hacker emblem
jaegerfesting
Search | Tags | Photos | Flights | Gas Mileage | Log in

Pandemic Worldcon

Started: 2021-12-23 16:43:39

Submitted: 2021-12-24 14:58:38

Visibility: World-readable

My first day at Worldcon, including a smattering of panels and a John Scalzi Dance Party

My alarm woke me up at 08:00 on my first morning in Washington, DC. This was a reasonable time to wake up in my new time zone, and I tried not to do the time zone conversion to check what time it was back home in California. I ate breakfast at my hotel and walked a couple of blocks down K Street to the Farragut North stop on Metro's red line to take the Metro to Worldcon.

K Street in Washington, DC
K Street in Washington, DC

I got off two stops north at Woodley Park, bored deep underground with an impressively long escalator shaft leading up to ground level. On the train I saw some people who looked like they might be heading the same place I was (some of them holding paperback sci-fi novels) and they all got off at the same stop and followed the sign to the Omni Shoreham Hotel around the corner from the metro stop.

Escalators leading out of Woodley Park Station
Escalators leading out of Woodley Park Station

Inside the hotel it was obvious that the hotel had been taken over by my kind of sci-fi nerds. I followed the directions to the registration desk, and braced myself for the long lines I'd read about on Twitter from the previous day, but when I arrived at 09:30 there was no one else in line (which meant it was not immediately obvious that the tape marks on the floor were supposed to indicate where I was supposed to wait). I showed my vaccine card (the first time I've ever shown anyone my COVID-19 vaccine card to prove that I was vaccinated, though I sent my employer a picture of the card; I carried it in a clear plastic bag in the hope that it would provide some additional protection for the all-important card) in exchange for a token, then showed my ID for convention registration. I got my badge and lanyard, picked up the printed programs, and I was completely registered in about ten minutes.

This left enough time to walk around the convention space ahead of the first scheduled programming slot at 10:00. This convention was set up as a hybrid convention, with online-only virtual programming in the program guide next to the on-site programming. I looked around for a room designated to watch online-only programming because some of the programming notes had said something to the effect of "we'll have somewhere to watch virtual programming on-site" but it wasn't obvious where this was, so I went to my backup programming choice, "How NASA and Other Space Agencies Use Art".

In the program guide, this was intended as a panel discussion with actual NASA people to talk about art. (The panel description referenced the travel posters NASA published a couple of years ago; we have a series of prints of these posters and had them hanging up in the house we rented last year, though we haven't found a place to put them in our current house.) But the actual NASA people didn't come to pass so instead we had one guy sitting up on the podium of a small hotel ballroom talking off-the-cuff about space programs and space art and art about space and space exploration, without the benefit of actual visual aids so we could even see the art in question. This was interesting, but would have benefited from some additional preparation. (At least there were enough seats that I didn't have to worry about anyone sitting within six feet of me, a nice way to ease back into the idea of doing things in person with other people in close proximity to me.)

The convention set up programming on 90-minute intervals, with each program expected to take 50 or 60 minutes, followed by a 40 or 30 minute passing period. Once my first program wrapped up, this gave me plenty of time to wander into the dealer/exhibit hall before the next scheduled program. The dealer/exhibit hall was in a low-ceiling room with a concrete floor; it took me a complete circuit of the room to realize that it was really a parking garage that had been repurposed. (I could still see the parking spaces painted on the floor, but the entrances to the outside had been closed.)

I did see, on one wall of the exhibit hall, this year's Hugo Award base along with the chrome rocketship trophy.

DisCon III demo Hugo Award
DisCon III demo Hugo Award

I found my next panel, "AI in Fiction and Reality", in the Empire Ballroom, directly below the ballroom where I attended the first panel, accessed by a complicated set of hallways and stairways (or an elevator, but being fully capable of taking the stairs myself I never took the elevator, leaving it for those who needed it more than me). The convention had included in the guidebook a schematic of the hotel's convention spaces, but they chose to squash some of the stairways to make the map somewhat easier to read, at the expense of eliding some of the more complicated details of how the space really fit in three dimensions. The best description of the space that came to mind came from the ancient texts, "a maze of twisty passages all alike".

