December 25, 2007

The Los Angeles Kings: A Great Book by Bob Miller and What's Wrong with the Kings This Year?

One of the odd things about me is that I am a nearly life long ice hockey fan, even though I grew up in Southern California, lived here my entire life; and, in the limited opportunities that I have had to actually skate (absent any lessons), I've not been able to master going full speed backwards. But still I love the game and love the Los Angeles Kings.

I had the pleasure of meeting the Kings Hall of Fame play by play man, Bob Miller, at the Barnes and Noble in Valencia a few weeks ago. He was signing copies of his new book, Tales from the Los Angeles Kings. It is a great book, full of interesting stories of some behind the scene stories and behind the mike experiences he has had over the years. Besides being a first rate announcer and genuinely nice person, he also has a great memory. He remembered me, although I had to fill in from where, we met a couple of times at the Forum in 1974 when I was an intern for the Lakers announcer Chick Hearn (I thought I wanted to be a sports writer once). Working that winter for Hearn was quite an experience; let's just say he wasn't the easiest person to work around or for; I would have much preferred working for Miller but I don't think Jack Kent Cooke had much intern money in the Kings budget at the time.

Miller's book is a great read and I highly recommend it to any fan of hockey or of the Kings. Los Angeles I think is unique in that all of the major sports (Dodgers, Kings and Lakers) all had Hall of Fame announcers (and at one time Dick Enberg was the Angels and Rams announcer!). Hearn died a few years ago, but Vin Scully and Bob Miller are going well. Interestingly enough, I can only think of one time that all three were interviewed at the same time, about a year before Hearn died. I do wish Miller had mentioned that encounter in the book. I remember watching that interview and got the distinct impression that Hearn and Scully did not care for one another.

When you have lived in the LA area all of your life and followed the Kings since they came into the league (I remember that some games would be on television back then, KHJ Channel 9 at the time, but they would be replays starting after the late night news was over at 11pm. I would watch as many games as I could) it is remarkable that they have done as well as they have. As Miller's book points out (what anyone who knew sports already was aware of) the first owner Jack Kent Cooke was more of a model for a Dilbert comic strip than a template for executive excellence. I got constant laughs from Miller's stories about the former GM George Maguire, who I remember reading quotes from in the Times or Herald Examiner back then that always gave me the impression that he had no idea what he was doing. To this day I feel badly for former owner Bruce McNall, who seemed to be an owner who actually cared about the team and wanted to make them winners; but was flawed in some other ways. In his own way though McNall changed the NHL, getting Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles opened up a lot of American markets to the game which may not have happened otherwise.

It was good to read about some of my favorite players, Butch Goring (and his old leather helmet), Marcel Dionne, Larry Murphy (why in the world did the Kings trade him?) and others.

You need to get Miller's book and read it.

Now, onto more discouraging matters. The Kings at the moment have the worst record in the NHL. Now, as a fan, I knew full well that it was unlikely that they would compete for a play-off spot this season. They are rebuilding, looking to the future, and I think that Dean Lombardi, the General Manager, has an actual and workable plan for the near future. He has stockpiled draft picks, he has a lot of cap room for salaries, and the players he has drafted seem to be working out (even the interesting #1 pick, Thomas Hickey, an 18 year old defenseman is having a good year at Seattle). However, it is disappointing that the Kings are seemingly worse this year than last year.

Some of the problems are obvious: goaltending has been iffy at best. Their 19 year old goalie prospect who started the seasons with them, and won his first game, was sent back to his junior team (a good and expected move). It may be that he is ready next year. Jason LaBarbara has been good, even great at times. However, the defense in front of him has been poor. Perhaps the most disappointing defensemen, and it hurts to say this since he will undoubtedly be in the Hall of Fame someday, has been the Captain, Rob Blake. Blake is a +/- -10 (and his early partner Lubomir Visnovsky is a -14). Blake is regularly out of position and is getting beaten to the puck far too often. As a result he is, uncharacteristically, leading the Kings in penalty minutes. He is using experience and guile, but he is clearly not a front line defender at this point in his career. He continues on the #1 Power Play team, but has only two goals and 12 assists (Visnosky, his PP partner is 2 and 19). Recently, Blake has been paired with Jack Johnson, which, drove Johnson's +/- up as well.

