Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Back to the Future DVD trilogy (Movie, *****)

I must confess that I love all three BttF movies and always have. I was a teenager in the eighties, so a lot of Marty's pre-time travelling existence resonates with me. My parents are both scientists, nothing like the wacky Doc Brown, but I still love the character that Christopher Lloyd created. At the base of his manic personality is a deep love and enthusiasm for science, an eagerness to explain his methods to anybody who will listen. He's really not like the usual "mad scientist" prototype who appears in movies. Many movies treat scientists like creepy, amoral figures who tinker with nature and don't care about the consequences. Knowledge bad! Ignorance good! I hate that stereotype. But Doc, by contrast, invents things because he has a love of humanity and wants to help people. When he recognizes the inherent danger of his own invention, he would rather destroy his own work than see it hurt anybody. He's a mentor and a father figure to Marty, the kid adores him. And that's a refreshing portrayal of science.

I have been known to describe a potentially bad situation by saying "Well that might cause a chain of events that would unravel the foundation of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe!!!" I've got Doc's mannerism down pat. The movie has become a part of my vernacular.

I also love the whole time travel mythos. Everything about it. Just reading about the history of times long past is a little thrill, and the idea of visiting them has always been interesting to me. Thinking about time travel paradoxes is enough to give most people a headache, but it's not so hard to understand as long as the author sets up a particular set of rules and sticks to them.

The BttF series handles everything very well. It's a human drama, a nostalgic look at the past, a mind-bender about the way time travel works, and it has some great action sequences and special effects. Even without modern computer graphics, they made a lot of effects shots that still hold up well today. And of course, the second and third movies make very impressive use of split-screen shots, where two and sometimes even three copies of the same actor share screen time.

This is not to say that the movies don't have their problems. The direction is sometimes uneven, especially when characters jump onto the screen from nowhere. Some of the recurring gags are overdone and annoying ("Mom, is that you? I had an awful nightmare..."). And I recognize that the second and third movies are not as good as the first. The second movie is much too cartoony, the performances are overblown, and a lot of the sets and costumes are absurd. The third movie is a little too slow in the middle, and it drags through the old west romance plot, until it finally picks up again in the final sequence with the gunfight and the train heist.

Even so, I think they're all great, and they all form one big story arc, without which the first movie would be incomplete. Part II is all about exploring the fiendishly complicated implications of time travel, which the first movie only briefly went into. Part III backs off of the logic stuff and instead develops the characters and brings more of a sense of closure to them. Marty gets control of his temper and his future, Doc gets a soulmate. It's all good.

It's amazing how many special features they managed to scrape together for movies that are nearly 20 years old. Each disc has three pages of menus for the special features. There's two commentaries and two twenty minute documentaries on each disc, pop-up trivia, cut scenes, bloopers, and various and sundry goodies such as music videos, makeup tests, and pages from the original script describing scenes that never made the cut. Pretty much everyone who worked on the movies gives a retrospective on them, although Christopher Lloyd is conspicuously absent.

I know that not everyone is a big enough fan to shell out the $40 or $50 for the entire set, so don't get it. But I would have to say that this DVD ranks high among those in my collection that give a lot of bang for the buck. Right up there with Terminator 2 Special Edition and the Toy Story box set with an entire extra disc. Good stuff. This is something fans won't want to pass up.

Score: ***** out of 5.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

September 11 Memorial speech

This speech was delievered for a secular September 11 memorial service hosted by the Atheist Community of Austin.

After September 11 a year ago, for a short period of time -- maybe a few days, maybe a couple of weeks -- the United States really seemed to be unified. We were a nation in mourning; we all had a grief that we shared, even though most of us didn't personally know anyone who died in the tragedy. Everyone seemed just a little more sympathetic towards each other. People went out of their way to call old acquaintances and make sure they were okay. My wife even said she noticed that drivers were a little less rude in traffic. They wouldn't cut each other off, they would slow down to let you change lanes, and they wouldn't honk and gesture so much.

Human nature being what it is, it's not really surprising that this camaraderie didn't last very long. The first crack I noticed came from an unsurprising source: Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Instead of offering moral support and positive suggestions, they began casting around for someone to blame. It was on September 13, just two days later, that Jerry and Pat appeared on "The 700 Club" to offer these words of support and comfort to our nation: "...what we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."

Falwell then went on to explain why we deserved what we got. It would seem that it's all the fault of a laundry list of groups: the American Civil Liberties Union, pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, and lesbians. They all make his God angry.

At the same time, something else was happening in America. Reports of hate crimes against people of Arabic descent started coming in. We all heard the reports about assaults, death threats, and general harassment against people who looked middle-Eastern. They were directed against innocent people who weren't involved in the attacks, who would never dream of such an action. In many cases, the victims weren't even the RIGHT ethnicity -- they were Pakistani or Indian; they practiced Hinduism rather than Islam. Racial prejudice isn't known for its logic.

To Ann Coulter it's obvious what the solution is to Islamic terrorism. In a column on September 14, she wrote that "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." OBVIOUSLY the problem is that the assailants were Muslims; if they had been Christians, they would never have done such a thing, because there are no recorded instances of people killing each other in the name of Christianity, right?

