Awesome People: Penn & Teller

One of the things I’d like to talk about on this blog, besides my own various ramblings, are some of the people who’ve influenced me and played some part in shaping the ways I think. Some of these people I’ve never met; others are among my closest friend. I know (and know of) many awesome people, so there will no doubt be many such posts in the future.

For the first Awesome People post, I’d like to talk about two of my personal heroes: Penn Jilette, and his partner Teller.

When I was younger, I always found magicians disappointing.

That’s not because they were bad (though some were). In fact, I usually enjoyed the performances. The problem was, as a kid with an over-active imagination who devoured piles of fantasy and science fiction, I wanted my magic to be, well, more magical. While they were pulling rabbits out of hats and cutting people in half, I would be sitting in the back pouting that they weren’t changing people into dogs or dragons.

This attitude persisted until college, when I discovered Penn & Teller.

I think the first time I remember seeing them was on YouTube. They were doing their version of the cups and balls (which you can check out yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8osRaFTtgHo&feature=related).

They start off doing a standard cups and balls trick; it’s well done, but not particularly exciting.

The part after, where Penn announces that they’re going to do the trick again, describing exactly what they’re doing, show where they’re hiding the various balls, all while using transparent cups? Now that piqued my interest.

Here’s the thing about the second version; you get to see how quickly they move the various trick components. In fact, even while Penn is telling you exactly what is going on, even as you track every motion of every ball, every sleight of hand, even as the secret mechanisms are laid bare before your very eyes, it’s still incredible.

More than that; it’s beautiful.

Penn and Teller are so good that they don’t have to hide it from you; you can keep your eyes on their hands the whole time and will only be more mystified by how fast and smooth they can make the balls appear and reappear.

I think it’s good to step back and ask, why? Why did they decide to do it that way? Why show their hand, when magic is all about keeping things hidden?

The answer is, that’s not what magic is about. Magic is about creating a sense of wonder in your audience. In that sense, it’s not that different from the magic of fantasy novels. It’s supposed to be something mysterious, something special. It’s the feeling of seeing something new, of discovering a different idea, a different angle on things.  The traditional cups and balls trick is too old to inspire wonder in most people, especially adults. Penn and Teller aren’t using transparent cups because they want you to understand the detailed mechanisms of their trick; they’re revealing part of the trick to you because that makes it new, unexpected, and special.

I’ve been to their live show at the Rio in Las Vegas twice, and every trick they do follows this philosophy. Some of them are partially revealed, some of them are deliberately mysterious. Whatever they think will do the job. There is a kind of skepticism, I think, when some people watch magic shows, where the audience feels that the methods the magicians are using to conceal their tricks are cheap. Smoke and mirrors. Fancy trap doors. Camera tricks. That kind of stuff.

Penn and Teller’s act eclipses that notion. They never pretend it’s anything else than a clever trick, but man do they convince you that there’s nothing cheap about their methods. Don’t get me wrong – there’s smoke and mirrors, but they’re far more disguised. The way they manipulate you is not expected. I left each show giddy and a little breathless, even the second time when I’d seen most of it before.

Here’s something else that made me giddy; Penn and Teller stayed after the show, outside the theatre, signing autographs and taking pictures. With everyone. EVERYONE! They do this show five times a week or more! For like ten years! They do it with a smile and a jovial manner and man, if they’re not genuinely having a blast chatting it up with fans, then they’re the best actors I’ve ever seen.

Teller talks, by the way. He also writes. He says, “My job is to leave you with a beautiful question, not an ugly answer.” I can’t think of a more eloquent way to state what I’ve been trying to get at here.

