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Category: Convention Reports (page 2 of 3)

I go to conventions, conferences and unconferences of various stripes.

My time at Sci-Fi London, part 4

A Change of Plan

I had planned to only see two films on the final day of Sci-Fi London, both in the evening. But my plans for the daytime were scuppered by the weather, so I decided to add an extra item to my festival agenda and head in early. The pub quiz was tempting, as was an extra screening of Radio Free Albemuth… but the decision turned out to be quite easy in the end, because of one of my (very few) complaints about the festival.

Attempting to find out more about what the deal was with the quiz just left me at a page telling me to register my team. As a newcomer to the festival and the only one of my crowd to attend, I knew exactly nobody else at the festival. When the only option for a social event is to say who else you’re doing it with… and you don’t know anybody else, that’s a nice hefty barrier to participation. So I bought a ticket for Radio Free Albemuth instead. Not a great hardship, as it’s a film I’d wanted to see earlier in the week anyway.

This seems like a good time to bring up a small gripe about the festival, but first, I should clarify: I enjoyed the festival immensely. I just had the feeling I was missing something.

There was clearly a social side to the festival that just seemed totally opaque to me. I knew things were happening, but information about it all was remarkably absent… and there was remarkably little provision for folks who weren’t already involved in that side of the things to get involved. If you weren’t already a part of the in crowd, there didn’t really seem to be an on-ramp to change that. It’s difficult to mingle and socialise whilst watching films… and when not watching the films, everybody just seemed to vanish. Having a couple of places near to the cinema called out as “meet here between films” venues would help a great deal… the cinema foyer didn’t really cut it as a social venue much of the time, although I did spend a bit of time chatting with folks at the t-shirt stand later in the weekend!

Film 6 – Radio Free Albemuth

First, a confession: I’ve not read Philip K. Dick’s original book. I have read VALIS, which is a different variation on the story, but not Radio Free Albemuth itself. So this film was going to be both a bit familiar and a bit unfamiliar. I’m never entirely sure what to make of PKD’s work, but I found this film to be both enjoyable and engaging… and quite a bit easier to follow than VALIS.

The semi-autobiographical story follows Nick Brady (a fictional friend of PKD) as he deals with what he believes to be transmissions from an extraterrestrial origin, transmitted to him via a satellite in earth orbit, and setting him against the opressive political climate of a dystopian USA.

Apparently this film was shown at a previous Sci-Fi London as a test screening, and the version shown this year was the completed version, following changes made after those test screenings. Of course, not having seen the previous version, I can’t make a comparison… but given the quality of this version, I’m guessing it paid off.

So whilst I’d still like to have been to the quiz and got involved with the social side, I have no problem with having chosen to see Radio Free Albemuth instead.

Film 7 – Exit

I’m still not sure what to make of this australian film just yet. I know I liked it, but I think a lot of it is open to interpretation… and I’ve not finished forming my interpretation of it just yet. This won’t mean anything to non-gamers, but I got definite hints of Unknown Armies from it. It’s certainly a film about obsession and it certainly shows how obsession can damage people…

The general premise is that there’s a growing number of people who’ve come to believe that their city is a maze, and they’re stepping away from their normal lives to open as many doors as they can, hoping one of them will be the exit. They see their normal lives as just more dead ends in the maze, illusions to be overcome.

Exit is certainly a thought provoking and immersive film, though. Even without being 100% sure of what the final outcome of the film was (although I have theories), the film is still visually (and musically) impressive and I recommend it highly.

Film 8 – The Sound of My Voice

I’d been quite intrigued by this film since it leapt onto the programme at the last minute. It focusses on two would-be investigative journalists who attempt to join a secretive cult to infiltrate, document and expose it. The film opens as, after months of work, they are finally brought into the cult and meet Maggie, the cult’s charismatic messiah figure. What they weren’t expecting was for Maggie to claim to be from the future.

One of the things I really liked about this film was that it didn’t provide all the answers… it leaves a lot open, whilst also still providing a pretty solid conclusion.

Now, this is a film that’s virtually impossible to discuss without spoiling it, so I’ve hastily added a spoiler-block mechanism to my site. It might take a short while to get the kinks out – bear with me if this goes a bit astray.

First set of spoilers – concerning Maggie herself, her story and how some things could make more sense:

 

[spoiler]One of the things I was initially left a little cold by was when an investigative agency of some kind (I’ll run with FBI) gets involved… because, the way the film pans out doesn’t seem to fit with why and how they would have become involved. At one point, the lead FBI agent mentions that Maggie has held other identities, and has lead other cons, but escaped… and that in each case things have lead to a request that a child be brought to her.But then I realised that the “from the future” and “con artist” personas didn’t have to conflict. There’s no reason she couldn’t be both. After all, she herself says “I’m from the future, I’m not a saint“.

Another possibility that would make reasonable sense is that, as with the child she claims is her mother, the other children in other cities may well have been people she knew in the future.

All of the above could be true, without conflicting with her identity as a visitor from the future.[/spoiler]

 

Second set of spoilers – concerning outstanding questions about Abigail Pritchett:

[spoiler]This lot is very much a “things left relatively unexplained” kind of deal. I’m going to leave aside the film’s brief revelatory moment right at the very end (which I think was very nicely handled and excellently foreshadowed) and instead ask one question: What was the deal with Abigail. She’s shown as a strange child at the best of times – but the creepy weird structures she was obsessively making from her building blocks struck me as somehow important. The film never dwells on them, so she could just be an odd kid… but it struck me as too big a deal to not be relevant.[/spoiler]

Then there’s her bedtime injections. I got the impression that she was meant to be a child with some health problems, but injections between her toes? That seemed a bit odd to be left mostly unexplained.

(Frivolous edit: especially when the injections were delivered by none other than Dr. Thaddeus Venture himself [aka: James Urbaniak], another fictional character known for dubious parenting!)

So there you go, some spoilery questions and things I was pleased to be left wanting to know more about…

Festival Verdict?

I paid under £70 to see eight films and a pile of short films.  I’ll be going back, I think!

My time at Sci-Fi London, part 3

Arrival

This time I cut my time even finer, and arrived with about 15 minutes to spare before the start of the shorts programme… only to find that it had changed screens and been delayed by an hour. Oh well. I sat and read for a little bit and had a brief chat with the person behind the t-shirt desk. I set an early high score on her “name the associated film” challenge by getting all but one of them. I only missed a single t-shirt movie connection – which was apparently Blade Runner related. I’ll have to rewatch the film and see where it comes up, because it’s one of my favourite films and I didn’t recognise it even when told. Oh no, what a hardship. I’ll have to watch Blade Runner again.

Blink of an Eye: Shorts Programme 1

I’ve seen two sets of “shorts previews” at Eastercons in the past, and have enjoyed both of them thoroughly. When I decided I was going to go along to see things at Sci-Fi London, I was determined to take in at least one of the three sets of shorts. Sadly, I only managed to fit one into my schedule… but I did manage to see a few more through the festival and in the previously mentioned previews at Eastercon. If I can remember and identify those, I’ll add comments on those afterwards.

Short: Decapoda Shock

I saw this one at Eastercon, and didn’t even slightly mind seeing it again. A glorious tale of human space explorer mutated into crab-man-thing, returning to earth, fighting conspiracies and winning the day… with a rather nice macabre sting at the end.

Short: The Attic

This one was rather sweet, and not in a cloying way. It’s a story of a man and his estranged young daughter finding each other through the power of music, as inspired by a Ziggy Stardust like figure who may or may not live in the attic. I liked it, but must admit that I found it a little sacharine at times.

Short: Dr. Glamour

Another that I’d seen at Eastercon, this one is a glorious musical number that’s best described as one part steampunk, one part cthulhu, one part rocky horror. I must confess that, fun as it is, I much preferred the silent-movie style first part. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of it’s good and fun, but the first part (especially the moment that the male & female leads first really notice each other) is quite, quite glorious.

Short: This Is Not Real

I don’t really know what to make of this one, so I’ll just say it looked good and that I didn’t hate it. Then I’ll move on.

Short: Vessel

I saw this one at Eastercon too. It irked me a bit there, and it still irks me a bit now. It plays like it’s setting up for a “sting in the tail” kind of deal, to deliver a cautionary tale… and then there isn’t a sting. It feels like somebody forgot to add a story.

Short: Alchemy and Other Imperfections

I really, really liked this one… although I will admit that I’m making a deliberate choice to interpret parts of it (a memory that the female character is trying to remove from the male character) in a charitable way. If taken a different way, I’d find it more questionable. I prefer to be charitable in this instance… and either way, I can’t fault anything else about it.

Short: Robots of Brixton

I want to like this more than I do, but the references to the brixton race riots felt a little bit heavy handed to me. Either way, it’s an impressive piece of work… and I can’t fault it for having a message to it, and sometime heavy handed messages are needed. I also can’t fault the general production or the talent that went into it. It’s certainly powerful and memorable.

Short: Infinite Loop

Imagine Primer or Timecrimes, but instead of a time machine, use the bathroom of a student flat, and complicate the plot with a third flatmate who just wants a shower. Add a pot-plant as a handy macguffin and you’re golden. All good fun.

Short: Bobby Yeah

What. The. Shit. I repeat. What. The. Shit.

It’s like a creepy, psychosexual body-horror nightmare made of intestines and toenail clippings with an excellent dirty bass soundtrack. In fact, it’s not like that at all. It IS that.

