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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Madland: Nerd Nite Madison gets global attention
Taylor: "Beer drinking and learning seem to be a perfect fit for Madison."
Credit:Dutcher Photography

Ben Taylor has walked the line between science and performance for many years, doing science outreach for UW-Madison by day and serving as a member and business manager of Atlas Improv at night. When he found Nerd Nite Madison, a monthly gathering at the High Noon Saloon where presenters give impassioned (and inebriated) talks on subjects near and dear to their hearts, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for Taylor to mix his passions.

Taylor is a frequent Nerd Nite presenter and now serves as one of Nerd Nite Madison's organizers, or "bosses," as they prefer to be called.

Taylor sat down with Isthmus to discuss the key elements of a successful Nerd Nite presentation, taking his presentation on bees and Sex and the City to New York and Toronto, and what to expect from Nerd Nite 18 on Wednesday, Feb. 5, which will feature a visit from international Nerd Nite founder Christopher Balakrishnan.

Isthmus: So, what's Nerd Nite?
Taylor: Nerd Nite is like a series of hyper informal TED talks where people who are passionate about anything and everything get up on our stage, drink a beer and tell people about it. Subject matter ranges from entropy to hidden radio stations. Anything goes.

Nerd Nite didn't start in Madison. How long ago did it start up?
It started with Chris Balakrishnan. He started it in Boston and then it moved to New York. Then, I believe Munich was like the next move.

Logical, that's the big three for entertainment: Boston, New York, Munich. When did you first get involved with Nerd Nite Madison?
It started in Madison in 2008-2009, somewhere around there. I had been going for a while but my first talk was August of 2011. My first talk was "Sex and the Sick Bee" which I had the opportunity to take to Nerd Nite Global last summer.

Tell me more about Nerd Nite Global.
Nerd Nite Global was put on by Matt, who is the main Nerd Nite boss. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 cities that put on Nerd Nites, and Matt wanted a convening place for Nerd Nite all-stars. The call was put out for all of the bosses -- the people who run the events in each city are called bosses -- to select one nerd from their repertoire to send to New York for the global meetup. The Madison bosses asked if I would go. Matt was excited as "Sex and the Sick Bee" talk I did seemed to be a good fit for a New York show.

Let's go back to the "bosses." So Nerd Nite is set up like Tammany Hall?
Yes. Pretty much exactly.

So you got a little press coverage when you were out in New York.
I did. It was great. I got covered by The New York Observer. A woman from the Observer emailed me the following day. She really liked my talk and wanted more information. Probably the funnest thing about that is The New York Observer is where the fictional character Carrie Bradshaw writes for in Sex and the City.

It came full circle!
Full circle with bees.

Has there been more sharing between the cities since the global event?
Yeah, since the event, we started a Facebook group where the different bosses are now talking to one another. I actually just travelled to Toronto in early January to do a talk to their Nerd Nite. Some of the other Nerd Nites are seeing that now -- there are a bunch in California where people essentially go on tour with their talks.

What is the appeal of Nerd Nite? Not just in Madison but all of these cities.
I think nerd culture is an offshoot of hipster culture, I really do, where there's a lot of value put into caring deeply about something other people ignore or marginalize. And, certainly, the thing that unites most Nerd Nites is proximity to colleges or universities, where graduate students who are making a living caring about one little thing can be made to feel heroic.

Is there anything about Madison that makes the town a good fit for Nerd Nite?
We’re beer drinkers. We've also got a lot of smart people who want something to do on a weekday night, so beer drinking and learning seem to be a perfect fit for Madison. A natural fit.

What should we expect out of this Wednesday's Nerd Nite?
It is going to be magical. One of the things Lee and Elena (the other bosses) and I have been trying to work on is getting a mix of the hard sciences and the humanities in every show. This one is going to be all over the board. We're going to have a man talking about the differences between the movies of the Lord of the Rings and the books. Not just nitpicking, but from the humanitarian perspective of how the changes impact the story. We'll hear about the history of beard growing competitions.

But that's not all...
You're right. On top of all that, we have a visit from Chris Balakrishnan, the founder of Nerd Nite, who will be speaking about a topic I don't even know. He's refused to lock down a topic, which I love. My hope is that he'll talk about something wildly inappropriate that will make everyone uncomfortable. Or maybe he'll talk about cuckoo birds.

Are you ready to have the founder visit the Madison chapter?
Oh yeah. Lee's been doing the Madison Nerd Nite for a long time, so he knows a lot of the people. When he saw that Chris was coming through the area, he made sure we'd get him here. We even scheduled the date of this show around Chris's availability.

During his visit to Madison, Isthmus will interview Chris Balakrishnan about how Nerd Nite has grown into a global event, and how Madison stacks up to some of the other participating cities.

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