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ICON 31 / 2012

I did not expect ICON 2012 to be better than ICON 2011 or ICON 2010 for me; my car caught on fire and burnt to a crisp 2 weeks before the convention (I do not know why, nor does my little sister who was driving at the time) which substantially complicates transportation & limits times, and none of the guests were connected to my own interests as opposed to last year where there was Tiffany Grant. ICON 32 /2013 will be even worse, as it will be held at Hofstra University (a 50-60 minute drive).

Thursday, 29 March

Regardless, I showed up as usual on Thursday at 5 PM sharp (sans sister, who had returned to college upstate and was missing ICON). I was immediately struck by how much of the work had already been done: tables spread out in piles and some chairs as well. I signed in, grabbed gloves, and got to work.

We were already in the table setup stage, so we did that relatively quickly while I took stock. Many of the staffers were the same - Liz was doing registration as usual, the big fat guy with the mohawk was running construction, the paunchy bald guy popped in from time to time, although not Bill etc. (One thing I was struck by: the use of tablets as well as laptops. I know the iPad is insanely popular and all, but deep down I believe they are toys.) There were also some of the same volunteers as before, like the tall guy Kevin (who for some reason I thought was gay, perhaps due to his glasses and My Little Pony t-shirt, but I may or may not have been told the next day by an Asian Dr. Who cosplayer that I was mistaken about that) and a few of his associates. But mostly new faces. Not many new faces, though: while there was less work, I had the feeling that there were less people as well.

As we unfolded tables, the feeling grew stronger: there were less tables as well. There was more space between the aisles, and arranging them was easier. (When we got to the adjustment phase after dinner, it was fairly easy and not insanity-inducing. Why? I assume the margins were more generous this year…)

When the table-folding died down and I got tired of standing around waiting for tables to need moving a few inches, I switched to the cloth stalls. The blue cloth stalls? Also fewer in number, with actual leftover poles & drapes. I was sure there were more last year, bigger clusters. What happened? From the economics I know, 2011 was a worse year than 2012, so one would expect more dealers or at least the same number, and not fewer. When I brought it up, no one mentioned any increase in dealer fees and it’s hard to imagine that the elasticity of dealer demand is such that the nonprofit did better by leaving slots in the gym wasted.

(Random thoughts during the night: sliding the drapes onto the poles was best done like the drape was a condom. The shadows cast from the smallest structure by the many gym lights formed a reversed swastika. What on earth is all the construction Stony Brook is doing in between the sports complex and the Student Union and how much is being paid for on the backs of the undergraduates?)

Dinner came at a pleasing time; the subways were OK, but the chocolate cookies were better than your usual catering and I enjoyed the pasta salad. Continuing the disturbing feeling of smallness, there were plenty of leftovers and I stuffed myself with 3 plates or so. (Well, it would go to waste if no one ate it…)

The post-prandial activities were much the same as before, although we soon switched to hauling chairs around and moving tables into the draped booths. At 8 PM, we were told to clear out. A giant line formed to check out (I took the opportunity to eat some more, since the line was going nowhere fast). I asked when to come back, and was told 10 AM the next morning. Well. I’d try.

Vital stats:

  • number of steps recorded by pedometer: 10,981 (average: <6,000)

    I only recently began wearing a pedometer; I wasn’t surprised that I had doubled my daily average working since my feet were a little sore the next morning, but I was dismayed that it was only 11,000 steps - since 10,000 is the recommended amount and the healthy Amish clock in with averages like 18,000 steps. Clearly I have a ways to go.
  • sleep score that night: 92 (average: ~94)
  • mood (1-5): 3.5 (average: 3)

Friday, 30 March

As expected, my ride wasn’t doable until noon and I missed any round-up at 10. After the usual long wait at the crowded volunteer desk in the SAC, I learned there was no work and I should come back ~3-4 PM. Well, fine. I could kill time in the library, or better yet, the SF Forum! I didn’t know if they were open, but if I was wrong, it was a short walk to the library.

The Forum was still open, and there were even some people there playing some Marvel 2D fighter; I cracked open Greg Egan’s Permutation City, finished it, and started Egan’s Axiomatic anthology. (Reading the stories, I noticed Egan is really interested in consciousness.) I head back at 3, which in retrospect was a mistake because all the volunteers were just standing around in the sun until 4.

Fortunately, they then called for volunteers for heavy lifting. I thought it might involve the Dealer’s Room again, but the 10 of us headed off to the art show in Javits. You might think that an art show would be easy to set up - some vertical boards to attach pieces of paper to - but no, the vertical boards are more like portable walls. We go back and forth from the truck to Javits. (The truck was on the opposite side from the room for the art show; what on earth?) I used my last quarter of nicotine gum (~1mg) but this turned out to be a little excessive, but the gloves were not excessive.

