I was a huge nerd

My high school and college years were crammed with full frontal nerdity . . . in contrast to the suave, successful authorial persona I now exude.

Here’s a sampling. As you’ll see, my late, dearly loved friend Josh Friedman was a frequent partner in this unabashed nerdity, and my brother (now a math professor) was also a constant part of the team. And this was the seventies, when being a nerd hadn’t yet become cool.

  • In high school algebra, Josh and I did a demonstration for the class of how to perform calculations with a 20-foot-long model of a slide rule.
  • Josh and I did a science project to assess which liquids would make the best thermometers. This involved using a burner to heat up liquids in open tubes. Alcohol proved an excellent choice until about 80 degrees C, at which point it boiled and set the entire classroom lab on fire.
  • We joined an Explorer troop — an interest-focused co-ed scout troop for teenagers — dedicated to data processing. The troop met at a company that made keypunch machines. We determined the sequence of holes that each character made and, using graph paper, mapped out digital pictures. Then we typed the appropriate characters into the keypunch machines so the cards that emerged had little pictures on them made from the patterns of the holes that were punched in the cards — turtles, giraffes, and the like. We gave these cards out as keepsakes to friends.
  • We somehow piled eight people into a Toyota Corolla mini-station wagon and drove to our first science fiction convention — a Star Trek con in Philadelphia.
  • A bunch of us met at one of our houses nearly every week, but only in multiples of four. Why multiples of four? Because our main social activity was playing bridge.
  • We went to see the Mel Brooks movie “Blazing Saddles” but couldn’t get in, because it was rated R and we all under 17 years old.
  • I wrote my first software program on a computer at a science teacher’s convention that my father was attending. I used my little sister as a guinea pig. It would print out a number, then she would have to type the same number on the keyboard. If she got it right, it would ring the bell five times.
  • I wrote programs in BASIC on a time-sharing system using a teletype as a terminal (no display, just a long roll of yellow paper). We connected the teletype to the time-sharing system using an acoustic coupler — you actually placed the phone receiver into rubber cups and it used sound across phone wires to communicate with a mainframe. The time on the computer was sufficiently expensive that you would write the program first and punch it into a one-inch-wide roll of paper tape. Then you’d connect to the time-sharing system and run the paper tape through the tape reader to run the program. My program was a horse-race simulation complete with gambling odds.
  • Josh and I followed instructions in the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American magazine, regarding what happens when you cut a Möbius Strip in half. We cut it in thirds and then again in half, which resulted in a knotted pile of spaghetti. We put the spaghetti into an envelope and mailed it to the author of the column, Martin Gardner.
  • We had part-time jobs taking care of lab animals (mostly shoveling animal waste). There were mice, rats, gerbils, and rabbits — and an 8-foot boa constrictor. It was (literally) shit work, but our nerdy friends were jealous of us and wanted the job when we graduated.
  • I took calculus in college while in high school. The other students in the class sought me out for homework help.
  • We all did science fair projects. Half of the work was doing the “research,” the other half was making a display board by tediously spelling out information about your project with stick-on letters. Mine involved using a personal computer (one of the first in our school district) to identify people in mug shots from descriptions.
  • In college, I placed in the top-ten nationally in the William Lowell Putnam exam. It’s famously hard — the median score nationally is typically 0 to 2 points out of 120. I also took the actuarial exam just for fun and also placed nationally.
  • I started a math club in college and we made T-shirts spelling out the name of the club in mathematical symbols.
  • I took apart the phone wiring in my dorm room so I could connect a telephone answering machine.
  • Our college science fiction club did a charitable activity — putting rare comics and paperbacks into plastic bags to preserve them. It got covered as news in the student newspaper.
  • I did school assignments for a computer science class writing in PDP-11 assembler language — but the college had no PDP-11 computer. Instead, we wrote the programs on punched cards and submitted them to be run on the college’s mainframe. If you dropped the deck of cards, you were royally screwed. My final program ran fine until I added comments as documentation, which exceeded the system’s capacity. (Even then, I was a writer as much as a nerd.)
  • I was the treasurer for Penn State’s United Federation of Star Trek Fans.
  • I dressed as the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Frank ‘n Furter for the masquerade at the local science fiction convention. I rode there on my bicycle with my cape tied around my neck and billowing out behind me. Later I went to a party and acted out and lip-synched the song “Sweet Transvestite” to widespread applause.
  • I missed out on being valedictorian at the college because I got a B in Phys. Ed.
  • I got a summer job teaching calculus to military naval engineering students who were mostly ten years old than me. I’m sure if they hadn’t been in the armed services and trained to follow people in authority, they would have ganged up on me for the assignments I made them do.

I regret none of it. But it took a while to become a fully rounded human being after all that.

Go ahead. Tell me your most embarrassing nerd story. I’d love to hear it.

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  1. I traveled on weekday afternoons to nearby high schools to compete in chess, and on Saturday mornings (!) to compete in taking chemistry exams.

    But, Josh, I’ve got nothing on you. Your nerdity is truly next-level. 🙂

  2. This isn’t embarrassing, but your comment about stick-on letters reminded me that back in the ‘70s we used to make figures for scientific papers with pen and ink drawings and Lettraset (stick-on letters and numbers that you rubbed from a sheet onto the paper). And we had rolls of differently sized tapes to make solid, dashed or dotted lines.

  3. Mathematical ability, writing ability, and computer knowledge are very important. If I were a parent I would do everything I could to develop these areas in my children. I was very interested in sports from elementary school through college but had very little success as a participant. I passed a few calculus courses and my writing is not bad (my style is a bit on the choppy side.) Accolades to everyone who is competent in writing, math, and computers. You have made a significant contribution to our society. Chess is a great game. I play on my computer every day.

  4. No embarrassing stories to share, yet I too joined Explorer Post 188 at Decision Data in Horsham, PA for a taste of computer programming. I was an off/on member as I found I was not at the advanced level many other members were, so found much of it hard to understand. We had such dedicated employees of DD who were so giving of their time and attention- Joan Anton, Marsha Marine, Bob Partridge, Rich Coulter, Joan Palumbo, Gary Somebody, others. I can see all of them in my memories. It became that 85% of the reason I attended the weekly meetings was to get a good look at member Cheryl Dorfman, who I was smitten with. We all have women in our past or more than one- whom we could call the One That Got Away.

    Your achievements and adventures in nerdgeist are well worth telling, Josh.

  5. Does it count if a nerd was the only guy who really saw you in high school? I sat behind you in English class. You were kind, funny, and smarter than I was about everything.

  6. At school we tried to learn FORTRAN and COBOL, in an age where the only accessible programming language was BASIC on Commodore PETs. We had to write out our test programs on coding forms and then submit them to our local college who would punch them onto cards, run them, and send us the result.

    Turnaround was usually a week and we got back the actual deck of punched cards and a 132 column fanfold print of what had happened. It was usually a print of compiler errors. To fix them we could take the offending punched card, turn it over, write the correction on the back, and send it back to be re-run. We never got to meet the ‘punch ladies’ but they were our goddesses of interacting with a ‘real’ computer. They often corrected typos and even the odd bug for us.

    Just getting a COBOL module to compile was a victory. Getting it to run, read a list of words from the following cards, sort them, and print the result. It felt like winning the lottery.

    Thankfully with COBOL you always wrote line numbers in columns 1-6 so if you dropped your deck of cards (or your fellow nerd thought it smart to invent the game 272 Card Pickup) it was easy to sort them (no pun intended).