Thursday, March 30, 2006

My secret thespian life

I've neglected to post anything for a while. I'm working on a post called "Why I Am Not a Libertarian", but it's fairly long already and I'm having a hard time getting everything I want to say come out right. In the meantime, here's some randomly embarrassing information that you didn't know about me.

I've always been kind of into theater. In fact I've always been something of a ham, which is why I found it so natural to become the host of a public access TV show and set up a radio show. I could never make it as a real actor, though.

The first time I can remember acting was when I was somewhere around age 6-8, and I played Haman in my Jewish school play. I didn't want to play the bad guy, but my mom convinced me that it would be fun. She made me a cordouroy beard, I sneered and ranted, and at the end of the play I was physically dragged away from the king by the kids playing guards. It was a terrific time.

When I was about eleven, my parents signed me up to be part of an enormous cast of kids in a local Santa Fe production of "Oliver!" I didn't get the title role, and I think that's all that might have been open to a kid my age. I didn't even get to be one of Fagin's kids, who were very prominent on stage. Nope, I was a street vendor. I did get to sing as part of a large chorus of other kids and adults in a lot of musical numbers, though, and my favorite part was dramatically trembling in fear as Bill Sykes stormed across the stage. I had a rocky time with some kids that I didn't get along with, but I also made a couple of good friends, and one girl (I learned secondhand) had a crush on me. I never did anything about it.

The biggest impact I got from that experience, though, was professional training in how to do a cockney accent from a professional director. It opened my eyes to all the different ways people talk, and from that day on I started privately rehearsing all the accents I ran into. Southern, French, New York, Upper Class Twit, Irish, German, Surfer Dude... I worked on them all for my own amusement. I also enjoyed watching My Fair Lady, which we'd recorded off the Disney Channel.

My dad also took me to a local performance of HMS Pinafore that year, and that triggered a lifelong fandom of Gilbert and Sullivan. In fact we enjoyed the performance so much that dad hired the director, Manos Clements, to direct my family in a performance of The Mikado for my bar mitzvah two years later.

In high school, I also learned to juggle and I picked up a book on ventroliquism. I did a ventriloquist act one year at summer camp with a monkey puppet. I think it bombed, but then again, at least half the acts were preteen girls with lame choreography dancing to cassette tapes, so any comedy routine was a welcome break. I also participated in a lot of other skits at camp.

In high school I considered being in the acting club, which was called Olions. Basically I did one very poor audition in sophomore year, got offered a part as an extra, snottily decided I didn't want to do it if I couldn't be in a main part, and didn't bother trying out again. Thus did my career focus shift to professional geekdom. I did, however, join the speech team, and I participated regularly in an event known as "humorous interpretation", where I would do one man skits involving multiple characters. It was a bit like standup comedy working off someone else's scripts. I did a Monty Python bit called "The Bookseller" one year, and I killed. I should have kept doing that one the next year, but I switched to a Sherlock Holmes spoof called "The Defective Detective" which still did pretty well, but my Python was better. I still have most of it memorized.

I also got involved in French class skits for several years in a row. In my senior year, we did a skit based on "The Wizard of Oz." I was the witch. And not to be modest about it, I think I was personally responsible for nearly all the funniest material in it. In the first scene where I met Dorothy, when I couldn't get the ruby slippers, I whipped out a pair of sunglasses, folded my arms, and said in my best Terminator voice: "Je serais de rentre." ("I'll be back.") Near the end of the skit, when they throw water on me, I scream for a few seconds, then laugh, then open my cloak and reveal that I'm wearing a clear plastic thing. "J'ai une veste impermeable!" I cackle ("I have a waterproof vest"). In rehearsals, they always pretended to throw water on me. In the live version, the bucket was full. Needless to say, some of my screams were real.

In my senior year, I joined the school chorus and learned to sight read music pretty easily. I started out in the general purpose chorus -- I think the title of the class was "I'll pretend to like singing for an easy A." However, I took to it so easily that halfway through the year, I qualified for the All-State concert and then was promoted to the much smaller, elite chorus class, "Encore".

