How do you use social networks?

I suggest we all ditch LinkedIn. Who’s in?

Social Media Icons

Jason Snell and Myke Hurley discussed social networks on Upgrade #4, “I Regret My Endorsement of You”, and I got to thinking about how I use my various social networks.

When I want to write something long (or mid-length, as mentioned in my previous post), I head here to my blog. I love reading and writing, and my blog is a great outlet for my creativity. As you know if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, I especially like posting book reviews. I also do a lot of short- and long-form writing on a question and answer social network called Quora. I mostly lurk in the religion/theology sections and once in a while write honest questions or thoughtful answers. I’ve crossposted a few of those answers here and plan to continue doing so.

When I think of something witty to say and think I can do it in less than 140 characters, I make a beeline for Twitter. Twitter is my go-to social network. I purposely follow only ~30 people, which makes it easy for me to stay up-to-date (I’m a Twitter completist; I read every tweet from the people I follow) and keeps Twitter feeling like a tight-knit place where I hang out with my closest friends. I can check Twitter in less than ten minutes a day. I also crosspost photos from Instagram. I know a lot of people who carry on conversations on Twitter, but I tend not to at-reply a whole lot. The aspect of Twitter I most love is being able to contact and have conversations with the podcasters I listen to.

I am also a relative completist when it comes to Facebook, by which I don’t mean I read everything from every one of my connections, but I do try to read everything that hits my news feed. I keep my feed very heavily pruned by marking every one of my connections as either a close friend or an acquaintance. As with Twitter, I only have ~30 close friends. People seem to generally hate the way Facebook “diddles” with peoples’ feeds, but I’m actually really impressed with how the filtering works. For those I’ve marked as close friends, I see everything, up to and including what you had for lunch (well, if you posted it—it’s not creepy enough yet to show me your lunch even if you didn’t post it). For acquaintances, I see only the most important life events like weddings, childbirths, graduations, new jobs, promotions, etc. Due to this magic, I can stay up on Facebook in less than ten minutes a day just as with Twitter. But I don’t really like posting to Facebook. About the only things I post are my Instagram photos. I use Facebook Messenger to keep up with old friends more than I post status updates or anything else.

As I’ve already mentioned, I take photos with Instagram. Mostly of my cute kids. These get crossposted to Twitter and Facebook. As with other networks, I purposefully keep the list of people I follow on Instagram to a minimum, and I can generally check out everything new on Instagram in less than five minutes.

I am on LinkedIn, but I’m honestly not sure why. I don’t post anything to it and I never read anything others post to it. I have never needed it and hope to never need it in the future. It is the worst social network in existence, I think, and has only gotten worse over time. It was Jason and Myke’s discussion of LinkedIn in particular that spurred me to write this post. They seem to hate it as much as I do. Why do we all feel the need to be on that site at all?

I’d love to hear how you use your social networks. Please drop me a comment below. Should I ditch LinkedIn? Should we all ditch it together? Who’s in? 

Short-form blogging

wherein I briefly blog about blogging briefly

I follow a few blogs. I still use a feed reader. As far as I know I’m also one of the few people in my circle of friends who still blogs with any sort of regularity (six posts so far in 2014, not counting this one).

One of the bloggers I follow, Jason Snell of Six Colors, recently posted about short-ish blog posts, a kind of halfway point between the long-form articles you typically find on sites like Medium and the sort of micro-blogging you typically find on Twitter or Facebook.

Jason was riffing on posts from Andy Baio of Waxy.org and Gina Trapani of Scribbling.net. Here’s the conversation as I’ve encountered it so far (go ahead and read these—I’ll wait here):

I like this idea. I tweet several times a week, but when I sit down to blog I typically feel I need to write something relatively long-form. I haven’t really been allowing myself to post shorter blog posts. I wish I had time like Jason Snell to post daily, but the reality of parenting and working makes that near impossible. But, beginning today, I’d like to blog more often.

Here’s my own version of Gina Trapani’s new rules for blogging:

  • If it’s a paragraph or two, it’s enough to publish.
  • A picture is not required for every post.
  • Don’t obsess over proofreading before just clicking Publish.
  • Have fun. If it’s not fun, walk away. Play with the kids instead.

