Saloncon 2008: Adventure! Excitement! Romance! Sleep deprivation!

16 September 2008

I didn't get a whole lot of sleep last Thursday night due to getting ready for Saloncon 2008 and general problems getting a decent amount of rest these days. I think that part of it's the unusually high pollen count in the DC area right now and part of it's the air conditioning filter in the apartment (which Lyssa is having fixed today due to the fact that we can't get into the locked room in which the air conditioner is installed). Also, wedding stress is starting to mount with the end more than an month away. At any rate, Lyssa, Laurelinde, and I got a late start on Friday due to running errands and last minute packing. Lyssa and I caught lunch at On the Border because my blood sugar had crashed while Laurelinde drove home to get some things that she hadn't brought over the night before. We caught our first taste of bad traffic a scant mile away from the apartment complex due to construction near route 650 in Virginia.

I saw 'near' because The Powers That Be are tearing down the old buildings on either side of route 650 to build... something. We're not yet sure what that something is, but the going hypothesis is that it'll be another gym/stores/parking garage/apartments megaplex like the other two that are just picking up steam in Fairfax these days.

Once we loaded everything into the back of Laurelinde's new car, I cocooned myself in the back seat with a stack of books, my TomTom GPS navigation system, and Windbringer to while away the long trip from DC to Somerset, New Jersey and Saloncon 2008. Somewhen along the way, probably in Maryland, we got soundly stuck in traffic due to highway construction and inclement weather, as is wont to happen within a one hundred mile radius of the nation's capital. The impractical upshot of all this was that we didn't arive at the hotel until 1930 EST5EDT. By the time we arrived all we could think of was getting out of the car to stretch and getting dinner. Laurelinde was in the same place I was not six hours before (running on empty, blood sugar-wise) so we sent Lyssa to check us in while I grabbed an unattended luggage cart, unloaded the car in record time, and hauled the whole mess upstairs to our room. Total time: not five minutes. We met up with Hasufin and Mika in the lobby, piled into their car, and headed down the street to the local Italian restaurant/pizza joint for dinner. There isn't a whole lot that I can say about dinner on Friday night: we went to the same Italian place where we scared the staff last year before the Masquerade Ball. Their pizza is excellent; their pasta is excellent (I'm told), and service was fairly fast. We were back at the hotel and changing for the Steampunk Meetup inside of an hour. Or at least, Hasufin, Mika, and I were - Lyssa and Laurelinde decided to sit it out, citing a lack of overtly steampunk garb to show off. Personally speaking, they would have fit right in because not everyone was walking around with period reproduction gear that they'd made themselves, goggles that they'd assembled themselves, or clockwork prosthetic limbs, though there was a bit of that. On Saturday afternoon, I had a conversation with one of the more visible attendees (because 'cosplay' doesn't quite work as a term in this context) about just this, and he said something that I find very interesting: He does this sort of thing (making highly elaborate costumes, props, and prosthetics) for a living. There is no good reason to compare our work to his because he makes a career out of elaborate reproductions and imaginative metalworks while the rest of us have very different jobs and lead very different sorts of lives when we're not working.

At least I feel better, anyway.

Hasufin opted for the garb of an explorer of the Dark World: military khakis, insulated welding gloves, a plain white shirt and waistcoat, sturdy hiking boots, impact resistant goggles, and a canvas satchel for the essentials. I went for the dishevelled time traveler look with olive drab BDUs, tan waistcoat, a doctor's bag full of tools (and a towel), a walking stick, and my beaten to hell and back drover's coat over a couple of French military surplus pouches (holding more tools, ID, money, and digital camera). Together we sipped cocktails and rubbed shoulders with dandys in flowing silk and crushed velvet, mourning widows armed to the teeth and seeking revenge, engineers and mechanics, military heroes none the worse for wear, and mad scientists showing off vintage medical gear and gear-driven replacement organs. We met up with a contingent from Pittsburgh and swapped stories (most of them true) about my alma mater, old friends and colleagues, and adventures had since departing the Steel City for parts farther south. I even recognized a few people from Brass Goggles (which will hopefully come back online soon) and the Flickr photsets that fill the Net like spilled mercury across a kitchen floor. At one point, we watched as an MTV field crew set up to interview a couple of attendees for an MTV News Segment (which will probably be posted to the Net soon).

