Tech Life The recognition of the Clever

An Unexpected Connection

Blue whales.

I couldn’t fucking stop researching blue whales. I was 12 and my teacher had just explained to the class that blue whales are the largest mammals on planet Earth.

In hindsight, this reaction was my first confirmed sighting of what in The Nerd Handbook I call the “annoying efficient relevancy engine”. Something in the phase “largest mammal on earth” started the relevancy engine and once it starts, it’s not going to stop until the relevancy is understood.

Two Buckets

The relevancy engine is the nerd’s ability to instantly and with little conscious effort parse all incoming information into one of two buckets: relevant or irrelevant. It’s a defensive information management strategy built as a reaction to the nerd’s innate passion for information — for understanding. See, a nerd can and will find out everything about anything, and left to their own devices, they’ll do this… endlessly.

Items placed in the irrelevant bucket are aggressively ignored, whereas the items in the relevant bucket are flagged as compelling and are, if possible, immediately investigated.

The reason for this often-unavoidable research compulsion varies by topic. There is something tucked inside of the idea — a puzzle, a game, a system to be discerned — that triggers the nerd’s pleasure centers, and, once triggered, the only course of action is understanding. This is why, when you’ve piqued my interest, I keep asking questions, incessantly, while staring you in the face… never blinking.

The Value of Relevance

The real value comes when we’ve vetted the relevant. The act of obsessively researching yields even more relevant data that allows the nerd to fully index the idea. A mental notepad is created that reads “Blue Whales” and on this notepad is written the three most relevant and interesting facts that make blue whales intriguing. This card is then carefully filed away.

This collection of esoteric indexed data is why a nerd’s knowledge feels five miles wide and three inches deep and why we’re randomly great at games like Trivial Pursuit. See, four years ago, someone mentioned the largest organism on the planet was a Quaking Aspen tree. We heard that one relevant fact and then spent two hours investigating the various methods by which a largest organism might be measured, we read about the largest known fully connected Quaking Aspen grove in Utah, and ended up reading about the world’s largest single stem tree, a Giant Sequoia named General Sherman.

It sounds like a lot of work until you understand the payout.

To Wit

Nerds are fucking funny. It’s another point from The Nerd Handbook that I suggest is related to the relevancy engine, but I never explain. Let’s try now.

The processing of relevancy has three steps and it’s the third where the magic happens:

  1. Collect the Relevant
  2. Research and Index if necessary
  3. Connect the Relevant in Efficient and Entertaining Ways

So, how is The Funny created in this flow? It’s a big question: what is funny? I’d say there are two big classifications of funny. There are jokes and there’s wit. Jokes are memorized comedy retold with moxy. Wit is original comedy created in real-time and delivered with precise timing. Nerds are fucking witty because they connect the relevant to the present quickly and in clever ways.

Have you ever sat in a meeting full of engineers? What’s the game? The game is “Who can say the funniest and/or snarkiest thing and get the biggest laugh?” and to play you need to kick the relevancy engine into high gear. You need to hear everything being said, parse it, compare it to everything you know, and then find the most relevant connection possible. In nanoseconds.

Laughter is often the by-product of these observations, but an equal amount can be the hard silence found amongst the discovery of an uncomfortable truth. It’s at that moment you realize the primary goal is not laughter, but the art of the impressive connection.

Connecting the Relevant

The art of the connection is the end result of a nerd’s highly obsessive due diligence performed on anything that falls into the relevant bucket.

Laughter is sometimes the end result of connections — the recognition of the Clever between two dissimilar items or the absurd lack of any connection at all — but the result in the nerd’s brain is far more satisfying. A successful connection brings efficient order to the two heretofore-unrelated objects, and you know what that means: we’ve discovered structure. This is related to that. I know more than I did a moment ago.

Discovery of structure in a chaotic world means less chaos, and while we’re happy to make you laugh, the idea of a more orderly, structured, and knowable world is what drives us and keeps us warm in bed at night.

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30 Responses

  1. Frank 14 years ago

    Thanks to this article, I now know quinine was used to treat malaria.

  2. George 14 years ago

    I love this post – it puts a name to my incessant drive to reaearch however “largest living organism” is up for some debate here Rands 🙂

    I guess it might be down to someone’s perception of the definition of “largest”.

  3. James 14 years ago

    Great post but I don’t think you’ve found your voice yet. Keep writing, I really like your stuff.

  4. That’s just mean. Dropping three Wikipedia links in a row, and explicitly calling out that obsessive research behavior.

    Don’t you know I’ve got things to do? Don’t you know I only had five minutes to kill when I started reading this?

    There’s got to be a way to use this knowledge to my advantage …

  5. Typo: Trivia Pursuit –> Trivial Pursuit.

  6. Now if I could only get my wife to read your articles!

    Thanks I love these, it’s always nice to know that I’m not broken, it’s just an aspect of who we all collectively are…nerds!

  7. excellent and entertaining, good sir.

  8. noahtron 14 years ago

    this has – in a delightfully poetic way – helped me to understand my own behaviour!

