Because life is a series of edits

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

On Death and Dying in a Digital Age

In Church, Family, Friends, Health, Humanity, Internet, Places & Spaces, Technology, Thought on March 1, 2014 at 9:32 am

Moleta

“While the dead don’t care, the dead matter.
The dead matter to the living.”

Thomas Lynch

My mother-in-law, Moleta King of Owasso, OK, passed away earlier this week after battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the past two years. Hers was the first passing I’d ever been completely present for, from roughly 15 hours before the time of death early Tuesday morning through her burial Friday afternoon. For reasons good and otherwise, it’s been the longest week I can remember – good, in that this kind of loss forces us to slow down and mourn by way of our memorial traditions; otherwise, in that we (or some of us) push back against grief’s delays in ways our modern world has trained us – by way of technology.

Don’t get me wrong: there is comfort in hearing from hundreds of friends who, for various reasons, cannot be present with the living as they mourn their dead. A product of our overly-mobile culture, this distance disconnect can be overcome instantly via phone, email, and text messaging (along with our more traditional – but time-requiring – means of letter writing, card sending, and flower delivering). But what left me wanting this past week was the public display of affection made possible by social media. At the risk of offending those who employed it (all with the best of intentions, I’m sure), let me explain.

I became tired of people proclaiming they were praying for me/us on Facebook, mostly because I doubted they really were. It felt like there was a “crisis reminder” right next to the “birthday reminder” on the screen, so of course folks needed to click it and leave a trite message. “Praying for you!” “You’re in our thoughts and prayers!” And my personal favorite: “Prayers coming your way!” (Let’s be honest: if prayers are coming my way, we’re screwed; we pray to God, not to each other.) Of course, I know some – perhaps many – people did pray when they said they would (I’m not completely jaded), but I confess Facebook often felt too quick and too convenient to take the message to heart.

The other thing that bothered me (and I write this with no condemnation of my family, but as a completely hypocritical member of it) was how we gravitated to our own digital worlds in the midst of our grief. Both my family (wife and four girls, ages 10-15) and Megan’s sister’s family (husband and wife with five kids, ages 9-22) are fairly “wired,” and I counted at least eight smart phones, six laptops, and a desktop among us that received more than their fair share of attention this past week. Granted, some use was to make plans or to communicate them, but I would venture that just as much or more was in pursuit of comfort and general distraction. I kept wondering (again, without judgment of a crime – if it was one – to which I was certainly an accomplice), how much did we miss from each other because of the separation of our screens?

Years ago, I read a fascinating book titled Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality by Thomas Lynch. A writer, poet, and undertaker, Lynch writes from a unique first-person perspective of the generalities and nuances of life, death, and the often-uneasy tension that exists in their co-existence in our world. He has published several books along the theme of death and dying, including The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, and more recently, The Good Funeral: The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. (PBS’ Frontline actually turned The Undertaking into this documentary by the same name, which I watched with my four daughters a few hours before leaving for the visitation on Thursday as a way of explaining what all had happened since their grandmother’s death.) He writes:

“Grief is the tax we pay on our attachments…the price we pay for being close to one another. If we want to avoid our grief, we simply avoid each other.”

Was our family’s tendency toward technology in some way self-protective against the idea of losing each other as we had already lost Moleta? I’m not sure any of us would have verbalized it as such (nor probably would any of us still), but I do wonder. Was our handling of death and dying in our digital age normal? Was it healthy? Could it have been better without the phones and laptops? Would it have been? I don’t know.

A couple other observations from a tough week:

  • Everyone suddenly becomes a theologian at visitations, memorial services, and funerals. I heard plenty of bad theology from people – some who didn’t know any better, plenty of others who should – that it took all I could muster to keep from putting on sackcloth and ashes and weeping and gnashing my teeth. “Heaven got a new angel today!” “She finally got her wings!” And my personal favorite, spoken without a trace of irony: “I’m sure she’s having a great time, but Heaven sounds boring to me.” And then there came the platitudes: “Nothing can hurt her now.” “We’ll get to see her again one day.” “She’s in a better place.” While this last set may be true, I hate them, and I judgmentally hold in contempt those who use them. I’m not saying I’m right in doing this; I’m just saying I do this.
  • I can’t remember the last time I cried and don’t really care that I rarely do – it fits well with the Spock stereotype people often enjoy at my expense. (Interestingly, when I was not trying to get some work done across the week, I watched the first five Star Trek movies on Netflix just to touch base with my Vulcan counterpart. The more I learn about Spock’s back story, the more I happily embrace the aforementioned comparison. It’s not that Spock didn’t have emotions; on the contrary, as a Vulcan he was fiercely emotional, but was trained and learned to master his feelings to the point where he was confused for and known as being emotion-less.) All that said, I finally cried (“leaked” is probably a better word) at the end of the memorial service, so I really am human in case anyone was wondering.

As always with me, there are plenty more observations, but most are either too personal or too meaningless (or both) to write here. I’ve said before that death is life’s great perspective-bringer, but after experiencing death’s bringing of perspective this week, I’ve had enough, at least for now.

