Fluidstance’s The Level: Crucial or Overrated?

Prelude

I believe it was August when Fluidstance first reached out to me about reviewing their product, The Level. Of course I was amenable and eagerly awaited its arrival. It wasn’t until October that I realized The Level had been shipped to me but then stolen off my front step before I ever saw it. I wrote a post about this theft and The Level generally and Fluidstance generously sent me another one!

I’ve been using it for the past few months. I didn’t want to write a review too quickly as products like this can be so bright and shiny and fascinating when they first come out but as time passes they fall into disuse – just another item to stuff in the closet / garage / attic. Well, it is a New Year and I am ready to report.

It Is All About Me

A photo of someone's feet and lower legs standing on The Level.
Fluidstance’s The Level (Natural Maple), available for $289.

Before I review The Level I need to give you a little bit of context about me. If you already know me, you can skip this section, if you don’t, I think a minute or two of your time will really inform your understanding of my review.

I have a quantity and diversity of ailments oftentimes not seen in someone twice my age. Most of them don’t connect with my review of The Level but a few do. Namely, I have chronic leg pain. These days it is usually low intensity though occasionally it will flare up with a vengeance. Combine this with some knee and lower back pain and I’m a bit of a disaster.

Why does this matter? Because my review comes from the place of someone with chronic health issues and will tend to be informed from that perspective. I hope it will be of use to everyone, but I think it will be especially useful to anyone suffering from chronic pain.

The Presentation

Fluidstance is an Apple-esque company. They don’t make a lot of products but what they do make is top notch in quality and you know this from the moment the box arrives at your door. It is a bit like unpacking an iPhone back in the day before everyone else caught on to how presentation could really affect consumer’s buying decisions.

Inside is a nice sack into which one can insert The Level (to keep it from getting scuffed, wet when raining, etc. I suppose). Then there is The Level itself. It is beautiful with a nicely finished bamboo top and a sturdy aluminum base (I know, sturdy is not the first word that comes to mind when someone mentions aluminum, but this is not your soda can’s aluminum!).

Fluidstance positions itself as an eco-friendly company, something which is especially popular these days, but they don’t just say this. Check their website and you’ll see that the use of bamboo for the wood was chosen because of it’s abundance and renewable nature. The base is recycled aluminum made in a solar-powered facility. Even the finish was chosen due to its low emissions.

 

I like the company culture this seems to express. Fluidstance’s serious commitment to the environment makes me feel that they are concerned about more than making money (not that there is anything wrong with making money, we all gotta eat, sleep, and play) and makes me optimistic that they will steward well in other areas – e.g., genuinely helpful customer support, pride in the quality of the product, and actually caring for their employees.

The Quality

The Level is a solid product. There is no planned obsolescence built in! Seriously, I believe this product will last years – assuming you don’t light it on fire, allow your dog to repeatedly chew on it, submit it to a world’s strongest man crushing objects competition, etc.

You’d think that a product like this, which has a decent amount of weight placed on it day in and day out and which has someone standing on and scuffing around it would begin to deteriorate. Other than a  few cosmetic scratches on the bottom of the aluminum base (which is wobbling around while you stand on it and which may have come via other means – e.g., me not being the best at occasionally moving through doorways or hallways without bumping into them) it looks as good as the day I received it.

Does It Work?

We know its beautiful and responsibly manufactured, but does it work? The short answer is yes, the longer answer is yes, and especially for me (and you?) with chronic pain.

I bought a sit/stand desk because in addition to being healthier than sitting and burning more calories I experienced significant flares in my chronic pain if I remained in any one position too long.[1] It worked, but not as well as I had hoped. I couldn’t stand for prolonged periods of time either without the pain flaring, so I had to spend more time going back and forth between sitting and standing than I wanted to.

Then came The Level. I was worried at first it was just a placebo effect, but it has been lasting. I can stand for much more extended periods without causing significant flareups in my legs (primary pain point), knees (secondary), or lower back.[2]

These days I’m likely to do 2.5 to 3 hrs. standing before I need a break. Previously there were times where the pain began to flare almost instantaneously and it was certainly significant within 1.5 to 2 hrs. These days I might even go 4 or 6 hours standing at one time.[3]

The Level keeps my legs moving a little bit all the time and, if I begin to feel some tension (or for the fun of it), I can increase the amount of movement significantly, all while still working productively.

Found Out the Hard Way

When I first received The Level it didn’t move much and I was surprised. It isn’t a tricky experience meant to throw you on your back, but I did expect a bit more movement. Ends up this was entirely my fault. I had one of those rubber mats one stands on to relieve foot/leg/knee pressure incurred standing on a hard floor. I knew The Level wasn’t supposed to be used on smooth floors (too slippery) but I figured that a rubber mat would serve the same purpose on my hard floors as a throw rug/carpet[4]. I was WRONG. Once I started using The Level on a carpet I experienced a significant (though not unpleasant) increase in motion.[5]

Unless you only want The Level to move only when you move (e.g. it will move when you shift body weight) and not a sort of constant, fluid motion  – use carpet!

Price

The Level isn’t an inexpensive product. The American-Made Level (Bamboo) I was sent retails for $389. Not the sort of money one drops without consideration (at least, not that I do). There are lower priced models available – The American Made Level (Maple with Walnut Finish) for $339 and the American-Made Level (Natural Maple) for $289, but these are still not your bargain-value prices.

As you consider whether this is something you should invest your money in, let me provide a few questions for consideration:

  1. Why would I buy this product? Is it because its new and cool looking or because I’d actually use it?
  2. How much of my life is spent at a desk? Lifehacker once recommended spending your money where your time is spent – and I think this is grand advice. Most of us spend a lot of time at our desk most days!
  3. Could this help with any ongoing health issues I have?
  4. Would this help me significantly increase the amount of time I spend standing rather than sitting?

If you decide to buy something like The Level the next question is whether you should actually buy The Level or should go with a less-expensive competitor. A few questions for consideration on that front:

  1. What is the difference in price between The Level and the competitive product I’m looking at?
  2. What is the quality of the two products? Am I getting more product quality for the extra price of The Level?
  3. What is the reputation of the company? Do they care about their customers? Do they care about this product? Will they be around next year?

Personally, I’m a fan of the middle-of-the-road approach. I don’t need luxury, but I also know that buying cheap oftentimes means buying repeatedly. I’d rather spend a bit more upfront to get a quality product that is going to last than one that will need replacement or repairs.

For me, time is my most valuable asset, not money. If the competitive product will last five years but need to be repaired twice and this takes me 1 hr. each time to call the manufacturer, secure an RMA, go to the post office, etc. – how much is that time worth? This is not necessarily what you are paid, but what you believe inherently is the value of your time. Is your time worth $10, $30, $50, $100, $250, an hour? Factor in the time you are likely to spend maintaining the lower quality product. Is the price once you include your time still lower for the competitive product? If not, you know what to do!

Conclusion

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, The Level is a worthwhile investment. Yes, it makes me cringe a bit to think of buying something so simple for so much[6] but if I divide the cost by the number of days I’ll use it this year it becomes much more reasonable. How many days do we work in a year? Lets say 240. Now we are talking about paying $1.20 per working day for this convenience if we purchase the lower end Level. If we purchase the highest? $1.62/day. Pretty reasonable for a product that will probably last years.

