Saturday, August 08, 2020

Twisdom from Trevorlawrencee, August 08, 2020 at 07:31PM


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August 08, 2020 at 07:31PM

Friday, August 07, 2020

Twisdom from LindaStone, August 06, 2020 at 05:25PM


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August 06, 2020 at 05:25PM

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Twisdom from loresjoberg, August 05, 2020 at 09:02PM


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August 05, 2020 at 09:02PM

Twisdom from wordglass, August 04, 2020 at 11:46PM


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August 04, 2020 at 11:46PM

Twisdom from raesanni, August 04, 2020 at 07:32PM


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August 04, 2020 at 07:32PM

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Twisdom from JustinKownacki, August 01, 2020 at 10:22AM


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August 01, 2020 at 10:22AM

Friday, July 31, 2020

Twisdom from AndrewLiptak, July 31, 2020 at 09:39PM


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July 31, 2020 at 09:39PM

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Twisdom from GreatDismal, July 29, 2020 at 01:40PM


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July 29, 2020 at 01:40PM

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Twisdom from CardChronicle, July 29, 2020 at 01:46PM


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July 29, 2020 at 01:46PM

Twisdom from mostlysharks, July 28, 2020 at 12:47AM


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July 28, 2020 at 12:47AM

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Twisdom from jayewells, July 27, 2020 at 05:45PM


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July 27, 2020 at 05:45PM

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Twisdom from slicedfriedgold, July 21, 2020 at 02:48PM


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July 21, 2020 at 02:48PM

Monday, July 20, 2020

Twisdom from KameronHurley, July 20, 2020 at 05:49PM


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July 20, 2020 at 05:49PM

Twisdom from jonrog1, July 20, 2020 at 11:48AM


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July 20, 2020 at 11:48AM

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Twisdom from JasonIsbell, July 18, 2020 at 01:25AM


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July 18, 2020 at 01:25AM

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Twisdom from daviddlevine, July 15, 2020 at 01:38PM


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July 15, 2020 at 01:38PM

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Twisdom from PicardTips, July 14, 2020 at 11:22AM


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July 14, 2020 at 11:22AM

Twisdom from jaygarmon, July 14, 2020 at 09:26AM


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July 14, 2020 at 09:26AM

Twisdom from CoachKozak, July 14, 2020 at 09:22AM


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July 14, 2020 at 09:22AM

Twisdom from Marina_Sirtis, July 13, 2020 at 11:42PM


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July 13, 2020 at 11:42PM

Twisdom from MarkEnnis, July 13, 2020 at 10:10PM


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July 13, 2020 at 10:10PM

Twisdom from MobyDickatSea, July 13, 2020 at 08:17PM


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July 13, 2020 at 08:17PM

Twisdom from _StephanieClay, July 13, 2020 at 09:14AM


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July 13, 2020 at 09:14AM

Twisdom from Keith_Wynne, July 14, 2020 at 08:08AM


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July 14, 2020 at 08:08AM

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Twisdom from GreatDismal, July 12, 2020 at 11:13AM


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July 12, 2020 at 11:13AM

Twisdom from laurent_parente, July 12, 2020 at 09:41AM


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July 12, 2020 at 09:41AM

Twisdom from HistoryMuppet, July 11, 2020 at 11:28PM


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July 11, 2020 at 11:28PM

Twisdom from becca_oneal, July 11, 2020 at 09:11PM


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July 11, 2020 at 09:11PM

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Twisdom from covidperspectiv, July 11, 2020 at 05:57AM


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July 11, 2020 at 05:57AM

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Police Reform

There is a groundswell of public outcry to "defund the police," which is (to my perception) a provocatively worded demand to reform the police and divert many police duties to other, or even new, public safety agencies. Break up the police into several, smaller specialty services, rather than expecting any one police officer to be good at everything asked of a modern police department.

You know, like Star Trek.

As much as every Star Trek character is a polymath soldier/scientist/diplomat/engineer, Star Trek actually breaks up its borderline superheroes into specialty divisions, each wearing different technicolor uniforms to handily tell them apart. Scientist, engineers, soldiers, and commanders all specialize in their areas of expertise, so no one officer is asked to be all things to all peoples on all planets. Even Captain Kirk usually left the engineering to Scotty, and science-genius Spock most often left the medical work to Dr. McCoy. The same logic should apply to a city's public safety apparatus, which includes the police.

Specialization leads to effectiveness and efficiency. So, why do we expect the same police officer to be as good at managing traffic violations, domestic disturbances, bank robberies, and public drunkards? Those incidents require vastly different skills, resources and tools. They should be handled by different professionals.

This is not a new idea. Until the late 1960s, police departments also handled the duties that emergency medical services tackle today. And they weren't great at it. Pittsburgh's Freedom House Ambulance Service (motivated by the same issues of police racial discrimination and apathy as the current Defund the Police movement) pioneered the practice of trained emergency paramedic response, which became a model that the Lyndon Johnson administration helped spread nationwide.

Divesting emergency medical services from police departments has saved countless lives while also helping narrow the focus of modern police departments. Specialization was a net good. So let's expand on that.

So, how do we break up the modern police into their own Trek-style technicolor specialty divisions?

Let's look at what "away missions" that the police commonly undertake. The best indicators are police calls for service (CFS), which are largely 911 calls but can also include flagging down patrol officers in person. These are the "distress signals" the public sends out to request police "beam down" and offer aid. National data on aggregate calls for service is a little hard to come by, but this 2009 analysis of the Albuquerque Police Department CFS data gives a nice local breakdown.