The news about racial hate crimes has diminished in more recent times, but it has been replaced by a general undercurrent of anger against Muslims. As recently as last month, we've heard Billy Graham's son, Franklin, tell us that all Islamic people scare him, saying, "the silence of the (Islamic) clerics around the world is frightening to me." In reality, there are hundreds of Muslim leaders from around the world who have issued public statements denouncing the actions of the terrorists, and yet Graham ignores this fact and asks: "How come they haven't come to this country, how come they haven't apologized to the American people?"

Ashraf Sabrin, a medical technician who volunteered for the relief efforts at the twin towers and the Pentagon, said: "We've had so many different events -- open houses, candlelight vigils, national press releases. What's it going to take exactly?" Ironically, Franklin Graham's false sweeping generalization about Muslims came up shortly after the publication of a book he wrote which included the following claim: "Islam - unlike Christianity - has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths."

Meanwhile, popular radio commentators and news editorialists can be heard daily making sarcastic mockeries of Arabs, saying "If they don't want to be frisked at every checkpoint and looked at with perpetual suspicion by all American citizens, then they shouldn't come here and blow up our buildings." That is, of course, absurd. Most of the people we are talking about are American citizens themselves, who watched in horror along with the rest of us as the twin towers collapsed; but unlike the rest of us, they received the additional insult of being harassed and targeted by angry people looking for revenge on someone, anyone. The reality is that the peaceful American citizens of Arab descent who walk among us in our cities are NOT the same ones who attacked us.

We atheists have also received a bit more than our fair share of the blame for an event that didn't involve us at all. Kathleen Parker wrote an editorial for USA Today on October 1 that begins by saying, "One can't help notice the silence of atheists these days." The general idea of this article was that it would be a very good thing if atheists would all shut up about that irritating "separation of church and state" and go away so we could get back to the business of giving our children proper values. It concluded by saying, "If we're to win this war -- sure to last into our children's futures -- we have to reweave the rituals of God and country into our institutions."

Well, obviously atheists haven't been keeping silent -- here we are, after all -- but they've been marginalized as much as possible ever since last year. We've become convenient bogeymen representing everything that's wrong with American values, which led God to decide that we're not worthy of being protected anymore.

So, whose fault was September 11? On the one hand, we hear that the reason we're being targeted by terrorist attacks is because we deserve it, thanks to all the atheists and evolutionists and ACLU members and gay people and so on. On the other hand, we hear that it's all the fault of every single person who has a certain ethnic background, especially if they are presumably too foolish to recognize that one religion is inherently evil and violent while another religion is noble and good.

Human beings are pattern-seeking animals. When we see something that interests or scares us, we look for a way that we can generalize the experience. Sometimes this is simply good survival instinct; after all, if you recognize the circumstances when you make a mistake, then hopefully you won't make the same mistake again. But as a method of dealing with other people, sometimes it's just bad policy.

A common thread that we see in all this is Americans attacking other Americans, looking for easy rules of thumb to tell them who the bad guys are. No such rules exist, of course, especially in a pluralistic society where many different ways of life are represented. We're letting generalizations get in the way of thinking.

Unfortunately, atheists are sometimes guilty of this habit too. How many of you were listening to what I said about Robertson, Falwell, and Graham, and thinking to yourselves "See? That just goes to show that you can't trust those religious people"? It's very easy for non-Christians to take the worst examples of Christianity and use that as a substitute for the religion as a whole. But in fact, it's not that being a member of a particular religion makes you a bad person, any more than being a member of no religion. There are some fine and wonderful Christians out there, just as there are fine and wonderful Muslims and atheists.

The danger that any religion poses occurs only when its members become entrenched in the idea that "Our metaphysical truth is right, and theirs is SO WRONG that there is no possibility that we can even communicate." Jerry Falwell said it about large numbers of Americans. Franklin Graham said it about all Muslims. And Osama bin Laden said it about us. In that sense, when fundamentalism is practiced to extremes in this country, it mirrors the sort practiced in Afghanistan.

We shouldn't do that. We're supposed to be the country that values diversity, and we're proud of our freedom to choose to believe whatever religion we want, including none at all.

But we are, each one of us, about more than just our religion. We are not our set of beliefs. We are not the groups we join or the people we associate with. Each one of us is an individual, someone who is worthy of respect and appreciation for our unique qualities.

Let's not join together in groups as a way of shutting out the rest of the world. If we do join groups, it should be because we want to feel close to each other and have friends. Study the examples of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and understand that they're bad not because they practice Islam, and not because of their dark skin, but because they've come to a place where they can't accept anyone having different beliefs than their own. And then let's try not to follow their example.

Wednesday, July 24, 2002


As the years go by and my experience gets more firmly entrenched in web development, it becomes more and more clear to me that I'll probably never be involved with doing some damn cool serious project with 3d graphics. That kind of depresses me, although hearing Gus and others talk about what a rough life it is to be a game developer, I don't feel quite as depressed as I could.

But all that aside, Siggraph is da bomb. Seriously. This is the fourth year total that I've gone to Siggraph, though it is the first year I've done it for one day with only an exhibits pass. In past years, I did all the classes and everything. But this year it was located near me, so I decided I could afford to be cheap and treat it as a one day road trip.