When Alexander's (the sort-of upscale restaurant at the hotel) politely asked us to leave for the evening because they close at 2330 EST5EDT, many of us adjourned to the front sidewalk of the hotel for a breath of fresh air and the scenery. It was around this time that Hasufin, Mika, and myself ran into Donna, another convention-goer from a bit farther south in the state than our crew with a taste for fine bourbon (much more expensive tastes than I, which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows my love of Goldschlager) and spent a good hour or so standing around outside talking and getting to know one another. At some point the idea of finding the Centreville Diner came up, so of course we had to make the attempt in Hasufin's car, joking about getting lost in Time all the way. Unfortunately, we weren't able to find the place in the dark and turned around to search for the hotel somewhen around 0100 on Saturday. After arriving once again, we went our separate ways after a nightcap and turned in for the night.

Lyssa and Laurelinde were up before I on Saturday morning; the 9:30 Club claims that the Sisters of Mercy will be playing in November and, of course, we'll be attending that evening, work night or not. Otherwise we'd have to turn in our black clothing and start taking ourselves seriously, and stuff.

A major feat of uncaffeinated organization was required to co-ordinate the shower, the bathroom, space on the beds to unpack, and most of all the ironing board to prepare for the first day of Saloncon. A feat which I'm still rather unclear on how we managed it, but I digress... dressed in our best daywear we headed for the registration queue to pick up our badges and tickets for the creme' tea. As it turned out our badges were already waiting for us because we were staff at the con and the only thing we had to do was sign the code of conduct sheet (summary: don't act like an asshole, don't photograph people without their express permission) and legal waiver (summary: it's not our fault). We did run into a bit of trouble, however, when claiming our tickets for the creme' tea: Saloncon's on-site records didn't go back to June of 2008 so I had to run upstairs to get Windbringer, run back downstairs, and go through my e-mail archive to produce proof of receipt to management. It wasn't that big a deal, all things considered; I ran into Fuscia Undone on my way back down, so we were able to co-ordinate for lunch in the hotel's sports bar after checking in.

I'm still not entirely sure why I bought six tickets for tea back in June. I suspect that it was to get Hasufin, Mika, and Fuscia reserved due to the speed with which people buy them but I honestly don't much recall.

Lunch in the hotel's sports bar was, as Fuscia once described such things, "stunningly mediocre." In other words, very little has changed since last year in this respect. On the plus side of things, Saloncon really took off this year, both in the number of people who attended and the sheer diversity of the goings-on.

After lunch I'd gone to Salon Room A for the Steampunk Will Save the World salon but was nearly co-opted by James to run sound for the first show by the White Elephant Burlesque Society. As you may recall from last year, I had a devil of a time trying to run sound for a show with absolutely no prep time or rehearsal, and he was kind enough to take over for me at the last second. I will say that the White Elephant has refined their scenes, shortening them a bit so that they flow together more readily; I was very impressed by the Sweeny Todd number in their first set.

Following the performance was a salon that I'd been waiting to see, Steampunk Can Save the World by Kevin DiVico, which didn't really have a description other than the title. What it wound up being was mostly pontification about memetics and how memes can, if they take over their hosts, make or break a species. It brought transhumanism into the mix and of course the question "If true AI ever evolves, will it be a benefit to the human race or a threat?" due to whether or not organic life would even be of interest to such a hypothetical entity. The presenter's perspective put it that the possibility of an indifferent or hostile AI wiping out the human race was indeed a possibility, but the ascension of the human race into something else as a consequence of merging with a friendly AI in some fashion was just as negative as it would mean the end of the human race as we know it.

I happen to disagree with the latter being a negative state because evolution into something more, or at least something different isn't necessarily a bad thing. Do amphibians which lose their tails when they become capable of existing on dry land mourn the loss of that appendage? I do, however, feel a great deal of concern over the final scenario due to the fragility of computing substrates and the consequences of suddenly losing what amounts to a new lobe of the brain if a CPU overheats and burns out, but I also realize that such concern is best saved for if and when such a thing actually happens. The presenter whose name I wish I'd gotten also mentioned the culture of makers which underpins the steampunk community - the Datamancers and Jake von Slatts whose artistic prowess inspires us, which sparked a debate over privilege and access to raw materials to make such things.

Of course I had to chime in about the availability of raw materials if one only looks through the dumpsters and trash piles of their neighborhood, as well as the availability of tools and equipment if one investigates the parallel phenomenon of hacker spaces. This then brought about a debate over privilege and access to the global Net, which can be gotten by walking down to the nearest mom and pop coffee shop or one's local library... things spiralled out of control from there, as one might mention, and I went silent rather than monopolize the debate. On the whole I didn't find the salon terribly interesting, though I did drop a few ideas into what may have been the right ears at the right time.

I also made sure to spread some of Mitch Altman's Noisebridge stickers around on the swag table. You know, just in case.

