Sunday, July 31, 2011

Me...a writer?

I went overboard character-wise in my last post...and I liked it. It has me thinking that I want to try my hand at writing a book. Not a terribly long book, but a book nonetheless. I found a cool site called Smashwords that makes it easy for independent authors and publishers to get their work out to a larger audience. They do this by taking a plain text file and converting it into an ebook in most of the different formats (epub, pdf, mobi, etc). Then they sell your book, on their site and on other major online retailers like Barnes and Noble (of course, they keep a percentage for themselves...only fair). I could make my book available for free or I could charge as little as 99 cents for it.

Of course, it takes more than a website and an electronic format to convince people to buy a book. You have to have a solid idea, one that is not being covered by every other author out there. One idea that I have been pondering for some time comes from a television show I saw in 2004 (It stuck with me). It was called John Safran vs. God. The clip that's had me thinking is this one:

I should add that I don't find this video particularly offensive...after all, Safran is a comedian. I'm not sure how serious he was when he made this comment, but I do know that this attitude is prevalent among believers. I want to write my book about atheism from the perspective of the average Joe (literally). You obviously don't have to be a genius, or even know that much about science to not believe in a god (it does help a little). There aren't a lot of books on atheism being written by guys who flunked out of college and work blue collar jobs. So it will be with this video in mind that I begin the process of crafting my first book. I also want to expand on my last post about the what, who and why of I, and recount my path to atheism (or my return to atheism, since I was born one). I will do my best to provide updates on my progress. I don't often stick to commitments like this, but THIS TIME I think I'm serious (just like every other time, right). So to make up for the length of my last post, I'm cutting this one short...after all, I've got a book to write!!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What/Who/Why am I?

Many of my posts start out as random thoughts I have while driving alone. This is just a sneaky way of saying that I talk to myself in the car. As far as I know, asking questions is exclusive to humans (so I assume that answering our own questions is something only we do as well). But I could be wrong about that. In fact, the default position you should hold on anything I say is that I am probably wrong. I work in a grocery store for fucks sake!! I barely graduated from high school and briefly attended the local community college, ONLY so I could earn limited playing time on the school's basketball team. I am a proverbial fountain of misinformation. But like all humans, I have questions. So I try to come up with answers. Answers that can certainly change when better information comes in. They may change five years from now or they may change an hour after I post this and someone makes a more compelling argument. They are not etched into a tablet of stone. They are the best I can do right now with my undersized prefrontal lobes, but they evolve (it's actually the best thing I can say about them).

What am I?

We covered that I work in a grocery store, but that is not the "what" I am asking about here. One thing I know about humans (I am a human...we covered this above also) is that we are a collection of atoms. The average 70 kg human being (that's 154 lbs in the jolly US of A) contains about 7 times 1027 atoms. That's a seven followed by 27 zeroes. But I am much bigger than the "average" human being. In fact, I am almost twice as big as this "average" human. That's 14,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms!! But that number means almost nothing to me. It's just too big. So lets just call it "oodles" of atoms. The most abundant elements in the human body are Oxygen (65%), Carbon (18%), Hydrogen (10%) and Nitrogen (3%). These four elements alone make up 96% of the human body by my math (I double checked it on a calculator). Where did these atoms come from? Well, one of my favorite quotes EVER comes from physicist Lawrence Krauss:

"Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

    He mentions evolution. Human beings are certainly the result of evolution (even though 4 in 10 Americans reject it). Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record 195,000 years ago in Africa. In this sense, we are all Africans (there is a great t-shirt that has that exact line on it, and the quicker everyone accepts it the closer we'd be to making racism go away). And no, we didn't evolve from monkeys!!! We are more closely related to modern apes (gorillas and chimpanzees) than to monkeys, but we didn't evolve from apes either. We share a common ancestor with apes. This common ancestor existed five to eight million years ago. That species diverged into two separate lineages: one of which led to chimps and gorillas, the other which led to hominids and But this isn't a post about evolution. I'm moving on.

