Arisia 2018:   Feet and Loading in South Boston

  Another year, another Arisia, and another monster writeup!  As usual, most of my purview is behind-the-scenes stuff that the majority of folks enjoying the convention remain blissfully unaware of.  I didn't get nearly as many pictures as I might have if I'd been thinking more about it ... but judging from how nobody else seems to have captured some points of interest I've noted either, we must have been so heads-down in our work that photojournalism for its own sake didn't cross our minds that often.  Still, after a year's worth of scattered notes and pics are all pulled together there's a surprising amount of material worth reviewing anyway, so this comes split into three parts for a little more reader sanity.

So first, some obligatory background...

  Summer fun with the Vidiots

  If a bunch of geeking about video and electronics doesn't interest you, you can skip this section and jump to the convention run-up.

Arisia owns some number of older video cameras and support hardware to go with them, such as camera control units [CCU] and power supplies and cabling.  This was all fairly high-end gear in its day, but decidedly obsolete now despite still being mostly functional.  It's what we have, obtained over the years for minimal to modest outlay.  We ran the last couple of cons on a different set of much newer borrowed equipment, but now facing the unavailability of that for 2018 and being back on the old gear, we needed to ramp up efforts to get it working better and adapt it to a new digital switching system.  So over the summer there were a handful of informal work-party gatherings we called "Vidicon", to really dig in and understand the equipment and get it into the best shape possible.

[Images throughout are linked to larger copies.]
Tearing apart cameras and modules A common complaint about the old gear was poor image quality and inconsistent signals from the different cameras, so a major task was to first carefully test them all and sort out any truly bad/unfixable parts.  A quick evaluative pass was made through the batch, with notes taken and parts swapped around, and a few items that seemed too far gone were simply discarded.

We are fortunate to have some people who worked in the industry during the heyday of this gear, and have intimate understanding of how it works.  Once Paul here positively determined that the base frame of one camera was just plain shot to hell, he pulled everything else salvageable and slated the empty carcass for disposal.  By mixing and matching spare parts we could improve the set of sufficiently working cameras, sort of like the folks who build one functional car out of three wrecked ones.

Flakey power supply fix One of the CCU power supplies wouldn't fire up, but then we found that if left turned on long enough, the switching circuitry eventually *would* start running.  This was the same supply which a stray screw had been shaken out of earlier, so its status may have been a little iffy in the first place...  But we didn't want to rely on waiting!  It was likely that some marginal part had to slowly warm up enough to change some threshold condition and let the bootstrap circuit start.  A bit of reverse-engineering [read: total guesswork and delicately bridging various high-voltage points with my fingers] led me to add a resistor to change whatever the threshold was, and the supply would more reliably start up thereafter.

CCUs open, ready for mods CCU modification points Testing CCU shading harness assemblies
Another adaptation job was to modify the rest of the CCUs for remote shading control, so the light levels and output from all the cameras could be controlled from one place and matched.  We had started this project a while back, but only one CCU got modified as proof of concept and then it all got set aside over the couple of years while running on the completely different borrowed gear.  It fell to me to do the rest of these mods, and put together the necessary harnesses for inside the rack to make on-site wiring a simple plug-and-chug task.  Shading data inputs and tally light wiring would arrive via a simple RJ45 connector, allowing use of cheap network cables to run control back to the headend.

Lowboy CCU rack, wiring in progress The shading harness and other signal wiring was installed into our "lowboy" rack with the modified CCUs, to sit out near the cameras and convert their analog video to SDI for the trip to the switcher.  This was a giant consolidation step, minimizing analog cable length for both signal clarity and wiring convenience, at the minor expense of another heavyish rack added to the video gear.  But now with the digital system an extra full-height rack had been *eliminated*, for less overall video volume. 

Chip charts set up to shoot Camera under test Scoping alignment signals
In the earlier camera work-sessions we only had time to establish their base functionality, but not finish fine-tuning everything to match.  We still needed to get that done.  Aligning these cameras and CCUs is a long and somewhat tricky procedure detailed in the service manual, and requires a bunch of specialized equiment and careful test environment setup.  A chip-chart has to be uniformly illuminated by a particular level of light, and the full-field image thereof brought into the camera and not changed in position or brightness during most of the procedure.  Certain internal signals get tweaked to exact measured levels, and outputs linearized by eyeballing waveforms and screwing around with red/green/blue gamma controls until it "looks right".  As Paul pointed out, some of this is more art than science once you get to certain stages of it.  And don't get me started about the bizarre obscurity of the "image enhancer" design [for which, I am told, its original engineer has since apologized].  It didn't help that some of the subassembly cards in the camera frames had gotten a little funky over the years to begin with, and some of the numerous little trimpots had to be turned to their limits to have things close enough to right.

