. The later form of critique, negative critique, identifies a lack, a void to fill, just the type of excellent commentary in the Seltzer piece…

But now for the most important question, who has John overlooked?