January 24, 2013

Article at Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin

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Nerds on the town: Madison hangouts for fun-loving poindexters

Mark Riechers

Dorky comic-book heroes like Batman and the Avengers outgrossed cool superspy James Bond two-to-one at the box office in 2012. Data wizards like Nate Silver deliver commentary alongside former football stars. And many kids beg their parents for technological gadgets, not toys.

Nerds have infiltrated pop culture en masse. The world has embraced geek as chic in nearly every way, especially when it comes to having fun.

Madison has its own stash of entertainment options for nerds - everyone from pop-culture obsessives to the dude who wants to learn how to fix the broken Donkey Kong machine in his garage. Here's a guide to local activities that might appeal to your particular strain of nerdiness.

Type 1 Nerd: The Academic

A high concentration of in-progress graduate degrees makes Madison an ideal locale for people to come together and learn very specific and often very bizarre things. No group has capitalized on this phenomenon quite as well as Nerd Nite Madison, a monthly lecture series where you might learn how to best avoid being struck dead by lightning or how the study of beehive culture intersects with pop culture.

Lee Bishop, half of the duo responsible for bringing Nerd Nite to Madison, recalls the night a local grad student "came out in a tutu to the theme of Sex and the City and then talked about the different types of bees as if they were the characters from the show."

Joining a tradition of Nerd Nites that started in Boston in 2003 and now span the globe, Bishop and fellow organizer Elena Spitzer started up the Madison branch in September 2011. The first event debuted to a packed upper floor at Genna's Lounge on the Capitol Square and has since grown to take over the High Noon Saloon.

"It used to just be grad students, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, but it's really blossomed," says Bishop.

The high concentration of speakers with Ph.D.s and master's degrees, coupled with the limited attention span of a tipsy audience, makes many presentations resemble manic college discussion sections. PowerPoint slides are punctuated by witticisms or the occasional snarky retort to audience questions that don't pass muster.

But there's usually a friendly back-and-forth between the speakers and the listeners. Not every talk is super-polished, but as long as crowd members are either learning or laughing, they're on board.

"If you have interesting information and know a few good jokes, combining them in any proportion, even 95% information and 5% jokes, will make for an awesome talk," says Bishop.

Madison's Nerd Nites have been pretty tame compared to those in other cities. Spitzer says the event's out-of-town counterparts have seen interstellar musical performances, science-related acrobatic acts and even speed-dating for nerds.

"If someone steps up and says, 'I want to bring these 3D printers on stage and print something live,' we will do whatever we can," says Bishop. "We're open to anything."

Type 2 Nerd: The Maker

It might be entertaining to watch a bunch of 3D printers churn out plastic on stage, but to actually get your hands on these contraptions, you may need to visit another gathering spot for Madison nerds: Sector67. This collaborative hackerspace on Madison's near east side gives aspiring builders and tinkerers a place to play with 3D printers, laser cutters, saws, welding equipment, drills and other high-end tools.

A monthly fee ($100, with discounts for students) gets you what founder and director Chris Meyer describes as "a gym membership for people who like to build stuff."

For those who want to learn something useful in their spare evening hours - Arduino programming, sewing or lockpicking, for example - there's a whole roster of courses for both members and nonmembers. And if you just need to get your creative juices flowing, dropping by the monthly Sector67 meeting allows you to hear what people have been working on at the shop.

"I was helping kids solder together TV-B-Gones earlier today. They're universal TV off-buttons," says Meyer. "You can imagine what happens if you have it in hand at a bar during opportune moments of certain sporting events."

If Nerd Nite is a space to sit back and learn about something new, then Sector67 is a place to get hands-on with something whose inner workings have always made you curious. Some couples take classes on ballroom dancing together; maker couples spend quality time learning best practices for soldering circuit boards.

"We can provide an introduction to electronics that doesn't require a Ph.D. in electrical engineering but allows you to get your feet wet," says Meyer.

