LonCon 3 – Thoughts on Worldcon

George RR Martin - Paul Cornell - Connie Willis
Paul Cornell interviews George RR Martin and Connie Willis

Each year the World Science Fiction Society holds Worldcon – an annual convention – in different parts of the world. It’s a movable feast, although more often than not, it’ll be held in a US city.

In the past, the UK has had a decent crack of the whip, with a couple of outings to Glasgow and Brighton. But the last time it came to London was 1965. It was probably time for a return.

And I duly signed up for its return this year.

Like most things, I don’t read enough SF (and even less Fantasy), but I enjoy the genre and pay attention to it. And I don’t go to conventions. I once went to a Babylon 5 related gathering years ago in Birmingham but that really is it. And I don’t know anybody who goes to conventions either. It’s not a “thing”. I just haven’t been.

LonCon 3 – as this edition of Worldcon is known – was held in the massive aircraft hanger than is ExCel in London’s Docklands. I don’t believe anything has ever filled ExCel. During the Olympics, when several sports were held there, there were additional unused halls. And even something like the Boat Show, which sees gargantuan luxury yachts inside on stands, still has plenty of space over. The last time I went to that show, I was attending a different show altogether than happened to be on at the same time. That’s how much space there is there. But that’s all by the by.

What did I take away from LonCon?

