Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Touching Lives

One day, a boy was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by a storm. As he walked he came upon a man  who was throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

Puzzled, the boy looked at the man and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the man simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish.”

The boy chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The man picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the boy, said, “I made a difference to that one!”

Last night I got a message from someone I meet four years ago. She was working at an ice cream shop at the time, and, getting ice cream one day, I talked with her as I often do with people I meet. Turns out that she was just finishing high school and was getting interested in anime and conventions but didn't know where to start. At the time, I was running the Connecticon Info Desk Department, and I invited her to join my team and get to see the con from the center of it all.

We became friends and speak occasionally. Last night, she sent me a message in which she realized that when we met, she was just finishing high school, and now she has just graduated college. She said this:

"It seemed like such a small encounter, but your kindness to some random kid behind the counter stayed with me. You listened to me as i spouted off whatever high school angst I had and genuinely gave me advice and your time. Now I'm 22 and thinking about how incredible that was. You are the only stranger to ever be that kind to me."

Throughout our daily travels, rushing here and there, doing this and that, we brush up against so many other lives. I didn't think twice about chatting with the person behind the counter. It comes naturally, but it made a difference to her. Everyday, we have dozens of opportunities to make someone's life better, if only in a small way, but that small thing could mean everything to the right person at the right time.

Probably without intention, her words came to me at a time when they had great impact. The past half year has been very difficult for me. I have been in a place where I had to wonder who were truly my friends and who were not. I came to doubt myself and my contributions to the world.

This message (as well as many others I have received recently) was a powerful reminder that I have left a lot of good behind me, and that I have much more good to do.

In the past few months, I have seen the best of people and I have seen the worst. I have seen people whose goodness is so strong that the world is a brighter place because they exist in it. I have seen people with such darkness that they cannot help but to destroy that which others enjoy. It made me question my faith in humanity. But I have seen far more of the former kind of person than the later.

I have seen so many people step forward both behind and in front of the scenes to be the light in the world. Some did so because they were brave. Some because they didn't know what they were getting into. But all of them because they saw what the right thing to do was, and they knew that it was their time to do it.

I started this year with about 1,675 friends on Facebook, and in the past six months, I have removed and blocked a considerable number of toxic people from that list. Today, after all of this, my list of friends stands at 1,701. I am deeply grateful for all the wonderful people I have been blessed to meet, both this year and before.

Not only can every single one of us change the world, but every single one of us does change the world every single day. The only question is whether you change it for the better.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Cons, Cogs and Steam

With last week's announcement of Steampunk Con, I have been speaking to a lot of confused and concerned steampunks. What's happening to COGS? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? What should I do? Who should I support?

If you just want to know my quick opinion, I believe that this proliferation of events is a good thing. I expect them all to be successful, fun, exciting events. COGS will have the opportunity to find a new and better venue. As for what you should do? You should attend steampunk events, have fun, bring your friends and make new friends. Who should you support? You should support the community and anyone who is working to make it better. It's not an election. You don't have to choose. You can support them all.

I'd like to discuss the addition of Steampunk Con to the calendar from a market and business perspective. I believe that most people have had enough of the drama and politics and just want to know if there will be events for them to flash their gears at, and this article is for them.

For those who are not familiar, Until 2017 Steampunk Worlds Fair was the 800 pound gorilla of steampunk events. 3000 attendees, 2 hotels, and a $200,000 budget. It dominated the steampunk scene and we are unlikely to see anything like it in the near future. However, with its failure in 2018, a successor event called Community Organized Gathering of Steampunks (or COGS) took over that weekend and ran a much smaller event at the Radisson Hotel in Piscataway, NJ where Steampunk Worlds Fair would have run.

While small, the event was very successful and an excellent opportunity for the steampunk community to show that it was ready to get the gears turning on big events again.

It was clear from the moment that Steampunk Worlds Fair collapsed that a proliferation of exciting new events would come to exist. SPWF, by virtue of its size, stifled the creation of other steampunk hotel conventions in the Northeast. There are numerous steampunk festivals, but very few indoor, hotel conventions. Those events require a much greater financial investment and risk, and it was simply not a good investment while SPWF was running.