Penn and Teller would be awesome if all they did was magic. But that’s not even half of what they do. They’ve done tons of TV Shows, most notably Penn & Teller: Bullshit! , where they debate or attempt to debunk pseudoscience, fads, or popular misconceptions. Penn is an outspoken objectivist, libertarian, and atheist, and often talks about such topics on his weekly podcast, Penn’s Sunday School (http://pennsundayschool.com/).  None of those three labels are ones most celebrities are racing to ascribe to themselves. I think it takes a certain amount of bravery to be willing to be that public about beliefs that are so unpopular among the general public. You can see Penn debating with people on twitter most every day; even with 1.8 million followers, he still goes and back forth with just about anyone who will engage with him.

I don’t agree with everything Penn says, but his willingness to engage with others on these topics, to make sure his side is heard but that he is willing to listen and think about other perspectives, has taught me that keeping quiet about those things won’t change anything.  (As an example, Penn reads the bible nearly every day, despite being an atheist, in his attempt to understand that mindset.)

I don’t know if I’ll ever want to debate these things with the general public, but I’m more willing than ever to have these discussions with people I know.  In particular, it’s important to frame these types of emotionally volatile debates as discussions, and to be as open and reasonable as possible. If both parties can maintain that, you’ll both learn something. Seeing someone as public and visible as Penn do that every day, visible for all the world to see, inspires me.

If this blog entry didn’t convince you that Penn and Teller are awesome, I recommend watching the following videos of them. All of them. Over and over. You can stop when you agree with me 🙂

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58xyjOFkpxk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4iVAcYyWN0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYTmEVFL_NA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytIUgB2jpos&feature=related

All Swagger

Picture this:

You show up to the gym to play basketball with some friends. The opposing team’s sitting on the bench, waiting for you. They look tough. Muscular, athletic, big. They’ve got custom made jerseys and monogramed basketballs covered in famous signatures. They’ve got the swagger and the stare and that slightly arrogant smile as you guys practice. You start to get nervous. You think your team’s okay, you’ve practiced hard, but these guys look like they know what’s going on. They’ve got to be good. Real good.

The ref’s whistle blows. The toss-up goes their way, and their center grabs the ball with a terrifying grunt. You run back for defense, praying that he won’t hurt you too badly when they dunk.

Except, the center takes a few steps forward without dribbling. He gets called for travelling. You’re confused, but accept the good fortune and bring the ball up the court. They’ve got a guy defending you, but he’s got no footwork. His balance is off. You feint left and drive right. Open lay-up. Their other defenders look lost. They have no idea where to stand. In fact, two of them manage to run into each other trying to stop you. Their point guard dribbles with both hands, directly in front of him, and looks astonished when you easily steal the ball for another quick basket. In the end, the only point they manage to score is when one of their players, trying desperately to avoid having the ball stolen for the tenth time, wildly throws the ball up behind his back and it somehow finds the backboard and bounces in.

After the game, they dust themselves off. The captain comes up to you and points straight at your chest, puts a nice sneer on his face, and goes, “You punks got lucky today. We’ll get you next time.” Then they walk off the court, swagger still intact, loudly whispering to each other about how bad you guys were, while you stand there wondering if someone slipped you LSD before the game.

Think that sounds like an exaggeration? Yeah, it probably is. Basketball is transparent; when you are horrifically bad at it, it’s obvious to even people who don’t know the game. You can’t hide from it. You’ll get embarrassed, and either quit, find people near your skill level to play it, or be motivated to improve so you don’t shame yourself as badly next time.

In fact, you might think that there is no competitive activity where an analogous scene could occur. It seems downright absurd.

Except there’s this little card game called poker.

Scenes like that occur every time I play at a casino, complete with the swaggering, intimidating look of the players, and the arrogant, nearly delusional things they’ll say after losing (or winning). You think I’m still exaggerating. I wish I was.

Now, the point of this isn’t to make fun at the vast majority of poker players. I bring this up because I believe that the process which led me to become reasonably good at poker (I’m not great) changed the way I thought about a lot of things. It may be the most educationally rich thing I’ve done in my entire life.