The Level does what it promises – helps one maintain motion even while standing at a desk and thus relieving pressure on the body. For me, personally, I see reduced pain in my legs, knees, and back from using The Level.

What do you think? I’m eager to hear from everyone but would be especially interested to hear from anyone else who is using The Level and has chronic health issues and whether it helps with these. Am I unique in experiencing some relief?

 

  1. [1]Sometimes the pain can get bad after ten or fifteen minutes, definitely if I try to do seated desk work for more than one day in a row I’ll end up somewhat incapacitated by the end of the second day.
  2. [2]I generally don’t notice back pain, unless my leg and knee pain is really low. Its sort of that, “Your head hurts? Let me smash your foot with a hammer and your head will feel much better” gag.
  3. [3]Not usually and this includes perhaps attending a meeting which is sit-down and walking around the office, to the bathroom, etc…You know, normal stuff.
  4. [4]Is there a difference, I don’t feel like asking Master Google at the moment.
  5. [5]Besides the placebo effect, this was another reason I’ve taken a while to write this review. Once I realized I was sabotaging The Level I wanted to spend some time using it correctly before reviewing.
  6. [6]Okay, if you haven’t caught on to this yet, I grew up quite poor.

Fluidstance and the Thief

Occasionally folks reach out to me with a product or service they would like for me to review – Fluidstance was one of said companies. They told me they were shipping me The Level so I could put it through its paces. I eagerly anticipated its arrival…and I waited for it…and I waited some more.

As time passed I figured they must have decided not to send me The Level after all…maybe they decided my blog wasn’t getting enough traffic, maybe they had run out of units to send out to bloggers. I was giving up hope.

Then I received a followup email asking how things were going with The Level. I was confused. Wait, you sent me The Level? When? FedEx delivery confirmation shows that the package was successfully left on my doorstep nearly a month ago. Gahh!

Photo of legs standing on Fluidstance The Level

This is the first time I have ever had mail stolen off my front porch (at least that I am aware of) and it sucks. I was really looking forward to giving The Level a try.

I find my knees begin to hurt after a period of standing at my desk and I have to revert to sitting and I hoped that using The Level might allow me to spend longer periods at a time standing.

So, it sucks for me, but it also sucks for Fluidstance, since they sent me a moderately expensive product for review and I can’t review it because someone stole it.

As a poor substitute, I’ve compiled some resources together below to help those who are interested in learning more about The Level do so.

Gahhh! I just went through the first forty results in Google for “fluidstance” to garner the above reviews and now I am even more disappointed than before. Without exception, every one of the reviews I found in those first forty results where positive!

“But Dave, you should have Google ‘fluidstance review’, that would have given you better results.” You are so right, so I did and found the following:

Well, no, those additional reviews don’t make me feel any better about having mine stolen before I ever laid eyes on it.

Mandolyn Mae: Indie Musician.

Go Listen to Mandolyn Mae…

I like Mandolyn Mae’s music, you should too. You can listen to her debut CD Once on Spotify. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find anything by here since (Once was released in 2013) nor does it appear she has been touring this year…but she does have an active Twitter account. You can also check out her Facebook page – though it has been languishing.

Mandolyn Mae's Once album cover.
Mandolyn Mae’s Once album cover.

I was reminded of her music this evening as I was going through some old documents on my computer and stumbled across the lyrics I had typed up for two of her songs: Here We Are and Tonight.

I couldn’t find these lyrics online when I first heard the songs and a quick search didn’t turn them up now either…so I figured I’d mention how I liked her music and include the lyrics here in case other fans are looking for the lyrics to these songs as I was…

My favorite songs from Mae are the two mentioned above and The Only Person Alive.

Caveat About Songs…

The songs for which I am giving the lyrics became favorites for me during an extremely difficult phase in my life…I’m not still in that phase and so the lyrics don’t reflect my heart as they did then…but their power to provide soothing to me in the midst of that ordeal was significant.

In other words, don’t think I’m depressed, sad, angry, etc. b/c I posted the lyrics for these songs….or that these songs reflect my thoughts/feelings toward that individual with whom I went through such a difficult time… 🙂

Here We Are Lyrics

A photo of Mandolyn Mae.
A photo of Mandolyn Mae.

so this is what it feels like
to look at you in the candlelight
and know we cannot be together now
i know we said its over
but its hard getting over
your the one that i’ve been loving all this time
and i think you and i both know
when we both broke into pieces
you cannot fix this

here we are
at the end of it all
and there is nothing i can say
to take back all i ever said
and there’s no drink
none that i can see
that can make me forget
all that you once meant to me,
what you once meant to me

its amazing how much time can make
before i get the worst of mistakes
like the time you said i could not do this without you
when i knew that it was ending
and i thought that i could mend this
but i can’t b/c i don’t trust you anymore
but honey you and i both know
that we could go on for hours
talking about failure

here we are at the end of it all
and there’s nothing i can say
to take back all i ever said
and there is no touch
in the clubs of all LA
that can make me forget
all that you once meant to me,
what you once meant to me
what you once meant to me

i’m at a war with regret
over all the time i wasted
against all the time i spent
loving this boy i knew
the man i knew
this love i knew that became me and you

so this is what it feels like to know that for the first time
my skin won’t feel your breath on me tonight
here we are at the end of it all
and there is nothing i can say to take back
all i ever said
and there’s no love
nowhere i’ve ever heard of
that can make me forget all that you meant to me
what you once meant to me
what you once meant to me
what you once meant to me
what you once meant to me

Tonight Lyrics

i thought about you and i pray for you today
that all the sadness that you carried
would somehow walk away
you would find comfort
and some sort of calm
and a way to recover
from all thats gone wrong

and how does it feel tonight
to know for the first time in your life
i know that your a liar
a performance and a cheater
how does it feel tonight

i thought about you and i hurt in my heart
to know you where lonely
and everything you had fallen apart
there was a day i knew every line on your face
but sometimes when he kisses me i couldn’t tell you your name

and how does it feel tonight
to know for the first time in my life
i know that i don’t want you
even though my daddy loves you
how does it feel tonight

and how does it feel right now
to know that this heart of mine
has found someone who loves me better
and i love him more than ever
how does it feel tonight

this is over
never again
you weren’t worth it
never again
never again
and how does it feel tonight
to know for the first time in your life
i know you are in fact a liar
and a world class cheater
how does it feel tonight
how does it feel tonight

Light Therapy Lamps / Boxes.

I Blabber

I’ve had issues with sleep at least since I’ve been in high school. I wake up groggy,[1] feel tired throughout the day, experience overwhelming sleepiness at times throughout the day, and then have insomnia at night. Yes, it is as much fun as it sounds! 😛

Someone is struggling with insomnia. The image is thanks to the generosity of Jacob Stewart who placed the image under a Creative Commons license.
Someone is struggling with insomnia. The image is thanks to the generosity of Jacob Stewart who placed the image under a Creative Commons license.

In 2011-2012 I tried to get things figured out, went in for a sleep study, all that sort of good stuff, but came away with nothing conclusive – other than that I didn’t have sleep apnea (I didn’t think I did).

For the last two years I’ve lived with it – especially since numerous other health issues took precedence…but this year I’ve experienced significant relief from my other health issues[2] and sleep remains my greatest remaining obstacle…and probably a contributor to my other remaining health issues.

