Things That Exist, Installment #1: On Nerd-Sniping.
Maybe you will find this interesting...
Greetings, all! Here is the first glimpse of a newsletter that is rather too verbose, but nonetheless chock-full of awesome links.
Please feel free to scroll past my prolix prose to get at “the good stuff” at your pleasure!
First, in order that this entire newsletter makes sense to everyone, I had better immediately explain mean when I say “nerd-sniping.” Because the whole purpose of it is to “nerd-snipe” you—though not in the violent way displayed below. (more on that—uhh, very important detail—in a moment!)
But first, the violence. Here is Randall Munro’s iconic cartoon in which he coined the expression “nerd sniping”:
Well, I’ve started this off, unfortunately, rather darkly—but I swear, the actual usage of the expression “nerd sniping” isn’t like that!
It has come to focus on the distraction and not the demise of such nerds.
Usage example: “I really got nerd-sniped when I was typing up prompts like ‘an avatar of math such as was envisioned by Euclid, rendered in Mathematica’ for an AI to see what images it would generate.”
Speaking of which—that actually happened to me!
A year ago, (before we heard of anyone winning a prize at the state fair for an image generated with MidJourney and before we had StableDiffusion) I can testify there was an organization called EleutherAI… that had a Discord server, and they had some GPUs, with which they were very generous. You see, you could write a description of an image you wanted an AI to generate, submit it to be run on their GPU’s, and see what you got.
Here are some of the prompts I gave it:
.imagine an avatar of math as rendered in Mathematica.
.imagine an avatar of spirals as envisioned by M.C. Escher | rendered in Mathematica, gridlines=on, warm color palette.
And, because humans can’t be trusted with nice things, I had to run the prompt:
.imagine an avatar of warped math as comprehended by Euclid. | rendered in Mathematica, warm color palette.
Those are the mathy ones, and since this is a mathy newsletter, that’s what you get. Oh, fiiiine, click this footnote: 1 …for a few other favorite fun (though not specifically-mathy) ones done by me and/or my kid.
Now that’s a very interactive way to get nerd-sniped2! Traditionally, nerd-sniping is often thought of as someone merely asking a challenging, well-placed question that sends their poor, curious listener rushing pell-mell into an unplanned scavenger hunt all over the internet… reading pages upon pages from some specialized, heavily-researched blog, and/or Wikipedia, and/or scientific papers, etc., etc.
Some plans of nerd-sniping, though, involve lots of continued engagement from both sides. (both sniper and snipe-ee, so to speak) Some of these are called “Math Circles.”
One of my favorite examples of that is from the book “Circle in a Box,” by Sam Vandervelde—a description of Math Circles and how to set them up:
"Try not to lecture. Even though introducing new theory and techniques is an integral part of math circles, your sessions should be as interactive as possible.
1 point per minute you talk;
5 points per minute a student talks;
10 points per minute you argue with a student;
50 points per minute the students argue among themselves."
—Tom Davis, a coordinator of the San Jose Math Circle
I notice I haven’t even told you what math circles are—but I figure that concise description shows you a good bit about the educational philosophy!
“Circle in a Box” used to be available as a free PDF on the official Math Circles website. (I even had the link saved in an old email, but it no longer works!)
Which brings up the general problem of, “Drat, this really cool webpage I loved is no longer online… I wanted to look up a particular quote or idea from there!”
I’m not advising you to do this with that page in particular, but… if you have an old link to a website that no longer is online, often you can find a backup copy of those sites on the Internet Archive! (archive.org)
Well, some things disappear off the internet and are missed—while many other things have been on the internet for years, but you never noticed them.
Like Derek Sivers’ website full of short essays from an uncommon perspective. The perspective of a guy who once showed up to a conference, realized when he was picking up his nametag that he didn’t actually want to attend it, and then did exactly that—went to his hotel room, opened up his laptop, and worked productively on the projects he wanted to for those 3 days. (or however long)
The post of his that really stuck in my mind (well, besides that one about playing hooky from the conference!) was “There’s no speed limit”—a story about an amazing (and unconventional) teacher & mentor of his, Kimo Williams, who told him, “I’ll bet I can teach you two years of [music] theory and arranging in only a few lessons.” (and then proceeded to help him to blow through those course requirements.)
With details like these, you would expect it to stick in my head:
The pace was intense, and I loved it. Finally, someone was challenging me — keeping me in over my head — encouraging and expecting me to pull myself up quickly. I was learning so fast, it felt like the adrenaline rush you get while playing a video game. He tossed every fact at me and made me prove that I got it.
In our three-hour lesson that morning, he taught me a full semester of Berklee’s harmony courses. In our next four lessons, he taught me the next four semesters of harmony and arranging classes.
Speaking of music, I notice I don’t know a great deal about musical instruments compared to MANY people in my daily life… but here I’m thinking as someone who might use musical instruments.
This guy seems to be someone who know a great deal about them as someone who would build musical instruments:
Well, that’s a complicated piece of musical machinery, but when you see the notes on some parts saying things like “bass,” “hihat,” and “cymbals,” you are reminded that at least he did not have to get all ideas he used in it totally from scratch...
…and speaking of that, I didn’t get all my ideas for how to design this Substack totally from scratch, or totally out of my own head.
In fact, I neatly stole the idea for the format of this newsletter from the “7 Quick Takes” format from a super-fun, super-nerdy blog called “Unequally Yoked.”
You could say that when I came across it—finding posts written by a math major containing her experiences of atheists and Christians having good theological discussions and debates, AND continual gleeful forays into epistemology, history and literature, AND stories from a super-intense Yale debate group that “treated ethics and meta-ethics like engineer [would]”—I was immediately nerd-sniped.
So, with that, here is a favorite “7 Quick Takes” posts from Leah Libresco’s (now Leah Libresco Sargeant’s) old blog:
7 Quick Takes (6/1/12)
…from which I learned that there is a Difference Engine built from Charles Babbage’s plans and a sweater knitted from Dolly’s wool in the Museum of Natural History in London, and I learned (with surprise and delight) that there is a musical based on the Roald Dahl book “Matilda,” and… well, you can just go and see!
Disclaimer—that blog was hosted on Patheos Catholic, so… I take no responsibility for clickbait you
maywill encounter in the sidebar, sadly enough. I always decided it was worth the cost of distraction; Leah Libresco Sargeant gleefully shares her love of knowledge in a way that overflows and catches you in the adventures.
One great thing about the EleutherAI Discord channel where you test things out on that server, #thefaradaycage …was that it seemed like a continuously-running game of “monkey-see-monkey-do”… which resulted in me adding things like “mexican opal stone” and “fractal landscape” and “trending on artstation / ultra hd rendered”—oh, what the heck? Why not try all three?
.imagine a fractal landscape made of Mexican opal stone, trending on artstation, ultra hd rendered, high detailed, with real reflections
Though sometimes, just allowing a 10-year-old to suggest a prompt would yield great stuff:
.diffusion2 the world is made of marbles.
Also thanks to the aforementioned 10-YO:
.imagine explosive tetrahedrons as rendered in Mathematica
Which brings up the question… in that scenario, who is nerd-sniping you? Are you nerd-sniping yourself? Is it the developers? The people who maintain EleutherAI? The other users throwing prompts at the AI? It’s… perhaps.. a very cooperative nerd-sniping venture.