I certainly didn’t expect that when I started – I wanted to learn how to play because my friends were doing it, it looked fun, and you could win a little money. I took the game a little more seriously than them, and slowly got better.  I began to play a lot more after I graduated from college and through grad school, right up till the justice department decided online poker was a profoundly evil thing, played no doubt by mostly terrible people, and effectively shut it down.

Many of my friends played too.  These are smart, smart people, who were very good at other things. They were not good at poker. That’s fine – plenty of things I’m not good at either. But that’s not the problem.

The problem was that they were bad at poker and they thought they were good. This illusion did not waver, even when they constantly lost all their money. It did not waver when well -meaning people, such as myself, politely pointed to their mistakes and the reasoning why they were mistakes.  

I bring all this up, because I think the reasons why this happens are interesting. Poker, unlike basketball, is not a transparent game.  Because the outcome of every hand is left up to chance to some degree, you can’t simply go “I won this hand, I played it well” or “I lost this hand, I played it poorly”. You have to understand the theory of the game at a high enough level to analyze your play, and you have to understand how to analyze long term results properly. The first of these things is a skill that is very hard to develop. The second of these things isn’t “hard” in one sense, as there are programs that will do it for you, but intellectually and emotionally comprehending those results is a tough pill for people to swallow, especially people who have not studied a lot of statistics (i.e. just about everyone).

These are further complicated by our own minds, which often make intuitive or emotional conclusions about results that are simply false. By not calling ourselves on it, and continuing ot make such false conclusions, they eventually become ingrained. As a result, you have people who have played poker for years and often have habits that are so bad they’d almost be better off using a random number generator to decide their play, and they’d certainly lose less money by giving up every hand.

This isn’t just about poker. The internal conflicts I’ve had to fight through in being a winning poker player transformed the way I think about everything. Sorting through this big emotional mish-mash that our minds create is vital to success in anything, especially when the going gets tough. I use many of the lessons I learned from poker right now, when I’m learning to write fiction, or even this blog.

Anyway, this is getting a little dense, so I’ll stop here. In the future, I’ll devote entire blog entries to different facets of this topic, as it’s one of my favorites to think about.  Till then, please enjoy your weekend

Woof!

(Lower content blog today, folks, but it’s been a busy week. Hope you enjoy it anyway 🙂 )

Time to live up to a promise.

Promises are an interesting thing in writing. Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal do this awesome podcast called Writing Excuses, and they hit this topic a while ago. (Check out the episode here:  (http://www.writingexcuses.com/2011/01/09/writing-excuses-5-19-fulfilling-promises-to-your-readers/). If you’re even casually interested in writing, I strongly recommend Writing Excuses. Not only is it education, it’s immensely entertaining.

Basically, the idea is if you’re writing a mystery and there’s a murder in the first chapter, there’s an implicit promise to the reader that the case will get some kind of resolution.  If you’re writing a fantasy that starts off with a light, humorous tone, you’re promising that you won’t end up with George R. R. Martin body-counts.

Anyway, for those who read my previous entries, you may recall something about puppies. (And cupcakes, but I’m deferring that one.)

So here you go.

Puppies!

And a story to go with them, if you can manage to still read while sobbing with joy.

Let’s rewind. I grew up in a house in rural Maine with my parents, brother, a bunch of cats, and a really amazing dog named Pip. Having cats and dogs was part of my existence. When Pip died my freshman year of high school at the age of 8, I missed him. What I didn’t expect was to continue missing him ten years later.

So, now I’m on my own. I’ve got a job, my own place. Small apartment. Dog didn’t seem practical, but I love cats too, so I adopted two of them, named Sabin and Edgar. They’re wonderful, but it turns out I didn’t just miss having pets, I missed having both cats and dogs. I decided last year it was important enough for me to start researching dogs and figure out if I could have one in my living situation. My office is dog friendly, so it seemed feasible, assuming I could pick up a breed that was okay hanging around an apartment between walks / play sessions.

