I’ve been a Mac guy ever since 1984, which is when my Dad bought a Mac Classic for his office. He thought it was the greatest, and he was right. Man, how many hours I spent at my Dad’s office on that cute little white box! (No hard drive, two disc drives.) I was drawing, writing, pointing, clicking. I was computing, and it was easy and fun. I was hooked.
In the 1990s, I had to confront the strange paradox that puzzled every Mac user: Despite the obvious superiority of the Mac (System 7 at that stage), and its ease of use, PCs still existed. How could this be? Mass delusion? I bored legions of friends with my Mac evangelism… and fretted about Apple’s predicted demise.
Then came the Return of Steve Jobs. He showed us how to turn a company around. And he did it by doing something unexpected — by me at least. While I thought the salvation of the Mac would happen when people saw what great software the OS was, Jobs went at it from the hardware end. He oversaw and (I think it’s fair to say) designed great-looking and great-working products that people couldn’t wait to get their hands on.
Steve Jobs brought us insanely great computers. Computers look and work the way they do today because of choices he made. They have mouses. They have trackpads. (Macs were the first to have them.) They have sophisticated font capabilities because Steve loved typography (like I do).
I love my Mac, and my iPod. I use them both every day. (No iPhone yet.) I love what these smart little things bring to my life. I hope Apple keeps making great things, now that Steve Jobs is gone. I feel like we all owe him a lot for what he brought to computing.
”Blindly we dream of overcoming death through immortality, when all the time immortality is the most horrific of possible fates.” -Jean Baudrillard
One of the worst things about my deconversion was realising that there probably wasn’t going to be an afterlife. I’d been counting on that all my life, and as a result, I had to do some serious rethinking on my timescale. A universe without me? I’m not an eternal being? My religion had flattered me, made me feel so important, and appealed to my sense of vanity. I hated thinking that I probably wasn’t going to live forever.
I was surprised, then, to find that some people aren’t concerned about it, and don’t particularly want to live forever.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, one character is immortal, and it’s a curse.
To begin with it was fun; he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.
In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know you’ve taken all the baths you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.
So things began to pall for him. The merry smiles he used to wear at other people’s funerals began to fade. He began to despise the Universe in general, and everybody in it in particular.
“I think I’ll take a nap,” he said, and then added, “What network areas are we going to be passing through in the next few hours?”
The computer beeped.
“Cosmovid, Thinkpix and Home Brain Box,” it said, and beeped.
“Any movies I haven’t seen thirty thousand times already?”
“There’s Angst in Space. You’ve only seen that thirty-three thousand five hundred and seventeen times.”
“Wake me for the second reel.”
Immortality might be horrible. Really: how long can you enjoy the vitality of life? How many more times can you listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’? How many times can you watch your favourite movie? Eventually you’ll have found all the things that do it for you. And habituation’s a bitch. What if I became so accustomed to the sunset, or the touch of my sweetheart through repeated exposure that I could no longer enjoy it? I’d be dead then, but still walking around.
Okay, so I can see that eternity would be a long long time, but I don’t envision a check-out date. There’s too much to learn! There’s enough for fifty lifetimes. I’m doing linguistics now. I think in the next lifetime, I’ll do maths and get really good at that. Then what? A lifetime of typography! What kind of computers will people invent? What will English be like in 500 years? And so on. Seventy years seems so short.
Even so, it’s probably a good thing that people die. Max Planck has been paraphrased to say “Science advances one funeral at a time.” And Steve Jobs has his take on it:
Transcript for people who don’t like watching videos.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
It’s true, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
So what do I do about it? Steve continues.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Have you made peace with mortality? Or do you rage against the dying of the light? I haven’t decided which approach I like best. I guess at this stage I’m just glad to have escaped the liars who make big, empty promises about forever.
A friend showed me this TED talk about Jeremy Gilley, who had an idea: What if everyone decided to stop war for one day?
