Arisia 2023: back to ... normal?

  It was largely sort of last-minute, or more like last-month, in how Arisia came together this year ... but the con committee was basically done messing with virtual events, and really wanted to get back to in-person conventions.  It took only a short conversation to decide that even "hybrid" was out, due to lack of people and spoons and accessible connectivity.  Folks simply wanted to be back in a real hotel.  There were a few setbacks along the path, such as a succession of convention chairs becoming unavailable for various reasons, and strong reactions and long conversation around some past incidents.  Clearly still a bit of turmoil within the inner cabal, but things managed to get organized nonetheless.

I figured that my role would follow my usual progression from the Before Time -- logistics, over to tech, and back to logistics.  With emphasis on logistics, providing some essential functions.  In particular I wanted to help Kylie wrangle things, since we've sort of become collaborators lately, and she was newly into the role as Logistics head this year.  Well, that's not entirely true -- she was in for the sort of false-start we had in 2022 as well, except that about two weeks out from that everyone agreed that the Covid situation was still too bad to spend a weekend crammed into small indoor spaces, all planning ceased, and we [again] threw a small virtual party instead.  [No writeup for that year.]  But all that gave an extra year to think about con structure and all the stuff it would, or wouldn't, need to bring in.  2023 would also be seriously downsized, just due to staff attrition and continued fears of Covid transmission, and it would be difficult to predict needed truck capacity.

[Kylie and I live in the same town, and meet up regularly to help plan and/or lead a weekly outing with a local hiking group.  That gave us opportunities to discuss Arisia planning, while getting in some healthy activity outdoors.  We've come to know our park quite well, and in fact she landed a seasonal job with the DCR over the previous summer and got to know a lot more of its staff and operations as well.  The hike group goes out at 10:00 AM every Wednesday; poke me if you're interested in knowing more.]

As this scary in-person convention loomed larger on our horizon, the question came up about how the trucks would be paid for.  In general an entire rental is paid for up front plus a substantial deposit to handle mileage, fueling, damage, etc, so a rental that might net out to $350 all told would be more like $800 or more up front for a while.  In the past, Arisia maintained a couple of corporate credit cards that could handle that, and the Logistics lead would generally bring one on the pickup days.  A bit of official searching-around turned up a couple that were long since expired, and there wasn't time to re-establish those accounts.  So it would be up to me and Rick to float those costs up front and put in for reimbursements afterward.  I had never handled this aspect of it before.

Now, I don't do credit cards per se because I believe in working from a positive balance if I'm going to buy something, not to mention the total invasion of privacy that is someone's "credit score".  But I received advice to not put potentially large purchases, even if temporary, on a debit card, as it might tie up money for quite a while and take longer to refund.  Like how much, I asked?  Others in that conversation were suggesting several thousand dollars, and I had no idea what their reference was, but I wound up having a conversation with my bank and substantially upping the daily purchase limit on the card I intended to use.  The bank was cool with it, there was generous buffer in the account, and there weren't any issues the day Pink and I headed to Ryder to pick up the truck I'd be driving.

We once again used Zello for our long-haul instant one-to-many communications.  Our channels had lain dormant for two years, and in the meantime Zello had instituted a policy that channels with no usage for a year would vanish.  So I expected to have to build those again.  But evidently some folks have their Zello apps set to start at reboot time of the phone, and automatically connect to a set of channels in the background, whether the person intends to talk on them or not.  That may have constituted enough "activity" that the channels stayed in existence.  I was also pleased to find that my 4 year old app still worked perfectly well, no forced upgrades or that kind of nonsense.  Zello JFW, I highly recommend it.

One takeaway lesson from reviewing all my Zello traffic post-con: if we're using it for VOICE, don't try to send TEXT through it because nobody will ever see it.  If your operational model is such that everyone will be constantly watching their history screen, then sure, but you might as well be on Discord or Slack at that point.  That's not how WE operate.  Another thing I did glean from the review, though, was that the point Logistics person *does* have to try and keep an eye/ear on all the various communication paths that people do use including email, because questions will arrive in myriad ways.  Or that function can be delegated to someone to act like sort of a dispatcher.