Which brings me back to Lynch and the comfort with which he writes and thinks about death. His is a wonderful analysis neither morbid in tone nor myopic in perspective; rather, he writes in a way that is warm, helpful, and full of insight into the meaning of life as viewed through death’s reality, which is not something to be feared, but to be embraced as another part of the whole of life:

“It was there, in the parlors of the funeral home – my daily stations with the local lately dead – that the darkness would often give way to light. A fellow citizen outstretched in his casket, surrounded by floral tributes, waiting for the homages and obsequies, would speak to me in the silent code of the dead: ‘So, you think you’re having a bad day?’ The gloom would lift inexplicably. Here was one to whom the worst had happened, often in a variety of ways, and yet no word of complaint was heard from out the corpse. Nor did the world end, nor the sky fall, nor his or her people become blighted entirely. Life, it turns out, goes on with or without us. There is at least as much to be thankful for as wary of.”

Indeed, but only because Jesus says so (and not because someone tells me on Facebook).

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Ten Years of “Being Social” Online

In Books, Internet, Technology, Thought, Web/Tech, Writing on December 14, 2013 at 7:55 am

Craig with Books

I started blogging ten years ago when my book, TwentySomeone, came out (note the computer screen in the pic). Working on the website for the book, I wanted a way to post interesting links and speaking engagement details on the front page. My friend Will Leingang suggested adding a blog (which at the time I didn’t know was slang for “weblog”) but, because I trust Will in all things technology, I said sure.

This was one of the rare times in my technological life when I’ve been an early adopter. Back in the day, blogs were THE social media; we used them for posts, but also for those communiques that Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ (and about a dozen others) are now used – short sentence updates, interesting articles or links, and the ubiquitous personal opinion.

I miss those days, not because everything was in one place (though that was nice), but because there was usually actual interaction; it was enjoyable to read a comment thread that had some actual comments and didn’t just let one get away with the generic “Like” or “Favorite”.

The phenomenon of “liking” or “favoriting” something without explanation is interesting to me. I watch my online “friends” and “followers” drop “likes” and mark “favorites” on a variety of statements, declarations, questions, links, videos, song lyrics, poems, memes, and quotes and I sometimes wonder if they’re doing that out of actual reason or merely relationship.

The most interesting phenomenon (at least on Facebook) is what seems the obligatory “like” of the new profile picture. I’m struck by how – regardless of actual beauty – people are so quick to approve and at times (let’s be honest) lie out of some assumed responsibility that if they don’t, the person who just uploaded the profile picture will suffer some great self-esteem loss and throw themselves off a bridge.

“What a beautiful picture!”
“You’re so hot!”
“What a gorgeous family!”

I suppose there are plenty of people who want, need, and look for comments like these to justify their existence, but there are also those of us who think of the profile picture as simply an identifier and nothing more. Forgive us for not swooning over your latest profile update – it’s not personal, even though you might take it to be so.

Another thing I’ve found interesting over the past ten years of blogging and “being social” online is how much time it takes to really do well. The media are different, but they all require intentionality to do them right. Twitter’s 140 characters force one to be uber-succinct, whereas a blog (at least that folks read) demands interesting writing since something else is always one quick click away. Facebook posts tend to benefit from some kind of photo or artwork to break up the design monotony, but I still haven’t figured out to what Google+ best lends itself as I really don’t use it all that much even though I feel semi-guilty that I should as it seems strangely superior as this “social evolution” art implies:

social-evolution

All of this – uber-succinctness, writing worth reading, finding and uploading pics and art – requires dedicated time, a commodity most of us find only in small amounts. It may just be my particular stage in life, but where I once used to think that the key to writing productivity lay in using and mastering 15-minute bites, I now am down to trying to make the most of 5-minute ones. This works well enough for tweets and updates, but not so much for blog posts and books.

While I’ve taken a few hiatuses from social media (the longest being an intentional six-month respite from blogging), I’ve never thought seriously about quitting (though like an alcoholic or chain smoker, I promise I can quit anytime). I’ve read and even written about the dangers of social media (click here to read multiple years’ worth of my posts on this topic and technology), but I still find it engaging and stimulating – not as a replacement for books, but neither as a complete waste of time either.

So I’ll continue blogging, tweeting, and posting, and thank you in advance for reading, retweeting, and sharing. I’m not sure why you do, but I confess I’m glad for it, much like I imagine the person posting a new profile picture probably appreciates the comments.

Just don’t lie to me and call me “hot”.

Tech Talk

In Internet, Technology, Thought on October 15, 2012 at 9:25 am

I haven't watched Saturday Night Live in probably 12 years, but I came across this clip and was surprised by both how funny and sociologically spot on it is.

Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

In Books, Technology on November 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm

"He was an enlightened being who was cruel.
That's a strange combination."
Chrisann Brennan (Steve Jobs's first girlfriend
and mother of his first child, Lisa)

D8dec_steve_jobs_bio_2At last count, the Dunham family has accumulated 10 Apple products: 1 iMac desktop, 2 laptops (Pro and PowerBook G4), 1 iPad, 2 iPhones, 1 iTouch, and 3 iPods (2 Nanos and 1 Shuffle). One could say we've drunk the Apple Kool-Aid to the dregs: we love the products, have little to no trouble with them (other than sharing), and are big Apple advocates/evangelists (as of this Thanksgiving, we'll have convinced and equipped both sets of grandparents to go Mac).

