Category Archives: Christianity

Four lessons from my Lenten social media fast

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This past Sunday was Easter, of course. Easter marks the endpoint of Lent, and therefore it was the end of my 40-day fast from Facebook and Twitter. I do admit that I broke cover once to announce my upcoming job change, and will also admit that I lurked a lot on both services during the last 10 days or so, reading but not commenting. Otherwise, though, I did manage to stay off both Facebook and Twitter for the duration (auto-posted tweets didn’t count).

I’ll have to say my first real tweet after breaking the fast felt awkward — like I’d been out in the wilderness for 40 days and had stepped back into a once-familiar place with people who had never left. I’m gradually getting back into the swing of it, but I also feel like I have a much different perspective on my social media involvement after giving most of it up for 40 days. I’ve learned a few things about the role of social media in my work and life:

Lesson 1: Denoising your life is good. I found this out within days of starting the fast. I didn’t realize until I gave Twitter and Facebook up for a few days just how dependent I’d become on checking status reports every few minutes, not to mention creating status updates myself. There is a tremendous amount of time bound up in these little 2- to 5-minute bursts of social media that I really benefitted from reclaiming. But more than that, I found that once I went cold turkey on Facebook and Twitter, the pace of my life slowed down several notches. I felt less hurried and more relaxed. When you make yourself try to keep up with a continuous stream of status updates, you soon begin to feel like Lucy and Ethel on the candy wrapping assembly line:

But that’s not all I learned.

Lesson 2: Getting rid of the noise is good, but losing the signal in the process is not so good. Many times over the last couple of months, I’d catch myself leaning over the keyboard about to compose a tweet asking for help or ideas on a question, or looking at Facebook to see what my friends all over the world were doing. But I had to catch myself because I was on a fast. I learned through all this that I really value the thoughts and ideas of the people and groups I follow — these thoughts and ideas enrich my life, fire my imagination, make me laugh at silly stuff, and generally make me a better person and professional. I missed all that, and the people behind them, a lot.

Despite the value I place in my connections, I also learned that:

Lesson 3: It’s good not to share everything. I remember quite clearly having lunch with my dissertation advisor one day, and he gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten: Always keep secrets. Work on things that nobody knows about but yourself. While sharing is generally good, and while the power of being able to share yourself quickly and on a large scale through Twitter and Facebook creates a powerful opportunity to connect with others, I think there’s a point of sharing past which the individual starts to get diluted. For example, during the first couple of weeks of Lent, I attended the ICTCM in Denver. There was no tweeting from there, although there was ample opportunity. Instead, I kept notes, talked to people, and made myself social in real life. It was good, and I think it would have been less good if I had taken time away from the here-and-now to tweet about the here-and-now.

Then, the Wednesday after I returned from Denver, I noticed on my right leg a series of painful, angry-looking red streaks going from my lower right calf all the way up to the top of the thigh. I went to the doctor to have it checked out, and they sent me directly to the emergency room, and from there they sent me directly to a hospital room. I was diagnosed with cellulitis, an infection of the subcutaneous tissue under the skin that I probably picked up from walking around barefoot in my Denver hotel room. I spent three days in the hospital getting IV antibiotics around the clock to fight the infection. Had I waited till Thursday morning to go to the doctor, the infection would have made it to my femoral artery and I likely would have gone septic, and it would have gotten considerably worse from there.

I’ll admit it: I was scared, frustrated, and sorely in need of people to connect with during those three days. Had I been using social media, I would have been posting Facebook and Twitter updates, probably with pictures, about as often as I was getting antibiotics. But by choice, I kept this experience to myself, to share with my wife and kids, my doctors, and with God. Instead of tweeting, I prayed and wrote and talked to my wife and children. I watched a lot of Netflix and got some grading done. So while it would have been a comfort to have social media as an outlet for sharing with others, by concentrating my sharing to the real people in my life who matter the most, and keeping the rest a secret (till now), the whole experience somehow has more meaning and lasting power in my memory.

