The Astral Log

31 January 2016

Skepticon 8, Day 3: Escape

Filed under: Artifacts & Holdovers, Skepticon, US-Missouri — Andrew T. @ 21:25

The long drive home from Skepticon passed without too much catastrophe or incident. Fortunately, I also passed a generous helping of oddities and roadside artifacts along the way...

Ruined Conoco

It seems that the canopy roof on this onetime gas station in Springfield had a little...mishap. Either that, or it lost the will to have any semblance of structural integrity. I believe it was a Conoco originally.

Reagan building

I stopped and stared when I discovered a building by the old city hall in Lebanon, Missouri with the unfortunate name "Reagan" inscribed into it. Oh well...

Insurance Hut

This is the ex-pizza Insurance Hut of Mexico, Missouri. (Yes, I was starting to feel increasingly geographically confused.)

Missouri highways

Like Wisconsin, the state of Missouri refers to secondary highways by letters rather than numbers. Usually this is fine, but once in a while this causes a truly horrible juxtaposition to result.

To be continued in part 2...

27 January 2016

Skepticon 8, Day 3: Success in Springfield

Filed under: Skepticon, US-Missouri — Andrew T. @ 20:09

My third day in Springfield, Missouri began much like any other...but with a few twists.

Over breakfast, I met a pair of non-conferencegoers who asked me what Skepticon was about. So, I explained: "It's a skeptic and atheist conference with discussions about activism, community, and current events. Eight years ago, a few people decided to see if they could put on an event like that here in the heart of the Bible Belt, and it's become an annual event ever since." Surprisingly, neither of their heads burst into flame.

I returned to my hotel room to find the bill slid under my door. I loaded my things, checked out, and walked back to the convention center for another morning of scintillating dialogue.

Niki M.

The scheduled 10 a.m. speaker was pre-empted by a traffic tie-up, so instead we were treated to a presentation by Niki M. about Reproductive Justice: Activism on the Sidewalk. Niki described at length the details of her work as a clinic escort in the Twin Cities area...helping recipients of abortion services make their way to the front doors while hordes of angry Christian fetus-fetishists stand around them and scream. She went on to discuss some of tactics used by opponents such as fake clinics designed to trick and trap pregnant people seeking abortions, and provided an overview of the organizations actively working to undermine bodily autonomy today.

Bo Bennett

Bo Bennett later followed with a lecture titled "The Psychology of Woo," and then it was high noon. Stephanie Zvan and Kavin Senapathy had yet to go on stage (and I would have loved to have seen them both), but the forces of time and distance meant that it was not to be: Getting back to Madison, Wisconsin meant a twelve-hour drive on the road, Monday was an early-rise work day, and the clock was ticking. So I bid a few quick goodbyes, and made my way out the door...happy and satisfied with my convention weekend.

How was Skepticon as an experience? In one word: Awesome. The selection of speakers was extensive, diverse, and exciting. Hundreds upon hundreds of attendees from all over the country were underfoot. The conference had a clearly-defined harassment and conduct policy, and to my delight it was enforced. Another thoughtful touch was a color-coding system for name badges, with different stickers being used to indicate peoples' different engagement and comfort levels. Apart from the untimely Mizzou Q&A and a few moments of confusion, I was very impressed by the conference and its motions toward accessibility and individual respect. And aside from the hotel room, the conference was free.

I was happy to see many people that I had met at cons in the past...including Greta and Ingrid, Stephanie, Benny, Richard Carrier (if only briefly and underwater!), and PZ. I was also pleased to meet many new people for the first time, including Kavin, Niki, Jason, Trinity, and a horde of people I chatted with but shortsightedly forgot to write down the names of. Damn!!

Comparisons between conferences are almost inevitable, and it's probably a good thing that I attended the tiny Reason Fest in Winnipeg before Skepticon 8 was a thing...because it never would have compared. Skepticon feels like the beating heart of skeptic/atheist activism at its best, and it's become the standard by which other cons are judged.

Skepticon T-shirts

Now, if only the T-shirt designs had been better. (I considered getting one, but didn't see much call in wearing an uncaptioned pink blob on a board.)

26 January 2016

Skepticon 8, Day 2 pt. 2: Fighting fundamentalism and...

Filed under: Skepticon, US-Missouri — Andrew T. @ 00:00

Mary Anne Franks

Presentations in the main hall quickly resumed that afternoon, and one of the highlights was Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami. The focus of her presentation was fighting deconstructing its features and putting ourselves within the minds of our opponents. She then extended her discussion beyond religion alone into matters of "legal fundamentalism" exercised by gun nuts and online harassers, and even touched upon the Mizzou protests...unintentionally highlighting the holes in the previous speaker's premises in the process.

Since my lunchtime had been pre-empted by Schierbecker's bitter screed, I was hungry for something huge. Food trucks were parked outside and I wasn't in the mood for pasties, so I ordered a tasty pizza. While I ate, it struck me that I still hadn't once stepped outside the premises of the hotel since coming to Springfield...Skepticon was a world within a world.


