Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Day 171 - Attending Nerd Night

I have never attended a Nerd Night. For those that are unaware, Nerd Night is a national movement of local gatherings focused on discussion of science and technology. Similar to TED talks, Nerd Nights give experts the ability to discuss topics in their given fields before an audience of people curious about general science and technology information. The only differences between TED talks and Nerd Nights are the obvious differences in size and the fact that Nerd Nights tend to be hosted in local bars, which gives attendees the ability to have a few drinks while they take in the information presented. Needless to say, the mix between knowledge and a night of fun was more than enough to entice me to attend a Nerd Night. As a result, I decided to add the event to my “I Have Never...” list, and I set aside time to attend a Madison Nerd Night at the nearby High Noon Saloon this evening.

The introduction
When I arrived at the bar, final preparations were being made to begin the evening. A large crowd of people gathered before a stage containing a man, a microphone stand, and a laptop computer perched on an aged metal stool. After a few moments of tinkering with the laptop, a basic introduction screen was projected on a screen behind the man. In response, he gave a quick thumbs up and smiled before approaching the microphone stand and beginning the show. In unscripted remarks, the man welcomed the crowd and a gave a brief summary of the three talks that would be given during the Nerd Night event, which included a discussion of zombies in the kingdom of insects, a talk on the economics of Malware, and a comparison speech on pneumatic tube postal systems and the internet. Intrigued by each, I quickly settled into a location near the middle of the room and listened on as the man on the stage wrapped up his introduction. With that, the Assistant Director of Education for the UW Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, Ben Taylor, took the stage to begin the first of the night’s presentations.

Humor makes parasitoids interesting
With energy and humor, Ben introduced the crowd to the subject of his talk, which centered on the neurological effects of bee venom on a variant of cockroach in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the subject matter seemed dry and uninteresting at first, Ben was quick to gather the interest of the audience by injecting jokes routinely in his introduction of cockroach and wasp behaviors. Eventually, this led Ben to a discussion of the evolution of wasp predation, reproduction, and venom, which all revolved around finding a host for the wasp eggs which would inevitably serve as the food source for the hatched wasp pupae. Narrowing his topic, Ben began discussing the specific evolution of the Emerald Cockroach Wasp, which had developed a chemical concoction that eliminates the fear response in the brain of a specific cockroach, making it into a zombified slave that the wasp uses as a living host and ultimate food source for its eggs.

As he delved deeper into the topic, I found Ben’s speech and the science behind the wasps’ technique for making a living cockroach zombie to be much more interesting than I ever would have anticipated. Of course, a large portion of this is a direct result of the style in which the information was presented, but the information about the specialization of the wasp on its own was enlightening and engaging, which held my focus for the remainder of Ben’s presentation. Eventually, Ben wrapped up with a brief summary of how it is believed such a relationship developed before fielding a few questions from the audience. After taking a few, he concluded his time and relinquished control back to the host for the evening, who announced after a brief break security architect Pat O’Connell would begin his presentation.

Break time... Taking a walk around with a freshy

After grabbing a beer during the break, I returned to my location at the center of the room as Pat took the stage. Using a very different approach than Ben had used in his earlier presentation, Pat began his discussion on Malware by offering a series of staggering facts about the breadth and economics of the use of the software. With several stories of groups using Malware to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars with the release of a single virus, the crowd sat in stunned silence at the information Pat was presenting. In little more than five minutes he had laid out the foundational elements of the multi-billion dollar Malware industry, and he stated the threat to all internet users was far greater than anyone thinks.

Malware is scary
Continuing, Pat explained the efforts of hackers are largely dictated by the economics behind the process. While he assured the audience that any hacker worth their weight could tap into the internet connected devices throughout the room, he stated such an effort provides little incentive when much larger targets with much more lucrative rewards now populate the internet. Remaining on that topic, Pat explained a series of recent Malware attacks that targeted large corporations, government agencies, and data centers containing consumer information. He explained his experience has revealed Malware developers and the crime rings that use the software tailor their approach to steal the most financially beneficial information possible, which can range from direct theft of financial records, to the theft of proprietary patents, and to the theft of classified information of value to organizations and governments around the world. 

Moving toward conclusion, Pat provided some advice to help avoid the threat of Malware and to protect personal information whenever possible. He then opened up to questions from the audience, which moved some wary attendees to ask him about the best methods to ensure their information was safe, to which Pat provided some insight on his approach to protecting his personal computer equipment and private information. Although the advice was well received, it was clear the audience was still floored by Pat’s presentation, which helped spur conversation between audience members during the break between the end of Pat’s presentation and the final presentation of the night.

Moments after Pat completed his presentation, my friend Ross arrived to join me for the remainder of the Nerd Night event. With information from Pat’s Malware presentation still spinning in my head, I was quick to rehash the highlights from the presentation as I brought Ross up to speed on the earlier presentations. The conversation easily filled the remaining portion of the break, which left a final presentation on the history of infrastructure development leading up to the modern internet from assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at UW-Madison, Molly Wright. After a brief introduction from the host, Molly took the stage and began her presentation on the development of pneumatic post and its relationship with modern networking structure that provides the world access to the internet.

A series of tubes, you say?
Molly’s history-centric approach to her talk immediately garnered my attention as Ross and I listened on. With a variety of amazing historical photos accompanying her topic, I watched on as Molly explained the role of pneumatic tubes in the spread of information and news during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Specifically, Molly focused on the pneumatic post system in Paris, which made it possible to deliver information across the massive city in a matter of minutes during an era when telegrams were the main source of long-distance communication. As someone that was unaware of such a postal delivery service, I was stunned by the leap in technology offered by the pneumatic system, which left me wondering why the technology faded into a sort of oblivion over time.

Fortunately, Molly spent the remaining portion of her talk addressing the factors that led city planners to turn away from pneumatic systems, which was largely driven by the over-the-road transportation made possible by gasoline powered engines. Toward the end of her presentation, Molly shifted to the schematics and networking of the pneumatic systems in major European cities, discussing how their structure is still used in the development of modern internet networks. Adding to that point, Molly showed a series of pneumatic tubes still running below the streets of Paris that now house the fiber cables that permit internet connectivity. On cue, she wrapped up her presentation by advising the audience that the internet really is a “series of tubes” as the Late Senator Ted Stevens was once famously quoted as saying.

Following the end of Molly’s presentation, tonight’s Nerd Night event rapidly drew to a close. As Ross and I finished the last of our drinks, we talked about the information presented and shifted our conversation from one point to the next. Eventually, we found nearly an hour had passed since the end of the event, which caused us to head for the door. After saying my goodbyes, I started the short drive home from the High Noon saloon, still baffled at how quickly the night had progressed.

With that thought in mind, I realized the late hour likely meant Nerd Night had fulfilled its purpose. After all, the presentations given inspired Ross and I to discuss scientific, technological, and philosophical topics that wouldn’t have come up on a typical night, which meant we were engaging in the sharing of information and experiences that helped both of us become better-informed, more knowledgeable people. While it is obvious our conversation was likely child’s play in comparison to some of those had among a room full of some of Madison’s smartest people, Ross and I engaged in some informative discussion that helped advance the idea of Nerd Night; to learn, to grow, and to have some fun. That’s the kind of event I can definitely get into, and although I don’t know when I will be attending a Nerd Night again, I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself attending another in the future.

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