Saturday, June 30, 2012

Request for Comments

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Even if I am somehow able to write 4000 words about predestination in a matter of hours, blogging is tough. Picking worthwhile subjects to blog about is a constant challenge, and even when I do, I am haunted by the fear that I'm merely posting them for my own gratification and not to edify others. (The desire of 1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 14:4, Ephesians 4:29, &c.) It was enough for me back when I started this blog over two years ago as a kind of pressure-relief valve for my brain, but not anymore. The challenges of 1 Corinthians 13:2 continues to haunt me.

What lies behind both these challenges, I think, is a lack of feedback. Looking over my list of posts, none of them have any comments. I'm not angry or trying to blame anyone for this, just earnestly wondering why this is. I sometimes feel like I'm posting in an echo chamber, making it easy to get carried away and yet have no impact. I could write a huge, convincing, well-worded, heavily researched (maybe) treatise expounding on my thoughts about free will and really enjoy it, but accomplish nothing of value. This sense of nonaccomplishment is even more acute for posts on subjects other than faith, which is part of why I do fewer of them.

I'd like to do something about this. I've lately been quite inspired by a blog run by one of my pastors, justcor, which is heavily focused on fostering and sharing conversation about faith, culture, the church, and leadership--a dialogue to my blog's monologue. I don't want my blog to be a lone voice, but a place for this kind of conversation. So now I open things up to you, the reader. What do you like about my blog? What would you like to see change? What would you like to read more of? What would you like to hear about and talk about? Am I just a glutton for the affirmation of my peers? Please, comment away!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Help me, God

In my experience with the Christian contemporary music (CCM) scene, I've picked out a couple of song archetypes. There's the elementary song-as-psalm, songs expressing personal faith in and love for God, a favorite of songer-songwriters like Jeremy Camp and Matthew West (see "You Are Everything") and affecting much of Building 429's catalog. There is the high-octane, hands-in-the-air worship song, a specialty of, say, David Crowder Band and Chris Tomlin. ("Our God") There's the faith-inspired story, as Mark Schultz is known for. ("Letters from War") Casting Crowns directs many calls to action to the church, as in "If We Are the Body". The song-from-God's-perspective. ("I Am", also by Mark Schultz) The revived-and-rearranged-hymn, of which my church is so fond. There are probably more archetypes I'm forgetting, but I'm writing about one in particular that seems about as ubiquitous in CCM as the power ballad in '80s rock. That is, the help-me-God song, of which all of the aforementioned artists have made at least one (some quite a few), but of which Tenth Avenue North is the best example, with this archetype composing at least half their catalog. ("Hold My Heart" is an outstanding example).

Based on some of my previous work, you might think I am going to criticize or explain what is wrong with this archetype, or all of them, or the whole system of archetypal songs. I am not. In fact, I enjoy all of the aforementioned songs, though not as unreservedly as I used to. Help-me-God songs in fact have quite a bit of Biblical precedent in the form of the penitential Psalms, all of which are cries for help to God from a place of guilt, loneliness, darkness, or despair. Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with these Psalms (or the even-darker Psalm 88), or the modern songs that are their spiritual successors or sorts. They clearly realized the truth that we are like lost, helpless sheep and God is the Good Shepherd who alone can save us and truly supply our needs.

But now I arrive at the reason for this post, which is that if in our hour of darkness we identify too much with the help-me-God songs, if we allow our broken neediness and God's all-sufficient generosity to define our relationship with Him, we run a risk of missing the Point. There's not much difference, at least for me, between fully realizing the extent of our own depravity and need for the salvation of the gospel, and making it all about our needs, and maybe our wants, and whether God is satisfying them.

I have spent most of my life suspended somewhere between the two extremes of deriving my sense of purpose and deep-seated fulfillment, what a theologian might call "justification", from the love and acceptance of those I value; and getting it from my own abilities and accomplishments. Nevermind that all of these things are from God! Putting my faith in God has been hard because I keep consciously or subconsciously expecting Him to fill me in the same way these things did, only more and better. Because of this expectation things kept getting twisted. Earnest passion for Christian community fed right into my tendency to look for meaning in others; calls to be sanctified and excel in righteousness catered to my tendency to look to myself.

