ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Quirks of Penguicon —

I was at Penguicon 6.0, which is the first time I attended it. Therefore anything I say is from the point of view from attending a mere 16.6% of all Penguicons.

I was asked to speak about interactive fiction, and what the hey, I have to brush up on talking about this subject because I’m likely going to be doing so often for the next couple of years, so I agreed. A little later, I was told that to pay the reduced presenter admission instead of the full $45 admission, I’d have to present on two more “panels” as well as the one I was going to do. I was given a plate of five that needed speakers, and I chose the two I was least uncomfortable speaking about. I stress two facts here again: as a speaker I was required to pay, and I was thrown on two panels not because of any expertise I might have but because a body was needed for those panels.

From a speaker’s point of view, that is, someone like myself who has done a few dozen presentations of this format at conventions like this, the whole thing is run horribly. I didn’t, for example, totally lock onto the fact that I’d be paying admission because I’ve never seen that before, anywhere. Presenters that have to pay? Why? In Penguicon’s case, it appears to be because they pack the schedule with so many panels, in so many locations, that the only way they could possibly have anything approaching decent income is to charge those panelists, as hosting over three hundred events means that you can’t be giving that much admission money away. OK, well, OK.

My two additional panels were “The Future of User Interfaces” and “When the hell did video games become cool?”. Left alone, I’d have not chosen either, but compared to the other three I was given to look at, I chose these.

Some time later, my co-presenter on the User Interfaces panel canceled. The way that I found this out was my name-catcher caught my name on a random livejournal post, mentioning, as an aside, that my co-presenter was not going to make it. As a total lark, and because I knew he was coming, I mailed the presentation person that Paul “Froggy” Schneider was around to be my presenter. Later, Froggy did a reload (this was the day before the con) to find out he was on the schedule. This is how it was done. No confirmation.

During the day of our presentation, Froggy did a reload and found out we had another presenter on the schedule. This is how we both found out. No e-mails. No confirmation. Sure, you could point out “we had 300 events to manage, so we didn’t have time to confirm”, but then the immediate question is why the hell did you schedule 300 mish-mashed events instead of, say, 100 good ones? I still have that question.

For the actual presentation/panel, Froggy and I showed up. Our third presenter didn’t. Maybe he wasn’t notified he was on the panel and didn’t do a reload of the schedule to see if he was on there. Either way, there wasn’t a third presenter, so I grabbed someone out of the audience and put him on the panel. As it stands, Adam handled things very well.

You can’t see how well the panel went because there were no recordings. There weren’t any recordings in any of my panels. Sorry. I generally record these things, but something told me not to and that something was right. Froggy and I had a good time, at least.

For my presentation on Interactive Fiction, the reason I’d flown in for the event, I walked in at 9:30am for my 10am presentation to find an empty room, no sound set up (it was in the corner behind a screen with no set up projector), and a pair of mattresses on the stage. So fine, I presented anyway. A nice set of people came in. I never saw a staff member. In fact, the whole weekend, I never interacted with a staff member of Penguicon except when I bought my ticket that I had thought (wrongly) I’d not have to pay for.

The final panel was similarly done, with no staff members, and the panelists doing what they could. We all agreed the topic was stupid. We went back and forth and I do what I always do when I have no script: talk and talk and fucking talk. I don’t mind hearing myself talk, obviously, but who knows what all those folks came into the room looking for.

So yeah, if you’re a presenter, and/or have experience with any cons out there (professional, non-professional, what have you), then this has to be one of the most adrift cons I’ve ever been a part of. (And I was at a couple Rubicons, friends. I know adrift when I see it.)

However, if you were an attendee, it was probably pretty great.

The people, who I saw milling in the hallways and walking the rooms, were really nice. These were folks out for a good time, and I think they got it. I saw smiles, singing, loud drumming, and costume wearing that was both in a spirit of fun and not at all uncomfortable.