There’s a trailer over here. It doesn’t do it justice. I want to get to another screening just to sit with my back to the screen and watch the audience reactions.

Other Shorts

As mentioned earlier, I caught a few other shorts.

Short: W.A.

This is entirely based on a very, very bad joke. It’s great if the audience are prepared to groan along with the joke at the end. When I saw it at eastercon they did, but this time they didn’t… which is a shame. (seen at eastercon and before a sci-fi london film)

Short: 8:31

Set in the last moments of light before the sun is due to go dark forever, effectively ending life on earth, a man and woman race to the hospital as she goes into labour. (seen at an eastercon preview)

Short: Blind Spot

I can say nothing here without spoiling it, but I found it excellent. Some of the physics in the background events slightly ropey, but that nitpick shouldn’t distract anybody. It’s just something that’s bugged me in so many films that now I can’t see it without it having a “gah!” moment. (seen before two sci-fi london films)

Short: How to kill your clone

A nice idea for a short, and it looked very good… but it felt muddled to me to the point of labouring it’s joke too much. As a short, I think it needed to be just a little bit shorter. (seen before a sci-fi london film)

Short: ERROR 0036

Automated call centres & helpdesk runarounds. We’ve all been there. I’ve certainly been there. I’ll even admit to having been on both sides of the call, although I always tried to be more helpful than the examples here. (seen at an eastercon preview)

Film 5 – The Last Push

The Last Push was the fifth film I saw at the festival, and it was on it’s second screening… which was packed.

First, a shout out for the lead actor. This film is essentially carried by one guy – Khary Payton – who’s more usually a voice actor for cartoon and video game work. He carries it very well indeed. It’s quite a subtle performance at times, as he’s playing somebody who’s generally fairly taciturn to begin with, and has the traditional astronaut calm about him.

Second, a shout out for the set. It’s perfect. It’s realistic, appropriate and claustrophobic whilst having just enough space to let the plot move. The rest of the cast, small though their roles were, were also universally excellent.

Third, the plot. It’s not really a spoiler to say that the exploratory mission to jupiter’s moons doesn’t go entirely as planned… but the way it doesn’t go to plan is excellent, thoroughly plausable and very nicely handled indeed.

In case you’ve not worked it out already, I loved it. So far, I’d call this my highlight of the festival… and it’s up against some stiff competition.

My time at Sci-Fi London, part 2

Day Two

I didn’t turn up quite so ridiculously early for my second day at the festival, partly by design, partly because I travelled in to London with friends and partly because the trains were utterly screwed. Still, I grabbed a nice veggie thali at Govindas (I’m not veggie, but still like veggie food) and then hurried down to the venue for film #3

Film 3 – Sol

My first film of the day was Sol – based around the “Sol Invictus” challenge, in which several teams of academy students from various colonies get dumped (via “slipgate”) on a random unknown world with equipment to set up a camp and study the heavens. Their goal: be the first to locate sol and send a message requesting pickup. The winning team get to go on to join the ruling class. The implication is that it’s very much a dog-eat-dog kind of contest, and that some of the teams are not above just killing the others to ensure they win.

Of course, things don’t go entirely to plan. The film opens with an accident at the slipgate. Virtually none of the competitors (or their equipment) make it through – and it’s outright stated that they probably died en-route.

My guess going in was that this was going to be a bit “lord of the flies in space” – and I wasn’t far wrong, although things don’t get quite as bad as that. The locations are good, and the performances from the cast of twenty-somethings and younger, are at worst servicable and at best sho real promise, even if some of the cast don’t get a chance to show much range.

I only have one real complaints about the film, which was that it strayed rather too much from “show, don’t tell” for some of the local wildlife. I can entirely understand why (budget), but that’s largely because the way it was handled pretty much yelled out “we don’t have the budget to show this stuff, so we won’t”. I wouldn’t have wanted full on CGI gribbly things (I rarely want that), but I wouldn’t have minded a bit more than people running around panicking whilst weird noises happened. The chronicler (the person who’s role on the team was to record everything and provide a lot of the viewpoint) being told “nobody should have to see that” wasn’t an adequate cover.

Still, as it goes, it’s a pretty minor complaint. I found the film watchable and enjoyed seeing it. For a young cast and (I’m guessing) a young set of filmamkers, it’s something they should be proud of.

Film 4 – Hell

I’d been lead to believe that Hell was going to be a nightmarishly bleak film… and I have to say that I don’t agree with that assessment. It was a harsh environment, with the sun having got brighter (hence the name – which is german for “bright”, and this is a german film) and the planet having got hotter and dryer, but I never got the impression that things were totally hopeless. There was always something else that could be done, or a problem that could be addressed. That said, that’s a disagreement with how the film was billed – I have very few disagreements with the film itself. In fact, I thought it was thoroughly excellent. I’m sure I’ll pick holes in it on a second viewing (and I want a second viewing), but I still really liked it.

The cast were universally excellent (although I’m sure that somebody who speaks german will tell me they sounded stilted and awkward – as an english speaker who can only kinda-sorta follow german I wouldn’t know!). The cinematography was stunning. The costuming and attention to detail in terms of setting and props was masterful.

But for a film billed for it’s bleakness, there was an awful lot of hope in it.

If you get a chance to track it down, do so.

My time at Sci-Fi London, part 1

What The Day Was About

Today I went to see some films. I’ll be going to see some more films tomorrow, and again on Sunday, and again on Monday. I’ll be seeing eight chunks of filmed science fictional entertainment in all. I don’t say “eight films” as one of those chunks is a series of shorts. I’d have liked to get to see more of the shorts, but my two different budgets limits (the “money” budget and the “hours spend in dark rooms” budget) wouldn’t really permit more.

I went in fairly early as I wanted to go and find the new (note: not actually new) location of Gosh Comics, and sure enough, I found it. Picked up a few more TPBs. I really do need to get rid of some that I soured on after buying the complete collection to make room (Y: The Last Man – good comics, but rubbed me up the wrong way).

Anyway. The main events – the films. I’m going to see these as part of the 11th Annual Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film (aka: Sci-Fi London). I like watching weird and wonderful SF films, and don’t often get the chance to do so. I’d had my appetite whetted a bit at Eastercon by a preview screening and a few of the shorts films, and decided I needed to get out and do something that was non-stressy… so booked for the previously mentioned eight slabs of film entertainment whilst the opportiunity was there. The festival’s been running all week, but the earlier films all either clashed with other things I was doing or were at times that were awkward to get to after work or get back from once they’d finished… So I just booked today off work and an treating it as a four day weekend.

Today I saw the first two of my eight. I was quite early for both because I figured that was better than being late, especially as the programme says “no late admissions” and that the times listed are start times. The routine seems to be to show a quick short before each film, then the festival director gives a brief intro, then they launch straight into the film.

Film 1 – Extracted

First up was “Extracted” – starring recent genre TV stalwart Sasha Roiz. I’m glad I picked this one to start with as I thoroughly enjoyed it. It had its UK premiere on Wednesday night, and this was the second showing. I almost didn’t pick this as one of my eight chunks, but changed my mind to include it (instead of one of the shorts programmes) at the last minute. I’m very glad I did. It’s a very well made and well put together psychological SF piece focussing on a man who’s developed a technology to step into and work through peoples memories to repair their past traumas, but who accepts funding from people who put it to other uses.

There’s nothing startlingly original about a “going into somebody’s memories to see if they’re guilty” plot, but this one handles it pretty well. It keeps it tight, and has some interesting and new twists along the way. I don’t want to say too much, but I doubt it’s much of a spoiler to say “things don’t go as planned”. I’d certainly recommend this one pretty widely – it’s not exactly a thrill-a-minute action ride (which is good – I’d have been bored if it was, probably) but it is well put together and a fine example of this particular trope.

The performances were of a universally high standard – unusual in low budget SF films, in my experience. Not just from the previously mentioned Sasha Roiz, but from everybody else as well.

The film kept the tension up and mostly managed to avoid dragging in the middle. I also, as somebody who works in software development, find the cause of what went wrong to have a certain resonance to it.

Recommended, and if I can ever find it, I’ll be picking up a DVD.

Film 2 – Cycle

The second film of the day was Cycle.

Beyond that, I have no idea.

No, seriously. I have no idea. It’s a 70s SF & psychedelia inspired / 80s synth soundtrack bleak weirdness headfuck. In motion captured CGI. With, amongst other things, a weirdly subdued party with disco lights. In spacesuits. At the end of the world. Maybe.

I think I can kind of see what it was trying to do, if I squint a bit and turn my head sideways. It was stylishly done, and the only thing that yanked me out of it occasionally was the delivery of the dialogue, which I suspect was largely delivered by the hungarian CGI designers and animators. It wasn’t badly delivered, but it was certainly oddly delivered. Then again, I think oddly off-kilter was clearly one of the design goals.

I’m not sure what to make of it yet. I might need to watch it again one day to try to parse it.

Either way, I don’t object to having paid to see it, so it’s not a failure. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on visually and the soundtrack was pretty mighty, so it’s got that too.

Still to come

Tomorrow I’ll be seeing Sol and Hell. On Sunday I’ll be seeing Blink of an Eye: Shorts #1 and The Last Push. On Monday, Exit and Sound of My Voice. They’ve also snuck an extra screening of Radio Free Albemuth in on Monday, which I had been interested in earlier in the week but unable to attend. If there are seats still available and my brain chemistry isn’t going to go all mad science as a result of too much time in the dark, I may get a ticket for that too. I’ve heard it’s very good.