  • If you think US presidential races last a long time, you’ve not seen the campaigning that goes on for Worldcon. While this year’s event saw Kansas City win the right to hold the 2016 convention, all the 2017 nominee cities were in attendence, as was Dublin looking ahead to 2019. And seemingly Perth is already looking at 2025.
  • Because lots of people travel a long way to get to a Worldcon, everyone tends to show up at the start of day one. Consequently it took about an hour for me to queue for registration.
  • I was travelling daily to the site, but in future, it’d be worth staying in an on-site hotel, because there’s no getting away from the fact that ExCel is horrible to get to.
  • People are very polite and friendly.
  • Really polite, and very friendly.
  • There’s this thing with badges and ribbons I didn’t really understand. Like many conferences, everyone gets a badge on a lanyard to wear while attending. Given that ExCel is open to the public (not that anyone not attending something there would ever “pop by”), security needs to know who to let in, and who not to. So far, so normal. But then people start to attach things to their badges – ribbons supporting different future cities (sometimes competing cities on the same badge); ribbons saying that this is their first event (if I’d seen these I suppose I should have had one); ribbons saying that they voted in the Hugo Awards (ditto); ribbons saying no photos (a polite way of dealing with an issue that fandom has sometimes struggled with); and so on. Then you might put stickers with your country’s flag on it, perhaps indicating the language(s) you speak, or where you come from. By the end of the convention, some people’s badges took on the look of Tom Baker’s scarf in Doctor Who.
  • It’s very international in flavour. Although obviously dealing with English language genre material, attendees come from all over the world. Especially America.
  • Did I mention that ExCel is big? I made the mistake of getting off the DLR at Custom House rather than Prince Regent on my first day. That’s half a mile of additional walking right there, because while both directly serve ExCel, one serves the west end, and the other the east. Lesson learned.
  • If you’ve not been to a convention before, and think it must be a lot like those ComicCon pictures you’ve seen in the press, then think again. The “only” stars in attendance were writers. While people do wear costumes, it’s notable that the big Masquerade cosplay event is mostly about self-created apparel. Most people wear T-shirts. Nearly everything was about books and literature, not forthcoming Marvel or DC universe films.
  • I should have read the copious literature in a bit more detail ahead of time to better meet people and learn about how things worked. But I didn’t. And therefore I failed to go to the “So: This Is Your First Convention” session. Fail.
  • The company who put together the convention’s T-shirt order probably did too few. They’d sold out of most sizes smaller than XXL in many designs by Friday.
  • Nobody pays for autographs. There are just polite queues at signings, and occasionally people asking for autographs at the end of panels. I genuinely don’t understand why anyone would buy an autograph. I see those adverts for events in the back of magazines like SFX where dozens of people seemingly supplement their TV show residuals with cash in hand for autographs. It sounds like a horribly grubby and grasping business. I’ll never forget seeing Dave “Darth Vader (not the voice)” Prouse sitting forlornly behind a desk at the aforementioned Babylon 5 gathering (nope – he wasn’t in it) with a pile of 10x8s awaiting cash for signatures.
  • There are panels. Lots of panels. Panels can be good, and they can be bad. For conferences, I think the fewer panels the better in most circumstances. All too often they can be unstructured and nobody is really sure why they’re there. Fortunately I saw more good panels than bad ones at LonCon. And the variety is immense.
  • Did I mention that there were a lot of Americans in attendance? This isn’t surprising given the importance of Americans to the state of English language SF, and the prevalence of conventions there. While I know that the UK isn’t short of a convention or two, you only had to look at a massive display of advertising literature – split by coast – to see how big an “industry” it is there.
  • A genuine fan-run convention like this is actually a pretty “socialist” enterprise. That is, everyone pays, and the memberships are there to cover costs. While not a charity, they’re not supposed to make anyone lots of cash. [Note that there are plenty of events that term themselves conventions that make a packet - but they're a different kind of beast.]
  • Consequently, you don’t buy a “ticket”, but you become a “member.”
  • This was easily the most access-aware event I’ve ever been to anywhere. Every room had specific places laid out for those with access needs. Lifts were in place for those who needed them, and the convention even had a company supplying those who needed them, mobility scooters and wheelchairs.
  • And it was also the most friendly place I’ve ever been to in terms of LGBT awareness. Entire streams of the conference addressed some of those areas. In general, anyone who wanted to, could be themselves in comfort and without fear of what others might think or say.
  • I mentioned that there was a lot of literature provided to attendees. A large magazine/book as well as a pocket spiral-bound book to help you navigate the venue. But I really liked their app from a company called Grenadine. With a couple of tweaks, this would be nigh-on perfect.
  • The convention wasn’t nearly as commercial as I thought it might be. Aside from some book publishers, clothing manufacturers and a few others, the Dealers Hall wasn’t as outright commercial as I thought it might be. But did I come away with a Micro Drone? Of course I did!
  • I also came away with quite a few books.
  • And I have an even longer list of books I need to read. Because I obviously don’t have enough books already…
  • Something else I learnt about was filk – an SF fandom take on music. I’m not sure what that really means, and it seems odd to me that fans of a particular genre would need their own music. But each to their own. In any case, there was also a Worldcon orchestra made up of musicians of many major UK orchestras. You can never beat hearing the Star Wars theme played by a live orchestra – even in an aircraft hanger.
  • ExCel doesn’t have the greatest range of food available. But it could be worse. It could certainly be cheaper too. Think – captive audience, miles from anywhere.
  • A first for me was a contactless Coke vending machine.
  • Kaffeeklatsches and literary beers were something new to me. You had to sign up early to see who you wanted, but the idea is that about 9 people and a writer sit around either drinking a coffee, beer or other beverage in a rather more intimate setting. As I’d enjoyed Wolves, I sat down with the very friendly Simon Ings. He’s also a fan of Ed Reardon’s Week it turns out!
  • I really must right the wrong that is never having read any Iain M Banks. He was a Guest of Honour in absentia at LonCon, and part of the reason I went. There were some great talks about him and his work.
  • If I hadn’t been in a session about Iain Banks, I wouldn’t have been able to get into the rammed George RR Martin and Connie Willis session either (photo above). Despite loving Game of Thrones on TV, the first volume of is Song of Ice and Fire saga is still unread at home, despite me saying that I was, “going to read it before the TV series starts.” And I’ve not read any Connie Willis either. I picked up To Say Nothing of the Dog while I was there.
  • Sound was mostly pretty good. Despite having more than a dozen simultaneous sessions taking place in different suites in Excel, they all had proper PA systems in place. The bigger problem tended to be speakers not knowing how to use microphones or speaking clearly. Lots of people in a room – even a small room – swallow up sound. As a rule, I’d suggest that Americans are more confident in Brits at projecting their voices.
  • The range of panels and sessions was truly astonishing. Everything was covered. So congratulations on whoever put the programme together.
  • I still find it incredible that I can get to vote in awards as prestigious as the Hugo Awards. It really is akin to me having some say in the outcome of the Man Booker prize. It’s a really nice position sitting between jury-run prizes (i.e. most of them), and an open public vote. The former, by its very nature is limited in scope and can be heavily dependent on the jury. While the latter tend towards the populist, as opposed to the good, and can be subject to groups trying to fix the vote. Everyone who pays to be a member or supporting member of a Worldcon, gets to vote in the Hugos categories. And in recent years, a “voter packet” of ebooks of many nominated titles has been distributed to let you read any of those that you’d missed. Obviously, this still means that you don’t actually have to have read (or watch) all the titles, but you at least have the opportunity. In one instance this year, the entire Wheel of Time sequence of 14 novels was nominated. And yes, they sent us all of them. Let me tell you that I really had to work to get a file that big into my Kindle app. And no, I’ve not read them yet. (There was also a clumsy attempt to get some more right-wing stuff onto the ballot this year, but in the end, the voters ended up choosing the best material).
  • And it’s really rather wonderful to be able to attend the awards ceremony. Has anyone ever let a mere reader into a Man Booker Prize ceremony? That particular award managed to just publish a long list that included books that members of the public can’t yet buy because they’ve not actually been published. So it was delightful hearing from John Chu and Ann Leckie as they picked up their awards.

