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Limits of Horror

I had mistakenly included this in my Saturday sketchnotes before.  I’ve moved it from there and placed it here instead, so if it looks familiar, that would be why!

I confess this is one of my less readable sketchnotes.  But I like it because I picked a thematic layout and managed to largely stick with it all the way through.

Ed (a friend and the moderator of this panel) gently prodded the panellists enough that they could have a discussion in which he was also a participant without taking over… feeding in a few examples or cues along the way to keep things rolling, and also being a walking encyclopedia of film – always useful on this kind of panel!

Unsurprisingly, the general opinion of the panel seemed to be that there isn’t really a hard line between Horror and Thriller… and a lot of where that fuzzy line sits doesn’t come down to the majority of the work, but instead to how much it leaves hanging.

Scanned Sketchnotes from The Limits of Horror
Sketchnotes from The Limits of Horror

3D Printing Gets Smart

I nearly didn’t go to this panel, as I’ve heard a lot of talk about 3d printing over the years and it’s all got rather repetitive…  but I ended up attending due to either a gap or a full panel elsewhere (I forget which). I’m glad I did, as it managed to cover new ground whilst remaining grounded in reality. I’m not able to add much beyond what’s in the sketchnotes, so here they are!

Scanned sketchnotes from 3D Printing Gets Smart
Sketchnotes from 3D Printing Gets Smart (1 of 2)

Scanned sketchnotes from 3D Printing Gets Smart
Sketchnotes from 3D Printing Gets Smart (2 of 2)

Watching a Galaxy Far, Far away

I wasn’t sure what to go to after the 3d printing session either.  I’d halfway assumed that anything star-wars focussed would be packed out (it often is) and that it might be a bit of slow or tedious listen – being a single-person presentation about that person’s personal experience of star wars.  But I wanted to go to something in this slot, and in the end, this was the least unlikely looking for me (the others didn’t look bad, to be clear, just not for me at that point in time, or involving a speaker or moderator I’d decided I’d heard enough of for the time being).

How wrong could I be!

Heartfelt, personal and loaded with interesting bits and pieces about both the star wars films and the times and culture the speaker grew up in – I think I’d say this was one of my high points of the con.  It’s certainly stuck with me more than some of the panel discussions did – and they were generally to a pretty high standard.

So, Marta Maria Casetti, well done!

It’s also stuck in my head pretty well as I planned to do a single page of notes, and so settled on a layout and theme with that in mind… and then had to repeat it in a hurry as the notes flew out onto the pages!  In fact, I was too slow with the pen to get a fourth page set in time to cover Rogue One – which was also discussed in the same manner.

Scanned sketchnotes from "Watching a Galaxy Far Far Away"
Sketchnotes from “Watching a Galaxy Far Far Away” (1 of 3)

Scanned sketchnotes from "Watching a Galaxy Far Far Away"
Sketchnotes from “Watching a Galaxy Far Far Away” (2 of 3)

Scanned sketchnotes from "Watching a Galaxy Far Far Away"
Sketchnotes from “Watching a Galaxy Far Far Away” (3 of 3)

Making Horror – Hacking the Player’s Brain

A panel on techniques for making players experience horror in computer games, LARPs and beyond?  It’s like they saw me coming!

I’m going to let the sketchnotes speak for themselves here…

Scanned sketchnotes from "Making Horror"
Sketchnotes from Making Horror (1 of 2)

Scanned sketchnotes from "Making Horror"
Sketchnotes from Making Horror (2 of 2)

End of the Con

At that point, there were more things we could have gone to, but Katrina and I were both tired and had both just come out of panels we really enjoyed… so we decided to say a few goodbyes to folk around the con and start our journey home.

Going out on a high note was a better plan than trying to cling on the to the very end, especially as the next slot looked slightly sparse for both of us.  We’d both have been able to find something to hold our attention in the remaining few slots, but felt it was better to call it a day and brave public transport whilst still able to function.

Thus ended Nine Worlds 2017 for us. We’re already looking forward to Nine Worlds 2018, even if it makes the mooted move to Birmingham!


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The Power of Playlists

Did they really put Kieron Gillen on a panel first thing in the morning on the second day of the con? Was that wise ? Even worse… it was in one of the rooms requiring complex investigative skills to find. Thankfully, the rest of the panel were also interesting folks – Megan Leigh , Lucy Hounsom and Charlotte Bond … aka The “Breaking The Glass Slipper” Podcast. Based on that panel, I will probably be checking out the podcast, too.

The general gist of this session was the four panellists talking a bit about how they use playlists in their writing process, and in particular, to help them get into moods, locations or characters.

Different creators leaned different ways, some preferring whole albums to track-by-track playlists…  some creating playlists for characters or locations, some who heard songs and just knew “I’m writing this now”.

Sometimes it starts with random associations, sometimes it starts with specific lyrics or specific moments. Much like the way I make associations between characters and music in gaming, only writ large and much more widely expressed.

There’s also a reminder to myself that I need to put together a playlist for a tabletop RPG I run… ran? Will run again? It’s been a while, but I want to get back to it!