You could say all kinds of things about this. Crazy. Idealistic. Naïve. And you’d be kind of right. For one thing, war happens anyway. For another, getting people to agree not to fight is futile because war is a failure to agree in the first place. That’s the problem. What you’re saying is, “If only we could get people to agree, then we could start to work on the problem of people not agreeing!”
Not everyone wants peace, anyway. One of the worst Christian memes around now is that if a major world political leader brings peace, that’s a sign that they’re the antichrist. Apparently, God is the only one who is supposed to bring peace, and anyone else is a satanic impersonator. So they’re suspicious of peace. Isn’t that lovely? But anyway.
And yet, despite all this, the Peace One Day project has done some good. Even the Taliban agreed to it one year, and violence went down that day.
You have to try stuff, as idealistic as it seems. Maybe, as Gilley says, it won’t work, and nothing will happen. But maybe it will, and someone won’t get blown up or killed for a day. You have to try.
And anyway, whether it “works” or not isn’t the point. As I see it, the point of this exercise is that it’s important to affirm values. It’s important for the world community to state that peace is a collective goal. We need to say “You know peace? Well, we want that.” And we need to keep saying that over and over again, because some people will keep chipping away at that value. We can’t ever assume that any of our values are so universally held and so solid that we can never lose them. We can slip backward. It happened with torture. It’s happening with the right to choose to have an abortion. You think child labour laws are an irretractable value? Public education? Conservatives right now are working feverishly to turn the clock back on our progressive values, even the ones that we think we could never lose. We need to keep affirming that these are the values we have.
September 21 is the day, by the way. It’s not too far off. Maybe there’s something we could do.
Do people still know about ‘Harold and Maude‘? I hope so. It’s a movie that I come back to every once in a while. Let me give you the rundown.
Harold is a dour and lugubrious young man. If he were around today, he’d be a goth or some kind of proto-emo, but in his time his gloom didn’t have the benefit of a social group. He’s obsessed with death. He performs elaborate mock suicides to alarm his domineering mother, and he attends funerals for fun.
At one such funeral he meets Maude, a sprightly and unconventional near-octogenarian, and the two form an unlikely friendship. She loves funerals, too, not because she treasures death, but because death is a part of life, which she also treasures. Yet she doesn’t cling to life — or indeed anything. When Harold gives her a keepsake, she throws it into the river (“So I’ll always know where it is,” she says). She blithely (and somehow innocently) steals cars if she needs a lift, and digs up a public tree to replant in the forest. She ‘replants’ Harold, too, helping him to grow outside of his sterile and affluent home. She’s a nurturer, a revolutionary, an artist at living.
I’ve found that Maude is a barometer for where I am in my life. At times, I’ve thought she’s great — a free spirit who has some wonderful insights about how to live. At other times, her character has grated on me — she’s a silly person who ought to know better. And I’ve noticed that the times when I’ve been least able to tolerate Maude are the times when I’ve been the most uptight, the most ‘churchy’. It’s all very well, I’ve thought, for her to talk about life and death and the cosmic dance, but she doesn’t have a knowledge of the Gospel! Or: She has insights about life, but seems so unserious about living. Or: That’s the kind of thing people get over after their teens. Or even: New age hippy fruit basket. And other such unkind things, depending on how eager I was to conform to adult conventions, which Maude of course isn’t.
Now I think she’s great again. She’s successfully carved out a meaning to her life, which is, after all, the big business of one’s life. And while her way of being seems unusual and contradictory, it’s a way that wouldn’t occur to most people, and I respect that. So I guess that means I’m less uptight, and more of a free spirit myself. Having deconverted from a religion (and thereby defying a major convention in my former society), I can now see the value in colouring outside the lines, as Maude does. As the soundtrack says, there’s a million ways to be. You know that there are.
Have corporate logos ever raised tremors for you? You’ll know what I mean if your sedate suburban childhood was marred by them. There we were, innocently watching afternoon television, and then at the end of a show, there would be a seven-second bumper clip showing the name of the production company. They were often done on a Scanimate, which was kind of a precursor to modern CG animation.
