Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Christopher Moore "Lamb": CFI book club discussion

4 people attended the CFI Science And Religion In Fiction book club discussion of Christopher Moore's book "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal". Only one of them has read other novels by Christopher Moore (6-7 or them, in fact, and he was the one who recommended "Lamb" to the group).

"Lamb" is a humorous account of the life of Jesus Christ, as told by his childhood pal Biff. If we believe this novel (and we have as much reason to believe it as the Bible, as far as I'm concerned :-)) Biff was Jesus' trusty sidekick all throughout his life. The story focuses on Jesus' missing years between ages 14 and 30; it shows Jesus and Biff traveling all over the world in search of the three wise men. Their travels take them to Middle East, China, and India, where they get entangled into many fantastic adventures, each one more bizarre than the previous one.

We all acknowledged that "Lamb" is intended as a funny book rather than serious deconstruction of Christianity. It's a humorous what-if scenario of how doctrines of Christianity came together. "I think Christianity has pulled its ethics from a whole lot of sources, and that's what Moore showed here, that made for a serious message in the book, if there is any," said a reader. Our group liked that aspect of it.

A serious message is not easily found in this book, however. A few readers found the book very lightweight. This is not a book you would learn a lot from. But we all found it hilarious. The humor and the adventures are enough to pull you through the book. One reader said he tried to read a passage from the first 100 pages to his wife, and could not finish, because he fell over laughing. Another person compared the humor in this book to that in "The Simpsons". "A lot of Homer's humor is naivete, taking things seriously," said a reader, pointing out parallels with the "Lamb": "For example, when Gaspar tells Biff the parable of the boat -- when you cross the river, do yo carry the boat with you? And Biff asks, well, how big is the boat, etc.?" The very manner of Biff's speech is modern American. But there were undoubtedly wisecrackers in biblical times, too.

The humor in "Lamb" really shines when it's used to explain the origin of Jesus' famous sayings. From "turn the other cheek" to "you will be the rock I'll build my church upon", they all are shown as having arisen from profane, goofy situations, rather than divine revelation.

The ending was found to be a little too sweet by some people. But it's consistent with the general feel-good tone of this novel that stays funny without hardly ever becoming sarcastic. Indeed, a remarkable feature of "Lamb" is that this tale of young Jesus' escapades manages to be completely non-offensive to Christianity. Some of us noted that it has a surprisingly sympathetic view of Jesus. "I really felt for the guy," said a reader, "he was such a good person. He really was. If the Bible was written more like this, I think a lot more people would end up Christians. At least I might have." Chris Moore mentions in the epilogue that practically no religious person ever came up to him and complained. "Lamb" is full of blasphemy, but it's presented so well that it's almost impossible to feel insulted.

I personally found it funny and sad -- or maybe just sad -- that Biff is considered by everyone to be an idiot, when he is really quite brilliant. He's certainly smarter than Jesus himself. He comes up with theories of round Earth, and of evolution, millenia before anyone else. It seems Chris Moore could not resist the irony of Jesus pal discovering theories that are so viciously opposed by fundamentalist Christians.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Flightplan": continuing about movies

I had better luck with another movie I watched on my vacation, "Flightplan". Nothing in it posed facial recognition difficulties. I think the key was that it had only one person per gender per age category per hair color, if you know what I mean. :-) The two main male actors (the air marshal and the pilot) differed in age by about 2 decades, so I didn't have trouble telling them apart; same for the female characters -- Jodie Foster and two flight attendants. The flight attendants were both young, but somehow it's much easier for me to distinguish between female faces than male, so telling the two apart didn't present a problem. Another advantage of "Flightplan" was good lighting: well-lit faces carry more visual information.