Romping around in the back of a truck again!
    [Pic credit: sjs]
It was nice to be romping around with big box trucks again after 3 years!  They're still terrifying in their way, but after a little bit of "ohshit" while remembering all the things to keep eyeballs on when driving one, I soon settled right back into the groove.  We had a small but effective crew up at Storage; the art-show stuff got loaded a little suboptimally this time, but plenty of other stuff got packed in around it so we weren't wasting space.
That metal Metro shelf on the right is completely loaded with brand-new box fans.  Why?  Because there would be an effort to construct a whole slew of air filter contraptions and deploy them all over the hotel.  Not necessarily the full 4 or 5 filter setup, but even a single filter element taped onto a fan intake can theoretically help clean up indoor air somewhat.  In the relatively vast volumes of hotel function space?  Maybe.  These were much clumsier on the loadout, as there was too much high-level debate over whether to disassemble them on-site or not, fans stuffed somewhat haphazardly back into boxes with cords trailing out here and there, and inconclusive results on how effective they had actually been.  If some people enjoyed burning time on all that, fine, but especially with our implementation style I think the benefits were only theatrical.
Huge snowflakes coming down on highway
    [Pic credit: sjs]
Once loaded, Pink and I headed in to the hotel, while Kylie stayed at Storage to manage the next truck.  The day was chilly and so far, rainy, but just as we finished loading it started to turn into a light snow.  And then halfway down I-93, these *monster* clumps of flakes were coming down!  It was very pretty for a while, but with temps a bit above freezing the roads themselves were just wet.  The other truck was on its way up at this point, so we must have passed on the highway like two ships in the ... snow squall?
  This truck was fairly new, and had some interesting features.  A rear suspension air dump could bring the box floor down more level with the dock, easing rolling of things.  It featured a little forward radar unit that could display the speed of the vehicle *ahead*, and if it calculated a sufficient rate of closing it would turn yellow and start beeping.  It had a token jake-brake, with minor effectiveness.  It had several dash switches with mysterious icons, but while waiting for elevator-loads at Storage I was able to dip into the manual and learn what they were for.  And it's amusing that the rental companies are proactively installing phone holders.

We arrived at the hotel, and I had to wait for a Sysco guy delivering food to pull out before I could fit in.  The Galleria-side dock had *two* dumpsters sitting in it, one blocking the first loading bay, and getting a truck backed in past that and a bigger dumpster toward the inside at a bad angle was ... interesting.  But I could still get in reasonably straight mostly unassisted without bashing any side mirrors, and unloading began.  The second truck had already unloaded stuff from NESFA and was fetching the second Storage run by now, and those two runs turned out to be all the transport we needed!  Not even packed to the ceiling like in previous years.

As unloading and movement of gear neared completion, I took a break to go grab my room.  We had a very minor rudeness incident at the front desk, described here from a post I later made to various barefooter forums, but otherwise we had no further issues on that front.  Then Pink and I were able to go out and return my truck to Ryder, recover our cars and do a little more logistical movement with those, and then head back in to the hotel for the weekend.  It was then time to start tearing into our camping-food stock for a quick dinner.

After that, I could finally retreat to the ballroom and transition into Tech.  I didn't get particularly good pictures at build, because I found myself fairly busy and didn't even think about it.  I seemed to be the one carrying a lot of the institutional memory on how we do things in Grand A/B, even after a long hiatus and a radically downsized rig, so I was running around dropping clues and debugging things.  We wouldn't have audio until the next day when a local rental house would bring in a rig and set it up for us, which was a new twist.  Eventually it all came together -- we had lights and sound and IMAG, the drape and cyc had gone up without too much fuss, and we could run our shows.

Running production: sound and lights
    [Pic credit: sjs]
The pandemic hadn't really hindered steady development of newer production technologies, and we had rented in two relatively unfamiliar-to-us control consoles because that's what was most available on the market.  A QSC Touchmix 16 for sound, and an ETC Colorsource 20 for lights.  Both externally small and cute, and reasonably powerful inside.  In keeping with how all such things work nowadays, both of these items tried to be smarter than the user and often succeeded, but not always in the most helpful way.
  I had found time to take a read through the Colorsource manual PDF and watch a few of the youtubes from ETC pre-con, which was probably a good thing, as it is very "modeful" and has a few nasty subtleties around defining the rig's fixtures and programming.  We had all LED instruments this time, in two simple house trees and a cyc row, and it took me a while to figure out exactly *what* we had, set in what running modes, and how to tell the board about it.  With these modern boards, being able to select fixtures and get something useful out of them takes quite a bit of up-front work, before you even get to programming scene components or cues.  The CS20 has an extensive built-in library of fixture personalities, but sometimes trying to use one specific to a given unit in a given mode works less well than a more generic type.

