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This weekend, I took part in a virtual convention. Penguicon, a combined SF/Fantasy/Maker/Techie/Open Source event, cancelled due to the current pandemic, decided to go online with whatever people were willing to run. I went forward with a scheduled reading from my forthcoming novel and a combination of two of my panels, which were related.

I have been reluctant to use Zoom, due to its inherent problems, some of these related to the usual confluence of newfound popularity with the presence online of individuals who received insufficient parental love and/or genetic gifts. It is very easy to locate Zoom conferences, though not necessarily the required passwords. In the case of this Con, some people had hoped to set up a pre-reg sort of situation, but it was not possible in the time we had. Of course, we had to post information for accessing events online.

I checked into someone else's event Friday night. I wanted to participate, and I thought it would also give me some experience with how Zoom events work. I was surprised, while scanning the virtual crowd, to recognize Katyana, an original and legendary e2 Noder. I had last encountered her, many years ago, at the real-world version of this event. We were able to catch up a little, and she asked about the people who still log on here. I've tried to coax her to at least check into our site, something she has not done (as of this posting) in seven years.

I prepared for my reading on Saturday.

As I have already mentioned, idiots with no lives have taken to searching out and Zoombombing events, showing up and being inappropriate. My reading was one of the events to experience, albeit briefly, that annoyance. As we were talking and preparing to start, a few people engaged in Zoombombing of the most predictable kind: yelling obscenities, the word "penis," and racial slurs. Newer Zoom controls allow the person running the event to remove people permanently in about two seconds. I went for the penis-fixated loser first, because I was concerned he might expose his shortcomings. Then I got the others. They were, as I've said, unimaginatively boilerplate. The loser chanting racial slurs was using an anti-Black epithet, not even, you know, looking at my obviously Italian last name and saying, "dago" or "wop." The penultimate arsewipe, the lone female, started a monologue about smelly feet just as my editor started giving her intro. That was, to be sure, more original, but nevertheless redolent of someone emotionally arrested at the age of 5 or 6. In the end, her performance did not engage me, and she was also summarily removed. Overall then, a 0/10. I would not recommend this group to someone looking to be harassed.

I had a feeling about one more participant, and thought about removing him before I started reading. I know that sounds strange. How does someone who was showing only an avatar come across as sketchy on Zoom? He just was. His arrival made me think he was one of the earlier whack jobs, logging back in using a new account. Partway through my reading, he confirmed my suspicions. He began to play obscenity-filled rap. I removed him, but it disrupted the flow a little. These brief incursions aside, the audience seemed to enjoy the reading overall. We had some interesting discussion afterwards, and I think I may have acquired some new readers for my book.

The panel in the evening went well, with no repeat of the afternoon idiocy. I have known Eric Choi for more than a decade now, and have panelled with him many times. He's an author, editor, and an aerospace engineer who has worked on many high-profile NASA projects. As he noted in the panel, I've been trying to get him to Penguicon for years, and I finally did, in a fashion. Larry Nemecek is a writer/archivist/actor of note associated with Star Trek. It was good to get to cyber-know him a little, at least. Our discussion combined two related panels into one hour, so we didn't have as much time as we might have liked, especially for audience comments and questions, but it went well overall. As a bonus, Eric ran photos from Larry's Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion as virtual backgrounds behind him. We will, with a little luck, run a variation of the panel again next year.

I am only now learning the settings for Zoom, and I could not see the entire crowd at once. I assumed those who wanted to ask questions would make themselves known, but they remained politely timid. My wife, following from another computer, sent me messages alerting me to people with hands up. Rather hilariously, she did not message me electronically, and she did not want to speak aloud and interrupt, so she was literally passing me pieces of paper with, "so and so has his hand up." We are of an age group that knows computers but retains a number of habits from the pre-digital age.

Afterwards, the writer Derwin Mak, in the house for both reading and panel, reported participating in an earlier event that was briefly attacked by a lone loser. This discussion concerned speculative fiction and the North American concept of Chinatown. The unsuccessful abortion who attacked that one appears to have had more specifically racist motives. Because that's still a thing in 2020.

Also in attendance for both of my events was a couple, local to me, who have been very involved with SF, but whom I have not seen for awhile. She had cancer. While she is now thankfully free and clear, she had to stay inside while she recuperated. Just as she was finally ready to return to the world, COVID-19 hit. They often go to conventions. At least they had this virtual event.

But we're made for social events, not online games. I hope to see all of these people in the real world soon.

April 26th 2020 was my son's 20th birthday. It was hard to celebrate. The best thing we did was get him a birthday present which was a t-shirt on which were written the words "Coronavirus ruined my birthday."

He'd asked me to bake a cake for his birthday which was fine by me. I started getting to work on it in the morning only to discover there was no sugar in the house! Really there was no choice, I had to go to the store even though I'm trying to shop only once every 2 weeks. One thing that impressed me was that they have a guy sitting in the entry way holding up an iPad with a number on it; the number of people in the store. OK, probably the number of shoppers. Still it was nice to know that it wasn't super-crowded (I was #43).

It was only when I was mostly finished that I noticed the markings on the floor indicating the directions of the aisles! I may have violated them unwittingly. I'll know better next time.

Technically, I didn't bake him a cake!

I baked 2 cakes; one to have at home and one to take to his work the following day.

The one we had at home was an orange flavored yellow cake. I don't believe in box mixes, so this was made from scratch, mostly following a recipe from Judy Rosenberg's wonderful book "The All Butter, Fresh Cream, Sugar Packed, No Holds Barred, Baking Book". I made her sour cream golden layer cake, but added peel from a navel orange. I tried making an orange flavored version of the lemon custard as a filling between the two layers but can't have cooked it long enough as it never set fully. Oh well, it was nice to eat on its own. For the frosting, I switched to The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum. I was going to make her Neoclassic Buttercream but that called for corn syrup which, you've guessed it, I didn't have any in the house. Instead I made the Classic Buttercream which just calls for sugar. Again, I flavored it with orange peel and a few drops of orange essence using the latter very sparingly as it can be bitter.

The second cake was much simpler; I'd found a nice recipe for a flourless chocolate cake with a mocha whipped cream frosting. According to my son, the cake was good, but next time, find a better frosting. I think if I do it again I'll make a chocolate ganache.

What did I learn?

  1. You can always do something to celebrate, even in the weird times we have now!
  2. Baking is easier than plumbing as it only needs one trip to the store, not four.

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