One man's view of theology, sports, politics, and whatever else in life that happens to interest me. A little bit about me.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Can't We Be Anti-Porn AND Anti-Censorship?

Next time a politician tells you stuff
he thinks you want to hear, think
about Homer Stokes from
"O Brother Where Art Thou?"
(If I knew who to credit with this
awesome illustration I would gladly
do so.)
This week the Alabama State Legislature will hold public hearings on HB 428, a law which proposes to install a porn filter on every Internet-capable device sold in the state starting next year. The law allows for the filter to be removed if the buyer pays $20 to the state (the business is allowed to add a "reasonable" fee). Apparently there are similar laws being proposed in at least two other states.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am against pornography. It is a shame that it is so commonplace on the Internet. The law specifically mentions child pornography and revenge porn. I think all sensible people agree that those are specifically heinous. I am not against people voluntarily installing filter programs on their computers or their children's. In a lot of cases that's probably a wise idea.

But this law is so fraught with problems, loopholes and unexplained realities that if it passes (which it shouldn't, but the Alabama Legislature isn't exactly known for wisdom) it will create more problems than it solves and do way more harm than good.

First of all, the bill requires manufacturers to install the filter. This is really untenable. It is unreasonable to expect even big sellers like Apple, Dell, Samsung, etc., to design specific devices for Alabama, to say nothing of the smaller companies that produce cheaper phones and tablets. They would effectively be put out of business in this state, which would adversely affect the poorest residents who rely on the cheaper devices to access the Internet.

Secondly, the bill says nothing about online sales. There is nothing in the bill that says Amazon and other online retailers have to comply with this law. This is sure to hurt Alabama businesses, as will residents driving to Chattanooga, Pensacola
or somewhere else to buy their devices. There aren't that many places in Alabama that aren't within an hour and a half from some state line.

The law also doesn't address jailbreaking or rooting the device to get rid of the filter without paying the fee. The people who are the real targets of this bill are tech-savvy enough to get around this quite easily. Meanwhile very few will actually pay to get the filter off their device, because who wants to publicly hand their phone across the counter to someone and ask for the filter to be taken off? The public shame will be enough to keep most people away.

More importantly, the simple fact of the matter is that no filter program really works like it is promised to. Filtering software tends to overreach and harm honest users while the real bad guys quickly figure out ways around it. Filters are notorious for keeping helpful information away from people who are in sexually abusive or exploitative situations. If someone can't find a description of what they are experiencing because it is blocked by a filter, how will they know to get out? Believe me, it happens. Abusers have been known to keep filters on their victims' computers.

One thing that is provided for in the law is a means by which people can report offensive material that escapes the filter. Manufacturers are required to update the filter from time to time to meet the concerns raised by citizens. I don't know about you, but I for sure don't want this guy in charge of what I and my family can and cannot look at on the Internet.

Finally, we don't live in a perfect world. People need to be informed about what is going on in the world around them. And sometimes the things they do might not pass muster with an Internet filter. Take, for example, Governor Bentley's affair with a state employee. Several TV and radio stations in the state refused to play the tapes of the lurid conversations for fear of an FCC citation. I have heard a brief snippet of the tapes. 30 seconds was about all I could stomach. How many people are unaware of Bentley's wrongdoing because of those stations' decisions? Maybe that is the reason there isn't more public pressure to impeach him?

One would think the filter would at least be similar to the FCC standard, so ironically the details of the governor's lurid relationship would be off-limits to Alabama residents if this law were to pass. Maybe this is the whole point of the law: the primary sponsor of the bill is a Republican. But honestly, I don't give him or most of the Alabama GOP credit for enough smarts to come up with such a plan to keep the governor's indiscretions under wraps. I think it's simpler to say this law is just grandstanding to please religious conservatives. The GOP thinks they will not consider the real-world ramifications. Instead they will see the GOP standing up against porn and will shower them with support in next year's election. Sadly, they think that because of years of experience in seeing it work.