For those who don't know, Siggraph is the premiere convention for people who just dig computer graphics. Most of them are involved with producing graphics, selling tools, or buying content; some, like me, just want to be there to check out the way cool techno toys that are hopefully going to be widely used some day. I had no real practical reason for going; I'm not looking for work, I just treat it like a geek's day at Disneyland.

I've got a Palm Pilot full of notes, so rather than put everything together into a narrative, I'm just going to include all my notes that I downloaded and comment on them.

Interesting books
Steve Rabin - AI Game Programming Wisdom
Steve Caplin - How to Cheat in Photoshop

Neat bookstore, but every special interest thing in there costs over $50. I'm putting them on my Amazon wish list in case I can ever buy them cheaper.

Feeling the VW (and torso)

This was the first interesting exhibit I saw walking in the door, and it was very neat. They had a T-Bar that can move freely in all three dimensions. It slides up and down, rotates horizontally on a swivel, and moves forward and backward on a slider. Moving the bar around controls a small ball on a nearby computer screen. Now here's the cool part. On screen with the ball was a model of something -- at first it was a VW bug. The bar gives force feedback. You can run the ball over the surface of the model, and you can feel all the curves and contours of the object. I slid the ball over the curved roof, through a window, and then around the under side of the roof. I felt the runoff grooves on the hood.

Of course as soon as you invent something like this, someone will immediately think "How can I use this to improve my sex life, or get one if I don't have one?" Sure enough, they had a model of a woman's torso. No head or anything below the waist. I decided not to play with the torso, cause in a crowded room that would just be weird. But I would infer that it was just as rock solid as the car, so it didn't seem all that exciting anyway. I'm sure there are programming tricks that could improve on that, but ANYWAY, let's move on.

dome screen

At this exhibit, you can sit in front of a screen that's shaped like a hemisphere. You are surrounded by screens on both sides and above and below you. I presume this is sort of the ultimate in home theater systems, like a personal IMAX theater. On screen, I saw a roller coaster simulation and a jet fighter demo. They explained how they generate five different images, one for each side (front, left, right, up, down) and then stitch them together with an algorithm that also corrects for the dome warping effects. Seems like this would be a good way to play immersive games, although producing movies for them would be a challenge and probably involve some sort of special five way camera (which I also saw an example of elsewhere, but I'll get to that later).

coming from dw
2003 sinbad - brad pitt, cath zj
2004 shrek 2, sharkslayer, over the hedge (jc)
2005 madagascar ben st chris rock

I got a flyer from Dreamworks concerning the next several years of animated flicks. The posters look good, especially Madagascar. I'm a fan of both Ben Stiller and Chris Rock, and they'll be playing a lion and a zebra from the zoo who get shipwrecked in Africa. Sharkslayer will be cartoon still CG, starring Will Smith. It looks like a mafia movie underwater. Over the Hedge stars Jim Carrey.

3d spinning plates

It was a 3d graphics display. I mean, you could actually see a wireframe model displayed in 3d. The way it works is, there is a circular upright screen. It spins really fast, and displays different cross sections as it spins. There was a crude interactive 3d "game" you could play with a joystick, but there was no objective except to show off the capabilities. Image-wise, it didn't look any better than a Nintendo Virtual Boy (anybody remember those??) but it was cool anyway because it was really 3d and you don't have to wear special glasses or look in a viewfinder or anything.

ILM Showing off star wrs anim

A nice little demo from Episode II of a spaceship shooting up a tower. An animator walked the audience through all the steps of adding on explosions, laser beams, etc to the original modelled scene.


Just trying to keep track of the time occasionally.

t-shirt art

Off in another corner, there were free art lessons being given. Everybody gets a Siggraph t-shirt with a large blank square to draw on. A male model was sitting in front of the room, striking a typical male model pose. The instructor was explaining how to sketch him in lines. I didn't participate, art not being my thing.

rapid prototyping (bell)

I saw a rapid prototyping machine in action years ago at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, where I used to have some classes. It's a device that reads in a wireframe model and produces a physical version. An example of one appeared in Jurassic Park 3, although like most of the movie, you had to take the scientific explanation with a grain of salt.

The one at Siggraph used the technique of hardening liquid and lasers. There was some kind of goo, and you blast the goo to make a thin cross section of the model. Then you slap it on top of the rest of the model, and keep making cross sections. The result looks like plastic. The technology has clearly improved since the last time I saw these things; the resolution is very high. The curves look curvy and not angular. Sample models were a replica of the liberty bell, very nicely painted and glossy; an alien creature; and some weird work of art which was a sphere made up of stretched out half naked people. A sign said "Do not touch" on that one because the fingers in the model were very thin and fragile.

nvidia geforce 4 werewolf, metal chick with bubbles
blizzard north guys - i'm not worthy!!

I watched a demo of the geforce 4 at the NVidia booth. It's hard to describe what I saw more exactly, but trust me, it was cool. One was a hairy, slobbery werewolf running around through shadowed and lighted areas; the other was some funky dancing woman who leaves bubbles in a trail behind her. All very detailed and smooth, and being rendered in real time on ordinary 2 gig processors.

