Words on my Mind

Thursday, March 07, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest

“Bless the Lord, O my Soul”  … Quickly, where is that passage found? 

It was Wednesday evening.  Our praise team was practicing singing “10,000 Reasons,” the song by Matt Redman, in preparation for the Sunday morning service.  Our team leader planned to do a short prayer just before the song and so she wanted to review the passage corresponding to that line from the song.  We all recognized it.  It was on the tip of my tongue!  A psalm?  Yes, certainly.  Which one?  A quick lookup on my smartphone zeroed in on the passage, though it wasn’t quite so immediate, because my Bible app was the New International Version, and the NIV translates that first word as “praise” rather than “bless” so my search didn’t yield any psalms on the first try.  A quick switch to biblegateway.org and a lookup in the King James version yielded Psalm 103 in short order.  I should have known it was Psalm 103, having memorized that passage as a child.  Why had that memory faded so far? 

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.”  Deuteronomy 11:18 (NIV)

I wasn’t always so slow to remember a verse.  After finishing 5th grade, I attended a summer camp with my cousin.  The week-long event was sponsored by the church my cousin’s family attended, so along with outdoor activities from hiking to swimming to volleyball, it also included Bible lessons each morning and chapel every evening.  Camp was not for the faint of heart.  We learned how to survive in the woods and how to survive in the ice-cold water of the camp showers.  We ate the unidentifiable chow served in the dining hall and lived to tell about it.  During chapel we sat on long benches constructed from rough hewn wood during even longer meditations constructed from rough hewn personal testimonies of the speaker for the evening.

On the first day of camp, the head counselor announced a memory verse contest.  The student who was able to memorize the most scripture passages from the official contest list would win a monetary prize.  Five dollars might not sound like much today, but to a fifth grader back then, that sounded like a small fortune.  The first passage on the list was Psalm 1.  An entire psalm?  Yes, that was the first hurdle.  But the first psalm is only six verses, and I had already memorized the first couple verses some time previously in Sunday School.  I set to work repeating the first couple verses over and over again, until I had them down pat, then added another verse, repeated the longer string of words over and over, finally getting the entire psalm firmly in my head.  I raced to my cabin’s counselor and the words flew out like water from a firehose, partly from excitement and partly in fear that I might forget if I took too long to recite the scripture passage.  Other students also got through that first Psalm and recited it.  I tackled more and more passages down the list, racing to stay ahead of the competition.  Over the course of the week, I had memorized my way through the entire published contest list (including the first five verses of Psalm 103).  Eventually the counselors had expand the list and assign a few more to me.  When we assembled for the final chapel on Friday, the head counselor pulled out a crisp five-dollar bill and announced that I had won the contest.  I was ecstatic.  I walked up to collect my prize and only when I turned to return to my seat and the whole group applauded did I feel a just a smidgen of pride. 

The following year, I once again attended the camp and on the first day they again announced a Bible memory contest.  This time the prize would be a airplane flight, piloted by one of the church members with a private aircraft pilot’s license.  Here was a prize worth pursuing.  I had never flown before.  The winner would get to see their house, their school—their entire neighborhood from the skies above.  This year the counselors were prepared.  The list of scripture passages was long and varied.  Some of the passages were familiar favorites, while others were obscure little pieces from little known corners of the Bible.  I attacked the list with fervor.  All other camp activities paled in comparison with this pursuit.  Every moment of free time we got, I had my nose in the Word, practicing the next verses on the list.  When we assembled for the final chapel on Friday, once again the head counselor stood up to announce the winner.  I held my breath.  He said a little about the importance of memorizing the Word of God.  He thanked all the students who had participated and memorized so many verses.  I was on the edge of my seat.  My feet were twitching with nervous energy.  Finally he proceeded to announce the winner.  Me.  I was ecstatic!  He handed me a certificate for the plane ride and once again the group applauded.  Later that summer I enjoyed my first plane ride, taking off from the Kent County airport to fly low over Grandville, Michigan and get a bird’s eye view of my house, my church, and my school.

In the weeks and months afterwards, many of those memorized passages faded from my memory.  Now decades later, only a few favorites come easily to my lips.  The sands of memory get smoothed out and fade under the ocean waves of time.  Does technology speed up our forgetting?  While ubiquitous wireless access puts an incredible array of information at our fingertips, are we really smarter?  I can google an answer for you, but does that make me wiser?  I suspect the convenience of the Bible on my iPhone gives me the excuse to memorize less.  However, humans have long used lists, and writing in general, as a tool to help us remember.  Perhaps a Bible app is just another one of those tools.  In the past I have rarely carried a Bible around with me, but now I have it with me daily, in my phone.  Few of us could memorize and retain the entire Bible, so we all need the crutch of the written Word occasionally.  On the other hand, I think it is still a good spiritual discipline to memorize some of scripture, so that God’s Word lives both in our minds and our hearts.

