CATI: Christians And The Internet

Discussion of various matters of interest related to the Internet, particularly from the perspective of conservative, Reformed (or Presbyterian) Protestantism.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Best Movies: Where to Rent Them

Last time I didn't really tell you how to find the best movies, but I did, I hope, suggest some ways in which you can find out whether a particular film is likely to be a good film. (If I get braver, I may sometime in the future suggest to you a list of some of what are, in my opinion, among the best movies of all time. BUt that's not my purpose right now.

OK. Let's suppose you want to see a good film. One drawback is the large expense of seeing a film in a movie theatre. If it's just two of you, then the cost may be $10 or more; for a family of four or more, we're talking $20 or more. Some consider the "theatre-going experience" to be worth it, but that partly depends on the theatre (and particularly on the audience).

As for the Traver family, we see almost all of our movies on videocassette of DVD, and it costs us about 1.50 per film (which, for the two of us, means about 75 cents each@). We have great films to choose from (the Philadelphia area has two of the best video rental places in the country, TLA Video and Movies Unlimited, so far as selection is concerned). We don't have a huge-screen or high-resolution television, but it's large enough that we can watch "letter-boxed" films with discomfort. (Those are the films where the shape is the wide-screen shape you get in the movie theatres, rather than those where "the picture has been formatted to fit your TV.")

We are able to be good stewards and cut our costs, because TLA Video offers special prices if you pre-purchase a "punch card" and has so many other extras to offer (e.g., ordinarily you can get three films for the price of two on any day of the week, and often there are special offers of two films for the price of one). In addition, you can reserve particular films ahead of time, and TLA Video will phone you when they are in.

I know, you don't live in the Philadelphia area. You may live in an area where your local video store charges high prices and offers very little selection. Why, however, does TLA Video offer such attractive features (such as now letting you keep films out an additional day more than they had earlier, without any additional charge)? It's because they know that they have commpetition, and they know that many people know that. And part of that competition is available to you, regardless of where you live in the country and whatever video rental stores you may have available in your area. Read on!

Imagine being able to rent a video and being able to keep it out as long as you want with no additional charges. Your total cost? $10 a month. Imagine being able to rent three videos at a time and be able to to keep them out as long as you want with no additional charges. Your total cost? $18 a month. That is, that's no more than the cost of going out once or twice a month to your local movie theatre!

How is this done? By signing up with one of the on-line video rental places. Yes, they send the movies to you by mail, but they pay the shipping both ways (you can see why they don't mind your keeping a film longer - they have to pay the shipping@, and - at least with the giants in the business - you have more than 50,000 films from which to choose,

From the research I have done (including looking at customer satisfaction), I would probably probably recommend Netflix, which you can find here:


As their home page indicates, their basic plan (one DVD at a time, which is probably adequate for many people) costs $9.95 a month (if you want three DVDs at a time with no monthly limit, that will cost you you $17.99 a month) , and there's free shipping both ways. They advertise "No late fees - keep DVDs as long as you want," but, of course, that's to their advantage as much as yours. (If you keep a film longer, as I just said, you're just saving them shipping costs.) And you can cancel at any time on-line, and there are no cancellation fees.

Here's the procedure (and the "catch," if the plan has a "catch"): you create a list of DVDs on-line (Netflix claims to offer 55,000+ different titles of all kinds), and _from that list_ they send you one or more DVDs (depending on your plan). If I understand the situation, that probably means that it could be difficult (maybe impossible) to order a particular CD at a particular time. (Even so, the same would often be true of your local video rental store.) You keep each DVD as long as you want, and return a viewed movie to get a new one _from your list_. (You do, however, get the first available title from the queue you set up.)

Another possibility is Blockbuster Online, which you can find at this address:

     Blockbuster Online

They also have a $9.95 a month plan (although they are reluctant to admit that they have such a plan; they prefer to push their $17.99 plan), where they also pay shipping both ways. The disadvantage is that they only claim to have 50,000+ titles. The advantage is that they have some special offers, such as this: "Each month BLOCKBUSTER Online® provides you with two ecoupons for FREE in-store movie rentals. Print your ecoupons and take them into your nearest participating BLOCKBUSTER® store to enjoy your free movie rentals."

