Stardust

StardustStardust isn't just an amazing movie. It's this generation's Princess Bride.

True love, sword fights, chases, steampunk-ish flying pirates, witches, magic, kidnapped princesses, unlikely heroes, humor, excitement, and a delightful quest. This movie has it all, and if the kind of movie you're going to watch over and over again on DVD.

I've been hearing good things about the book by Neil Gaiman for quite some time, but haven't had a chance to read it yet. And I'd heard tons of great reviews, including from people who loved the book, so I was expecting a great movie. But Stardust still managed to blow away my expectations. I loved it!

Noble Collection or our friends at QMX had damned well be paying attention to this one. There are so many props from this movie that I'd love to be able to buy.

Adam’s Early Birthday Present

[I'll post a full report on ComicCon (which was awesome) later. But I wanted to get this bit up as soon as possible, for the obvious reasons.]

Adam, Joan and I were on our way to a panel, when we noticed that Adam was no longer with us. We hadn't lost him in the crowd. He was right there, two booths behind us, staring - transfixed - at a painting. I couldn't see the painting from where I was, but I have never seen Adam look at anything (besides Karla and the kids) with that much sheer adoration.

Later, Adam was talking about how much he would love to have that painting on his office wall, as inspiration. And how he wished he could actually afford something that expensive. So I suggested that instead of Adam waiting until he could save up $500 for the thing, we should just get 20 people to pitch in $25 each to get it for him as an early Birthday/Hanukkah present. Half a dozen people who were there with us at the moment said they'd be more than happy to pitch in, and I figured it would be easy to scrounge up the remainder, so I bought the painting and it is now hanging on Adam's wall.

Of course, now it's time to do what would normally have happened first. If you'd like to join us in getting this gorgeous painting for Adam for his early birthday present, send me your $25 (or however much you can comfortably afford) through PayPal, and we'll get a nice card for him later with everyone's signature on it.

After everything Adam has done for our fandom, it's the least we can do.

Serenity Travel Posters

Continuing in the vein of my incredibly creative friends, check this out. After getting noticed for all the amazing artwork he's done for the fan community and various browncoat charity fundraisers, Adam has been tapped to do some licensed work for QMX.

His first piece is a set of gorgeous Serenity Travel Posters, which will be available before their official release date exclusively at the browncoat table at ComicCon, for $35/set (tax included). This is a set of 5 17x22″ prints, on 100lb satin-finish paper, highlighting a few places in the 'verse you might like to visit.

Here's a review from one of Adam's biggest fans:

"Wow. Those are extremely cool.
Masterfully designed."

- Joss Whedon

If any of you who are not going to be at ComicCon would like me to pick you up a set, email me off-list and we'll arrange the PayPal details.

Update: Things From Another World now has the corrected "Lundinium" version available for pre-order.

Harry Potter Theme Park – Coming 2009

Harry Potter theme parkYes kids, they're building a Harry Potter theme park. It's going to be a $265 million park in Florida, attached to the Universal Studios park. From what little has been made available so far, it sounds like an awesome idea! Check out the artist renditions posted on MuggleNet:

The only lame thing about this whole thing (other than Florida's weather being not quite right for Scotland) is the name. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a mouthful. Nowhere near as catchy as its mousy counterpart.

Anyway, be sure to check out the official site for more details and to sign up for their mailing list.

RIP Lloyd Alexander, author of the Prydain Chronicles

Chronicles of PrydainThe literary world has lost one of its greats this week. Lloyd Alexander, author of the Prydain Chronicles and a host of other children's books, passed away this Thursday in his home in Drexel Hill, PA. The New York Times has a lovely article about him.

Before there was Harry Potter, there was an assistant pig keeper called Taran. Before there was Hermoine, there was a feisty red headed princess called Eilonwy. I didn't discover the Prydain series until my twenties, but considering that it is just as enchanting as the Narnia series I loved as a kid, but with a heavy dose of Welsh instead of Christian mythology, I can only imagine the wonder it would have brought me (and will one day bring my children, should they decide to exist) to be exposed to it at that age.

Some of you who haven't (yet) read the series might also recognize Prydain as the first web domain I owned, and my original email address. For the story behind that, I give you the letter that I once wrote to Lloyd Alexander, and his response back to me. The man was a prince, and will be missed.

My letter to Lloyd Alexander...

Birthday Present #1 – I bought a house!!

My House!!I've been dreaming of buying my mom a house for over five years now. And as of yesterday, it's finally a reality! I am the proud new owner of a lovely 3/2 house on a quarter acre lot in Orangevale. And my mom is finally moving out of her trailer and into a real house for the first time in half a decade. Needless to say, she, Dale, the grandkids and the dog are all thrilled!

I'm going up this weekend to help my mom move in. If anyone wants to drop by and see the place, let me know. And if you want to come and help move, even better! :-)

Obviously, I'll be posting more photos later, after mom has finished painting, moving in and redecorating.

Dell abandons its Vista-only policy

It's a blow to the reputation of Vista, but raises my respect for Dell. When Vista came out, they switched all of their consumer computers to ship only with Vista (only business computers still had the choice between XP and Vista, since corporations are often tentative to upgrade early). But there has been enough consumer demand for XP that Dell once again gives their consumers a choice between XP and Vista.

This doesn't really effect me at all, since I'm not in the market for a Dell at the moment. But it does give me more respect for them as a company, and increases the chance of me recommending them (or, rather, continuing to recommend them) to anyone I know who is in the market for a PC.

