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Monday
Dec172012

Review: The Hobbit (An Unexpected Journey in More Ways than One)

"Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage."

--Gandalf to Galadriel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The quotation above can be found only in the movie currently released. It is not in either The Hobbit or any of the parts of Lord of the Rings (I ran a search in the Kindle editions to verify). And in many ways, that’s the story with much of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three movies to adapt the one book The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. That is, there has been much added to Tolkien’s original story first conceived mainly for children. Some of this extra content is helpful and even profound (such as the above quotation), but other parts...not so much. 

I guess it's personal. In many ways, a non-animated movie adaptation of The Hobbit is something I’ve been waiting for since I was about 12 years old. Somewhere around that time of my life, I used Christmas money to purchase a gold-colored boxed set of The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. My parents had recently divorced, and I desperately needed an escape. Tolkien gave me just that with The Hobbit. I didn’t just read the books, I read them and reread them, especially The Hobbit which was the easier work to follow. It was easier to read because it was written for children and was a complete story in and of itself. 

And not only did I read and reread The Hobbit, I put myself square into the story. I imagined myself along for the quest with Bilbo Baggins, 13 dwarves and a wizard. I daydreamed about how I would react in the predicaments the characters got themselves into, what I would need to take with me on the journey and even what weapon I might prefer (I decided that instead of a sword, bear shot and my Remington 12-gauge shotgun might prove quite effective against orcs). 

There’s a lot to like about the movie I saw yesterday, but I also have mixed feelings about some of what I saw. Know up front that there are spoilers ahead. I have no idea how to get around this. You’ve been warned. 

The perfect actor. First, let’s start with the positive. I will say up front that choosing Martin Freeman to play Bilbo Baggins may be the best bit of casting of the entire series (including the three Lord of the Rings movies). At the very least, it’s right up there with casting Ian McKellan as Gandalf (I mean, can you imagine anyone else playing the wizard at this point?) and Andy Sirkis who so wonderfully gives life to pitiful Gollum. Freeman is a perfect choice because in a sense, he’s been playing Bilbo for years. Let me explain. 

When reading The Hobbit, the central character is essentially an avatar for the reader. The average reader--especially if the reader is a child--is probably just like Bilbo. That is, he or she has a routine, has a certain amount of comfort and protection in the world, and most of all, does not engage in any real “adventures.” So in many ways, Bilbo’s reactions to the exciting and dangerous predicaments he finds himself in are probably very much the same as the reactions we would have. 

Although Martin Freeman has a long list of credits to his name, I’ve seen very few of them because much of his work has been in British television and film. But I’ve seen him in a few of his roles. I saw him as Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which no one liked but me). I watched him as “Tim” in the original version of The Office (the parallel character in the American version is “Jim,” played by John Krasinski). And of course, most recently, Freeman has gained much acclaim as Dr. John Watson in Sherlock

In all three of the above-mentioned titles, Freeman plays an everyman surrounded by extraordinary events and often outrageous characters. He’s the straight man, representing us and what would surely be our reactions if we were confronted by the incredible situations in which he finds himself. And as I’ve already stated, this is the core of Bilbo Baggins. What I’m suggesting is that Freeman has made a mark by playing very similar kinds of characters. And he’s got that formula down pat--he does it quite well. This made him the perfect Bilbo--the comfortable little hobbit who find himself quite out of his comfort zone with 13 rowdy dwarves and one eccentric wizard. Freeman’s facial reactions, gestures and responses are exactly what I would want from an actor playing Bilbo Baggins. 

(Incidentally, I’ve never cared for Elijah Wood’s portrayal of Frodo in the Lord of the Rings series. In fact, Wood, who was never how I pictured Frodo, probably kept me from ever completely suspending disbelief while watching those movies.)

Moreover, I can think of at least three scenes in the movie that took me right back to my childhood delight in reading the book: (1) the 13 dwarves overrunning Bilbo’s hobbit-hole home and their ensuing spontaneous song [Chip the glasses and crack the plates! / Blunt the knives and bend the forks! / That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!]; (2) the encounter with the three trolls, William, Bert, and Tom [I've always loved those names given to them]; (2) and, of course, the wonderful riddle competition between Bilbo and Gollum. If you had told me I was only going to get to see these three scenes alone, I would have probably been okay with that.

But of course, the movie is much longer than just three scenes, and its length has its own merits and distractions. 

Not just an unexpected journey--a long journey. Let me throw a few numbers out. I looked at the recordings of The Hobbit available at audible.com. Completely unabridged, a straight read-through of The Hobbit runs 11 hours and 8 minutes. However, usually an entire reading of a book doesn’t mean that a full telling of the story in motion picture form should carry an equivalent length. A book offers description and insight into events that can often be conveyed visually without words. A narrator will often fill in certain visual gaps for a reader that simply isn’t necessary on film. So, I also noticed that there are two dramatized versions of The Hobbit available. One is a little over four hours and one is a little under. 

It seems safe to think, therefore, that a nicely done film version of The Hobbit might hold to an equivalent length of about four hours. And considering there aren’t a whole lot of four hour movies produced these days, perhaps breaking the story into two parts is easily justified. And yet, that is not what we are going to experience in Peter Jackson’s version of this story. 

Let me back up. Originally that was exactly what was going to happen. The Hobbit was originally scheduled to arrive in two parts in two consecutive years. But somewhere along the way, the decision was made to split the story into three parts. On one level, this simply seems to be an obvious money grab. On another level though, I believe that I’ve come to the conclusion that Peter Jackson may be the ultimate Tolkien fanboy: he’s a fan of the work who has both influence and access to the kind of cash to produce whatever vision he has of the work with no one to stop him. 

