Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Facebook/Accidental Billionaire's book review

As many of you already know, I've been indoctrinated into the world of Facebook. I've been on there for about a year have seen all the good and the bad. Before I get into it, though, I wanted to give a quick review of a book I just read, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich. This is the same guy that wrote Bringing Down the House, the book that the movie 21 was based on. That book and movie were pretty good. Accidental Billionaires ..., not so much. The problem is that Mezrich plays fast and loose with the narrative. Ostensibly, both Bringing Down the House and Accidental Billionaires are non-fiction, but he creates situations and conversations out of thin-air when he doesn't actually know what was said. He just infers it from the situation and from second-hand knowledge. It makes for an entertaining read (it really reads like fiction) but it makes you question it's veracity.

This particular book is the about the several founders of Facebook, most notably Mark Zuckerberg, and their humble beginnings in a dorm room at Harvard. It's definitely an interesting story because as big as Facebook is, its CEO Zuckerberg is only 25 years old. Facebook's background involves Harvard's clique system, competing social network sites, disgruntled co-founders, etc.. Knowing the background is nice, but I just question how accurate the account can be when Mezrich didn't really to talk to the majority of the founders. Another problem I have with the book is that it seems like Mezrich was writing for the screen from the get-go. I believe the book was optioned to Kevin Spacey's production company (the same that did 21) before it was even written. And the book really plays more like a screenplay than a book. Not enough details, superficial, and with stereotypical characters -- the kind of stuff that may play on the screen, but not necessarily on the page. I wouldn't really recommend this book. Hopefully the movie will be better.

On to Facebook in real life. Now, I don't have a huge friend list (60+) and don't necessarily want one. I think I've got a good mix right now with local friends, friends I've made through blogging, family, some clients, and some of the kids I graduated from high school with. Especially with the high school friends, it has been very interesting in re-catching up with them.

The problems I am running into relate to content. With my friends that I see all the time and my blog friends, I don't really worry about self-editing. That doesn't mean I'm going to be mean or discourteous but rather that very few subjects are off limits. And anything said is said in the interest of getting to the truth of something or at the very least getting to the humor of it. So, I try to keep these topics on my blog and don't really talk about religion or politics on Facebook.

My friend group in Facebook encompasses more casual friends and family members that either don't know my leanings or whose leanings could not be more opposite than mine. For example, I'm very close to my recently deceased grandfather's step-grandkids. Grandpa was the only grandfather they ever knew and I very much consider them my cousins. Hell, I've seen them more and like them more than my real cousins. But, they are all fervent Assembly of God Christians. Several of them are pastors. They are good people and are never really pushy about it. They don't really judge us and we have never gotten into a down-and-dirty discussion on exactly what my religious beliefs are. Just as I don't like Christians proselytizing, I don't feel it is necessary for me to say what my beliefs are unless I'm specifically asked, in which case, I'd be more than happy to say.

In any event, about a half dozen of them are Facebook friends. I wouldn't dream of saying anything that would denigrate them in any manner. I'm sure several of them wouldn't mind my views and might even find them interesting. But, I'm not prepared to test that theory yet.

All of that is not a big deal to me. Blogging is for one side of me, Facebook for another. My problem is with a specific former work friend of mine (and a guy that is some fantasy sports leagues with me) who doesn't have a similar demarcation. I've always known we had opposite political views but it just didn't apply in our social interactions before. He's a nice enough guy and has a wife we've known for 10 years plus. He posts wretched stuff clipped from Glenn Beck shows or Rush Limbaugh and just today, he chose the passing of Edward Kennedy as an appropriate time to post this:

"Well that's one way to stop a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. Delayed for five months anyway until the special election in MA."

