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Entries in reviews (12)

Thursday
May212015

Review: The Ancient Faith Prayer Book

The Ancient Faith Prayer Book
Vassilios Papavassiliou, ed.
2014, Ancient Faith Publishing

O Lord our God, if I have sinned in anything this day, in word, or deed, or thought, forgive me all, for You are good, and You love mankind. Grant me peaceful and undisturbed sleep, and deliver me from the assault and attack of the evil one. Rouse me at the proper time to glorify You, for blessed are You, together with Your Only-begotten Son and Your All-holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

A Prayer for Forgiveness, p. 53.

Yes, I am still Baptist; but over the years, I have found myself in an increasing appreciation for the beauty of the teaching and traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found greater joy in finding commonalities among varying expressions of Christianity as opposed to emphasizing differences. I appreciate the Orthodox Church for its commitment to ancient expressions of the Christian faith as well as offering a perspective on familiar categories that is sometimes very different from my own.

Moreover, I’ve collected a number of prayer books over the years. It may seem odd to some, but I enjoy reading them and incorporating some prayers as my own when appropriate. If you’ve never tried it, I’ve often found that reading, reflecting and praying written prayers is the best kind of devotional.

The prayers are grouped by the following categories as represented from the Table of Contents:

  • Morning Prayers
  • Afternoon Prayers
  • Prayers for Mealtimes
  • Early Evening Prayers
  • Late Evening Prayers
  • Canon for Holy Communion
  • Prayers Before Holy Communion
  • Prayers for the Departed
  • Prayers for Confession
  • Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions
  • Prayers of the Saints 

In addition to these groups of prayers, there is an introduction on to how to use the book (which include instructions from St. Theophan the Recluse) as well as a Calendar of Great Feasts and Fasts.

The prayers include many traditional Orthodox prayers, biblical psalms, prayers of the Saints, and a number of modern occasional prayers. This last kind of prayers are most interesting to me. Some of them are basic such as prayers for Before a Journey, Before and After Work, and Before Study. There’s also some very modern needs addressed by these prayers such as a prayer Before Using the Internet: 

Be the helper of my soul, O God, for I walk in the midst of many snares. Deliver me from them and save me, for You are good, and You love mankind. (p. 124)

There is another aspect to this collection of prayers that intrigued me. I’ve only attended two Orthodox services in two different churches, but in both one particular aspect of the liturgy stood out to me as unusual (as in more unusual than a lifelong Baptist experiencing an Orthodox service). Now, let me say up front that I do not mean any disrespect, I realize that I am a total outsider, and I’m willing to say that perhaps I just don’t get it. However, it struck me odd to hear so much Elizabethan, King James-ish language in the liturgy. I’m referring to use of archaic words such as Thou, Thee, and Thy and the like in reference to God.

I understand that the Orthodox Church embraces traditions and liturgies going back to the first centuries of the church—but those liturgies were not in Elizabethan English. In fact, I would guess that in the 17th century, there may not have been any Orthodox services being conducted in English (someone can correct me if I'm wrong). I understand that this type of language is often used for sake of formality and respect, but to me it’s a bit artificial. There’s a difference between traditional or even ancient and archaic. I don’t want the church (as expressed in any tradition) to come across as archaic.

All that to say, The Ancient Faith Prayer Book purposefully avoids this kind of language. There are no Elizabethan forms used, and (again, speaking as an outsider), I believe this is for the better. Thus, this volume is a collection of prayers—both ancient and modern—based on timeless truths, and written for a contemporary audience.

At 6.9 x 4.5 x 0.5 inches, this 176-page volume fits easily into the hand and is easy to carry. My copy is a paperback with a nice-looking grained green cover that sells for $14.95; however, there is also a deluxe leather edition for a fairly reasonable $39.95 directly from Ancient Faith Publishing. Physical copies have pages of a very decent quality with red ink for headings and drop cap letters. A Kindle edition sells for $9.99, and to my knowledge, the title is not offered on any Bible software platforms, although it would make a worthy addition.

I don’t believe I could, in good faith, pray every prayer in this book. Some of the prayers would not square with my own beliefs. However, for those who are like me and willing to focus on common elements of faith rather than differences, I would not have any problem in recommending this book to a wide audience beyond just Orthodox believers.

 Questions, thoughts, comments, rebuttals? Leave them below!

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.

Friday
Feb102012

Act of Valor (A Review)

Courtesy of Grace Hill Media, Kathy and I saw a free advance screening of Act of Valor, an upcoming motion picture featuring active Navy SEALs.

Before the movie began, a representative from Grace Hill Media told us that everyone we saw in uniform in the film was an actual active soldier. That's probably a bit of an exaggeration; however, it is well-known that the eight principal Navy SEALs in the movie are the real deal. They're not just Navy SEALs, but active Navy SEALs. Since they are active, their real names are not used in the credits for the movie.

I don't know if it will be featured with the full release of the film, but in our advance screening, there was a brief introduction to the film from directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh of the Bandito Brothers production company. In preparation for the movie they spent six months with active Navy SEALs and came to the conclusion that actors could not convincingly portray what they observed. Having decided to use real SEALs in the characters' roles, they were given unprecedented access not only to the soldiers, but also to military equipment and locations. 

The movie's story revolves around a SEALs team's efforts to recover a kidnapped CIA agent and thwart a terrorist plot against the United States. Non-combat dialogue between the eight principal soldiers is the movie's primary weak point as these men are not professional actors. These scenes are somewhat reminiscent of the level of acting in recent films from Sherwood Pictures (not in any way affiliated with Act of Valor). 

However, the real advantage of using actual soldiers for the film comes in the combat sequences and provides a level of realism that I doubt any actors (of any caliber) could have offered. Kathy and I both found it absolutely fascinating to watch these professional soldiers in very realistic situations. Their skills for stealth, professionalism, and ability to make quick decisions were absolutely engrossing. 

Back in May of last year, if you saw footage of the White House staff watching Navy SEALs ambush Osama Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan via the soldiers' helmet cams, you have a glimpse into the reaction of our audience last night. The combat scenes were incredibly intense, and at one point I looked around the theater to see hundreds of wide-eyed movie goers with their hands in front of their faces, just like the President's cabinet earlier this year. 

I won't give away the ending of the movie, but I will say that it was a bit predictable at a certain level. Considering the title of the movie in the singular and considering that there is in the plot a formulaic adaptation of the old cop movie "I just have this last case to solve before I can finally retire!" shtick, the final scenes are not overly surprising. Nevertheless, even if predictable, they were still quite moving. Even though the story itself was fictitious, the reality never left me that these were real soldiers and the events in the film depicted the kinds of actual situations that our soldiers--and their families--find themselves in every day.

No doubt this movie will inspire a new generation of young men to aspire to becoming SEALs themselves, although the reality remains that achieving such status has even less likelihood than the average teenager's goal of becoming a professional athlete. The SEALs are clearly the elite of the elite in our nation's defense. In spite of the fact that this world can be a very dangerous place to live at times, I went to bed last night feeling much safer after seeing this film.

Act of Valor, rated R for strong violence including some torture and for language, will be released nationwide on February 24, 2012.

Tuesday
Jun142011

Review: B&N Nook Simple Touch

I won't drag out any suspense to the end: I like the new touchscreen Nook from Barnes & Noble. It's not a perfect device, and there are some aspects that B&N needs to address, but it has great potential and already does a few things better than its competitors. This new Nook incarnation has been positioned by Barnes & Noble to squarely take on the dominance of the Amazon Kindle, which currently controls about 65% of the eBook market, with the Nook coming in second at 25%.

I never owned the first generation Nook, so this review will not spend much time comparing the two beyond a few anecdotal notes told to me by those who had the earlier eReader. However, I will compare the new Nook to Amazon's Kindle, which is where the most significant comparisons rest anyway. Would I recommend the Nook over the Amazon Kindle? Maybe, maybe not. That's a tough call and would certainly depend upon the needs of the user. I now have both, but I realize that most people will choose one platform or the other.

For the record, there are some aspects to the Nook that I actually like better than the Kindle, including its much more modern interface, which is enhanced greatly by a touchscreen. There are clear advantages to a touchscreen with these devices, and I've looked on amused when someone asks to look at my Kindle and immediately tries to turn a page by swiping at the screen. This assumption that all such devices have touchscreens is undoubtedly the influence of the iPad. For better or worse, touchscreens are here to stay. Will the next Amazon Kindle have a touchscreen? Undeniably; I have no doubt of this, although I'm certain that some current Kindle owners will be resistant. But if you want a touchscreen dedicated eReader right now, the Nook is the clear and easy way to go.


The "Home" screens for the Kindle (left) and Nook (right) suggest a difference in philosophy regarding what a home screen is in the first place.

Early descriptions of the Nook described it as only having one button. This is not quite true. It has a power button on the back and a home button on the bottom front in the shape of a lower case n (which looks like an upside down capital U). In addition to these, there are four raised strips, two on each side of the screen, that serve as page forward and page back buttons. These are not required to "turn" the page, of course, since a page can be advanced (or reversed) simply by touching the edge of the left (reverse) or right (advance) sides of the screen. Swipe motions in the corresponding directions can be used as well.

If you're a regular reader of This Lamp, I know what you're thinking: "Wait...you've got an iPad, you've got a Kindle...why on earth would you want (let alone need) a Nook?" That's a fair question. I've written previously about how it was the iPad that actually made me decide to get a Kindle, and in getting the Kindle, I became sold on reading an E Ink screen for straight reading of ebooks. But thanks to the iPad, not only did I accumulate Kindle-formatted books, I also built up a library of about 40 books in the Nook app for the iPad. It was great to have these books, but I had no desire to read them on a backlit screen. My preference for e-reading is now solidly colored in E Ink.

The Good
Physically, the new Nook is a radical departure from its predecessor in both look and navigation. And although it's not more than a millimeter or two wider than the Kindle, it seems like it is significantly wider. Both the Nook and the Kindle have 6" screens, but the Nook's lack of a physical keyboard, which shortens its length, makes for a very different device. This Nook is shorter. It fits into the hand differently, especially with its concave backing, which allows for a comfortable one-handed grip with little concern for dropping it. Like the Kindle, the Nook can easily slide into the front pocket of Dockers-like pants.

The "Library" screen. Pardon the fingerprints.


The wider bezel is a lesson that touchscreen makers have learned from the iPad, which was initially mocked when first displayed. Yet the reality is that a touchscreen quickly loses its value and becomes a source of frustration if there's not ample room to grip it without accidentally touching the screen, resulting in unintended behavior.

