Trying Out the Treadmill

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As announced last issue, I went to Westercon and NASFiC with a plan to try video blogging from them. The short answer is that it can be done, as long as you are staying right next to the convention and have a high-speed Internet connection available, and you can see the results of the experiments at as promised.

The longer answer is that I will need slightly less primitive equipment. The $300 camcorder performed above and beyond the call of duty when it came to picking out the panelists in the badly soundproofed rooms at Westercon, but an actual microphone really would help, especially when it comes to trying to conduct impromptu interviews in the masquerade green room. The lighting conditions at masquerades and awards ceremonies went slightly beyond its ability to cope. I also had a mini-tripod which worked great for interviews, but will probably have to get a full-sized one, after learning that there is a certain distance at which I can't hold a monopod steady enough to get a usable picture.

For my video editing studio, I brought a netbook running an evaluation copy of VideoPad. You may laugh, but the time it took to process video was not a problem when I could set up the task and then leave it to do its thing while I went off to another panel or interview. The one big problem was running out of space so quickly. When I got this computer, it had a 256GB conventional drive, which I wanted to swap out for a solid-state drive to improve its survival ability. Flash memory prices being what they are, I had to go with a 32GB drive. Having looked at the prices for larger ones again, it would be cheaper to put the conventional drive back and buy a second netbook as a backup in case the first is unable to perform its duties.

Westercon was a fun little convention of about 800 packed into the function space of a single hotel. The first panel I was on was listed as "Space: the Final Frontier, or is it? Preserving our world." The program book and the schedule handout contained no panel descriptions, so co-panelist Mark Williams and I decided it could be about geoengineering if we wanted it to be.

First thing Saturday, I went to Chris Weber's photo scavenger hunt, which I thought was going to be something where we were shown photographs and asked to find things. Instead we were given a list and told to return on Sunday with photos of as many of them as possible. I did a video and came in third... out of three. Well, I was busy. It was a fun idea, though, and I'd love to see this tried at a Worldcon.

Immediately after the kickoff, I pounced on Mr. Weber for my first interview. As it turned out, this would be my only interview with a pro, because although the convention space presented a supposedly target-rich environment, mine was not the only online con-going, interviewing project trying to get started at Westercon. The other was co-founded by Westercon's head of programming, and so had its own reserved room, advertising all over the green room, and easy access to all participants for pre-arranging interviews before the con started. Thus many people were already subjecting themselves to one on-camera interview, and sorry, they were really busy, and...

I got a couple of good panels recorded, though. Unrecorded but also a lot of fun was "Digital effects: how has it changed the movie and TV industry?", which featured some amazing demonstrations of what's now available to ordinary TV shows, particularly in the realm of putting characters in places where the show could never afford to record on location. The overall conclusion of the panelists was that the industry is undergoing a shift as profound as the one from silent movies to talkies, in which some actors will simply not be able to make the transition.

"Basics of Writing: What every writer needs to know" was full of good advice. I'd actually recorded this one, but Larry Niven had second thoughts when it came time to sign the releases, and my software capabilities didn't extend to being able to blur someone out. (If anyone wants to recommend a program that can do that, feel free to write in. VideoPad was impressive, but it fell just short of what I wanted in a couple other ways, so I'm looking for something else.)

My other panel was "Can you ever be too fannish?", which I wish I'd recorded, because a lot of it wound up being First Fans Len and June Moffat reminiscing about early Worldcons.

I also caught the daytime Match Game SF, which was great, and the masquerade. The masquerade winner had been persuaded to join it the previous day when there were only five contestants registered and had thrown her costume together with materials available at hand. Which I think helps explain why so many people are too intimidated to try entering masquerades.

As I said, it was a fun little con. Commuting to it from La Caņada Flintridge is the main reason why things were still being posted for several days afterward. At ReConStruction, I would be staying in a con hotel, but it had its own challenge.

My guess is that the Raleigh Convention Center was built as a way to revive a decaying downtown. It's a fine facility, set next to two nice hotels, but surrounded by an urban area that goes downhill quickly in most directions. I think it also must be a recent addition, because many of the local restaurants don't serve dinner, and many aren't open at all on Sundays.

Minor quibbles, though. Again, it was a good but small convention. This time, though, it was 750 people rattling around in a real convention center. (Rumor had it that the con was nevertheless in the black. If that's true, I hope whoever negotiated that facilities contract stays active in fandom for a long time.) There were not many casual encounters in the hallways.

One wonderful thing ReConStruction did for bloggers and podcasters was to have an open room available at nearly all times for interviews. It was conveniently located next to the exhibit hall, making it easy to go to the fan tables and entice people over, which is why most of the interviews from there are about conventions. Similarly, I was able to corner Chris Garcia in the fanzine lounge in one of its quieter moments because he was stuck there running it.

The project was starting to cause visible distortions in my panel choices. In particular, I would never, ever, ever have gone to "Vampires vs. Zombies" if I hadn't thought it the title would sound interesting to the online world, because I am sick of vampires and zombies. On the other hand, I'd have missed probably the best panel I attended at this con, because Dan Kimmel and Heather Urbanski had many educated and insightful comments to make about them.

"Science We All Know Which Is Wrong" was also very educational, the highlight being physicist John Cmar explaining a thought experiment in relativity. (How many places outside of a physics conference, incidentally, can someone ask "How many people here have some knowledge of relativity?" and find around half of the audience raising their hands?) It goes like this:

Imagine a telephone pole with its length parallel to the ground. Now imagine that it is travelling very fast (some significant fraction of the speed of light) along the ground parallel to its length, and approaching a hole a foot in diameter. The hole has a very sharp, clean edge, so if the pole is able to dip at all, it will fall in the hole.

Here is the problem: When something is moving at relativistic speeds, it appears (to an observer outside the object) to compress in the direction of travel. So the pole, travelling along its length, will appear to become very short and be able to fit in the hole. But to an observer on the pole, the hole has become tiny. So the question is: Does it fall in the hole or not?

My best answer was that the pole does fall in the hole, and the impact kills the observer on the pole, thus rendering their point of view irrelevant. Needless to say, this is not the correct answer.

I got to be on five panels, of which the best was "When I Was First Going to Conventions...", not because I was on it, but because it contained long-time fan Juanita Coulson and even longer-time fan John Pierce, who had stories none of the rest of us had ever heard.

The best-sounding panel I wasn't able to make it to was "Chocolate - Not as Easy as You Might Think". I later learned this was part of the 1632 track, all of which I missed.

Missing stuff was the biggest impression I had a week later, trying to edit ReConStruction down into 10 minutes of highlights. You can't show it all in one weekend, even if it's a relatively small convention. Which I've made another argument for my project.

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