    So to sum up...I answer the "what am I" question like this: "I am a human being, the product of millions and millions of years of evolution among primates (not to mention the 3.8 billion years since life began as single cell organisms). I am also a collection of "oodles" of atoms and these atoms came from the explosion and violent death of stars."

    Who am I?

    This question seems tougher. "What" is more of a nuts and bolts question, like "what is a television?" The "who am I?" question seems more like "how do you tell one television from another?" To start with, I am the offspring of my parents. I received half of my genetic code from my Dad, and half of my genetic code from my Mom. They each received half of their genetic code from their mothers and half from their fathers (my grandparents). We could keep going with this, but you're smarter than me and I know you understand it (because I do). In this sense, my parents are my co-creators. They also gave me all the love and encouragement in the world. This means everything to me. This is a good start (in my case, a great start...and it could only go down from there).

    But that's not the whole answer. If everything about me was a result of being my parents' child my favorite musician would be James Taylor (Dad) and I would really dig foreign movies, in particular ones from the Middle East (Mom). I've got nothing against JT (I enjoy his music every now and again), but this doesn't describe me at all. As a human (see above), we have a unique ability to reference ourselves. We are aware of our existence in a way that other animals aren't. If you don't know what I mean by this, put your dog in front of a mirror and see what he does with the reflection. This is not only useful at a fun house, it seems to play a big role in my answer to the "who" question.

    Each and every day we take in massive quantities of information. We see, we hear, we smell, we taste...(once again, you get it). Each one of these data points gets stored away for later use. We then "make" connections between these points. It's these connections that decide what things we like and don't like. They remind us which events in the past have brought us joy and which ones have brought us sadness. And we have been collecting this information since day one. I was first formally exposed to this idea of the self referential brain in Douglas Hofstadter's book "I am a Strange Loop", but I think I kind of viewed it that way before I read it. This is how I come up with my answer to the "who" question. Let me give an example that is fresh in my mind:

    The other day, my family and I were watching the movie Parenthood. It was on one of the premium cable channels, so when it ended they immediately started another flick. The next movie (much to my wife's chagrin) was Purple Rain. Of course, Prince is the star of Purple Rain. As much as she wanted me to turn it off immediately, I lobbied and talked her into watching the very beginning of the movie (he plays Let's Go Crazy at the beginning...more on that in a moment). I don't have any idea what causes my wife's aversion to Prince. Some back story questions are best left unanswered. I do, however, know what goes on in my head when I think of Prince. I remember that my (older) friend Rick snuck the VHS copy of Purple Rain into my house while my parents were at work. They had heard the movie was for a more mature audience and didn't think I should see it yet (I disagreed). I also remember that Prince played a few songs in the first Tim Burton Batman movie in the late 80's. I then think of an interview I read with Prince in TV Guide at the time Batman was being released in theaters. I read the interview while waiting in a checkout line with my mother at Basics & More behind the Harford Mall (long since's a Best Buy now). He was dating one of the stars of the film, Kim Basinger. She cut the interview short by bringing a jar of honey into the room, which prompted Prince to let the interviewer know that it was time for him to leave. I also remember not fully understanding at the time why a woman bringing a jar of honey into the room would make him want to end his interview. For a short time, I delivered frozen food for Schwan's. We were asked to introduce new products to customers...something that was not always easy for me (I wasn't much of a salesman). One of the new products was an ice cream bar called Let's Dough Crazy. As an ice breaker, I would point out to customers that Schwan's, like Prince, was based in Minnesota, and that as a tribute to him they named a product after his second greatest song. Naturally, the customer's curiosity would lead them to ask me, "what's the greatest Prince song?", at which point I would tell them Raspberry Beret and let them know that I also carried Raspberry Swirl bars on my truck if they would rather have them. (For the record...I wasn't lying to them when I said that Raspberry Beret was my favorite Prince song...I meant it, but it was dishonest to suggest that the ice cream bars were a tribute to him). Corny? Yes!! But these are just a few of the things that pop into my head when I think of Prince. I could go on longer, but I'll spare you (just know that I am listening to the two previously mentioned songs on loop as I type this).