Once the heavy thick walls had been moved into the art show, we hoisted them up, shifted them fractions of inches at the bald guy’s orders, ran an extension cord from the wall up the side of furthest wall, and duct-taped it to the floor. Only a few volunteers were left by this point, and we slowed down as we chatted and fiddled with the little lights. (There were 3 varieties of lights, and the 3 kinds of metal reflectors had to be matched to the 3 kinds of bulbs, but some of them could only be matched if you actually tried to screw them together and felt how the threads meshed or didn’t mesh.)

The discussion was interesting. I didn’t participate because I knew so little about the topic. Apparently the goth boy (black eyeliner etc) had something in common with the older bald guy: vampire nightclubs in NYC? Given their discussion of age limits, leather pants, and effeminate heterosexual men, I assume sex is involved. (Actually, given that my entire time at the art show was 3 hours and this discussion took up a good chunk of the last hour, I understood little indeed.) Finally, the 3 of us decided we had put in enough hours and we were only tweaking the setup. A common problem with volunteer labor: they just don’t know what to do and lack experience. We quit in time for the festivities to start.

Back to the volunteer desk - hurry up and wait! Half an hour to sign out. It took so long I didn’t ask for hours on Saturday or Sunday. Better to wait until then and ask, since last-minute needs are always popping up in conventions.

Of the 7 o’clock panels, only 2 sounded especially interesting: “DA’s Uber Geeky Sing-a-Long!” and “SCI: Pelcgbtencul (Cryptography) with Izaac”. It turned out that the aforementioned gay guy and his sister/friend/girlfriend were there; I noted this because while waiting at the volunteer table for the hour earlier, I had a confusing discussion with a little Asian-American guy cosplaying as the Eleventh Doctor (there were many Eleventh Doctors wandering around this year) - apparently he is named Kevin and her eerily similar hair is a wig and I am mistaken about her being his sister and he is not gay (or possibly the reverse of all that). But Kevin had said while we were walking to Javits that the Sing-a-Long would be a lot of fun: they’d sing some classics like the first Pokemon theme song and they’d use songs from the Harry Potter musical (whose Harry was on Broadway, did you know? he replaced Radcliffe) and just all that kind of stuff!

So, I went up. It was crowded (mostly females) and it was group karaoke with lyrics projected onto the wall. To my surprise, the first song was a Sailor Moon, and then I was doubly surprised because I could have sworn that the lyrics for it went “the one called Sailor Moon” but the song kept saying “the one named Sailor Moon”. Next was the Power Rangers theme. I had forgotten how terrible it was except for the chorus “Go go Power Rangers!” which everyone could join in on. And naturally, everyone participated in the Pokemon theme song (but not the following Digimon, which says something about their relative popularity). The HP musical numbers were merely OK: extremely clunky songs aimed at exposition. I sometimes wonder why Broadway material bothers with mediocre songs, but perhaps they need to pad out the musical quantities to justify their genre. Eventually more people came in, and they started screwing up the singing, so I bowed out.

The cryptography talk was a disappointment. Very elementary, aimed at covering the basics: the part I heard was an explanation of one-time pads and then some brief descriptions of quantum cryptography (the no-eavesdropping crypto, not factoring integers).

It was almost 8 PM, which gave me 3 options: “Exploding chocolate” and “Tablero: a medieval drinking game” in Harriman, “Godmachine film with Q&A” in Javits, and “The Million Dollar Question: Web or Print” in the SAC where I still was. Naturally I went to the last.

The talk was very small: the 2 panelists and then by the end, 4 other people in the audience. That’s fine by me, since I’ve noticed that the larger the audience, the more reticent the panelists. The 2 panelists were former or current staffers at a site for selling print-style webcomics, I think it was ComicMix. They joked that the guy on the right had twice blown a million dollars on making & selling online comics, so I asked how that was possible. He held up a tablet and showed covers of issues they sold, and I realized they weren’t talking about the usual low-budget webcomics I read like Megatokyo or Dresden Codak but full-blown print comics. They run on a factory-line process, with a script writer, editor, drawer, inker, colorer, even letterers. (I remember when I was reading through the extra material for my Absolute Sandman volumes - “letterer? that’s an actual job? are you kidding me? well, I guess that explains why the text in speech bubbles could be ornate to the point of unreadability…”) Put it all together, and for a finished issues one is talking thousands of dollars (I think $10,000 might have been mentioned.) Run a comic every month, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

The most eye-opening part was the long discussion of the latest revolution in comics: no, not Hollywood movies like Thor or The Avengers as popular as they may be. But tablets! The useless overpriced iPad tablets! People are nuts for them. Comic fans are especially nuts for them because the screen is roughly comic-sized, and the bright settings and high-resolution display really make the comic pop. One of the iPad apps was a viewer/buyer for Marvel (IIRC) comics with subscription functionality, and they were awed to report that total comic downloads (since the service started) had reached something like 40 times the monthly circulation of printed comic books. I had no idea. This was not the first time I saw tablets at ICON and was not the last.