Overall it was a success, though, producing five or six decently working cameras and output chains, and all they'd need in addition would be enough lumens on the stage to produce good output levels from their elderly sensors. 

  A relatively relaxed run-up?

  The Relaxacon came and went, and aside from scattered work parties for video and artshow there didn't seem to be a lot of other activity over the summer.  In the interest of smoother future logistics and as half-promised at the end of my 2017 rundown, I made it a project to pull all my collected knowledge and hints into one document on the staff wiki [requires login; snapshot copy here in wiki-markup format] and sent the link around for review.  Things started moving a little more in September, when staff hotel reservations opened up [with the usual difficulties convincing the "PassKey" site about the shoulder nights; some year they'll get that right].  The first convention committee meeting was then held, which felt more like a superficial overview rather than any detailed planning.  Otherwise, it was all largely crickets well into October, and I was starting to get a little worried about that.  No feedback had been offered on my logistics checklist, little else was moving forward on the tech side, and the spiffy new-to-us group collaboration/chat tool called "Slack" that the IT people were all proud of seemed to remain mostly dead.  [Argh, I thought, yet another communication resource I had to learn about, along with how to make GoToMeeting work on an Android tablet.] 

Then the surprises started to roll in, thick and fast, around mid-November when everyone would rather have been thinking about large family meals.  The person who originally fell on this year's Logistics sword had to suddenly resurrect and flee the stage due to family events, at least temporarily, and an alternate and eminently qualified candidate was barred from taking over due to specious administrative disagreements.  So less than two months out, we had nobody to head up Logistics, and desperate appeals for someone to please step up were sent out.  [I knew better than to offer, despite having been asked on occasion...]  Then some even more profound news came down: on fairly short notice, the Westin was taking three entire floors of guest rooms *offline* for renovation.  Their rationale for this is even though we pack their building with a full load of business for one weekend in January, winter is an otherwise fairly slow period for them and it's about the only chance they get to have fewer rooms available for a few weeks.  So there was a huge scramble to transfer over a hundred reservations to the Aloft down the street, with the Innkeepers pleading for volunteers.  I was one of the first to pipe up for that, since a quick stroll along D street isn't a particular hardship for the able-bodied even in the cold.

At least some of these events jogged people into getting more serious about convention prep, even though some of them wound up getting ratholed in small details like appropriate signage for universally occupant-neutral restrooms [here's my flip answer] and where Tech was going to get ballroom power-distro equipment from.  Lisa eventually shouldered the Logistics job, and gear-tagging parties were scheduled.  Meanwhile my own plans to be out of state for most of a month were on track, and I wound up participating in some share of conference calls from down south or even on the road while holed up in a motel with hopefully fast internet.  I tried to remotely research non-sketchy truck parking options in the area in case we'd need it, particularly for Monday night.  The tech crew wanted to talk about pre-assigning certain key roles for events, and how to better handle runtime signups without having to beg for people to take positions.  And somehow the fact that nobody had bothered to put in a scaffolding order completely fell through the cracks.

With everything suddenly feeling so far behind, I scooted my butt back northward right after Christmas to be around and help wrangle some of it.  Right into the single-digits cold snap of early January, which made everything even more fun.

Films items pre-tagged from last year Films items repackaged While helping babysit one of the final official tagging sessions, I cut through the inconclusive debate on whether to bring the entire Films kit or not by simply pulling the necessary items out of the big grey crate, which were *already marked for 2018* due to Kludge's keen foresight, and repackaging them into three ordinary ALCs.  That infamous hulking Digital crate, always a pain in the ass for Logistics volunteers, would finally stay home for a change.

  There was another tech conference call in early January, and it still felt like so much was being done last-minute.  I could safely report to them that Logistics was more or less together at that point and success on that front would just be a matter of work factor.  There was a lot of uncertainty about when our various vendors should deliver, such as the ALPS rental and the scaffold order which had finally been put in, and even when our own trucks would unload.  There was no coherent tech timeline yet, other than a vague guideline from last year's version which didn't entirely match.  Fortunately, it wasn't going to be significantly different this year.  I was given a couple of events to contact the organizers of and get their tech preferences as far as lighting, thus implicitly pre-assigning me to be the fingers on the board whenever those slots would occur.  Overall, though, the usual flow of gear-lists and design documents and other paperwork that people usually sent in around this time was sluggish to nil.

