Snake-ish tendencies

Ssssssssssssss. Hear that? That’s the sound of the sneaky snakes scheming to scam you at this very moment. Curious to learn how you can subvert them? There’s a symposium for that.

“SSSS” might be an onomatopoeia for a snake hissing, but it’s also an acronym for the Schemers, Scammers and Subverters Symposium. Organized by adjunct Portland State professor Roz Crews and former PSU student Ralph Pugay, the symposium was a day filled with workshops, lectures and discussions that flowed in and out of a single ballroom. The small-scale event didn’t force you to pick and choose which speakers you wanted to hear and which ones you would skip, as most conferences do.

First question: What’s the point of a symposium like this? Scheming sounds like something a Young Adult literature villain does. Scams aren’t even that relevant, are they?

The answer: Yeah, they are. Look at the news, and you’ll see instances of scams and fraud all over the world. In particular, our lovely country constantly targets and undermines unprotected and vulnerable peoples. The founders of the event explained that “coming to terms with this history amplified in the present can feel painful, especially for those who are most victimized.”

The symposium was created to shine a light on “different ways that society is susceptible or culpable to such predatory acts.” What do you do when you notice rugs being pulled out from under your feet? How can you safeguard yourself against the rug-pullers? Or, are you the person pulling rugs, but you have good reasons to do so?

Second question: What sorts of topics do you even learn about at a symposium about our society’s snake-ish tendencies?

The answer: pirating, game theory, horoscopes, housing rights, the Kardashians, sex work, colonialism, museums…you name it. Nine different panels discussed these topics and more, providing great knowledge that—even if it didn’t apply to you or you had no prior experience with it—was information you still needed to know.

On the quantum side of things, PSU professor Steve Bleiler gave a talk entitled “Risky Business – Good Decision Making When the Outcomes are Uncertain.” Within his 45-minute slot, Bleiler covered topics such as probability and risk, joking to the audience, “You’re about to learn a year’s worth of quantum mechanics in five minutes.” Grad students present in the audience chuckled, but everyone else looked nervous, unexpectedly feeling back in the university classroom setting.

Bleiler led the room in various risk-taking games which made his points much easier to understand than if he just shuffled through a PowerPoint presentation. To make sure the audience was following, he initiated a call and response, straight from old school cartoon Ren and Stimpy: “Happy happy joy joy.” As he boiled Russian Roulette down to its most mathematical foundations, he kept his lessons entertaining with Star Trek impressions and Calvin And Hobbes references. Whenever it seemed like the guests were getting lost, he’d pause his lecture. “Happy happy?” he’d ask. “Joy joy,” the audience grinned.

When their turn came around, the peach blazer-clad Philip King took the stage to present their lesson “Boned: Survival and the Sexual Revolution.” They discussed sex work and its various forms, misconceptions and negative attitudes toward the field and how sex workers subvert many of society’s norms such as a nuclear family and compulsory monogamy. Audience members seemed cautious to giggle, but King’s presentation was rife with witty quips about the bleak reality of how sex work is perceived versus how many sex workers thrive thanks to their career. While moving from one slide to the next, they punned, “Girls just wanna have funds.”  King made their informative presentation enticing to listen to. As they discussed the legal systems in place to harm sex workers, they pointed out prisons are a “bastion of backwards brutality” to incarcerated trans sex workers.

The symposium also included a mini marketplace called the Totally Honest Barter Bazaar, where vendors and buyers were encouraged to creatively exchange payment for goods. Unique products, such as sculptures and scratching posts, and intangible goods, such as problem solving and conversations, were available for haggling. The “official merchandise” table was covered in brightly-hued rubber snakes.

If there’s anything the symposium taught all of its attendees, it’s that scams are everywhere, and there are plenty of things to do to stop them. If you weren’t able to attend the event, live-streamed footage can be viewed on YouTube under the title, “Schemers, Scammers, & Subverters Symposium.”