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Worldcon Friday

Started: 2021-12-25 11:25:18

Submitted: 2021-12-25 13:15:16

Visibility: World-readable

Attending Worldcon panels, meeting Escape Artists, and seeing modern art

Friday, 17th December was my second full day in Washington, DC attending DisCon III, the 79th World Science Fiction Convention. After breakfast I had a bit of extra time to get to the convention, so I walked down Black Lives Matter plaza, with the White House visible in the distance. This was two city blocks where the city had painted "Black Lives Matter" in massive yellow letters on the street, leading towards Lafayette Square where the previous president had stormed across the park in a hail of tear gas for a photo op in front of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Black Lives Matter Plaza looking towards the White House
Black Lives Matter Plaza looking towards the White House

I looped through the park and headed to the metro to attend the convention.

Lafayette Square and the White House
Lafayette Square and the White House

The first panel I attended was "Legal and Actuarial Supernatural Hypotheticals", asking how the legal system would handle the sudden advent of magic in the world ("badly" was the consensus). This panel was packed into a side room with every seat full. The panel asked whether spells were protected by copyright or patents, and concluded that they were probably similar to cookbooks, where the recipe itself is a list of ingredients and procedures that is strictly factual and can't be copyrighted, but the presentation of the spell can be copyrighted. I wondered about the risks of copying and pasting a spell from Spell Overflow.

At one point the panel discussed the legal liability for magical artifacts, and the panel's lawyer (who took pains to remind us that he was not practicing law on the panel and was not offering legal advice for handling magical situations in the current legal system) suggested that the license agreements for magical artifacts would include language disclaiming "tort liability for use of such monkey paw".

The panel discussed how the legal system would react to the sudden advent of magic (and, among other things, whether magical beings would be considered people under the law). The US federal government would probably move slowly, and we'd end up with each state (and possibly local governments) having their own magic policies, and then we'd have to spend the next ten or twenty years trying to reconcile it and still getting it wrong. They didn't have enough time to discuss how different realms would — would they be separate countries, and we'd have fairy ambassadors to the United States? What does customs and border protection do when one can portal into an alternate realm from anywhere?

It occurred to me that, in a magical world, California's Prop 65 warnings would have to include risks of injury to fae (iron), werewolves (silver), and vampires (wooden crosses).

Next I attended "Holding Superheroes Accountable", an interesting discussion posing a question related to the prior panel, but focused on super-powered individuals. The panel posed questions including how would society and the legal system handle super-powered people ("badly" was the consensus) and whether we'd need a super-powered police force to handle super-powered people (probably, but it'd also go badly), and a fair amount of discussion about whether super-powered people would behave themselves (the consensus was probably not), and what examples of these questions can we find in existing super-hero media.

I grabbed a quick lunch from the tables set up along the hotel's main hallway and took it outside to eat before my next panel. The next panel I attended was "The Softer Side of Science Fiction", in the Blue Room, so there was plenty of room for everyone to sit with enough space between us. The panel description talked about fiction based on "softer science" but the panel spent the first half of the hour bogged down on misunderstanding the point of the panel as "soft sci-fi" (in opposition to "hard sci-fi", including guest of honor (and panelist) Nancy Kress objecting to the very premise of the panel. The panel eventually came around and got closer to discussing its actual brief and did mention a couple of stories that met the original brief, including my all-time linguistics story "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang.

The next thing I attended was the Escape Artists Meetup. I've been listening to the podcast Escape Pod since 2008, when one of my friends handed me a CD with a handful of episodes on it. I spotted Escape Pod editor Mur Lafferty and joined the group to say hi to the Escape Artists staff who were present, as well as other fans who attended the meetup.