For reference:

scanned sketchnotes - "The Power of Playlists" panel
Sketchnotes from the “The Power of Playlists” panel (1 of 2)

a second page of scanned sketchnotes
The Power of Playlists – Sketchnotes (2/2)

Access No Areas: Access Issues in Entertainment and Fandom

The sketchnotes here are largely a list of the problems mentioned. I will immediately apologise for any accessibility issues with this website – I do know better than to leave them there, but I fix web accessibility issues so much for the day job that I largely leave it to WordPress and their themes and UI here. This is my downtime activity, and I need to not be spending my whole life doing it.  I only have so much brain-space.  So, if this site has accessibility issues, please do let me know, but you’re more likely to have success by contacting WordPress.

Given the subject matter, here’s a bit more of a text summary of the content of the image:

  • Events like uniform seating, which doesn’t always work.

    My understanding of this one is that there’s a misguided idea that it’s required for fire regulations.  As far as I can tell, that’s not entirely true, although fire safety can be a concern with more freeform layouts.  It doesn’t mean they’re not possible, but it does mean it has to become somebody’s job to care , and they need to know what they’re doing…  which means you need to pay them for that knowledge.

  • Booking services are frequently actively hostile – if you can get through to one at all.  In my experience, they’re pretty hostile to anyone who uses them – not just those with particular requirements – but that doesn’t make it okay.

  • Strobes.  Just strobes.

    Interestingly, walking into this very room (albeit for a different session, I think) I spoke to Tech and pointed out an overhead light with a dodgy starter or bubble which was flashing at more than three times a second. This is particularly bad as that’s right in the “sweet spot” for photosensitive epilepsy and a bundle of other issues. The next time I was in the same room that light was dark. Nine Worlds has good tech crew .

  • Often a need for sustained assistance means you can’t do things.

    Sometimes, just having somebody help you into a space to do a thing isn’t enough – they need to stay with you in that space and be around you whilst you do that thing.

  • Often an ability to get by with only occasional assistance means you’re not disabled enough

    Venue staff have been known to spit out their dummy because somebody stands up from a wheelchair. “Miracle!”, they cry, “You are cured!”. Many wheelchair users can get up and walk – just not for sustained periods or in all situations. They are not “faking” just because they stand up.

  • Often venues have some accessibility support front-of-house, but none whatsoever backstage or on-stage

    I can second this.  In my past life as a techie, I have fallen down unmarked holes backstage, I have been hit in the head by invisible beams and I have been almost garrotted in the dark by neck-height dangling loops of cable.

  • Venue policies of “no more than two wheelchair users at once”

    I can see reasons.  They’re mostly bullshit reasons.

  • Less visible problems exist too!

    Not every disability is highlighted for your convenience.

There is more, but I can’t quite work out how to sum it up. Basically, if venues and organisers start thinking about some of this stuff, a lot of it is easy to deal with just by actually bothering to think about it!

Scanned sketchnotes from "Access No Areas" panel
Sketchnotes from “Access No Areas”

Lunch & Pop-up Market

These are both things which happened.  I can’t entirely remember what we did, and I skillfully resisted buying more RPGs that I would never find time to play. Although I was tempted!

I do wish I could find a way to make gaming fit in my life a bit better.

Redemption in Sci-Fi – From Vader to Teal’c to Aeryn Sun

Another of those “we’ve got an idea for a panel, but we’re not entirely sure how to make it work” panels. Interesting, but a bit all over the place. Reading the panel description wouldn’t quite have been a stand-in for attending the panel itself, but it’d be close!

The one bit that wasn’t in the panel description, and which made it worthwhile for me, was a discussion of the gender differences in redemption arcs – there are remarkably few female characters with redemption arcs in their stories. They tend to die instead.

It was pointed out that that’s not uncommon for male characters either – redemption closely followed by a sacrificial death at a pivotal moment is a common trope…  but for female characters, it seems to be rarer.  More often, they stick to being evil to the end.

Scanned sketchnotes for Redemption in SF
Redemption in SF (1 of 2)

Creating Characterization in LARP

I went into this one worried that I wouldn’t get much useful advice… but I shouldn’t have.  More accurately, I was worried it wouldn’t provide me with new advice and would instead just talk about stuff I already know, but which goes out the window the moment I get to a game because anxiety is a git .

I shouldn’t have worried – it had plenty. Sure, it had plenty I had already thought of, but it had more too and was a fun panel along the way.

Limits of Horror

I confess this is one of my less readable sketchnotes.  But I like it because I picked a thematic layout and managed to largely stick with it all the way through.

Ed (a friend and the moderator of this panel) gently prodded the panellists enough that they could have a discussion in which he was also a participant without taking over… feeding in a few examples or cues along the way to keep things rolling, and also being a walking encyclopedia of film – always useful on this kind of panel!

Unsurprisingly, the general opinion of the panel seemed to be that there isn’t really a hard line between Horror and Thriller… and a lot of where that fuzzy line sits doesn’t come down to the majority of the work, but instead to how much it leaves hanging.

A Word on Panel Moderation…

I’m not going to name names on the internet, but this was the day that made me start looking for certain people in panel descriptions and just not bother going to their panels unless I know there’s a really good moderator.

