BristolCon 2012

A few days have passed since this year’s BristolCon and I thought I’d best get something down. I’m on the con committee, albeit in a fairly minor role, so I spent much of the day dashing about helping keep things ticking over. I like this; I think it’s a good way to see a small, friendly con like ours. So here’s my very personal and unofficial write-up – just some things that have stuck in my befuddled mind.

The Art Room was a fantastic improvement over previous years – the display stands provided by Roundstone Framing made the place feel really open and were far more aesthetically pleasing than the slightly cobbled-together gazebo of previous years.

Anne Sudworth and Gareth L. Powell‘s guest of honour interviews were interesting. Their interviewers, Ian Whates and Kim Lakin-Smith respectively, were very good and both had an excellent rapport with their interviewee. Colin Harvey‘s Ghost of Honour session was poignant, and I tried my best not to screw up the projections.

As for panels, I kept finding myself focussed on practicalities like watching the time, ensuring there was water and clean glasses for the panellists or helping out with the sound (the PA in programme room 1 was generously supplied by Del Lakin-Smith who was very patient with my fumbling attempts to help him set-up first thing) but I particularly remember the Colonising the Solar System and Women in Sensible Armour discussions.

Later on Gareth’s monkey was a high point, Talis Kimberley and her band performed to their usual excellent standard (although I didn’t listen to as much of this as I should have) and the quiz was, well, too hard!

I met plenty of new people, all of whom had complimentary things to say about the con. I got Philip Reeve, due to be a Guest of Honour at BristolCon 2013, to sign a copy of his latest book for my daughters.  I’d hoped to have a quick chat with Marc Gascoigne (even brought my old copy of Titan for him to sign) but missed him after the Colin Harvey memorial – perhaps at a future event. The Colinthology was an excellent buy and contains some really top-class stories, so I can recommend this as not only a good cause but a good read as well.

The rest of the committee and everyone else who helped out did a fantastic job – most of them worked far harder than I did and often in the face of sickness and pain on the day, so well done to all.

On top of it all I didn’t end up with a bad hangover the next day and I even missed the fire and pestilence. A good day all round and I’m already looking forward to next year!


Cool stuff in October

There’s lots of cool stuff going on in October in Bristol if you’re into literature and SF in particular. There’s the Bristol Festival of Literature running between 14th and 23rd October with heaps going on all over the city. During the festival on the 22nd it’s BristolCon 2011, Bristol’s Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, and there’s a bunch of cross-over events happening. Also my friend and local author Gareth Powell is taking part in a Word of Mouth event at The Thunderbolt in Totterdown on the 5th October. A very cultured month in the offing!

Balloons and Blackberries

Bristol’s annual Balloon Fiesta has just wound up (I’ve written about this before, and taken photos too). We’ve had some good weather recently and Perrett’s Park, which overlooks much of Bristol, has been busy in the evenings with people watching the launches taking place over at Ashton Court.

Two out of three evenings the wind favoured us and the balloons passed by low overhead, much to the delight of all the children present. I didn’t take so many pictures this year, but you get the general idea from this – balloons at dusk. They do early morning launches as well, but as I was on earlies this week I missed them.

As I mention above, the kids love the balloons. Our eldest has also just discovered another summer delight – wild blackberries. We’re fortunate enough to have a lot of green space around us even though we live in the city and at the overgrown local cemetery, the city farm and around the nearby allotments the brambles are heavy with blackberries at the moment which the kid would eat until she was sick if we let her.

We went over to Arnos Vale before lunch and let Uma run around while we picked a bag or two to bring home. It’s great to be able to do this in the city; both Polly and I grew up in the countryside and we occasionally worry that our kids might miss out on things like this. We eventually tore Uma away from the free food and took our pickings home.

We’re not sure what we’ll do with them yet. Crumbles, jams or just as they come. Yum!

Busy Weekends and other things

Hey, over a week since I last posted. That’s better than eight months. You’d think that I’d get more of a chance to do things like this at weekends given the fact I don’t blog from work, but it just doesn’t work like that when you’ve got kids. If anything, my weekends are busier and more manic than my workdays and I’m often more tired than on a weekday by the time they’re tucked up in bed. Besides, we often have friends or family over at weekends, which usually means the evening are full too.

Not that I’m complaining about any of this, merely pointing out why no more likely to post at weekends than I am during the week. I reckon the most opportune times for recreational blogging for someone with a none-blog-friendly full time job and two small children are weekday evenings and the occasional moment like now when I’m home from work early and Polly’s out with the kids.

In addition to all of this, the weather has finally improved and we’ve been spending our evenings sitting in the shade on our balcony looking out over Bristol. We’ve got a fantastic view, and I think you’ll agree that sitting outside sipping a drink and watching the sun set is hard to improve upon.

There’s a couple more like this on Flickr (1, 2, 3), plus a whole lot more.