Finally, I learned:

Lesson 4: Social media is a permanent part of who I am, and when managed well it is a powerful force for good. Early on during Lent I realized I liked the slower pace of life so much that I wondered if I would go back to Twitter and Facebook once it was all over. Honestly, I can’t see giving those two services up. I’ve carefully groomed and built my list of people and groups to follow so that whenever I look in on the Twitter update stream, I learn something. Facebook is the same way except on a more personal level with friends from real life. So I can’t see just giving these things up. They are an antidote to stagnation. But I do like taking a more minimal and focused approach to engaging with social media — which, by the way, leaves me more ideas and energy for blogging — so that the signal-to-noise ratio is high.

So ends my Lenten social media fast, with results that I consider successful. I feel that I’m now more apt to use social media outlets to grow and learn and connect in positive ways, less prone to share indiscriminately and inappropriately. Like most things, it takes some time away to help you appreciate what you have.

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Filed under Christianity, Family, Personal, Social software, Technology, Twitter, Web 2.0

Merry Christmas

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I’ll be taking a break from posting and commenting here at CO9’s until the beginning of next week. Tonight we have Christmas services at my church, and in-laws visiting all day tomorrow, and I’ll probably just want to rest for the remainder of the week!

Until then, have an enjoyable and blessed Christmas, even to those patient readers of this blog out there who don’t share my religious point of view. For those who have the late morning free tomorrow (or after 10 PM this evening), I would second the advice given by Dr. Gene Veith: go to church. Catholic and (many) Lutheran churches still hold Christmas morning masses, and if you’ve never experienced one, then you should try it and see what the “Christ Mass” was really intended to be.

I’ll leave you with this short poem by G. K. Chesterton, also via Gene Veith’s blog, called “A Christmas Carol”:

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down

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Filed under Blog announcements, Christianity

Leibniz on 1+1=2

From Kuo & Joe, here’s an interesting article on different philosophers’ views on what it means for 1+1 to equal 2 and how their concept of divinity plays into their ideas. Leibniz’ view seems the most compelling:

When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, an inventor of the calculus, was asked by one of his students, “Why is one and one always two, and how do we know this?” Leibnitz replied, “One and one equals two is an eternal, immutable truth that would be so whether or not there were things to count or people to count them.” Numbers, numerical relationships, and mathematical laws (such as the law of addition) exist in this abstract realm and are independent of any physical existence. In Leibnitz’s view, numbers are real things that exist in a dimension outside of the physical realm and would exist even if no human existed to recognize them.

I don’t know if the exchange between Leibniz and his student is real or merely apocryphal, but I’d say his view is closest to my own. The article also has summaries on the positions of Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey, all of whom operate from various points on the atheist or rationalist spectrum — and it shows.

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Filed under Christianity, Math

Yo, Happy Reformation Day

For us Lutherans, yesterday was not only Halloween, it was Reformation Day, when we commemorate Luther‘s nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, which touched off the Protestant Reformation. Some people celebrate this occasion in ways which are, well, a little different.

Lyrics are here, and yes, that’s a parody of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”. In my view, any rap that can successfully make a rhyme to the name of Ulrich Zwingli is a success.

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Filed under Christianity, Humor

Billy Graham’s TEDtalk

The annual TED conference (TED = Technology, Entertainment, Design) bills itself as “bring[ing] together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” You see presenters at TED along the lines of Al Gore, Jane Goodall, Freeman Dyson, Marvin Minsky, and on and on. Many of the best TED talks are available for free as video podcasts at the iTunes store or from TED’s website. I was quite surprised to find, among these “best of TED” talks, a 27-minute lecture from 1998 by Billy Graham. His talk was on “Technology, Faith, and Human Shortcomings”. Here it is, in its entirety. You should really watch the whole thing.