Growing up with a dog as a kid, you don’t know anything about them. You don’t know about life expectancies, potential health issues, temperament problems. Especially when you get lucky and your dog turns out perfect like Pip did. It was frustrating to find out how short the longevity of most large breeds were, worse to find out that many of them tend to have chronic problems with their hips and other issues. It was depressing enough that I stopped looking for a while.

Then, through some random thread on a gaming forum, I found out about American Alsatians, dogs being bred by a couple kennels, one in Oregon and one in Colorado. They’d been breeding for fifteen years. The result is a large dog with a calm temperament, long life span, and fewer health problems. I spent a couple weeks reading up on them, thinking about it, and then finally decided to pull the trigger and put down a deposit on a puppy. There will be some challenges raising a dog by myself.

Then I remember Pip, and I know that he’ll be worth it.

I’m 23rd on the waiting list. I might get a puppy this fall, but more than likely it will happen sometime next year. His name will be Locke, and if that video proves nothing else, he’s going to be adorable.

The Wrong Kind of Magic

Let me tell you a story. As I’ve mentioned in the previous posts, I’m an aspiring writer. Outside of work I spend a significant portion of my time working on fantasy novels. My vacations this year will almost entirely be to various writing seminars.  I’m not ready to pursue publication, but I’m hoping to sometime this year. I think I’m getting pretty decent at it.

I’d always wanted to write.  I read non-stop when I was a kid. Before school, during school, after school. My backpack sometimes would routinely have a dozen novels stuffed inside, with another dozen waiting in my locker. I’d even try to write a bit. I had a whole folder full of first pages of novels. I even wrote a short story in high school featuring a villain named Mr. S, who might best be described as Stephen King’s version of Willy Wonka.

I learned a few things from those brief attempts: writing was hard, it took a lot of patience, and the stuff I wrote was a lot worse than the stuff I read, which was depressing.

I concluded what any reasonable person concludes in such situations. Writing required magic that I did not have. I therefore gave up any hope of ever doing it and moved on with my life.

Wait, what?

Think about that for a moment. Think about what I’m actually saying here. I might as well be saying “well, I dipped a quarter picometer of my foot into the pool and then concluded that swimming was impossibly difficult.” It’s that absurd. It’s insane.

But I, who occasionally likes to imagine himself as an intelligent human being, lived happily with said conclusion for years. Most of those years I spent studying math, learning about logic and analytical thinking. I was learning to reason, and yet I still missed how flawed this stupid thought process was. And mind you I wasn’t ignoring it; I still read a lot, and I still fantasized occasionally about writing. People in my dorm did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – the idea is to write 50,000 words of a new novel in November) . One guy even finished his. I remember seeing the manuscript. It was called Midnight Sun, I think. I remember thinking, wow, that’s so cool. That’s such an accomplishment.

Too bad I can’t do that.

(Allow me to take a breather to imagine screaming at my past-self. STOP BEING SUCH AN IDIOT! STOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOP! *Slap* Ahhh… there we go)

So what changed?

It has to do with this guy named Brandon Sanderson.

The Wheel of Time is one of the seminal works of modern epic fantasy. I grew up on them. I read the first 8 or so in a row, and then with each new release, I’d re-read the entire series preparing for it. There was nothing else like it. Each book was a thick thousand page tome, and I loved every word. (Context: Back then, if my fantasy book was less than 600 pages, I considered it disappointingly short.)

Then, in 2007, the author, Robert Jordan, passed away with the series unfinished. It was heart-breaking for me and millions of other fans.

One of those fans was an up-and-coming fantasy author named Brandon Sanderson. He wrote a beautiful eulogy to Robert Jordon (http://www.brandonsanderson.com/blog/550/EUOLogy-Goodbye-Mr.-Jordan). Harriet, Jordon’s widow and editor, read it and was moved; she ended up reading Brandon’s first Mistborn novel, and liked it so much she asked him to finish the Wheel of Time.  Brandon said yes.