Indeed, we meet the criteria for membership in the so-called Apple Cult, but this didn't make reading Walter Isaacson's painfully honest 600-page biography of Apple's founder, Steve Jobs, any easier. Even as I write this (on my MacBook Pro), I wonder to what degree my own desire for digital enlightement supported the cruelty that produced it.

Though the first 50 pages of Isaacson's book seem clunky (especially when compared with his other biographical works like Benjamin Franklin and Einstein), part of this had to do with the fact that I was reading a completed biography of a man who had just died two months previous (Jobs had asked Isaacson several years earlier to start work on his biography when he was diganosed with pancreatic cancer). For this reason – combined with the fact that forty years of my life had overlapped with much of Jobs's work during his 56 years – it was a different experience than reading about more historical personalities who lived and died 200, 100, or even 50 years previous.

But examples of Jobs's harsh leadership style didn't help, either:

"(Jobs) was flying high, but this did not serve to make him more mellow. Indeed there was a memorable dispaly of his brutal honesty when he stood in front of the combined Lisa and Macintosh teams to describe how they would be merged. His Macitosh group leaders would get all of the top positions, he said, and a quarter of the Lisa staff would be laid off. 'You guys failed,' he said, looking directly at those who had worked on the Lisa. 'You're a B team. B players. Too many people here are B or C players, so today we are releasing some of you to have the opportunity to work at our sister companies here in the valley.'

Bill Atkinson, who had worked on both teams, thought it was not only callous, but unfair. 'These people had worked really hard and were brilliant engineers,' he said. But Jobs had latched onto what he believed was a key management lesson from his Macintosh experience. You have to be ruthless if you want to build a team of A players. 'It's too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they then attract a few more B players, and soon you will even have some C players,' he recalled. 'The Macintosh experience taught me that A players like to work only with other A players, which means you can't indulge B players.'" (p. 181)

Here's another recollection – same song, different verse:

"Right after he came back from his operation, he didn't do the humilation bit as much,' (chief software engineer Avadis 'Avie') Tevanian recalled. 'If he was displeased, he might scream and get hopping mad and use expletives, but he wouldn't do it in a way that would totally destory the person he was talking to. It was just his way to get the person to do a better job.' Tevananian reflected for a moment as he said this, then added a caveat: 'Unless he thought someone was really bad and had to go, which happened every once in a while.' Eventually, however, the rough edges returned." (p. 461)

It was interesting how Jobs's Zen Buddhist beliefs informed (or didn't) his life. Isaacson records Jobs' estranged daughter, Lisa (for whom his first computer was named), asking Jobs why he was so preoccupied with creating great material products when Buddhism does not recognize material things as being real or mattering? Jobs was quiet and never answered the question, but one could tell the inconsistency bothered him.

Though Jobs did not necessarily create anything completely "new" in the digital world (author Malcolm Gladwell asserts as much in the New Yorker a few weeks ago in his article, "The Tweaker: The Real Genius of Steve Jobs"), Jobs did redesign average products and redesign entire industries with his drive. In the last chapter of the book, Isaacson lists Jobs's contribution over three decades (some of his descriptions below could be given somewhat to hyperbole):

  • The Apple II, which took (Steve) Wozniak's circuit board and turned it into the first personal computer that was not just for hobbyists.
  • The Macintosh, which begat the home computer revolution and popularized graphical user interfaces.
  • Toy Story and other Pixar blockbusters which opened up the miracles of digital animation.
  • Apple stores, which reinvented the role of a store in defining a brand.
  • The iPod, which changed the way we consume music.
  • The iTunes Store, which saved the music industry.
  • The iPhone, which turned mobile phones into music, photography, video, email, and web devices.
  • The App Store, which spanwed a new content-creation industry.
  • The iPad, which launched tablet computing and offered a platform for digital newspapers, magazines, books, and videos.
  • iCloud, which demoted the computer from its central role in managing our content and let all of our devices sync seamlessly.
  • And Apple itself, which Jobs considered his greatest creation, a place where imagination was nurtured, applied, and executed in ways so creative that it became the most valuable company on earth.

To Isaacson's (and Jobs's) credit, the book is as honest as one might hope for in a biography. Isaacson does a good job drawing out the themes that play through Jobs's life: his life-long insecurity at having been given up for adoption as a newborn; his passion for minimalist, beautiful design; his philosophy that closed platforms make for ultimately better user experiences than open ones (Microsoft); and his belief that people don't know what they want until they see it (or in Jobs's mind, until he shows it to them).

While I've always thought of Jobs as the last of a dying breed of innovative entrepreneuers (as so wonderfully – if a bit expletively – captured in this brilliant news clip in The Onion), I see with new eyes what the price of progress actually was at Apple. Was it worth it? Many of those interviewed seemed to believe so, but more than a few of these same people also seemed relieved that Steve Jobs was gone.

iSad.