Good on them.

My Birthday

I'd like to thank everyone who came out to help me celebrate my 33rd bday. The Friday night outing to see Grindhouse was insane amounts of fun, as was the drunken afterparty (Matt & Marina, I've seen the incriminating video - it's adorable!). The BBQ on Sunday was a smashing success. Everyone fell in love with Cindy & Jason, due to their wicked food skills (aren't they the best roommates ever?). A bunch of friends from different social groups all got to intermingle with one another. And we even has a surprise appearance by my mom and Dale, who spent the bulk of their time on the back patio telling embarrassing stories from my childhood (you see why they weren't invited?). It was awesome!

The gifts were pretty damn cool, too! I'm still a little in shock that Gabe got me a frikkin' Apple TV. After all that joking, I never really thought anyone would take me seriously. Fred gets groups gifts, not me, and this one wasn't even a group gift. I'm flabergasted! Plus, there were books and DVDs and nicknacks and all sorts of other wrapped goodies. They love me, they really really love me! :)

But my favorite birthday gifts this year have to be the two that I am buying for myself. I don't want to jinx anything, so I'll tell you about them as soon as they're official. One should be within the next week or two, the other within the next month. But man, are they cool!!

The good folks at Lego have outdone themselves.

Lego Millennium Falcon Ultimate Collector Series (10179)I was impressed a few years ago, when they came out with the three foot long Star Destroyer that was - at the time - the biggest Lego set ever created, weighing in at 3104 pieces. But once I bought and assembled it, I was a little disappointed at how flimsily constructed it was. I eventually sold it and replaced it with the smaller smaller Star Destroyer that is much more sturdy.

Later, they raised the bar again with the two foot diameter Death Star set, which took over the title of biggest Lego set ever, at 3447 pieces. The Death Star was only slightly more stable than the big Star Destroyer, but it was just so damned impressive on the shelf that no one noticed. I have this at my desk at work, and man is it a conversation starter.

Well, now they've done it again. And this time, they're doing it in style. The new Ultimate Collector Series Millennium Falcon is nearly three feet long, built to the scale of the Lego minifigs, and weighs in at a hefty 5195 pieces! Yes, it's has an equally impressive $500 price tag, but that's the same price point as the QMX Serenity model is going to be, and this is the Millennium Fucking Falcon, and it's made of Legos! It is also made of awesome.

This goes above the QMX model on my fanboy wish list, although still slightly below the custom-made Serenity Lego model that I desperately wish they would mass produce.

eBay Giving Works Welcomes Its 10,000th Nonprofit

eBay Giving WorksToday, eBay Giving Works, the eBay program that lets you post auctions where a percentage of the winning bid is automatically donated to participating charities, announced that they have 10,000th Non-Profit Group in the program.

Since it was my Serenity screening ticket auctions that got Equality Now to sign up for the program last year, I'd like to think I made a small contribution to helping this along. (In this case, "small" is defined as 1/10,000th, I suppose.)

So here's to all 10,000 charities that signed up, the guesstimated tens of thousands of sellers who have taken part in the program, the additional tens of thousands who bid on all those auctions, and the likely millions of people who have benefited from the money raised, in one form or another. With double cheers going to the probably dozens of eBay and Mission Fish folks who made it all possible. Good works, indeed.

Fuck this shit, I’m going home.

Ray's Broken ChairI have to have these two documents merged together, proof-read, and send off to the developers by Sunday afternoon, so I'm pulling an all-nighter to get it all done without having to cancel my weekend plans. At 1:30am, I'm tired, starving, grumpy, and oh so close to finishing. I lean back in my chair to relax for a second... and the whole fucking back of the chair breaks off!!

Fuck that noise. I'll finish this tomorrow. I'm going home.


[To truly appreciate this post, you need to picture the look on my face when I leaned back, heard a big SNAP, and just kept going.]

I had to kill him. Fry’s told me to.

I'm having the worst time trying to buy a physical copy of Homesite 5.5. There are no copies listed on eBay, so it redirects me to what it thinks is the next best logical category: real estate listings. Adobe's site only sells it as a download, and that's for the same $99 a physical copy should be. Amazon tries to sell me a $435 copy of Dreamweaver 8 instead. But by far the funniest result was from Fry's. Apparently their AI has been watching too much Addams Family.

Did you mean homicide?

Get a First Life

Get a First LifeBy now, most of you have at least heard of Second Life, the trendy new virtual-reality world that has its own economy and even its own Reuters bureau. Now I'm not much of a VR guy, so I've never logged on, and my interest in Second Life is limited to seeing how the economy aspect of it evolves. But I found this pretty damned funny.

There is now a Get A First Life parody site, complete with merchandising. It reminds me of the "they expelled me for my theory of actual reality" line from Rent.

Update: The fact that this parody site exists is amusing. But the fact that Dresden Labs, the creators of Second Life, sent the parody site the opposite of a Cease & Desist letter is frikkin' awesome! It takes some serious class to not only publicly acknowledge the fair use of parody, but also take one step further and grant them a proactive limited license for using the modified logo on their merchandise. Kudos!