The most consistent defensive pair has been Brad Stuart and Tom Preissing. Johnson has also played very well and I would like to see more of him on the Power Play and in Penalty Killing.

Offensively the Kings are not in bad shape. The are actually 6th in goals in the Western Conference. They have a core of great offensive players and while the scoring is not as balanced between the lines as would be ideal, there are a lot of good things happening in the opponents end of the ice. There power play has also been strong (despite a the struggles of Blake and Visnosky). They are occasionally too predictable in their up ice passing schemes and I'm still at a los as to why Jack Johnson is not carrying the puck into the attacking zone more.

What I am really concerned about is coaching. Marc Crawford has won the Stanley Cup, but I am beginning to wonder if he is the right guy for a young, developing team. As ESPN Hockey writer Scott Burnside, in response to a hockey chat question I asked about Crawford, stated,

Even teams that are rebuilding and looking to the future as opposed to the present, hate to see themselves beat up, as is happening to the Kings. I think they are, by a wide margin, the worst team in the NHL. They have poor goaltending, and they are far away defensively from where they have to be. Now that has to do with their youth, but it also calls into question Marc Crawford's abilities. Marc Crawford has won and Stanley Cup, but now he has a young team which has not taken any steps forward. I think the last half of this season Crawford's team will have to show signs that they get it; they may not win, but they must show signs of improvement for Crawford to hold onto his job.

I'm afraid I agree with this assessment. As a long time King's fan I wouldn't mind seeing a coach come in and stay for about 10+ years and I thought Crawford might be that guy, but the team really needs to turn it around starting tomorrow night with San Jose.

Regardless of how the Kings do, I think if Lombardi can get some value for Rob Blake, Jaroslav Modry, Scott Thornton or even Brian Willsie, LaBarbara or Aubin; he should make the deadline deal. Bernier and Quick look like future front line goalies, so I wouldn't look for a "big name" goalie right now. They need a couple of front line guys on the blue line; replace Blake on the Power Play with Johnson. Visnosky should come out of his goal slump sometime. Don't split Stuart and Priessing, they are playing too well together. I would pair Blake and Modry for a while and put Johnson and Visnosky together as better combinations.

You hate to say it, but about the best thing to say about the season so far, is that the Kings could get the overall #1 draft choice in 2008. Fans need to see some real improvement, and fairly soon, or we may discover that a coaching change is imminent.


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December 12, 2007

Is "Secular Humanism" Dead?

The heretofore tedious presidential campaign has been a little more interesting in the last couple of weeks as the religious beliefs of Mitt Romney (a Mormon) and Mike Huckabee (a former Baptist pastor) have come into play. Romney made a speech about his faith and tried to portray Mormonism as being within the mainstream of Evangelical Christianity, instead of a cult. This is something LDS leaders have been attempting for about 20 years with far less success than, say, Seventh Day Adventistism.

Camille Paglia, in her Salon Magazine online column, commenting on his speech and religion overall made some interesting comments:


But what does Romney mean by the ongoing threat of a new "religion of secularism"? The latter term needs amplification and qualification. In my lecture on religion and the arts in America earlier this year at Colorado College, I argued that secular humanism has failed, that the avant-garde is dead, and that liberals must start acknowledging the impoverished culture that my 1960s generation has left to the young. Atheism alone is a rotting corpse. I substitute art and nature for God -- the grandeur of man and the vast mystery of the universe.