If they are the moderator then I’m just going to skip it, too. I’m pretty sure they don’t mean to, but they have a tendency to speak over and interrupt the rest of the panellists.  If they’re delivering a solo slot, I suspect they’d be fine.  If they’re on a panel with a good moderator, they’d be a great contributor…  but otherwise? Nobody else gets to finish a sentence, which not only scuppers my enjoyment of the panel but also clearly troubles the other panelists.

I’m putting it down to them having a style that doesn’t work for me, rather than anything else… and I know moderating is hard – especially when you have opinions.  I know this feeling well – I do contextual enquiry interviews in my day job. Sometimes in those, I have to sit there biting my tongue while the person I’m interviewing is being wrong about something I designed, or while they’re missing a plainly obvious thing that’s right in front of my face.

But still.

(No, Ed, I’m not referring to you!)

Thus ends Day Two – Saturday.  I’ll get to Sunday at a later date.

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It’s that time of year again.  Nine Worlds, aka London Geekfest has just concluded, so I fire up the scanner and scan in all my scribbled sketchnotes… whilst also using them as a prosthetic memory to help me blog about this event.

I’ve been trying a slightly different style this year, which is slower at chewing through sketchbook pages, and more useful for me as an aide-memoire… but, as it turns out, looks slightly less cool when scanned in.  Ah well.  I’m learning this new style as I go.

About Sketchnotes…

Throughout the convention I had several people say “I wish I could do that” .  To which, in almost all cases, I have to say “you can” .

I’m far from the best at sketchnoting, and I’m largely making it up as I go along. If you look at my notes, you’ll see that I’m not especially skilled as an artist – particularly not when I’m powering through scribbling whilst trying to keep up with people’s speech.

There’s very little technical skill involved.  I mostly do it as it helps me stay focused on what’s being said, and helps me remember it afterwards far more than just writing down words does. Treating words and scribbles as pictures probably shoves it through some different bit of my brain, and doing that helps me remember it all.

I’m not going to say that your first few sketchnotes will look any good. Many of mine look pretty awful – and I’m fine with that.  They still serve their purpose, and I share them because people seem interested in them. I do sometimes “forget” to share the really bad ones, but mostly I even put up the ones which didn’t work out.  Sometimes with some edits.

That said, I did go to a half-day workshop on doing this a few years ago. So I did get some advice and was given some confidence.  I’ve forgotten most of it, and I’m yet to try using some of the advice I got from it.  I’m still learning as I go.

So – if you wish you could do sketchnotes… my advice is to start doing sketchnotes.  It’s not the most helpful advice, but it’s the best I can do right now.

Maybe I should run a sketchnoting workshop sometime, or at least write a post about the things I pay attention to while doing it.

Meanwhile, on to the con report and sketchnotes…


Accessibility is a topic I care about.  Usually in terms of software, and largely as part of my day job.  LARP is also a topic I care about, although rarely as a part of my day job.

As somebody with an anxiety disorder and some memory issues, it’s also a personally relevant topic and something I tend to pay some attention to – and in a way that many people don’t.  It’s very easy in web accessibility to focus on blindness and screen-readers, for instance.  All well and good, but doesn’t help somebody with motor control issues or cognitive concerns.

So, this workshop was totally up my street. It began with a short talk on what accessibility is, and how it can be applied in a LARP context, and then lead on to a workshop where we had a bit of an idea-jam and stepped through a design process with steps focusing on accessibility.

It’s not a process I’d particularly thought about before, but I will start to think about in future. If you’re interested, the folks running the session have a website .

scanned sketchnotes - Access:LARP
Sketchnotes from the Access:LARP workshop.

For reference, the off-the-cuff LARP idea we came up with was a doctors surgery with multiple rival doctors… each of whom was a [blank] punk doctor.  So, one steampunk, one cyberpunk, one dieselpunk, etc… each of whom had their own specialities and skills. The PCs would largely be the staff of the surgery, having to determine deal with a stream of patients with ailments. Their challenge would come from trying to balance how well suited each patient was to each doctor against each doctor’s need to see more patients to earn their keep. We would use documentation to allow doctors to diagnose based on symptoms.

The process we went through began with some basic LARP design steps – who has what role in the game, how does the plot reach the players, and so on. From there, we moved on to the accessibility part – thinking about what difficulties our plot and theoretical gamespace could pose, and ways to avoid, ameliorate or recify those diffculties.  Not to make things easier for those with specific access needs, but to make them no more difficult .

Police and the Supernatural – Law Enforcement Professionals’ View of Urban Fantasy

This was a panel discussion about how well (or badly) law enforcement roles are presented in Ben Aaronovitch’s and Paul Cornell’s respective London Supernatural police series.

In general, I think it can be summarised as both series having their ups and downs.  Paul Cornell’s Hidden London series was praised for having the byzantine organisational landscape and interactions of law enforcement very well portrayed, versus Ben Aaronovitch’s River’s of London getting recognised for having the copper’s attitude and mindset pretty much bang on… although Peter Grant himself (the main character in the series) was singled out as not being a particularly good copper (an a “gobby probby”) – which I think is fair, as that’s the impression I get from the books, too.  I think that latter part is intentional, though. Lesley May was always depicted as being better at the job in the earlier books, and Peter was always just-about-good-enough.

