Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Scandal-a-day - Our world is crashing, but nobody cares

A Lego rendering of the starship Bistromath.
I was recently asked why the American public seems so oblivious to the multiple stories in the news that ought to alarm them. And no, I am not talking about the ones on Justin Bieber's goal of riding into space. Although Americans ought to be alarmed that such is considered news.

No, I am referring to the ones such as this piece from Alabama that informs us roadblocks are now taking DNA samples from passersby. You'll note that just recently our Supreme Court ruled that such samples can be preserved on record by the authorities for longer than you might hope to preserve your own conscious state inside its current carbon-based habitation.

And this comes just at a time when it has been exposed that the federal government has made for itself a giant database of every phone call, email, text message, instant message, photo, video and audio file you're sending into the ether. And let's not forget your browsing history. Oh, you cleared your cache did you? Well, in case you erased a visit or two by accident, there's probably a pasty-faced 29-year-old Booz Allen drone who can call 'em back up for you.

But back to our question: Why no utter horror that IRS agents are grilling people over which way their politics swing? That members of the free press are painted poisoners of Moose and Squirrel? That store shelves are bare of hollow-points because the hollow-heads in D.C. bought 'em bargain basement to "save the taxpayer dime?"

It's a simple SEP.

Douglas Adams, in his book "Life, the Universe and Everything" from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series puts it plainly:

"An SEP is something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. ... The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye."

In the book, the Starship Bistromath was sitting well in sight of a crowd watching a cricket match at Lord's. But seeing that a starship of any kind would never be expected to be located at Lord's, the cricket watchers ignored its presence entirely. To acknowledge it would force them to deal with it, and that would cause serious problems. Why was it there? Do its operators come in peace? Much easier to let it be someone else's problem.

With a daily onslaught of scandals and crises it becomes too much to handle. Maybe one or two might get some attention, but it can't possibly be true that all of this is happening in our giant web of Anytown U.S.A.'s. So we don't see it. It's all a big Bistromath.

Until they come for me it's just an SEP.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tea partiers making their point – with Constitution

A 68-year-old Ohio woman who was targeted by the IRS when she tried to get tax-exempt status for her conservative group was told she'd have to provide a synopsis of the titles her book study had read.

She sent in a copy of the Constitution.

American Patriots against Government Excess (PAGE) got targeted for two reasons: It had the word "patriots" in the title and it was critical of how the feds spend money.

Marion Bower told ABC that her group was made up of volunteers who passed out copies of the Constitution at parades and had informational meetings on subjects such as health care law and disaster preparedness.

Bower's activities got me thinking: A lot of tea partiers are quite content to make their point just by giving out free copies of the U.S. Constitution. They figure if people just read it they'll come to the right conclusion.

They feel no need to hammer their point or cajole anyone with fine-sounding arguments. The document itself is sufficient.

Which makes me wonder a little bit about the points of their opposition.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Run Charities Like a Business, Help More People

I'm a writer. I sometimes get emails from LinkedIn for "Jobs You May Be Interested In."

I'm currently working a great freelance job I got through this process, and today I checked out another batch of offerings. One looked interesting, so I read through the specifics, including the qualifications, which included:

  • Bachelor’s degree in Communications (Journalism, writing, mass media) or related work experience. References and Portfolio must be included.
  • Artistic skill and talent in creative writing.
  • Ability to work on projects independently as well as in a team.
  • Ability to multi-task and follow several stories at one time.
  • Creativity and instinct to communicate and find ideas.
  • Willingness to work very closely with people from foreign cultures.

Sounded good. So I read on down to this line:

Compensation: Volunteer.

Seriously? Up to this point the ad sounded like a full-time job, working with a team of professionals. The qualifications certainly sounded like someone with high talent and experience. But no pay?

Admittedly, the job was for a Christian charity. All compensation, after all, isn't monetary. The successful candidate would likely receive some spiritual compensation in the fact that he/she is helping the impoverished and furthering to cause of God.

I'm all for that. But I have to eat.

The purpose of this job is presumably to tell the successful stories of the ministry to get people to open up their pocketbook, thus enabling the ministry to help even more people.

And, certainly, if all the work is done by volunteers more money goes to the people who need it. But consider this: By bringing up the people who need help, you are bringing down the people who are helping you. If I volunteer for this job, it creates less time for me to do writing that pays my bills. (And believe me, I've already cut every unnecessary expense possible.)

So I'm not going to apply. I'm not saying I'm the best writer they could find, but I'd make the pool of interviewees. And if I'm not going to apply it's a good guess that they won't get many people at my level – and certainly not any above my level.

They're going to get applicants with limited skills. Whoever gets that job will be able to add it to his/her resume, and that is a form of compensation. It also will give him/her the satisfaction of helping the impoverished, and that is a valid form of compensation, too.

But those of us with sought-after writing skills can find someone to actually pay us money for our work. And that will provide medical care and food for our own families, who also have needs. I would love to help the people this ministry helps – and at the same time help my own family. Wouldn't that be a novel idea?