The consuite, which was loaded with free food and conversation, had happy people at all hours of the day and night. I met some folks I’d been looking to see for a long time, and we had great chats. To finally meet Frank Hayes was a big deal for me, as was seeing Randall Monroe (although he was surrounded and I got no time with him). I met some people to potentially interview for my next documentary projects, and I got to eat some awesomely prepared Liquid Nitrogen ice cream.

I would therefore equate Penguicon with a really cool party bus that, if you don’t make the effort, you won’t notice has the steering wheel and gas pedal taped down with duct tape and a note saying “turn off if near wall”.

One specific moment, however, particularly struck me.

I was on my way over to the LAN party room to find people, and I passed one of the larger presentation rooms. Something was going on, likely, someone with a guitar. I wondered if it was Frank Hayes, and paused for a moment, and stuck my head in.

At the back of the room, somewhat near me, was this guy. He was a little older than I was, and he had a plate of muffins. He was holding it like a cigarette girl, carrying it while also watching the proceedings. He turned and saw me, and smiled.

He made this sort of gesture, a “welcome! come on in.”, with a smile. I can generally read people. He meant it. It wasn’t creepy. It was touching. He was honestly seeing someone on the fence of coming in and honestly was saying “come on in”. It was very sweet of him. If I hadn’t had something to go to, I’d have stepped right in. That charity and inclusion wins a lot of points with me.

Still, I was later asked if I would be there next year. I said yes. I meant no.

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  1. Jesse Krembs says:

    Hey Jason
    You know who I am, so I all I have to say is that it’s awesome to hear about other con and how they run them. And what the speaker adventure is like.

  2. Wintermute says:

    As an attendee, it was obvious to me that the term “clusterfuck” best describes the level of organization for this year’s Penguicon. One of the panels I attended had all panelists no-show. They others typically started late because one or more panelists didn’t make it on time, and often times didn’t belong on the panel to begin with.

    That said, I did enjoy myself as an attendee. I attended two of your talks, the one on interactive fiction as well as the one on video games, and enjoyed them both.


  3. Joey says:

    I drooled over Penguicon’s event list, but was too late to find a hotel room for less than the price of my plane ticket, and decided maybe next year. Now I dunno.

    (What I saw of their room reservation system online was pretty screwed up, and the one person I got ahold of didn’t seem interested in helping.)

  4. Matt Arnold says:

    Mea culpa. It was exactly as you describe, and I watched that process in horror from the inside.

    The short version of the story is that we had two Heads of Programming quit due to health reasons this year. It was a variety of sub-conventions on science fiction, gaming, tech, and so forth, each reasonably large if they had stood alone, with less than optimal coordination between them. Now that I’m Convention Chair, I’m setting the house in order for next year.

    I totally understand about you not returning. It was great to hear your talk and get to speak with you briefly. I look forward to attending other conventions that feature you.

  5. Matt Arnold says:

    the immediate question is why the hell did you schedule 300 mish-mashed events instead of, say, 100 good ones? I still have that question.

    This is a good question. It’s because Penguicon, by its hybrid nature, attempts to be all things to all geeks. Our audience is so diverse in their interests, that most attendees are only interested in a fraction of our offerings. It will be a different fraction for each attendee. Most of them have never heard of half the guests of honor– they tend to become fans of them because of going to Penguicon rather than vice-versa.

    The reason we try to fill out almost a dozen stand-alone conventions under one roof, is that everyone can mix-and-match a very full weekend to their tastes. Best of all, they are likely to try a taste of an unfamiliar interest and see if they like it.

    With only 100 events, we could make each of them rate a “10” from the point of view of a small constituency, but a “10” to a tech geek is a “1” to her significant other who came along for something else and has nothing to do that hour. Instead we fill it out so that most hours will have something worth doing for anybody.

    Finally, it’s because it’s a participation-oriented event with a low barrier to entry.

    We’re still working out the bugs in the hybrid model. The approach presented here might be flawed. Some years we do it much better than others. None of this excuses what you went through, for which I apologize and take personal responsibility. But this is just providing a hopefully interesting answer to a worthy question.