While watching the demo, I noticed that two guys were standing there, one wearing a black "World of Warcraft" shirt. I tentatively said, "You guys aren't FROM Blizzard, are you?" "Sure," said the guy with the shirt. "You think we faked these badges?" Sure enough, the badges said "Blizzard." "Dude!" I said, and made the universally recognized "I'm not worthy!" bowing and scraping gesture from Wayne's World. They laughed. Must have been used to it. I said "I'm the biggest fan of Warcraft!" They said "Actually, we're from Blizzard North." "Oh," I said. "Well... Diablo is really good too." How's that for a good first impression?

So I asked them what's up with them, and they told me that Blizzard South is working on WoW, so Blizzard North is working on... they can't say. A secret, don'tcha know. Oh well, I tried.

Emerging tech
semi-opaque screen
not that impressive

I saw a smaller room off the beaten path that said "Emerging Technology". I decided to check it out. This looked to be mostly experimental prototype stuff. Not all of it worked very well.

The first thing I saw was this semi-opaque screen demo. Basically it's a standard VR helmet that can let the real world through in some places but not in others. So you can superimpose, say, a building on a city block, and see the fake building in front of the real buildings. Or, the virtual building can be behind the real ones, by letting the space taken up by real buildings be clear, and only the sky part of the virtual building be opaque. And IN THEORY, you can hold your hand up in front of you, and the helmet senses that your hand is closer than the buildings (thanks to multiple camera inputs), and your hand will be visible in front of the virtual building.

Problem is, it didn't really work too reliably. As a demo, they had two players play a virtual "breakout" game with each other. Virtual balls fly around and you smack them with your real hand to break the bricks. It looked fun watching other people do it. In reality, your hand is fuzzy and semi-transparent, and the ball doesn't recognize your hand's position most of the time, so you'll be swatting around at the air and not really getting a reaction.

mask thing, ditto

This one was just strange. You hold a little hand held screen up in front of a bunch of blocks. You see what you're pointing at on the screen, and if you hold it in front of blocks with a certain pattern, a funky Japanese mask appears over the block. I didn't really get it, except that it was pattern recognition.

3d power point???
controlled by palm pilot

Something called "The Cave", which is a small closed off room with a computer screen that fills an entire wall. The guy was using a palm pilot like device to call up powerpoint slides. When he called up a slide, a mechanical arm (in the virtual screen world) would go and pull out a picture from somewhere and bring it close to the screen. For really pretentious businessmen who have too much money, I guess.

"organic robot" follows your hand

Cute. Looks like a giant primitive slug. It sits in a little environment that they built for it (a real set, not a virtual world) and wiggles around, drinking water. When someone waves a hand near it, the slug bends and stretches in that direction, as if it were trying to get a better look. The main thing they were emphasizing was that it's "organic" looking, not machine-like. It was a latex skin over many bending parts.

robot photographer - way cool! weddings etc

This was neat. A little robot on wheels wandered around the room, more or less at random, swivelling a little lens all over the place. It was programmed to recognize regularly sized patches of skin tone. When it sees what looks like a face, it moves to a position where it can get a good shot, and then takes a picture. On a screen, you can see pictures that have been taken recently, and the face is framed in blue to show what the robot identified.

I had my picture converted through an "old time photo" filter, and they emailed it to me. Or at least they said they would. I haven't received it yet.

big turning 9 way camera

Sort of reminded me of the dome screen, except that this one was filming live. There were nine cameras in a little 3x3 grid, with some arrangement of mirrors to make the images line up. Elsewhere, there are nine large screens in a similar arrangement, but they are mounted in such a way that you can turn the whole arrangement. That is, you stand in the middle, grab handles on either side, and swing the whole thing to either side. The camera turns with you. So you can follow someone around the room, stuff like that. Like I said, this might be a good way to film movies for the dome home theater. It also might be good for surveillance.


star wars bounty hunter, all in maya

I left the emerging technology area and went mainstream again. I watched a LucasArts programmer brag about what a great tool Maya is, and everything in the game is done in Maya. I forget why this seemed interesting enough to take a note on, but the game looked good.

veggie tales ,ICK
dancing crosses
"goal: to reintroduce biblical values into pop. media"

Need I say more? If you've seen Veggie Tales, I shouldn't. They were showing clips from the upcoming "Veggie Tales, the movie". A board off to one side proclaims their mission statement, as I noted above. There's much more sappy stuff where that came from. (Half-hearted apologies to anyone who likes veggie tales.)

chat w blizzard - prefers altar first

I found the Blizzard table. It was a modest affair, no big booth, just a table with flyers and a TV screen showing the movies from the Warcraft DVD. I decided to chat with the Blizzard guys and ask the burning question: "Altar first, or barracks?"

The guy I talked to said it's a hotly debated question, and there is no easy answer. But personally, he likes altar first because he likes to have a hero quickly. He asked "What race do you play?" I said "random, mostly." He said "It's tough to play random nowadays, with everyone playing the night elves." I said "Maybe, but I'm low level, and the players who I get automatically matched with don't know how to play night elves very well."

