I am a nerd; nobody can take that from me

Last week’s Comicon in Phoenix thoroughly drained my resolve. It made me question my nerd-identity. I wandered around the mass of well-dressed, attractive 18-25 year-olds, many of whom basing their costumes on animes and shows I had never even heard of before, thinking “Is this what a nerd is these days? Am I still a nerd, or am I too uncool to even hang with nerds anymore?” However, I have now come to my senses. I am still a nerd. I have been and always shall be a nerd. I’m not going to let the narrow definition of nerdness put forth by convention promoters define who I am. A nerd is not what someone appears like on the outside, but who they are inside. And on the inside, I fit all the classic definitions:

When I was eight, I spent my entire summer vacation at my cousins’ house in LA programming adventure games in BASIC into their Tandy 1000. I had to be dragged away from that location so that my cousins could take me to Disneyland and the beach.

When I was nine, I taught myself several words of German by comparing the sections in a multi-lingual instruction manual that came with Defender for the Atari 2600. Not that I could carry on a conversation with anyone with words like “Spiel” (game), “Kriegspiel” (wargame) or “Punkten” (points) but it was enough for me to know that other languages existed and that they could be understood given time and effort.

When I was 15, when asked to do a group project with another classmate in my “television production” class, instead of dealing with the embarrassment of having to ask someone to be my partner, I called upon my computer to be my partner and stayed up late every night for the next two weeks programming an elaborate CGI cartoon to fulfill that assignment (well, as elaborate as one could get on a TI-99/4a Home Computer with 48 KB of RAM). I still only got a C because “it was supposed to be a group project!”

When I was in high school, before I even knew of such a thing as the Internet, I wrote Star Trek and Lord of the Rings fanfiction… that didn’t involve slash pairings of anyone… and oh yeah, it was in French.

When I was in college, I spent more of my time playing Final Fantasy VII and Civilization II than going to classes or doing homework assignments, and I still passed my classes… mostly.

Far be it from me to base my identity on past achievements (not that they got me anywhere anyway). But even today…

I can name pretty much everybody who starred in the five series of Star Trek, but I couldn’t name you ten pro athletes (that haven’t been in the news lately) or the teams they’re on.

I prefer “children’s” television shows and movies to the sex, drugs and violence-filled nonsense they say is mature “adult” entertainment. I’d rather watch Spongebob make a fart joke than see Jaime Lannister fuck his sister any day of the week. To be fair, however, one of my favorite TV miniseries is I, Claudius, which has more than its share of incest and butchery, but they have the good sense and fair taste to leave most of that off-screen. Plus it’s historical, which makes it okay in my book.

Last night, I was in bed with a naked woman (aka my wife), and I was too busy reading a Wikipedia article about Klingons to notice.

I find it frustrating and annoying when I’m talking to people and they say I’m using too much “college talk.” I’m not trying to confuse or patronize anybody, that’s just the way I talk. Sometimes a “big word” just slips out that I don’t realize is not in most people’s vocabularies. Like “vocabulary.”

I go to a comic book convention or a comic book store not to look for X-Men or Superman, but Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck. I also look for Astérix, Tintin, and Lucky Luke, but only if they’re in the original French.

I watch Disney movies… unironically. And I don’t have kids.

My dream is to live in an underground house shaped like a Hobbit hole.

I’ve watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail approximately fifty times, and it still makes me laugh.

I’m learning French right now, but not just to do the tourist thing in Paris. I think it would be pretty neat to read Voltaire, Hugo, and Montaigne in the original language, as well as reading news and literature from the world that Anglo-American corporate interests don’t care to translate.

Once I have reached a certain fluency in French, I want to work my way around the other Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese) and eventually learn Latin. Outside of the Vatican and a few university classics departments, Latin is about as useful in the modern world as speaking Klingon, but it was the language of art, science, politics and culture in the Western world for over 2,000 years, so it’s got to count for something.

And oh yeah, I want to learn Klingon too. So I can finally understand Shakespeare.

And I think I might get back to German, too, if only to be able to read the rest of that Atari manual.

So yeah. I think I am very much a nerd. That, or a very peculiar, uncool hipster. Nerd is something that I will always be. If Star Trek ceased to exist, I would still be a nerd. If Tolkien never wrote the Lord of the Rings, the world would be a much sadder place, but I would still be a nerd. And just because I’m not a tech billionaire or a social networking millionaire or the target audience for Comicons doesn’t mean my nerdness is any less important or valuable than any other’s. At the end of the day, I’ll still be misunderstood, made fun of, and unpopular. And that’s what being a nerd is all about.