Four days of SF at Eastercon, Part 2

This blog post is a follow up to part 1, where my general attitude to the con is explained. This one covers the various con events that I went to…

Friday

George R R Martin Reading

I missed the Death of the internet (tweets at 11) panel, so milled about in the atrium for a while until the reading began and then ducked in for a George R R Martin reading. What I expected to be an oscure short story reading (saving the good stuff for later in the con) turned out to be two chapters from “The Winds of Winter”, the upcoming next book in “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

So I stayed glued to my seat for the whole time, listening intently. He has a remarkably mobile face, too… which is awesome when it comes to reading expressions to help separate a voice from background noise. It really helped!

Pushing the boundaries of genre

Next up was a panel on pushing the boundaries of Genre. This one was a bit dominated by one panelist – Sophia McDougall, but I didn’t mind… she was clearly nervous but managed to be eloquent and clear all the same. The panel held my attention for the duration, but I must confess that I can now recall very little of the actual content! That should be put down to my ailing brainpan rather than the lack of anything worth remembering.

I do recall an inclination to try out Ms. McDougall’s work at some point when my reading mojo has returned, though. The author’s managed to sell me on it where the marketing had failed to do so.

Archery in fantasy TV and film

Next, I planned to go to “How mobile phone technology can enhance the con going experience”, but decided against it in the end. I thought it was too likely to be a case of “teaching eggwhite to suck eggs”… all too icky and incestuous for me. So I went to an archery talk instead.

This was an interesting one, and explained something I’d never been entirely clear about before – how the fletchings get past the bow when an arrow is loosed. Now I know, and (as demonstrated by a video clip) so does a certain CGI animation studio. My desire to see one of their upcoming films has grown even more.

Opening Ceremony

This actually kept things surprisingly brief, which was nice. I have a recollection of it taking longer and being a bit dull in the past, but went along in case of any interesting announcements. It turned out to be quite quick, introduced everyone and then turfed us all out to the atrium.

It Came From the 1970s

Alas, this panel was slightly spoiled for me by the moderator needing moderation himself. Whilst he was clearly knowledgeable, he didn’t seem overly keen on letting anybody else get a word in edgewise… when the moderator keeps cutting off the panelists and audience questions, that’s not a good sign. I’ll probably avoid panels he’s moderating in future, but will still attend ones where he’s a panelist because he clearly knows his stuff.

What is “I”?

Since I have a professional and personal interest in what “identity” means to people and how it gets represented, this one was quite interesting for me. Unfortunately, it stayed on the fairly metaphysical and neurological angles about where the “self” resides before I had to duck out early due to a room-mate having key issues and needing to get into our room. They’d said they’d touch on “identity” later, but if they did, it was after I’d had to flee into the night. Or the corridor, anyway.

Geoengineering to save the planet

I wasn’t sure what to make of this panel. There was interesting stuff in there, but it was too focussed on the “yay/boo” side of “we could try things but we might fuck it up” and the associated politics. The “should we?” and “political reasons not to” dominated. There was a lot of “what should we do?” rather than “what could we do?”. That holds less interest to me.

The SF video game canon

Or “Fans shouting out the names of games they like”. Actually, there was more to it than that, and the panel were consistently interesting, but when I look back at it, that’s how I’d have to characterise it. Naturally, I seconded a mention of the System Shock series – they thoroughly deserve to be in there.

Where have all the hippies gone?

The description for this panel made it sound like it was going to be quite a fun one, but it got derailed into deadly serious stuff about class struggle and disenfranchisement before the moderator had even arrived and never quite recovered. Which was a shame. The discussion was interesting and worthy (if argumentative) but I’d actually been quite looking forward to a light-hearted take on it. This actually happened on a lot of the lighter-sounding panels I went to… things that sounded fun got dragged down into deadly serious politics. That they can be dragged down like that means they’re relevant, but the fact that all of them seemed to be was actually a bit of a downer.

Saturday

Cory Doctorow reading

I’d planned on going to “The Ethics of AI”, but I decided I wasn’t awake enough for anything with “ethics” in the title… and I’d probably have just got annoyed by it anyway. As somebody who used to do R&D in an artificial intelligence field, that kind of thing happens a lot. To my mind, most of what leaps into people’s heads when they think of AI is what I’d just call “Intelligence”.

How pseudo do you like your medieval?

I’ll be honest… I have no recollection of this panel whatsoever. The only clues thatI was there at all are that a) I remember skipping out of it to sign up for the Masquerade and b) I have a photo from it.

Masquerade Signup

We were a bit 11th hour with this one, as there was some holdup or another that delayed Beth getting to the signup. She arrived just as the signup session was finishing. But then, so did about four other people… one of whom turned out to be somebody she kind-of knew… which lead to us chatting for a while. Having done that, we went and got the rest of the costume bits from the car and got them all sorted… then grabbed some food before returning to the con.

Mainstream Published SF

This was an interesting one. I grabbed a couple of book recommendations, not least of which was “The Gone Away World”, which seemed to come up in every other sentence. This continued referencing seemed to be the cause of growing embarrassment to the author (Nick Harkaway – http://www.nickharkaway.com/). I also heard the phrase “SF cooties” often enough that it seems to have become a thing.

Shorts from Sci-Fi London

I was in the mood for some video, and at a previous eastercon I’d been introduced to the wonderful “Le Menace Vient De L’Espace”… so I thought I’d go along for the shorts programme. I was very glad I did, and will be trying to catch some of them at Sci-Fi London at the BFI later in the year. In particular, I need to make sure certain friends see “Doctor Glamour”.

Masquerade-y bits & off into the evening

After the shorts, I took a break a very brief rest before heading over to the masquerade rehearsal. The rehearsal itself took a while to get going, and like most tech rehearsals, it was basically “you wait here until your turn, then you go on stage here, do your thing, then leave the stage here.”

There was a bit of a faff about a few bits and bobs whilst the rehearsal was going on, but otherwise it was uneventful except for letting us see who the other masquerade participants were. Most of the rehearsal was focussed on dealing with the chap who eventually won… because his costume was huge and slightly less than mobile. But it was also awesome, which made it entirely forgivable.

In general, I enjoyed the masquerade as a way to meet folks and found it a lot less stressful than I had expected. With hinds
ight, we probably should have spent 10-15 minutes in the atrium in costume afterwards, but after a couple of hours in those things we were both keen to get changed. I spent the rest of the evening hanging around in the atrium with a pint and a burger, chatting to Peter Westhead (who came 3rd, having made his own peascod breastplate!), Tim and Severine M. As a general shout-out, whilst we were backstage I spent a bit of time chatting with sacha (who, as GLADoS, had similarly restricted peripheral vision) and Nicky Barnard and the assorted workmanship judges.

The judges were keen to talk to us afterwards to congratulate us about our use of “mixed media” as well… Which struck me as a little odd, as I don’t think of things in that way… I just make stuff! Doesn’t matter what it’s made of. In my brain, a sewing machine is as much as power tool as a pillar drill and a soldering iron as much a precision tool as a paintbrush or needle and thread. The idea of treating them differently just doesn’t really occur to me.

Sunday

Occupy the metaverse

This panel bugged me a little, as it didn’t seem to really match the description in the program. Also, given the subject matter that dominated the first 15 minutes, I felt that the panel really needed a younger voice on it… but that’s not the fault of the panelists. There’s not a lot they can do about their age and social circumstances. Having said that, those first 15 minutes really did come across as “Young people! You’re doing it wrong!”, and I’d have liked to hear a bit more from the moderator himself on that one.

George RR Martin Interview

I lurked about being social for a while, and then went back into the main hall for the George R R Martin Guest of Honour Interview… which I found thoroughly enjoyable. As with his reading, he speaks well… and I quite like the interview format for guest of honour talks as it gives them a bit of structure.

Sci-Fi London sneak preview

I wasn’t feeling very awake, so I decided to go and do something different… and went to a super-sekrit preview screening of one of the films that’s getting a proper international preview at Sci-Fi London. To be honest, whilst I quite enjoyed the film I also found it a bit predictable and a little mawkish… but as a small indie film, I really couldn’t fault the cast or the production. It may have been better if I hadn’t guessed where it was going with it early on.

Cruel deeds and dreadful calamities

This was an annotated slideshow of illustrations and cover artwork from a victorian era (I think) publication called the “Illustrated Police News”, which is famous as basically containing virtually no news that wasn’t made up and being largely unrelated to the police in any way. Essentially, it was the start of tabloid journalism… but it’s character was quite different to what we have now. It was an entertaining slideshow, but I was surprised that it was in the main hall.

Taking Liberties with the Lady of the Lake

This one was a bit of a risk for me, as it had been billed as two things. First was a “Merlin TV Series” vs “Camelot TV series” panel, which held no interest to me. The second thing was a wider discussion around representation of myths in popular entertainment. The second was touched on a little, but alas the Merlin vs Camelot thing dominated.

Tall Technical Tales

I wasn’t sure about this, having stepped away from the science side of my education a long time ago to focus on the engineering and the creative… but I’m thoroughly glad that I went along. Highly entertaining anecdotes from all around, several of which reminded me of a series of blog posts I found a while back – which I’m going to assume that most of the panelists are already aware of, but if they’re not, they should be. There are other categories on the same blog that would be relevant too, but I can’t find them right now.

