Penn Jillette

Penn & Teller are my favourite magicians. I love many magicians, especially Derren Brown (ok, so he’s more of a mentalist, but whatever), Lennart Green, Jerry Sadowitz and Paul Daniels, but Penn & Teller are my absolute favourite. I’ve seen their show in Vegas live more times than I care to mention and I’ve watched almost everything they’ve ever done on TV (Collection of some rarities here).

So what? Well, it just so happens that Penn & Teller are also well known for their atheist (anti-theist?) stance. Penn, the larger and louder half of the two (both by volume), is especially outspoken on the subject, and has now written a book “God, No!” which is doing very well in the NY Times bestseller list. It’s on my Kindle, along with about 5 other books I’ve yet to get to, but I’m saving it, like leaving the best part of a meal until the last moment.

However, Penn also writes on a more ad-hoc basis on the subject of atheism and religion. As I live in America (but am not yet a citizen), I have noticed the increasingly bizzare antics of American politicians (not just on the right), who constantly ‘namedrop’ god. Penn’s latest article is a really excellent examination of why it is that, since Carter, almost every presidential hopeful has had to have god on his (or her) campaign trail.

I agree with many of his points, and would only add that it seems pretty likely that politicians are also reflecting the national mood of worry about identity and the threat of terrorism (the new communism). People, when they are scared, flock to the familiar, retreat in into xenophobia and nationalism, and the familiar arms of a comforting religion where no thought is necessary. That, coupled with the rise in scientific thinking, the increasingly vocal atheist community and a suspicion of all things middle eastern and Islamic, has brought out the very worst in the religious right – a large and motivated portion of the voting population. Expect things to get even stranger from here out.

By the way, if you’ve never heard Penn in full flow, you should check out this appearance on PBS some years ago. His incredible oration and flawless delivery is really wonderful to behold. He’s a giant of a man, and has a brain to match. Did I say that he’s half of one of my favourite magical duos?

Sorry if I’ve neglected Teller in this post…I’ll make up for that in a future blog, he surely deserves it!

Don’t bury the idea

It’s very tempting to bury ideas in a lot of extra talk (or writing). If an idea is good, it’s not usually necessary to support it with lots of explanation of why it’s so great. The temptation for writers (particularly those paid by the word – or the 600 page novel) is to take a good idea, and bury it in prose.

Blogging, as a form of writing, needs to be pretty short and direct (of course, you can always find exceptions), and to hold people’s attention, you need to grab them early. I think a good rule is to state the core of your ‘story’ in the first paragraph, and if necessary to expand on it later. If the idea is good, then people will read that, and get the er…idea, which will determine whether they read more. The more interested reader might read further down into your expansion, the less might just abandon you part way, but neither reader will likely get there if you spend the first two paragraphs on preamble and introduction.

Journalists know this – a quick glance across any of the stories on will show you this technique at work. An attention grabbing headline, a first paragraph synopsis of the story, and then (often most importantly) the real detail below. Of course, in journalism, its that later expansion which is often the important part. Headlines are often deliberately sensationalized, and the real story is buried a bit deeper. However, it’s a good rule to follow for any sort  of writing. Get your idea out there, cut away the fat, and you’ll be more likely to be read.

If you want to be a writer, you need to write.

Some sage advice (as almost always) from Seth Godin – which can be summed up as “write, and continue to do so, until you write better”.

I’ve always dreamed of being a writer, and on occasion I’ve even done so successfully (I count being paid to write as being more of a successful writer than most aspiring writers), but I’ve never had the true commitment to it to as a career.

In fact, most of what I do daily is writing, but too much of it is unstructured and rushed – replies to email, quick jotted notes for things I need to do, ideas for the future etc. I’d like that to change, but the only way for that to happen is for me to write! To deliberately make time to actually sit and let the words flow onto the page (figuratively speaking, as what I really mean is for the words to form by me pressing little plastic keys on my laptop and them, in turn, being displayed on a backlit screen).

This is the challenge, for it is not really the words that are lacking – anyone can write, you just need to actually do it – but it’s the motivation. It’s all too easy to just sit back and do nothing – if you work hard, and end up tired every day, it’s easy to use tiredness as an excuse to just ‘veg out’ – rather than motivate yourself to do something that you believe you love doing.

If you don’t actually do x, then no matter how much you say it, you aren’t x. If you say you love climbing, but never go out and climb (and believe me, the motivation to keep doing that is sometimes really hard to come by), then you’ll never be a climber. If you say you love writing, but don’t motivate yourself to write, you’ll never be a writer.

So, I have two choices: I can accept that I won’t ever be a writer (or keep fooling myself that one day I’ll do it), or I can get on with it, and write, consistently and even when I don’t feel like it, even when I feel as if I have nothing to say.

So, this is me, writing. Let’s see if I can keep it up. As Seth Godin said here “Self motivation is and always will be the most important form of motivation.” Time is a commodity we can always find, but motivation can only come from within, and that’s a daily choice.

Joy is simple

I’ve sometimes been asked how, as an atheist, I can enjoy life when all I have to look forward to is nothing (i.e. no afterlife). Actually, this sort of question is based on  a fallacy, the truly sad idea that true joy can’t be experienced in this life, but only in some perfect (albeit robotic and choice free) life to come.

I doubt there is anyone who really lives life only in anticipation of an afterlife. Even the most committed religionist sometimes will think about other events as being joyful – perhaps the next visit to the mosque or church, or the marriage of a child etc – so clearly they understand that joy is available, in a very tangible way, in this life. Would you really like to pass up on the birth of your child, or his marriage to be immediately in the afterlife? Maybe some would, but many would not think twice about asking for a stay – this indicates that experience in this life does have some grip over even the most devoted believer.

That being true, the atheist simply extends his (or her, but I happen to be male) understanding of such temporal joy to being the only type of joy worth longing for. I love my life: I enjoy getting up and going to work, I enjoy meeting people, climbing rocks, diving in the beautiful oceans, flying in our incredible aeroplanes to amazing places; I enjoy creating and listening to music, appreciating art, playing with my children and watching them grow up. I enjoy a glass of wine  on the couch while watching home improvement programs with my partner, going to the store and getting groceries, buying shoes and winding up a watch – there is little I consider mundane.

I never for a moment worry about what will happen after I die. Indeed, I know that there is no need for such a worry, I will simply not exist, just as I did not exist before I was born. I sometimes wonder about the process of death itself, and at times that worries me – but that worry is more centered around the possibility of pain, and the ending of this great life that I have lived and the effect that might have on others, but when I die, I will know that I have lived. Lived joyfully, and fully and without regret.

There’s a good article that relates to this subject over at Freethought blogs, which inspired this post.

And, if you’re stuck for sources of joy today, go and have a look at these beautiful books on Typography by Stephen Heller and Lita Talarico. Typography is so much a part of life that we rarely think of it as art, but that’s a mistake, it really is, and has a huge power to provoke a reaction (good or bad) in us, so great as to influence our behavior. That’s why companies spend so much on branding exercises that include testing different typefaces – for instance can you imagine Apple using  a Gothic font?

Seth Godin talks about Typography

Typography; we see it everywhere (natch), and much of it sucks. Companies go through a lot of pain to match their typefaces to their brand, often unsuccessfully. Indeed, some typefaces invoke physical reactions in me (I can’t bear to read or write in Times New Roman and Comic Sans gives me this face). In the below linked post, Seth Godin (marketing guru, computer scientist and philosopher) takes a swipe at bad typography (including a favorite gripe of mine, SAFETY signs) and points out the excellent “Typekit“.

The rest of his blog is worth reading too.