After the salon was over I headed back to Alexander's to meet up with Lyssa, Laurelinde, and Fuscia. Due to the fact that we were sitting at a smallish table - only room for four and their stuff - Mika and Hasufin took a pair of tables across the room. Once again, Tea Berry's catered the creme' tea with adroitness and sundry blends of tea at the proper temperatures. My only complaint was that there was no lemon curd for the scones, but that was my only quibble with the whole affair, and a minor one at that. In hindsight I wish I'd skipped lunch to save room at the creme' tea, as my waistline and Monday morning weigh-in will attest to. The four of us chatted over tea and relaxed a bit; we'd horrified and amused our internal dungeon masters by going our separate ways for the day, the better to catch things of individual interest and carry out official tasks, as befitting staff members.

I spent a bit of time wandering around in the dealer's rooms - all four of them. On the whole there wasn't much that I was really interested in - I picked up a few issues of Weird Tales magazine to see how it turned out (answer: damnably creepy. I couldn't finish a couple of the short stories therein.) and a pair of new sunglasses later in the day, donated some money to the charities who had collection tables set up this year, turned down an offer of sale of a pair of prosthetic vampire fangs that, I was assured, would be compatible with my highly irregular jaw structure (even though they're notoriously bad for one's dental work), and chanced across Tyrus' photo gallery in the con suite which happened to feature a few portraits of a aquaintenance of mine (hi, Oshi).

Around 1700 EST5EDT I ran into Tyrus and a group headed across the highway for a photo shoot. At loose ends for the moment, I joined the group and found out why he likes that particular place so much for his work: the landscape is well cared for, the trees give it a homey feeling (and are fun to climb in, it appears), and the dock by the lake presents an excellent backdrop for portrait photography. A couple of us had cameras with us so there was a lot more to do than stand around looking at the scenery while waiting - the afternoon was one of "Hey, stand over there! I want to try something!" and "Watch this!" There were steampunk Jedi in trees, landed gentry gazing out over the water, mock bartitsu duels, modifications made to a circa 2006 cellular telephone in the field (just don't ask what the charges are if you go over your monthly minutes). Thankfully, Margaret the Jedi didn't fall into the lake from her perch atop the dock's railing. On the way back, we made a slightly gristly discovery: a mostly skeletonized frog in the parking lot. Frankly, I didn't think that a creature the size of a frog would remain recognizably intact after such a thing, but one learns new things every day...

I'll get my photographs from the shoot put up at some point, possibly after returning home from Pittsburgh this weekend.

After the photo shoot I was buttonholed again by James - we had to take a look at the sound equipment and hash out sound and stage arrangements with Abney Park so that we knew what we were getting into later in the evening. In the VIP lounge of the con, the seven of us sprawled out in chairs, on couches, or in corners to figure out what was what and where. After a brief show and tell with Robert, frontman for the band and captain of the HMS Ophelia we determined that there were serious problems.

The sound system rented regularly for Saloncon is an eight-channel deal that doesn't even break 300 watts of power. Any more than that and people on the top floor would hear everything happening on the ground floor, where the convention halls are located. The downside of this is that our PA system is a pretty small fraction (one sixth to one eighth) of Abney Park's practice rig in the studio. On top of this there really isn't a whole lot of control over the mix - some serious jiggery pokery was required later in the evening just to keep Finn (dancer and backup vocalist) from pegging the board and blasting the crowd with skull quaking feedback. As if that weren't enough, the band's pretty active on stage - Robert likes to jump around, Kristina the keyboard player really gets into the act behind the black-and-white 88, and Finn's a dancer, so we had to take all of that into account. It was decided that we'd have to get hotel staff to haul in another couple of segments of the collapsible stage, though it would be our job to reinforce the superstructure with zip ties and duct tape.

Nathan from the band was optimistic: they've worked with worse, he said, and this wouldn't be very different from some of their earlier gigs. We wound up calling upon Robert's expertise, however, for the specifics because he's more familiar with what things are supposed to sound like.

"Supposed to sound like" - the variable of variables, the subject of subjectives. That certain thing, the spark which powers every major undertaking; those that are really worth it in the grand scheme of things doubly so. "Supposed to sound like" is something that only the people who eat, sleep, breathe, and sweat something understand by its very nature, yet it remains extremely difficult to elucidate to the uninitiated. It's like asking a brain surgeon how they know a blood vessel isn't quite right.

