Because life is a series of edits

Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

Hell on The Hill

In Places, Places & Spaces, Pop Culture on July 31, 2010 at 9:38 am

A month or so ago, Megan and I had dinner at an Italian restaurant on The Hill. We parked in front of this large corner lot full of beautiful green grass with a sign in its center across the street. Maybe I grew up loving one too many of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons, but surely this is what Hell is and will be like (among other awful and unspeakable things).

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Summer Seminar Washington: A Summary

In Education, Nature, Places, Science, Travel, Westminster on July 26, 2010 at 7:51 am

As you know if you've been following along, I just recently returned from my third Summer Seminar, this time to the Pacific Northwest. One of the students' assignments was to journal their thoughts regarding the intricacies in nature that we saw on the trip. Not wanting to miss the opportunity myself, I pulled out my own journal and wrote a bit. Here (with a few pictures the students took) is what I wrote:

Summer Seminar is blowing me away right now as we process the intricacy of all that we're seeing. I confess I'm at a point where, as I consider our experience at the Hoh Rain Forest with what we saw earlier today at Ruby Beach's low tidal pools, I'm struggling a bit with my faith that God really created it all, is sovereign over it all, is aware and at work in it all. The complexity of the way the different systems complement and interact with each other is just so mind-boggling; likewise, the beauty is amazing as there is form and function, aesthetic and efficiency, and I marvel at the creation – process and product – wondering how God can be the Lord of it all?

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Strangely, the experience causes one of two responses in me: the first is the realization that, once again, I have made God too small and in my own image; the second is the recognition that I can become numb to creation and wonder if, maybe, it really is the rarest function of random chance and evolution, for it all seems so big (too big) for anyone (even God) to have created and set in motion and rule over. This is just the Pacific Northwest! What about the rest of the U.S.? The world? The universe?

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The Christian worldview, both theologically as well as ecologically, does not work with a small, ethnocentric god created in my own image. I forget (again) how much work it is to keep from limiting my understanding of the person of God, but am reminded (again) by His creation of plenty of reasons that help me doubt my doubts.

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I do not believe the world's existence to be luck or chance. God has taken credit for His work of creation, and I am wrong to limit His person in the face of the reality of the intricacies I see in the world. My limited understanding of all He has made does not negate the truth that these ecosystems and their connections (which are difficult to fully comprehend) were and are under God's sovereign reign.

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My mind, as well as my heart, can only grasp so much. The main question
I've been asking myself on the trip is what does it all mean?
What do I and these kids (as well as the world and its inhabitants)
take away from all of this creation that might change and bring
contribution to God's world? How do we translate our awe at God's
intricacies into actions on behalf of them?

Re-reading my entry and seeing the pics brings to mind the beginning of Psalm 14:

"The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'"

Lord, forgive me for my doubts…and keep me from being so foolish before You.

Communications or Entertainment?

In Internet, Movies, Technology, Thought, TV on July 24, 2010 at 12:11 am
Bundle
"Here we are now…entertain us"

Nirvana

So Megan and I, having been the victim one too many times of AT+T raising our home phone/DSL rates again, have re-entered the fray of trying to figure out the best communications deal out there. If you've done this recently, you know it isn't easy: there are far too many options, and none of them seem all that great bundled together for our particular purposes.

Our particular purposes, I suppose, are part of the problem, but so are the prices. In researching options, I was amazed both at the breadth of what's available as well as what the market is apparently willing to bear per month to subscribe to them. By my estimation, families with a land line, multiple cell phones (say 3-4), 300+ TV channels with multi-channel DVR capabilities, and broadband Internet across multiple computers could be paying as much as $400-$500 per month in fees, which doesn't even include hardware (cell phones, receiving dish or cable installation, computers) costs on the front end.

We currently have a land line, one pay-by-the-minute cell phone ($100 goes about 6 months), antenna television (6 channels), a mid-level (two movies out at a time) NetFlix subscription, and DSL. Add on a subscription to Covenant Eyes for the computers and we now pay about $120 in monthly fees, which we've determined is too much for our budget.

We'd like to find a cheaper land line provider (or drop the land line altogether and bite the bullet financially and philosophically by going to two cell phones), but we can't make the numbers work (and, of course, none of this even deals with the whole television part of the equation, nor the movie rental fee).

How much is too much in this area of communications? And is it really "communications" being talked about, or is our culture's thirst for entertainment – visual, digital, social – behind the willingness to pay ever-increasing amounts of money to ensure access to it?

