John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Picocon 30

This weekend I've been at Picocon (ICSF's annual convention). I used to go every year, but my attendance has been a bit more sporadic in recent years, partly because I've often been busy with SJA duties. I'm now trying to get a bit more balance in my life so I made an effort to attend, and I'm glad that I did. This was certainly better value than the Star Trek convention that I went to last October.

Normally Picocon just runs on a single day, but this year it was extended to 2 days (Saturday and Sunday). A lot of conventions offer on-site accommodation, but that wasn't practical here (since the student accommodation is in use during term-time) and I live close enough to commute in. Unfortunately, this weekend coincided with a lot of public transport problems. I'd normally take the train from East Croydon to Victoria, then the tube (Circle/District line) to South Kensington and walk to Imperial College from there. However, the Circle and District lines are both closed for maintenance this weekend. Also, lots of trains between Croydon and Victoria were delayed or cancelled, and the trains which did run took the "scenic route" because of track maintenance. At Victoria, they're doing lots of construction work on the bus terminal so I had to ask at the information desk before I could find my bus stop. Combined with that, I'm not much of an early riser, so I got in at about 14:00 (rather than 10:00) each day. Still, that gave me half a day of activities each day, so effectively it was equivalent to attending the whole of a single-day Picocon.

When I got to Imperial, I went into Beit Quad to get to the registration desk. A song lyric from Avenue Q immediately popped into my head:

"But if I were to go back to college,
Think what a loser I'd be.
I'd walk through the quad, and think 'Oh my god!
These kids are so much younger than me...'"

When did they start letting 12 year olds into university?

Anyway, when I registered yesterday I paid for both days: this cost me £20 (the most expensive rate), as opposed to £30 at the Star Trek convention (the cheapest rate for a single day). After that, the rest of the convention was pretty much free. I paid for drinks at the bar, I bought a paperback from one of the second-hand booksellers, and I donated money to RAG during one of the events, but I was allowed to attend every event without paying anything extra.

The book in question was Let's Go to Golgotha. I tend to buy ebooks rather than paper books nowadays, but it was only £1 so if I read it once and then give it to a charity shop then I've got my money's worth; since my domain name is I couldn't resist the title.

After I paid for entry, they gave me a booklet with a schedule and a map. This was useful because the event was split between Beit Quad and the Mechanical Engineering building. (At the Star Trek convention, they charged £10 extra for a programme with this info.) I was also given a sticker to wear. Unlike some other events, this didn't really have room to write my name, and I didn't see anyone else display their name. Instead, it had a picture of a Death-like character on it (a skeleton wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe). Basically, there were 3 teams at Picocon: [grim] reapers, zombies, and phoenixes (or possibly phoenices). There were various activities that you could do to earn points for your team, although most of these looked impossible to achieve, e.g. 8 points for a non-Euclidean triangle.

My first event was the Guest of Honour panel; fortunately for me this started a bit late, so I saw the whole thing. There were some interesting questions, particularly concerning online presence: apparently some publishers now require authors to have a blog and/or Facebook page in order to promote their books. (Picocon is very much about writers rather than actors.) I must admit that I haven't actually read anything by any of this year's guests, but they all seemed like good people so I'll try to rectify that. More generally, that was one of the recurring themes this weekend: I felt a bit illiterate compared to lots of the other people there, so I've added several books to my "to read" list.

After the GoH panel, I had a wander around the rest of the convention. I was surprised not to see rjw1 in the bar, but I later discovered that he was in the other bar, which would explain it. There were several computers set up for LAN gaming (2 groups of 4), but hardly any of them were in use when I went past; people seemed to be more interested in the card games elsewhere in that room.

Speaking of games, the next item on the schedule was "Silly Games" (back in the ChemEng building). This turned out to be based on the Radio 4 program Just a Minute, with topics such as "vegan zombies" and "the thermodynamic principles of the phoenix". I don't normally listen to Radio 4, but maybe I should; I certainly enjoyed this a lot more than Mornington Crescent. There were 6 people taking part, divided into 3 teams of 2 (matching the general teams for the whole of Picocon). This meant that the rules had to be tweaked a bit, e.g. each person was allowed to repeat things that their team-mate had previously said.

I have to say, I was impressed at how well the contestants handled this. They were able to talk off-the-cuff about these topics and keep track of what other people were saying. A couple of my favourite quotes:
* "You've just said that 3 times in 6 words!" (Said while challenging for repetition.)
* "You can't challenge for bad grammar!" (This made sense in context: there was debate about whether someone had hesitated or just paused for a comma, and the other team said that a comma didn't belong at that point in the sentence.)