I think it takes a lot of guts for an evangelical Christian — to say nothing of a then-80-year old with Parkinson’s Disease — to walk into TED, into a crowd of people who by and large have precious little sympathy for your position, and talk with such ease and boldness. But Billy Graham has been around the block a few times and been into more hostile environments than that.

I happen to agree with Graham’s conclusions about Jesus Christ (although not every point of his Southern Baptist theology). But even if you don’t, listen to the questions he asks and the points he raises*. What about human evil, death, and suffering? Technology won’t solve these problems; what will?

(* …and don’t respond by reflexively hurling insults at Christians like depressingly many of the commenters at TED’s web site do. If you disagree with Christianity, fine, but step up to the plate and put forth a viable answer to the question rather than simply name-call like a 5-year old on the playground.)

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Filed under Christianity, Technology

The Nicene Creed in word cloud form

Here’s a view of an ancient creed you might not have ever gotten:

I made this word cloud using wordle.net by just pasting in the text and letting the applet do all the rest. I rather like the outcome here with the Nicene Creed. That might be worthy of a nice color printout and a frame to go on my office wall. Full-size version is housed here.

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Rapture 2.0

We’ve all wondered from time to time, “Suppose the Rapture happened tomorrow, and some of my loved ones got left behind. How could I be sure I could send them Gospel tracts and personal information after I’ve been taken up to Heaven?” Well, wonder no longer: for just $40 per year, you can use this new web service to upload up to 250 MB of documents and 62 individual email addresses to send them to in case of the Rapture. (Or rather, in case you get Raptured and your friends — or at least the people you think are your friends — don’t.)

Here’s how it works:

We have set up a system to send documents by the email [sic], to the addresses you provide, 6 days after the “Rapture” of the Church. This occurs when 3 of our 5 team members scattered around the U.S fail to log in over a 3 day period. Another 3 days are given to fail safe [sic] any false triggering of the system.

We give you 150mb of encrypted storage that can be sent to 12 possible email addresses, in Box #1. You up load any documents and choose which documents go to who [sic]. You can edit these documents at any time and change the addresses they will be sent to as needed. Box #1 is for your personal private letters to your closest lost friends and relatives.

We give you another 100mb. of unencrypted storage that can be sent to up to 50 email addresses, in Box #2. You can edit the documents and the addresses any time. Box #2 is for more generic documents to lost family & friends.

The cost is $40 for the first year. Re-subscription will be reduced as the number of subscribers increases. Tell your friends about You’ve Been left behind.

The triggering mechanism for this messaging system sounds eerily like pushing the button in the Hatch on LOST. Let’s hope that those “team members” don’t get bored too easily or decide to yank a whole lot of people’s chains by “failing to log in” one week just for jollies.

I suppose the “encrypted storage” is in case the minions of Antichrist tap in to your loved ones’ email accounts and find The Four Spiritual Laws sitting there as an attachment. But it’s kind of amusing that only 150 MB of your document space is encrypted. Use the encrypted storage for the friends and loved ones you want to keep safe from the Antichrist; use the unencrypted storage on people you only kind of want to see saved but really don’t care if they get arrested and imprisoned or whatever, for possessing the documents which you so kindly foisted into their inboxes without their consent.

Of course, this could all be done for free (and without relying on a pesky team of designated email-signer-inners “scattered across the US”) with a proper mix of GMail, PGP, and perhaps a little scripting to make sure that the email gets sent after a certain time period. But where’s the fun in that?

Seriously, the theology (premillenial dispensationalism) is wrong; the business model (getting impressionable people to drop $40 into a totally unnecessary storage/messaging system) is basically immoral; and the technology (“encryption” with no specifications on the algorithm or descriptions of the server configuration, for example) is suspect and most likely not even necessary.  But do go see the whole site, because it’s not often you get to see a confluence of wrongness from three different directions in such a spectacular way.