Meeting over, I took a break to hit the Victorian occultism salon, which was held by the same woman (whose name I can never recall) who runs the seances every year. She gave a very well researched presentation on the topic, starting from the Spiritist movement (which is when I happened to walk in) to the Theosophical Society, moving forward to the Golden Dawn (and the sundry Hermetic orders which followed), a brief discussion of Aleister Crowley, and rounding out the discussion with mention of Austin Spare, who remains fairly obscure in most circles (as he appears to have deliberately done so in life).

Following the occult history salon, I met briefly with Lyssa and Laurelinde and then headed back to the VIP lounge in time to raid the buffet table and grab a couple of slices of pizza before hitting the road with James for a supply run. The con was running dreadfully short of plastic zip ties, duct tape, and a few pairs of wire cutters so we paid Radio Shack and the local grocery store quick visits. Upon returning I dropped everything off in the VIP lounge where it could be quickly re-acquired and then darted upstairs to change into civilian clothing to set up for the night without incurring a major dry cleaning bill. On my way back down I ran into Trevor, an old friend and former co-volunteer at Tekkoshocon in Pittsburgh. Noticing our predicament and possessing a number of helpful skills, he offered his assistance to the roadie crew (numbering four by this time), so we split up into our respective tasks (Trevor as go-fer for parts, cables, and materials; Brian unpacking the PA system; James acting as liaison with the rest of the con; myself scavenging hotel storage for microphone stands, duct tape, and other miscellany). This early in the evening, however, we only had to worry about making the stage look good for the MTV News interview with Abney Park; the real work wouldn't start until later.

Unfortunately we discovered a couple of problems right up front: the visual piece on the front of Kristina's synthesizer (which hides the HP laptop running the sequencing software) wouldn't power up no matter what we did to it. I messed around with it for a while to see if there were any repairs that I could make but we didn't have the time necessary for me to take it apart and troubleshoot the circuitry. MTV waits for no lifeform. Finding a microphone stand that would work with Robert's custom-built condenser mic wasn't very difficult, just a matter of creative geometry and some duct tape.

Following MTV's interview of the band hotel staff opened the partitions between rooms and the time came to prep for the main show. This consisted of lots of running cable, unlimbering the bolts on equipment crates, plugging stuff into jacks, asking for extension cords to plug in the instruments and sound gear, and figuring out what had to go where. Remember when I said that the PA system was simple as they go? That brings with it the unfortunate connotation of having to hack together connections for the stage gear. At some point I bowed out and let Bryan handle that end of things; I can build and run a sound system for a DJ (being one myself from time to time) but sound for a band is way out of my league and I'll be the first to admit that. So I relegated myself to working on plugging stuff in and running cable, which I know that I can do right the first time.

Looking at the stage, however, I found myself in a position that I ordinarily attempt to avoid while not at work. As the designated "skinny one," I'm sometimes tasked with crawling into small, tight spaces with a Mag-Lite strapped to my head simply because I can fit (due to either size or possessing a slightly malleable body structure). This time a combination of things were necessary to worm my way into the fourteen inch high space beneath the stage panels to loop zip ties around the struts and hold everything together while Trevor and James ran lengths of duct tape over the joints between panels. Once that was done (which surprisingly didn't take long) I had to crawl back under there to zip tie cables for the stage right speaker stack to the superstructure because the cables weren't quite long enough to reach.

The reason for all the rush on Saturday night was simple: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Canadian border turned away the woman who'd organized the fashion show, which caused everything else to be pushed forward to take up the slack. No one knows exactly why that happened, and ICE is notorious for never explaining itself. The change of schedule also pushed forward sound check and debugging of a rat king of XLR cables and feeds. Much swearing was involved the entire time though Nathan from Abney Park helped us organize everything sidestage. He was extremely patient and very friendly with all of us, even when it looked like we might actually fry the amplifier. I think we did a pretty good job with what we had to work with. I'd also like to extend thanks to Brian, who did a yeoman's job that night; I don't think that the performance or the dance would have gone off without him on Saturday night.

I'll admit, I was pretty ragged after we got the sound system going and the White Elephant Burlesque Society took the stage for the second time that day. If I recall correctly I was knocking my forehead off of the wall when Robert took me aside in the hallway. I tend to take gigs of any kind very hard because I'm a firm believer in doing things right and can be hell on wheels when it comes to getting it that way. Robert told me a story about one of their first gigs in a hotel where they blew the power for the entire building. Back when they still controlled their light show with foot pedals, the climax of one of their songs caused a major blackout; as it turned out, the power system for the stage was run through a single power outlet and a chain of surge protectors, so when the spots cut in the whole shebang melted down. It was called the rock and roll moment of the year, the instant where the crowd will groove on just about anything happening, from losing power to a nuclear detonation. Unfortunately I didn't have any similiar stories to trade, and one of these days I'll stop trying. At any rate, they were going to play off anything that went wrong as a joke (what would one expect of pirates?) and even cracked wise a bit on stage about wanting to play Airship Pirates before anything could catch on fire. Robert even offered to ship gear over from Seattle if they played next year to help.

