Nerdlympics, Summer 2008
This week, thousands of competitors and millions of spectators from around the world will converge on Beijing for the Summer Olympics. Those who have passed the grueling tests at the national level will face off in competitions that will showcase their strength, speed, agility, and endurance.
But where does this leave the humble geek? While many of us tech types will enjoy watching the games, for most of us the chances of actually participating are low -- unless we're called upon to help circumvent China's Internet censorship infrastructure. Does that mean that the competitive urge that beats in the heart of every nerd goes unfulfilled? Are the thrill of competition, the glory of victory, and the agony of defeat only for muscle-bound jocks? We say no!
And so, in honor of (and, perhaps, in counterpoint to) the upcoming Beijing Olympics, we'd like to propose a multi-sport competition that has a practical basis. The modern pentathalon, which has appeared in every Olympics since 1912 (and thus probably isn't so modern anymore), includes shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding, and running, and was meant to encapsulate the skills a cavalry officer would need if he were trapped behind enemy lines. In that spirit, our Very Modern Pentathalon will provide the aspiring pro geek with skills needed to rule the roost.
When you're first hired in an IT department, you're generally on the very, very bottom of the ladder, and you need to be prepared to deal with bottom-of-the-ladder problems, like untangling ethernet and USB cables that have woven around each other to take on lives of their own. Proving your ability to sort out various important wires quickly has developed into its own sport, known as speedcabling.
Speedcabling is a physical competition of sorts -- it requires a steady hand and a good eye. But you also have to be able to think strategically -- will loosening this knot cause another tangle to tighten into complete unworkability? Computer scientist and artist Steven Schkolne launched the first speedcabling contest earlier this year, and you can watch the thrilling final here:
Check out winner Matthew Howell's technique at the beginning there. He's employing skills he learned at his last job: those are the sorts of kneading motions that he previously used to get pizza dough smoothed out.
Eventually, you might find that you've worked your way up to a programming job, where you'll be proud to produce code that executes quickly and can be quickly and easily grasped by your coworkers and those who will come after you and need to maintain it, right? Ha ha, just kidding, obviously. As you know if you read the invaluable Daily WTF, you'll be far too overworked to do anything but churn out grievous hacks that sort of meet requirements for the time being, while disregarding code readability conventions or even comments. And if that isn't enough, your non-technical bosses will probably be raging paranoids who demand that your mediocre code be written such that your nonexistent competitors can't figure out how it works and steal your company's precious, precious intellectual property.
But will your code really be as obscure as it could be? If you think you have it what it takes, you can enter a code obfuscation contest! The venerable International Obfuscated C Code Contest has been serving as a haven for terrible, terrible C code since 1984; quotes from recent winners include:
- "To keep things simple, I have avoided the C preprocessor and tricky statements such as 'if', 'for', 'do', 'while', 'switch', and 'goto'."
- "Why not use the program to hide another program in the program? It must have seemed reasonable at the time."
- "I found that calculating prime numbers up to 1024 makes the program include itself over 6.8 million times."
And there are other languages in which you can submit your most mangled syntax! Perl once held such a competition, but has refrained since 2000. As the goal was to produce "devious, inhuman, disgusting, amusing, amazing, and bizarre Perl code," perhaps the judges simply couldn't take it anymore. But others can get in on the fun, too, even DBAs (with the Obfuscated SQL Code Contest) .
Not every IT geek goes in for programming; some will continue to get their hands dirty (literally) with hardware. And even if you have entered the rarified realm of ones and zeroes, don't you sometimes long to muck about in the guts of your computer -- you know, to "keep it real"?
Well, there are few things more real than carefully applying hot molten metal to electronics boards. And where there are soldering guns, there are inevitably soldering duels. To keep a lid on potential havoc and injury from underground solder-offs, NYC Resistor, a social group of New York-area hardware hackers, recently organized a Soldering Championship, which was triumphantly captured on video!
While this looks like good clean fun, we do have to question the wisdom of combining soldering guns and beer. And we're a little unsettled by the gentleman who said that this was his "first soldering competition ... with other people."
Sitting through meetings
If you've gotten this far, you're probably thinking that being an IT geek is pretty fun. "Oh boy! It's all soldering and programming and playing with wires! Could there possibly be any downside?"
Of course there is. There's always a downside. And for the IT geek, one of the biggest downsides is sitting through meetings. Do you have the superhuman strength to endure the endless prattling on about action items and process? Will you manage not to snicker when someone says you need to "open the kimono"? And then there are the vendor meetings! Listening to non-tech folks try to send you technical products using the latest buzzwords can make any honest geek cry -- but you must learn to take it!
To entertain yourself and your friends, you might want to try a quick game of Buzzword Bingo. But when it comes to being a true champion, you're going to need to defeat the best at Buzzword Survivor. This competition, to be held at the legendary Def Con hacker convention, involves sitting through up to 36 hours of vendor presentation, with 10 minute breaks for hitting the facilities. Reminiscent of the cruel dance contests of the Depression Era, those who survive the entire Buzzword Survivor experience win a share of $10,000 -- with contestants encouraged to rat each other out if they fall asleep or otherwise cheat, as that will reduce the number of winners of the pot.
Finally, let's talk socializing. Yes, being a geek doesn't just mean putting in on-the-job nerdery; you've got to learn to kick back and relax with your fellow geeks as well. And what better way than by playing video games?
But even if you're a geek, try to have some panache. Playing World of Warcraft in your parents' basement while wearing unwashed pajamas? Lame. Playing a group game of Counterstrike against your work buddies in your office cubicles after hours? Fun, if perhaps a bit clichÃ©. Playing classic 8-bit Super Mario Brothers, head-to-head against an opponent, on wall-sized TVs, in front of a roomful of cheering fans, while dressed as Mario and/or Luigi? Now that's pure genius. Remember, you can be a geek and a champion -- and pretty stylish to boot.
What nerdlympics-worthy tech competitions did I miss? Add your favorites in the comments section below.