But primary and secondary education, which should provide an entree to great art and thought, has declined into trivialities and narcissistic exercises in self-esteem. Popular culture, once emotionally vibrant and collective in impact (from Hollywood movies to rock music), has waned into flashy, transient niche entertainment. The young, who are masters of ever-evolving personal technology, are besieged by the siren call of materialism. In this climate, it is selfish and shortsighted for liberals to automatically define religion as a social problem that needs suppression or eradication. Without spirituality in some form, people will anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs -- including the tranquilizers that seem near universal among the status-addled professional class of the Northeastern elite.

Her observations are intensely thought-provoking. Many Christians, particularly those from more fundamentalist backgrounds often are guilty of fighting battles that are long since over. Evangelicalism perhaps is on the brink of the same problem. Fighting "secular humanism" today is perhaps the same as fundamentalists still battling "modernism" in the past. The later is dead and former is in its death throes. The illusionary spirituality of the New Age movement is still alive but hardly the force it was in the past few decades and the fad of eastern mysticism is largely in the rear view mirror. Currently, the most formidable religious and cultural challenges to Christianity is fundamentalist Islam, which has great appeal to the lower rungs in the socio-economic and cultural ladder. What Paglia notices about "secular humanism" is largely true; that movement has taken popular culture to the lowest common denominator and left in its wake a spiritual vacuum.

The world view that Paglia advocates: a "religion" centered on an anthropocentric and aesthetical, "art and nature. . .the grandeur of man and the vast mystery of the universe," is hardly a new construct. And, it is unlikely to catch on as a viable worldview for the middle and lower economic/cultural classes; particularly since "practical" and "skill oriented" courses have come to dominate secondary education. This problematic occurrence, creating a de facto two-tier distinction between "college prep," for the "top" students; and "vocational preparation" for the perceived dullards, became the dominant philosophy in the late 1970's effectively removing quality instruction in the arts, music, and literature from "regular" high schools.

Strangely, what Paglia see as an alternative to religion is exactly what many in the "emerging church" community are trying to incorporate into Christianity. There is nothing inherently wrong or unbiblical about aesthetical concepts or endeavors. Authentic, Biblical Christianity sees God as the creator of all that is beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Beauty is one of the "good things" that God has given to us to enjoy (1 Tim 6:17). But, the very beauty that God incorporated into the creation is only a beginning point (Rom 1:20) not a destination. Unfortunately, the emerging church lacks, in many sectors, a solid Biblical and exegetical foundation that can keep their flirtation with the arts from becoming an end unto itself, leading them straight into aesthetically pleasing Eastern Orthodoxy or Catholicism.

Evangelicalism, in many ways, hitched its wagon to the star of political power, notably on the right side of that spectrum. The new "Evangelical Left" is emerging as a reaction to that track, but it is certainly doomed to simply spin down into the same drain that consumed the "Social Gospel" dominated mainstream denominations in the past. A Biblical Evangelicalism, centered on Scripture and focused on God's purposes in history, needs to refocus itself, recognize the real enemies of the faith today and vigorously engage them.

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December 10, 2007

The Golden Compass (Update)



Update 12/23/2007: The Golden Compass ended it's third week by plummeting further to 10th place overall and grossing a little more than $48 million since it's release. At this rate the movie will be fortunate to just break even; even when international openings and DVD sales are added in.

In it's opening The Golden Compass ended the weekend as the number one movie in America, but the overall receipts were fairly disappointing. The movie grossed $25.7 million which, for a number one movie, is fairly anemic. The quote from New Line Cinema (the studio which released the film) was that the opening was "a little disappointing," but not a "debacle." Hardly, a rousing endorsement.

Since filming the sequels, according to New Line, is dependent on Compass doing well financially. The film cost about $180 million to produce, it's got a way to go to being profitable. Although foreign releases and DVD sales will be helpful.

They key will be the upcoming two weeks when Compass will face some stiff competition from, particularly, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, which opens on December 21st. A drop off of 40% or more for Compass would move it more towards the "debacle" area.

Click Here for My Entire Review of the Movie.

