Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Thoughts On The Hobbit, Good, And Evil

I really liked this thought-provoking article at The American Thinker regarding The Hobbit, orcs, and the human condition:

It was with a burdened and weary heart that I made my way to the IMAX theater to catch the premiere of Peter Jackson's rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." The stormy night had blackened my already dour mood, having arisen that morning to another of man's inconceivably brutal horrors that had taken place at an elementary school thousands of miles away.

But upon seeing the face of my lovely daughter, the "almost pharmacist" and her devoted fiancée, both of whom had invited me to this 3-D showing of a classic book that has a special place in my life, I put aside that volume of human tragedy in anticipation of a literary master's fantasy world. One of the most precious things in my life has been the ability to share this love of Tolkien with Melinda -- to hear her rhapsodize of Middle Earth's richness as we shared the grand cosmology where hobbits, elves, dwarves, men, and necromancers dwell in the tenuous balance of Good and Evil. Indeed, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, in their imaginary worlds that have captured the imaginations of child and adult alike, sound a chord that serves to awaken souls to the never ending tension that constrains the human spirit into opposing directions. Later, while driving back home on rain slicked streets accompanied by the chatter of news concerning mass murder and inconsolable parents, I reflected on the Tolkien universe.

Of all the characters of these books, Hobbits are the most joyous and grounded of creatures. Perhaps because they are the smallest and least robust of beings or because they dwell idyllically in the insular Shire, their hearts are attuned to the creature comforts of hearth and home. With their lives bound up in family, food, and drink, they have been seemingly afforded by nature a calm moderation and a predisposition against novelty and adventure. The world around them, however, is anything but a paradise of rolling green hills and warm fires.

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien tells us that the Creator Illuvatar begat the Ainur, a host of powerful creatures who in obedience to his purpose sang the world into existence. But the greatest of the Ainur, Melkor, slowly began deviating from the harmonies of creation and through his dissonance clouded Illuvatar's intent. Illuvatar, nevertheless, incorporated his dissonance into even more profound harmonies. Drawing an analogy from the Judeo-Christian God and Lucifer, we find in both stories that what began as loving creation ex nihilo soon became a warring battleground. In the moral sphere of Good and Evil, a contest for the hearts and minds of Middle Earth spanned three ages of Middle Earth. In the Tolkien mythos, it is revealed that the world of this Third Age is but a paltry shadow of the First and that a great schism had divided an increasingly disenchanted world.

Evil, whether appearing in the disembodied spirits of Melkor, Morgoth, Sauron or in the spirits of those it tempts or leads away from the light, cannot of itself create. Being contingent, Evil can only propagate and seed itself through deception, corruption, vanity, or fear. While the First Born Elves have a certain moral excellence and distance in respect to their characters, it is in Men and Dwarves that evil finds a firm foothold. Being heir to dispositions of honor, power, and greed, Evil throughout the ages of Middle Earth often projects itself through strife and vanity. Moreover, the races of Orcs and the terrible creatures in Middle Earth were fashioned by Melkor through cruel and persistent tortures in the pit of Utumno. Thus, elves and beings of the first age were corrupted and bred for their dullness and black cruelties.

The universes of Tolkien and Lewis touch a spot in our hearts, not because of a one-dimensional black and white depiction of Good and Evil, but because they ring true in excavating the subtlety of what drives evil. Evil is not deemed co-equal with Good, as in a Manichean worldview, but as a corrupted end which once sought the Good. Such is vice and evil in our lives: love is denatured into lust, acquisition and thrift becomes greed and covetousness, and the desire to rule becomes the thirst for power and tyranny.

No man seeks evil for its own sake and even Lucifer aspired to rule in autonomous freedom because he judged that he would rule better. Having become unhinged from the Light and lost in the labyrinth of unanchored self, once man proceeds out into a vector of independence from the Archimedean Star of the Moral Law, he can no longer discern how far afield he has gone. Without milestones or ethical guideposts, our liberty becomes its own justification and soon we become the sole arbiter of truth and the moral "ought." Ungrounded from the light, Good inexorably morphs into a dark caricature of itself that eventually inflicts or condones actions that fall along the continuum where pain and suffering reside.

