Skep-tech Retrospective

So let’s talk about Skep-tech, shall we?

I was pretty nervous about this trip, overall. Since the effort to spread out my computer use means I’m working seven days a week, making the trip meant I missed out on some income, in addition to paying for travel. Also, as much as I ended up enjoying Skepticon, there was about a day and a half in the beginning where I was mostly really socially stressed out, because I didn’t know anyone, and felt awkward shoving myself into the social groups of the people I was most interested in meeting and spending time with. At the end of the day, that worked out alright at Skepticon, and I ended up meeting some excellent people and having some excellent conversations, but that first day and a half was still in the back of my mind going into Skep-tech.

As it turns out, the nervousness was pretty much for nothing. Lots of people were happy to see me, and I them, and I got to have a lot of conversations with some of my favorite people in the movement, and the talks were amazing, and the panels were amazing, and getting a picture drawn by Zach Weinersmith was amazing – pretty much everything was amazing.

I arrived in Minneapolis on Thursday and spent the afternoon visiting an old friend and sharing anecdotes about incompetence in the tech industry. In my more cynical moments, I’ve grown fond of saying that sometimes it feels like my life is one long process of discovering how thoroughly incompetence pervades every field of human endeavor. The most excellent people in my life are very rarely extraordinary in the sense of being supergeniuses – much more often, I find that they’re extraordinary in the sense that they are generally fairly smart, thoughtful, conscientious people. It just so happens that that’s enough to put them far ahead of the curve when compared against most of the people working in any of the industries I’ve worked in over the course of my life thus far. And for the most part, that means industries like software development, biophysics, and bioinformatics; the kind of industries you’d think would be full of people who have their shit together.

In any event, I had a wonderful time catching up, and my friend wished me a good time at the conference, after which I got picked up to be taken to the place I was actually staying.

I stayed with a friend of a friend for the weekend, which started off the Skep-tech experience on just the right note: her picking me up and us having a thoroughly enjoyable conversation on the drive to her place that reminded me how much I enjoyed talking to everyone I met at Skepticon. There’s just something about the community that fits in the overlap of skepticism and social justice that I love. Conversations are always intelligent and thoughtful, whether they are about serious issues or random, meandering conversation. To be surrounded by that for an entire weekend is indescribably refreshing.

The next day I got to see Miriam of Brute Reason, Kate Donovan of… a list of blogs that includes but may not be limited to Ashley Miller’s Blog, possibly one of the Skepchick blog groups, and the Gruntled And Hinged tumblr (seriously, what the fuck, Kate?), and Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds, all of whom I had met for the first time at Skepticon, and all of whom are awesome. I also got to meet Jason Thibeault of Lousy Canuck, and Chana Messinger of The Merely Real, who I had been looking forward to meeting ever since I learned that she was the awesome poly person on the marriage and skepticism panel at Skepticon. Honestly, I think my favorite part of cons is just spending time with people like this. As much as I enjoyed the panels, I’d give them up for the people.

I honestly don’t remember a whole lot of the talks on that first day of the conference, with the exception of Zach Weinersmith’s talk on comic books and censorship, which was fantastic. I hadn’t realized until seeing that the guy is as intelligent as he is funny. The talk had exactly the type of intelligent analysis that I love to see. For example, he talked about how when widespread censorship of the comic book medium was first instituted, juvenile delinquency rates actually went up – precisely the opposite of what those who were in favor of censorship had predicted. Zach did not, as is so common with people dealing with statistics like this, assume that this meant that censorship had directly caused the rates of juvenile delinquency to go up, but did argue that it made a compelling case that censorship did nothing to cause them to drop. Overall, the talk made a very compelling case that artistic censorship limits artistic expression, while causing no demonstrable benefits to society.

