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‘Otaku’ gather to celebrate the obsessive at Nerd Nite Tokyo

by

Staff Writer

What do you get when you mix drinking with learning, PowerPoint and other fun, geeky stuff in the city synonymous with the word otaku?

Nerd Nite Tokyo, where self-confessed nerds from all walks of life gather once month to loosen their anoraks, sup a beverage or two and feed on the niche knowledge of three quietly obsessive speakers.

It seems apt that Good Heavens, a retro British-themed bar in Shimokitazawa oozing Western popular culture, should play host to Nerd Nite Tokyo. An obsession with vinyl records? Too niche to be cool. Comic books and superheroes? Oh so nerdy. Classic literature and films? Nerd alert for sure.

But do the array of expats, travelers and English-speaking Japanese at Nerd Nite care about being branded with the N-word? Of course not: Embracing your inner otaku is unwritten rule No. 1 of Nerd Nite.

Traditionally a science-based speaking event that takes place all over the globe, Tokyo’s version of Nerd Nite is “I-only-did-science-in-high-school”-friendly and regularly features speakers spanning a wide range of interests, from science to the humanities and the arts. The inventor of the TV-B-Gone universal remote control has appeared here, as has an artificial intelligence tech whiz and a modern-day knight from Castle Tintagel, the medieval martial arts center in Mejiro. Nerds from all realms and backgrounds are truly welcome here.

“Right from the beginning we’ve had a mix,” says co-organizer Andrew Woolner, who is also the director of the Yokohama Theatre Group.

Anupreeta More, a postdoctoral researcher in astronomy at the University of Tokyo’s Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, kicked off the January event by explaining how gravitational lensing is being used to study dark matter and galaxies, and how anyone can get involved in her crowdsourcing project, Space Warps. The undisputed crowd highlight of her speech was her Donald Trump impression: “I’ve never seen a project more awesome than this! We have lots of lenses. Lots.”

Next up, Sean Aubin, a master’s student from Canada studying how humans learn cognitive skills, introduced the idea behind cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

“So it’s part of the nature of life that horrible things will happen to you, so eventually you’re going to disappoint someone you love, you’re gonna miss out on opportunities and someone you love will die … it’s inevitable,” he began, couching his dark subject matter in some much-needed dry humor.

“You should have some way of managing those emotions,” he continued, “so when the flood comes you can swim, instead of drowning.”

Aubin described CBT as a way of “debugging” your mental clutter — treating negative thoughts like computer glitches. Using mind maps, Aubin demonstrated a methodical process to rationalize negative thoughts, with the aim of shifting behavior from obsessing over negative thoughts to rational and logical action.

“The idea behind CBT is that you don’t go and sit down with a pencil and paper and map out your whole problem every time you feel mildly worried or anxious about something. The idea is that you just get better at doing this, you get better at questioning your beliefs and your thoughts and the logical process behind them,” he explained.

The last speaker was urban explorer Michael Gakuran, known on his website and social media as Gakuranman. It’s hard to summarize Gakuranman, who has worked in a diverse range of fields in Japan. Yet, while his talents and time would appear to have been widely spread, his heart, it seems, belongs to haikyo. This Japanese word translates as “ruins,” and haikyo mania refers to the increasingly popular practice of exploring desolate abandoned sites.

In true storyteller style, Gakuran began with an anecdote about scaring his fiancee and family to death on his first haikyo adventure. So why does he go to remote abandoned sites — sometimes breaking the law and putting himself in dangerous situations — to take photos?

“Because it’s there,” Gakuran said, quoting George Mallory, a mountain climber who hoped to be the first man to conquer Mount Everest. “What we get from this adventure is sheer joy.”

Gakuran mentioned the famous scene in the 1985 film “The Goonies” where the young heroes discover a pirate ship. This is how he describes the feeling of immense joy and satisfaction that comes from finding something rare after investing a lot of time, effort and research.

The February event will feature geophysicist Christine Houser talking about seismology and Earth’s tectonic dynamics, NPO consultant Sarajean Rossitto on developments in volunteerism and philanthropy since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, and astrophysicist Don Warren, promising what is being billed as an “explosive cosmic bonanza” on big bangs.

“It’s all shaking and rattling in February,” said co-organizer Amanda Alvarez.

However, the March event is going to be the real shake-up, with an experimental collision between Nerd Nite and a more arty theater crowd — Woolner’s Yokohama Theatre Group — in a unique event incorporating science, communication and the performing arts.

“Three scientists get three talks and three performance groups come in … and we do the performance the next Saturday,” said Woolner, describing the concept. “I’m hoping we can combine the Nerd Nite audience with the theater audience and cross-pollinate a little bit, so that people can see that you don’t just watch a science talk because it’s interesting, it can also lead you to these other thoughts.

“I’m interested in how we can use art to discuss facts, or new information. Like where does science-communication and art intersect?”

Nerd Nite attendees value the feeling of community at these events, with most keen on promoting deeper understanding of science, and while scientists still dominate the Nerd Nite crowd, it is clear that the event is branching out. In fact, part of the fun is guessing where this event, or these speakers, may go next.

Whatever their differences, there is one thing that pretty much all at Nerd Nite agree on. As one regular put it, “It doesn’t really matter the field … if you’re really passionate about something and you want to dig deeper, then you’re a nerd.”

The next Nerd Nite Tokyo is on Friday at Good Heavens in Shimokitazawa. Details: tokyo.nerdnite.com. Do you know about a citizens’ group or of any other helpful resources? Your comments and questions: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp