When Your Computer Calls You a Nerd: A Guest Post

Ian Ayres‘s recent book, Super Crunchers, contains an interesting description of the secret to the success of Netflix (a company that’s been discussed before on this blog). According to Ayres, Netflix’s movie recommendation algorithms are so good that they know my taste in movies better than I do. It is a source of wonderment to me just how well they know what I’ll like.

But last week, my friend and colleague Todd Sinai complained that Netflix had essentially just called him a nerd: it suggested that he rent a movie called Helvetica. That’s right: a movie about … a font. He thought that the algorithm had made a mistake. I just figured that Netflix had discovered that Todd is a bit of a tech-loving nerd. As a result of this recommendation, needless to say, he was mercilessly mocked by his econo-friends at Wharton.

But this week, it was my turn. Netflix has now recommended that I, too, rent the movie whose romantic lead is played by a (rather beautiful) sans-serif font. Yep: called a nerd by a super-crunching computer. It hurts. Still, given the film’s reviews, I decided to embrace my inner geek, and the DVD is currently on its way. After all, the Netflix algorithm is almost never wrong.

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  1. lighthouse says:

    Helvetia is a great watch. Loved the impolitic designer they interview in the middle. I am expecting you to eat crow after you see this.

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  2. John says:

    Despite the title, it is actually a very interesting movie. (if you like documentaries, which I do) I would recommend it highly.

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  3. bx says:

    More scary, perhaps, is that that this web site was smart enough to display a Netflix ad!

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  4. azabache says:

    A type nerd, to be specific.

    (I’m not ashamed to be one myself. But then, I stopped being ashamed of anything over twenty years ago; it was a waste of time.)

    Helvetica is a terrific film about something taken for granted.

    I think the impolitic designer may be Erik Spiekermann who created “Officina Sans”–another successful typeface that better watch its back, it’s becoming too popular for its own good.

    Yes, designers are weird.

    And nerdy.

    Even though some of them wear black to look cool.

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  5. ML Harris says:

    Back about ten years ago, when I was a software nerd, a friend of mine got a magazine for font designers. We read the letters, in the same way one reads the Weekly World News in the late 90’s… ironically.

    The people were so nuts that our retail problem customers were referred to as “font designers.” Typical use:
    “Boy, that guy was a real font designer.”

    Helvetica will not be coming up on my list. And if it does, you can always give it the Nay-No with the barred circle of disinterest.

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  6. Robin says:

    Ha, that movie appeared on my suggestion list about a week ago too. Netflix must suggest it to all people of the geekular variety.

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  7. Jennifer says:

    I think Helvetica sounds like a great flick. Didn’t realize that made me any more of a nerd than, say, reading and commenting on the Freakonomics blog.

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  8. anandine says:

    It’s interesting that Netflix is offering $1 million for an algorithm that is 10% better than their current Cinematch software.


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