Clearly, the Bible and these lovely books, yea all of the classic fairy tales, are rooted in the knowledge that evil is a persistent companion in our amphibious souls. Having a nature that is both carnal and spirit, we are contestants in a subtle warfare for our minds and imaginations. Christians are, however, assured that though evil ebbs and flows in the hearts of men, Goodness and justice will win out in the fullness of days. Despite the manifold vices and wickedness that entertain the human imagination, a joyous optimism is evident in the words of the Gospels, Tolkien, and Lewis. Therein we can take comfort in virtue, faith, and courage that the Dark Lord shall not stand.

It is in our finite reckoning of time that patience exhausts itself and oftentimes our endurance is drawn down as we despair of evil's resolute gravity. Faced with suffering and evil occurring at an ever-accelerating cadence, it may be easier to believe that we are alone in our sorrows instead of exerting faith that a Deft Hand holds the reins. Sometimes it seems as if the free will of a broken humanity is insufficient when weighed in the balance against our cruelties. But without free will there is no love; and without love there is no impetus for a God of Love to create.

But free will or a future redemption is thin gruel to a town with classrooms full of murdered children. Is it enough to say that God did not will this thing and that despite the glib horror of the words, ripples of good are projecting out in time so that as a consequence at least some of this evil might one day be redeemed? Unlike our stories of Middle Earth, there was no convocation of Eagles to spirit those innocents away from a cruel and insane hand. Nevertheless, we are hearing now of unlikely heroes and sacrifices in the face of certain death by some who did not come home.

It is too early to tell, perhaps even in this lifetime, how these events will have weighted the waves of contingency and their significance for those perhaps not yet born. It is not a cliché to hold that courage and faith are needed now more than ever. They were indispensable in an age of Hobbits, elves and dwarves; how much more so in a tangible world of fragile men.

I think this also gets to the heart of why the Lord of the Rings is so vastly more powerful and epic than the contemporary Harry Potter series.  In HP, there is good and evil, but it's mostly evil for its own sake and good simply to avoid being overtaken by the evil.  I found little moral substance, and even less standing on principle in the series.  After all, does not even one steeped in evil fight for his own survival?  For fiction, that sort of banality may still work, but the deeper introspections that Tolkien performed manifested on paper/screen as reflections of the nature of good and evil in the real world, and thus captured the power of the world we see around us.  Yes, it's still fiction, but I am convinced that the best fiction is that which could be real, or at least seems to mirror the real world effectively.  Tolkien got it, and harnessed those timeless truths in his fiction; Rowling did not.

As indicated at the close of the article, those same truths not only make for impactful fiction, but they are indispensable for the real world.  Sadly, there are woefully too many who ignore the real world, where timeless truths matter most.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas List

Tonight we found a Christmas list left on the table by Kylee.  It's priceless (she made the circle, not us):

Does parenting get any better than this?  I think not.  :)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Farming, Take Two

First it was "Farming and I Grow It," now it's "Workin' Farmer Style"...

Nice job (again), guys!  Looks like this may become a recurring thing...sweet!

Let's make this one go viral, too!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tis The Season


I especially love how members of the crowd join in.  It's the best time of the year.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Collin Klein And The Heisman

Johnny Manziel is a tremendously exciting player, all the more so because this is his first year as a starter.

That doesn't mean he deserves the Heisman.

Before we get into the weeds, I should back up a second.  I've never really been that taken by the Heisman hype, which has transformed an award for being the best player in college football into a simple popularity contest for the best (SEC) player each year.  In fact, I generally view the Heisman with a pretty fair amount of disdain precisely because it isn't much more than a beauty pageant for quarterbacks.  Next year I'll probably be back to disdain, but with Collin Klein being deeply in the mix this year, I couldn't help it.  If nothing else, it's a tremendous benefit in terms of PR for future recruiting at a relatively unknown (and undesired) university like Kansas State.  Personally, I also believe that Klein is a one-in-a-million person who is extremely unlikely to let an award of that magnitude change who he is.

So, the top three candidates are Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, Collin Klein of K-State, and Manti Te'o of Notre Dame.  Most of the analysis I've seen has Te'o in a distant third place, and it's really hard to compare a linebacker with two quarterbacks, so while it's clear he's the heart of a beast of a terrific defense, it seems unlikely he's going to win.  Thus, I'm going to focus on Manziel and Klein.

Manziel is the frontrunner at the moment.  If you ask me, it's mostly because he destroyed a handful of no-name teams to pad his stats, combined with one singular moment of greatness (beating #1 Alabama).  Oh, and he's in the SEC.  Remember, anything and everything college football-related is colored by a gigantic favoritism toward the SEC (don't believe me? ask me next year and I'll prove it to you on any late Saturday night E-SEC-PN highlights broadcast).  As I mentioned before, he's a great player and will certainly be in New York for future Heisman ceremonies, but let's look at some numbers and see what we see about this year.