Neatened-up light tree wiring for travel A week later I made another run in to Storage, to help pick up some extra gear and pack up the Dance Tent stuff which hadn't been touched at all three days out from the con.  The lighting trees for second stage were still in a half-disassembled state, so I put them mostly back together and neatened up the wiring a bit better for travel.  The upside to that afternoon was catching up on a lot of the rants about what else had been going on, or not going on, in other areas.  There was already talk of reorganizing the entire Tech department with clearer division of roles.

Storage, south end Storage, north end
Despite the eleventh-hour feel of so many aspects, Storage was in reasonable shape and most things had been appropriately tagged.  It did help that we had taken on a secondary storage space down the hall, where all the Art Show stuff was now coming from. But labels were already peeling off here and there, because people don't actually stick them down good and tight, not to mention that anything *other* than the good name-brand Avery label stock simply sucks.  I thought that lesson had been learned long since, particularly avoidance of generic office-store brand labels -- it had even been noted in my checklist as an open question, since I still wasn't sure of the exact best option to buy and use.

The other problem was the actual text on the labels, which people started noting could be unclear or ambiguous for certain departments.

Tagged storage items detail Let's take a closer look at some of these, deliberately highlighted on a detail of items tagged for different areas and functions.  One thing we see is prior-year Logistics labels, plus various unofficial departmental labels and internal ordinal bin numbers like "FT13".  It can look like Too Much Information, and people really do need to pay attention to the convention-year and "side of hotel" shape markings first and foremost while pulling stuff for the truck loads.  Once we get on-site, the two basic options seem to be 1> to deliver everything to staging areas and have department volunteers come fetch their own stuff, or 2> sort out exactly where things are going on the fly and roll them *to* the appropriate points around the hotel.
This is where our tagging/labeling could improve, and benefit from our seven-year accumulated knowledge of the venue.  In a logistics and delivery situation, labels indicating *physical destination* would seem more important than what department needs the items -- sometimes the right drop point is obvious from the department name, sometimes it isn't.  Some department leads have been pretty good about *adding* indications of where items are headed.  Tech is particularly problematic in this regard because Tech stuff winds up all over the hotel, and comes from multiple external sources.  Lisa decided to try the latter approach for the most part on the in, by posting "wayfinding" signs at key routing points and having a couple of clueful people stationed to help direct the incoming flow.  These are effectively the same "per-department pile" signs matching the labels and stuck to the walls of a large ballroom in prior years, but now with certain ones posted earlier along the load-in path in an effort to route more directly.  While this approach created a bit more of a real-time backup at critical points like the service elevators, it did help keep the ballrooms a bit more clear for the stage and video builds.

I must defer to others in evaluating how well either approach works, since it wasn't my job to monitor that process efficiency.  Perhaps a hybrid strategy would work best, taking into account the timing and difficulty of each delivery point and going direct with some, and staged/deferred for others.  And all department leads should know the flow for their own specific areas in advance.  And on the flip side, some indication of where gear needs to be *returned to* after the con is useful as well.  This is a lot of information to juggle, and different parts become relevant at different times, but there's no reason clueful Arisians can't handle it.

  Rollin' ...

  The fateful Wednesday morning arrived once again, when it was time to put aside our various millivolt geekery and managerial infighting and go play Responsible Grownup with the Big Toys.  This particular morning always brings a little bit of that butterflies feeling; it's when we really commit to getting a lot of stuff done in one or two days and hope to hell nothing major goes wrong.  I was expected to help wrangle trucks again, and since Lisa and Mark and I all live in the north burbs she decided it would be convenient to rent one of them from the Enterprise up in Woburn.  Meanwhile, Rick would pick up another truck from the Penske in Medford and bring it to NESFA, and then join us at Storage afterward.  The ancillary idea was to bring one of the trucks back out of town, once loaded, to park overnight in a local Wal-Mart lot.  So in the morning I left my car at said Wally World and got picked up to continue on to Woburn.  [*Note for future years:  print off copies of our ST-2 sales tax exemption forms to bring along when filling out rental paperwork, instead of trying to rely on someone being able to look it up online.] 

The *real* truck-pickup shot It was a gorgeous day -- the deep-freeze had finally broken, and we had a whole bunch of volunteers slated to meet us at the various load points.  As our truck was warming up and getting its pre-trip inspection, Lisa went out front and took a quick shot with her phone, a crop of which would then become a new profile picture on the twitter feed.  That photo was missing certain information, though, so I had her go back out and take the *real* shot shown here.  Nobody at the rental shop had made any particular comments; perhaps the transportation industry is learning that leaving shoes out of the equation really does make for safer driving.