Both boards basically felt like a smartphone app with a control surface wrapped around it, touchscreen and all, and some perplexing quirks around the UX design.  The parallel that developed in my mind over the weekend about these new "smart" devices went something like this: think Tesla, and the whole effort toward full autonomous self-driving.  And what can go wrong.  And guess what, these things figuratively ran us under the parked semi quite a few times.  I think annoyed outbursts like "why the hell did it do that?" emerged from both me and Kylie their share of times over the course of the weekend.  I had the CS20 manual right there on my phone and still had to do a bit of head-scratching and experimenting to figure things out.  [What was that quote from three years ago, "I hate computers" ?]

Colorsource 20 running my busking subs [Very bad pic of the ColorSource 20]

Eventually I constructed a set of "composition subs", or sliders to be brought up in various simple combinations to achieve a wide palette of desired looks.  Warm or cool front light from either side, versatile color blends on the backdrop, and that's all we had to work with!.  The resultant output could be "busked" in realtime, or recorded into cues.  This made things much easier for other techs who took runtime positions for some of the events -- I certainly wasn't going to sit here the whole weekend.

  Six Lustr units total for front light was a bit anemic, and the real star of this show was the Chroma-Q RGBA cyc strips.  These produced *gorgeous* output, and had split lenses over each LED cell to give them asymmetric throw.  In other words, designed for a steep-angle wall shot, with the lower half more broad and diffuse, blending into the narrower and brighter upper half.  These were *much* easier to align and get looking even up the cyc than the old Color Kinetics units.  I pondered on how split their addressing to enable color-chases and the like, and decided to just make it one "cell" per physical unit since we had six of them.  It was a little chunky but was enough, since that would use up six channel sliders at the board to get any light out of them to begin with.  Because the DMX slot order of RGBA or RGBW or RGBAW units is never in spectrum order, the whole-cyc "construction" subs became RAGB, so that simply "tilting" that smaller quad of sliders in a slope to the left or right would produce generally warmer or cooler pastels, and still enable the punchy saturates from only using one or two sliders at a time.  I did roughly the same for the front-light, for what that was worth -- the Lustr units with their seven-way HSV interpolated output aren't really built for "punchy", however. 

I messed around with the board's effects-engine, and among other things came up with some bright, rapidly-flashing color insanity across the cyc that I dubbed "epilepticon".  I should have tried taking a video of it.  Fortunately, its intensity level was easy to keep low, and in combination with other cyc subs could add a subtle flickering effect.  I had that and a couple of slower color-cycles, which in combination could keep the cyc quite interesting at times.  And of course the Bellydance would need some sort of "fire" chase.  When I showed these and the small fistful of busking subs to incoming runtime folks, such as the guy running lights for Teseracte, they loved it. 

For all those built-in smarts in a small package, though, the CS20 sometimes tried its best to buck our efforts.  As we went into Masq rehearsals with Kylie at the helm, it seemed like it would simply not record things when told to, necessitating a lot of extra work and do-over to capture the looks she wanted.  Cue playback timing also seemed a bit wonky, sometimes snapping in or out when things should have faded. 

I got to play with the Touchmix on the sound side a little as well, my most notable achievement figuring out how to apply a filter to a channel and make one particular microphone sound like a tinny telephone for the PMRP Star Trek show.  [Big peak around 1300 Hz and the rest rolled off, not hard..]  The lack of real estate and a small touch-screen makes accessing things a little difficult, such as figuring out if an aux is pre or post fader.  The big assignable knob does help when running simple playback, so that the operator doesn't have to screw with virtual sliders at critical moments.