Netflix and Blockbuster are the "biggies," but there are a number of smaller companies that sometimes offer options not available with the bigger companies.

Below is one review of the major on-line video rental companies:
Blockbuster Online - carries more than 40,000 [now 50,000] DVD titles available for rental. Free shipping both ways via US Mail. Having 3 movies out at a time costs $17.99. Beats rushing back to the corner store on a Monday morning to beat the late fees!

Netflix - long the leader in the on line DVD rental business, Netflix began delivering DVD movies to your door since 1999. With over 3 million members and a library of over 50,000 [now 55,000] DVD movie titles, they have built a network of shipping warehouses allowing them to deliver movies usually within 48 hours via first class US Mail. Movie rentals are available via a monthly subscription fee ($10-$30, depending on whether you have 1 or 5 out at a time), so you are essentially committed to renting and viewing movies every month on an ongoing basis. Once your account is set up, you create a list (queue) of movies you want to see, and Netflix automatically ships the first available title. They arrive in the mail in little red envelopes, with a postage-paid return envelope [with] it. If you buy the 2 movie at a time plan, you will be sent 2 DVDS. Keeps them as long as you like, there are no late fees. When you are done, mail them back, and Netflix sends the next one on your list. It's that simple.

Walmart - well, they tried providing movie rentals by mail, but they gave up and partnered with Netflix instead!

QuikFliks - DVD rentals through the mail, but with their Rapid Return they ship your next movie while your returned DVD is in transit, meaning you can go through 1.5x or 2x more movies per month than with similar services. However, the cost goes up the more you watch - a 4 movie at a time plan with up to 32 movies total per month is $58....

Verdict: Netflix is the clear leader here, no reason to go elsewhere. Their service and response time is excellent given their multiple shipping and receiving locations across the country. If you want to rent DVD movies online, go to Netflix. If you want to rent DVD movies from a store, head down to your local Blockbuster.

     Online DVD Movie Rentals

An older review of the various on-line DVD rental vendors also concluded that Netflix was the best choice (Walmart was the runner-up, but Walmart is now part of Netflix):

# Large movie selection
# Comprehensive search/browse interface
# 20+ distribution centers for fast delivery
# High movie availability
# Online movie trailers (some movies)



Review Summary:

Netflix is by far the largest online movie rental service available today. With 98% market share, it currently has over 2 million subscribers. Rightfully so. I have personally used Netflix for the past 6 months and have yet to experience a problem. With over 50,000 [now 55,000] titles to choose from, you'll be hard pressed to come across a movie that Netflix does not have. The movie search/browse interface is extremely easy to use and is very clean and professional. It even has a personalized 'Recommentaions' area, where movies are recommended to you based on your ratings of previously viewed movies. Netflix offers multiple professional critic reviews, top 100 lists, and critic's picks. You can search for movies based on several criteria such as movie title, actor/director names, movie studio, genre, etc. Netflix has more than 25 distribution centers nationwide to ensure fast shipping. Normally it takes 1-3 days to get your movie from the time you add it to your queue.

     Online DVD Movie Reviews

So it appears that Netflix is without question the top choice. The price is right (including the free shipping), they offer a larger number of selections, they have multiple shipping locations, they've been around for a while, and they seem to rank high in customer satisfaction (judging from incidental references to Netflix I've seen on message boards, in chat room transcripts, etc., and not just from formal customer surveys). I'm seriously considering trying them myself (as you might guess from the research I've done).

Let me know how you make out.

Barry Traver

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Best Movies: A Guide to Film Reviews

The following atticle is based on an article which I wrote for the "CATI" newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 9:

"It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make a man wise or good, but the well-reading of a few, sould he be sure to have the best."
     --Richard Baxter

Although there is a scarcity of good Christian films (compared to good Christian books), the principle holds true for books and films in general.

Are you accustomed to turning on the television (or "boob tube" or "idiot box" or "plug-in drug"), sitting down, and switching from channel to channgel to channel, looking in vain for something worth watching? You don't have to do that. Read a good book instead. Or watch a good film!

First, let me say that there are Christians who as a practice avoid watching films (unless they were made by Christians for a Christian audience), and I respect that choice (just as we respect some good friends who have chosen to get rid of their television set). Our time is limited, and each person must decide for himself or herself how best to use that time. And,most people would admit, many or most movies may not be worth seeing.