From January of 2008 to April of 2009, this was the general distribution of APD calls for service:

 CALL TYPE  # of CALLS  % of CALLS 
 Traffic 256,398 36.6
 Suspicious Person(s)  90,040 12.8
 Unknown/Other 88,961 12.7
 Public Disorder 88,676 12.6
 Property Crime 59,920 8.5
 Automated Alarm 35,508 5.1
 Violence 35,460 5.1
 Auto Theft 12,953 1.8
 Hang-up Call 10,017 1.4
 Medical Emergency 6,241 0.9
 Mental Patient 5,267 0.8
 Missing Person 5,382 0.8
 Drugs / Narcotics 2,110 0.3
 Other Emergency 1,431 0.2
 Animal Emergency 1,336 0.2
 Sex Offenses 1,391 0.2
(NOTES: Unknown/Other, I believe, refers to calls where general police assistance is requested but the caller won't specify exactly what the police are needed for. Robbery would fall under Violence. Burglary would fall under Property Crime.)

A few items stand out, but first, let's recall how valuable it was to divest police of EMS duties. Medical emergencies are the cause of less than 1% of 911 calls, but they clearly warrant a non-police specialty agency to handle. Certainly some of these other, more common calls warrant specialist responses, too.

Similar findings were generated by this 2013 study of Prince George's County, MD.

"Overall, the top five most frequently used [911 Chief Complaint codes] were Protocol 113 (Disturbance/Nuisance): 22.6%; Protocol 131 (Traffic/Transportation Incident [Crash]): 12.7%; Protocol 130 (Theft [Larceny]): 12.5%; Protocol 114 (Domestic Disturbance/Violence): 7.2%, and Protocol 129 (Suspicious/ Wanted [Person, Circumstances, Vehicle]): 7.0%."

Right off the top, we can see that traffic enforcement takes up an inordinate amount of police calls for service. It seems rather ludicrous to send an armed security officer to write up fender-benders, hand out speeding tickets, rescue stranded motorists, or cite cars with broken tail lights or expired tags. An unarmed traffic safety agency, separate from the police, seems like an obvious innovation, just based on this data.

But what about all the ancillary crime "discovered" during routine traffic stops -- the smell of marijuana, weapons in plain sight, suspicious activity on the part of a driver? Well, a traffic safety officer can just as easily report these discoveries to police. But many of these "discoveries" were made during pretextual stops; cases where police already suspected the driver or passengers of wrongdoing and used a traffic stop as an excuse to search the person and property of the vehicle occupants. These pretextual stops have been shown to erode trust in police and often lead to rampant abuses of power (and, too often, the paranoid execution of suspects in their own cars, as in the case of Philando Castile). Separating police from traffic enforcement will also separate them from them temptation to abuse pretextual stops.

Also, we could probably get a lot more people to sign up as traffic safety officers knowing they won't be asked to do any armed response work, and a lot more people will be eager to flag down a traffic safety officer for help with a flat tire if there's no chance a misunderstanding with that officer will lead to the motorist getting shot.

Beyond traffic enforcement, where else could specialization and divestment benefit the public and the police? Disturbance/Nuisances, Suspicious Persons, Public Disorder and Domestic Disturbances all represent a significant percentage of calls for service. Most often, someone loitering, being loud, arguing openly, or appearing inebriated (or simply being non-white in a predominantly white area) is not cause for sending in an armed officer. A social worker or mediator would be far more appropriate in many cases.

That said, domestic disturbances are often violent and unpredictable, as are public drunks and mentally ill vagrants. Sometimes a person skulking around is actually a public danger. While unarmed social workers may do more good -- and absolutely will shoot fewer suspects -- it is not entirely wise to send in completely defenseless mediators to every non-violent report of suspicious or concerning activity.

Again, we can learn from Star Trek.

When Starfleet sends some combination of experts on any mission, the diplomats, scientists, doctors, and counselors outrank (and often outnumber) the security officers -- but the redshirts nonetheless come along for the ride. Violence is the last resort, not the first, and persons trained and specialized in the use of force answer to people who lead with compassion, curiosity, and science. That's a great idea on it's face; doubly so for police departments clearly struggling with their use of force.

So, we create a social intervention agency and send them in when the public nuisance has no obvious risk of violence. When there is a reasonable possibility of violence, we send a conventional police officer in to assist the mediator, but the mediator is in command. The redshirts report to Captain Kirk, not the other way around.

So, here's how I would break out a modern public safety agency, using Star Trek as a guide to reform and divest from the police.
  • Red Shirts: Fire & Rescue, doing all the same jobs fire departments do today
  • Gold Shirts: Emergency Medical Services, performing exactly as paramedics do today
  • Blue Shirts: Security, performing the armed response and crowd control duties of conventional police; the thin blue line becomes a bright blue shield
  • Gray Shirts: Traffic Patrol, handing out traffic citations, writing up non-fatal vehicle accidents, assisting stranded motorists, and other essential patrol duties that don't require an armed response
  • Green Shirts: Emergency Social Services, serving as mediators, counselors and on-site case managers when an armed police response is not warranted
  • White Shirts, Investigation and Code Enforcement, bringing together the police detectives, arson investigators, and the forensic and code-enforcement staff of other public agencies (like the Health Department, Revenue Commission, and Building Department) to investigate past crimes and identify perpetrators
Each division is identifiable by their uniform colors, so the public knows who and what they are dealing with at all times. It is also made abundantly clear that only Security blue-shirts are armed and that, if an active violent crime is not in progress, whichever of the other divisions is present on a Public Safety call is in charge.