There's a saying in business: You have to spend money to make money. And you know what else? You have to spend money to raise money. If this organization isn't paying its writers, photographers and videographers I can guarantee the result: the articles, photos and videos will be somewhat less than they could be. And you know what? The better those things are, the more people they are likely to reach with their message. And the more people they reach with their message, the more donations they are likely to bring in. And that will allow them to help even more people.

I know of several ideological businesses that are run exactly like that – a business. They make tons of money and still get their messages out. And more people see that message because, without compromising their beliefs or standards, they run their businesses to make money.

Yes, it's noble to sacrifice for a greater good. But it's not noble to do so unnecessarily.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Forget Benghazi talking points – Who's idea was it to blame video?

A still shot from "Innocence of Muslims"

So there were at least a dozen iterations of the talking points U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used when she went on five Sunday talks shows to blame a D-grade anti-Muslim movie on YouTube.

The troubling thing is, not one of those 12 iterations says anything about a YouTube video.

So who's idea was it to blame the video? Did Susan Rice think it up herself? Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton blamed the video, too. And so did still-President Barack Obama.

Clinton and Obama told the family members of the four men killed in the attack that the video was responsible. Obama spoke against it at the United Nations two weeks after the fact. And the Obama-Clinton duo were featured in their own video to be shown in Pakistan attacking the anti-Muslim video.

The American who produced the video was put in jail. He's still there as of this writing.

The Obama administration has admitted now that it wasn't the video after all. The CIA talking points must have had it wrong.

We've finally seen the talking points. They were debated back and forth and revised down to the point of meaninglessness. Gen. David Petraus found them as useless as his wedding vows.

But the one thing I noticed when I read the various versions of the talking points that no one ever seems to point out: They never mention the video.

So who decided to?

Read Rush Limbaugh's thoughts.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

‘Human Shield’ of Reporters Protected Senate Protester

Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post says he and other reporters ended up being a “human shield” of sorts when Capitol Police were trying to throw an anti-gun protester out of the Senate.

Patricia Maisch, of Tucson, Ariz., and another woman shouted, “Shame on you!” when the Senate voted down a bill on April 17 that would have required more strict background checks for gun purchases.

Maisch was on the scene of the Tucson shooting in which then-Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in the head and six people were killed. Maisch took the gun magazine from shooter Jared Loughner.

Capitol Police were trying to escort Maisch out of the Capitol building when she was swarmed by reporters.

“(J)ournalists kind of formed a human shield around her because they all had their microphone in front of her,” Grim said on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” on Monday. “The Capitol Police realized perhaps arresting a hero of Tucson, right after the Senate knocked down this sensible gun bill, wasn't the best move, so they let her continue to talk.”

During the time Grim described, Maisch was asked by the press why she screamed that senators should be ashamed.

"Because they are an embarrassment to this country that they don't' have any compassion or care for people who have been taken brutally from their families," she responded, according to CNN.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

William Thornton's 'Uncanny Valley' follows up first Christian novel with themes of identity

                                                         (Photo by Greg Richter)
William Thornton's debut novel, "Brilliant Disguises," dealt with themes of identity and authentic Christianity. Thornton explores those themes again in his latest offering, "The Uncanny Valley," available in e-book only, and available at Smashwords for $5.99 (USD).

Thornton recently spoke with me about his new book:

Give us a little background on your new book, "The Uncanny Valley."

It's the story of two film actors in two different eras - the '50s and the present. The older actor, Buck Trapp, was in a famous movie in the '50s shortly before he was murdered. The present-day actor is Newman Self, and through the magic of computer animation, a studio wants to make a sequel to Buck Trapp's movie. However, they want to use animation to superimpose Buck Trapp's face over Newman's, and have Newman reprise Buck Trapp's old role. Sort of like what might happen if they tried to make a sequel to "Casablanca" today, superimposing Humphrey Bogart's face over another actor's. While Newman takes on the role, he retraces some of the steps of Buck's life and realizes his life could end up like Buck's.

Where did the title come from?

"The Uncanny Valley" is the name, in the book, of Buck Trapp's most famous movie. But it's also the real name of a psychological phenomenon that sometimes comes into play with computer animation. If a character in a movie isn't meant to be lifelike, like say, Cowboy Woody from "Toy Story," we as viewers will accept that it's not real and have no trouble enjoying the story. But if we hear Tom Hanks' voice coming out of one of the characters in "The Polar Express," our mind isn't fooled even though the faces of the characters are closer to our own. They don't feel real to us for some reason. That's the Uncanny Valley phenomenon -- the more lifelike something appears, the harder it is to fool someone into believing it is real. The phrase "uncanny valley" also reminded me of Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man- - of a "chasm" being fixed between Heaven and Hell. It's that unmeasurable distance between real and unreal, success and failure, belief and unbelief, saved and lost. 

Your last book dealt with identity, and this one seems to, as well. Is that a big theme in your work?