I saw a sleep specialist yesterday (Monday, 4/2). It went well. She did a thorough job and I felt like the office was run professionally. It did set me back $100 for the co-pay, which was painful…but I survived.

They scheduled me for a sleep study tonight which would then be continued tomorrow with a six hour daytime nap study…but this morning I was informed that they had spoken with my insurance company and the co-pay would be $1200. Not exactly what I was looking for, so we canceled the study for the time being.

Getting Down to Business

NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light and Ion Therapy Lamp
NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light and Ion Therapy Lamp

Honestly, if I could sleep at night and be wakeful during the day, $1200 would be a no-brainer…but there isn’t a guarantee that the sleep study will demonstrate anything…and it seems to me that the treatments for a number of sleep disorders are fairly similar – namely (a) stimulant medications, (b) light therapy, (c) melatonin supplementation, and/or (d) behavioral changes.

I’m already on (a) and this exacerbates my OCD symptoms…so I don’t really want to increase the dosage.

I’ve already been told about (d) innumerable times and have made significant modifications to my sleep hygiene…I don’t see room for much more improvement on this front.

Philips BLU Light Therapy Device
Philips BLU Light Therapy Device

Which leaves (b) and (c). I’ve used (c) at various times without significant positive effect, though my more recent research has raised some new elements regarding timing of dosing which I may try…but (b) has always fascinated me, so I’m going to pursue that first.

I searched Amazon for light therapy “lamps” or “boxes” and I eliminated all that lacked a four star or greater rating. There were several different companies represented in these results which had a fair slew of reviews: Verilux, Philips, NatureBright, Omega, and Sphere Gadget Technologies.

I eliminated Omega and Sphere Gadget Technologies b/c I refuse to buy products from companies that don’t have websites – especially companies selling products of this sort. Sorry folks.

Making a Decision

This left Verilux, Philips, and NatureBright. You can see a comparison chart I made of the various models offered by these companies here.

HappyLight Liberty Natural Spectrum Lamp
HappyLight Liberty Natural Spectrum Lamp

NatureBright had one unit that ranked high (4.5 stars) and Verilux had two, whereas all the Philips units where rated well (4 stars) but not high.

The most popular product out of those mentioned was the NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light and Ion Therapy Lamp which had 1,819 ratings – no one else came close, one of Philips trailing fare behind at 747 ratings.

The NatureBright products, in spite being so highly rated where also the lowest priced – so I bought (and am awaiting delivery of) the above mentioned unit.

As one can see on the comparison chart there are a few features this unit may lack (I won’t be sure until I get my hands on it) that some of the other units included – a rechargeable battery (this isn’t important to me), a dimmer (this is important), an alarm clock (not important). But with a 30 day return policy – I figure I can give it a try and always return it and replace it with another unit if I’m not happy…

My second choice at this point is probably the Verilux HappyLight Liberty Natural Spectrum lamp – the price is in the middle of the range across manufacturers, it has the 4.5 rating, and most importantly in comparison to the Philips products – the lamp is replaceable. Granted, the lamps should last for twenty-five or fifty years, but I still prefer to have the option to replace them.

 

  1. [1]Used to be depressed, which would dissipate 10 minutes into a shower…but that has gone away, now it is just groggy.
  2. [2]When you operate normally at say 40% health and you experience a boost to say 75% health, you still aren’t ‘healthy’ but it sure feels a heck of a lot better. :) Better enough that I can ‘live’ with the nuisances of the remaining 25%…

How Good is Dr. Amen’s BrainFitLife?

Introduction

I’m a fan of Dr. Daniel Amen. I’ve read several of his books and think his ideas about SPECT scans fascinating – if controversial. I appreciate the way he tries to determine exactly what is causing specific mental conditions to refine treatment methods and also his use of non-medicinal and alternative medicine options for treatment.

In a recent email newsletter there was something about his Brain Life Fit program – I wish I had kept the email. It sounded like a new and revolutionary program for brain health – and I wanted to try it (of course).

I’m already a paying Lumosity customer – but I respect Dr. Amen’s work and it sounded like a much more comprehensive program than what Dr. Amen offered. Here are my observations on Brain Fit Life, especially in comparison to Lumosity.

BrainFitLife compares itself to Lumosity, CogniFit, and FitBrains - thinks it is the best. Is it?
BrainFitLife compares itself to Lumosity, CogniFit, and FitBrains – thinks it is the best. Is it?

Complicated Sign Up

The process started off easily enjoy, I clicked Join Now on the BrainFitLife site, but was soon transferred over to the MindWorks store on the Amen Clinics site. If I didn’t already have an account with MindWorks (I did) I would have had to create one. I had to order BrainFitLife through the MindWorks store.

Once I completed the purchase I received an email with a link to setup my BrainFitLife account. This account uses a separate username and password from the MindWorks account – so for anyone who is totally new to Amen Clinics, you have to setup two accounts just to get started.

Inferior Design

I really wanted to like BrainFitLife, but I’m afraid there is more bad news. During the signup process there are several places where one is invited to click on a link but no link exists. Further there are a number of grammatical and spelling errors – this does not represent the level of professionalism I expect from an organization as prestigious as the Amen Clinics.

The Dashboard

BrainFitLife’s Dashboard is called (confusingly) “My Homepage Journal.” It is somewhat aesthetically pleasing (the My Anchor Images ruins it for me) but is overwhelming with the number of icons. On the left-hand side one can choose from different sections of the site – and to the right are icons for tracking various aspects of your health. All of these icons are designed using the same basic pattern and colors – this makes it confusing whether the icons on the left are for different functions than the icons on the right (they are).

Assess My Brain

That is okay though – if the content is really good I can plod through a complicated sign up process, inferior design, and a confusing dashboard. Let’s try Assessing My Brain. This is where the site stands out a little – it allows you to take an assessment which then tells you what sort of brain it thinks you have – based on Dr. Amen’s methodology (see his books to understand more about this methodology). I have a “Impulsive, Compulsive, Sad, Anxious” brain – boy, doesn’t that sound cheerful and optimistic?

The Assessment also looks at brain health (e.g. memory, focus, impulse control) and then generates a customized plan based on your specific brain type, strengths, and weaknesses.

It gives you a list of recommended brain training games, recommended exercises, and recommended supplements. That is pretty nifty. In comparison, Lumosity doesn’t offer an analysis of your brain type – they are focused solely on strengths/weaknesses of your brain – not mental illness. Lumosity also doesn’t offer recommendations of exercises or supplements.

Design Issue:

  • If you click on a recommended game it takes you to the games page – a list of games – but not to the specific game you clicked on.

Know My Motivation

In the Know My Motivation section I can add “anchor images” – visual reminders of what matters to me. These are the images that show up on the dashboard I mentioned previously. Its a nifty idea – though the implementation on the dashboard is sub-optimal. Images can be much more powerful than words.

Then there are a number of forms to fill out, “5 Results from Being Healthy,” “5 Results from Being Unhealthy,” “5 People or Places that Support Being Healthy,” “5 People or Places that Support an Unhealthy Life,” and “Future of My Life.” This is a good process to work through – what matters, why it matters, what helps/hurts, and what we want out of life – but the presentation is quite simplistic and not much of a value-add. You can find pen and paper worksheets that provide similar processes and Simpleology offers a better implementation of the goals concept.

