Because life is a series of edits

Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

Review: The Shallows (Part 1 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on June 30, 2010 at 1:07 pm

(The following is the first of a three-part review of one of the more important books I've read in the past ten years: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I hope I can do it justice.)

The Shallows One of the major themes running through discussions at every level of education these days has to do with technology – specifically, that having to do with the opportunity, expectation, and (for lack of a better word) mandate to use it in the classroom. As teachers, we're told that a true 21st-century education demands technology, and since we're ten years in by now, well, we're already behind. (Note: For a primer on this perspective, read Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World edited by Heidi-Hayes Jacobs.)

The question here is behind what? What is the supposed eight ball we find ourselves peering around? Is it educational or technological effectiveness? A combination of both? What would being ahead and on the front side of said eight ball look like?

Enter Nicholas Carr's recently published book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Released earlier this month amid a flurry of accompanying high-level PR from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others, Carr's book picks up where his provocative July 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" left off, raising the question no one in our 21st-century world really wants to answer: Is technology really good for us? Carr writes in the prologue:

"Whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in the information – the 'content' – it carries. They care about the news in the newspaper, the music on the radio, the shows on the TV, the words spoken by the person on the far end of the phone line. The technology of the medium, however astonishing it may be, disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instruction, conversation. When people start debating (as they always do) whether the medium's effects are good or bad, it's the content they wrestle over. Enthusiasts celebrate it; skeptics decry it." (p. 2)

He continues (and this is the main thesis of his book):

"What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is…that in the long run a medium's content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our windows onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it – and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society." (p. 3)

Is technology good for us? Always? Sometimes? Never? Before Carr gets around to dealing with the question, he rightly sets the context for the discussion by providing several fascinating chapters on the brain – what we know about it, what we don't know about it, and why it matters that we may attention to both. What jumps out from his research (which is excellently written in both detail and summary form) is the concept and importance of brain plasticity:

“Although the belief in the adult brain’s immutability was deeply and widely held, there were a few heretics. A handful of biologists and psychologists saw in the rapidly growing body of brain research indications that even the adult brain was malleable, or ‘plastic’…As brain science continues to advance, the evidence for plasticity strengthens.” (p. 21, 26)

Plasticity, Carr argues, is what makes our brains more human than hardwired. He writes:

"The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be. Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They're flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need. Some of the most extensive and remarkable changes take place in response to damage to the nervous system. Experiments show, for instance, that if a person is struck blind, the part of the brain that had been dedicated to processing visual stimuli – the visual cortex – doesn't just go dark. It is quickly taken over by circuits used for audio processing. And if the person learns to read Braille, the visual cortex will be redeployed for processing information delivered through the sense of touch. 'Neurons seem to 'want to receive input,' explains Nancy Kanwisher of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research: 'When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing.'" (p. 29)

In other words, the brain not only adapts to stimuli, it alters itself because of it; that is, our brains are not only changed by the message but by the medium carrying the message. Carr's take on this, of course, is purely evolutionary, but it's interesting to think about his findings from a Christian worldview, taking into consideration Paul's emphases on transforming and renewing our minds (consider Romans 8; Romans 12; Ephesians 4; and Colossians 3); scientifically speaking, it would seem we were designed to actually be able to do this:

“The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn’t. Natural selection, writes the philosopher David Buller in Adapting Minds, his critique of evolutionary psychology, 'has not designed a brain that consists of numerous prefabricated adaptations' but rather one that is able 'to adapt to local environmental demands throughout the lifetime of an individual, and sometimes within a period of days, by forming specialized structures to deal with those demands.' Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind – over and over again. Our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting, we now know, are not entirely determined by our genes. Nor are they entirely determined by our childhood experiences. We change them through the way we live – and through the tools we use.” (p. 31)

To keep us out of "the shallows," I'll stop for now and write about "the tools we use" on Thursday. Feel free to leave comments or questions, as the writing is still in progress.


On the Yard Sale

In Family, Humanity, Places, Places & Spaces, Thought, Young Ones on June 27, 2010 at 8:30 pm

IMG_5523So we had a yard sale this past Saturday. Apart from the 95-degree temperature and the 100% humidity, it was good: we got rid of some stuff, made some money, and had a very good reason at the end of the day to collectively hit the sack at 9:30 p.m.

Personally, yard sales are too intimate an experience for me to really enjoy; there’s just something awkward about strangers publicly evaluating what you once thought you wanted. Maybe I just felt self-conscious about all the old Stephen King novels I was getting rid of (would you want to know that YOUR neighbor has read a majority of the man’s books?), but the whole process seems a huge invasion of privacy.