Review – Apple TV

Apple TVI have been looking forward to Apple's new Apple TV (formerly known as iTV) since before they announced it. I have been downloading a lot of current-season TV shows and watching them on my PC, so the idea of being able to plug a little box into my beautiful 50" TV and watch it from the comfort of Cindy & Jason's insanely comfy couch was very, very appealing. I was even looking forward to the possibility of shit-canning that annoying TiVo box in the next year or so, if they delivered a compelling enough product and could keep up their expansion of available shows.

Well, today the Apple TV was officially announced, along with preliminary details on how it works. To be honest, I'm a little disappointed. Granted, it delivers the basic functionality it promised, but none of the functionality I figured they would include as an end-to-end solution, and the price point is just a little too high to make it all that appealing.

Lets take this review bit by bit, for those of you who are interested...

Too many books to count

ISBN13Or at least to uniquely identify within 10 digits. Yes, folks, the 10-digit ISBN that we've all come to know and love over the years is growing up. Soon it will be replaced with ISBN 13, which will ask to borrow the car keys and probably raid your liquor cabinet when you're away for the weekend.

*sigh* They grow up so fast.

In related news, the 12-digit UPC is also going to 13 digit, although I haven't heard yet whether they will be combining the two or keeping them separate. And how much of a dork does it make me that I'm actually kind of looking forward to reading the ISBN 13 For Dummies PDF this weekend?

That’s like… 720 toes!

Toe SocksI'll admit it. I like toe socks. I bought my first pair a few years ago just because I thought they were funny, but then fell in love with them for the comfiness factor. Plus, having fabric between your toes is great for avoiding athletes foot, so that's another reason to love the toe socks.

Unfortunately, they're rarely sold mainstream, and when they are it's usually just the wacky-colored ones in the women's department. And the ones they sell on ToeSocks.com are a little pricey at $10-14/pair. But I needs me some new socks, so off I went to buy a few pair.

Then it occurred to me to check eBay first. Buried among the hundreds of obnoxiously colored novelty toe socks, I found one guy who's selling simple, solid-color men's toe socks. In bulk. For the price of three pairs at ToeSocks.com, you can get 12 pairs from this guy. For just $15 more you can get 36 pairs. Or for a total of $64 after shipping (the equivalent of six pairs at the normal price) you get 72 frikkin' pairs of toe socks!!

Now, I certainly don't need 72 pairs of toe socks. 12 would be more than enough for now. But how can I turn down a bargain like that? I mean, it's less than 9 cents a toe for crying out loud!

What the hell am I going to do with all these extra toe socks?

2006 Browncoat Ball – Postmortem

I originally posted this on the browncoatball.com site. That domain is being passed on to the folks who run each year's ball, so I've backed it up here for posterity.

When the Chicagoland Browncoats accepted our pitch to host the 2006 Browncoat Ball in San Francisco, we knew we had our work cut out for us if we wanted to put on an event that would live up the 2004 Browncoat Ball in Chicago. This postmortem is meant to be a pragmatic analysis of the choices we faced, the decisions we made, what worked and what didn't, so the cities that are submitting pitches for hosting the 2007 and 2008 balls can maximize the effectiveness of their own planning processes.


GUIDING   PHILOSOPHIES

In planning the second Browncoat Ball, the first question we had to face was "what is the essence of the Browncoat Ball?" What aspects of the 2004 event did we definitely need to echo in our event, which could evolve into something better, and which might be better replaced with something completely different. Below is a general outline of the philosophical decisions we made that guided our planning process.

  • The Browncoat Ball is Primarily a Fan Mixer
    There are many types of conventions and get-togethers. Some revolve primarily around meeting celebrities, attending themed panels, getting early glimpses at industry projects, or browsing a dealer floor full geek-related products. At many of these conventions, meeting and getting to know your fellow fans is a side note that occurs in small doses between events or while waiting in long lines. However, it is these interactions with our fellow fans that truly make these conventions memorable. The Browncoat Ball is the opposite of these conventions. Getting to know your fellow fans is the primary objective of the Browncoat Ball, and all other aspects of the ball should be arranged to further that goal.

  • Keep it Inexpensive
    The Firefly/Serenity fandom is incredibly diverse. Browncoats come in all shapes, sizes and tax brackets. This makes it possible for high-priced, exclusive conventions to be successful by targeting a small number of well-off fans. But as a fan mixer, the Browncoat Ball should be accessible to as many fans as possible. Ticket prices should be kept low, and the expected additional budget for each attendee (for food, shopping, etc) should be kept as reasonable as possible.

  • Everyone is a Fan
    Conventions that center around celebrity panels and signings create a separation between the fans and the celebrities, in addition to turning the event into a work day for the celebrities. This violates the fans-meeting-fans nature of the Browncoat Ball. Therefore, if any of the cast/crew wish to attend the ball, they should do so as fellow guests and not as hired celebrities. There should be no signings, no audience panels and as little pre-ball publicity regarding their presence as possible. If someone is coming to the Browncoat Ball specifically to meet a celebrity, their expectations will not match the theme of the event, so we'd rather they attend a celeb-centric event instead to achieve their goals. Any celebrity who attends the Browncoat Ball should be able to look back at it as a great party, not a day at work.

  • No Dealers Floor
    We all love shopping on the dealer's floor of mainstream conventions. But running a dealer's booth requires a great deal of time for the vendors, which means they will have less of an opportunity to participate in the social aspects of the event. Thus, having a dealer's floor would violate the spirit of the first two rules. We also want to make the event as financially accessible as possible to a large number of fans, and knowing that there will not be a dealers floor allows people with a lower budget to attend without feeling like they're missing out on something.

