Defining Terms

Penguicon 5.0

Last weekend Olivia and I went to Penguicon. Olivia has already done a recap from a non-geek’s perspective. Here are my thoughts from a slightly different perspective.

I have geek cred. Played CCG’s in Junior High. Started programming TI-BASIC as a freshman in high school. Read a bunch of fantasy and science fiction. Started going to LANs at 16 and played in online Counter-Strike leagues for half a dozen seasons. I’ve been using Linux for over 6 years, both on the desktop and server. I program computers for a living. But my first con was a whole new experience.

The People

Olivia commented on the social etiquette. I wasn’t surprised by the sense of humor or loudness. But one thing I noticed is that there were few if any social protocols. In daily life, most of our social interactions are guided by culture-specific protocols. If I meet someone for the first time, there are expectations for what we will say and what we will do with our bodies. In the US, I’d give my name, probably shake hands, and possibly finish up with something like “Nice to meet you.” At the con, such protocols were neither followed in personal interactions or group settings. I noticed a few times when it seemed the presenter/panelists were fighting with the audience for the right to speak, but there was no clear way for either one to get the floor.

This lack of protocols is both good and bad. The good side is that people who don’t understand, can’t perform, or just don’t want to participate in the accepted social protocols don’t stand out. It also gives people more freedom in how they express themselves and form relationships. The bad side is that those who expect the protocols will be followed will be confused and uncomfortable. Also, the point of social protocols is to ease interactions. If we cut out the protocols, we lose this ease as well.

Personally, I found this lack of protocols jarring. I think this was especially true because, aside from Olivia, I didn’t know anyone at the con, but most of the other people knew a number of other attendees already. You don’t really need general protocols when you’re hanging out with your friends, but if you’re with strangers and trying to meet new people, they can be essential.

Another thing I noticed patterns in was the physical bodies of the other attendees.

I’m not the only one to notice the general chubbiness of the attendees. I’m a fat-friendly guy, and this is clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but it made me sad to see so many smart and interesting people not taking care of their bodies. I remember one panel where a panelist was winded just from walking down the hall from the last room he was in.

On the other hand, it made me really glad that many of the women were quite comfortable with their over-sized bodies. Instead of hiding themselves behind huge, baggy clothes like many do, they were wearing sexy, revealing clothes. With all of the damage done by modern America’s obsession with the thin body, I hope this indicated an overall self-confidence with respect to body image. I hope geek culture creates women who see through the lines fed to them by fashion magazines and advertisements, and who can see that they truly are beautiful, no matter what their size.

The small surface-area facial hair on men was out of control. My estimate is that at least half of the men in attendance had a goatee, mustache, soul patch, chin beard, or combination thereof. This was way more than I see among the general populace, and I wonder why these adornments were so popular. I don’t have any good theories yet.

The Panels

Almost all of the panels were very interesting, and there was quite a variety of style and feel among them. Bruce Schneier liked to give a presentation, ignoring upheld hands and questions until a period at the end. Christine Peterson monologued, but accepted questions throughout. Many of the panels were like conversations between the panelists, with occasional interjections from the audience. I found all of these styles interesting and rewarding. The only thing I didn’t like, as I mentioned above, was when an audience member or two would try to dominate the presenter or panel, and there was no clear way to resolve the tension.

I went to technical panels and sci-fi panels, though I leaned more heavily towards the technical ones. Only a couple of the panels were about Linux specifically, but I was fine with that. The worst part of the programming was that there were almost always multiple things going on at the same time that I wanted to go to, and I had to choose between them. But, as Matt Arnold said at the closing ceremonies, this is a problem we want to have.

After Hours

We hung out in the ConSuite some and perused the room parties. The liquid nitrogen ice cream was fun and yummy. We had a few good conversations with people, but for the most part the room parties were disappointing. This was probably caused by a combination of a couple of things: we went to panels until late in the evenings (around midnight), and we didn’t know anybody. We met a few people, but I get the feeling that it would’ve been more fun if we’d known more when we arrived. Many of people at the con were “regulars”, either at all of the local cons or Penguicon in particular.

Conclusion

Overall, I liked my first con. The whole weekend was a barrage of interesting sights, sounds, and thoughts. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll be attending any other cons in the area, or even Penguicon 6.0, but I’m glad I went to this one.