Scanned Sketchnotes - Law Enforcement in SF & F
Sketchnotes from the Law Enforcement in SF & F panel

Deeds Not Words

At a previous Nine Worlds, there was a session on silent comics – comics either without dialogue or without words at all. At that session, there was mention from a creator about a work they were creating with a deaf protagonist and which used real sign language (BSL) in the artwork.

That comic is “Deeds Not Words”, and the first part of it is out now.  This session was delivered by the creators, and talked about the comic, the process by which it was created, the techniques they used and so on.

In particular, it included snippets of the reference videos used for the artwork, and discussion of the process of translating from those dynamic videos into static artwork in a way that works visually whilst retaining accurate and useful signed content… given that writing a series of signs in a single panel of artwork to convey speech is not exactly viable.

Scanned Sketchnotes - Deeds Not Words
Sketchnotes from the talk on the “Deeds Not Words” panel.

We picked up the first part of Deeds Not Words after the session. Having read it, we’re now eagerly awaiting part two.

Visions of an Interstellar Human Future

This was an interesting panel which didn’t quite go where I wanted.

We heard from the panellists about their views of  interstellar futures .  We also heard about how they thought there might be interstellar humans and a bit about about possible human futures …  but the three key words in the title only ever joined the conversation in pairs.  It never really felt like it put all three together to discuss  interstellar human futures .

I understand entirely why – it’s a tough topic to keep realistic, but with the panel that was present, I’d have liked them to try a little more on that front.  But after a slightly slow start, it did pick up to being an interesting panel, even if it stopped a little short of where I wanted it to go.

It also suffered slightly from being largely populated by authors with a vested interest in one of the three sub-combinations that did get discussed.

Not a bad panel, but seemed oddly pessimistic for the con and the topic. If I go to a panel titled “Visions of an Interstellar Human Future”, I don’t expect the theme of the panel to be “there won’t be one”.  Towards the end, they did start discussing what conceits you could employ, or which physical laws you could choose to ignore to make it possible, which I think would have lead to what I wanted, but time limits meant it stopped there.

Scanned Sketchnotes - Visions of an Interstellar Human Future
Sketchnotes from the “Visions of an interstellar human future” panel.

Grey Members of a Congregation of Nightmare

I nearly skipped this talk as it was getting on in the day and I was tired… but I’m glad I didn’t as it was excellent . It was a single speaker delivering a trimmed down presentation from an academic paper. When she read from the paper things were a little dry, but when her enthusiasm kicked in and she spoke more extemporaneously, her knoweldge and enthusiasm for the topic came through and carried her on.

The crux of the talk seemed to be on the difference between how heavy metal musicians and performances use the wolf howl to how horror films do.  In particular, how heavy metal uses it to draw a crowd together whilst horror uses it to invoke fear – and how the heavy metal usage is closer to what wolves actually use their howls for.

Scanned sketchnotes - Summarized in following text.
Sketchnotes from “Grey Members of a Congregation of Nightmare”

End of day one…

At that point, con self-care needs kicked in.  I spent a little more time chatting and socialising and then retired for the day.

I will follow up with Saturday and Sunday notes when I have the brain capacity to do so.

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Apologies for any exceedingly long posts, btw. The crossposter I use to send stuff over from my blog COULD cope with LJ-CUTs back in the other place, but can't cope with it here.  Or more accurately, it *can*, but not without breaking other integrations which I have.

It's top of my "make stuff work post-LJ-ditching" list to get it all behaving properly.
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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.

Low Tea and Mocktails

Yes, a stag do for a non-drinking groom. So we went for low-tea at the luggage room , followed by returning to my place for an evening of mocktails – and it’s that last bit that I’m going to post about here.  I have, at various times, for extended periods, been off the booze .  I’m just embarking on another of those right now, in fact, so this was particularly timely for me also.

But mocktails have an annoying tendency to become a load of different fruit juices in a bucket with some ice and a pole.  They tend to lack the punch and the fun of their more boozy siblings.  I wasn’t going to have that, so I found a few weird and wonderful ingredients as well as the basics, and threw them into the mix.  I also pulled together a bit of a guide for the event:   The Mocktail Guide (created for the stag do)  (.pdf download)

There were remarkably few failed mocktails, and I think the approach taken of everyone taking turns (a couple at a time) trying to come up with something, and everyone else then getting to try it out. With a bit of guidance, people really did start to experiment.

The only real crash-and-burn of the evening was the cocktail which became known as the “Toilet Block”, a new legend in it’s lifetime, able to reproduce the scent of urinal cakes as a taste  in beverage form.  It will live forever in infamy.

We experimented again with Seedlip Spice 94 (which still, despite sounding amazing, lacks a punch) and for the first time with Seedlip Garden 108… which was somehow delicious despite tasting very much like peas.