And these clips freaked a lot of kids out. Here’s the most infamous — the Screen Gems logo, also known as ‘The S from Hell’.
The Viacom ‘V of Doom’ clip has stained its share of sheets (even getting sent up in Family Guy).
Look out — here it comes!
And the Paramount clip. This one was known as the ‘Closet Killer’ version because of the music.
Seriously, what sort of maniac would unleash this evil so indiscriminately upon an uncomprehending television audience?
Inevitably, in online discussions about scary logos, someone will say “I don’t get it! Why do people find these scary? I don’t find these even mildly creepy!” Well, no, you don’t, you thirty-plus well-adjusted adult. But perhaps if you were instead a person of a certain age and a certain disposition, things would be different. So, as a formerly timorous child, I am going to try and explain why scary logos can be scary.
I should point out that my childhood was for the most part happy and secure, and I was not overly neurotic. But there were some parts of my house, especially one part of the downstairs hallway which, in the dark of night, would require a little steeling of the will before hurriedly passing by.
My house had a garage, with a back door that opened to the outside. To get in, I would have to open the door, reach into the musty blackness, and turn on the light. I could never reach for the light switch without imagining someone with a large axe chopping my hand off. For some irrational reason, I associated this image with the song “Judy in Disguise With Glasses”, which my sister used to listen to. It’s a great song, but it has a sickly sitar ending that seemed, to a child about to go into a dark garage, to be highly suggestive of the stump of a wrist, dripping blood.
These memories are among the most vivid of my childhood, even as I’m aware they make no sense to others — people who have never felt nightfear, or who had actual scary things to cope with in their childhood without making up silly things to frighten themselves with.
Childhood is a frightening and vulnerable time. The line between the real and the imaginary, the threatening and the comforting, is not fixed. Big people are kind and solicitous mostly, but they can shout or act unpredictably, and they are very big and complicated. Knowledge is power, and a child, having naturally less knowledge, is powerless even in a home where they are provided and cared for. And as memory and cognition develops, we experience an emerging consciousness. Maybe in the process of turning the cascade of input we get into the knowledge we’re going to have, some information gets processed the wrong way, like swallowing some water the wrong way, and it turns into a coil of tentacle instead of a flower in a garden. A shirt draped over a chair in a dark room takes on the appearance of lurking. You are awakened by dreams that turn on you.
And sometimes in bed, in the dark of night, the desire to get up for a drink would be subdued by the possibility that something would grab an ankle, if an ankle were to venture out. Or not even that specific — that under the blankets, one was safe, but that by projecting an arm out from under the covers, one was venturing into some unknown, and it would be best to stay covered. And in this suggestible state, the soundtrack in one’s mind is all the tumult of noise from the day before, including — possibly — a thunderous seven-second fanfare from earlier in the afternoon.
For me, this is the one that kept me pinned in bed.
If you’ve forgotten the vulnerability of childhood, you may not understand how these attention-catching production clips can miss, and catch the breath instead. But if you’re someone who still closes the closet doors tightly at night to make sure the things inside stay inside, then you will understand, and perhaps even nurture, this liminal territory of childish anxiety.
Having seen what governments get up to when their secrecy is assured, we should all be welcoming the WikiLeaks age. (And if you’re a signer of petitions, you could do worse than this one at avaaz.com — h/t nikki)
In the wake of the cable leakages, right-wing authoritarians like Newt Gingrich and Fox News haven’t been shy about using terrorism accusations, and calling for assassination. Seems like they think the only way information should move is from the top down. They hate it when anyone tries to make the information move laterally.
I mention Wikileaks and Fox because it follows something of a pattern I’ve noticed with right-wing authoritarians — a very strong tendency toward hierarchy, as opposed to a more collaborative style of exchange with no centralised control — a configuration I’ve seen associated more often with liberals.