Why I couldn’t read the Bible in church

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Our church holds its Sunday morning worship services in two locations within our building, connected together by a video link.  The upstairs sanctuary holds a couple hundred folks in the traditional double aisle of long pews from front to back.  Our Family Life Center, which functions as a gymnasium, cafeteria, activity room, and more during the week, becomes the downstairs sanctuary on Sunday mornings, with flexible seating in widening semi-circles around the stage where a praise team leads singing and where a projection screen carries the video feed of our pastor who is upstairs leading prayer and preaching the sermon.  Sometimes the pastor leads from downstairs and the upstairs folks get the video feed (just to keep it fair).  The upstairs pews are stocked with Bibles and songbooks, but not so with the downstairs seating. 

One Sunday morning my family decided to sit downstairs for a change, instead of our normal upstairs spot.  While many of you habitually bring your personal Bible to church, we had lost this habit in depending on those handy Bibles in the rack in the pew.  So here I was sitting downstairs watching the pastor on the video screen as he commenced reading the scripture passage for the day’s sermon.  Wait, I didn’t have a Bible handy!  Sure, I could listen to his reading, but I really preferred to follow along in my own Bible, since I’m more of a visual learner. 

No problem, I could pull the passage up quickly and easily on the Bible app on my smartphone.  It would be even better than reading the print version, since I would be able to compare multiple translations, instantly click through any footnotes to see reference passages, pull up commentary notes, and more.  However, when I pulled out my phone and fired up my Bible app, my wife and teenage son quickly put the kibosh on the entire plan.  They were obviously mortified, so I quietly put my phone away and politely listened to the pastor read the verses for the day. 

After church, I queried my family about the incident.  There were a several reasons for their dismay.  First, it might be distracting to other parishioners to have someone using an electronic device.  True, an electronic reader on a smartphone or tablet device typically has active lighting, so it would catch your eye more easily.  It also may require more manipulation, especially on a small screen device like a smartphone, where you’ll need more swipes to turn the small virtual pages compared to the necessary page turns of the physical book.  Second, it might give the appearance of bragging about one’s possessions.  Perhaps that would be the reality—that using one’s smartphone in church was no different than wearing expensive clothing or gold jewelry to advertise one’s wealth. 

Since that day, I’ve noticed a few other church members using an iPhone, Kindle, or other device to follow along in scripture, so perhaps I’ll try again at some point.  In any case, I am now a bit more thoughtful about how I use my gadgets.  As an engineer, I’d like to think I only use the most effective, efficient tool for the job.  However, that’s not always my entire reason for buying a technological product, whether I admit it or not.  I must be careful to avoid the pride of possessions or the gluttony of rampant materialism.  I must show care for my fellow believer down the aisle.  I must consider stewardship—both of my finances and of our natural resources.  In short, I must honor God in all I do and all I own.

Etymological bunny trail:  By the way, did you know that “kibosh” has a long history going back at least to an 1836 Dickens short story, but appearing in some newspapers and court proceedings even earlier.  There does not appear to be strong consensus about what or who a “kibosh” might have been or why it came to mean putting an end to something.

Broken Christmas Toys

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

They could make toys better.  They could make them stronger, less prone to wear and damage.  They could make them safer, with fewer dangerous small parts, with fewer toxic materials, with more comprehensive testing.  They could make them more educational, smarter, more sophisticated. They could make toys better.  But they don’t.

When our children were young, it was not unusual during the days and weeks after Christmas to find a Christmas present already broken and discarded.  It started out life beloved and cherished right out of the gift wrapping.  The doll joined a tea party.  The Hot Wheels car joined a parade and then a race.  The new watch went on the wrist for the rest of the week.  Some toys came back for repair within minutes, while others lasted days.  A few sturdy stalwarts lasted long enough to be handed down to a sibling.  Why weren’t all the toys made that sturdy?  Why were some made of flimsy materials that easily broke in the hands of an industrious four-year old child? 