All six divisions are headed by a Chief -- a Security Chief, a Fire Chief, a Chief of Emergency Medical Services, a Traffic Patrol Chief, a Chief of Emergency Social Services, a Chief Investigator -- that report to a Commissioner of Public Safety.

That Commissioner should report to a civilian Commission, which is an independent oversight board that can investigate the conduct of any officer of any division. Accountability is as important as specialization. No good Starfleet captain was ever afraid to answer for the conduct of his or her crew.

Tricorders -- which is to say, body cameras and dash cams -- will be needed to log every mission. That's for the safety of the public and the officers. Funding will need to be rethought. Staffing will need to be reallocated. The word "police" may no longer be a common phrase, but blue-clad armed peace officers will still be a necessary component of these new public safety agencies. They just won't be the only option, and they won't be the first option in most cases, either.

As Spock would say, it's only logical.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Twisdom from JuddLegum, July 04, 2020 at 11:39AM


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July 04, 2020 at 11:39AM

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Twisdom from WFKARS, July 05, 2020 at 01:39PM


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July 05, 2020 at 01:39PM

Twisdom from cdgehring, July 05, 2020 at 02:44PM


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July 05, 2020 at 02:44PM

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Twisdom from Nash076, July 04, 2020 at 02:40AM


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July 04, 2020 at 02:40AM

Twisdom from jbenmenachem, July 03, 2020 at 02:14PM


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July 03, 2020 at 02:14PM

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Twisdom from KenTremendous, July 01, 2020 at 03:38PM


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July 01, 2020 at 03:38PM

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Twisdom from nicolesjchung, June 27, 2020 at 09:02PM


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June 27, 2020 at 09:02PM

Twisdom from magpiekilljoy, June 27, 2020 at 04:22PM


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June 27, 2020 at 04:22PM

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Twisdom from NilesGApol, June 27, 2020 at 02:46PM


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June 27, 2020 at 02:46PM

Twisdom from TheGoosecast, June 26, 2020 at 07:36PM


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June 26, 2020 at 07:36PM

Twisdom from bencbartlett, June 26, 2020 at 02:33PM


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June 26, 2020 at 02:33PM

Twisdom from dremilyportermd, June 25, 2020 at 10:07PM


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June 25, 2020 at 10:07PM

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Twisdom from MichelleDuster, June 20, 2020 at 01:05AM


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June 20, 2020 at 01:05AM

Twisdom from MykeCole, June 20, 2020 at 10:10AM


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June 20, 2020 at 10:10AM

Twisdom from JamesSACorey, June 19, 2020 at 11:52PM


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June 19, 2020 at 11:52PM

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Twisdom from garywhitta, June 13, 2020 at 09:27PM


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June 13, 2020 at 09:27PM

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Twisdom from LeeFlower, June 13, 2020 at 10:10AM


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June 13, 2020 at 10:10AM

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Twisdom from Ryan_Cortes, June 11, 2020 at 02:11PM


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June 11, 2020 at 02:11PM

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Twisdom from StephenAtHome, June 10, 2020 at 10:03PM


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June 10, 2020 at 10:03PM

Twisdom from KameronHurley, June 10, 2020 at 09:42PM


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June 10, 2020 at 09:42PM

Monday, June 08, 2020

Twisdom from SkinnerPm, June 08, 2020 at 08:18PM


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June 08, 2020 at 08:18PM

Twisdom from ScottWesterfeld, June 07, 2020 at 03:02PM


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June 07, 2020 at 03:02PM

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Twisdom from jduffyrice, June 06, 2020 at 08:40AM


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June 06, 2020 at 08:40AM

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Twisdom from jonrog1, June 03, 2020 at 11:28PM


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June 03, 2020 at 11:28PM

Twisdom from ZachWeiner, June 03, 2020 at 06:01PM


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June 03, 2020 at 06:01PM

Twisdom from JoshuaMZeitz, June 03, 2020 at 05:43PM


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June 03, 2020 at 05:43PM

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Twisdom from TrondyNewman, June 02, 2020 at 07:51PM


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June 02, 2020 at 07:51PM

Twisdom from edwardjolmos, June 02, 2020 at 02:03AM


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June 02, 2020 at 02:03AM

Monday, June 01, 2020

Twisdom from michellej, June 01, 2020 at 06:08PM


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June 01, 2020 at 06:08PM

Twisdom from getnickwright, June 01, 2020 at 08:56AM


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June 01, 2020 at 08:56AM

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Twisdom from samsanders, May 31, 2020 at 11:43AM


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May 31, 2020 at 11:43AM

Twisdom from HNTurtledove, May 31, 2020 at 04:18PM


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May 31, 2020 at 04:18PM

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Twisdom from BerniceKing, May 29, 2020 at 12:45PM


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May 29, 2020 at 12:45PM

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Twisdom from jodiecongirl, May 27, 2020 at 10:24PM


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May 27, 2020 at 10:24PM

Twisdom from PicardTips, May 27, 2020 at 05:31PM


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May 27, 2020 at 05:31PM

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Twisdom from FAKEGRIMLOCK, May 26, 2020 at 08:46PM


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May 26, 2020 at 08:46PM

Twisdom from CoachKozak, May 25, 2020 at 06:32PM


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May 25, 2020 at 06:32PM

Twisdom from MikeForKY, May 25, 2020 at 05:24PM


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May 25, 2020 at 05:24PM

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Twisdom from Nadia_Shammas_, May 23, 2020 at 11:27PM


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May 23, 2020 at 11:27PM

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Twisdom from LaJethroJenkins, May 17, 2020 at 12:15AM


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May 17, 2020 at 12:15AM

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Twisdom from SGoodlookings, May 16, 2020 at 01:26PM


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May 16, 2020 at 01:26PM

Friday, May 15, 2020

Twisdom from MykeCole, May 15, 2020 at 08:35PM


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May 15, 2020 at 08:35PM

Twisdom from nikillinit, May 15, 2020 at 05:29PM


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May 15, 2020 at 05:29PM

The Biggest Budget Mistake Every Sci-Fi Convention Makes


In my last post on #concomlife, we talked about how sci-fi conventions (don't) make money, and discussed ConGlomeration's annual budget breakdown and resulting revenues. But while that post laid out all our cash considerations, it made an oversight that almost every fan-run convention I've ever encountered also makes. It didn't budget for staff.