If you want to see grandstanding in action (or if you have no idea what the above picture is about, watch this clip from "O Brother Where Art Thou":


The fact of the matter is there are already laws against child porn, revenge porn, solicitation and all the other big problems this bill claims to address. Instead of creating a new law that has the potential to harm local businesses, harm the poor and do little to address the real issues, state and local law enforcement should do more to enforce those laws, and the legislature can adjust those laws as may prove necessary. I know that's easier said than done, but passing this particular bill
will help no one, at least no one in Alabama.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

LG V20 Review: Two Great Screens and One Lousy Speaker

About three weeks ago my phone that I'd had for a year and a half bit the dust. I was expecting to get a few more weeks' use out of it before I bought something different with my own money and got out from under the purchase plan with T-Mobile. Unfortunately it went into full bootloop, so I had to get a new one right away from the phone store. There weren't a whole lot of choices for a guy like me who doesn't want Apple or Samsung, so I went with the LG V20.

My LG V20. Note particularly the "second screen" at the top with various function controls.

First Impressions


This phone is advertised as a bigger diagonal screen size than both the Apple iPhone Plus line and the Samsung Galaxy Edge. But thanks to its very small top and bottom bezels it doesn't feel that big in the hand or the pocket. The back of the phone is just a solid sheet of slippery plastic. I nearly dropped it a couple of times in the week before I got a case. The back needs texture or a curve or something.
The back is dangerously
slippery. Also note
the dual rear cameras.

When I first powered up the phone, I was disappointed to see no app drawer. Thankfully with a quick Google search I was able to find out how to change the settings to bring it back where it belongs. This setting should be the default.

Typical for a carrier-store Android phone, there is some bloatware to deal with. Thankfully T-Mobile is not as heavy-handed with the useless apps as is Verizon, and it is worth noting some can actually be uninstalled rather than disabled, including manufacturer apps like LG Health and carrier apps like T-Mobile TV. Thanks, T-Mo and LG!

The swappable battery is not as important a selling point as it used to be. Few phones have them anymore, and if rumors are true this may be one of the last top-of-the-line Android phones to have one. It is handy to be able to swap out a dead battery for a fresh one, but that requires a lot of planning ahead, unless you spring for the additional charging station. The most important advantage to having a swappable battery is it provides a surefire way to reboot the phone if you ever run into serious trouble. I was able to rescue my data off my old phone because the swappable battery enabled me to forcibly turn off the phone.

Second Screen

When the phone is off, the second screen shows the time and
your notifications without having to fire up the whole phone.

The big selling point of this phone is the "second screen," a strip at the top of the phone separate from the rest of the screen. This screen is most useful when the phone is not in use. All you have to do is pick up the phone and the second screen shows the time and any notifications. How many times a day do we smartphone users fire up the whole phone just to check the time or to see if we missed a call or text? With the second screen,  this step is unnecessary. It saves lots of wear on the battery. A swipe on the second screen will reveal a small control panel, enabling you to turn on/off wifi, Bluetooth and the flashlight as well as turning off the sound. A third swipe gives you access to your media controls, meaning you can quickly skip that song you used to like before Pandora started playing it over and over again. This is all done without turning on the whole phone and without signing in. Every phone should have something similar.

When the phone is actually in use, the second screen is less useful, other than the quick access to the controls. It also provides recent apps, but this is just as easily reached from the square button at the bottom of the screen, so it's redundant at best. One interesting feature is that if you get a call while you are doing something in an app, the option to accept or decline the call appears in the second screen, enabling you to decline the call if you wish without switching apps.

Hardware


The sound is disappointing: one single speaker at the bottom. I found a hack that will allow you to set up stereo sound through the earpiece speaker, but I'm not so adventurous as to download software from murky sources onto my phone. With the earphone jack, I ran into an issue with the phone turning down the earphone volume by itself. Maybe that was because of the old jack on the adapter I use on the tape deck in my car. My next project is to install a new car radio with Bluetooth, but for now it's a concern.

