An updated version of this post for DragonCon 2014 is now available.
Dragon*Con 2010 in Atlanta is this weekend. It is a gigantic convention for fans of science fiction, fantasy, comic books and other pop-culture topics. For several years now it has had a dedicated track of programming for skeptics called Skeptrack.
The purpose of this blog post is to be a clearinghouse for all things digital related to the meeting. The particular focus is on Skeptrack, but there are a bunch of resources and tips here that will be useful to any digitally connected attendee.
Please note: I’m personally responsible for only one or two of the resources listed below. Most were created or published by the convention organizers or other attendees.
That having been said, there’s lots of great info in this post that can save you time or money or both.
- Are you staying at the Marriott Marquis? I’ll tell you how to save at least $5 per day on your WiFi charges.
- Do you need internet access but are not bringing a laptop? I’ll tell you which hotel can hook you up for free.
- Would you like to put the pocket program on your Kindle, Blackberry or other portable, but don’t know how? I’ll show you a site that can do it for you.
- Want to stay connected to the Skeptrack chatroom using your own IRC client? I’ll tell you how.
- Want to rent a 4G modem during the show? I’ll tell you how.
All that and much more, after the jump…
On-Line Sources of Conference Info
There are a wide variety of sources of information about the show online, both official and unofficial. The Dragon*Con website most up-to-date official information. There is also a web site for all the printed publications of the convention as well as one for the convention newsletter, the Daily Dragon. Almost any question you have about the convention can be answered on those sites.
Keep an eye on the Daily Dragon site during the convention too for updates such as schedule changes and the like. A bit of trivia: I was the original creator and editor of the Daily Dragon back in 1990. I ran it and a couple related departments (such as the information desks, and creating the pocket program design that is still in use) until 1997.
Skeptrack Smartphone App
If you have a smartphone of some kind, there’s a way to have all the information relating to Skeptrack at your fingertips. Follow Me, the same app that was customized for TAM 8 in July, has been customized for iPhone as well as for Android.
The application has the complete guest list including photos, as well as a full schedule of events. As you browse the schedule of events, you can bookmark ones you are interested in. (Tap the star on the iPhone version, hit your Menu button and choose Bookmark on the Android version). Your bookmarked events will appear in your schedule. You can also get alerts from the convention organizers and get a quick look at the current conversations on Twitter about the show.
If your phone is not an iPhone or Android, do not despair. There is also a mobile web version of the Skeptrack application you can access from any browser such as a Blackberry or even a PC or Mac. It has much the same features, but you will need to log in to use the personalization features such as creating your own schedule.
If you don’t need an interactive app, and just need the Skeptrack schedule, that’s online too over at the Skeptrack website.
Unfortunately, there is no version of the smartphone application that covers the entire schedule of Dragon*Con this year. For that, you may want to use the online calendars.
The programming schedule for Dragon*Con is huge. It takes a 76-page booklet to describe it all. Fortunately you don’t have to wait until you arrive to read those 76 pages, the book is available online now in a number of different formats.
You can download the full 76-page booklet or alternately just the schedule grids from the center pull-out as PDF files. On some systems you may need to install the Adobe Acrobat software to view them if you don’t have it already.
If you would rather read the program online, or you don’t care to install Acrobat Reader, or are planning to download the schedule to your mobile device, you may want to visit Scribd. Both the full pocket program and the pull-out schedule grids are viewable directly online there. Also, if you hit the button marked “mobile” on the right side, the site can convert the file to a format appropriate for many mobile devices and send it directly to your device.
There are other options as well. The schedule grids have been published in Google Docs, which lets you search and filter them online, as well as download them in a variety of file formats.
There may be even more options available later at the pocket program page on the Dragon*Con publications site. Usually at some point they publish the data here iCalendar format so you can pull it into your desktop or mobile device’s calendar program. Barring that, check out this blog post for a list of some of the individual tracks that have Google Calendar schedules posted online.
For other ways to use those Google Calendars & iCalendars, check out my post about TAM8 for some tips. You may be able to subscribe them into your personal desktop calendar program for easy use on your laptop or portable device.
Skeptrack will be trying to stream all of the programming from their room live this year, as they did last year. We have a new setup with a dedicated internet connection, so it should work better. You can see it on the Watch Live page at the Skeptrack website. (If you prefer, you can also watch it at the Ustream.tv web site.)
Note: when a small programming track like Skeptrack has a major guest on their schedule, the convention moves that event to a larger room, for obvious logistical reasons. For also obvious reasons, it is impossible to move the entire video rig to the other room for one hour. Thus, the Skeptrack video will go dark during these events.
You can see which events these are on the Skeptrack schedule, they’re the ones not listed as Hilton 205/206/207. As I write this, these events include:
- Saturday 1:00 pm – James Randi – I Very Much Doubt That!
