Scene But Not Nerd

Geeks in Philadelphia make their mark.

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Jan. 7, 2009

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Malone is enthusiastic about the idea that fabbers "could help impoverished areas bootstrap themselves out of poverty." And he says that could work just as well in Philly as in the developing world.

There's another fabber in the Hacktory--the nonprofit workspace that's yet another nexus in Philly's constantly growing geek network. And there are plans to start both a real-space FabLab in Philly in 2009 and an open-source project that lets anybody put together a 3-D printer.

All you'd need then, says Malone, is a "a syringe and some goop."

This would be perfect for the House of the Future, whose residents would be happy to take advantage of technology to make change. Sassaman says she was politicized by the Republican National Convention in 2000, where she witnessed cops beating up cyclists "and the chief of police waling on a young dude." She was called as a witness when she was spotted in the background of a video.

As a result, she got involved in various independent media projects, including the community radio project Radio Prometheus. In fact, as she talks about the RNC, housemate Josh Marcus is upstairs engaged in an online "barnraising"--the term used to describe people all over the world pitching in to set up a radio station via the Internet.

Given work like this, the denizens of the House of the Future are proud to call themselves geeks. Some of them were involved in Philly's almost legendary Geek Nights--workshops in which skills were shared so that work on Prometheus wouldn't be monopolized by hardcore radio geeks--who, says Sassaman, "tend to be dudes." The Geek Nights also took the pressure off those techies who were "so fucking pissed-off with constantly being asked to fix stuff that either everybody was going to learn those skills or they were going to burn out and fucking kill everyone," says Sassaman.

But that was back before the Philly geek explosion, back when the city's geeks were still on the margins. Today the calendar creaks under the weight of fun geek events.

For instance, last October in Washington Square Park, there were two guys in giant cartoon-cat costumes extolling the virtues of punk physics, "which is basically the creation of energy by getting really angry about stuff."

The cats were an entry in Philly's premier geek-art event, the Art Buggy Derby. They'd built a rotating wheel with handles they called "Kat Klix's Feline Fun Factory." A Barbie doll, a plastic shark and dice were covered in glue and placed in the cat-hair-filled drum and, after the cats raced around the park against their deadly rival--a bespectacled teenage boy called the Crayonator, who used an adapted manual lawn mower to "color outside the lines"--the doll, shark and dice emerged "furred."

The panel of judges narrowly awarded the $500 first prize to crowd favorite Crayonator, provoking one of the cats to howl (in the best cartoon villain tradition) that next year revenge would be theirs because "engineers are going down to punk physics."

"The inspiration for the event was basically to bring the left- and right-brain folks together," says race organizer Harris Romanoff. Romanoff is also one of the brains behind Make: Philly--a regular event that describes itself as "a collaboration of artists and engineers; DIYers and DIY wannabes; geeks and visionaries" and might best be described as Robot Wars meets Project Runway.

A typical Make: Philly event: In a room at the University of the Arts on Broad Street, around 60 real-life MacGyver "deeks" (DIY geeks) listen to a lecture about research into snakelike self-reassembling robots from Penn professor Mark Yim. Then a deek takes the stage to show off his own borderline-insane invention: a body board nailed to an office chair.

Next the audience splits into random teams that grab handfuls of technical junk and race each other to build a robot that can draw. The results are amazing.

But it's not all fun and games. Alongside the tech geeks, the agit-geeks, the art-geeks and the sci-fi geeks are the entrepreneurial geeks (not that these are mutually exclusive categories).

"Philly's tech industry is growing like crazy. We have cheap rent and it makes it easier to do a bootstrapped startup," says 32-year-old Sol Young, "software development sherpa" and founder of the Philly Geek Dinner, during which the city's tech eggheads meet at the grooviest restaurants. Young moved to Philly from Silicon Valley when the dotcom bubble burst in 2001.

"We are a nutrient-rich technology startup location," says Young. "Philadelphia is in a state of rapid geek emergence and we all feel like we're building something wonderful."

Philadelphia is home to a Dorkbot chapter, a blogging convention, a thriving Harry Potter community, the annual Beer Geek competition, the Book Geek website and website that gleefully celebrates both the dafter excesses of geek-driven pop culture and the hardcore grit of Philly's DIY tech scene.

