Friday, July 23, 2010

Man Against World

Check out my incubating new project, Man Against World, about the fight that we, especially young Christian men, have to wage in this world.

More France posts may be in order, but I won't promise anything. I'm, *sniff*, not the most reliable blogger.

Monday, June 21, 2010

France, Part II


An easygoing day of shopping and sightseeing, still somewhat marred by the airline snafu. We ate egg crepes provided by the hotel's kitchen, with orange juice, baguette, preserves, and hot chocolate--the perfect breakfast. We then walked to the center of Honfleur, a square harbor with some impressive sailboats surrounded by tall, narrow houses. We toured the Church of St. Catherine, begun in 1464. It was dark inside, huge and barn-like. It creeped me out a little--images of Mary were everywhere, including hanging over the altar. We then spent time at a book shop where I bought Tintin au Congo, a book racist enough that it was never translated into English--but hey, it's a Tintin book. Though Herge was a Belgian Imperialist, all his books are works of art.
We returned to the hotel and prepared to go to a larger town to find some clothes for John. This took us a long time. Finally, we were able to find a good discount store. I bought sneakers and a shirt in the traditional Normandy fisherman pattern (slightly updated). We are little cheese pastries for lunch in Trouville-sur-Mer, and finally returned to Honfleur. We took a leisurely walk to the center of Honfleur, enjoying traditional cider and appetizers at a quaside restaurant before continuing our leisurely walk. We stopped so that John could get gyros, then walked a steep twenty minutes to Cote de Grace, the highest point around, with stunning views of Honfleur, and a massive bridge across the little finger of the Atlantic that separated quaint, medieval Honfleur from massive, industrial Le Havre. There was a chapel, Our Lady of Grace, which unlike St. Catherine's, had its altar centered on Christ. It was a beautiful chapel, set in acres of quiet, ancient forests on the top of Cote de Grace. The bells began, calling believers to Mass. The pale ocean on one side, the forest on the other, the idyllic chapel--one of the oldest in the region--and the tintinnabulation of the bells--all combined in a sweet sensory harmony. For me, it felt like long-awaited peace after a long couple days of travel. We returned to the hotel, watched part of the John Grisham film "A Time to Kill," and went exhaustedly to bed. We will be heading to Brittany tomorrow, taking in the D-Day beaches on the way. What I will take away from Honfleur: the quiet. On the quiet streets during the day, in this hotel, and everywhere at night, Honfleur is a quiet and peaceful city. I can hear nothing right now but the faint buzz of the lights and John's even, quiet breathing. Time to turn in.


Honfleur to Dinan, Brittany, via a never-ending procession of roundabouts and wee little towns. We were sad to leave the B&B in Honfleur--it was a truly wonderful place. Today we toured some of Normandy's beaches, including Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc, where Grandpa Gray's Ranger Battalion fought on D-Day. We then set our sights on Brittany, our next destination.
The town of Dinan is rather touristy, with circuitously medieval streets. The hotelwas ancient on the outside, but indoors resembled an American motel--in a bad way. The petite British manager was very helpful, if scatter-brained. We wandered through the narrow streets and alleys. Mrs. H. and John bought a handmade leather belt for Mr. Hokanson. Then, at Creperie Ahn, we had the best meal of the trip so far--crepe salad with hot chevre for me, with rose wine for the table and a butter-caramel crepe for dessert. Then, proudly utilizing my French skills, I told the waiter to "bring you the bill, please." I then corrected myself and the smiling waiter shook his head. We then took a dusky walk around medieval Dinan.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

France, Part I

We went to France. Here's the story, in short installments.


Numb airport gate agents, almost robotic in their countenance. Unlike robots, these terminal denizens are not emotionless. Instead, they are sunk deep into melancholia. However, there was a curious glimmer—almost joy—in this specimen's eyes as she told us we had missed our flight to Paris.

Charlotte, North Carolina, is no doubt an excellent place. Its leaden skies on this occasion, however, did not invite further exploration. We wanted to be in Paris, immediately. I won't spend time describing the horrible experience of cajoling an airline into getting you on another plane. Somehow, we managed to get tickets to London. There, hopefully, we will transfer to another airport and thusly to Paris—most of a day latter than planned.

John, our erstwhile companion, was booked on a different flight, from Philadelphia. Ironically, he missed his flight as well—the plane was delayed. We will see if tomorrow brings a safe reunion of the four of us at Paris—Charles De Gaulle.

The loudspeakers on planes hardly merit the term. They failed altogether as the stewardess on this flight tried to talk. When they did work, they were hardly more effective. The pilot, however, was finally able to advise us to avoid “conjugating in the aisles.” I could barely resist jumping into the aisle and yelling “Amo! Amas! Amat!” at the top of my lungs.

The head stewardess was also able to tell us about the “flirtation devices,” handily placed under our seats. Seated between two pairs of grandparents, I didn't find this particularly useful. Besides, I have one built in that works perfectly well.

This is an Airbus A330. I only fly Boeing, so I asked the stewardess for a parachute with which to exit the plane, hoping for a soft landing on the pillowy Atlantic. She wouldn't supply me with one! I tell you, airplane travel is going to the dogs.


Eventually, we will get there. Will our baggage be waiting to meet us, however. THAT is the question.

What journey goes smoothly? Few. Life itself is a journey, if you'll pardon the cliched sentimentalism. We cannot avoid its obstacles—and nor can we make every plane. Obstacles are part of the journey of life. But how do we surmount them when encountered? Without sounding like a televangelist, we should rely on God. He is map, compass, and tour guide. When we are saved, the journey of life still has its ups and downs, but the destination has radically changed. I'm going to heaven, via Paris, France. How about you?

I don't really feel like getting my iPod out right now. So I plugged my 'phones into the in-flight entertainment console. Hey, they have Alejandro by, erm, well, you-know-who. Ah, even better, they have a whole station devoted to Radiohead. Bliss.