The announcement came, and like I’m sure thousands of others, I found my way to Brandon’s blog to learn more about him. I read a few articles, liked them, so I went back to the archives and started reading from the beginning. A lot of his earlier entries are about writing; his methods, his personal history, and so forth.

One of the things he wrote, was that at some point he realized he wasn’t as talented as the writers around him, so he decided he’d just work harder than them all.

Why, I thought, that will only work if writing skill is a function of time! That must mean…

(Please visualize a dramatic realization face and appropriate music)

….writing is a skill that you get better at by practicing.

A twelve your old could probably tell you that.  It frustrates me I didn’t realize it until I was twenty five.

I read the rest of Brandon’s blog. He had a ton of great advice, and I was very happy to be able to thank him in person last month at the Superstars writing seminar.

But I’ll talk about all that stuff later. Here’s the point I want to end with today.

How many things have you dreamed about doing, but never even tried because you didn’t think you’d be able to do it? Tons of people have told me they’ve always wanted to write a novel. What about musical instruments? Drawing? Writing Comic books? Designing Video games? I’m not even talking about doing these things professionally here. I’m talking about doing them at all.

Just know this. You can do them. Those are skills. They are built off of various basics. You can learn the basics, one at a time. Maybe by yourself. Maybe with a teacher, or a self-taught course. Maybe with a friend. They are skills that will only ever improve with time and practice.

Don’t let fear of failure stop you from even getting your toes wet, and don’t let your mind lie to you about this stuff taking magical powers you don’t have. You have the capability. You choose when to put in the time, and when you make that choice, and when you put in that time, you will learn. And even though you might suck for a long time, you will get better. I promise.

The only way you can be sure never to learn something new, is if you never try to learn it in the first place.

That’s all I’ve got for today, everyone. Hope you enjoyed the story, and have a good weekend 🙂

A Particular Kind of Quagmire

I know what you’re thinking.

You read my last post, and you thought, after tearing yourself away from the misdirecting cuteness of the puppies and cupcakes, what’s this guy really saying? After all, history and myth are rife with the perils of setting your sights too high. Icarus, for example. Flew too close to the sun and melted his wings, falling to what was no doubt a hideously gory death.

Point is, it’s really, really easy to say stuff like “set your goals high”. It’s not like it’s a new idea or anything; plenty of people do it. You might know some of them. You’ve likely seen the crushing disappointment as those people fail to reach the goals, or worse, the growing delusion that they are reaching them when they’re not even close (see American Idol auditions for some particularly brutal examples of the latter.)

So let’s flesh this out and see if we can make it a bit more robust.  Consider the following three ideas

  1. Set an ambitious goal
  2. Figure out where you’re currently at.
  3. Crush your weaknesses, one at a time.

This is the approach I’ve used in all my endeavors over the past few years. It’s a coarse set of guide lines, of course (hah!), and as with everything else, it largely comes down to the execution. I think the most difficult of these  is the second. The human brain is a gloppy quagmire of emotions and biases and false assumptions and lots of other irritating things. (This is sometimes called the human condition, but I like the term ‘gloppy quagmire’ more). A lot of this blog will be about my various ways attempts to navigate those problems to try to achieve a more precise understanding of my own weaknesses and strengths.

The third item is tough too, but I feel like if you’ve done the second well and you’ve correctly identified the weaknesses, it’s the most fun. It’s where you actually feel like you’re improving. Or, at least, you get ephemeral moments where you feel you’re improving between longer periods of feeling soul crushed.

So, there you go. Want to be the best in the world at StarCraft/Writing/Shuffleboard/whatever? Just do that! Tada!

Okay. Fine. It’s harder than that. I’m somehow not the best in the world at any of those things. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about the obstacles one might run into trying to implement these ideas.

I’m going to start off with what I think is the biggest obstacle to all of this. I will even claim that it’s the number one reason people fail at things.

