Penguicon was quite fun, and absolutely worth going, despite the sneaking suspicion that as three of the nine days I have in town and off work between now and moving I maybe should have stayed home. Methinks I will definitely be doing more of this convention thing, and probably Penguicon again, but I have some thoughts.
First with the good, Randall Munroe is physically as cute as he seems brainy-hot on the internet. That was very unexpected. Don and wattshumphrey assured me they’d bagged him and stashed him in the trunk before we left as a favor to me while I popped into the dealer’s room in order to make efforts at coherent communication with Janny (brain was dead, I think I failed), which I thought was sweet. Unfortunately, Randall seems to have reverted to stick figure form and slipped away when they opened the trunk. If anybody spots him wending his way from here to Massachusetts in a blimp or on an electric skateboard, please return him to his rightful kidnappers.
I really liked the concept of “convention” as place you go and learn cool stuff from people smarter than you. It was just enough like being back in college to soothe massive bouts of homesickness there, except no homework which is great. As it turns out the few computing related panels I went to were not leaps and bounds over my head the way I’d expected them to be. I’ve done a lot more than I’d realized to the point where I walked out of one panel because it was clear they weren’t going to cover anything I didn’t know before it was over. This is largely a consequence of the panels I chose to go to – they definitely had panels that would have been completely new to me – so now I know for next time. Also, big round of applause for the various computers and hard drives that have put up with me screwing with their identities for my personal amusement.
Eric S. Raymond was a complete surprise to me. Five minutes into the first panel I was him on I was certain that I’ve seen him somewhere else but I haven’t been able to place it yet. It might just be from a youtube video or something else on the internet, but the level of recognition feels more like it was a real life encounter, I just can’t for the life of me figure out when or where. At any rate I started a couple rounds of applause for him over the course of the convention. He’s imminently sensible and quite willing to be such in the face of that which isn’t. His rant during the math and elections panel about open source not being a sufficient solution for electronic voting fraud is one I’ve done a few times. I’m happy he exists because he’ll make easy short-hand for my opinions about open source etc. (He did a version of my rant about how environmentalists make their arguments badly for his own thing. I was the first one clapping, but I wasn’t alone)
I liked John Scalzi. He was badly utilized but dealt with it well. I’m not sure why the con organizers decided that putting him on a panel with another fiction writer and a guy who does a bit of internet reviewing here and there who’s brushing off something he started a decade ago other than a malicious need to embarrass the newb, but Scalzi did a fantastic job of keeping the panel balanced and making sure it didn’t wind up being about him, or just him and the other chick with some hefty fiction writing under her belt. (Can’t remember her name. Her stuff was amusing, but not so much my thing) I’m guessing that as a past GOH the con was trying to keep from working him too hard, but he did wind up being the heavyweight and having to moderate himself into equilibrium a couple times.
One thing that really struck me was the lengths everybody would go to in order to avoid saying anything remotely unkind about anybody else. It was a little strange since I caught myself immediately revising comments like, “I’m not sure that panelist was actually paying attention to the conversation. It seemed like she just dropped in quasi-humorous non-sequitors whenever she felt like she needed attention for a minute,” into, “Some panelists definitely had a different take on how to approach the discussion,” when the first was already a tactful, “Jesus Christ that woman was an obnoxious moron with a disgusting and terminally flawed world view!” On the one hand it’s nice to see a group so willing to stretch tolerance to the extent of never trashing somebody in front of a stranger. On the other hand I don’t for a minute believe they haven’t revised themselves into uber-tactful mode to keep from accidentally trashing somebody to their spouse and I rather value having idiots pointed out as such. I’m not so interested in going to a convention just to point out their guests are dumber than fence posts and should perhaps check out research from the current decade on a topic before mouthing off so I’ll definitely be checking out people on guest lists much more thoroughly for future conventions.