Now, virtually every fan-run convention is, well, run by fans. Which is to say, it's an all-volunteer operation like a PTA, scout troop or church group (only usually more zealous). Staff at fan-run cons don't get paid, except occasionally by getting free admission to the convention.

Not giving out or "comping" badges was by far our most contentious policy at ConGlomeration. Everyone on the concom paid membership dues; nobody got in free except Guests of Honor. This put us at odds with the policies of big media conventions -- who regularly comp the 1% of attendees they use as volunteer labor -- and even other fan-run cons. 

That said, we saw several fan-run conventions go into a "comp membership death spiral" over the years. At these conventions, volunteers doing some set amount of work earned free badges. In extreme cases, running a single game or moderating a single panel earned you comped entry to these events. After a while, as many as half the attendees to these cons got in for free. 


That couldn't have worked for us. At ConGlomeration, we scheduled about 100 hours of programming, so that's potentially 100 free badges right there. We scheduled about 100 planned games, too, at 1-4 hours apiece, so there's another 100 potential free badges. It took about 75 die-hards to put on our little con, so that right there could be 275 free badges in total. We only attracted an average of 616 members over our last 4 years, so I'm not exaggerating when I say comping badges can get out of hand if you don't put structure and minimums around it.  

Those other now-defunct fan-run cons that comped badges for almost anything couldn't walk back the policy without offending long-time members, but didn't have the money to advertise and expand memberships beyond the growing get-in-free crowd. Those conventions didn't last long after the death spiral started.

Such cautionary tales, and the simple fact we couldn't afford to comp the 50 or so die-hard staffers that made ConGlomeration happen, stopped us from comping anyone who wasn't a Guest of Honor. 

But in not paying for staff, we neglected to budget for what they were paying us. And I don't mean their membership dues. I'm talking about the other donations they made to ConGlomeration. I'm talking about their time.


Every hour someone volunteers for your convention is a donation. Not of cash, but of labor. The federal government says that labor is worth at minimum $7.25 per hour. (You can debate the merits of that policy and that price elsewhere; suffice it say, labor has value and that's as good a placeholder price as any.) Your convention budget should recognize those needed donations as a liability on its books, and one that must be filled. You have to cover that cost.

A well-run convention should have a pretty exacting idea of how many hours of labor are required to put on their event, and then must decide how much of that labor they are going to hire, and how much they are going to ask for in the form of donated labor

For me personally, I know I put in at least 5 hours per week, on average, as the head of marketing for ConGlomeration. Between maintaining the website, running Facebook ads, programming email newsletters, and various and sundry other technical, creative, and administrative tasks, I donated around 250 hours of labor per year outside the actual convention weekend. (And my consulting rate is far above $7.25/hour.)

I know other committee members, particularly our treasurer and head of hospitality Jess Bratcher, put in over 100 hours per year. Bear in mind, a full time job only demands 2,000 hours per year (40 hours per week times 50 weeks per year; allowing for two weeks of vacation).

One of ConGlomeration's fatal flaws was taking those donations of time for granted. 


By my rough calculation, it took about 1,500 hours of labor to put on our 50-hour convention, counting setup, tear-down, 24-hour operation of the Game Room and Hospitality Suites, about 100 hours of programming, and all our additional amenities and administration. And that was just during the convention weekend. 

We got that labor out of about 75 people (20 concom, 55 or so weekend staffers) doing about 20 hours of labor apiece over 5 days, which is a pretty big ask. It's at minimum a $145 donation of time per person. Tack on the $35 apiece each of them were paying to be there, and that's $180 for the privilege of doing a part time job over a holiday weekend. And a lot of us booked hotel rooms on top of that.

Roughly speaking, at just minimum wage rates, it took about $11,000 in donated labor to put on our event. That's as much as we paid to rent the hotel exhibition space.

Outside of lunatics like me and the treasurer, most concom members put in 5-10 hours per month outside of the convention weekend. So, across 20 other concom members, that's another 1,650 hours. Add in my 250 and Jess's 100 hours, and that's an even 2,000 hours of donated, skilled labor to plan ConGlomeration. Or, at just minimum wage, $15,000 in labor to plan our event. And that's a low estimate.

Add that to the in-weekend labor costs, and it required $26,000 in donated labor to plan and stage ConGlomeration. Our actual cash budget was smaller at just $25,000.

And we did nothing for these staffers other than get them a custom t-shirt (worth maybe $10) and invite them to the Dead Dog party after the convention (so all the leftover snacks and drinks would get consumed).

We loved our staff. We were in the trenches with them. But ConGlomeration happened because we assumed that, since enough people just wanted the convention to happen, they would donate more in labor than we spent in cash to stage the convention. And if they didn't, we took it as a personal affront. (And we were frustrated and baffled as to why we couldn't get new committee and staff members to step forward.)