But mostly, we experimented with various ratios of the following flavours:

  • Sweet

  • Sour

  • Strong

…with a touch of something else to add a bit of oomph.  With cocktails, the strong would normally be alcohol, but with that off the table, you have to get your strong somewhere else… and that sometimes comes in a bundle with the sweet.

I’d started out making some extra “sweet” ingredients ahead of time – sugar syrup and a few flavoured syrups as well – mostly one-to-two parts sugar dissolved in one part boiling water until invisible.

One of those was a chipotle chilli syrup, which turned out to make a pretty decent “strong” component for cocktail purposes, whilst also being a “sweet”.  I’m still working on how to make a dry “strong” component that works well in mocktails without being full of sugar, but I’m sure ideas will happen.

As it turns out, the chipotle syrup was a star ingredient… and I had some luck with using strong-brewed and cooled Lapsang Suchong tea as a whisky alternative – it has the smokeyness needed, anyway.

Ratios, mixes & Cocktail Families

With cocktails, things tend to boil down to the ratios and flavour combinations. The ratio tends to determine the kind of cocktail you’re making. Ratios vary massively, but I’ve seen all of the following

For a Sour:

  • 2 part strong flavour  : 1 part sweet flavour : 1 part sour flavour is traditional

  • 8 : 3 : 3 (aka: 2 : 3/4 : 3/4) is more common these days

For an Ancestral:

  • 1 cube Sugar and 1 dash of aromatic bitters of some form (enough to soak through sugar cube), with enough water to dissolve it – this makes up 1 part sweet and 1 part sour

  • 2 parts Strong – build up the drink with a stronger flavour

For what would be a “spirit forward” if it was boozy:

As Ancestral, but with 2 parts strong : 1 part different  strong: 1 part sweet : 1 part sour

…and more.

There are meany, many more.  But because non-alcoholic “strong” doesn’t have quite the same kick to it as booze does, you need a little extra to give the kick. That’s why the Chipotle syrup worked so well – it added the oomph missing from other non-alcoholic ingredients

Take a look at other cocktail recipes, and look at how they’re assembled.  Swap out the “strong” for alternatives, and try to sneak some extra punch in via variations on one or two of the other ingredients.

An example…

Tea & Chipotle Sour

Make as if making a whisky sour, but swap out the whisky for lapsang suchong tea which has been strong brewed and then cooled.  Also swap out the simple syrup for chipotle syrup to give it the kick that the whisky would have had, but the tea lacks.

1. Combine:

  • 60ml Lapsang Suchong tea – strong brewed & cooled – 3 parts strong (ish)

  • 30ml Lemon Juice – fresh squeezed – 2 parts sharp/sour

  • 30ml Chipotle syrup –   2 part sweet (with a hint of strong to bolster the tea by being strong as well as sweet)

2. Shake with ice, then strain to remove the ice.

3. Add some egg white – I’d go with a tablespoon or so.

4. Shake again to get a bit of foam, strain & serve with a dash of bitters on the foam.

Other Ideas for Mocktail Bolsters or boosters

The chipotle syrup was a good way to add some kick back into mocktails, to get the away from the “bucket of fruit juice” flavours…  but it can’t be the only one.

Here are some ideas – I’ve not tried them yet, but think they’d be worth a look. Let me know if you try them.


Other chilli syrups – There are a surprising variety of chilli flavours out there. I’m tempted to try with Kashmiri Chillis (for indian fire), De Arbol (for clean mexican heat) or Habanero (slightly fruity spice).

Peppercorn syrup – I’ve not tried this but I could see it working

Ginger syrup – I really want to try this with fresh root ginger

Cinnamon syrup – You know how strong cinnamon has a kind of burn?  I’d like to try that in a cocktail.


So far, most of the non-alcohol based tinctures I’ve encountered have been quite mild, and the flavours have been easily lost, but I’m sure it must be possible to make stronger ones without using alcohol…

I’d be interested in herb or spice tinctures from things like rosemary or cinnamon.

Others ideas?

Let me know by commenting!



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It’s actually been a while since I read these books – my time has been eaten by a pile of other things, including but not limited to: Christmas, birthdays (not mine), holidays, moderately punishing work schedules and getting married on two continents (one wedding, to the same person, but with one half of the wedding in the UK, the other in New Zealand) and having a supporting role at a friend’s wedding.

This means that I’m going to struggle to say much – partly because of time and partly because of spoilers.  But I’ll say what I can.   There will be some spoilers, though – particularly for the second book.

I’m going to start with “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” and then move on to “A Closed And Common Orbit”, both by Becky Chambers.

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet

In my mind, this is the weaker of the two books than I’m reviewing here.  That’s not to say that it’s in any way weak – just that, whilst I thoroughly enjoyed The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, I was incredibly impressed with A Closed And Common Orbit.  They’re books with quite different feelings, whilst still being surprisingly tightly tied together.

The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet is, at heart, a road movie.  The focus is on a set of characters who are on a journey, each with their own reasons for the journey but also tied together for a common purpose and travelling together.

