Calling all geeks! Seattle's mad-scientist scene is booming
"It's like the Discovery Channel — with beer!"
Join the fun
Dorkbot: First Wednesday of each month; http://dorkbotsea.org/
Nerd Nite: Third Monday of every month; http://seattle.nerdnite.com/
Ignite: Quarterly; http://www.igniteseattle.com/
Seattle Food Geek: http://seattlefoodgeek.com/
A FEW YEARS ago, Scott Heimendinger had an egg that changed his life.
The yolk was buttery, he later wrote, "with a creamy decadent texture." The white, "soft and delicate like a white pudding."
"Exquisite," he called it.
This sounds like one heck of an egg. But most of us probably would have said "Mmmm," and left it at that. More curious souls might have asked how it was cooked. (Hint: It took a machine called a sous vide, which at the time cost upward of $1,200 and was used pretty much exclusively in high-end restaurants.)
But Heimendinger, who was a project manager at Microsoft back then, went a little nuts on this egg. Actually, he geeked out. Completely.
He decided to build his own sous vide, spending hours researching and cogitating and calculating until he figured it out.
"I reverse-engineered a thermal circulator," he says matter-of-factly.
By this he means he wired together a plastic tub, an aquarium pump, a coffee heater, a switch, and Voila! It sits on the counter of his Green Lake kitchen, looking very mad scientist-y, with pingpong balls floating on top to control evaporation. It cost him $75.
That could have been that: Heimendinger could have gone on just getting jazzed about otherworldly eggs. But he figured his project was so much fun that other people would surely want to make their own, too. So he did what today's breed of home-tinkerer does: He shared. He posted detailed photos and instructions on his blog, called Seattle Food Geek. People responded with questions and suggestions, which led him to hone his instructions, and on and on. Two years later, he calculates that 1,000 others have used his specs to make their own sous vides.
Today, you'll find geeks like Heimendinger doing it for themselves, among themselves all over Seattle and beyond. And in the process, they're helping change the way we learn. Forget the stultifying training seminars, the fancy certifications, the expensive courses.
"What you're really seeing," says Bryan Zug, a video producer and self-proclaimed geek, "is the beginning of a transformation of education and training."
"Personally," he went on, "I think it's the total disruption of all human knowledge."
A nerdy exaggeration? Or could he be onto something?
We decided to find out.
AT THIS POINT, a question arises: What's a geek, anyway? Is it different from a nerd or a dweeb or a dork? People have debated this for decades. There are even Venn diagrams sorting through the differences. Suffice it to say most agree it's someone who's passionately interested in learning how things work.
The subject doesn't matter all that much. You can be a tech nerd or a food nerd. An iPhone geek or a baseball geek.
It wasn't too long ago that no one in his right mind would call themselves a nerd or anything of the sort. Those were the kids who regularly got "kick me" signs taped to their backs in school.
But today, it's quite all right to let your geek flag fly. Heimendinger proclaims his membership in the tribe right on his forearm, with a big tattoo of a pair of eyeglasses.
It has little to do with social skills, or lack thereof. In fact, there's a booming geek scene here in Seattle — and it's not just happening in techie workplaces. There are regular geek social hours, nerd get-togethers, must-see dork events, and publications where insiders can find out what's hip (or square, depending). There's Dorkbot. Science on Tap. Geekwire. A conference called GeekGirlCon. And, as of September, the creation of Nerd Nite.
"I'd say nerd is on the upswing," says Julia Hughes, co-boss of the event. Basically, it's a once-a-month meetup, held at a bar, where guest speakers talk about whatever they happen to be geeking out on.
"It's like the Discovery Channel — with beer!" goes the slogan.
So a molecular biologist talked about a side project scoring horror films. A neuroscientist explained how MP3s work. And for the kickoff event, Heimendinger talked about his foodie passions, to the hoots and hollers of the crowd.