Toy designers and manufacturers do have a choice.  They could make better toys.  Why don’t they?  Because we consumers so often choose lower price over higher quality.  Imagine a toy seller who produces two models of the same toy.  The first model is made of the inexpensive materials, with little attention to durability.  Costs are reduced further by slimming down the thickness of each part and minimizing the number of fasteners by using an inexpensive sealing process.  This makes the toy not only more frangible, but also less repairable.  The second model is made to last, with high quality materials.  The designer pays attention to likely wear patterns and beefs up the parts where weakness might otherwise lead to breakage.  More expensive fasteners are used so that the toy can be repaired, should any problems occur.  From the outside, the two toys appear quite similar.  A Christmas shopper in a hurry probably couldn’t spot the higher quality of the second toy without close examination.  The only clear difference is the price, which is almost three times more for the second model than the first.  Towards the end of the shopping season, the first model has sold out, yet stacks of the second remain.  Why don’t they make toys better?  It isn’t some insidious toy conspiracy.  It is because we ourselves won’t pay for the higher quality.  You get what you pay for.  We choose to pay little, so we get little.

The forced choice in making a toy is not unusual.  Trade-offs are implicit in most engineering designs, requiring a balance between multiple goals that each appear to be good. yet more of the one requires less of the other.  Balancing cost and quality is just one example.  We trade-off weight (and indirectly safety) with high gas mileage in automobiles.  We trade-off time to market with thoroughness of clinical testing for new pharmaceutical drugs.  We must often prioritize the competing goods of aesthetics, performance, reliability, safety, recyclability, and more.  I once asked my students in an engineering class about the difference in the rigor one should use in designing electronics for an MP3 portable music player when compared to designing a medical instrument to monitor an infant’s vital signs.  At the one extreme, some students indicated there should be no difference.  They thought that Christians should do our best and produce the most excellent and safe designs regardless of the intended use.  This position, advocating for an equal attention to all designs regardless of intended use, has some scriptural support.  Colossians 3:23 tells us “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”  No matter where we find ourselves, every occupation is worthy of our best efforts as an offering to the Lord.  At the other extreme, some students indicated that the infant monitor should be designed with the utmost care and much more attention, compared to the music player.  This position, advocating for more care when the intended use is more critical, also has some scriptural support. Philippians 4:8 tells us “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” 

Can you ever go overboard on safety?  Is there ever an acceptable risk?  I believe so.  Consider two examples.  First, look at the common nail hammer.  It is designed to pound nails into wood.  This purpose leads to a design with a hard striking surface, a relatively heavy weight to provide momentum when the striking surface is swung, and a long handle to harness the centrifugal force of that swing into a powerful impact on the head of the nail.  The design is appropriate to the need.  The design is also deadly.  That same powerful impact on the head of a person will kill.  We could alleviate that risk by reducing the weight of the head, softening the striking surface,  shortening the handle to reduce the swinging force, and so forth.  The resulting pillow on a stub stick would no longer be able to kill, but it wouldn’t be able to pound nails either.  Second, look at making your car safer by adding steel plating to protect you during a crash.  However, plating makes the car heavier, so gas mileage plummets.  Plating in place of fragile windows would be even more protective, but then you wouldn’t be able to see out very well, making driving less aesthetic and probably more accident-prone.  If we add even more plating to make it even more safe, the car may not fit in the lane anymore, nor fit in your garage.  That extra plating will cost you—so much that we might price the car out of reach of most budgets. 

Good designs are thus a balance of competing goods.  If the balance is distorted, favoring one goal to the exclusion of all others, the resulting product is usually dysfunctional, because proper function depends on meeting multiple goals simultaneously.  Not only are products the result of a trade-off, but the engineering design process itself is also a trade-off.  The old saw “Better, faster, cheaper—pick any two” is a reflection of the balance between the scope, schedule, and cost of a project.  Does this mean that one must always accept less of one goal in order to achieve more of another?  Not necessarily.  Sometimes we find a clever new way to achieve both lower cost and higher quality, e.g., by reducing waste.  Sometimes we find an innovation that lets us achieve both environmental stewardship and corporate profit, e.g., by reuse and recycling.  Sometimes we find a way to make a part both lighter and stronger, e.g., by using composite materials.  I think such combinations are particularly excellent and praiseworthy.

When Machines Think

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

It wasn’t really the president, it was a machine.  When I was young, my family took a summer vacation trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  One of the memorable exhibits was the Hall of Presidents, where Animatronic likenesses of the presidents speak to the audience.  This was no static, stale wax museum where a few stiff movements might be jury-rigged into an arm or leg in a few of the displays.  This was all the US presidents, displaying life-like movement that looked quite real, at least to a young boy from the distance of a seat mid-way back in the amphitheater.  Of course even young children knew these were not truly real men but merely robotic impersonators.  Nevertheless it was fascinating to watch the show unfold and enjoy the android replicas. 