If we had put down on our books from the beginning how much in dollars we were asking -- and how few people we were asking it of -- we might have worked harder to fill, and thought differently about, our staffing. We would have recognized in real numbers how much we needed from our staff and, in turn, how much staff we actually needed.

ConGlomeration required $26,000 in labor to put on, and it's only that cheap if you're only "paying" $7.25 per hour for your labor. Every fan-run convention should know what their staff number is, and have a plan to get it paid for.

If a non-profit needs $26,000 in cash donations, they would stage a fundraising campaign, offer benefits to donors, recognize them, celebrate them, and encourage those donors to recruit others. If you're asking people to donate labor instead of cash, that donation is no less important, and you should work no less hard to earn it.


Moreover, when you put a value on your donated labor, suddenly it makes sense to invest in things that save you in labor outlay. Some ConGlomeration committee members fought online ticket sales for years because it incurred fees, both from the ticket vendor and the credit card processor. Better to just manually handle mailed-in registration forms, which are then manually entered into a computer database.

We treated that administrative labor as "free" and thus it wasn't worth spending cash to cut down on required labor. Only after we adopted Eventbrite, and the chairman himself saw how much of his own time he saved from wrangling data entry, did he (and many others) start to sense how that investment was paying off.

We never took the next step and adopted a paid ticketing application for at-the-door sales. We never adopted software to make scheduling programs and games easier. We never adopted project management software to simplify planning and operating the convention. 

If we knew how much labor that software could have saved, we could have made an informed calculation of whether those investments were worth it. And, I'd like to believe, we would have begun to do the hard work of reinventing our staffing to be more appealing to more people. 

We would have broken down our jobs into to smaller duties, so we weren't asking so much of any one committee member or convention staffer. We would have done more to clearly offer operating manuals and training to those people who offered to volunteer. We would have given more than a t-shirt as appreciation, even if we could not afford to comp every badge for every staffer.

And by recognizing what our labor "cost," we would have been more willing to raise membership prices or solicit cash donations to cover those costs. Because we would know how big a budget hole our labor needs represented and treated them with the urgency and respect they deserved.

We weren't alone in these oversights. To my knowledge, no fan-run convention budgets for staffing in this way. Maybe that's why so few fan-run conventions are left, and why many of those that remain are dying.

ConGlomeration never was honest with itself about its labor costs. Most conventions aren't. That's part of why we're not around anymore. If you're thinking about joining or starting a convention, I hope you take your labor needs seriously.

Thanks for reading. See you in the #concomlife.

Twisdom from laurent_parente, May 14, 2020 at 10:43PM


via Twitter https://twitter.com/laurent_parente

May 14, 2020 at 10:43PM

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

So You Want to Make Money Running a Sci-Fi Convention

Quark with latinum

In my previous #concomlife posts, I've talked about Big Convention Economics, which heavily incentivizes "media cons" to turn into autograph mills designed almost entirely to churn through photo ops and signing sessions with celebrities. Today I'm going to touch on the subject from a broader perspective: trying to make money running a sci-fi convention.

ConGlomeration never did earn much money. In fact, it took a five-figure donation from an obscenely generous benefactor to get us through a financial crisis about halfway through our operating life. Some of that was due to our conviction to keep prices affordable, but most of it was due to small, fan-run conventions simply not being capable of generating much profit.

Let's break down ConGlomeration's needs and our budget.

ConGlomeration required about 30,000 square feet of convention space for us to offer all of our programs and activities. We needed at least half of that in contiguous space for our Dealers Room & Art Show, and then two more lots of 5,000 square feet apiece for our Game Room and Masquerade Hall, respectively. The remainder of our space was used for programming, which could be broken up to as little as 400 square feet per room.

ConGlomeration also needed a very large hotel suite for our Hospitality Suite. No hotel will allow you to compete with their food and beverage operation by serving your own food in the convention space, which is why snacks must be served in a hotel suite. The alternative is to pay a catering rate per head for snack service throughout the convention, which at minimum would be be 5x as expensive, and possibly 20x.

ConGlomeration required literally every last table and chair the hotel owned (at the Ramada, we required more; they had to subcontract additional items from a supplier for our weekend). They literally couldn't have put on any other event on Saturday or our con without renting extra tables and equipment.

Now, very few hotels can offer convention spaces that extensive. In Louisville (our home market), there were only the the Holiday Inn Lakeview in southern Indiana (our original hotel), the Ramada Plaza (our hotel for the bulk of our 20-year run), the Crowne Plaza (our hotel for our final two years), the Galt House, the downtown Marriott, and the Omni. Having those few options limited our negotiating position.

Now, broadly speaking, the last three hotels on that list never hosted ConGlomeration because they were prohibitively expensive, but I won't quote you a price because exhibition space costs are wildly variable. Hotels change their space rental rates based on three basic factors: how in-demand the dates you're seeking are, how much catering you're including, and how many hotel room-nights you're guaranteeing as part of the space rental. 

Most hotels make their "convention" money on banquet catering and room nights, not the actual cost of the space. Spend enough on catering or book enough hotel rooms and you can get exhibition space for virtually nothing. Hotel spaces are priced for wedding receptions (lots of food, maybe a few room nights) or business conferences (a little food, but a lot of room nights).  

The cheapest catering option you'll ever see at hotel is for something around $10 per person, and that's for a one-time "snack" of bagged chips and canned drinks. ConGlomeration budgeted $5 per person in our Hospitality Suite, and that covered non-stop homemade snacks and drinks for a 50-hour convention. As such, we never going to hire the hotel to provide snacks or meals, so we were never going to get a space discount for a catering spend.