So there we have it. A very worthwhile event, and actually pretty reasonably priced for an event that lasts five days, even though I was back at work for day five.

Will I be going to Sasquan next summer in Spokane? Probably not – unless I decide a Twin Peaks tour is in order. But other conventions, even if they’re at awkward places like Heathrow or awkward times like Easter, are definitely on the cards. I quite fancy going to a crime one too.

Now I better go and read Ancillary Justice. I bought it months ago, but haven’t read it yet…

RideLondon Women’s Grand Prix

Women's Grand Prix - London 2014-3

A good criterium race in Central London was won on Saturday by Giorgia Bronzini of Wiggle Honda who just managed to pass World Champion (and all round cycling superstar) Marianne Vos who had to make do with 2nd. Lizzie Armistead got third, with Laura Trott, Eileen Roe and Hannah Barnes all in the mix.

Women's Grand Prix - London 2014-4

Women's Grand Prix - London 2014-8

Women's Grand Prix - London 2014-12

Women's Grand Prix - London 2014-16

Women's Grand Prix - London 2014-23

Women's Grand Prix - London 2014-28

Women's Grand Prix - London 2014-30

See more on Flickr. And wouldn’t it be good to see the footage from those GoPros on Marianne Vos and Giorgia Bronzini’s bikes?

Slowing Down The World

Slowing the World Down from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

I wanted to try the high framerate, and therefore, slow motion ability of my new Sony RX100 M3. So I shot this in and around London over the last three days. Video was shot on Oxford Street, at King’s Cross Station, on cycle paths, and in and around the Women’s Criterium Race at Prudential Ride London.

The video has a very ethereal quality. Don’t expect anything much to happen. It doesn’t. Just bask in the strangeness of it all.

I was going to add some music to the video, but the curious sounds of slowed down life mean that I’ve left everything as it came.

Note that the first few sequences are only at half-speed since I inadvertently dropped from 100fps to 50fps in the camera when I was shooting (don’t try 100fps in Auto folks). But from the road race cycling onwards, the speed drops to a quarter-speed.

Listen to cyclists talking to each other as they go around the corner on a warm-up lap. Watch as someone runs for a train.

