The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

Six smart ways to tickle your brain in public

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.

 

Mechanized Mayhem

» Mechwars
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.
—TIM GIHRING

Join ’em: For more information on Mechwars and robot building, visit www.tcmechwars.com.

 

Grape Expectations

» 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.
—Jessica Nordell

Join ’em: Twin Cities Uncorked hosts monthly events at various locations around the metro area. For information, visit www.tc-uncorked.org.

 

Smarts on Tap

» Café Scientifique
Typically, when a man in a white lab coat is discussing mushrooms in a nightclub, it’s not an activity the University of Minnesota would endorse. But these mushrooms are the innocent topic of the evening’s Café Scientifique, a barroom lecture series begun last fall by the university’s Bell Museum of Natural History, and the man is the Bell’s curator of education, Kevin Williams. If it seems surprising that Dinkytown’s Kitty Cat Klub would be standing-room-only for a discourse on fungi, a few minutes with Williams quickly explains Scientifique’s appeal.

With his silver hair and investigative nature, Williams resembles a cross between Timothy Leary and Columbo. He is the gregarious host of the series, warming up the crowd for each evening’s presenter. “Some people believe mushrooms are actually aliens,” he deadpans, and glasses clink amid knee-slapping laughter. Of the approximately 60 people in attendance, perhaps 5 are not wearing glasses. Many have backpacks. And when Williams launches into a mushroom trivia contest, giving away cans of mushroom soup as prizes, attendees meekly raise their hands instead of shouting out answers. “There’s no need to be polite here,” Williams admonishes. “We’re in a bar.” Indeed, this is science with a twist—a twist of lemon, and easy on the ice.

The series, which has since moved around the block to the larger Varsity Theater, has accomplished exactly what the museum hoped it would: it’s gotten young people engaged in science. And that’s largely thanks to recent U graduate Shanai Matteson, 23, who, shortly after getting a job at the Bell, was given the task of developing the series. Modeling it after similar forums in European cafés, Matteson coordinated the bar space and talked university researchers into sharing their expertise in a more, um, intoxicating setting than they’re used to.

At the ’shroom salon, lecturer Bryn Dentinger, a young grad student who resembles the singer Matthew Sweet, is flashing photos of morchella deliciosa and other fungi on a projection screen near the bar. Kitty Cat regulars, such as a guy with a massive Afro and a mostly unbuttoned shirt, stare in bewilderment at this intellectual hijacking of their stomping grounds—though when Dentinger explains that a certain ’shroom is parasitic by calling it a “corn slut,” even the two slick suits perched at the bar take a break from chatting up the ladies to look over.

Popular past lectures have featured Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease expert and former Minnesota state epidemiologist, delivering a doomsday-ish talk on avian bird flu, and a bee expert who brought a large observational hive into the bar. This fall, Café Scientifique is being exported to the U campuses in Morris, Duluth, and Crookston, where local professors will be tapped for lectures in nearby pubs. “When we started,” says Matteson, “we thought the audiences would be more about the drinking thing, like, ‘This is just something we do when we go out.’ But they’re really into the science.” Here’s a theory: maybe science is cool.
—TIM GIHRING

Join ’em: This month’s Café Scientifique is November 8 at the Varsity Theater, 1308 SE Fourth St., Minneapolis. Dr. David Zarkower from the U’s Department of Genetics will speak on a recent breakthrough in understanding how sex is determined. 6 p.m. Free.

 

Everybody Must Get Stoned

» The Twin Cities Go Club
On a Tuesday night at the Dunn Bros. coffee shop in Minneapolis’s Linden Hills neighborhood, a 10-year-old blond kid leans on his elbow, staring in bespectacled concentration. His opponent, a woman with waist-length brown hair, places a single black stone on a wooden board. Two tables away, a young man in a bow tie stares down an older man with a scraggly beard; their board is embroidered with a dense pattern of black and white stones. Nearby, a philosophy student admits defeat. “I’m dead,” he says, “and my ancestors, ashamed of my existence, will not let me into the afterlife.”