  • No Charity Drives
    Browncoats have a wonderful habit of turning just about every event into an opportunity to raise funds for worthy charities. As one of the first groups to organize one of these mind-boggling fundraisers, we get that. And we're incredibly proud of all of our fellow browncoats and their inherent drive to make the world a better place. But fundraisers take a lot of time and resources to run, which would again detract from people's ability to enjoy the social aspects of the event. And again, we want to keep the expected cost for the average attendee as low as possible, so it's best if we save our fundraising energies for events with a larger audience of potential donors. This is our weekend off. We can save the world next week.

  • There Will Be Dancing!
    The Browncoat Ball is a ball - the social event of the season. There has to be dancing, and it should be as elegant and fancy as possible, while still being accessible to the majority of fans. Those who want to dress up, show off their frippery and immerse themselves in an environment similar to that to the Firefly episode Shindig should be able to do just that. But those who don't feel comfortable dressing up or dancing should still feel comfortable attending and socializing.

  • History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes
    As the second in a series of annual events, the Browncoat Ball needs to retain the essence of the previous event(s), while still adding its own flair. It doesn't have to (and, really, shouldn't) be identical to the previous event, but people who attend both events should have their expectations met and be able to recognize it as an extension of the previous events, rather than a deviation from them.


WEEKEND   OUTLINE

Keeping these guiding philosophies in mind, we then tackled the event planning for the weekend, based on the outline of the 2004 ball.

Friday Night - Shuttle Service

In 2004, the Chicagoland Browncoats organized a shuttle service, where attendees could send in their arrival times and there would be a friendly Browncoat volunteer waiting for them at the airport to greet them and whisk them off to the hotel. We loved the idea of the shuttle service, but several factors conspired against us on that front.

Most of our local volunteers live in San Francisco proper, and therefore don't have cars. And the shuttle service was one of the things that we forgot to delegate ownership of until the last minute, so there just wasn't time to get all our ducks in a row. I would highly suggest adding this to future events, if possible, since it really makes out of town guests feel welcome and breaks down the shyness barrier (you at least know one person, once you get there). But you definitely need to have someone who is responsible for organizing this as their primary task, and not make it one of the minor tasks of a main organizer.


Friday Night - Meet And Greet Dinner

In 2004, the Friday night dinner was a Tea Party themed affair, help in an open-air patio at the top of the hotel. This was an opportunity for everyone to meet one another in an informal setting, so they could mingle and get to know everyone. We had intended for our Friday night dinner to be similarly informal, and chose the "dinner at Fanty & Mingo's" theme for the occasion. However, when the Empress of China showed us their amazing ballroom (which came free as long as we had something like a 50 person minimum), we couldn't resist.

This ended up adding a lot to the event (TWO full dinner/dance balls in one weekend? Sweet!!), but was also a bit of a drawback in some respects. While most people seem to have had a great time Friday night, some of the more shy people felt a little uncomfortable being in such a fancy environment with so many people they didn't know. Given this, I would suggest that if the Friday night dinner is as fancy as ours was this year, there should be some sort of get-to-know-you mechanism built in. Maybe it's as simple as having locals assigned as greeters, to seek out the shy folks and introduce them to a few people, or low-key meet-and-greet introductions at each table.


Saturday Afternoon - Boat Tour

In 2004, the Chicagoland Browncoats rented out an L train for a "train job." They had local guides lead a long line of people a few blocks away to the L station, loaded everyone onto the pre-decorated train for a rail tour of Chicago. Initially, we considered having the 2006 ball in Sacramento, so we could keep with the train job theme at the uber-cool Railroad Museum they have there. But it really isn't as enticing a city as San Francisco, and was too much of a commute for most of our locals.

In the end, we decided that what made the train job great was giving everyone a chance to see the city in which the event was being hosted, so we replaced the train with a boat tour of the San Francisco Bay. This gave us an even more extravagant way to see the city, and solved one of the main complaints we had heard about the 2004 train job. The sightseeing aspect of the train job was great, but the physical layout of a train car makes it very difficult to get to know more than just the few people sitting around you. The ship gave everyone a much more social atmosphere, where they could move around and meet a variety of people. Plus - bonus - cash bar!


Saturday Afternoon - Scavenger Hunt

We also chose to continue the tradition the Chicagoland folks started by having a photo scavenger hunt, as well as a physical scavenger hunt, to give people incentive to keep a lookout for local landmarks. We didn't have very many submissions for the contest portion of the scavenger hunts, however, so I'm not sure whether or not they are worth implementing again at future events. They're fun for those who participate, but they add to the logistical complexity to collect/collate everyone's submissions, and if you do a good enough job getting people to socialize with one another during the day, that's ultimately going to take precedence for most people.


Saturday Afternoon - Dance Lessons

One new addition we made to the Saturday afternoon schedule was dance lessons. At the 2004 ball, most of the scheduled dancing was of the modern variety, since not many of the Chicagoland browncoats were ballroom dancers. But the attendees from San Francisco (two of whom later became the organizers for the 2006 ball) spent an hour or so giving everyone some impromptu lessons on how to waltz and do a very simple group bonfire dance, and everyone loved it. And since we knew that there were a lot of closet browncoats among the San Francisco ballroom dance community, we knew we had to turn it up a notch and make ballroom dancing a central aspect of this year's ball.