There are behind the scenes politics that would make for an excellent HBO series, but you can learn about those else where. The current situation is this: in spring of 2019, there will be three great steampunk events in a 7 week period.

May 17-19 will bring us COGS Expo, June 7-9 will bring Steampunk Con, and there is also Blackthorne Steam at Blackthorne Resport. Blackthorne Steam is traditionally also June 7-9, but it is likely that either Blackthorne Steam or Steampunk Con will adjust their date so that there is not a direct conflict. For the purposes of this analysis, we'll assume that will happen.

Crowds of steampunks at this
month's Blackthorne Steam
The first concern I had heard from people is some variation of "splitting the community" or "splitting the market". This assumes that there is a finite market of steampunks with a finite budget. The actual economics of events is much more complex than that. The steampunk market is made up of a variety of different kinds of people from the absolute diehards to the causal tourist.

This is not to say that there will not be individual people who will have a budget constraint and find themselves having to choose between events, but there is more than enough of a market to go around. This is particularly true because Steampunk is such an open, welcoming, and inviting community, which facilitates the growth of the community as we see the growth of new events.

Room For Everyone
There are many examples that we can see where "competition" grows the market to the benefit of all. In the late 1980's, Boskone was the massive scifi convention in Boston, drawing over 7000 attendees every year. When they decided to reign in the event after a few tumultuous years and being kicked out of the city, there was a split between Boskone and Arisia. Arisia runs MLK Day weekend and Boskone runs a month later on Presidents Day weekend. Today, both events draw around 5000 people, one month apart, in the same city, sometimes at the hotel, and often sharing staff between the two events.

Connecticut has three large comiccon-type events, all during the same four month period, and they are all thriving.

Outside of conventions, Starbucks is a great example. Far from smothering locally run coffee shops, Starbucks created coffee culture in many markets, creating the circumstances in which locally run coffee shops could open in the first place.

To go back to the Arisia and Boskone example, when that split occurred, the two groups were not friendly. The very name Arisia is a reference to the good guys in the Lensman series, who fought the evil forces of Boskone.

Individual Economics
Let's start by looking at what an individual spends at a convention. People get very concerned about whether or an event ticket is $35 or $45, which is interesting when you consider that the average attendee spends a total of $500 to $1000 on their convention weekend.

Here is an example of what one might spend at a convention, and this applies to any kind of fandom weekend convention from steampunk to scifi to motorcycles:
Ticket: $50
Hotel: $250
Food: $120
Drink: $50
Travel: $50
Buying Stuff: $250
Total: $770

But if someone is local, not staying in the hotel, doesn't spend a great deal with the vendors, and a bit more frugal on the eating and drinking, they can keep their visit under $100. Thus there is no reason that local steampunks, of which there are many in the greater New York area, could not attend both events.

Separate Markets
The first hit on Google
for "Goth Steampunk"
There is not simply one population of steampunks who live in Steampunk Town, New Jersey and choose which events they will attend. In fact, most steampunks have other identities beyond steampunks. Some are scifi geeks, some are goths, some are metalheads, some are mechanics, some are politicians, some train monkeys at the zoo.

Like everyone, different steampunks have different levels of dedication. Some are so steampunk that their heart is actually a clockwork machine. Others are vaguely aware of this thing with the gears but they've seen Eternal Frontier perform and they think they're pretty cool so they'd like to check it out again.

Vampire Freaks, the company that, in association with the owner of the host hotel, is running Steampunk Con, has been running events in the goth community for 15 years. They have a large following in the goth community, but are relatively unknown in the steampunk community. This has an interesting and positive connotation. They have a great reach into a community of casual steampunks for whom Steampunk Con will be their first steampunk event.

COGS Expo, on the other hand, has deep roots in the mainline steampunk community, and will draw the more devoted steampunks. However, the most devoted steampunks will attend both events. "Most devoted" means attending all the events as long as they're not on the same weekend (or shuttling back and forth if they are close enough).

Vampire Freaks
Rather than splitting the community, I expect that the existence of this new event will grow the community. COGS Expo will continue to draw the fans it drew last year. Steampunk Con will draw new people, and those people will have the chance to meet the devotees.