What do you think? If you have your own blog, what’s keeping you from posting new content? Are Facebook and Twitter enough of an outlet for you, or could blogging be just the thing you need to get your creative writing juices flowing again? 

Why do we baptize infants?

A review of Daniel Hyde’s book “Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Children”
“Jesus Loves the Little Children” by Daniel Hyde
“Jesus Loves the Little Children” by Daniel Hyde

When we joined a Presbyterian church in 2011, my wife and I were faced with the decision of whether to baptize our children or to be “conscientious objectors” to the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism. I dedicated myself to a study of the question over the next two years, reading many book-length treatments of the issue from both credobaptist and pedobaptist perspectives, as well as chapters on the subject from many systematic theologies on both sides.

At the end of those two years, I had become persuaded of the covenantal infant baptism position, but felt there was no single concise, accessible, and convincing resource on the topic to which I could point inquiring friends and family. I had even set out to write a book about it myself—I may still finish it some day—but then I discovered Daniel Hyde’s Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Children.

Hyde hits all the right notes in under 100 pages (in fact, the core of his argument fits in under 40 pages). He does a great job demonstrating the implications of covenant for the issue of baptism and the connection between the two important covenant signs of circumcision and baptism. I especially appreciated his section showing why anyone who believes in baby dedication should affirm infant baptism instead.

On the whole, this is the best single resource I know of for understanding covenantal infant baptism, and the irenic and winsome tone throughout makes me comfortable sharing it with friends and family of all backgrounds. This is the book I wish I had read first.

Continue reading

“Green Bubble Friends”

Do something nice for the Android people in your life

Apple iMessage
Apple iMessage
As an iPhone user, I love iMessage. The ability to “text” my wife from not only my phone but also my iPad and MacBook is wonderfully convenient. Additionally, though not must haves, read receipts and typing indicators are great features.

In Apple’s most recent keynote at WWDC back in June, Craig Federighi addressed a pain point for iMessage users: we all have “green bubble friends” we can only text using traditional SMS, which means we have to use our phones to chat with them. Craig debuted many powerful new features at this keynote, among them the ability for Macs and iPads to finally support traditional SMS by using the iPhone as a relay.

But, as excited as I am about this feature, I think there’s a better way to communicate with Android users in particular, and it involves another product ironically sporting a green speech bubble for a logo: Google Hangouts.

Google Hangouts
Google Hangouts
Google Hangouts works just like iMessage on Android phones. It is built into the text-messaging app and the system intelligently decides when to send a true SMS message and when to send a Google Hangouts message. The main difference between iMessage and Google Hangouts is there are Google Hangouts apps for iPhone, iPad, and Mac, whereas it is impossible to use iMessage on an Android device or on Windows or Linux PCs.

If I start using the new features of iOS 8 and OS X 10.10 to send my Android friends text messages from my Mac, they will only be able to see and respond to them on their phones, but if I send them a message on Google Hangouts from my Mac, they can choose whichever device they want to read and reply with, plus they’ll get read receipts and typing indicators. It is a small courtesy, with very little impact on convenience, and I think it is the least we iPhone users can do to help out our “green bubble friends”. 

The Westing Game

“The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin
“The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin
One of my favorite books as a kid was Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. It was first read to me (or rather to my whole class) by my sixth grade teacher at Westland Elementary School, Mrs. Ashmore. I have gone back to it several times in the intervening 20+ years and it just gets better the older I get.

The Westing Game is a classic murder mystery, inspired, I am given to understand, by Agatha Christie’s novels, though intended for a younger audience. It has about a 6th-grade reading level, but if you’ve got a 10-year-old who’s into stuff like Harry Potter this will be right up their alley. No magic here, of course, but a crazy ensemble cast (think Clue), a classic “whodunit” setup, and plenty of red herrings, rabbit trails, sleight-of-hand, and misdirection.