This panel was overall very interesting and I stayed until the end. At 9, my options became going to see Marc Gunn (“The Celtfather Live! Sci-Fi Drinking Songs”) whom I kept missing previous year or the tail end of the “FMV Competition”. Not much of a choice, Gunn it was!

Gunn is this tall hairy brown sort of English looking bloke; his voice was hoarse and he had to keep stopping for water, but it was fun anyway listening to his SF songs. (I still have no idea what his instrument was. It didn’t sound very good. Wikipedia says it’s an autoharp, whatever that is.) I hope next year I can hear him again and that time he won’t be recovering from anything.

Alas, I didn’t get to hear his whole concert because that is when my ride left. Overall assessment? Pretty good day, but would have been better if I had wasted less time at the volunteer desk.

Vital stats:

  • steps: 9,090
  • sleep score: 91
  • mood: 4

Saturday, 31 March

I managed to arrive smack at 11 AM.

This put in the SAC for a promising panel: “Miku Miku Dissection”. I was attracted by the clever name - it forms the acronym “MMD”, which is the abbreviation for the standard Vocaloid video software, MikuMikuDance. Vocaloid is a Japanese subculture, akin to the Touhou subculture: a few official materials form a seed of characters and motifs, which are then expanded upon by fans in their comics, musical tracks, videos, and games, with the most popular elements emerging in a Darwinian melee to be “common knowledge”. The seed for Vocaloid is the voice synthesizer software, and the official character design for each software release. The numbers are staggering: I am finishing downloading a torrent of Touhou music which weighs 240GB+, and there are scores of thousands of Vocaloid songs & videos. I only recently got into Vocaloid when I ran into TAM’s cover of “Last Night Good Night” (done with the Hatsune Miku voice software) - I have a sentimental streak - and was impressed enough to start listening to other ‘standard’ Vocaloid tracks like “Just Be Friends” (done with the Megurine Luka1 voice software). I do most of my Vocaloiding, as it were, on the Vocaloid subreddit.

So I was looking forward to a panel with my fellow Vocaloid fans, but while the fans were there (2 cosplays of designs from various videos), the presenter was not. He was slowed by traffic and showed up 10 or 15 minutes late. Worse, he said he had been informed that no projector would be available for him, so he had not bothered to bring his laptop with his materials! (There was a working projector.) It turned out to be pretty awful; after a short description of Vocaloid, he basically turned the floor over to us, and people started chatting - “hey, did you see X?” “yeah, did you see Y?” “No, but he also did Z and that was one of my favorites! Hey, everyone has seen A, right?” I’d seen a fair number, but really, it’s hard to discuss songs with no ability to play the songs or even look up metadata online! So I left after a bit.

EDU

For the noon slot, I went to “EDU: Rebooting Modern Education”. This was essentially a PowerPoint presentation and discussion of computer-aided education. This was not Khan Academy, but rather, largely based on some big New York City experiment trying out various blends and approaches. It was OK. I don’t actually recall much of it, although I was struck by one graph the presenter had, showing the test scores of a few hundred city kids on various things (they were big on a sort of tree/directed-graph of modules or skills, a bit like Khan Academy), and you could see the ragged red test scores of the kids after summer vacation. It reminded me of some of the background research on how summer vacation damages learning (from a 2011 RAND report I’ve been putting off reading, “Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning”).

Voltaire afternoon

The 1PM slot went straight to Voltaire’s “Voltaire - Puppet Master of the Macabre”. This was the show which Voltaire welshed on last year and had to make up for the time in his concert.

To my surprise, while ostensibly devoted to his stop-animation work - itself a surprise, since I know Voltaire as a musician - something like 45 minutes of the hour was devoted to him monologuing his biography up to the point of entering stop-animation.

He had quite a story to tell, since when he lived in New Jersey as a little kid or something, he became obsessed with monster movies. He would go to the corner store and leaf through the magazines devoted to monster movies, and in particular, the occasional blurbs buried in the promotional material & news about how the movies did their special effects. (While transcribing The Notenki Memoirs, I noticed how often special effects came up; perhaps it’s just me, but was there some brief period in the ’50s-’70s where nerdy kids were interested in how to do special effects? Nerdy kids don’t seem nearly so interested in the topic now, and even as an anime fan, I actually don’t care how effects were done.) Some special effects just baffled him like Jason and the Argonauts2, and he learned they were done: “stop-animation”. The magic beguiled him, and he begged his parents for a camera, and for his birthday, they scraped up enough to buy a new… Super8 camera, I think, which could shoot a few minutes of film, didn’t record audio, and which had to be developed by mail order. (How laughably primitive and awful, the audience seemed to feel.) The parents reasoned he would tire of his toy, but they would at least be able to use it for recording things themselves. The first such recording: a big family reunion in June or so. Voltaire hated it.