Maybe it’s all just a really clever parody site. Please?

[h/t Cyberbrethren: A Lutheran Blog]

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Filed under Christianity, Social software, Software, Technology

Simul kids et adults

I’m working on updating some of my professional documents, including my curriculum vitae and my Statement of Teaching Philosophy (SOTP). Both of these are badly out of date; I don’t think I’ve touched either one since I was up for tenure in 2005. That’s too bad, especially the SOTP; it seems like professors ought to be constantly re-examining their core philosophies behind teaching and having a critical look at what really characterizes what they do in the classroom.

The new SOTP is absorbing some flavor of recent developments in my personal life on the faith front. Since joining the Lutheran church, I’ve become more exposed to — and more appreciative of — the concept of holding paradoxical pairs of ideas in tension with each other and having a real truth emerge out of the dialectic between the two. In Lutheran theology, for example, we have the idea of simul justus et peccator — the notion that a Christian is, at the same time, both righteous and a sinner. My teaching philosophy turns out to have some of the same kinds of pairings.

The pair of opposing ideas that struck me as I was brainstorming it out was the following:

  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that each of his students is somebody’s child.
  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that none of his students are children.

(This is being written in the context of undergraduate education. In K-12 the students really are children.)

On the one hand, my teaching changed drastically once I had kids of my own, because getting an up-close look at how kids act, think, and react makes me a lot more sympathetic to them and to their parents. There were times past when I would get extremely upset at students for some kind of (truly) dumb behavior and have some awfully unkind thoughts about them. I can’t say I don’t do that anymore, but it is a lot less frequent and I feel the wrongness of it much more viscerally when it happens. Because those students are somebody’s kids. My girls, as smart as they are, have a long way to go before they can do the kinds of things my students do. Once they get there, I am going to be extremely proud of just about anything they do. The thought of having some priggish college professor ripping into them — even if they deserve it — for something they do or don’t do in class just makes me horrified.

So these days I tend to view my students as products of a long (long!) process of development, having gone through years of trial and risk and hard work on both their parts and their parents’ parts. Yes, students do dumb things and make bad choices and are often ill-prepared. But to even be in the position to do those things implies that they have come a long way, and I guess I “get” this and respect it more than I used to. And my teaching is better when I don’t objectify them. (I’d also argue that their learning is better when they don’t objectify me, but that’s another post.)

On the other hand, I really bristle when we profs refer to college students as “kids”. They aren’t children, not in the developmental sense at least. College students are fledgling adults. They don’t necessarily know how to act like adults (I didn’t, at that age) or even desire to act like adults (I didn’t). But that doesn’t mean that professors absolve them of the very adult world of actions, responsibility, and consequences. Just because those students are young and look like they are just out of high school, it doesn’t mean that we conceive of them as children — taking on their responsibilities, absolving them of the consequences of bad choices, etc. — and thereby teach them that they are children and can be expected to be treated as such.

And the truth that seems to emerge out of the tension between these two ideas is that teaching involves respect at its core. Profs ought to respect students for getting to where they are, and respect their intrinsic value as human beings. (Which is something Christian professors ought to find to be second nature.) But respect also means respect for who those students will be. If we cut students breaks all the time or give second chances when settling for the consequences of a bad choice would make them better-equipped to face the future, then we might be acting nicely towards our students and winning their approval, but that’s a long way from respecting them.

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Filed under Christianity, Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

The Pope’s message to academia

Some quotes from the Inside Higher Ed article:

“At times, however, the value of the Church’s contribution to the public forum is questioned. It is important therefore to recall that the truths of faith and of reason never contradict one another. The Church’s mission, in fact, involves her in humanity’s struggle to arrive at truth. In articulating revealed truth she serves all members of society by purifying reason, ensuring that it remains open to the consideration of ultimate truths. Drawing upon divine wisdom, she sheds light on the foundation of human morality and ethics, and reminds all groups in society that it is not praxis that creates truth but truth that should serve as the basis of praxis.”

