Monday, January 28, 2019

ThinkerCon 2018

When ThinkerCon was announced, it took me all of fifteen minutes to decide that I was going to Huntsville, Alabama in November! I immediately purchased a ticket for the event at the US Space and Rocket Center and texted my buddy Jeff, who, oddly enough, was just getting ready to purchase airfare to fly home for Thanksgiving. It didn't take much convincing for him to decide to reroute through Chattanooga so that I could pick him up on my way there! Later on, we added our friends Ian and John to complete our travel group.

The sun sets on Huntsville and the Saturn V
So, what is ThinkerCon? My quick explanation to people who asked was, "an educational YouTube conference." I've followed and supported a few of the educational content creators that were a part of the conference for several years, but, in particular, I really enjoy Destin from Smarter Every Day, who was organizing the conference. If you've spent any time with me, you've probably seen me sporting a SED shirt at some point. I also appreciate Matt Whitman's Ten Minute Bible Hour, and the No Dumb Questions podcast he hosts with Destin. Additionally, I can be counted among the many Tims who are dedicated listeners to Hello Internet and fans of videos by CGP Grey and Brady Haran.

Hokies visit Monte Sano
Ian, John, and I departed Blacksburg early Saturday morning and picked Jeff up around midday at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport. From there we continued to Alabama, dipping into Georgia a few times in the process. Having never visited Alabama, I was surprised to find how flat it was. I'm used to the Appalachian Mountains, but they seemed to abruptly end just as we crossed the state line.

Since we arrived with some time to spare in Huntsville, we decided to squeeze in a hike before heading to the conference. Jeff's sister had recommended Monte Sano State Park, so we hit the trails for a nice brisk hike to stretch our legs.

Back of the line
We arrived at the Space and Rocket Center, where the conference was being held, about an hour early and found our way to the back of the line - which already stretched the length of the Saturn V Hall! At this point I realized we were definitely the official delegation from Virginia Tech. All four of us are Virginia Tech engineering alumni (three computer science and one aerospace) and both Ian and I happened to be wearing Virginia Tech sweatshirts. As we walked to the back of the line, some dude wearing a UNC (or NC State, I can never keep them apart) shirt shouted "Go Heels!" (had we lost to North Carolina in a sportsball game recently?). Security had their work cut out for them, screening a thousand people, and we made it all the way to the front of the line just as they had to stop it to give priority to people seeing the 6:00 PM showing of Festival of the Spoken Nerd. I heard very little grumbling about this, and as far as we were concerned, we were happy to be there and enjoyed a conversation with a couple behind us from Tennessee.

The first order of business was dinner underneath the Saturn V rocket hanging in the Hall. This was an authentic German meal served by the onsite restaurant, Biergarten, and contained quite the assortment of potatoes. I think I could survive in Germany - those pretzel rolls were delicious!

Virginia Tech alumni delegation
After dinner, we sat in on a live coding competition, then moved to the other end of the hall for several panel sessions. The first was "It's Not Rocket Science (Actual Rocket Scientists)" hosted by Brady Haran. John particularly enjoyed this one as they discussed stress testing rocket engines - which is similar to the job he does every day. We also sat in on "Live Dangerously. The Joy of Play" and a panel entitled simply, "Go Outside!"

Rocket science panel
As the members of the last panel were being introduced, we made an exciting discovery! We weren't the only attendees from Virginia Tech! Derek Hennen introduced himself as a millipede biologist from Virginia Tech and got a whoop from our section. He does research on millipede populations up and down the east coast and runs a Twitter account called DearMillipede. Apparently, Virginia Tech has the only millipede lab in North America. Who knew (not us)! We caught up with Derek after the panel and talked about his favorite places to hike and find millipedes in Blacksburg.

Soon after that, it was off to The Festival of the Spoken Nerd show - a (as you may have guessed) fairly brainy science-based comedy show. We were probably one of the few crowds in the world you could tell a combinatorics joke to and people would actually laugh (and wouldn't just be humoring you). Our show finished up just before the fireworks display scheduled to finish off the night.

We made our way outside where speakers (along with quite a few car sound systems) were broadcasting the local NPR station. Destin had arranged with them to air the show as he and several other creators discussed the chemistry behind firework colors and combustion so that anyone in Huntsville in view of the Rocket Center could enjoy it as well. It was a great way to end the night!

New friends and barbecue!
The next morning, Jeff, Ian, John, and I went to the Madison campus of First Bible Church. We were welcomed warmly and told that they had gotten the heads up that they might have some extra visitors that Sunday. As we were talking to a few people before the service we met two other ThinkerCon attendees, including, believe it or not, a Virginia Tech grad student! After the service, we all decided to go to lunch together, and crashed Big Bob Gibson BBQ in Decatur. Must be a popular place, as we noticed several of the ThinkerCon creators at the next table over.

On the way home, our crew dropped in to visit our friend Andrew at the University of Tennessee and heard about his ministry at the UTK BCM. He also introduced us to Victor's Taco Shop just down the street. We made it back to Blacksburg well after midnight, but our experience was well worth the many hours in the car.

Tacos in Tennessee!
Last but not least, the week after the conference, I found this recap video from Ben Schmanke and realized our group made a cameo appearance around the two minute mark (bottom right corner)!

Roll Tide.


  1. I enjoyed until I read the last two words. 😜

    1. I'm not really an Alabama fan, it just seemed to be the customary farewell expression of that culture.