Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Diary: Worldcon Report (Incredibly Long)

I'm home from the convention, and ferociously tired, but let's write this up while I still remember it. This is quite long, covering two SCA demos, a whole lot of panels, dinners, shoppings, and a couple of very long shows...

Thursday: We arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon, around 2pm or so. We had wound up staying in the Marriott in Copley Place, rather than the Sheraton, which was the principal convention hotel. This wasn't entirely intentional (it was mainly due to me procrastinating, really), but proved a good thing: the Marriott was quiet, with efficient elevators; as far as I could tell, this wasn't the case with the Sheraton.

I decided to park there for the weekend. I'd been sort of vaguely planning to move the car down to Alewife, but that was a definite nuisance, worsened by the fact that the red line was going to be interrupted for most of the weekend. As it happened, I wound up taking a lot of stuff (due to the demos) and moving it in and out of the car, so having it available proved convenient. Costly as hell, though -- I spent well over $100 on parking.

After registering for the con, I sought out the organizer of First Night, Leslie Turek. First Night was a sort of mini-carnival being held on Thursday night, and I had arranged for us to have a small SCA demo as part of it, under the rubric of "Period Fun". Leslie gave me signage, and told me where we were going to be, and otherwise left me to my own devices. We were assigned the back of the ConCourse (the primary public space of the convention), a fairly large, if unpretty open space.

The whirlwind started around 6pm. I gathered a bunch of folks to walk out to my car to get the demo stuff. This was no small project -- the Marriott is a decent hike from the Hynes Auditorium, and the parking lot beyond that. But I wound up with about seven helpers, which made quick work of it: we had enough people that no one had to carry more than one thing. We got back, started shoving around loveseats and tables to make up a space, and set things going.

The first official project of the night for me was the Participatory Renaissance Dance. The theme of the evening's dancing was "Dance Through the Ages", so when I wrote to Leslie a few weeks ago we agreed that this was a natural fit. Things started small at first, with just a couple of people in the dance room. Within about five minutes, though, I had critical mass for some bransles, and things snowballed rapidly from there. I ran a variety of bransles, a couple of almans, a bunch of ECD and Petit Riense just because.

By the time I was done, we had around fifty people up and dancing, and as many again on the sidelines watching, so the room was fairly crowded. Fortunately, I had a few experienced dancers in the crowd (particularly ladysprite), which helped. I also was blessed with an experienced SCA musician: Betty Cook wandered in and volunteered to play anything she knew offhand, which proved to be nearly everything. The fiddle wasn't as loud as the CD I made would have been, but it lent an element of verisimilitude that made it spiffier. So overall, the dancing was a smashing success, at least as a consciousness-raiser.

The Period Fun area was a mixed bag -- neither as good as I'd hoped nor as bad as I'd feared. I'd known that this was a gamble, since I had to commit to it while most of the Barony was off at Pennsic. This led to one major snag: far less of the Barony than I'd expected was actually at Worldcon on Thursday. Indeed, fewer than I'd expected were planning on attending at all, and I couldn't really ask people to pay a $50 day admission to help with the demo. So we wound up a bit short-handed, and completely lacking in the Loud Performer Types who I'd been hoping to have as anchors.

The result was that things were decently pleasant, but lower-key than I'd have preferred. We got a fair number of folks come by to play with things and ask questions, and I managed to get some attention with some games (as did ian_gunn, who also did some game-playing with the crowd), but it was fairly quiet. I think we got some interest, so I'm marking it as a success, but with lessons attached. In particular, it was a very good object lesson in the need to think carefully about the "entertainment" aspect of demos, and to plan better for that from the beginning.

The evening ended more quietly than it was supposed to. I got several people to help me lug stuff back to my car, and then came back with the intent of doing some wiggle dance. (The theory being that the Vintage Dancing would give way to modern at 10:30.) However, it transpired that no one had silenced the guard -- everyone at Worldcon had assumed that someone else was running the modern dancing, so there was neither a DJ nor music, and it simply didn't happen. This proved a theme for the weekend; the lesson seems to be that we need to make sure we have music available in the future for such circumstances.

We wandered into the joint Bid Party for Yokohama and Columbus, and I indulged in the bizarre combination of sake and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This was pretty much what I needed at the moment, though, so we spent a while grazing there, while hanging out and chatting with folks we knew.