The whole tragedy of errors that has thus far characterized our journey brings all too readily to mind the excellent comedic sketches of Brian Regan: the arrogance of first-class passengers, the food which adjectives fail to capture, the message of harassed gate agents: “Okay, if I could have passengers in Zones A and B being to approach the gate, please,” which, to many people, sounds like, “Okay, Everybody rush the gate RIGHT now.”


It is indeed strange that during a single seven-hour flight through Earth's atmosphere, we can see the light of two days. We have shortened the night—I will pay for it with tiredness. Dawn begins sooner above the clouds. It is 5:45 AM and bright as day.


After three different estimates, we now find that weather has lost us 12 hours of France. John was, for some reason, sent to Oslo, Norway. He won't be in Paris till 7.

I have been sitting near the spotless McDonald's in Charles De Gaulle airport for hours now. My designated task seems to be muse, scratching post, internet enabler, and baggage watcher, while my betters troop about this massive airport. Tiresome crises, too tiring to go into, come and pass as we try to get our fractured party together and leave this teeming rabbit warren and strike out into France in our “Renault Espace or similar.”

Charles De Gaulle is massive and convoluted, but astonishingly clean and new, albeit with frequently non-functional escalators. The McDonald's and Pizza Hut are located back to back, as if set defensively against the waves of “foreign food” that threaten to overrun them.

We ate, this morning, at a delicious place called “Costa” at Heathrow Airport. It was like an upmarket, deli-style Panera Bread.

A short plane ride later, Air France delivered us to CDG, where we sit, waiting for John's flight from Oslo.


125 kilometers an hour through the dusky French countryside. It is past 9:30, but the leaden skies still bear enough light to write by. No one really knows where John's luggage is. No one knows when we will get it back. But we do count our blessing that John packed an extra change of clothes into his carry-on. None of us did.

Nor our black Mercedes, aided by a GPS, oozes quietly across the countryside.


Honfleur is a miniature town—parking even the tiny B-Class was a chore. The houses are ancient—half-timbered and brightly painted. It is dead silent right now in our hotel room with the windows thrown wide open. No downshifting trucks, no 24-7 gas stations—this town at night is much as it has been for centuries. La Cour Saint Catherine is a little jewel of a hotel right from Rick Steve's guidebook. The landlady promised us good weather tomorrow, and having lost a rainy day to the airline, we resolve to start early.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Let us suppose...

Never mind. Why did I delete this post? I suggest you watch the House episode "Private Lives." It's unhealthy to share everything about you with the internet.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tim Tebow Forever

You have probably heard of Tim Tebow. Tebow, 22, is the quarterback for the Florida Gators, the University of Florida's football team, and he is the greatest college athlete ever.

As a freshman, Tebow was a reserve quarterback. Nevertheless, he helped the team win a national championship. He almost single-handedly made the Gators a factor in college ball again. He won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore--the only underclassman ever to do so. He surprised many by returning to college for his senior year when many athletes with skills like Tebow's would have jumped into the pro arena.
There are a few more things you should know about Tim Tebow.
He's a Christian.
His parents are missionaries in the Philippines.
He was homeschooled.
The doctors told his mother that he should be aborted to save her life.
She refused.
He is a virgin.
He is appearing in a pro-life Super Bowl ad on Sunday.

So, now you know a little something more about the enigma that is Tim Tebow. At 6'3", 240 lbs., Tebow is no half-weight, stringy home-schooled kid who would spell "denouement" for you but can do no more than one push-up without getting distracting sweat under his preppie collar. He is not, in other words, someone like me.

A minor uproar arose last week, when it was revealed that Tim Tebow would appear in a Focus on the Family Super Bowl ad advocating the pro-life cause. This, in the 21st century, is apparently controversial. However, pro-choice sports writer Sally Jenkins makes the case for him.
Here's what we do need a lot more of: Tebows. Collegians who are selfless enough to choose not to spend summers poolside, but travel to impoverished countries to dispense medical care to children, as Tebow has every summer of his career. Athletes who believe in something other than themselves, and are willing to put their backbone where their mouth is. Celebrities who are self-possessed and self-controlled enough to use their wattage to advertise commitment over decadence.

You know what we really need more of? Famous guys who aren't embarrassed to practice sexual restraint, and to say it out loud. If we had more of those, women might have fewer abortions. See, the best way to deal with unwanted pregnancy is to not get the sperm in the egg and the egg implanted to begin with, and that is an issue for men, too -- and they should step up to that.

"Are you saving yourself for marriage?" Tebow was asked last summer during an SEC media day.

"Yes, I am," he replied.

The room fell into a hush, followed by tittering: The best college football player in the country had just announced he was a virgin. As Tebow gauged the reaction from the reporters in the room, he burst out laughing. They were a lot more embarrassed than he was.

"I think y'all are stunned right now!" he said. "You can't even ask a question!"

That's how far we've come from any kind of sane viewpoint about star athletes and sex. Promiscuity is so the norm that if a stud isn't shagging everything in sight, we feel faintly ashamed for him.

Keep on keepin' on, Tim! Good luck with the NFL draft! If Aaron Rodgers weren't so good, I would covet you...just please don't go to the Vikings.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti and the Bible

It happens after every natural disaster: "Why does God let these things happen?" some people say. And some reply, "These people are cursed by God and deserve to die." Cue hatred.

It happened in Haiti. As you know, a recent earthquake there killed upwards of 100,000 Haitians. The true number killed will never be known. Earthquakes bury their own dead. Evangelist and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network Pat Robertson responded by saying that the Haitians had made a "pact with the devil," and thus, implicitly, deserved whatever they got.