I don't really use my phone camera all that much. If I know I'm going to need to take good pictures, I'm bringing along my digital SLR. This phone's camera is fine for what I need. The dual camera setup is pretty cool, actually. I like the dual setup on the selfie camera even better though. It's great for taking group pictures without having to obviously stretch your arm and mess up the picture.

The battery consistently provides a full day's use for me. That might be a little unfair because I can't use my phone at work, so that cuts 8 hours out of the day, but I do use it quite heavily when I'm not on the job. But even on weekends I haven't had to charge it before the end of the day yet. I have frequently got the phone to go a day and a half on a full charge during the week.

Software


The V20 ships with Android 7.0 Nougat. The most important new capability of Nougat is the ability to have two apps open and active at the same time. I haven't actually used it very much because I'm used to multi-tasking using the navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen. The feature did come in handy once when I needed to dial a number I had taken a picture of. No back-and-forth or writing the number down necessary - just open the picture on the top half of the screen and dial the number with the dialer open on the bottom half.

LG has certainly dialed back the customization of its user interface. I remember reading recently that Google was cracking down on the wildly different UIs on various companies' phones with Nougat. It certainly seems to be true with this one, and that's a good thing. LG still has the Apple-esque red notification dots on certain app icons, but that's really the only thing I noticed that differentiated the UI from stock Android - well, once you fix the app drawer.

The 64 GB of storage is plenty for my needs. But if that's not enough, memory is easily expandable with the SD card slot, which reportedly can handle up to 2 TB(!!). I've never seen an SD card bigger than 256 GB, but I guess bigger ones are out there. Like the swappable battery, an SD card may not be necessary with this much standard storage, but I'm not going to complain that it's available.

Conclusion


The chintzy speaker is the one thing keeping me from giving the V20 a fully positive review. Three weeks may be a little early to tell, but so far this seems to be the best phone I've ever used. Definitely a keeper. So far I love the second screen. LG deserves credit for developing a unique idea for a smartphone that's actually useful and enhances the overall experience.

All of us use our smartphones in different ways. If the single speaker is a problem for you, you might want to pass on this one. It also might be troublesome if you really don't want a big phone. But if neither of those are an issue, I would definitely recommend you consider the LG V20. It is blazing fast, has a great camera, expandable storage galore, and is unique enough thanks to its second screen to stand out in a world of slabs that all look about the same.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Beauty and the Beast, Sports Illustrated and Lessons Learned

"For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light." ~ Jesus, Luke 16:8


I think it's safe to say Disney's marketing strategy promoting Beauty and the Beast was a runaway success. The movie opened with the biggest opening weekend ever for a PG-rated movie and the biggest opening weekend for any movie in March.

A big part of the that strategy was the quote a couple of weeks ago from the director about there being a “gay moment” in the movie. The article was perfectly timed so that the resulting furor would have maximum impact in social media in the week and a half prior to its release date. And a furor they got. It was impossible not to miss the impact of the quote in the week following the article's publishing.

I don't have any doubt that it was intentional. The media have learned their lesson well: get the Christians sufficiently riled up, and you're in for a bonanza. It's too bad many Christians haven't yet learned the same lesson.

One of the most striking examples of this phenomenon is the story of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The issue is by this time an American institution for better and for worse, mostly worse. For those of us under the age of 60, it's just always been there. But its origins lie at a place where happenstance and Christian outrage met.


Sports Illustrated was not always the behemoth I remember when I was growing up. (Print magazines are so 20th century). In 1964 SI was struggling to find a focus and an audience. It was far behind the largest sports weekly of the day, The Sporting News. And it had difficulty in determining exactly what it wanted to be all the time.

When there wasn't any baseball or football to cover, the magazine looked more like an outdoors or a lifestyle magazine. There were cover stories on hunting, travel, outdoors activities, even yachting with John and Jackie Kennedy.


It was anticipated to be a slow news week in mid-January 1964 (the NFL playoffs were usually over by Christmas back then). The managing editor, Andre Laguerre, planned a Caribbean travel story and told the photographer to hire a model to pose in a bikini for the cover. It was a brazen choice at the time, but Laguerre liked to push the boundaries and had little taste for American moralism. 

The cover (see it at this link if you wish) featured the picture with the following caption: "A Skin Diver's Guide to the Caribbean - Fun in the Sun on Cozumel." There was nothing about "annual swimsuit issue" or anything like that. Inside was a travel story with one more picture of the model and some other pictures of beach scenery.

Three SI covers from the 50s
and 60s that have nothing
to do with sports.
The cover created controversy. The magazine received thousands of angry letters and cancellations. At the same time, newsstand sales of the issue exceeded all expectations for a slow news week. Whether those sales were directly related to the anger expressed I have know way of knowing, but that is what happened.

Any time there is reaction, that is gold to marketers. They really don't care if it is positive or negative, as long as there is a reaction. A single issue which generated this kind of controversy and sales made everyone take notice. In the weeks that followed it was Laguerre who came up with the idea to put another girl in a bathing suit on the cover next year and bill it as the "second annual swimsuit issue."

Thus was born one of the most influential publications in American history. By all rights it should have been another one of those early SI issues that seem so weird to us who remember the magazine's heyday in the 70s-90s. But it lives on because of a firestorm of negative reaction from well-meaning folks.

I'm not saying those folks were wrong about the particular issue. I'm sure it was a shock to many subscribers looking for stories about basketball, hockey or perhaps the upcoming Winter Olympics. But if enough of them had simply and quietly pitched the magazine into the trash can and went on with their lives, the Swimsuit Issue wouldn't be around today. 

More than 50 years later, many Christians still haven't learned this lesson while the world has. The world eagerly lays out plans, knowing many Christians will quickly share anything that irritates them on social media without ever considering if they are being manipulated by either powerful media moguls looking for free publicity or by struggling Web publishers looking for cheap clicks. Either way, the manipulation is real and, unfortunately, easy to pull off. If Christians would just once not take the manipulation bait, the people pulling the strings might think twice about it. Personally I think it'd be nice to see Christians be the manipulators for once instead of the manipulatees. 

Note: The information for this article came mostly from an interview I saw a few years ago on TV with Frank DeFord, longtime writer and editor at Sports Illustrated. Unfortunately I could not find a link with the interview, but the basics of what I remember from the interview are confirmed in this article.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Jesus vs. Paul?

Misunderstood Verses #2

Matthew 6:14-15: For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. ~ Jesus

Ephesians 4:32: And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. ~ Paul

Recently I've become aware of a teaching that proposes that Jesus and Paul are at odds in these two statements. They say that Jesus says our forgiveness (which has to mean our salvation, since no one I'm aware of teaches one can be partially forgiven and go to heaven) is based on our forgiveness of others - that is our performance. Paul tells us that we forgive others because of how completely God has forgiven us.

The resolution they provide seems simple enough: Jesus was talking about a different era in God's redemptive history. Before the cross, before the resurrection, before Pentecost, whenever, God dealt with people on the basis of their performance. But now God deals with us based on Christ's all-sufficient work on the cross. It sounds plausible, because Hebrews tells us about the new and living way we have in Christ. But some (not all) who teach this are overzealous for the new and living way. In their exuberance they overlook a God who has always shown mankind mercy and grace.

If Jesus was saying that there was a time (obviously it had to include the time that Jesus was speaking) that God's forgiveness was conditional on our action, then that must mean no one from that era will be in heaven. I don't think I need to post any references to the fact that man can in no way earn God's favor, since if you've read this far you are interested enough in Scripture to understand that. God's grace has never been in this time or any other time based on man's performance.

To de-emphasize God's grace in previous times is to do injustice to our unchanging God and the great heroes of the Old Testament. Genesis 15:6 tells us, "He (Abraham) believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness." Three times in the New Testament (here, here and here) this verse is quoted as an illustration of the way we all must come to God. I'm thankful for the more complete revelation we have in Christ, but all God ever required, requires now and will ever require is belief in him.

