Friday, March 31, 2017

Films I've seen of late 2017 (March)

#13 John Carter (2012)
A confusing plot and dubious special effects let down this epic sci-fi yarn, which had so much potential. Even with its impressive sets, lavish costumes and copious CGI it doesn't look like a $250 million film. Not a terrible movie by any means - but not a great one either.

#14 Norm of the North (2016)
A bear with the ability to talk to humans attempts to stop an evil real estate company building new houses in the unspoiled arctic. If Pixar had had anything to do with this animation it could have been great but they didn't, so it isn't.

#15 World War Z (2013)
Any Hollywood blockbuster that gives Cardiff a mention (several times!) is alright in my book, and this Brad Pitt zombie disaster movie does just that. Surprisingly little blood flows in this competent thriller that sees Pitt traversing the globe to stop the virus. A somewhat muted final act slows the pace a bit, but it's all in the name of setting up the sequel. Monstrous fun.

#16 Bicentennial Man (1999)
The late, great Robin Williams is perfect casting as the titular household service doid who becomes self-aware and desires to live (and ultimately die) as a human being. Ponderous and philosophical, Williams' zany comic sensibilities are not used to their full potential, but there is still pretty of comedy among the touching moments. Whilst complete as a story it still feels, however, like something is missing from what could be a more epic tale.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

2017 Book #2: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

If the Moon suddenly exploded and threatened planet Earth with billions of meteorites that could wipe out the human race, what would we do?

This is the premise set forth by Neal Stephenson in his excellent novel, Seveneves, a hefty tome of 860 pages that charts humanity's race for survival when Earth's ancient satellite disintegrates.

Without dwelling on the reason behind the Moon's destruction, Stephenson instead focuses on the aftermath. The book is divided into three acts: the global effort to preserve the human race by using the International Space Station as a form of Noah's Ark, the post-apocalypse settling of the surviving community (and all the political / cultural sheananigans that inevitably arises), the period of resettling Earth thousands of years in the future.

Expertly written with some gripping scenes, Stephenson explores the doomsday scenario well and has a good understanding of human nature. Whilst it's no surprise that in the book the whole of humanity pulls together to give life on earth a chance of survival (not just humans, every plant and creature too), the subsequent cracks that appear in society are all-too familiar. That's what creates the drama, I guess. A novel about everyone being nice to each other and getting along spiffingly in the face of impending disaster probably doesn't make a great story. There is political intrigue and conflicts aplenty along the way, all while the remnants of earth are trying to survive in the unforgivingly harsh vacuum of outer space.

Stephenson doesn't shy away from explaining a lot of technical and scientific stuff. This sometimes bogs the pace of the narrative down a bit, though. I'm not great when it comes to complicated descriptions or explanations and when I was struggling trying to imagine how a piece of future tech works, for example, I became easily distracted and lost my grasp on the story. It does, however, feel kind of necessary given the nature of what happens in the book, so I'll just have to submit to cleverer people than me.

The novel feels somewhat uneven as the first two acts take place one after the other (in the same era) and then we jump forward several millennia to see humanity's efforts to resettle their former homeworld. The latter section feels somewhat rushed as there doesn't seem enough space to flesh things out, but this is a minor issue really. It makes sense, but I could see this story being better told as a trilogy where book one tells the story of the building of the ark, book two tells the story of the descendants living in space and book three tells of their return to Earth.

One other slight niggle is the main catalyst for the story. Namely, the demise of the Moon and it's effect on the planet it once orbited: trillions of small meteorites slamming into the atmosphere resulting in earth being burned to a crisp (called the 'hard rain'). The book talks about this happening for a thousand years or so and I find it hard to believe that there are enough 'bits' of the Moon to rain down continuously for such a long time (given that the Moon is about a quarter the size of Earth), but I may have gotten that bit wrong. Also, the fact that no reason is give for the Moon's destruction is a bit unsatisfying.

This is an epic novel (although could have been even more epic given the scope of the story), thoroughly enjoyable and one I would definitely recommend.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review: BBC's SS-GB

Ever since I heard the BBC were developing the 1974 novel SS-GB for television, I was looking forward to it. I'm always one for a good bit of alternate history, so was interested to see how it would explore Britain-under-the-Nazis. Annoyingly, whenever it was talked about in the media no broadcast date was given, and so I missed the first episode. Thank the Lord for iPlayer!

SS-GB is set in an alternate history where the Nazis won the Battle of Britain. Set several months after the end of the war, Britain is now part of the Greater German Reich but there are still pockets of resistance (with the 'North' not yet under control).

Douglas (played by raspy-voice Sam Riley) is a sauve yet-troubled detective with the London Met, trying to get on and do his job under the watchful eye of his new German masters, while staying out of politics (and trouble).

Unsurprisingly, he ends up pursuing a murder case that has ties to the underground resistance and before too long finds himself embroile in a resistance plot and a Nazi conspiracy. Thrown into the mix is American femme fatale Barbara (Kate Bosworth).

