I only heard about Beyond Cyberdrome a few months ago, and as the website was offline, the only thing I had to go on was a few rumours from people who had attended previous events and some tantalising online photo galleries. Nevertheless it sounded like something I wanted to be involved in, so I tracked down James Bacon's email address and asked him if there was anything I could do to help. Over the next few months I spent many hours collecting materials, writing articles, building a polystyrene cutter, getting the website back online, discussing plans for the event, designing various electronic gadgets, building my own robot (Rampaging Roger), and finally packing everything up to take to Glasgow. For a lot of it I was flying blind, working with people I'd never met to organise an event I'd never seen. I'll admit mistakes were made, but hopefully not too many and not ones that can't be learned from and avoided next year.
Overall I think the chaos robotics workshop was a reasonable success, but there is plenty of room for improvement. We had a few issues due to lack of space, and I would have liked more people to have come in and built robots, but we did manage to put together a decent number of entries including some very unusual designs (for example the formula 1 racing car we made float by gluing blocks of polystyrene to it). We could easily have made more boats if more people had come in with ideas. People kept telling me how well organised the workshop was, but from my perspective the workshop could have been better if I'd put more thought into the pre-con preparations (the lack of any ready-made motor couplings being the most obvious omission). I also want to find more volunteers to help man the workshop and draw up a proper rota next year so I don't end up spending most of the con doing it myself while a few others (you know who you are - thanks again) popped in for an hour or so at random intervals.
I'm not sure how visible it was to the outside observer, but the main event didn't really go to plan. SMS and Eira carried it off admirably anyway with sheer enthusiasm, but it could have gone better. I would love to see some videos of the event to see how it looked from the perspective of a non-participant. We had made plans for the event, but they fell apart on the day largely because we managed to lose the folder with the entry forms with the names of the robots and entrants on them (it later turned up on the wrong side of the chaos room underneath a costume). Another problem was that we hadn't considered that the spectators would all want to get as close as possible to the action, hence the crowd was so tightly packed around the outside of the pool that the entrants had difficulty getting through to put their entries in the water, and I was left stood at the back on my tiptoes trying to control Rampaging Roger while peering over somebody's shoulder. Also, we'd built two robots that we needed volunteers to control, but because we didn't manage to find the volunteers until after the event had already started, there wasn't any time for them to practise controlling them on the water, which led to a problem with the fan boat not working as well as it should because the rear fan got stuck. I don't think anybody had been assigned the job of official scorekeeper, and as a result things got very confused and nobody was really sure who had won what. I think the least said about the treasure salvage event the better, and the mine avoidance event got cancelled altogether. I am glad that James went ahead and bought the bigger pool as the two small ones we were originally planning to use really wouldn't have worked as well.
Here are some of the lessons I've learned from my Beyond Cyberdrome/Eastercon experience this year:
- If you express an interest in helping to run part of a con, be prepared to be sucked into playing a much bigger role than you expected.
- Related to the first point, if you find a job that needs doing and start working on it yourself, you're likely to get lots of people telling you how well you're doing it, but don't expect many people to offer to help out because they think "he's doing such a great job he obviously doesn't need any help" whereas in in fact I'm simply too shy/proud to ask and wouldn't have minded, for example, somebody to help me carry all the stuff up from or down to my car during setup/takedown.
- A lot of work goes into preparing for Beyond Cyberdrome, therefore it's probably a good idea to start working on it more than two or three months before the con. Particularly collecting junk - I've often seen useful things in the past at car boot sales, but when I started looking in earnest for this year's BC, I found very little in the way of useful things (the model speedboat hull used by one of the entrants was an exception).
- However big your mode of transport is, the amount of stuff you have to carry to the con is likely to expand to fill it.
- I need to make it clearer when people come into the workshop what resources we have available. We bought and prepared four two channel radio control systems, but the only two that got used were on the two boats I put together at the last minute, and we had to press-gang volunteers to control them. This was totally my fault - several of the other entries could easily have had radio control added to them, and I think doing so could have made the event much more fun because the contestants would have been able to steer their boats and properly aim at one another instead of just setting them going and watching them spin around in a circle. I really didn't expect to encounter this problem - in fact I thought the opposite would happen and we'd run out of radio control systems in the first few hours if we didn't ration them carefully. One idea I've been considering for next year is having a proper timetabled event in the workshop where I show people what radio control kit we have and how to use it, and if we can afford it within the budget, I'd like to get hold of a few more sets so we can have enough for most of the chaos robots to have proper radio control.
- It really is better to bring more stuff than you're likely to need, because it's impossible to be sure in advance what's going to be useful. Some of the stuff I expected to be useful never got used (eg. the water pump I brought to empty the pool after the event), and some of the stuff I just chucked in on a whim turned out to be ideal for some particular task. There were also some things I didn't bring because I didn't expect them to be useful, but would have come in handy if I'd brought them.
- Next year we need to be more forceful in applying the "no unaccompanied children" rule as regrettably some parents seem to think the chaos workshop is a safe place to leave their kids to play, without asking us first if we mind, while they go off to do other things.
- During the main event, we need to have a cordon to stop the spectators trampling over the participants in their enthusiasm to get the best view possible.
- We also need a judge with the official responsibility of deciding who won each round and keeping score.
- Don't catch a bad cold a couple of days before setting off.
- Remember to bring some bread and cheese and stuff in case I need to quickly grab something to eat in my room. Ironically this is something I always do when I'm staying away on business (I've even been known to warm up pre-cooked sausages and things in a plastic bag inside the kettle ;) but I somehow managed to forget at Concussion and as a result ended up hiking out long distances in search of places to eat.
As you've probably already heard, next year's theme is 2007. Convoy are a one year bid so they wanted us to do something easy and not too ambitious that wouldn't scare the hotel the way this year's paddling pools scared the Crowne Plaza (they insisted on a formal risk assessment and people watching the pools at all times despite the hotel being located on a riverbank). Hopefully this will fit the bill. It has everything we want: inspiration for creative and easy to build robot ideas (spy-bots), a role for the Sprokettes (Bond girls), a rich source of cliche and in-jokes, the opportunity to dress up in fun costumes, the title is a bad pun, and it has the potential to be the basis for a fun theatrical main event. One idea we've had is to build some kind of outrageously over the top killing machine (which looks impressive but isn't actually capable of killing a fly) and place each robot inside it, then SMS will switch it on and start ranting about how he is going to take over the world. The robot's objective is to escape from the trap before it activates. If you have any more ideas for fun 007 themed events, please let us know.
I can't talk in specifics about our plans for 2008 because they haven't been set in stone and we don't know yet if the Radisson will be a suitable venue for it, but we have had an idea that would take BC off in a new direction with something altogether more ambitious. It would involve the participation of far more of the Eastercon membership than ever before, and I'm actually quite excited about it.
Update: James tells me there was actually some kind of score keeping going on at the event; I just missed it in the general confusion, and there was a meeting afterward to decide who had won, but I wasn't told about it because they'd decided I was going to be one of the winners. Also, James wanted me to mention that he's stepping down as the central BC organiser in favour of myself as he's very busy running cons and things. Thanks, James!