"Flightplan" is a thriller that takes place entirely on a plane. It's an ultimate anti-in-flight movie. Best not to watch it within a week before flying. :-)

I found it more original than most thrillers I watched (which is not very many). It was hard to predict who the bad guys were or what they wanted, or how they were going to achieve it. My only beef with it is that it had a point-of-view problem. Actually, I'm not sure if point-of-view analysis applies to movies as much as to books. In written fiction, it is necessary for the author to stick with selected point of view, i.e. to show the story happening through the eyes of a chosen character. There can be one or more of them, but the author has to be consistent about who's telling the story. I'm not sure how much this applies to movies in general, but "Flightplan" is told very clearly from the perspective of Jodie Foster's character. Throughout the movie we know only as much as she knows. Then towards the end we are briefly shown who the bad guys are and what is really happening. This detracted from my enjoyment. It's as if the authors thought the've confused the audience so much, the viewers won't figure it out for themselves, and need to be shown all the cards.

I think if you are showing both sides' POVs, you have to do it from the beginning. Then it would be a different kind of movie -- it would be about a cat-and-mouse play between the two parties. I actually prefer "Flightplan" the way it is now, a story of a woman who upsets all the norms of socially acceptable behavior, and stands up to people who tell her she's crazy, as she searches for her missing daughter. Not to mention she pulls off very scary stunts as she crawls up into an airplane's avionics section and rampages through it, scaring the s**t out of the airplane's passengers. All in all, a good piece of escapism.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

"Prestige" and reflections on movie-watching techniques

A while ago I mentioned a complete cognitive fiasco I experienced when trying to watch "Prestige". Surprisingly, I managed to understand it on a second try. Subtitles were the key -- thanks to my Twitter buddies who suggested them in response to my real-time cries of frustration! Once I turned the subtitles on, the actors' British accent stopped being a problem. It did not, of course, help with facial recognition. Since I could not tell the two main actors apart until the end, I probably missed some important plot points. "Prestige" is an extra-tricky movie, since this tale of two Victorian era magicians revolves around trickery and misdirection and some characters passing for others. As much as it is an absorbing movie, it's hard work for someone with poor facial recognition skills. For example, in the end it turns out that a certain secondary or tertiary character was very important. Yet not only I couldn't guess the importance of that character, I was not even aware of his existence up until all the secrets of the plot were revealed.

Subtitles are a great technology, but I could use a few others to help me watch movies. There could be a button on the remote control that would pop up bubbles with character names over characters' heads. Those bubbles could contain not just names, but short summaries of the characters' storylines. In other words, the more information in the movie can be conveyed by text, the better for me. Ergo, the best movies are books. :-) But I already knew that.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Slumdog Millionaire": movie review

"Slumdog Millionaire" is shaping up to be THE must-see movie of the year, so I went to see it. Its freshness comes from its unvarnished portrayal of India's brutal realities, but overall this feel-good drama does not deviate one bit from genre cliches. All the characters eventually are rewarded according to their choices. Somebody who went over to the dark side redeems himself in death. Sorry if that's too spoilerous, but really, you can predict the characters' fates halfway into the movie. The scenes of brutality are disturbing enough to possibly trick you into thinking you are watching Real Art. :-) But this is not a movie that will make you think, unless it's of human rights violations in India. That's a worthy topic, but it's merely an aside in this movie.

I used to watch lots of Indian movies back in my teenage years. In the time and place I grew up in, Indian movies were so popular as to be practically mainstream. I had a friend who liked to revel in the kitschy, over-the-top spirit of Indian dramas, and she used to drag me to see them. This is not, of course, a Bollywood movie per se (it's made by a British director); but I saw in it echos of memes common to Indian movies of my day. For example, there's the Decades-Long Search for the Beloved Missing Person meme that used to drive the plot of every other Indian movie. Usually it was a mother searching for a son separated from her since young age. In Slumdog Millionaire it's a boy searching for a girl he loved since childhood. Anyway. There's also the Improbable Coincidences meme. I'm referring to a certain scene in the finale. Well, it wasn't a completely improbable coincidence, since it was logically set up to be that way. And I have to say it played out cleverly, what with a real-life- and a televised drama converging over a cell phone. I liked it.