Here's one great workup of some data.  Here are what I believe are some of the more salient points, though the distinct differences between the two teams' styles do muddy the waters a bit:

In-Conference Production
Klein was masterful in Big 12 play for the second straight season. He has scored 16 of his 20 rushing touchdowns in league play, including huge road performances at West Virginia, Oklahoma, Iowa State and TCU. He avenged both losses to Oklahoma schools last fall with big showings against the Sooners and Cowboys. Manziel has been much more up and down in SEC play. He had a huge performance against Alabama and Mississippi State, struggled against Florida, LSU and somewhat against Ole Miss while torching bad teams like Arkansas, Auburn and Missouri. Manziel’s out-of-conference numbers are much more inflated than Klein’s. Of Manziel’s 43 total touchdowns, 22 came in four games against South Carolina State, Sam Houston State, SMU and Louisiana Tech. 

Offensive System
Kevin Sumlin’s ... Texas A&M offense ran 959 plays (11th nationally) for an average of 6.9 yards per play (5th nationally). Bill Snyder’s offense is totally different, ranking 120th nationally with only 712 plays. However, the Wildcats have been equally effective at 6.4 yards per play (19th nationally). Both offenses have produced at a similar rate all year, so that means Klein has produced his stats on 247 fewer offensive snaps. 

Supporting Cast
This one is no contest. Manziel has an infinitely better supporting cast than Klein at Kansas State. Texas A&M has an average national team recruiting ranking of 20.3 over the last four classes and has finished no lower than 27th (2011) in the team rankings. Kansas State has an average national team ranking of 70.1 over the same span. The best class Manhattan has seen in four years was 2012’s 58th-rated class. With two potential first-round picks blocking for him, multiple five-star tailbacks, and a senior All-SEC wide receiver at his disposal, Manziel has by far the best supporting cast of the two. And it’s really not even close.

Off-the-Field Character
This is a small factor but Klein is one of the most respected, most upstanding young people this game has ever seen. He is Tim Tebow off of the field as well as Tebow in the huddle and locker room. Manziel was arrested this summer for getting into a fight with a 47-year old man and carrying multiple false IDs. Is Manziel simply a young kid enjoying the trappings of young fame (SEE: Halloween pictures)? Of course, but Klein would never get into a fight with someone nearly 30 years older than himself.

“Johnny Football” versus “Optimus Klein.” I am sorry, but this one isn’t even close. Johnny Football is one of the lamest, most unimaginative nicknames I have ever heard. And as a kid who grew up loving the Transformers, my vote goes to Klein. This one is easy and heavily in favor of the Kansas State Wildcat. It's a good thing a nickname has absolutely nothing to do with the Heisman.

I just liked that last one, so I had to include it.  :)

This article makes the argument that the SEC schedule Manziel faced was significantly more difficult than the Big 12 slate that Klein took down.  It depends on where you look for this stat, but I like Sagarin's rating because it includes some additional details that I think are key.  The bottom line is that K-State played the 19th most difficult schedule while TAM had the 27th.  Some will argue that TAM faced more ranked teams, but that depends on whether you're looking at final rankings now or rankings at the time the game was played.  Sagarin helps clear this up by indicating the teams' records against opponents that are currently ranked in the top 10 and in the top 30.  It's no contest:

KSU - 1-0 vs Top 10 / 6-1 vs Top 30
TAM - 1-1 vs Top 10 / 1-2 vs Top 30

No one in their right mind would call this result anything other than a harder road for K-State and Klein.  In fact, the Big 12 may not have a team in the championship game, but the vaunted SEC has only one more team with a single loss on the year (Alabama and Florida).  The SEC has six of the top ten spots, but four of those have two losses.  Ranked #11, Oklahoma provides a second BCS team for the Big 12.  It's clear that the SEC is a bit more top-heavy than the Big 12, but what percentage of the SEC is playing in a bowl game?  65%.  The Big 12, on the other hand, are coming in at 90%, as only Kansas failed to become bowl eligible.  I'd be curious to know how many coaches would prefer a schedule comprised of half cupcakes and half monsters as opposed to a top-to-bottom slate of teams that could all beat you on any given day.  Given the rigors of having to face quality opponent after quality opponent throughout the entire season, I think that Klein's march through the Big 12 is easily more impressive than Manziel's sporadic trek through the SEC, all the more so if the analysis above about the talent levels of the two teams is true.

