by Rabab Charafeddine
If you have ever watched the Big Bang Theory or gone to the Apple store you should know that nerds and geeks are the new popular kids. They are portrayed positively on national TV and everyone solicits their help when their computers are acting up. Nerd fashion is also really in. Those big black-rimmed glasses and fitted buttoned up shirts you see everywhere were once only found in the closets of people who memorize the periodic table of elements. Being a nerd nowadays is not only celebrated but respected. Do you hear that fellow EINSTEINites? This means that we are the cool kids now.
With a slogan like “be there or be square,” Nerd Nite is all about indulging in society’s newfound obsession with all things nerdy. Unlike the Secret Science Club, Nerd Nite is a paid monthly event hosted at the Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO. For 10 dollars you can spend your Friday night at an amazing venue while learning new random factoids from mini presentations that are designed to inform but mainly entertain.
The venue is as interesting as the show itself. The large concrete space stands out amongst the red bricks of the surrounding older and taller buildings; however, in contrast to the exterior’s industrial feel, going inside is like entering a world of unexpectedness. Once you get over how spacious and open it is you notice that the path to the big stage is actually a bridge and the roundtables are like little islands sprawled throughout a lake. The water reflects the dim lights making the place seem very intimate and, dare I say, romantic. The mezzanine surrounds the whole space with small tables overlooking the stage and lake. No wonder people think to get married here.
Even though we arrived 10 minutes before the show, there was hardly any seating left. Matt Wasowski, the quirky organizer and host, introduced the presenters of the night. The topics at hand were not typical of what we would see on PowerPoint slides—from table saws to Photoshop’s memory-altering capabilities.
The first mini presentation was titled “Bent Over a Table Saw: How One Brilliant Invention Could Paralyze an Industry” by Neil Janowit. I didn’t know much about table saws and never thought they were anything interesting to people who don’t do any woodwork. Gladly, Neil proved me very wrong. Looking like he came straight from his workshop with goggles around his neck, Neil was a charismatic presenter who managed to captivate the audience with very simple yet well-prepared slides about this obscure topic.
Apparently, table saws are not only great for cutting wood, but their users’ fingers too. More than thirty thousand people in the US alone go to the emergency room for table saw related injuries every year. Even the most experienced woodworkers have accidents, especially since users usually remove the table saw guards as they can be restrictive to their work. It is surprising that there is hardly any progress toward improving the safety of this finger-chopping hazard of a tool. Fear not, Neil assured, there is one invention that could prevent all these injures. Invented by physicist Stephen Gass, SawStop is an electrical sensor that can detect moisture on the skin when it comes in contact with the saw causing it to jam and brake in milliseconds, averting any serious injuries. However, even though Gass invited it in 2000, this technology has not been adapted by the power-tool industry. In a nutshell, it turned out to be a case of money, patents, and stubbornness.
If you Google SawStop, as I did once I got back home from the event (yeah it was that compelling), all the articles about the technology and its inventor blamed the industry for refusing to license it because it was not cost effective. It was thought that the technology would also increase the risk of product liability lawsuits if the safety feature malfunctioned. They resisted and effectively shut down efforts by congress to make safety standards offered by new technologies, such as SawStop, mandatory.
In this piece, Stephen Gass was hailed as a hero who simply wanted to make table saws safer for everyone and single-handedly fought the big power tool industry in the name of the consumer. After failing to license it, he started his own table saw company, SawStop, manufacturing table saws with this added safety feature. However, this picture of the little man fighting the big corporations painted by the media is very different from what Neil had presented and argued as to why the industry is so far behind on safety measures. You see, Gass had also worked as a patent attorney who did not only patent his invention, but also patented every variation of the idea that came up during safety standard meetings with industry representatives. He now has over 50 patents related to SawStop. Neil claimed that Gass was uncompromising when the table saw companies did try to license his technology. In their opinion, licensing more than 50 patents would actually ruin the cheap table saw market.
It was refreshing to hear the story that Neil told. It seems that this case represents much more than the story depicting big corporations protecting their bottom line, or the inventor, with a conflict of interest, wanting safety for all table saw consumers. This represents the essence of free market ideals that the US was built on; if something is not cost effective, it is going to hurt an industry and thus the economy as a whole. Neil’s take also made me question patent laws, which are necessary to protect the inventor’s interests, but can actually hinder a field’s progress more than it can hasten it.
Next up was a mini presentation by Rose Eveleth on “How Photoshop is Ruining Your Memories.” Rose was bubbly and funny, and somewhat reminded me of Lena Dunham. She was a very engaging speaker but the pictures she unveiled more so garnered the attention of the audience. We use pictures to celebrate personal memories, such as early childhood milestones and family events. Most importantly we utilize them as stamps in history commemorating our collective memories of world events, from natural disasters to violent conflicts. Images are the visual evidence we use, with no words needed, to put a situation or event in perspective and engrave it in our memory. We trust an image more than a person’s word. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words but, as Rose in so many pictures points out, seeing is not always believing.
Photographers, media outlets, and governments have been caught using doctored images to make political statements, overdramatize situations, or to make the original image appear more powerful. Apparently, doctoring images is nothing new; it has long been used for propaganda. I was shocked to learn that the heroic image of President Lincoln we all have in our heads is, in fact, just his head on John Calhoun’s very stoic stature. Retouching has also been used by totalitarian regimes to remove from pictures those who have since become disfavored, literally and sometimes figuratively.
However, in a time where anyone anywhere can easily send out a picture to millions of people in the world, doctoring images becomes even more of a threat to the soundness of our collective memory. Rose presented a couple of studies that showed how much our memories rely on pictures. In one study, researchers handed the subjects pictures from their childhoods and asked them to describe the setting or event related to each picture. Amongst these real pictures was a fake picture of the subject riding in a hot air balloon with their family. Half of the subjects were able to “remember” the event even though it never happened. Another study revealed that recent adult memories can be manipulated too. The study’s subjects participated in a computer-based gambling game. At the end of the game researchers confronted them with a digitally manipulated video showing their partner cheating. 20% of the subjects not only “remembered” their partner cheating but agreed to sign a witness statement.
I have to say, based on the title I thought this presentation was going to be about how magazines use Photoshop to retouch celebrities’ figures and faces. It turns out, doctoring images goes beyond affecting our body image; it can also affect our memories and beliefs.
The third presentation, “Running Late: The Past, Present, and Uncertain Future of the American Late-Night Talk Show,” was given by Scott Rogowsky. As a Late-Night talk show host at the Galapagos Art Space, I thought Scott was going to be the funniest and most engaging speaker considering the subject matter and the fact that he is a professional. Even though the presentation started out well, it quickly went downhill from there. When the slides started to look like lists of names, events, and TV shows, it felt like we were getting a history lesson about Late-Night shows. There was no theme nor a story that pulled everything together. No observations as to why Late-Night talk shows are, to this day, an integral part of American television and culture. To be fair, Scott did apologize for being unprepared—he only worked on his presentation while he waited for his turn to present. Nonetheless, I still think he is a funny and charismatic guy, but no matter how good you are, if you don’t do your homework, you are going to have a bad time.
Nevertheless, I still considered my night to have been very enjoyable. Blurring the lines between experts and amateurs, Nerd Night relies heavily on the skills and preparedness of the Nite’s presenters. The topics are simple and light enough to discuss over dinner with friends or in a bar with acquaintances. But Nerd Nite is mostly about the experience itself, from the venue and presenters to the chill and interactive audience shouting questions and answers. It is definitely an unusual kind of entertainment with an added dash of goofiness.