Like the best Pixar movies, this book appeals to young and old alike, but each for different reasons. Kids will identify (at least I did) with main character Turtle Wexler, a clever and headstrong girl who kicks anyone in the shins who pulls her braids, and who seems to have the best chance at solving the mystery. Adults will appreciate the clever plot twists and witty plays on words littered throughout the book.

I dare you to read the opening paragraphs without feeling completely sucked in:

The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!

Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers. This glittery, glassy apartment house stood alone on the Lake Michigan shore five stories high. Five empty stories high.

Then one day (it happened to be the Fourth of July), a most uncommon-looking delivery boy rode around town slipping letters under the doors of the chosen tenants-to-be. The letters were signed Barney Northrup.

The delivery boy was sixty-two years old, and there was no such person as Barney Northrup. . . .

Six letters were delivered, just six. Six appointments were made, and one by one, family by family, talk, talk, talk, Barney Northrup led the tours around and about Sunset Towers.

And the end of chapter one a few pages later:

Whoever, whatever else he was, Barney Northrup was a good salesman. In one day he had rented all of Sunset Towers to the people whose names were already printed on the mailboxes in an alcove off the lobby. . . .

Who were these people, these specially selected tenants? They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake. Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.

As it turns out, the tenants of Sunset Towers were chosen to live there because they are all potential heirs to the $200 million fortune of the patriotic paper product tycoon Samuel “Uncle Sam” Westing. When he turns up dead in his house shortly after everyone moves in, they quickly find themselves caught up in a nutty game the eccentric old man had written into his will. The heirs are also the suspects, the dead man himself provides the clues, and whoever figures out the answer inherits the whole fortune.

This book is funny and smart, with emotional highs and lows. It will make you laugh on one page and tug at your heartstrings on the next. Maybe I hold a lot of nostalgia for this book because of the age at which I was introduced to it, but it did win a Newberry medal and even had a made-for-TV movie based on it, so it definitely made an impact. Pick it up. Young or old, I guarantee you will not be able to put it back down. 

Overcast 1.0

My new favorite podcast app

The unreservedly orange Overcast logo
The unreservedly orange Overcast logo
Marco Arment, of Instapaper and The Magazine fame, has re-entered the iOS App Store today with the first version of his podcast app, Overcast.

I’ve been listening to podcasts in my car for a couple years now. Some of my favorites over the years have been John Siracusa’s now-retired Hypercritical and Marco and John’s new Accidental Tech Podcast (oh, there’s some guy named Casey on the show, too). Additionally, I subscribe to sermon podcasts from a couple of local churches. I have a half-hour commute, so each week I have five hours in my car to listen to podcasts. And I’m a completist; if I’m subscribed to a show I intend to listen to every episode.

One nice feature of many podcasts apps is variable playback speeds. Because I wanted to listen to more shows, I started listening at higher speeds. At some point along the way, my favorite app at the time put out a software update that dumped their custom audio engine and replaced it with a new audio engine baked into iOS, which forced them to jettison a couple of their playback speed options, including my favorite one. It also made it so the speeds were mislabeled (this was not their fault, but an issue with early versions of the iOS API). I remember having to adjust my speed down because I didn’t like the sound of the faster speeds, which meant I had to unsubscribe from one or two of my podcasts.

Virtually every podcast app available on iOS uses this same baked-in audio engine for podcast playback. I’m sure this reduces development time and makes maintenance a ton easier, but until now I hadn’t realized it was hurting my listening experience. I had largely forgotten about that early discomfort and gotten used to listening at my current speed with the current level of quality, like a frog in a pot, blissfully unaware that things could be better.

Today, things are better.

Overcast pulls all the same levers as many popular podcast clients. It’s got custom playlists, continuous playback in whatever sort order you prefer, a great podcast discovery system that uses Twitter to crowdsource suggestions, and OPML import/export for getting your subscriptions moved between podcast client apps.