- Saturday 1:00 pm – Ben Radford – Scientific Paranormal Investigations
- Saturday 7:00 pm – Jamy Ian Swiss – The Illusion of Psychic Powers
- Saturday 8:30 pm – Bizarre Magic! w/Brian Brushwood
- Sunday 2:30 pm – Raising Skeptical Geeks (Adam Savage, et.al.)
- Sunday 2:30 pm – Brian Dunning Gives A Skeptical Presentation on the ‘Missing Cosmonauts
- Sunday 4:00 pm – Magic, Myth, & Minutiae The Mutual Interview (Jamy Ian Swiss & Adam Savage)
All schedules are subject to change, of course.
The streaming video has a chatroom associated with it. If you are viewing the video on UStream or on the Skeptrack site, you will see it right there. If you are an experienced user of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) you may want to connect to it directly using an IRC client. You can do so with this information:
- Server: chat1.ustream.tv
- Port: 6667
- Channel: #dragon-con-skeptics-track
- Login: Use the username & password you set up at Ustream.tv
Other Streaming Video
The main events at Dragon*Con are not live-streamed, but a handful of other events at Dragon*Con will be live streamed, depending on what track they are in and who is involved. These include:
- Sony Online Entertainment – Sony’s panels regarding EverQuest II and the like
Know of any others? Contact me and I’ll add them.
Live Updates via Social Media
As the conference gets underway, the attendees will be talking about it online. This can give you a real-time glimpse into what is going on, even if you are not attending. Skeptics (like anyone else) use a variety of social media sites such as Facebook, Myspace, Tumblr and so on. But I am going to focus on Twitter here.
The reason for this focus is twofold. First, there seems to be a critical mass of skeptics and other Dragon*Con attendees that use Twitter regularly. Almost all of the participants in Skeptrack have Twitter accounts, and about half of the guests of Dragon*Con as a whole are active there.
The second reason is posts on Twitter are, by default, public to all. Unlike services like Facebook where you usually have to previously become “friends” with someone to see what they are writing about, on Twitter anyone can see anyone’s posts. This allows aggregation techniques to be used to see a unified stream of activity quite easily. In other words, simply by executing an appropriate Twitter search and hitting refresh periodically, you can get a robust feed of events without even having a Twitter account yourself. Read on for tips.
If you do have a Twitter account, there a few key accounts you should follow for important updates. The accounts @Dragon_Con and @Daily_Dragon are both official and post announcements from the organizers of the convention. The account @Skeptrack is operated by Derek Colanduno for announcements about the skeptic track.
I could go on listing other accounts you should follow, but this blog post would become very tedious. Fortunately Twitter has a feature where you can create lists of accounts for others to use. I have created some public Twitter lists that you may find useful:
- Skeptrack Participants – Twitter posts by those participating in Skeptrack 2010
- Dragon*Con Guests – Posts by guests and staff of Dragon*Con 2010
Depending on how you use Twitter, you can either subscribe directly to these lists, or use them as a way to find key Twitter users to follow yourself (by clicking “Following” in upper right). In any case, they are gold mine of people who will be talking about the show.
Even If You Don’t Use Twitter
Whether or not you are a Twitter user, you can still take advantage of all the content simply as a reader. One way to do this is just to navigate to the lists mentioned above and refresh every so often.
You can also cast a wider net Twitter’s public search function. Many folks will be tagging their posts with a hashtag such as #dragoncon, so you can see all the discussion by searching carefully. I recommend this search which picks up all posts tagged as well as the @Dragon_Con and @Daily_Dragon accounts. If you use an RSS reader to keep up with blogs and other websites, you can get a feed from a link on that page to put in your reader. Or simply keep that page open and pick refresh every so often. This is a great way to keep up with what is going on at the con.
Another aspect of social media that has become prominent just in the last year are what are now called location based services. These are services that make publishing your current location a key part of the experience of communicating with your friends. These include Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt and others.
These services could be very useful, especially after hours at TAM. Dragon*Con is spread across four main (and several other) hotels in downtown Atlanta. It can take quite a while to rendezvous with someone at a common location. By using a location based service to see where your friends are, you could save lots of time and find out where the action is.
Based on my experiences living in Atlanta, Foursquare has far more subscribers and venues already set up here. It also has better support for more types of phones than some of the other services, and can be used via a mobile web site on phones that do not have app support.
Also, there are some special promotions relating to Foursquare at Dragon*Con. For instance, Comcast Get Local is running a promotion on Foursquare where attendees can check in and win prizes.
