Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: technology

Breakdown on the information highway

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Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

I had planned to write something else yesterday evening, but found myself in a position much like the young man in the photo above: the vehicle with which I cruise the information highway had broken down.

We live on an acreage in a sparsely populated part of the Saskatchewan prairies where there are not enough homes to interest a big telecom in laying miles of fibre-optic cable. I had service from a satellite company for years, but clouds kept interfering with the signal. A year ago I switched to a service that captures the signal sent from the nearest cell phone tower; it is faster and pretty much problem free.

Except that there was a thunderstorm in the area the night before last that knocked out our power for awhile and when I got up in the morning the modem showed no signs of life. We had to leave for the city and were gone most of the day. When we got home it was too late to contact the dealer who installed the service. I checked everything out and concluded that the modem was truly fried. In the process, I discovered that in rearranging all the cords I had plugged the modem power supply directly into the wall outlet rather than the surge protector. No wonder it didn’t survive the power outage.

This morning I went to the dealer, Thorstad Computer, located in the nearby town of Outlook. They thought that it was probably the circuit protector that had failed, not the modem. They gave me a new circuit protector and a new modem to take home and try; they didn’t even ask me to pay for them until I knew for sure what I needed.

I went home, plugged in both new parts and soon the internet was working again. Then I swapped the old circuit protector for the new one: after a few minutes the internet was up and running again. Next, I swapped the old modem for the new one: once again, after a few minutes all the lights came on and we have internet – with the old parts!

What happened? Did the road trip do good things for the modem? Was there an electronic healing atmosphere in the computer shop?  I think it just needed a rest. I did disconnect the power to the modem for half a minute while trouble-shooting last night; evidently that wasn’t long enough.

The good folks at Thorstad say to keep the new parts over the weekend and if there are no more problems bring them back Tuesday (Monday is a holiday here).

We are having the hottest weather of the summer right now. The power was off again some time last night, again this morning (twice) and very briefly again as I was typing this.

The computer is on a battery back up to prevent data loss and get me through incidents like this, but it looks like my confidence in the old modem was misplaced – it was knocked out again by this last blip in the power. I’ve got the new one hooked up again.

There you have it: a play by play account of what it has taken to get back to travelling down the information highway.

Clouds – the welcome and the not so welcome.

And now men see not the bright light which is in the clouds: but the wind passeth, and cleanseth them. Job 37:21

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Our land is dry and thirsty; clouds in the sky lift our hopes. We are sad when they only dampen the ground as they pass over. Others not far away have been blessed with rain and more clouds are in the forecast. We continue to hope.

Clouds within the eye are not so welcome. It happens to us as we get older: a cloud, barely noticed at first, comes between us and the things we want to see. I had cataract surgery in both eyes several years ago and that cloud is gone.

Another cloud to distort my vision came eleven years ago . The doctor called it macular degeneration, said he could help but I would have to consent to having him poke a needle into my eye. With that needle he would deliver a tiny amount of drug into my eye to dry up the rogue capillaries that wrinkled the macula of my retina.

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He has done that dozens of times since then and most of the time it has worked. My right eye has a tiny dark cloud at the centre of my vision, possibly because I did not notice what was happening soon enough, I consider myself fortunate, I can still see to drive, read and use the computer. If the macular degeneration had begun a few years earlier there would have been no drug available to treat it.

In March I began to notice distortion beginning again in my left eye. I called the doctor’s office and a couple days later had an injection in that eye. The tiny amount of drug in the fluid of the eye brought a cloud to the vision for a say or two. That cleared up and in a week the distortion cleared up, too.

I had another injection yesterday, preventive maintenance this time. By this evening the cloud caused by the injection is mostly gone. I will have more such injections in the future. I don’t enjoy them, but they bring hope.

Going paperless

In school we learned poems about log drives in Quebec. Loggers worked all winter in the forests and in the spring the logs were floated down the rivers to the paper mills.

That is history, nothing but folklore anymore. There are still lumber mills; there are mills producing tissue paper, computer paper, glossy magazine paper, but the logs are all hauled by truck. And the last newsprint mill in Quebec is closing.

I suppose I am part of the problem. I’m still pretty much a news junkie, but I don’t buy newspapers anymore. I read them on my cell phone.

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Now I can read the daily newspaper from our nearest city, a national English language newspaper, a national French language newspaper, a newsmagazine from France, a provincial French language weekly newspaper, pretty much anything I want to read is available to me on that little device in my pocket.

Paper newspapers are getting thinner, some have died, more will die. Montreal’s La Presse, the largest French language newspaper in North America, does not use paper anymore. It is all available on the internet, and only on the internet.