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December 6, 2007

Dodgers Sign Andruw Jones

The Dodgers signed Andruw Jones, formerly of the Atlanta Braves, to a two-year contract for about $36 million. This may or may not work out for the Dodgers. Here are the ways in which it could work:


  • If nothing else this provides the Dodgers with a significant upgrade in center field defense. Jones is a 10 time gold glove winner and even at this point in his career is one of the top five center fielders. However, this will only work for the Dodgers if he replaces Juan Pierre. If Pierre moves to Left Field, his defensive liability simply moves with him and he takes away playing time from Andre Ethier (or worse Matt Kemp).
  • This will work for the Dodgers if Jones shows up to camp in shape and ready to play. It seems that Jones has lived on his pure ability without a real disciplined approach to the game. Last year this may have finally caught up with him. Despite hitting 26 homes runs and driving in 94, he only batted .222 and struck out 138 times. He has never hit for a high average, but last year was pretty terrible, about 50 points below his career stats. After hitting 51 and then 41 homes runs (2005-06) his swing really got out of whack. However, he is only 30, so there is no reason that he can't still be a major producer.
  • Looking at the way Jones has always carried himself, a somewhat disinterested, nonchalant persona, this will only work for the Dodgers if Jeff Kent is traded. Kent is bad in the clubhouse on his best days and Kent with Jones certainly doesn't bode well for team chemistry.

I'm still hopeful that the Dodgers will abandon any more position player moves (except to get rid of Jeff Kent). Let LaRoche play third and be done with it. Trade Pierre or show him the bench, but find at least one good starting pitcher with a track record of winning and eating up innings. The rotation right now is Billingsley, Penny, and Lowe for sure. Jason Schmidt is unknown, Estban Loiaza is unknown, and even with all of his potential Clayton Kershaw may not be ready to make the jump into the rotation.

The Dodgers could have made worse moves or signings than this. If Jones can hit closer to his life time average (.265) and get close to 40 home runs, then it is probably a good signing. There is a no trade clause in the contract, but with it only being two years, that isn't a big deal.

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December 4, 2007

The Golden Compass and Christianity

The new movie The Golden Compass, has stirred a lot of emotional response from the Christian community. You can read Dr. Al Mohler's fine review of the movie and it's background here. It has been called "anti-Christian" by many individual and groups (mainly Catholic). However, other reviewers have said there is no such agenda. The usually perceptive Roger Friedman of Fox 411, says it "has as much to do with being anti-Christian or Catholic as 'Flipper.'" Dismissing the whole idea with a back handed, "So much for that." After viewing the movie on opening night, that is much too simplistic a notion of the films' intent. As an aside, I have not read the other two books (but I will shortly, since there are three films planned and I have no desire to wait five years for the ending). In this review I will, therefore, speak only to the issues of this particular film (Dr. Mohler's review is of the movie and the overall story line of the totality of the three books).

The movie is based on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). This series is aimed mainly at readers aged 12-19, and at first glance appears to be at the same level as the Harry Potter novels, C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Ring Trilogy (and The Hobbit, which as an aside, we trust will come to the big screen soon). Also, Pullman's books are hardly new, this series has been in print for over ten years. Additionally, the final three chapters of the book do not make it into the movie apparently being saved for the sequel. Overall, the movie significantly tones down the more overtly anti-Catholic/Christian material in the book. References to "god" (in the book known as "The Authority") are removed entirely. However, Pullman's overall agenda is fairly obvious.

The movie opened in the United States on Friday and I was there to see for myself. The movie was entertaining, fast paced (sometimes in a herky-jerky sort of way); and extremely well cast (Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, and Sam Elliot in leads, along with Dakota Blue Richards as the main child character. The special effects were generally excellent (except in a couple of close-up scenes with Kidman where the blue screen technique is obvious and there is visual discontinuity between her image and the background, she should have also been wearing ear rings). The sound track is excellent and supports the visual very effectively. Some of the dialogue is occasionally hard to follow; particularly when it comes from "daemons" (see below) when they are off camera or not readily visible. Since the plan is obviously to a trilogy of films the various characters will be fleshed out a little more we would trust. Although Craig seems perfect as Lord Asriel, it's really hard to say because he has very little screen time.