After Heimendinger ate his transformative egg, he became interested in modernist cuisine. It was a whole new world — part science, part fine-dining, part lighthearted fun — that involves all manner of kitchen wizardry. Until recently, you could experience it only in restaurants equipped with things like centrifuges, scales that weigh out .0000001 grams, and a staff of fastidious prep cooks. But Heimendinger decided to try it at home.
"I can only imagine what my neighbors think when they see flashes going off in my kitchen at night," he says.
Sous vide is one of the modernists' favorite techniques. It's basically a water bath. Put the food in — and leave it there, sometimes for days — and it comes out cooked through to whatever temperature the water is set to.
His geeky cooking tricks didn't stop there. Heimendinger's outfitted his home with a centrifuge, an incubator, a high-amplitude ultrasonic wand (on loan). You know, the necessities.
Mostly, he doesn't use this stuff to cook full-fledged meals. More to experiment. Centrifuged peas. Whiskey and beer "aged" with ultrasonic waves. Incubator-fermented garlic. He even conducts elaborate blind taste tests.
"Most of it's failures," he concedes.
The next question seems obvious. Uh . . . why?
That's "a really strange question," he says.
Indeed, at Nerd Nite Seattle, nobody asked why he was using liquid nitrogen or why he centrifuged Miracle Whip. As true geeks, they were more interested in "how." Where do you get liquid nitrogen, anyway? And they were rapt, shouting out questions as he delivered one geeky punch line after another.
"You may ask yourself, if I can cook steak in a pool of water, does it get brown on the outside?
"The answer is, you use a blowtorch!"
Cheers all around.
Turns out being a nerd can be kinda fun.
IN MATT Westervelt's basement workshop on Capitol Hill, we're surrounded by robots.
Now, if your idea of a robot is something like Rosie, the Jetsons' mechanized maid, you're way out of the loop. The vaguely humanoid-looking thingamajig with the mechanized voice? A mere "artifact of the collective consciousness," Westervelt explains.
Instead, robots are computer-controlled machines that can perform some tasks by themselves, but at this stage in their development require guidance by an operator.
If being surrounded by robots isn't geeky enough for you, consider this: Most of them were built by people pulling free instructions off the Internet. Some of these guys — yes, they're mostly guys — even make their own robot parts by programming other robots to print them in 3-D.
A number of them were built right here, in Westervelt's workshop, Metrix Create:Space, one of a handful of "hackerspaces" or "makerspaces" around the city. Meet a group of geeks and it won't take long before someone starts talking about how central these places are to the scene.
Never heard the term?
"It's kind of like an Internet cafe," Westervelt explains.
Well, kind of, if by "Internet cafe" he means a place where you can rent a soldering iron or a laser engraver or an oscilloscope; where machines are busy printing out one-of-a-kind plastic toys; where geeks can share their passions freely.
"We're decorating Christmas ornaments with a robot!" announces Matthew Wilson, a site-reliability engineer at Google and a regular patron.
They build things and chitchat and hold meetings and come up with ideas, both crazy and not-so-crazy.
"People have an innate need to create," Westervelt explains. "It's not just for money. It's not just for fame."
Some people, like Wilson, are robot-builder types. Others make something more like regular crafts. Still others sort of blend the two, creating crafty-techie mashups, like scarfs that light up with LEDs.
The robots at Metrix on this particular night are mostly 3-D printers. While the very notion of printing something in three dimensions might sound like science fiction, certain industries have used them for decades. Same goes for laser cutters, which a few years ago were used mostly by commercial operations that wanted to cut out a gajillion look-alike widgets.
Now individuals are using these tools for one-of-a-kind projects they design themselves, using open-source software.
Wilson, for example, had ordered his computer to tell his robot to print out a space invader-shaped cookie cutter in 3-D.
"Suddenly you can learn how to do a lot of complicated things that were previously inaccessible," says Mike Tyka, who's involved with another makerspace called ALTSpace.
The cool part is that even if you don't know what you're doing, there's usually someone else in the makerspace who does, Westervelt says. Which is important. Because what they're really doing in these places is sharing knowledge and ideas. Turning DIY (do it yourself) into DIWO (do it with others).