About that same time I started reading science fiction, a pastime that would become a lifelong appreciation for the genre.  I read every single science fiction book the Grandville, Michigan library had to offer (Dune, by Frank Herbert, was one of my early favorites). I bought more books at garage sales.  I borrowed more from friends.  I signed up for a mail-order book club that offered a special deal on a bonanza of books when you joined, adding dozens more books to my collection like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.  My enjoyment of science fiction was not limited to the written word, but spilled over to television and the cinema, where Star Trek and Star Wars quickly became favorites.

The thing about science fiction is that it doesn’t always stay fiction.  The fantastical babies grown in jars and the abhorrent eugenically-produced societal castes of Huxleys’ Brave New World were imaginative stories of technology.  However, only a few generations after his 1931 novel, those technologies became reality.  The first test tube baby was born in 1978, the first genetically modified crop appeared in 1982, and Dolly, the first cloned mammal, was born in 1996.  I found another imaginative story around futuristic technology in the story of Steve Austin, the eponymous main character of the 1970’s television show “The Six Million Dollar Man”.  Just a couple decades later, the technology of bionic limbs has become reality in the incredible robotic prosthetics that provide delicate control and feedback to amputees. 

Perhaps the most interesting science fiction technologies are machines that think.  Human-looking robots that also act human are no strangers to the silver screen of science fiction.  The replicants of Blade Runner and the android Lt. Cmdr. Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation are just two examples.  Have those imaginative stories become reality?  Not yet.  There are certainly fast computational devices with large databases of information, such as IBM’s Watson, which beat two human Jeopardy! champions recently.  Can Watson really think?  I think not.  Could a machine ever think?  Possibly. 

Machines that could think could also be machines that are dangerous.  Asimov considered that possibility in many of his science fiction stories and thus formed his famous three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human nor through inaction allow a human to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders from humans, except if they conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect itself as long it does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws seem to be reasonable protections for humans, but I see an interesting contradiction.  If even sophisticated robots are simply deterministic automatons, then it seems odd to bother with the last law.  Why grant self-preservation to a machine?  I suppose such a law might be simply reflect the interests of the robot’s owner in protecting valuable property.  But that third law could also imply that the robot might really be thinking and not simply following a computational recipe.  If we believe that we ourselves are really thinking, and not simply following a deterministic genetic and biological recipe, then we might grant some measure of self-protection to a thinking robot as well.  But if we think the robot thinks, then the second law seems rather like slavery.  I don’t think we can have it both ways:  a convenient mechanistic slave to obey my every command but also smart enough to interpret the world around it and creatively respond to the nuances and complexities of real world situations.  If I own a human-looking robot that is smart enough to also act human, may I hurt it?  May I torture it?  What does that say about the status of the robot?  More importantly, what does that say about my own humanity?

Perhaps as a way to avoid any uncomfortable questions, we might simply define humans carefully so that such human-like machines are obviously not in the club, so that we might treat them how I wish.  However, I am hesitant to draw lines around human-like androids, thus naming them simply machines with no obligations attached and no attendant responsibilities to worry me.  Why does it worry me?  As machines become more human-like, I wouldn’t want to be so stingy in defining what it means to be human that my rubric not only disenfranchises the machine but also boxes out the most vulnerable of humans, allowing us to treat them carelessly too, such as the unborn child, the accident victim lying in a coma, the student with a learning disability, the poor, or the terminally ill.  God calls his people to protect the weak, as a matter of justice.  God calls his people to be generous to the vulnerable, as a matter of mercy.  God calls his people to guard against pride that causes us to treat others shabbily, as a matter of humility. 

Mediated Communication

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

At a recent conference, I heard a number of educators speak on their concerns about the detrimental effects of distance learning and online education.  Their mantra was that there is something special about the natural teacher-student relationship that requires intimate, in-person, face-to-face communication.  There is some kind of indefinable electricity that permeates the classroom of the master teacher.  Each of these teachers extended their diatribe against technology by resurrecting the critiques of philosophers Jacque Ellul and Neil Postman.  Ellul’s 1964 seminal book, The Technological Society, makes the argument that modern society has an inescapable focus on efficiency, to which all other aspects of society must eventually yield.  Ellul offers little hope for the people that must become cogs in the machine in the face of the irresistible force of technology.  Postman echos Ellul in his 1992 Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, documenting the unseen hand of technology that drives society to meet its needs.  Postman is not quite so dark as Ellul, offering at least some suggestions for resistance to and subversion of technology’s designs on us. 

