The First Five Years

I’m still getting used to the fact that a Worldcon in Helsinki is now a thing that has happened. It was an excellent five days for us all, but it’s also been an excellent five years for me.

In 2012, at the Worldcon in Chicago, I launched the first bid for Helsinki. This was not uncontroversial, and once I came back home, there was a bit of an argument in Finnish fandom about what I’d done. This got somewhat resolved during the following year, and in 2013 we nearly won – but didn’t. The bid for Helsinki in 2017 got started a few months later, and it had much wider support in Finnish fandom (and, as it turned out, elsewhere as well), leading to our victory two years ago, as well as the responsibility of actually pulling off this Worldcon thing.

Finding ways of working on a convention with a geographically and culturally diverse committee was not painless, and we went through a few iterations before finding our solutions – but we did find them in time to get our act together and put on a Worldcon.

And now we’re here, on the other side, and it went better than I could’ve seriously hoped for. Sure, there were plenty of things we could’ve done different or better, mistakes we could’ve not made, schedules we could’ve kept to, but it’s done, and it was excellent. And now we’re looking forward. I’m not allowed to say much on that front at least for a while, but I don’t think I even really need to; I can hear and read it in what my friends and Finnish fandom in general is saying and writing: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

Worldcon is a conversation, a community with deep roots and traditions but also a constant yearning for the future. And now there are more Finns and other Europeans than ever who want to be a part of that conversation, to help continuously define what Worldcon is, and what it should be. This makes me happy.

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Worldcon 75 needs your code!

As some of you may know, I’m the Head of DevOps for Worldcon 75. We’re the first Worldcon to have a DevOps division*, and we’ve got ambition to match. We have already an extensive team, but it’s looking like we need a bit more “dev” to balance all the “ops” we already have (in addition to a top-notch team, we’ve practically unlimited server capacity from Upcloud, and non-profit status on Google Apps, Github & Slack). We’re working on a number of projects, and we need yet more coders to pull this off. Most of these do require a bit of initial setup and familiarisation to get started, but can then benefit from even small amounts of occasional labour.

All the code we’re writing is open source, and is meant to serve not just our con, but fandom at large and future Worldcons in particular. We’ve got a chance here to use the systems and services we have, and build something that’ll last. Please join us, and help. This is what we’ve currently got on our plate:

  • Database operations – Our core source of truth is a set of tables in a Postgres database, which includes an append-only transaction log from which everything else could be reconstructed. We’re using an express.js server to talk with the database (via pg-promise), as JavaScript is the language we’re most fluent in. We could use help in reviewing and testing this layer.
  • Authentication service – To access the services, we’ll need to authenticate our users. In addition to Hugo PIN -style emailed access keys, we want to support OAuth-based authentication. If you’re interested in helping implement this and other features of our backend services, please let us know!
  • Webshop improvements – We’re really proud of the simplicity we’ve achieved with shop.worldcon.fi. Now, we need to expand its feature set (primarily, upgrades for authenticated members, and a shopping basket for multiple purchases with a single transaction) while making sure we don’t add any extraneous complexity. Do you think you could help us make it even better? The webshop’s back end and Stripe integration are currently implemented using Scala, but we’re looking to port that to JS as well.
  • Member self-management – It sucks when your name gets misspelled, or when you realise that you’ve not given permission for us to tell the world that You too are a proud Worldcon member. We want to give our members the ability to fix these mistakes themselves, by signing in to our services and making sure that their data is oll korrekt. Later, we want to expand this to enable you to customize the text that’ll be printed on your badge.
  • Alphabetization of names – As it turns out, correctly collating a list of names from all parts of the world is surprisingly difficult when you want to do it Right, and e.g. put ä in the right place for both Finns and Germans, and de for the French and the Spanish. You’d think someone had solved this problem already, but apparently not. This is a great opportunity to make the world a slightly less culturally imperialistic place.
  • A new Hugo front end – With a new back end, we’ll need a new front end that’ll allow our member to nominate and vote for the bestest genre awards. Once we’ve got this to at least the stage where the current Hugo software is, we have ideas on how to improve it even further. Do you think you might be up to the task?
  • Hugo management tool – This year’s WSFS Business Meeting is likely to bring in changes to the selection of finalists that’ll make it even more important to help our Hugo admin staff normalise the data (i.e. combine into one all the different ways each thing can be named); we’ll also need to implement and verify the algorithm, once it’s been decided on. Would you be willing to help?
  • Volunteer & programme participant services – Wouldn’t it be great if you could make sure that you could put in your volunteer hours, show up to your own panels, and even see the items that you want, without all of them being scheduled on top of each other? We think so, but for that we’ll need to synchronise quite a bit of data. Would you care to help us make every fan’s con a little bit more efficient?