The panel was an interesting discussion about comparing AI in fiction (where we get things like omniscient artificial minds that think like humans) versus the sort of machine learning that we actually have in 2021. The discussion diverged into a conversation about biases in machine learning, the habit of machine learning to fixate on arbitrary things that aren't actually correlated with the desired outcome. There was a brief discussion about how the human legal system would handle rights of non-human machine intelligences, and the consensus was "badly".

By this point it was 12:30, so I nipped across the street for lunch at Chipotle, then hopped on the Metro to travel inbound to the National Mall. I tried to watch an online-only virtual panel ("Poverty and Wealth Inequality in Science Fiction") but even when I was logged into the convention's website I couldn't see the panel's streaming video on my phone. I watched the text stream by for a few minutes but gave up on the video. (I think the problem was that Safari on my iPhone was blocking the cross-site cookies that the convention's website was trying to use to get the video to load, but I didn't have a good way to test whether this was a normal iOS feature or an artifact of the pre-release OS I was running.)

Platform at Woodley Park Station
Platform at Woodley Park Station

I nipped away from the convention so I could see the National Air and Space Museum. The museum was mostly closed for renovation, but several galleries were still open, including some of the most important pieces in the collection. I started in the Milestones of Flight hall at the entry, with representatives of the first two crewed American spaceflight programs: a Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, sitting in a glass display case. I was impressed how tiny the Mercury spacecraft was: just large enough for an astronaut to sit, not big enough to stretch out. Notably missing was Apollo 11's Columbia; I saw the ring that held the spacecraft, but the spacecraft itself was missing. (I did get to see Columbia two years ago on its tour in honor of the 50th anniversary.)

Milestones of Flight Hall at the National Air and Space Museum
Milestones of Flight Hall at the National Air and Space Museum

The Space Race gallery was packed with rockets and more spacecraft, including a docked Apollo-Soyuz Test Project module (using unflown spacecraft from both countries), and a life-sized Hubble Space Telescope model used for payload handling tests. The Hubble display was updated with details from the Hubble service missions, and included a sizable piece of hardware removed from the telescope on one of the service missions.

Space Race gallery at the National Air and Space Museum
Space Race gallery at the National Air and Space Museum

I nipped by the gift shop for some light Christmas shopping and looked in the space shuttle gallery, then found the Wright Flyer on the second floor. The display included a note that this aircraft was original, but it had been recovered with new canvas wings recently so it looked new. It also included a note imposed on the museum by the Orville Wright estate about the historical importance about the plane, the only artifact of the long-running feud between the Wright Brothers and the Smithsonian about the veracity of the first-in-flight claim.

Wright Flyer at the National Air and Space Museum
Wright Flyer at the National Air and Space Museum

I dropped by Skylab on my way out, and then I left the museum, having seen everything on display in about 90 minutes. (The museum's website pointed out that the satellite facility at Dulles was fully open (and, since I last visited in 2007, the museum had swapped out its centerpiece Enterprise for a space shuttle that had flown in space), but I didn't want to take the time to go all the way back to Dulles.) I left the museum, walked across the National Mall, looked down the Mall to the US Capitol, and caught the Metro back to Worldcon.

Skylab at the National Air and Space Museum
Skylab at the National Air and Space Museum

I returned to the convention in time to attend the "Worldbuilding Spacefaring Civilizations" panel, held in the Blue Room, the largest room at the con. This included John Scalzi, who has things to say about worldbuilding. The panel's primary thesis was that the tech one had for space travel dictated a great deal about one's civilization: if we can hand-wave interstellar distances away it matters whether it takes days, weeks, months, or years to travel between star systems. (It's much easier to set up some sort of interstellar empire the faster one can get between solar systems.) One of the panelists had assembled (as an academic project) a database of exoplanets depicted in fiction, and there was a discussion that it was unrealistic to get human-habitable planets with breathable atmospheres. Someone posited the idea that living in space was "space glamping".