It's a comment that just begs me to respond, but I won't. He's the worse kind of ideologue ... one who thinks he knows what he believes but actually just believes what he is told to repeat. And he doesn't realize the inconsistencies in his beliefs. I don't mind if you have a different viewpoint, just make sure that it is at least internally consistent. For example, he says he's an atheist but he's against gay marriage. In my book, if you don't believe in God but still hate gays, then you are just a straight-up bigot. I borderline think that even if you do believe in God, but at least I'm more likely to understand where you are coming from. Secondly, he says he's a Libertarian but he's for a strong military around the world. My buddy Scott (who does know what he believes )will be more than happy to point out the problem with that.

My point is this: I want to jettison him from my friends list but I'd have to bear the questions of why when I'd see him at baseball games or when I drop by my old work or when we're chatting during fantasy sports seasons. I have figured out how to suppress his posts from showing in my Feed, but it's not perfect solution. He'll still feel compelled to chime in when I might post something of an environmental nature, which I don't consider political, but he does.

I know Laura pruned her friends list awhile ago. How did you do it Laura? Having friends used to be so much easier before online social networking. :-)

RIP: Senator Edward Kennedy 1932 - 2009

"For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

District 9

... When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher

...And the eyes of the world are
watching now
watching now

Biko by Peter Gabriel

From the opening scenes of squalor and poverty in Johannesburg, you know that District 9 is not going to be some sanitized and overly clean piece of Hollywood sci-fi. Actually, my first thoughts when I saw these scenes was not of science fiction, but rather of another movie based in South Africa, Cry Freedom, about the friendship formed between a South African journalist, Donald Woods, and freedom fighter Steve Biko. Cry Freedom, from 1987, is one of my favorite movies and it was very important at the time internationally. The movie, and the book written by Donald Woods that it was based on, did a lot to awaken the world to the plight of the blacks in South Africa under apartheid.

District 9, which chronicles the oppression of a stranded alien race in Johannesburg, is an obvious allegory for apartheid South Africa in the 80's. At least it's obvious for anyone that cracks a book occasionally. I'm sure there will be a large contingent, perhaps of younger people, that doesn't understand the symbolism, but that's OK. The movie works on a visceral level also. You can understand the transformation of the main character regardless of whether you know what the movie represents.

The parallels with Cry Freedom are extensive, at least to me:

- the apartheid angle

- a white Anglo protagonist who is initially critical of the resistance but comes around to being sympathetic to them

- that protagonist is not only critical of the resistance at the start but also active in it's suppression. Donald Woods writes editorials critical of Steve Biko in Cry Freedom. In District 9, a corporate operative under orders, Wikus Van De Merwe, seeks to relocate the stranded aliens.

- each performs a selfless act that endangers himself so that the resistance can escape in some manner ... whether it is literally in District 9 or through words in Cry Freedom.

- the character of Stephen Biko and the main alien in District 9, Christopher Johnson, seem initially like cruel and arbitrary terrorists but are actually brave advocates for their people.

- the resistance is dehumanized by their containment, their abuse, and the derogatory manner in which they are talked about. They are made to seem as though they were less than a person.

In every case District 9 does a great job of driving the symbolism home. It's cast is of no-name actors, though I recognized a few from Peter Jackson movies. Peter Jackson produced District 9 for his protege, Neill Blomkamp. They were initially going to work on a big-screen adaption of Halo, but that fell through and Jackson offered Blomkamp $30 million to make a movie on whatever subject he wanted. District 9 is the result. Considering it made back it's investment in the very first weekend, Jackson seems to be continuing his artistic lucky streak.

Now District 9 is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. I've heard some people complain about the extensive use of hand-held cameras. It can be nauseating at times if you are not prepared.

Others have complained that the apartheid symbolism is too obvious. If this movie was made in the 80's, I'd maybe agree with them. But it's made 25 years later. Sure, you could have set it in a different part of the world, but the director is from South Africa. He is making a movie that tells of his personal experience. You cannot criticize him for that.

The violence, gore, and moral ambiguity of some of the characters are sticking points for yet others. We've gotten into this discussion on another blog that I participate in, here. I won't belabor the points I made there, but my main point is that true art should be a reflection of the real world. It should represent some kind of truth. Not necessarily a pleasant truth, but one we should hear. Life isn't black and white and nobody is "pure". District 9 is just a representation of that fact. But District 9 is not a history lesson. It's still entertainment.