Eventually, I left the exhibit hall and went to:

anim theater
some kinda funny stuff, too much weird art crap

The animation theater was playing constantly. I stayed for about 20-30 minutes. Not impressed. Even the funny shorts weren't all that funny. Clearly the REALLY good stuff was not included there, because it was saved for the Electronic Theater shows that play twice a day and cost $40 to get into. I hadn't bought a ticket, so I don't know what was played there.

After that, I went to:

2:15 art gallery

The art gallery had some neat exhibits in it. Some things were attended by their creators, and some weren't. Some were art made with CG, and some were art that made a statement about what computers are doing in our lives. The first thing in the gallery was a display where visitors could clip off some of their hair, put it in a test tube, assign themselves a bar code, and type in some anonymous personal information. It's all about how computers are reducing us all to bits of data, understand? Or something like that.

text arc (see flyer)

That was really neat. It's a way of turning books into art. Take a text from Project Gutenberg (Alice in Wonderland was featured). Arrange ALL the words in a big giant circle. Then, every word that is repeated more than once moves toward the center, appearing in a position that is determined by the average location of all occurrences in the text. For instance, the word "Alice" appears tons of times, appearing near the center and connected by strands that radiate out to places all over the text. The word "duchess" is very local to one chapter, so it is positioned way off to one side.

Actually it's really hard to explain, but they've been featured in the New York Times. Go here:

flythrough of "ideal city"

This was a VR flythrough, appearing on a big screen and controlled by a joystick. The model was a very large New York city block. According to the artist, who was sitting on hand, every surface was taken from an actual photo, but not from the same place. So it was kind of a mosaic of surfaces and billboards and people. You could fly up and see big neon ads, and fly down and look at cabs, people, delis, and vendors. The simulation was very slow when most of the city appeared on screen. But that's okay; it's not a game, it's art.

sound inflated suits

Two guys wearing inflatable bubbles danced around each other, shouting, grunting, humming, and singing. The suits automatically inflate and deflate depending on how noisy they are. They looked ridiculous, but it was funnier than anything I saw in the animation theater.

bubble game

A touch sensitive screen, where you can push bubbles around with your finger. There was actually a goal to the game, get rid of all the gray dots. But the rules were not written clearly, only represented abstractly in pictures. I suppose figuring out the rules was the whole point, somehow. I spent a while trying to master the game, and after I won a few times, I hung around and explained to other people how it worked. They asked if I designed it. :)

maze walker!

After I got my fill of art, I went back to do one more circuit of the exhibition, and popped into the "emerging technologies" room. I saw a new exhibit that wasn't set up earlier.

A projector shines down from the ceiling onto a raised platform. The projector is displaying a maze on the floor. You step on a small circular platform near one side. You march in place to walk through the maze. To turn, you turn your feet around. The platform spins you around so you are always facing forward, but the maze turns with you. Obviously it requires an excellent sense of balance, though that wasn't the main point.

It very fun, but it had some significant bugs. Several times, a clipping error caused me to jump outside the maze, and the operator had to hit the reset button. Sometimes the sensor misunderstands which way you're facing, and it spins you around so you're facing backwards. If you walk, then you walk backwards. If you try to turn around, the platform keeps spinning you so you're still backwards. The only solution is to step off and get back on again, or hit the reset button.

Well, that's the end of my notes. I did visit the SGI booth, but I guess I didn't take notes on what they were showing.

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

Final correspondence

In response to my previous correspondence (see the first and second letters below) I got this:

Hey Russ!
(and who ever else reads this)

Thanks again for your resposnse to my response to your response. I'm not going to parse e-mails but I think you and yours have come dangerously close to validating my original points. I'm still not convinced that you are all a bunch of happy campers and I stand by what I have already said..
Anyway, thanks for trying and glad your listening. Say hi to Chris for me (who I will admit is one of the funniest athiests I've met) . Later!

Richie L.
I know I shouldn't, but I found this reply incredibly disheartening.

I mean, I really went out of my way to be friendly to the guy; I didn't think I was baiting him and I certainly tried to describe a "happy atheist" life in as accessible a manner as possible. But of course, he starts with the assumption that all atheists are unhappy; so rather than be bothered to think about what I wrote, the best he could come up with was more or less "well you don't sound happy to me."

I guess I should have known better.

I can't decide whether to waste the time on another reply. As I was listening to the same station this morning (I'm serious, there's very little else to listen to) I couldn't help but be struck by what a wall-to-wall bitchfest their regular programming is. America's on the decline. Satan is everywhere. The world is going to end within a few years, isn't that exciting? I was a drunken slob but then I stopped being a drunken slob and now my life isn't quite as miserable as it used to be. Homosexuals will kill you in your sleep if you don't take a stand now.

Is this the kind of "happiness" we're supposed to be living up to?

This email exchange got me thinking. The implicit message Richie was sending me was, "You're really not happy, and the reason why is because you don't have God in your life."

Now, this angle doesn't work on me, because I happen to be a person who considers myself happy. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it doesn't really matter to him at all. He's dismissed me now as an irrelevant data point.

But not all atheists are happy. There are certainly unhappy people of all varieties out there. I'd guess a roughly equal proportion of atheists and theists are unhappy. And if he makes the same argument to a genuinely unhappy person, that person is probably going to get ticked off, but then secretly sit around and reflect to himself. "Hey, I'm really NOT happy. I wonder if there's something to this God thing after all?"