Multicultural Steampunk

I’d been looking forward to this one, as there have been many things that bug me about steampunk for a while… this touched on some of those, whilst mentioning and stepping past others (colonial india got a mention, as did the boxer rebellion). A couple didn’t come up at all, despite having some current day parallels that could be explored (the assortment of anglo-afghan wars, for example).

Monday

I never really woke up on Monday, alas, despite an early night on Sunday. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that when I’m tired, I’m basically useless, and Monday was like that. I was flagging a bit from the start, and so didn’t do much. However, I did do *some*.

Story arcs

This was a nice idea, but it did seem to devolve into another “shout out TV shows I like” panel. Without a working definition (which people would be free to disagree with, of course) of a story arc to frame the discussion, it rambled and meandered. Lots of times the “it’s got character story arcs” vs “character arcs aren’t story arcs” divide came up.

Coming from a LARP running background, my take is that plot progression and character progression are both aspects of story arc… but that the definition of an arc is that it goes up and then it comes down again. I don’t think you can have a complete story arc without a planned duration (the time axis) and without time spent bringing the threads together. Just throwing in more and more stuff doesn’t make an arc – you need to bring things together and tie them up as well. Oherwise you don’t have a complete arc.

Somebody mentioned that unresolved sexual tension (or “USTing”, as I’ve heard it referred to as) isn’t a story arc, but is instead story statis… and I think they nailed it. That’s adding to the rise of the arc, but by never resolving it, it doesn’t bring the arc back down again… it just leaves it hanging. I think that where the exemplars of story arc (The Shield, The Wire and Babylon 5) really score their points are on their respective downward story trajectories. They all bring things to a close and pull things together. You get payoffs down the line that make it all work out. Shows where they have no planned duration keep adding to the buildup, but always defer the payoffs… and often defer them for too long.

Bloody Provincials! (local fan groups)

I’m in a local fan group, so I felt I had to. Well, sort of in one, anyway… I’m more a sort of lingering carbuncle on the side of a local student SF society, but there’s a few of us carbuncles lingering there. The society doesn’t seem to mind too much… in fact, there were five such carbuncles (although two were still quite fresh) at this con!

I did come away with a few ideas that I’ll suggest to the society, though. I also came away with the idea of trying (once again) to visit The Tun – the london SF pub meet which infamously doesn’t happen in the pub of that name. There’s also another mob, to be found on facebook.

Can video games tell a good story?

Yes. Next question?

The part of this panel that stood a chance of keeping me awake in a dim, stuffy room was about that long. After that I decided I needed more light to remain conscious, so headed out to the atrium to talk to my sibling before he departed. The panel wasn’t bad, by the way – I was just fighting against fatigue.

Epic Legends of the Hierarchs (Writing a long series)

Interesting, but marred by not actually being able to see the speakers from the back of the room. It was my inability to stay focussed on this panel that lead to me fleeing to the atrium again for more daylight.

Fleeing!

The increased natural light helped, and woke me up enough that I felt safe enough to drive home. After a bit of family interaction with Gav, Cal and the ki
ds, it was time to call it a day. I waited in the bright and airy atrium for Chris and (eventually) Beth to reappear, and that was that. There were panels I’d have liked to go to later, but my brain was gone and I needed to go home and crash.

Thus ended this year’s Eastercon for me. Next time I go to an eastercon (or another con of similar size) I should finally be back to firing on all physical and mental cylinders, which will be good. I’m alredy looking forward to it!

Four days of SF at Eastercon, Part 1

Pre-Convention Decisions

I’d decided, before attending this con, that I was going to do some things a bit differently this time around. I’d also decided that there was stuff I wasn’t going to let bother me. As it panned out, I did do some things a bit differently, but not all that I’d planned. I also, for the most part, managed to avoid being bothered by the potentially bothersome things.

On the “things to do differently” side of the fence, I’d planned on the following:

  • Be less of a slave to programme items.
  • Play it by ear instead of scheduling all of my time.
  • Get involved with more fannish things.
  • Don’t do tech.
  • Volunteer as a gopher or for the green room.

On the “things to avoid being bothered by” front:

  • Attending and sharing a room with my ex-girlfriend, and the assumptions that would lead to from other congoers.
  • Nerves, shyness and introversion.
  • The inevitable mood-crashes as a result of lingering recovery issues (I’ll explain briefly later, for the uninitiated).
  • The inevitable brain-failures as a result of lingering recovery issues (See above).
  • My regrettable “out of touch-ness” with current SF literature (brief explanation later, etc…)

But just listing these doesn’t quite cut it, so I’ll explain in a bit more detail

Be less of a slave to programme items

Every time I’ve been to an Eastercon, I’ve seen all the awesome and on the programme and have ended up bouncing from one program item to the next. Which is all good, but it does have downsides. Everyone I know who’s been to a lot of cons says that it’s not the programme that makes the con, but the socialising that goes on around it and the catching up with folks you know from previous cons. If you’re in panels the whole time, you don’t get the chance to meet with anybody new or make the connections that everyone says the cons are about.

This is one that I managed, just about. I spent more time out of panels and chatting with folks, but still didn’t get much by way of an “I’ll speak to these people again” vibe, except for a few folks around the masquerade… more of which later!

Play it by ear instead of scheduling all of my time

I absolutely managed this one. I started out planning which programme items I’d be interested in, but in the end I made my decisions a lot based on where I was and what I felt like at the time. Did I miss some good panels? Absolutely. But did I go to some that I might not otherwise have thought of, and learn new things as a result? Certainly. I have developed a bit of a liking for a fairly random approach to these things as a result of going to a couple of BarCamps over the past few years. I’d like to go to more… in fact, I’d love it if there was an SF unconference I could go to, although I have no idea what I’d speak about. Then again, that’s half the fun of unconferences – nobody knows what to speak about and everybody’s winging it.

If I can stand up and hold a room’s attention for 20 minutes with some doodles and a stream of consciousness ramble about a topic I know passably well, then anybody can do it.

Get involved in more fannish things

First, I’d better explain what I mean by “fannish things”. There are a bunch of arcane conventions that SF fandom has built up over the years, and (as far as I can tell) the only way to get to grips with them is to throw yourself in. So I went to a few more panels where the people at the front were just other fans, talking about being fans or about topics they knew and understood. I’ve always been able to listen to people talking about things they know and are passionate about, and it usually doesn’t matter what the thing is – I just like seeing the passion and enthusiasm that comes with it.

As well as that, there are con staples that have been going on for years that I’ve generally not got involved with as they were “not my thing”. This time, though, I was there with my ex-girlfriend. We’d booked two years previously, whilst still together, and are still friends.

Beth is a bit of a costume nut, and I wanted to make sure she still enjoyed the con, despite any awkwardness. We’d agreed before that we’d take some costume that had originally been made for a LARP, but which had barely been used due to players killing the NPCs the costumes were for from a distance. For the few days before, Beth had been basically recreating most of the cloth parts of the costumes, and I’d been reworking a lot of the non-cloth bits and the electronics.

The plan was to wear it for an hour or two as “hall costume” on saturday night, which basically means wandering around in the costume… but it wasn’t exactly “walking around & socialising” gear. I can hardly breathe in mine. Neither of us can talk, and I can’t hear as it covers my ears with neoprene. Neither of us can sit down sensibly either. So we decided, at the eleventh hour, to do the masquerade instead. It was a bit panicky, as part of Beth’s costume kept breaking and I wasn’t sure if the batteries in mine would survive. Because we decided to enter at the last minute, we also didn’t have any “presentation” planned, and that’s one of the categories you get graded on if you’re going for prizes. I wasn’t actually after prizes, though, so I didn’t mind. We were well recieved all the same.

But, getting involved in the masquerade did lead to me actually meeting a few folks (helped by the fact that Beth kind of knew one of the other participants anyway) and having a few folks around to chat to when we bumped into them later on in the con.

I’m actually vaguely inclined to do such things again at future cons. In a fit of ignoring traditional gender roles, I can actually use a sewing machine pretty well and know a bit about how to put a costume together… as well as knowing my way around the use of workshop tools and electronics. The masquerade seems like it’s actually a pretty decent way to meet folks. If for no other reason than having to spend an hour or two backstage in an enclosed space with the rest of the participants!

Don’t do tech

This one isn’t actually a new one. I took this approach two years ago as well, and it served me pretty well. The first eastercon I went to, I was a tech volunteer. Because I actually know a fair bit about stage lighting, I ended up getting stuck in tech and spent a lot of time on the top of the tower at the back of the main hall. First, I find that kind of thing to be both fun and stressful. I was trying to avoid stress, so I had to avoid tech. Second, I found that whilst a tech volunteer, I missed too much of the rest of the con… and because everyone doing tech is so busy, I didn’t really get to know anybody else who was doing it.

Volunteer as a gopher / in the green room

I failed utterly at this one. No excuses – I just didn’t find the time. I didn’t let that failure bother me too much, though. Next time, maybe.

Things to not be bothered by…

I mostly managed these. Sharing a room with Beth turned out to not be too awkward, although I do get the feeling we were getting tarred with the “couple” brush a fair bit. Still, it’s not like I was there to pull (“going on the pull” is alien to me – it’s not how my brain works).

As for nerves, shyness and introversion… well, they were out in full force, but I think I did okay with them. I dealt with introversion by taking quiet time every once in a while to recharge and recover before I broke myself. I dealt with shyness by occasionally just deciding to go for it and talk to people anyway. I didnt do that very often, but I did do it… which is progress. As for nerves? Well, I’m not sure how I dealt with those… but I seem to have managed it. I even spoke up in a panel item or two.