In our final, most advanced contract with the Crowne Plaza, ConGlomeration guaranteed 255 room-nights with 80% make good, which is to say, if we didn't book at least 204 of those 255 room-nights, we had to pay the difference ourselves. If we booked significantly over those 255 room-nights, the price of the convention space could theoretically come down. At sufficient overage, the space could be free. 

We never got a significant price break at any hotel, nor did we ever owe beyond our guarantee. Our room nights never grew much over 20 years of running a convention. We were smart enough to negotiate a "window" that extended from the Thursday before the convention to the Monday after, so staff and die-hards who showed up early for setup and stayed late for tear-down got counted, so long as they booked through our room blocks. We got a convention rate for our rooms, which was below the "rack rate" but pretty on par with Priceline/Expedia rates, so no one was tempted to book outside our room block to save money.

Our rate was $99 per room for the cheapest room, so we effectively guaranteed $25,500.00 in room-night revenue to the hotel. In exchange for that, we got the 30,000 square feet of convention space plus the Presidential Suite (with kitchen) for our Hospitality Suite, all for about $11,000 in rental.  

But to spend "only" $11,000 with an additional $25,500 guarantee for that much space, we had to book on Easter weekend. Easter was the only weekend with little enough demand that so much convention space and so many hotel rooms are simultaneously available. It's a major holiday that doesn't tend to include major travel or attract a lot of wedding business. Those weekends are rare.

There were plenty of other dates when that much convention space was available -- like Thanksgiving and Christmas -- but the rooms were not. Conversely, most non-holiday weekends, there were plenty of rooms to be had but the convention was well booked with business events. Finding dates that offered both hotel rooms and convention space also limited our options.

Beyond the topline cost of renting hotel space, we should have taken out event insurance to cover the make-good on $25,500 should some event happen that prevented us from attracting that many guests, but we didn't have the funds for that. A major make-good would have simply bankrupted the convention.

ConGlomeration's yearly budget was roughly $25,000 in total. It broke down like this:
  • Hotel Space - $11,000
  • Hospitality Suite - $3,000 ($5 per person for about 600 people)
  • Guests of Honor - $6,000 ($2,000 per guest for travel, hotel, per diem for them and a companion)
  • Advertising - $3,000
  • Everything Else - $2,000 (includes t-shirts, truck rental, and some printing)
We charged a minimum of $35 per member, of which we cleared about $33 after credit card fees. We also sold 50 exhibitor spaces for $95, of which we cleared about $91.00 after fees, and 150 Art Show display panels/tables for $5 apiece, of which we cleared about $4.25. 

This is why we we lent half our exhibition space to the Art Show and Dealer Room. We earned about $4,500 from Dealer tables, and another $4,000 from Art Show displays. That was a third of our budget made up before we sold a single membership. We averaged 616 memberships between 2016 and 2019, the years we engaged in paid online advertising. Of those, at least 90% were paying memberships, so conservatively about 550 paid memberships a year. By clearing around $33 apiece, we made roughly another $18-20,000 from actual attendees. All told, we'd bring in between $28,000 each year against a $25,000 budget.

A year's work by hundreds of people to make a measly $3,000 -- and that was after 20 years of perfecting our craft. That $3,000 usually became our deposit for the next year's event rental, so it was often in our bank account for a mere matter of days before being spent again.

When people ask why we didn't allow staff members to attend for free, this is why -- we couldn't afford it. "Comping" too many staff and friend badges is how conventions go under, and we saw many fellow conventions fall over the years for exactly that reason.

Some years, we also had major capital expenditures, like replacing our aging cash register with a PayPal Here terminal, or replenishing equipment for the Hospitality Suite. These necessary spends happened too infrequently, simply because we couldn't afford them.

Large "media cons" get big because that's how you earn economies of scale. A staff of 2-5 people run multiple conventions around the country as a full-time job. To make a decent profit margin, they rent standalone convention centers not attached to hotels, book hundreds of celebrities and merchandise vendors, and churn through as many autographs, photo ops, and VIP experiences as they can to earn out the appearance guarantees they made to those celebs. 

When you're attracting 20,000 paying members, you can afford to comp 200 badges, especially when all that those badges get you is an entry to the dealer and main autograph hall; you still have to pay to get autographs and pictures and merchandise. It's no different than skipping the cover charge at a bar by being a roadie for the band; the bar still makes money on your food and drinks.

To reach the level where a sci-fi convention makes money, you likely have to get bigger than ConGlomeration (or any fan-run convention) could handle. To make it your job, you have to be a media con, end of story.

We always wanted to be a Geek Family Reunion, which meant staying small and affordable, and that means living on very thin margins for a very long time. Eventually, we couldn't do it anymore. 

Thanks for reading; see you next time in the #concomlife.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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Sunday, May 03, 2020

ConGlomeration: The Post Mortem

Continuing my #concomlife series on the shutdown of Louisville's own ConGlomeration science fiction convention, I'm going to break down what (to my limited perspective) led to the end of the convention despite literally hundreds of people loving it dearly and attending annually.

Short answer: Staff problems. Many different kinds of staff problems.

(As to why my perspective matters, see here.)

But first, lets talk positives.

What Made ConGlomeration Different


ConGlomeration was a relatively small fan-run sci-fi and fantasy convention that (eventually) billed itself as Louisville's geek family reunion. We were always family-friendly and we had a built-in group of regulars from Day One, because we were a designated "successor" convention for RiverCon, which set the tone for Louisville fandom from 1976-2000. It just took us a while to articulate and formally embrace what we always were: a geek family reunion. When we polled our members in 2019 to see why they came back year after year, "seeing my fandom family" was the #1 reason.