Say an evangelist makes a pronouncement to a room filled with a random sample of atheists. "None of you atheists are happy! You all need God!" Maybe six out of ten of them are really happy, and they brush him off. Of course I'm happy, schmuck. Go away. Two out of ten think, Well, my life could be better, but this God stuff is still nonsense. The other two people are really bothered by this pronouncement because they've just been thinking about how unhappy they are. Maybe I should try this out. Bingo, the congregation grows. And that happens even though the evangelist's confident pronouncement was wrong for 80% of the people in the room.

Like any sales pitch, it's a numbers game. You don't need anything like a 100% success rate, you just need to go out there and make more pitches. It doesn't even matter if it's TRUE or not that Christianity, in general will make an unhappy person happier. It doesn't matter if the jump from "I'm unhappy" to "I need to find God" is totally spurious. If you give your pitch to enough people, you randomly hit enough targets that your numbers grow, and that's all that matters, isn't it?

Worse than that, even a happy person has off days. Well, yes I'm happy... but I did have a bad day at work last week. I did have a fight with my wife. If you catch any person at a bad time, he can think of himself as unhappy.

And finally, telling someone that they're unhappy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether or not it's true, anyone can be influenced to start dwelling on all the things in their lives that aren't perfect. Gosh, I think I'm happy but that fight with my wife sure bothered me. I wonder if my marriage is on the rocks? Once you start thinking that way, a bad attitude can compound itself and cause real problems.

Does this approach intentionally thrive on causing misery? Do they actually try to depress people, in order to bring them into the club? It does make me wonder.

Thursday, July 04, 2002

Top 5 lists for games

Top five all-time greatest PC games:
  1. Star Control II - Accolade
  2. Warcraft III - Blizzard
  3. Doom - iD Software
  4. Diablo II - Blizzard
  5. A Mind Forever Voyaging - Infocom

StarCon2 is my hands-down pick for all time greatest game, combining many different gaming elements for a rich all around helping of action packed, mentally challenging, well written science-fictiony goodness.

I've given Doom a nod over all other 3d shooters, because I consider it pretty much the first major revolutionary step that defined a new standard that all 3d shooters were compared to from then on. It narrowly edges out Castle Wolfenstein in that category. As far as I know, Doom was the first FPS to include angled walls, multiple vertical levels, and good multi-player support.

Top five greatest adventure games:

  1. A Mind Forever Voyaging - Infocom
  2. Time Quest (one of the earliest text games by Legend, if you haven't seen it you can download it as abandonware)
  3. Sorcerer - Infocom
  4. Monkey Island 3 - LucasArts
  5. Space Quest 5 - Sierra

In recommending an adventure game, I like plotting an character above all else, followed by cleverness and good logic in puzzles. Obviously humor is an influencing factor.

Thus, while the Zorks were definitely an important shaping influence on the genre, it doesn't beat any of the ones on my list since they haven't really got any story.

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

Follow-up email to Holy Henry call

Yesterday I mentioned that I had sent mail to the host at a Christian station. Here's what I got back:
Hey Russ!

Thanks for your e-mail to Ed that he forwarded to me. You know, you can always e-mail me directly or talk to me directly on the air anytime. Don't be afraid, I don't bite. And even if I do, I'm up on my shots!
I have met many atheists in my life and one of my best friends is a former atheist. Every atheist that I have ever spent any amount of time with was ultimately, deepdown an angry, unhappy, empty person. I had contact with the late Madeline O'hare and I also saw her vitriolic missives posted at ACTV back when I was a producer there. All I can go on is my direct experiences. I have had no proof presented to me to convice me
One of my dearest friends was an atheist. He has shared with me how
apathetic he was and how full his heart was of sadness and anger.
In 1973, he gave his life to Christ after he was challenged that he could not go one day without sinning. He has been a radical, longhaired, tattoo covered Christian for many years now.
I appreciate your phone call to the show but, it still doesn't offer me proof that you truly are happy ie. have true inner peace and serenity. I know you say that Ed and I will just have to take your word for that but I need and want to see the hard evidence. Simply because you say that you and your atheist friends are happy is not definitive. Prove it. The available evidence that I have encountered just doesn't support it.
For the record, I never said that atheists are rude and hate everybody. I said that many hate God, Christians, Jews, the Bible and I wish that they would just come out and publicly say so. Many Communist nations are atheistic and we've seen the evidence of human rights violations as well as religious persecutions. Again, I'd love to see the concrete evidence to prove to me otherwise.......does my arguement sound familiar?
I'm glad that your are listening to the show and hope that you continue in spite of all of us and our sometimes poor example of Christ's love. I suspect that there is still a God hunger deep down inside you somewhere though. Have a good one!

Your "smart-ass" Christian Friend.
Richie L.
Frankly, I'm utterly disappointed in this response. I was trying to open up friendly communications and not put him on the defensive. Instead of responding in kind, I get this standard "Oh, you're not TRULY happy" and "Joseph Stalin is all atheists' fault."

I forwarded it to some friends and a couple of them sent replies of their own. If my response seems a bit incomplete in any way, it's because I avoided repeating things that they already said.

