A Ramble via Recollection

Thu Sep 18 16:20:00 2014

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Right, how to explain this: the idea is that you get a lot of people who love tinkering, exploring and creating using all sorts of methods and leave them in a field for three days and see what happens? Or, mad scientists, engineers, beer drinkers and general public collide with electronics and toys? Never allow drunken people access to Russian Military surplus supplies and a soldering iron?

Badge at EMF
The conference badge had a whole programmable system and sensors

Yep, that's basically it. Add in some beer and food. Don't forget that there are masses of organisation of power, internet and wifi (they had a faster connection to a field than most companies in the centre of a UK city enjoy), speakers, workshops, camps, people, vehicles, toilets, water, lights and enough medical support for an event involving 1,200+ people and power tools, lasers and flying vehicles and you have Electromagnetc Field 2014. Or EMF2014 for short.

There was also a film being made, not a small film, documentary or short, I mean a fully fledged film with teams devoted to ariel photography and special effects (with some pro gear and industry attendees). Oh, did I tell you that the conference badges had wifi, radio communication, built in lights, tetris and snake and are fully programable?

Also there were former government ministers (Tom Watson) and heads of technology speaking. Oh, and lasers, you can never have enough lasers. There was also Milliways (the eponymous Restraunt at the End of the Universe); robot butlers, electronic barmen, a robotic drinks dispenser, satellite tracking, pedal powered Star Wars, Pacman played on a weather balloon and 3D printers galore...

Wait, does this sounds like chaotic, anarchic, explorative and informative fun? Well if it doesn't it should do, because it was.

This was all in a field. Yes, a field, on a farm, in the middle of nowhere.

I never thought I would be playing an original arcade version of Outrun, on an original arcade machine, in a tent, in a field, on a haybale. It sounds surreal, it was awesome.

This exciting ramble is a collection of my thoughts from the event and some of the things we did. Don't expect clarity or for me to mention all the people, there were too many and they were quite brilliant. I will not do the event justice, it was too crazy and individual to ever capture the whole essence - competing dance music and sampled noise with holographic face masks anyone? - but I can mention some of the things that made it special for me, and for my family.

retro Games at EMF
The Retro Games tent was a big hit with everyone I spoke to.

The Bloke from the BBC

The first day, the Friday, we were pitching our tent when along walked a bloke from the BBC. He was a reporter for the technology section of the Auntie's website and he was doing a piece on the number of families attending the EMF event.

We, of course, had brought along a pair of toddlers as we thought they'd get a kick out of being here, it would be a family thing as well as a Shadowcat thing and we wouldn't need to negotiate care or non-attendance.

This was mostly the information that I gave, that we would have not attended, or only one of us would have attended, had it not been for the care to provide child-facilities, events aimed at kids and a promise of a safer environment for the children.

He was happy, we consented to a picture and to use our names and I was most happy when our tale and picture appeared on the BBC website on the day following the event.[1]

The Keatings at EMF
Look Ma! We wuz on the Bee Bee Cee :)

The creche

And since I was speaking of Childcare. The wonderful people over at UCL (University of Central London) sponsored a creche for this year's event. This was, I believe, in response to the organisers desires to make the festival open and friendly to families. The logistics were maintained by the Nipperbout who did a really smashing job. They allowed parents to place their children in a safe environment in two hour blocks. The children were looked after, entertained and kept happy.

I should point out that the staff at Nipperbout were exceedingly well-trained, friendly and helpful. This should be a must at big events and I think the nursery deserves it level 1 OFSTED rating.

There were also a number of workshops specifically aimed at children, including soldering and lightsaber construction. We went along to both of these and the kids loved it (though daddy did most of the soldering). Afterwards there was a massive lightsaber fight which foolishly I joined and was visciously ganged up on by all the children.[2]

This would not have been possible without the generous support from the sponsor who gave us the childcare. I know it is a lower priority but I do hope that the same can be repeated in two years time.

Windy old Days

One element that can never be fully planned for is the vagaries of the British weather. To the weather this year we had a few casualties in our village and Leigh and I lost a tent.

It was impressively gusty on the Friday afternoon. So gusty that it took the large canvas tent our village was using and lifted it into the air. Our tent suffered fatal damage to the poles and outer skin. We patched it for the weekend but it had to be put out of its misery in tear down. There were a couple of other smaller tents that suffered the same fate as ours.

Rather worrying was that Claire was hit by the spars of the tent as it took off. Thankfully the damage was not severe and her arm took a lot of the force lessening the impact to her head. She was lucky to have only bruises and a severe headache, it could have been so much worse. It resulted in a swift camp rearrangement in our village and a re-imagining of our porch to accommodate a workshop and strengthening of the broken tent spars with aluminium from a shattered gazebo.

Villages

The organisation of camping at EMF is into loose villages. You basically ally yourselves with a group of likeminded friends, or local group members, and pick out a plot to camp on.

We camped with the Pennine Alliance that was H4cks0r of the Roses, this was made up of a mixture of Leeds to Lancaster people with a prominent bunch on Manchestarians.