As I was enduring the invasion, I took some mental notes on the variety of yard-salers we encountered during the day. I don’t pretend that this list is exhaustive (and feel free to add your own set of usual suspects in the comments below), but generally speaking, here’s who I did business with during our particular sale on Saturday:

The Early Bird: This person pays no attention to any printed given times as to when the yard sale officially begins; if the sign says 8 a.m., then 7:30 it is. Thankfully, she doesn’t talk much and rarely gets offended if and when you have to ask her to move so you can set up another table of items you’re trying to sell, so it’s usually best to just let this one be.

The Snob: This person parks right in front of and as close as possible to your yard, gets out of her still-running car with her nose stuck up in the air to pick up your sale’s “scent,” and surveys what she already knows you have – nothing she would ever want. Having convinced herself of this truth, she gets back in the car and drives off, grateful once again that she did not waste her time on your junk (and, honestly, good riddance).

The Critic: This person is a distant cousin to The Snob, the difference being that he actually gets out of the car to look through your stuff. Unfortunately, while The Snob communicates her disdain for your offerings from a driving-off distance, The Critic chooses to verbalize his disgust on-site instead, particularly if he feels you have overpriced anything (and especially if he secretly wants to buy it).

The Cheapskate: This person looks through everything – and I mean everything – you have in your yard, taking his time to muse over what its value must have been to you at some point and wondering what must have happened that you would put it up for sale now. Having so cheaply entertained himself with various and sundry scenarios and plots, he finally picks one item priced at fifty cents and asks if you would take forty for it (after all, one’s man’s memories are another man’s bargains).

The Haggler: While often confused with The Cheapskate, The Haggler is actually willing to spend money for what she wants…so long as the sale price is below the amount that’s currently listed. Hers is not a campaign motivated by finances but by victory, as every piece she has ever purchased at a yard sale comes with a complete oral tradition of how much it was, how much she ended up talking the owner down, and why the difference between the two prices makes her superior to the rest of humanity.

The Scanner: This person is usually drinking Starbucks and shows up with his own hand-held bar code scanner, which he uses to check resell value on anything with a bar code. Never mind what the item actually is or what the book in his hand might be about, all this guy cares about is what it’s currently going for on Ebay or Amazon, as this will determine his purchase decision. This was a new one for me.

The Road Trip: This person is not really a person but multiple persons all crammed into one vehicle out hitting yard sales en masse. The goal (I assume) is to have fun going to yard sales together (which seems incredibly flawed thinking in itself); the reality is that with so many people in the car, there’s no room for what one might want to buy, especially if it’s a bigger item. Tip: Be sure to get their money before you promise to hold something for them while they go and get another vehicle (no sense losing a possible sale if they happen to get in an accident joy-riding).

The Buzzard: This person shows up toward the end of the sale and, since she missed all your good stuff, somehow feels entitled to a much lower price than the one listed before she will even think about buying your pathetic leftovers. Sadly, though you’d like to ask her as a matter of principle where she gets off imposing her discount assumption on you, you know she has you, as you really don’t want to haul your stuff back in the house; thus, you end up (grudgingly) caving to her demands.

I’m sure there were plenty of others I could list if I really wanted to get mean, but I’ll stop for now (I do wonder if different geographic areas of the country sport different
yard-saler species or if they’re just variations of the ones above). Of course, there were plenty of really nice people – friends, neighbors, people we’d never met before – who stopped by as well, bought some lemonade or stuff, and just talked a while, which was nice.

All in all, it was a good day and I’m glad we did it, though as with every yard sale, I’m always glad when it’s over and am in no hurry to do one again anytime soon.

For Sale: Old School (But Good as New) MIDI Rig

In Musicians, Technology on June 26, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Maybe it's just because we had a yard sale this weekend or the fact that I've finally come to grips that it's the end of an era, but I'm putting my old school (but still good as new) MIDI rig from back in my music days up for sale on Craig's List. Let me introduce you:



  • Alesis DMPro 20-bit expandable drum module (with power cord) – $300
    This was one of the last pieces I bought and quite a step up from its D4 predecessor. I used a lot of sounds off this one for the last band album, but would have liked more time with it to really turn it loose.
  • Alesis D4 16-bit drum module (with power cord) – $100
    The first drum module I bought, mostly for the Phil Collins gated snares. Not nearly as complicated as the DmPro, which was good since I was trying to figure out to make this work with everything else outside of my Ensoniq SQ-2 controller/sequencer.
  • Alesis DataDisk universal data storage module (with power cord) – $50
    The first module I ever bought. It's really nothing more than a glorified 3.5" disk drive, but it not only saved but played MIDI sequences directly, which made me feel like I knew what I was doing a bit.
  • DBX 166A compressor/limiter module (with power cord) – $150