Remember the times of the dramatized audio versions of The Hobbit that I mentioned above--four hours? Well think about this. The first part of Jackson’s trilogy comes in at 169 minutes. That’s two hours and 49 minutes (meaning you’ll be in the theater well over three hours with commercials and trailers before the film). Now if all three movies are essentially this same equivalent length, we’re talking about a story that is almost nine hours long--more than twice the length of the dramatized audio versions!

With the three parts of the Lord of the Rings movies, Jackson released on home video both the theatrical cut and an extended director’s cut with additional scenes cut from the former. I have the extended cuts on Blu-ray and they’re quite nice. I don’t begrudge the length because I can watch them at home, pausing them for bathroom breaks or any other kinds of intermissions of my making. Sitting in a theater for over three hours, however, gets a bit long, regardless of the content. 

Expanding the tale. So, where is all this content coming from? Well, as I’ve said, The Hobbit is essentially more of a children’s story. The three parts of the Lord of the Rings are much more complex. These other books have appendices at the end that fill in the gaps of backstory, including connections to The Hobbit. And, of course, Tolkien himself, a philologist by profession, seemed to write simply for the sheer joy of writing itself or perhaps as his own personal entertainment. He wrote hundreds of thousands of pages detailing the languages of elves, dwarves, orcs, hobbits and the rest of his creation in Middle-earth. In addition to that, he wrote further backstories and histories of the events of his published works. From what I understand, I don’t think he even intended all of the rest of these works to even be published. But after Tolkien’s death, his son, Christopher, has released over a dozen or so volumes of these unfinished works and so-called “lost tales.” Of course, these works are not entertaining like The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings books. They are dense and dry--at least in my attempts to read any of them. 

Yet Jackson includes as much applicable backstory to The Hobbit as he can, drawing off of these other works and the appendices to the Lord of the Rings. This not only makes the story much longer--making it feel already like an extended cut--but it also creates a bit of a schizophrenic telling of the story that’s not quite true to the original. As I’ve said, there’s a sharp distinction between The Hobbit and the rest of Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth. The Hobbit is a children’s story. It’s fun and humorous with much levity in the way it approaches even hazardous situations in which the characters find themselves. While there’s certainly a good amount of fun and humor in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, these are also much more serious stories and certainly more complex. As I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was struck by how the movie could go from the frivolity of singing dwarves to decapitated orcs or very serious discussions of an evil brewing in the land (foreshadowing the other movies) between Gandalf, Saruman, and Galadriel. It’s as if Jackson can’t decide whether he was making a movie about a children’s story or trying to create another equivalent to the Lord of the Rings series.

And example of this hybrid approach to the story can be found in a scene near the end of the movie where the dwarves and Gandalf are fleeing through a maze of rope bridges as they try to escape from thousands of swarming goblins/orcs (in the original book, the word goblin is primarily used, but in this movie, the word orc is mostly used to connect to the terminology used in the other movies and later books). The choreography of the fight and chase is incredibly clever and fun to watch. There’s plenty of humor in keeping with the childlike aspects of the original books. And as a children’s story, the good guys never get killed, but plenty of goblins do. But in the midst of this humor and cleverness there’s also loads of violence. Not much actual blood is shown, but plenty of stabbings and quite a few decapitations. A young child is not going to get quite the same visual treatment reading the book, but this movie’s PG-13 rating, partly for violence, is definitely warranted.\

Expanding the mythos. Now, let me give credit to Jackson for adding a little estrogen to the original Lord of the Rings series by expanding the roles of female characters like Galadriel (who is still mesmerizing in this movie, too), Arwen and Eowyn. I have no problem with these kinds of expansions, which are probably necessary for today’s movie audience--especially if that audience is to consist of more than members of the male variety.

Yet some additions in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey are simply unnecessary in my opinion. Here’s how the original story in the book begins:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Jackson eventually gives us this first sentence, word-for-word; but before we see that, there are two other scenes. The first is the backstory of the dwarves and how they lost their kingdom to the dragon Smaug (hardly seen in this movie at all and never seen in his entirety). After this flashback, there is a bit of a flashforward in which we see Elijah Wood as Frodo and Ian Holm as the older Bilbo. I had already told Kathy, who saw the earlier Lord of the Rings movies with me, that The Hobbit takes place 60 years prior to the movies she had seen. When we saw Frodo and Bilbo together, she leaned over and said, “I thought this movie took place earlier than the others.”

Beyond my wife’s initial confusion--which may have just been my fault--I saw no purpose for the scene between old Bilbo and Frodo in this movie. I’m sure this was Jackson’s means of tying The Hobbit to the stories he had already told, but I felt like it totally got in the way. And by the time we got to the main story, we had already been in three distinct periods of time. 

In addition to additional backstory, the movie also features additional characters not found in the book. One of these is the wizard Radagast the Brown. I find it interesting that while he was a character featured in the book The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson chose not to include him in the movie of that book. Nevertheless, while Radagast is mentioned in only one sentence of The Hobbit (as a cousin of Gandalf), his character is prominently featured in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. 

Another character prominently featured in the movie, but only mentioned in one sentence of the book is Azog the Goblin/Orc. His character is promoted to that of chief antagonist, a character obsessed with the downfall of dwarf Thorin Oakenshield. Throughout the movie, he leads a pack of orcs hunting Thorin and all those with him. Yet this entire subplot is completely contrived for the movie. This isn’t even something adapted from the appendices or other background work written by Tolkien. In fact, Jackson creates a completely new direction for Azog that Tolkien never envisioned (if you've seen the movie, compare what you saw there with the original understanding of this character's background). I have no idea why this was included in the story other than to create a villain for the first movie or two until we get to the big villain of the story: Smaug the Dragon.