As part of being both fan-run and family-centric, we were small. For the years I managed online registration (and therefore can quote authoritatively our membership), we averaged 566 members a year (616 the last four years of the con, after we started online advertising). That made us a convention that didn't overwhelm anyone, where you really could see almost every member over three days, and could involve yourself in a wide swath of our programming and activities.

Above all, we weren't beholden to Big Convention Economics. This is a subject worthy of a full post, but the short version is that large, celebrity-driven conventions are autograph mills. Every celebrity who shows up is guaranteed an appearance fee, but every autograph and photo fee they charge at the convention counts against that guarantee. So, if those TV and movie stars sell enough headshots and autographs, the convention owes them nothing. And if the celebrities in question outsell the guarantee, they keep the overage. Thus, big cons turn into assembly lines for photo ops and merch-signings in order to pay off and out-earn all their guest guarantees.

At ConGlomeration, every fan was guaranteed an autograph from every guest as part of their membership, no extra charge. We put that in our guest contracts. (The guests could sell extras, but they had to sign our program books or commemorative posters for free. Most of our guests signed whatever you put in front of them for no charge at all.) All our guests had light schedules and spent plenty of time in our Hospitality Suite, which was open 24 hours a day during the con and gave out free, largely homemade snacks and drinks all weekend -- all included in the price of your membership. It wasn't a mad scramble to make sure you completed your autograph collection. If you wanted more than five minutes with Harry Turtledove, Tim Zahn or even Walter Koenig, they would literally be hanging out in the hallway or in the Hospitality Suite like any regular person.

What ConGlomeration Got Right


Beyond the family reunion atmosphere cited above, there were a number of things ConGlomeration did really, really well.

First, we were super-affordable. Our at-the-door price for a one-day pass was $35, and a full-weekend pass (Friday-Sunday) was $45. Those were our only price tiers for most of our convention. Kids aged five and under were free. And while $45 apiece sounds like a lot, it's vastly cheaper than virtually every other fan convention out there, especially when you consider that was an all-access pass that barred you from literally nothing (except behind-the-scenes staff areas, which is to say the Hospitality Suite food prep room and the storage areas behind the registration desk, neither of which were hotbeds of fun activities).

Other conventions often had get-in rates as low as $10-20, but all that typically offered was a wristband that let you enter the dealer's hall. That price was just a "cover charge" before you were allowed to go in and spend more money, either on vendors or on the low- and middle-tier autograph tables. VIP autographs were usually reserved by appointment slots that you paid for in advance, often at a cost of hundreds of dollars apiece. Want to get autographs from William Shatner and (the late) Stan Lee at the same convention? Don't be surprised if your all-in price for that weekend approached or even broke $500.

If you pre-registered for ConGlomeration online -- which about 50-60% of our members did once we started advertising that option -- you could get all-weekend passes for the one-day price. We also occasionally offered youth passes for kids aged 6-12 for $10 off, too. So, while not cheap, we were far and away the most affordable 50-hour all-access fandom option out there.

Beyond being cheap and offering a really fun and friendly social environment, our polling (and our personal experience) showed that we ran a really great Dealer Room and pretty good Game Room.

Our Dealer Room was both a hall of vendors and where we staged our Sci-Fi & Fantasy Art Show curated by the much-beloved Kyle Thomas. The Art Show took up the center of our main ballroom, exhibiting a few hundred original paintings, sketches, sculptures, ceramic works, and some jewelry -- all of it sci-fi, fantasy, and/or horror-themed. Surrounding this Art Show along the walls of the ballroom were 30-40 dealer booths, wherein various genre-friendly costumers, game stores, indie authors, semi-professional artists, and used book dealers would ply their niche wares.

Besides the "fandom family" aspect, our Dealer Room/Art Show was the most popular aspect of our convention -- and we allowed people to visit it for free, no membership required (though we didn't advertise that much, and few took advantage of that option). We had a high number of independent, small-time dealers you didn't find other places, because our table rates were so low ($95 apiece at our peak, and that included a full pass to the convention). Even the smallest conventions usually charged at least double that rate.

We at best broke even on the Dealer Room, where it was often a profit center for other conventions -- which led to those conventions being dominated by high-end, professional, same-at-every-con vendors. A lot of mega conventions were dealer halls with some token activities tacked on, more nerdy flea market than geek family reunion.

Our most popular vendors were folks who, for example, hand-made either $20 crochet dragons or $400 custom leather cloaks. These creators used our convention as much for exposure for their online shops as to sell actual wares, and our low prices made that tenable, whereas attending a mega-con wasn't possible anymore. Seeing this "live action Etsy store" was extremely popular with our members.

Our Game Room was also unique in that we did not charge any additional fees to play games (most cons, especially game-centric cons, are pay-to-play), and our game room was open 24 hours a day (most cons shut down during the overnight hours). That you could walk in at any time of day or night and either start or join any of a dozen board or roleplaying games was wildly popular, almost to the point we were locally (mis)known as a gaming convention.

When we managed to get people in the door and give us a try -- especially fans who had only ever been to autograph-mill mega-cons -- they almost universally loved what we were, how we operated, and what we charged. 

Where ConGlomeration Failed


And here's where I start upsetting people.

The main reason ConGlomeration failed is we simply asked too much of too few people to make the convention sustainable. Our ConCom was an extraordinarily dedicated and fairly close-knit group of friends, and the convention dangerously sustained itself on the backs of these relationships.