In this story, the travelling together comes as being a diverse starship crew, fulfilling the role of navigational engineers – creating new wormhole routes to distant and farflung places.  In the immediate sense, this is a job they are doing for money… but in a wider sense they are each on the ship for their own reasons and motivations and a large part of the story is spent exploring both these and the dynamics of a fairly rag-tag, yet close-knit crew through the eyes of the newest member.

As they travel, we are gradually introduced to the crew, their lives, the worlds and societies they came from.  We are introduced to the history of the setting, but always through interaction rather than exposition.  For example, we’re shown how humanity has changed and split over expansion into the stars, with new divisions and conflicts, through the incredibly natural flow of the narrative, rather than having it plot-dumped on us early on.

Over the course of the book, a number of different plot-lines unfurl and evolve in an engaging way, but ultimately, it’s a book about people, about character, about what drives them and makes them who they are… and in turn, like much good SF, it’s about what drives us and makes us who we are.

It enjoys and revels in the differences between the cast, without making those differences lead to conflict every time.  It’s chock full of wonder, excitement, confusion and understanding, and ultimately, it’s a beautiful story about life. Which is populated by humans, aliens (including some very alien aliens – not just humans in masks) and AIs – and opening up a huge scope for a lot more stories to be told.

A Closed And Common Orbit

First things first, this has a very different feel to it than it’s predecessor.

Whilst that was a bit of a slice-of-life travelogue on a ship bouncing between locations…  this one is largely in a fixed physical location.  The first spoiler is that it jumps about in time instead.

I don’t mean that it includes time travel – just that it looks at events from two distinct places in time, following two main threads, but with certain commonalities about the viewpoint characters.

One thread follows Sidra , previously Lovelace the Wayfarer’s AI – but now (illegally) in a fully autonomous body and without any of her prior memories. She is now “passing” as a human, assisted by Pepper – a minor character in the previous book who helped her come out the other side of the climactic events therein.

I use the term “passing” with all it’s connotations, and the feelings and fears that go with them.  She isn’t comfortable being something which her mind doesn’t fit with, despite wanting to be. So many things are different from what she was designed to be. Going from being near-omniscient and omnipresent within your domain to having a fixed location and viewpoint isn’t exactly a small change, and this is thoroughly addressed.  On top of that, being hardwired to serve others and make them happy doesn’t fit so well with suddenly being an autonomous, free thinking person with nobody else to care for.

The other thread follows Jane 23 as she finds her way out of servitude in a sweatshop like hive . Similar to Sidra in the other thread, she has secrets she must keep which would see her treated as somehow less if they were out in the open. Where Sidra is an Artifical Intelligence forced into pretending to be a human, Jane 23 is an illegal clone – manufactured for unethical slave labour and designed as a cheap interchangeable part rather than as a resilient individual. Which causes some problems when she accidentally escapes – not just because she’s an illegal clone, but because if you can build cheap replaceable slaves and already don’t care about that ethical quagmire… why bother building them to last?

As the two threads start to mingle together, it becomes apparent that they’re not starting to mingle.  They were always mingled – right from the start.

If you like stories that focus strongly on identity – both the identity we construct for ourselves and the identity that is imposed upon us, then this is up your street. If you want sympathetic treatments of body dysmorphia, this is for you.  If you want stories that touch on what it is to be an “unperson”, where your very nature promotes fear, disgust or even disbelief from the prevailing culture… you could do a lot worse than this book.

But much like its predecessor, at it’s core, it’s a positive book . Sure, it’s chock full of people dealing with some internal (and external!) trauma and major life changes…  but it’s ultimately about moving past them and taking ownership of self rather than wallowing in the problems.

It’s a book in which three (well, kinda…) characters come to find their places in the world.

I loved it, and think it deserves a lot of praise.

Up next eventually :

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel,   14 by Peter Clines (although I still don’t know how to enthuse about it without spoiling it) and the audiobook of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (which at the rate I’m going, may well be joined by the upcoming next volume –  Waking Gods, due in April).

Probably something else which I’ve forgotten

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Originally published at Eggwhite's Eggbox. You can comment here or there.

After listening to the ” What is Wrong With UX? ” podcast (from Kate Rutter and Laura Klein ) for a while, I recently picked up the book the hosts have been relentlessly shilling (and writing or contributing to) since the dawn of time  start of the podcast.

But to start with, before I get onto the book ( Build Better Products by Laura Klein), I’ll mention the podcast a bit more.

They introduce it every time as “The podcast where two old ladies yell at each other about how to make products suck slightly less”, and typically conclude by complaining about how they’ve run out of booze.

If you’re a UXer who likes talking about UX a) in a frank, open manner and b) in a pub, this might be a podcast for you.  They have a cynicism which is oddly refreshing in this particularly shiny and glossy field, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been to workshops presented by one or both of them at some point.  One of them probably helped me get into sketchnoting… which you might have noticed included in some of my other posts.

So.  The book.

It’s a no-nonsense, clear and straightforward guide to UX processes, which (for a nice change) acknowledges that some of us are in-house UXers working in the enterprise space, and so have to live with our work for years (decades!) in a way that just doesn’t happen the same way in the consumer world.

