Knowing is Half the Battle
With its brainy, Internet-obsessed populace, mostly indoor-type weather, and plethora of tech/bio/sci-style industries, San Francisco is something of a nerd’s paradise. (After all, our best-known tourist attraction is a particularly fine feat of engineering.) Indeed, just as aspiring politicians flock to Washington DC or wannabe actors swarm to Los Angeles, San Francisco attracts some of the purest nerds in the world. And as you might expect from a city so transfixed on sourcing locally, we also grow our own, thank you very much.
And yet, after the three-day coding marathons and all-nighters in the lab, what do SF’s nerds do for fun? As no stranger to the world of midnight movies and RPGs myself, I had a few ideas. But to fill out the full, glorious panorama of options, I turned to an expert for help.
Bart Bernhardt cofounded Nerd Nite SF in 2009 after attending a traveling show put on by the Boston-based founders of the event. Nerd Nite is like the best lecture series ever, focusing on topics as diverse as competitive skeeball, Roman history, and audio guides. (“Yes, audio guides,” cackles Bart.) Together with his cofounder Lucy Laird, Bart curates these lectures every third Wednesday of each month. Oh, there’s one more thing: Nerd Nite SF takes place in a bar, the Rickshaw Stop.
Bart explains his thought process that fateful, first night: “I thought to myself, ‘This is amazing! It's really funny, interesting, boozy, and packed! Why does this not exist in SF?’ Followed by, ‘Well, fuck it, if no one else is doing it, I will!’ I had some experience with public science education from back when I worked at California Academy of Sciences, and I am most definitely a nerd, so why not?”
Three years later, Bart and Lucy’s night is still going strong. The average Nerd Nite attracts 200 attendees, who watch three 30-minute presentations, mingle, and enjoy DJ Alpha Bravo mixing songs inspired by the topics of the evening. Past highlights included a crowd-pleasing presentation on the Martian magnetosphere, research videos of breeding cephalopods set to 1970s porn music, and Bart himself in a wig as the “target” for a lecture on pick-up artistry from a self-described social coach.
The lesson here: Nerds know a lot, including how to have more fun than the rest of us. Always ready to cede the floor to a more knowledgeable individual, I asked Bart for more suggestions.
Bart’s first recommendation, Dorkbot, is an esoteric series of events focusing on unexpected uses of technology. In fact, Dorkbot is really best described by the event’s own tagline: People doing strange things with electricity. The event, which has aspirations to be monthly and is held at locations around San Francisco, showcases the more eccentric side of technology. “At first it was seeded with my friends: machine artists, pyromaniacs, pranksters from the Survival Research Labs/machine art scene, academics from PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center), and hackers,” says Karen Marcelo, the founder of Dorkbot here in SF. (The event started in New York, 10 years ago.) “It was fun to just have an excuse to throw a party and have people get together to show off their work, drink, and blow stuff up, instead of meeting at a bar.”
The crowds at Dorkbot vary, but usually there are around 150 people in attendance. There were only 30 at the first meeting. “We set off a mortar in the backyard,” recalls Karen, “A cop car drove by, but they couldn’t figure out where the bang came from so they drove off.” More than 300 curious souls showed up for a cross-country ”teledildonics demo,” which connected a “controller” in SF with “a porn star hooked up to the Thrillhammer in New York.” The format can change too, as there have been salon nights, field trips, workshops, and even a full-fledged benefit, when a member of SRL was injured after a show in Amsterdam.
So whether you’re looking to see a vacuum that’s been reverse-engineered to shoot fire, or to smell perfumes made from “bodily fluids” by Slovakian artists, Dorkbot has got you covered. Just wear something you don’t mind getting a little singed.
If you’re more into casting dice than die casting, not to worry. Bart has got what you need. Just head on over to Super Nerd Night, a monthly meetup for lovers of bits, booze, and board games alike. Super Nerd Night was founded by Amy Lukima, who based it on an event she hosted back in Kansas. “When I moved to San Francisco I wanted to meet other nerds,” she explained. “I tried going to bars, but I'm not into dancing and I generally avoid places that require me to scream directly into someone’s ear to have a conversation.”
Amy went around to venues, looking for one that would give her their slowest night. “Most of them laughed at me,” she remembers, “But eventually I found the Edinburgh Castle and the night became a massive success.” Each night begins with board games – newcomers are welcome to bring their own or join in anywhere there is an opening. At 9 p.m., Amy sets up a bracket for a heads-up video game like Street Fighter. The competition is fierce, but winners get prizes donated by local businesses and game companies.
The crowd at the Edinburgh Castle is very mixed, but leans toward people in their twenties. “We just want to meet people who play,” says Amy. Many are single, but that’s changing. According to Amy, “multiple couples” have met at Super Nerd Night. “That's my favorite part of it.”
Gamescape: A titan in local
gaming since 1985. As Bart says, “If you want to discover what else
is out there besides Monopoly or Settlers of Catan, this is where you
go in SF.” Check its website for a daily schedule of in-store tournaments.
Kinokuniya Bookstore: This international chain’s outpost, just across the street from the Nihonmachi Mall, is your one-stop destination for anime, manga, and more. From the Studio Ghibli corner to the extensive Cosplay Craft section, they have got you covered!
Lost Weekend Video: For 15
years, Lost Weekend has provided the Mission, and San Francisco, with
a proper video store run by real-life movie nerds.
Go there with a vague idea of a film you heard about once and they will
find it for you, and recommend five more that are just as good.
Isotope Comics: Readers of The Bold Italic might already be familiar with Isotope’s owner James Sime, whose carefully curated, impeccably appointed comic book lounge is a must visit.
Spectacles of Union Square:
A 70-year-old establishment, this is the place to find that most essential
nerd accessory: glasses. Featuring up-to-the-minute styles as well as
an extensive selection of vintage frames, Spectacles has something for
The Yoda Fountain: Less a purveyor of material goods than a literal and metaphorical font of nerd essence. This life-sized statue of the notable Jedi practitioner decorates the exterior office of Lucasfilm, LucasArts, and Industrial Light & Magic. Go there to pay tribute to the master.
Bart and I can only do so much – you have to close your browsers and get out there! Visit Nerd Nite SF’s website for more information about the next event – or to volunteer your services as a speaker. Dorkbot’s unpredictability is the source of much of its appeal. The scheduling of the event can be equally irregular, check out the site for more info and to sign up for the mailing list. Super Nerd Night happens the first Thursday of every month, usually at the Edinburgh Castle. Check out its Facebook page for more info.