Dealer's Room at Worldcon
Dealer's Room at Worldcon

I dropped by the dealer's hall for a quick circuit, then checked my calendar for what I wanted to do for the rest of the day. None of the panels in the 16:00 slot looked especially interesting so I left the convention to catch one more Smithsonian museum. In the metro I was surprised when a new shiny 7000-series train pulled up at the platform; last I checked the new rolling stock (representing 60% of the whole fleet of the metro) had been removed from service to address some manufacturing problems with the wheels and axles, which were apparently implicated in a derailment two months ago. For the past two days, the metro had been running on reduced service with a reduced fleet, and reminded us with constant announcements in the stations. I learned later that the metro had begun to return 7000-series trains to service today, so I just happened to get one of the new trains in service.

Washington Metro 7000-series cars 7552 and 7562
Washington Metro 7000-series cars 7552 and 7562

I rode the Metro to the National Mall and walked to the Hirshhorn museum of modern art. This building is, itself, a piece of modern art: a four-story concrete cylinder, elevated off the ground with a large circular atrium in the middle. The entire building was covered in scaffolding to replace the outer wall of the building to address a problem in the original construction (with interpretive signs assuring us that it would still look the same after it was done, and we wouldn't notice the extra six inches of diameter the construction would add), and the scaffolding was wrapped in a massive piece of art called "Draw the Curtain", apparently referencing the fact that the art was itself curtaining off the museum's construction.

Hirshhorn Museum's occulus
Hirshhorn Museum's occulus

Inside the museum I looked through an exhibit about Marcel Duchamp, which was interesting but didn't seem to have a lot of new things to say about the artist or his art. The next thing I saw was a massive art installation called "Picket's Charge", which started with billboard-sized reproductions of the cyclorama painting at Gettysburg and then distressed the print in various ways, including tearing away layers of the print (often by removing ropes under the print). My immediate impression was the palimpsest of layers one sees in cities with advertising posters pasted on top of other advertising posters, forming thick layers of posters going back in time, where every previous layer is still there and is occasionally exposed (often resulting in hilarious anachronisms advertising shows twenty years ago).

Picket's Charge at the Hirshhorn
Picket's Charge at the Hirshhorn

The installation included panels going all the way around the inner hallway of the museum. Each panel was different and weird in its own special way.

My favorite art installation at the Hirshhorn was in the exhibit "Laurie Anderson: The Weather". Walking through the exhibit I found myself in a hallway with words in white letters hand-painted on the black wall with a TV mounted above the opposite door showing an animated version of the same room in three dimensions, presenting the text on the wall like an endless stream of consciousness and the door like a portal I was floating towards. The door led to a large room with more text painted on the wall, all random quotes and associations, with some larger pieces of sculpture on the floor. The whole thing reminded me of a fever dream and a panic attack (because most of the text on the wall referenced various anxieties) and a little bit like a walk-through version of an anime depiction of some key moment in a cyberpunk alternate present.

I left the museum when it closed at 17:30 and sat on the Mall for a few minutes in the dark, under clouds lit by the city's lights, until those clouds started to sprinkle rain. I dropped by my hotel then went to supper at Mission Dupont Circle, where I ate a great plate of fajita tacos that were about 50% mushrooms by volume. (I figured I ought to eat mushroom tacos while I could since Kiesa wasn't with me and she wouldn't appreciate them.)

While I was eating I noticed on my Google Map a Gandhi statue around the corner, so after I finished eating I walked around the corner and found the statue in a little park at a triangular intersection across the street from the Embassy of India.

Gandhi statue in Washington DC
Gandhi statue in Washington DC

The embassy was in a pair of otherwise-unremarkable townhouses. I looked around the outside of the buildings then decided I probably shouldn't spend too much time taking pictures of the front of the embassy at night.

Indian embassy in Washington DC
Indian embassy in Washington DC

On my way back to Dupont Circle to catch the metro back to my hotel, I found a brightly-illuminated statue of Saraswati outside the Indonesian Embassy.

Saraswati statue at the Indonesian embassy
Saraswati statue at the Indonesian embassy

I found my way back to the metro and went back to my hotel for the night.

Train arriving into Dupont Circle metro station
Train arriving into Dupont Circle metro station
class? uh... what class? .... but dad, it's a _net startup!_
- Scott J. Galvin, 19 November 1999