The shell of the Nook, both front and back, is essentially a type of rubber. It's soft and could doubtlessly withstand much more abuse than the average eReader. In fact, this Nook may not even need any external case as its natural covering is tough enough, and the device itself begs to simply be held without anything extra. Nevertheless, I bought a case so as to protect the screen, but I imagine that many will decide it's not necessary.

In fact, when I see the new Nook, the way it's designed, the rugged materials from which it's made, I can't help but think that B&N is not simply trying to create something more clever than the Kindle. Rather, they're also designing the perfect eReader for students—especially young students who would throw them in a backpack to be tossed and dropped throughout the day. Honestly, I believe the new Nook would stand up to much greater abuse than the current Kindle 3.

In spite of the Nook's rugged design, I bought a cover for it, primarily to protect its screen when I'm transporting it; although the screen itself is recessed, which will undoubtedly add a level of protection of its own. All of the cases made by B&N declare that they give full access to all of the Nook's controls. I initially thought this wasn't true as having the Nook in its case seemed to block access to the power button at the top back of the device. Then I discovered that the case includes a Nook symbol on the back, positioned right against the power button on the Nook. The Nook symbol on the case conceals an extra layer of what is probably plastic that enables the user to press on the back of  the case to turn the Nook on or off.

I got my Nook a few days before I bought a case for it. Early on, I noticed two cavities on the top of the Nook and two more on the bottom. I thought that perhaps these were present to allow taking the device apart if it needed to go back to B&N for repair. However, when I got the case, I noticed immediately that the Nook is held in place by hooks that use two of those cavities. I found that to be quite ingenious, and it shows me that B&N has really thought through the details of this new eReader.

A few months back, I spent some time in a physical Barnes & Noble store looking over their first generation E Ink Nook. I'll be honest: I hated it. You may remember it as this odd combination of an E Ink screen on top with a color LCD screen for navigation on bottom.  I respect B&N for trying to be innovative, but the original Nook was just an exercise in frustration (although admittedly it did/does have its fans). I decided to wait, and I'm glad I did. B&N announced their new Nook on May 24 with promises to ship them by June 10. In a surprising case of "under promise and over deliver" (I mean, when does anything in technology ever ship early?), many who pre-ordered the new Nook (including myself) began receiving them in the first two or three days of June.

Options for adjusting the reading experience.

People often praise the Kindle's interface with phrases like "zen-like simplicity" (really, they do). And in truth, I appreciate the Kindle's basic, non-complicated approach. However, when looking at the home screen of the two devices side-by-side, the Kindle begins to look a bit long in the tooth compared to the second generation Nook.

On the Nook, whether looking at the home screen, looking at one's library (which is different from the home screen), or shopping for new Nook titles, every screen is a combination of text and graphics. The library has tabs and drop down menus. The home screen has a rotating, animated advertisement of recommended books. I'm sure that some Kindle diehards will be aghast by this, but this interface comes across as neither intrusive nor overly busy. It's intuitive, and perhaps even more intuitive than the Kindle's menu-driven, text-based interface. The Nook's interface is intuitive because it draws upon modern computer interface, which the Kindle's really does not.

The touchscreen interface is very responsive, more so in my experience than the touchscreen on the Nook Color, which I often found myself tapping multiple times because of delayed response.  Speaking of responsiveness, the new Nook is significantly faster than the Kindle. Turning pages—even multiple pages—is much faster on the Nook than the Kindle. And the Nook now caches up to five pages, so that only on the sixth page turn will you see the black flash that occurs at every page turn on the Kindle as the E Ink refreshes to go to the next page.

The loss of a physical keyboard does not mean that text cannot be entered. The Nook uses a touchscreen keyboard akin to that on the iPhone, but significantly bigger. The virtual keys are quite responsive, and I've been quite pleased that I can thumb-type a note fairly quickly or simply use my index finger to hammer a comment out.

Another advantage of the touchscreen can be found in accessing endnotes. On a Kindle, I always have to determine whether a hyperlinked endnote is closer to the top or the bottom of the page since I can move the five-way controller from either end. Then it's a series of multiple taps as I go down (or up) line by line, and finally over word by word until I reach the superscript number or asterisk that I'm after. On the new Nook, however, accessing an endnote is as simple as touching the symbol in use. The screen changes to the section of the book containing the endnote with a small square labeled "Back," which returns me to the originating page.

In reading physical books, I've always preferred footnotes to endnotes because I like to see the information of the note right there in the context of the main text. However, eBooks don't offer any way to create footnotes, and endnotes become the exclusive method for extra information or the listing of sources. On the Kindle, honestly, it's a pain to maneuver to the endnote symbol. Doing so takes the reader "out of the moment" to have to maneuver to the extra content. On the Nook, it's now a breeze to touch and then touch back without shifting much thought outside of the book's message.

The Nook is also getting a lot of attention in regard to its battery. Supposedly it will last for two months, twice the life of the Kindle's battery. The fine print on these numbers is quite dubious though. Neither the Kindle nor the Nook will get keep their advertised/promised battery life unless the wifi antenna is turned off and the device is only read for less than an hour or two a day. Real use will see much less time between charges. But who cares? The battery life on both devices is very good. You can go days, perhaps a couple of weeks between charges through normal, regular  use. Supposedly the Nook's battery is better than the Kindle, and maybe it is, but I will never know for certain since I keep wifi turned on for both devices, and I regularly let my Kindle read to me when I'm driving, which drains the battery slightly faster. The key is to know where your charging cables are. When my devices get below about a half charge, I recharge them. Better safe than sorry.

The Not So Good
Yet in the midst of all the positives, the Nook is not a perfect platform and actually has a number of shortcomings—some of them quite significant. Some of these issues may be corrected by software updates since, as of this writing, the second edition Nook has only been officially released for less than a week.

First, let me start with a couple of items imparted to me from owners of the first generation Nook such as the fact that this Nook is silent—literally. The original Nook, as well as the Nook Color, can play audio, whether music or audio books. They have a headphone jack, built in speaker, and volume controls. All of these are conspicuously missing on the new Nook. This would not be surprising if it weren't for the fact that the first Nook did have these abilities.

For a device that is mostly more advanced than its predecessor, why would B&N opt to lose audio features? My only guess is that perhaps they want to strongly differentiate the low-end E Ink Nook strictly as a reading device, while positioning the Nook Color as the device that it is—a multimedia tablet with strong eReader capabilities.

Of course, this disappoints those Nook loyalists who had hoped that the Nook would eventually get a text-to-speech feature, like that of the Amazon Kindle. However, I think this Nook really is intended to be the low-end model, for reading only. And this may mean that a mid-point device with features between the Nook and the Nook Color will eventually be released. It also means that the Nook's current price of $139 is probably just inflated for the early adopters who are always willing to pay more. I've said before in regard to devices like the Nook and even the Kindle, that these eReaders should really be priced below $50 based upon the actual materials from which they're made. And I've no doubt that eventually the price will settle below that line, perhaps significantly below it.

I also had a friend tell me that he really missed the display of the current time that was ever-present in the top of the original Nook's screen while reading a book. He said that it was convenient to have a clock right in front of him that he could glance at, instead of having to pull himself from his book and look elsewhere for the time. The good news is that the time can be summoned as easily as touching the middle of the screen while reading, also displaying a number of options such as search, go to, and the ability to change text size, layout and font.

While the Nook uses the same Pearl E Ink screen that's on the Amazon Kindle 3, when held side by side, viewing the same book, with the same approximate typeface, it appears to me that the Kindle's screen is mildly sharper. I thought that perhaps it was just me until I read that others had noticed the same thing. This may just be a contrast issue, but there's no way for the user to adjust the contrast in the settings. Perhaps this issue can be corrected in a software update. On the other hand, I must emphasize that the screen looks great, and if I didn't have a Kindle to put beside the Nook, it would not be something that stands out.


The Nook allows for highlights and personal notes (see icon for note in the right margin).

In my use of the Nook, I've had difficulty syncing notes and highlights between it and the Nook app on my iPad. I've heard similar difficulties in regard to the platform across the board on all devices. For instance, I wanted to add a note earlier today that due to its length, seemed as if it would be easier to enter on the larger virtual keyboard of the iPad.  I had already highlighted the text for which I wanted to add the note on my Nook, but it wasn't showing up on the iPad. Then I discovered the iPad Nook app has a sync icon designed to pull information from B&N's servers and create identical interactions across all devices. There's a sync button on the Nook, too, but touching it does not always deliver instantaneous delivery of notes and highlights added from another device. In trying to get my Nook to sync with content added to the Nook app on my iPad yesterday, I tried turning the Nook on and off, leaving the book I was reading and coming back, but nothing helped. Late last night, I noticed that my note had finally appeared on the Nook. But this is nearly 12 hours later (although I would think it surely couldn't have taken that long).

Related to this difficulty in syncing notes is a difficulty entering them at all. One aspect of computers that I've always appreciated is that they're patient with me. If I don't respond immediately or in short fashion, most of the time a computer will continue to wait without any time limit or pressure. But I've noticed twice now that the Nook will close a note window if I take too long to enter or finish the note. And if I already had entered partial content, it is not saved and I have to start over! This is why I decided to enter a longer note on my iPad today where this technological impatience is not an issue.

Adding highlights on the Nook is as difficult for me here as it was on the Nook Color. To add a highlight, I have to hold down my finger on a word until two "handles" appear on either side of the word. I can then "grab" one of these handles with my finger and drag to the endpoint of where I want my highlight to appear. Simple enough, right? Well, not so simple to me. I always have trouble knowing where to end my highlight because my finger is in the way of the actual text. I mentioned this issue in my review of the Nook Color, pointing out that on the iPad, if one highlights text, there is usually a magnified view of the text above a location, showing the user exactly where the endpoint currently rests. Moreover, the "handles" are above and below the line of text, so that grabbing them doesn't obscure the text itself. There're no such conveniences on the Nook. Not only is it difficult to know where a highlight is ending, if I do stop, it seems nearly impossible to grab the handle again to complete my highlight, and the progress I've made so far disappears, requiring me to start over. I also find it nearly impossible to add ending punctuation to my highlights.


Editing a note in a Nook eBook. The virtual keyboard is superior, in my experience, to the Kindle's physical keyboard.

