Thoughts on The Hobbit Trailer

I have things to say (or else why write?), but I suppose you might want to see the trailer, in case you have not yet done so:

Are we ready? Set? Good.

I was initially tempted to call this a review, but that would be too grandiose for the reality of blathering about a two and a half minute series of scenes, some of which may not make the actual movie.  On the other hand, there is more than enough material here to blather about, in some detail.

My major concern is that Peter Jackson simply does not appear to be able to leave well enough alone.  I have written on this subject before in discussing his films of The Lord of the Rings, though in that post I focused on his understanding of character.  Here the problem seems to be a misconception of plot and genre.  He intends, clearly, to tie this film into his previous Lord of the Rings project.  Tolkien, you may remember, did the reverse, and without particularly bothering to make the connections formal in the later work.  True, The Lord of the Rings is clearer for having read The Hobbit: clearer, but the story seems to me perfectly clear without it.  In fairness I should probably say that I did read The Hobbit first, so I could be wrong.  At any rate, there are these two facts: the stories are independent as books; and The Hobbit is first.  Jackson is thus incidentally approaching the project backwards, and in approaching it backwards seems to have fallen into an error of regarding The Hobbit not as a prologue but instead as what we of recent years have dubbed a prequel.  This leads, probably, to two further errors.

In the first place, The Hobbit is not epic in scale.  It is, obviously, something Bilbo would tell Frodo about.  It is equally a story which might, if we can imagine Middle Earth for a moment without the genius of Tolkien to tell its stories in full glory, have been told years later in embellished summary and in simple sentences, with the rain pouring down outside and the children wrapped up in an afghan by the fire.  Or if we allow for Bilbo the novelist (or here autobiographer), a book read in similar circumstance.  It is a novel, an adventure story, even a fairy tale.  Jackson either does not realize this, or is not content with this, and instead appears to be bringing in all the elements which Gandalf, when questioned, left out, as if Tolkien were pointedly reminding us of the nature of this story.  There indeed – and back again.

Which has, in fact, somewhat neatly touched on my second objection.  If the plot of The Hobbit is self-contained, and (but for the Ring) connected only tangentially to anything within the wider world of Arda, the characters drawn in the book are, in comparison to The Lord of the Rings at least, simply and brightly drawn.  The Hobbit is filled with characters which are in places more nearly caricatures.  Bombur does not particularly have Character: he is The Fat Man.  Thorin is the King – or the Exile.  Balin as counselor, or wise man.  Gandalf is a wizard: wizardry is his thing, I am tempted to say his hat.  Even the orcs of the later longer book receive names and characterizations: in The Hobbit they are cut-rate stage-prop villains (except possibly not cut-rate, since Tolkien was, after all, a great author) with two names given between the horde of them.  Yes: at the end of the quest we see a glimpse of greater depth and the wider world – and Bilbo is neatly removed from it, except for the scene of Thorin's death (which provides the moral of the story, if there is one besides that of any adventure), so as not to spoil the tone.  In this I am in fact somewhat encouraged: Jackson is at least capable of understanding levity and humor and the value of breaking an overloaded chair.  At the same time, by dragging in, as he seems to intend, the events of the White Council, he will be unable to retain the simple characterization at least of Gandalf: and the heavy tone of Gandalf's lines given here about the result of the adventure seem to lack the underlying humor found in Tolkien's few similar lines – and to be emphasized in a way almost directly opposed to how Tolkien downplayed that element.

As I noted at the beginning, it is a bit early and a bit silly to say anything purportedly conclusive about the movie, so I think for now I will end.  The score does at least give me one good sign: I think I will say that for now I remain hopefully pessimistic about the final result.


Liturgy, and All That Jazz

Here at Alexandria Presbyterian Church (located, unsurprisingly, in Alexandria, Virginia), it was decided – I feel the passive justified as I do not know who made the decision – that on this coming Sunday, as it will be Christmas day, the service would be held in the evening.  Similar decisions have no doubt been made elsewhere.

I am of two minds.  The latent liturgicist within me protests that this is not a thing which is appropriate: that a piece of existence as important as the worship of the Lord by his saints should not be moved lightly aside to make way for other things, no matter how important, like family, in earthly terms – and goes on further to suggest that on Christmas of all days corporate worship should be not just present but a priority, as we find it on Easter Sunday.