With our Browncoat Ball organizers having decades-long roots in the local ballroom dance community, we were uniquely positioned to be able to add a ballroom flair to our ball. But we were lucky enough to have one of the most popular ballroom instructors in the area among our fanbase, so we were thrilled when Joan offered to give dance lessons and create her own Shindig-inspired Sir Warrick Harold dance for us. And we had far more men-who-can-dance than your average sci-fi gathering would have had. This was a smashing success, and I would highly suggest that future host cities get at least a few of their volunteers up to teaching speed in at least waltz and one "if you can walk you can do this dance" dance, since that really does separate the Browncoat Ball from every other club and high school gym dance that people are used to attending.

You can also take advantage of the precedent set by the 2006 ball in inspiring your attendees to learn to dance before they even arrive. We had planned to have a video podcast of in-character Companion Waltz Lessons, but we couldn't find volunteers to take ownership of that project. And our attempts to get global browncoat groups to take local ballroom lessons before the ball didn't meet with much success. But now that there are so many photos (and videos, once our 2006 Browncoat Ball Souvenir DVD is finished) available of people dancing and enjoying themselves at the previous balls, it should be much easier to capture the imagination of prospective attendees and inspire them to embrace the dancing aspect of the ball. Particularly the men. Just explain to them that learning to waltz is easier than it sounds, and show them the photos of all those gorgeous browncoat ladies who were wishing they had someone to dance with, and presto!  :-)


Saturday Night - Browncoat Ball

Saturday night is the main event. The Browncoat Ball itself. In 2004, the ball was held in a traditional hotel conference room, with maybe a 12' ceiling and a small dance floor. They had a few musical acts (like The Great LukeSki) to entertain us while we ate, and then a CD mix of mostly modern music to dance to. As previously mentioned, the organizers of the 2006 ball are regular participants of the San Francisco ballroom dance community, and have been so terribly spoiled by the semi-monthly Gaskells balls, monthly PEERS balls and bi-monthly Friday Night Waltz events that we simply couldn't settle for anything less. We fell in love with the dance floor at Empress of China, and seriously considered having the Saturday night ball there, but ultimately decided that it was important to have the main event within the same building as the hotel, since no one wanted to walk several blocks in their frippery, or worry about sending the kids back to the hotel without them if they got tired.

We looked at several hotel options before finding the Marines Memorial and their gorgeous Commandant's Ballroom. Most of them had adequate facilities, but were either way out of our price range or had already been booked in advance. This is one of the main reasons that we will be accepting pitched for both 2007 and 2008 this year, since the more advanced planning a ball committee has, the more hotel options will be available to them.

Ultimately, our Hotel choice had its plusses and minuses. The hotel itself was perfectly situated right next to Chinatown, had a gorgeous ballroom, beautiful rooms, a great hospitality suite, and was very reasonably priced. However, we did run into a lot of last-minute problems that we probably could have foreseen if we had asked them for more details before signing our contract. For any future ball committee, I would strongly suggest that you follow these guidelines before choosing your hotel.

  • Make sure you thoroughly understand the contract. Even before signing, ask them for a sample bill, assuming that you have the minimum attendance you would expect in a worst-case scenario. The biggest problem we faced with the 2006 ball was a vaguely worded clause in the hotel's contract that meant we had to pay about $2500 more for the hotel than we had expected. (The $9000 minimum only included the food, while we thought it included the food, bar, tax and gratuity - woops!).

  • Make sure they give you a sample floor plan of the ball space, as it will be arranged the night of the ball. The Marines Memorial told us that we could have as big a dance floor as we wanted when we toured the facilities. So when we gave them our final numbers, we asked for as large a dance floor as possible while still searing all of our guests. When we arrived that afternoon to set up for dance lessons, they had a postage stamp sized dance floor set up, and tried to charge us an additional fee to even expand it to the still-tiny dance floor that we ended up with. Ultimately, we did convince them that they could not charge us extra as they were actually giving us less than what they had promised, and most of the non-dancer attendees didn't seem to notice the difference all that much. But if you look at the difference in dance floor between the Friday (semi-formal) and Saturday (fancy-main-event) venues, you can understand how disappointed we were with what we got versus what the hotel promised verbally.

  • Make sure you get to visit the hospitality suite ahead of time. We discovered many things about the hospitality suite at the very last minute, and had to work around them. For instance, we did not know ahead of time that you needed a hotel card key to get to the floor the hospitality suite was on, which was quite inconvenient for local guests and guests who were staying in other hotels. It wasn't until we put on our first DVD that we discovered that the hotel TVs were rigged to only go up to 20 on volume, so the room full of people who were expecting to watch Firefly could see - but only just barely hear - what was going on. And I think the fact that there was no door between the bedroom and living room areas explains why our professional onsite masseuse got so few clients - that was a bit of a shocker.

We also learned a very important lesson about how hotels and restaurant differ. Our general requirements for the Friday and Saturday night events were basically the same (dinner and dancing for 150 people), but the expectations and behavior of the venues were very different. The restaurant's motivation was to sell 150 dinners, and everything else was just to add to the ambiance. Their prices were very reasonable, their staff was amazing, and they were eager to help in every respect. The hotel, on the other hand, was very much used to handling weddings, and didn't seem to know what to do with us. That said, we still think it is very important for the Saturday night event to be in the same building, or within a very short walk (maybe 1 block) of the hotel, for the aforementioned reasons.