Voodoo is, unfortunately, fairly prevalent in Haiti. However, by percentage, Haiti is overwhelmingly Christian. I'm not saying that the bare statistics prove that Haiti is a righteous country, but I don't believe, as Robertson does, that Haiti did something especially bad to warrant this act of God. Were Satan-worshippers prevalent in pre-Katrina New Orleans? Of course not! Were they in pre-Earthquake 'Frisco? Again, no. Thus, Robertson's theory that only extreme, devil-worshipping sin merits this sort of catastrophe is disproved.

As a Calvinist, I believe that every unredeemed person deserves death. I'm not going to apologize for that. The fact that many people, including Christians, believe that they are entitled to 80 years of comfort is rather discomfiting. As Job would say, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away."

But Haiti is no worse than New Orleans or Indonesia when it comes to sin. The fact that many people fail to realize is that every second of life is a blessing from God. What's more, this is not an obligation for God. He chooses to bless his creations, and he chooses not to. The Christians who died in Haiti will rise up with the saints on the Last Day and be rewarded. The unbelievers who died in Haiti will likewise meet their just punishment, the same as we. True, life is bleak for those left behind on this island, but that's where affluent Western Christians come in: HELP HAITI! Christ did not command us to help the Christian poor, or the white poor. He commanded us to help the poor.

But don't believe me. Believe the Bible.

"Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

--Luke 13:1-5

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book Review: Going Rogue by Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin. Many people like her immensely. Many people can't stand her. Many people think she would make a better president than any other major-party candidate in 2012. Many people think Curious George would do better.

If you delineate the border between Palin-lovers and Palin-haters, you understand much about American politics. They love her here in Middle America. To blue-collar Republicans, she talks sense in a way they don't often hear from politicians. But to educated east-coast Democrats, she is the anti-christ. She is everything wrong with populist politics. They look at Sarah Palin and see a menace to society.

Why is she so polarizing? Much of it, I believe, is due to the media. The media has done much to tarnish Sarah Palin's reputation. This could be good and it could be bad. If Palin were Rod Blagojevich, we certainly would want her tarnished so that she would never show her face in the public square again. If, however, she were Ronald Reagan, we would not want her tarnished.

So which is she? Sarah Palin's 2.5 year stint as Governor of Alaska was, in the beginning, wildly successful. As Alaskan Dewey Whetsell explains, everything she did worked and she did everything with high approval ratings and bipartisan support. (This is included at the end of Palin's book.)

But then, at the Alaska State Fair, in August 2008, Palin got a call from a man named John McCain, who was running for president. Would Sarah like to be a vice-presidential candidate? Yes, Sarah would. Depending on Palin's political future, she may one day rue that decision.

Suddenly, this cute, folksy mother of five catapulted onto the national stage. The Media, who had already crowned King Barack, were stunned. How dare this bumpkin stick her nose in? "Concerns" and "questions" arose. When frivolous ethics charges surfaced against Palin (like wearing an Arctic Cat jacket and talking to reporters in a hallway--apparently taboo on the Loony Left), these were trumpeted for all to hear.

Fast forward almost a year. The campaign is over, McCain-Palin soundly defeated. Palin calls a press conference and resigns the governorship. Once again, the country is stunned. Was it an admission of guilt? Was there another shoe about to drop? Had the pressure gotten to her? Was she dropping out to plan her presidential run? Or was she, as she said, unable to afford the legal bill for those ethics charges and left the public sector to make some money? No other shoe dropped and she appears sane, so it must have been the latter two.

I'm not talking about the book, am I? Well, that's because to understand Sarah Palin's book, one must understand Sarah Palin. And that's something that many people fail to do.

The writing is average. Palin charms sometimes, but at other times I wish she would stick with grammatical and verbal convention. Every cutesy word she makes up detracts from the seriousness of the work. Her life certainly has been busy, and fulfilling.

It's interesting that, until she reached the national stage, everyone liked her. Sarah could do no wrong on the Wasilla City Council, as mayor, on the various commissions she served on, and finally as governor. So she was a good pick for John McCain.

Her political beliefs are very, very right-wing. She is hardcore, man. But she makes it work. Without animosity, and without bias, she perfectly rode the line between big business and big government as governor.

God is on every page of Going Rogue. She invokes Him and His plan constantly. This could be real or it could be artificial--who am I to judge? But it's nice to see it in a book written by a popular politician.

Her family life is concerning. She has five kids and a largely absentee husband (work). But she still found time to govern the largest state of the union. That raises questions about her priorities. Would a truly devoted mother take on this more-than-full-time job? Part of me wonders how well her kids have been brought up. Bristol Palin's teenage pregnancy makes me wonder as well. Palin does not, in the book, chastise Bristol at all, nor does she admit any failings as a parent, or any failings at all.

Her TV appearances during the campaign were awful. Frankly, just terrible. This only increased the Media's dislike, and Tina Fey's SNL parody skewed many people's views still further. It was so accurate and so devastating.

After the campaign, though, she cleaned up her act. In Going Rogue she raises serious questions about her handling by the McCain camp, and indeed, as she tells it, it was wildly mismanaged. But the campaign itself was basically imploding before the election, and aides were fighting over the pieces.

Now, Sarah Palin lost to Hilary Clinton by one percentage point in a poll of Most Admired Women, beating such notables as the Queen and Oprah. For a politician whom I had never heard of in June 2008, that's quite an accomplishment.

Sarah Palin remains an enigma. My own view of her has skewed wildly, from love to serious distaste and back to cautious optimism. Go for it, Sarah, but just prove that you are who you say you are. Whatever else Sarah Palin does, she is not going to die quietly. Her book has already past up Barack Obama's and Bill Clinton's bestsellers. Maybe she will do the same for the American electorate.