If you’re interested, please get in touch with me at eemeli@worldcon.fi, or with the team at devops@worldcon.fi, and we’ll help you get set up.


* DevOps is also known as the new, cooler name for “IT services”.

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Thoughts of a soon-to-be ex-bid-chair

I’m looking forward to this Worldcon in Spokane, and to no longer being a Worldcon bid chair. We may win or we may lose, but either way I can be done with bidding.

This is a project to which I’ve given a large part of the past three years, and to the results of which I hope to given even more, as (I hope) we finally get to bring the Worldcon to Finland for the first time. But not with me in charge of it. Over the past three years I’ve learned a lot, both in terms of skills gained as well as about myself as a person. I’ve also learned a lot about my friends — both old and new — who have joined in this crazy project, who have taken this bid to be in part their project as well.

One of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not the best of us to put in charge, should we win. That task we’ll split between our co-chairs; Saija Aro, Jukka Halme and Crystal Huff. One of those, you might note, is my wife, so it’s not like I’m getting too far from it all. I’ll also stay as the chair of the board of Maa ja ilma ry, the association we put together to act as the legal entity organising the con.

To be honest, I find it highly enjoyable to start and put together something that becomes important enough for others to take over it and do a better job with it than I could. I believe that projects that are large enough need to be larger than any of us, and need to be built in such a way that they do not depend on any one person — especially if we’re considering the sort of unpaid, volunteer projects that fannish conventions are. Aside from fandom, we all have “real life” to occupy our time as well with family, work, friends, everything. And sometimes those get complicated, and we’re not able to give to fandom all the time and care that we would have wanted to.

So; three chairs for a Helsinki Worldcon, each of them at least a very good friend of mine, and each of which I can trust to be better suited for the job than I would be. This arrangement, of co-chairing conventions, is something we’ve found to work very well in Finnish fandom. It gives a little more space for each of us to be human, to be less than perfect, and it makes the con a little bit more about the community at every level rather than focusing on any one individual.

I suppose parts of this are very Finnish; we are in many ways a consensus-driven culture, used to negotiating and compromising from all sides of an argument to put together a better solution for everyone. We are also an egalitarian society, unused to strict hierarchies — I have no doubt this aspect will show itself in our convention committee structure as well. I could say more here on what and who we are as Finns, but that would feel, well, a bit un-Finnish.

I’m particularly happy for my wife Saija to have joined this bid, and to have her volunteer to co-chair the convention should we win. The road to get Finnish fandom to where it is now with its incredibly broad support of the bid has not been short, or straight. One of the early steps on that road was this, a panel discussion at the 2006 Finncon with two sides, pro and con, facing each other. That’s me in the White shirt on the left, and Saija is in the middle on the right. The big sign there says “NO” in Finnish. Times have indeed changed us in many ways.

Panel at Finncon 2006, “Finncon 30 years – Worldcon to Finland”.
Photo © Esa Virtanen 2006
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On Finnish Fandom

This article was first published in Wolf von Witting’s CounterClock, issue #18. It has subsequently been translated to Chinese.


 

Because Finland is small, Finnish fandom is large. Though that may be a bit of a simplification, the fact that there aren’t all that many Finns in the world does mean that the few of us that are here tend to want to talk to others as well. That’s not to say we’re actually talkative (good grief, we’re Finns!), but it does mean that we’re acutely aware that our small corner of the world isn’t all there is to it.

This openness shows up in Finnish fandom in multiple ways. First of all, we’re very inclusive; there is no separation between SF, fantasy or horror fans, or between media and literary fans. In fact our “fandom” is just a part of a larger network of fandoms that fluidly encompasses at least board gaming, roleplaying, filk, cosplay, anime, manga, comics fans & artists, as well as authors, film makers, and academic researchers. This is not a situation that came about by itself; we have been doing active outreach and cooperation since the 80s, and continue to do so in various ways.

For the part of fandom that’s somewhat literature-centred, our perhaps strongest driving force towards openness is Finncon, our national convention: it’s an event with free entry. I believe this has had a huge impact, both externally and internally. Externally, it removes a significant mental barrier from non-fannish fans for participation in fannish activities, and thereby becoming a part of fandom. Internally, it forces us to keep on looking outwards, to keep Finnish fandom open, and inviting; to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Together, these factors have helped our fandom to keep renewing itself, bringing in new and younger members; changing, adapting, accepting.