There is another “tab” called “One Page Miracle” – sounds pretty awesome…but it is basically another pen and paper form that talks about different life areas – children, grandchildren, significant other, other family members, brain, physical, spirituality, interest, work, finances, and friends. Hope you read the instructions at some earlier point – b/c there aren’t any now! Gahh! Once again, very simple functionality. I’d like to see Simpleology implement something similar.

Know My Numbers

In this section Dr. Amen suggests that you should know a number of values regarding your body and have them regularly updated – this is something he talks about in his books as well. I think it is a great idea – but he doesn’t say how to accomplish this. I would recommend WellnessFX and think a partnership with them would make great sense for Dr. Amen.

They make it simple and affordable to get your blood drawn and tested almost anywhere in the United States. They provide results and analysis via a web-based interface and also can provide personalized, live coaching regarding your results and recommended changes in your regimen.

They also track almost all of these “numbers” automatically – so why waste time reentering them?

I’d love to see Lumosity integrate with WellnessFX as well and provide charting of how these numbers correlate with brain performance.

Train My Brain

Ack! This page hurts my eyes! I recommend the designers go take a look at Lumosity’s site, it is so much more aesthetically pleasing…but I can overcome aesthetic issues if the product is good enough, how are the train my brain games?

Hmmm…Inferior. Well, at least they feel inferior. They are not as refined as Lumosity’s games, there isn’t as much explanation as to how the game helps your brain, and honestly, I have high doubts about the effectiveness of some of the games. With Lumosity you can feel your brain stretching – with some of these games (e.g. shooting a target with an arrow and adjusting for wind issues) I have a hard time believing it is doing anything for my brain health.

Another example is one of the thoughts for training your mind to think more positively. It shows up bubbles with words in them – some words are positive, others are negative – you are supposed to click on the positive ones and let the negative ones fall…I really can’t see this beign a big help.

They do have “games” in several areas that Lumosity does not – and these are interesting, though their functionality can be reproduced by other web applications and processes – many freely available. For example they have games whereby one can engage in relaxation techniques, but you could also use the free Calm.com service.

Grammatical Issues:

  • “the more the use it”
  • “selected for just for you and play one now”

Design Issues:

  • Once a game has completed your only option is to play again – there should be an exit option.

  • The names of the games are extremely uncreative, “e-Think Focus” or “e-Motion Faces.” Yes, everything is electronic – I am running this on a computer – which is electronic. I mean, e-Motion faces is a little cute, but all the games I looked at are practically name in this same exact manner – and most don’t have the cute factor – e.g. e-Think Focus – nothing cute or really informative there.

  • There are images associated with each game – they are clickable, but clicking on them does nothing. You have to click a separate button underneath the game to play it or learn more about it.

Train My Body

But there is more! Maybe the Train My Body section will set Lumosity in it’s place? I mean, Lumosity doesn’t have anything for physical training. Unfortunately, no.

This section has a few links to PDF articles with basic exercise instructions and a few blog articles. I wasn’t impressed.

Then there is the “Workout Log/Plan” – which really seems to be a workout log, not a workout plan. As far as I can tell you can set up a “plan” for a single day – but have to recreate the plan every following day – and can’t set up future days in advance.

The workout log is fairly basic. I’d recommend Noom as a free alternative that runs on your smartphone or, if you want to invest a few bucks, get a Fitbit – its workout tracking is pretty sweet.

Change My Thoughts

A basic method of reprogramming one’s brain to be more optimistic/positive is recognizing and countering Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). This portion of the site provides a very basic, simple workflow that takes you through the process of identifying your ANT, choosing a response to the ANT, etc. Again, can be replicated very easily with pen and paper. If I’m trying to help someone get the most bang for their buck, I’d much rather that they bought David Burn’s Feeling Good which provides a self-help manual of sorts based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with lots of helpful worksheets.

Design Issue:

  • The tool returns results like, “Guilt is generally not a helpful emotion. It often backfires and can be counterproductive to your goals. The problem is that when we feel pushed or guilted into doing things our natural tendency is to push back. It?s better to replace ?guilt beating? with phrases like ?I want to do this,? or, ?It fits with my goals to do that. ?” This occurs when one uses an unsupported font and is a rookie design mistake. If the correct font is used these question marks should appear as single or double quotation marks.

Take My Supplements

I like that Dr. Amen recommends supplements for me. I can figure out what supplements I should be taking using his book – but that is a bit complex and time consuming. The web application does it all for me.

Let’s see what Dr. Amen recommends for me:

Supplement

Price for One Month Supply

Components

Everyday Stress Relief

$50.95

Magnesium 30 mg, Relora 750 mg, L-Theanine 200 mg, Holy Basil Extract 600 mg[1]

Focus and Energy Optimizer

$39.95

Green Tea 600 mg, Ashwagandha 250 mg, Rhodiola Rosea Extract 200 mg, Panax Ginseng Extract 200 mg, Choline 55 mg[2]

Omega 3 Power

$24.95

Total Omega-3 Fatty Acids 1600 mg, EPA 850 mg, DHA 575 mg, Other 175 mg

NeuroVite Plus

$49.95

Vitamin A 5000 IU, C 200 mg, D-3 2000 IU, E 70 IU, K-2 45 mcg, B1 15 mg, B2 17 mg, B3 50 mg, B5 50 mg, B6 20 mg, Folic Acid 400 mcg, B12 500 mcg, Calcium 50 mg, Iodine 75 mcg, Magnesium 50 mg, Zinc 7.5 mg, Selenium 200 mcg, Copper 1 mg, Manganese 5 mg, Chromium 200 mcg, Molybdenum 50 mcg, Biotin 300 mcg, Choline 55 mg, Vanadium 25 mcg, Lycopene 3 mg, Lutein 3 mg, Quercetin 30 mg, Choline Bitartrate 55 mg, Broccoli Sprout Powder 50 mg, Hesperidin Complex 20 mg, Trans-Resveratrol 10 mg, Pterostilbene 20 mcg, Proprietary Fruit and Vegetable Blend 140 mg, Proprietary Brain Boosting Blend 575 mg, Full Spectrum Digestive Enzyme Blend 30 mg.

Vitamin D

$9.95[3]

Vitamin D-3 1000 IU.

SAMe Mood & Movement

$34.95

S-Adenosylmethionine 200 mg.

Serotonin Mood Support

$44.95

Vitamin B6 20 mg, Inositol 1000 mg, Saffron Extract 176.5 mg, 5-Hydroxytryptophan 100 mg.

Total Cost:

$255.65

$217.03 (after 15% BrainFitLife member discount)

 

Ouch! That is a lot of money! Over $200/mo. on vitamins? Well, you can’t put a price on health – right? What if the health you get is way more expensive than similar health someone else gets? Hmmm…I don’t like that. It seems to me there is a pretty huge markup on these vitamins.

Lets take a look at just one example – the Omega-3 supplement. It costs $24.95/mo. through MindWorks. I use Coromega, which is a tasty, yogurt-like ketchup-sized packet and pay $25.09 for a three month supply (wow, three months for the same price as one of Dr. Amen’s Omega-3?!).

But what about the ingredients? Here is a comparison:

Ingredient:

Total Omega-3 Fatty Acids

EPA

DHA

Other

Dr. Amen:

1600 mg

850 mg

575 mg

175 mg

Coromega:

2000 mg

350 mg

230 mg

650 mg

So, Dr. Amen’s are more potent – but if I take two Coromega per day, I still end up getting 1.5 months supply to every 1 months supply of Dr. Amen’s – and personally, I think Coromega’s form has better absorption than pills and doesn’t cause fish burps (and actually tastes good!).

