As I’ve mentioned before, I am a huge fan of This American Life. I used to listen it during my long drives across the US, whether it was driving back to Washington after hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire or traveling back to Ann Arbor after spending the weekend in Chicago. It’s been a staple of life for years, and after I moved to the UK, I started listening online, especially after they started doing podcasts this year.

Suw has quickly become a big fan, and we now often listen to the show on weekends over breakfast. Yesterday, we listened to the latest episode “Quiz Show“. The second of three acts was about MIT Mystery Hunt. As the show notes says:

Every winter, some of the world’s best puzzle solvers gather in Boston for the MIT mystery hunt, a competition in which teams of puzzle enthusiasts spend between 24 and 72 straight hours trying to solve what just may be the hardest recreational puzzles in the world.

I’m not really much of a puzzle person, but Suw and I both related to the slightly obsessive collectors of knowledge (some would say trivia) that made up these puzzle teams. I’m a geek, happily a pretty well adjusted geek as my friend Vicky says, but I wave my geek flag high. One of the members of the Dr. Awkward team (palindrome, as they were quick to note) was a guy named Dave. At a previous job, Dave had been told by his mentor that his colleagues were uncomfortable because he used too many literary allusions in his casual speech. People were complaining.

Dave was a bit baffled, but made a note of the things that he would have said over the next week. Then having lunch with former co-workers, he was asked a question about monkeys and chimps in which he went on a this painfully long exposition about the differences between apes, monkeys and prosimians. He had done a report on it when he was nine-years-old, and it was a personal obsession of his. His colleague said, “Yeah, Dave, speaking of animals, would you like to see the rat’s ass that I give.” Dave had an aha moment:

Ohh, that’s my problem. I inform people against their will.

Lisa Pollack, the producer narrating the piece, said that Dave and other puzzle solvers like him had found the context where they could shine, a place where their skills were best put to use and appreciated.

Suw and I both had those moments in life, where we found our peer group. For me, it was when I went from a small country school where I was the class geek to the Auburn Academy, a magnet school in an inner-city high school. Suw found the peer group in blogging and Joi Ito’s IRC channel a few years ago. We found a place where our slightly geeky skills were appreciated and where we weren’t ostracised for our intellectual curiosity.

It also made me think slightly about my day job as a journalist. I don’t want to go too much into that, that’s what our other blog Strange Attractor is for, but really, sometimes journalists ‘inform people against their will’. We like to think we know what people should know, but we forget that people don’t always respond well to being told what is important. They have their own issues an concerns. Sometimes, I’m sure that when journalists get too high on their horses, people just say: “Yeah, would you like to see the rat’s ass I give”.

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