If the movie feels just too long, I found that there is at least once small consolation: just about every scene is visually stunning. I will never begrudge having too look too long at Middle-earth; I only wish it wasn't for the reasons described above.

48 frames of too much? Finally, there’s the issue of the higher frame rate, which only played on 450 or so screens across the country. That means that the average movie goer did not see The Hobbit in this format, but I did. Peter Jackson’s vision for the film included both 3D and a higher frame rate of 48 fps, or what is being called HFR (high frame rate). Honestly, I am mixed on this decision. Nevertheless, I was determined to see the movie in the same format that Jackson envisioned for it.

Honestly, the high frame rate is initially jarring. Yes, I could see greater detail, but I could almost see too much detail at times. Too much makeup on Ian Holm’s face. Dwarves that looked like men in costumes rather than actual dwarves. And there’s also a psychological factor. We associate higher frame rate with cheaper television productions. It’s the difference between the Star Wars movies and that awful ewok Christmas special on television when I was a kid. The early scenes of the movie looked more like the cheesy Bible videos I used to show high school students or a stage performance that's been recorded and played on television. Honestly, it had a less-than-professional feel, or as one writer at Entertainment Weekly described it, “that weird British miniseries feel.” That one’s on the money.

On the other hand, however, outdoor scenes, especially ones with long distance vistas looked incredible. And the CGI characters looked spectacular as well. In the scene between Bilbo and Gollum, I noticed how realistic Gollum actually looked. He didn’t look CGI. If I didn’t know better, as I saw his splotchy skin and wispy hair, I might’ve wondered how they fit Andy Serkis into that costume. In the end the high frame rate grew on me, but I think I might like to see the movie again without the 3D and at a traditional 24 fps rate. 

Final thoughts. When it comes to the books, The Hobbit was always a bit of a gateway drug to the rest of the books and fantasy in general. This was the book that was easy to read and made me want to put forth the effort to read the Lord of the Rings series. For the current generation, most of whom aren’t book readers, and most of whom will have seen the Lord of the Rings movies first, The Hobbit isn’t the introduction to the series, but rather the three Lord of the Rings films are. 

In a sense, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the two films to follow becomes the more advanced content. Here we have Tolkien’s original work supplemented with the hardcore Middle-earth esoterica. I even noticed that there was a much greater reliance on Tolkien’s created Middle-earth languages supplemented by subtitles for those of us not geeky enough to speak high-elvish. 

We have embarked on an unexpected journey indeed.

Overall, I liked the movie, but not perhaps as much as the three previous films. And even though this film and the two that follow it are designed to set the stage for the films already made, I really do believe that these will be the ones that the casual fans will have a greater difficulty embracing. 

If I were the kind of person to do so, I'd give this movie 3.5 out of 5 stars.

As always, your questions, thoughts, comments and rebuttals are welcome below.

Wednesday
Dec052012

The Old Spinning Wheel

John and Maurene Mansfield - 1939The photo above is the only (to my knowledge) wedding picture from my paternal grandparents, John and Maurene (Fowler) Mansfield. They married in late 1939. I've been scanning a number of old family photos lately as well as recording any text written on the back (I keep my photos in Aperture). I was intrigued by what I read on the back of this photo:
John and Maurene Mansfield
Song--
"The Old Spinning Wheel"
I have to wonder if this was their song? Why else would it be written on the back of the photo (in my grandmother's handwriting, no less). In this photo they look so happy--very different from the way their relationship would later sour. My grandfather's drinking would get out of control, and they would be completely separated by 1948. They never legally divorced, but they never lived under the same roof together again. My grandfather died in 1967, four months before I was born; and my grandmother died in 1989.  

In spite of their later difficulties, I like to think that they did have good times--at least early on. I can just picture them listening to "their" song, "The Old Spinning Wheel" on the radio or perhaps a record player. Perhaps as they heard the words, they looked dreamily into each other's eyes. 

I looked up the history of this song, "The Old Spinning Wheel." From what I can tell, Ray Noble and his orchestra first recorded it in 1934. You can listen to a sample of it on iTunes. I'm pretty certain that this would have been the version my grandparents would have listend to because of the date when it was recorded.

iTunes classifies the song as jazz. This isn't the kind of music I think of when I think of jazz. To me it sounds a bit more like big band, but when I start talking about music, I get out of my depths very quickly.

There are many versions of the song that have been recorded over the years. My favorite of the ones I listened to was recorded by Patti Page in the fifties, but this wouldn't have been "their" version because my grandparents had been long split up by that time. There's an instrumental version on Johnny Cash's At Folsum Prison album, but again, this is too late since he recorded it in the sixties. 

Here are the lyrics to the song:
(verse)
Covered with dust and forgotten,
Like the face upon the wall.
The one souvenir of the days gone by,
I treasure most of all:

(refrain)
There's an old spinning wheel in the parlor,
Spinning dreams of the long, long ago.
Spinning dreams of an old fashioned garden,
And a maid with her old fashioned beau,
Sometimes it seems that I can hear her in the twilight
At the organ softly singing "Old Black Joe."
There's an old spinning wheel in the parlor,
Spinning dreams of the long, long a go.

(verse)
Turn back the years of my childhood
As you turn, old spinning wheel.
Just show me a lane with a barefoot boy,
As shadows softly steal:

(repeat refrain)

 

Your questions, thoughts, comments and rebuttals are welcome in the comments section below. 