I continued singing through college. I took a class called "Symphonic Chorus", which I discovered was a student gateway into the community chorus, where I remained for all four years. I got to perform in some incredible pieces, including two versions of Carmina Burana, one time fully choreographed with professional dancers. The dancers were hot, but I didn't get to watch them much because I had to focus on the conductor. Nor did I hook up with any of them.

As I approached my last year of college, it was clear that I would have to be in school for an extra year, but I would easily meet the requirements of my Computer Science degree in that fifth year. I had some extra cushion time, so I started considering what sort of blow-off classes I would take. I wound up taking Acting 1, Acting 2 (summer session), Playwriting 101, and Set Design. I hated set design, so I dropped it. 3d games were a new thing then, and I was playing with the Duke Nukem 3d level editor, so I had an idea that set design would help me learn more about constructing 3d worlds and lighting. Ultimately I decided that wasn't where my interest lay, and of course I wound up not in games but in web development. Which is fun too, and more secure.

Anyway, my acting classes were when I knew for sure that acting would never be more than a fun diversion for me. The teachers had an awful time getting me to stop smiling during serious scenes that I was entertained by. I discovered that it's easy to memorize dialogue and understand the mood, but very hard to convince people that you're actually a character instead of an audience member. I also had a chat with my Acting 1 teacher who told me what a miserable life it is to be an actor unless you are one of the incredibly rare and lucky few who hit the big time. I'm not much of a gambler, so I decided that I'll stick with computers, thanks.

I do have something to show for my playwriting class, though. Here's the play I wrote for my final class project. And I gained a greater appreciation for storytelling and movies, which has stayed with me.

My theatrical "career" pretty much ended when I graduated. I joined another community chorus in San Jose, but then I moved to Santa Cruz after just a few months, and it wasn't practical to commute all the way back. So I didn't do any more performance until years later, when I discovered the joys of being on The Atheist Experience.

One last thing I still do is read to the driver on long car trips. I love reading books out loud, and I have an opportunity to do it with my wife, Ginny, and my sister Keryn. I still do characters and accents. Right now, Ginny and I are reading A Clash of Kings, second in the "Song of Ice and Fire" series, which is just about the most awesome fantasy series I've ever read. It's slow progress, which is frustrating because I'd like to just read the whole thing, but I enjoy the experience more with my wife. To Keryn I'm reading Ender's Game, which I've already read many times before, but it's new to her.

I've discovered that my favorite character to voice in the "Ice and Fire" books is Tyrion Lannister, the brilliant angry dwarf. My favorite Ender character to voice is Bonzo Madrid. After all these years, I still love playing evil. Thanks, mom.

So if you kept reading this far, you must be just fascinated by my life, so thanks for listening. But I'll get back to politics and religion soon, I swear. Stay tuned for "Why I Am Not a Libertarian".

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The knowledgeable world view

I haven't blogged any atheist thoughts for a while, so I thought I'd dredge up a board post that I wrote last October.

Christians like to frame things in terms of "world views", saying that being a Christian changes the way that you think about everything, which is why they have such specific views on "moral" issues like abortion and homosexuality and so on. Of course, many liberal Christians don't align with those views, but that's okay; fundamentalist Christians just write them off as not True ChristiansTM who are duped by worldliness.

I kind of believe in "world views", but I don't believe they are caused by religion. I think a major component of your world view, INCLUDING how seriously you take your religion, is influenced by the way in which you regard the concept of knowledge.

Whether there is a god or not, human knowledge is imperfect. Everybody realizes that, or ought to. Theists generally believe that there is a god, and their god knows everything. Therefore, True Knowledge is obtained by listening to what God says.

The problem with that is that, even if their god is real, he isn't down here issuing public statements on the issues that we deal with right now. Take abortion, for instance. Anti-choice Christians will point to portions of the Bible which they say clearly prohibits abortion. But on the other hand, pro-choice Christians will just as easily point out passages in the Bible that supports THEIR position as well. I suppose the god could have clearly said in the Bible "don't commit abortion" or "abortion is a-OK with me!" But it probably wasn't known in those exact terms back then, and it's been a while (2000 years) since he supposedly communicated with us.