Mosing's Best of the Decade: Movies

Best Movies of the 2000s

Hollywood is such a mixed bag. In fact, the movies made by Hollywood in a single year span from massive-budget megafilms with jaw-dropping special effects to little indie movies with a tenth of the budget but more heart. Hollywood is a misnomer, really. No single entity can be credited or blamed for all the films produced by the American movie industry. People will lament the decadence and sloppiness of Hollywood with one side of their mouth, and wholeheartedly praise its ingenuity and heart with the other. They're talking about different films that they like and dislike, not the film industry as a whole. All in all, the 2000s were a good decade for film. In the digital age, the signature of approval of a major studio is not as necessary as it once was. "Indie" movies like Slumdog Millionaire and Juno win critical acclaim and audience adoration, without the approval of corporate Hollywood. But here, in my opinion, are the best of the lot.

10. Amazing Grace, 2006

Ioan Gruffud's performance raises this above a normal historical movie. His impassioned portrayal of abolitionist hero William Wilberforce shows a man of true faith who lived it out well and earned the name "God's Politician."

9. Serenity, 2005

This movie adaptation of the short-lived Firefly TV series features a great, eclectic cast, a dark and moral plot, sudden bursts of humor, a great villain and ultimately, a story about responsibility and what happens when the government tries to make the people good.

8. The Lord of the Rings, 2001-2003

Peter Jackson's three films ought really to be considered one massive paean to Tolkien's mythic world. A beautiful, wonderful epic.

7. The Queen, 2006

A soft and subtle piece about the Queen and her troubles. Helen Mirren's performance is outstanding, and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair is one of the best portrayals of a politician ever.

6. Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

A fast-moving love story set in the beauties and horrors of modern India.

5. The Incredibles, 2005

The superhero movie saw a massive resurgence in the 2000s, and Pixar's offering was immensely good. For the first time, the studio portrayed real humans who, despite their powers, struggle with real human dilemmas.

4. The Dark Knight, 2008

Almost frighteningly dark, this movie is ultimately a tale of human failings. Heath Ledger's Joker is scary and unique. Hard to watch, but so, so good.

3. WALL-E, 2008

A Pixar movie for the robotic age, WALL-E is about the perils of dependence on technology. It's really very scary when you think about it. The love story between WALL-E and EVE is adorable. It takes immense skill to make half an hour of movie with no dialogue compelling and watchable. Pixar does just that.

2. The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006

Down and out in America--it's a common premise for films. But few are as big-hearted and touching as this Will Smith movie. A father's love proves true, hard work pays off, and soon a homeless single father becomes a Wall Street financier. Oh, and it's a true story.

1. Napoleon Dynamite, 2004

How can I begin? Napoleon Dynamite is one of the best films ever made. I and most people I know quote it constantly. It's a high-school movie. It's an American movie. Most importantly, it's a movie about people who exist outside of Hollywood films. Sure, Napoleon and Kip and Uncle Rico are exaggerated. But really, people like them are all around us. They're my friends and your friends, too idiosyncratic or not photogenic enough for a normal Hollywood movie. Thank God for Napoleon Dymanite. "Tina! Come get some ham!"

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mosing's Best of the Decade: Music and books that define the '00s for me.

I was nine when this decade began, and eighteen now. I am twice as old now as I was then. Obviously, then, this decade has influenced and changed my life in incalculable ways. So, for your enjoyment, for posterity, and for my biographers, I now list my favorite music and books of the '00s. Coming soon: Best movies and cars.

Best Music of the 2000s.

  1. Arctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare, 2007

The Monkeys' brash scouser funk at its best, with lyricism and catchy beats.

9. U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind, 2000

The world's greatest band reapplying for its title and unanimously holding on to it.

  1. Norah Jones, Feels Like Home, 2004

Jones is the best-selling female jazz artist of all time and her second album remains, so far, her masterwork.

  1. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief, 2003

Radiohead has been hailed as one of the greatest bands of the 21st century. Opinions vary, but I believe this album is more coherent than their more popular offerings Kid A and Amnesiac.

  1. Red Hot Chili Peppers, By the Way, 2005

Funk with heart. Kiedis's polarizing vocals, plus Chad Smith's superb drumming, Flea's driving bass lines and John Frusciante's godlike guitar skills make this the best Pepperss album.

  1. The White Stripes, Icky Thump, 2008

The White Stripes' last and best is probably one of the most American albums I have ever heard.

  1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002

Wilco was dropped by their record label after this album was completed, and picked up by a new one. It became a mega-hit and established Wilco's country-influenced hard rock sound.

  1. Switchfoot, The Beautiful Letdown, 2003

Sue me, but I think Switchfoot has had a huge influence on modern pop rock, and it started with this album's earnest lyricism.

  1. The Killers, Hot Fuss, 2004

The Killers' best album to date, Hot Fuss combines many elements to become an eclectic, interesting whole.

1. Audio Adrenaline, Lift, 2001

Lift is one of the most worshipful albums I've ever heard. From Ocean Floor to You Still Amaze Me, the Christian rockers keep the message coming in serious, otherworldly melodies. Also, I have all these albums on iTunes and this is the only one that writing a blurb about made me want to listen to it again. "You, you still amaze me. Bigger than the sky, brighter than the sun, you're the one."

Best Books of the 2000s.

  1. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2007

Rowling's powerful finale to the best-selling fiction series ever written was a fitting end to the series and proved, once and for all, that Rowling was no mere children's writer. The Messianic allegories, the intricately crafted plot, and the unforgettable characters make this one of my favorite books ever.

  1. Rod Dreher, Crunchy Cons, 2006

Dreher's impassioned call for a Republican party grounded more in environmentally responsible, doctrinally sound, and intellectually honest philosophy is the political book with the most influence on me, ever.

  1. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind, 2001

Zafon's book is magical. Simple as that.

  1. Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace, 2007

William Wilberforce, “God's politician,” has long been one of my heroes. This biography of him, then, naturally attracted me. It was the best biography I have ever read, and slim as it is, it provides a rather complete assessment not only of Wilberforce but of his allies and conditions in early Victorian England.

  1. Stephen Marche, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, 2007

This exquisite collection of short fiction from the fictional island of “Sanjania” is as beautiful as it is inventive.