Because We Apparently Need More to Do

In Calling, Education, Family, Internet, Technology, Veritas, Young Ones on August 23, 2011 at 7:12 pm

You may or may not have heard, but Megan and I have started writing a new blog together about our journey (past and present) through the world of classical education. The blog's called Docendo Discimus. Here's our angle on the name and idea:

Seneca "The philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC-65 AD) offers us his counsel: 'Docendo discimus.' Translation: 'By teaching, we learn.' As we seek to provide our children with a classical Christian education, we hope to gain that which we did not experience in our own. Granted, it is probably more difficult now at our current stages of life due to slipping memories, full-time jobs, and possible mid-life plateaus, but it is not impossible, nor do we have to do it alone; hence this blog."

For more on our rationale, you can click here to get an idea of where we're going with it (and why). We're planning to write every Tuesday and Friday and, while what's up there now (a short series on what makes education Christian) is mine, Megan's planning to launch her first series from the homefront next week, so you won't want to miss that.

In addition to the new blog, we've also created a Twitter account to go with it. You'll find us tweeting about most things classical education at @PagingSeneca, so retweet us every now and then if what we write resonates with you.

Rest assured, we'll still continue writing individually at Second Drafts and Half-Pint House, but we're excited to be able to contribute to this new one together. So, check out the site and/or follow us on Twitter. Hope they help.

On Teachers, Students, and Social Media

In Education, Internet, Politics, Technology, Thought on August 3, 2011 at 10:27 pm

1984

In yet another example of ridiculous government over-reach, the governor of my previous state of Missouri signed into law a bill banning public school students and teachers from communicating and being "friends" on Facebook. Here are some article excerpts:

"'Teachers cannot establish, maintain or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian or legal guardian,' the law states. Teachers also cannot have a non work-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. The law is not limited to Facebook and applies to any social networking site. Although Facebook fan pages will still be allowed, direct communicaton between teachers and students on the site will be banned."

And:

"Although some critics have said the concept sounds positive on the surface, they worry it may imply that teachers may not be trusted on the site without legal intervention. Others worry that restricting sites such as Facebook could hinder the educational process in the future."

And:

"In 2010, Lee County school district in Florida advised teachers not to friend students on social networking sites, claiming that teacher-student communication through this medium is 'inappropriate.' This was the first school district in the state of Florida, possibly even the country, to issue teacher-protocol guidelines for social media."

I have a hard time believing this last paragraph. 2010? Seriously? In 2008, my administration at Westminster Christian Academy, knowing that I used social media and was "friends" with several of my high school students, asked me to draft a document that later was adopted as part of the school's social media policy. Here's what I submitted:

  • Never initiate the friend, wall-to-wall, inbox, birthday, or other functions; always be a responder to students, but even then, refrain from excess posting on their pages.
  • Unless you have a pre-determined set of relationship criteria (i.e. males only, females only, etc.), do not discriminate among friend requests; accept all or accept none.
  • Always maintain a degree of formality despite the informal medium; keep titles (Mr., Mrs., Miss) and try to relate with as similar a classroom tone as possible.
  • Realize that conversations you may have in other networks may be privy to those in your network unless you set up different access levels. Use discretion, as you are exposing students to your college/post-college discussions and topics, which may or may not be helpful to your students.
  • Use good punctuation and grammar whenever possible; avoid slang and model excellence as an educator in your communication.
  • Do not post pictures of yourself that are questionable, sensual, or ridiculous; if other friends include you in such pictures on their profiles, ask to remove them or untag yourself from them.
  • Do not delete inbox or wall-to-wall conversations; always keep a record.

These guidelines were helpful as I related to students online. Some teachers were more reticent than I was to be online "friends" with their students; others not so much. The school did not take a hard and fast stance on the issue; the point was that all of us were encouraged to think about what we were doing and to use common sense concerning our online interactions with students.

The problem, of course, is that common sense is not so common, and the American response to the ills of the few has increasingly become a legislative knee-jerk against the good of the many. Maybe I've just been fortunate enough to know and work with too many caring, dedicated teachers, but I don't know anyone (public or private school) who has abused or been accused of misusing Facebook with his or her students. (Actually, I've read a whole lot more in the past six months about congressmen sexting pictures of themselves to interns. Where's the "no social media" law against them?)

I'm sad for my public school teacher friends in Missouri who just lost a way to be an invested, influential voice among the milieu of madness that is a teenager's online world. And, I'm a little nervous where this kind of thing might go for my private school teacher friends, as some fearful parents, school boards, or administrations may over-react with their own knee-jerk policies in the wake of the new law.

Just today I got a Facebook message from one of my first students (now a college sophomore at Ball State University in Indiana) with whom I've been "friends" since his freshman year of high school. In reading his words, walking through high school with Daniel – even from a distance via Facebook as I was only his teacher for one year – obviously meant something to him.

I'm just glad I moved to Oklahoma so he could tell me.