The storyline is simple and largely unremarkable within the larger domain of the fantasy/science fiction genre. In the world (much like earth) the are various type of beings (people of difference races, witches, and a sapient polar bear race in the north). Except for the bears, all have a "daemon" which is an animal (of various types) who can talk and live in a complex symbiotic relationship with the person. After adolescence a person's daemon settles into a particular form aligning with the individuals overall character; however, prior to coming of age, a daemon changes within a range of animal forms (apparently out of the control of the daemon, although that is not explicitly stated). Daemons have a couple of characteristics; they must stay within a very close proximity to their human counterpart and they can talk. The exceptions to this are the daemons of the witches, who apparently can be separated by significant distances with no ill effect. One thing I noticed in the film is that the Marisa Coulter's (Kidman's character, a leading Magisterium agent and head of the "General Oblation Board") daemon (a golden colored monkey) never speaks and at one point appears to be some distance from Coulter (leading me to believe that ultimately Coulter will be revealed to be a witch or some other oddity, but I'll have to read the next two books to determine that).

Within the story we have the normal introductory material of plot and characters; who will ultimately converge into the typical "quest motif." The story line is essentially that The Magisterium, a thinly veiled substitute for the Catholic Church, is seeking to maintain control of the population in the world. As the movie begins they are threatened by two things: (1) Free thinking and rejection of their dogma; and (2) the advancement of science, which may run countrary to their belief system. The current threat to their power is the work of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) who is seeking to make a connection with parallel worlds and the secret of "dust." Dust is portrayed as something of a life-giving and possibly universe sustaining/connecting substance. "Dust" is something that the Magisterium does not want the population to know about or to benefit from.

Asriel's niece (later discovered to be his daughter), Lyra, early in the movie saves his life by preventing him from drinking wine that has been secretly poisoned by a Magisterium leader. When Asriel leaves for an expedition in the North; Marisa Coulter, appears and convinces the school master to allow her to take Lyra away from her school; but before she leaves she is entrusted with the Golden Compass, called an "alethiometer." It is a device whereby the reader (not everyone can read the device) can ask "virtually any question" and see the truth. This device is given to Lyra by the school master (who is clearly aware that the Magisterium wishes to control the school and eliminate the free thought and inquiry allowed there).

Lyra escapes from Coulter (probably not a reference to Ann Coulter the conservative commentator as when the books first came out she was not particularly well known, but still a connection that Pullman would clearly be comfortable with) and is rescued by a group that has been secretly protecting her on the direction of Asriel. They begin a quest to get to Asriel in the north and also rescue children abducted by the Magisterium in an effort to separate them from their "daemons" which apparently renders them without a soul, immune or separated from the beneficial effects of "dust," and able to be more easily controlled by the Magisterium.

Lyra demonstrates both significant courage and learns that she can read the Golden Compass (which is how she discovers where the children are being kept). The rest of the movie is taken with meeting key characters: One of the Polar Bears (voiced by Ian McKellen of Lord of the Rings, X-Men, and The DaVinci Code fame), Iorek Byrnison is enlisted to help after Lyra assists him in reclaiming his rightful place as the king of the bears. Also enlisted is the Sam Elloit character, Lee Scoresby, something of a renegade operator of flying machine (who, at the end of the movie we are told will have a significant role in the future struggle). This initial quest is successful, the children are rescued and Lyra is reunited with her friend Roger Parslow (who was seen early in the movie before he was kidnapped and taken to the Magisterium's "school"). The movie end with Lyra and Will along with Iorek, Scoresby, and one of the Witches, flying to find Asriel and bring him the Golden Compass.

During the escape sequence, Lyra is briefly captured in the institution and place into a device that the Magisterium has created to separate a human from their daemon. At the critical moment, Coulter reappears and saves Lyra and her daemon. Shortly thereafter we discover that Coulter is Lyra's mother and that Asriel is her father. However, Coulter saves Lyra, not because of maternal love, but to acquire the Compass and to subvert Lyra.

Probably one of the things that most impressed me in a negative sense was that there is so little original in the movie. Almost every key thematic motif is borrowed from some other source or story. The idea of a daemon is altered slightly from a human taking an animal shape that is in keeping with their character (a widely used device in fantasy/science fiction; perhaps best by David Eddings and The Belgariad series) to separate beings. Interestingly enough, the "school" or institute where the children are rescued from is unmistakeably copied from C. S. Lewis' "public" schools in the Narnia story The Silver Chair and the last of his science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength. It is interesting, because of Pullman's documented antipathy for Lewis and his loathing for the Chronicles of Narnia. One additional bit of irony you discover by staying for all the credits at the end of the film is that the Magadalen College (of Oxford) Choir, provided some of the singing in the movie. This college, of course, is where Lewis spent most of his teaching career.

The central feature in the story is the concept of "dust," which seems clearly borrowed from the Star Wars concept of the "force." The concept added by Pullman in his work is that Dust can be manipulated directly for information or truth by use of the Golden Compass. The parentage motif of Lyra and Coulter parallels the Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader Star Wars storyline as well.

The quest motif, where a small group of divergent people (all with their own secrets) join for a common cause, is too popular to be considered borrowed; but it was clearly carried off most notably by J. R. R. Tolkein in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Pullman's overall theme of the "church as the enemy of man" is reminiscent of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

All in all, there is really little original in the movie in terms of plot or character that hasn't been done (and often much better) by other authors. However, the screen play is enjoyable and entertaining. It is an engaging story and leaves the audience waiting for the sequels.

In terms of being "anti-Christian," the movie it is clearly anti-Catholic, and from other reviews I've read that theme is greatly expanded in the subsequent books (and probably in the subsequent movies). Here again, the movie portrays the Roman Catholic church much in the same manner as Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code. The church represses truth for the sake of its own power, it seeks to repress free sexual expression (although this doesn't come out in this movie), and the church is ruthless and abusive (even to children) in it's quest to maintain power and control over the population. While the Catholic Church is made into the "evil empire" (another Star Wars motif), the distinction between Catholicism and Biblical Christianity will certainly be over looked by the majority of the movie going public. There is no doubt Biblical, Evangelical Christianity will be viewed in the same negative light as this series of movies progresses.

Very few stories are written simply to entertain people (and they are usually poorly done). The best works of fiction almost always have a purpose or agenda apart from the literary value. Whether it is Hugo's already mentioned Hunchback of Notre Dame, or his Toilers of the Sea, or Les Miserables; Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, or Cervantes', Don Quixote de la Mancha. All have used the vehicle of the novel to advance their personal views, beliefs, perspectives, and solutions (and often Christianity is viewed as the problem that must be overcome). You can also add Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or any other significant author and their works to the list. And there is nothing wrong or evil about using the vehicle of the novel in such a manner. Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, George MacDonald and a host of others have done the same thing with the idea of advancing a Christian world-view or to teach a Biblical or theological truth.

The problem is that people are reluctant to actually think in these terms. Too many assume that there is no agenda or at least a benign one and absorb the story hook line and sinker and unknowingly allow it to alter their world view and perceptions in a way they otherwise would not. As the Professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe exclaims, "Logic, don't they teach logic in these schools anymore?" The problem is that they don't and those who have seen or will see The Golden Compass need to realize this and clearly think through what they are seeing and what belief set is being fed to them. As pure entertainment the movie is subtly engaging, with an agenda clearly being fed incrementally. Pullman's target audience of young people is simply the manifestation of his own story device (where children are separated from their daemons). Pullman wants to separate children from Christianity, but uses something much more palatable than the "institution" of the story, the totality of the story instead becoming Pullman's "insitution."

Parent and viewer beware; don't avoid the movie necessarily, but engage it with a critical and thinking mind.


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