The convention has created a number of custom Foursquare venues for the different locations around the con. These include:
Dragon*Con Skeptics Track @ Hilton
Dragon*Con 2010 Tweetup
Dragon*Con Hotel: Hilton Atlanta Hotel
Dragon*Con Hotel: Hyatt Regency Atlanta
Dragon*Con Hotel: Marriott Marquis
Dragon*Con Hotel: Sheraton Atlanta Hotel
Dragon*Con Hotel: Westin Peachtree Plaza
Stargate Multiverse Track at Dragon*Con @ Marriott Marquis
Dragon*Con Filk Track @ Marriott Marquis
Dragon*Con Brit Track @ Sheraton
XFINITY I Spy @ Dragon*Con (This is for the Comcast promotion).
Wireless Connectivity On-Site
Now none of this social media stuff is going to be useful without wireless connectivity. Atlanta is a major American city so of course it has coverage under all of the nationwide cellular services including AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon.
WiFi is a bit more complicated at the hotels. Because Dragon*Con is spread across four official hotels, and each is run by a different company, the WiFi details vary. Keep in mind these are business hotels (not resorts) and they are in business to make money selling services to convention goers. So the wireless internet is definitely not free. I’ve got the details below, they are accurate as of August 6th.
Atlanta Hilton WiFi (Skeptrack location)
The Hilton runs its own WiFi and has coverage throughout the building. You can use a credit card or bill it to your room if you are staying here. The SSID is “hhonors” like most Hilton properties. Prices are:
- One hour – $5.95
- One day (512kb up/1024kb down) – $12.95
- One day (1024kb up/2048kb down) – $15.95
My experience is that the Hilton WiFi works pretty well in the lobby and meeting areas, but others have said that it can be very poor in some meeting rooms.
I am going to try to provide free WiFi in the Skeptrack room only via Clear WiMax. It will be severely filtered (no video, radio, podcasts and so on) in order to allow as many folks to use it as possible. It should be good enough for casual social media, chatting and email. It definitely won’t be suitable for large media uploads such as Flickr or YouTube, so make other arrangements if you need to do that while at Skeptrack. Also, we can’t guarantee it won’t get abused by folks nearby – remember the Hilton will be full of nerds the entire weekend.
Atlanta Marriott Marquis WiFi
This hotel is directly across the street from the Hilton and is often the center of evening activities due to its large atrium lobby and many bars. Their wireless is provided by iBAHN. (SSID: ibahn). If you are Marriott Rewards Gold or Platinum Elite member, you get free wireless. The public area rates are as follows, payable by credit card:
- 15 minutes – $3.95 + $0.25 each add’l minute
- One day – $9.95
Inside the guest rooms, wireless is $12.95 per day, which includes Ethernet access and unlimited phone calls. You can roam onto the WiFi in the public areas as well.
However, I recommend you not pay the above rates. Why? iBAHN also supports users roaming from the following third-party WiFi providers:
Many of these providers have per-day or monthly subscription prices considerably lower than $12.95 or $9.95 per day. (For instance, I use Boingo sometimes at airports, and they offer a $7.95 per day rate. T-Mobile has a $7.99 per day rate. There are other rates and plans as well). You may already have an account with one of them. If not, set up an account on one of these other providers prior to arriving at the hotel. (AT&T, Boingo, BT OpenZone and T-Mobile seem well suited for home users, the others are very business oriented).
When you log in, click “Subscription Service” on the iBAHN login screen and click next. You can select your provider and use your username and password from the other service to log in. You’ll definitely save money.
If you only need to occasionally blog or check email while at Dragon*Con, this might be a good general WiFi option because the Marriott Marquis is fairly central. Just take your laptop over there, post your blog or photos, and head back.
Hyatt Regency Atlanta WiFi
There are two options at the Hyatt. You can use the Hyatt’s own wireless (SSID: hyatt) or you can use the T-Mobile Hotspot service (SSID: tmobile).
Hyatt’s pricing is somewhat complex. They have “Economy” rates for casual users, which are bandwidth limited & byte capped, as well as “Business” rates for more intensive users which are unlimited. Here are the rates:
- 24 hours – Economy: $9.95 / Business: $12.95
- 48 hours – Economy: $19.90 / Business: $25.90
- 72 hours – Economy: $29.85 / Business: $38.85
- 96 hours – Economy: $39.80 / Business: $51.80
- 120 hours – Economy: $49.75 / Business: $64.75
Hyatt explicitly disclaims their own WiFi coverage in their meeting rooms, which are mostly on the lower levels of the hotel.
The Sheraton has two options. It supports iBAHN like the Marriott Marquis, with the same prices and set of roaming providers. See details above.
But they also have a free WiFi option here (SSID: “Link @ Sheraton”). It gives you access for 2 hours and covers the lobby areas. I wouldn’t get too excited, though – its pretty much guaranteed to be overloaded with users during the convention. You get what you pay for.
Sheraton also has a nice open access computer area one floor above the lobby, with eight computers that guests can use. I would expect these to be overloaded with users during the convention, but might be useful in a pinch.
