Penn Jillette’s God No!

Inside Magic Image of Penn Jillette's Book "God No!"Simon & Schuster invited us to review Penn Jillette's newest book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. We were flattered and excited to get the advance copy and read it several times over the last couple of weeks but resisted writing a review.

    Our resistance was not logical. After all, we promised we would write it up and we try to stick by our word – as long as it is convenient or makes us look good. Also, we always need copy for the internet's number one web site with a domain name that includes the words "magic" and "inside" and is not about Walt Disney's properties, a NBA franchise from Orlando, or images depicting things that may be "magic" but are a bit too "inside" (some images are practically "internal" or even "interstitial") for our refined taste in exploitive media web sites featuring three-day trial subscriptions for $1.00.

    Our hesitancy was more at the sub-conscious level. As many readers of Inside Magic know, we obtained an advanced degree from a prestigious seminary with a focus on scripture and patristics (study of the church fathers). The experience was grueling and in many ways more difficult than our later studies at law school. Seminary and law school shared epistemological philosophies if not content. The first year of law school challenges students to think like a lawyer. We learned to assume nothing is true without proof of sufficient strength to withstand an opponent's best challenge. We gained the ability to identify significant issues and methods to either use them to our client's advantage or blunt their impact on our client's position.

    Seminary dedicated the entire first year to challenging the reasons for our faith. The professors wanted to be sure our spiritual world-view was not based on superstition or self-deception. We were being taught to think like a lawyer as well as theologians.

    There is a significant drop-out rate among first years students in seminary and law school. Some leave to follow a different career path, some fail to adopt the mindset needed, and some just fail out for academic reasons. At the end of our first year in seminary, we were convinced we had been stripped of our faith. The cozy intimacy we felt with the subject and persons of Christianity was gone. Within one academic year, we were left to ponder deeply and constantly questions we thought were long resolved.

    Did God exist? Assuming existence, was God anything like the entity we thought we knew? Should we care whether God exists? What is the reason for suffering and pain in the world? Was Friedrich Feuerbach right when he claimed in The Essence of Christianity that God is nothing more than man's projection of his best hopes, highest ideals personified as a transcendent being? When man prays to God he is speaking to his alter-ego?

    We continued our studies and pressed on with the hope (and faith) that everything would come into balance.

    And so the point? How does this have anything to do with Penn Jillette's newest book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales?

    We think it is related to our hesitancy to write this very review.

    We enjoy Penn Jillette's writing and performing on any subject – even magic or atheism. His style fits neatly into our 8-bit processor size brain and is always just the right mix of irreverence, hyperbole, out-of-the-box thinking, humor and substance. Unlike the class clown who is always "on," Penn Jillette has the courage to not be funny on every page and in the description of every event.

    His cadence never seemed forced or the result of sophisticated and marketing driven editing. The reader is given a chance to meet Penn Jillette without apology or shading. The writing had us laughing out loud in our high-pitched, embarrassing, girl-like screech and within two or three pages we were in tears, unable to speak due to the lump in our throat.

    When we tried to read portions of the book aloud for friends, we were often incoherent either because of our laughter or tears. Penn Jillette's recounting of his father's passing and his own battle with hospital social workers was unexpected, moving and impossible to read out loud.

    So far, so good. The book is a wonderful read for magicians or lay folk. Yes, the language is a bit salty but we doubt you expected anything else. If the book was nothing more than an enjoyable grouping of stories about this incredible performer's life and passions, it would be well worth the cover price. But the book is more – at least for us.

    The purpose of the book is to convince the reader that Atheism is not just valid alternative to Theism and more specifically Christianity and Judaism; it is the only explanation that holds water. To be an atheist, he writes, you don't have to be smart, brave, a martyr or a saint. You need only to say "I don't know." Of course there is "I don't know" and there is "I don't know (and don't really care)." He distinguishes the Atheist's "I don't know" from the Agnostic's in a humorous but superficial way. And that is okay. Agnosticism does not hold much sway for Penn Jillette. He essentially rejects it as a serious school of thought within the first chapter.