  1. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in the Age of Skepticism, 2008

Pastor Keller, leader of New York's most vibrant evangelical church which he himself founded in the 80s, gives an impassioned, orthodox defense of traditional belief.

  1. Timothy Zahn, Allegiance, 2007.

I know, I know, a Star Wars novel. Truth be told, though, Zahn is ten times more talented than the other hacks Lucas hired to write his sequels, and is an accomplished sci-fi author in his own right. Allegiance is not his best, but the others were published in the last millennium and he needs to be on this list.

  1. Adam Nicolson, Seize the Fire: Heroism and Duty at the Battle of the Trafalgar, 2006

As an anglophile, I've always idolized Nelson. This book is less about him as it is about the greatest naval battle in history, but how can one define Trafalgar without Nelson, or Nelson without Trafalgar? A great read. It also introduced me to one of the best poems ever written.

  1. Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, 2009.

This rousing mystery features a ridiculously young protagonist, but is nevertheless a great book.

  1. M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies, 2007.

A reasoned defense of one of my heroes. McCarthy's methods were way over the top, but his evidence of communist infiltration, Evans points out, was unassailable. This has been proven by declassified Soviet records. The fact that he remains a favorite target of liberals should remind us which side it is that has reason on its side.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

FIlm Review: Avatar

Avatar is the most expensive movie ever made. Sources vary, but the New York Times pegged it at just under half a billion dollars. It's unfortunate, then, that the movie was fatally flawed.

We saw the film in 2D because we're skinflints, and because some of us thought 3D would make us nauseous. Many of the positive reviews Avatar has received were from critics who saw the film's 3D premiere. Thus, their minds were blown by the majestic special effects and no mental energy was spent on the movie's plot.

If critics had paid more attention to the movie's plot, I fancy they wouldn't be quite so quick to proclaim Avatar one of the best movies of the decade, as some have. To be succinct, the plot is about a corporation in the future which has sucked Earth dry and found the world of Pandora to consume with their evil technology. The mineral "Unobtainium," found only on Pandora, sells for $25 million a kilo, and is well worth killing for. This corporation hires scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) to create an "avatar" program: essentially a human mind controlling a body that resembles Pandora's indigenous intelligent species: the Na'vi. The avatar program is meant to relate to the Na'vi, teach them English and basically appease them for having their world stolen.

The Na'vi are tall, impossibly thin, and blue. They are a tribal race with shamanic customs and cliched religious beliefs about a world-tree and a life-force that binds everything together. They are like a group of pretty, warlike, Jedi Smurfs with a lower body-mass index and giantism.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-Marine whose brother was in the Avatar program. When said brother dies suddenly, Sully is sent into space to take his place. Sully is paralyzed below the waist. He is implausibly given an Avatar after one day on base, and soon wins the trust of the Na'vi. He falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and begins to question his role in the relations between humans and the Na'vi.

Dark clouds loom in the horizon, though, as a rich vein of Unobtainium is discovered--right beneath the Na'vi village! What do our heroes do? After meager attempts at diplomacy fail, scarily gung-ho ex-Marine villain Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a xenophobic Bush-parody figure, is sent in to destroy indigent blue-skins.

This doesn't work.

Long movie short, the aliens win and lots of humans die.

About halfway through the movie, I realized I was watching a movie about aliens killing humans by the hundreds and I was supposed to cheer. The effects were stunning. Stunning. The acting was really pretty credible, especially Worthington, Lang, and Weaver.

The humans, we hear in the movie, come from a world where there is no green left. "They killed their mother," Jake Sully's avatar tells the Na'vi. So the future of humanity, according to director James Cameron, is to destroy Earth and go searching for another world to rape.

This is the James Cameron of Titanic fame, who tied his name to a spurious documentary which claimed to have found "the lost tomb of Jesus." In Avatar we see his ideal world: where quasi-Buddhist, Mother-Pandora-worshipping blue-skinned savages kill a bunch of Marines.

The movie is so well done that I seriously enjoyed it. The effects are truly beautiful and amazing. I would be glad to spend years exploring the exotic biosphere of Pandora. But the plot prevents Avatar from being a great movie, or even a good one.

Why can't our sci-fi epics be about humans finding common ground with aliens and working towards the future? Why do the humans have to lose? What kind of person makes a movie like that?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ender's Game: Literary Analysis

Ender's Game is a science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card and is one of the very few books to win both Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction's highest honors, for Best Novel. It is the story of child prodigy Ender Wiggin in 22nd century North Carolina, who lives with his distant parents, his dear sister Valentine, and his sadistic brother Peter. The novel opens movingly: “I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one.” Humanity faces the threat of a technologically advanced alien civilization that has already attacked twice, and the Earth leadership desperately seeks a person with the skill and innate ability to lead Earth's forces to victory. In Ender Wiggin, they see that person. Colonel Graff, who says that unique first line, is the book's most mercurial character. A fat, slovenly bureaucrat in some respects, he possesses a keen military mind and a ruthless sense of what must be done to win final and ultimate victory in the war that humanity faces. It is his manipulation that turns Ender Wiggin into a precisely-tuned instrument of destruction, who in the end, is able to save humanity. The question Card leaves us with is: was it the right thing to do?

Early in the book, Peter Wiggin terrorizes his younger siblings, inflicting physical violence and even threatening to kill them. Peter is cruel and manipulative by nature, and this naturally led to his oppression of Ender and Valentine. He especially hates Ender because Peter was tested and rejected for Battle School while, at the outset of the book, Ender still wears his “monitor,” and is apparently destined for Battle School. After Ender leaves Earth to go to Battle School, the conflict continues to a lesser extent between Peter and Valentine. Peter draws Valentine into his scheme to gain power in the world. He and she pretend to be the ideologues Lock and Demosthenes. Locke's persona is reasoned and wise, while Demosthenes is inflammatory and indulges in demagoguery. They are meant to be perfect opposites. Peter takes Loke, Valentine writes Demosthenes. Essentially, they each are taking positions that conflict with their real beliefs. Through their close partnership, they begin to understand more about each other and Peter's animosity is curbed somewhat. However, Valentine knows that if Ender returns to Earth after his victory over the Buggers, Peter will use him to his own ends. She uses Demosthenes to assure that Ender can never return to Earth, and she leaves Earth on a colony ship to join him. So the conflict is resolved only when the aggressors are separated by lightyears.