There are parts of if which I’d describe as leaning towards “my first UX” or “teaching grandmother to suck eggs”, but they’re wrapped in a mountain of useful advice and sane ways to make some fairly weird and wonderful UX practices actually make sense to business users and developers .

Really, I ought to wait until I’ve finished reading the book before blathering on about it, but this time I decided not to.  Why?  Because it’s that good.  Because not only does it make sense to me in the UX field, but it’s also written in a clear and concise way that  managers,   directors and developers will understand and find useful as well.

It’s not about putting some UX next to your product, or trying to smear it on at the end.  It’s about baking UX design thinking in throughout the life-cycle of the product.  From identifying user needs, through promoting behaviour that supports and addresses them and on to validating assumptions, measuring outcomes and then iterating based on what you find .

I’ll be making sure a copy gets added to our office library, and quite possibly demanding that our product management team, senior developers and architects get locked in a room until they’ve read it.  If you’re a UXer who works with other human, read it.  It’s a breath of fresh air. Written with the same combination of capability, realism, pride and self-effacing humour that the podcast has, it manages something that most UX books have utterly failed at: It provides an enjoyable and memorable reading experience .

If you work with a UXer and don’t really know what they actually do or why they keep asking weird questions and going off sideways from problems, you could do a lot worse than picking this up.

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Originally published at Eggwhite's Eggbox. You can comment here or there.

Stepping away from writing about my recent reading, I’m going to talk about some recent viewing .

Arrival .  Based on a short story by Ted Chiang (“The Story of Your Life”), this is a film built around the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – which I’ll summarise as the idea that languages you learn shape the way you think and perceive the world.

The film focuses on a first-contact situation in which a number of alien vessels arrive on earth, and the efforts made by both us and the aliens to both understand and be understood.

Those efforts are made more complex by some differences in perception which are not apparent at the start of the film, but gradually become so as things progress.

Amy Adams does a fantastic job of portraying somebody who is struggling to understand and come to terms with grief, whilst also working to understand a literally  alien language… a written language which is changing her perception as she learns to understand it and use it to interact with those who use it as their sole meaningful medium of communication.

It’s a slow paced, cerebral science fiction film. Whilst is has aliens (two onscreen), gunfire and explosions (well… explosion), it’s about as far from Independence Day as it’s possible to get. If you go in expecting an action-fest, you’re not going to come out with that expectation fulfilled.

This film has a small but strong core cast (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker) who all do a fantastic job of being who they’re meant to be, but it’s Adams who really shines in a role that needs to display a more complex emotional state than is immediately apparent at the start of the film.

It also has some well thought out production design.  The alien-ness interior of the extraterrestrial vessel is cleverly portrayed, and the way that the story moves between the vessel and the research camp built up around it helps keep things tight and a little claustrophobic whilst also injecting a bit of comprehension and decompression time into the film.

If you like smart, earth-based, first-contact SF then you should absolutely go and see this at your first opportunity. Avoid plot summaries. Hopefully my description above is vague enough to avoid being too spoiler heavy.

If I had to give a rating, I’d give this a full-on 10/10, with a note that I want to see it again to see how my perception changes.  I suspect I may find it rewarding.

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Originally published at Eggwhite's Eggbox. You can comment here or there.

After my recent(ish) post about  Ninefox Gambit , I mentioned I’d be back to write about some other books. It’s taken a while to actually get back to the “add new post” screen of my blog, but I’m here now.

Slightly awkwardly, before I had a chance to write about Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff , they squeezed the sequel out of their brains and into mine via the publishing industry.  So I’m going to write about Illuminae and Gemina at the same time.

Illuminae Cover Art Gemina cover art

Read the rest of this entry » )

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Originally published at Eggwhite's Eggbox. You can comment here or there.

I’ve not posted here for ages, it seems.  Probably because my efforts have been going elsewhere, but I thought I might post something now.

A while back I posted about books and reading; what they mean to me and how I’d had some problems but was getting past them.  I’m still not reading anywhere near as much as I did before my brain chemistry decided to go onto a long, drawn out spin-cycle…  but I am reading a lot more than I was when I first started to recover.

So I thought I might start to write a bit about a few things I’ve read recently.

I’ll start with Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, which might be a challenge . It’s a book I liked, but I’m going to really struggle to explain the book itself or why I liked it.  But I’ll give it a go.

It’s a military SF space opera where the weapons are ideas and the armour is convention and consensus. Essentially, the story is based around an insurrection against a rigid and dogmatic understanding of what reality is and the time in which is happens… by a slightly different rigid and dogmatic understanding of the same.  It’s about how the powers that be go about trying to stop it without being tainted by it – how to fight against a differing perspective and a different understanding without acknowledging to society that it’s even possible for it to  exist .

Our view into this story is via Kel Cheris – a name which is one part person, and one part role or caste.  Cheris is the individual, whilst Kel is the role she inhabits.

As a Kel, she’s essentially disposable infantry, trained to act on formation instinct  – which is basically programming to follow orders and behave according to certain pre-defined formations which prioritise tactical results over personal safety or comfort.  For the Kel, combat is all about using well established techniques en-masse to achieve set goals for the collective rather than to ensure personal safety.