So overall it is a good escapist movie. It's heartfelt and sincere, and the characters will make you root for them. Not a bad way to spend 2 hours. But I wouldn't go see it if I wanted some more thought-provoking.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Robert Charles Wilson "Axis": book review

"Axis" is a lot less ambitious than its predecessor "Spin", but what it does it does well. It does not attempt to span decades of history, and so it avoids long stretches of tedium with which "Spin" is riddled. In "Axis" we don't have to watch the characters live their pedestrian lives while mysterious events unfold somewhere in the background. The main characters are always in action, and plot tension is sustained from beginning to end.

However, "Axis" is also a lot less conceptual than "Spin". It does not introduce new ideas, only elaborates (and only minimally) on the ones introduced in "Spin". My biggest disappointment with this book was that we don't really learn more about the Hypotheticals than we knew at the beginning. The idea that the Hypotheticals come to Earth to collect memories and upload them into some kind of vast cosmic network, is so basic and vague that it does not advance our understanding of the Hypotheticals very much. We still don't know why they want those memories, what they are going to do with them, or why did they have to move the Earth billions of years ahead in time. Or why did they attach a parallel universe to it, joined by the Arc. I wonder if the author chose an ignorant and simple-minded protagonist, a 12-year-old child, to communicate with the Hypotheticals, so as not to have to intelligently speculate about all that. I would have been more interested if the communicator was someone educated, especially someone who had studied the Hypotheticals, such as Lise's father. If Lise's father had enough material to write a book about them, he must have had more than just vague speculations?

Apparently the focus of this trilogy is not the Hypotheticals, but how the contact with them will affect humanity. At the end of "Axis" it becomes clear that the third book will be about humanity having to deal with uploading and the "5th age". This makes me look forward to it despite the underwhelming second book.

Although scientific mysteries go unanswered, "Axis" is still a good character-driven novel. With just a few brushstrokes Wilson sets up a wide range of believable characters. There is a determined truth-seeker (Lise); a person whose purpose in life is to preserve the existing order (Lise's ex-husband); a drifter who is nevertheless courageous and likeable (Turk); there are characters who and resist change kicking and screaming, like Lise's mother; and ambitious opportunists who seek to manipulate the change for their own purposes, like Dr. Dvali. For some reason secondary characters like Brian the ex-husband, and Dr. Dvali came through as the most vivid, while the protagonist, Lise, somehow didn't feel like a real person to me. But overall the diverse cast of characters and the plot tension made this book an enjoyable read.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Social Media camp: the Half-Baked game

It's been only 5 months, but I finally wrote a post on the Half-Baked game that was played at the Social Media Camp on July 30, 2008! My first post on Social Media Camp was here.

The Half-Baked game was the most entertaining event in the Social Media Camp. In this game, people are randomly assigned into 6 teams. The goal of each team is to come up with a startup idea and present its business plan to the judges. This being a Social Media Camp, one of the requirements was that the social media aspect should be built into the business plan.

It was fascinating to see how aspiring internet entrepreneurs think. It left me shaking my head: so this is how internet bubbles form! These are the kind of minds that gave us stuff like Pets.com in 2000. :-) But no, it would be unfair to reach sweeping conclusions based on what I saw. 20 minutes is hardly enough time to come up with a business plan that's both original and viable. It was only a game after all.

First, the audience came up with 50 random words, and those words were written on the whiteboard. Each team needed to pick any two words that will make up their company's name. Then they had 20 minutes to come up with a tag line and a business plan. (Preferrably also a logo -- the room was full of people with computers, and I bet a lot of them, like me, had Photoshop).

Here is a sampling of the words suggested by the audience.

Here are the judges' criteria for evaluating the business concepts.

Here are the startup concepts the teams came up with:

Team 1: Buzz Squad -- like GPS for drinking

Team 2: Porn Sucks -- promoting positive porn to save sex workers

Team 3: Beer Buzz -- our team

Team 4: Time Pirates dot AAARGH! -- find a hidden treasure in your calendar

Team 5: Green Ninjas -- making green hot, but not like global warming

Team 6: Love Cookies -- customizable cookies

The whole article can be found on my web site. The pictures from the Half-Baked game and the rest of the Social Media camp can be found in my photo gallery.