  9. So THAT’S why I’m always researching stuff and learning new things — it’s all about being witty.

  10. Edgar Friendly 14 years ago

    I did your tree example, exactly, about a year ago. Spooky.

  11. Scott 14 years ago

    “It’s at that moment you realize the primary goal is not laughter, but the art of the impressive connection.”

    Hermann Hesse called this game which is driven by art of the impressive connection “The Glass Bead Game”.

  12. Robert 14 years ago

    “Largest living organism” has my relevancy engine running in overdrive. Cool.

  13. One of the best software-related articles ever written!

  14. annndddd, this is why I do groceries and leave my husband home. Otherwise, we would starve because he is busy researching cereal. I love nerds.

  15. I found this interesting…and, as a nerd, true.

  16. Martin Cohen 14 years ago

    I have often said that one of my specialties is finding connections where none exist.

  17. Although I would have to say I disagree with the last statement.

    Structuring the world makes it less stressful, but that’s not the drive.

    Nether is the wit, which I find an almost involuntary by-product.

    The drive is in the excitement of the learning it’s self – the thing that leave me learning, reading, coding, testing and engineering to all hours with cold skin and heart racing from the steady trickle of adrenaline…

  18. Mike Fook 14 years ago

    Finding out what tweaks people before you contact them cold, for anything, is essential. If you write 16 paragraphs of background fluff like everyone else does you’re lost in the whirlpool with everyone else.

    Or, you research this person and find out what tweaks their turtle. You do this to such an extreme that you know THE ONE thing that they can’t ignore… their focus, their reason for living.

    You write that one sentence in a paragraph with other trivialities and wait for a reply.

    As we know, usually it’s impossible to know what will whisper to a person’s innermost being. What I do then is sprinkle mindbombs throughout my letter in the hopes that one of them hits the core and explodes in their sub- and then conscious mind – forcing them to respond to me.

    Real life example?

    One way to get a job nearly every time.

    At the end of the interview if they haven’t explained the BIG picture – say…

    What I’m really interested in – is the big picture. Where do you see this company going in 6 months, or a year. What’s the overall goal here?

    I’ve never lost a job or consulting position after asking this. Instantly you’re enmeshed in their world. They see you as part of the team when you pledge allegiance to their dream of the future.

  19. Andomar 14 years ago

    I’ve always felt guilty when the department meeting turns into a who’s funniest contest, and the manager stares around being confused. Good to hear that happens elsewhere and how it might be beneficial!

  20. I am a “faith nerd”, my engine starts on things connected with Jesus and the Bible. If you would have told me some years ago, I would have laughed. And I always thought that I outgrew my “nerdness” as a programmer on the verge to become a pastor, but I just shifted and changed the filter algorithm for my two buckets.

    This article is so good, I am tempted to send it to my pastor so he gets to know and understand me better – yet he would stop reading at the fifth word or so into the article – too bad. He has yet another set of buckets.

  21. Bernardo 13 years ago

    Nitpick: “annoying efficient relevancy engine” -> “annoyingly efficient relevancy engine”

  22. foljs 13 years ago

    I couldn’t fucking stop researching blue whales.

    As in: you checked a few books and/or documentaries about them for 1-2 days as a kid?

  23. foljs 13 years ago

    Hermann Hesse called this game which is driven by art of the impressive connection “The Glass Bead Game”.

    I think I saw this game played in an XXX movie once.

    Not so sure if they had Hesse’s rules in mind, though…

  24. Yesterday, someone mentioned the out-of-print Douglas Adams book “Last Chance to See,” a nonfiction recounting of his world tour of searching for critically endangered animals. I went and looked up the conservation status of all of the animals in the book . . .

    Ten later, I had sixteen Wikipedia tabs open: the Yangtze river, the Three Gorges megadam, historical Chinese dam failures, Chinese hanging coffins, etc. etc. etc. Meanwhile, I was texting pictures of coconut crabs and giant isopods to all my friends.

    This thing lives on Earth, and in no small number:



  25. Interesting article. It really hits close to home. Not everybody appreciates the meeting-turned-open-mic syndrome, and I have to keep the dampers on my mouth most of the time to keep from being “that guy” at work.

    The problem is the relevance engine takes over when it finds a good connection and blurts out it’s comedic conclusion without any permission from me.

    Robert J. Sawyer voiced a similar idea about connections in “The Terminal Experiment.” The main character creates several computer simulations of himself, minus physical sensations or any fear of dying. One of the clones, able to think faster and more deeply, realizes that existence is all about finding new connections – which is humor.

    Rand, I enjoy your writing, but this is far from my favorite article.

    “Bad” language may add spice or a bit of edginess to your tone, but enough is enough. It doesn’t add that much, it’s not really funny, and it limits the audience with which I am willing to share. (Yeah, that’s just me. No need to crucify me, fellow commentors.)

  26. So reassuring to hear that I’m not the only one. Everyone in the office knows about my obsessive googling. If I don’t know anything about it now I will be resonably well informed in 10 minutes. In a day . . .

    And yeah, the witty remarks totally break out when we’re in groups.

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