The Hidebound Protestant, on the other hand, drags out dusty verses (or actually not that dusty, unless we go looking for one of the translations I have but do not use regularly) about not being bound to observe days, and the Sabbath being made for man: if in fact it is more convenient for the people of God to gather at an unusual time for one week out of the year (or even to skip services altogether, as happens occasionally when forced by blizzards, floods, fires, wars, and other disasters), why should there be anything wrong with that?

When I moved to Alexandria, I attended for several months at the Lutheran church one of my roommates attends, for various reasons: convenience, some misconceptions about APC (gathered I am not sure how), and some misgivings about Presbyterian polity (which still exist, but currently seem less important at the moment).  Immanuel celebrates an extremely high church service, which I found beautiful: but when after that I first went to APC, I found myself actually welcoming the praise choruses I tend to make fun of.

Mind you, I still make fun of them: musically speaking, they are most often not good.  The lyrics are often, even mainly, insipid.  But what they unquestionably are, at the very least by contrast, is joyful, emotional, expressive.  I am not exactly complaining about the liturgy of the Lutheran church in itself (although I found the hymns settings still jarringly Germanic); I found the service insistent, in a way often forgotten in other churches' presentations of worship, on the grace of God; but with this insistence there also seems to come a division.

The visual example may be the clearest: Immanuel has a rail around the communion table, and calls that table an altar; APC has no rail, and calls it a table.  Bearing in mind that at Christ's death the curtain protecting the Ark itself – God's presence – was torn, there seems no question to me which more accurately represents how God would have us approach him.  (As an aside, I have been reading lately on the history of the early church and find it strange how quickly the church "progressed" from the Ethiopian eunuch's "why should I not be baptized" to requiring months and years before new converts (or repentant heretics) were brought completely into the fold: this desire to "protect the altar" (my phrase) is hardly a new problem for Christianity.)

If then we live not just "under" grace (as before under the law), but in Christ we live in and by grace – go ahead, move the service.  I can find no harm in it.


Review: the Coen Brothers' True Grit

After considering the subject for several hours and maybe getting a little sleep, I have come to the conclusion that it would be difficult to do anything properly resembling a "normal" review of True Grit.  As far as the important questions go: it was a fantastic film, and you should see it.  That recommendation given, I am going to ignore my usual rule of no spoilers and talk about some of the things which I found most noticeable.

The dialogue is the first thing that strikes most people and sticks with them.  The "Western" accent underlies it, but there are remarkably few contractions; surprising, to me, is that this is apparently authentic to the era (some time after the Civil War).  In my contemplations, I was reminded of a friend from Ohio who speaks with a similar odd 'formality'; I had always put it down to a personal quirk, but now I wonder if an older tradition of speech – dialect? – survives somehow in scattered areas.

The thing I find most remarkable is the precise casting of the lead.  The character is supposed to be a fourteen-year-old girl, and is actually played by a fourteen-year old (Hailee Steinfeld).  While she does an excellent job, one thing makes it work, cinematically: she is tall.  By tall I mean my brain automatically registered here as "obviously a younger girl but has to be sixteen or seventeen" – until she declares her age, at which point the mind automatically adjusts everything to account for that fact.  Still, she is involved in serious business, and I feel the main reason the movie can carry its serious tone is because of her height: it makes her simply look old enough to be taking things seriously.  Without that, we end up with too much of a "cute" reaction to a small girl who ought to be out of her depth.  That would damage the tone.

The last thing to mention – and I think this may be a theme with the Coens, given some similarities in nature to O Brother, Where Art Though?, the only other film of theirs I have seen – is that an ending which seems altogether satisfactory is muted by the sudden introduction of continuing challenges.  In a film fitting neatly into a classic genre, the effect is jarring, as suddenly all the conventions begin to unravel.  That there is supposed to be a message, or at least a truth, communicated by this is clear; what that exact moral might be is less so.  It could be mere nihilism: whatever the moment may bring, it does not last.  But if that is the case, it is not a sufficient description: there seems to be an acceptance that the 'moment' matters anyway.


The Internet Liberal

I used the term "internet liberal" on facebook yesterday; a friend said he'd be interested in reading a further elaboration on the coinage.  Since I have a blog, this post was pretty much inevitable.

