Sci-fi meets open source at annual Penguicon nerdfest

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

This weekend over 1,400 nerds will convene at the Southfield Westin Hotel for the 12th annual Penguicon, a technical conference and social convention that marries sci-fi fandom with collaborative, nonprofit software development.

Unlike many well known sci-fi cons, Penguicon offers a little something for everyone. This year's event features 500 hours of programming with topics including video games, food, science, ecology and technology.

Special guests include Hugo Award winner and io9 Editor-in-Chief Charlie Jane Anders, Gizmodo Editor-in-Chief Annalee Newitz, and founder Aral Balkan. Previous guests have included bestselling authors Neil Gaiman and Ernest Cline.

Penguicon was founded in 2003 to fill a major gap in the nerd community, says Scott Kennedy, Penguicon assistant chair and head of communications.

"It was from some people who were into Linux programming and other open source stuff, but they also went to local sci-fi conventions and they were like there's a big cross pollination," Kennedy says. "There's people who like sci-fi books and people who like open source software. Why shouldn't we get them in the same place and share interests?"

The nonprofit, volunteer-run convention was a success from the start, thanks in big part to attendee-generated programming covering a broad spectrum of subjects, says Nuri Gocay, Penguicon chair.

"There's a large variety of topics, from molecular gastronomy, to whiskey tasting, to how to brew your own beer, to urban farming and beekeeping" Gocay says. "We have people who talk about the media, whether it's Joss Whedon or 'Stargate SG-1.' We also have music and local DJs. Anything you can geek out about, we have a panel about."

Penguicon also sets itself apart from similar conventions in regard to its open welcoming of gender, ethnic and sexual diversity. Many popular sci-fi conventions have recently come under fire for discrimination and poor harassment policies, but Penguicon's staff works hard to create a comfortable environment for attendees from all walks of life.

"We consider Penguicon to be a safe space for all people, and most people who come find that it's a home they didn't realize existed," Kennedy says. "We have a big gay, lesbian and bisexual community, and we make sure everybody feels that if somebody touches them or harasses them without their consent, that we'll take that seriously."

This year's event features panels and guests focusing on the theme of human technological augmentation. Kennedy says this year's theme was a no-brainer, given the number of recent scientific breakthroughs in the field of bionic enhancement.

"We have reached this point where things are stepping out of hard science fiction into places where we're actually working on it," he says. "We thought we would explore that, especially because there are people working on projects that are open source where they learn something and they provide that knowledge to everyone else."

This year's theme also inspired the convention's annual charity of choice, E-Nabling the Future, a global of network of volunteers who 3D print and assemble mechanical hands for those in need.

"As soon as we heard what e-Nabling the Future is doing, we were like this is perfect for Penguicon, because this is a place where we try to educate each other and focus on open source knowledge that you spread instead of hoarding it for commercial purposes," Kennedy says. "We've been working with local organizations like high school robotics teams, and they've printed around 50 hands to present to e-Nabling. We're going to give those hands to them, help them assemble some of them, and print some live."

Gocay says Penguicon not only offers an unparalleled palette of programming, but also a welcoming climate for newcomers.

"If you've never been to a con before and you're nervous, you will find people like you who are interested in what you're interested in, or you will find people who are different from you that you like. Either way, you'll have a great time."

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.



Southfield Westin Hotel

1500 Town Center, Southfield

Tickets $20-$60