Second Drafts, Redux

In Calling, Internet, Technology, Writers on May 31, 2011 at 7:34 am

Five years ago (give or take three weeks), I created and launched Second Drafts. Here was part of the birth announcement (you can read the original post here):

My friend and co-author, Doug Serven, is right when he says the idea of writing a book is a lot more appealing than actually doing it. In fact, a lot of bookwriting (at least in our experience) amounts to "vomiting on the page" and then rearranging what sticks. Doug is fond of the vomiting part; I tend to tolerate the rearranging (though we each did a fair amount of both).

Likewise, life is much like bookwriting, as so much of living is really editing what we and others "throw up" (again, continuing the vomit metaphor). Anyone can come up with a first draft of something; writing the second draft, however – revising thoughts, letting go of bad choices, and improving the overall whole of the manuscript – is the more difficult part of the process…and the most rewarding.

So, with that in mind (and just to be sure I run the metaphor fully into the ground), my goal is always to think about life "editorially" – listening for Voice, considering word choice, getting rid of fluff. You're invited to bring your red pen along (or your purple one if red is too threatening) and mark things up with me, or just wait around for the finished project.

A word of warning, though: if you wait, you'll probably wait a long time. Writing and life are both too confusing without community. You're welcome (and wanted) as part of mine.

Leave it to me to equate writing and vomiting (actually, readers have probably drawn the conclusion before, but were too kind to leave their observation in the comments).

I haven't spent as much consistent time on the blog in recent years due to the advent of micro-blogging (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), but I still enjoy keeping one for reasons of posterity and/or narcissism. Two-and-a-half years ago, I wondered aloud if blogging was dead, but looking back on my own experience, I would say the medium was not so much on its deathbed as my literary creativity seemed to be.

Five years later, I choose to relaunch here at Second Drafts with a new header and color scheme, a slightly different design, and a new hope of some reinvigorated reasons to write. I shouldn't lack for material – new state, new place, new people, new job – but I suppose dealing with aspects of the novelty is what keeps me from writing about it.

So, welcome (or welcome back). Do me a favor and spread the word that everything old is new again here at the blog. And drop in every now and then and leave a fresh comment or add to an interaction – those mean more than you ever might think.

Seinfeld on Cell Phones

In Pop Culture, Technology, Thought on May 15, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Portable-cell-phone-boothI've been out of the cell phone world (or rather, cell phones have been out of mine) for six years and here are some reasons why.

For better or worse, however, I'm back in the market because of my new role starting in June, so if anyone has any helpful recommendations, comparison links, or best deal sites for me, send them my way.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy my last three weeks of non-cellular existence while constructing a portable phone booth similar to the one pictured here.

Why Books Are Still My Favorite “Gadget”

In Books, Technology on March 26, 2011 at 10:07 am

BASICS-popup Saw this article on digital spring cleaning in the NYT and thought it was helpful. My favorite quote:

"Yes, e-readers are amazing, and yes, they will probably become a more dominant reading platform over time, but consider this about a book: It has a terrific, high-resolution display. It is pretty durable; you could get it a little wet and all would not be lost. It has tremendous battery life. It is often inexpensive enough that, if you misplaced it, you would not be too upset. You can even borrow them free at sites called libraries."

I would add that books are a lot more fun experientially to buy in person and you never have to worry about formats or platforms when sharing. Other advantages come to mind?

Forget Chocolate; I’ll Take a Book Instead

In Books, Holidays, Technology on February 13, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Book Heart
Our Valentine's Day tradition here at the Half-Pint House involves two things: board games and books. Megan usually picks out a new game for the fam and purchases a new book for each of the girls to unwrap and enjoy.

This year, we're changing up our routine and letting the girls pick out their own books thanks to Groupon doubling some gift money set aside for Barnes & Noble. With that to look forward to, here's a quote I read in Newsweek over the weekend that sums up my thoughts on the whole ebook question. It's from James H. Billington, librarian of Congress:

"The new immigrants don’t shoot the old inhabitants when they come in. One technology tends to supplement rather than supplant. How you read is not as important as: will you read? And will you read something that’s a book—the sustained train of thought of one person speaking to another? Search techniques are embedded in e-books that invite people to dabble rather than follow a full train of thought. This is part of a general cultural problem."

There are other quotes in the article worth considering, but this one particularly struck me as addressing the real issue. Whether one reads is one thing; how one reads is another. Personally, I need fewer – not more – distractions when I read; thus, I'm still in need of (and in love with) the printed page.

Regardless (and whichever way you may read), have a happy Puke Valentine's Day.

Blogging Down Memory Lane (Part 2)

In Calling, Internet, Technology, Web/Tech on November 10, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Schoolboy blogging

(continued from previous post)

3. How do you feel blogging and the presence of social networks and media has influenced students at Westminster?

While I know there are some students who keep blogs, I don't know many – it's too much work for too little instant gratification. Some students are on Twitter, but not nearly as many who are on Facebook. And, of course, cell phone texting is the medium of choice when it comes to communication for high schoolers.