    Does this idea of connected memories and self reference answer the question of "Who am I"? It does for me. So since I "summed" up my answer to the last question, I'll do it again here before I move on: "I am my parents offspring and I get half of my genetic code from my Mom and half from my Dad. I am also the collection of memories and experiences that I have stored in my brain that I reference back to and make new connections with each and everyday."

    Why am I?

    This question is a problem for me. I think the question assumes that there is a purpose to our lives that is defined not by us, but by a higher power. A higher power that I don't believe in. I can't answer the question in that way. But I will answer it...albeit, in my own way.

    The answer I gave for the "who am I" question is also true of the answer I would give for, "who are my parents?" Through experiences and memories, they developed a bond to one another that we call love. I don't know how much we humans understand about "love", but I think it has something to do with these memories and experiences. It also has to do with chemical reactions in the brain and a biological imperative that all living beings have to reproduce. When you meet a person you are interested in, you may not be thinking to yourself, "WOW, I really would like to reproduce with them", but your genes are. So it's the balance between "love" and biological imperative that my parents felt in 1973 that is the first part of my answer to the "why" question.

    The second half is one you have to find for yourself. It's what gets you out of bed everyday. Or maybe what keeps you in bed everyday. For me, I am certain that part of my "why" is another biological imperative. The one that wants to care for and raise my son. For some it may be their job or a hobby. Maybe even a loved one. I imagine that to some extent, all of these things would answer each of our "why am I" question. But I don't believe there is any "big picture" or "grander" answer to the question. You beat all the odds and won the genetic lottery by being born. What you decide to do with that, and what purpose you want to assign to your life is up to you.

    So to sum up the "why" question: "I beat the odds and sprung into existence because of "feelings" (emotional and biological) that my parents had that made them decide to reproduce. These same "feelings", some emotional and some biological, define my life's purpose."

    Okay...that's my attempt to answer life's "big questions". I could have saved you some time and just posted this:

    "I am a human being, the product of millions and millions of years of evolution among primates(not to mention the 3.8 billion years since life began as single cell organisms). I am also a collection of "oodles" of atoms and these atoms came from the explosion and violent death of stars."

    "I am my parents offspring and I get half of my genetic code from my Mom and half from my Dad. I am also the collection of memories and experiences that I have stored in my brain that I reference back to and make new connections with each and everyday."

    "I beat the odds and sprung into existence because of "feelings" (emotional and biological) that my parents had that made them decide to reproduce. These same "feelings", some emotional and some biological, define my life's purpose."

    But what's the fun in that. I have been thinking about this all day and I wanted to get it down as quick as I could. But I'm done now...I've more Prince to listen to. I'd like feedback to this one if you are so inclined. If you think I am wrong or even are crazy enough to agree, let me know. Of course, you are under no obligation to respond (you knew that)...but it would be nice if you did. Especially if you disagree. Maybe I'll learn something new. As I said at the beginning, these beliefs aren't etched in stone...they can change when better evidence comes in. (Note: I didn't attempt to answer the when or where am I questions, because they don't seem very interesting and I hoped we could all figure those out on our own...once again, I could be wrong).

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    Comedic Timing

    I loved Penn Jillette's radio show. It was easily my favorite hour of each and every work day. Of course, it was during a time when I drove a frozen food delivery truck for 12-14 hours a day, but I'm not damning with faint praise here. It was a wonderful show and I miss it. I miss it so much, that I listen to an episode each morning (via podcast) during my 3-4 mile walk. It's like using a time machine to travel back and "re enjoy" your favorite thing (I realize that DVD's and CD's and plenty of other media do this also, but we can talk about them another time).

    This morning's episode was from March 20, 2006 and the two "big topics" were Patriotism and Patents (Penn would often start out with a main topic or two, but the show was free-form and the discussion would often go in many nutty directions). At one point the conversation between Penn and Michael Goudeau (co-host and juggler extraordinaire) drifted to Space Shuttle launches. It is then that Penn gives credit to NASA for discovering the mathematical equation for comedic timing. This equation for comedic timing is "the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound over a distance of 3.7 miles." I had completely forgotten this and it was great to hear it again. Penn wrote in more detail about this in he and Teller's 1997 book, "How to Play in Traffic". The excerpt (it's long, but worth reading) can be found here. Penn and Teller also covered this on an episode of their Showtime show, Penn & Teller's Bullshit! Here's a clip...