“Truth,” he continued a little later in his speech, “means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good. Truth speaks to the individual in his or her the entirety, inviting us to respond with our whole being.” […]

“While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in — a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God. Such a choice would ultimately disregard the very truth we need in order to understand ourselves.”

Some interesting comments as well about academic freedom in that article, too.

The comments thus far appear to come mostly from hardcore rationalists who appear to think that if you cannot taste, touch, feel, see, or hear it, then it doesn’t exist; and that rationality and the vague concept of “enlightenment” apart from faith is the ideal end state for humanity. I’ve learned that there’s no point in trying to engage such people.

For my part, I found myself wishing that we Protestants were half as articulate about the relationship between faith and reason as the Pope is (and perhaps the Catholic Church is).

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Filed under Academic freedom, Christianity, Education, Higher ed, Life in academia

Spring break report

My busier-than-usual Spring Break is all but over with. Here’s a brief update.

The ICMC went off much better than it looked like it was going to. This was my first of a three-year stint as Student Activities Director for the Indiana section of the MAA, and while my predecessor was really great an answering my questions about how to organize the ICMC, he could only answer the questions I could think of, and the un-thought-of questions were starting to pile up at an exponential pace the week before the contest. But with the generous help of Mike Axtell, who — sadly — is leaving the Indiana section for a new position in Minnesota, all the logistics went off just fine and we had no major incidents. Kudos to the Purdue, Rose-Hulman, and Taylor teams who finished first, second, and third respectively.

That was last weekend. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I had a very nice time at Benedictine University near Chicago as the guest speaker to the Math Club and to Manu Kaur‘s topics course in cryptology. I gave a talk to the Math Club on cryptology in general — 50 minutes to cover the whole subject! — and despite some technical difficulties, the talk went reasonably well. There were close to 75-80 people in the audience! Then, the next day, I gave a talk on the Digital Signature Algorithm to the crypto class. In between, I got the rare opportunity to talk shop with Prof. Kaur on cryptography, and I also got a very nice tour of nearby Naperville, which is really quite lovely. (Not what I expected for Chicagoland suburbia.)

Benedictine has a fine department, and I was especially impressed by their students. To have close to 80 students show up in the middle of the day for a Math Club ta,lk at a school of under 3,000 students, is really amazing, and I got some very good questions after the talk. Following the digital signatures talk, one student asked me a really insightful question about Blowfish and SSL encryption; not only was this an undergrad asking the question, he was an undergrad chemistry major. And everywhere you looked, students were working on things — the science labs in particular seemed to be full every moment I was there.

St. Procopius AbbeySpecial treat for me: I got to spend the night in the extraordinary St. Procopius Abbey amongst the Benedictine monks. I’ve been reading Thomas Merton and the like for a long time, and the monastic life has been a guiding force in my Christian experience ever since I became a Christian, but until this week I had never actually gotten to experience monastic life firsthand. The abbey itself is breathtaking, with its Edward Dart-designed architecture combining soaring vertical spaces with hidden rooms for prayer and meditation, with a common thread of simplicity and silence throughout. I’m considering making a longer retreat there sometime soon. Something about the kindness, simplicity, and warmth of the abbey and the monks who live there follows one home from a place like this, and I could certainly use more of that.

So I’m wrapping up break doing the stay-at-home dad thing, having stayed with the girls for the last couple of days and spending the weekend doing the same before getting back to work on Monday. Ironically, this semester I made the conscious choice at the beginning not to emphasize scholarship so much but focus almost all my energies on teaching, but I ended up with one of the busiest semesters I’ve had scholarship-wise in a long time, mostly stuff that I have done or wrapped up this week! Now to finish off those pesky last five weeks of the semester.

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Filed under Christianity, Crypto, Higher ed, Life in academia, Math, Personal, Student culture, Vocation