He agreed to make the film, but put his own polish on it by creating little paper captions.

“Everyone was so happy to be at the reunion”

Voltaire mimes panning over the relatives, who are of course smiling and waving and mugging for the camera as they try not to drop their food.

“They were laughing and eating and talking.”

More panning.

“Before the accident.”

Voltaire turns to his cousin, and puts ketchup on him. The cousin is posed laying beneath a tree, deathly still.

“Everyone was so sad!”

More panning.

“The End”

This took up most of the minutes, but Voltaire still had a few seconds on the tape. What to do? Stop-animation, of course! He takes his little poseable alien doll with a laser-gun, builds a diorama shoe-box which looks like the bridge in Star Trek, and makes some colored stick or something. Clicking his camera one frame at a time, the alien moves and then shoots out lasers from his gun. (Voltaire commented, or should have commented as Thucydides would say, that he felt a sense of doom as he posed it one frame at a time.)

Finished, the tape is mailed off, and weeks later comes back. The projector is set up, the family gathered, and they watch the tape. Oh dear. “The End” - and blam an alien out of nowhere shooting fucking lasers at you! No one had any idea where the hell it came from or how Voltaire did it! As they looked at him uncomprehending, Voltaire felt a sense of power. From then on, he was hooked. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep that tape.

(I think he must give this monologue every year, because it was very polished. The audience kept cracking up, although this might have been because they were all sycophants.)

He spent as much of his free time as he could manage making little stop-animation videos, neglecting his schoolwork and turning in videos instead of book reports (which got As because everyone thought they were cool). By high school, he had become very goth, dressing like he was the “sixth member of Duran Duran”, IIRC. Tensions with his parents came to a head, and he walked out on them. As he headed to the train station, intending to go to New York City, he was hassled by the local punks for how he dressed. (I wondered if this sort of experience is what his bitter song “Hate Lives in a Small Town” is drawing on.) He got to NYC, and felt at home. He got a place to stay temporarily (he does not say how), walked into Tower Records, and was accepted as a records clerk. His bohemian life had begun, with girls coming in to his job to talk and see him. This caused his eventual firing when his manager complained and Voltaire told him he was only complaining because the girls weren’t there for him. The job was responsible for his meeting an older woman artist, who took him in as her boy-toy. When he was fired, she suggested he finally make some use of his stop-animation talents since she knew a studio that could use a good stop-animator. He took in some of his Super8 videos from high school, and they hired him on the spot. What did they pay? Well, how does $100 a week sound? One hundred dollars - deal! A few weeks later, another animator asked how much he was being paid and informed Voltaire that the starting salary was generally more like $300 a week. Oops.

In any event, with the foxy older lady handling housing, and his animation in greater demand, soon Voltaire was making as much as $3000 a month - not that he saved any of it or controlled any impulses. He saw a nice leather jacket for $1000, he just bought it.

What did he do as an animator? Well, he handled mostly commercials. For example, Budweiser or some beer company runs a commercial during the Superbowl of little clay footballs playing a football game, and he animated that for a while. Quite a mental image: Voltaire standing in a big room with a football field laid on the ground, and dozens of legged clay sculptures standing around him, and crouching down to adjust one, getting out, taking the frame, getting back in, adjusting, getting out, taking the frame… (I spare you the many verbal repetitions Voltaire engaged in to convey just how tedious stop-animation is.)

Then he moved on to “station IDs”: those little multi-second snippets of visually striking animation TV channels used to insert before and after shows or commercials to remind you just what brand you are watching. Those we got to see later.

Finally, Voltaire wrapped it up by briefly sketching becoming a stop-animation professor which permitted him to become a singer.

Then we got to watch the animation. Voltaire explained his long monologue as a way to use up the hour because his entire animation career amounts to a few minutes of footage. (Note to self: never become an animator.)

I omit a number of other anecdotes - Voltaire was quite proud of the narrators and composers he had gotten for some of the clips, and had to explain how he came to know the celebrities like Danny Elfman. But celebrities don’t interest me very much and I’ve forgotten the stories.

The animation itself was short, as promised. Some of it was pretty cool, but mostly it was all spectacle and no story, so it’s hard to describe except with general adjectives like ‘dark’, ‘skeleton-y’, ‘supernatural’, etc.