Lisa took quite a few pictures that day, viewable here, including close-up detail on what remained behind *in* Storage.  Plus, the Monster Beanbag Hamper of Doom.

Fire truck at Storage? We arrived at Storage and wondered why a fire truck was pulled up to the building.  Nothing diastrous; they were probably just there to inspect something.  It did make for a little more chaos in the cars needing to get by on the street while I was trying to line up to back into the dock.

Landlord's truck is gone The building landlord had graciously complied with our request to get his pickup truck out of the spot next to the loading dock, from where it hadn't moved since the last snowstorm, and he even coned off the space so it would stay open for us.  Here I had already set up the ramp boards at the curb, in anticipation of the truck from NESFA arriving soon.

Two truck butts Passing NESFA stuff across [ Pic credit: Lisa H.]
Rick rolled in with the Penske a while later, but had to leave right away to go put out other administrative fires so he handed me the key to do the secondary back-in.  It's a little trickier than going straight into the dock, and I didn't get in quite as close as in previous years but it was good enough.  The thing to note is that the two asphalt surfaces tilt toward each other, so the truck boxes are closest at the top.

Then it was time to cross-load the NESFA low-side gear into the Enterprise, an operation traditionally called "truck sex" because it was often done in the past by backing the trucks up to each other and transferring bodily contents directly between the boxes.  This two butts side-by-side approach at the dock takes less time and external maneuvering and allows normal loading to continue at the same time, so I suppose it's more like consensual masturbation.  Either way, it's another step in routing to get things onto the right hotel-side truck and depends on things at NESFA getting loaded in a particular order.

Volunteer lunch An early-afternoon break for volunteer lunch was taken.  We almost had too many people at Storage, and there was a certain amount of milling around.  Six to eight without distractions and side-chatter seems to be the most efficient crew here, including when dealing with the new annex space and the long push down the hall.  I slammed down a slice or two and then a couple of us went out to swap trucks at the dock, and the now-full Enterprise got taken over to the hotel to snug in at the end of Fargo for the night in the usual manner.  That's still somewhat sketchy, but it's where the Westin security people told us to put it.

Penske running on empty Typical rush-hour jam on McGrath
The Penske finished loading around 5pm, and the plan was for me to drive it back out to the Wal-Mart and swap to my car to head home.  It had been given to me with almost no fuel left; the whole operation through NESFA and over here didn't include a fuel stop, I suppose.  And now it was the peak of rush hour -- here I was stuck in the slow crawl out McGrath toward 93.  Right at the top of this hill, at the railroad bridge, the "low fuel" warning started blinking.  Instead of getting on the highway I went past the on-ramp from Mystic, swung around in a convenient parking lot, and pulled into Mr. C's and threw $50 worth of fuel in.  *Note: The diesel pumps here are around back of the store, and attended rather than self-serve.  While not really what we'd call a full-featured "truck stop" like on the interstates, it's relatively handy to Storage and the Penske rental place and is fairly easy to get a 26-footer in and out of.  A full-size semi had pulled in through the far island and seemed to have no trouble maneuvering, but of course those guys know what they're doing.

Jake brake indicator light This truck was a very new Hino, which I hadn't driven one of yet.  The first truck in my Arisia experience with *power windows*!  Once I got a little running room, even though 93 was still slow along here, I discovered that it had a jake brake.  When I got completely off the pedal I heard a modest little farty-noise and the yellow icon over the speedo came on.  Not nearly as loud as on some trucks and didn't cause this one to totally fall on its face, but it did provide a little more drag. This didn't seem to have a defeat switch anywhere, which I would have liked when just floating slowly along the highway pacing traffic, but feathering the go-pedal just off the peg took it out of "retard" to a more normal fuel-cut glide.  So I had a little fun playing with this and doing one-pedal driving for a while, like someone can in an electric vehicle with strong regen.
That run up to the Wally was one of the longer stretches I'd driven in the line of these duties, and in a truck I'd never touched before now -- I was tired and still a little tense keeping track of everything.  Not exactly the most relaxing ride, I thought ... maybe I'd get more used to it if I was on a longer trip.  By contrast, I've become so accustomed to the Prius like it's an extension of my body, and I can go for hours at a time without cruise-control.  Anyhow, I got up to the designated drop without incident and did the standard key-in-back lockup protocol, and joined Sandy at a favorite local watering hole for a nice sit-down dinner before heading home.  Tomorrow would be another busy day, and I still had to load *my* gear.

    Continue to Part 2 (of 3)