They’re all part of the Twin Cities Go Club, and the game they’re playing, Go, is old: Confucius mentions it in his Analects, which dates from the sixth century B.C. Each game played tonight, however, will be the first of its kind—in the multi-millennial history of Go, no two identical games have ever been played. In fact, there may be more possible Go matches (9.3 x 10567, to be exact) than atoms in the universe, and the game is so complex that no one has yet been able to write a computer program that can beat even a good amateur. Paradoxically, the game takes about five minutes to learn. It goes like this: two players take turns placing stones, one at a time, on a 19 x 19 grid. Each player tries to amass “territory” by surrounding the other player’s stones, while each tries to avoid being surrounded in turn.

Of the 16 people here tonight, many have defected from chess, finding Go more interesting—and more civilized. “Chess is one big massacre,” says Josh, a sweet-tempered software engineer with a mop of sandy blond hair. “Go is one big negotiation.” And while chess is a tactical fight, with one local battle, Go relies on a wide-ranging combination of strategy and intuition, its war being fought on multiple fronts simultaneously. “Go is cultural,” says Matt Mayer, a bearded computer consultant. “Rather than two armies fighting each other, it’s two groups of people slowly moving toward one another.” There’s room for personality and style in Go; some play it safe, some risk everything for the chance at one glorious triumph. In Japan, Mayer explains, corporations pay professional Go players to give their employees lessons, because when people play Go, you can see how they think. “Or,” someone shouts from across the room, “how they don’t!” Mayer looks up and grins.

Players readily admit that Go can seep into their consciousness. “Right now, I see three people wearing white and two people wearing black, and I think, ‘Wow, that’s a bad shape,’” says Daniel Walden, a high school senior. Nina Mukherji, a recent college graduate, says it’s easy to start seeing human interaction as a series of Go moves—people advancing or moving away, people trying to maintain personal space while still wanting to interact with others. It’s also, she says, a welcome respite from the abyss of a job search. “When you send out a resumé, people can totally ignore you. But Go is a conversation; when you make a move, the other person has to respond.” Mukherji dips her hand into a bucket of white stones and begins a new game, and the conversation, spoken in the whoosh whoosh of hands gliding though stones, goes on.
—Jessica Nordell

Join ’em: The Twin Cities Go Club gathers weekly at local coffee shops. For information, visit www.tcgo.org.

 

Step It Up

» Tango Society of Minnesota
Fifty-some dancers glide across the floor, chests and hips pressed together. As the music builds—a driving force of accordion and strings—a short-haired woman wearing yoga gear and high-heeled dance shoes lifts her leg and wraps it, snake-like, around her partner’s upper thigh. A tall man in a khaki suit, his head shaved to a shine, dips a woman to the floor. The locale isn’t the streets of Buenos Aires, whose barrios birthed these sultry steps—it’s the Loring Pasta Bar on a typical Sunday night.

Members of the Tango Society of Minnesota, which was founded about seven years ago and now boasts some 140 members, look forward to the nights when the Loring staff pushes the restaurant’s tables to the perimeter and the Mandragoro Tango Orchestra sets up onstage. While local interest in ballroom dance appears stagnant or waning, tango has grown popular enough to sustain three dances per week at various venues around the metro. This isn’t Strictly Ballroom, the movie of cocked elbows, turned-up noses, and jutted chins. Tango is a much more sensual dance; it’s creative, spontaneous, and intimate. And its devotees can’t get enough.

A young woman in a frilly skirt, a newcomer who says she just started taking lessons, drove more than three hours from Wausau, Wisconsin, to be here tonight. “The music drives one towards passionate movement,” she says. “It’s very sexy.” (This may be the first recorded instance of anyone driving to Minnesota in pursuit of something sexy.) Of the Wausau dance scene, she says, “There aren’t many men—six girls for every guy.” As if on cue, an older man with a bushy, graying beard plucks her from the table and leads her to the floor.

Though it’s located in the heart of Dinkytown, a raucous, U of M–student crossroads, the Loring feels moody and seductive, what with the lights low and the red wine flowing. Dave Rost, who has been dancing for about seven years, says he and his wife got started when he gave her a gift certificate to Arthur Murray Dance Studios one Christmas. “We were outgrowing going to sports bars and nightclubs,” he says, mentioning his distaste for puddles of vomit and urine on bathroom floors. “You don’t need too much excitement, but you need some.”

Rost says he likes tango’s compact and improvised motions, though he admits the learning process was frustrating. “Tango is kind of a hard dance—harder for the guys,” he says. On the dance floor, confidence varies; some men lead with aplomb, while a few bear the stressed-out countenance of one who is counting his steps. “If I really knew how hard it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have started doing it,” Rost remarks.