I appreciate the breakdown of recommended supplements – but I can’t see myself buying them through MindWorks.

Eat Right to Think Right

Once again, not very impressed. Some blog articles and videos. All the blog articles and videos appear to be freely available via the BrainFitLife – so a subscription isn’t needed.

But there is a Meal Planner – errr, make that a meal logger? I don’t really see how it helps me plan meals (at least not more than a day in advance). It also has an incredibly small “library” or foods. I’d recommend Noom or Fitbit over this Meal Logger any day.

They do have a number of healthy recipes – and that is cool – and they include nutritional values – which is even cooler – but they are also freely available via the blog. The formatting of the recipes is nice – includes instructions, nutritional values, ingredients, and an appetizing photo of said food.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to hide steps you’ve completed – for example, there is a “Meet Tana Your Nutrition Coach” which once clicked leads you to a blog article. Great – now I know Tana – but I really don’t need to see a link to getting to know her every time I visit Eat to Think Right.

One other annoyance is that the blog posts reference all sorts of studies but then don’t provide any citation information. I don’t doubt that what Dr. Amen and Tana Amen are saying is true – but I’d like to know what the original studies/sources are so I can read up on the topic further!

Grammatical and Spelling Issues:

Design Issues:

Soothe My Stress

The Soothe My Stress section includes a few games – for example ones that help you practice relaxation techniques. This is one of the more unique and impressive areas of BrainFitLife – but not nearly enough to convince me to pay up. It also contains a number of meditative/hypnotic audio videos – but you can find similar videos across the web for free (see, e.g. Calm.com).

Break My Barriers, Cravings and Addictions

Ooh, I want to see what this section contains! I have an addictive personality – I’ve struggled all my life with sugar consumption, sometimes binge on TV, etc. There are three short videos – less than 20 minutes combined – and that is it. Bummer.

Get Better Together

There is a community aspect to the site – but I’m not sure what software they are using to power it, but it seems pretty basic. It allows for status updates, forums, live chats, and calendaring – but I don’t see notification options or other essential features.

On the positive side, there are live coaches who monitor the site and perform regular live coaching sessions…I’ve never been too big on them though.

Trackers

Trackers are cool. They let you track all sorts of things – mood, sleep, focus, energy, anxiety, cravings, memory, motivation, and so on. The implementation on BrainFitLife is fairly basic. If you have a Fitbit, it includes much more robust tracking…or you can try a free service like Trackthisfor.me. MedHelp also had fairly robust tracking tools for free. I do like the idea behind the “gratitude” tracker – which is a little different in that one doesn’t just keep track of numeric values but actual items one is thankful for.

Other Observations

  • There are a number of videos featuring Dr. Amen throughout, these are neat and informative and short (which I like) but the videos are poor quality (the way they were resized causes rough edges on whatever is on the screen – e.g. Dr. Amen). Dr. Amen is very expressive in the videos (lots of hand motions) – a little more expressive than I’d suggest, but to each his own.

  • There is a very simple but helpful help overlay when you first login…unfortunately if you click on Get Help later you get that same basic overlay – at least if you click on it on the Dashboard page. On some other pages (e.g. Change My Thoughts), clicking on it does nothing but reload the page.

  • It is neat that they have an option to receive SMS (text message) reminders at specific times to remind you to do certain tasks (e.g. update trackers, take supplements).

  • The “Manage My Account” link takes you out of BrainFitLife and back to MindWorks which is annoying.

  • In some places under Quick Links there are two “My Brain Type” links – they lead to separate places but share the same name – quite confusing.

Pricing

BrainFitLife is too expensive ($8.25/mo.) for what it offers. It claims this is a reduced rate from the normal $29.95/mo. – which is either a price they never plan to charge (but makes it look like a must-get-now value) or it is an outrageous charge.

Conclusion

BrainFitLife is a great idea, but a poor implementation. Lumosity is a definite keeper.

I don’t know why this happens but I notice that oftentimes as an organization/personality grows bigger the quality of the product decreases. I’ve felt similarly about some of John Maxwell’s materials. I’m not sure if it is the need to turn out a constant line of new products/services to keep income flowing, too little time, too wide spread of a focus, or what – but I hate to see it. One ends up with a lot of half-baked products/services from someone folks trust to provide them only with the best. This is a real bummer – I’d encourage folks to do less better.

I hope Dr. Amen will take this as constructive criticism and ramp up his endeavors with BrainFitLife. It has real potential – but it isn’t there yet. I’d suggest expanding the development and design teams and acquiring some other businesses or at least partnering with them to integrate their functionality. I mentioned some great places to start – e.g. WellnessFX, Noom, Fitbit, Simpleology, Trackthisfor.me, and even Lumosity!

  1. [1]Now Foods True Calm Amino Relaxer has Niacin 45 mg, Vitamin B-6 8 mg, Magnesium 13 mg, GABA 200 mg, Glycine 200 mg, Taurine 200 mg, Inositol 100 mg, Valerian 25 mg. It includes three months supply and costs $8.04 on Amazon. Now Foods offers a Holy Basil Extract product with three months supply at 500 mg for $12.07 on Amazon. A four month supply of Relora from Now Foods on Amazon is $18.90 with each capsule containing 300 mg. Finally, a two month supply of L-Theanine from the same on Amazon is $16.46 and has 200 mg per capsule. I’m not going to spend the time doing the math – but it should be pretty evident that this supplement seems exorbitantly more expensive than a similar mix from retail.
  2. [2]NOW Foods has Green Tea Extract, 250 pills, for $12.99; Ashwagandha, 90 pills, with 450 mg, for $11.46; Rhodiola, 60 pills, 500 mg, for $9.99; Panax Ginseng, 250 pills, 500 mg, for $18.02. You get the idea.
  3. [3]This is for 100 tablets.

The Sword Bearer (Author: John White) – Book Review.

“I am the Changer, the Unchangeable Changer. I am the Beginner-Who-Never-Began.” – 42.

As a child my father read to me the entire Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. I undertook (and succeeded) in reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy, but fumbled when trying to make it through The Silmarillion. In general, I’m not a huge fantasy guy. I really enjoyed Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit was good, but Lord of the Rings I found too dense and detailed (remember, I was a child at the time).

Front cover of John White's The Sword Bearer, first book in The Archives of Anthropos series of fantasy.
Front cover of John White’s The Sword Bearer, first book in The Archives of Anthropos series of fantasy.

Every once in a while I try to pick up some fantasy and give it a read – but I find most of it does not interest me. I am particularly fond of allegories and extended metaphors – such as Narnia and, now, John White’s The Archives of Anthropos.

“No one can make you drink the wine of free pardon. You must want to drink it yourself. And until you do, John the Sword Bearer, your sword will prove useless to the cause. Indeed, if before drinking the wine you should ever try to kill the Goblin Prince with it, your sword will surely fail you.” – Mab, 87-88.

White’s Archives of Anthropos begins with The Sword Bearer, the only book which I have read thus far, which tells the story of a young man (John) who is taken to another world where he must slay a dark goblin lord who terrorizes the country. The book has more in common with Narnia than Tolkien. The story – while somewhat lengthy (294 pages) is more detailed than Narnia in its portrayals but less detailed than Tolkien.