At the most basic, the internet liberal is simply a liberal who is on the internet.  It goes further than that, in that most of the internet which is not specifically dedicated to ideology is nonetheless dominated by at least quasi-liberal social mores.  Some of this is simply demographics, I suspect: conservatives seem, on the whole, more liable to limit their children's internet time, and thus on the whole I suspect conservatives grow up to have less of an attachment – and less of a presence – on the computer.  (The major exception seems to be in the political sphere, as especially demonstrated by the various right-wing blogmedia groups.)

These habits and expectations are, roughly, tolerance as defined by the modern left wing, and a mostly unquestioned acceptance of social democratic political ideals.  Europe is everybody's favorite place on the internet; America is an ignorant backwater.  Insulting homosexuals (or calling them wrong, or even asking the obvious question, "So wait, if you guys get 'married', which dude is the 'wife'?") is a major offense, as is, quite often, insinuating there might be actual physical differences between men and women when it comes to achieving careers (or on other liberal-sensitive issues).  Abortion is mostly accepted without question and any questioners abused with the usual nonsense about "women's reproductive rights" (to immediately deny the child a chance to ever reproduce).  Religion, especially Christianity, is assumed to be an enemy of science.  In short, the usual denizen of the internet is practically a left-wing stereotype: Occupy Wall Street is mostly viewed as well-intentioned (even when actual methods and results are questioned) while the Tea Parties were roundly mocked.

I exaggerate, a little, in that in most cases the conservatives are at least allowed to have their say, as long as they don't seriously transgress these bounds of liberal taste.  But in short, the liberal on the internet tends to view the argument as over, left-wing progressivism as a clear winner, and anyone who disagrees as the person who is really being "tolerated".

The irony, of course, is that the internet in its modern incarnation is, in most of the world, a shining example of practical conservative laissez-faire policy at work – and where it isn't, or where those liberties are threatened, the internet mobilizes  and complains and spreads the news.

True, the necessary infrastructure is provided by others, by ISPs and webhosts, but as government analogues go, they do pretty much nothing beyond keeping things running while you pay your taxes, I mean bills.  Most importantly, when contrasted to the social democratic government ideal, regulation is practically nonexistent – notoriously, even various illegal materials (either immoral or violating, say, copyright law) are freely available and not hard to find.

If you questioned one of these internet liberals and pointed out this contrast, I suspect the usual response would be something like, "But in the end, the internet doesn't really matter, nobody's life is ever going to be at stake because of something I write on my blog".  It's a good point, as far as it goes – but confident behind that objection I suspect it will be almost impossible to get them to listen to the one point the conservative movement keeps trying to hammer home: there is no – none, zilch, nada, zero – proof that the liberal social democratic regulatory state actually improves things overall even when the outcome does matter (for a thorough exploration of this, see Amity Shlae's book The Forgotten Man).

The internet as an example of a contrary model working (even as a limited test case) still hasn't made a dent in the indoctrinated liberalism of these people.  That's why I talk about the "internet liberal": they're the one class of liberal who really ought to know better, and do know better when it comes to their private hobby horse (the internet), but they refuse to see beyond that.

Math Education: The Problem

As far as I can tell, every student's favorite question is, "Why do we have to learn this math stuff anyway?"  It's a good question.

"But," you say, "Jon, don't you teach math?"

Why yes, yes I do.  I like math; apart from some issues with algebra in high school I am and have been fairly good at it; I majored in math at Hillsdale; now I'm teaching it.  I am not trying to suggest the the study of number is useless or otherwise overrated.  I simply suspect that it is overcomplicated in the modern school.

I would say there are three broad uses for mathematics.  I am going to call these the ordinary, technical, and artistic uses.

The ordinary math is practical.  This is the basic math that enables you to estimate a grocery bill or calculate the length of a trip.  At its most essential, this math is little more than the knowledge of facts like the infamous multiplication table, a grasp of simple concepts like unit conversion and averages, and an acquaintance with the concepts of probability.

Technical math is also practical but of a different order.  For one thing, it includes most math, from the geometry used in surveying to algebraic and calculus models to set theory and probability to frankly I only have the vaguest idea where most concepts are used precisely but you try doing anything tech-y and you run into math.  But the key difference is that the use of this mathematics is defined by the necessities of a profession: unless I wildly miss my guess, a tailor won't need the same math as a nuclear engineer.