Another, probably less obvious aspect of Finnish fandom is how much of it happens outside conventions (of which we have quite a few, in addition to Finncon), some with regularity, others just once a year. To me, the heart of Helsinki fandom is the biweekly pub night or “mafia”: if it’s a slow night, we’ll only be about 20 people hanging out, talking about anything and everything; quite often even about science fiction. Similar events (though not necessarily quite as frequent, or as populous) take place in Espoo, Turku, Tampere and Jyväskylä, as well as elsewhere—and those are just the SF/fantasy fans’ meetings that I’m listing. The point here is that there are plenty of non-convention events and gatherings to which someone who’s interested can wander in (or, more often, get dragged there by their friend) and, by assimilation, become a part of fandom by no greater effort than occasionally going to drink a pint or two with friends. There are, of course, also regular and semi-regular events for those who’d rather not hang out in pubs, such as meetings in cafes and picnics during the summer.

As a third building block of Finnish fandom I’d count our internal cooperation. There is no single official (or otherwise) organisation for Finnish fandom; rather, we’ve a collection of mainly city-based societies that discuss and cooperate on projects both great and small. An important factor here is that this includes a number of university societies, which are a significant conduit of new members to all fandoms everywhere. We have a yearly “cooperative meeting” of these societies, at a sauna of course. So far at least we’ve managed to avoid any significant national schisms, talking through issues rather than dividing over them.

The people in Finnish fandom, then, come from all walks of life, or at least the parts thereof that like to read books. In other words, we’re young and old, men and women, gay and straight, rich and poor, and everything in between. In fact, I’d have a hard time differentiating between Finnish “fans” and “people”. It can be a bit jarring to come from this assumed normalcy and meet fans from different backgrounds, from situations where gender balance is an issue that needs to be taken into account; for us, it’s more likely we’ll have a “token male”.

Recently, I’ve gotten myself rather interested in exporting some of the above aspects of Finnish fandom outside our borders, and in prompting more cooperation between people from different fandoms, in particular folks from different European countries. But more on that later. :)

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Revising the ESFS Statutes

ESFS is the European Science Fiction Society, which was founded in 1972. Its primary activity is managing the continuity of the yearly Eurocon SF convention, which this year is Shamrokon in Dublin, and next year will be Interpresscon in St. Petersburg. It’s a society that operates from a set of rules, the ESFS Statutes.

In my opinion, those rules are broken, and need fixing. So I posted the following to the ESFS’s discussion mailing list, as well as to the Eurosmof Facebook group, as a series of separate posts. I’ve left out the long list of nitpicking, as that’s not as important.

 


 

Membership, the Committee and the General Meeting

I think the ESFS committee needs to be discontinued, membership of the society should be redefined, and the General Meeting that’s held at Eurocon needs to be more clearly a meeting of the ESFS national delegates.

The current committee membership consists of the board + national delegates + former board members + honorary members. At the moment, the statutes only allow for the committee to meet if one third of its members request an Extraordinary Meeting. All of the tasks assigned to it are really tasks for the board. It has no annual meeting, and effectively does nothing at all. It has no reason to exist.

The ESFS General Meeting at each Eurocon is not a committee meeting; it’s a meeting that’s open to anyone at the con “but up to two votes are allowed for each country”, and assesses the activity of this committee that never meets. That’s just silly.

A much better formulation of the current (and practical!) state of affairs would be that the General Meeting is a meeting of the society’s national delegates or their representatives, which is open for participation but not voting by all Eurocon members. The primary tasks of that meeting should be to assess and elect the board (which we ought to be able to replace via a vote of no confidence!), to approve the Eurocon voting results, and to handle statute changes.

On a related note, being an “ESFS member” is currently a completely useless concept. Instead, the society’s membership should be redefined to be the inclusion of the members of current and future Eurocons, the national delegates, and the board.

 

National Delegates

I think we’re squandering an important opportunity here by not raising the profile of ESFS national delegates. As I mentioned previously, the committee that they form the bulk of is completely useless. They are invisible, powerless, and usually selected at the very last minute at the Eurocon in question.

In fact the only thing these delegates currently do is act as a second voting body for Eurocon site selection, confusing everybody and making it more likely that the site selection fails.

National delegates really should be agents of the society, points of contact and channels for information dissemination. Their names and contact details should be listed on the ESFS website. They should be actively confirmed by the board some months before Eurocon, especially if they’re not members of that convention. They should be able and expected to network with each other, providing ways of advertising events and activites across the continent.

Most of that could get done just by listing these people on the website, but I think these activities should also be included in their job description in the statutes.

 

Bidding and Site Selection

We desperately need to take better control of the bidding and site selection process for Eurocons. The current rules are archaic, and arbitrary. We should decide just by delegate votes, but we should also redefine how delegation sizes are determined.