But the secret sauce of Overcast is that it is the first podcast app in a long time to use its own custom audio engine. This new engine gives much more granular control of playback speeds, and has some neat extras like Smart Speed and Vocal Boost that enhance the listening experience even more. In my previous favorite podcast app, I was mostly listening at 1.25× speed, not because I have trouble following along at faster speeds, but because the audio distortion just became unbearable any higher than that. With Overcast, however, the audio sounds crystal clear to me even at Overcast’s maximum 2.16×, but I find the sheer speed above about 1.66× just makes spoken dialog too hard for me to follow. I’ve been keeping it around 1.33× or 1.5×, and feel like the audio quality is leaps and bounds superior to what I was getting with my previous app at 1.25×.

Smart Speed goes a step further to save you precious listening time by intelligently cutting out dead air between words and sentences. The jury is still out for me whether I like this feature or not. I feel it takes away some of the character in good dialog. Many jokes rely on carefully timed pauses, or sometimes a speaker will pause to let something sink in before jumping back into an argument. For these reasons I feel many pauses are important and something is lost if you cut them out. I have listened with this feature on and will probably continue to test drive it before finally deciding, but I feel I’m leaning in the direction of keeping it off. To each his own though. It is certainly an impressive feature and I will say, like the variable playback speeds, it does not seem to interfere with quality at all.

Vocal Boost is like a smart equalizer for spoken dialog. It levels the volume of podcasts so you can hear peoples’ voices better. So low budget podcasts that can’t afford high-end microphones or fancy studio editing can sound almost as good as professional podcasts. My previous favorite app got around this by letting me manually adjust the volume on a per podcast basis, and I really appreciated that feature, but now that this volume leveling is automatic I’m going to wonder how I ever thought having to manually adjust it was acceptable.

While all other podcast apps are trying to differentiate along the lines of better playlist organization or better podcast discovery, I think Marco is differentiating in exactly the direction he should. A great podcast app should have a great listening experience. For me, Overcast does hit a sweet spot on a wide range of features, but even if it didn’t—even if I had to organize my playlist by hand or manually plug in podcast URLs—I would still choose Overcast for the sheer delight of listening to my shows in such crystal clarity. For the first time, like so many other things my iPhone can do, podcast playback feels like magic. Finally

Arminian Theology

In which this convinced Calvinist sees and appreciates the nuances of classical Arminianism

Roger Olson’s “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities”
Roger Olson’s “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities”
I recently read Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Roger Olson. It opened my eyes to a lot of nuance between Calvinist and Arminian soteriology. Whereas before I would have equated Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism, these two concepts are now firmly separated in my understanding.

Many people today who call themselves Arminians are actually semi-Pelagians and would recognize very little of their own soteriological system in the writings of Arminius. The Arminian controversy happened entirely within the Dutch Reformed church and, for his part, Arminius was not aware of having departed from Calvin’s writings or the Reformed understanding of salvation in any significant way. In his “Declaration of Sentiments”, as quoted by Olson, Arminius wrote:

I am not conscious to myself, of having taught or entertained any other sentiments concerning the justification of man before God, than those which are held unanimously by the Reformed and Protestant Churches, and which are in complete agreement with their expressed opinions.

Indeed, classical Arminianism is closer to Calvinism than I had ever before considered. Both systems hold to Total Depravity and there is much room within classical Arminianism for an affirmation of Eternal Security or Preservation of the Saints, though it is unclear if Arminius himself affirmed it. Certainly Arminianism departs from Calvinism on Effectual Grace, Definite Atonement, and Unconditional Election, but the distinctions made are subtle and, though I may disagree with them, I now understand the motivations behind them.


Calvinists start with a high view of God’s glory. To maximize God’s glory in salvation they say (essentially) man does not have free will. God alone gets the glory for my salvation, because it wasn’t my choice. Problem is, what do we do about evil? If there’s no free will and evil exists then we have to somehow say God is responsible for evil. But the Bible says God doesn’t sin. So somehow we have to affirm God ordains evil without becoming the author of sin.

I have seen a lot of Calvinists try to work their way out of this one. We absolutely don’t want to accuse God of sin or evil, so it usually gets chalked up to a mystery or a paradox. Here’s an example from Wayne Grudem:

In spite of all of the foregoing statements, we have to come to the point where we confess that we do not understand how it is that God can ordain that we carry out evil deeds and yet hold us accountable for them and not be blamed himself. We can affirm that all of these things are true, because Scripture teaches them. But Scripture does not tell us exactly how God brings this situation about or how it can be that God holds us accountable for what he ordains to come to pass. Here Scripture is silent, and we have to agree with Berkhof that ultimately “the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery.”