And speaking of that world...

Hiba Krisht

Hiba Krisht spoke of her experiences as an ex-Muslim from Lebanon, and went into depth about the implications of her country's long-lasting sectarian conflict and civil war. Superimposed in the background was a picture of the speaker herself, cloaked in the armaments and garb of her younger days...a reality that she escaped from upon emigration at the age of 23. At the end, an audience member gave an impassioned outcry: "What can we do about this?" Hiba's answer was both succinct and sobering: "Nothing."

Destin Sandlin

Finally, we got to see a presentation by Destin Sandlin. He was an odd choice for Skepticon: A Christian who produces YouTube videos about cats and chickens, cites Psalms 111:2 while doing so, and repeats self-deprecating comments about himself and his Alabama upbringing into oblivion. On stage, he demonstrated a backwards-steering bicycle that he used as an analogy for differences in theistic belief: Once you're used to riding one way, you can't easily ride the other. Not sure what I thought of that; though at least the physical antics were somewhat entertaining.


I never attended my high school prom, but I had the option at the end of the day to go to the Skepti-Prom...a visually-stimulating ordeal with pounding music that reminded me why I don't hang out in nightclubs very often. I poked around for five minutes, then elected to spend the evening in the pool instead...ending Day 2 on a relaxing note.

25 January 2016

Skepticon 8, Day 2: Success and disaster

Filed under: Skepticon, US-Missouri — Andrew T. @ 20:20

After a restful night, I managed to snag breakfast with a few acquaintances and made my way to the main conference hall. What would happen in Skepticon's second day? I was excited to find out.

Islam: A Primer for Atheists

The first speaker of the day was Muhammad Syed, who shared his knowledge and experiences (by way of Pakistan) in a presentation titled "Islam: A Primer for Atheists." Syed is the founder and president of Ex-Muslims of North America.

Following him was Fallon Fox, a transgender mixed martial artist (MMA) fighter. A tense moment came in the Q&A afterwards when some guy in a Tapout shirt prompted Fallon with a rude question about her "manhood"...and the convention organizers responded to the person with a cut-off and dismissal. I was impressed by how well and how quickly the incident was diffused.

I was ready for lunch, but I stayed seated in place: Word had gotten around that the conference organizers had made a last-minute addition to the schedule, and we would have a back-and-forth question-and-answer session about the racist incidents and surrounding protests at the University of Missouri. It was a current event of pertinent significance in the state of our conference, it made perfect sense to have a discussion about it, and I looked forward to seeing what information and engagement the next hour would bring.

The clock struck high noon, and the session got under way. It struck me that a few things were amiss: There was only one participant...a white self-described photojournalist by the name of Mark Schierbecker...and his "dialogue" turned out to be a monologue. Mark wasn't involved with the protests themselves, but shared recollections of his attempts to brazenly film them...notably, without articulating the participants' motivations or gaining confidence around them to reduce their suspicion.

He shared a sample of his footage (that came off as minutes of chaos, shedding no insight whatsoever on the situation) and spent the remainder of the hour making points of entitlement...letting loose that his objective wasn't to end the racist harassment and chancellor conduct at Mizzou prompting the protests, but rather to lobby for the firing of a Mizzou staff member who turned him away when he violated a safe space. Then...whoops! Out of time! Guess this wasn't a Q&A after all.

Fortunately, the audience wasn't silenced easily. An observer in the second row raised her hand and challenged Schierbecker's privilege and audacity in inflating his indulgences as a white journalist above years of anti-black oppression. Several others joined in, pointing out his obliviousness to privacy, the backwardness of his priorities, and the regular record of journalistic coverage being used to spin and lie about protests. On the final front, Schierbecker's reputation preceded himself: His coverage of the Mizzou protests was latched onto by Breitbart and fucking Storm Front as "evidence" that protesters were thugs, and he had done nothing to withdraw the footage or stop them from using it to their ends. I looked back near the end, and saw four or five of the people that I knew storm out of the room in disgust. I was pinned near the front, and waited through to the end. That end came with a whimper, with the disgraced photojournalist offering up "autism" as the excuse for his behavior...thus throwing people with neurological conditions under the bus. I tried rejoining my acquaintances at the lunch table afterward, but they shooed me away so they could process what they had just experienced among I was left to cope by myself.

To their credit, the Skepticon organizers publicly apologized for this fiasco of an event, and Danielle Muscato resigned as Schierbecker's public relations manager afterward. Unfortunately the stench remained, and what was done could not be undone. It also didn't help that a pack of regressive assholes tried spinning the incident on social media afterward as a tale of how mean ol' Skepticon had supposedly bullied a pitiful, autistic boy for no reason at all.

Several of the people who were in attendance at the Q&A subsequently wrote about their experiences there. For further insight, I recommend reading the pieces by Alex Rudewell, Jason Thibeault, and Feminace.

Older Posts »

©2015-16 Andrew Turnbull