Reclaim the Buses demo and rally

(Hey, it’s amazing what gets you posting to a neglected weblog again after a few months – and in the end it wasn’t until well after the Spring Equinox. Oh well, on to the matter in hand, and this time I’m not even going to suggest when I next expect to post.)

Polly and I went along to the demo with Uma and a couple of friends; since we all sit around bitching about the terrible bus service in the city it seemed right to support a group that aims to improve matters. I was curious, too, as I’ve never been to a demo or rally in Bristol and was interested to see who and how many would turn up. I was a bit concerned that there’d only be a handful of us and that the event would get hijacked by the usual suspects, the ones that turn up to any and every protest event with an agenda of their own and a load of branded publicity materials, and for a while it seemed my fears might be realised: we arrived at Castle Park to be greeted by a line of comrades thrusting newspapers and petitions at anyone who looked even slightly interested in the motley gang of activists preparing their banners and placards in the background. At this stage the gathering looked less like a protest at the state of the bus service in Bristol and more like a recruitment drive for any number of local left-wing political factions.

For a while this annoyed me so I’m going to indulge in a minor rant. At larger, better attended events the presence of these guys peddling their papers and ideas has less impact as they tend to fade into the background and help bulk up the numbers, but at smaller event like saturday’s demo they can end up dominating proceedings. This is a real problem for a group that wants to build up a broad base of support as they tend to warp the agenda and put people off. Pretty much every sane person in Bristol would agree that First provide an unreliable and massively overpriced bus service that falls way short of meeting the needs of the population, but this does not mean that they want to sign SWP petitions tenuously linking the war in Iraq to the issue of the day, call for more general re-nationalisation programs, abandon capitalism altogether for some unlikely socialist utopia or even become associated with these views by attending events where they appear to be the dominant ideology.

Anyway, I digress. Having successfully avoided paying money for party political propaganda from the paper sellers we made it over to the gathering crowd where eventually a Marshall gave us a bunch of leaflets and a hand-made placard to carry. As time went on the crowd grew until there were around a hundred or so people armed with Reclaim the Buses banners headed-up by two large cardboard buses parodying First’s livery. As this was Uma’s first demo, we thought she might appreciate the chance to join in so we gave her the placard to carry. (I’m not sure whether she approved – for all I know she might wholeheartedly support privatisation – but being only one year old and unable to speak she was left with little choice.)

[Uma in pushchair with placard]

She didn’t follow the march all the way round the city centre anyway, as despite having been told by one of the marshalls that we were going to go along the river on a quieter, more pedestrianised route we ended up wandering down the middle of the road through central Bristol while the traffic piled up behind us (including, amusingly, a line of First buses that looked for all the world like part of the procession). Mark and I took Uma and left the march after a while when it became obvious that some of the drivers were becoming annoyed with the protest and getting aggressive towards the demonstrators. We watched from the sidelines as the parade moved through the city centre and up and down Park Street before gathering on College Green for a rally. At this point we decided we’d done our bit and went to a nearby cafe for tea and sandwiches.

[The protestors marching through the city centre]

I reckon the organisers can count the event a success. The props were eye-catching and the volunteers handing out leaflets friendly and enthusiastic. Apart from a handful of idiots in their cars most people treated us all with good humour. The city was busy so a lot of people will have seen the demo and been given a leaflet, boosting the profile of the campaign. Despite the relatively low numbers and my initial fears I don’t think the event suffered too much from hijacking by opportunistic political activists as most of the banners and leaflets distributed during the actual march were fairly non-partisan.

As I mention above, I don’t think that anyone in Bristol is going to seriously argue against the proposition that the bus service is very poor. There may be some debate over how to deal with this and not everyone might agree with public ownership, but the presence of a campaign trying to focus some attention on the problem has to be a good thing if it inspires more people to actually do something rather than glumly accept the status quo. Even if that’s just giving a local councillor an earful on the issue over the coming weeks as they campaign for votes in the upcoming election it’ll be worthwhile.

Personally, I think that Bristol is too small for a free-market solution, although my objections are based on practical rather than ideological grounds. The market in Bristol just isn’t big enough to support the kind of competition necessary for this approach to work, so there has to be some level of public control or regulation to ensure the service meets the needs of the city. This isn’t really my field so I don’t have any detailed suggestions about what kind of model we should adopt, but if other cities can find a decent balance then I can’t believe that it’s not possible here – it just needs some political will. Nor do I believe that anyone can seriously argue that this isn’t desirable – Bristol is clogged with traffic but to get people out of their cars there must be a viable alternative, and at the moment there just isn’t.

Mystery miasma

On thursday I spent the day checking the soles of my shoes for unpleasant dog-related substances as everywhere I went it seemed that I could smell a faint tang of excrement. But before you start emailing me with smart remarks, it turns out that I wasn’t the only one plagued by the smell – Polly told me the next day that she had noticed it but hadn’t mentioned it in case no one else had, and on Friday our local paper, the Bristol Evening Post, ran a report on page three about the “nasty nif” hanging over the city centre. One interviewee descibed the smell as “rather like when they muckspread on farms”, which was pretty much spot on if you ask me.