Phoenix Comicon Woes


(Here’s a picture of the Phoenix skyline. I didn’t actually get any pictures at Comicon. To know why, read below.)


Last weekend, my wife and I packed up the Ford Escape and went down to Phoenix for Comicon. We had hoped to get in touch with our fellow nerds, get some awesome nerdy merchandise to decorate our new apartment, and find out neat stuff about the shows and books we liked. I wanted to see Star Trek stuff and meet Uncle Scrooge artist Don Rosa, and L (my wife) wanted to get Dresden Files author Jim Butcher’s autograph and go to Firefly panels.

What we got was not what we expected, but probably, in retrospect, we should have. Phoenix was burning hot—of course it would be, it was June. I did okay. I grew up in the broiling hot deserts of Victorville and Barstow, and my body was able to acclimate to the hundred degree temps, albeit grudgingly. My wife, who is from Michigan originally, was not able to acclimate. She was fine as long as she was in an air-conditioned building—however, Comicon was spread out among the three buildings of the Convention Center as well as four other hotels in the area. To get from a panel in the North Building to one in the Radisson, two blocks away, took about 15 minutes because of all of the crowds and roadblocks we had to go around in order to get there. By Saturday evening, poor L was red as a beet and about to faint. The only shuttles or public transportation they had available were sweaty people on pedicab tricycles and the Phoenix Light Rail, which never seemed to get us close enough to the Convention Center or to our hotel room to be of much use at all. So on Sunday we drove to the convention—but the closest available parking garage was still half a mile away from where we wanted to be and they charged us $12 for the “convenience” of using it.

And the crowds—oh god, the crowds! I probably should have seen that coming too. Every corridor in the Convention Center was wall-to-wall people, including people with angel wings or spiky shoulder pads on their costume that would poke you as they passed, inconsiderate youngsters that would just stop right in front of you to take a picture of somebody in a costume and block the way for everyone else, people with onboard PA systems in their suits that would play awful music, and lots of people in militaristic costumes with full armor and very realistic-looking guns. Not just your standard fantasy knights or Halo Spartans or Stormtroopers, but people dressed like US Special Forces, complete with ghillie suits and sniper rifles, and “zombie hunters” that were better armed and armored than your average SWAT team. Add to the mix about five thousand security personnel and actual policemen barking orders in all directions, and the combined effect was enough to trigger both mine and my wife’s claustrophobia and agoraphobia on several occasions.

I didn’t go to nearly as many panels as I wanted to go because I couldn’t deal with pushing my way through the crowds and feeling trapped in that roiling sea of humanity. Meanwhile, L missed one of her panels because she accidentally wandered into a prohibited area of the Convention Center and a security guard repeatedly called her “Sir” as he shouted at her to leave. My wife is chubby, to be sure, but seriously? Being repeatedly mistaken for a man was enough to make her extremely upset. She was already upset about feeling invisible among the tens of thousands of people who just wouldn’t get out of the way for us.

Not that any of the actual panels we went to were very good, mind you. The con’s major Firefly panels were a Browncoats cosplay forum and one entitled “Why Firefly is Dead and You Should Really Just Move On.” Seriously? That’s like telling a Tolkien fan that they shouldn’t read Lord of the Rings anymore because Tolkien’s been dead for forty years, and all the cool kids are into George R. R. Martin now, and they should just shut up. All the Star Trek panels I went to seemed to be too interested in the JJ Abrams movies, which I guess is what’s popular these days, but I wanted to talk about Picard and Data. I went to an entertainment panel on “Which Captain is the Best,” however, and while pedantic and silly, like all “Kirk vs. Picard vs. Sisko vs. Janeway vs. Archer” battles have been since the 1980s, it was at least fun. And it seemed like every panel was set up to sell you something. Even the “Astronomy of Middle Earth” panel we went to was essentially a commercial for the presenter’s Mobile Inflatable Planetarium business, which she uses to present astronomy lectures to elementary schools, birthday parties, business luncheons, and weddings, apparently.