Artistic math is math as its own thing – we might also call it pure math.  Whatever we do here may have applications, but that is not the primary purpose.  I think it would also include math puzzles and games like sudoku.

The situation, roughly speaking, with (at least American) math eduction as I have experienced it can be explicated as follows.  The goal is to teach technical math: in order to fit in a "complete" background what is actually be taught is only artistic or pure math: but so much is covered that even this is taught too much in the rote style necessary for practical math.

Do we expect too much?  Perhaps.  In other ways, we expect too little.  I use a widely-standard textbook series: from Pre-Algebra to Algebra 2 is supposedly three years' worth of study, but there's so much overlap that it should be two years... if that.  On the other hand, many of the basic concepts are cluttered up with fancy formulas with little differentiating the necessary from the curious.

My own theories of education, such as they are, draw heavily on a dictum ascribed to Churchill.  He is supposed to have said the important thing was for students to learn good English, after which he would allow the clever ones to learn Latin as a reward and Greek as a treat.  We can of course quarrel about the bare minimum necessary – much of the new classical movement, for instance, considers Latin essential especially considering its influences on English grammar and vocabulary.  The point, however, is that I am not convinced we serve students best by insisting on amassing unnecessary knowledge.  Let me illustrate: for my current work, I don't even need to know Calculus.  Yes, it helps to have a better conception of "the whole"; but the quadratic equation is unaffected by the fundamental theorem – and I teach the stuff.  But the impression I get is that we encourage more and more students to take Calc – either by state standards or private school snobbery – while actual basic match scores continue to fall.

My current conclusion is that we demand too much in terms of quantity (of information) and not enough in terms of quality (of knowledge).  While I have some thoughts on how to improve this, they're relatively incoherent, and my experience is limited, so for now I'm just going to throw the problem out there to remind me to revisit the subject later – I've been meaning to write on this for months now.


The Mud-Slinging Will Bring Down Perry in 3... 2... 1...

If you haven't seen this ad yet, watch it now so you have some idea what I'm talking about:

If you don't feel like watching the 30 seconds, here's the beef: Perry says, in almost precisely as many words, that something is wrong in America when homosexuals can serve in the US military openly, but Christian children can't openly celebrate Christmas in schools.  Let's get the obvious out of the way first: in the current media climate, this was an absolutely suicidal ad to run: even if it somehow won the governor the primary election, after that MSNBC or somesuch would just loop this 24/7 and Obama wouldn't even have to campaign.

So on to the more pertinent question: what exactly is wrong with what he said?  Imagine if he had instead said any of the following were heinous:

"...that Christians can serve openly in the military, but gay teens have to worry about bullying in schools."  Media darling.

"...that gays can serve openly in the military, but Muslims have to worry about discrimination."  Again, mad media props would be forthcoming.

"I'm gay, but I think it's absurd that we have convinced the military to let us serve openly while Christian kids have to worry about not being allowed to pray."  The mainstream media – I guess – would be dumbfounded.  Sort of like they ignore the Log Cabin and other homosexual (or women's) conservative groups.  (Note: I am not suggesting that Perry is a homosexual, if for no other reason than I try not to offend people.  This is a purely hypothetical scenario.  Why do I feel like this CYA disclaimer is necessary?)

And on the facts of what Perry said, it's really not that outrageous.  Recently courts (and the threat of the courts) have been limiting, or trying to limit, not just "official" school prayers, but prayers by anyone associated with a school – even student groups.

As for what he said about the importance of faith (especially Christian faith), we may have "moved past it" in much of the public mind but he's following a long American tradition, going back to Lincoln... the Founders... the colonists... the point is, are we now going to discriminate against a man on the basis of finding his religious faith uncomfortably real?  What's the real difference between that and discrimination against someone because we find ourselves uncomfortable around a flaming gay?

Right... religion.  Christianity is one; being gay isn't.  Which brings me to a constitutional point.  The relevant text would obviously be the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I can see several possible interpretations of this:

Historically speaking, it recognized that religion (meaning as such the various Christian sects, though the extension to other religions follows logically) is a unique category of behavior, and speech; and that given religions exist, we treat the nature of the subject with respect, but studiously avoid all legal favoring of any one religion.  (Incidentally, this renders the National Cathedral an extremely curious artifact, let alone trying to figure out which clergyperson should be allowed to officiate there.  Why do we have the thing, anyway?  Not that it's not impressive.)

