Cthulhu’s Minions: Evil Gods for Atheists

After I botched it last night, the Lovecraftians have regrouped and we will be having Cthulhu panel at FtBCon 2. It’s tonight, at 10pm Central (in about 2 hours). Confirmed: Michael Davis, Robert Price, Toren Atkinson, and me. A few others have been invited and might show up. If you’re desperately excited about shambling horrors from the outer darkness and really, really want to join in, email me, maybe I’ll squeeze you in. Also, we might need sacrifices.

And…here we are.

Good stuff on FtBCon 2

Social justice, women of color, right now on FtBCon2. Coming up in 15 minutes is Ken White of Popehat talking about sexual harassment and the law, then at 3 Aron Ra, John Wilkins, and I will be duking it out for your eyeballs against the atheism and accessibility panel. Decisions, decisions.

A conference gets cancelled

This is unfortunate: a SF con scheduled for Chicago this March had to cancel after a disagreement with the hotel.

We regret to inform you that Chi-Fi 2014 will not be taking place at the Westin Chicago River North as planned. After several meetings with the staff of the Westin, we had concerns about the ability of their staff to create a welcoming and accepting atmosphere towards our attendees. A senior Westin employee referred to our staff, attendees, and guests as “freaks,” and hotel staff expressed their disapproval of our anti-harassment policy. As we want to put the safety and enjoyment of our guests and attendees first, we requested that the hotel make changes to ensure that our attendees and guests be treated with the same respect as any other Westin hotel guests. By mutual decision, we agreed to part ways with the hotel. We wish to make clear that these views were expressed by staff of the Westin Chicago River North and do not reflect the opinions of the Westin brand or Starwood Hotels. We are grateful to certain individuals working for Westin and Starwood who have been supportive throughout these discussions. Our organization does not condone any sort of retaliatory actions against either Westin or Starwood.

“Freaks”? And why would the hotel want to argue with a policy that discourages harassment?

Oh, well, I’m disappointed with the Westin Chicago River North — a very unprofessional place, apparently — but am impressed with the management of the con. They’re rescheduling for 2015, and it sounds like the kind of event that cares about its attendees, and I hope they are well-attended.

Essential reading for conference organizers

Alex Gabriel has written an article about 10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy. I mostly agree with it, but I’d add another point, and his #8 is, well, problematic.

8. Pay your speakers—well.

Speakers’ fees are commonplace in U.S. atheism. Britain lags far behind. It shows. Our speaking circuit is far whiter, wealthier and more dominated by academics and national groups’ staff. It’s far less accessible to bloggers, artists, filmmakers and people who aren’t stably employed. This happens when speaking isn’t recognised as work.

Covering expenses—say, for travel—is not enough. Good speakers put hours into talks. They’re writers, researchers, editors, lecturers, comedians, orators, things we pay people to be. They’re often discussing costly activism. (Jonny Scaramanga, whose blog about creationist exam papers went viral recently, spends huge sums getting hold of them.) Speaking for free means a real-terms loss even before expenses: the hours of work that go into it, as with graphic designers, could have gone into paying the rent. Academics, wealthy authors and the stably employed comprise most of our speakers because they can afford this loss. Others can’t. You need to cover it.

Given what U.S. speakers earn, the minimum wage and the skill involved, I recommend offering a $200 honorarium. You can’t afford that? Bollocks.

Humanist assemblies: you found 20 people to pay for your childcare. Now find 40 to put extra dough on the collection plate (better still, give it by monthly direct debit). Student groups: charge non-members that much on the door. Foundations like Todd Stiefel or Richard Dawkins will sponsor local groups. Secular authors will donate books to fundraising sales. Online atheists will donate to your page. For more ideas, see Darrel Ray’s advice.

If you can’t pay all your speakers yet, ask them to consider waiving the fee if they’re well off. Don’t allow negotiation. Higher and lower individual fees mean a race to the bottom where those who’ll work for least get booked the most. You’re trying to prevent that.

First of all, there’s a tell here that Alex doesn’t know much about the conference circuit: first he says to pay speakers well, and then he gets to specifics, and he says…$200. That line would get a laugh if he were Dr Evil.

You are asking a professional to take two or three days out of their schedule to grace your event, and you think $200 is fair compensation for that much of their time? Add another zero, and maybe $2000 would be more like it; a few hundred bucks is just plain insulting. Are you seriously going to call up Richard Dawkins and entice him to sign on by waving a few bills at him?

Even I am not anywhere near the mid-tier of conference draws, and I would find it weird to be offered a few bucks to show up. I do it because I care about this movement and want to see it grow, and also because I personally think my views are an important contribution — I lose money every time I go off to speak anywhere (I have to have my basic travel expenses covered so I don’t fiscally bleed to death, but all the little details I just pay out of pocket), but it’s worth it to see atheism growing.

I’m relatively well-off, though, with a stable job and a reasonable lower middle class salary; I would waive any honorarium because I don’t need it. I think it is fair to offer some general compensation to cover the miscellaneous expenses of those who aren’t quite as secure as I am, but I’m not too keen on expecting conferences, especially the home-grown free ones, to cover the expenses of a professional atheist lecturing class, even while recognizing that it’s necessary to expand our list of potential speakers.

You know what I would appreciate as an honorarium? Instead of paying me, tell me that X hundred dollars will be invested in scholarships to cover the cost of bringing in attendees who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the event. That’s what matters.

Or if you do want to help out the working people who are encouraging atheism in their spare time, look realistically at their mean income and estimate what they’d earn over your conference weekend if they stayed home and roofed houses or did company accounting or sold televisions at their local Best Buy, and offer them that. Someone like me would still waive the fee, but contributors who are otherwise trying to make ends meet would finally be able to use their talents well.

I said I would also add a #11 to his list of ten.

#11. Take advantage of local talent.

I see a lot of the same faces, drawn from the same big national and international pool of well-known atheists, and effective as they are at being a good draw for an event, it’s also important to grow the local talent pool. Sure, try to get one or three recognizable big names, but don’t make the conference revolve around them — they’ll be leaving the moment the conference ends…or as I’ve seen a few times, they’ll flit in just before their hour lecture, and then they’re off to the airport immediately after.

It’s the locals, or perhaps regional or state-wide people, who are going to hang around and make a difference, and who will be aware of the specific issues your attendees are dealing with. Make a commitment to have at least half your speakers be drawn from the same group as your attendees — and if you want to bring in more atheists from the black community or the poor or the working class, try to bring in speakers from that very same demographic.

Wake up and smell the #Skepticon

The second day of #sk6 is going to be funky: the University Plaza Hotel has no hot water, anywhere. It’s going to be interesting, but we shall overlook the reek to enjoy today’s schedule. I’m looking forward to everything.

Oh, yeah, my talk yesterday was immensely disappointing. I was all anticipatory and enthused about the spectacular walkout/rebellion that was going to erupt, and then they all just sat there, listening, and afterwards a lot of people (“my sycophants,” as Rebecca Watson called them) crowded around and asked questions. It was just like all of my talks. And then Watson gave a data-driven talk on the importance of humor…nobody walked out. David Fitzgerald read from the Bible, all of the naughty nasty bits…for sure nobody walked out. Then Shelley Seagal started singing, and no way anyone was leaving.

Finally, at ten, they opened the bar out in the vendor room. Then everyone walked out. I think if anyone wants to organize a good walkout of a conference speaker, what they ought to do is just give away free beer in the hallway — experience shows that that is the fastest way to clear a room.