The Human war with the Buggers is the overarching conflict in the story. The Buggers are a powerful alien race that attacked Earth twice sometime before the story began. They were repulsed by the space-fleets of Earth, but only because of the dumb luck of Mazer Rackham. Since the “second invasion,” humanity has concentrated its energies on preparing for a possible third invasion. Humanity is under a Hegemony and the IF (International Fleet) builds spaceships with ever-increasing speed and firepower. However, humans on earth believe that the fleet is massing in the solar system, when in fact each ship is sent to attack the Bugger home-worlds as soon as it is built and crewed. The IF has instituted the Battle School, an orbital base devoted to training prodigious children to be the leaders and commanders of the fleet en route to destroy the Buggers. Ender Wiggin is selected to attend Battle School. He overcomes the trials of battle school and is sent to Command School. There he is trained by Mazer Rackham himself, and begins to practice using the “Simulator,” a virtual command interface. He is aided by his “jeesh,” his friends and allies from Battle School. Unbeknownst to him, the battle “simulations” are actually the real battles against the Buggers. He wins most of them handily. On the final trial, however, he decides to use his weapons against the Bugger planet itself, employing a suicidal strategy. He is succesful, and the planet is destroyed, along with nearly all his forces. Rackham reveals to him that he just fought the real battle and has defeated and destroyed the Buggers.

Before Ender enters battle school, Stilson, a boy at school, terrorizes him for being a “Third”--a third child born to his parents under a special dispensation, at a time when there are strict population controls placed on the population. One day Ender's “monitor,” a device the IF uses to observe him and decide his fitness for Battle School, is removed. Stilson, seeing that Ender is now unmonitored by watchful adults, approaches him with a group of cohorts planning to cause pain. Ender determines that he must take the gloves off. He thinks that only a complete victory would dissuade the bullies from further attacks. When Stilson attacks him, Ender's response is swift and very painful. Stilson is vanquished and, the author implies, actually dies. Later, at battle school, Ender makes an enemy of Bonzo Madrid, a much older boy who commands Ender's army. Bonzo treats Ender nastily, and Ender embarrasses him by defying his orders to never fire his weapon, and firing critical shots that win a battle with another army. Ender is later transferred to another army and has further scuffles with Bonzo. Their conflict culminates when Bonzo confronts Ender in the showers. Ender decides that, as before, a direct confrontation is necessary. He destroys Bonzo, later finding out that he killed him as well.

All the conflicts in the book are set against the backdrop of humanity's protracted war with the Buggers, which forms the overarching story line. The first lesser conflict is Peter Wiggin's infliction of pain on his younger siblings. Ending this conflict becomes a major motivation for Ender and Valentine. Ender's fight with Stilson is his final test, and the moment in the book when he is most defenseless. It is his response here that finally tells Colonel Graff, the commander of Battle School, that Ender is strong enough to lead. As Ender goes through Battle School and proves his stellar abilities, it is his seeming indispensability in the Bugger Wars that provokes Bonzo's hatred and jealousy. Before their last encounter, Ender's older friend Dink shouts, “Don't hurt him, Bonzo! We need him!” This only inflames Bonzo further, reminding him, as Card points out, that he is largely a nonentity to other people, while Ender is the perceived savior of humanity from the Buggers. In a sense, the antagonists Peter and Stilson and Bonzo were hindrances that prevented Ender from addressing the major conflict: the war with the Buggers.

Ender's time in the “simulator” at Command School is the climax of the story, specifically the final “test” set by his teacher Mazer Rackham: he must lead the human forces, outnumbered 1000 to 1, to victory against a massive Bugger fleet around their home planet. Prior to the battle, Mazer tells Ender that the upcoming battle will be the final simulation; if he wins, he will graduate from Command School. Ender is dismayed when he sees the enormity of the fleet he is tasked to destroy. He thinks it is an impossible cheat by Rackham, and decides that he will use all his forces in a near-suicidal attack on the Bugger planet itself. This mirrors an incident earlier in the book, Ender's last battle at Battle School, where Ender and Dragon Army beat not one but two armies in the battle room by using similar techniques. Ender's spiraling, unpredictable attack leads to grievous losses, but it also brings the awesome destructive power of Ender's weapons to bear on the Bugger planet. He destroys the planet. Ender thinks he has won by cheating, but the celebration of the observers sent to watch his final battle tells him otherwise. Finally, in the book's revelatory moment, Rackham reveals to him that he has just destroyed the Buggers—the “simulator” was no simulator at all. In fact, it was a tactical command center of the entire Earth space armada. He tells Ender that Earth needed a commander with the compassion to fully understand his enemy, but with the ruthlessness to destroy him. Ender had the compassion, but not the ruthlessness, and thus his true purpose was hidden from him. Ender concludes that a complete understanding of one's enemy will lead irrevocably to loving them. Ender's victory, then, is the climax of the story, though he did not know it at the time.