Friday
Nov232012

Watch Kathy Today on Wheel of Fortune

My wife, Kathy, and I flew out to Los Angeles in September so that she could tape an episode of Wheel of Fortune. The show will finally air tonight (check your local listings for time). 

They also asked Kathy to write a contestant blog, which was posted on Monday, with a follow-up posting to appear after her show airs. 

Here are some links that talk about her being on the show:

Wheel of Fortune Contestant Blog, post 1

Heritage Librarian Spins for a "Fortune" (Sentinel News, paid access)

Shelby County Public Schools article

 

Friday
Nov162012

Hotfoot

In my reading of the Revised English Bible, I've come across an interesting translation choice that I thought I'd quickly share. 

I admit that personally, I don't use the word hotfoot in everyday conversation. Yet, I have heard the word used occasionally, usually from an "older" individual. 

The word occurs in three places in the complete Revised English Bible. In all of the texts below, there is some reference to "feet" in the original along with a word that suggests speed. The REB combines this idea into one word: hotfoot.

 

Job 31:5

I swear I have had no dealings with falsehood and have not gone hotfoot after deceit.

Here, Job is defending himself against the accusations of his friends. The REB's use of hotfoot conveys the Hebrew חוּשׁ/ḥuš, which by itself simply means "to hurry," as applied to Job's foot. Other translations: my foot has hurried (NIV), my foot has hastened (ESV), my foot has rushed (HCSB).

 

Proverbs 1:16

they hasten hotfoot into crime, pressing on to shed blood. 

In this context the writer of Proverbs is referring to the sinful. The text says literally that their feet run (רוּץ/ruṣ) to evil. The NIV employs rush here with "their feet rush," making perhaps an rough attempt at approximating the sound of the Hebrew with an English word. The ESV and HCSB both translate the phrase as their feet run.

 

2 Esdras 1:26

when you pray to me, I shall not listen. You have stained your hands with blood; you hasten hotfoot to commit murder. 

At the beginning of the apocalyptic 2 Esdras, God is making his case against Israel for their coming judgment. This text, although originally written in Hebrew, only survives in Latin. The NRSV offers a fairly literal translation to the last phrase: "your feet are swift [pedes vestri impigri] to commit murder." The Latin impiger simply conveys the idea of swift, active, or diligent.

 

Although hotfoot is not a word used often by myself or in my circles, I actually like what is communicated by the REB in these verses. All three instances have to do with hastening toward some kind of sinful activity. The use of hotfoot suggests that the offender is not merely moving toward the sin quickly, but moving toward it quickly with desire and anticipation--with eagerness as the definition at the top of the post suggests. The offender simply cannot get to the offense quickly enough!

 

[Edit: I meant to include this earlier, but it should be known that the REB retains the NEB's earlier use of hotfoot in its text.]

As always, your thoughts, questions, comments and rebutalls are welcome below.


Tuesday
Sep182012

Is a Vote for a Third Party or Independent Candidate a Wasted Vote?

Ever since I declared that I had decided to vote for neither Obama nor Romney in this year's election, I've received mixed reactions. I should say that most people have been supportive of this decision (at least to my face), but I've also heard a few criticisms as well. Most of them go along the line of one or more of these statements:

"You're wasting your vote."

"A vote for anyone else is really just a vote for _______."

"This election is too important; this is not the time to vote for someone else."

These sentiments are merely evidence of how deeply entrenched the two-party stranglehold on our country has become. These reactions are forms of manipulation to maintain the status quo of the current two-party system. And I don't necessarily mean that anyone making one of these statements is consciously trying to manipulate a vote, but it is reflective of the two-party system's attempt to protect its own position. In other words, these ideas come straight from the top and have been filtered down into the collective conscience of voters throughout our nation.

After reflecting on this, I've come to the conclusion that telling me I'm "wasting my vote" is just about the most un-American statement a person can make. Our ancestors successfully rebelled against Great Britain over two centuries ago because they had neither representation nor any vote in regard to whom their governing authorities would be. The only wasted vote is the vote not cast. To tell me that I have to vote for either this person or that person and no one else is really only one step removed from the kind of totalitarian system we rejected by fighting the Revolutionary War. 

Recently, on his FaceBook page, independent presidential candidate T. J. O'Hara gave the following response to the mindset that a vote for a third party or independent candidate is a wasted vote. I encourage you to seriously consider his words:

We have been conditioned by the Parties to believe that an independent (or third party candidate) cannot possibly "win." The Parties create that belief to preclude the introduction of legitimate competition.

Then, they paint their opposing candidate as nearly satanic to create a sense of fear. Next, they leverage that fear by telling you that you have to protect yourself by voting for the "lesser of two evils" ... that to do anything else would be to "waste" your vote.

Essentially, they are telling you to surrender your vote to them because of a fear THEY created, rather than to vote your conscience for the candidate whom you truly believe offers the best solutions for our country.

Now, ask yourself: "Which is the greater waste?"

The Parties traditionally have depended upon fostering an emotional environment rather than a rational one to control the public's voting behavior. They count on their constituents to passively "do as they're told" and for frustrated independents to ultimately “fall into line.”

Interestingly enough, the United States was given birth by a handful of individuals who went against the odds. By signing the Declaration of Independence, our Founding Fathers were effectively challenging the greatest power on Earth at that time. I, for one, am happy that they had the courage to challenge the political paradigm.

The question for every American on November 6th will be: "Do I have that type of courage, or will I just fall into line and do as I'm told?"

I am reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein: "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing."

If you care enough about our country to do something, please visit http://tjohara.com/participate to find out how you can make a difference.