Earlier I mentioned the onscreen back "button" that allows the reader to go back to the main text after viewing a endnote or other hyperlink in a book. This works well enough unless the reader decides to go to the next page after that endnote, or if the endnote is simply long enough to go to the next screen. Then the back button completely disappear and the reader has to manually find the original place in the book. Contrast this with the Kindle's physical back button on its keyboard. The Kindle's button can be pressed repeatedly, taking the reader back to an indefinite number of previous screens (okay, maybe not truly indefinite, but I've never tested out the limit).

Having grown used to the page advance and reverse buttons on my Kindle, I still prefer to use these as opposed to touching the screen, but this is probably more habit than anything else. However, the problem comes when reading the Nook for any significant length of time in that the optional page advance buttons take considerable pressure to use. Pardon me if this sounds wimpy, but my thumbs actually began to feel tired the other day after reading for a couple of hours. I realized it's often too easy to accidentally turn the page on the Kindle (something I've heard lots of complaints about), but at least I don't get sore thumbs doing it!

Kindle users have long enjoyed social features in their reading, and B&N is trying to catch up with the Nook. Quotations from books can be shared from the Nook over Twitter and/or Facebook as can Kindle users. On the other side, though, a Nook user still cannot "follow" the highlights and notes of another Nook reader as Amazon allows for Kindle users.

Recently, B&N instituted "Nook Friends" (in beta) that allow the Nook reader to create a social reading circle of sorts among his or her friends and family who also read from Nook devices. Nook Friends makes it easy to see what books others in your group have available for lending. Nook Friends sounds like a great idea, but honestly, I've yet to get it to consistently work. One friend of mine, who is also a Nook user, has tried and tried with me to get connected via Nook Friends. He's never been able to see my loanable books, and I've been able to see his only once before he disappeared from my device. The last time I looked, he was no longer listed as a Nook friend. So, I sent him yet another invitation. We'll try yet a third time. Update: as of this morning, we can see each other's books. So maybe it's working now.

Oddly, though, for me to see any books belonging to my Nook Friends, I have to go to the settings screen, click on "Manage my NOOK Friends," and then the person's name. It would seem more logical to me to have an option on the Library screen to see someone else's books in my Nook Friends circle. Why in the world do I have to go to my settings screen? And how is anyone going to find these books?

Deal Breakers for Some?
On a more serious note, those who spend a significant time pursuing biblical studies, especially at the most serious of levels, will probably be better off with a Kindle over the Nook for a couple of reasons. First, there are simply more books related to biblical studies available for the Kindle than the Nook. Yes, we've always known that Amazon had more titles, but in this particular area, it's striking. Most of the larger religious publishers are represented on both platforms, but when I started tracking down title for title between the two, I often found the Nook coming up empty on a fairly consistent basis. I've been told that part of the problem is that the ePub format used on the Nook is not near as robust and feature capable as the mobi format used by the Kindle. I'm no expert on that issue, so if anyone who works for a publisher would like to speak to this issue, I would welcome your comments at the end of this post.

Second, and this will the real deal breaker for some, it's nearly impossible to do biblical languages correctly on the Nook. There are, for example, no quality Greek New Testaments available for the Nook. I learned that part of this problem stems from the fact that the Nook cannot display polytonic Greek. I did come across a Wescott-Hort/ASV diglot, but the Greek was text only—no accents or breathing marks to be found.



The Nook will display Greek, but in unaccented text only.

I tried to see if I could make my own Greek New Testament. I exported a few chapters from Matthew's Gospel in Unicode Greek from Bible software—I tried using both Accordance and Logos for this—and then converting the text to ePub. After side-loading the text onto the Nook, I was disappointed to find missing characters in the text, which essentially made it unusable.

The Nook simply won't handle polytonic Greek. Compare the Kindle on the left and the Nook on the right.

It's true that you can get a book like Daniel Wallace's Basics of New Testament Syntax for the Nook, but the Greek text is represented as graphics interspersed with the English text. These graphics can't be adjusted in size, so it makes for a very awkward book to read. Bible software makers will be glad to know that eReader platforms aren't going to replace them anytime soon.

On the other hand, there are at least two quality-formatted Greek New Testaments on the Kindle, including the SBL Greek New Testament, which I recently wrote about.

In regard to Hebrew, technically, neither the Kindle, nor the Nook can display right-to-left text. However, that didn't stop Miklal Software from recently publishing a Hebrew Bible (see my review here) on both Kindle and Nook platforms. This is done through high quality graphic representation of the words in the Hebrew Bible, and of course page turning has to be implemented from left to right because of the limitations of the devices, but it's usable nonetheless. Yet I suspect we shouldn't look for any books that use Hebrew heavily, let alone finding a Hebrew grammar for the Nook.


Hebrew Bible for Nook from Miklal Software

Future Use?: Undocumented Features
New gadgets are never out long before they're dissected (as in physically taken apart), hacked, and used in ways that the creators may not have ever imagined. Since the Nook runs Android 2.x in a proprietary interface, some folks have already hacked the device to run the straight Android install, which allows for other software, including games like Angry Birds and other eReader apps such as that of the Kindle app for Android.

Early on, users discovered that the new Nook has a hidden web browser. However, it's pretty useless at the moment with its ability to load some webpages, but not others. The web browser is discovered easily enough by searching for a URL instead of a word or string of text. There are even bookmarks already in place such as specific B&N pages some third party sites such as YouTube (although I can't imagine any scenario in which I'd want to watch YouTube videos on an E Ink display. The user can add a bookmark linking to any site, too. Again, in it's present state, the browser is pretty useless for actual surfing, but at least the potential is there.

The Kindle has a web browser, too, but it's been in the "experimental" stage since its release, accessible from the menu on the home screen. Many have wondered if perhaps there's no direct access to the Nook's browser because it's not ready for prime time. That may be, but then, why include a browser right now at all? That's a good question, but the answer is pretty straightforward. A number of public wifi spots, especially those in places of business, require the user to log in or agree to a particular use policy. This requires a browser. So, if you're in Starbucks with your Nook, and you want to connect to the AT&T wifi, you have to first select the AT&T signal from a wifi screen, and then the Nook's browser will launch so that you can agree to the terms and conditions of using AT&T's/Starbucks' internet access.

Just today, I read that Bluetooth has been discovered in the Nook, but with no way to directly access it in the current software. This may signal other future use of the Nook. Perhaps in a future update, users will be able to lend books to each other via Bluetooth. I'm not certain what other advantage Bluetooth would be for an eReader, although I'm certain some would have lots of creative ideas.

Undoubtedly, new features will come along and many of the Nook's current shortcomings will be addressed and hopefully resolved. Don't take my criticisms of the Nook to think that I don't care for the device. That's not true at all. I'm very impressed with the touchscreen Nook, especially with the areas in which it trumps the Kindle. But I point out its weak spots to help you better make an informed decision if you're needing to decide on one platform only.

Final Choice: Kindle or Nook?
You'll have to decide if any of my criticisms or frustrations with the Nook are a deal breaker for you. If I could only use one platform, and I needed to use titles that incorporated biblical languages, the Kindle would clearly be the better, although far from perfect, choice. If theological works are a big part of your library, the Nook's offerings, in terms of both quantity and quality, simply aren't up to par yet.

On the other hand, on both the Kindle and the Nook, I've enjoyed reading a lot of popular titles that I might not have ever read had I not had one or both of these devices. Therefore, if your main goal is reading for escape (always a worthy goal in my opinion), the Nook might be your best ticket to other realms, especially with the convenience of its touchscreen, which I find to be a superior interface to that of the current Kindle.

[Side note from behind the scenes: I would have preferred to offer direct screen captures for the images of the Nook's screen in the photos above, but as far as I can tell this is not possible on the touchscreen Nook. I asked about this in the Nook forums on the B&N website, and was hit with a barrage of questions and misinformation from Nook loyalists. Why would you want a screen capture for an eReader? was the first response. Perhaps they thought I wanted to capture screens, run the text through an OCR and bootleg eBooks! A couple of folks even suggested that with the nature of the E Ink display, a screen capture simply was not technologically possible. This is untrue as I can capture a screen on my Kindle (shift-alt-G), which uses the same display technology. After explaining my intentions (the writing of this review), I was told that even if I could get a screen capture, it would not give an accurate view of what the Nook's screen looked like in person. I realized this already, of course. This is not my first rodeo. For that matter, photos don't do E Ink screens justice either. I merely wanted to show layout of the various screens. From what I gather, there was no way to grab a screen on the original Nook either. The Nook Color, however, does allow them, and I used this feature fairly extensively in my review of it. ... Oh, and yes, I know there's a split infinitive in the first paragraph, but I didn't like the way it read when I corrected it.]

Full disclosure: while the new Nook was not directly given to me, I did acquire it by trading the Nook Color that Barnes and Noble sent me for it; so in a sense, it's a gift in that I did not expend any funds for it, although it was not directly given to me by any outside source.

The All-New Nook(TM): The simple Touch Reader just for $139 - Buy Now at Barnes & Noble!

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

Wednesday
Jun082011

Nook Color (A Review with Images)

When powering up a Nook for the first time, you see the words "Read Forever." I simply love this slogan that Barnes & Noble has adopted for their Nook line of eReaders and tablet devices. It captures the essence of what makes me enthralled with eReaders to begin with: the ability to carry an entire library in one handheld device.

Barnes & Noble was kind enough to send me a complimentary Nook Color for use in a seminar on tablets and eReaders in the classroom, which I led at an education conference in Indianapolis last week. As of this writing, I've spent almost a month with the Nook Color, and I have to admit it's an impressive little device. I say "little" because it's difficult not to compare it to my iPad, which with a 9.7" screen is significantly bigger than the Nook Color's 7" screen. At the same time, the Nook Color's screen is slightly larger than my Kindle's 6" screen or the screen of the same size on the new second edition Nook with a touchscreen E Ink display (review forthcoming). But the Nook Color is not only dimensionally positioned between an iPad and a Kindle, it is also functionally in-between the two popular devices as well. The $249 Nook Color, existing not just as an eReader, but also as a full-fledged Android tablet, incorporates a bit of the best of both worlds for these kinds of devices that often overlap in function.



iPad & Nook Color

Now if you're a regular reader of This Lamp, you might be surprised to read my words of acclamation for the Nook after seeing so many posts about the iPad, and more recently, about the Kindle. But you need to understand that while I will use the device that suits my needs best, I'm not all that partisan. I'm simply pro-tablet and pro-eReader. If you don't have an iPad or a Kindle or a Nook or one of the many other devices recently bursting onto the market, I suggest you examine your needs and get the one best for you. I don't care if it's different than what I'm using; you should simply use whatever benefits you best.