The rest of the “things not to be bothered by” all go hand in hand, and re
late to my not being in a very good state at this time last year, and still only being about 80% recovered. To cut a long story short, about a year and a half ago, I suffered very badly from stress and an extreme case of chronic insomnia. Coupled with pre-existing (and finally diagnosed) Seasonal Affective Disorder and a particularly stressful time in my life, my body and brain basically declared “Enough! You are stopping now!” by effectively killing my ability to function as a human being for a couple of months. I’m mostly recovered, but a couple of symptoms remain:

First, I have no reserves. I go straight from wide awake and active to falling over and unable to string a sentence together. I do not pass go. I do not collect

Eastercon Trepidation

Eastercon makes me nervous. I’ve been to a couple of them now, and I always enjoy my time encapsulated in the fannish bubble universe… but that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous about my time there. What I’d like to do here is to write a little about my trepidations, partly to just get them out there, and partly to seek advice and maybe gain some pre-con connections to follow up on whilst I’m there.

My fannish & congoing history

By many measures, I started going to Eastercons fairly late in life. There were no university societies on my campus when I was a student. They were all on the main campus, and were basically unreachable without a car as the public transport curfew for a return journey was at about 8.30pm. On top of that, from what I’ve heard, the SF society was of the “three people in a bedroom talking about Pterry” variety. I found a couple of fellow geeks on my own campus, and managed to get to know a few of them, but we were muddling through and knew nothing of cons.

But I wasn’t devoid of fandom. I got to know a lot of lovely people through being actively involved in the Tad Williams Mailing List (which existed before the Shadowmarch site came about) and went to (and hosted) a few TadMoots. But those were small and ad-hoc internet meetups. Cons were still strange and mysterious things to me.

A bit later still, after some encouragement from one of the tadlisters and with the accompaniment of my then-partner-now-friend Linette, I bit the bullet and invaded the university next door. They had an SF society. By this point I was a postgrad, and outside of the usual student social structures, so that was a very good thing. But it leads on to my current situation…

The problem?

The problem with meeting most of your fannish and geeky contacts through a student society is that they’re generally of a fixed age bracket… it’s always people of student age – predominantly 18 to 21, with a few postgrads. There comes a time where staying too involved with that group starts feeling a bit creepy. Similarly, most of the student crowd disappear every few years. The result is that my social circle is losing people to attrition as they move away, but not gaining as many through new folks arriving.

Part of why I like the idea of Cons is that I get to socialise with a whole new crowd and maybe meet some new folks. The problem is that in a loud, busy social environment, I suck at these things. Just walking up to a random person and starting to talk to them feels like an imposition, and when random people come up to me and start talking, I get that “rabbit in headlights” feeling and my brain starts reciting a mantra of “AAAAAAGH! New people! Don’t fuck up! Don’t fuck up! DON’T GET IT WRONG!” that’s so loud and recurring that it drowns out the actual conversation and I end up rambling or babbling somehow. I am my own worst enemy.

The other problem?

The other problem isn’t really a problem, but it makes me a bit nervous all the same… I’m attending (and sharing a twin room) with a friend of mine who used to be my ex. We’re still close friends, but I’m keen to not be seen as a gestalt entity with her. Whilst I’m not going to the con with the intention of pulling (that would be crass), I’m slightly wary of us falling into old routines and basically spending the con as a two-person unit. But it’s also only her second Eastercon (and her first as a full 4 day attendee) and I want her to enjoy it too.

I’m hoping that the more crafty / creative crowd will take her under their wing and that she’ll enjoy herself as an attendee in her own right. She’ll be dealing with a bit of similar weirdness on that front, I suspect.

Social Props

One of my common social props is my camera, so that if talking isn’t happening (such as if I bottle it in a busy room) I can put a camera in front of my face and hide myself. Or, what I usually prefer it to be is a reason to start talking to people. But even the question “do you mind if I take a photo with you in it?” requires social interaction. I love being able to take good photos of people, but cameras also make people nervous and scare them off.

So, for any Eastercon folks who read this… if you see me with a camera, and you’d prefer I didn’t point it at you, feel free to talk to me and tell me so! The camera will still have served its function as a social prop in that instance. I know there are labels that can be put on folks badges, but those aren’t always visible, so accidents will happen. I’m happy to delete stuff, and being asked nicely to do so isn’t a problem.

Volunteering

I have previously done a bit of tech volunteering at Eastercon, but I’ve decided I’m not going to do that this year. Tech is always stressful, and I’ve backed away from all of my other tech commitments except for the comedy nights for exactly that reason. I’m keeping my technical hand in, but not doing much that’s new. I’ve toyed with other volunteering, but don’t really know what’s what… and want to avoid too much stress, so I’m probably going to give it a miss this time.

Next time I might put myself down to help with green room, gophering or some of the at-con publicity (newsletters, etc…) but I don’t really know what I’m doing with that kind of thing. If there was an active social network back-channel, I might be tempted to volunteer in some capacity that relates to that kind of thing.

Path of Least Resistance

As mentioned earlier, I’m a bit rubbish at actually talking to new people. Once I get started, I’m usually okay… but it’s getting started that’s the problem. I’m an introvert and I’m frequently quite shy (which isn’t the same thing).

For me, the path of least resistance is usually to go to programme items and be a passive listener. This is still good and enjoyable, but I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out on the real con experience. I’d prefer to get to know people as I do that, and to get to know a few more people who go to these things.

The Negative Bit

I’ve generally found my con experience to be a little disappointing. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed them, though. It’s more that I’ve generally had the feeling that those who turn up in a group or already knowing a bunch of folks enjoy them more. Being at a con where you already know more of the other attendees just seems to be more fun. The conventional wisdom is that you meet people socially outside the program items, and that the con experience then starts to become more about the people you meet.

In my experience, the outside-the-programme atmosphere has generally been fairly cliquey. Which is fine – that’s what happens when folks use the con to catch up with old friends. But it’s hard to do the “catching up with old Eastercon buddies” thing if you never manage to make them in the first place.

I’m forever told that a large part of the Eastercon vibe is to be found in the bars. That’s nice, but a) I can’t physically fit in the bars as they’re full of long established eastercon attendees catching up with their mates. If you don’t know anybody else in there, it’s a socially hostile environment and b) I barely drink these days, and a human being can only contain so much lemonade or fruit juice without unfortunate digestive disturbances.

In short, to spend time in a bar at Eastercon you need backup. Preferably experienced and established backup. Whilst my elder sibling probably counts as experienced backup, he’s also got two kids to look after and his own Eastercon social circle to catch up with.

I’ve enticed several people into attending in the past through IFIS, but bringing along folks I already know doesn’t help a great deal with finding new folks. I’ve steadfastly failed to actually make new connections at the event.

Online backchannel?

One of the things that helps me with this
kind of thing at professional tech conferences and barcamps is the use of an online backchannel. An offical hashtag and a means to burble to strangers over the web from inside program items is a great help – it means you can start talking to people before the difficult face-to-face meetup. There seem to be some moves towards this kind of thing this time around, which is good.

The official hashtag seems to be #eastercon, by the way, and I’m on twitter as @the_eggwhite.

Hopefully I’ll get to chat to a few folks this time around and be a bit more sociable. If you’re in the same boat, feel free to ping me. Hopefully we’ll be able to fit in some kind of “tweetup” over the weekend, if there’s not one already scheduled. I’d suggest an impromptu one each day, rather than just one… then we can get the day visitors and folks who were busy as well.

Barcamp London 8 – Day Two

The Journey In For Day Two

Since I’m worthless without a good night’s sleep, I’d decided to head home overnight and return reasonably refreshed for the second day of this event. This means that much like day one, I had to start the day with a journey in from just outside West London and a fight with the London Underground (which was, as is traditional, mostly closed). Unlike day one, though, I couldn’t just sleep on the train. I had a presentation to prepare for, as I’d decided on a topic to speak about and planned for my first act of the day to be picking a spot in the grid to accomodate my session.

I’m not going to write much about prepping my session (or presenting it) as I’ve already covered it elsewhere. Suffice to say that I created most of it on the train and tube, then finished it off whilst waiting for the first session of the day.

First Session – The Future of Barcamp London

Or “Tapdancing for Beginners” or “Dutch for Beginners”, as it became known to the participants who arrived early enough. This was a session presented by several of the key figures of Barcamp London, most of whom were looking like they could perhaps have done with a little more sleep at some point that week! Organising this kind of thing cannot be easy, so they deserve applause for being able to function at all – especially as they were also active participants in the event as well the the organisers.

The session itself was a plea for more people to get involved in running more barcamp or hackday style events, rather than continually growing a single, already oversubscribed Barcamp London. They also talked a bit about how their contacts and experience can help with that, and about how their resources might be brought to bear. Which I think is an awesome idea. Whilst I love the two large barcamp events, I can tell it’s going to be hugely frustrating when I lose out on the ticket lottery for one of them… if there are more events, then missing them occasionally will be less gutting. More events will mean more people will get a chance to participate, and the barrier to getting started won’t be quite as high.