And there was a comedy panel I went to where the comedian was extremely insulting and unfunny. At one point, she called Star Trek fans “fags” because they “invented slash fiction.” Really? She couldn’t do any better? Star Trek fans present so much humor, you could do an entire hour of comedy on them alone. And they’re so self-deprecating—they even thought it was funny when William Shatner told them to “get a life” on Saturday Night Live. But to call us fags? I just got up and walked out of the room. I wanted intelligent discussion about science fiction and fantasy and sequential art and to meet other pedantic, overly intellectual geeks like myself—instead I got panic attacks, never-ending commercials, and insults about one’s sexuality thrown at both my wife and myself.

I guess I should have expected this, but I at least thought that the convention organizers would at least throw a bone to old nerds like me. But no, this thing was geared completely towards the 12-20 year old crowd who just consume all the new comics and shows and buy what popular culture tells them to buy. It didn’t answer the big gaping hole in my heart, my deep need to connect and share and belong with people like myself, intellectual nerds who I can talk to with my entire vocabulary, not just the limited subset of words I hold myself back to in order to not be made fun of by the illiterate rednecks I live and do business with on a regular basis. I want to discuss things like science without having to rad it up 30% for people who normally don’t give a shit about discovery or space or curing cancer, like at the one panel I went to, “Adventures in Science,” where ASU grad students talked about all the times they “almost died” when they went to Africa to install radio telescopes. I wanted to know more about what they were actually studying with those telescopes, but my question was drowned out in a sea of questions about “Was it scary when you found that scorpion in your boot?” This is Phoenix we’re talking about here, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. Scorpions in your boots are a regular occurrence around these parts, or at least they were when I grew up.

So I don’t think either my wife or I will go to that one again. We’re still looking for our nerd home.



A date with dinosaurs

Today after work, I went to the post office to check the mail, and discovered that my fiancee had a large box from Amazon waiting for her. I picked it up, and brought it to her at the employee cafeteria, where we usually spend our dinners together (since she has to work evenings). She opened the box, and revealed that she had ordered… a big tub of dinosaurs. Specifically, Animal Planet’s Big Tub of Dinosaurs. She then squealed with joy and said that we should take them out and play with them. She took them out of their plastic tub, and we set the dinosaurs along with the palm trees, rocks and volcanoes that came with them (because naturally, dinosaurs all live in Hawaii) up on the plastic  prehistoric playmat.


I started snarking it up about the scientific inaccuracies present in the toys. For example, the brachiosaurus was depicted as having its huge neck perpendicular to its body, like a giraffe. However, most modern paleontologists believe that brachiosaurs would have been unable to do that due to the sheer difficulty in pumping blood up a 30-foot neck. I distinctly remember the sauropods in Walking With Dinosaurs holding their necks close to the ground and rearing up on their hind legs in order to grab leaves from tall branches. I suppose the jury’s still out on this one, as well as the theory about velociraptors and other late Cretaceous dinosaurs having feathers. None of the dinosaurs in this set had feathers of any sort, not even the velociraptor, who was depicted, strangely enough, as being only slightly smaller than the T-rex.

But my fiancee, undeterred by this glaring oversight, as well as the presence of Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous dinosaurs in the same box and the fact that the triceratops was very unnaturally orange, actually started playing with the toys. She held the dinosaurs up and made funny voices and started acting out short skits. And even though I was a little confused, soon enough I joined her. We had a little war going on between the herbivores and the carnivores, and then my fiancee discovered that the ankylosaurus would kick T-rex’s butt because of its heavy armor and mace-like tail, and then we used them to re-enact the thrilling fight between Godzilla and Anguirus in Godzilla Raids Again.

Meanwhile, all the other employees in the employee cafeteria were looking at us like we had some kind of disease or something. But we didn’t care; we were having a good old time. And then my fiancee had to go back to work, so we packed up the dinosaurs and promised we’d get them out again when she got home that evening. Yeah, so maybe you don’t always see two grown adults playing with toys in a public venue, but you know, it was just what we needed at that time. And I’m so happy that I’ve found a woman who hasn’t lost her child-like sense of play. She’s a keeper, all right.


This Guy Made an Atari Version of Super Mario Bros. — And It’s Pretty Fun

This Guy Made an Atari Version of Super Mario Bros. — And It’s Pretty Fun

All my childhood, I had heard rumors on the schoolyard about Super Mario Bros. coming to the Atari 2600. Tired of waiting, some guy actually went and did it. And it’s surprisingly faithful to the original. You can do some pretty amazing things with the Atari, you betcha.

The fun is back, oh yessiree… it’s the 2600 from Atari!