    Compression makes all the difference in a music mix. I couldn't have told you the reasons, but I could usually tell when there was too much or too little compression going on from what I heard. This unit, then, was what got tweaked.
  • Ensoniq Footswitch Model FSW-1 – $5

    This was what I used for my sustain pedal on my first Ensoniq (I later got another one with the second SQ-2 a friend gave me). Basic foot switch that worked for other functions as well.
  • Key Midiator MP-128 2 input x 8 output MIDI router (with power
    cords) – $35

    Nothing really fancy, the Midiator was one of two MIDI routers I used to try to sort signals once I started sequencing from a laptop. The digital interface is a serial port and made the whole setup look so, well, computerish (which used to be cool).
  • Lexicon Reflex dynamic MIDI reverb module (with power cord) – $150

    Lexicon makes good reverb units, and while this one wasn't high end, it did the job live. It was nice having this in the studio to throw on an instrument or two, but it wasn't studio level quality for vocals (though its more expensive brothers were).
  • Nexus Plus 2 input x 8 output MIDI switcher (with power cord) – $35

    I used this – the analog version of the aforementioned digital MIDI router – exclusively to route MIDI signals before a laptop was involved and I was sequencing everything on-board the SQ-2. Very old school feel with the set of eight three-position switches.
  • Roadgear 4-space rack – $75 (or free with purchase of at least four

    This was my first and only module rack and I was so giddy when I had to buy it because it meant I had more than one module to handle. By the time I got up to four, you would have thought I was opening for Howard Jones or something.
  • Roland JV-880 multi-timbral synthesizer module (with World Expansion
    Board SR-JV80-05, PCM1-04 Grand Piano 1 card, and power cord) – $200

    This was the workhorse and the most complete piece I ever bought. The piano, horns, strings, basses, and organs were all great on this unit, but when I bought and added the World expansion board with bagpipes, that was the pinnacle.

As it says in the listing,
all units are fully-functioning and in pristine condition (no scratches
whatsoever on faceplates; all buttons, knobs, and lights original and
intact). They've only had one owner (me), and I took really good care of
them while they were in my charge (they were, after all, like friends in a way, as we spent a whole lot of time sharing "ideas").

Musically, these modules are real "meat and potatoes" units, and their sounds still keep up with the newer (and more expensive) sound modules today. Financially, I've priced them to move, as they're easily less than half (some barely a quarter) of what I paid for them. Personally, since these tools were important to me, I'd like to find someone who will give them a good musical home in which they get plugged in and played more than they have with me in past ten years.

If you know anyone who might like to get his/her hands on some great retro keyboard gear for a really good price, send them the link. And, if you'd like to hear some of the music I made back in the day with all this gear, click here and download 15 of my songs for free. Either way, I hope someone enjoys the music…then, now, and in the future.

So I’ve Been Thinking Lately…

In Pop Culture on June 21, 2010 at 9:30 pm

…that the rhythm of the chain clanging against the hub of our bedroom ceiling fan is the exact rhythm of the song "Jellicle Cats" from the musical, Cats.

…that I have never understood (nor could I explain) the idea of "the whole is more than the sum of its parts" (and no, I'm not looking for anyone's particular interpretation).

…that if anyone wants a preview of an over-taxed, lousy-serviced, bureaucratic nightmare of America, look no further: it's here in Missouri (and now playing daily at the DMV).

…that I don't trust the chlorine to do its job in the community pool, but have no desire to discover what's really going on (ignorance – though potentially life-threatening – is bliss).

…that my readers might appreciate more actual content, so I'll try to work on that.

Helping Dad (or Anybody Else) Get Organized

In Family, Pop Culture on June 16, 2010 at 2:01 pm

The Levenger catalog arrived yesterday. For those (like myself) slightly affected by OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), such a collection of "tools for serious readers" can be hugely tempting. Unfortunately, for those (like myself) more than slightly affected with the other OCD (obsolete cash deposits), alas, the organizational options must be relegated to little more than inspiration. Sigh.

While I like Levenger's stuff (so much so that I even read the owner's book, The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, when it came out five years ago – it was okay), I don't understand why it all has to be so  expensive; even in this particular "Senational Summer Sale" catalog, their idea and my idea of a discount (even a 70% discount) were just too different to justify whipping out the credit card and placing an order.