Second Session – Why Online Social Media Isn’t a New Thing

Presented by Glenn Pegden / Tilt

An interesting session with a few gaps and a bias worn openly on its sleeve, this was a bit of a travelogue through early online communities and communication tools, starting with things like dial up BBSs, heading on through MUDs, MUSHes and talkers to things like Usenet and Prestel – all of which clearly are precursors to current social networks. I mentioned the open bias, though… and bias probably isn’t the right word. The speaker is clearly passionate about the Monochrome BBS, and a large chunk of the talk focussed on how that grew and evolved, and how a lot of current social network features could originally be seen there – and still can as it’s still running and in active use.

I never really got on with old-school BBSs and talkers, although I did dabble a little at times… mostly due to friends and acquaintances who used (or, indeed, use) them. Even with that in mind, I’m always interested to heat people who know a subject and care about it – and that’s what was happening here. Now that I’m more familiar with console / terminal based things than I ever was when they were state-of-the-art, I might be tempted to give Mono a look at some point. Back when this kind of thing was the only option, I was focussed on other things. Non text-based user interfaces were almost the enemy to be defeated, or at least the status quo to be surpassed (with the exception of text adventures, which were mighty). The fact that they’re still around says they’re getting something right, and it’s worth digging in to understand that and learn from it.

One thing that was touched on in the talk (which I think falls under “getting something right”) was the idea that the barrier to entry required by something in a terminal window kept the quality of discussion high. When getting in requires a certain amount of effort, people who make it are a) more likely to make worthwhile contributions and b) more likely to stick around. I’ve often said that community is often as much about exclusion as it is about inclusion, and this is a case in point. It’s a community for people who are savvy enough to want to get in and be able to get in.

Third Session – From Faraday to Fender: The Physics of the Electric Guitar

Presented by Dylan Beattie

I may not be a musician, but I am enthusiastic about music… and guitars feature heavily in a lot of music I like. Adding in the fact that I enjoyed a session from the same speaker last year, I kind of had to go to this one, really… and I’m glad I did. This was a fairly rapid run through of how and why guitars work, covering harmonics, scale lengths, string gauges, tension, the whammy bar and a fair bit more besides.

The whole lot was presented with humour, enthusiasm and an electric guitar, making for an informative and entertaining show overall.

Fourth Session – Levels of Digital Engagement with Customers

Presented by Lloyd Davis

I don’t actually remember much from this session. That’s not because it was a bad session, because it was actually quite interesting, but more because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting something about growing (or differing) adoption of online tools, but got something about engagement between brand and person. Like I say, interesting, but wasn’t what I expected. I’m also not quite sure what I can really say about it based on my hazy recollections, so I’m going to pretend I said something insightful and move on.

I probably just needed more coffee.

Fifth Session – University: Why did I bother?

This was a discussion session focussed around whether or not people felt university education had been worth it, was currently worth it, or would be worth it in future. There were no particular conclusions drawn, but I felt I had to chip in – I’ve noticed a trend amongst tech geeks to do two things… first, they dismiss any subject other than computer sciences and second, they then say that their computer sciences degree wasn’t worth the time and effort. It shouldn’t be too hard to spot the issue there. Thankfully, in this discussion, that didn’t seem to be the case.

For reference, whilst many folks I know seem to have decided that I’m a computer scientist or somesuch… I did my degree in Industrial Design. It was very, very worthwhile for three main reasons. First, it taught me that I didn’t want to be an industrial designer. Second, it taught me how to think design (some other things helped – more later), which is essential for what I do now. Third, it passed the time until my industry of choice became a viable option. I couldn’t have planned to work on the web before starting my degree – the web was there, but design wasn’t really a word that could be applied to it at that point. I was halfway through my degree when it became a career option.

I’m now going to digress a bit and flesh out that “more later” from above. Thinking design was also helped by two other things in particular: Fencing and Gaming.

Yes, my current physique hides the fact that once upon a time I was a passable fencer – I was actually school champion for two years running, one of which I think I even deserved. One of the things my instructor taught heavily was ODA – Observe, Deduce, Apply. See what people do, deduce how to use that, then apply your deduction. Whilst I don’t fence anymore (alas), I still do a lot of o
bserving and deducing… and when I can, I apply.

As for gaming, well, again, a lot of the kinds of game I do rely on being able to help the players suspend disbelief, move past constraints and percieve what you want them to. Learning to mess with people’s heads in a gaming environment has it’s uses for other fields as well.

But enough of that digression…

Sixth Session: A Rough Intro to User Experience Design

Presented by… wait, that’s me!

Yes, this was my slot. I wanted to present a slightly different view of User Experience design, whilst also explaining what it’s about. So I did. With sketches. I’ve already blogged about the session and how it went.

Lunch and Conversation

I ended up sitting having lunch with a few good folks, some of whom I can identify, some I can’t. I know I talked to @jack_franklin and @kaythaney – if you’re one of the other folks, please prod me on twitter and say hi!. It started as overflow questions from my talk… and rambled around a fair bit, including me pimping Leah Buley’s “UX team of one” talk and the UXLondon conference. I’m pretty sure I extolled the virtues of one other thing as well, but I can’t recall exactly what… I also kind of forgot to actually eat much, which was probably foolish.

The Blur & Journey Home

From here on out, it’s a bit of a blur. I know I went to an interesting talk by @DigitalMaverick on crowdsourcing and the closing session… and that I had a reason for not attending a session between the two, but I don’t recall much about any of those. So I’ll apologise for the disservice to those who ran the sessions I was at, and wind this post up with a mention that my first good, uneventful journey of the weekend was the last one, which got me home intact and without incident. Which was a good thing, since my brain had clearly shut down by that point.

Barcamp London 8 – Day One

What is BarCampLondon?

BarCampLondon is a participatory unconference. It’s generally techie and geek focussed, but the talks can be on any subject at all. The “Unconference” part basically means that there’s no pre-established running order – just slots in which talks and sessions can happen. What happens in them depends on what people decide to talk about and when they decide it. This is the second time I’ve attended a BarCampLondon, and once again I’m going to try to write up what I can remember of it… I took an assortment of notes over the weekend, so I should have at least a few recollections to work with!

Arrival

The TFL website did a bang up job of making sure I was good and prompt. Knowing that half the tube was going to be broken this weekend, I looked to see how long it thought it’d take me to get here… and to see what route it recommended. Of course, I immediately spotted that it was telling me to use the Waterloo and City line before it opened, so I thought “I’ll give myself an extra 20 mins to handle that”. This meant I had to leave the house a bit before 7am. So naturally, I got there way too early. I arrived at the venue at 8:30am – fully an hour before things were due to kick off. They did offer to let me wait indoors, but I decided to go for a walk instead. I don’t get enough exercise as it is, and the weather wasn’t too horrific.

Unfortunately, there’s not much of interest in the gap between Angel and Old Street, so I basically wandered aimlessly for around 30 mins, then returned to the venue to wait inside. I ended up sitting with Jamie Knight (and Lion) and Alison Wheeler, who’d arrived between my first and second arrivals, whilst we waited for the world to be ready for us.

Welcome Session

Next up was the traditional welcome session, where we were told what’s what and informed who was paying for everything. Quite a good round of sponsors – they’re on the BarCampLondon 8 website. They also pointed us at the Lanyrd page for the event, which was handy. The session ended with the advice to get to the grid quickly and start filling it with the first batch of talks…

…which was slightly scuppered by the grid being on a small, crowded landing on the ground floor. The crew weren’t happy about letting too many people near it at once, so we couldn’t all go and add things and decide where we were going. The result was that I got to the grid when there were only two sessions on it. I probably missed a couple of early talks simply because they weren’t up on the grid yet, and I had to move away to let other people in to put them on there. Whilst I generally can’t fault the organisation, I will say that this probably wasn’t the wisest place for the grid – I think it’s more important that people can actually get at it than for it to be central!

First Session – Location Aware?

This was a fairly discussion heavy session, hosted by Alison Wheeler. Discussion sessions are frequently interesting, but are often difficult to write anything about afterwards. Two things that I distinctly recall – location aware services present two different issues, either of which can be problematic for some people:

  1. They tell people where I am, so they can find me when I might not want them to.
  2. They tell people where I’m not, so they can get at my stuff when I’m not there

A further point that was raised as something that makes the previous isses worse – many location aware services don’t give you much (or any) control over who can see your location data. Twitter was held up as an offender on this front as if there’s location data attached to a tweet, there’s no way to let somebody see the tweet without the data, and no way to remove the data without deleting the whole tweet.

In relation to the “letting people know where my location aware device is they can mug me and steal it” issue, one of the audience passed on a comment from an iPhone thief in San Francisco… “If I wanted to steal and iphone in San Francisco, the best way to do it was ask somebody the time. When they took out their iPhone, I’d take it”.

Second Session – Secret Life of Bees

Presented by Kerry Buckley

Earlier on, I described barcamps and being “vaguely techie”. Perhaps “geeky” is a better description, and this session fits that heading very well. It was an introduction to Beekeeping, which was really quite well attended, so it shows that a lot of geeks find it interesting. How it wortks has always been a bit of a mystery to me, so I was quite interested.

Amongst other things, the speaker put paid to the idea that the queen is in some way “in charge” of the hive – it’s blatantly the workers who run the show. They just need an egglaying machine to keep the hive running, so they either find a queen or make one by feeding a larva Royal Jelly. They also feed larvae differently to make drones… who are essentially useless except for being the other thing required to make the queen produce eggs, which they only do once. when eggs aren’t needed, the workers kick the drones out to starve to death, rather than wasting resources to feed them!