December has been an exciting month for the memory of the long-beloved Atari 2600 console. First, a popular Atari 2600 homebrew game, Halo 2600, was added, along with Playstation 3’s Flower, to the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit, “The Art of Video Games.” Then, Microsoft announced that they were funding a documentary on the excavation of the lost Atari E.T. cartridges purportedly buried in the fabled New Mexico landfill, to be released on Xbox Live next year.

And then, today I learned that the Internet Archive, the nonprofit project busily attempting to store the history of the Web along with thousands of public domain books, songs, and videos, has opened up a website where you can play hundreds of classic Atari 2600 games, as well as games from other consoles of the early 1980s, appropriately titled the Console Living Room. The site has hundreds of games from the Atari 2600, Atari 7800, ColecoVision, Bally Astrocade, and Odyssey 2 systems, emulated in the browser via a Javascript-based emulator called JSMESS.

The Atari 2600 collection is surprisingly complete. There are hundreds of games for it alone. You have everything from Atari hits such as Asteroids, Centipede, and Defender, to the amazing Activision library of games (before Call of Duty, Activision programmers were making the Atari sing — case in point, the near-NES-quality Pitfall II and Kung Fu Master, which you would never be able to tell ran on a horrendously-crippled 1977 game console with only 128 bytes of RAM and which used two-thirds of its processor power just drawing the screen). They even have… let’s just say the bottom of the bargain bin (like the famously awful E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and the awfully famous Custer’s Revenge.) There are even homebrews (like the Smithsonian-approved work of art, Halo 2600), unreleased prototypes that never made it off the drawing board (such as Miss Piggy’s Wedding and Donald Duck’s Speedboat), and even the diagnostic cartridges used by Atari service technicians to fix broken consoles. You can even read scans of the original manuals (necessary to look at in the case of convoluted adventure games like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and pretty awesome to look at if you’re a fan of trippy late-seventies early-eighties commercial art.)

Even though this is the Internet Archive and not some flash-in-the-pan emu site hosted in Russia or China, I’m surprised the current owners of the Atari trademarks haven’t hit them with a cease and desist yet. Then again, even if they did, most of the companies that put these games out in the 1980’s no longer exist or care or (in the case of, say, Custer’s Revenge, have disavowed all knowledge of making these games.) So enjoy this while you can.

As informative and as exciting as this collection is, however, it’s not without its flaws. Sound isn’t implemented in the JSMESS emulator yet, unfortunately, but they say they’re working on it. And the emulator is rather slow and clunky, at least on my five-year-old Core 2 Duo laptop. But, if you want to witness for yourself a fascinating bit of video game history from the time before 3-d polygons, grim space marines, and hyperrealistic ultraviolence, or if you’re a nerdy Gen-Xer with a nostalgia for Yars Revenge like myself, the Console Living Room is worth spending some time in.

On second thought…

When I posted my last post two days ago, some of my Facebook friends thought that I was leaving Facebook for good, and expressed genuine sorrow that I was leaving. I really don’t want to leave Facebook. I just don’t want to participate in the negativity that pervades that social network. So I’m still going to be on, and I’m still going to post, and I’m still going to talk to my friends on there. I just won’t be on there nearly as often. And when I see something that disturbs or offends me, I’m not going to jump into the fray. I’m not going to feed the trolls anymore.

Instead, I want to fill the web with something positive. So I’m going to be filling up this blog with positive things about my life and experiences. I can’t really talk about work or the place I live without anonymizing and sanitizing everything beyond the point of recognition, so I’m going to talk about my nerd life. I am The Wandering Nerd, after all. I have the tendency to wander all over the place, as far as my interests go. I’ll find a new shiny interest and before I know it, I’ll be completely immersed in it. It will be all I think about and want to do. But then, a few weeks later, I’ll discover something new, and I’ll be totally into that, and the last awesome thing goes by the wayside.

This year alone, my “fascinations of the week” have ranged from Homestar Runner to Star Trek to Star Wars to Star Wars: The Clone Wars to ancient Stoic philosophy to getting my computer to run Linux to Super Mario Galaxy to Jules Verne novels to the Universal Monster Movies to trying to write a silly fantasy novel to back to Homestar Runner again. So I’m hoping that by writing about my interests, I can learn about what makes me tick, I can show my friends and the world about all the cool nerdy things I’m into, and maybe eventually I’ll come back to some of these things and pick up where I left off.

This isn’t world-changing journalism here. I just want to play in my own nerdy playground for a bit, without the politics and anger I see in so many other forums online.