    The Penn Radio show exposed me to so many great things that I didn't know about. Norman Borlaug, Bob Dylan's "Up to Me", the amazing jazz piano playing of Mike Jones (who I got to see perform before the P&T live show in Vegas), Paul Provenza and The Aristocrats movie, and of course, Monkey Tuesday and "Bacon and a Kiss" airlines (if you weren't a won't understand). But it was more than that. Hearing Penn and Goudeau talk openly about being atheists was everything to me. I didn't know any other atheists in "real life". I had only told my parents and a few close friends that I was an atheist. After I found that show, I was able to tell everybody...because I no longer felt I was the only one. The episodes of Penn's radio show can be found on iTunes here. Give it a is my ALL TIME favorite bit of entertainment.

    Thursday, July 14, 2011

    The Green Room

    There are few television shows that I make it a point to watch. I do watch Capitals hockey regularly during the NHL season, but the number of "shows" that I watch with any regularity are very few. I will drop many things, however, to watch any episode of the following:

    Then last year a new show emerged that got added into my TV mix right away. That show is The Green Room with Paul Provenza. "The Green Room" is basically a panel of the funniest comedians around, taking about...COMEDY...with Provenza (perhaps the funniest of them all) serving as the host. Each episode begins with the warning, "if you've ever been offended by anything, don't come in", which is the way I think every show should begin. They tell jokes and stories (this was the trailer for the first season)...

    ...and even play a little music occasionally...

    Among the guests from the show's first season were Drew Carey, Eddie Izzard, Larry Miller, Roseanne Barr, Bob Saget, Andy Dick, Dana Gould, Bobby Slayton, Paul Mooney, Jonathon Winters, Robert Klein, Rick Overton, Tommy Smothers, Martin Mull and Penn Jillette (I've told the "thermos" joke that Mull shared on his episode enough times that I've lost count).

    Anyway...I'm bringing this up because the first episode of the second season airs tonight (July 14th) on Showtime at 11 PM EST, and stars Judd Apatow, Garry Shandling, Ray Romano, Bo Burnham and Marc Maron along with host Provenza. If you aren't familiar with Paul Provenza, he was the director of the Aristocrats movie (which he made with Penn of my favorite movies ever!!) as well as a long time actor and comedian. This is a funny clip of him talking about religion and atheists (by the way, Provenza is an atheist...there's more of us than you realize.)

    Okay, enough from me. Give the show a won't be sorry. But only if you've never been offended by anything.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    The "Skeptic" Machine

    I'm trying to raise my kid as a skeptic. The public often confuses a "skeptic" with a cynic. This couldn't be further from the truth. Skepticism is (according to Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine) "a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas - no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are "skeptical", we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe. Skeptics are from Missouri - the "show me" state. When we hear a fantastic claim we say, "that's nice, prove it."" This is what I mean my raising him as a skeptic, and there is nothing cynical about that. I prefer raising him as a skeptic to raising him as an atheist. He'll make his own choice on theological matters later...for now the message is, "what is the evidence?", and he can apply that to everything.

    Fortunately for me, one of my son's favorite shows has always been Scooby Doo (not the live action movies...the older cartoons). I know, you probably don't think of the show as skeptical, but you should. In every episode of Scooby Doo (older ones at least...some of the newer stuff, not so much), the teen detectives look into some supposedly supernatural claim (ghost, zombie, vampire, etc...) and it always ends the same....the mystery gets solved and it is never a monster or ghoul, but instead some janitor in a mask or some dude with a movie projector. Of course, Scooby and Shaggy are BIG TIME superstitious, but the rest of the gang always start out on a search for a natural explanation using the "skeptical" method (something more of the aforementioned public should consider using.)

    My wife and I have felt this way about the show for years, only recently have I discovered that other people feel the same (other's mention it online and their posts are superior to this one). Tim Minchin even references the show in his beat poem "Storm".