Arminians start with a high view of God’s glory. To make sure God cannot possibly be accused of sin, they say man has free will. I alone get the blame for my sin because it was my choice. Problem is, what does an Arminian do about salvation? If there is free will then he has to say he is responsible for his own salvation, even if it’s an infinitesimally small amount of responsibility. But the Bible says salvation is all of grace. So somehow he has to affirm man makes a choice but in such a way that the result ends up being entirely by grace.

When an Arminian is asked why he chose Jesus and his friend or neighbor or family member didn’t, he gets uncomfortable and can’t answer the question. He wants to give God all the glory for his salvation, so it usually gets chalked up to a mystery or a paradox. Here’s an example from William Burton Pope (quoted in Olsen’s book):

In the secret recesses of man’s nature the grace is given disposing and enabling him to yield. Though the will must at last act from its own resources and deliberate impulse, it is influenced through the feeling and the understanding in such a manner as to give it strength. It is utterly hopeless to penetrate this mystery: it is the secret between God’s Spirit and man’s agency. There is a Divine operation which works the desire and acts in such a manner as not to interfere with the natural freedom of the will. The man determines himself, through Divine grace, to salvation: never so free as when swayed by grace.


So both sides end up doing theological gymnastics and holding to a mystery, a paradox. They each feel a tension about the very thing the other side feels absolute confidence about. The most important thing to recognize, though, is that both sides started from a high view of God’s glory. We may disagree with each other about which of these two mysteries is less uncomfortable to hold, but we all must recognize the orthodox impulse in the other side to affirm and uphold both God’s sovereignty and his goodness. Too often Calvinists accuse Arminians of affirming man’s free will in a humanistic effort to protect or elevate the character of man, but this is not the classical Arminian motivation at all.

At the end of the day I may still disagree with him, but I’m glad I read Olson’s book and I’m grateful to him for helping hardhearted Calvinists like myself see and appreciate the point of view of classical Arminianism. 

How does Presbyterian theology differ from other forms of Christian theology?

I should say at the outset, you can probably find someone from any stripe of Christianity who would call herself a Presbyterian. There are both theologically conservative Presbyterian denominations, e.g. the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and theologically liberal Presbyterian denominations, e.g. the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (PC-USA). I am a member of the PCA and can therefore only give an essentially conservative perspective.

The word “presbyterian” comes from the Greek πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) and describes the church polity (or church government) of all Presbyterian denominations, which differs from the episcopalian or congregational forms. Where episcopalian polity holds to a “top down” hierarchy of bishops and congregational polity affirms the “bottom up” independence of individual churches, presbyterian polity attempts to find a middle ground with a plurality of elders (a “session”) leading each congregation and groups of elders from several congregations forming wider “presbyteries” to keep the churches mutually accountable to one another.

However, though unique, this form of church government could hardly be described as the main thing that makes Presbyterians different from other forms of Christianity. Presbyterian theology, including its church polity, follows the ideas of John Calvin and can therefore be called “Calvinist” or “Reformed” theology. (As such, Presbyterian theology is held in common with other Reformed denominations, some of which do not hold to the presbyterian form of church government. Therefore, though I’ll continue to use the word “Presbyterian” below, this should not be taken to imply that any of the following is unique to Presbyterianism.)

One of the chief tenets of Presbyterianism is called “covenant theology”. Covenant theology posits that a single Covenant of Grace runs through both the Old and New Testaments and that the Christian church is therefore a continuation of national Israel, having been grafted as wild olive branches into the same olive tree (Romans 11:11–24). This view is held in contrast to the dispensationalist view held by some other Christian denominations, which affirms that God’s promises and plans were for national Israel in the Old Testament and the Christian church in the New Testament.

Largely because of covenant theology, Presbyterianism places a premium on expository preaching through the entire Bible, finding Christ and the Christian gospel just as clearly in the Old Testament as in the New.

