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Life in the UK

Yesterday we went to Southsea so I could take my Life in the UK test. This was our first train trip since the before-times, I don’t know how busy that route used to be, but it was pretty empty around 2pm when we went down and a bit busier but still chill on the way back around 5pm. Masks are mandatory on public transit and everyone was in compliance, outside I only saw two or three others.

Even though I know all these things have been outsourced, I sort of expected the testing centre to be a large government-type facility. It was actually about the size of my local dentist practice; one a small office, a waiting room, and a testing room (plus the toilets). It was pretty well organized though; coloured tape on the floor to mark where to go and where to wait, the staff had masks and guards, and everything was as distanced and sanitized as possible. The test itself took about five minutes and was easy, they emailed me my results ten or fifteen minutes later (I passed).

If it had been slightly less windy we would have enjoyed a proper wander up the beach and maybe a takeaway along the promenade or common, but as it was we hustled back to the train station to catch the earlier once-an-hour train back to St. Denys. Once home we celebrated with Indian delivery and a movie; Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which I recommend if you like Eurovision and/or silly fun movies.

Who watches the shadows

The weather is gorgeous and the garden happy, I harvested my first (and maybe only?) courgette. The plant is self-fertilising but there are almost never male and female flowers at the same time, but then again the internet claims the plant should continue producing for a while so fingers crossed. In any case it was a little round thing, rather than long, but tasted good and it’s always satisfying to eat produce from your own garden. Keeping an eye on those tomato plants now.

In other news, we watched all of Watchmen during the HBO free streaming. It was pretty great, and I was impressed that they were able to make it current and relevant while also maintaining the style and feel of the book, the production design is top notch as is the cast. I also just finished series one of What We do in the Shadows. It isn’t as great as the movie version, but I am enjoying it quite a bit and loving the cameos, especially in the season finale.

Looking forward

Bathroom is halfway done, so everything is still a bit of a mess but we can take baths again thank goodness. It should be finished by the middle of the week and you can see how much better it’s going to look. Plus also not being broken, so hooray to that.

The garden has been a bit neglected while I haven’t had proper access to it, so I may have to spent some time today and tomorrow making sure everything is happy out there. I might even get to harvest one single courgette! It’s round for some reason, but the internet assures me this is a valid variety.

Tearing down, building up

Work has started on the bathroom, which involves a fair bit of awkwardly trying to maintain social distancing while conversing about the work done/needed. It’s just one guy doing the work for obvious reasons (it’s a small bathroom) and we have exiled ourselves to the upstairs except when he needs to tell us something. He assures us he’s been mostly isolating anyway, as have we, so in spite of not being able to maintain strict distancing due to the limits of the architecture I’m reasonably comfortable so far. The main disadvantages so far are that the poor cats have spent the day locked in the bedroom and that we obviously have to, well, hold it all day until the bathroom is accessible again.

Without access to the rest of the house I basically spent most of the day updating my website, tagging old posts, and recovering some pre-2018 posts from my Dreamwidth account. Glad to get it done, even though reading old travel posts is bittersweet just now.

Books and bathrooms

It’s the middle of the month, I have two weeks of furlough left probably. I’ve gotten quite a few overdue personal projects done, but I have a bad habit of having so many projects on the go that even if I complete several I don’t maintain much of a sense of accomplishment. It’s tricky.

Still, one of them is tidying up the website a bit, cleaning up the menus and links, and updating the art pages. It needed doing anyway, but if I’m planning on entering any virtual art shows, an up to date website seems critical. It’s also nice to have something to keep tidy, since the house is going to be in disarray while our bathroom is being fixed. It’ll be really great to have a shower again though!

Meanwhile the Hugo reading chugs along, I’m halfway through The City in the Middle of the Night and am digging it. I’m also reading This is How You Lose the Time War, which I had trouble starting and am reading more slowly but am interested in finding out where it is heading.

John had the day off on Friday so we set it aside to just sit and read Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini. A lot of the bare facts I already knew, many I did not, but the most valuable aspect of the book the clarification of a timeline and narrative – so many times the separate facts of any situation feel important but almost anecdotal. Like all good writing on this sort of topic, what Saini does is reveal the bigger picture of how systems are connected, tracing their origins and their modern effects, while also making the point that these are not just passive cultural holdovers that live on despite being obsolete, they are nurtured, revived, reinvented, and disseminated by people and organizations that profit from them. It’s an essential read, even if you know the basics already.

Revolution?

It’s a weird time to post anything personal without feeling navel gazing at best, and honestly there isn’t that much to share in practical terms. I’ve been watching the news and feeling the rollercoaster of emotions that accompanies doing that, but in this moment at least it feels hopeful.

I’ve often felt very cynical about American’s relationship with protest and civil disobedience compared to other nations. This feels different, at least from way over here, and there are real radical changes being seriously discussed like defunding the police, along with smaller but long overdue concrete actions like removing monuments honouring traitors and slavers.

Virtual congoing

Last weekend was a bank holiday in the UK and Memorial Day in the States. Once upon a time would have that meant Baycon, Fanime, Clockwork Alchemy, and more would all be running at the same time, and I’d be popping between at least two of them and hearing rumours and news from the rest. Obviously that ended once I moved to the UK, but the muscle memory is still there, and I still had the vicarious enjoyment from social media and the occasional text.

This year, all of the above have been postponed anyway. But a few cons elsewhere decided to move online, including Baltic-on. They aren’t the first events to go virtual, but they do seem to be among the first sff cons to deploy a true multi-platform attempt to replicate as much of the convention experience as possible.