Blackthorne Steam, which has an event capacity of about 120 or so people, will continue to sell to capacity as it always has.

Can Goths Run Steampunk?
While they have never run a steampunk event, they have run Dark Side of the Con for a number of years, and Steampunk Con will likely be structurally similar. They had the opportunity to run Dark Side of the Con this year without the support of Jeff Mach Events and demonstrate their ability to run a good con on their own, so I have no doubt that they can run a great event.

But Wait There's More!
COGS Expo and Steampunk Con are not the two successor events to Steampunk Worlds Fair. They are the first two successor events. There is talk of an event in Connecticut and another in Massachusetts that I have heard. As event organizers realize the opportunity that now exists, I would not be surprised if we see as many steampunk conventions in the Northeast as there are scifi conventions.

We are at the start of a very exciting time in steampunk.

So, what should you do?
You should attend steampunk events. As many as your wallet and calendar allow. And you should play Concardia there.

Whom should you support?

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Graturday - Great Professional Support

I work with a fantastic company called Best Version Media, and it is unique in a number of ways. Much of this comes of the fact that the founders realized that true success is not born of a single minded obsessive focus on money but from a desire to do good with an eye towards a strong business in the process. This is how a company that produces local print publications in the age of Facebook has been able to go from zero to $100,000,000 in annual revenues in ten short years.

What I am truly grateful for today, however, is the quality of character and compassion of the people I work with through this company. One of the pillars of the culture of BVM is that of a "compassionate heart." In short, it means that as a company we are encouraged to think of people as people and not simply a means to an end.

It manifests in the way that we think about our prospects and clients, desiring to do what is best for them rather than simply what is most profitable for us. It also manifests in the way that every single level of management and home office works with the publishers in the field.

I have worked for many sales organizations. While it varied somewhat from company to company, there was always a sense that your value as a person was tied to your most recent sales results. Best Version Media treats every single person on the team as a person of great value, regardless of the results they can achieve. When I hit a slump or when my head is not right, I know that I can be honest with those who are there to support me. I will find support, encouragement, and advice. I will not find judgement or snark.

I am blessed to work for a company of good, honest, humble people who seek nothing more than the betterment of their community and the people they work with, and for that, this Gratitude Saturday, I am sincerely grateful.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Graturday - Thankful for Such a Large and Diverse Community

Last I attended the Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts: an impressive downtown steampunk festival which can draw as many as 10,000 people when the weather is good.

Last week, the weather was not good, with intermittent rain throughout the day, but that did not dampen the spirits of the great people at the event.

Due to my very busy schedule, there are only so many events I can get out to, but with a number of the events that previously filled my schedule no longer running, I now find myself more aware of just how many great events there are in the Steampunk community around New England.
Waltham takes its steampunk seriously.

Steampunk is a fantastically positive culture. One of the underlying principles of it is a do-it-yourself attitude. I am reminded of a quote from President Kennedy in which he says "Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."

That describes the Steampunk ethos. That which we have made, we can fix and improve. I believe that accounts for the success and growth of Steampunk in our modern culture of conflict, negativity, and post-factual thinking.

I am deeply grateful to have had the chance to meet so many good people across the world of Steampunk, and I am even more grateful that I count so many of them among my friends.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Graturday - Moms

One of the most underappreciated jobs in the world is that of mother. Teacher. Therapist. Coach. Peacemaker. Referee. Travel Agent. Logistician. These are just a few of the roles that come together in the role of mother.

My mother deserves the credit for a great deal of my moral development. She taught me the importance of considering the effect that every one of my actions would have upon others. While I have certainly not always been successful, I have always striven to live up to the standard she taught me of try to make the world a better place.

Both I and my daughter's mother (also known as my wife) love our daughter with all of our hearts, but Amy takes care of her in some ways that are unique and special to her. She connects with her on a level that only a mother can. She works with her on art and other skills which I personally lack. I am deeply grateful that I found such a good woman to be the mother of my much beloved child.