Also arising largely out of covenant theology is a unique form of soteriology (i.e. understanding of salvation) including, perhaps most controversially, the concept of God sovereignly predestining those he would save (i.e. his “elect”) from before the creation of the world and then irresistibly drawing those people to himself. This form of soteriology commonly goes under the name “Doctrines of Grace” or under the acronym “TULIP”. It is also sometimes simply called “Calvinism”, though Calvinism should rightly be understood to encompass more than just this concept of Christian salvation.

I’m trying to keep my answer short, but I would be remiss if I did not also mention briefly that Presbyterians affirm infant baptism and tend to be postmillennial or amillennial in their eschatology (understanding of end time prophecy). These ideas, too, are derived from covenant theology (sensing a pattern, yet?).

Conservative Presbyterian denominations all affirm a historic statement of faith called the Westminster Confession of Faith, an excellent and not overly long read if you want to learn more. And if you’d really like to study Presbyterianism, I recommend On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, And Stories by Sean Michael Lucas. 

This post was originally published on Quora, here: How does Presbyterian theology differ from other forms of Christian theology?

Foreign relations

Michael Horton from his book, Introducing Covenant Theology:

People don’t know how to relate God to the world he has made. Some banish God from his own domain, as in deism, in which adherents acknowledge God’s existence but deny his personal involvement in the world. God is thus often perceived as an impersonal force or abstract principle. Others simply identify God with the world, as if the difference between God and humans were merely quantitative (God as greater, larger, more impressive, intelligent, and powerful) rather than qualitative (different from that which he has made). Ironically, in either case, God is rendered irrelevant: either by being too distant from us or by being absorbed into us—our will, our intellect, our emotions, our experience. The point of idolatry is to maintain our own autonomy (i.e., sovereignty) over God, either by banishment or absorption. In the one case, we ignore the reality of God; in the other, we use God as a projection for our own felt needs and make him serve our own ends. As we will see, the biblical understanding of God’s relationship to the world as covenantal is both a bridge that deism ignores and a bar to any confusion of the Creator with his creation.

And fifteen pages later:

In pagan religions and philosophies, human beings were often seen, at least in their spiritual or intellectual aspect, as a spark of the divine essence. Quite often a particular race was identified with the divinity, and the king was seen as an incarnation of a divine figure. The case was, of course, quite different for Israel. The sovereign God, creator and lord of all, was utterly distinct from his creation. No part of God’s nature or knowledge coincided with the creature at any point. That is to say, God is transcendent. Therefore, any relationship that one might have with this God would have to be something other than a natural relationship—that is, the relationship could not be explained in terms of, say, a common spiritual essence shared by the Creator and a creature. According to the Bible, that relationship—a covenant—is established by God in his freedom. We are not related to God by virtue of a common aspect of our being, but by virtue of a pact that he himself makes with us to be our God.

In distinction from pagan mythology, the denial of any natural connection between the Creator and creature establishes the biblical emphasis on God’s transcendence (his incomprehensible majesty). However, the fact that God has chosen to enter into a personal relationship with us by means of covenant underscores his immanence (or nearness). It is not surprising then that God adapted the international treaty as the template for his relationship to creatures. That relationship really is a matter of “foreign relations”. The creature, even the one made in his image, is never divine or semidivine, but is always other than God. Although there may be similarities between the creature and the Creator, there are always greater differences. In other words, God not only differs quantitatively (i.e., possessing greater degrees of being, wisdom, omnipotence, etc.) but qualitatively. . . . “Covenant” is exactly the right concept for such “foreign relations.”

Quadcopters

I’m evidently behind the times, but autonomous quadcopters are apparently quite the rage in University robotics research these days. The quadcopters in the following videos were designed and programmed by the GRASP Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania and the Flying Machine Arena at ETH Zürich. According to Wikipedia, MIT’s Aerospace Controls Lab has also engaged in similar research.

If you like these, hit the link at the bottom of this post for more information and more videos from the Flying Machine Arena at ETH Zurich.

More info and videos at the Flying Machine Arena website ›