> Hey Russ!
> Thanks for your e-mail to Ed that he forwarded to me. You know, you
> can always e-mail me directly or talk to me directly on the air anytime.
> Don't be afraid, I don't bite. And even if I do, I'm up on my shots!


I would probably have written to you also, if I had known your email address. And as for talking to you directly on the air -- I did. Remember? :)

I have met many atheists in my life and one of my best friends is a former atheist. Every atheist that I have ever spent any amount of time with was ultimately, deepdown an angry, unhappy, empty person.

Now I could make a wisecrack about what a coincidence it is that all those people who spent a substantial amount of time with you turned out to be angry, unhappy and empty. But that wouldn't be very nice. All I can say is that you and I apparently spend time with very different sorts of people.

I had contact with the late Madeline O'hare and I also saw her vitriolic missives posted at ACTV back when I was a producer there. All I can go on is my direct experiences. I have had no proof presented to me to convice me otherwise.

I have no connection to Madeleine O'Hair. From what I know of her, I wouldn't have liked her much. I'd agree with you that she was a grouch. On the other hand, I've also heard that her life was nearly a nonstop barrage of death threats and hatred coming from the fine godly folks out there. I can understand why someone might develop a chip on their shoulder under the circumstances.

One of my dearest friends was an atheist. He has shared with me how apathetic he was and how full his heart was of sadness and anger. In 1973, he gave his life to Christ after he was challenged that he could not go one day without sinning. He has been a radical, longhaired, tattoo covered Christian for many years now.

If that makes him happy, then more power to him. Personally I have no desire to be radical, longhaired, tattoo-covered, or Christian, but thanks for sharing.

I appreciate your phone call to the show but, it still doesn't offer me proof that you truly are happy ie. have true inner peace and serenity. I know you say that Ed and I will just have to take your word for that but I need and want to see the hard evidence. Simply because you say that you and your atheist friends are happy is not definitive. Prove it. The available evidence that I have encountered just doesn't support it.

What an odd request. How would I go about answering such a question about my own mental state? I suppose I could send you pictures of me smiling. I could tell you that I enjoy a job that brings in a comfortable salary, I have a wonderful wife and stepdaughter whom I love with all my heart, a newborn son who is the cutest little baby I've ever seen, I enjoy the companionship of a lot of quality people, I have a very good relationship with my parents and extended family, and I live in the greatest country in the world (in my humble opinion). I could invite you to join me at my house for our game nights, come to dinner with my friends and listen to us joke around, or just watch me hold my baby for a few minutes. I could ask people who know me personally to provide support for my claim. (Actually, I think my rather enthusiastic friend Martin Wagner already wrote to you.) If I had that sort of detail for most people, I would personally see that as relatively persuasive evidence.

Of course, I expect you'd probably dismiss all this as the "outward physical trappings" of happiness or some such thing. But we're talking about my own state of mind, so again, eventually we get back to "you just have to take my word for it."

For the record, I never said that atheists are rude and hate everybody. I said that many hate God, Christians, Jews, the Bible and I wish that they would just come out and publicly say so.

Yes, I heard you say that on the show as well. We could say that, but it wouldn't be true. First off, we don't hate God because we don't believe in him. Second, we don't hate the Bible; we disagree with the ideas in it, and there's an important difference in those two things. And we don't hate Christians and Jews. We try not to hate people in general; life's too short for that. We disagree with some of their ideas, and sometimes we argue with them, but what you may not realize is that often we argue because arguing is fun.

You say you've watched The Atheist Experience on cable. If this is so then you may know that we close every show with a particular statement, intended in good fun: "We don't hate you: we just think you're wrong."

Many Communist nations are atheistic and we've seen the evidence of human rights violations as well as religious persecutions. Again, I'd love to see the concrete evidence to prove to me otherwise.......does my arguement sound familiar?

Since I am not a communist, that has little effect on me. Surely you realize that one doesn't have to be an atheist to persecute and destroy things. The folks who decided to attack us last September had a particular cause that they were trying to advance, and it certainly wasn't atheism, wouldn't you agree?

I'm glad that your are listening to the show and hope that you continue in spite of all of us and our sometimes poor example of Christ's love.

Well, it varies. I happen to think that yours is usually one of the kinder, gentler shows out there. When I listen to D. James Kennedy go off on a pet subject... ugh.

I suspect that there is still a God hunger deep down inside you somewhere though.

Usually I just have a cookie and the hunger goes away.
In all seriousness, I don't feel a hunger, but I also don't expect you to believe me, so that's the way it goes.

Have a good one!

Your "smart-ass" Christian Friend.
Richie L.

Likewise. Thanks for taking the time to write back, I do appreciate it. I guess you could tell from Martin's letter that I shared our correspondence a bit, although I didn't really intend to turn it into a free-for-all.

-- Your "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" Friend,
Russell Glasser

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

Called my local Holy Henry station

Last week I was listening to "The Ed Sossen Show" on Christian station KIXL in Austin. The temporary host (Sossen was absent for the day) was speculating with his callers about the underhanded motives of Michael Newdow in the pledge of allegiance case. The host rather flippantly said, "Well, I've never met an atheist who is really happy. They're all so full of vitriol and hate that..." etc.