I think identity is one of the great unspoken themes in the Bible, maybe the last one. When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, he says, "I Am that I Am." His answer is not quite solid, and yet it is. It's His way of telling Moses that you don't need His name to conjure Him, to summon Him -- He's always there, and that alone is enough to explain Him. Jesus pinned everything He said on who He was: Do this because I say it. But once you get those two questions out of the way, there is a third: If that's who He is, then who are we? We define ourselves by our relationship to the Almighty. Even if we don't believe, that's an identity apart from Him. One of the mysteries of the faith is that there is the person we think we are (which might not even be who we truly are to others), and the person God intends for us to be. Our lives are about the distance we have to travel to get to where He intends, so we are constantly defining ourselves and redefining ourselves, with or without His influence.

And there's the image of the face, too.

Yeah. The face is an obvious one, because this is a real-life scenario. In "Gladiator," for example, the actor Oliver Reed died before filming ceased. So they had to have a body double for some scenes, and they substituted Oliver Reed's face. At some point, I believe, probably in the near future, somebody's going to do this very thing in real life for a major studio motion picture. There's a moral question there, but I was just taken by the obvious image -- you have your face, and Hollywood gives you another person's to call your own. How could you not use that? And also, there's the idea of resurrection. Buck Trapp is dead, but here he is! Alive again! Just for a movie screen.  

In "The Uncanny Valley" you have two movie actors from different eras who face similar spiritual issues. In "Brilliant Disguises" you had a "nonspiritual" man putting on a face of a devout Christian. Here, your characters are church-going believers who face temptations. Are you looking at "acting" from a different angle?

One of them, the actor from the '50s, Buck Trapp, is a believer, but he strays once fame and money come his way. The other character, Newman Self, isn't a believer. To play a character played by Buck Trapp, Newman realizes he has to find out who Buck Trapp was, and that leads him to discover what Buck Trapp believed. The acting portion of it is part of the story, but what's more important is what roles we play in life. An actor is pretending to be someone, but we all more or less "pretend" certain things -- confidence, the ability to do a job, even love. But what do playing those roles do to us inside? That's part of what we're talking about here. For example, you have your friends you work around. You are a certain person at work, and they are used to seeing you be that person. But you may have friends in another setting apart from work who know you in a totally different context. They may never come in contact with your work friends, and they may see a totally different side of you. That's not hypocrisy, by the way. There are just different social rules in different settings. We sometimes "act" just to live up to the expectations of others who are used to seeing us being a certain person. But maintaining those roles can produce a certain amount of unintended tension.

Who is your primary audience, Christians or those who don't consider themselves religious?

It's Christian fiction, obviously, but this is not a typical church setting. I can remember my grandmother on my father's side telling me that they never let the kids go to the movies in her day because to do so would have meant supporting people who had sinful lifestyles. My grandmother on my mother's side, however, used to play the piano at the theater along with silent movies. So I guess my love of movies is in my blood. I think a lot of people who wouldn't necessarily want to read what they think is a "religious" book would be interested in a novel about the movies. Besides, we need to get away from the idea that a "Christian" novel is about the Christian world and would only be something that other Christians would be interested in. If we were are reading a novel set in, say, Spain, and if the story is good, we don't care if it's particularly Spanish, as long as it touches on things that are familiar to all of us. That goes for anyone who's never been to Spain and ever even wanted to go. Christians don't need to think that way, about anything. We have a story to tell in any language, in any place, and in any medium.

Were there any real movies you drew on as inspiration?

Oh, yes. I used it as an example earlier in this interview, but "Casablanca" has always been a favorite. "The Uncanny Valley," as it's described in the book, would be a movie more like "The Maltese Falcon," sort of a black-and-white detective story. I modeled Buck Trapp partially on Bogart, but mostly on James Dean. It's hard to remember, but Dean used to be this tragic hero to teenagers because he died young, almost before he had a chance to be famous. I modeled Buck's wife Olivia on Lauren Bacall, because Bacall is still alive, and Olivia acts as a bridge between the two characters and eras. I also manage to mention the great biblical historical epics of the '50s, and the rise of foreign films. There's a Scandinavian character who vaguely resembles Max Von Sydow, because I love Bergman films. And I think there's a few little moments that anyone who loves the movies will recognize.

Read an excerpt of "The Uncanny Valley."

An interview from the web series "Creating," where Thornton talks about his Twitter page @Christendom144, his novel "Brilliant Disguises," and his background.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cell (A poem of new life)

Photos: stock.xchng
Illustration: Greg Richter Photography

I am held in this cell I cannot escape.
It’s been so long I cannot even conceive when I began.
Light comes in – and sound.
But it is no use to me.
The walls have become so calloused nothing touches them.
I waste away on the cold, hard cell floor.
The cold, hard self lore.
Sold my soul for a fa├žade.
Change on the outside, chains on the inside.

A piece falls.
It splits the cell and gives me life.
Salt and brightness shine from me.
I am Onesimus.
A bloody hand pushes through the rubble to pull me free.
Nourishes me with bread and wine.
Wedding brine.
He pays my debt.
Keys to a mansion – to a man’s son.