Still, there are many Christians who have chosen to include watching films among their activities, and the Traver family is included in that number. There are many reasons for this. For example, like art, music, and literature, films display man's creativity. In the beginning God created mankind in His own likeness, and part of that likeness is that man was created not to be a mechanical robot but to have the ability to be creative. (Yes, man is still a creature rather than the Creator and man cannot create ex nihilo, that is, out of nothing, and yet man can in a real sense create a populated world, and that is true in film even more than it is in literature.) A good film is a work of art, from which we can derive enjoyment and instruction.

Even when done by non-Christians, films can display certain "common grace insights" (universal Scriptural truths) from which we may benefit (although the Christian will want to test everything by Scripture). For example, the film "A Simple Plan" powerfully demonstrates the reality that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (see 1 Tim. 6:10). In addition, movies often not only reflect our culture (or at least reflect the "media elite" of our culture), but also greatly influence our culture. Thus it is to our advantage to be informed about what people are watching if we want to interact with them in an informed and intelligent way.

But that's our perspective, and your situation and calling may be different. My wife and I, for example, teach high school students, so it helps to know what our students are watching. In addition, watching films is something we enjoy doing, just as some other people spend their time watching sports events, an activity we avoid. But whether you choose to watch films or not (or to allow your children to watch or not), you can find lots of helpful information about films on the Internet. (As a parent, for example, you may need to make a decision on whether one of your children will be allowed to see a particular movie.)

So let's take a look at some Christian sites (and some other sites) where useful film reviews can be found.

One good starting point is Christian Spotlight on the Movies, which claims to offer the "Latest Christian Movie Reviews":

     Christian Spotlight on the Movies

Suppose you have a particular film in mind, say, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch,and the Wardrobe." One way to find it is to click on the "C"or the the "L" in the alphabet that lets you find it "Movie Reviews by Title." When you get to the "C" page or the "L" page, look for the name of the film. You'll see that Christian Spotlight on the Movies gives the film a "moral" rating of anything froms "Extremely Ofensive" to "Excellent" a "moviemaking" rating from 1 (Terrible!" to 5 (Excellent). The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) "G" (GEneral Audiencews") to "NC-17" ("No one under 17 admitted"). The Narnia film got a "Good/" rating, and is a "PG" ("Parental Guidance Suggested") filme. Click on the film title and be taken to a review of the movie.

You'll find more film reviews at a Web site of Focus on the Family (Dr. James Dobson):

     Plugged In: Film Reviews

Click on "C" and then "Chronicles of Narnia" to see a review of the film.

Although the following site is not specifically a Christian site, parents
may find it to be worth a look:

     Kids-in-Mind: Movie Ratings That Actually Work

The site provides helpful information on the sex, violence, and profanity a film may contain, telling it by the numbers. The alphabet at the top of the home page lets you find a film by title. Click on "C," and you'll see that "Tjhe Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is rated 1.6.1 (that is, on a scale from 0 to 10, 1 for sex, 6 for violence, and 1 for profanity). Click on the film title, and you'll get the details, as well as some other brief comments.

If you're not so much concerned about whether a movie is suitable for children and are more interested in its value for adults, here is a Christian movie review site that I find especially worthwhile and thought-provoking:

     Hollywood Jesus

The site is very professionally done, and very "visual" (in comparison with most other movie review sites). Do not expect to agree with all of the comments, but do expect a stimulating experience. You have to search the site a bit to find it, but discussion of the Narnia film is at the following address:

     Hollywood Jesus: Narnia review also has Christian movie reviews:

     Crosswalk.Com Movie Remives

It's not easy, however, to find a review of a particular film at that site. Nevertheless, I did find a Narnia review here: Narnia Review

Here are some other movie and video review sites that you may find helpful:

     FamilyStyle Movie Guide

     Parent Previews

     Screen It!: Entertainment Reviews for Parents

If you are interested in reviews of a particular movie, you'll probably find links at the following site to more reviews than you'd ever want to read:

     Rotten Tomatoes

Again, whether or not you go to the movies is your choice, but either way, if you want useful reviews of movies and videos (either for the benefit of your family or your own benefit), there are many Web sites that should be helpful, and I hope that I have suggested some of value to you. Don't bookmark them all, but decide which particular ones you may like to check in the future.