RAJAR Q2 2014

RAJAR Q4 2013

This post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 6 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I’m delighted to be able to bring you this analysis. For more details on RALF, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

At some point I’m really going to stop writing these…. Maybe.

And I should point out up front that these are most certainly my own views and not those of either my current or previous employer.

Just so we’re really clear on that!

So what things jump out at me this quarter?

Nationally:

  • Total listening hours are down 0.9% on the Q but only down 0.2% on the Y.
  • And there’s a decent shift towards commercial radio this quarter, with the BBC’s share falling from 54.9% to 53.3%, while commercial radio grows from 42.0% to 43.2%.
  • Radio 2 actually lost a few listeners. Only 0.5%. But a few. Enough to fill Old Trafford.
  • Radio 1 is up a bit on the Q although down a little on the Y.
  • Absolute 80s has its biggest ever reach and hours – up 17% on the Q in listeners.
  • Five Live is up 1.7%.
  • But Talksport is up 5.6% to nearly 3.4m – a record audience for them.
  • Kisstory has passed 1m up 18% on the last quarter.
  • Kiss UK grows hours by 3.5%.
  • Capital Network is broadly flat.
  • And Absolute Radio’s Network is up to a record reach of nearly 3.8m.
  • Global Radio grows its hours by 2.7%.
  • Bauer Radio loses 1.2% of its hours.
  • LBC – now national – basically flat this quarter.

And in London:

  • BBC London achieves a record reach of 572,000 up 29% on the Q.
  • Capital London achieves its best reach in a couple of years up 15./2% on the Q. #1 in reach commercially.
  • Capital Xtra is down 13% on the Q, and is doing much worse than Choice used to do before the rebrand.
  • Heart London achieves modest growth in reach and hours. #1 in hours commercially.
  • LBC falls back a little bit in the capital this quarter.
  • Magic’s hours continue to bounce. Down 10% this Q.
  • Smooth leaps 38% in reach and 49% in hours on the Q (and 90% in reach and 138% in hours on the Y!).
  • A very disappointing Q for Xfm with some of its lowest ever reach and hours.

Digitally:

  • 36.8% of all listening (a joint record) is now digital.
  • 57.3% of radio listeners spend at least some of their time listening digitally.
  • A record 17.0% of listeners spend at least some of their time listening online – getting on for 1 in 5.
  • 44% of 15-24s’ listening is digital…
  • …and that means 68% of them listen at least some of the time digitally.
  • Importantly, 15.0% of 15-24s’ listening is via the internet.

Bubbles

Where would I be without them?

Here’s the national chart.

As ever, I recommend viewing the larger fullscreen version which includes some explanatory notes.

And here’s the London chart.

And a link to the larger version. Note that this chart in particular will take a long time to load as there’s a lot of data underlying it. Please be patient.

Finally

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site
including another nice infographic
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
The recently renamed Media.Info (née Media UK) for lots of numbers and charts
Paul Easton for analysis
Matt Deegan may have some analysis
Media Guardian for more news and analysis
One Golden Square for more Absolute Radio details
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
And there are always RAJAR Smilies

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos-MORI/RSMB, period ending 22 June 2014, Adults 15+.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

Great Britain

Here’s something a little unusual – a play that was written and rehearsed in secrecy, only being revealed at the culmination of the hacking trial, with the first performances at the National Theatre taking place just a week later.

This certainly ticked all my boxes with the subject matter.

This a fictionalised account of the phone hacking scandal, from Richard Bean, with everything happening at The Free Press, a tabloid paper edited by Wilson (Robert Glenister) and with a newsroom led by the ambitious Paige Britain (Billie Piper). In a story that parallels, but doesn’t quite replicate reality, Britain learns from a concerned reader that it’s very easy to listen into other people’s mobile phone messages – especially if you know the network and the default PINs.