The convention issued masks to panel participants with clear windows over their mouths and some sort of filtering material in the white borders above and below the mouth. This made it easier to see their mouths (and to tell whether they were talking or not, if one didn't immediately recognize their voices or could interpret body language), and it was probably a good idea, but it was a little weird to see sort-of-disembodied mouths talking in the middle of a white border, especially after spending the better part of two years not seeing anyone's mouth when I was out in public.

I dropped by the dealer's hall during the passing period before the next panel I wanted to attend, then sat on a bench in the hallway and talked to a guy who sat on the other end of the bench before hurrying across the hotel to the Carrie Vaughn and John Scalzi reading. I arrived at the door to the small room just as the panel was about to start and found the door closed, and I was worried that they were going to invoke a fire-code-compliant no-standing rule, but there was at least one empty seat on the back row of the room, and as more people snuck into the room late they stood along the side wall or sat on the floor. This was the first room I'd been in that was totally packed, and I was not sure how worried I ought to be about the risk of transmitting COVID-19 in the room. Everyone was masked and had to prove that they were fully vaccinated in order to attend the con, but the newly-designated Omicron variant was causing break-through cases, and might have been transmissible in the closely-packed room. But I stayed in the room and hoped for the best.

Carrie Vaughn read from her new book Questland, which sounded amusing (and included a mention of an adorable rabbit-sized trebuchet used against the human characters in the book. John Scalzi read from his upcoming book Kaiju Preservation Society, which featured a chapter set in the opening days of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City in March 2020. I am not sure I'm ready for fictional depictions of the global pandemic we're still living through.

After the reading I walked to the nearby neighborhood of Adams Morgan to eat ramen for supper. The weather was dry and mild, perfect for an early-evening walk for supper. I tried to watch a couple of online panels but ran into the same problem I had earlier, so I skimmed the text captions (which did show up just fine on my phone), but it was hard to read the paragraph-sized wall of text in near-real time and get an experience similar to hearing the conversation in real time.

I nipped back to my hotel for a couple of hours (I reviewed the program for the next couple of days to get an idea of what I might be interested in attending), then returned to the hotel for the John Scalzi Dance Party, held in the Empire Ballroom on one of the hard-to-find lower levels of the hotel.

John Scalzi played a delightfully-eclectic mix of dance and pop music from 1970s disco to 2020s pop. He had his laptop set up on stage hooked into the sound system, and once he'd queued up the next song he ran down to the dance floor, where he was an enthusiastic (but not alltogether skillful) dancer. His wife stayed on the dance floor and danced back and forth, a noticeably better dancer than most of the people on the floor.

I grew up as a conservative Christian, where "thou shalt not dance" was practically the eleventh commandment, so I missed all of the formative experiences that would have taught me how to dance. I stayed on the sidelines for the first couple of signs, feeling extremely self-conscious, but still vaguely bemused by the whole thing. The crowd was a bunch of sci-fi nerds, most of whom were only slightly better at dancing than me, but some people clearly came prepared with the right clothing, footwear, and skills to dance. (One woman danced across the floor on stiletto heals, somehow perfectly steady on her feet.)

After a few songs I stepped onto the side of the dance floor and tried to figure out what to do. I quickly discovered my next problem: my first instinct when I heard a new song was to pick apart the beat, and then I tried to reverse the mix to figure out what instruments and techniques were used in the song (and, from that, to try to infer the era of the song based on, say, a single-note melody played on synth that might have been making virtue out of the necessity of being able to only play a single note on a synth at a time). This involuntary reaction took about 60% of my processing power, leaving the remaining 40% to try to figure out how to dance (badly) to the music. I usually figured out something to do with my feet (usually stepping back and forth to the 4/4 beat) but I basically had no idea what to do with my arms.

After all that, though, I was probably around the bottom quartile of dancers on the floor; there were people with even less rhythm and coordination than me.

I stayed on the dance floor until after midnight (including, as Scalzi announced over the microphone, the traditional midnight dance of "Time Warp"), then I took my leave and headed back to my hotel for the night.

Well aren't *we* the superior ones? Reveling in our great awareness as we
march into the ocean, fully cognizant of the destination to which *our*
herd of lemmings plunges? ;)
- Bitscape, 23 May 2000