For the Christian, how does what gets spent on entertainment compare to what gets given to the Kingdom each month? How much is too much/too little? Where's the line and what are the reasons for where it's been drawn (or re-drawn) over the years?

Wrestling through this anew these days. Feel free to add your two cents and share your own communications/entertainment experiences, ideas, and counsel. I'm open like 7-11.

Guest Blog Post Over at MODSquad

In Young Ones on July 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm

MODSquad
And now for something completely different: my first guest post for a mommy blog called MODSquad (Mothers of Daughters) is up. The post is titled “Getting My Daddy On” and the blog is one Megan helped start and for which she writes. Go visit and say hello.

Twilight It Isn’t

In Books, Education, Nature, Places, Science, Travel, Westminster on July 9, 2010 at 5:36 am

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I'm flying to Portland today in preparation for Westminster's Summer Seminar in Washington, which starts tomorrow and runs for the next ten days. We've got 22 soon-to-be-seniors and 7 staff (none of whom are pictured above) going on the trip. Here's a tentative (read: weather-permitting) itinerary:

July 10, Saturday
Rendezvous with students/staff in Portland, OR
Lunch
Transport to Forks, WA (yes, I know this is where the Twilight "saga" is set, but no, that's not why we're going there)

July 11 or 12, Sunday or Monday
Forks logging and mill tours
Hoh Rain Forest hike
or
Hurricane Ridge
and Crescent Lake

July 13, Tuesday
Tidal pool study at Ruby Beach
Transport to Mossyrock

July 14 and 15, Wednesday and Thursday
Mt. Rainier
or
Mt. St. Helens

Transport to Deschutes River state park

July 16, Friday
Hike Mt. Hood (Copper spur: 7.8 miles)

July 17 and 18, Saturday and Sunday
Raft Deschutes River

July 19, Monday
Holiday Inn Express, Portland, OR

July 20, Tuesday
Depart

Core classes include:

  • Is This the Way It’s Supposed to Be?
    This core will introduce the tension of needing a vital raw material, yet wrestling with the consequences of acquiring that resource.
  • The Biology of the Old Growth vs. the Modern Lumber Industry
    This core will explore the idea of an old growth forest juxtaposed with a replanted forest: Can we simply replant and expect to sustain the old growth ecosystem?
  • The Way It Should Be: Systems That Function
    This core will explore ecosystems functioning as they were intended to and seek to understand that species work towards the benefits of the entire system due to a “biological Invisible Hand”.
  • The Cedar as Central: The “Buffalo” of the Pacific Northwest
    This core will explore the Native American view of the old growth cedar as central to their survival and how the same cedars are central to the survival of Forks, WA. Students will understand the centrality of the cedar to an old growth ecosystem and its species. A comparison will be drawn to the buffalo on the Great Plains. What are the differences between the White and Native American views of these natural resources?
  • Sustainability
    This core will explore author Lynn White’s claim that a Christian worldview with its notion of dominion is ultimately responsible for the ecological crisis. Students will also interact with Francis Schaeffer’s "Pollution and the Death of Man" as a counterpoint to White’s ideas and will seek to explore a proper Christian view of dominion with an emphasis on sustainability.
  • Mt. St. Helens: A Theological View of Restoration
    This core will explore the gradual, natural restoration of Mt. St. Helens and the parallel idea of God’s restoration of Creation from a Reformed eschatological position.
  • The Economics and Politics of Logging: What Will It Cost You?
    This core will explore the costs of proper dominion. Considering that the whole Old Growth debate is driven by the economics and politics of rationing a scarce resource, students will be introduced to the notion that proper dominion will be costly to their generation.

Students are to have read The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest by William Dietrich and written an introductory three-page response essay before the trip. They'll then submit five revised journal entries, culminating in a five-page essay due at the end of the month. I'm responsible for the reflecting/writing/grading aspect of the trip, as well as for publishing a book compilation of the students' best writing and pictures.

All in all, it should be fun. If I see Edward or Bella, I'll say hello for you…

Review: The Shallows (Part 3 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on July 2, 2010 at 5:51 pm

(The following is the third 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
. Parts one and two are below.)