“Now you can’t stop,” interrupts a man clad in a white guayabera shirt who has come back to Rost’s table in search of his glasses—and another partner. “Swing dancing lets off steam,” he says, arching a brow. “Tango creates steam.” And with that, he looks to a woman and extends his hand.
—Rachel Hutton

Join ’em: The Tango Society of Minnesota hosts dances every Sunday night at the Loring Pasta Bar beginning at 6 p.m. More information, including lesson venues, can be found at www.mntango.org.

 

Brain Gang

» Mensa
On the first Friday of the month, under taxidermied deer heads and antique snowshoes, members of Minnesota Mensa gather in the basement of the Fort Snelling Officer’s Club. They seem to constitute an average Minnesota cross-section, though slightly older, overwhelmingly Caucasian, and with a higher incidence of those science teacher–style short-sleeve dress shirts. Mensa—the gaggle of geeks, smarties, eggheads, and brainiacs familiar to some via the Simpsons episode in which Lisa becomes a member—is an educational and social club for people who score in the top 2 percent on a standardized intelligence test (for benchmarking purposes, you’d need to notch a 132 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale or get a combined SAT score—post-1977 tests only, please—of 1,250 or better to qualify). Mensa tests are held monthly at locations around the state, and they include such brain-buzzing questions as If it were two hours later, it would be half as long until midnight as it would be if it were an hour later. What time is it now?

“I don’t tell people I’m in Mensa,” says Scott Wieland—not to be confused with Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots fame. Clad in a plain black T-shirt, Wieland is sharing a table with other members of the Gen-X Mensa sub-group. “I get three responses: They say, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ or else they get kind of standoffish—‘So you think you’re better than me?’—or they say, ‘What the hell is Mensa?’”

Mensa has 100,000 members in more than 100 countries. While some of its members hold high-status positions—Geena Davis and Norman Schwarzkopf are in the club—many are people whose intelligence hasn’t always been recognized or rewarded by academic or professional institutions. For them, Mensa can be both an outlet and a haven.

“I was the poster child for ADD,” says Wieland. “I coasted through school, doing the bare minimum.” Today he works two jobs—at UPS and as a mechanic—and also goes to school. Michael Porter, another Gen-Xer, isn’t shy about labels: “I was always the math geek and the nerd in school,” he says. Porter works as a manufacturing technician and says he took the Mensa test, in part, because he doesn’t have a college degree. “It’s proof of some level of intelligence,” he says.

First Fridays, which are open to the public with a $5 admission, are mostly social affairs—though not all attendees engage in conversation. One man is recording the proceedings with a video camera; another scarfs a chocolate doughnut (brought from home?) as he walks toward a table of people playing a dominoes game called Domination. Chapter president Paul Jensen explains that game manufacturers often send prototypes to Mensa groups for testing, and that game enthusiasts, such as those interested in “stochastic thinking and probability study”—a.k.a. poker—make up just one of the many Mensa special interest groups, or SIGs.

Many members cite diversity of interests as Mensa’s biggest draw. Minnesota Mensa marketing coordinator Connie Morris, a stylishly dressed mother who brought along her son (he’s not a member, and he says he’d rather be playing his Game Boy) recalls her first meeting: “We talked about so many topics—religion, physics, shopping, dogs,” she says. “It was total brain candy.” Gordon Andersen, a retired copyeditor who has seen the group grow from a dozen members to around 1,200 over the past 41 years, mentions the range of Mensans’ talents. “There are some who are musically inclined…there are Mensa jocks.” Mensa jocks? “Though I couldn’t point them out right now,” he admits.

Shawn Bakken, a recreational soccer player, may be as close as it gets. He recently participated in the WB reality TV show Beauty and the Geek. “My social life was this big,” he says of his pre-Beauty days, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “Now, if I go to a water park, there will be a bunch of 12-year-old girls following me.” Geek chic for sure.
—Rachel Hutton

Join ’em: First Fridays take place every month at 8 p.m. at the Fort Snelling Officer’s Club. For more information, go to

www.mnmensa.org

or call the Mensaphone at 952-953-8575.

Tim Gihring is a senior writer and Rachel Hutton is associate editor for Minnesota Monthly. Jessica Nordell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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