Although Wessex Water, the local water utility company, claimed that nothing in their system seemed to be amiss, they agreed to send someone in to investigate. Although some kind of trouble with the sewers seems like a fairly likely explanation, there’s fun to be had thinking up alternative explanations. Perhaps some incompetent terrorists attempted to poison the city only to find out too late that their arms dealer was having a bt of a laugh and instead of Sarin he’d flogged them several cylinders of joke fart gas. Who knows – send me any better ideas, if you have ’em.

One interesting thing that came of the smell was the reference in the Evening Post article to the delightfully Fortean “Bristol Hum”, a low-frequency noise heard in Bristol and other places in the world allegedly the result of noise pollution by traffic and factories, but is still viewed by many as a mystery. Let’s hope that the “Bristol Stench” doesn’t persist for quite so long.

The Bristol Wireless LTSP suite

Bristol Wireless are a collective who run, among other things, a community-access wireless network in the Easton area of the city. Their LTSP suite is one of those other things.

I’ve been working with some of the Bristol Wireless crew at The St Werburghs Centre over the last few months, but it wasn’t until FAVE last Saturday that I got a chance to see the LTSP suite up and running, and I was so impressed I thought I’d write about it.

LTSP stands for the “Linux Terminal Server Project”. Simply put, a terminal server is a machine that runs applications on behalf of client machines – the terminals. This means you can use old or low-spec hardware to build clients and connect them to a more powerful machine which will actually do most of the work, enabling users to access applications on the clients that they’d be too slow or flakey to run without the server’s power.

[LTSP users at FAVE]

The Bristol Wireless LTSP suite is just such a patchwork of near-obsolete and flashy new hardware: a pile of ancient laptops donated by the local police force are connected to a powerful new Acer laptop boasting gigabytes of RAM using a bundle of Cat-5 and a gigabit ethernet switch. The Acer takes care of the bulk of the processing and the gigabit ethernet ensures that the connections are as fast as possible. Combine it with the satellite uplink from their collaborators Psand, and they’ve got a mobile IT facility that fits into the boot of a small car!

[The Terminal Server]

And it works like a charm. The clients are responsive and boast a wide range of applications and the whole system has proved a success with users: so far this summer it’s been taken to the Home Education Festival and the Big Green Gathering where it was a hit with the kids as well as the FAVE event where it proved popular among the geeks (like me, for example). As well as being a flexible community resource, the project is a great showcase for what can be achieved with some old hardware, Free software and a bit of ingenuity, and it provides a slick and impressive user experience for people coming to a Free software based system for the first time.

[More LTSP users at FAVE]

Given the fact that Bristol Wireless come across as a relaxed group who run their projects on an ad-hoc voluntary basis, this shows what they can put together when they get down to business. They are using LTSP to build IT suites elsewhere in the city and are expanding their operations to offer other services such as internet connectivity as well as access to the local wireless network (my employer, the St Werburghs Centre, is one of their new customers), so let’s hope their future projects continue to be as impressive.

(For more photos, see here.)

Arnos Vale Cemetery

Lying on the slope between the Bath and Wells roads, Arnos Vale is in the process of being restored. (More information: Friends of Arnos Vale, Arnos Vale Centery Trust.) Currently much of it is overgrown, the gravestones competing with trees for space on its slopes. This makes it an atmospheric place to take a walk.

[Gravestones, brambles and trees]

Many of the stones have vanished completely under swathes of ivy, leaving just rows of green shapes ranked beneath the trees. Others are only partially subsumed, and you can still just about make out the names of the dead in between the leaves and shoots.

[Two gravestones partially covered in ivy]

The cemetery contains a few large tombs and interesting monuments, some of which are listed. One of the most ornate and unusual is the tomb of Raja Rammohun Roy Bahadoor, a Hindu reformer and thinker who died in Bristol in 1833 (Wikipedia entry, Banglapedia entry). His mausoleum reminds me of the tombs of the Rajput Maharajahs in Jaipur, although Rammohan Roy was from Bengal on the far side of the country.

[The Bengali-style tomb of Rammohun Roy]

There are plenty more buildings and monuments scattered around the grounds. Some are in the process of being restored and are hidden under scaffolding and tarpaulin, others stand untouched among the trees. A great place for a stroll on a Sunday.

Photo – Clifton Suspension Bridge

Polly and I went for a walk last weekend in Leigh Woods, on the far side of the River Avon. On the way back, I took this photo of the suspension bridge from the approaching road.

[Clifton Suspension Bridge from the approaching road]

I like it because it’s just an everyday view of the bridge, the kind you get when you’re using it, rather than admiring it from afar. Also, although you can see that it’s a bridge, you get no sense of what it spans – the far side almost looks like a continuation of the near.