On that point, though, I don't think it is.  Remember, this is the first year TAM is in the SEC, and I'm pretty sure that E-SEC-PN wouldn't be singing their personnel praises quite so much if they had remained in the Big 12.  But that's awfully hard to compare, so I'm not going to belabor it.

Anyway, here's another way to compare the two candidates - how do they perform when the stakes are high?  How do they perform against their best opponents?  That one is pretty clear, too, and the broadcast team flashed up a graphic during K-State's pounding of Texas that illustrated precisely this question:

In games vs. BCS conference teams with winning records: 
Collin Klein has a 7-1 record, 25 total TDs, 6 turnovers 
Johnny Manziel has a 2-2 record, 5 TDs, 5 turnovers
Another no-brainer.

And what about over the course of the player's career, and in historical terms?  Get this:
Between that first game [against Texas], and this last game, Klein has found time to start a total of 24 other Wildcat games compiling career numbers and records of: 
• 45 rushing touchdowns … a KSU record and fourth in Big 12 history 
• Sixth player in Big 12 history with 4,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards 
• Posted 21 wins as a starter quarterback, just one shy of the school record of 22 by Ell Roberson and Michael Bishop 
• Rushed for 2,352 yards, fourth in KSU history only behind Sproles, Roberson and Thomas 
• Passed for 4,389 yards, seventh in KSU history 
• Owns a national-high of passing for at least one score and rushing for at least one score in 16 games since 2011 
In the BCS era, Klein is the only quarterback to rush for at least 20 TDs and pass for at least 10 TDs in more than one season 
That last one is the biggest - Klein is the only QB in college football history to do that.  That kind of top-level production over the course of two years is the sort of thing that makes the best football player in college football.

What about Manziel?  Well, he did set the SEC total yardage record at 4,600 yards this year.  That's impressive...but, once again, if he had remained in the Big 12, the record would have been over 5,700, far out of his reach (yet another reason to doubt the mantra that the SEC is vastly superior).  But whatever.  He can have that record in the conference with subpar offenses.  Congrats.

The bottom line is that both QBs were great.  But, if you look objectively at the body of work, Klein's track record is significantly more impressive.  Those who take their significance from things like the Heisman Popularity Contest just don't think Klein is the sexy pick, nor is K-State.  Sure, it makes for a nice story, but when you really boil it down they're looking for anyone else to give the hardware to, especially someone from the SEC.  The real question is whether or not there are enough voters who are outside the SEC and the state of Texas.  I have no idea, but we'll know in a few days.  For the sake of Klein and the Purple nation, I truly hope so.  If not, well, I'll happily settle for a Fiesta Bowl win over the Oregon Ducks as a consolation prize (more on that in the next few days).  :)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Boo-yah! We're #1!

How sweet it is:

Collin Klein threw a touchdown pass and ran for two scores and No. 6 Kansas State beat No. 18 Texas 42-24 on Saturday night for its third conference title in 117 years and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. 
The Wildcats had never played for a conference championship in their last game at home, and had never had a player end the regular season in such close contention for the Heisman Trophy as Klein. 
Neither of his main competitors, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel nor Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, played this weekend. 
So Klein, a multitalented senior, had the stage all to himself, one last chance to burnish his credentials for what would be Kansas State's first Heisman. 
In front of their sixth sellout in seven home games, the Wildcats (11-1, 8-1 Big 12) tied their team record for victories in a season and matched Oklahoma's Big 12 record. 
Kansas State has beaten Texas (8-4, 5-4) five in a row. 
The Sooners beat TCU earlier Saturday and immediately donned caps and T-shirts declaring themselves Big 12 champs. But Kansas State's 24-19 win at Oklahoma on Sept. 22 gives them the tiebreaker and sends them into the Fiesta Bowl. 
After a slow start, Klein wound up hitting 8 of 14 passes for 184 yards and added 108 yards rushing on 23 carries. John Hubert scored three touchdowns. (link)

Generally speaking, I ignore/disdain the Heisman as a useless popularity contest.  For proof, simply look at how fast people fall off the top of the list.  But...in the case of Klein, I'm happy to make an exception.  Not only is he a stellar athlete who has meant more to his team over the past two years than any other player in the nation, but he's got his head screwed on straight and won't let it change him.  More on that in the next day or two.

For now, let's just savor the sweet, sweet sound of...




The Kansas State Wildcats!!!