Barry Traver

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Joy of Puzzle-Solving: Sudoku and Others

Some of the following is adapted from an article, "The Word on Crosswords: The Joy of Making and Solving Puzzles," which I published in the newsletter "CATI," Vol. 3, No. 9, which appeared in March 2002.

Is there anyone who hasn't at some time enjoyed sitting down to do a puzzle, whether it be crossword, jigsaw, or - the latest craze - Sudoku? There is something attractive about an activity where you create order out of disorder or you make something out of nothing (that is, nothing except for the puzzle clues).

This is true of different kinds of puzzles, including jigsaw puzzles, sliding-tile puzzles, and that favorite American pastime of crossword puzzles. (I combine all three in a software program I wrote called the Traver Puzzlebox.) And the latest new favorite puzzle activity is Sudoku. In general, puzzle-solving is a wholesome way to have fun. (Puzzle-making is another.)

In her book The Crossword Obsession: The History and Lore of the World's Most Popular Pastime (Berkley Books, 2001), page 3, Coral Amende has this to say:

"Human beings have a passion for puzzles: we love giving our mental musculature vigorous workouts with perplexing posers and scintillating stumpers--particularly those with a goodly dose of wicked wit. From ancient ages to modern times, the solving of cranium-straining conundrums has been one of the ways in which we have created harmony out of chaos and brought some small semblance of order, however transitory or illusional, to our lives. This edifying exercise sharpens our cerebral acuity and develops critical logical-thinking skills, as well as being enormously entertaining, and there is great satisfaction--that gratifying "Aha!" feeling--to be had in parsing a pattern or getting a grip on a puzzlemaker's sly trick. Solving (and, to an even greater degree, constructing) puzzles also allows us to use the knowledge we've collected and enhances that knowledge in a fun way...."
--Coral Amende, The Crossword Obsession, p. 2.

For a Christian, such an activity is especially appropriate, for our "God is not a God of disorder but of peace" (1 Cor. 14:33). Whether it be a jigsaw puzzle put together to show a beautiful landscape or a crossword puzzle entirely filled in with the appropriate answers, we feel a satisfaction when we finish our creative or constructive work and - after we complete our work and look upon the result - declare that it was good (see Gen. 1).

What is Sudoku? It's a puzzle of 9 by 9 squares in which the object is to fill in the sqares so that each and all of the digits from 1 to 9 can be found in every row, column, and 3 by 3 block. Some of the squares are already filled in, and ordinaily there is one and only way to correctly fill in the remaining squares.

Note: No mathematical calculartions are involved: the 9 numerical digits are used for convenience, but the letter A through I would have worked out equally well for the purpose. The puzzle is based on logical reasoning, and not numerical computations, so you cn do well in Sudoku even if you aren't ordinarily skillful at "working with numbers."

The best Sudoku computer program that I've seen on the Internet is Robert Woodhead's Sudoku Susser, written in REALbasic. (Lovers of language will appreciate the name; it's too bad that we don't have more people around who know what it means "to suss," i.e., to investicate and figure out, analyze and solve, master though the giving of careful, thoughtful attention, etc.).

Here's a partial description to whet your interest from the TuCows shareware site (which gave Sudoku Susser its highest rating):

"This Sudoku assistant and master-level solver features a hints mode to show you what numbers are legal for the remaining squares. The deducer uses human-style reasoning to solve the puzzles and can take you step-by-step through their solution with detailed explanations of each step. The brute force recurse option solves all puzzles. Highlighting modes help you see the patterns in the puzzles. You can even drag puzzles right from Web pages of major UK newspapers into the application, then edit, save and print them offline."


Don't download it from TuCows, however, because they do not have the latest version (2.5.1). You'll find information on how to download the latest version here:


And here are the author's own comments from that page on the features of the program:

"The Sudoku Susser makes it easy to make your selections as you solve the puzzle; just click on one of [the cells] and select the new number from the popup menu that appears, or mouse over it and press the number on the keyboard. But it does far more than that!

"It can display the remaining possibilities for each square in several ways, making it easier for you to see the patterns that are the key to solving tough puzzles. You can add and remove possibilities as you make inferences about the puzzle.

