Ellen Spertus

On June 20, I was named the 2001 Sexiest Geek Alive at a pageant in San Jose, California. Here are some answers to frequently-asked questions.


Ellen in corset and skirt
  • What did you wear?

    I wore a PVC corset with a printed-circuit board pattern and a black slit skirt, which allowed me to holster a slide rule to my leg.

  • You strapped a slide rule to your leg?

    Not just any slide rule. It was my Dad's when he went to MIT. He passed it down to me. I was inspired by Sandra Bullock's look in Miss Congeniality, where she had a gun holstered to her exposed thigh.

  • Do you know how to use the slide rule?

    I can do some operations, but I still haven't figured out how to program it.

  • Did you make the corset?

    No. I can make a printed-circuit board but don't know how to sew. I bought it from Gallery Serpentine in Australia.

  • Where can I buy sexy geek clothes in the United States?

    My favorite online store is sexygoth.com [now defunct]. You can also search general auction sites for "cybergoth" or visit Gothic Auctions.


  • How do you define "geek"?

    Geeks are intelligent, enthusiastic people full of curiosity and passion.

  • Yeah, but would you want to marry one?

    I am married to one. (So is my husband.)

  • How can you be a geek if you're in a relationship?

    I don't equate geek with anti-social loser. Being good with technology doesn't imply being inept at everything else. Technical skill is not necessarily inversely correlated with social skill.

  • Wouldn't geeks rather interact with computers than with people?

    Not this geek, and not any geek whom I have known (by definition). If geeks didn't want to communicate with each other, they wouldn't have created the Internet.

  • Yeah, but do you really want to be called a geek?

    I'll admit I'm more comfortable with the term "nerd". I think there's a coastal difference in connotations. On the East Coast (where I went to school), nerd was positive and geek was negative. On the West Coast (where I now live), the reverse seems to be the case. I would be interested to know at what point in the country the shift takes place.

  • On the East Coast, nerd is positive?

    Well, at MIT we had the Nerd Pride movement. It was deliberately modeled after the Gay Pride movement, where a once-derogatory term was reclaimed.

  • Do you want my opinion on "nerd" vs. "geek"?

    Yes, I do. I created a poll.

  • What are some of your geek credentials?

  • What sorts of things do you make your students do?

    I make them build computers from scratch (NAND gates) and program them in ones and zeroes. I also teach them to count in binary on their fingers.

  • You probably tell a lot of nerdy jokes, right?

    Yes. For example, why do programmers confuse Christmas with Halloween?
    Because 31 OCT = 25 DEC.

  • Huh?

    "OCT" means octal (base 8); "DEC" means decimal (base 10).

  • That didn't help.

    Read Computer Counting: The Magic of Binary, Octal, and Hexadecimal

  • How do I become a geek? Can I take a class from you?

    Yes. Just attend or cross-register at Mills College. We have students of all ages and a set of innovative graduate programs for men and women with bachelor's degrees in areas other than computer science who want to transition into CS or interdisciplinary work. Students with no prior computer education have gone on to top PhD programs in computer science after completing (or even starting) our program.

Ellen with Nerd Pride hat in front of computer




Ellen in costume checking email


Student working on lab kit with Ellen

The Pageant

Ellen being crowned by Miss California
  • What questions were you asked at the pageant?

    1. "How many computers are in your home, and are they networked together?"
      Other contestants answered "one" or "two". I answered that I didn't know, because there are processors in so many places in my house, such as in my bread machine and in my electric car, which is able tocommunicate with my Palm Pilot.
    2. "What is an achievement that you are proud of?"
      I described my successful anti-spam lawsuit against Kozmo.com. I am also proud of playing a small part in ACLU v. Reno and been a board member for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.
    3. "What effect do you think open source will have on capitalistic institutions?"
      I stated that open source completely challenges capitalism. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith made the assumption (true at the time) that corporations were geographically bound and that capital and labor could not easily move. Those assumptions just don't hold anymore, particularly with the Internet. As Eric Raymond stated in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, who would have imagined, even five years ago, that a world-class operating system could coalesce as if by magic from work done by thousands of people around the world? Linux is one of the best operating systems ever (certainly better than any Microsoft operating system) and heralds the start of a post-capitalist era.
  • What did you do for the talent round?

    I showed a 5-minute video that I made. Highlights were:
    • Richard Stallman's endorsement
    • My argument that I was the sexiest candidate because I had reproduced the most geeks, followed by a slide show of dozens of my students (and their students) proudly displaying their projects. The background music was Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" (not to be confused with Girls Just Wanna Defun).
    • Teaching how to count in binary on one's fingers.


  • Where have you and the contest been written up?

    See this list of articles.

  • How does it feel to be The Sexiest Geek Alive?

    It feels great! I wish I could upload the experience so every geek could enjoy it.

  • Where can I see more pictures?

    You can get high-quality jpgs by request. You must get written permission from the copyright holders to use them.

Further questions? Send email to contact@spertus.com.