On TV the pop geek and the tech geek are still shown as two distinct types: the unwashed, unshaven, totally out-of-date D&D/SF-obsessed pop-geek bears on The Sarah Silverman Show vs. the awesomely socially unskilled and possibly Asperger's-stricken computer genius Chloe O'Brian from 24.

In reality, says's Eric Smith, the tech geek and the pop geek are often one and the same. He reckons there's a 65 percent crossover. Other Philly geeks put the percentage way higher.

The word "geek"--originally meaning a circus freak that bit the head off chickens--is now a badge of cool, so much so that there are dark mutterings about dilution, about faux-geeks who hover on the fringes of the scene, leaching credibility.

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Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Eric said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 07:21PM

“Ah! You reached out and talked to so many great people in the scene. Great article Steven. And Alex looks soooooo dreamy.”

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2. Lauren Galanter said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 07:36PM

“Thank you, Steven, for writing this article! As a fellow Philly geek I'm glad to see the scene in general get such in-depth coverage and see so many familiar names get cred. Just thought I'd let you know, there's a typo in "...they’re likely to strike sparks with other Philly braniacs." Though I'm sure there are fiber geeks out there too. : )”

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3. K said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 07:59PM

“Great article, and, um, nice to see so many familiar names! ”

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4. DotEd said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 08:07PM

“I was having a bad day until i read this. seriously. wait, there's proof: ”

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5. sol said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 08:49PM

"Geeks in other supposedly more glamorous cities fantasize about living here...Philly’s scene is unique and, apparently, the envy of the geekosphere."
I agree with @DotEd, this makes my week. Philly is the geekdom, and this is an article that brings light to how much of a tech sector and talent core the city has. Philly is the real deal, not just a few corporate walls.”

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6. alexknowshtml said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 09:29PM

“Steven, Our interview together was a blast, and I really appreciate the angle you took on this piece. You touched so many of the wonderful corners of the Philly geek community, and made each one shine. The "pissed aliens ripping a Victorian city apart" are starfish (from the Starfish and the Spider metaphor) taking over the city of Philadelphia. I think that metaphor is a strong underpinning of how you described Philly in the article, a strong and growing network of networks. One leg cannot take out any of the others. It's one of the defining factors of what makes Philly special. ”

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7. mikemaney said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 10:02PM

“One of the best stories I've read in a year (and I'm counting '08). Great reporting and, man, just really well-written. I couldn't send the link around to enough people fast enough.”

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8. Soimya Dada said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 06:52AM

“Where's the typo??? Don't geeks eat a lot of bran? Fiber clears out the system - "bran for brains" I always say.”

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9. Tim Canny said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 08:38AM

“Great article! Living on the outskirts of Philly I wasn't familiar with a number of the people and groups mentioned. Just one correction. The Crayonator is 10 years old! I know because he's my son. We entered the Art Buggy Derby as a team. He used much of the money to buy an iPod and lots of LEGO. We can't wait for next years competition. As a dad one thing I'd like to see or hear more about is how geekiness is being nutured in the next generation in Philly. My son and I are doing what we can with our web show, WREXLabs ( And the people at Make Philly and the Hacktory have always been very welcoming to us.”

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10. yegg said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 08:47AM

“If you are interested in startups (especially Internet startups), check out:”

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11. iconjohn said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 08:58AM

“Things sure have changed since the Punk Philly scene days of Hot Club, East Side Club and Kennel Club. All we wanted to do was get high, drunk and see the hippest band before they sold out. ”

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12. CMD said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 09:18AM

“Good stuff. Thanks for bring the Geek, or do I mean Nerd? Anyway, fun article and great video. ;)”

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13. Timothy Mayer said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 10:05AM

“Nice article. Our own little start-up supplies the epoxy used by the Fab@Home machine. More here:”

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14. crosswiredmind said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 11:40AM

“Truly awesome article. The stars are right indeed. Bar Camp Philly, Geeks who Give, UX Book Club - those are just a few more bits of geekery that created real bright spots in 09 and hopefully will grow even brighter in 09.”

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15. PovertyJetSet said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 02:21PM

“Philly geeks, FTW! Fave quote: "a serene Yoda to Hillman’s impulsive Luke Skywalker" - Go Geoff! LOL”

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16. Tara said... on Jan 8, 2009 at 01:46PM

“Excellent article. I like how this also covers a lot of the crossover you find in centric, music nerds, etc. What can I say? I'm a LARPer, and I love it here.”


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