As for the influence of all this on students, I have two thoughts. First, I think social media affects students very much the same way it affects adults, that is, training us (if we let it) in the art of distraction rather than the art of focus. I've written about this before here, here, and here (and it's not an idea original with me), but the Internet is by design created to distill our focus rather than sharpen it. I feel this when I'm on my computer (which is frequently because of what I do): it's easier to check Facebook or Twitter or a blog or two than actually write something myself to contribute something of worth to the blogosphere. The effect is the same, regardless of age: a lot of time gets wasted with very little to show for it (for an excellent article on this from a biblical perspective, click here).

Second (and this seems more true of students than adults, though there are plenty of exceptions), the ease and proliferation of digital media tools has created a constant public existence that robs kids of much of the privacy and mystery of their youth. I worry that students share so much online (vulnerable thoughts, sacred memories, less-than-appropriate pictures, and personal experiences) that they have nothing enigmatic really left for others (parents, boyfriends/girlfriends, even themselves) to gradually discover about who they are. In many ways, the Internet has made us more boring than interesting because everybody knows so much about us already. Where's the mystery and intrigue in that?

4. What is your opinion about blogging's future?

I've been asking this question a lot of late, even posing it to some friends of mine who are far more wise in the way of all things wired (read my friend Will's fascinating comments in answer to my inquiry here). I remember a few years ago I first started hearing folks warn of blogging's demise, largely because Twitter was really starting to explode in mass popularity and micro-blogging was coming into its own on a wide scale. Even in my own reading habits, I wasn't checking blogs like I used to (I follow anywhere from 100-150 different blogs using Google Reader, but only check them now when someone notifies me via Twitter that they posted something…and only then if the 140-character summary sounds interesting).

All that to say, blogging's not going away anytime soon, but I do think people's reasons for reading blogs continue to evolve. I think we're going to see the middle of blogging drop out; that is, the bloggers with bigger audiences will get bigger because of content and deals, while the bloggers who write for smaller audiences (usually made up of people who know them) will continue to do so simply for their personal love of writing or for niche reasons tied to their interests or work. Those in the middle who anticipate writing for a huge following but are unwilling to "sell out" to attract an audience are going to end up choosing one or the other.

5. Where do you see the future of your blog headed?

In light of my answer to #4, I easily fall into the second category mentioned and have no real desire to be part of the first. Sure, ideally, if I could cultivate a huge following of folks who love my writing, well, that would be great, but I don't anticipate that happening (and without the "deals," there's really no money in blogging).

Personally, I still write with books in mind, but I've struggled over the past three years as to how much to adjust my thinking to wholeheartedly pursue the more digital versions of publishing (if "publishing" is even really a word/concept anymore). Even going the full digital route, I'm haunted by the words of one of my seminary professors who, when I asked him if he ever feared running out of topics to write about, responded by saying he was more afraid of running out of people who would want to read what he wrote. His concern wasn't that people would stop reading him (he's an excellent writer); his concern was more that people would stop reading, period.

Granted, in many ways because of social media, we're reading more than ever, but much of what we're reading is not worth the page or pixels it's printed on/with when considered within the broader historical context of scholarship and publication. There's a lot of garbage to sift through to find well-written truth.

6. Why do you enjoy blogging?

I'll probably continue to blog because I'll always continue to write; in fact, I can't NOT write – it's how I process life and discover what I think. Ever since I was a kid, I've always loved keeping journals and writing letters – a desire that has never gone away even with the creation of websites and email. As Wendell Berry wrote in his essay, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,"

"My final and perhaps my best reason for not owning a computer is that I do not wish to fool myself. I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil. I do not see why I should not be as scientific about this as the next fellow: when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of computers with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one." —Wendell Berry, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” in What Are People For? (1990), p. 171.

Gathering my thoughts on my blog (and not everything I think gets posted for reasons listed in my answer to question #3) is a perk of living in the 21st century – one for which I'm grateful. But in terms of meaning and significance, I still don't think today's technology compares to the original social media – oral tradition – through which God spoke and preserved His Word. After all, look at what this social media produced: words that are still just as current and relevant as the latest update, tweet, post, or book I could ever write, and the best part is you can talk to the Author whenever you feel like it.

Blogging Down Memory Lane (Part 1)

In Calling, Internet, Technology, Web/Tech on November 9, 2010 at 10:25 pm


Blogging dream and reality

I have a student coming in Thursday to interview me for Westminster's school newspaper, The Wildcat Roar, on the topic of my blog (or more specifically, I think, the fact that I have one). I asked her to send along her questions so I could think through my answers. Here's what she sent (and what I think):

1. Why did you want to begin writing your blog?

Second Drafts is not my first blog; it's actually my third. Back in the early part of the "aughts," when I was on staff with The Navigators in Colorado Springs, I was using a really poor content management system to post book, movie, and music reviews to our family ministry website. This was novel and fun, but there was no means (other than email) for interaction with others, so it was basically a static page that I just added to and kept up. I wouldn't call this a "blog," but it was a step toward what was coming.