The only thing I've ever actually purchased from Levenger are personalized notecards (which I still like, but even then, they were on sale and Megan found some sweet discount that applied as well). Still, as I've been organizing my desk, books, and files this week, as well as setting some new goals for the next 2-5 years, here are a few items that caught my eye and at least helped inspire my efforts this morning:

Carousel Bookshelf Carousel
Revolving Bookshelf
– I'd love to have about four of these scattered throughout the house. Or (better idea), put all four on top of each other stacked in a corner and have a really cool floor-to-ceiling carousel of books to pick from! Yes!

Lap Desk Lap
Desk (with Cubby)
– I like the look of this, but I especially like the little cubby/compartment that the desk surface covers (apparently, there are magnets that hold the lid down so all your stuff doesn't fly out). A good alternative to having to sit at a desk or table to hand-write something (for those of us who still do that kind of thing).

Blotter Margin Pad Margin Pad – Even though I don't have a desktop computer, I really like the size, look, and design of this little blotter pad. Oh, and it can be monogrammed (whatever).

Concept PadConcept Pad – When I used to spend a lot more time at the same desk day in/day out, I had one of these. I'd usually make it about a week on the same piece of paper, but then reveled at the Friday re-write for the next week, leaving off everything crossed out that I had accomplished. Visual progress – loved it.

Repertoire Notebooks
Repertoire Notebooks – I think these notebooks are pretty nifty, especially because of the varying pad sizes, black elastic bands, and golf pencils in their own loops. Also, the pad for the largest one is set up like the margin pad above, and the cover colors are nice, too.

So, there you have it: one of my rare (very rare – I don't even have a category for stuff like this) product posts. Levenger should give me a commission (or at least four Carousel Bookshelves to stack on top of each other), don't you think? Maybe these or other items will spur you on to new levels of organization, or maybe you'll find something cool for Father's Day (just remembered it's this weekend).

Anybody got any other links and/or ideas that you've found helpful in organizing your life? I could use some more inspiration (as I'm sure others could as well).

Perspective: Life Without Limbs

In Pop Culture on June 13, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Check out the Life Without Limbs website as well.

Concert Review: Jewel

In Musicians, Places & Spaces on June 12, 2010 at 7:19 am

Thanks to Megan's nifty networking, we enjoyed free tickets/backstage passes to see Jewel when she came through town last weekend. We were big fans when she first came out 12 years ago or so, but hadn't really kept up with her music that much since (to our loss). Wow. What a performer.

The concert was at The Sheldon, which was a nice venue – pretty simple and basic – that allowed Jewel's storytelling and songwriting to nicely color the evening. Her new stuff was as good as anything she's done, and even though she's shown up on the country charts in recent days, she's ever the singer/songwriter who feels most at home with a guitar, a mic, and a crowd.

Here's a little video montage of the evening Megan put together, along with a few thoughts after the show from me. My performance is hardly as animated as Jewel's as we were standing in the lobby after the show and I felt a little self-conscious talking to the camera with everyone milling around, but you get what you pay for.

I'd write more, but since it's almost a week since the show, here's a review that does a nice job summing up my own musical observations. Nice evening all around.

Humble Thyself (or God/Others Will Do It for You)

In Health on June 9, 2010 at 12:29 pm

So today I got a letter in the mail from St. Louis University. Wondering if perhaps they bought an address list of recent graduates from Covenant, I began opening the envelope with the thought that perhaps they wanted me to consider doing a doctorate at SLU.

Pulling the folded letter out of the envelope, I then wondered if perhaps they were writing to invite me to do a doctorate at their expense. Maybe, I told myself, they had somehow heard of me (that is, something of me – I don't know) and were sending a formal letter to set up a meeting to discuss my future (and free!) Ph.D. education at their fine institution.

Opening the letter, I saw the SLU logo and my name personalized in the greeting (yes! this was it!). Only then did I discover it was from my doctor, who happens to be part of the SLUCare medical network. Along with several sets of numbers, she wrote:

"The results of your recent laboratory test are as follows. As you can see, your triglycerides are high and your HDL (good cholesterol) is low. Please make an appointment so we can discuss the results."

Talk about your lesson in humility…

My Point Exactly

In Internet, Marriage on June 1, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Megan: Let me use your laptop and I'll organize the Flickr account while we watch the movie.

Craig: You never just watch movies anymore. I think the Internet has rewired your brain.

Megan: You just don't want me to use your laptop.

Craig: That's not true. Did you read those links I sent you about continuous partial attention and the ineffectiveness of multi-tasking?

Megan: I skimmed them.

Craig: (pause)

Megan: (smile)

Craig: I am so putting that on the blog.