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Apr 10 2013

SkepTech Impressions

This weekend I was at SkepTech, from which I’m just now recovering (very little sleep or good nutrition happened this weekend). I had a fantastic time.

As a disclaimer, most of the SkepTech organizers are good friends of mine, so perhaps I’m biased to some extent in seeing the conference positively. In any case, I loved it. I thought it was extremely well-organized for a free, student-run conference in its first year. There was a good mix of established and indie speakers. The venue was well-chosen. The atmosphere was vibrant, curious, and a little geeky. In that sense it reminded me a lot of Skepticon, of which I was also a huge fan.

A snazzy homosexual Jew goat.

Best slide of the con, courtesy of Jesse Galef.

On a personal note, seeing my friends was absolutely amazing. The fact that most of the people I love don’t live anywhere near me is kind of always a thorn in my side, but I’m incredibly lucky that every once in a while I get to spend a whole weekend learning and having fun with them. Hanging out with so many fantastic writers–Jason, PZ, Greta, Stephanie, JT, Brianne, and others–was also really great. The quality of the conversations and debates I had this weekend made coming home a sort of culture shock.

I didn’t meet as many people as I would’ve hoped, but part of that was that I already knew so many of the people there, and it’s kind of a tough sell to make yourself go and introduce yourself to new people when there are so many fucking awesome people you already know.

Anyway, a few specific things I liked:

  • The Twitter wall. The organizers had a laptop with Tweetdeck hooked up to a smaller screen off to the side of the main screen, which displayed both the official SkepTech account feed and the hashtag feed. Although some might argue (legitimately) that this is distracting, I found it a huge help in several ways. It boosted a feeling of community; instead of looking at their phones people could look at the screen. It was also interesting to watch it while I was speaking on my panels because I got to see what the audience was reacting to the most out of what I was saying. Furthermore, I often have difficulty following lectures (let’s just say I’m not an auditory learner), and when I spaced out for a few seconds, I could just check the Twitter wall and catch up on what I missed. The organizers were also really adept at using this well; when a few trolls started spamming the hashtag to say crap about SkepTech (ironically, this happened right during the talk on how to use social media effectively), the organizers quickly hid the spammers on their account so that we wouldn’t see them in the feed. (To clarify, though, you can’t actually ban/block someone from using a hashtag. You can only hide them from your own account, so if you’re using that account to display a Twitter feed for an audience, the audience won’t see them either.)
  • The hangout zones. You could tell there were a few introverts involved in the planning of this conference because outside of the auditorium and behind the tabling area, there was a huge space full of comfy chairs and couches where you could go to get away from people for a while, labeled “Safe Space Hangout Zone.” I saw plenty of people taking advantage of it throughout the conference. (Personally, my introversion kind of turns off when I’m at a con, but I still used it a few times when I needed to deal with some personal stuff.)
  • SkepTechs in the Pub. After Saturday’s talks, we all went out to a nearby pub to hang out, which was planned by the organizers beforehand. Although there was a little bit of a snafu with people under 21 nearly getting kicked out (not good for a student conference), they ended up being allowed to stay. We had plenty of space to sit and people mingled and there was an amazing Les Mis sing-off between JT and my friend Jesse. Good times were had by (hopefully) all.
  • The harassment policy. Yup, there was a pretty detailed harassment policy. As a result I felt like my comfort and safety were being taken seriously by the organizers and that I would have someone to go to if things went wrong. But they didn’t. In fact, I’ll just state for the record that the harassment policy did absolutely nothing to prevent all kinds of after-hours fun that occurred, and I’ll leave it at that. :)

And a few specific things that could be improved:

  • Dinner/lunch breaks. They were only an hour long each, which meant that you could either go to a chain restaurant, eat really quickly, or miss the talks immediately after the breaks. I opted for the latter, which I regret, but eating properly is really important to me. Although longer breaks would mean fewer talks, I think that would be a worthwhile trade-off in the future. That way nobody needs to choose between missing a great talk and eating poorly (or not at all).
  • Starting/ending on time and leaving room for questions. Although the conference generally ran by the schedule, there was a talk or two that actually started a full ten minutes early, and a few that started and/or finished late. There also didn’t seem to be any consistency in terms of leaving room for questions. Some speakers got tons of time to answer questions from the audience, and some didn’t get any. One of my panels took a single question from the audience and the other took none. This is unfortunate because getting to ask questions helps audience members be more engaged (not to mention learn more), so in the future I’d suggest asking speakers to plan on leaving a certain amount of time for questions.
  • Moar people! For a first-year conference, the attendance was great. I don’t know exactly how many people were there because I am not one of the organizers and I cannot count. But there were quite a few. That said, there was a lot more space that could’ve been filled, and I also think that the conference could’ve been promoted a bit better. I’m sure that next year will bring a larger audience regardless.
  • Diversity. Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re always harping about diversity. Of the 14 speakers (not including the people who were only panelists), only three were women and one was a person of color. (To be fair, there was supposed to be one more woman speaker, but she ended up being unable to attend.) As I said, I think the organizers did a fantastic job of getting some really great speakers, and it’s only their first year. But going forward, I hope there will be more attention paid to promoting inclusivity, and that the speakers of color that they do bring will get to speak about something other than race. Otherwise it’s a little like, “Yo, come tell us how to fix our shit.”
  • The Minnesota weather. Because fuck that.
A lovely self-portrait of Zach Weinersmith.

Zach Weinersmith of SMBC Comics drew me this pretty picture!

My favorite talks:

  • Stephanie was awesome in her talk on psychometrics. It really got me thinking about the gendered ways in which we define and diagnose mental disorders. Blog post TBA.
  • Brendan Murphy talked about the neuropsychology of quitting and included a few tidbits on how to support people who are considering quitting a goal or project (here’s a hint: don’t implore them to “just keep trying”!).
  • JT talked about “hacktivism” and gave examples of things he’s done as an activist, including trolling Brother Jed. I think the best advice JT gave is to have fun with your activism–it encourages people to join and breaks down stereotypes about atheists (and, really, any other kind of activists).
  • My two panels–one on sex in cyberspace and one on meatspace vs. online activism–were super fun.
  • Ben Blanchard’s talk on using social media effectively was extremely useful. You might get a bit of a laugh out of it. :)

Anyway, tl;dr, conference was super fun and well-organized, and I can’t wait to come back next year. If you live in Minnesota or nearby, you should too!

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Sarah Maddox (@sarahezoo)

    Our attendance was about 215 (of those who bothered to register and check in). Not bad :)

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Wow! That’s pretty damn awesome.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    Aw, but we got that weather special just for you!

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Well, now I feel like an ungrateful guest… :P

  3. 3
    oolon

    Skeptech was good for testing the @hashspamkiller, A+ version of their twitter wall with trolls filtered out. I’d humbly suggest better in some ways as @ElevatorGate morphed his second account from @braveher0 (Which we nicked) to @SkepTechMI then to @SkepTechCon –> none of which would have been retweeted by @hashspamkiller as changing your screen_name doesn’t work against it. Neither does using new accounts so nice try to that troll but didn’t work… Downside is 100 tweets/hr is all you get on one account so it kept getting in Twitter Jail cos the tag was so popular :-(
    For #wiscfi we will be using @hashspamkiller1/2/3… if need be to keep up, are women in secularism more or less tweet mad than skeptech tweeps?

    1. 3.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Yeah, WiS2 will surely have a lot more attendees, so if you were getting into Twitter Jail with that, it’ll be even worse. Hopefully y’all will have some time to figure out if there are any workarounds.

  4. 4
    sisu

    Fine. Next time you visit you get 97 degrees with 95% relative humidity. That’ll teach you to appreciate freezing rain!

    1. 4.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I’m probably going to CONvergence, so chances are I’ll get to experience that side of things as well. :P

  5. 5
    PZ Myers

    I looked through your list of favorite talks…and MINE WASN’T THERE. You are a professional fun-ruiner. Just for that, I’m going to say I thought of you when I saw this comic.

    What do you mean, “probably” going to CONvergence? I think we’re going to demand it, so prepare yourself.

    1. 5.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      OH MY FSM. Did someone draw this comic literally with me in mind? This is just uncanny.

      I didn’t put your talk because I’m going to have to rewatch it like five more times until I understand it. Maybe if you don’t talk about SCIENCE next time… :P (But actually, I did much better with this one than with your Skepticon talk, so there’s that.)

      I’m “probably” going to CONvergence because it’s contingent on finding a place to stay that doesn’t cost money. Someone at Skeptech unceremoniously volunteered poor Stephanie for the deed, but I don’t know how she actually feels about that yet. And speaking of transhumanism, it’s about time you get on that whole borg thing so I can just mentally relay my desires to other bloggers on the network rather than having to, you know, ASK.

  6. 6
    Lindsay

    … the gendered ways in which we define and diagnose mental disorders.

    Ooh, interesting! I know a little about this subject, but am always keen to read more.

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