Which brings me very nicely into the cons. There were a few panelists who showed up on a lot of the panels I went to who either need a hefty education or to be banned from speaking as an authority on anything. M Keaton being the big one with the name I’m willing to throw out there. When he said he had a book that was all about language and the interaction between it and culture, as military science fiction, my brain went “Ooh, Babel-16 again. That has to be good!” I crossed it off the list when he started quoting pop-linguistic theory that you might discuss in an intro ling class, but only to point out why it’s flawed. For the record, everybody, please do not cite feral children as proof that language is the only thing between humans and X whatever thing. They are not controlled test subjects. They are not repeatable test subjects. We have no idea what their initial baseline was and whether their behavioral and developmental problems might be why they wound up in a situation to go feral in the first place. They’re interesting, they can guide inquiring and nix theories by demonstrating exceptions, but they are not a remotely rigorous proof. Anybody who doesn’t know that or can’t figure out it out through the nature of a feral child should not be allowed near science. Thankyoupissedlinguistrantovernow. That’s not the only reason I didn’t particularly like him – he also had me siding with John Scalzi on the Civil war which, while much less weird than me supporting a democrat for president is notably odd. (It’s easy when on one side you have, “I like blowing up yankees, yeehaw, I’m the comic-relief redneck in the group,” and on the other you’ve got an assessment I 95% agree with coupled with a different priority order from mine. That, and I hate the redneck as comic relief trope. Rednecks are depressing, not funny.)
The only other thing I really feel a need to rag on was the self-promotion panel. That thing was an unmitigated disaster and unfortunately the only people capable of realizing it are the ones who know better enough that it won’t damage them. The wrong information in that panel was astonishing. I get that two of the panelists opted out of traditional publishing methods in favor of hawking their books at cons and have sold 100 copies each while the third runs a fairly successful podcasting website. I even found the third guy a bit interesting. But there is no excuse for talking about traditional publishing with a chip on your shoulder as if you know something about the industry when you don’t. About ten minutes into the panel I could hear Miss Snark screaming in a fury and loading the cluegun. It was physically painful. Add the overwhelming sense that all the first two panelists (who did 95% of the talking between them) really succeeded at was developing a honed sense of inadequacy and wetdreams of being successful enough to be a dick – not that they would because everybody would love them so – and I am both annoyed that I got up early to make it to that panel and apologetic to the guys I dragged with me. (Again, sorry guys)
Oh, and there wasn’t nearly enough art on sale. I’m buying a house and there was not enough selection to even start knocking out the wall decor needs. I did pick up a card for one of the artists. I may track her down about a commission.
Best moment of the con: Randall Munroe, in response to somebody pointing out that he could easily move to anywhere not Massachusetts if he wanted, demanding to know who’s allowed to get married in the proposed alternative state, then following it up with a story about how he dropped letters to the local newspapers in Virginia about their latest idiocy with marriage laws before moving out. I’ve got some personal resentment on that score myself.
Best self-image at the con: I discovered Friday morning that my ipod had gone the way of all ipods and its file system was marginally corrupt and in need of a resent. This was a pain, what with 16 hours in the car over the last three days. At the end of the con today I was walking around with Marduk under my arm, my external hard drive and ipod both hooked into him and stashed in different pockets in my pants, my hat (can’t go to a hacker convention without your black hat, yo) and, just in case it wasn’t weird enough, blue flip-flops. I think I was hella funny looking at least.
Best conversation: I caught John Scalzi just before the MST3King of I, Robot in order to point out that the story about bonobos being smart primates who solve all conflicts through rigorous application of sex is a myth built out of doing field research in zoo exhibits. I was quite irritated on this point at the time because, damnit, he should know better. He did, explained that he was putting that out there for somebody else on the panel to shoot down and it didn’t work. He did not blame Tammy Peirce for obstinately ignoring his point in favor of a non sequitur. That was very big of him.
Best photo-op: The resident giving the talk on the anatomy involved in killing people and how the body reacts to different injuries for the killing a character panel accidentally spraying the ceiling with fake blood during a demonstration.
Best panel: Math and Elections. Hands down. As it went on you could turn around to see people on other panels sneaking into the room to watch.
All in all, quite enjoyable and I’m happy I did it,especially with companions. Dear awesome yet hat-thieving companions, many thanks for letting me drag you along.