I’ve never been to Baltimore, but a couple of friends alerted me to the Virtual Balticon Facebook page and it looked interesting, especially with CoNZealand on the horizon.

I went to the website and found it well laid out, with all the relevant information front and center, a good starting sign. So I made a nominal donation, enough that I didn’t feel like a total ghost but not so much I’d feel ripped off if it was all a bit of a fizzle.

The basics;

The big events like opening ceremonies and masquerade were on Twitch and Youtube, as was the Film Festival. The Zoom panels were recorded and I believe at least some broadcast too, the convention is working on getting the rest up once the captioning is tidied up. I had vague plans to stay up for the masquerade, which was at 1am my time, but decided against it. It turned out to be less than 15 minutes long so that was the right choice. I am glad they did one, but it seems like an area that might need some developing for the current conditions.

Panels, readings, and similar were on Zoom, with advance audience sign up. They had two separate text chats; Q&A and general chatter. I mainly signed up for literary ones and found them overall good. As with any con the quality of panelists and moderators was variable, but I learned later that both panelists and moderators had to do a run through in advance, to make sure they were comfortable with the basics and that their technology would stand up to the task. I wonder if this also helped everyone focus a bit as well and weed out the “I don’t know why I am on this panel/I forgot I was on this panel and did zero prep” tendencies. Technical issues were minimal, there were spirited after-panel discussions (more on which later). I was also amused to see the “wall of books” panelist trick replicated in the form of a Zoom background.

The heart of any convention, the socialising, was mostly on Discord. This is where I spent the bulk of my time. The advantages being that it is primarily text-chat, so you can dip in and out and access it on all devices. The convention had set it up such that after joining their Discord server you were funnelled through some welcome channels that explained both Discord itself and the Balticon set up. The absolute first step was to read and agree to the Code of Conduct, with relevant links and contacts, and only then were you allowed onto the rest of the channels.

The next section let you select the areas of interest, so your list wasn’t cluttered with irrelevant stuff. So for example the gaming room did not exist for me, just like at a regular con! This section also included information specific to vendors, artists, and fan tables, plus a link to the info desk.

Done with all that, you could see the full set up, divided into sections;

General Discord: Announcements, Discord Help, a Virtual Map the local discord server, of all the convention resources and platforms, plus useful things like timezones. The info desk was well staffed but I found this very useful to refer back to.

General Balticon 54 channels; consuite, bar, filking, info desk, volunteers, watch parties, and a couple of other areas of specific interest like a Second Life change;

Below that the rest of the sections as chosen, so mine included the Dealers, Artist Alley, Fan Tables, and After Panel Discussions.

The dealers and artists sections replicated the big room with individual booths experience by having a general chat for each section and then individual ones for each vendor/artist. This allowed for general socialising and announcements, while also letting booths post without getting lost to the scroll. It also meant you could pop by a booth and leave a question even if the vendor was away at the moment.

The fan tables seemed to be one of the busiest sections, probably because they usually had someone staffing the room and eager to talk most of the day. Second to them were the after-panel discussions, they had one channel per track (gaming, literary, fan interest, etc) and therefore doubled as general chat rooms after the panel-specific conversations died down.

Finally, each text channel had a voice chat equivalent. The voice icons are easy to miss so this was a bit confusing at first, I wish Discord did colour coding or something, but it ended up being a really nice option, I had some nice chats in the Glasgow and Discon III rooms. These spaces were much quieter though, aside from technical constraints, text is asynchronous, so it’s obviously much easier to have a text channel open in case anyone wanders in. Paying attention to an empty voice channel is less fun. I wonder if this is a place it would be useful to deploy volunteers, just send out pairs of extroverts to bounce around having conversations until rooms were self-sustaining, then flit off to the next place. Hmmm.

Some of the fan tables held Zoom parties in the evenings too, I only found out on Sunday and of course timezones are tricky, but I managed a couple of hours in the Discon III one on Sunday at 8pm EST. It was nice and chill, but I get the impression that the prime ones were jumpin’.

Beyond all this there was filking, watch parties, gaming using Tabletop Simulator and Roll20, and Balticon Station in Second Life.

It’s obviously not the same as the real thing, but it’s also actually pretty great. I wouldn’t have been attending a convention this weekend otherwise, so my perspective is skewed by that. But it’s made me very hopeful for what CoNZealand can achieve.

Furloughed

After a couple of months of very busy, and then not so busy, I was furloughed last week. The UK furlough scheme runs in three week cycles, so I have at least another two weeks. Most likely they will re-up and I won’t be working until the end of June, but that isn’t guaranteed.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I have plenty of projects that I’ve ben neglecting, so keeping busy has not been an issue. The garden has gotten some much needed attention, in time to become a useful space during this lovely weather. And my office/studio, which had descended into chaos when it suddenly became a workspace (and therefore not a place I wanted to also spend my evenings/weekends in) is now back under control.

The cats have also benefited as I build them a cardboard cat condo in a fit of craftiness, John was definitely worried I had lost the plot, and it is a bit more rickety that I would like, but they seem to like it.

May the Fourth

Star Wars day falls on a Monday, which is when we play our Edge of the Empire weekly role play, so that works out.

Besides that we’ve been playing various boardgames from John’s collection. Some Imperial Assault, the app version. Some random small games like Welcome to Dinoworld, which I am abysmally bad at. But mostly Arkham Horror, we’ve played several kinds but this weekend we started the app version, which is not bad at all.

Meanwhile I’ve finally gotten back onto the PS4 on a regular basis, sinking my teeth into Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s a very pretty game, with enough of a variety to keep me focused. It’s been a while since I played enough of a game to actually get decent at it, so that’s nice!