Friday: I spent the first couple of hours of Friday doing my main pass through the Dealer's Room. See below for the haul from the convention; as usual, I proved dangerously fond of shopping. A number of my favorite vendors were there (including Kadon Enterprises and Isher Artifacts), but I was generally bemused at the predominance of book dealers at Worldcon, far more than at Arisia. This was fine, but most of them seemed to be taking up half their tables with Terry Pratchett books (he being the GoH, and an exceptionally prolific author), so I think they were competing rather strongly with each other.

In the early afternoon, I changed into garb and took off for MIT, which was having its annual Midway from 4-7pm. I left early, since I'd decided to take the T there. While this was a reasonable decision (I didn't want to risk parking snafus at MIT), it proved problematic: I was dragging a big Rubbermaid tote on a small luggage cart, and this was tricky on the T. Fortunately, Luke gave me a lift back to the hotel afterwards.

The Midway was fun, as always. We had both the core and fringe of MITgaard there (not a lot of people, but it's good that there are some), buttressed by a bunch of Carolingians (including a couple of MIT grads). A few fencers came by, and did some showing off outside. (Note for future: we should officially assign someone to play ringmaster when we do this, to attract more attention and actively describe what's going on to the crowd. Requires the right personality, but would magnify the effectiveness of these combat demos quite a bit.) We managed to get around fifty names on the signup list, of which I think about a dozen are seriously interested, which is about par for the course -- hopefully we'll get a new crop out of those.

After getting "home", I changed back to mundanes, and we went out for a date. Concluding that the usual date suspects were just Too Damn Crowded, we headed down to Chili's, which was fairly quiet. A couple of margaritas were useful for unwinding -- more than I normally drink, but I wasn't driving anywhere. After that, we wandered down to the Sock Hop. This, unfortunately, turned out to be entirely Swing-oriented, eschewing Rock pretty much entirely, so once again I was left without dancing. I need to learn how to Swing: while it was fun watching ladysprite (who looked smashing, especially since she was one of the only people on the floor correctly dressed for the dance), I'm getting annoyed at not being able to join in. After the insanity of this autumn is passed, msmemory and I really need to find a decent course.

Saturday: Having finished with my official duties, I was able to start doing what Worldcon does best, and actually attended a couple of panels. First up was "Hear the Symbols Clash!", at noon. This was interesting, if slightly frustrating. It was a wide-ranging discussion of Symbolism as a topic, and I was hoping to get the panels to speculate a bit about the use of symbolism in culture, particularly as a tool for shaping thought, and where that might be heading in the future. However, they were pretty focused on the use of symbolism as a literary tool, and didn't take the bait. Oh, well.

Following that was "The Next Big Thing" at 1pm. This was fun, if a bit unfocused. The panel topic was to try and figure out what the big trends of the next fifty years will be, particularly the ones that haven't otherwise been noticed. Preposterously broad, but the panelists were high-caliber: Greg Benford, John Cramer and Tom Easton, all serious and broad-minded scientists. (Plus Larry Niven, who I'm afraid really didn't have much interesting to say.) Several interesting ideas came out of that; in particular, Benford's contention that we will have to learn how to actively manage the planet sparked some lively debate.

Coming out of that, I ran into Steve Tihor, an old SCA/LARP friend, and we wandered through the Art Show together. We schmoozed about a variety of things, although particularly LARP -- one of these days I'll need to try his Jamais Vu games, another in the "all-amnesia" genre pioneered by TR and TMA. The Art Show was nice, but I hit painting overload pretty quickly: I actually get bored fairly fast when confronted with lots of SF novel covers. When comparing notes with msmemory later, we agreed that the textured and painted metal "paintings" were our favorites in the show; some of them managed an almost startling degree of three-dimensionality, which really grabbed me.

Heading over to dinner, I dropped in a quick vote for the 2007 Worldcon. While I thought both bids looked strong, I voted for Yokohama on the theory that it might make an interesting excuse to visit Tokyo. (Besides, I think the Japanese deserve a shot at Worldcon.)

Dinner was a ql-silly party over at Marche Movenpick. Qls is an old Quantum Leap mailing list that msmemory has been on for many years, and has remained friends with a number of the folks on it despite the reduction of actual QL content in the discussions to near-zero. Movenpick was, as I expected, a good place to bring a large party, providing a broad array of reasonably good options, efficient self-service, and separate checks. I started off splitting an order of surprisingly good Pad Thai with msmemory, then had the killer-hot basil curry with veggies.