So even if you personally know an omnipotent being, that doesn't really do you much good unless he tells you clearly what he thinks. And the Bible sure ain't it. Hence we have the concept of "faith", which is believing things sincerely without evidence, just because it makes you feel better.

Now, "faith" may well be an excellent way to become personally fulfilled and at peace, but historically it has proved to be a notoriously bad way to actually know things. Even accepting the idea that there is a particular kind of faith which is right, and which will reveal the absolute truth, that still leaves open the sticky question of what to have faith in.

There are thousands of religions in the world now, as well as thousands more historical religions that are now defunct. It's hard to be objectively certain that you're not simply participating in a religion that will, hundreds of years from now, be studied with the same kind of bemused curiosity with which we currently regard the ancient Greeks. Furthermore, these religions can't all be right, because many of them hold as a fundamental tenet that the other religions must be wrong.

The fact that there have been a lot of false religions doesn't PROVE that any particular religion is wrong. But it does illustrate that people put their faith in an awful lot of things that turn out to be false. If you were an educated person born in ancient Greece, chances are good that you'd probably believe in Zeus. Being born in 21st century America, chances are almost nil that you'll believe in Zeus.

What changed? Did Zeus once exist and then disappear to make room for Jesus? No. We know for pretty certain that Zeus doesn't exist and never did. But as an ancient Greek, you wouldn't KNOW you were wrong, because you wouldn't have the perspective that hundreds of years later, everybody would "know" that Zeus is a silly idea. Whereas the idea of a man who was born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead is a far more sophisticated idea that represents the real truth.

In short: really, truly BELIEVING something is a bad yardstick for verifying what's actually true.

So if faith isn't the way to go, then how do we go about the business of actually finding things out and being pretty sure you know the things that are true? I think that at some point, clearly the answer has to be that you come up with unemotionally applied tests that can be repeated by everyone. You have to be able to admit that you don't know what you don't know, and apply what you do know to form an overall informed opinion of the world.

Unfortunately, sometimes even your most informed opinions will be wrong. There's no way to escape this because, as I said before, all human knowledge is imperfect. But the ability to recognize and admit when you're wrong is actually a strength, not a weakness. Because every time you understand that you have been wrong, it allows you to switch to a position that is (more likely to be) right. And there's a word for the process of investigating things and trying to weed out wrong ideas. It's science.

I think that even the most die hard young earth creationists understand the value of science in principle, because that's what religious apologetics are all about. At their best, apologetics are meant to be logically sound arguments that persuade the listener to objectively accept their opinion as true. If faith were enough to really know truth, then apologetics would be a waste of time, because logic would be irrelevant.

And I know that the promoters of Intelligent Design (or "stealth creationism" as some prefer to call it) recognize the value of science as a way of understanding the world, because that is after all what ID is theoretically about. It is an effort to meld a belief in God with the respectable objectivity of the scientific method. Again, if faith were enough to go on, there would be no need to make scientific arguments, and ID would not have come to be in the first place.

In a sense, I applaud the concept of ID. Although I happen to not believe in any sort of intelligent designer, I understand that many people believe it very seriously. And if there is one, I want to know about it. I would like nothing better than to see the question settled once and for all from a scientific perspective.

Where I have a beef with Intelligent Design is not their goal to marry science with God; it's their unfortunate tendency to repeatedly declare victory before they've actually accomplished anything at all. If you really want to put science and religion in harmony, then I say throw money at research. But you have to be sure that your money is actually funding RESEARCH, and not a PR campaign. Not lawsuits. Not politicians. Not school boards. Tell them to stop trying to buy respectability by getting museums to show designer-friendly movies.

Really, I think everyone who truly cares about ID should be DEMANDING that the Discovery Institute start spending their donations on hiring brilliant minds to do genuinely original research, instead of more lawyers. I think it would be a great day for science if that happened.