The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth
Six smart ways to tickle your brain in public
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Geek is chic. (Or maybe there are just a few of us who’d really like to believe that.) Used to be, the guy who let it slip that he built robots or loved ballroom dance got a wedgie. Now he gets the girl. And vice versa. So we sought out six brainy-but-cool activities you can immediately get in on, from a wine club to a tango society, science salons to just plain being smart (Mensa). No secret handshakes, no costume required. And no need to thank us. We’re signing on right behind you. Just as soon as we find a No. 2 pencil.
On the morning of the Mechwars robot combat competition, the floor of the Eagan Civic Arena is buzzing, screeching, and shuddering with the best proof we may ever have that the geek shall inherit the Earth. This is the “pit,” a sea of sawhorse tables littered with scrap metal, blowtorches, and toolboxes the size of R2-D2, where dozens of fearsome creatures are getting a final tune-up before battle. They are the demon children of surplus stores, robots gone wrong: a set of alligator-like jaws on wheels, an armored dome studded with steel shards, and a four-foot-long toy jeep with a gunpowder-powered potato gun, twin circular-saw blades, and a giant camouflage-clothed Barbie doll at the wheel. May the best bot win.
Just about anyone with a remote control, a motor, and some imagination can create a robot, and the Mechwars organization was formed six years ago to support such hobbyists, as well as to pit them against each other in good-natured “wars.” The staff meets informally every two weeks (the public is welcome to attend), and the Mechwars website is full of advice for beginners and invitations from bot builders to use their garages and supplies. Why people build bots varies as much as the battery-powered gladiators themselves: dads want to spend time with their kids, engineering students hope to put learning into practice, frustrated inventors seek an outlet for their mechanical inclinations. Some spend six months welding together 390-pound super-heavyweights. Others spend a few weeks armoring remote-control toys. A few turn “semi-pro,” hauling their monsters to competitions across the country. In the end, of course, it’s all about slicing, smashing, and otherwise reducing robots to droid droppings.
Mechwars was founded by Jon VanderVelde, an architect and industrial designer in his late thirties, who’d been following the rise of robot combat from obscure basement battlegrounds to its own cable-TV showcase on Comedy Central. He took out a classified ad soliciting robot warriors and staged his first tournament on railroad right-of-way land, where he dug a pit with a backhoe; about 800 people showed up to watch. At the Eagan arena, VanderVelde and volunteers have constructed a massive Lexan (bulletproof plastic) cage to contain the fights, and dozens of families fill the bleachers.
Bot builders have traveled here from across the country, wearing T-shirts bearing such slogans as “10 Reasons to Become a Mechanical Engineer” and “Keep Out of Direct Sunlight.” They huddle to plan strategy: should they push the opposing bots over the “fire pit” (a blast of flames erupting from a cannon beneath the cage) or knock them into a spinning steel bar that juts out from the floor?
Bot battles are “picking up among the cognoscenti,” VanderVelde claims, just before he kicks off the tournament with a blast of AC/DC. He himself lives for the fights’ creative, cartoonish violence, “the grenade being launched,” he says. The first two bots are lifted into the cage. A 360-pounder throws its opponent’s parts against the wall, sparks fly, and everyone steps back from the cage. Match over.
After two days, a heavyweight winner emerges—a bot called Megabyte—but only after a skirmish with Barbie, whose potato cannon provides insufficient protection for her silky hair. After her tresses ignite over the flame pit, Barbie is hustled out to the parking lot for a sort of robot funeral. Though, of course, good bots never really die—their parts just get recycled into better bots.
Join ’em: For more information on Mechwars and robot building, visit www.tcmechwars.com.
» Twin Cities Uncorked
It’s a balmy Thursday evening at Brookview Park in Golden Valley. The evening sun rakes its way over an immaculate golf green, and a bluegrass band jumps and shimmies under a nearby picnic shelter, where ladies in porkpie hats serve sausages from miniature grills. A few people chomp on frankfurters or bounce to the music, but most of the crowd surrounds a picnic table holding 50 or so bottles of red wine. They pour, sip, nod happily, or wrinkle their noses, and then empty the remains into a giant chalice at the end of the table. This is how to stay sober, I think, as I wriggle sideways through the crowd and pluck out a Zinfandel called 7 Deadly Zins. I’m gleefully pouring myself a glass, trying to remember whether gluttony comes before lust, when a boisterous man reaches around me for a Shiraz. His bright white polo shirt is covered with wine. It’s barely seven o’clock.
Twin Cities Uncorked, the wine-lovers’ club behind this event, was formed about a year ago by Mark Manns and Liz Andert. Andert, a spunky woman wearing bright acrylic jewelry, has been a wine lover ever since she was a kid; her dad, a Latvian immigrant, served it with dinner. “My whole family loves wine. It’s like a bloodline running through our veins,” she says. “Plus, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.” Fun is the operative word here—the club prides itself on a lack of pretentiousness. Events usually take place at restaurants, where up to 100 Uncorkers sample wines and discuss their favorites. “The point,” says Manns, “is just to find out what you like—to be able to go to the wine store, see a bear breathing fire [on a wine bottle label], and say, ‘I liked that one. I’ll buy it.’” When I ask Manns what I should be looking for in 7 Deadly Zins, he counters, “What do you taste?” I take a sip. Woods…a forest. “Trees?” I ask. Sure enough, says Manns, it was probably stored in an oak barrel. Really? I picked out a wine flavor? Huzzah! A prideful glow washes over me. Soon I’m touting the Zinfandel to other Uncorkers. “Have you had 7 Deadly Zins?” I ask casually. “It’s very woodsy.”
By the end of the evening, the crowd is spirited and the bottles are empty. Hervie, the gregarious guy in the wine-speckled shirt, likes the red I brought—a Penfold Cabernet. “It’s sweet-tart-sweet-tart—not too complex, but there’s a nice back and forth.” Hervie’s a wine veteran; he has, as he puts it, “grazed at many pastures of inebriation.” He pours a Spanish wine and swirls it around in his plastic cup. “Smell this,” he commands. “What do you smell?”
“Sweet?” I offer.
“Raisins!” Hervie grins, “and goat cheese.” And he’s on to the next bottle. A French-speaking saxophonist points out a Romanian wine that’s been “corked”—the cork has interacted chemically with the wine. The wine is a muddy brownish-red and has a stinging aftertaste. “Now you know what corked wine tastes like. But try this Syrah,” he says, brandishing the bottle, “it’s wonderful.” Meanwhile, I’m rooting around for the rest of the 7 Deadly Zins. It’s empty! Avariciously, I head back to my car, with anger and envy still echoing around inside my mouth. Uncorked, perhaps, but not forgotten.
Join ’em: Twin Cities Uncorked hosts monthly events at various locations around the metro area. For information, visit www.tc-uncorked.org.