After that, we headed over to the auditorium, where tpau was first in line for the Hugos; she grabbed good seats (right behind the VIPs) for a bunch of us. The Hugos were pretty much as expected, a mix of the dull and amusing. Neil Gaiman was a fun MC, although I think he would have been better if he'd been a little more relaxed. (He started out by explaining that he'd come to idolize the Hugos as a small child, so a little tension was understandable.)

The highlight for me was a retrospective of 50 years of the Hugos, given by Robert Silverberg, the only person who has been to all of them. It was a ramble down memory lane in the company of an experienced, funny and slightly nasty storyteller. (Frankly, he reminds me quite a bit of my grandfather, who has a similarly ascerbic wit.) The image I most take away from these stories is of the Baltimore Worldcon that had the awards during a clambake -- the idea of handing hammers to hundreds of restless and bored fen is almost horrifyingly funny.

The top winner of the evening was a surprise, but a logical one: Filthy Pierre was given two separate awards for his years of service to fandom in general and Worldcon in particular. Pierre is the guy who runs the Voodoo Board, the flyer tables, and other essential services that everyone takes for granted. He was given the Big Heart Award, which seems to be more or less the fannish equivalent of an Augmentation of Arms -- recognition of extraordinary service -- and then separately recognized by First Fandom for his many years of service. Not Hugos per se, of course, but interesting in light of the recent discussion of "tracks" that an organization can take: formal recognition of Service track is unusual in fandom, so this double-whammy was pretty remarkable.

Having read few of the works actually nominated for the Hugos, I honestly didn't pay them a lot of attention. Return of the King won Best Long-Form Drama, as I expected -- while Pirates of the Caribbean clearly had its partisans, I had trouble imagining RotK not winning. Less obvious was Best Short-Form Drama being won by Gollum's Acceptance Speech at the MTV Music Awards -- that caused some controversy, but was probably inevitable due to the fact that the three other plausible contenders were all Joss Whedon productions, and presumably split the vote. There was a good deal of annoyance that they sent a recording of some unknown Executive Producer to give the acceptance speeches, especially since he clearly had no clue what a Hugo was. Personally, I would have preferred that they be accepted by the one crew member who *was* there -- he may have just been The Guy Who Did All the Elf Ears, but he was a real person there having fun.

Fortunately, Neil had been quite clear upfront that he expected snafus, so everyone was prepared. That said, the specific snafus were kind of unfortunate. In particular, they clearly had the plan for the big screens set up as a sort of slideshow, and whoever was running it tended to get flustered when things went off-script. As a result, a couple of award winners were given away on the screens before the nominees had all been read. Not the end of the world, but unintentionally tacky.

After the Hugos, msmemory and I wandered over to the Cheesecake Factory for dessert, and spent a while chatting with Susan and Mark, who had landed there for dinner. We then came back to check out the "Dance of the Future", but found that it had already died by the time we got there. According to ladysprite, this was no great loss: it was apparently trying so hard to be cool and pretentious that there wasn't much actual danceable music. She tried to talk me into another guerilla dance party a la Arisia, but I just didn't have the energy to aid and abet it this time.

Sunday: For some reason, the '07 winner wasn't announced at the Hugos, but the morning newspaper announced that Nippon had won, by a convincing margin. Now I have to think about whether to actually make the trek. Well, we'll give it a while before deciding.

I wandered around somewhat aimlessly for much of the early afternoon. I went to one panel: "Creating Gods", with a number of good writers. However, the topic proved to be pretty narrowly focused on the subject of putting gods in as characters in books, rather than the (to me) more interesting subject of religion in general. So I wandered on after a bit.

I wound up down at the conclusion of Junkyard Wars with snarkyman and rufinia. This was damned amusing. The objective was to move a beanie baby about 30 feet, getting it as close as possible to the center of a CD that was set in inside the lid of a Rubbermaid Tote. So it required both distance and accuracy, as well as getting over the lip of the tote. However, contestants were allowed to do it in two parts: you ran your machine, then could restart it where the beanie stopped the first time.