In general, on this Graturday (written one day late on the Sunday that is Mother's Day), I am thankful to all the mothers out there doing incredible, unrecognized but vital work to raise the best children that they can, and, in the process, making the world a better place.

Thank you to moms everywhere, and especially to my wife Amy, the best mom right here.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

What David Collins Doesn't Know About Downtown Groton

"I never knew Groton had a downtown." This is how David Collins started his column in yesterday's edition of The Day, prompted by the new signage that is now up on Interstate 95, discussed briefly in this article.

For those who are not familiar with Groton, Connecticut, it is a town with unusual geography. In the 19th century, it was split between Groton Bank, which was the portion of Groton on the bank of the Thames River, which was densely populated and supported by the shipping industry, and the town of Groton, which was the rest of the town's 45 square miles, was sparse farmland with occasional villages.

Annotated map of Groton from Google Maps.
Apologizes for the business pins. No way to remove the ads.
As it developed, an area around Long Hill Road near exit 87 off I-95, just outside of Groton City, which Groton Bank would ultimately come to be called, became a center of shopping and commerce. The proximity to the highway, I presume, made it an attractive location for mid-century developers, providing the five strip malls which dominate the area now known as Downtown.

A short way further down that road, one finds Town Hall, the major town field Poquonnock Plains Park, the Public Library, Groton Recreation Building, and the Groton Senior Center, which forms something of a municipal district.

Zoomed in on Downtown Groton. This map is about a mile
from one end to the other. Town Hall is at the far right.
Long Hill Road is at the far left.
As my regular readers may have notices, I love dictionary definitions.

adjective: downtown
  1. 1.
    of, in, or characteristic of the central area or main business and commercial area of a town or city.

    "downtown Chicago"

adverb: downtown
  1. 1.
    in or into a downtown area.

    "I drove downtown"
noun: downtown; plural noun: downtowns
  1. 1.
    the downtown area of a town or city.

    "the heart of Pittsburgh's downtown"

    synonyms:city center, (central) business district, urban core; More

While we often think of Downtown as referring to an urban center, "Downtown" is really just the core of business and commercial activity in the area, which is what Groton's "Downtown" is, thus why it is called Downtown Groton. While towns like New London, Norwich, and Westerly have more traditional 19th century style downtowns, Groton, like Waterford, has a post-war style downtown area, built along the 1950s and 1960s concepts of separating various forms of zoning to different parts of town: commercial here, residential there, industrial in the other place.

Long Hill Road is affectionately referred to as Hamburger
Hill, because there are actually at least half a dozen
places along the short stretch of road to get a hamburger.
Some of the burgers are better than others.
As it turns out, that form of zoning creates a dependency on cars, prevents neighbors from interacting, and generally causes a colder, less connected community, but that's a story for another day. The point is that Groton has what it has, and what it has is a vibrant, thriving, suburban-style downtown area.

Downtown Groton contains 5 main shopping plazas plus a number of other freestanding businesses and smaller plazas. Within and near Downtown, a shopper can find nearly anything they seek, including groceries, clothes, Post Office, auto dealerships, a hardware store, hobbies and entertainment, pet supplies, and more.

Is it a beautiful area with quaint New England charm? No. Is it a downtown hub of commercial activity, absolutely.

Citadel Game Cellar has something
going on almost every day.
While it largely lacks mixed use development (two small mixed used developments are in the downtown area), and its suburban nature would stretch the definition of the term "walkable," I often walk the area. I frequently walk from my apartment to the Citadel Game Cellar, one of the best game stores I have found in the country, with events happening almost every day.

While Downtown Groton leaves quite a bit to be desired, it's not an embarrassment either, bringing millions of dollars of economic activity to the town and tremendous revenues onto the tax rolls.

In discussing the Downtown designation, Mr. Collins says:
It turns out, I discovered after a search of the town website, the term downtown used for that section of Route 1 was sealed in a 2006 planning study for the town, which envisioned all kinds of mixed-use development around the old shopping centers — development that, of course, never happened.
The Groton Strategic Development Plan envisioned that construction of more housing and an effort to make the area more "walkable" would transform the area that the study authors conceded, because of its age and design, "can no longer compete as a traditional suburban-style shopping destination." 
So, as the authors note, it is a tired, old shopping district. And all the development they envisioned that would make it into a downtown has never happened. Still, that's the downtown interstate travelers will be directed to, about the worst of what Groton has to offer.
Let's talk about what we can find in the "worst of what Groton has to offer."