Think of the money that is saved in the cost of paper, ink and distribution. Not only that, but its reach has greatly expanded. Paper copies of la Presse were never available here in Saskatchewan, unless you wanted to pay for a mail subscription. But then the news would always be stale. And don’t let me get started about the reliability. or lack thereof, of our postal system. Now the news is constantly updated and available to anyone with a cell phone.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix will not longer deliver paper copies to rural areas. That’s fine, it’s right here in my pocket on my phone. The National Post ceased distribution of paper copies in Saskatchewan a few years ago. No problem. I can’t find l’Eau Vive , a weekly newspaper printed in Regina, anywhere in Saskatoon. I don’t care if they never print another copy, it’s so much handier to read it online.

Moose Jaw is the old home base for our family and I am still interested in what goes on there. The Moose Jaw Times-Herald ceased publication last year after 112 years of daily publication. There is still a bi-weekly newspaper, but something even better has appeared – the Daily Jaw, an online newspaper.

I’m an old guy, old-fashioned and resistant to change. But paperless news is change that I like.

A “Christian” Tall Tale

First posted on June 26, 2012

NASA’s computers have discovered a missing 24 hour period in the distant past that corresponds exactly to the 23 hours and 20 minutes that the sun stood still in Joshua 10:12-13 and the 40 minutes lost in Hezekiah’s day (2 Kings 20:11 and Isaiah 38:8). Or so we are told in the story which originated in the 1960’s, has been printed in numerous religious periodicals and is still circulating via the internet.

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Here are eleven reasons why Christians should not believe this story:

1.    No computer can discover whether there was a day missing in the distant past. To believe that a computer can search back in time to Joshua’s day and calculate that the “about a day” mentioned in the Bible came to exactly 23 hours and 20 minutes requires some magical thinking.

2.    The degrees of a circle have never been used to measure the passage of time. (The story claims that the ten degrees mentioned in 2 Kings amounts to the missing 40 minutes – 10/360 x 1440 minutes in a day.)

3.    The Babylonians developed the idea of dividing a circle into 360 degrees during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, 100 years or more after the account in 2 Kings.

4.    The Hebrew word translated degree in 2 Kings 20:11 means step.

5.    This is also the original meaning of degree.

6.    The Hebrew word translated dial in 2 Kings 20:11 is the same as the word translated degree. The meaning of the passage is that the shadow went 10 steps backwards on the steps of Ahaz.

7.    A dial is not necessarily circular. The word comes from dies, the Latin word for day and simply means a scale for measuring something and can be circular or linear.

8.    The account in 2 Kings 20:11 records that the shadow went 10 steps back.  There is no mention of the sun moving.

9.    Mechanical timepieces to accurately measure the passage of time are a recent invention. At some point, possibly through Babylonian influence, the Jews began dividing the day into 12 hours from sunrise to sunset. Since Jerusalem is 1,000 miles north of the equator, the length of a day, and therefore of an hour, varied with the seasons. The time measured by 10 steps will also have varied with the seasons. Thus it is impossible to know precisely how much time this was without knowing the precise date and how many steps there were in total.

10.    NASA denies the account, stating that they have no reason to use their computers to try to calculate time thousands of years into the future or into the past. Even if it were possible, such information would be completely irrelevant to their operations.

11.    The story originated with Mr. Harold Hill, president of the Curtis Engine Company, which had a contract with NASA to service and maintain electrical generators. He had no internal knowledge of the workings of NASA, was not a “consultant to the space program,” and did not witness the events he described.  He simply took an older “lost day” legend and embellished it a little more each time he spoke at a Sunday School convention. The whole story may be a sad attempt on his part to make himself seem more important than he really was.

The most probable interpretation of the account in 2 Kings 20 is that King Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, had caused a monument to be built, consisting of steps ascending on both the east and west sides, with a pillar at the top. The height of the pillar was precisely calculated so that the shadow at dawn would touch the bottom on one side, ascend the steps until noon, then descend the steps on the other side in the afternoon. This was located in the courtyard of the palace where Hezekiah could see it from his bedroom window.

Others think it was a staircase adjacent to the palace, so aligned that time could be told by the afternoon shadow descending step by step. In either case, this was a personal sign for King Hezekiah. There is no mention of the sun moving backwards in the sky, or of others witnessing the sign.

Is technology dehumanizing us?

The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster depicts a future age in which technology is able to supply all our needs. People live in individual underground compartments, all their needs are supplied by the all-encompassing machine at the push of a button. Direct person to person contact is unheard of, having been replaced by electronic means and that permit one to see and speak to any one of his or her thousands of contacts at will.