While I don't know if I would ever find a candidate with whom I agree 100% on every issue, that's not actually what I'm looking for. Rather, I'm at a point in my life that I want merely to find a candidate I can support with good conscience as opposed to voting for "the lesser of two evils." I should not be limited to only two choices and neither should you.

Every election will be important. If we were to wait for a time when it would be "okay" to vote for an alternative candidate, we would never end up making a true vote of conscience. But if enough Americans would join in and vote by conscience and not by party loyalty or or for some sake of a strategy just to keep someone else from being elected, we might eventually see a break from the two-party stranglehold that we currently experience and finally have the nation pay attention to a variety of serious and meaningful choices. 

Hopefully...in my lifetime.

As always, your thoughts, questions, comments and/or rebuttals are welcome below.

Sunday
Sep162012

Wisdom from My Fortune Cookie #7

Maybe the mob is after me?

Tuesday
Aug282012

A Third Way: Saying "No" to Obama AND Romney on November 6

As opposed to an elephant (GOP) or a donkey (Dems), the owl is the symbol of the Modern Whig Party.In the early days of this blog, in posts that aren't currently online but hopefully will return soon, I used to write a lot more about politics. I've moved away from that in recent years because I don't know if we've ever been so divided politically. And in recent years, I see those who call themselves Christian reflect values that belong more to a political ideology than a biblical worldview. 

Nevertheless, it's an election year; and as I have usually done in the past, I'll write at least one political post as well as make a few predictions for the November presidential election.

As with the previous election in 2008, I'm not overly thrilled with either of the two "primary" choices this time around. But at least in the last election, I was able to make a choice and cast my vote. This time around, though, I don't believe that I can vote for either of them in good conscience. I won't go into all the details of that sentiment, but many people I talk to seem to have it, too, for various reasons. 

As I've stated before, I'm neither a Democrat or Republican. In the late nineties, after the fallout of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, I decided I didn't want to belong to either party. I became an independent. I did that in spite of the fact that my college political science professor stated in class that independent voters tend to know least about the issues. After taking his class, I think he knew least about the issues. 

Plus, I had biblical reasons for not belonging to any party: there were political parties of a sort in Jesus' day (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Herodians, etc.), and he did not choose to affiliate with any of them. What party would Jesus join? Well, probably none of them!

But I think I've actually found a party that I like: the Modern Whig Party. Although they are not yet overly organized or influential, I like what they stand for--from what I've read so far. There is no Whig ideology that they feel they have to keep to. They're willing to listen to voices from all sides and make pragmatic decisions. Both Democrats and Republicans have become extremists it seems, refusing to compromise with each other on important issues and ultimately becoming caricatures of themselves. The Whigs are willing to implement solutions to our country's problems regardless of who came up with the idea. If there's any veracity to the idea that "the truth is usually in the middle," the Modern Whig Party is willing to be politically more moderate than either the Democrats or the Republicans who continue to grow further and further apart, while accomplishing very little. 

Oh, I know what some of you are going to say: third parties are for those on the fringe; don't vote for candidates, vote for judges; voting for a third party is throwing away your vote. Well, those defenses usually come from deep within the two major parties who are trying to maintain the status quo. Much of politics these days has become a means to manipulate the average person, and the above rhetoric goes a long way to doing that. 

Here's my answer to those ideas: (1) I see a lot of fringe elements in both of the major parties these days. (2) I can't in good conscience vote for a candidate with whom I've got fundamental disagreements because these individuals will ultimately appoint judges with whom I've got fundamental disagreements. (3) A vote of conscience is never a vote thrown away.

Plus, since Kentucky is a "red state," the electoral college (which I believe is a system no longer necessary in a modern technological world) determines that unless I vote for Romney, my vote doesn't matter anyway. 

I promised you some predictions. Both are pretty obvious at this point, but here they are: (1) Romney will win Kentucky where I live, but ultimately (2) Obama will be re-elected, although with less enthusiasm than the first time around. Barring some major last minute scandal, that's where things stand, like it or not.

Thus, I feel even greater freedom than ever to vote my conscience. Therefore, I am currently planning to write in T. J. O'Hara as my choice for president. O'Hara has the endorsement of the Modern Whig Party and seems to have some really practical, and outside the [Washington] box, ideas. And more than likely, when I go to vote, I will also change my affiliation from independent to Modern Whig Party.

I like their ideas, I like their historical ties, and I even like that owl.

If you're uncomfortable voting for either Obama or Romney this year, I hope that you will also consider voting for a third-party candidate. I recommend O'Hara, but if not him, vote for one of the others. I would really love to see a higher than normal vote for candidates outside the major two parties this time around. Within my lifetime, I'd like to see our nation have more choices when it comes to solutions to the problems we have, rather than limiting ourselves to two extremes that refuse to work together. 

Tuesday
Aug212012

Unlimited Data (with asterisks)

Kathy and I still have the original unlimited data plans from AT&T going back to our initial iPhone purchases in 2007.

But my definition of unlimited is very different than AT&T's definition.

Recently I received the attached text from AT&T telling me that since I have gone over 3 GB in one month, they may reduce my data speeds in the future if I keep doing so.

Fortunately, we're no longer under contract for Kathy's iPhone 3G or my iPhone 4. We now have options.

Sprint's unlimited data is appealing but their coverage is significantly less than AT&T and Verizon. I've heard grumblings about the new plans from Verizon, but at least now we have choice of carriers when the new iPhone is announced next month.

I'd be interested to hear in the comments from folks who have switched from AT&T to one of the other providers.

[This blog entry was written on my iPhone and posted via AT&T 3G out of spite.]