To sum up: I learned a few things I didn’t already know, and my vague interest in it as a topic remains.

Third Session – Lifestylelinking Open Source Project

Presented by James Littlejohn

At first, this was one of those “this all sounds very interesting, but I have no clue what you’re on about” sessions… but as it went on I managed to pull the various threads together to get a picture of what it was about. If I’ve got it right, this session was about an open source project called LifestyleLinking, which is a web application supporting automated content discovery based on information gleaned about your personal interests. Essentially, you point it at your blog and some other resources, and it works out the kinds of things you write about, then gathers resources based on that information and reveals them to me in an organised manner.

It all sounded a fair bit more involved than that, and it sounded like it would refine it in a lot more detail than my description suggests – but I’m still not 100% certain of any of that! I suspect I needed to be a bit more awake (or at least caffeinated) to get more from this session. As it is – I’m intrigued and would like to know more…

Fourth Session – High Performance CSS

Presented by Anthony Kennedy

This was an interesting session on optimising your CSS for file size and reduced HTTP requests. I’d have quite liked more details of the subsequent topics that the speaker had (quite reasonably) steered clear of for time, but the stuff that was left in was all good – and presented in a clear and interesting manner.

Fifth Session – Running Meetups using Social Networks

Presented by Nathan O’Hanlon

I was interested in this one as I’ve toyed with putting together a couple of meetups in the past – one gaming related, one tech related. I may still do so in both cases.

Anyway – Nathan has organised quite a few meetups, it seems, starting with pub meets in New Zealand, and lately the London Web Meetup. He gave a whole bunch of advice on how to go about setting them up – starting with being clear about your requirements for the meetup. His requirements included things like being able to network and keep sane as well as things like having an appropriate sized venue with a flat rate rather than a minimum drinks spend.

He also suggested hooking in to a pre-existing community, which is good advice as you can’t force a community int
o existance. That said, you can encourage and develop them – and social networks can provide a means to do that, which is part of why I was interested in this session.

After that, he went on to talk about a few older methods of getting things rolling – such as having a clear agenda, a good URL and a name that’s better than “The [place] web design meetup”. He talked about getting a core team together and discussing what works and what doesn’t, and adapting accordingly. He also mentioned once again that the venue is key – and this is where I find problems with arranging meetups or geek nights around here – I can’t find a venue that I think will work for anything other than a bunch of people in a pub.

Then came the newer methods, which were a bit more twitter focussed – namely asking your speakers (if you have them) to retweet, and when you tweet about the meetup, include speakers’ twitter names – the chances are that they’ll retweet. That way, people who follow your speakers will know about your meetup.

Of course – that’s all for before the meetup itself. What about during the meetup and after it? He suggested starting off a hashtag for the event and announce it at the event, so that coverage of the event can be found afterwards. Likewise, he suggested retweeting some of that coverage from the meetup’s own account – that way you’re publicising the event, the community and the hashtag as well as the original poster.

Sixth Session – Books for Freaks

Presented by Paula Schramm

This was another discussion session, focussed on an assortment of book recommendations. The speaker set the ball rolling by recommending Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin and Medea by Christa Wolf.

Palfrey suggested The Star Fraction by Ken Macleod and The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi.

Ryan Alexander suggested Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Blue Champagne by John Varley, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (Which I heartily second – I’ve also heard him speak at a UX conference, which was awesome), Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, Wikihistory by Daniel Warzel (aka: “Everybody Kills Hitler Their First TIme Out”), Emergence by Stephen Johnson and The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Culley

Jessica Meats suggested the young adult SF Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and took the opportunity to pimp her own first novel, Child of the Hive.

Ian Johnson suggested the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde and An Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry.

Melinda suggested Feed by Mira Grant (which I also second heartily – Zombie political thriller, what’s not to love?), Old Mans War and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi (I heartily second the first of those – I’ve not read the second yet).

There were further suggestions, but I didn’t manage to note them down.

I tried to get a couple of recommendations out myself, but generally time was running short and so the same couple of people were rapid-firing the last of theirs and I didn’t get a chance… but if I had, I’d have put up Anathem by Neal Stephenson (which is best summed up by this webcomic) and Accelerando by Charles Stross… the latter of which has a couple of problems but is awesome nonetheless – it’s like future shock in book form.

Seventh Session – How Photographs Tell Stories

Presented by Paul Lowe

I didn’t get any notes on this one, but it was an interesting walk through documentary photography…

Eighth Session – Why I’m Not Using HTML5

Presented by Jamie Knight + Lion, with an interlude from Glyn Wintle

This was an interesting session which I think was derailed a bit by the security aspect added by Glyn Wintle. I was quite interested in the accessibility concerns that Jamie was raising, but they didn’t really get much of a chance to come through…

Ninth Session – What’s Wrong With “It Just Works”

Presented by David E (eastmad) & Abizer

This session seemed a bit like a good idea at first, but seemed to hinge around the idea that everybody should want the same thing and one approach should be sufficient to please everybody… I left partway through.

Tenth Session – Improvised session on how DIY is ruining the world.

Presented by Paula Schramm

This rapidly turned into an economics discussion, and so went over my head entirely. The concept of money and the psuedoscience that’s grown around it bugs me.

End of Day One (for me, anyway)

At this point, I’d pretty much had enough of being sociable. I’d had a rough week, with some pretty significant personal upheavals and my mood was starting to crash. I thought it best to leave for the day before I started getting cranky at people… so I set out for a slightly smoother train journey home and a reasonable night’s sleep.

A Rough Intro to UX Design

Introduction

Over the past weekend, I took part in Barcamp London 8. There will be another blog post about the event in general in the near future, but for the moment I’m going to focus on the session I presented there, which was titled “User Experience Design – A Rough Intro”.

In true barcamp style, the presentation was more than a little “seat of the pants”. I didn’t stay overnight as I really don’t function well without sleep, so I started my second day by leaving the house a little before 8am to begin my journey to the venue. At this point, I had no clue what I was going to present. The previous day, a couple of folks had suggested they might be interested in a talk outlining what User Experience Design actually is – so I thought I’d see what I could come up with for that. So when I got on the train, I pulled out my sketchbook and started to scribble some ideas down.

 

Lo-Fi Presentation

At this point, I’m going to leap ahead a bit and mention a decision that I made later on… namely that I wasn’t going to use my laptop at all in the presentation. I’d started out carrying the laptop around on the first day, and found it to be something of a pain in the arse. It’s not a big, bulky laptop… but you still have to shift it about, power it up, put it into standby and generally fight with it. If you wanted to shake somebody’s hand whilst carrying it and a drink, you had to juggle things or find somewhere to put it down. So I decided on Sunday that I’d only get it out if I needed it. Initially, I thought I’d need it for my presentation… and I had been planning on doing some sketches, taking photos of them and then using those photos in my slides.

But then I remembered four things:

First, I hate making slides.

Second, many of the presentation rooms had “visualisers” – which are like a hi-tech version of the old overhead projectors – they’re basically a webcam that points onto an illuminated plinth so that you can put things on the plinth and have them projected onto a screen. This meant that photographing my sketches and building a presentation around them would basically be a waste of time. So the laptop stayed in my bag the whole day – and all I lost were the updates via twitter and lanyrd.

Third: When you use presentation software, you nearly always have to compromise between what you want and what it’ll let you do. You can spend hours trying to convince powerpoint to do what you want. Generally, you don’t need to spend hours trying to get your hands to do what you want – they get pretty close right away thanks to a handy neural interface.

Fourth: Wordy powerpoint is a barrier to communication. People read the screen instead of listening, and then get bored whilst they wait for the slow, boring talky man at the front to catch up with their reading.

So rather than using my sketchbook to come up with some ideas and doodles to put in my presentation… I decided that the sketches would be the presentation. They would be both my slides and my notes – sketching them was my sole preparation.

Sketch One – What is UX Design?

After a bit of fighting with the visualiser, and trying to get my sketchbook to stay open in the right places (the lo-fi equivalent of the inevitable laptop cable swapping and associated “nothing works like you expected” discoveries), I started off with the following sketch:

Sketch of things people say about UX design

When I had this up on the screen, I tried to make two main points:

First – if you ask anybody who’s not a user experience designer to explain user experience design, you’ll get a different answer.

Second – if you ask anybody who is a user experience designer to explain user experience design, you’ll probably get several different answers.

Whilst I was explaining this, I went through the responses in the sketch… so I’ll do that here too:

“Isn’t it just part of design?”

Yes. So’s pretty much everything else. Design is a word with a very broad scope. As an example, it can cover anything from designing fancy gilded patterns on the cover of a wedding photo album, through planning the underlying architecture of a piece of software to deciding how a piece of industrial machinery should be constructed to make the most efficient use of materials.

“Useless. A good web designer does it already”

A good web designer should indeed be doing it already, but it’s not necessarily their main focus, and as such they may not be able to give it the time it deserves. If they can, then that’s awesome and I don’t think you’ll see any good user experience designers complaining!

“Isn’t it just part of product management?”

As with web designers, a good product manager is indeed probably doing a certain amount of user experience design… but again, it’s not necessarily their main focus. They’ll probably be looking at what users want and need, but may well not have the time to get very heavily engaged in how those needs are actually implemented.

“Wishy Washy Nonsense!”

Sometimes it is a bit wishy washy and difficult to pin down. Other times, it’s one of the few forms of design that you can test and apply metrics to. It gets “wishy washy” around the points where you have to start doing something before you can collect data about it…

“Another name for UI design?”