Nook Color & Kindle 3

Moreover, although I'm partial to reading eBooks on a Kindle, Amazon needs competition to keep them honest and to keep both the market and technology moving forward. And Barnes and Noble is best positioned to do just that with a device like the Nook Color. The same can be said for the Nook Color against the iPad. Some will look at the features of the Nook Color and realize they don't need an iPad; the Nook Color handles all their needs just fine.

 

Nook Color and E Ink Nook (second edition)

Plus, now I don't have to feel guilty about neglecting great bookstores like Barnes & Noble. With a Nook, I can still offer give them my business. B&N has easily been the most aggressive bookseller second only to Amazon in regard to making a strong foray into ebooks and hedging their bets as the market changes (probably) more towards electronic texts and paper declines. That's not to say the physical book is ever going to go completely away. And hopefully there will always be physical B&N stores, but my hunch is there will be fewer of them in the future. Fortunately, the company is keen to discern the times and make the transition as they need to.




The always-accessible primary menu system for the Nook Color. This displays at the bottom of the device by pressing the arrow icon that appears on every screen

The Nook Color is a deceptive little device. It initially presents itself as a color eReader, but it is much more than that. In fact, it is really a tablet computer, running Android 2.2, that gives primary attention to its eReader app. The Nook Color doesn't look like a standard Android tablet because of its proprietary interface that gives emphasis to reading. But other features are as near as the menu system found by touching the arrow icon at the bottom of the screen. Pressing this symbol brings up options for Library (one's purchased books), Shop (where one can buy more books), Search (which will search books, content on the device, as well as on the internet), Apps (non-eReader programs), Web (a basic internet browser), and Settings (for customizing one's experience).


Reading a book on the Nook Color

When I set up the Nook Color, I was surprised to discover that I already had over 40 Nook titles thanks to the Nook app on the iPad and the NookStudy app on my MacBook Pro. Most of the titles I have were free, but I also have a few others that I bought because they were cheaper for the Nook or because I took advantage of special offers. Logging in with my B&N account was easy enough, and I immediately had access to all my books and even a copy of Newsweek that I'd inadvertently bought a few weeks ago, mistakingly thinking I could read it on my iPad. It wouldn't read on my iPad, but it certainly reads just fine on the Nook Color.


Magazines have been very popular on the Nook Color

In fact, the Nook Color has been very successful by taking advantage of the second part of its name: color. From what I've read, magazines have been very popular on the Nook Color, as well as children's books. Speaking of the latter, my Nook Color came with two children's books that include an optional recorded narrator's voice. This is a professional reader, mind you—not a digitized voice like on the Kindle.


The Nook Color now has apps!

Setting up the Nook Color also involved  adding my Google account. I'm not a diehard Google user like some, but I do have an email address and at some point, I must have synced my address book with the Google address book. Once you add your credentials, the calendar and contacts app immediately populates with data. I did find the contacts app to be a bit lacking as it only allowed for one email address and phone number per person. I have listings in my address book that have multiple instances of each. However, there are already more robust PIM apps in the built-in Nook app store.


Email composition on the Nook Color. I believe this would be more functional if it could be viewed (and typed on) horizontally, but this is one of the apps that I never could get to change orientation.

The Nook Color is designed to rotate the screen when it's turned to the side. However, this doesn't always work, and evidently, some apps simply aren't programmed to do so automatically, although it always works just fine when reading. The touchscreen was also different in its responsiveness from what I'm used to with the iPad. It's not as reactive as the iPad, and often I found myself touching something multiple times before a response was acknowledged. The more I've used the Nook Color, the better I am at using its touchscreen. I'm certain that there's a different technology at play than what's in the iPad, and it simply takes some getting used to.


I was impressed that Pandora comes on the Nook Color by default. All I had to do was add my Pandora user name and password and my "channels" immediately appeared (including the 80s channel as seen above).

The Nook Color is completely navigable by touchscreen. That is to say, there are no optional page buttons like there are on the new E Ink Nook. This works fine, and pages can be turned by either swiping the screen in one direction or another or merely by tapping at the screen's edges. Of course, the downside, like on the iPad, are the fingerprints left behind. If such things bother you, keep a cloth handy or just learn to get over it.

What about memory? The Nook Color has 8 GB of built-in memory. If that sounds like a lot at first compared to E Ink eReaders, keep in mind that the Android OS and downloaded apps take up considerably more space than eBooks. On my Nook Color, I currently have about 5 GB free after loading in my books, a few of my own documents, and downloading a handful of apps. As an advantage over some devices, including the iPad, a micro-SD memory card can be added to expand memory. The memory card is protected by that funny-looking loop on the bottom left of the device. This protects the card and prevents it from accidental ejection.

Documents can be loaded onto the Nook Color. It natively reads Word documents and PDF files. These are "side loaded" via a USB cable or emailed and saved if an optional micro-SD memory card has been added (I was unable to save a document from an email without the additional memory card). Any added document is accessed on the Library screen by selecting "My Files."

I find selecting text on both Nooks more difficult with touch than selecting text on my Kindle using the five way controller, or selecting text on the iPad, for that matter. The problem is my finger is in the way, and I can't see what I'm selecting. This isn't a problem on the Kindle where the finger is not used and the screen remains unobscured. The same goes for the iPad in which a magnified portion of one's selection appears above the line. There's no such feature on the Nook, and I often find myself having trouble getting a highlight to end exactly where I want it to.

The longest uninterrupted amount of time I spent with the Nook Color was the night I first had it. After setting it up and thoroughly exploring it, my eyes were very sore after about four hours. This confirms why I prefer reading on E Ink—it's simply easier on the eyes.


More apps can be added to the Nook Color. Some are free and some for pay, but prices are comparable to what's seen on iOS devices.

The Nook Color has been extremely popular since B&N expanded its functionality a few weeks ago and introduced the ability to add apps. This move didn't diminish its role as an eReader, but certainly put it in greater standing as a full-fledged, multi-purpose tablet. At the moment, there are only a little over 200 apps available for the Nook Color, all discriminatingly selected by the PTB at B&N. That may seem like an even greater walled garden than Apple enforces with its screening process for iOS apps, but it doesn't strike me that B&N is going after high numbers of apps for the Nook. I believe they're looking to make certain that all the important categories are covered with solid representation.

For hackers, the Nook Color has been popular as a device to root and add a non-proprietary version of Android. Some have even called it one of the best Android tablets on the market, especially in its price range. And some believe it deserves that title, even as it exists out of the box.

The Nook Color also plays video, but it's not necessarily a robust video-playing device. I noticed early on in some of the tutorial videos that frame rate was a bit choppy. I doubt that anyone is going to buy a Nook Color just for playing videos, but if that's a strong need, keep in mind that this isn't the best device for that task.

Social features are built into the Nook Color. Any highlight or note can be shared over Twitter or Facebook. The Nook family also has its own social network called "Nook Friends." Adding other Nook owners you know to your circle of Nook Friends allows you to share with each other which books you're reading and allows for easy lending of books.


Highlighting text offers a popup menu with a number of different options.

All Nook devices primarily read titles in the ePub format. This means that ePub titles from other sources, such as Google eBooks and even Christian Book Distributors, can be read on the Nook. ePub is also the primary choice for thousands of libraries across the country that have added eBook library lending to their services (Amazon has promised that Kindles will be able to participate later this year, but they can't yet).

As already mentioned, files can be transferred via USB cable, but that cable attachment alone will not charge the battery as it will with a Kindle. The Nook Color needs to be connected to an outlet to charge. The battery won't last anywhere near the amount of time that an E Ink device will, but it's probably closer to the kind of battery life with an iPad. I never really tested the battery, and there hasn't been a time that I've used the Nook Color all day either. I would guess that if it's being used pretty heavily, in whatever manner, that it's going to need to be charge overnight daily just like an iPad.

Who is the Nook Color for? It's for the person who wants ebooks, but needs more than a dedicated eReader, and probably doesn't need or want an iPad. With the ability to carry documents and access email, calendar, and contact information, the Nook Color makes a great device for business that has a larger screen than even the most capable smartphone, yet at the same time can still fit in the average suit pocket or purse. I don't know of any way to connect the Nook Color to a projector, but it's really not designed for that.


The Nook Color "home screen" which displays when turned on. Background image can be changed to another image provided by B&N or from personal pictures added by the user.

I don't know if anyone who already has an iPad needs a Nook Color. There's simply too much overlap, but that's not to say someone might very well choose a Nook Color over an iPad if it meets that person's needs. I must say, however, in evaluating the Nook Color on its own terms, I have very few criticisms.What it does, it does well, and Barnes and Noble has been aggressively improving it through software updates. And the Nook Color may just surprise you with some features you won't expect to find if you're only expecting an enhanced eReader.

Friday
Dec172010

True Grit 2010 (A Review with Comparisons to the 1969 Version)

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. Her performance is the unexpected surprise of this movie. Too bad the promoters of this film didn't have the decency to add her name to the movie poster.

After seeing an advance screening of the Coen brothers' True Grit earlier this week, I reflected upon other good movies I've seen this year. 2010 wasn't necessarily a stellar year, but there were some good films (Inception, The Social Network). Nevertheless, I can say without reserve that True Grit is easily the best movie I've seen in a very long time.

No movie is made in a vacuum, and that's especially true of any remake. But it's even more true of True Grit. This movie had haters from the moment that Joel and Ethan Coen announced they were making it. The original 1969 True Grit is not only associated with American icon John Wayne, but the movie became his only Oscar win in a career that spanned four decades. The True Grit character Rooster Cogburn is practically synonymous with John Wayne. Try to name Wayne's character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or The Shootist. I realize that the hardcore John Wayne fans among you can do that, but most who are reading this cannot.

But let's be honest: the 1969 True Grit was flawed. John Wayne read Charles Portis' 1968 book and immediately started pushing for a movie staring himself as the federal marshal. While the Duke's portrayal is laudable, the screenplay was hastily written, and some of the other primary roles were poorly cast.

It's no surprise that Glen Campbell is still better known for his singing than his acting. His portrayal of La Boeuf in the original movie becomes painful to watch as he delivers his lines with all the expression of a teenage actor in a bad high school play. Supposedly, Glen Campbell was selected for the role so that there could be an opening theme for use as a popular song on the radio promoting the film. Of course, it could have been worse. Originally, Elvis Presley was considered for the role. While I enjoy Presley's music much better than Campbell's, I can't imagine he would have been a a suitable choice either.