Ready? It’s about the simplest reason in the world, but one that I’ve found very difficult to truly internalize.

The number one reason we fail at anything is…

(this is called tension)

(powerful stuff, huh? It’ll make whatever I say seem REALLY awesome)

(okay, now I’m just being a jerk.  I’ll stop)

…is because we give up before we even try.

In my next post, I’m going to share with you a story about this mistake, and how it stopped me from even attempting something I always wanted to do for a very long time.

Puppies and Cupcakes and Martian Mountains

Well folks, let’s try to add some content to this thing. I mentioned in my first post that I’d like this blog to be about learning.  Now, you might say, that’s an awfully vague thing to base a blog on. After all, pretty much any topic can fall under the guise of learning if you want it to.

I might say, that’s the point. Why limit myself too much when I’m not even sure what I’m getting into? 🙂

Still, there’s something slightly disingenuous about a blog that purports to be about learning and then talks about nothing but puppies and cupcakes, so let’s see if we can take this vague thing called learning and find something to say.

(By the way, there WILL be posts about puppies and cupcakes. They will be glorious. You just wait.)

So. Learning. There’s some nice formal dictionary definition I’m sure, but really all it means is to acquiring knowledge and skill. That’s cool – you’re doing that right now by reading this, I’m doing it by writing this. Might not be useful yet, but it’s a start.

What’s the point, though? There’s certainly something to the notion of learning for the sake of learning. It’s self-edifying, good for the soul, etc. How far that gets you is going to be personal. The other reason we learn, which I think is easier to talk about, is to accomplish goals. To improve our skills.

For me, I want to take everything I do and I want to do them better.

Not just a little better either; we’re talking major, shoot-for-the-stars-wow-you’re-kind-of-delusional-aren’t-you better. Real gargantuan better-ness.

For instance, I play StarCraft 2 at a reasonably competitive level (High NA Masters, for those of you who know what that means. For those that don’t, worry not – I’ll cover it in more detail than you want to know about later.) I’m not satisfied with that. I look at the best player in the country (heck, the world!) and think, “I want to be that good.”

Are those realistic goals? Maybe, maybe not, though I suppose that depends on how you define ‘realistic. Here’s a better way to look at it. What’s the worst that can happen if I try? “Sorry, mom. I tried to be the best player in the world and I’m not. I hope, someday, you’ll forgive me.” That’s not a failure. The failure, for me, would be if I didn’t try.

I’ve got a number of things I work to improve at. The most important one to me right now is my writing. That’s part of the reason for the blog. I write fantasy novels. Someday, I want to be published. I want people to love my books. I want to sell a bazillion copies. I want to hit the best seller lists. I want to lead seminars teaching other new writers how to do what I did, before retiring to my personal castle complete with secret doors, towers, and guard-dragon.

Kind of a tall mountain to climb, huh?

Now, just to make it clear that I’m not some deluded narcissist. Those are my goals. Those are my dreams. They are not things I’ve earned. They are not things the universe owes to me. It will not be some grand injustice if I do not obtain them.

Here’s my theory.  You need to aim high, way higher than what your friends or parents or pretty much anyone, including your own mind, will tell you is reasonable. Don’t assume things are impossible.  Instead, be the person who says, “A mountain the size of Olympus Mons? Sweet! Let’s try to climb it.”

Will you get to the top? Maybe not. But I bet you’ll get a heck of a lot higher than if you stick with a smaller mountain.

Inspired yet? Ready to fly to Mars and do some mountain climbing?

In the next post, I’ll talk about my approach to these tasks, in particular, the troublesome problem of self-evaluation and discovering your weaknesses. Till then, take care and dream big.

(Or, if you don’t want to do any of that, eat a cupcake while petting a puppy. While this isn’t something I’ve tried, it seems like it pretty much is guaranteed to make you feel great about yourself.)