Monday
Aug202012

Accordance Bible Software v. 10: Modern Look with More Power

I've been a user of Accordance Bible Software since 1998. After reading a review about Accordance at that time, I was finally persuaded to make the move from Windows to Macintosh. More than any other program, Accordance has kept me on the Macintosh these past 14 years. 

However, even though OakTree Software has continued to steadily improve Accordance, and even though I've still believed it was the most powerful Bible software on any platform, like a lot of users, I felt that the Accordance interface was becoming a little bit long in the tooth. Accordance came from a Mac era in which the floating palette was king. This started with the apps that shipped with the original 1984 Mac, and the basic interface was galvanized in its adoption by companies like Adobe (and Aldus, before they were bought by Adobe). And yet, Mac programs have gradually changed over the years. Palettes have either become integrated into a program or they've been totally replaced by toolbars within the main windows. The average contemporary Mac application takes its cues (for better or worse) from iTunes, in which monochrome icons adorn the top of an integrated window with a library of content against a light blue background on the left. 

When I first learned of the changes planned for Accordance 10 with its integrated main window, I had to admit that I was a bit worried. I've heard new users to Accordance express frustration over understanding the interface which can be daunting. Yes, software should be intuitive, but powerful software (of any kind) always has a learning curve. Something as basic as the resource palette in Accordance, though dated in appearance, is extremely logical in its setup once the user understands how it functions. On the handful of times that I've taught Accordance training seminars, this was one of the first topics I covered because it was key to unlocking the software's power. But how could Accordance lose its resource palette and still maintain its same functionality? 

I can attest that within minutes of exploring an Accordance 10 beta a few weeks ago, my fears were put at ease. OakTree software has been able to pull it off. They've completely modernized Accordance according to a modern Mac app look and feel without losing any of the program's functions and power. Accordance 9 could be a mess at times, with the main window, the resource palette, the instant details window, and the library window. If I was using two screens and wanted to move Accordance from one screen to the other, I had to move all these over individually and resize them. The same thing happened if I happened to change resolutions. Now, however, Accordance 10 is fully integrated. Compare similar views of Accordance 9 and 10 below:

Accordance 9: Library window on left, main window centered, and resource palette and instant details window on right. Click on image for a larger view

And now the all-new Accordance 10: 

Accordance 10 with its integrated window. Click on image for a larger view.

Note that in the image above, I don't have the Instant Details window displayed. That's because it's now something that I can turn on and off with ease by clicking a button on the toolbar. I always found the Instant Details button handy when I needed it, but when I didn't, it was in the way. Now I can bring it into the main window whenever I need it (the same is true for the Library window on the left; if I don't need it, I can also control its presence by a button on the toolbar). A user might decide to completely forego the Instant Details button and take advantage of the new ability to option-click a word to bring up information in a popup window. And if a user still wants to run Accordance "old school," he or she can still detach the full Instant Details pane into a window of its own. 

With Accordance 10, I can now control which buttons I want on my toolbar entirely. So, for instance, since I regularly use the Atlas, I included a button for it on the toolbar; but since I don't use the Timeline that often, I left it off.

 Customize your toolbar. Click on image for a larger view.

The remodeled Library windowAnd there are a number of other changes. The Library window has been updated significantly, with many new features in response to what users have been asking for recently. This includes actual book covers for the representation of titles as well as long-form titles instead of abbreviations used in the past that were often quite cryptic in nature. 

And in keeping with any major number update in Accordance, there are quite a few other new features as well:

  • A new Flex Search will look for words that are similar to the ones entered. As described in the Help system, "a search for 'forgive' would find 'forgive,' 'forgiven,' and 'forgiving.'"
  • Search All is now accessible from the toolbar.
  • While it's always been possible to customize fonts and background colors in Accordance, now there are a number of professional preset Themes to save time. Themes can be customized as well.
  • Graphical charts and graphs have been redesigned giving them a more modern look to this kind of analysis.
  • Character and highlights used to be separate palettes (more windows to move around), but now they've been given the popup treatment.
  • In titles with graphics, there's a new popover feature for looking at images in a larger view. What I really like, however, is being able to scroll through the images of a particular title by hitting an advance button on the right of the image. This could potentially be a major time saver. 

There are a few expected features I'd expect to see, but they have been promised for future release. Some of the features added last year to OS X Lion, such as full-screen view and the ability to resize a window from any point on the edge, don't yet appear in Accordance. There is a new reading mode for version 10, but I'd still like to see a regular full-screen view in keeping with Apple's own apps and many others from third party developers. Like Adobe Creative Suite 6 and Microsoft Office 11, Accordance v. 10 has not yet been updated for the retina display MacBook Pro, but I've been told its coming. Regardless, I'm not overly bothered by apps that aren't enhanced for my rMBP--they just don't look as crisp as the ones that have been updated. 

New website and new packages
With Accordance 10, OakTree has completely updated their website. The entire website design, including promotional graphics and videos have an Apple-esque feel without being a straight carbon copy. I believe users and potential customers will have an easier time finding the information they need.