Marking the masquerade path With the con-suite and our tech dump now occupying the rest of the ballroom complex, the Masquerade green-room wound up in Commonwealth across the hall to have enough space.  Entrants would still have to come *through* the tech-depot in E and head down the back-of-house hall, but with a longer rat-maze to walk it seemed prudent to actually mark it clearly and tell everyone "follow the pink arrows".  Or is that Pink's arrows?  A quick pipe-n-drape visual blocker was set up across the public hall, giving them a mostly hidden path to backstage.

There was a good-sized masquerade And we had a real Masquerade!  Despite numerous obstacles, including its Director coming down with Covid right before the con and other folks having to step in and figure things out, a paltry six pre-con signups mushroomed out to a very respectable 22 or 23 entries at-con.  Rehearsals thus ran long, and I stuck around them to support the crew and futz with many little bibs and bobs I knew we'd need for the show. So it all worked out quite well and ran smoothly.  We didn't even have a followspot at all this time, and I don't think the lack of it was really noticed.  As usual, the audience doesn't see what the audience doesn't see.

  Monday was load-out day; Rick and I walked down to the Ryder yard around noon and picked up two more trucks.  This time the one I got was old and wheezy, over 220 K on it, with very jumpy brakes.  That made it even more interesting to get into the Galleria dock, past the handful of dealers loading out.  Then there was the usual hours-long whirlwind of collecting our stuff from all over the hotel, packing, getting it down to the docks and Tetrising it all in.

That always has our truck stuck there for several hours, getting filled in little dribs and drabs as stuff arrives.  Just as we were finalizing the load on the Galleria side [still with only one bay] a radio call came in, something about another Sysco driver waiting around for us "with smoke coming out his ears" as someone put it ... who then showed up on the dock to check on where we were at.  Standing in the box with ratchet-straps in hand, I truthfully assured him "we're about to button this up and get it out of here", and he went away again.  I was slightly surprised that they were running on MLK day at all, but whatever, maybe food delivery is special.

The truck on the other side took off for Storage and I moved mine over there for a final few items, there was some confusion about crew transport and if we were really done finding everything, and then I got on the road soon after.  Both trucks were able to head for Haverhill within a short time of each other; mine arrived later and it was easy to back in past the other one at the dock and stash it on the other side of the alley between the buildings.

Loading back into Storage flowed really nicely -- again, one or two people on the dock, one running the elevator, and two or three upstairs pushing things back into their slots.  Leon was kind enough to be the "chase car" to shuttle extra crew, and after we were done, took the opportunity on the way back to stop for dinner with his passengers.  The first truck had already gone back to the hotel for the NESFA load, so again I could return mine after only one Haverhill run.  Kylie and I headed straight to the Ryder yard to drop it off, walked back to the hotel, and still had time to hang out in the tech suite and try to help finish the extra food.  High kudos to Covert for his bountiful shopping trips, as well as being the stalwart late-night-events monitor and pitching in on build and strike.  Without a Staff Den this time, Pink and I had brought a good stash of rations to keep in the room fridge, and between that and the tech-suite spread I felt quite well-fed over the weekend.

It should be emphasized here that we actually had just about everything *clear of the hotel* on Monday night, which I think was a first since becoming a 4-day con, or at least since I started helping with Logistics.  Every other year there had been need for a last run on Tuesday morning, and often working all the way to Tuesday evening.  But the only Tuesday activity this time would be delivering to NESFA after Rick brought that truckload back in from overnighting at his house.

One reason our process was so efficient this time is because nobody was trying to work official food breaks into the flow.  Group meal breaks are much harder to figure out and pull together when crew are scattered all over the place and get wildly different bits of downtime, so it's much better to set down the expectation that people should simply take care of feeding themselves individually when they can.  There were a few Zello calls to the effect of "I'm grabbing some dinner".  Or carry snacks and water with you, like you would on an outdoor activity; there will be time for more relaxed meals once the work is done.

And even with all that often-close interaction and the "poop numbers" from the Deer Island waste-stream monitoring running high, I don't think any of our crew came down with Covid.  That didn't necessarily hold true for the rest of Arisia, which reported almost a dozen known cases post-con.  But at this point COVID-19 is not the death sentence it seemed like three years ago, it's an annoyance, another one of those things that society just has to live with. At least it's gotten many people here used to masking, the same way that the Asian cultures have been practicing for years because they know it works.  Now we don't see it as so strange.

_H*   230129
Other con debriefs are at