Wars, conflicts, and crime have ceased, weather on the surface of the planet is of no consequence, thus there is no news. New ideas are to be feared, but events of history and nature are discussed endlessly and third or fourth hand ideas about those events are deemed to be the most trustworthy. The population never changes. Births and deaths are by permission of the machine; permission to die is only given when there is a birth. A mother’s responsibility ends when a child is born.

One person finds a way to get outside the machine to the surface of the earth. Before he is dragged back below ground by the repair mechanism of the machine, he realizes there still are a few people living out there. His longing for freedom is unfulfilled and eventually the all powerful, self repairing machine breaks down and everyone living in their individual cell of underground paradise dies.

A chilling forecast of where our society is headed? Perhaps. The story was written in 1908 and is a short novella with three chapters.

There is a lot of hand-wringing in our day about the influence and effects of technology. After reading this book I began to wonder if we might have things backwards. Is technology dehumanizing us? Or are we willingly surrendering our birthright of being fully human? Is our desire for convenience and security just a camouflage for the repugnance we feel at the inconvenience of having to interact with other people?

What about those of us who call ourselves Christians? We all give verbal support to the goal of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world. At the same time, some of us are repelled by cities because of all the people. We would prefer to live in an isolated rural setting and be as self-sufficient as possible. Which of these conflicting ideas is the true expression of our heart’s deepest desire? What does that say about our faith?

The Jews of Jesus’ day despised the Samaritans, to the point of considering anything touched by a Samaritan to be defiled. Jesus used all sort of creative ways to try and jar people out of that rut.

For those of us who are members, or who attend, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, the Sunday School lesson for the coming Sunday looks helpful. It is based on Hebrews 13 and has a lot to say about hospitality, including to strangers. It says: “The love of Christ will move us to enlarge our circle of friends.”

The best way to avoid becoming dehumanized is by frequent face to face contact with other humans. Technology offers us a way to maintain an appearance of a wide circle of friends without really having to listen to them. It is that unwillingness to listen to others, the desire to avoid admitting there might be anything valid about their point of view, that is dehumanizing. Technology is the enabler, but not the real problem.

Winter’s adventure lost

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Seventy years ago, when our family wanted to go somewhere in winter we used a cutter much like the one illustrated.  We dressed very warmly, heated a stone or two in the oven, placed them on the floor of the cutter and draped horsehide robes over our laps and feet. Nowadays, I push a button to start the car before we go out to the garage, get in the car, push the buttons to heat the car seats and the steering wheel, and we’re on our way without really feeling how cold it is.

Seventy years ago there was no equipment for keeping driveways and roads open when the snowdrifts got deep. Nowadays, we expect driveways, roads, streets and sidewalks to be as clear in winter as in summer.

Seventy years ago we got up to an icy cold house, got the wood fire going in the kitchen stove and dressed around the warmth of that stove. We shovelled coal into the big old furnace in the basement and the heat would gradually rise up to warm the rest of the house. Nowadays the thermostat automatically turns the heat up when it’s time for us to get out of bed and turns it down again when it is bedtime.

Seventy years ago we wore long underwear and heavy socks in winter. To go outside we put on a parka with a hood to pull up over the toque on our head, put insulated boots on our feet, a scarf around our neck and two layers of mitts on our hands. Nowadays, we put on a coat, and sometimes gloves, and walk out to the car that is warming up already.

Seventy years ago I enjoyed winter. Nowadays, not so much. What happened?

Hard work is not a Christian virtue

The robots are coming. Technology already exists that could eliminate almost half of all jobs over the next ten years. Working harder isn’t going to save your job if it is on that list. Working smarter isn’t going to do it either. The economy is changing and the best way to ride the wave of change is to change our attitude about work.

Several years ago a business magazine did a survey of the qualities that businesses were looking for when hiring new employees. The top two items on that list were a desire to serve others and an aptitude to work with others in a team environment. Those sound like Christian virtues, don’t they?

Let’s stop telling young people entering the job market that if they are willing to work really hard they will always have a job. T’aint necessarily so. Especially not in the coming economic transformation. The old ideals of individualistic effort are about to be cast on the scrap heap.

We Christians have absorbed an idea from the world around us that values a person by the amount he produces. We also expect that success equates high production with the ability to spend more on the things we consume. Could we shift our attitude to value a person by what he or she contributes to the common good? That would seem more like a Christian value system, unless we would try to measure that contribution in dollars and cents.