In this stretch you can find American, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Japanese, and Chinese food.

This one plaza has Indian, Japanese, and Thai food, plus an
Indian grocery store.
The newly refurbished Groton Shopping Center is 100% occupied, including a well balanced mix of businesses.
In this plaza, you can work out, buy groceries, buy clothes,
and get a new set of spark plugs.
Even the most run down of Downtown Groton's plazas, Groton Shoppers Mart, contains many of the key businesses that, while not revolutionary, are the backbone of a commercial district: Big Y, Starbucks, and Gamestop. Even though the properly is somewhat in limbo because of owners who cannot agree on what should be done with it, it still maintains a relatively high occupancy because of the demand for businesses to serve the growing economy of Groton.

Groton Shoppers Mart suffers from having too many owners
who cannot agree on how to manage, improve or sell it, so
it just kind of exists.
For those who are not familiar with redevelopment initiatives, they tend to move slowly. This is partly because they are complex and involve many players, and partly because there are many ways that they can go fantastically wrong.

There are basically two ways to cause redevelopment occur on privately held, developed land. The town can create incentives and try to get buy-in from the land owners, or they can try to use eminent domain to claim the property and force the changes. The eminent domain solution has certain problems.

Certain problems with eminent domain.
That means that the developers have to want to make the change. It takes years to research and develop a plan, then there is the process of getting buy-in from the land owners. Then it takes years more to make the plans to implement it, financing must be raised, and finally action is taken.

Did anything happen within the years shortly after 2006 that might have deterred that process?

Oh, yeah, that.
I didn't move to Groton until 2014, so I don't know the full details of what happened around that time, but, given that the Economic Development Commission and the Office of Planning and Development are working to execute today that very same concept of mixed use development and modernization in Downtown, I would surmise that what we are seeing is simply a situation in which a good idea is moving at the speed of government, interrupted by a terribly inconvenient financial crisis that rivaled the Great Depression.

Downtown Groton is the second area of the town that will become a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district in order to help finance these developments. TIF is a brilliant policy in which future tax revenues can be used as guarantees against loans for infrastructure necessary for development. The financing is procured by the developers, not the town, and the developer is responsible for it, but they are able to use a portion of the increased tax revenues to pay off the loans. The town only pays if the development happens and the tax revenues increase. The developer gets the loan paid for them as long as they hold up their part. Everyone wins, most of all the people of Groton win.

It must be very difficult to write a weekly column, which would explain why Mr. Collins failed to do even the most basic research into the current situation. Research which could have included asking his colleague who wrote an article on the EDC tour which ran in the same issue as his column.

I wouldn't know what it's like to write a weekly column like that. I only have experience writing a daily one.

Graturday - Thankful for So Many Friends

In today's weekly gratitude article, I'd like to express gratitude for the great many wonderful friends and supporters I have.

I have had one particular occasion this week to be reminded just how many good people there are out there looking out for me.

The most pronounced occasion was early this week when I received an email from Watch City Steampunk Festival informing me that ConCardia would not be welcome there. Within 12 hours of our sharing that information, Watch City Steampunk Festival had received numerous emails of support for us from people who had heard what happened and were outraged.

Back in early April, I wrote an article entitled Hurt, in which I discussed how hurt I was at the fact that some people whom I thought were trusted friends had turned on me. But the fact is that I was suffering from a lack of perspective. While one or two people have unexpectedly left me, hundreds of people continue be there for me and my family. Some of them do so quietly and others do so publicly, but the important thing is that we have an incredible community friends who we now know beyond a doubt will be there for us.

And, we will always be there for them. That's what a community is: people who can count on each other, and I count myself truly blessed to have such a wonderful community, both online and in our local area.

Discovering just how much love is in our community made me realize that I do not have room for hate and anger in my life. There is too much good for me to want to focus on the evil.