    Atheism and Theism are significant philosophical / theological concepts that have occupied the thoughts of great thinkers over the centuries. This book adds nothing to that legacy. But we think it was never intended to advance discourse on such a lofty subject. We are guessing Atheism was forced to fit over the story collection to provide an apparently unifying theme that just happened to be a great title for a book written by someone like Penn Jillette.


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Is Neil Patrick Harris Really One of Us?

Inside Magic Image of Neil Patrick Harris“Neil Patrick Harris, magician? And, president of the Academy of Magical Arts?” So begins the great profile piece on the actor in today’s Philippine Daily Inquirer .

That is the kind of question that piques our interest.

We follow magic closely and had noticed the former child star and now prominent force on stage, screen and television was appearing more frequently in magic related stories. The pattern we discerned over the last few years: when there was a magic related event in or around Los Angeles or Hollywood, Neil Patrick Harris was there.

It was starting to get eerie.

Our uncle was photographed at many suspicious building fires in and around the greater Mystic Hollow, Michigan area but that was because of his affection for “the glorious lover that is flame.” We were sure Neil Patrick Harris was not afflicted by the same sense of misguided and painful love as Roland “Flame” Hardy.

Perhaps he was working on a project that called for a magician’s touch. We dismissed this theory. Edward Norton (“The Illusionist”), Michael Cain (“The Prestige”), Anthony Hopkins (“Magic”) all starred in magic-oriented films but we never saw any of them attending functions usually reserved for the insiders.

His was one of the three individuals photographed for a 2009 article on The Magic Castle’s It’s Magic performance. (The other two were Lance Burton and Hannah Montana co-star Romi Dames). We don’t think the lovely Romi Dames is a magician so perhaps Neil Patrick Harris was appearing in his capacity as a star.

Neil Patrick Harris was also named in an article on the rededication of Houdini’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But again, he was not the focus of the story.

The mention comes about half-way through the Entertainment Today piece. “The bad boys of magic Penn and Teller were on hand for the ceremony, along with Neil Patrick Harris, Tippi Hedren, JoAnne Worley and Irene Larsen.”

Take a look at the article in the December 6, 2008 edition of Entertainment Today article here.

Continue reading Is Neil Patrick Harris Really One of Us?

Magic Lives: Penn & Teller, Dynamo, Daniels and Farquhar

Inside Magic Image of Attractive Female Showing Appreciation for Great MagicThe Guardian newspaper of London recently ran a piece on the popularity of magic, magicians and the traditional magic show.  In asking whether magic was again becoming “fashionable,” the anonymous writer referenced “the old journalistic adage, “Two’s a coincidence, three’s a trend.”

Penn and Teller, who sprang to fame in the 1980s by appearing to reveal the secrets behind tricks, thereby breaking the magical code of omerta, are the old guard in this pairing. Fool Us is, at heart, no different from the Paul Daniels magic shows of decades past, merely spiced with the addition of some X Factor dynamics.”

Two very different styles of magic and magician are displayed in Dynamo: Magician Impossible and Penn & Teller’s Fool Us but they both demonstrate magic’s vitality as entertainment.

They may have been the “Bad Boys of Magic” but Fool Us is not a challenge to the proud history of an art form that continues to entertain because and in spite of remarkable developments in science.  “Penn & Teller are historians of magic and their respect for those who are operating within such traditions is palpable, even when they are not fooled by the acts.”


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Penn & Teller to UK, “FU!”

Whatever!

First, they were described as “the Bad Boys of Magic” because they allegedly exposed our most sacred secrets; except they didn’t.

Penn & Teller were iconoclastic rebels ready to stick it to The Man with outrageous and non-traditional performance pieces; except that is not accurate either. After all, while they were allegedly engaging in the clasting of icons, they were performing nightly in a posh theater named for them in Las Vegas.