Having worked the Accordance booth at ETS/SBL a number of times, I know it can sometimes be confusing to new customers when trying to decide on a collection of titles. In the past there were "Library" and "Scholar" collections that each had multiple levels which often created confusion. OakTree has now streamlined this process into six basic packages: Starter, Bible Study, Original Languages, Essential, Advanced, and Ultimate. Each level increases in included titles and price. A comparison chart displaying the differences between the collections can be seen on the website

One More Thing: A Significant Temperature Decrease in Hades
Way back in the Fall of 2011, I heard hushed whispers of stirrings in Mordor Accordance on Windows. I guess the cat's now out of the bag. With the new Accordance website comes the announcement that Accordance is being ported to Windows with a projected release date sometime in 2013. Yes, there's always been a way to run Accordance in Windows using the Basilisk emulator, but this was always messy and cumbersome in my opinion. This is going to be a native Windows Accordance application. I've heard no word yet, though, whether this is going to be a Windows desktop or a Windows RT app. While I'm not going to give up my Mac, I do believe expanding to Windows is a smart move on OakTree's part, and I believe it will effectively grow their customer base on an exponential scale. This will definitely be an interesting development to watch.

Should you upgrade?/Should you buy in?
This is really probably the most significant upgrade to Accordance ever. Yes, there have been steady improvements over the past two decades; and yes. v. 5, updated for Aqua/OS X was a significant update. Accordance 10 goes further, though. Not only does v. 10 give the user a Bible software experience with an interface representing a modern Mac look and feel, it also streamlines much of the methods that long-term users have grown accustomed to over the years. Veteran users will have to re-learn a few minor aspects of the program, but the heart and soul of Accordance--making the biblical text central--still remains.

If you're a longtime Accordance user, by all means don't hesitate to upgrade. This is the update that users have requested for a very long time. For most users, including myself, the update goes well beyond expectations. If you've never used Accordance, now is a great time to jump in. Accordance 10 costs $49 for either an upgrade or the new Starter package, both of which can be found at the website

Watch These:
New Accordance 10 Introductory Video 

Accordance 10: First Look (Accordance Podcast #77)

 

Full Disclosure: OakTree Software provided me with a free copy of Accordance 10 in exchange for this review, but they did not dictate the conditions or the outcome of the review in any way. The titles of texts and references I have in Accordance I purchased on my own--some discounted, some not. 

As always, your questions, thoughts, comments and rebuttals are welcome in the comments below.

Tuesday
Aug142012

Paul Ryan's Beliefs: Will Voters Believe in "Train Up a Child" or Redemption? 

Guest post by Gary Moore, Founder, The Financial Seminary 

Presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has just announced his running mate will be Congressman Paul Ryan. Of course, many religious conservatives will now attempt to sanctify Ryan's well-known economic views while many religious progressives will attempt to demonize them. They will both have theological justification.

Perhaps like America itself, Mr. Ryan is a complicated, some might say conflicted, individual. He is a Roman Catholic. But he is also one of the most visible disciples of atheistic philosopher Ayn Rand, who literally aspired to be remembered as history's greatest enemy of religion, and particularly Christianity. His association with Rand is so strong, the progressive New Yorker magazine's website announced the appointment with the headline, "Ayn Rand Joins The Ticket." The Financial Times said the election is now "a clear choice between Franklin Roosevelt and Ayn Rand." Both had reason to do so.

Mr. Ryan has said Rand was the reason he first entered public service. He has also said that if he "had to credit one thinker, one person, it would by Ayn Rand." He added, "I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism." Ryan has long had his staff read Rand's opus Atlas Shrugged, which the Library of Congress has deemed second in influence only to the Bible. Ryan has even given copies as Christmas presents. That's more than a bit conflicted. Due to Christianity's ethic of "neighbor as self," Rand judged our faith to be incompatible with capitalism. She taught capitalism is based on "the virtue of selfishness," the title of one of her books. She therefore said she would shape capitalism into a secular, materialistic religion for our nation's post-Christian elites who were maturing during the sixties and seventies. Those elites are now running Wall Street and Washington and most of us on Main Street simply can't understand what they are thinking.  

Socially and politically conservative Christians aren't always aware that Rand was actually only the last in a long line of far right-wing economic philosophers from Ludwig von Mises to Milton Friedman who rejected Christian ethics. Dr. Friedman famously argued the only social responsibility of a corporation is to make money for shareholders. Those philosophers were essentially utilitarian, willing to accept capitalism might hurt the marginal as it enriched even more. That and Rand's rejection of charity as a moral duty combined to essentially negate the traditional teaching that the needy were reflections of the divine face of Christ. Rand's teachings and life also argued for abortion rights, open marriage and the use of street drugs, which many libertarians advocate but most conservative Christians resist. 

For such reasons, I have written numerous books and articles questioning Rand's philosophies during the past twenty years. They include a feature article in Christianity Today (September 2010). You can read more of my writings about Rand at www.financialseminary.org. In addition, you should know that I was a life-long member of the GOP before re-registering as an independent due to Rand's radicalizing influence on the GOP, and its Tea Party wing in particular. That's critical as she herself commanded her disciples to be "radicals for capitalism." Another irony of life in the GOP was that Jack Kemp once invited me to join the board of advisors of his think-tank Empower America. That was roughly the same time a young Mr. Ryan was a staffer there. Yet the  reason Jack invited me was that I had written a book that contrasted Rand's views with the views of Christianity. I had even coined the phrase "stewardism" to differentiate her approach from my understanding of political-economy within a Judeo-Christian framework.

Still, despite her radical worldview and absolutist teachings, I expect Rand's ghost will further fog this election, as well as our faith. My previous article for Christianity Today suggested too many of the religious right have confused Rand's teachings with the teaching of Christ. Diametrically opposed though they are, Glenn Beck also promoted both approaches until recently learning they are incompatible. So progressives' focus on Ryan's devotion to both Rand and Christ may encourage many to finally look to the Bible to clarify our thinking. Too many of both progressive and conservative Christians will then quote it in the typically self-rationalizing ways that partisan politics encourages. The reason is the Bible assures us that when we "train up a child," he or she will remain faithful to what they have been taught. Yet it also assures us that redemption is possible and people can change. Those two teachings must be held in tension when considering Mr. Ryan and his financial plan for your future. As with most politicians, and the rest of us, he seems to be a person whose views are "growing." So for what it's worth, this political science graduate turned Wall Street financier who has spent the past twenty years comparing Christ and Rand believes Mr. Ryan and voters need to answer three questions before November.