And clearly, Kim Darby, while a better actor than Glen Campbell, was simply not right for the role of 14-year-old Mattie Ross. Darby was actually 22 at the time. And while they tried to make her look much younger, she's never quite right. While she certainly captures Mattie Ross' determination, Darby does so with a little too much perkiness at times. She's simply not ever somber enough. And her boyishly short haircut, in retrospect forty years later, seems extremely out of place for a western taking place in 1880.

The Coen brothers have insisted that they weren't attempting to remake the 1969 film as much as they were actually making a new adaption of Charles Portis' original novel. Regardless of which movie version is better remembered decades from now, the Coen brothers have undeniably made a much closer adaptation of the book. From the beginning of the novel to the end, True Grit is the story of a little girl seeking to avenge her father's death, to bring justice to the man who struck him down. The book tells the story in retrospect from a Mattie Ross who is much older, remembering the events that she fell into when she was no longer quite a child, but also not quite yet a woman.

In the 1969 movie, Mattie is only the focus of the story until she meets marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn. In that version, once John Wayne steps into the frame, the movie is clearly his until the final scene. While filming, he even told the crew, "This is my show; you're just along for the ride!"

The Coen brothers, however, stay true to the Portis' original source material. Everything in the movie is from Mattie's perspective. Young Hailee Steinfeld, who literally just turned 14 last week, delivers an absolutely remarkable performance as Mattie Ross, as if the character had simply stepped out of Portis' book. She every bit looks the part, from her long, braided hair to her ankle length black dress (Kim Darby's version of the character wore gaucho-style pants, I suppose for easier horseback riding). Steinfeld captures the spirit of Mattie Ross, somber and determined to bring her father's killer to justice. I don't believe I even saw Steinfeld smile until about 2/3 into the movie. She is very much the biblical ‏גֹּאֵל הַדָּם/"avenger of blood" (see Numbers 35:9-34 or the Wikipedia entry for "Goel") bent on securing her family's financial stability and bringing justice to her father's murderer. And while little Mattie Ross is looking for someone with "true grit" to help her track down her father's killer, Steinfeld's portrayal demonstrates to the audience that it is really Mattie who has the most grit of any of the characters.

Matt Damon portrays Texas Ranger La Bouef much better than his predecessor in the role. Although this won't be considered Damon's most memorable part, he has enough acting experience to keep the portrayal authentic, even if I did feel that his Boston accent may have briefly slipped through once or twice.

Certainly Jeff Bridges has seen a renaissance in his acting career recently. His portrayal of Rooster Cogburn will continue to give momentum to his recent acclaim. Surely, it would be intimidating to most actors to even consider taking a role so closely associated with John Wayne. I thought about this long and hard, and I really can't imagine anyone from today's crop of actors besides Bridges who could have pulled this role off. However, when we first see Bridges as Cogburn testifying in "Hanging Judge Parker's" courthouse, his delivery of dialogue was so very slurred that I wondered if he was going to be mostly unintelligible throughout the entire movie. Fortunately, though, having seen the 1969 version recently, most of his lines were familiar, and this allowed me to adjust my ears to Bridges' dialect.

There is a striking feeling of authenticity to the settings, props and dialogue throughout the entire movie. Careful attention has been given to every detail, much more so than the earlier version. Most of the actors' lines are taken straight from Portis' own novel. The particular and sometimes peculiar phrasings seemed to wash delightfully over me as I sat still waiting to hear every word of every sentence spoken. In fact, much of the dialogue that was also used in the first movie, simply makes more sense in the 2010 version of True Grit. The newer script has a much greater cohesiveness than the previous version.

Of course, while the unique dialogue seemed perfect for a Coen brothers movie (which I cannot adequately explain, but many of you will understand), there were a few times that the particular tone and enunciation seemed a bit more reminiscent of O Brother, Where Art Thou? than True Grit. Surely this was a directing decision, but it may have been a bit overplayed at times. Yet those who are familiar, know that the movies made by the Coen brothers tend to carry a style of humor that is never overt, but yet almost always subtly present in nearly every scene. Portis' novel contains a great amount of humor, especially in the dialogue of the exchanges between the characters, and this is simply better captured in the 2010 version of the movie than in its predecessor.

I won't give away the ending of the new version, but I will tell you that it's different than that of the first movie. The Coen brothers stay true to the novel. The 1969 version may have stayed more true to a certain actor's ego (no disrespect intended).

Although Kathy and I saw this movie for free, I would gladly pay to see it in the theaters again (something we rarely do anymore with the high cost of movie tickets). If you're one of the ones who feels as if it's almost an act against the sacred to remake this film, I urge you to set aside your cinematic piety. Westerns these days are few in the theaters, and good westerns even more rare. The 2010 version of True Grit is a welcome addition to the genre, even if it is a story we've been told before.

True Grit arrives in theaters nationwide on December 22.

Friday
Nov192010

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: Some Quick Thoughts



I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at a midnight showing last night (this morning) with a friend of mine. I'm not so into Harry Potter that I'd normally be a candidate for a midnight showing of this series, but I'd got through teaching at 10 PM, and I'm normally wired afterwards, so I agreed to go. This morning, another friend of mine asked me on Facebook what I thought of the movie. What is below is a slightly modified adaption of what I wrote this morning.

I was struck while watching the movie how very different it "felt" from earlier movies. I don't mean that as a criticism, and I don't believe it's different just because the characters/actors are older. This installment not only had a very different tone and setting(s) from the previous movies in the series, it also had a very distinct directing style that was different from all the previous movies. I can't remember if a handcam has ever been used in any of these movies before, but if so, it's never been used as much. It was fairly pervasive in the outdoor scenes. Along the lines of all this, it's undeniable that the style of this movie has been influenced by the Twilight films. Parts of the movie very much felt like a Twilight movie.

The Harry Potter movies, like the books (which I stopped reading after the second or third installment), have always grown increasingly darker, but obviously, this movie was the darkest of all. Early movies always had a certain element of whimsy, but there was very little of that this times around. A couple of scenes were quite scary to me, even as an adult. And knowing how popular the books and movies are with children, I'd wonder about the wisdom of letting a child see this movie, regardless of his or her level of maturity.

Splitting the last book into two parts clearly had some element of profit involved, but at the same time, fans have often complained that too much from the books is left out in the movies, so I'm certain that many fans will be quite happy for events to slow down. How close the movie stayed with the book, I have no idea, but the film definitely seemed to feel less rushed than previous installments. Although the ongoing camping scenes became a bit tedious after a while, it was difficult to follow how much time had elapsed at various points until someone would mention that "months" had passed by since some previous event.

I think I may actually have an ear infection at the moment in my right ear, so it may have been my own hearing, but many of the British accents were so thick, especially in some of the early conversations, that I had great trouble keeping up with dialogue in some places. I don't know if that was just me or not. I felt like I'd be too much of an old man to constantly ask my friend, "What'd he say?" so I just figured I'd see it again with Kathy later.

Overall, my feelings toward the movie are positive, but 20 minutes in, I wished I'd seen the previous movie again before this one. For those who aren't strong Harry Potter devottees, I'd recommend reviewing at least the sixth installment before this one. I should have.

Thursday
Apr222010

Review: Crossway's ESV Bible HD for iPad

This is the second in a series of Bible-related apps for the iPad.

On April 3, the launch day of the iPad, I initially planned to download two separate Bible-related iPad apps. One of these apps was available, but it turned out that the other one had not yet received approval from Apple (and as of this writing, still hasn't). In searching through Apple's app store for anything related to "Bible," I came across Crossway's ESV Bible HD (free from the iTunes Store). This turned out to be a bit of a serendipitous turn of events. Had the second app actually been available, I don't know if I would have found the ESV HD app, let alone downloaded it.

I'll be honest. I've never used the English Standard Version a whole lot. Bible translations are personal, and the ESV and I have never quite bonded. But I will say that  in now what is approaching three weeks of iPad use, I may have now used the ESV more in three weeks than in the last three years combined. In fact, I can easily say that the ESV Bible HD has been my "go to" Bible app on the iPad ever since I've had it.

I really like the ESV HD app. It has both a simplicity and an elegance to it. It's easy to use, but it's also been very nicely done. The biblical text is formatted just as one might expect to see it on the page of a more costly physical Bible with exact paragraphing, subheadings and access to footnotes and cross references. The user can even add his or her own notes to this wonderfully simple, yet well-thought-out Bible app.

The ESV Bible HD app in normal reading modeI mention the above formatting issues because there's another Bible app currently available  for the iPad (which I will eventually review), that doesn't take the care to add in the ESV's subheadings, cross references, and footnotes. Paragraphing is not even that well done on this other app. Considering both apps are free, the Crossway app would certainly be preferable for viewing the ESV translation.

Finding a book of the Bible is as simple as swiping one's finger on this popup table of contentsIn the age of full-featured Bible study programs, why would anyone want an app that focused on only one translation? I can think of a number of reasons. As I mentioned, there's a delightful simplicity to this app which makes it very useful for quickly looking up a passage or using for Bible reading or study.

I meet for a regular 6:30 AM Wednesday morning Bible study, and as I've been trying to evaluate how well an iPad works for this in place of a physical Bible, I've used nothing but this ESV app so far. When I open the app, the biblical text is immediately in front of me. In other words, there aren't a lot of menus or buttons to tap to get to my Bible. I can quickly get to any passage with just a couple of taps. I would imagine that someone, if so inclined, and if done in a non-conspicuous fashion, could even use the ESV Bible HD from the pulpit since the size of the text is easily adjusted.

For the person who prefers the ESV and perhaps isn't interested in all the features of the more complex Bible study apps, the ability to add notes and highlights makes the ESV Bible HD a one-stop shop. And even having said that, the use of this app for primary or secondary use certainly doesn't preclude the use of other programs, too. Many of us wind up using a number of Bible study programs concurrently anyway.

As already mentioned, the interface is both simple and intuitive. Selecting the browse button at the top left of the screen reveals a listing of biblical books with chapters for the current book. This is another touch of elegance as the book titles are displayed in a  large typeface (Helvetica Neue, perhaps?) that initially appears and then slightly glides from a left to right position a couple of millimeters before the user interacts with it. This is a subtle touch that users may or may not even notice, but it's one more example of the attention given to detail in this app. Moving along the list of biblical books requires only an up or down swipe of the finger which causes the list to glide in the manner so characteristic of the iPad or iPhone.

When reading a text, I discovered that touching a verse brought up a dialogue box revealing cross references and textual notes. Clicking on any of these textual notes took me to those passages in context, but I could use the history icon on the top right to go back to my original place.

Tapping on a verse displays cross references, textual notes, the ability to add one's own notes and other options.

 This dialogue box also contains options for writing one's own notes, making this app more than just a tool for reading, but one for actual study and reflection. Verses can be highlighted from here, too. And there are also options for marking a verse as a "favorite" for quick reference later or sending the verse to Twitter or to a friend via email.


A verse that's been highlighted 


The user can send a direct email from a Bible verse.Suggestion: I believe it would be more convenient if one's personal notes showed up in the same dialogue box as the cross references and textual notes. This could be at the bottom of the window to distinguish them from the "official" notes and could incorporate a scroll bar if the note is lengthy.

Second suggestion: I like the way Amazon's Kindle app for the iPad includes a little blue symbol next to any text to which I've added a personal note. Something similar in the ESV text for personal notes would be helpful even though the user can pull up a separate list of these notes.

Viewing a list of personal notes I've added to the app.Third suggestion: there ought to be a way to export one's notes out of the program into something like a basic text file. I say this because opting to add one's personal notes to any Bible program is a significant decision. There ought to therefore be an "out" for all that effort because of the time and work that extensive note taking would require. What if someone uses an iPad for a year, adds a significant amount of notes to the ESV app, and then decides to move to a different tablet device instead of an iPad? Unthinkable, I know (!), but if it were me, I know that I wouldn't want my work simply to be lost.

The search window is very straight forward and results are grouped into pairs for each book of the Bible with the option to expand each list for full results in the selected book. I'm not certain if more complex searches (compound, boolean, etc.) are possible, but phrases can be searched for in addition to individual words.

Search and History popupsThe "More" window brings up options to display lists of highlighted texts as well as notes. Font size can also be adjusted here, but I found that the "medium" setting worked just fine for me. The about screen led included links to the ESV blog, the Crossway website as well as the creators of the app, Subsplash. Each of these pages displays in the About window, but they're difficult to see. I'd recommend to the creators that they simply make these straightforward hyperlinks to launch in the Safari web browser.



One more note about the text layout. I was surprised to see no option for red lettering. Now, if you've read me for any time, you know that I don't like red lettering in my Bible for a number of reasons that I won't go into here. Plus, I don't know if reading lots of red text on a backlit screen might not be a strain on one's eyes. Having said all that, and despite my philosophical objections to red lettering, I do know that some people like it. I believe Crossway could add some simple switch for this in the settings to allow someone to use it as needed.

In addition to using the ESV HD app at my Wednesday morning Bible study, I've also used it to follow my pastor in our church services on Sunday. Even though he preaches from the NLT, I've had no problem following in the ESV (what do you know!). Using the iPad in general has been a pleasant experience because the lights are turned down too low in our services to adequately see a regular print Bible (my complaints against this have gone unheeded). Using the iPad in this context is a great solution because of its backlighting. In fact, I've needed to turn down the brightness to less than the halfway mark and I could still see the ESV Bible HD with no problem or eye strain.

The Crossway ESV Bible HD should find a lot of use on the iPad. I can tell that a lot of thought has been put into this app, and it shows in both how well it looks and how easy it is to use. This will be a must for the person who uses the ESV as a primary Bible translation; but even if you don't, you might find as I have that it's a very handy solution for a variety of uses.

This review was written entirely on the iPad with final editing on my MacBook Pro.

Sunday
Apr182010

Review: Logos Bible Software for iPad v. 1.4

Series note: This post inaugurates a new series of Bible app reviews for the iPad. It's been nice to have similar programs on the iPhone and other mobile devices, but at least for me, these were always programs I used in a pinch if I didn't have access to regular computer-based Bible software. The iPad's larger screen, however, creates the potential for more serious use. My goals for these reviews is to evaluate each program on its own merits without extensive comparison to similar programs.

The release of the iPad has generated a lot of excitement for taking digital books to the "next level"—that is, a much more widespread acceptance among readers—avid or otherwise. Of course, electronic books are not anything new. Amazon's Kindle has been available for a couple of years, and going back nearly two decades, Bible-related software has offered many books in digital form. But in spite of these precedents, the digital book seems to have found a new life and publishers seem genuinely hopeful regarding the medium.

Most people know of the two major book reader apps for the iPad: Amazon's Kindle software and Apple's own iBooks. But for those who have an interest in biblical/theological works, Logos Bible Software for the iPad should definitely not be overlooked.


If you aren't already familiar, Logos offers the largest number of digital texts aimed at the religious market (pastors, academics, students and laypersons). Numbering somewhere around 10,000 texts, Logos is available on a number of platforms: Windows, Mac (in alpha form), iPhone/iPod Touch, and now the iPad. I should also mention http://library.logos.com which allows Logos customers to access a large portion of their personal library from any website, including browsers on various cellphones and mobile devices that do not yet have dedicated Logos apps.

Logos for the iPhone has been available since October, 2009. Logos for the iPad is essentially the same application, but adapted for the iPad's larger screen. Logos is able to deliver their customers' libraries of purchased resources which they have on their traditional computers straight to the iPad for no additional cost. Not all titles are available yet due to publishers' agreements and technical issues, but more are being added each week. Currently, I have 1,744 Logos titles in my copy of Logos 4 on my Mac. With Logos for the iPad, I can access any of 953 of these titles as of this writing. That's about 55% and Logos promises that number will continue to grow.

I'll say up front that while I use many of these titles for reference, I would never consider reading most of those books from beginning to end  on my Mac. The screen resolution is too low for extended reading without hurting my eyes, and, frankly, it's difficult to curl up with a laptop on the couch. Generally, I've always used them for reference until now.

The iPad is a different story. It's higher resolution screen and compact size makes it ideal for reading for long periods of time. Access to so many titles really excites me and makes Logos for the iPad my primary general reader for electronic books.

When Logos for the iPhone originally released, some criticized it for not allowing offline reading, requiring access to the internet for any use. A later update fixed this allowing titles to be downloaded to one's device on a title-by-title basis. The same functionality holds true for Logos for the iPad. I can keep some titles on my iPad, and download others as I need them. And really, this is the best way. On my Mac, titles automatically download, but I wouldn't want to fill up the limited space on my iPad with some titles that I might not need (or at least ever get to).

Although I can download any of my books that I choose for offline reading, Logos for the iPad often needs a connection to the internet for some things such as search which can cause problems at times. In fact, it can get downright frustrating receiving messages over and over that a particular feature needs an internet connection to work.

Overall, the application integrates fairly well with Logos 4 in that many settings which are applied in the Windows and Mac version translate to the iPad version in including Collections (user-created groups of titles), Favorites (preferred resources), and eventually user notes and highlighting.

As already mentioned, some titles are not yet available. The first significant "missing" title I came across was the Nestle-Aland 27th edition Greek New Testament. In Logos 4 for the Mac, I can type "NA27" in the Library window and this particular Greek New Testament appears. On the iPad app, though, when I typed "NA27," the Robinson-Pierpont 2005 Byzantine Textform appeared--which is decidedly NOT the Nestle-Aland text. I asked about this on Logos' forums and a helpful user pointed me to a title, The Swanson Greek New Testament Morphology which is a UBS text (identical to the NA27) but with different Greek morphological tagging. So this will work for a Greek NT text until the true NA27 is available.

Results when I searched for the Nestle-Aland 27th edition Greek New Testament. This is DECIDEDLY NOT the NA27!

I've also read on the forums some users' frustration with the fact that the NIV doesn't seem to be available yet on the iPad version of Logos. No doubt there are legal and contractual issues involved here, but it remains that not only is the NIV the most popular translation in the English-speaking world, but it is also available on other mobile platforms already. Oddly, if you type in "NIV" on the Library page, Logos pulls up Young's Literal Translation, I suppose because the NIV is referenced in the YLT's description page.

Compared to the Kindle iPad app and Apple's iBooks, Logos for the iPad is like an eReader on steroids, and I'll go into some of these details in a moment. However, I was surprised to discover that Logos does not have a functionality as basic as cut and paste. In fact, one of the first things I tried to do with my iPad once I had it set up two weeks ago was to copy and paste original language biblical texts (Greek & Hebrew) into the iWork Pages app. I was a bit surprised to discover that I couldn't select and copy text from Logos. This is more acceptable on the iPhone because I'm not going to do "real" work on a device that small. But with a fairly feature rich word processor like Pages on the iPad, there will be times that I will use my iPad for heavier use. In fact, I'm currently typing this review in Pages on the iPad using the keyboard dock for later transfer to WordPress.

As of this writing, Logos has not supplied any kind of user guide, instructions or tutorial videos specific to the iPad version, although to be fair, it's only a little over two weeks old. But there isn't even a whole lot of information on how to use the iPhone version either, even though it's been out over five months. The best source of information on using the iPhone and iPad versions of Logos is still the nine-minute overview video on the iPhone app's page at the Logos site. The user can apply applications gleaned from the iPhone version, most of which comes from the Logos blog and forums as well as one's own intuition. However, the interface is not always intuitive.

The Home screen for Logos on the iPad is not that different from the iPhone version with selections for reading the Bible through in a year, daily devotional titles (which seemingly cannot be changed), and Logos news (although somewhat limited). On the iPhone version, this fills the screen, but on the iPad, it doesn't seem to be a good use of screen space. I wonder if eventually, Logos for the iPad will mimic the newspaper look and feel of the homepage on the Windows and Mac versions. There's certainly enough screen space for this.

The Home ScreenOn the home screen, in addition to the content already mentioned, the user finds both a search box and a verse chooser at the top of the screen. A scripture reference can be entered into the search box which leads to a screen in one's preferred Bible (selected from the computer versions). The verse chooser achieves the same end results so these two methods for arriving at a scripture passage seem a bit redundant. This might not be the case if one could enter subjects or words into the search box, but when I tried to do this, I received an error message stating there was no biblical book by that name.

I also noticed that when arriving at a passage in the Bible, text was running off the side of the screen. According to comments in the user forums by Logos employees, this is a known bug that will be fixed in an upcoming release. In the meantime, the user can rectify the problem by turning the screen one ninety degree angle at a time until the text is displayed properly or possibly by changing the font size in settings.

An early bug in the first release of Logos for the iPad: text sometimes runs off the screenMoving along the icons at the bottom of the Home screen, the next is for the Library. Immediately upon selecting the library, the user is presented with a list of purchased titles. These are in order of title, and I could not determine any way to sort them by author. However, I could search for any known title in a search box at the top of the screen which recognized, title, author, accepted abbreviations, and evidently keywords found in the description of the work.