The second day of the conference started out with the Sex in Cyberspace; Porn, OkCupid, and the Internet panel, which was awesome, and I spent the entire time wishing that I had been down there on the panel, because I had strong opinions about every single question that was asked. After that panel I watched Brendan Murphy’s talk on the neuropsychology of quitting, which was more or less about how quitting is often an advantageous decision, much more so than our society tends to teach us. I’m hoping to get a blog post out about things that I have decided to quit and the reasons why I think those decisions were good ones. I also watched Stephanie Zvan’s panel on the uses and abuses of psychometrics, about which I find it hard to find any comment more coherent than “Yes, I completely agree”, and PZ Myers’ talk on trans-humanism, about which I had conflicting feelings — there is a lot of naivety in trans-humanism, but I think his level of confidence that essentially none of the ideas central to trans-humanism will ever become reality has something in common with the confidence that some people had a century ago when they said that mankind wasn’t meant to fly. We may be very far away from the types of advances that would make, for example, reviving someone from vitrification possible, but the fact that the technology is primitive now doesn’t, in my opinion, have as strong a bearing on the potential for the future of the technology as he seems to think. There was a time when the closest we were to flight was paper airplanes, but that certainly wasn’t the closest we were always destined to be.

For lunch on the second day, I got to spend time with a bunch of my favorite bloggers, including Greta Christina, one of the first atheist bloggers I ever followed. In spite of being around so many people I have so much respect for, I found myself feeling significantly less awkward than I did at Skepticon, probably because there were at least a few who I had spent time with before this conference. Dinner was similar, and hanging out with the people I was staying with and playing Cards Against Humanity after that was great.

The last day I didn’t see any talks, since I had to leave around midday, and wanted to make sure I had time to chat and say goodbye to people. I did, and it was good.

I’m back home now, and thus far, my near complete lack of sleep over the last two days of the con doesn’t seem to have resulted in too much angst, which I’m going to have to try to remember in the future – the awesomeness of hanging out with awesome people seems to have negated the usual problems I have with lack of sleep and depression. The four days without work doesn’t seem to have helped all that much with the tendinitis, which is disappointing, but not altogether unexpected. I’m looking forward to the next Skepticon, and feeling like I want to get a little bit more involved in this movement in ways that go beyond blogging. Hopefully, as soon as the tendinitis clears up, I’ll find some ways to do that.

Also, on an entirely-superficial-but-no-less-awesome-for-being-so note, I have learned that there may be one or two awesome social justice-y people who think that I’m cute and stuff. Which is, you know, pretty neat.

I’ve got a few posts in the pipeline as a result of the conference that I’m hoping to get out within the next week or so, ideally. The quitting post, and also a post I’ve been wanting to write for a very long time about how blogging about personal experiences is valuable in its potential to normalize those experiences for others who struggle with similar things. One project which may come to fruition fairly soon is in the pipeline also; details to follow soon, hopefully.

About halfway through this conference, I found myself watching a talk and grinning, and realized that maybe the thing that I was happiest about was that I had spent the entire conference up to that point without anyone saying a single thing that was blatantly wrong or irrelevant to whatever conversation they were having. It may seem like a weird thing to be happy about, but in a world where half of my frustration with talking to people in general is that I feel like people just aren’t very good at understanding the concepts they’re talking about in the first place, being somewhere where everyone constantly seems to have an understanding of the concepts they’re talking about and the important issues to address is, well, really nice. If that were the only thing I ever got out of this community, it would still be pretty fucking fantastic.

Particularly nice moments:

Coming up with and suggesting the term “henchstaff” to Greta Christina as a gender-neutral alternative to “henchmen”. Seeing all of the people I had seen at Skepticon and realizing that they were as excited to see me as I was to see them. Meeting Chana Messinger for the first time. Sitting at “the cool bloggers table” at lunch (okay, only I was calling it that, but that’s totally what it felt like). Sharing the Punnett Square-style comment policy graphic on my comments page with other bloggers, including Greta Christina, and having them like it. Seeing JT Eberhard again, and being invited to have a drink with him after I mentioned that it’s sort of his fault that I have a blog (he promoted the blog of a friend of mine who then became the impetus for me to start my own blog last year). Some awesome moments of flirtiness. Very apprehensively asking about flirtiness comfort levels with someone and getting an enthusiastically flirty response. Jason Thibeault seeming approximately as excited to meet me as I was to meet him (SERIOUSLY THIS DOES NOT COMPUTE). Getting an offer to talk if the post-con depression that I anticipated hit and I needed an ear.

I worried that I’d be intensely frustrated with myself if this con didn’t turn out very well, since, even though it was free, it was a fairly expensive decision, overall. At this point, I think it’s reasonable to say that it turned out to be more than worth it with a lot of room to spare.