It's actually quite refreshing to feel as if I'm the dumbest person in the room, because it makes me want to rise to the challenge. That's not intended as an insult to anyone else I spend time with, but there have been some conversations (e.g. on Facebook) where I've had to make a conscious effort to slow down and try to explain what I'm thinking; similarly, when I'm at work we follow the Plain English Campaign which means that I try to phrase things simply. Thinking about the phoenix topic in particular, I was hoping that someone would bring up the "endothermic vs. exothermic" question, which they did, and they didn't feel the need to define those terms.

Anyway, after that finished there was another writer panel: this involved other authors rather than the GoHs, but it was still worth listening to.

The day ended with a sci-fi/fantasy version of University Challenge (Imperial vs UCL). I missed the first rounds earlier in the day, so I just saw the final, and a lot of the questions were quite tough. I don't know whether they included any other universities in the early rounds, but maybe next time they could include a team from Kings; they allowed alumni to join the teams, so I'd be eligible for that.

One of today's panels was "Picocon of Years Gone by". I ran Picocon in 2001 and 2002, so this year's "sofa" asked me to take part in that. I arrived at 14:00, and that panel started at 14:30, so I was in time; it would have been embarrassing to arrive late when I was due at the front. There were 5 of us on the panel, and a woman in the audience commented that we were all male. This reminded me of something that Paul Cornell wrote last year (Panel Parity): "If I'm on, at any convention this year, a panel that doesn't have a 50/50 gender split (I'll settle for two out of five), I'll hop off that panel, and find a woman to take my place." (I don't know whether he had to follow through on that pledge.)

Looking at the GoH panel yesterday, there were 5 people taking part: 3 female and 2 male. Regarding today's panel, there have been women running Picocon in previous years. I can't speak for this year's organisers, but I know that at least 1 of those women was invited to take part in the panel (because we were both in the "To" list of the same email) so I assume that they all were. However, I didn't see any of those women at the convention on either day. If they'd been in the building, I'm sure they would have been very welcome on stage, and I'd have been willing to step aside if necessary to assist with a gender balance. However, they weren't around. I'm not criticising them; like I said at the top, I don't attend Picocon every year either, and I noticed fewer of my contemporaries this year. Still, I think it's a bit unfair to criticise the people who were on the panel. You could argue that there should have been more female sofas in the past, but when I stood for the post I was unopposed; given that I wasn't actually a student at Imperial, any female student who'd stood against me would have been a better choice. That leads into a wider discussion about demographics at Imperial overall, i.e. why do science degrees have a male majority? Again, though, I don't think you can really blame the Picocon panel for that.

Anyway, aside from that I think the panel went quite well. My predecessors did most of the talking, and I learnt a few interesting things about the history of the event from them.

This was followed by "Tall Technical Tales": basically, people talking about things that had gone wrong in labs, typically involving accidental explosions. The panelists were all current/former students rather than the guests (authors), but that was fine, and there were some very funny stories. In fact, all of the afternoon events (from my panel onwards) were "internal"; a couple of the guests gave talks this morning, but I arrived too late to see them.

Next up was "Turkey Readings", which involved people reading passages from terrible novels. This was a RAG fundraiser, the idea being that people would pay them to stop. I was a bit dubious about this at first, because I don't really like having charity collectors shaking buckets at me when I go through a station or into a supermarket. However, it actually worked out very well.

Digressing slightly, one event that's been running at Picocon for several years is "Destruction of Dodgy Merchandise". There would be several items (e.g. a Jar Jar Binks toy), and people would bid for the right to destroy it. The highest bidder would give that money to RAG, then use various implements (e.g. a giant hammer) as they saw fit. In theory, they could also take the item home with them, although that was unlikely to happen. That said, the biggest bidding war I saw at Picocon involved a Barney toy. Someone had brought their young daughter along, and she was a bit upset about the idea of Barney being torn apart, so this led to 2 factions with combined bids: 1 group wanted to spare Barney and let the girl take him home, while the other group wanted to destroy him. (I think I pledged money to the "spare him" group, but I can't quite remember.) In the end, the "destroy him" group won; apparently his skin is still in the ICSF library, worn by R2-D2 as a cloak... There is a happy ending though (depending on your point of view): that year's committee bought a new Barney toy afterwards and posted it to the girl with a note of apology.

Anyway, the turkey readings worked on a similar principle. People could donate money to stop the person reading a book, but other people could also donate money to force the reader to keep going, and the highest bidder would win. That said, obviously they weren't going to read out an entire book, so if the "keep going" bidder won then they'd really just bought an extra page, and other people couldn't say "I'll pay you to stop" until we'd all heard that page.