Some of the 953 titles available to me on the Library screenAttempting to simply peruse my titles proved to be a bit of a challenge. Each title presents the user with a thumbnail of the cover of the book, the title and author. If a title is one in which the user has chosen for offline reading, a little icon of an airplane overlays the thumbnail. The problem is that the program only lists 25 titles at a time. As I scrolled down the list, I encountered a short pause at the end of every 25 titles while the next 25 loaded. Thus, if you have an extensive library of titles, true browsing is not overly practical as it would take a very long time at the very least. This is a shame because I regularly come across titles in my Logos library which I didn't realize I had. Sometimes, I simply might want to "browse the shelves" and pick out something new (to me) to read. I don't see why an entire list of my books could not be downloaded into the program and then left for me to go through at any time. Why I should have to reload a list of titles every time I use the program? I would also like to see an option for listing the books in a more narrow height, perhaps with no thumbnail of the book or at least a smaller one.

A second tab on the top of the library window allows the user to see recently viewed titles. This is helpful because often I will often return to the same books again and again.

A blue arrow can be found to the right of every title. Tapping on this arrow brings up an information window about the book. The information is sometimes surprisingly detailed and aids the user in finding the right resource for the need of the moment. This is also the window in which a user can select a title to remain available when not connected to the internet.

The third icon brings up the Search screen. Here is where I could really stand to have a few more instructions that would at least alert me to the possibilities available on this screen. Under the basic search, one can enter any word or phrase which will yield a multitude of results. If quotation marks are put around a group of words, Logos searches for that exact phrase. I was pleased to see that many of the search options listed on the Logos wiki page worked just as expected in the iPad edition. I didn't try every single option, but I can say that every one I tried worked exactly as I would have expected.

The Search screen includes a list of previous searches. Note my attempts to create a direct Greek language search using "g:" as utilized by the desktop software. This didn't work on the iPad.I would have preferred that search results have a bit more detail. A search for "love" in my entire library resulted in hits that were listed in what was obviously subtitles of topics such as "Chapter 8," "The Chapter of Love," and "Homily X." I could select any of the hits to see the context of the result, but it would be very helpful to identify the full title of the resource so that I could eliminate sources that I didn't imagine would be helpful.

Instead of searching through the entire library, one can select from designated collections, Bibles, and recently viewed books. It doesn't look like it would be easy to quickly adjust this list of sources if one needed to search through a different title or group than what was listed.

If choosing a Bible search, one can search through "Top Bibles" (chosen on the Windows or Mac version) or recently viewed biblical titles.

The Search screen also lists recent searches which is helpful if one needs to revisit a previous search. Oddly, it even lists incorrect searches such as my many failed attempts to search directly for a Greek word in a Greek NT, a solution for which I've not received after putting it on the user forums days ago.

Sadly, search only works if the iPad is connected to wi-fi. Evidently all searches are actually being done on Logos' servers. Although wi-fi is nearly ubiquitous these days, this isn't always the case. Last Sunday, I was trying to show the capabilities of Logos for the iPad to the education minister at our church. No one could remember the password to the church's wi-fi and I couldn't perform the search. Of course, that was just for a demonstration. Imagine if I'd really needed it! For those who are holding out for a 3G version of the iPad, I suppose this won't be as much of an issue.

The "Read" icon leads you to a screen that lets you do just that—read your books. From what I can tell, it will always automatically open to the last book you've been reading, even to the same spot that you were last in. The text fills up the entire screen and page-to-page navigation is handled by tapping the right or left of the screen according to which way you want to go in the book.

The Hebrew Bible shown taking advantage of the full screen in the Reading viewSome Bibles have hyperlinked cross references and textual notes that can be revealed by tapping the link:



Tapping in the middle of the screen on non-hyperlinked text brings up an interface with search options at the top and a list of recently read books on a sideways scroller at the bottom. When using the search window at the top of the screen, only scripture references can be entered, not words, although I think it would be useful to be able to search for words and phrases within the text I'm reading without having to switch to the Search screen. When reading a non-biblical title, this still remains true. You can't search for a topic directly in the title you have on the screen. It will only take scripture references. I thought at first that this might search for these scripture references in the the book I was reading, but instead, it leaves the current title and switches to my default Bible text.

Tapping the middle of the Reading window brings up options and a navigational interfaceFor biblical texts, a verse chooser is also present in addition to the search window. Like on the home screen, this still feels a bit redundant, but perhaps it would be helpful if one weren't familiar with all books in a particular tradition's canon. For reading books, there is a Contents button that allows quick switching to chapters in the book.

In an original language text, I found that I could tap and hold a word and a popup would appear giving parsing information and a Strong's number. If using one of Logos' reverse interlinear texts, original language information is displayed for the English word. In either popup two buttons are available for a search on the selected word or a Bible Word Study, the latter of which is a section of the Logos app I'll cover in a moment.



Performing a word search from a text does not result in what I would expect. I was sent to the search screen, but because my last search was in "Top Bibles," my Greek search delivered no results. I could switch to a Greek New Testament, but why couldn't the program do this on its own in the first place? I would not expect a search for a Greek word to be found in an English text! Further, when searching for a Greek word in an actual Greek text, I could only get the Logos app to display hits of the original inflected form from the text I was reading.

I would prefer for the program to search for the root form resulting in every inflected instance. I absolutely could not figure out how to to make the search work in this manner no matter how much I tried. Nor could I figure out how to run a search in Greek or Hebrew straight from the search window itself (see my failed results in the search window screenshot earlier in this post). I had no choice but to start from an original language text and run a search from the selected word.  And then results were only built around the inflected form from which the search started. It seems that a good bit of work needs to be done in original language searches to make these kinds of searches of any benefit.

Further, I knew of no way to search for specific parts of speech in original language texts. This functionality may exist, but I couldn't find instructions for it anywhere.

When reading a biblical text, swiping my finger up created a popup allowing the following options: Passage Guide, Text Comparison, Search for Citations, Add to Favorites, and Share. In a non-biblical text, the popup offers Search for Citations, Add to Favorites, and Share. If selecting "Share," options are given for updating Twitter, Facebook or sending an email with a message such as this one: "I'm reading http://ref.ly/Ge2.10 with Logos iPhone Bible app." The reference was Gen 2:10 in the BHS (selected totally at random). As you can see, the text has not been updated yet to reflect the app's transfer to the iPad.

Swiping up on a biblical text results in the popup on the left. On other books, the popup on the right

Borrowing from the iPad's other eReader apps, I would offer two suggestions for Logos for the iPad. First, Apple's iBooks app offers the ability to turn down the screen brightness from inside the app. Granted, this can be done by leaving the Logos app and going to Preferences, but it's a convenient feature to be able to do so from within the reader itself. Second, I've found in the Kindle app that changing my page background to a light tan color with brown text (one of the Kindle presets on the iPad) makes for much easier reading on long stretches. Both of these are features that one app offers and the other doesn't, but adding them both to the Logos iPad app would be a great idea and make for easier reading.


The Passage Guide icon brings up the iPad equivalent of the Passage Guide in Logos 4. It doesn't do everything that the Windows and Mac versions do, but it does a lot. Evidently, though some of the features aren't quite fully in place. I'll illustrate with an example from Ex 20:1-17 (the Ten Commandments).

Passage Guide on the iPadI entered the reference into the Passage Guide and Logos for the iPad delivered a number of places where I could go for further study.

First, a number of my commentaries were listed. Clicking on a title takes me to that commentary and to the section on Exodus 20. Going back to the Passage Guide brings me back to where I was before, but it seems like the app is having to run the search again.

Underneath commentaries, a list of cross references displays with links allowing me to go to that passage in the Bible.

Following cross references are sections for Parallel Passages and Literary Typing. Unfortunately both of these categories are grayed out leading me to believe they are simply not implemented yet in the iPad version of Logos. I say that because content is available when running a Passage Guide search in the regular version of Logos 4. There are actually quite a few parallel passages for Ex 20, and I would expect to at least see Deut 5 listed. The regular version of Logos 4 also lists literary types for Ex 20 which the iPad version completely leaves out.

Categories for Biblical People, Places, and Things—a major feature of Logos 4—is missing in the iPad's implementation of the Passage Guide search. The Music category from Logos 4 is missing, but I could see sheet music thumbnails along with thumbnail images of pictures and graphical images in the Media Resources section. Unfortunately, in its current implementation, these images are useless because they cannot be enlarged, let alone copied and pasted into an app such as Pages or Keynote for the iPad.

The Topics section of the Passage Guide lists appropriate subjects from the biblical text as they are found in Nave's Topical Bible. Clicking on any subject creates a link to treatment in Nave's.

The final section of the Passage Guide is "Interesting Words." While not implementing a pretty word cloud as in Logos 4, a list of key words in the passage is provided, giving emphasis through larger text to words that occur more frequently. Tapping on any of these words creates a verse list with the keyword highlighted.

The Bible Word Study screen allows for both English and original language basic word studies, but information is too limited to be of great use. I could not figure out how to run a study on a Greek or Hebrew word unless I created from the reading pane. The Bible Word Study function makes use of circle graphs. Tapping on a section moves it out of the circle and verses related to that word appear underneath. Examining an original language word also provides links to lexicons. I feel it would be helpful to provide lexical information on this screen itself without having to switch to that source.




Bible Word Study on the iPad

The final primary section of the Logos iPad app is for Text Comparison. This demonstrates how different one translation is from another, also offering a percentage of difference. Differences in words are highlighted between the versions, and red-colored round superscript symbols are next to some of the words, but there's nothing to tell me what these symbols mean. Clicking on any part of the divergent verses merely takes me to the main reader screen showing the verse in its context. I'm not exactly certain how translations are chosen as the ESV shows up in my list and it's not in my priority list in the Logos 4 software. I could not figure out how to display differences between original language texts such as some of the various Greek New Testaments offered in my Logos resources, but this would certainly be interesting.

Text Compare

Selecting the "More" icon leads to Settings and an About screen. Settings is fairly limited allowing only an adjustment in basic font size. There's no way to change the font or the font color or the page background. Also, although I have red lettering turned off in the regular Logos 4 program on my Mac, these settings don't transfer to the iPad app. I think that red text on a backlit screen is not a great idea on any level if one plans to read for any long period of time.



Settings are fairly limited in Logos for the iPad

The settings screen also allows the user to add logins for FaceBook and Twitter for the options to share what is being studied.