A more modern interpretation suggests that religion is to be removed from the "public sphere" entirely.  Driving this are various ideas, from explicitly anti-religious sociology to a reasonable reticence in offending others to a growing casual unbelief.

However, on strict textual grounds, it would seem (and this is the third option, which is both straightforward and tolerant) that while religion is explicitly barred from receiving favored treatment, all speech is still protected – and this includes religious speech.  Which brings me back to the point I think Perry was trying to make.  We preach tolerance, especially for historically persecuted groups... but still prove intolerant of other groups.  The fact that they've been historically favored (in this country) doesn't excuse this behavior.

A secular country – assuming that's what the USA is, and we can make a plausible argument this is true at least in modernity – has to, almost by definition, regard religious speech as just another kind of speech.  To do otherwise is to either legitimize the supernatural in public affairs, or to declare itself not secular (which is to say, sticking to common things) but expressly anti-religious.

Anti-religious?  Not a reasonable option.  I would feel extremely confident in arguing that in the state of Alabama – to pick on the "Bible Belt" – far more death threats are issued each year over the Iron Bowl than over matters of faith or any discrimination "ism".  Obviously we need to ban football from schools.  Or maybe just 'Bama fans, I'm not sure.  After all, we're kicking Christian prayers out while championing idiots suing Catholic universities for not being Muslim...


Moderation, Tolerance – and Reality

A liberal friend was lamenting on facebook today the state of affairs where Newt Gingrich is a moderate.

Frankly, and as a conservative, I'd have to agree.  There's no question he fits the category reasonably well: his own views seem to be more or less in line with a conservative ideology, but he doesn't seem to be over-committed to any of them, is in many ways a "DC insider", and has proven more than willing over his political career to play ball with the big-government kooks.  Hardball, sometimes, but Verlander doesn't stop being a pitcher because no one can hit him.  When conservativism (at least supposedly) favors small government, that all makes him either a hypocrite or a moderate or perhaps both – but I'm feeling polite.

And this is one of the guys supposedly headlining the supposedly conservative Republican candidate selection?  Sheesh.

There's a simple problem with moderation: some topics simply don't allow for it.

If my family are pacifists, and your family believes in a universal draft, and we agree to "compromise" and just draft one person per family, that's not a compromise – your agenda has won in principle, and the rest, as Churchill said, is just haggling about the price.

If some crazy professor thinks we should force abortions to prevent population growth, and some priest thinks abortion is evil – occasionally a medically necessary evil to save more life, but still not a good thing – and the "compromise" is that people can kill infants if they want to, that's not a compromise: the side that thinks killing the babies is okay has won in principle, and the only question is who gets to decide who has to die.

Are we seeing the problem here?

Sure, there are issues on which compromise is possible, but in order to compromise some level of agreement is necessary.  If, for example, I think a car is worth five thousand dollars, and the dealer thinks it's worth sixty-eight hundred, we can eventually compromise, perhaps at six thousand.  But it's only possible because we both agree the car is worth something.  If I'm a Luddite who thinks cars are a deception of the devil, the car has what can only be described as negative value, and any possible sale – even if I were to frustrate the dealer so much he convinced me to buy the car for $1 – is a net win for the dealer who thinks it's worth something.

If you say you think that all violence is always wrong, and I'm in favor of executing petty thieves, but you get argued into justifying self-defense, you've lost the logical argument – only the degree is in question, not the fact of retribution.

Which is why recent politics show up as a lot of nonsense.  For example: One side – supposedly extreme – wants to stop spending money we don't have.  The other side – supposedly backed up by the ivory towers – wants to spend even more money we don't have than we're already spending.  And the supposed "compromise" positions have, at their most conservative, suggested that we should spend less money that we don't have than we're currently spending, but really there's nothing wrong with spending money we don't have… which is a net win for the people who want to spend money we don't have.

In case you've somehow missed the point to this point, here's the short version: if the choices are "all" and "not any ever", "some" is not a compromise: it's a logical victory for the side of "all" and future choices will move further and further towards "all" unless actively overturned.  Political Exhibit A?  Growth of the United States Federal government since... let's say since World War One at the absolute latest.