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Category: Life (Page 1 of 3)

Not work, but not exactly play either.


Recently, I had the honour and privilege of being Best Man for a friend’s wedding. Which meant, amongst several other things, I was required to provide a stag do.

Easy, you might think. Piss up in a brewery level of ease.

But no.  Not unless breweries come in teetotaller friendly form.

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Nine Worlds Geekfest 2015 – My Sunday Writeup (no sketchnotes)

This is the final writeup of my time at Nine Worlds 2015, and unlike the previous two, it’ll be quite brief and completely without sketchnotes.  This isn’t a deliberate absence of sketchnotes – I just didn’t really go to anything that made sense to take notes at!

In fact, most of my time was spent socialising – I think the only programme item I went to was the “Night of the Trailers – Morning of the Trailers” slot in the film festival.

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Nine Worlds Geekfest 2015 – Friday

I’ve recently returned from the thoroughly enjoyable “Nine Worlds Geekfest” – a friendly, highly inclusive, mixed media / mixed genre geek/fan convention.

Whilst I was there, I spent many of the panels I attended scribbling some sketchnotes.  For me, sketchnotes are a way to force what I hear in panels to go through different bits of my brain, and to stay in my head better than they would if I just listened.

This post is going to be a con report, but unlike any other con reports I’ve written, I’m going to include scans of my sketchbook pages. So you have some context…  my sketchbook pages are roughly 12.5cm wide by about 17.5cm tall.  If things look a bit fuzzy on bigger screens, it’s because they’ve been blown up a bit in scanning.

So – on to the programme items for Friday – Saturday & Sunday will follow.

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The future is 20 years old

Picture a vision of the high-tech future.  Go on, picture it.  In your fleshy meat-brain.

Did it involve a lot of brushed aluminium, clean white plastic coated things and bright blue LEDs?  If it does, I’m not surprised.  That’s been the default vision of the future since bright blue LEDs first came on the market in the early 1990s.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) only appeared around 30 years before that, and red LED displays defined the look of the future for quite some time… particularly in the form of seven-segment LED displays, which were used to form things that looked close enough to letters and numbers if you squinted a bit and turned your head slightly.  But red LEDs lost their appeal over the course of the 1980s…  after all, anything fashionable in one decade is destined to be deeply unfashionable in the next.

In the 90s, though, the future turned blue.  Now, two decades later, it’s still blue.  Blue LEDs are still seen as the look of the future.  Even though the black mirror of the touchscreen has taken over to a certain extent, the black mirror still often finds itself in the company of the “searingly bright so it illuminates the whole room” blue LED.

They’re so bright and so blue that I’ve taken to sticking a square of black PVC electrical tape over every blue LED, just to dampen the light of the future enough to let me sleep at night.  They’re everywhere.  Clearly nobody sleeps in the blue-LED illuminated future.

So, designers of the world… what should the new future be?  Black mirrors everywhere, more blue LEDs, or down the natural and sustainable materials route?  I know I’d prefer the latter, but it really doesn’t sell that well.  The future isn’t the future these days unless it’s on sale on the high-street, after all…

Of multi-dimensional sausage visualization and user experience design

I’ve been thinking of this post for a while, and have decided that rather than trying to come up with a better way to explain it, I’d just explain how I picture it in my head.  Consider this post to be one-part UX design related and one-part insight into my mental processes.

It’s a UX related thing, but I’ve not been able to work out how to explain it particularly clearly. It’s a discussion of the complexity of designing a user experience versus the complexity of the resulting experience, and how it’s far from a one-to-one mapping between the two. By which I mean that a really simple experience can be really complicated and troublesome to design, whilst a complex looking design is often the result of a *lack* of complexity in the design process.

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After a few days of insomnia medication related late arrivals at work, I was determined to make it in to work on time today. The universe had other plans.

In order:

  1. My alarm didn’t go off – I was only woken up by the sound of flatmate leaving for work.  Will have to check bulb & fuse when I get home.
  2. Got caught at the level crossing on my way to the station.
  3. I nearly made a train that’d get me in only ~15 mins late, but about 3/4 of the way to the station I turned my ankle and mashed my left orthotic insole badly enough that I had to go home again to find my spares.
  4. On the way home, I got caught at the level crossing again as the train I was meant to be on came through.
  5. Spent 10 minutes finding my spare insoles so I could have wearable shoes again.
  6. Got caught at the level crossing again on my way back to the station, and watched as the last useful train for ~25 minutes went through.
  7. Finally got on a train, and couldn’t get a seat. Ended up standing all the way to Clapham.
  8. Arrived in the office just after the morning standup finished, so didn’t even get to sneak in unnoticed!

Today is cursed, clearly. Trying to read “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell” also doesn’t work too well when standing on a crowded train, so I ended up buying it on the kindle to avoid killing anybody with it.  Oh well – I’m sure my wrists will thank me for that, at least.

Oh look, a bit fell off…

So, I spend a few minutes this morning on my hands and knees, crawling around the floor looking for a bit of myself that had just fallen off.  Not a typical way to start they day, but, contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t a bad one either.

It was only a little bit, after all.

I’ve had a mole on my neck that’s been inflamed and painful for over a month now, and which was due to be removed in the very near future.  It doesn’t need to be removed any more, as it decided to make a bid for freedom all on its own this morning after my hair got tangled around it.

The only problem was that it made a bid for freedom whilst I was only half awake after my first good night’s sleep for a couple of weeks, and I didn’t see where it landed…so I had to get down and look for it before I trod on it and squeezed the tiny amount of blood it contained out onto the carpet.

But after all that, for the first time in several weeks, I don’t get a stab of pain every time I turn my head or move my shirt collar.  I think the mole had realised that the imminent minor surgery to get it removed was going to end it anyway, and it decided to go on its own terms rather than waiting for the inevitable.

I call that a win.

I’m not vegan, but sometimes I feed them…

…and when I do, I make a rather well regarded vegan chilli.  This can be modified to feed omnivores too, but I’ve generally found that to be an unnecessary complication, as the vegan version is (though I say so myself) pretty damned mighty.

I’ve posted the recipe online before, but I don’t think I’ve ever made a dedicated blog post for it an pointed the whole world at it.  So I thought I’d change that.  The recipe is designed to serve around eight people, when served with rice or something similar.

But first, the history:  In the dim an distant past, cooking and eating chilli was a communal act for myself and a couple of friends…  and I’ve retained the ability and inclination to occasionally prepare chilli for the masses.  However, the main other human being involved in that ritual of spicy deliciousness has fled these shores for a point that’s about as far as you can get without leaving the planet…  and turned Vegan.  The pre-mixed spice blend that I used as a basis for my chilli had something non Vegan in it (milk or egg or somesuch), which was a problem.

The fact that I would no longer be able to provide her with a hearty meal of chilli should we ever be geographically colocated preyed upon my mind (foolish fact, there’s little nourishment there!.  So I did what any self-respecting technically minded designer would do…  I took it apart to see what made it tick.  I reverse engineered the original spice blend, modified it to be vegan-friendly and then cooked a chilli using that as the base.  I also recorded my personalised “tweaks” along the way and folded them in.  I say “tweaks” in inverted commas because those tweaks changed so much along the way that the dish I make bears little resemblance to what you’d get if you used the pre-packaged spice blend on it’s own.

So here’s the recipe for the vegan version of my traditional chilli.  I’m rather proud of it.  It comes in four sections – ingredients for the dry spice mix, ingredients for the wet or gooey bits that go with the dry spice mix and the “everything else” ingredients.  After the sets of ingredients come the actual instructions for how to assemble them into something resembling hot food!

The “Everything Else” ingredients

  • 4-5 cans beans (assorted, mainly kidney, some black beans) – these should be ready to cook with, so if they need soaking, soak them first.
  • 4 (large-ish) Sweet Potatoes (chopped into 1.5cm irregular cube-like lumps, or thereabouts)
  • 4 bell peppers (assorted colours)
  • 3 Onions (Chopped)
  • 3 cloves garlic (chopped) (or more.  I favour more if I’m cooking for myself.)
  • 2 cans chopped tomatoes (maybe 3 – have one spare)
  • 2 cans plum tomatoes
  • 1 can/tube tomato puree
  • “Some” Jalopenos or Chillis – chopped (these get added to taste along the way)
  • “Enough” Basmati rice

The Dry (ish) Spice Mix

  • 30g Cornflour
  • 5.25 tsp Onion Powder
  • 4.75 tsp Paprika
  • 1.75 tsp Salt
  • 3 tsp Garlic Powder
  • 2 tsp Sugar
  • 2.5 tsp Wheat Flour
  • 1.5 tsp Cumin
  • 2.5 tsp Oregano
  • 1 tsp Chilli Powder
  • 0.5 tsp Black Pepper

The wet or gooey bits of spice mix

  • 1.5 tsp Wine Vinegar / Balsamic
  • 30g Tomato Puree
  • 1.5 tsp Vegemite / Marmite (or more – I’ve been increasing the amount every time I make this!)
  • 8g Avocado (or a bit more)
  • Around 450ml water

How to make it:

  1. Chop stuff that needs chopping (That’s all the veggie bits)
  2. Prepare the mix and then set it aside:
    1. Combine dry chilli mix ingredients
    2. Mix into ~450ml water
    3. Mix in wet chilli mix ingredients
    4. set aside until (5)
  3. Mix the beans, separate a quarter of them to use in (4).
  4. Start frying the following on a high heat:
    • the sweet potato (fry this for a bit before adding the rest)
    • about 1/2 of the onion,
    • the separated 1/4 of the beans
  5. When the onions are softened, throw in the pre-prepared chilli mix from (2)
  6. Throw in about half of the tomatoes
  7. Gradually throw in everthing else.
  8. Keep on a high heat for a bit, then turn down and hold on low heat until deemed nearly ready.
  9. Cook enough rice for the people who are going to be eating chilli.
  10. Serve & Devour.  I tend to serve it with rice and a couple of rings of raw onion plonked on top.  I devour it with style and aplomb (and a fork).

So now you know, and now I have a place to point people at when I wish them to know about my awesome vegan chilli recipe that even non-vegans seem to like.

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.


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.

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