You never know when you're going to need the nerds
Man conquers local parking lot, one space at a time: Humans have more intelligence than is absolutely necessary for individual survival. As a consequence of that surplus brainpower, sometimes we do silly, pointless, hilarious things...like trying to park in every space at the local grocery store. And making a spreadsheet about it.
■ Yes, such an exercise is profoundly silly. No, it has no direct meaningful social benefits whatsoever. And yet: We really ought to stand up and applaud when someone puts their mind to work on a nerdy side project and commits to performing it as though it really matters.
■ If you read Dwight Eisenhower's memoir of World War II, "Crusade in Europe", you'll find a number of themes that emerge across its hundreds of pages. The most important one, though, may well be that the United States came into the war completely unprepared -- Eisenhower is devastating in his critiques of prewar military preparedness -- but the country won victory because of a massive reservoir of potential that just needed to be stirred to action.
■ Ike put it like this: "There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches. To any other nation the disaster would have been almost decisive; but so great was America's productive capacity that the great storm occasioned little more than a ripple in the development of our build-up." Just think: American shipyards, once brought up to capacity, produced 2,710 Liberty Ships over the course of the war. They were cheap and ugly, but they could be built in days and delivered the essential cargo needed to win a war.
■ It might not be obvious, but the connection between idle productive capacity and pointless, nerdy pursuits is quite real. The Wright Brothers are often portrayed in our superficial understanding of history as a couple of tinkerers who stumbled upon powered flight. The reality is they were dedicated, methodical, and driven almost to obsession (remember: Orville nearly died in an early crash that killed a passenger).
■ Most of the problems we face today are much too complex for a couple of brothers to solve working out of a bicycle shop. But they can be solved by teams working together -- and not always by the ones you might expect. Some large firms work hard to bring innovations to market quickly, but the era of the "skunk works" has in many ways been pushed aside by the popular but flawed practice of innovation through acquisition.
■ But look around and you'll see people channeling their interests and energies in useful ways through open-source program development and citizen science and self-organizing teams.
■ To solve big problems, we need a culture that values a nerdy willingness to do frivolous things well, because those are the sandboxes where we practice the skills that can be called upon when we need a nerdy willingness to do really important things well. So, three cheers for the goofball who walks every street in their town or studies satellite imagery for fun or figures out ship speeds from wake patterns. It's never particularly clear in advance when we'll need the people with these obsessions. But within open, free societies, the nerds are often our secret weapons.