Meyer started the nonprofit workspace in 2010 to give students and entrepreneurs access to tools that are typically confined to R&D labs. Today Sector67 is bursting with projects and equipment. In fact, Meyer says he's thinking of relocating the shop to expand.

Sector67 has become a hub for people who want to learn something and apply it to a topic they're passionate about.

"You need to be enthusiastic and interested, but you don't need to know how to do everything," emphasizes Meyer.

Type 3 Nerd: The Gamer

No one would appreciate a lesson in circuit design more than arcade-game collector Brad Van, who gets a crash course in electrical engineering as he and his technicians maintain the classic arcade cabinets lining Rossi's Vintage Arcade & Pizzeria in Monona.

If, like Van, you like to geek out over a bygone era of quarter-fed arcade classics, Rossi's is the place to be. Van has stocked the space with beloved games like Pac-Man, plus games you may have never seen in person, like BurgerTime, and maybe even a few you had no idea existed (Discs of Tron, anyone?).

With both arms loaded with tattoos from Dragon's Lair, Joust, Missile Command and Defender game cabinets, Van fits right in among the arcade's rows of machines.

"I started collecting them in 1998," says Van, gesturing toward the cabinets that inspired the 8-bit body art. "Being a gamer, I knew which titles were important, the landmark games."

Van, who also sings and plays guitar for local rock band Droids Attack, opened his first arcade in 2000, but he had to take a break from the arcade business when his son was born. He jumped at the chance to team up with Rossi's Pizza owner Ross Parisi last June.

"On a chance, somebody gave Ross my number," says Van. "He was interested in getting a few games in here; I told him I have over 100 games. He suggested we rent the space next door and fill it up."

Arcade-game nerds in particular will find a treat around every corner. Alongside staples like Tempest and Joust are rarities like Death Race, which was one of the first arcade machines to cause a stir over videogame violence, despite being limited by the graphics available in 1976.

"It has dual steering wheels, but instead of running around a track, you're trying to hit as many people as possible," explains Van. "It's really fun, though!"

Even if arcade games seem more like a relic than a precious antique, there's no denying the appeal of playing them around others, especially if they can't beat your high score.

"A lot of it is the atmosphere: rows of arcade machines glowing at you, all the noises popping off everywhere," says Van. "I just feel like this is how it was meant to be."

A whole wide world of nerds

Whether you're playing classic games, learning something new or building stuff, finding your inner nerd is simply a matter of immersing yourself in something and connecting with similarly obsessed people along the way. There are baseball-stat nerds, beer nerds and board-game nerds. The list could go on forever.

In other words, it's a brave new world where it's okay to get a little too excited about everything, including the night of good friends, carefully researched craft beer and kick-ass lecture on Darth Vader you have planned for next Wednesday.

What is a nerd?

Elena Spitzer, Nerd Nite Madison

"To me, being a nerd means being interested in something to the degree that you've actually thought about it at length. There's just watching Sex and the City, and there's being a Sex and the City nerd, where you know all the minor characters and remember that weird inconsistency when Charlotte was supposed to be doing one thing but was actually doing another."

Brad Van, Rossi's Arcade

"Being a nerd is the new cool thing, and I'm just like, 'What?!' I just see it as a trend. It will go away, but it does kind of empower a lot of people, including me."

Chris Meyer, Sector67

"You get the stereotypical 'must program' or 'must be interested in games and board games and building things.' But I would say that's a niche unto itself in an area like this, because we have people from such a wide range of backgrounds. You get people in here who want to work on their cars, people who would not fit into any nerd stereotypes, yet some would still call them 'car nerds.'"

Lory Aitken, Pegasus Games

"[Nerds demonstrate] a willingness to forgo social opinion and throw yourself into something you're passionate about.... 'Nerd' doesn't just mean role-playing games or computer games. People can be model-train nerds or remote-control-airplane nerds. Sewing nerds! Quilting nerds!"

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