Throw in an Irish proprietor with big television ambitions, a corrupt police force subservient to the press and willing not to investigate unless they really have to, an MPs’ expenses scandal, an inept Metropolitan Police Commissioner, a journalist looking to get scoops by dressing up as an Arab prince (amongst others) and a PM who’s desperate to win the support of the press, and you have… well… something that’s not a million miles off the truth.

Oh yes, and there’s an editor with long curly hair, who simply has no idea how her paper’s stories are being generated and is genuinely shocked when it all comes home to roost!

This is a rambunctious play with everything dialed up to 11. If you’re looking for delicate performances then this really isn’t for you. It’s only a few steps away from some kind of pantomime for Guardian readers (See – I told you it ticked all my boxes). In tone, imagine an elongated version of Drop the Dead Donkey set in a newspaper rather than TV newsroom.

Piper is great playing an over the top, stop-at-nothing career obsessed news editor, never overly concerned with morals, and nearly everything else is played for laughs.

There are some great comic moments. Glenister’s news conferences are basically excuses to crack lots of bawdy gags, and that’s no bad thing. Meanwhile Aaron Neil’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sully is just goes from disaster to disaster. Every time he gives a press conference or television interview, you know you’re in for a treat.

The production design is simple but very effective with glass walls doubling as office dividers and projection screens for interstitial videoed sequences. These include Free Press TV ads (“Is your vicar on gaydar? We have the answers.”) through other newspapers’ headlines (“Guardener: We think, so you don’t have to,” and a Daily Wail who’s headline has to include the word “Immigrant” regardless of the story), and short video extracts from TV news or in one wonderful scene a select committee.

Overall, it’s a very fun way to spend an evening, even if it’s not the greatest piece of work ever. It encapsulates the madness and hideousness of the whole phone hacking debacle, and is generally a good night out. The rapid response nature of the production feels smart too. So it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s already a West End transfer taking place.

London Live

I’ll begin by admitting that I’m not and have never been a fan of former Department of Culture, Media and Sport minister Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local television. I think it speaks volumes that when the applications went in, there were remarkably few radio or newspaper groups involved in bids. Here are media organisations already in those communities with resources that could be shared across platforms, and yet they mostly stayed away.

In general, I believe that in 2014, if I want to start a TV station based on a local community, there’s very little to stop me. I certainly don’t government incentives to force the issue.

The one city I thought might be able to get things to work was London. Certainly there had been past failures, but I still feel that a city the size of London should be able to support some kind of local TV presence. The question is whether London Live is the right presence.

The fact that it comes from the same stable as the London Evening Standard (and The Independent) should have meant that it could share resources. The Standard, which as managed to turn around its fortunes by going free, still has a sizeable reporting staff who could potentially serve dual duty.

But the direction that London Live has gone, is not quite in keeping with that view. Starting anything other than a very focused channel seems a foolish thing to do in today’s age. Are you a news channel? An entertainment channel? Do you serve a demographic niche? London Live feels as though it’s trying to be all of these, and that’s just not way channels operate today. Yes, it’s smart trying to reflect the young and ethnically diverse audience that reflect London to a greater extent than more mainstream broadcasters. But they should have honed the offering more.

The trouble is that television is expensive. And that’s why many radio and newspaper groups didn’t bid. So you end up having hours to fill with little money to do so. In London Live’s case that means repeats of dramas and comedies from the BBC and Channel 4 set in and around London.

Then there were the mistakes like going onto the television ratings system BARB too early. On the one hand, getting BARB figures means that you can start to sell advertising to big agencies, it also means that anyone can look at some of your dismal performances. For a fledgling TV service that is only really available in one part of one region to go onto a national ratings service feels foolhardy. It would have been more sensible to get up and running before paying significantly for BARB ratings.