"It can hi[gh]light 14 different simple and advanced Sudoku patterns. Everything from simple forces and pins up to mega-expert techniques like forcing loops and chains.

"It can give you hints on how to proceed, or solve the puzzle by human-style logic, with detailed explanations of the steps. No known puzzle can stump the Susser's heuristic deduction engine.

"Other features:

" * You can drag Sudoku graphics from just about any webpage and they'll be scanned and loaded into the application.

" * Instant download of new puzzles from the Sudoku archive [at] (and other popular puzzle sources)

" * Extensive help, hint and hi[gh]lighting features show you the logical structures in the puzzles.

" * You can manage, rename, reorder, and print out your Sudokus.

" * You can drag them out of the app as graphics or in a variety of text formats.

" * Undo and redo are fully supported.

" * Many sample puzzles to get you started.

" * Comprehensive manual gives detailed explanations of all the advanced solving methods the program can use." (who gave Sudoku Susser a rating of 4.8) had this to say:

"Sudoku Susser is a free program that helps solve Sudoku puzzles. In addition to being more convenient than pencil-and-paper, the Susser also can show hints, solve the problem step-by-step using human deductive reasoning, or brute-force solve it using recursion. You can drag Sudoku problems directly from web pages, save, edit, print and more. And if you like the program, you can tip the author to encourage him to improve it."


Caution: If you go into any major bookstore, you'll find scores of books containing Sudoku puzzles. What you will NOT find is much discussion of the principles involved in the solving process. The following introduction to Sudoku (written by Robert Woodhead for kids) is as good an introduction as I've seen in any bookstore Sudoku book (and better than most):


Adult beginners can learn much from this introduction as well, if they are willing for the moment to "become like little children" (recommended age: perhaps 10). Woodhead very clearly (as if he were speaking to a child?) explains five techniques that can be used in the solving of a Sudoku puzzle: looking for a "force," looking for a "pin," looking for a "simple locked pair," looking for a "hidden locked pair," and checking "intersections," fairly simple approaches (once Woodhead explains them) that go a long way.

So far as books go, here is information from about what is supposed to be one of the best (I've ordered a copy for myself):

"Master Sudoku : Step-by-Step Instructions for Players at All Levels (Paperback)
by Carol Vorderman

"Book Description
Master the Numbers Game That’s Taking the World by Storm

"Whether you’re one of the millions of people already obsessed with the number puzzles called Sudoku (a Japanese logic game that’s like a combination of a crossword puzzle and a Rubik’s Cube) or you’re just being introduced to this addicting game, Master Sudoku has a puzzle for you. Here, the UK’s leading Sudoku expert, Carol Vorderman, offers 200 puzzles for Sudokuists at every level, ranging from easy to super difficult, with clear instructions and crucial secrets that will help you finish puzzles in record time. The faster you are, the higher your score! Engrossing, challenging, and totally addictive, Master Sudoku is chock-full of fun.

"About the Author
Carol Vorderman is Britain’s leading female television host. For twenty-three years she has been known as the “Numbers Queen” on the hit quiz show Countdown, where she performs mental arithmetic at lightning speed. She has also presented science and technology shows for many years, including BBC TV’s Tomorrow’s World, as well as top-rated entertainment programs such as Stars and Their Lives. Carol hosted the world’s first live Sudoku television show in July 2005. She holds a degree from Cambridge and she is hooked on Sudoku."


There are many on-line resources for Sudoku. For example, one site claims to tell you the "top 50 Sudoku sites":


Wikipedia, the free on-line encyclopedia, has not only a good article on Sudoku, but also articles on related topics (such as Killer Sudoku):


You'll find an interesting article on "The History of Sudoku" here looked at in a broader context:


Well, that should get you started. As I said, to me, the puzzle-solving involved in jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, and Sudoku puzzles involves the bringing of order out of chaos, and our God is not a God of disorder, but of peace. And there is a special sense of satisfaction that comes from completing good work that has been done. Solving Sudoku puzzles can be a legitimate way of showing the image or likeness of God, our Creator and Redeemer. "It is finished" here too is a shout of triumph. Happy puzzle-solving!

Barry Traver