This is another place where there’s a strong overlap – and if you’re working on software or a web application, it’s even stronger. But once again, there’s a slightly different focus – and one I’ll address in a bit more detail later.

“Wireframes?”

It’s quite easy to mistake the outcome of a process for the process itself, and this is a common one. Wireframes are a tool that user experience designers can use to convey ideas to others – but they’re usually a tool that comes quite late in the process. A lot of the time, they’re the first contact developers have with the user experience design process… which is usually a problem, rather than a desired situation for the designer.

“An excuse to pad a CV?”

Alas, much like web design was in the late nineties and early 2000’s, user experience design has become a buzzword. The same way that anybody could say they were a web designer because MS Word had a “save as HTML” button, anybody can say they’re a user experience designer because they know a couple of buzzwords. So the field has a little bit of an image problem at the moment…

What next?

So… having made it clear that if you ask 5 user experience designers what UX design is, you’ll get at least ten answers… I embarked on explaining what user experience design is. You should, by now, understand that a lot of user experience designers will disagree with me. You should also understand that I think that’s just fine.

Sketch Two – Design is a Spectrum

Design is a spectrum - UX Design is a point on that spectrum

There a whole bunch of different forms of design, and they can all fit onto a huge spectrum. That spectrum also includes things that people would argue aren’t design at a
ll, but I’d say are at the very least related fields. The small and non-exhaustive (and not really ordered) list that I came up with for this sketch is as follows:

  • Content authoring
  • User research
  • Ergonomics & athropometrics
  • Cognitive ergonomics
  • Product design
  • Interaction design
  • Graphic design
  • UI design
  • “traditional” web design (which I rambled around a bit, but by which I essentially mean “web design where the designer doesn’t do much UX design).
  • Front end development

This lead me directly on to the next sketch…

Sketch Three – Designers, being fickle beasts, rarely tick just one box!

Circle containing many different design discipines I identify with.

For the next bit, I used myself as an example to show that anybody who considers themselves in any way a designer almost certainly covers more that one point on the design spectrum.

Some of the areas I associated with myself for this sketch were as follows:

  • Industrial design – I’m an industrial designer by training.
  • “Traditional” web design – I did a lot of this in the mid 90s.
  • Interaction design – again, I did a fair bit of this in the mid 90s, but as a distinct thing from web design – they didn’t come together for me until the late 90s/early 2000s.
  • Product design – tied quite heavily to industrial design. It was the “course next door” whilst I did my degree and we shared a lot of modules!
  • Lighting design – I’m an amateur theatre lighting designer, I run the lighting for a local comedy club and I’ve done lighting for several small gigs and events.
  • Theatrical production design – I’ve done a reasonable amount of set and prop design and construction.
  • Interactive fiction design – See many of the other posts on this blog and you’ll get an idea of what I mean!
  • Environment design – Making a physical space convey a mood. This ties in with the theatrical stuff and the interactive fiction stuff.
  • Process design – difficult to quickly pin down – basically, planning and designing ways of doing things.
  • Service design – planning how people will perceive and interact with a service you provide, understanding contact points and how things need to happen between them, etc…
  • Front-end engineering – making things actually work effectively in a user interface, web page, etc…
  • Hardware hacking – I’m an avid (if not very experienced) arduino tinkerer. I’ve also taught people to control custom hardware with software before, as well as teaching them to solder.

The point I was making is that whilst I’m a user experience designer, I also do a whole bunch of other forms of design. I’m far from alone in that – in fact, it’s my belief that anybody who says they’re a designer in just one discipline is probably misguided.

In essence, user experience designers don’t only do user experience design, and people who are not user experience designers may well still do user experience design. It comes down to where you specialise and what you self-identify as, rather than what you actually do. You might not need a user experience designer for user experience to be done… but if it’s not being done, or not being done enough, then a user experience designer means you’re getting a specialist who’ll make sure it gets the attention it needs.

Sketch 4 – Where Do They Focus?

UX design focus on area between user's life and UI, UI design focus on area between user and product backend.

Earlier I mentioned that I’d cover the often misunderstood relationship between UI design and UX design in greater detail… well here it is.

This sketch is intended to show where the two overlap and where they don’t. It comes after the previous sketch because I wanted it kept clear that we’re talking about the roles… not the people who fill them.

The idea is that there are several areas to be focussed on, which are (from left to right):

  • The user’s life, including the following parallel areas:
    • Other things in their life that they want or need to do
    • Other things that they have to spend time on
    • Other people they have to work with
  • The users, of which there are many different types (although contrary to the sketch, it is unlikely that some of them will be small dogs or will have two heads).
  • The users’ interaction with the product (or thing you are designing)
  • The product (or thing you are designing) which breaks down into the following (again, from left to right):
    • User interface
    • Logic
    • Backend (Model, database, etc…)

The Focus of UI design

User interface design focusses most heavily on the areas between the product backend and the user. UI design’s main areas of concern will generally be between the user and the user interface, but it will often need to be aware of and informed by what is going on behind the scenes.

The Focus of UX design

User experience design focusses most heavily on the areas between the product UI and the rest of the user’s life. UX design’s main areas of concern will generally on how the user interface can make the user’s life better or easier, and so it will need to be aware of an informed by the other things going on in their lives.

How do they relate?

As you can probably guess, these two overlap a lot. User experience designers are likely to also do a fair bit of user interface design, and user interface designers are likely to also do a fair bit of user experience design. That doesn’t mean the two fields are identical, just that they overlap – it’s difficult to be good at one without being at least competent at the other. Hence the confusion.

Sketch Five – UX Tools

A collection of people based and diagram based UX tools

The main reason to put this slide up wasn’t so that I could run through a selection of tools and how to use them (although I did do that), but was instead so I could say clearly that these are all tools, not the end result. Too many people seem to think that because they’ve made some personas and produced some wireframes, they’ve finished doing user experience design. Instead, what they’ve done is produce some tools to convey ideas. If those ideas don’t get followed up on, iterated and carried through effectively to the final product, then what you’ve actually done is waste some effort. The real deliverable for a user experience designer isn’t some diagrams or a report – it’s users having a good and appropriate experience with the product. Tools alone, no matter how useful, won’t achieve that – although they do make it a lot easier to get there when used effectively.

The tools I mentioned were as follows:

  • “People based” tools
    • Personas & Archetypes – These are detailed descriptions of different users you may be designing for. They’re very useful when dealing with product manag
      ers, sales, marketing and senior staff… but often too high level for developers to really sink their teeth into – they have to wade through a lot of detail that’s not immediately relevant before they find the gems that are.
    • Pragmatic Personas – I use these as a tool to bridge from the rich, detailed and high level personas (and any other info we have on users) to user stories and test cases that developers can work with. They can be much more focussed on work that’s ongoing, and provide a link between who a user is, what they need, and what the implementation implications are.
    • User interviews – How else can you get to know your users? Actually, there are other ways, but they’re always at at least one remove – using analytics, or discussions with support or sales. None are as good as actually talking to users, provided you’re aware that the user you’re talking to is a single example and may not be representative of all of them.
    • User testing & analytics – if you have something, and you want to make that something better, running it by real users and seeing how they do is a good idea.
  • Box, Arrow and Squiggle based tools
    • Card sorting – scribbling things on cards or post-it notes, then grouping them based on either predefined or emergent criteria. Very handy tool for producing other tools.
    • Information Architecture – A plan for how content or components fit together. If you’re not careful, this can turn into a rigid sitemap or heirarchy rather than a flexible plan or scheme which will allow for future growth to fit in, resulting in that growth being bolted on to the side or crammed in where it doesn’t really fit.
    • User flows – these are a staple of interaction design, detailing the steps a user should go through to achieve a goal.
    • Concept models – sometimes you need to explain an idea in some detail, and you need other people working on your project to really be able to understand that idea so they can keep calling back to it. Concept models can help with that. (example 1, example 2)
    • More sketches than are probably healthy – if you think of something, sketch it. Seriously. Then you can expose the inner workings of your brain to other people without the need for surgery.

Sketch Six – UX Culture

Various people in an organisation, and the kinds of conversations they might have with a UX designer

The most useful thing for any UX designer is to not be the only person involved in and responsible for the user experience. They might be the only person who focusses on it entirely, but they need a lot of other people to be thinking about it as well. They need to be bouncing their ideas and thoughts off everyone else in an organisation, getting feedback from them. Even more importantly, they need to be making sure that people from different parts of the organisation talk to each other about the user experience.

Whilst the ultimate ideal of user experience design is to have the user experience be the sole concern, reality does have this habit of intruding. Release dates, budgets, implementation concerns, sales and marketing issues,etc… do all exist, and when it comes down to it they are often important – without them the product you’re making might never see market. If users never experience your product, you can’t really call it a successful user experience.

The best situation to be in is one where everyone working on the project is able to raise concerns about the user experience, or the work that maintaining it will entail. If a developer says that what the UX designer is asking for is too expensive, there needs to be a conversation between the product manager, the development team and the user experience person to determine if a compromise can be reached, or if a partial implementation is good enough in this release, with an improved implementation in the next release.

What is most important is that everyone is able to understand how decisions can affect the user experience, and how user experience decisions can affect everything else. With a dedicated user experience designer, you have somebody who’s job it is to make sure those implications are clear and understood, and to facilitate discussions around them so that the people who make the final call can do so in an informed manner.

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