Villages could be composed of any type of group, from any social, political, ethical, biological or cultural definition. They were all included and all welcomed.

== Smiths of Iron and Wood Among the many displays, workshops and talks there were some traditional crafts on display. The blacksmiths were extremely popular.

The Blacksmiths at EMF
There were people doing smithery!

Ian Norton and Claire Jackson (of Shadowcat infamy) were also running workshops in wood turning. I could hardly avoid this opportunity, not only are they colleagues of mine but they were using the large porch of my tent to do the workshop ;)

I took my turn[3] at making a bowl and I was pleasantly surprised at the end effect as it seems really good. There was no surprise in the uality of the tutoring, advice and help from the two workshop presenters though as they were quite super.

The Wood-Turning at EMF
This is me actually making a wooden bowl.

Talks abound

In his introduction Jonty mentioned that they had over-provisioned talk tents and under-provisioned workshop areas. This was not by an error of management but by dint of massive enthusiasm on the part of attendees.

The workshop cfp opened after, I believe, the talks cfp. The natural feeling is that more people would be willing to present a small talk on a subject as opposed to dragging a mass ofg equipment and spending copious man-hours on performing workshops. This was a under-estimation of the huge enthusisam of the attendees. My personal thoughts are that those who attended in 2012 were so impressed by workshops that they went away and got involved in doing something similar. Coupled to that is the growing number of projects, people and things that are prevalant on the maker scene, add the two together and you get this phenomena.

As with so many things this is a learning experience. the volunteer team of EMF will collate what was right, what needed attention and what needs to be changed and make a better event in 2016. This event far exceeded 2012, in numbers (1200 vs 500) and in scope. I expect the 2016 event to also grow, perhpahs not in people but certainly in ambition.

Volunteers

There are not enough thanks, superlatives and adulations on their awesomeness, or bows and applauds that can be awarded to the whole of the volunteer team. There were a lot of people who put a huge amount of effort, before, during, after and continuing onwards to this event. The organisers, website maintainers, promotion, sound, lighting, video streaming, technology management, wifi and wired connection, radio management, construction, tear down, cleaning, security, parking, maintenance, power, water, first aid, reception, information, badge design-making-coding-distribution - the list of elements to do and people needed to do it is immense.

The Minions at EMF
There were electronic minions who lit up at night, my kids loved them

There is likely/hopefully a list somewhere of who did what and when they did it. If there isn't I am not making a call for it (who needs the extra work). The people who did, know what they did and when they did it. I would like to thank them all.

Issues[4]

If you place 1200+ people in a field for three days and leave them to it there are always going to be a number of issues. There are the natural issues regarding biology such as the requirements for sustenance, drink and the evacuation of such. They you must manage the movement of so many people, where they collect and how they are controlled.

To those issues I know the organisers have discussed, answered and made notes of how to manage at a future event. There is a steep learning curve to an event management, even more so as you add people and elements that increase the complexity and present issues that are hard to foresee.

Then there are the issues of exterior forces, organisations or individuals who do not perform as expected.

If I were to make a complaint it would be facile. The issues I saw in organisation are already known, have been dealt with or noted for the future, adding any comment here would be irrelevant. It was simply true that most of the issues that can be dealt with by the organisers were small and out of their control at the time, and they will likely never occur again.

Aside from that there are the many difficult to plan for issues that will occur.

Naturally there are going to be conflicts, issues and people who desire something that others wish to restrict them from. Some will want to party until dawn, others to gain a restful night after a hard day indulging in workshops or presentations. There are also people who have vastly different ideologies, beliefs or doctrines who will come into conflict because they are automatically opposed.

Robot Arms Pub
The on-site pub with its robot arms

At many other festivals my gut, throw a figure at a wall and it will probably stick, is that you will have 5% issues to 95% everything being excellent. There will always be a 1 in 20 chance of a conflict it seems, of encountering someone you cannot get on with or whose bahaviour riles you. At EMF camp I wouldn't have even made that a 1 in 50.

Of course this could be that so many like minded people are less likely to come into conflict and that any conflict that does arise will be small and of no real consequence. While that is a factor I am still going to say and feel that this was a great place filled with excellent people who were, for the vast part, great to hang around.

Summary

I could carry on rambling about EMF for some considerable time. There was a lot that went on and a lot that I saw. But some form of summary is needed.

EMF was eclectic and surreal. It was perhaps a fringe event that felt like someone had given Wilf Lunn, Magnus Pike and Jhonny Ball LSD and let them loose on a rave. It was amazing, I cannot wait for 2016.

...oh damn I forgot to mention the lockpickers...





Notes

[1] Ah such small elements of fame and fabulousness doth abide, a fifteen minutes tweeted in a second. Interesting aside, in the digital age do we get just a few seconds of fame, no longer allotted our quarter of an hour in the limelight? Just means more fame for the Fame Monsters atop the field.

[2] A four year old can do a lot of damage with a foam saber and a malicious intent.

[3] Pun unavoidable.

[4] An entirely subjective ramble based on nothing more than personal experience and general hearsay. It is intended only to highlight how pleasant it felt as if people were more accommodating than the general societal levels.





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