The Shallows In chapter 7, titled "The Juggler's Brain," Carr clarifies what he (with the help of brain researchers) think the Internet is doing to our brains. He writes:

"One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain's plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It's not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It's that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use." (p. 116)

He continues:

"The Net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards – 'positive reinforcements,' in psychological terms – which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. When we click a link, we get something new to look at and evaluate. When we Google a keyword, we receive, in the blink of an eye, a list of interesting information to appraise. When we send a text or an instant message or an email, we often get a reply in a matter of seconds or minutes. When we use Facebook, we attract new friends or form closer bonds with old ones. When we send a tweet through Twitter, we gain new followers. When we write a blog post, we get comments from readers or links from other bloggers. The Net's interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment." (p. 117)

One could argue (or at least I will here) that a better solution to kids' ever-increasing struggles with Attention Deficit Disorder could be technology reduction rather than Ritalin prescription. Think about it: When a kid has trouble paying attention in class, rarely is there ever a discussion about doing away with smart phones or Facebook; medicines are started, adjusted, or switched, but God forbid we address ubiquitous, long-term technology exposure as part of the problem (this would, after all, seemingly punish the kid whose friends are all constantly connected, not to mention become inconvenient to parents who think of their kids' cell phone as a digital leash). Consider this from Carr:

"The Net commands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did. Watch a kid texting his friends or a college student looking over the roll of new messages and requests on her Facebook page or a businessman scrolling through his emails on his BlackBerry – or consider yourself as you enter keywords into Google's search box and begin following a trail of links. What you see is a mind consumed with a medium." (p. 118)

Other effects our brains may suffer due to frequent Net exposure: we fear "our social standing is, in one way or another, always in play, always at risk" (p. 118); we suffer from constant distractedness that the Net encourages ("distracted from distraction by distraction") (p. 119); this online distraction "short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively" (p. 119); as a result, we suffer "cognitive overload," for "if working memory is the mind's scratch pad, then long-term memory is its filing system," and "the depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas." (p. 124)

True, concedes Carr, "Research shows that certain cognitive skills are strengthened, sometimes substantially, by our use of computers and the Net. These tend to involve lower-level, or more primitive, mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues." (p. 139) Is this good news or bad news? Carr answers the question this way: "The Net is making us smarter…only if we define intelligence by the Net's own standards." (p. 141)

I could go on (and Carr certainly does) with more research and examples to make his case, but for me, the point is this:

"The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden…The problem today is that we're losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we're in perpetual locomotion." (p. 168)

One of the biggest takeaways for me from the book is my need to educate students (and parents) about what really is happening to our brains as a result of the medium – not just the message – of our technology. This has to go beyond quoting studies of teen cell phone use and time spent on Facebook; I have to figure out how to practically help them understand the science of the reality, backing up the latest research with Scripture's timeless call to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). (See my posts "Why Johnny Can't Write, parts 1 and 2" for more on the challenges of this.)

At minimum, this is easily an entire period or maybe a multi-day mini-unit at the beginning of the school year; at maximum, it's an on-going conversation in and out of the classroom the whole year round. Whichever, I don't plan to have the conversation via email.

Important topic, great book. Ten of ten and highly recommended.

Review: The Shallows (Part 2 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on July 1, 2010 at 8:05 am

(The following is the second 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
. Thanks for reading.)

The Shallows I remember hearing a story about a man who died after being hit crossing a busy big-city street while talking on his cell phone. When paramedics arrived on the scene, they discovered that his cell phone was not a cell phone at all, but a child's imitation plastic toy phone. Unfortunately, it wasn't only the phone that was dead.

The story is one I tell my high school students (nearly all of whom shudder to think about going a day without their cell phones) in order to start a conversation about how our culture idolizes digital technology for social reasons – status and identity, ease and convenience, inclusion and interaction. Few teenagers will argue my claim of idolatry; fewer still will do anything about it. It is, after all, they say, how we live.

Or at least how we think we live. But is our obsessive (pathological?) devotion to technology really living? In creating something we can't seem to do without, are we the better for it in the long run? What's behind all that has come about as a result of the digital revolution of the past 20 years? Writes Carr:

"Every technology is an expression of human will. Through our tools, we seek to expand our power and control over our circumstances – over nature, over time and distance, over one another…Intellectual technologies, when they come into popular use, often promote new ways of thinking or extend to the general population established ways of thinking that had been limited to a small, elite group. Every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work." (p. 44-45)

The discussion of an intellectual ethic is, in my opinion, what's been missing from so many of the conversations, books, articles, and emails I've read over the past 3-5 years about technology in society. This doesn't mean there isn't one – or even multiple ones – out there, but it seems to me that, as our use of technological tools becomes more and more constant, the attention given to considering an ethic – intellectual, spiritual, whatever – regarding them becomes less and less. Carr says this is not surprising:

"The intellectual ethic of a technology is rarely recognized by its inventors. They are usually so intent on solving a particular problem or untangling some thorny scientific or engineering dilemma that they don't see the broader implications of their work. The users of the technology are also usually oblivious to its ethic. They, too, are concerned with the practical benefits they gain from employing the tool. Our ancestors didn't develop or use maps in order to enhance their capacity for conceptual thinking or to bring the world's hidden structures to light. Nor did they manufacture mechanical clocks to spur the adoption of a more scientific mode of thinking. Those were by-products of the technologies. But what by-products! Ultimately, it's an invention's intellectual ethic that has the most profound effect on us. The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users." (p. 45-46)

According to Carr, there are really two schools of thought on the matter: Technological determinists argue that “technological progress, which they see as an autonomous force outside man’s control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history.” On the opposite end of the spectrum (and where I had here-to-fore placed myself) are the instrumentalists, "the people who downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users. Instrumentalism is the most widely held view of technology, not least because it’s the view we would prefer to be true.” (p. 46)

But is it true? Is all the technology we're creating and then subjecting ourselves to really ours to control, or (from the point of view of the determinist) is it really controlling us? Shouldn't these questions be asked concerning a technology's medium and as well as its message? This seeming absence of consideration calls to mind actor Jeff Goldblum's portrayal of chaos theorist, Dr. Ian Malcom, and his explanation of all prehistoric hell breaking loose in the movie Jurassic Park: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they
didn't stop to think if they should."

Granted, we're not dealing with dino DNA, but to what degree are we messing with ours? Carr gives numerous examples of how technological advances have often marked turning points in history, reminding us that, "In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use." But then Carr comes full circle back to his study of brain research, reminding us that, "What's been harder to discern is the influence of technologies, particularly intellectual technologies, on the functioning of people's brains." (p. 48) In the meantime, multiple generations of people – especially our youngest – are hardly waiting around for a verdict.

Carr lists Socrates as the first real critic of "new media," as the philosopher was suspect of the written word replacing oral tradition's memorized and spoken one:

“Socrates grants that there are practical benefits to capturing one’s thoughts in writing – 'as memorials against the forgetfulness of old age' – but he argues that a dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind, and not for the better. By substituting outer symbols for inner memories, writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers, he says, preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness." (p. 55)

Socrates' student, Plato, however, was an advocate for the written word and thus differed from his mentor with regard to the transition from an oral to a literary culture (ironic that, without Plato, we wouldn't know much of what Socrates thought). Nevertheless, writes Carr, "It was, as both Plato and Socrates recognized in their different ways, a shift that was set in motion by the invention of a tool, the alphabet, and that would have profound consequences for our language and our minds." (p. 56)

From Carr's perspective, every early media transition was bumpy but beneficial to our brains in some way. Papyri reading required deep concentration combined with deciphering text and interpretation of meaning; book writing pushed the bounds of knowledge and culture as arguments became longer, clearer, more complex, and more challenging. Gutenberg introduced the printing press and literacy became increasingly common among the commoners. But the change was on more than just on a cultural level:

"One of the most important lessons we've learned from the study of neuroplasticity is that the mental capacities, the very neural circuits, we develop for one purpose can be put to other uses as well. As our ancestors imbued their minds with the discipline to follow a line of argument or narrative through a succession of printed pages, they became more contemplative, reflective, and imaginative. 'New thought came more readily to a brain that had already learned how to rearrange itself to read,' says Maryanne Wolf [in her book, Proust and the Squid]; 'the increasingly sophisticated intellectual skills promoted by reading and writing added to our intellectual repertoire." (p. 75-76)

This would be the case in increasing fashion for the next 550 years, but then something very different emerges on the scene: electronic media. Writes Carr:

"The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. But those technologies were always limited by their inability to transmit the written word. They could displace but not replace the book. Culture's mainstream still ran through the printing press." (p. 77)

It did, that is, until now:

"Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination as the computer – desktop, laptop, handheld – becomes our constant companion and the Internet becomes our medium of choice for storing, processing, and sharing information in all forms, including text. The new world will remain, of course, a literate world, packed with the familiar symbols of the alphabet…But the world of the screen, as we're already coming to understand, is a very different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted." (p. 77)

I'll try to finish up on Friday with Carr's observations of the Internet's impact on our brains and some possible implications for the world of education. Hang with me.