Having a slightly unusual history for a Kel, Cheris displays a bit more free and individual thought than expected… and is highly (and unexpectedly) successful in battle as a result.  Which results in her being benched pending a reprimand,  but also noticed as being effective .

So when the aforementioned insurrection begins she is asked, along with a few others, to put forward a plan to stamp it out with the minimum collateral damage and the minimum resource expenditure.

Her plan involves freeing Shuos Jedao – a disgraced, brilliant, insane and (more importantly)  undefeated general from… well, essentially from death .  It’s worth noting that if Kel  means something between “infantry specialist” and “disposable meat shield”, then Shuos Means something between “strategist” and “two-faced sneaky bugger”.

She plans on using his strategic mind to win the battle, and then putting him back into the library of available resources afterwards. It’s a plan which only involves one extra resource and a bunch of disposable Kel, but less than some of the other plans proposed as they’re going to be lead by the infamous Jedao.

What she didn’t quite plan for was for his revival to involve her mind and his mind getting joint custody of her body for the duration of the misson…

Needless to say, things don’t go 100% to plan. If I’m totally honest… I’m not sure I could give a blow-by-blow of the plot, and that’s not what I’m trying to do here anyway. This book requires the reader to be able to do a couple of things to be able to get along with it:  First, you need to be able to just accept and read on – when the characters are operating on what feels like a fundamentally different understanding of reality… you need to be able to accept that reality and run with it. Second, you need to be able to cope with the idea of two personalities sharing a body, and how those two personalities can have different perceptions of the same events.

Throw in some artful plans-within-plans, a dash of dire machinations and a bucketload of things going completely off the rails when things come to a head… and you’ve got a recipe for something that’s a challenging but fun read, if slightly arcane and obtuse every once in a while.

If I had to pin it down as being similar to anything else, I’d say it’s what happens if something like The Forever War were to get down and do the dirty with an Iain M. Banks novel… after a) reading a library full of fairly esoteric physics & psychology books and b) trying to understand timecube (which is apparently gone, alas…   but the wayback machine has it ).

To sum up: I loved it, but can’t really explain it.

It’s well written. It’s well paced, with compelling characters in a compelling culture in a compelling universe. The way the whole thing fits together works , even if it frequently leaves your brain just saying “wait a minute – run that by me again, please?”. If you pick it up, expect to wait for explanations for concepts that, if they come at all, don’t really help… but fundamentally don’t matter if you just accept them and keep reading.

Next up:

If I manage to keep up posting, I’ll also be writing about Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman , A Closed and Common Orbit  by Becky Chambers , Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and 14 by Peter Clines (if I can work out how to write about the last without spoiling it utterly – which so far, I can’t).

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Originally published at Eggwhite's Eggbox. You can comment here or there.

A few days ago, I returned from Nine Worlds 2016, aka: London Geekfest.

This was the third Nine Worlds convention I’ve been to, and true to form I enjoyed it a great deal.  That I enjoyed it in spite of a spot of sub-optimal health says a lot about the quality of the event.


As has become my habit at these things, I made some sketch-notes at pretty much every panel I went to.  I say “pretty much every…” because there were a couple that were either too dark or too crowded, and because I spent a couple of sessions lounging on beanbags watching…  well, I’ll come to that.

Some of the sketch-notes aren’t up to my usual standards.  In my defence, I wasn’t well and I was a bit out of practice.  But all the same, I’m uploading them here so you can see them.

Read the rest of this entry » )

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  • Wed, 16:17: Hmm... the fact that I can measure the UI response time of my work PC in minutes suggests I *might* have too much running on it right now.
  • Thu, 07:45: RT @MrsTad: My kind of place
  • Thu, 10:23: After a non-trivial length email outage, I finally connect. One new email. Paraphrased: "By the way, email's down".
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  • Tue, 08:32: Been back from #nineworlds for a couple of days now. Enjoyed it a lot, even though I was feeling suboptimal for a lot of it.
  • Tue, 08:34: My #nineworlds sketchnotes will follow when I have the brainpower to scan them in & maybe sketch a couple more from the lists of recs.
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  • Tue, 09:15: Bah. Inexplicably feeling a bit "side-effect"-ish today. Queasy, drowsy, wobbly & unfocussed. Bleurgh. Hopefully it'll improve.
  • Tue, 10:30: Spent most of yesterday and today thinking a design change I was making wasn't going to be enough. Purely a cosmetic change, IxD unchanged.
  • Tue, 10:31: I'd planned to do more extensive changes today. It was enough, no more needed. Not sure what to do, now...
  • Tue, 16:45: Still have the UXer's equivalent of writer's block. Come back ideas, I don't REALLY want to eat you and digest you into designs, honest!
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  • Mon, 15:56: Back at work for a bit before going to @London_Geekfest at the weekend. Making some headway, but it's a real slog!
  • Mon, 16:40: Y'know that feeling where there's a good idea lurking just inside your brain, but it won't come out because it's not quite ready yet? That.
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  • Wed, 08:40: Not awake enough for my reading material on the train this morning... So listening to Tomoyasu Hotei again. Sreangers is a damn fine album.
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