Next, there was hue and cry when they refused to update their act, abandon the trite magic stage show, to accost people on the street and perform endurance stunts. They eschewed standing on the top of a pole on a pole for a week, being frozen, nearly drowning, subjected to static electricity shocks, or being suspended by gossamer threads tied to meat hooks sunk into the fatty tissue between their shoulder blades.{{1}}
Where is this going and whence did it come?

This morning, The Guardian (UK) published a savage review of Penn & Teller’s new show for ITV1, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us!”

It begins with an attack on Penn’s size and proceeds down the low road from there. The review describes the show’s premise as “Magicians do tricks for [Penn & Teller]; they have to say how they’re done. If they can’t work it out, the contestant goes to Las Vegas, which is just about the last place on earth where “magician” is a job title.”

Hence the “Whatever!” as our introduction to this article.

But the reviewer is really cheesed-off because Penn & Teller behave like real magicians – not the “Bad Boys of Magic.” “When they do unlock the mystery, they don’t share it. Instead, they make opaque remarks, to convey to the performer that the games up, without telling the audience how anything’s done.”

He gives one of the “opaque” remarks as “as far as the rope tie, this was used extensively in spirit cabinets.”

We think that is a perfect way of hiding secrets but communicating with a fellow magician.

Nay says the reviewer, “It doesn’t so much impart information as make a noise with some words. When they can’t work out how the trick was done, they look vexed and thwarted, which is sort of against the spirit of feel good mentoring that this is meant to encapsulate. And yet, of course the shady atmosphere is to protect our innocence, otherwise we wouldn’t be amazed.”

That is where this rant started before winding its way from Berlin to Chicago to London and back to Mystic Hollow, Michigan.

In future episodes lucky UK audiences will be able to see Shawn Farquhar, Mathieu Bich, and Manuel Martinez aka Loki.

TV review: Penn and Teller: Fool Us; Law and Order: UK; and Mildred Pierce | Television and radio | The Guardian.

[[1]]The parallels to Louis Sullivan (“Form Forever Follows Function”) and Mies van der Rohe (“Form is Function”) are obvious. The latter architect’s embrace of the former’s approach did not mimic or grossly distort the Chicago School’s essence.  The German immigrant understood the purpose (or “function”) of the Chicago School was to build a “tall building”).  (See  Louis Sullivan’s real article in Lippincott’s Magazine, Volume 57 (1896) pp. 403-9, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” He continued in the tradition but in an era where modern building materials were readily available.

Louis Sullivan’s Carson, Pierre, Scott and Company building resonates with Mies Van Der Rohe’s posthumously completed IBM Plaza in Chicago and his Toronto-Dominion Centre.

Teller performs silently but nonetheless performs. (See our fake article in Architectural Research Quarterly, 15, pp. 22-39; “Bauhaus or Bologna: The ‘New School’ Phenomenon in Architecture, Magic and Economics – How Followers Miss the Point of their Inspiration”). [[1]]

Penn Jillette’s How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker – Magical

Magic News and Review of Penn Jillette How to Cheat Your Friends at PokerYou can call us “moronic,” “unethical,” “psycho,” or “scum-bag-esque” but we admit we love to be verbally abused — especially in writing.

But that’s not the reason we loved — absolutely and in all connotations of the word — Penn Jillette’s How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker.

The book is based on material putatively provided by an old acquaintance of Mr. Jillette, called by the nom de plume Dickie Richard.  Mr. Jillette was permitted to create any pseudonym for his source and for some reason chose the name “Dickie Richard.”

Our therapist says were obsessed with these types of things but the name gave us pause.

After all, the last name Richard is rather rare in the United States.  The surname is most often “Richards.”  According to the U.S. Social Security Death Registry, there are a mere 13,353 folks in their database of over 77 million with the last name spelled in this manner compared with fewer than 40,000 for “Richards.”(Interestingly, there are only nine records for “Jillette”).

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