The movie may seem hard for some people to watch. How could humans possibly treat an alien species this way? You know how ... the same way in which they treat people of a different skin color or of a different religion. We've done it throughout history. We continue to do it. If you can't stomach this, then how can you stomach Gitmo, the Iraq war, Afghanistan? The point of good art is to get you to look at something in a different way, from a different perspective. By showing how we treat an alien race, hopefully this will show how we treat each other. But that's just my two-cents worth. Go see this movie, you won't come out of it apathetic. And while you're at it, check out Cry Freedom. Grade: A

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Review: The Road

Father and son walking The Road in a post-apocalyptic world. We don't know the cause of the devastation. We can infer from the telling of the story that it has been many years since it happened (maybe 5 or more). All plant and animal life (save humans) are dead. The landscape is permeated with ash. The blocking of the sun's rays by the ash has rendered the planet cold.

The goal of their trek along "the road" -- getting to the coast. What awaits them, they don't know. But it is a goal. They live on scavenged cans of fruit from abandoned houses. They spend their days hiding from fellow travelers on the road. Some may be good ... others they know are bad.

It's a the story of a man's love for his son. What are you willing to do to save your son? And not just in the sense of life and death. How do you save his soul from the horrors he sees and has to endure?

You could call this a science fiction story, though many have tried to say it is not. It is not an environmental book, but it's not hard to take an environmental message from it. They're basically living on borrowed time in a world where the rest of the ecosystem has vanished. Though not inhabited with the zombies of another similar world's end tale, I Am Legend, the cannibals of this world are just as scary.

Written by Cormac McCarthy of No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses fame, the author says more with less. He's effective with creating terror from the silences between events instead of the events themselves. Behind every shuttered window or blocked door, you steel yourself for the monster behind it. When it isn't there, you know you should feel relieved but like the characters in the story you know that they are only prolonging the inevitable. They almost crave the end because it will cease the agony of not knowing.

This is not a pleasant book to read, though it is not a hard read. The pleasures are fleeting and abstract. But it is well-written and The Road will stick with you. McCarthy has an odd writing style without quotes, apostrophes, or even most punctuation. It is dry but will go into highly poetic and symbolic flourishes, most of which I can't even pretend to understand. One of my favorites:

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy, I have you.”

That's the type of writing that we all aspire to, but few attain.

Like other McCarthy stories, The Road doesn't have a tidy ending. But, life doesn't really have a tidy ending. A movie of the book is coming out this fall, starring Viggo Mortensen. Hopefully, they won't Hollywoodize it. The power of the story comes from it's bleakness. I recommend this book.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Please ignore this. Just me exploring my posting options. This is mobile posting of images from the phone through e-mail.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Saturday, August 08, 2009

My first mobile blog post ... Yay! There was much rejoicing ... or not.


"Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road." -- Stewart Brand

In one fell swoop, I've indoctrinated myself into the world of Blackberry, mobile e-mail, Twitter, and Twittering to Facebook. I know ... not really a big deal. Most of you are already there. And I'm a computer tech who does this stuff for clients all the time. But, I'm usually the last to adopt the technology for myself. Mostly because of cost.

Having mobile access to my e-mail has become a necessity for my business and will actually make my work easier and could get me more clients. That was reason enough for me to get the Blackberry. All the rest of the stuff (Pandora, much better camera, web access, Facebook and Twitter access, etc.) is just a bonus. Plus, we are now getting a fat 17% discount off the top of every month's bill because Michelle's employer subsidizes anything you spend at certain vendors (in this case, Verizon). So, we got rid of an outdated plan, got a new phone (Blackberry Tour 9630) for about $100, added a new plan with better features, and we will still spend less than we had been each month.

Ultimately, though, the new phone will be just another way for me to waste time and not concentrate on posting to the blog. Perhaps I need to look into mobile blogging. Stay tuned.