"I think a lot of people are doing this as an outlet they've never had before," says Josh Kopel, who runs a monthly speaker series called Dorkbot that celebrates the intersection of technology and art. "They don't have to feel as if they're some outsider. They can feel comfortable there. Everyone understands their eccentricities."
To Kopel and others, it's a sign of something much larger.
"It's interesting to see the community aspect of it."
One night this fall, as Wilson was making his ornaments, three newcomers came in off the street.
"We hear there's some 3-D action going on tonight," one said. And Westervelt and Wilson proceeded to tell the newcomers how it's done.
A FEW YEARS ago, the geek scene didn't really exist, as such, in Seattle. Sure, there were plenty of techies here, but in their spare time, they were doing their own thing, mostly alone, says Brady Forrest, who puts on tech conferences for a living.
Visiting San Francisco, Chicago, New York, he saw there were all sorts of less-formal get-togethers where techies were circulating new ideas.
"I knew the people who could do all those things were here, I knew the ideas were here, the projects were here. I just didn't know what they were."
Thus he and a few friends came up with the idea for, well, "basically, like a geek night." They called it Ignite. The format is straightforward, but also a little on the edgy side: about 20 speakers, each given exactly five minutes to talk about their passions, accompanied by slides. "Enlighten us, but make it quick" is the slogan.
At the start of each Ignite, there's a group activity to get people mingling — for instance, an audience competition to build the strongest structure using only Popsicle sticks and glue.
For the first Ignite, in December 2006, Forrest and his buddies secured a venue — one that allowed beer — and posted notices on a few blogs. There was room for about 125. Some 200 people showed up.
Since then, they've moved to a bigger space and now hold Ignite quarterly, each time attracting 600 to 700 people, still through little more than word-of-mouth and blogs. Zug posts videos of the speakers online, which has attracted a wider audience. Ignite has been copied in an estimated 300 cities around the globe.
Here's the thing: The geeks aren't talking about the techie stuff they're doing at work. In fact, most of the talks aren't even all that techie. Instead, they talk mainly about what they do for fun — albeit a somewhat geekified version of fun.
Ignite topics have included how to start an alternative bank; the science of chocolate-making; how to win at Scrabble; the psychology behind the boom in food trucks; how neurobiology can help you climb Kilimanjaro. Forrest refers to them as "ask later" talks, as in, if you're interested, pull the speaker aside afterward, to further the discussion.
And this, says Zug, is key.
"It allows you to build connections with other people, and it builds a concentric circle with whatever you're doing."
And if there's anything that defines the modern geek, it is that — devouring information in ways that couldn't have happened even 10 or 15 years ago and sharing it. Think about it. Nerd Nite, makerspaces, Ignite, even Heimendinger's Food Geek blog, they're each about people sharing things they're wildly interested in, more or less free-of-charge.
It couldn't have happened without the proliferation of social media — and the fact that everything you could possibly want to learn is on the Internet. Which brings us back to Zug's original point, about "the transformation of education and learning."
"You don't need an organization to teach somebody something. You can publish your findings or a how-to or a video or a blog post," he says.
Today, says Zug, most of his friends would never pay to take a course on something they're interested in. "There's a good place for dedicated training, but more and more you're seeing this ecosystem emerge where people are self-taught and they're self-teachers."
This year, a free course in computer coding became a viral sensation online, drawing more than 200,000 enrollees. Stanford University made a course on artificial intelligence available to all.
"I think we're quite possibly in an unprecedented state of sharing knowledge and information and being able to collaborate and cooperate with people all over the place," says Joshua Madara, a board member at another makerspace called Jigsaw Renaissance. "But especially locally here in Seattle."
Meanwhile, geekdom continues to evolve.
"Ten years ago I think anybody who saw an iPhone would think that's something only geeks would want," Forrest says. Not anymore.
"Seattle has a great community of people like this," Kopel says, which explains why "it's rarely difficult to find someone who's doing something interesting."
Maureen O'Hagan is a Seattle Times staff writer. She can be reached at 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Erika Schultz is a Times staff photographer.
News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.