This pattern shows up in the way the two groups get information. The right currently dominates the radio dial — Limbaugh, Beck, Savage, and so forth — where an announcer disseminates information down the channel. The liberal attempt to duplicate it was not a success. It’s just not how liberals communicate. Liberals talk to each other through a loose confederation of blogs, where comments flow between participants and multiple writers are likely to work together on the front page. Righties have their blogs too, but it’s not their main channel. The political discourse on the net skews leftward (at least on the xkcd map).
This pattern also feeds into stories of origin. For conservatives (much more likely to be religious), truth comes from on high, and the diversity of life was caused by a god creating it from the top down. For liberals (more often secular), the story is evolution, with no central controller. Science works by peer-review.
I think collaboration is much more likely to give good answers than a top-down hierarchy will. The success of science is evidence of this, but there’s also Wikipedia, where content always has lots of eyes poring over it and is always being updated. Wikipedia’s not necessarily liberal, but it is true that some conservatives felt it wasn’t serving them, and their attempt to create their own is a farce. Or there’s the terrible Knol, where single authors write what they want, no one has to agree, and good information is very hard to find. Give this liberal a good collaborative effort anytime.
This is a post about my Mom. It’s not intended to distress family members — I think I’ve written it with a modicum of sensitivity and tact — but it may. If you think you may be offended by my views on the implications of religious belief as they pertain to mortality, best to stop reading now, instead of making a scene at the funeral later. If, however, you’re willing to risk it, or you just want to know where I’m coming from, please read on.
Facebook friends will already know that my Mom passed away last week. It wasn’t unexpected — she hadn’t been well for a long time, and I’m glad she’s not in the pain and the frame of mind that she was in. I’d already done a lot of the emotional work and the ‘letting go’, but I was still surprised at how tender I felt that first day; I felt the fragility of my body, my heartbeat, the delicate chemistry of my consciousness. I walked and moved gingerly, as one does at the beginning of a cold. I’d always lived in a world where my mother existed, and now I didn’t.
It must have been a long time since we really talked, what with her being ill for such a long time. My memories of her come back in pieces. I’ll remember something she said, a conversation we had, something she taught me. If we went to McDonalds, we had a ritual where I’d wind up the straw, and she’d flick it with a loud crack! All with the most blasé expression on our faces. It’s much funnier if it’s your Mom. As I said on Facebook, “My mom was a great person. She always encouraged me to develop my mind and my talents. She loved me. And she taught me to shop.” She really was amazing, and I’m really going to miss her.
Subsequent days have been fine. I may feel different at the funeral (jet-lagged), but for now I feel like I’ve bounced back. In particular, I feel no desire to revert to the comforting myths of the religion of my youth. Quite to the contrary — when someone wrote that Mom was in a ‘better place’, I felt a quiver of very mild exasperation.
This has raised a question for me, though. I’ve often heard that stories of an afterlife serve to ‘comfort’ believers in times of death. So why are the religious members of my family so glum? Of course, we’re all sad because we’re going to miss her. But among all the condolences and the contacts I’ve heard and read, there has been precious little optimism (so far). Why are they expressing sadness at all?
They ought to be delighted! Right now, Mom’s wearing a robe, padding around in little white slippers, waiting to be taken to some kind of veil thing where she can give the handshakes and passwords. Whereupon she will be ushered into a bright white place with tasteful furniture, there to be with my father, her sisters, parents, Jesus, and everyone, for all eternity.
I believed in that story, and I talked with other believers for years, so I think I know the mindset pretty well. When you believe in the supernatural stuff, there’s always some vacillation between certainty and doubt. It comes in cycles. You can have a doubting period, but then you pump yourself up with faith until you’re ‘strong’ again. Maybe some people don’t let themselves doubt, but I’m sure many believers are familiar with what I’m describing.
For me, the conflict ended when I realised that the evidence for gods was poor. The concept of a ‘spirit’, or a little ghost inside of us, was equally unsubstantiated. The sensible explanation was that our brains were the things that produced the sensations of cognition and perception, and when the brain died, perception would simply stop and we would experience nothing. I wasn’t fond of this conclusion (and I’m still not), but I found it to be the explanation that best fit the facts. You could say I ‘took the hit’, and accepted its implications for my life.