As we were filing out, I saw Claire and asked whether Danni had come. (I was sure Danni would love the monologue.) She hadn’t, which made sense since she had a flight at 5, but she could have made it, so I had to ask.

Charity auction

I had half an hour to kill before the charity auction. I forget what I did.

The auction was back in Javits 100, which is a pleasant location since everyone can get up close to the stage. There were promisingly few people, and the initial selection was interesting. There was a helping of jewelry, a bit of Dr. Who merchandise (like a red fez), some lovely paper parasols (lovely save their crinkling), and so on. However, I kept being outbid. This become more and more frustrating as time went on - I failed to get a gift for either Molly or Mom, and I didn’t get anything for myself either. There weren’t any really impressive items since the video game producer was not present. (Perhaps because the auction last year was a disappointment for him?) This was to a large extent driven by one person: a fat black-haired dude roughly my age sitting with his little brother in the middle of the right wing of seats. He kept bidding things up and jumping in as an auction was finishing, and he kept buying them too - by the last item, I was guesstimating that he must have spent $200 on items.

The final item was a wood-framed painting of a dragon. It was, specifically, the original signed artwork for the cover of the ICON brochure. It was not big - a bit bigger than a hardcover book - but it was bright and vivid and really quite nice. No convention t-shirt had been auctioned, and I thought this would be a really nice piece of memorabilia for my room. I would definitely pay $70 for it, as much as that would hurt my wallet. It went up to $50 quite fast, settled out, and I bid around $57. Heart in my throat, I waited for the " - gone!" when the fat bastard jumped in. Goddamn him! Well, I didn’t give up there. I slowly bid it up, and I even broke my rule and went to $85, but the fat bastard just kept steadily raising, and in despair I dropped it at $90 or so. (I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had stood up when he bid in the $50s and declared to him my intention to go to $100. Game theoretically, he should ignore any such “cheap talk”, but humans being humans, maybe he’d just give up early. Did he really want it, or was he just throwing money around?)

I felt more than a little bitter at the outcome, but it was time to move on.

Military SF & GodMachine

I stopped into Javits 101; David Weber was dominating the panel again, talking about the military. Yes, the David Weber to my surprise. This talk was not so memorable, and when it finished, I gave Javits 2012, “GodMachine film with Q&A” a shot. This turned out to be a low-budget SF movie with heavy Philip K. Dick influence, about some military dude in a corrupt totalitarian milieu and his run in with a magic native. I left well before it finished. I checked back into Javits 101, for “The Atomic Film Rock Experience”, which was a bunch of live electronic instruments set to visualizations, SF B-movie clips, and retro futurism. The music stunk, so I left quickly.

Cosplay competition

Bored with the alternatives, I just went to the cosplay competition and got a nice seat in the middle (after being evicted twice when my set turned out to be claimed already).

The competition was merely OK. I was pleased the penguin guy was back, and there were a few good skits. I was impressed by the group Vocaloid cosplay, and the group Pokemon cosplay. (The My Little Pony cosplay group was, oddly, not present.) The Zelda cosplayers won first place, IIRC, and bully for them. (The girl made a very cute Princes Zelda, and apparently it was her first cosplay.)

When cosplay ended, I stopped in at a short film, “Coffee and a Bite”. I have no idea what it was - some sort of vampire parody? The dialogue was quick and sharp, at least.

Voltaire

Voltaire’s show was unusually early this year. I looked on the schedule and was struck by the general lack of late evening programming. More shortages.

Regardless, Voltaire started off chipper and chatted with the audience a great deal. Unfortunately, the audience participation quickly went overboard: 2 or 3 fellows up on the second floor balcony began mimicking Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets. Their first few jokes were OK heckling, but they went too far, outright interrupting songs and just being unfunny. Eventually Voltaire began insulting them directly (to considerable applause) and they put a lid on it. Or possibly they were escorted out. Either way was good.

Voltaire’s repertoire was the same as last year, with nothing new to write home about. And that was Saturday.

Vital stats:

  • steps: 4,376
  • sleep score: 102
  • mood: 4

Sunday, 1 April

Weber morning

I poked my head into SAC 304, since it had a panel listed “How to Slaughter Your Children” and listed Weber as a participant. They were discussing the basic idea of killing off characters, and I found their anecdotes interesting enough to stay the entire time until noon.

My first impression of Weber was that he reminded me of a fat Santa Claus. But then I started to notice how he talked: loudly, clearly, unusually slowly, and in well-thought-out sentences to the point where he was literally speaking prose. After I got used to how he spoke, I focused more on the content. Weber’s novels, especially his military science fiction like the Honor Harrington novels, are pretty blatant political, and indulge in very straightforward good-evil typecasting of characters; they are unsubtle political allegories, where typically the liberals are in the wrong against the moderates, with extremist conservatives who are bad guys not because of their beliefs but because of their actions (with a few extremists with similar beliefs but good actions as foils for comparison). I was expecting a shrill old white man who would not be out of place on Fox News, but in person, Weber seemed much more sensible and less extreme than his fictional universe.