Clearly WiFi could be costly, depending on how you need to use it. Also, beware overloaded infrastructure! Dragon*Con puts 50,000 people into a very small area of downtown Atlanta. The WiFi infrastructure in these hotels are probably not expecting that many users all at once. (And keep in mind, many people now have WiFi capable smartphones that will be additionally loading the system). I would not be surprised if the wireless in some of the hotels is horribly slow during the convention.
Thus, if you want to use your laptop without WiFi, you might look into ways to take advantage of your data-capable cellphone. This is commonly called tethering and can be very convenient if your provider supports it. Some require an extra monthly fee, consult your provider’s web site. Note that some don’t use the term “tethering”, for instance Sprint calls this practice “Phone as a Modem” in their billing scheme.
But what if your cell phone data provider doesn’t support tethering, or their solution isn’t compatible with your laptop OS or phone? There still may be a way. Lately I’ve been using a program called PDANet by June Fabrics and am quite happy with it. It supports most of the popular smartphone types and can turn the data connection you are already paying for into a laptop internet connection via USB or Bluetooth. You might give it a look.
If you don’t have a data capable phone or you can’t make tethering work, are you still out of luck? Perhaps not. Read on.
4G (WiMax) Coverage in Atlanta
Just in the last year another option has appeared. A new wide-area broadband service called WiMax has been deployed in a number of US cities, and Atlanta is one of them. These towers are shared by a number of internet providers, which means you can use 4G WiMax in Atlanta on at least four different services including the following:
If you happen to have service from one or more of these providers at home, I recommend you consider bringing your device with you to Atlanta. If you do not already have service, you might consider picking it up before you head to the show. Some of the providers even offer a “Day Pass” option that does not require you to have an ongoing contract, you just pay for the days on which you use it.
Rent your 4G!
Understandably, you may be dubious of signing up for a new wireless service just for this show. Or even if you are willing, these services are not nationwide and may not be available in your home town. There is another option! There is a service in Las Vegas called 4G4Rent that will rent you access to a 4G/WiMax device for short-term use. I have contacted them, and while they do not have offices in Atlanta, they are willing to overnight ship to you here, and have you overnight the device back at the end of your stay.
Their pricing is much more reasonable than most of the hotel WiFi. There are drivers for both PC and Macintosh computers. You can contact them at the 4G4Rent website or at email@example.com for more information. Tell them I sent you.
4G Coverage in Downtown Atlanta
I have personally tested the WiMax coverage at the Skeptrack room, and I was able to get 10 Megabits per second of download speed using a Macintosh, and 3.5 Megabits per second using my Android smartphone. This is considerably faster than most hotel WiFi providers. This is, in part, because of the large windows in the front of that room. Again, keep in mind that Dragon*Con is going to bring a huge number of people to downtown Atlanta all at once, so performance might be different during the convention.
Beware relying on it deeper within the hotel buildings. Hotels are typically metal framed buildings that wreak havoc with wireless transmission, especially WiMax. I found the speeds attainable in the Hyatt lobby and in the lower levels of the Marriott Marquis lobby were particularly poor.
Don’t Forget Power!
Unlike TAM in Las Vegas, power outlets are a little more accessible in the various track rooms at Dragon*Con. I’ve had my laptop plugged in in both the Skeptrack room and in other rooms last year. But like in airports, the available outlets might get claimed before you get there.
Even if you are using a mobile such as an iPhone for these purposes, constant tweeting and communication will eat up your battery much faster than normal phone use. The bottom line is: plan ahead. If your devices have removable batteries, buy extras and bring them with you! Be very diligent about recharging all your batteries each night so you start each day ahead of the game.
Bring extra charger cables for all your devices if you have them. If your devices can charge via a USB connection or from wall power, bring both kinds of cable. You never know when you might be short of power and sitting next to someone who is willing to let you charge from their laptop or notebook computer.
For portable devices that can charge from a USB port, there are a number of options in the form of an external battery packs. I found a couple of options on Amazon.com in my research. Splash makes this one that can charge two USB devices at once and includes a battery. It recharges from a USB cable, and comes with a set of adapters to allow it to power a number of different brands of cell phone and so on.
Personally, I picked up the Tekkeon TekCharge MP-1550 which is similar, but only has one output. The difference with this product is it uses replaceable AA batteries, which means its capacity is limited only by the number of rechargeable batteries you can keep handy.
Your solution will depend on the devices you are using and what batteries they use.
Conclusion & Notes
There are plenty of digital resources for the connected skeptic attending Dragon*Con 2010. Lets all make good use of them to maximize the value we get out of the weekend.
Please comment or email or tweet me if you notice anything I got wrong or have additional information.
You can follow me on Twitter here.
Update Sept. 1: Added Foursquare venues.
Update Sept. 1: Added one other video live stream.