“And when the ruler of darkness reigns,
the days shall be painted with gloom.
And the light of the stars shall slowly increase
as a shadow crosses the moon.
For then shall the tower of Mystery wax great
and an odor of death shall blow
“Til the sword shall be free in the bearer’s hand
and the tower shall sink below.” – Mab, 135.

Yet it does not exceed Narnia in quality, in fact, I think it fails to reach the same level of literature as Lewis or Tolkien. While it is allegorically powerful, it lacks the sort of literary richness found in Lewis and Tolkien’s constant integration of other mythological strains into their works. At least, no such strains stuck out to me as I read the work. The book makes constant connections with principles and passages of Scripture (Adam and Eve, the Christ, Satan, sin, salvation, and so on) but it does not seem to reference other works besides Scripture (which Lewis does with some profundity).

“Mab waited so long before replying that John felt uncomfortable. When at last he spoke, his voice was heavy. ‘Sometimes, Sword Bearer, I wish I understood the ways of the Changer. But my mind has yet to penetrate them. Often he does things that make little sense to me, and his silences wound me. I suppose he owes none of us an explanation of his ways. I serve him, and I will serve none other for he has been gracious to me. But I find him hard to understand.'” – 170.

Still, the book, if enjoyed on its own merits is a worthy and interesting read. I don’t really read not only fantasy but fiction. It takes a special book to catch and maintain my attention. I find there are so many non-fiction books, where am I to find time to read fiction? But this book grabbed my attention and held it throughout.

“Yes, I confess I have used my staff in ways he never instructed me to. Sorcerers and magicians do so all the time. To them the power itself is important. Yet for nearly seven hundred years whenever I have used the Changer’s power wrongly, however great the demonstration of power may have been, it brought no lasting good. I once breached a castle wall with it, but the castle was never taken. I dried an unfordable river with it, but the army was defeated after crossing it. My staff was given me to accomplish the Changer’s purposes, and only when it is so used does lasting good come.” – Mab, 198.

Granted, there may have been contributing factors. John White was a Christian psychiatrist who wrote The Masks of Melancholy, an important book in my understanding of my own mental struggles (especially with depression). He also wrote Eros Defiled, which is still referenced frequently, and discusses Christians and sexuality in a frank, concise way that seeks to bring together Scripture and psychiatry.

I am fascinated by John White as an individual because of his movement from more academic/intellectual circles into a more charismatic environment (third wave more precisely) and the resulting alienation he experienced. I read somewhere that White was bipolar himself and I am interested to know how this influenced his spirituality throughout his life. Unfortunately there is very little that I have found written about White, even though he was a prolific author and influential leader within the Vineyard movement, and so I am left searching through his books to understand him.

“Beware that you speak not ill of the Changer! The Changer cares. He cares greatly. But our little minds cannot conceive the greatness of his plans. Have any of you thought to ask him what they are? Or do you think he has gone on a journey, leaving you all to do his thinking for him?” – Mab, 201-202.

Some of his works – like Eros Redeemed – I have found extremely disjointed and confusing. Whereas others such as The Masks of Melancholy and Eros Defiled (mentioned above) I have found to be highly insightful. The Sword Bearer falls more along the insightful lines.

“You see my fire? I know not whether it drives away the darkness from the marshes or the darker fears from my heart. But come and sit beside me. If darkness and cold crawl round your heart as they crawl round mine, sit on my footstool and let heat and light singe your skin!” – Bjorn, 206.

Another reason I began reading this series was because in an interview White remarked that his most controversial books where not any of his non-fiction – even though his Eros Defiled was quite edgy in some senses in its direct, practical, no-beating-around-the-bush approach to sexuality and his Masks of Melancholy was released in a day when many Christians believed that mental illness was an illusion and psychiatry an over-blown and completely anti-Christian practice. Instead White indicated that it was his fiction series (The Archives of Anthropos) which raised the most controversy – some Christians being outraged that he would write fantasy, believing fantasy cannot be Christian. Others who found the books to be extremely cathartic and healing to various wounds in their own lives.

‘My staff may help. But the Sword Bearer has an infallible way. He simply walks into his own pain.’ Mab reminded them about the meaning of the pain in John’s shoulder.

John began to feel his heart beat. What adventure awaited him now? He did not like the thought of going in whatever direction increased his pain in order to find the goblins. Yet interest quickened as everyone realized the possibilities John’s painful shoulder had.” – 223.

As far as content goes, the books do include mythical creatures (such as goblins), magic, and violence. The books appear to be written with an older child/teen audience in mind – perhaps similar to Narnia – while at the same time being entertaining and thought provoking to older readers as well.

If you read fantasy – I’d recommend this series. If you don’t read fantasy – I’d recommend the series as well. It is an enjoyable and easy read, with some great thoughts/quotes – a few of which I’ve included in this article.

“The emptiness inside him was larger than himself. It was larger than the universe.” – 236.

“‘They call me John-of-the-Swift-Sword because this,’ John touched his scabbard, ‘cut off the hand of Old Nick, the Goblin Prince.’

‘I see,’ the lady murmured mischievously. ‘You yourself did not cut the hand off. The sword cut it off. Was the sword in your hand  at the time by any chance?'” – 268-269.

“He is the Unmade Maker, the Beginner without Beginning, the Change who cannot be changed.” – Male Regent, 271.

“He knew the power of Old Nick was the power of an evil still inside himself, a proud and rebellious evil, an evil he must now destroy.” – 282.

Ensure Nutrition Shake or Ensure Complete Nutrition Shake?

I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Soylent…but it seems likely that it will be sometime later in Q1 2014 before I’ll get my hands on it. In the meantime I’ve been drinking a good bit of Ensure. It is a nice, easy way to get some caloric and nutritional content without a lot of work. How good is it for me? Hmmm…I’m not sure.

I recently saw they had a “Complete” product which is supposed to provide support for muscles, heart, immune system, and bones…but it is significantly more expensive. You can buy a six pack of Ensure for around $9-$10, a four pack of Ensure Complete runs around the same. So which should I buy? I decided to do a side-by-side comparison – and since I’m doing it, I might as well share it with you.

 Product: Ensure Ensure Complete
 Calories:  250  350
 Fat Calories:  50  100
 Total Fat:  6 g  11 g
 Cholesterol  5 mg  5 mg
 Sodium  200 mg  240 mg
 Potassium  370 mg  560 mg
 Carbohydrates  40 g  51 g
 Sugars  23 g  20 g
 Protein  9 g  13 g
 Vitamin A  25%  25%
 Iron  25%  25%
 Vitamin K  25%  25%
 Niacin  25%  25%
 Vitamin B12  25%  25%
 Phosphorus  25%  35%
 Zinc  25%  25%
 Manganese  60%  60%
 Chloride  8%  2%
 Vitamin C  50%  60%
 Vitamin D  25%  40%
 Thiamin  25%  25%
 Vitamin B6  25%  25%
 Biotin  25%  25%
 Iodine  25%  25%
 Selenium  25%  30%
 Chromium  25%  25%
 Choline  15%  15%
 Calcium  30%  35%
 Vitamin E  25%  30%
 Riboflavin  25%  25%
 Folate  25%  25%
 Pantothenic Acid  25%  25%
 Magnesium  25%  25%
 Copper  25%  25%
  Molybdenum  50%  60%
 Amino Acid Metabolite HMB  No  Yes
 Omega 3’s  No  650 mg ALA
 Probiotics  No  Yes

Based on this analysis, I think I’ll stick with the regular nutritional shakes. I wouldn’t mind the Amino Acid Metabolite HMB, Omega 3’s, or Probiotics…but I can get these from other sources. Everything else seems fairly minor or something I don’t necessarily want (e.g. extra calories)…and the lower price of the regular shake makes more financial sense.