In the fall of 2003, as part of promoting my first book, TwentySomeone, a friend of mine set up a promotional website and suggested including a blog as part of the homepage. I liked the idea since it provided the opportunity for feedback and interaction, and especially because the software (I used WordPress for the interface) was so much better than what I was used to. It was also cool to be in on the early stages of blogging, particularly since the book was aimed at people in their twenties (surely, I thought, this made me ultra-hip). I kept this blog for two-and-a-half years.

When we moved to St. Louis to start course work at Covenant Seminary, I felt the need to chronicle some of my experiences, but I wanted to do so in a different way. Using Blogger (which has come a long way from when I started using it back in 2005), I created an anonymous third-person "reporter" – Seminary Tychicus – who kept track of the ups and downs, ins and outs of the life of a new seminary student, "Learner," who was adjusting to graduate school with a family of four and plenty of insecurity to boot. The Tychicus connection came from Paul's words in Ephesians 6:21: "Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing." I kept this blog for almost two years, from June 2005-April 2007.

Having started the Tychicus blog and getting further into my mid-thirties, I felt it was time to discontinue the TwentySomeone blog, as I didn't want readers to feel like I was desperately clinging to my twenties (I also didn't have a lot of mental energy to spare for two blogs). So, I shut down the TwentySomeone blog at the end of 2005 and stopped blogging as me all together for six months (which I now consider a mistake as I lost hundreds of readers in doing so). It was around this time that Facebook really started to explode, but I wasn't a big fan of the whole micro-blogging idea as it seemed a cop-out on real content.

Probably as a reaction to all this (as well as the fact that I missed writing as me in first-person), I started Second Drafts in June of 2006. The idea was to use the blog as a place where I could combine all the past writing I had done – books, magazine articles, online resources – with new stuff that might turn into new books, magazine articles, and online resources (my second book, Learning Education, is made up of a lot of my posts about teaching). In addition, I use the blog to pass along interesting links I come across through the inclusion of my Delicious and Twitter feeds, as well as to try to sell my books and some of the music I've recorded as a way to generate some (very minimal) additional income for my family.

2. What was/is your inspiration?

From the beginning, my goal in blogging has always been to offer my thoughts to others for the good of God's kingdom. I think of myself as a maven of sorts – "a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others," and while I'm no "expert" in anything, I do know people trust me and that I love to learn and help others do the same in a wise way. Translating big ideas into more manageable thoughts has always been my modus operandi, as it's an opportunity to influence others. Sometimes I'll come up with an original idea, but most of my writing seems to be along the lines of discerning or restating something in a way that helps readers better understand than they did before (at least that's what readers have consistently told me I do for them). I'm grateful for (and gratified by) that.

(To be continued)

Calling All Techies

In Internet, Technology on October 25, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Techie_Timeline
I just sent this out via email:

I'll go ahead and congratulate you now but you can decide whether you're excited about it or not. Essentially, you're one of the eight (count them: eight!) most techno-savvy people I know and I need whatever wise counsel you might share.

Let me be brief: Megan and I are at a point where we're evaluating together what a next step might be for us with regard to our online presence/interaction. We've read a lot about and participated for years in the whole blogging/social media thing, but we're wondering how to think about the next stage of where things are going and how we can anticipate changes we may need to make to more widely and deeply influence people for the Kingdom via the World Wide Web.

I hesitate asking too many specific questions that might limit your answers, so I'll just go with this: In your opinion and from your vantage point/experience, where do you see things going in terms of technology, publishing, and general social media that you would advise us to consider in thinking through this?

I can provide more information if you want it about where we're at in all this, but in a nutshell, we both feel we're at a point of starting over and we'd rather not retrace paths that seem overgrown by now. That said, personal anecdotes and observation are completely legitimate here – we trust your instincts.

Take as much time as you need and share only what you honestly want us to hear. Thanks in advance for your consideration and good advice.

Got any thoughts to share? Comment away.

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.

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.

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.

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:

Rig 

IMG_5552

  • 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
    modules)

    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.

Lineups 2010

In Sports, Technology, Westminster on March 28, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Baseball in glove

My fantasy baseball league (Crooked Numbers) had its draft this afternoon. It's my first time playing (I got Megan to field a team as well), but nobody mentioned the draft itself was going to consume two whole hours of a Sunday afternoon. As there are 11 teams in our league, the process took a while, but I was impressed with Yahoo's interface and draft kit, so at least it didn't feel clunky…just long.