Now we read that London Live has applied to significantly vary its licence to remove lots of the local programming its made from the schedules – including peak. Partly, that’s probably the right thing to do. All those cheaply made documentaries on food, music and entertainment are probably not worthwhile. But on the other hand, they could be doing other things differently. Their most serious news programmes go out in the middle of the day. Why not the evening? And why even bother competing with the BBC and ITV during the 6.00-7.00pm hour? Instead, use the fact that Londoners have a longer rush “hour” than many other parts of the country, and that we’re not all home available to view at 6.30pm. Put something on at 7.00pm. And then repeat it at 8.00pm and 9.00pm. It can still be a bit entertainment led if need be. I’m not expecting hard news. But something reflecting the very broad diaspora of London.

There is a common argument that London is too big to be “local”, but however you define it, people want to know what’s going on around them.

And be prepared to drop everything to broadcast non-stop at a major breaking news event. Sure, you won’t have the manpower or resource of BBC News or Sky News, but social media means everyone can get involved.

A few other pointers:

- If you’re going to buy series like The Shadow Line or Ultraviolet, then sort out your EPG so it includes episode numbers. I know that they’re getting plenty of repeats, but if I can’t work out where to start, then I’m not going to watch a serialised shows. (Yes, the online schedule has this detail, but it’s missing on the Sky EPG).

- I wouldn’t really expect an HD version of a startup channel like London Live, but don’t go for the cheapest carriage possible. The SD encoding of London Live on satellite looks dreadful. Think about how many of your urban affluent viewers have large TVs to show up this shortcoming. It makes viewing painful.

- And The Evening Standard really needs to change how it treats London Live. Yes, plug it daily. But don’t put it to the left of BBC1, BBC2, ITV and C4. That’s nonsense. It’s not more important than those – it needs to earn its place with your readers. Certainly include it – Murdoch titles long ago added Sky 1 just past Channel 5, but even they didn’t somehow make out the channel was “bigger” than the terrestrials. Similarly, don’t try to make some TV previewer find something worthwhile to watch every night on your channel. There’s only so many times an old episode of Peep Show can be considered as one of the best things to watch tonight on telly – even in the height of the summer.

If Ofcom does allow London Live to substantially vary its schedule it’ll be interesting to see what happens in its place. Because if it’s just going to end up a low-rent version of Dave or Comedy Central, then it won’t be able to compete – and it shouldn’t be able to. Those are better funded and much more focused channels. Let’s not forget that ventures like this are receiving £40m of Licence Fee money – £25m for transmission costs (via Comux), and £15m for acquisition from the local TV operators. Incidentally, it’d be good to know what the BBC has acquired thus far for rebroadcasting…

If you were going to start with a local “TV” service today, my first thought is that it wouldn’t be on television – not in the traditional sense. I’d start a YouTube channel and let Google pay for my distribution costs (and viewers through their ISP subscriptions). I therefore don’t need to fill 24 hours of every day with something – just a tightly produced ten minutes daily, or less, would suffice. I’d get interested locals to help, and local colleges and universities.

Using YouTube, I’d automatically find myself “available” on every digital platform as well as many smart TVs (and non-smart ones via Chromecast etc). I’d build a social media presence – Facebook and Twitter would be a large part of the operation.

Indeed I’d do what a large number of enterprising people are already doing – the so-called “YouTubers”.

Elsewhere: Roy Greenslade picks up on a good piece from John Myers on the lack of viability of these channels’ business plans.

Au Revoir Le Tour

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-10

The third and final stage of this year’s Tour de France in the UK was the fast(ish) and flat Cambridge to London run. And this time, I actually cycled out to meet the Tour from home. That meant carrying just a small camera, and unfortunately the proof is in the pudding. I entirely missed taking a photo of the breakaway because I didn’t have my camera out. And the photos I did manage aren’t always in focus. C’est la vie!

What was great fun afterwards, was cycling a 10km or so stretch of the route back into town. It was completely closed to traffic, so it was just a question of cycling past many village parties getting the odd cheer or high five.

All in all, a wonderful three days.

Come back soon!

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-2

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-8

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-11

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-15

More photos on Flickr.