    I've introduced him to many "supernatural" heroes (Superman, Thor, Hellboy...), and he enjoys them. He also knows he can't fly or see through walls. No one believes in any of that. I think that's why Scooby Doo remains one of his favorites. Of course it's fiction, he understands that (the dog talks for goodness sake). He also understands the method the "gang" uses to solve the mysteries, and he knows that "skeptic" is something he CAN be. He may also have a thing for Velma (he gets it honest...and who could blame him/us?).

    Sunday, July 3, 2011

    Degrees of Creation

    I was doing some typical web surfing the other day and I came across an article about Charles Darwin. It was one of those "This Day in History" type of articles. The date referenced was July 1, 1858 and the blurb read:

    "1858: The Linnaean Society of London listens to the reading of a composite paper on how natural selection accounts for the evolution and variety of species. The authors are Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Modern biology is born."

    I read the article and was just about to move on, when I started reading the comments section (why do I do that!!!). One of the folks who commented contributed a real "gem" that included this:

    "... Einstein came along and showed everyone the universe had a beginning . . . which any logical, unblinded person know means there is a beginner."

    BACK AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER!!! That's what I am supposed to do...but it never happens. I posted the following in reply to him:

    "I'm sure you would concede that by this "logic", your beginner would need a creator also. And then he/she/? would need yet another "beginner". I'm not bothered at all by people daydreaming their lives away, pondering the "six degrees of creation" long as you don't want it forced on my kid or want the government to endorse it. I prefer the humble position that doesn't claim to know all the answers, before all the evidence is in."

    There hasn't been a response by the original poster and I don't suspect that there will be (not for any reason other than he has more of a life than I do). But I like my "degrees of creation" line. I don't know if it's original (I doubt it) so I shouldn't claim it as mine. But the argument from creation seems to always come back to "How can you get something out of nothing?". Always ignoring the fact that their answer, "God did it", requires us to believe that the creator arose out of nothing. To quote Penn...What the fucking fuck!?!?!? So while it may be a fun distraction to ponder any number of supernatural beings (hey, I love comic books...I read about superpowered dudes in tights all the time), I don't think it is helpful to close your mind and decide that your (not provable) answer is the right one. Call it faith and be done with it. Or if you think the answer to the theological question is knowable, search far and wide for the evidence that is required to prove it. Just don't claim that our lack of understanding or some ancient text authored by man is that evidence. Because it's not. You're going to have to do better to call it science.

    Friday, July 1, 2011

    "Cultural Education"

    Now that Jeffery has graduated from elementary school (see previous post), I figure it won't be long before hanging out with good ol' Dad is not the cool thing to do. So I am trying to take advantage of our free time this summer by creating, what I'm calling, a "cultural education" program. As part of this program we are watching a movie each night that I have deemed "essential" to the development of a young boy (and basically "essential" means it was a movie I liked when I was growing's a scientific list). There is no master list, we are choosing them each night as we move forward. And if the truth were told, there is no real educational agenda either...I just want to spend time with my kid before he is interested in other things besides his "old man".

    So far we are four days in, and we've watched Meatballs, The Usual Suspects, The Crow, and Wayne's World. I've learned up to this point that we should probably stick with comedies. He liked both the Usual Suspects and the Crow (Crow better), but he was much more into the comedies. We'll be sticking with them for the most part. I think tonight we are going with Spaceballs.

    I haven't posted a blog in over a week, partially because I've been spending more time with the kid (which is awesome). I do want to mention that I got to see Gilbert Gottfried perform his comedy act in Baltimore with my wife. WOW!!! What a great show. I am a big fan of live entertainment and a HUGE fan of Gilbert. In my head I have a list of people I'd like to see live before I die (or they die, whichever happens first), and I can now scratch Gilbert off the list (more on the rest of this list later). He was very kind afterwards and posed for a photo with me (see below..I'm the fat one on the right). It was my first trip ever to a comedy club (kind of like my "cultural education" for the summer) and I think making Gilbert my "first time" may have ruined all future acts for me. I don't see how anybody can top that.

    A sample of the genius of Mr. Gottfried...

    Until next time...