So if Jesus was not saying that forgiveness is based on our performance, what did he mean? And how are Jesus' and Paul's statements rectified? To me it seems simple, because the key is in another verse in Ephesians: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." (2:10) If we as believers are ordained by God to walk in good works, is it not reasonable to assume that forgiveness will be one of those good works? And if so, then truly one who can never find it in their heart to forgive their fellow human knows nothing of the love, mercy and forgiveness of God.

We as believers will fail to forgive one another completely. If we wouldn't, why would Paul need to encourage us to forgive in the second verse above? We certainly deal with the works of the flesh in our hearts and lives. But we are just as certainly on the road to being the people God wants us to be. God promises to work in our lives to bring us farther on that road, but the journey won't be complete till we get to heaven.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

How Hillary Could Have Won

It's been a couple of days since Election Day 2016. Personally I am not disappointed Hillary lost, but I think she lost for one particular reason: she failed to make the campaign about issues. Had Hillary focused her speeches, her debates and advertising war chest on the contrasts (or, more importantly, the lack thereof) between herself and Trump, she would have driven a wedge between Donald Trump and his conservative base and won easily. Instead she relentlessly attacked Trump's personality, which only fueled his base to get out and vote.

If you had your TV on at any time in the last three months, chances are you saw it: the ad with the children sitting in front of the TV watching as Donald Trump made one extreme remark after another. It probably won't go down in history alongside other memorable TV ads from past campaigns (mostly because Hillary lost and most people remember winners' ads), but it is definitely the most memorable of this campaign. This ad, for better and for worse, exemplifies Clinton's entire campaign strategy: pointing out what a nasty scoundrel Donald Trump is.

Hillary's campaign staff and her supporters in the press and popular media followed this strategy to the letter. Late night comedians constantly pointed out Trump's flubs and erratic behavior every night of the week. Democratic panelists on various news shows focused on the seedy characters Trump seemed to attract, from Milo Yiannopoulos to David Duke. Some went on to imply (and in some cases declare outright) that all or most of Trump's support came from extremists like them.

This was the wrong strategy to take because it only served to fuel Trump's base's rage against the political, media and entertainment elite. They knew Trump was and is a sorry human being. A large portion of his base (at least many from all over the country that I talked to personally and on social media) was reluctant in their support. Hillary failed to turn that reluctance into a decision to stay home.

Most conservatives (I say this as a conservative-leaning libertarian who grew up around conservatives and who lives in a very red state - Alabama) have a persecution complex. They are used to being marginalized, ignored and villainized by the movers and shakers of society, and they tend to identify with people who are the targets of attacks from the left. If you want an example, look no further than Sarah Palin. The more liberals made fun of her, the more conservatives loved her, bought her books and tuned in to her TV shows.

Trump understood this. He was willing to take the abuse and dish out some of his own, which only further stirred his base, many of whom felt that both Romney and McCain failed to attack Barack Obama. Romney in particular further alienated the Republican base by failing to take a strong stand on issues dear to conservatives.

Had Hillary commended Trump for his stance on LGBT issues,
how many conservative votes would Trump have lost?
Photo Credit: Colorado Log Cabin Republicans
Here's where 2016 was different from 2012: in the debates and with his stump speeches President Obama made Romney speak to these divisive issues. And when he did, millions of conservatives stayed home. Clinton by and large did not attack Trump on any specific issues. And she had wide-open opportunities to do so. Trump is not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Many of his positions, especially on social issues, are similar to Clinton's. In particular, look at Trump's embrace of LGBT rights. Many conservatives, particularly conservative Christians, would balk at such positions. They are the type who would stay home rather than vote for the "lesser of two evils." Clinton did not need to attack Trump in this regard. She could have praised him for having an openly gay man speak right before his acceptance speech at the GOP Convention. She could have made a big deal out of finding common ground with Trump.

But Clinton never brought this up. Maybe she was afraid if she found common ground with Trump that some of her support might go away. Maybe she was afraid of humanizing someone she was determined to treat with disdain. Whatever the reason, the ceaseless personal attacks continued, and with each one she dug herself into a deeper hole she ultimately could not climb out of.