Saturday Night - After Party

Invariably, the ball itself will end far too early in the evening. People will still want to party. Having a hospitality suite where people can retire to for a casual continuation of the festivities is essential. Having a variety of room parties for them to choose from is even better (the Fillionaires' Bordello room party in 2004 was legendary). And an organized outing can be great too, if it's close enough and has enough room for everyone.

Sadly, most of the Fillionaires were missing from this years ball, and none of the groups held their own room parties. But the mellow hanging out and pseudo-TV watching (again with the volume problems) was a lovely way to wind down after the ball. I heard great reviews from those who attended the after hours soirée at Swig, but it sounds like the room we had reserved there was too small to hold everyone who showed up, so it got hot/crowded/loud, and a lot of people ended up filing back to the hospitality suite, bit by bit.

Arguments could be made one way or the other on what types of events should be available after the ball (rowdy vs mellow, full-group vs smaller split-off groups, etc). The important thing is that there be somewhere for people to retire after the ball, so they can spend more time getting to know all the new friends they made at the ball. And the more accessible the alcohol, the better.


Sunday

In 2004, Sunday was reserved for a general Chicago sight seeing day, and most people ended up using it as a travel day instead. This year we knew that most of our attendees were either locals or within a short plane ride, and we really wanted to extend the opportunity for everyone to spend more time to further build the friendships they had started at the Saturday ball, so we intentionally planned something that was enticing enough that it would get most people to attend, but still casual enough that the long-distance travelers wouldn't feel gypped for having to miss it as they flew home.

The Chinatown tour was the perfect compromise. We were a little surprised to learn that our little tour was the same weekend as the Moon Festival and the Folsom Street Faire (both of our main organizers live in San Jose, 45 minutes south of San Francisco, and were not aware of the dates for these hugely popular annual events), and given the opportunity to do it over, we might have scheduled the start time for the Sunday event a little bit later in the morning to give people time to recover from the previous nights festivities (noon is still a reasonable hour to start one's day, right?), but the reports we heard from most folks for Sunday's casual romp about town were positive.


FINANCIAL   REPORT

The lack of a dealers floor and celebrity photo ops is part of what makes the Browncoat Ball unique, since it is purely a by-the-fans-for-the-fans event. However, that also makes it a little trickier to fund the event, since you can't rely on revenue from those sources. This section will concentrate specifically on the financials for the 2006 ball, to give future host cities an idea of how we funded our ball, and what might be considered to make next year's ball run more smoothly.

For the 2006 Browncoat Ball, we relied on ticket price as our sole revenue stream, and cut the budget as thin as possible to keep the ticket prices as low as we could. This would have worked fairly well if we hadn't misinterpreted that hotel contract. Below if a full breakdown of the income and expenses that went into funding the 2006 ball.

INCOME:
Ticket Sales $19441.38
Merchandise Profits $348.00
Cash Donations $80.00
Souvenir DVD Profits pending
TOTAL $19869.38
 
CURRENT BALANCE - $867.52
     
EXPENSES:
Saturday Night Hotel Event $11719.12
Friday Night Dinner $3550.00
Boat Rental $2962.75
Saturday Night Band $850.00
Blue Sun Room Rental $681.72
Bus to Boat $520.38
Promo Postcards $242.93
Gft Bags $210.00
TOTAL $20736.90

Accounts

Once we had our event planned out and it was time to book our resources, we started by setting up a separate bank account and PayPal account specifically for the event. This is the same method we used for the Equality Now charity fundraiser we had run at ComicCon 2005 and it seemed to work fairly well there, so we went the same route for the 2006 Browncoat Ball. This worked well for us since we had a small organizational committee, but it also left our treasurer personally responsible for any deficit that might result.

Future committees might consider setting up a non-profit entity under which to manage the funds. However, you must make sure that you can pay for the venue fees using a credit card, as debit cards have a daily limit that will likely be too low to pay for your venue fees.


Security Deposits

Our first financial hurdle was to pay the $1000 deposits that were required by the hotel, restaurant and boat in order to reserve them for our chosen date ($3000 total). We did not have any seed money when we began our planning, so we solved this problem by putting the deposits on our treasurer's personal credit card and then reimbursing that amount from of the first of the ticket sales. At $150 per ticket, we only had to sell 20 tickets to cover this amount. This was accomplished within the first three hours of tickets going on sale (57 tickets were sold within the first 24 hours), so this was an acceptable way for us to fund the deposits.


Ticket Sales

For ticket sales, we created an online form which would collect the registration information for those who wished to purchase a ticket, save that information to a database, and then send the ticket holder a confirmation email with instructions on how to submit their payment. This worked very well for us, and could easily be repurposed to serve future balls (with a few small PHP/MySQL tweaks).

Since some people are not comfortable with online payments, we allowed payment by PayPal or by Check. For PayPal transactions, we asked that people pitch in a few extra dollars to cover the PayPal fees if they could afford to, since we were cutting our budget so thin, and nearly everyone did so. For check payments, the only problem we encountered were a few people who made their checks out to Browncoat Ball instead of to our treasurer, but ticket sales were far enough in advance that there was plenty of time to send these back and have them resend corrected checks.

While we were still in the planning stages, we set up a pre-registration form to see how many people would be interested in attending a San Francisco Browncoat Ball at a $150 ticket price. We didn't put very much effort into publicizing it, but we received 287 positive responses, so we figured hitting our 150 person break-even target would be easy. But as the event grew nearer, ticket sales hovered right around 100 without signs of an increase. Since the fixed price of the boat and hotel relied on a 150 person attendance to break even, that discrepancy would have left us several thousand dollars in the red, so we added single-day tickets to the mix to encourage more local attendance and offered a number of discount tickets on eBay to bring in more national attendees.