I don't say this in the abstract. Some of my very closest and dearest friends I met and got to know through the ConGlomeration ConCom. I began and then continued to devote myself to the convention well past the point of good sense and good health largely out of loyalty to these people, many of whom are almost like family to me.

Based in this culture, the ConCom was never able to attract casual or occasional help. It instead relied on ConCom members coaxing or press-ganging their friends and family into joining the convention staff, then working them mercilessly either during the convention weekend and/or on the year-round planning of the con.

We were unable to recruit new people into the ConCom because we expected them to effectively swear a blood oath into a nerd cult before we'd let them join. I personally contributed to this problem, not least because I knew I would have to backstop anyone whose efforts on the ConCom fell short of my high standards. So, anyone who joined and wasn't a zealot was viewed by me and many others as just another person we'd have to compensate for when they ghosted their commitments.

Thus, it was left to a smaller and smaller few madmen (and women) to keep the convention running. Not only were we overworked, but we also couldn't easily innovate. When you're hanging on by a thread, you stick to what you know, and so we were very slow to change processes or try new ideas.

Eventually, too many of us simply burned out. 

But, even if we hadn't given up, I suspect the con wouldn't have made it to our 25th anniversary (an internally stated goal) because we couldn't have attracted a growing audience of younger members. Eventually, your old, loyal fans pass on, and without new folks seeking new experiences to replace and exceed them, your con will fail. Memberships will reflect the age and interests of the ConCom, and we were all getting old and tired. So was our membership. The ConCom just burned out before the membership did.

We had other dire failings, too. Primary among them was an inability to attract sponsorships.

If we were committed to keeping our prices affordable, and we didn't have a strong potential to grow memberships (because we needed more advertising revenue and more guests, which required money we didn't have), we needed another revenue stream. Many conventions get there by selling sponsorships. We had a pretty expansive sponsorship rate card (that I wrote), but we never sold any item on it except a Game Room sponsorship.

The reason was simple: our staff was already too overworked to go out and beat the streets to sell sponsorships. And, for the reasons stated above, we could never recruit sponsorship specialists onto the team. Thus, a revenue stream that would have helped us bring in more guests, expand our advertising, add a mobile app to replace our Program Book, add more benefits for volunteers, or even offer free memberships to our staff (who, yes, paid for the privilege of working their asses off for the con, ConCom included), never came to be.

If we had sponsorship money coming in, we would have been more risk-tolerant and innovative on our programming side, I'm sure. It might not have saved us from burnout, but it could have extended the life of ConGlomeration by a year or three, at least.

The other major problem for ConGlomeration, which is deeply entwined with our "cult of devotion" problem, was our utter failure to operationalize the convention.

A well designed operation is one that has enough processes and guidance in place that any reasonably competent group of people can operate it successfully -- no major prior experience required. 

As an example, my daughters' elementary school PTA puts on a "school carnival" every year, and a good 50% of the parents who staff the event are first-timers, and another 25% are first-timers at the job they are asked to do. Every 5-6 years, the full leadership and membership of the school PTA turns over completely as kids age out of elementary school. Yet, the carnival goes on and successfully raises money for the school every year. How so?

They operationalize well.

There is a big fat Carnival Binder (that somebody should turn into a Google Doc; not it!) that lays out every job that needs doing, every game and booth that needs set up, every vendor that needs ordered from, and shows every last detail of how to run the carnival, right down to how many volunteers are required. Whomever is head of the PTA, and whomever they get to chair the carnival committee, has a playbook on how to be successful. That way, anyone who comes along has a better-than-average chance of being successful, provided they aren't a complete idiot. (Nothing is ever completely idiot-proof, because the universe continues to build new and better idiots.)

No such playbook exists for ConGlomeration. There's one for the Hospitality Suite. I wrote a still-incomplete advertising manual, I put together written instructions for building art show display panels, and I had a planning spreadsheet for the ConCom milestones, but there was no master playbook for planning and operating ConGlomeration.

Instead, we relied on institutional knowledge from long-time staff, who -- seeing as we were perpetually understaffed -- never had the extra bandwidth to write down what they knew or even teach others while they did it. It was simply faster and easier in the moment to keep doing it themselves. This perpetuated all of our burnout problems.

And when long-time staffers and ConCom members left, only other long-time staffers knew how to do those jobs (maybe), which meant we often ended up taking on extra duties rather than bringing in fresh blood, which was eventually the death knell for our convention.

If we'd had a good playbook, which atomized down every task needed by every person, and never asked for anything super complex from anyone, we could have survived. Never was this more evident than when, after declaring myself burnt out and initially announcing that 2020 would be our last convention, a few dozen people showed up to a ConCom meeting desperate to help.

We didn't know how to let them help. We didn't even know how, or what, to ask. My top-line summary of how to save ConGlomeration was 1,400 words long and listed 14 needed ConCom positions, and that barely scratched the surface of what needed done in mine and Jess Bratcher's absence. None of us had it in us to teach them the ropes. We were too far gone. And, for my part at least, I thought most of them would have been better off starting their own convention, rather than learning so many of the bad ConCom habits that had come to define us.

ConGlomeration was a dearly beloved geek family reunion for those in and around Louisville. It was a throwback to old-school conventions (a subject for a future post) run by a truly devoted ConCom. But that devotion became our undoing. If and when someone tries to start a new fan-run convention for Louisville (or anywhere), I hope they learn from our mistakes.

Thanks for reading. See you in the #concomlife.