As a result, I’ve accepted my Mom’s passing with an equanimity that I couldn’t have mustered in my believing days. I was taking all my time going between belief and doubt. Someone who believes in heaven and an afterlife is just dodging the inevitable conflict. They can’t do the work of accepting the finite nature of human existence because they think they’re going to live forever. Their religion keeps them from accomplishing this very important task of adulthood. They are prevented from growing up.
Me, I’m waking up today and feeling grateful. I’m enjoying all the sensations my body feels. I realise that my life is a tiny blip in an eternity that will go on without me, and I feel happy and amazed that I get to be here on this day that will never come again. I’m tasting food. I’m enjoying the touch of a sweetheart. I’m the guy you saw riding the bicycle too fast, shouting “I’M ALIIIVE!”
For so we are. All of us here today are alive. Let’s get out there and do it.
A lot of people I care about have come back with some really bad god-damn diagnoses in the last few months. Mom’s not well. Two friends have cancer, but they’re both holding it together.
It’s throwing me, frankly. I’m getting older, and I wonder if I’m due for some similar bad news. Are some of my cells even now going berserk, turning into the cancer that will kill me in five years? I look at Miss Perfect and she looks at me and we wonder how many more days we get to have together.
I know some people get comfort from their belief that after this life, a supernatural being will allow them to live in peace and happiness with loved ones forever. And there will be pie in the sky when you die. It’s a nice thought. I can see why people turn to it in times of existential uncertainty.
By comparison, atheism doesn’t seem to offer much comfort. We’re here, we die, and there’s no reason to think that any supernatural beings exist to revive us. Fine if you enjoy accepting the harsh realities, but not much in the way of comfort. Which is fine with me. I’ve always cared more if something’s true, rather than if it’s ‘comforting’. You could say that drugs offer a degree of ‘comfort’, until they wear off and it’s back to reality.
And for me this is the problem with the comfort offered by religions. It’s a comfort only if it’s true, otherwise, it’s a cruel illusion. If atheism doesn’t provide comfort, the false comfort offered by religion is even worse. It’s expensive and time-consuming.
How, then, do we explain the diseases that strike those we love? If you believe in a god, you have to believe that he has the ability to heal you, but for some reason, might not. (He certainly doesn’t heal amputees.) Then after he lets you go through pain, death, and uncertainty, he’ll whisk you away to paradise. And what kind of heaven awaits? Christopher Hitchens (another unwelcome cancer diagnosis) opened my eyes by pointing out that the Christian version of heaven is not an eternity we should wish for:
We would be living under an unalterable celestial dictatorship that could read our thoughts while we were asleep and convict us of thoughtcrime and pursue us after we after are dead, and in the name of which priesthoods and other oligarchies and hierarchies would be set up to enforce God’s law.
But for those who look to the natural world, the explanation is different. Our bodies know how to carry out the processes we need in order to live, but they don’t always do so optimally. We’re engaged in an evolutionary struggle of survival with other individuals and other life forms. Evolution has seen to it that we survive pretty well most of the time, but sometimes not.
So is that it? We’re just going to die, and then that’s the end?
No. We’re going to live, and then that’s the end. And how amazing to have lived on this world! How unlikely! Some humans made a human child with a brain that could experience consciousness, and that human was me. I may not know how long I have to live my life, but I’m not going to waste any of that time in church, helping to support someone else’s comforting scams. I get my comfort knowing that when it’s my turn to go, as we all do, I will have lived fully, loved deeply, and kept my mind as free of delusion as best I could.
This life is full of people, love, food, knowledge, questions — and, yes, difficulty, pain, and sorrow. Even so, I’ll take it.
There’s a song that keeps coming back to me: What a beautiful life. It makes me feel optimistic when I hear it. Maybe you’ll like it too. It’s true, you know.