Weber admitted that once he killed off a Honor Harrington character simply because he had written himself into a corner and he could no longer make any use of him. (I wondered if this was a reference to Paul Tankersley, but that had a good plot justification, and there are so many books and dead characters that I could be completely wrong.) Some of the others agreed.

The panelist I dubbed Mutton Chops for obvious reasons said he wrote a Dr. Who episode (I believe), in which he said he wanted to undercut the Doctor. The Doctor is always right and always justified in his actions, and it annoyed Mutton Chops. (He may or may not have used the word “unrealistic”.) So in that episode, the Doctor finds himself on some ship with a captain who is insane but is also a genius at whatever it was the ship did (combat, I assume, as I was reminded of Frank Herbert’s Dragon in the Sea). The captain obstructs the Doctor, so the Doctor persuades the second in command the captain is indeed bonkers; the second mutinies & takes over - and kills the captain. The Doctor is shocked. The second says to him: well, what did you expect me to do with him? (I thought that was funny.)

Weber took back control with a long speech about how authors neglect the consequences of a character’s death: it scars the others, leaves holes, etc. He brought in the famous results of On Killing, that something like only 10% of American combat troop in WWII would actually shoot at the enemy, and the military invested in de-sensitization and de-humanizing soldiers, but with Afghanistan & Iraq, has discovered that now it needs to re-humanize troops to make them safe to release into the civilian world. He thought that previously, groups would be shipped back to the civilian world over weeks and months, and had a great deal of time with their combat buddies to begin to cope with and internalize their experiences - but now a plane flight could get you from the dust to home in a day. That most people don’t just “turn off and on” the killer in their heads.

Conscription keeps militaries honest.

At this point, the audience asked about Conan the Barbarian.

Weber was amused. He stated first that Howard was not a happy person at all, and Conan was not a subtle character. He paraphrased something David Drake had said or written:

Any man who puts a bullet through his head at age 30 has a very dark view of the world.

Similarly, people often missed the context of Conan. The world of Conan, Hyperborea or whatever, was a doomed world. It might not die today or tomorrow, but perhaps the day after, or a thousand years from now. Everything and everyone is doomed. Conan is essentially a Nietzschean ubermensch. (As a philosopher, I’d object to this - he’s an example of the vulgar misinterpretation which identifies one of the Untermenschen - the ones with master-morality - with the Ubermensch.) Weber described Conan as not Howard’s “realest” character, giving that designation to Solomon Kane and a name I couldn’t catch.

Then Weber went onto a tangent I really appreciated: while working 4 assistantships at a university, he would tell his class that Hitler’s actions were all highly rational & understandable if one understood his world view. An important writing rule: have no simplistic villains. The villains must have good reasons for everything they do.

Weber gave an example: the Mesan genetic slavers in his Honor novels. They are breeding a master race, and during the centuries, they have blighted the lives of billions - but they are all still human. So he described a scene from a book:

The leader and his wife are preparing for dinner in their rooms. The wife - “Oh honey, don’t wear that red shirt.” The husband: “but that’s my favorite shirt!” Wife: “I know, and hopefully the geneticists can do something about your taste. And you’re not wearing the red shirt.”

(Everyone laughed).

A good writer makes bad guys comprehensible; hence, some fans come to opposite conclusions about Weber’s politics, based sometimes, he said, on the same exact passages from his novels.

Audience question about women - Weber replied that he tried to write strong characters who happen to be women, and not women who are strong. He noted a gender difference: male authors can’t get away with abusing any female characters as much as female authors can get away with abusing male characters. His example was Moon’s Paksenarrion, which apparently involves some unpleasant slavery? He said that if a male had written that material about females, he would have been “run out of town on a rail”.

Around this point the panel ended. As I said, I found it quite interesting. I stuck my head into SAC 302 “SCI: The anti-social that is online gaming: XBL, PlayStation, Steam” but nothing memorable was said (but at least nothing stupid was said either).

Charity auction & Dealer’s room

The auction was in Javits 110, just next to where Voltaire had been. The auction was junk. It had nothing but the leftovers from Saturday, and I couldn’t spot anything new. Worse, there was a huge crowd of people there filling the steep auditorium. Bidding went pretty fast and furious for things I cared little about.