The competitors broke down into three categories:
  • The Low-Tech crowd consisted of three entrants, each of which had taken a coffee can or something like it, put the beanie inside it, and rolled it. The lady who went first was the only one that did this with real style: she calibrated the weight very carefully so that it just kissed the edge of the lid as it stopped. For her second part, she elevated the ramp so that she rolled right in, and wound up an inch or two from the CD. That set the running.

  • There were two Trebuchet entrants. One was very impressive-looking but had a problem: they had designed it so that the throwing arm stopped straight up, so the beanie just sort of went *flop* three feet in front of the machine. The other team did much better, flinging the beanie 20 feet at a time, but nearly scratched when their last test throw landed the beanie in the rafters. As the first few teams did their runs, these guys spent five frantic minutes knocking it back out again.

  • The High-Tech entries were the winners, though. The end winner was highest-tech, being the only one that had used batteries. They built a little tank (complete with treads), and hung their beanie by the neck in the front of it, with its tail dangling down. There was fishing line tied to the back corners, so when they turned it on, two guys sitting at the starting line could steer it by pulling left and right, as two more walked behind it to signal directions. That came out within an inch of the center of the CD.

  • The Style Champion, IMO, was a vaguely horse-like contraption on wheels. A weight hung from the tail; as it dropped, it provided motive power to the wheels. The head was a coffee can with the beanie inside; when it stopped (which happened when the weight hit the ground), the head dropped forward, dropping the beanie quite precisely. On their second shot they got the beanie within about an inch. It didn't win, but I give them major props for coming so close with a device launched from 20 feet away.

Well, after that we headed over to Legal Seafood for dinner. The baseball game was over, making it quite crowded, but we were able to find a high-top at the bar. The food was quite tasty -- I had soft shell crab -- but service was rather forgetful.

The evening consisted more or less entirely of the Masquerade. Once again tpau (with ladysprite) was in the front of the line, so we got very good seats. The show started preposterously late (8:45pm), and was incredibly long (47 entries, including 12 surprisingly good Juniors), but the quality level was exceptional so I forgive it for taking until 11pm. It was very rich in entries based on Discworld, since Terry Pratchett was the GoH. High points included really exceptional winners in the Novice category (a very creepy dark elf) and Journeyman (a very high-quality time-travelers' montage). Susan was the MC, so the usual Marty Gear vampire jokes were replaced by near-continuous baaaahing through the evening.

The Masquerade half-time show sounded just bizarre enough for me to want to see the beginning, and from there I couldn't bring myself to leave. It was a one-man production of the Star Wars Trilogy -- essentially the Reduced Shakespeare Company version of movies 4-6. In 45 minutes, he did all the main dialogue, musical themes, sound and visual effects and all from the whole thing. It sounds hideous, but it was really a comic tour de force: compressed so tightly as to be incomprehensible if you don't know the movies intimately, with brilliant use of his body throughout (the image of using his arms as Jabba's lips will stay with me forever, I'm afraid), an impossible energy level start to finish, and few enough outright jokes that they were *deadly* funny when they happened. (The "I thought you were black" at the end just about landed me on the floor.) His next show is apparently going to be the Lord of the Rings -- I may have to seek this out.

We didn't stick around for the actual judging results, since Star Wars ended around midnight. We did a small party crawl, eventually winding up in a long schmooze with joshwriting and Sue, who I probably haven't seen since college. (I spent much of the weekend running into people who I hadn't seen in geological epochs, like Insanity*3.) We compared notes and discovered that Josh and I share an astonishing number of friends in common. They also had Gwen (Skiasdottir) with them, and I had my first true "I knew you when you were three!" moment in discovering that she's -- well, grown up impressively.

Monday: Panels Day. After spending most of the con wandering around and socializing, I spent the final half-day doing what Worldcon really does best. I probably ought to have done more panels over the weekend -- the con kind of sucked at the things where Arisia excels, but the panel tracks are much, much stronger. Anyway, I saw the following over the next five hours.