The questions Card leaves unanswered are uniformly intentional. Ender's Game is not a thrilling science fiction story, but rather a novel about the human condition and the consequences of thoughts and actions. Was Graff's manipulation of Ender justifiable? Was Ender's eventual act of destruction the right thing to do? Did the Buggers deserve to die? These are the questions Card leaves us with, and they are questions with answers that may make us rethink our preconceptions about human actions, the military mind, and the prospect of nonhuman intelligent life in the universe. Ender's Game, however, does not succeed because it is a great philosophical work. It succeeds because it is a novel that describes otherworldly events with a human heart. Like the best experiences in life, the events in Ender's Game do not just happen. They break down and change and build up the characters who experience them. In a world where fiction is so often idealized and unrealistic, Ender's Game is, conversely, a harshly realistic novel set in one possible future.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

In Which I Am Seduced by the Specter of a Corporate Image

To relate this tale, I must begin almost a year ago, when I decided that my 1 GB Creative Zen Nano was a completely inadequate MP3 player and should be replaced. (To be honest, this thought had been percolating for some time.) However, I was prejudiced against the best-selling MP3 player: the iPod. I thought its functions could be duplicated for much less money, though with much less panache, by a cheaper model. I leaned toward another Creative: my sticking point was WiFi access, and their wireless-enabled Zen X-Fi seemed attractive.

I was still weighing the pros and cons of the X-Fi when I learned from a friend that an acquaintance of his had a refurbished 8 GB Apple iPod Touch which he wanted to get rid of. I learned that said acquaintance found himself in deep debt only a week after purchasing the iPod (this upstanding citizen had to pay compensation for vandalism.) I impetuously traded one hundred and eighty of my moneys for this iPod, sight unseen. We exchanged check and iPod in front of my friend's house, while my friend's (wry) mother made some comment about drug deals.

I noted with dismay the heavily-scratched metal rear surface of the iPod. However, once I brought it home and plugged it in, it worked well and continues to do so today. There were a few small niggles: the WiFi works everywhere but here at home, the storage capacity now seems prohibitive, and the software hasn't been completely bug-free. Overall, however, I am very satisfied with my purchase, even though I paid sixty dollars more for this refurbished iPod than I would have for a new Zen X-Fi of the same storage capacity.

So you could call it accidental, my inculcation into the Cult of Apple. It was probably a few months afterward that I started lusting after a MacBook. (Clear your mind of any negative associations with the words "cult" and "lust." Most human technology is so heart-breakingly unreliable and pitifully mediocre that any adoration for and lust after these items is painfully short-lived, laughable, and undeserving of any association with the Seven Deadly Sins.) For the uninitiated, the MacBook is Apple's cheapest laptop. I wanted the aluminum one, which was two and a half pounds lighter than my beastly Acer, and approximately a third as thick. It was also more than twice as expensive.

I am not a fanatic. I will concede that looking at the MacBook next to its humbler HP step-cousins, I saw the discrepancies: for about 2/3 of the money, an HP laptop would have a much larger hard drive and more memory to work with. But (and it is a very large, even obese but) it would also come with Windows Vista, the worst iteration of the most maddening operating system from the most annoying company on the planet.

The twin-pronged question that filled my head was: Do the advantages of the Mac (no viruses, infinitely better operating system, instant good karma) outweigh the disadvantages (high price, mediocre raw stats, and being labeled as an artsy snob?)

Since I'm now blogging on my aluminum Macbook, you can see that I answered that question with a resounding "Yes!" and backed up that assertion with my pocketbook.

The answer to the question is, as I see it, simple. When one buys a Mac, one is buying a lifestyle. Apple must have the best corporate images and the most devotees of any company in the world. Their stock, I should mention, has more than doubled since the recession began. And the Mac lifestyle is not like the PC lifestyle. We can see this clearly from, if nothing else, Apple's completely insufferable "I'm a Mac" ads which feature young, hip, Mac-user Justin Long in tight jeans and Converse and bespectacled, doughy, PC-user John Hodgman in a brown suit.

Apple is a luxury brand, and any price-comparisons between Macs and PCs should reflect this. Even though an everyman's laptop might have more RAM and hard drive space than my MacBook for less money, a "luxury" PC like a Sony Vaio costs just as much as a Mac--and it still has Windows Vista.

An interesting note: since I bought my iPod and began to seriously consider purchasing an MacBook, this dilemma has been mere rationalization for me. I had already made up my mind, I was just trying to convince myself that it was more rational than emotional. It worked, I bought a MacBook. This would suggest that Apple lust grows with time, like the common or garden variety of lust. Once I saw the clean curves and mouthwatering functionality of an iPod, I was not satisfied until I laid my hands on the much larger graceful aluminum lines of the MacBook.

I am happy with my MacBook so far. In fact, I can't think of a single fault at the moment, although certainly a few will occur to me as I grow used to it. I have transferred my computing life to it almost seamlessly and I'm glad I did.

I was seduced by clean metal lines, Steve Jobs, aluminum, Snow Leopard, and the Myriad font.

I was seduced by the carefully projected image of a vast company, the holographic cover girl wrapped around the gigantic, ugly furnace of corporatism.

I am truly an American.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Two tidbits

My new favorite source for worldwide news is Foreign Policy magazine; especially two of its recent articles which challenge the conventional wisdom and strike me as wise--all too rare a quality. See what you make of them.

Myth #1: "Conditions in Africa are Medieval."

FP's response: read the whole, enlightening article here.

Myth #2: "Power is shifting from West to East." (America and Europe are losing power to Asia.)

FP's response: read the article here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

E-books, the Kindle, and the future of the library

The modern lending library is a co-op of sorts. In my town, a group of literate people got together and decided that the town needed a library. They each contributed a few books, and these sparse tomes were housed in somebody's basement. New people joined, contributed their own books, and read others. The library grew. A hundred years hence, it is a collection of thousands of books in a sterile, white-walled, green-carpeted building with a staff of ten. What will it be in another century?

The printing press appears to be on its way out. Amazon's Kindle was introduced a few years ago, and quickly embraced by the literary elite. The Kindle, however, has massive flaws. Even after a price cut, the cheapest model is still $300. It uses E-ink technology which is expensive but, unlike an LED screen, is not backlit. The Kindle can only be stocked with ebooks from Amazon's Kindle store, which has about 300,000 titles--78,000 less than the amount of books published in the US and the UK in 2006. In other words, this is a tiny drop in the bucket of books that have been published even in the last decade, a tiny mote in the dust bunny the size of Hoover Dam that is the amount of books published since the invention of the printing press in approximately 1436.