Postmodern deconstructionists argue that we really can never understand each other because our words are so individualized and contextualized that we each construct our own meaning which has little or nothing to do with the speaker’s intent.  So I have often wondered why they bother to tell us this, since their central argument is that we won’t understand them.  The anti-technology crowd claims we must avoid technology if we hope to save our cultural souls.  So I have often wondered why they use technology to write and disseminate their arguments.  When I heard Postman speak at Calvin just a few years before he published Technopoly, I noticed that he traveled to this speaking engagement in a commercial jet aircraft, traveled from the airport to the college in an automobile, amplified his voice with a microphone so that the large audience could hear him,, and wore clothing made from heavily engineered textiles.  Similarly, the educators at my conference were against technology, yet they admitted to using all kinds of technology, such as chalk and chalkboard to write words for their students, electric lights so the students could see them, heat and cooling technology to produce a temperate indoor environment, Google searching for their papers, and more.  The anti-technologist argument is seriously undermined if the preacher does not practice what he preaches, but instead continues to enjoy the benefits. 

The educator’s fear of technology is not new.  Educators of the previous century worried that with the advent of film and television, student learning would suffer and, more personally, worried that they would be replaced by the new technology.  Even the ancient philosopher Plato worried that the new technology of books would ruin our memory.  Yet our society has not succumbed to a heedless obedience to technology.  Philosophers such as Ellul as well as Martin Heidegger claim that technology is autonomous, with its own goals and with the power and agency to induce changes in society.  Yet our society has not become the mindless marionette that dances to the gestures of technology. 

When we see evil in the world, it is easy to blame technology. But technology has no agency, it is not an actor.  It is our instrument to do our bidding.  Christians can point to a simpler explanation for the evil in the world:  sin.  The effects of sin are far-reaching:  not only does sin warp the intent of the technology user so that the instrument is directed to corrupt ends, but it also warps the technology itself, so that the instrument is biased towards the will of its maker in ways that encourage corrupt uses.  Blaming technology itself is to blame the symptom rather than the disease.  Recommending treatments based on this misdiagnosis will thus not cure the root cause of our ills.  I am not thereby exonerating technology.  We must still be wary of injustice, wrong, and harm that arrive via technology.  However, any corrective action must look beyond the technology itself to the human systems and processes that produced that technology. 

Thus I call for educators worried about online classes to name those fears and then do the hard work of analyzing the system, rather than settling for the easy critique of the technology by itself.  If we claim that online learning is evil (or less drastically, less effective), then let us carefully examine what is lost when the teacher and student are separated geographically and sometimes temporally, yet connected via a digital medium.  One problem that we see when our communication is mediated is that we lose some information important for interpreting meaning.  For example,  you can tell someone is joking in person by the twinkle in their eye or the slight smile on their face.  It is much more difficult to recognize humor in an email that is devoid of all body language.  One could think of non-technical solutions to this problem (use a smiley face to denote a joke in text, or avoid humor) and technical solutions (use a high definition video feed so that we can see that twinkle).  A second problem that we see when our communication is mediated is that separation permits less engagement by the participants.  If I am speaking face-to-face with someone, it is much more difficult for them to ignore me.  My physical presence demands their engagement and holds them accountable.  Again, one can think of non-technical solutions (such as frequent prompting that requires response to ensure engagement) and technical solutions (such as attention-tracking video recognition technology to flag when a participant’s engagement is dropping). 

We can learn something more from this analysis, beyond appropriate use of technology.  We can also see that rich communication requires rich personal relationship.  A teacher that mentors a student one-on-one will be in a better position to encourage learning, challenge assumptions, and hold the student accountable.  Compare that to a teacher who stands before a class of 100 students and thus faces significant communication hurdles that approach those of online communication, since one cannot easily see the students in the back row to determine if they are engaged.  A long-running conversation with a good friend (whether in person or over facebook) will contain keen insights and allow for more personal exchanges that deepen the friendship.  Compare that to a tweet to thousands of twitter followers, which can only contain generic insights and impersonal information.  Compare that to this blog itself, which is primarily one-way communication (with a few much appreciated exceptions when some readers email me back with their thoughts). 

We can learn something further here.  All our communication is mediated.  Our own preconceptions and moods will color our interpretation of any message from others.  The deconstructionist thus have it partly right—we do make our own meaning, though I don’t take this to the extreme that there is no shared understanding.  So in all our communication, even when meant in love, we must take care.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his little book Gemeinsames Leben (Life Together), discusses the importance of Christ as our ultimate mediator, not only between ourselves and God, but also between ourselves and our fellow humans:  “Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them.  As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself.  This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love.  The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes.  This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ.  Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, tr. John W. Doberstein, Life Together, Harper Collins, 1954, p. 36).

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest