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Tony W. Cartledge | Blog

Entries in technology (5)


Mills, still ...

I've always thought that old mills are about the most picturesque sights to be found, and when they still work, it's even better. We often forget, unless we get engrossed in a historical novel about early America, how important local mills were, even into the twentieth century. Whole communities often sprang up precisely in places where a mill could be located.

On the one hand, mills have a primitive look about them: on the other hand, they were a stunning technological achievement, built and maintained by skilled craftsmen who had to design every mill to fit its local context. Being able to grind entire sacks of grain or corn in a short period of time lifted a great burden from people (women, mostly) who previously had to slave over a heavy mortar and pestle just to crush enough corn for a bowl of grits, or pound enough wheat for a loaf of bread.

Visiting a historic place like the old Yates Mill, just a few miles south of Raleigh, is a helpful reminder of how far humankind has come from our hunter-gatherer and early agrarian days, with innovations in technology making some aspects of life far less tedious and burdensome.

Viewing a scenic millpond against the riotous panoply of God's handiwork stirs even deeper levels of the soul: the confluence of divine creation and human ingenuity in an earth-friendly setting is a welcome sight and a fitting reminder of how beautiful life can be when the creator and the created work together.


Designated rememberers ...

I've always been a bit of a dreamer. More than once, as both child and adult, I've been gently (or not so gently) encouraged to "get my head out of the clouds" and focus on whatever practical task was at hand. 

An article in the March 12 issue of Time magazine suggests that many of us are devoting more and more of our heads to the cloud, not in a dreamy way, but in a digital one. And it's not just the collection of computer hard drives that make up the nether "cloud" of contemporary computerspeak, but all of our cell phones, iPads, and personal computers, too.

Why bother to remember something when you have a personal assistant in your pocket to remember it for you?

Betsy Sparrow, a professor at Columbia University, has published research (in the journal Science) indicating that embracing the Internet has led to measurable changes in the way our brains process information. 

First, she found, when faced with a question for which we don't know the answer, our first response is not to think about the subject of the question (like "How many countries have a uni-color flag?"), but where we can find the nearest web connection. In other words, in response to a question about flags, we think about computers.

Secondly, if we've put information into a digital device and saved it, we're much less likely to devote brain space to remembering it. Assuming that birthdays or phone numbers or whatever will be available at the touch of a few keystrokes or finger-taps, we don't bother to memorize them -- which can leave us scarily adrift when the cell phone battery dies or the computer crashes. 

Finally, Sparrow found that when dealing with new information, we're more likely to remember where to find it online than to remember the information itself. 

Delegation of "remembering" tasks isn't really new -- executives have long relied on secretaries to keep them apprised of schedules and other mundane information, and couples often have an informal system of who will remember birthdays and who will remember to change the oil.

The downside of putting so much of our heads in the cloud, Sparrow says -- and beginning to do so at an early age -- is that we can't develop critical thinking skills without facts and concepts to work with -- information stored in our thinking brain rather than on our personal data assistants. 

The article did not explore this, but it occurs to me that some kinds of memory simply can't be assigned to a machine. A computer can store pictures and words, but it can't store the complex joy of shared love, the sharp pang of loss, the comforting smells of home, the awe-struck sense of having been in God's presence ...

That's one of the reasons we hold to this season of Lent and the upcoming Holy Week, one of the reasons we celebrate Communion: it's important to remember what God in Christ has done for us, and to reflect personally on what response that memory inspires. 

Such remembering can't be assigned to a hard drive -- it has to be stored in the head, and the heart.


[Image from]


New tech and old texts

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have produced a powerful new software program that has the potential of helping scholars resurrect ancient languages that so far have proven impenetrable.

Using Ugaritic as a test case, researchers fed the computer samples of Ugaritic's cuneiform script, along with additional information about Hebrew, a closely related language. After a few hours, the program had correctly linked letters and words to map nearly all of the Ugaritic symbols to their Hebrew equivalents.

The program also correctly identified Ugaritic and Hebrew words with shared roots 60 percent of the time, according to an article on National Geographic's website.

Ugaritic didn't need translating -- that feat was accomplished by dedicated linguists in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The computer's ability to make so much progress, however, suggests that it might be further improved and put to work translating other ancient languages, such as Etruscan, that have few extant texts and continue to stump scholars.

Texts from ancient Ugarit, a Canaanite city that came to be known as Ras Shamra, have shed important light on our understanding of the Bible by informing our understanding of Canaanite gods like Baal and Astarte, often criticized in the Old Testament.

If computers can help us gain greater understanding of other ancient languages, perhaps we'll learn other important lessons about life in antiquity, and such knowledge is always welcome.

[The image, or a juridical text in Ugaritic cuneiform, is from Wikipedia Commons.]


Awash in a media sea

Five years ago, when researchers determined that youth ages 8-18 were spending an average of six and a half hours per day plugged into some sort of electronic media, they thought the trend had topped out, limited by the number of hours in a day.

They were wrong: a more recent study (as reported by the New York Times) shows that youth now spend an average of seven and a half hours per day using their computers or smart phones, watching television, or listening to music. Since youngsters often do two or three of these simultaneously, they get the equivalent of 11 hours per day of media exposure -- and that's not counting time spent talking or texting on their cell phones.

I believe it. Our 13-year-old doesn't use his cell phone enough to remember where he last put it down, but he would spend most of his waking minutes on the computer if he could. That's troublesome to geezers like me, who worry about things like exercise and homework and time with family.

The study suggests, however, that heavy or light media users got about the same amount of exercise. That's contrary to what you would expect, and at odds with some other studies that suggest a link between obesity and heavy media usage.

While it's easy to criticize the younger generation's heavy use of electronic media, I am confident that, had it been available when I was young, I would have done the same thing. There might have been an hour per night of TV programming that interested me: the rest of the time was spent doing chores and homework, spending time with my family, or reading in my room. I confess that I was often happiest with my nose in a book.

If our son is typical, the "lonely guy in a room with his computer" stereotype doesn't apply. Samuel looks like an air-traffic controller as he sits at his desk wearing a headset, with computer displays on multiple screens. While immersed in the virtual world of Runescape, he's also chatting loudly on Skype with half a dozen local friends who are playing the same game: they can see each other's avatars, help each other through the hard parts of various quests, or just laugh when one of the guys lets a balrog get the best of him. Last weekend, he and several of his young online buddies -- some of whom he had not previously met in person -- got together for a sleepover.

When I was a boy, a six-family party line telephone was our only link with other folks: now distance is little impediment to social interaction. Our children are natives of a different world, and though homework still needs to be done and common sense has to apply, I remind myself not to be overly judgmental.

The story cites a telling comment from Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Boston who directs the Center on Media and Child Health. With media use so pervasive, he said, it's time to stop arguing over whether it's good or bad and accept it as part of the younger generation's environment, where it is "like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat."

Today's youth are swimming in media like dolphins in the sea. We still need to help them guard against predators and keep a close enough eye so they don't drown, but we can't really stop them from swimming -- and some of us might wish we could swim so well.


Hi-tech promotes high-touch churches

You can visit many churches that show no signs of awareness that we live in a digital age, awash in multiple media venues and online opportunities for social networking. For some folks, I suspect, a simple sanctuary with nothing more high-tech than a piano may be just that -- a place of sanctuary and longing for a simpler day.

But I'll bet at least three-quarters of the worshipers in those bare pews will have cell phones in their pockets.

Trend-spotter George Barna published a survey on Churches and Technology this week. The study took a look at eight technologies and their application in Protestant churches. Surveyors found that 65 percent of churches now have a large screen projection system. Size, as one might expect, played an important role:

Among churches that average less than 100 adults each week, only half (53%) have such systems. The proportion balloons to 76% among churches that attract an average of 100 to 250 adults, and nearly nine out of ten churches (88%) that draw more than 250 adults each week.
Researches even noticed a somewhat surprising correlation of large screens and theology: just more "liberal" churches used large screens, while 68 percent of churches perceived to be more conservative used them.

Barna has a vested interest in knowing how many churches use screens for video clips and the like: his Barna Films division makes a host of clips available, indexed to scriptures or topics and with royalties appropriately paid. His group found that 80 percent of churches with large screens also used film or other video clips in some way. The number that use satellite dishes to offer remote training opportunities remains small, at eight percent.

But that's not all Barna's interested in: his researches found that 56 percent of Protestant churches use "e-mail blasts" to communicate with the congregation, and 62 percent have an Internet presence through a curch website. As expected, the larger the church, the more likely it is to have a website.

Churches have been slower to get on board with social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook: only a quarter of Protestant churches sponsor a group on social networking sites, with large churches and charismatic churches being more likely to be plugged in.

While many churches embrace technology, they aren't as likely to provide interactive opportunities. Just one of eight churches host a blog where members can respond to blogs posted by church leaders. Watch for social networking and blogging, along with community-building opportunities like Twitter, to skyrocket in coming years -- or churches will be left in the digital dust.

One-way communication such as the commonly employed "tape ministry" for shut-ins has also benefited from technology: one out of six churches now offer podcasting, allowing tech-savvy members to download sermons or other programs and listen at their leisure.

Barna concluded:

The Internet has become one of the pivotal communications and community-building tools of our lifetime. Churches are well-advised to have an intelligent and foresighted Internet strategy in order to facilitate meaningful ministry.
That's the sort of news many churches don't want to hear, but it's a truth that they'll need to heed if they want others to hear their message. For younger believers who love being part of tight communities, high-tech and high-touch go hand in hand.

[Graphic from Cross Systems, Inc. ]

Samuel's plea for a dog.A personal note: some of you have heard about our son

The effectual fervent plea of a righteous son availeth much.

His name, Samuel says, is Banjo.