Any thoughts? Do you use nutritional drinks? If so, what kind and how frequently? I’d say I use them on average once a day – though sometimes twice…and of course, there are the odd days where I don’t use them at all.

The History Channel’s The Bible Mini-Series (Part 2)

Introduction

300px-Samson_in_the_Treadmill
Last week I wrote a review of The History Channel’s The Bible Mini-Series, Part 1. If you’ve read the review you’ll know that I wasn’t a huge fan of the series thus far due to (a) its being too ambitious in covering too great of a time span, (b) the lack of multidimensional characters, (c) the over-focus on fight scenes, (d) the odd mixture of literal biblical interpretation with completely fictional elements, and (e) the poor casting of some secondary characters.

So what about week two? Did the issues continue in this episode? Where there new issues? Happily, the second episode made significant strides in rectifying several of the shortcomings seen in the first episode – namely, it focused in on a more limited time span which in turn allowed for slightly better multidimensional character development. It also utilized better casting for secondary characters and the fight scenes became a more measured portion of the entire narrative. I also didn’t notice the blatant mixture of strict literalism with oddly fictionalized elements.

Thus the second episode was significantly better than the first, but still significantly below what I had hoped for before viewing any of the series. I am optimistic that the series will continue to improve in quality as the time spans continue to shrink, but I also feel pessimistic about the potential for a moving portrayal of the life of Christ and/or the Acts of the Apostles. This is not because these narratives lack in the material to make good television, but because I rarely have seen a portrayal of these narratives which has managed to move beyond the mediocre, wooden, and tedious (ironic, given the power of the material!).

The Siege of Jericho

I don’t have any significant complaints about the Siege of Jericho or the portrayal of Rahab, other than wooden dialogue and the general lack of being swept up in powerful emotions in the portrayal of these epic stories (for comparison, one might watch Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit and compare the emotional experience to that felt during The Bible – at least for me, the former have a much greater impact than the latter).

I did wonder to myself about marching around the city. Did the people of Jericho just allow the Israelites to walk around the city? Or did they fire at the Israelites? Send out sorties to attack and break their ranks? Or did the Israelites walk so far outside the city walls that they were out of range? I visualize the people of Jericho shooting arrows, throwing rocks, and attacking via cavalry sorties. If so, this would have been a great test of the Israelites faith. As they walked around the city day after day, suffering causalities, they must have thought, “Why are we wasting our time and our people walking around the city? We will be too weak by the time we actually attack the city to overcome it!”

This is also only one of a few scenes thus far in which a woman (Rahab) is portrayed in a positive light (I suppose one might consider Moses’ adoptive mother a positive female character in Part 1).

Samson and Delilah

This narrative was told in an okay manner. I think Samson’s African heritage may have been a subtle nod to the correlations between Israelite enslavement by the Philistines and African enslavement by Americans/Europeans. While historically unlikely that Samson was black, it may go towards furthering the narrative further in the future as I imagine they will emphasize the inclusive nature of Christianity and the tearing down of ethnic and social barriers that Jesus implemented.

Again, I found the dialogue fairly wooden and the primary female characters weak (Samson’s mother) or downright evil (Delilah). I did however greatly enjoy the narrators overture that, “Samson was given great strength to cast out the Philistines but he was distracted.” (as Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman) This was a genius line that added some levity to the story.

The secondary characters looked more like hardened soldiers in this episode, although they seemed completely one dimensional evil villains.

King Saul

Here is where I thought things improved significantly. The cast (both primary and secondary characters) looked much more the part than in early narrative segments. Time was spent on the narratives which allowed us to develop some affinity for the characters. King Saul is a multidimensional character who honestly struggles to obey God’s will, and one feels empathy for him when he is rejected by God.

King David

One can hardly separate the narrative of David from that of Saul, they overlap in so many areas and as with the overlap in story so there is overlap in quality. The time spent on the story is more appropriate, the characters are more multidimensional, and at times the dialogue is almost inspired. I especially enjoyed the combination of David’s Psalm 23 with his advance against Goliath.

I found the portrayal of David’s relationship with Bathsheba interesting. Ever heard the saying, “No means no”? In other words, one is raped or sexually assaulted if one says no and the person persists? This is what frequently happens with date rape, etc. Individuals reject the advances but the other individual continues to pressure and eventually the original individual gives in. They are thus not necessarily physically compelled, but they have been emotionally or psychologically compelled – their personal will being overwhelmed by the aggressor.

In this portrayal of David, it is clear that David’s advances upon Bathsheba are unwanted and would have qualified as date rape. While in the end she acquiesces to David’s advances, her initial attempts at rejecting him indicate clearly her heart and will’s desire, which is overwhelmed by undue pressure by David.

I don’t think I had ever thought of this scenario as being a rape before – always having thought of it as consensual…but if it was a rape, this would throw significant light on the later rape of Tamar and even Absalom’s actions with David’s wives (neither of which are portrayed in this series).

For those holding discussions after the series this might be a worthwhile discussion. Too often folks feel as if they have to be physically compelled into a sexual act for that act to be a crime against them – but the truth is that the act of overpowering another’s will is a crime against them. On an emotional level we see this when “brainwashing” occurs – an individual’s will is subsumed into the will of a leader, e.g. of a cult.

Narrative Threads

There are two narrative threads that flow throughout the series thus far – intentional or otherwise. The first has to do with the significant characters who follow God (e.g. Abraham, Saul, Samson) – they are told to perform acts of which they are unsure, they act sometimes in a way that seems unthinking, they are torn by what sometimes appears to be a lack of faithfulness of God’s part, and so on. In this manner, the relationship between God and his followers is mysterious and frustrating…

The second thread is the peripheral character of women to the series. Women are constantly used by the male characters or influence the male characters by speech rather than action. This does reflect, to some extent, the character of the ancient mindset regarding women, but I get the feeling that the women are weak characters, unable to act or think for themselves, whereas while the ancient cultural context may have deemed them as such they oftentimes showed themselves to rise above these low cultural views, challenging the men to step up and stop being such cowards (e.g. Rahab, Deborah, Abigail).

I Dream

I must admit that a while back as I was reading through the Scriptures regarding King David my mind’s eye was filled with the epic nature of the story and I felt a yearning to see a TV series made which would address this topic in detail over several years. I don’t think I have the technical skills for such an undertaking…but just in case anyone out there is thinking about properly funding such a series, may I make a few suggestions?

I’d recommend Paul Scheuring, Jon Turteltaub, and Jonathan E. Steinberg to head up the film crew. For cast I think Kim Coates would make a dynamic and powerful King David and Ian McShane should retake the role of King Saul. Jesse Spencer would make a dashing Prince Jonathan. Scott Wilson could play one of several wise prophets.