SS-GB is yet another alternate history tale to grace our screens, which seem to be all the rage these days. Not as lavish a production as 'The Man in the High Castle', but the BBC copes well with its budget contraints. It does a good job of feeling just like any other period piece (like the Halcyon or Downton Abbey), without the fantastical setting getting too much in the way.

An enjoyable and fascinating premise, I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of the series pans out.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why I don't think science and faith are in conflict

Here's the text from a talk I gave at one of our Alpha evenings last year. I've rewritten a few bits, added to it and included a few references at the bottom.

OK, I'm not a qualified scientist. I have, however, researched the work of those that are and in this article I've tried to gather material together in a coherent form that hopefully most people can understand. I concede that scientific theory is ever-changing and goes to the kind of depths that makes the brains of most ordinary people go to mush, so I'm certainly not saying it's final and conclusive (but then, is anything ever?).

It's interesting to note that the attendees on the course all agreed that it's a shame things like faith are never really talked about. It's such a taboo subject in many ways. People feel threatened or get angry when the topic of 'religion' surfaces and have often acquired a range of misinformed ideas about the subject, sadly living their lives ignorant of the actual truth. The church has, admittedly, been responsible for a lot of this by quashing attempts to question or challenge faith, so organised religion should share some of the blame for this.

That's what I love about Alpha. It's designed to allow people to say what they think and ask those difficult questions without fear of reproach. Looking back at the courses we've run, I still find the discussions fascinating. Not only that, they can be quite challenging to me personally and my own faith, but that's a good thing. Too often we allow ourselves to default to passive mode when it comes to thinking about stuff and the more we question, push or prod, ultimately I believe that's better for everyone.

Anyway, that's enough rambling for yours truly. Let me ramble some more, but not in italics:

Tonight's subject is about faith and science and asks the question: are they in conflict? My view is that they aren't. In fact, science and faith have gotten along quiet nicely for centuries. Admittedly there have been a few issues along the way, but generally they have existed side by side in relative harmony.

I think the idea that faith and science are in conflict, and that you have to pick between one or the other, is a fairly new concept and not particularly helpful.

Faith and science are very different disciplines, different fields of study. Faith deals with issues of belief, yearnings of the soul and it ponders the meaning of life. It gives great comfort and hope to millions of people – fuelling a purpose to their lives and lifting them above the sometimes cold, harsh realities of life.

Science is about discovering the world around us, learning how things work and seeking ways to overcome problems facing humanity. We have so much to thank science for: just look at the advances in medicine, computing, biology, mechanics and telecommunications. Our lives have been vastly improved over the past century thanks to scientific endeavour.

One useful way of looking at the two disciplines is this: science is about the 'how' and Christianity is about the 'who' (i.e. Jesus).

Science cannot answer the question “Does God exist?” Some might argue that God’s existence is actually a scientific claim that can be tested in a lab somewhere. But science studies the natural world, not the supernatural. No amount of scientific testing or theorizing could prove or disprove the existence of a supernatural creator. God is not bound by the physical constraints in the same way we are, so why subject Him to tests that are limited to something He is not? Saying “God exists” is a metaphysical statement, not a claim about nature or physical laws.

Science and faith, however, are not mutually exclusive and can benefit from one another greatly. For example, science can benefit from the input of faith when it come to things like ethics. Faith can benefit from science when it comes to things like superstition.

Many atheists have hijacked science to further their cause, claiming you can't have reason or logic if you believe in a higher being. They accuse the church of being anti-science and stuck in the dark ages. But interestingly, the growth of science and education over the centuries was pioneered by Christians eager to explore God's creation and discover how it works.

And today, there are many scientists who have a faith and who are at the top of their game in a variety of scientific subjects. Given that they are obviously very clever people, and don't have a problem with what they believe and what they do for a living, then the idea that having a faith means you have to leave your brain at the door when it comes to science is clearly nonsense.

I now want to briefly touch on three areas of science which, I believe, pose some interesting questions about God. I tentatively regard them as 'evidence' that point to, rather than conclusively proves, His existence:
  • The Big Bang Theory: The big bang theory states, in its simplest form, that the universe began at a single point in time billions of years ago. This theory has been around since the 1920s but didn't gain widespread acceptance for several decades. Prior to this, the scientific consensus was that the universe had simply just existed without beginning or end. The book of Genesis, however, which was written millennia before we had the technology to delve deep into the cosmos, gives an account of how creation came about with a very definite starting point – very much like the currently held scientific view.
  • Human DNA: DNA is a code of 3 billion letters in a sequence that determines the actions of the cells in which is it found. This code has been compared to a computer programme and the idea that this code came to be through a series of random events seems far-fetched to me. The presence of a program suggests the existence of a programmer – and who is that programmer? In my view, God!
  • A fine-tuned universe:  There are numerous physical constants such as gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear force etc. which are required for the universe to exist. These constants require extremely precise values (or settings), and if any of these were to change even slightly then the universe as we know it could not exist and would be incapable of sustaining life. This is known as the anthropic principle. A creation fine-tuned for our survival seems so improbable that the idea of a super intelligent being responsible for dialling the settings to be just right aren't that ludicrous.
When we look at how life began on Earth, the chances of life randomly forming on our planet four and a half billion years ago are infinitesimally small. Some have suggested life was brought here by a comet or some ancient, alien race. To believe this takes just as much faith as a Christian who believes an all-powerful God created life, if not more – so why is the Christian viewpoint so regularly ridiculed?