Neither Megan nor I have any idea what we're doing in terms of baseball fantasy (we prefer the real stuff), but for those who do, here are my 23 drafted players here at the start of the season:

Pick #, Player, Position(s)

1. (6) Joe Mauer C

2. (19) Aramis Ramírez 3B

3. (30) Adam Wainwright SP

4. (43) Robinson Canó 2B

5. (54) Mariano Rivera RP

6. (67) Billy Butler 1B

7. (78) Bobby Abreu OF

8. (91) Yunel Escobar SS

9. (102) Jason Kubel OF

10. (115) Jair Jurrjens SP

11. (126) Brendan Ryan 2B,SS

12. (139) Rick Porcello SP

13. (150) A.J. Burnett SP

14. (163) Stephen Strasburg SP

15. (174) Miguel Tejada SS

16. (187) Joe Nathan RP

17. (198) Rajai Davis OF

18. (211) Carlos Ruiz C

19. (222) Maicer Izturis 2B,SS

20. (235) Tim Wakefield SP

21. (246) Melky Cabrera OF

22. (259) Andy Pettitte SP

23. (270) Joba Chamberlain SP

I feel pretty good about the majority of my picks, as I've got some
superstars (Mauer, Wainwright, Rivera, Abreu), some solid position
players (Cano, Escobar, Ryan, Kubel), and just to keep it interesting, some risks (Strasburg). My one certified dud draft pick was Joe Nathan, as apparently he is scheduled for Tommy
John surgery soon (information that would have been helpful yesterday). Whups.

Anyone playing fantasy baseball with a comment or two? Care to post your roster and compare? Any counsel or strategy for this rookie?

In semi-related news, I'm dealing with a completely other set of rosters as Westminster's underclassmen baseball season begins tomorrow with a four-game junior varsity tournament (M-TH) as well as a freshman game on Wednesday. I've been working on my signs all weekend long so I don't look like I'm having a seizure down the third base line, but I'm not quite there…yet. Come on out if you're in the neighborhood. Go Wildcats!

Why Johnny Can’t Write (Part 2)

In Church, Education, Humanity, Internet, Technology, Thought, Web/Tech, Westminster, Young Ones on March 14, 2010 at 8:29 am

(Continued from my previous post on the topic; sorry for the delay/random smatterings. Can't believe it's taken two weeks, but I'm guessing you found other things to read).

With regard to the problem of teaching and learning the Bible, David Nienhuis sums up the problem nicely: "Biblical literacy programs need to do more than produce informed quoters. They need to produce transformed readers."

Most Scripture memory programs focus on the imperative verses (what to do), almost completely ignoring the indicative verses (what is true). In other words, we in the church spend more time telling kids (and ourselves) what to do for God rather than what God has done for them (and us). In the evangelical church, we're all about the what and how, and hardly about the when, where, and why.

But let's not pretend that decontextualization is just a biblical literacy problem specifically; in today's postmodern world (or post-postmodern world some would say), it is a literacy problem in general. Here's where we come back to basic reading and writing
skills, and these skills' corruption by the very thing so many proclaim will help – technology.

There is, after all, a difference between learning something and learning how to search for something. Is one better than the other? That's a debated question: does a kid really need to learn when or where or why an historical event took place, or does he just need to learn how to search for it effectively with Google? How you answer this question has everything to do with your pedagogy, and while I don't think the two answers are mutually exclusive, I do think the former gets short shrift compared to the latter.

Think about this: nobody memorizes phone numbers anymore because we can just input them into our phone, press the name of the person we want to call, and dial the right number. This works great…as long as we have the phone. But what happens when we lose the phone or the phone stops working? How do we get a hold of the person we're trying to call? What do we really know? We know that we want our phone back and working again, and we realize how lost we feel without it. (Note: For the other two of you in the world who, like me, don't own a cell phone, apply the idea to losing your Web browser bookmarks…it can seem like the most helpless feeling in the world.)

The point is that we live such a wi-fi-enabled, out-sourced, off-site, backed-up life that we use our brains for little more than remembering where we store our passwords than what it is (stories, ideas, responses, reflections) they protect. Ours has evolved into such a non-oral tradition "tradition," that the thought of memorizing sonnets from a poem or narrative stories from the Bible for meaning and not information seems archaic and unnecessary. If we think we need it, we can find it; we don't need to learn it. And if we don't think we need to learn it, well, who cares?

The result of all this (or at least the result I see in the classroom) is a student who struggles to write or process ideas that take more than a paragraph to explain (see this Onion article for a humorous version of the problem) growing up in a culture that validates his multi-tasking dysfunction despite studies like this one and articles like this one that question it as a good means to deal with life. As an educator, I suppose I risk becoming suspect to students and parents (and perhaps colleagues and administrators) in calling for moderation and (at times) sobriety when it comes to drinking the technological Kool-Aid, but when I watch a program like Frontline's Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, it confirms my concerns. Again, I'm not down on technology, but idolatry is a different matter.

Maybe it's because of the subjects I teach (New Testament and Ethics) or the experience (or lack thereof) I've had in the classroom, but depending on technology instead of using technology to teach seems ridiculous for many reasons, not the least of which is this: what if the power or the Internet goes out? If I can't teach apart from my laptop with its Keynote presentations and Web-access and wikis and online forums and Skype conversations and YouTube clips and ITunes access and podcasts and Scripture software – all of which I use in the classroom – then I'm not sure I'm really much of a teacher.

I need one more post to respond to some of your questions about how we try to apply any of this here at home with our own kids. I promise I won't take another two weeks to get to it, so hang in there. In the meantime, here's a link to the blog of one of my students who has the increasingly rare gift of being a sophomore in high school and able to utilize technology while still thinking and writing meaningfully. Enjoy.