The one good item I spotted before the bidding started was a three-pack of teas: rooibos vanilla, black raspberry, and black orange peach. I’m not a huge fan of black teas, but I’m always interested in trying new ones, and fruit-flavored black teas might be acceptable to my palate. Each package was like 8 ounces, so it was a good quantity of tea. I decided $10 per package or $30 total was my limit. 3 girls got into a bidding war over the tea and pushed it all the way to $41. I was more than a little disgusted and put-out by my loss. The over-bidding was possibly because the auctioneer claimed they were valued at $180, which I thought had to be an overestimate but apparently the girls were not savvy enough to realize. I later talked to the donator, and discovered the teas were actually worth closer to $18! A winner’s curse indeed.

After the teas sold, I walked out because none of the remaining items looked worth bidding on. I headed for the Dealer’s room, reasoning that while I would get no auction discount, it was still worth tracking down the vendor since then I might be able to buy some oolongs or greens which I would enjoy more than 2 blacks and a rooibos.

I wandered through the gym, and I was struck by how many empty tables there were. I had noted on Thursday that we were setting up fewer tables than last year, but the ones we set up were still too many. Many of the dealers were familiar from last year, and in general, the gym was uncrowded and unusually quiet. I was tempted to buy some Girl Scouts cookies; this year, they set up in a corner rather than outside. (I didn’t because the table was staffed only by an adult, and if I’m going to pay for overpriced cookies, it darn well better be part of some girl’s personal development.)

I had a hard time finding the tea vendor, until I finally spotted a set of shelves with tea hidden in a steampunk clothing seller. I looked thoroughly through them, and while there were no oolongs, there were a few greens. I chatted with the friendly vendor and told him I had just come from the auction and how much his teas had sold for; he was surprised and told me they were only $18. I ultimately decided on Tea & Absinthe’s “sun dew apricot mango” (reviewed on my Tea page) because it had such a nice smell when I opened the jar. We had a nice chat, and I gave him a capsule summary of England’s currant industry based on Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653. I never actually finished the book, but I did recall the gist. I think he may have liked me because when I weighed my baggie after the first drink, I found it weighed 1.2oz and not 1oz, and his electronic scale was surely accurate down to tenths of ounces.

Sherlock

I killed time in the Dealer’s room until 10 minutes before Weber’s afternoon reading at 1:30 PM. I arrive at the obscure corner in the ESS building and… there are a few people in the small classroom, and no Weber. Where is he? To kill more time, I went next door to a thing on Sherlock. I liked the show a great deal, as it did a remarkable job of updating Sherlock Holmes and it had all sorts of cute touches like nicotine patches instead of cocaine or opium (which really amused me).

The room was full. People sitting on the floor. Or, I should say, women were sitting on the floor. I counted heads, and the gender ratio was >3:1. The group discussion of fanfics quickly turned to whether Watson and Sherlock were gay (seriously?), and I abruptly realized: these must be Western fujoshi!

Fortunately, I was able to leave that wretched hive of heavy breathing when Weber showed up.

Weber reading

The book was a galley of his latest, War Maid’s Choice (part of the War Gods series). It was apparently due out in a few months.

Before getting started reading his book, Weber insisted on answering questions from his audience. A woman kicked it off by asking about the young adult novels for the Honor Harrington universe. He said book 2 was due for fall, and Stephanie Harrington would have perhaps a third of the book. He mentioned Timothy Zahn may do a future book. (Zahn is a good writer - his Thrawn trilogy revitalized the Star Wars Expanded Universe and made it worth reading.) Part of the uncertainty stems from sales of the first novel, A Beautiful Friendship being “disappointing”, but there was still a steady trickle of orders for it, so that wasn’t fatal. Weber quoted Heinlein on writing young adult novels: “write it exactly like usual, and then remove the cussing and sex”.

He then ranted a little about recent young adult SF being dystopian. This was obviously a reference to The Hunger Games, since the movie was coming out in a few weeks. Kids have enough problems with their lives and growing up that they really don’t need series depicting universes in which all the adults really are out to get them. (I couldn’t help myself, and interjected “It’s not paranoia when they really are out to get you!” At least everyone laughed.) Teens can have real challenges without living in a dystopia. For example, Stephanie Harrington loses both her parents to an accident, and that represents her great challenge.

So, Weber’s book reading. The prologue was quite long, but to summarize: it was a dark and stormy night. Then followed a ridiculous amount of exposition in the Big Bad Guy’s internal monologue. I haven’t read any of the War Gods books, and I suspect I never shall.

After the prologue, Weber took a break for water & questions. (As I said, it was long.) The best part were his stories about dealing with the publishers. Apparently the typesetters or whatever are completely incompetent when it comes to global search-and-replace. In one incident, a correction in one book from “Baron” to “Earl” caused all uses in that series to be changed, and in another, the update was “Lords” to “Knights”. And the publisher doesn’t keep a revision control history (I asked - he said they have established old-fashioned processes which they like), so Weber had to read through galleys of his books to manually correct each instance!