The universe is immensely vast and chances are we are the only intelligent beings in the entire galaxy, and if there is other intelligent life out there it may be so far away they might as well not exist. This, therefore, makes us incredibly special, if not unique. So, that leads us to consider two options: life is just a cosmic accident or it has purpose and meaning as part of a wider story.

So, as I close, let me finish with a deep question: Who are you? Science might give one possible answer: You are a collection of atoms forged in ancient stars billions of years ago and one day in the distant future those atoms will return to the open vastness of space. Nothing more. Nothing less. Your life is insignificant and will not affect the universe one iota. If you happen to breed and have children, you will be keeping the human race going and adding to the gene pool. But that's about it.

If I ask God the same question, he might begin by saying this: Yes, you are a collection of atoms, but you were 'fearfully and wonderfully made' (Psalm 139). You are not an accident and your life has significance. More importantly, God knows you and desires for you to know him.

In conclusion, I think science is awesome! And it isn't, I believe, at odds with my faith. But what do you think?

References / Links


Prove to me that God Exists:

List of Christian Scientists

If Bacteria's so fit, why evolve into Mozart? (cached article)

10 Reasons Christians should love the big bang theory

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Bible Project Animated Videos

I'm always a bit dubious about 'Christian Resources' as they tend to promise much more than they deliver (so sayeth the cynical one)! There's always a danger that material aimed at Christians becomes nothing more than 'self-help' motivational fluff rather than anything with biblically-strong foundations.

But - hey - what do I know?

One resource, however, which I have stumbled across that I think is decent is The Bible Project: a series of animated videos that visually explores the bible through animated short films.

Some of these look at individual books of scripture with a broad overview of what each book is about. Others look at different themes surrounding God, the Bible and Christianity.

What I love about these films is the illustrations used to impart wisdom are brilliant and the explanations are clear, concise and easy to understand. Sure, it's American, but it's thankfully free of the usual cheesy stuff that goes with our cousins across the Atlantic.

Check the videos out here:

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The problem with Star Wars

I mention Star Wars quite a lot on this blog and I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a fan, although I'm not hardcore by any means. I really only rate the original trilogy as anything special. Everything else is ... well, okay, I suppose.

I guess why I keep up with the new stuff is simply because it's sci-fi and I do love a bit of sci-fi, whatever it may be.

What bugs me about SW, however, is - to be frank - the glorification of mass murder to children. That might sound a bit over dramatic but, you see, everyone knows that SW is marketed towards children. George Lucas has said that it was always aimed at children, even though the typical SW audience nowadays is a 30-something male. The fact that so many toys, bathrobes, lunch boxes and the like flooded shops on the wave of SW success is an obvious indicator of the audience demographic - but then, of course, children grow up and want their children to experience the same things they had when they were a child.

No. 2 son wearing the helmet and costume of two different agents of - er - oppression.

These children follow the exploits of SW's heroes as they battle it out against the Sith or the Empire or the First Order or whoever. Our heroes frequently murder - yes, murder - their foes for their cause, be they lowly enforcement officers (e.g. storm troopers) or high ranking members of the ruling elite (e.g. Sith lords). The bad guys are no better, obviously. Darth Vader and co. are very keen on their summary executions and genocidal weapons of mass destruction.

Which leads me to the main source of what bothers me. Look at any Star Wars section in any toy store and you will see images of Darth Vader, Storm Troopers, Darth Maul and Rylo Ken adorning the aforementioned lunch boxes and toys. Doesn't that strike you as slightly odd? These characters are evil through and through. They are agents of a facist, oppressive regime that spans an entire galaxy and is responsible for mass genocide, but kids think they're 'cool' and 'awesome'. Of course the good guys feature on merchandise as well, but I bet given the choice kids would rather choose a badass Sith Lord over a goody-two-shoes Jedi Knight.

Maybe it's the costumes. To give the Empire credit where credit's due, they do know how to dress.

Follow my train of thought, though, and you can equate it to seeing a kid wearing a Herman Göring Onesie, an SS Officer facemask or a Pol Pot t-shirt. It's not that huge a leap.

Now yes, kids have always played war - whether it's with sticks or more elaborate role play games using metal figurines. Kids battle it out as soldiers (as either side) on their Xboxes and Playstations in all sorts of combats games. That doesn't mean they condone the actions of those who they pretend to play of course, it's just make-believe after all.

But still, seeing kids brandishing toothbrushes with (fictional) mass murderers on them seems a bit strange to me.