Despite the setbacks and adventure, they're a group of awesome people (the Saloncon roadie team as well as Abney Park), they were lots of fun to work with, and I'd actually do it again.

Once things got rolling I sprinted upstairs to our room to catch a quick shower, change for the masquerade ball, and then got back downstairs just in time to catch the band taking the stage. Unfortunately I didn't get any pictures because my camera was with my toolkit next to the stage, behind the sound table. With such a high probability of something going wrong (like pulling a cable out) I opted to look at the photographs of others after the fact. Lyssa, Laurelinde, and I danced a few songs early in their set. We got to see The Wrong Hands cut a rug (she hasn't been able to make it to our sojourns to Spellbound recently) and even got to hang out with Donna's brother Dante a bit. Around the third from the last song in Abney Park's set I cut my way through the crowd to the sound system at stage left when the sound system started acting up a bit. As it turned out the PA was having level problems which lead to some overloading of the head unit, which had become too hot to touch comfortably. While Bryan worked the knobs on the mixer I checked the stage left speaker stack to make sure that none of the magick smoke was escaping (to the amusement of the band). Thankfully, there was no permanant damage and a few tweaks were all that was needed.

The concert on Saturday night sparked talk of an Abney Park concert drinking game for stunts, mishaps, and accidents. Only time will tell if one actually comes about.

Around 0130 EST5EDT on Sunday, the dance started with a cover of a rock classic, Ballrooms On Mars by T.Rex (covered by the Cruxshadows), which Lyssa and I found emminently appropriate for Saloncon. There were easily double the people from last year on the dancefloor having a good time, much to my surprise and delight. Where else could one watch a group of faeries belly dancing to Ego Likeness, time travelers moshing to Project Pitchfork, the Steampunk contingent doing the Robot to Information Society, and Victorian gentry breakdancing to ThouShaltNot and Poe? The playlist went off without a hitch, though unfortunately we once again had a limited amount of time to spin and couldn't take requests. For various organizational reasons (most of which I don't pretend to understand) the hotel put a hard limit of 0245 EST5EDT on the festivities, which cut the set down to around an hour.

After powering down the PA system we stripped to shirtsleeves to help the band break down and pack up their equipment. I think we struck the set in record time, taking maybe an hour to unplug and box up everything, sort and coil all the cables, and cut the reinforcements we'd put into place beneath the stage. A luggage cart was commandeered and after a bit of planning all of the equipment was either all hauled into storage or trundled off to a waiting equipment van for transportation the next day. When the ballroom was inspected and pronounced good, I ran upstairs one last time to change into PJs and then slouched down to the VIP lounge to hang out at the dead dog party with the staff. We didn't see the band there (though Magdalene Veen did put in a momentary appearance) but most of us sprawled around the room and relaxed for the first time in several days. Shortly after my arrival I got to sample an ale brewed in upstate New York called Three Philosophers, which then lead to numerous alchemy jokes and speculation as to my true age. I'ts really tasty stuff - I recommend trying it if it's ever offered to you.

The wee hours of the morning were spent talking with Jade from the New York contingent on the back porch and occasinally discussing the security team with Josh and Margaret (from the New York Jedi contingent). We also chatted at length about the "make problems disappear before they have a problem to start" policy of Saloncon, which hasn't been required yet due to how generally cool the attendees have been over the past three years. Around 0600 on Sunday morning I stumbled back to the room and crashed for what I think was four or five hours by the clock on the bedstand. Sunday morning, or what there was of it for me, passed in a haze of hot showers and sleep deprivation as we packed as best we could, hauled everything down to Laurelinde's car, and checked out of the hotel. We said our last round of good-byes to everyone in the lobby and headed to the Centreville Diner once again for a very late breakfast before setting forth once again, this time for home. By 1430 EST5EDT the three of us were loaded into the car and pointed in the general direction of south and the DC metroplex; five hours later we pulled into the parking lot (counting the odd stop to stretch our legs) next to the TARDIS, unloaded our gear, and made last minute dinner plans with Hasufin, Orthaevelve, and Malachai because Lyssa and I were dead tired and wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep for the night. We wound up at Tyson's Corner Mall for a late supper at Coastal Flats before heading home and turning in for the night.