I really wanted to call, but I had to be somewhere at the time.

Luckily, I got a second chance today. The regular host was back and the co-host was repeating his earlier comments. In the last few minutes of the show I called. I told the call screener, "Hi, I'm a happy atheist!" and got on the air in less than a minute.

The conversation was short but it went pretty well. I was nervous as hell, and I hope it didn't come through in my voice too much. I said I am happy as an atheist, and I have a lot of happy atheist friends. He asked "Did you have a bad experience when you were young?" I said "No, I had a great childhood. My father was an atheist physicist. I'm a fourth generation atheist, in fact, and I have a newborn son who may be fifth generation."

I also said that I enjoy the show (which is mostly true; Ed Sossen is a rare Baptist with a sense of humor). And I invited him to watch our cable access show. He said "Well I'd say God Bless You but I don't want to offend you..." and I said "Don't worry about me, you have to have pretty thick skin to be an atheist in Texas."

After I hung up there was about five seconds of dead air. I think my call really took them by surprise. Ed finally said "Well, I hope God DOES bless him, and I'll pray for him."

Later, I sent this letter.
Hi Ed,

This is Russell, the "happy atheist" who called at the tail end of the show today. I got home from work right after I called, and I don't have a radio that receives AM in the house, so I didn't hear if you said anything else. But I thought you wouldn't mind if I send you a quick follow-up.

You may have a hard time believing that somebody could be an atheist and still be happy and satisfied about their life, but it is true not only of me but of a fairly large percentage of my family and friends. You'll just have to take my word for that. Christians tend to incorrectly assume that all atheists had some kind of horrible, traumatic experience that caused them to rebel against God. The reality tends to be much less dramatic. Many of us are former Christians; a few (such as myself) come from atheist families; but nearly all the atheists I know are very thoughtful people, who became solid in their atheism only after long periods of thought and inner reflection. Ultimately, we just decided that the available evidence just doesn't seem to point to the existence of any deity. We aren't "fighting God"; we just don't believe in him.

I'm not writing to argue about that with you. I'm sure you've already formed an opinion about all such arguments that you've heard in the past, and so have I. The reason I called you today is that it's the second time I heard Richie claiming that all atheists are hateful and unhappy, and I decided I couldn't let that go unchallenged a second time. I can't tell what Richie's experience has been, but he might want to consider the fact that atheists seem hostile to him because of his own approach. After all, it can be difficult for an atheist to be friendly to someone who has the preconception that all atheists are rude people who hate everybody, even before they've opened their mouth.

Ed, you seem like a reasonable guy to me. I meant it when I said that I enjoy your show regularly. As such, I believe that you wouldn't want to intentionally say untrue things about a group of people just because they don't usually call in to defend themselves. You probably don't know very many atheists and don't realize that they can be nice people who love their families, volunteer for worthy causes, and make good neighbors.

I'll even try to offer you a Christian perspective on why you shouldn't jump to the conclusion that atheists are bad people. According to Christianity, all humans are born into sin and continue to struggle with sin even after they get saved. Becoming a Christian doesn't magically make you perfect, right? It just means that your sins have been forgiven by the grace of God. You get to know enough non-Christians and you may realize that these are decent people who struggle with the same issues in their lives that you do. They happen not to share your belief system. There are some complete scoundrels who are Christians and equally many who are atheists, but there are plenty of good people in both camps who are willing to talk to each other.

The Atheist Community of Austin exists for two reasons: first, because it provides a social outlet for atheists. We're not in the habit of doing weekly organized activities like church, so it gives us an opportunity to meet each other. Second, we want to defend ourselves against the constant cry of religious leaders who insist on painting horns on atheists and trying to make an image of them as scary people who are trying to corrupt your children and shouldn't be allowed to exist in peace.

Feel free to respond or not, by email or on the air. You don't need to, but I'll be pleased to chat with you if you like. I'm not asking you to agree with my opinions or stop believing in Jesus. I'm not even asking you to become "politically correct" or champion the atheist cause. I'm just letting you know that most atheists aren't misanthropes, aren't chronically depressed, and aren't really all that interested in taking over the world.

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Introducing... mini-me

Benjamin Jack Glasser was born on Sunday May 26, at 1:26 PM. He weighed 7 pounds 13 ounces, and was 20 1/4 inches long. Both mother and child are in good shape, and I'll be home from work all week.

Some fundamentalist on the Motley Fool took the opportunity to make a crass dig about abortion:

Congratulations on becoming a father! Glad God saw fit to allow him to enter the world!

But at what point did Benjamin become a "mini-me"?

If he had died six weeks ago, would he have been just a non-Benjamin, "mini-non-Kazim"?

Would you have lost the son you have now, or just some fetal tissue?

I replied:

If there had been a miscarriage a few days after conception, as is common with very many births, we would have lost the son we have now.

If we had not chosen to have sex on that particular night, we would have lost the son we have now.

In either case, we might have had a different son or daughter on a different date. And we would love him or her just as much.

But he's here now, and he's the one we love now. Hypothetical situations don't apply anymore. If we hadn't intended to have a son or been prepared to care for one, then we wouldn't have. But we did, and we do.