By scrambling at the last minute like this, we were able to drive the attendance up to 151 people, but due to the discount tickets and disproportionately low profit from the single-day tickets, that still left us a close to a thousand dollars in the red. This crisis could have been easily avoided by making ticket sales available earlier (tickets were not available until 6 June - only three months before the event), by increasing advertising on the web, through podcasts and at additional conventions, by developing additional revenue streams, and by allowing for a more conservative estimate when calculating the break-even attendance level.


Expenses Outline

The Friday night dinner was a per-person charged based on menu choices, with a very low minimum (50 people, I think) in order to get use of the ballroom for free. We had initially planned to go with the Flaming Baby Quail entrée, but were forced to downgrade to the still-delicious, but less flaming secondary option when the fiasco with the hotel contract put our budget in the red. Had we not had that problem, the Empress of China would have been a steal even at the slightly higher price point. You'll find that restaurants are much more willing to work with you than hotels, as they expect to get most of their money from the food they normally serve, whereas hotels are used to conventions and weddings, where catering and additional services are much more pricey. Ultimately, we had about 120 people in attendance Friday night, and paid $3500 total ($1000 deposit up front when we made the reservation, the rest paid via credit card at the end of the evening).

Chartering a private boat tour was a flat fee, with a maximum occupancy of 250 people. We paid a couple hundred dollars extra in order to have a cash bar on board (which was definitely worth it, considering how friendly browncoats are when they drink), which brought the total to $2962.75 ($1000 deposit up front when we made the reservation, the rest paid via credit card two weeks prior to the event).

We also decided that it would simply be far too chaotic to have everyone find their own way to the pier, 20 blocks from the hotel, so we chartered a bus to make two trips from the hotel to the pier in the morning, and one trip back to the hotel after the boat tour. This cost an additional $520.38. If attendance had been higher, adding a second bus for additional trips would have brought that amount up by an additional $300 or so.

The Saturday night ball was where we ran into budget issues. The way we read the contract, we got use of the ballroom for free as long as our total bill was at least $9000. However, what the fine print boiled down to was that we had to spend at least $9000 just on food, and the price for the cash bar, tax and mandatory 18% gratuity was taked on in addition to that $9K minimum. This meant that we would be paying for at least 151 people, even if attendance was only 100, which prompted us to add a lot of last-minute ticket options, offer far too many tickets at below cost, just to get something for those unused seats, and slim down our budget everywhere we could find room, to avoid getting stuck with a huge amount of unused-but-paid-for food. Ultimately, we ended up getting exactly 151 people in attendance (including 10 comped guests and about 30 at discount prices), for a total bill of about $11719.12. ($1000 deposit up front when we made the reservation, the rest paid via credit card at the end of the evening. We made the grim discovery that a debit card has a $3K/day limit, which lead to a fair bit of stress the night of the ball, and a few more overdraft fees than I'd like to admit to.) Renting the hospitality quite as a registration location and focal point for social activities was essential. We paid $681.72 for two nights, which brought our total amount due to the hotel to $12400.84.

Additional costs included $850 for Bangers & Mash (the band that played Saturday night), $242.93 for 2000 VistaPrint advertising postcards (distributed at ComicCon, DragonCon, and locally), and another $210 for gift bags, prizes, decorations, and the like.

The total cost of the Browncoat Ball was $20736.90 and the total income from ticket sales, merchandise profits and cash donations came to $19869.38, which left us with a deficit of $867.52. This deficit was due partially to our misinterpretation of the hotel's contract (which was roughly a $3000 difference, which would have left us with a healthy surplus) and lower than expected registration. By following the suggestions below, this should be a very simple thing for future host cities to avoid repeating.


Post-Ball Fundraising and the Carry-Forward Fund

The 2004 Browncoat Ball's budget resulted in a surplus of $948.72, which can be applied as a carry-forward to cover the deficit of the 2006 Browncoat, if necessary. However, we would very much like to make the 2006 ball self-funding, so that the carry-forward fund can be applied to future events. So we are planning one last potential revenue source to eliminate the deficit before we make the final decision on whether or not to rely on the carry-forward fund.

There are two aspects to the post-ball fundraising plan. The first is the ability for people to donate money directly through PayPal, which is something that several attendees requested. The other is to sell Souvenir DVDs, which will include everyone's video footage and high-resolution photos from the ball. We are still working on acquiring everyone's photos and videos for the DVD and working out the budget for how much they will cost to create. But our hope is that we will be able to create the DVDs for no more than $5 each and sell them for $15 each, for a $10 profit per DVD. If we are able to achieve this target, we would need to sell DVDs to 2/3 of the attendees to break even, but even if only 1/3 of the attendees purchased a DVD we will have cut our deficit in half.

If we still have a deficit after the DVD sales and PayPal donations are complete, we will use the carry-forward fund to make up the difference and the remaining amount will remain in the carry-forward fund for future events. If DVD sales and donations are positive enough to turn our deficit into a surplus, any amount that is raised above the deficit amount will be added to the carry-forward fund.