The first question is, "How would you regulate Wall Street?" That's more important than ever as while Governor Romney has shown tendencies for political moderation, he's also a product of the Street. His selection of Ryan might signal to Wall Street financiers, who channel lots of time, talent and particularly money to Washington, that they have less to worry about from the current backlash towards "the 1%" than many had assumed. 

The reason is The Economist magazine has called Rand "the heroine of America's libertarian right." Libertarians differ from conservatives in that conservatives aspire for government that is limited by our traditional ethic of "neighbor as self" and traditional virtues such as prudence, patience and charity. Most libertarians however demand a new age of revolution and reducing government until it can be drowned in their bathtubs, to use the imagery of anti-taxer Grover Norquist. He has had GOP congressmen sign pledges of no new taxes regardless of how many wars we must finance, how many retired boomers need health care, and how much money the SEC needs to regulate a Wall Street that too often believes greed is good.     

Yet The Economist also explained that Rand's worldview found economic expression in Washington in what many now call Reaganomics, a time of significant deregulation, particularly of Wall Street. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, was one of Rand's very closest disciples. Not only was he highly instrumental in deregulating Wall Street's sub-prime mortgage brokers last decade, he was equally instrumental in deregulating the savings and loan industry a couple decades ago. Many economists believe both resulted in short-term economic booms, particularly in the job creating building sector, but longer-term busts. Greenspan himself testified before Congress that "the flaw," as it's now called by many, in his worldview was in believing the only regulation businesspeople need is economic self-interest. That refers to Rand's teaching that "the productive" are so naturally good, they are humanity's saviors. Not exactly John Calvin's "total depravity" of the unredeemed human heart.     

The second question for Mr. Ryan is, "What is the proper role of government toward the needy?" Rand's most famous statement on that subject might be found in The Virtue of Selfishness. It says we can help our neighbors in emergency situations like shipwrecks, as long as we are not endangering ourselves, but that does not mean we have any responsibilities for anyone when back on shore. Rand practiced charity toward no one. Obviously, that strikes at the heart of the economic teachings of Moses, who we should remember was both government and prophet in the theocracy of his time. As the intellectual leader of the GOP's effort to roll back governmental care for the poor, Mr. Ryan has often been criticized by Catholic leaders who teach God's "preferential option for the poor." Ninety faculty members of Georgetown University have written a letter to Mr. Ryan complaining his budget proposal was more reflective of Rand than Christ. Another church leader tried to offer the congressman a Bible in which the teachings of Moses and Jesus concerning the poor had been highlighted. The congressman declined the gift.  

The third question for Christian voters is therefore, "What, if anything, do those biblical teachings mean for our capitalist culture?" Moses clearly made it Law to round the corners of the fields, leave the second harvest in the vineyards, bring the full tithes to the storehouse for the needy, and so on. Of course, many conservative Christians believe that Law died with Christ. Yet Christ himself said that Law would endure forever. After forty years of contemplation, I believe this apparent contradiction is at the very heart of the tension between the idealism of religion and the pragmatism of politics. The Moses who led God's children out of Egypt clearly understood political freedom to be necessary to the abundant life. Yet it's been estimated by even evangelical theologians that Moses mandated 25% of a person's annual gain be shared with society. That's about the level of total taxes in America today. Yet Moses did not have to build interstate highways, explore space, maintain an army the size of America's, and so on.

In essence, Christ freed his disciples from the Law by teaching us to live in a state of grace. So Saint Paul said we are to give as our loving hearts dictate. Yet neither Christ nor Saint Paul intended to do away with the law, or even taxes to Caesar (Romans 13). Neither aspired to free non-believers to live in a state of selfishness. They understood the "liberty" often advocated by modern libertarians unaccompanied by traditional morality can quickly become the near anarchy we've witnessed in both Washington and on Wall Street lately, as well as result in the concentration of wealth that threatens our land.  

As Saint Paul explained the paradox, we can only live in freedom from the external constraints of government when we live as slaves to Christ's love for Virtue and neighbor as self. It's possible the still young congressman has matured in his faith until he has nuanced that paradox of Christianity. He has recently renounced the atheism of Rand and her atheistic teachings. Yet it should be noted that he did so only after progressives made a political issue of his conflicted dedication to both Rand and Christ.

Still, we should keep all the political propaganda, and particularly its misuse of religion, in perspective. Perhaps our rich young ruler of a nation also wants to keep its wealth and religion in separate compartments, even if it still causes us to go away sad. Perhaps it is indeed true that a competent atheist is better than an incompetent Christian, as nice as a competent Christian would be. But my studies and experiences with politics have never suggested America's salvation will be assured by a politician. With very rare exceptions like Moses, David and perhaps Lincoln, politicians usually just reflect the moral condition of the electorate, not shape it. It usually takes a far higher power than politics to shape loving hearts and holistic minds.       

****

Gary Moore is the founder of The Financial Seminary and has written six books on the morality of political economy. His latest is Look Up America! Financial Insights for Tea Partiers Looking Right, Occupiers Looking Left, and All Americans Looking at a Lower Standard of Living for Their Children

As always, your thoughts, questions comments and rebuttals are welcome in the comments below.