Katey Sagal and Mary Steenburgen both would make great leading ladies and Sarah Wayne Callies, Lisa Edelstein, Olivia Wilde, and Clea Duvall would be excellent choices as well.

Mark Boone Junior, Omar Epps, Idris Ebla, Ron Perlman, Ryan Hurst, Common, Tommy Flanagan, Robert Knepper, William Fichtner, Lennie James, Mickey Rourke, Lance Reddick, Vincent D’Onofrio, Stephen Lang, Mandy Patinkin, Rockmond Dunbar, Gabriel Byrne, Jeff Goldblum, Walton Goggins, David Meunier, David Morse, and Don Cheadle would all be excellent choices – some for David’s Mighty Men, others for commanders of the various enemies David faces throughout his reign.

The budget for such a series would need to be significant – as it would need an ensemble cast to hold things together. Scheuring, Turteltaub, and Steinberg should head up the film crew for their ability to enter into the minds of their characters and to create connective tissue between episodes. The series should have a definite arc, concluding after a predetermined period of time to avoid “jumping the shark.” But I digress…

For Further Reading

Spotify: Free, Unlimited, Streaming Music.

Spotify Logo
Spotify Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been using Spotify for a number of months now and I really like it. I’ve used a number of services over the years to listen to music –
Pandora, Napster (once it became legitimate), and Grooveshark…now I mainly use Spotify.

Spotify has a tremendously large library of music available – somewhere in the ballpark of 15 million tracks I believe. It includes most popular artists as well as many small, independent artists. You can’t always find the latest releases – but overall, I find 95% of the music I’m looking for on Spotify.

I love how Spotify integrates into Facebook so that others can know what I’m listening to (if you want to share that info.), allows third party developers to create unique apps to extend Spotify’s built-in functionality, the quick and easy sharing of songs with others, and the relatively sporadic ads in the free version.

Go get it now, its free. What do you have to lose?

That said, I do have a few “ideas” for how Spotify could enhance its service. Namely:

  1. I’m unaware of any way in which one can “favorite” an artist. This is easy to do with individual tracks, but oftentimes I don’t want to say, “hey, I love every track on this album” – I really want to say, “hey, I love this artist…so I’ll like pretty much by ’em.”
  2. I’d love the ability to tag songs rather than just assigning them to categories. This would create a flexible base around which I could query Spotify to find songs for the specific topic I’m thinking of. In my case, I use songs to facilitate discussions – in church, in youth ministry, etc. Sometimes I’m looking for that song I can’t remember about death, love, God, anxiety, or whatever – being able to tag songs specifically would be awesome.
  3. I’d like a counter on each song. How many times have I listened to this song? Sometimes I favorite songs and I love them – but I don’t want to listen to them again right now…its likely that if I haven’t listened to it more than a few times, I’d like to hear it again. By giving a counter I could easily decide which of my favorite songs to listen to…hmmm, that also makes me think it might be nice to have a “last played” column.
  4. The last feature is an important one. I love music discovery – but I also have my stream integrated with Facebook and I want whatever songs appear in my list to be “safe” songs. I don’t use most discovery services at this juncture (other than Pandora) b/c too often one ends up with an “unsafe” song with explicit language. This is an unpleasant surprise in a work environment and for those who might be following your stream on Facebook. I know for many this may not be a concern, but it is for me, and I think it would be fairly easy to exclude explicit songs from being included in music discovery (this could be an option, rather than forcing it on everyone).

Movie Review: 9 (Tim Burton).

Introduction

9 is a new animated film based upon an Academy Award nominated short of the same name. The film attracts attention for a intriguing preview, an all-star cast, and (perhaps most importantly) the attachment of Tim Burton’s name to the film (as a producer). But don’t expect your normal animated tale – not even your normal abnormal tale from Tim Burton (ala The Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride).

For Children?

While the merits of allowing children to watch Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride may be questionable at best, 9 seems to push far beyond the macabre and dark humor of these films. We should have known when the MPAA chose to rate 9 PG-13 while Nightmare and Corpse had both received only PG ratings.

The entire premise of 9 is dark – a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has been utterly destroyed and only stitchpunk dolls imbued with a soul survive. The stitchpunk dolls stumbling over the dead bodies of humans – soldiers, women, and children – is disturbing enough but the real scares are reserved for the horrifying mechanical monstrosities the stitchpunk dolls must face.

But Is It Good?

In spite of Tim Burton’s strangeness many thoroughly enjoy his films – and his repeated pairing with Johnny Depp – but this film is so different from Burton films that one has to consider it on its own merits. It should not be considered a Burton film (and it is not, though he participated Acker is the main brains).

The film is beautifully rendered (even the dark and morbid aspects are done with artistic finesse). One is drawn into the world and with a little imagination the film world takes on a reality all its own. That said, after twenty minutes I was fidgeting and wishing, “When will this film end?” The storyline consists almost entirely of stitchpunks fighting monsters – defeating or semi-defeating monsters – and then repeating the cycle. The fight scenes are amazingly rendered, the explosions and conflicts engrossing – but while the enemies vary it feels somewhat like an old-fashioned nintendo video game in which the levels repeat over and over with little variation.

Further, the film is painful to watch – not because of the elimination of humanity but because of the constant and growing suffering of the stitchpunks. While one never gets extremely attached to the stitchpunks the minute rendering of the terror of the suffering and the mourning of those left behind is agonizing. At times I wondered, “Will this film end with defeat?” For most of the film its defeat piled upon defeat. Hope is smashed repeatedly and the world draws ever closer to oblivion. Each chance at victory is spoiled and with it another character is heart wrenchingly destroyed.

But Does It Teach Us?

A film can be painful and boring and yet still have a deeply powerful message. Unfortunately, while 9 had great potential to engage us on important cultural and spiritual topics – it falls flat. It tackles a number of interesting ideas but with such brevity and amidst so many distractions that the opportunity for discussion is nearly lost. Here are a few implications I drew from the film (I am not indicating agreement with this ideas – personally I hold a Protestant Christian worldview):

  • The stitchpunks creation/existence correlates with human creation. In this sense, we are god and god ceased to exist as a separate entity in order to create us.
  • god was/is not a greater intelligence but rather another intelligence. The act of creation was an act of survival rather than an act of infinite wisdom and grace.
  • 1 represents institutional religion/political order. These are safe but prevent us from experiencing progress.
  • 9 is a post-modern revolutionary who attempts to move humanity forward. 9’s attempts result in great suffering for mankind. While revolutionary and de-construction may result in gradual advancement, the costs are extremely high.
  • A dystopian view of technological/scientific advancement. Our advancements will one day destroy us.
  • At the same time, an endorsement of radical innovation and rebellion (as 9 epitomizes), yet seemingly with less of a focus on technological/scientific advancement.
  • The death of stitchpunks and the release of their souls is the food to renew the world, to start the evolutionary process again from the beginning.

Concluding Remarks:

9 is well-done artistically and may be viewed on these merits with enjoyment. Those looking for deep, thought provoking storylines and a enjoyable viewing will be disappointed. The worldview presented by the movie – or the extrapolations which one may carry from it – will be disconcerting to many audiences. The film should be watched with a contemplative eye that understands the worldview presented and adequately responds to the truths and untruths presented. The film is certainly not for children. It is not unnecessarily gory, but it is continually suspenseful, frightening in its tension, and dark in its portrayal of death and life.