Furthermore, a cursory glance of the "Kindle store" will reveal that, although most NYT bestsellers and many significant books are available, many of the bestselling books in history are not. The Harry Potter series, for example, which has sold half as many copies in 12 years as the Holy Qur'an has in its entire history, is absent.

The Kindle is undeniably groundbreaking, despite its flaws. Two competitors, Sony and Barnes & Noble (competing for the first time in their respective histories) have produced or shortly will produce e-readers, with larger libraries, lower prices, and less restrictions than Amazon's Kindle. The fact is, the printed book is no the way out, but I'm not willing to jump on board yet. I'm an admitted technophile, but every now and again staring at glowing rectangles gets old and I have to escape into what solace a printed book can offer. I do not look forward to the day when, to read the books I love, convenience will mandate that I leave my printed books behind.

I will miss going to Borders and browsing for hours. I will miss my job at the library, which will be made ineffably obsolete in the next half-century. I will miss the fresh, foresty, virginal smell of a new book, the crispness of its pages, and the salacious pleasure of reading it for the first time, and many times hereafter. I will miss the joy--yes, joy--of recommending a book to someone, lending them a ratty copy, and then basking in satisfaction when he or she loves it. With Card's Ender's Game, I did something very perilous. I recommended to someone a book I had not read myself. He read and loved it, I read and loved it. My brother read and loved it. By the end of it, I had read eight more books (the sequels) and no less than everyone in our school had read Ender's Game. With books made up of bytes instead of paper, this sort of sharing is not possible. No sensible publisher will relax DRM (Digital Rights Management) rules to allow customers to lend books to each other. Brick-and-mortar publishers can't dictate what customers do with their books after they buy them, but cyberspace-based ones can reach into your computer and delete anything and everything it wants to if you don't toe the line.

Don't take my word for it, though. Recently, Amazon remotely deleted copies of the Harry Potter series and Orwell's 1984 from customers' Kindles, and refunded them. The books had been placed on Amazon's Kindle store illegally, but even so: if they can do it for legitimate reasons, they can do it whenever they want. Barnes & Noble, however much it wants to, can't send ninjas to break into your house and take your copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting that you lent to a friend "in the family way."

There is a inherent difference between the version of the latest bestseller on Barnes & Noble's burgeoning shelves and the electronic one on Amazon's Kindle store. There are a finite number of copies of the paper version, and they cost a certain amount of money to make. There are an infinite number of copies of the Kindle version, as many as there is demand for and no more, and they cost an infitesimal amount to produce. This means that consumers pay less, that bookstores will never be overstocked, but it also undermines the entire thesis--and here I return, five paragraphs hence, to the subject of my first paragraph--of the modern lending library.

A public library is not a building or a collection of books, but a social contract between people saying, in effect: "We will each contribue x% of our income to fund this library, which will buy books and other materials, hire staff, and provide premises where we can all enjoy these items for free." That, at least, is how libraries started out. Now, they are publically funded and so taxpayers pay for their library whether they use it or not. A book that a library buys is put on the shelf, and patron after patron after patron can read it. Electronic books cannot be put on a shelf, and with DRM only one person can own them, not a consortium. A library could buy one e-book, someone could download and read it...and it would be "used up" and disappear into cyberspatial oblivion.

So, whither the library--or rather, will the library whither?

Not to act like an action film director, but to find out you'll have to wait till the sequel: "The Future of Libraries Redux," "The Future of Libraries is Back," "The Future of Libraries Reloaded," or "The Future of Libraries II." The title is still under consideration.

Till next time,

Sola Gratia

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Israel, Iran's Nukes, and Lots of Help from the Obama Administration

So, VP Joe Biden says it's okay for Israel to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. "We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination, that they're existentially threatened," Biden said in an interview on ABC's "The Week" on Monday the 6th.

Joe might want to check back with his boss. Here's Obama, when asked one day later if his administration had given a "green light" for such an attack: "Absolutely not." The problem of Iranian nukes would be resolved, he said, through diplomatic channels.

Joe Biden is in the right of it. Israel is a sovereign nation and old enough to make its own decisions. Biden didn't really give them the "green light;" he acknowledged that they could do what they darn well pleased. Obama, on the other hand, says that the problem must be resolved through diplomatic channels. Iran, even under Ahmadinejad, isn't stupid enough to challenge the U.S. directly by bombing U.S. interests in Iraq or Afghanistan. If, God forbid, they do get the bomb--which Mossad chief Meir Dagan said might happen by 2014--then they may well attempt to wipe Israel off the map.

In other words, this doesn't affect the U.S. directly except insofar as it changes the political balance in the Middle East. I hope Israel won't do anything rash that might lead to a larger Middle-Eastern war, but here's the clincher: Iran stands virtually alone. The rest of the Muslim East is separated from them by ethnic, linguistic, and cultural barriers. Even ultra-conservative, ultra-Muslim Saudi Arabia has, after negotiations, reportedly allowed Israeli jets to fly over Saudi airspace in an attack on Iran. Even the Saudis don't want a nuclear Iran, and see what needs to be done. Why doesn't Obama?

This is all assuming that Khamenei's theocracy in Iran triumphs in Iran, and that his puppet Ahmadinejad isn't forced to give in. This may or may not happen. The shooting death of protester Neda Salehi Agha Soltan, caught on video and apparently perpetrated by Iranian security forces, has become iconic in the same way as the grainy footage of the lone protester in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. A prominent group of Iranian Shi'ite clerics in the city of Qom have called the election invalid. We don't know what the future holds, but if Mousavi triumphs the whole question of attacking Iran might become moot. We can only hope.