The knapsack problem How to write a book / P and NP / leaving home
As I was standing there, someone touched my back with their finger, and, when I turned to him, made an awkward gesture which I could decode only because it looked too much like my own gestures when I was nervous (another way to put is that both he an I looked like a robots, programmed by a 5-year-olds). It was a boy called Peter who evidently felt as out of place as I did, although he had been in the facility for a lot longer (a few weeks, weird that he didn’t know how many). We talked for several minutes (sci-fi movies, manga, science trivia) after which he became very enthusiastic, he even mentioned that it’s possible to switch roommates so we can live together, and, when he saw that my only response was to shake my head, he felt confused and obliged to end the conversation: “See you around, happy to talk to a fellow nerd!” to which my response was just wave at him and carry on. I preferred not to disclose to him the reason for my lack of enthusiasm - it wasn’t because I could not articulate it, mind you, I just was aware that he would most probably perceive it the wrong way: it was obvious that he strongly identified with the nerd community, it was obvious that I identified with it myself, but what he would not get was that I wasn’t related to it in the same way: when I grew up (and where I grew up), there was no such thing as nerd community at all, at least as far as most people were concerned - we were sometimes hanging around, playing games or having interdisciplinary conversations, but we never attempted to divide ourselves from the rest of the people - the only attempts to divide us was coming the other way, from people who were intimidated by our weirdness. But being marginalized made our personalities much richer - there were history nerds, font nerds, there were people who were nerds for music and other types of art and all of us were together, connected by a set of rules that were unspoken, but universally understood in a way that was shared on a much deeper level than sci-fi fandom, ironic t-shirts, and involvement in the IT startup scene etc. (besides, because most of these things didn’t exist at all). The traditional nerd image that we know today (glasses, pop-culture reference) was created during a cultural shift that began, I would say, with the release of the Windows 95 operating system (which coincidentally was what made the Stanford nerd Bill Gates the richest person on Earth) and ended with when Disney brought the Star Wars franchise in 2012, and is largely consists of the lowest common denominator of the qualities that curious people really posses (where many of those people still excluded from for various reasons.) In order to make sure that certain people complied with us (in retrospect all we’d wanted from them was to leave us alone) we had to explain to other people who “we” were, and being timid and hard with words we didn’t really do a good job at it, worse - we left big movie studios and other huge companies to create that identity for us.
Or maybe the reason we didn’t want to define ourselves (really the reason we were timid and hard with words in the first place) was that we understood on some level that assuming an identity, group or otherwise, forced us to constrain the way we could act and indeed who we were in the first place - something that, if it wasn’t obvious before, was very obvious for me then - I was able to see it in every movement that Peter made, and I was able to use it to explain any aspect in which the nerd culture changed in the last years (e.g. why the type of people who 20 years ago wanted to be Einsteins now want to be Zukenbergs), but above all, it helped me realize that, without realizing it, I and all people around me had gotten much more vocal and self-assertive.
Meeting Peter and other people in the room (two girls that were almost constantly laughing, and the one who approached me first, but after that was very reluctant to talk with me) made me introspective and I started thinking about how all that identity had affected my character. The transition from thinking of the general phenomenon to thinking of my personal story made me realize that, although I thought that I had been moving well above the naive concept of identity, I was actually at the very center of it, and that the terrible way I felt since I got in the facility corresponded with the way I was treating the people I was meeting - from Alex, whom I was trying to ditch after the first “hello” to Peter, everyone I put under the same category, as if I was inhibiting a world, in which there weren’t other people but me and my classmates who at that time felt just like my copies. And my dissatisfaction with Peter’s way of acting suddenly felt like not much more than a pretense, the desire to be “nerdier than nerd” in order to gain some points in a game in which I was the only player and also the only spectator. Looking at the room and realizing that I was in a new place with new people suddenly felt extremely liberating for me as the people, although they were looking the same from the surface, started escaping from the simple stereotypes that I had assigned to them at the start and were quickly becoming interesting and mysterious like the unknowns in a huge nontrivial equation, describing some interesting physics problem, for example. And the biggest unknown, the one I had to solve the equation for was, of course, myself.
That metaphor reminded me of a certain incident that happened when I was little and getting my first taste of math in my first year at high school (I thought I didn’t know anything about math and for that reason I learned a lot.) At that time my parents grounded me for spray painting my name “MAXIM”, written in all caps on the door of my room . My punishment was to do all problems in one math textbook, most of which were simple algebraic equations of type “solve for x”. I managed to finish them off that same evening (my most productive mode is still when I just want to make the work get away), but, just as I was happy that I was no longer grounded, I glimpsed at the door and noticed how the X the symbol which I have been seeing all night, was at the center of my name. Then, for some reason, I took the spray can again (no idea why my parents hadn’t confiscated it) and I extended the contours of the “X” all the way to the four corners of the door.
At that moment, everything in this story seemed alien to me then, from why was I playing with spray cans in the house at all to why did I do something that was guaranteed to get me in trouble.
And, I also couldn’t understand why I was so fascinated with the symbol “X”, as I am pretty sure I was already aware of the insignificance of the choice of notation symbols in mathematics. And so I decided that I would use use the letter as a symbol of the person who I was when I was a child and that I would not concentrate on anything else until I establish again (or for the first time ever) a connection with that person.
Interesting fact: the letter “x” became a symbol for the unknown after a book by Descartes, and the letter wasn’t even picked by Descartes himself, but by the typesetter just because he was out of letters on his Linotype, and “x” , being a letter that is used rarely in text, was abundant.
The knapsack problem How to write a book / P and NP / leaving home
Meeting my roommate Alex / Picking friends / Who am I / How switching places would solve both of our issues
Hallway Church and Turing / Being stupid
X Nerd stereotypes / How I got my nickname / Establishing connection with my younger self
Good company Social code / Anna / Catherine
Fence Outside / Not being punished / Discreet and continuous models
Outside This or nothing / The moon / Fractals / Me and Alex / Explanations / Is the world mathematical
What are we in for Anna's kinky alter ego / Marijuana
What are we in for contd The conformist choice / Taboos / Dichotomies /Marijuana
Back to the facility Anna and Cathy / Trying to be like other people / Sleeping with Anna
The sleepover Anna's childish behavior / Critics / Boring robots / Adoring Anna
The sleepover contd Irony / Heroes and deserters / Retreat to where? / Real and ideal / Choices
Us and them The uncut book pages / Envy
Sex Anna's fantasy / What makes us weird / The establishment and being normal
Cigarettes Alex's good night sleep / About me and Alex again / Sex and love / The proof that P does not equal NP