Weber also complained about copyeditors, who messed up in general but in particular with nautical terminology. Ultimately, he got one copyeditor fired because he just kept screwing up. He gave two examples of the copyeditor’s failings:

white horses rolled across the bay

became

…white houses rolled across the bay

(Must have been quite a wind, I remarked.)

Another incident saw

He stood on the fo’c’sle

become

He stood on the foresail

(Jolly good balance!)

Then he read from chapter 2, which featured some “war maid” engaged in handling a resupply mission and going into town. It was kind of cute and much better than the prologue.

Finally, he gave us some inside information on the last book. (It was rather wasted on me, I’m afraid.) He considers that it will finish his War Gods “magnum opus” and plans to go out in style, with a very high body count. In particular, the very last line in the book will somehow tell the reader that multiple main characters “weren’t who you thought they were through the entire book”, I think he put it, and that the reader would then need to reread the book to properly understand everything that was going on. Which sounds like a very nifty trick if he can pull it off.

Fashion

“I-CON Fashion Show: Asian Influences” was scheduled after Weber, and conveniently it was in the basement. I walked in and there was only a light scattering of watchers, with a gaggle of cosplayers in the entrance, and on the right lined up in a neat row in the seats were 5 or 6. One was a pretty good Stocking from Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, but I didn’t recognize the others. (Later I saw them from the front and realized the blond was, naturally, Panty.)

Random music played as the MC introduced each cosplayer while they did the walk before 2 big cameras at each posing point and the overall video camera recording (whatever happens to these recordings anyway?), and described their costume and its manufacture. The MC was herself cosplaying at Katniss from The Hunger Games, and I thought she had made a pretty good costume aside from how she herself was a kind of punk brunette (as I imagined Katniss to be). Most of the cosplayers were new to me, and had not appeared at the cosplay competition on Saturday.

The girl with the most applause, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a midriff-baring character from Avatar (Katara, I believe). I think she is of Indian extraction or something, because she had a relatively brown skin and exotic features. Regardless of the simplicity of her costume, she was definitely shapely and slim enough to pull off the cosplay without problem.

In contrast, a couple came up in steampunk gear, and they were very impressive but got much less applause than deserved. No sex appeal.

The oddest cosplay was a Nyan Cat cosplay! She wore a striped-rainbow cape, pink/pink checker front, pink/grey cat ears, and black mask.

But the whole show wrapped up in less than 30 minutes.

Filk

There wasn’t much left, so I took a small risk and visited “Filk Dead Dog Circle”3 in Harriman 115. The only guy there was an old dude (Dave Weingart) and one listener, with a mic set up; I felt awkward, but I would insult them if I left without even hearing any music, so I stayed. He handed me a pamphlet of filk terms and started playing on his guitar. I thought he was OK until he started a piece I believe is titled “Fear the Night” about a reckless adventurer. It had a strong rhythm to it. Part way through, a young man wandered in with his guitar, and he chatted with Weingart and played a few pieces of his one. The only one I remember was based on a Radiohead piece. I’m not a Radiohead fan but I found it interesting. I just listened patiently, and watched through the windows the stream of people wending their way back from the Dealer’s room and presumably on their way home. Sad that they were missing in, but there was no good opportunity to open the windows and perhaps tempt some of them in. Since we were all enjoying ourselves, it ran over half an hour and we dissolved at 5 PM.

(I did some googling when I got home, and I could not find any lyrics or online versions of “Fear the Night”. Later, I just emailed him asking where I would get a copy.)

The last thing I tried was an author reading by Russ Colchamiro in the SAC at 5. He never showed up, and I gave up at 5:20 or so - but not before telling the programming desk that Colchamiro had welshed on his reading. I spent the next 2 hours or so cleaning up in the gym, got my $20 back, and left around 7 PM. And that was how ICON 31 ended.

Vital stats:

  • steps: 10,909
  • sleep score: 71
  • mood: 4

  1. As the voices go, the Luka voice is the one I like best. But Miku is so popular and used by so many of the best Vocaloid artists that my music collection has wound up containing 4x as many tracks using Miku than Luka!

  2. I remember watching it as a kid in school. I didn’t think the SFX were awesome - just hokey.

  3. A glossary tells me this is not the name of the people involved, but refers to the timing and informality:

    A “dead dog filk” is a filk circle run after formal programming has ended. It’s often one of the last events to end at a con, since it requires nothing more than that the hotel staff not chase us out and that we not collapse from sleep deprivation. This can often be a surprisingly good circle, as people have had time to unwind, have performed the stuff they most wanted to get out, and are thus willing to take a few more risks in accompanying each other.