KEY   LEARNINGS

While the majority of the 2006 Browncoat Ball went of with amazing success, there were several things that we learned about how a future ball might be able to avoid some of the turbulence that we experienced. The following is an outline of the most important of these lessons.

  • Delegation of Responsibility
    The biggest mistake we made in planning the 2006 Browncoat Ball was relying too heavily on two main organizers, and not sufficiently delegating responsibilities for individual tasks to a wider group of volunteers. When we submitted our pitch to host the ball, we assumed we would have more than enough volunteers to act as lieutenants for various tasks, considering the past experience our group had in running fan tables and other events. What we failed to consider was that the group would still be active in planning other events during the same time that the Browncoat Ball was being planned, so our group's resources were spread too thin. The earlier you can get a large group of local volunteers organized, and the more you can run your committee like a small business, with responsibilities and ownership of various aspects clearly defined, the better your chances of success (not to mention avoiding burnout).

  • Additional Revenue Streams
    While we don't want the Browncoat Ball to lose what makes it special by adding a dealers floor and celebrity photo ops, there are still a few additional sources of revenue that can be pursued to help balance the budget and take some of the risk out of relying purely on ticket sales. Merchandising is one avenue that should be explored. The tshirts and posters that Adam created for us contributed $348 to our bottom line, and that was with them not becoming available for sale until shortly before the event (with barely enough time for some items to be shipped in time for the ball) and not having any on-site stock. Sponsorships are another avenue that we considered but did not have the resources to explore since the idea occurred to us so late in the process. Getting a small chunk of change from each of several geek-friendly sponsors (like QMX, Dark Horse, Margaret Weis Productions, Jason Palmer, or other Firefly/Serenity licensees) in exchange for promoting them on your website and/or printed material might be a nice way to supplement the budget without detracting from the quality of the event.

  • Advertising
    We had a lot of good ideas on how to advertise the event this year, but most of them either came too late to implement, or got lost in the shuffle when the main organizers became backlogged and were never executed. Postcards are a great way to advertise an event, but you have to be careful about deciding where/how you distribute them. At venues where there a lot of geeks who might not yet know about the ball (such as comic book stores and conventions) you can get a lot of publicity this way, but if the event occurs too close to the ball for people to make travel arrangements, if most of the people at the event will already know about the ball, or if the postcards are displayed on a table with millions of other fliers where they won't get noticed, this money could be wasted. Downloadable marketing assets (like fliers, web banners or LiveJournal icons) can also be useful, since they allow your potential attendees to spread the word for you among their own online communities and at their local comic book shops. Creative audio spots that can be played on geek-centric podcasts are another great way to get new attendees attention. The 2004 crew had several video "waves" on their website that they used communicate the flavor of the event, which were very enticing. You could even create your own podcast to keep prospective attendees in the loop on recent developments and get them excited about the event. We had considered producing a weekly video podcast of Companion Waltz Lessons to make it easier for attendees to learn some basic dance steps prior to the ball and add to the buzz around the event, but this too ended up falling through the cracks.

  • Be Financially Conservative
    Avoid being too optimistic about your attendance level. If you hold pre-registration to gauge interest before an event, you should consider requiring at least a nominal deposit to eliminate wishful thinkers from skewing your numbers. When planning various aspects of the event, identify items that can be cut or reduced should your budget be tighter than you expected (for example, having the option to downgrade for a premium menu to a mid-range menu). Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. And triple check your math.

  • Negotiating With Venues
    Be very specific when negotiating with vendors and service providers. Ask them for sample bills based on your agreed assumptions before giving a deposit, to make sure there are no unexpected gotchas in the contract. Ask them for a floor plan of the space you're reserving, including dance floor size and what costs extra (they tried to charge us $10/table at the last minute for centerpieces), to make sure that your expectations and theirs are in sync. Make sure you tour the facilities in person and pay attention to as many details as you can so there are no surprises. The same goes for any other relationships you may set up with third parties, be they sponsors, service providers or partners.

  • Ticket Sale Strategy
    Make tickets available for sale as early as possible - at least six months prior to the event date. This will allow people to better fit the ball into their vacation schedule and budget and give you more flexibility should you run into problems along the way. Single-day tickets are also very important if you anticipate there being a lot of locals who won't be able to make it to the entire weekend but would still like to take part int he event. Price them high enough that people have incentive to buy the weekend pass, but try to make them available as an option.

  • Well-Defined Schedule
    Several aspects of the weekend suffered a bit because we did not have a clear schedule printed up in advance. There should have been a welcome package that every attendee got when they signed in which contained times, locations and maps for all of the weekend's events. Instead, people had to rely too much on word-of-mouth and some last minute planning, and the Sunday Chinatown tour particularly suffered as a result.

  • Social Mixer Dances
    We can't recommend enough having a few social mixer dances that people can learn on-site before dancing. Saturday on the boat, lots of people asked if we were going to do the Haymaker's Jig again that night, since they loved it so much the first time. And Joan's Sir Warrick Harrow dance got an even better response. Ammy has volunteered to teach and call the dances at the next ball, if you would like.

  • Happy Hour
    Happy Hour at the hotel bar was a huge hit. Games of chinese checkers came out, and it was a nice social hour on the first night. Even if it isn't free in the future, we would recommend holding something similar again.

  • Love
    You can do all the math in the 'verse, but you take a boat in the air you don't love, she'll shake you off sure as the turnin' of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down. Tells you she's hurtin' 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

    In other words, if you're not having fun, you're not doing it right!