At 10:30, I went to a presentation on "The Afshar Experiment", by John Cramer. He had impressed me as an interesting chap in The Next Big Thing, and I'm trying to bring myself up to date in the current state of physics. He showed an abbreviated version of this Powerpoint presentation, and really should have taken a full hour for it, because he had a lot to say. It was quite fascinating: he started with a flying overview of quantum mechanics and the relationship between the fundamental equations and interpretation, then described several interpretations, then described this experiment and the problems it poses for the most popular interpretations. To some degree the point of the exercise was to show that his personal interpretation fits this new evidence better than the traditional ones, but it was still remarkably cool. I finally made up my mind to subscribe to Analog magazine, not least to pick up his bimonthly column.

11am was "What's New in Astronomy?". I only caught the end of it, because I had to do my final pass through the Dealer's Room first (to pick up Nancybuttons and Star*) and grab a cholesterol ring for breakfast. I came in for the last ten minutes -- just as Ctein was described Cool Weird Shit This Year, like the first crude mapping of the universe's dark matter via gravitational lensing.

Noon was "Eyetoy to the Holodecks", the panel on the future of video games. alexx_kay and I were in the front row and kibitzing mercilessly, of course, but it was a fun panel. It wound up focusing heavily on trends in interface design for the next ten years, but with occasional side-trips to subjects like the impact of mobile broadband and the rise of more social gaming. Lots of fun -- it makes me at least a little nostalgic for being in the gaming industry. I don't miss the loony hours, but I do miss the excitement of playing with such cutting-edge tech.

At 1pm, I went to "Hitting the Wall", which was the "anti-singularity" panel, focused on hard limits that we might hit and why they might prevent the Vingean spike from happening. It wound up spending more time on political and social limitations than hard-science ones -- the scientific limitations are well-known, and the point was generally agreed that people are pretty good at finding workarounds to most hard scientific limits. (Eg: if semiconductor speed is limited by the speed of light, you start building quantum computers instead.) This was moderated by Tom Easton, another favorite panelist from The Next Big Thing and another Analog columnist. I would dearly love to take that man's classes: his breadth of science background and sense of wit and perspective are absolutely delightful. The only downside was that several members of the audience were belligerent showoffs, and interrupted each other and the panelists far too much.

I wound up staying with the hard-science theme of the day by going to yet another John Cramer panel: "Deep Time". This was nominally a two-man panel, but really consisted of Mark Olsen interviewing Cramer on the subject of the far, far future -- the subject basically started when the stars go out, and explored out from there. Fascinating stuff, wandering rapidly from quantum mechanics to relativity to cosmology and back again. Rather unsettling in its conclusions: the most current indications say that the universe will not only wind up large and cold, it will wind up with even the elementary particles being ripped from each other and unable to interact. (As a consequence of dark energy gradually accelerating spatial expansion on ever-finer scales.) Possibly the most informative thing I saw all weekend, though.

Towards the end of that, I ducked out to catch the end of "How Do You Know You're Dead?", since I'd told msmemory I would meet her there. As expected, this was a very large, crowded and funny panel, starring Gaiman, Pratchett and Willis among others. Too damned hot, but very amusing. After that, we rendezvoused, headed home, and promptly started this journal entry.

Shopping: Fun and games in the Dealer's Room. The takings from my rampage included:
  • A pile of CDs from filk.com, including one Ookla, one Broceliande, a couple of samplers and three from Arrogant Worms.

  • Three DVDs: an animated adaptation of Pratchett's Soul Music (making my obligatory Pratchett purchase for the convention); Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (yes, I know, but I'm curious); and Past-O-Rama, an exceedingly silly-looking collection of shorts about the future, as seen in the 50's and 60's.

  • A ray gun from Isher Artifacts. (Specifically a Model A with new-style handle -- it glows a purplish-white as it shoots, and should be great for the Marathon.)

  • The card game Counting Zzzzs from Blood and Cardstock. And from Kadon Enterprises I got two new board games: a magnificent wood set of Kaliko, and the very first set of Star*, the new game from the creators of The Game of Y. She only had the one set of Star*, because the rulebook isn't back from the printers yet, but it looks quite neat. Yes, mindways, I'll bring these to game night one of these weeks.

  • And of course, 16 more Nancybuttons. Wouldn't be a con if I didn't buy more Nancybuttons...
Aside from the movie, I didn't buy any Pratchett. Once I'm done with the Vorkosigan books I may check some Discworld out; I'll be looking for recommendations of which ones are worth reading at that point.

Oy. Okay, I think that's the longest LJ entry I've ever written. Overall, a good weekend. Certainly a busy one...
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