To give an idea of the quality of the literature involved, here's an excerpt from Satanskin (by James Havoc):

"Daybreak hangs from East to West like a triptych of electrocuted infants, an adumbration of the church that eats its young; Katrina bowls her last grapefruit across the frozen lake. Moths erupt, tangling in her shiny, treacherous hair.

Her hair of the colour Hell.

Then back along the snow-packed bank, dragging on a rope behind her the rib-cage of the boy named Healer. On the knobbled, blanched surface of this queer sleigh she has arranged a hexagram of leveret feet, stapled to the bone. The same lucky configuration which is branded between her breasts. In seared, ridged flesh.

Flesh of the colour Hell."

That's taken from the chapter "The colour Hell"; another chapter was written entirely in CAPS LOCK. (As a side note, they had a type of OHP in the lecture theatre which I haven't seen before. At school we used projectors with a light that shone through transparent sheets, and nowadays I normally see digital projectors linked to computers, but this seemed to have a camera pointing at objects on the desk; that was quite handy.)

Another book was Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas. This excerpt involved Richard Nixon quacking like a duck, but I'm not sure whether it would have made any more sense in context.

I've forgotten the title of the next book, but it involved a really long description of planetary orbits, so 1 of the presenters drew illustrations on the board while the other presenter read from the text:

Left board Right board

(These will probably confuse whoever goes in there for a lecture on Monday morning.)

The final book was "Atlanta Nights" (by Travis Tea). This book has an interesting history: see PublishAmerica sting and The Making of Atlanta Nights. Basically, Travis Tea ("travesty") is a pseudonym for a group of authors who set out to write a terrible novel and prove that PublishAmerica is just a vanity press who will literally print anything rather than a reputable publisher. I paid for them to continue reading it, and that scene described a nurse's "tittles". When he said that, I assumed that he'd misread "titties" but he put the book under the OHP to prove that this was actually in the printed text. £10 well spent there, I think.

After we'd finished that session, there was a 30 minute break on the agenda. By a complete coincidence, it turned out that a couple of students had chosen this moment to settle a dispute with a fish duel in the middle of Beit Quad, just as we all happened to be passing by. Speaking as a vegetarian, I shouldn't really encourage such behaviour, but it was quite funny to watch: it involved flopping more than poking. I've seen a few similar duels in previous years, but I think this is the first time that both duellists were female.

The final event of the day (and indeed the convention) was a pub quiz. It wasn't actually in a pub, but lots of people bought drinks from the bar first and took them through to the other room. As people started gathering into teams, I went along to one of the tables and asked whether they had any spaces for an extra member. They recommended another table (with fewer people) and that other table was happy to accept me, so I joined team "Aleph and Tentacles". That's an anagram of "Elephant and Castle", which I thought was quite clever. (All credit to one of my teammates for that name.) There were several rounds, and again I started to feel that I wasn't very well-read compared to other people. Still, I was able to contribute 1 answer: I knew the Doctor's granddaughter's full name (Susan Foreman). I knew a few other answers too, but they were the easy questions that lots of people knew, e.g. "Who came back from the dead in Star Trek III?" Our team won, so that was nice; more generally, I just enjoyed having a friendly conversation with like-minded people.

I'm not sure who won the team competition overall. Apparently the scores got a bit distorted because some people spent a lot of time near the registration desk submitting items. They weren't doing that to cheat, it was just a social activity for them, in the same way that some other people spent a lot of time in the bar.

Anyway, all in all that was a good weekend so I'm very glad that I went along.

Looking at other upcoming conventions, the Sci-fi weekender is in Wales at the end of February. I was hoping to go to that, but by the time I'd sorted out my other commitments they'd sold out all their accommodation; they do have day passes, but it's a bit too far to commute (in Wales) so I'll give that a miss this year.

As the name suggests, Eastercon will be held over the Easter weekend, and I had considered going to that. However, I then booked a session at Zed Events for that weekend (simulating a zombie apocalypse). Maybe next year for that.

Also next year, Worldcon is coming to London (aka LonCon 3), so I really ought to make an effort to attend. Looking further ahead, Helsinki have put in a bid to host it in 2015, and the bid chair (Eemeli Aro) ran Picocon in 2004; I'm glad to see that he's gone on to bigger and better things. I'm planning to go to Finland next year for the Winter Swimming World Championships (I've paid the deposit to join the SLSC team), so I'll need to go via Helsinki to get there and I'll report back afterwards on what it's like there and how easy it is to get to. (I'd rather not fly, and The Man in Seat 61 has some advice about getting there by train/ferry.)
Tags: convention, picocon, zombies

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