To start with the bidding, I’d like to hear any solid argument why there are such strict restrictions against bid parties and the enumerated list of approved “campaign materials”? That’s effectively knee-capping any outreach a bid might make outside of the Eurocon where the selection happens, and that’s really bad. If it’s set up right, bidding groups can be really active promoters of Eurocon. As is, they are not, and much less Eurocon promotion happens than it could.

Next, we should know much more about bids by the time we’re voting for them. As is, they don’t need to announce themselves until at the Eurocon itself, which means that often they do exactly that, and no-one really knows anything about them. Instead, we should require bids to present themselves months in advance, and to publicly answer questions posed to them by the board, by other bids, and by the public. Late-announcing bids should have a further hoop to jump through, such as gathering signed approval by some significant number of national delegates at-con.

Then, the voting. It’s silly, and pointlessly favours the local membership of the con where it’s being voted on. Because, let’s face it, we’re not at a stage yet where Eurocon isn’t always dominated by local fans. We really should be seeking to get Eurocons to promote themselves continent-wide, rather than to a select audience of whoever is able to make it there in person. In other words, we should get rid of the popular vote and just have delegate votes decide.

However, countries and fandoms are of different sizes. Each country is now represented by two delegates, disproportionately favouring smaller fandoms. Note that I do mean fandoms rather than countries, as their relative sizes vary significantly. In other words, fixed-size delegations aren’t fair.

Instead, we should provide a mechanism for a country to enlarge its delegation past a fixed minimum (e.g. one), up to a fixed maximum (e.g. five). For example, we could require 100 native fans’ signatures for each delegate past the first one.

Variably-sized delegations, depending on active outreach by the delegates, the bids, and the award nominees, would provide a structure for the networked promotion of Eurocons, and of European fandom. ESFS could even facilitate the delegate selection, turning it into and popular vote and implicitly authenticating the delegates.

… and that’s it for me, for now at least, on how-to-fix-ESFS. I may have more later, though, and I heartily invite counterproposals and counterarguments to my points. But I do think we should talk about all this well before Shamrokon, and get all this sorted, finally.

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Thoughts on social equality

Today in Finland is our flag day for Minna Canth, marking the importance of social equality. This has made me feel rather conflicted, and makes me wonder how much of a bubble I’m living in, compared to the rest of the world. You see, from where I’m looking at things, we have social equality. Of course it’s not complete, or perfect, but it’s pretty darn close.

And as it’s clear that out there in the rest of the world social equality is not such a fundamental truism, it makes me wonder if this bubble I’m in extends actually outside my own head; is there social equality in Finland?

A bit of personal background and context might help explain my point of view: My grandmother was, among other things, a liberal, then social democratic member of parliament (first woman to get over 10 000 votes in Finland) who championed social equality and women’s rights. My father was a trade union lawyer who was among the first in Finland to take paid paternal leave when I was born, and later worked at the International Labour Organisation to help bring workers’ rights globally. My mother is an active member of the social democratic party, and has had a full career as an occupational health doctor.

I could well extend this list to include friends and further family, but the point here is that to me it feels like the fight for social equality is a fight that my grandparents and parents fought, and won. It doesn’t feel like my fight. What’s left to do is the maintenance of these rights, and their expansion, but I don’t feel a driving need to actively push for the things I believe in, like unconditional basic income, or a more liberal concept of marriage. And that lack of activity on my part makes me feel conflicted, as it means I don’t “really” believe in the things I believe in, because otherwise I’d work for them, right? Because that’s what my parents and grandparents did.

Hence the difficulty with this bubble, and dealing with people and issues outside it. Am I a bad person for not trying to expand social equality for everyone, or is it enough to just passively take it into account? That, if anything, should really be a first world problem. But unfortunately it’s not (yet), and it makes dealing with Americans in particular difficult sometimes, as in this aspect at least, we come from rather different cultures; superficially similar, but built on very different tenets.

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Eemelin näkemyksiä fandomin tilasta ja vähän kaikesta

Olen tietoinen siitä etten aina ole kovin hyvin kommunikoinut näistä projekteista mitä on tullut aloitettua, joten tässä vähän laajempi esitys siitä miltä fandom kaikilla skaaloillaan mulle juuri nyt näyttää, ja mihin tässä olen itse pyrkimässä.

Tästä nyt tuli seitsenosainen eepos, mutta toivottavasti hyödyllinen sellainen. Tarina kulkee menneestä Worldconista tuleviin, josta palataan Euroopan kautta Suomen fandomiin, tähän laivaprokektiin ja muihin tulevaisuuden mahdollisuuksiin.

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