The Logos iPad app is a good start, but it still needs some significant work. The strategy at Logos over the past few months has been to release software not quite feature complete and allow their customers to use it as its being developed. That's a perfectly valid strategy if the customer is willing to do this. Many would agree, for instance that having a limited iPad app right now is better than no iPad app at all. But some will certainly be frustrated by issues such as no copy and paste and a lack of access to personal notes or even the ability to create them on the iPad at all.

Right now, in my opinion, the greatest advantage of having Logos on the iPad is the ability to carry hundreds, even thousands of titles on a very portable device for reading anywhere. I have no doubt that version 2 of this program will look much different than this initial release. As the program improves, no doubt its usefulness as a serious Bible study tool—especially for integration with other programs—will increase, too. And an online user guide and/or in-depth video tutorials wouldn't hurt either :-)

This review was written entirely on the iPad with final editing on my MacBook Pro.

Tuesday
Mar232010

Review: The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience
Carmine Gallo
2010 McGraw Hill

I've read quite a few books on preaching, communication, and public speaking in my time. In fact, most people don't know this, but two decades ago, I spent my freshman year in college as a speech major. I eventually changed my major after asking myself the profound question, "Exactly, what am I going to do with this degree?" but not before I completed the advanced public speaking course (with an A, thank you!) that my university offered.

I still remember the prof in that advanced course making the comment that the average audience no longer had an attention span of more than about twenty minutes. This was the eighties, mind you, and if this comment were true, it would undoubtedly be even less today. Of course, when I mentioned this twenty minute attention span to my pastor of the time (whose sermons averaged 45 minutes), he was quick to say, "Well, I certainly don't agree with that." Interestingly, Gallo points out in the book that

"Speeches written for John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama were scripted to last no longer than twenty minutes."

By the time I was working on my M.Div in the early nineties, I was (sadly) a bit of a public speaking snob. Unimpressed with the two preaching professors at my seminary at that time, I found a loophole in my required coursework and substituted a communications course and a Christian journalism course at another institution. Looking back, that was my loss as I was too arrogant to think that I could actually learn something from these two men.

These days, I'm regularly in front of an audience for one reason or another (usually in either a church or classroom setting), and I'm even fortunate enough to have taught a college-level public speaking class five times in recent years.

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo interested me for a couple of reasons. I suppose someone has "arrived" as a presenter when they joins the ranks of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill as the subject of books written about their public speaking styles. Most would agree—even the detractors—that Steve Jobs is a master presenter. Having seen most of Jobs' keynotes over the last decade or so, I was very interested to see them put under the microscope with the intent of finding a few core principles for speaking success.

Also, this was the first communications book I'd seen that thoroughly integrated the use of presentation graphic software with the content. Most communication books that I've come across treat this as a separate subject, reserved for a chapter on its own. I've followed the same principle in the communications classes I've taught, reserving a separate section of the class for discussion of presentation software. While Gallo says the principles in the book apply whether one uses PowerPoint or Keynote, my connection to Jobs lies in the fact that we both use the latter. And everyone I've ever met who has used Keynote finds it much superior to PowerPoint.

As one might expect, the book is interspersed with transcripted excerpts from Jobs' presentations over the past decade or so. I could imagine that this would make of an exceptional electronic book if the transcripts could be replaced with actual video clips. Of course while all of these video clips can be found on YouTube, the fact remains that this is not an authorized/endorsed treatment of Jobs' presentation style, so no doubt there would be copyright issues involved.

The book's 18 chapters each deal with one aspect of Jobs' presentations principles, although not all these principles are unique to Jobs. The old stereotypical three-point sermon outline has some merit to it evidently. People remember things in threes easier than much longer lists. Gallo demonstrates that Jobs takes advantage of this rule of three as well. The chapter "Answer the One Question that Matters Most" deals with narrowing your topic, your thesis (to use a label I refer to in my classes) to a single idea. The value of rehearsal is emphasized throughout the book, and one that I've tried to hammer over and over to my students. When I have a student taking 12 minutes to deliver a speech intended to fit into a three to five minute time limit, I know there's been no rehearsal involved. According to Gallo's sources, Jobs practices hours and hours before a presentation, sometimes starting weeks in advance. No wonder he makes it look so effortless.

The value of the book for me lies in its interrelation with technology. Gallo has one chapter titled "Create Twitter-Like Headlines" referring to soundbites that can be reproduced in 140 characters or less. These are short statements that stick in people's minds and summarize the content of the presentation. Examples are given such as


MacBook Air: the world's thinnest notebook
(2008)


Today Apple Reinvents the Phone
(iPhone announcement, 2007)


The Excitement of the Internet, the Simplicity of the Macintosh
(iMac announcement, 1997)


One Thousand Songs in Your Pocket
(iPod Announcement, 2001)


As already mentioned, I was keenly interested in principles surrounding Jobs' use of presentation software, particularly Keynote. In light of such things as "Death by PowerPoint" in which this kind of software can become "a convenient prop for poor speakers," I've often internally struggled with the right use of software during a presentation. Clearly PowerPoint or Keynote can be abused, misused and overused. I've seen it used in some contexts where it really wasn't necessary at all. When I used to teach high school from 2000 to 2005, I often used PowerPoint on a television screen to keep my teenage students facing forward (turn on a television in the conterxt of any group, even with the sound off, and watch how people will continually move their gaze to the screen).

In the classroom, I use Keynote for some things, but not everything. I'm well past feeling the need to have a screen present at all times to keep attention. Of course, I teach college students now, which might make some difference. But I also use Keynote most Sundays in a Bible study class I teach at my church. We usually have around 40 in attendance on any Sunday morning, and it can be very helpful—especially for things such as large scale maps, photos of the holy land, and emphasizing points in a biblical passage.

I try to keep our study discussion oriented, so I usually project my questions on the screen as well. At one point, I'd decided to stop doing this because I thought it was a bit superfluous. I'd even considered dropping any use of presentation software on Sunday morning at all. I don't want to use technology simply for the sake of technology. However, we have on some Sundays up to four nationalities in our study. Three of these four hold English as a second language. At about the time I'd decided that I might ditch using software altogether for our study, a Korean member of our class mentioned to me how much he appreciated my projecting the questions on the screen. Hearing me ask the question and being able to read it at the same time really helped him understand what I was asking.

Okay, so if I'm going to use presentation software like Keynote, I want to do it well. I don't want to have something on the screen merely for the sake of having it there. In reading The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, I discovered a number of principles that have already made a change in the way I use Keynote.

Did you know that Steve Jobs never uses bullet points? I'd never thought about it, but it's true. As a teacher, my slides are filled with bullets—at least until I read Gallo's book. I mentioned this to a friend a couple of days ago. "What's the big deal about bullets?" he asked. According to Gallo, bullets send an unspoken message to the audience member to take notes. It defers the attention from the speaker and what's being said. If we follow Jobs' example and Gallo's advice, we want to limit one idea per slide. We want to keep things simple, to channel their inner zen, to use the theme of ch. 8. Gallo points out that Jobs generally only uses only as much text as necessary—think of those 140-character Twitter-like statements—and an image. I've always told my students that the software should not be the presentation. They are the ones giving the presentation and the software should simply reinforce what they're saying. Well, this idea of a limited number of words with an image on a slide helps keep the focus on what the presenter is saying while giving a visual cue to help the listener remember the content.

Gallo includes numerous charts in the book that demonstrate what Jobs actually said compared to the brief amount of content on his Keynote slides.

I'm scheduled to teach a philosophy class in May and June. I've taught the class before, and although I work hard to keep my "lectures" discussion based, my Keynote slides for this course are made up of one slide of bullets after another. I'm definitely going to have to rethink what I present visually during our discussions.

Gallo even includes a chapter on what to wear during a presentation. Steve Jobs can wear sneakers, blue jeans, and a St. Croix mock turtleneck (my father works for St. Croix incidentally), but Gallo tells us that we probably can't get away with that. It might even get us fired! Rather, Gallo suggests that if we want to succeed in our presentations and in our careers in general, we ought to dress slightly better than our co-workers. These days that doesn't take too much effort.

My context for speaking in front of audiences is often church-related. Although this book is not directed at the church, and in spite of the myriad of books on preaching, I believe there's a lot that ministers could learn from this book. I remember reading a decade and a half ago that studies have shown that one of the most boring things viewers see on television is the talking head. And yet for churches that televise their services, this is mostly what is offered. But the same can be true even in a live setting. Honestly, have you ever sat in a church service, listening to a sermon, and found yourself to be bored out of your mind? Has your mind ever wandered? These are rhetorical questions.

Remember what my college prof said in the eighties about folks only having 20 minute attention spans? It may be worse now. Gallo writes that

"Your audience checks out after ten minutes. Not in eleven minutes, but ten. We know this valuable fact thanks to new research into cognitive functioning. Simply put, the brain gets bored."

So now, we're down to ten minutes! Obviously Steve Jobs speaks for more than ten minutes (his presentations are about an hour and a half on average). I also know for a fact that only first sermons are ten minutes long! Most are 30 minutes are more. So what can you do? Gallo says to do what Steve does: don't let the brains of your audience get bored. Add variety. That may be a video clip or an onstage interview. Maybe it's simply to stop the technical exposition of a Bible passage and offer a relatable story. Don't worry—Jesus did that last one a lot. They're called parables.

Keeping brains alert is not necessarily the same as entertainment. I realize that the goal of the Sunday sermon is not to entertain. But the average sermon is still based upon methods geared toward strictly passive oral learning of a pre-modern age. People have different learning styles and effective communicators use this to their advantage. The message can remain the same, the message can still have depth, but I don't think we have to be boxed in regarding how it's communicated.

One more thing...

I love the title of the book's second chapter: "Develop a Messianic Sense of Purpose." Gallo points out that when Steve Jobs speaks, he's not simply trying to sell you an iPod, or a Mac, or an iPhone. He sells the experience. He describes how your life will be enriched through these devices. Going all the way back to Apple's beginnings in the seventies, it wasn't about simply selling personal computers to Jobs. He had a vision to change the world.

If you teach or preach the Bible, how's your vision? I said my questions above about getting bored in church were rhetorical. But I will tell you that I've sat through many sermons in my life (my present church excluded, of course!) in which I had absolutely no indication that the speaker had any vision for changing the world based simply upon his boring presentation and overall lack of enthusiasm. If we don't believe in what we preach, it shows. We offer the Good News of Jesus Christ, a peace that outlasts the latest gadget. Messianic sense of purpose, indeed.





If you want to see the principles Carmine Gallo outlines in The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs applied to the iPad announcement, see Gallo's article "The Secrets of Steve Jobs' iPad Presentation" at Cult of Mac.