W. Edwards Deming became a hero to Japanese industry when he showed them how to drastically improve the quality of their products in the years after World War II. It wasn’t until 1980, when Deming was 80 years old, that US business started to pay attention to what he had to say. His analysis of American management methods were devastating. He told companies that they needed to drive out fear and eliminate barriers between departments so that everyone could work together for the good of the business. He condemned annual performance reviews, saying they forced employees to compete against each other rather than working together for the common good.

In the survey I quoted earlier, educational accomplishments came far down the list of qualities that business leaders were looking for in new hires. Graduates who have a piece of paper showing their success in the classroom may well expect prospective employers to give them preferential treatment. The problem is that things learned in the classroom usually don’t have much practical value in the workplace.

Employers do want employees who are willing to be life long learners. They just want to be able to direct their employees towards learning things that will directly apply to their work and thus be of benefit to the business. Many years ago Henry Ford said: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

To put this all together, as Christians we should be teaching the value of a servant spirit. This should be evident in every area of life. Can we really serve God and not be willing to serve our fellow man?

Ideas like “I know better” or “I can do it better” should have no place in Christian life. We should not expect them to be useful in our work life either. Success in the coming economy will not go to the one who works the hardest to prove that he can do things faster and better than someone else. The person who dedicates his efforts towards the success of the whole group will be a valued member of any team.

 

Reflections on my bread machine saga

I thought I had this bread machine almost figured out, I had managed to produce two loaves that were completely edible. Friday’s trial number six proved that I still have a ways to go – the loaf rose too high and then fell. I cut off the top part and the rest is quite edible, but I still haven’t mastered the process.

My mother was an artisan in the kitchen. she baked white bread, brown bread, rye bread, buns and cinnamon rolls without a recipe and without a failure.  A machine that makes breads does not have my mother’s knowledge and skills.

A bread machine is known as a robot boulanger in French – a robot baker. It occurs to me that in order to successfully produce a good loaf of bread with this robot I have to become its servant. If I do not do everything exactly as the robot wishes my efforts will produce flop after flop.

How much are our lives ruled by things? The weekend cyberattack creates some doubt in my mind about the brave new world that is promised by the internet of things. Could some shadowy group, directed by a criminal organization or a hostile government, bring all those things to a crashing halt?

What about self-driving cars? If one reads closely the propaganda in their favour, it becomes evident that the ultimate goal is to eliminate private ownership of automobiles. Would that then make us all slaves to some arcane algorithm? Who would design and control that algorithm?

The ultimate question is: How would a Christian live by the leading of the Holy Spirit if he cedes so much control of his life to things and algorithms?

I am not a Luddite, but these questions trouble my thoughts.

April’s fool

First thing this morning I went to the kitchen and prepared the coffee maker to make my morning coffee. Then I went to the office and read my French Bible for morning devotions. I could hear the coffee gurgling into the mug as I read, but when I went to get my coffee I saw the mug had filled to overflowing and there was coffee all over the counter. How can that be? Our K-Cup machine only holds a cup of water.

I cleaned up the mess and made a second cup, turning the mug right side up this time. Well, what do you expect? It’s April 1 and I’m the fool.

Setting education free from the bureaucracy

It was the practice at one time to teach swimming by getting the learner to lie belly down on a footstool and practice moving his hands and feet in the way that would propel him through the water. That’s not done anymore, for the simple and obvious reason that it really didn’t work.

After making billions in the internet and cell phone business, French entrepreneur Xavier Niel decided a few years ago to open a school for anyone wanting to learn computer coding. The entrance requirements for the school are that one needs to be 18 to 30 years old and able to pass an online logic test. There is one more requirement: you have to be willing to work really hard.

The school is called 42, it has no tuition and no instructors; the students are just dumped in the pool and told to swim. For the first 30 days, students are required to work at the school 15 hours a day. Those who stick it out will learn as much in those 30 days as they would in a two-year university course. Then the real education begins.

In order to earn a diploma, the student must complete 21 levels of training. It is collaborative learning with peer-to-peer correcting and each one working at their own pace. Some might finish in two years, others may take longer, it doesn’t matter.
How effective is it? A study last year tested13,000 graduates in computer programming, or software engineering, from 700 universities worldwide. The graduates from 42 topped all the others.

Much of this information comes from an article in the French news magazine le Point, written by Idriss Aberkane. M. Aberkane then goes on to ask if the whole educational system wouldn’t benefit from being remade according to the 42 model.

There is an obstacle though: the educational bureaucracy. To quote M. Aberkane, “You know that the bureaucratic state has been reached in an organisation when the procedure is more important than the result.” If that is true of the public education system in France, it is doubly true in Canada.

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