All of this because I keep seeing God merely as the One who meets my (real and legitimate) needs when he is much more. Besides being the Healer of the brokenhearted (Psalm 147:3), He is the Creator of all things from before the Dawn of Time (Genesis 1), the great self-existent I ΑΜ (Exodus 3:14), Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), the One who veiled His glory in flesh and died for the sins of the fallen world and will be exalted to the highest place (Philippians 2:6-11), the just and the justifier (Romans 3:26), the Alpha and the Omega, the First and  the Last, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 22:13)! He is the author and main character of the greatest book ever written! As my pastor Steve likes to say, whatever your view of God is, it is far too small! How we diminish the Infinite Almighty when we reduce Him to a genie in a bottle who exists for the fulfillment of our wishes!

God was love and full of justice and mercy and perfect glory before the world began. It's impossible for how you happen to be feeling today to ever change this. Yes, God has promised to heal and comfort us, but to what end? So we can feel better about ourselves and be empowered to be better people and enjoy life more? For His glory, honor, and fame, which are what it has been about from the beginning. If he binds up our wounds and sets our feet back on solid rock, it's so we can make much of Him; if he leaves us in what we ask Him to take away, it's to teach us to worship Him alone, not our circumstances.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Life Update

It's kind of a thing for some bloggers to post updates on their lives (particularly my friends who are getting involved in vocational ministry). Though I did so for Summer Project, I haven't since Spring Break several months ago and I feel like now would be a pretty good time with all the transitions in my life.

So, for starters, I have indeed finished college summa cum laude at the University of Minnesota. (Not graduated--I haven't graduated until I'm holding my diploma in my hands) My honors thesis was pretty stressful, but I managed to finish writing it well in advance and present it to my readers. It feels amazing to be totally done with it. Then I had three weeks of absolutely nothing after commencement my last finals, during which I blogged a lot (as you may have noticed) and played possibly too much Skyrim.

Also, my roommates moved out and I have been greatly enjoying having the whole four-person apartment to myself. Given that I'm such an introvert, I've really been enjoying the whole living alone thing. Having the apartment be totally static except for what I do in it is a blessing and a curse--but mostly a blessing. And it's so clean all the time! Unfortunately, I don't have long to enjoy it for the below reasons.

My church, Hope Community Church, is at a pretty exciting time this summer. For one, our worship pastor is supervising the recording of an album of some of our favorite songs to sing in church. The music is one of my favorite parts about Hope; Tim really likes playing old Christian hymns set to our electric type of electro-folk rock. I guess growing up I never connected too much with the musical style of the old hymns at my home church, and the style at Hope really breathes new life into them and helps me to enjoy the truth and beauty of the lyrics as they were meant to be enjoyed. Anyway, I got the opportunity to visit the studio where they're recording it last week, and it seems to be in great hands! I can't wait to hear it.

But that was just an aside. The really exciting thing is that we are going multi-site...sort of. Due to our uncontrollably exploding attendance, we are planning on moving some of our services into the building next door, Augustana Lutheran (now "Hope East"). We've already raised enough money to buy the building outright (praise God!) and this summer are in the process of renovating it to start using it in the fall. So I'm helping with this two or three days a week. So far we've just been doing demolition--knocking out walls and tearing up flooring, which has been fun but exhausting. Soon we'll start painting!

I've also been teaching Sunday School for preschoolers for a few months now. All of the other regular teachers have other summer commitments so now I am the head teacher of around twelve adorable and wonderful 3-to-4-year-olds, which I never would have believed a year ago. Sometimes I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing (which hopefully is normal) and I keep praying that I would make an impact in their lives.

So that's pretty much my whole life right now...oh, right, the elephant in the blog. My career. I am two weeks into my employment with Seagate Technology! I've rejoined the Failure Analysis team I worked with last summer doing more software stuff; we're kind of like a forensics team for hard drives and I will be writing and maintaining software tools to help them slog through all the data they gather. It's a great job, I get to do something I enjoy and put my degree to good use. I have a great team and manager, and the pay is...well, excellent. God has blessed me in huge ways with this job.

So why do I have so little time at home? In addition to the eight hours at work every day, I spend at least three hours on the bus as well. I am part of the minority of American adults who do not own a car. Which isn't too unusual for a twenty-something with the increasing sway of the "green" movement, except that my job is almost 30 kilometers away. Despite this, I have no desire to get a car or move to Shakopee (which would force me to get a car).

For most of my life, up to early this year, my plan was to get a car that doesn't run on fossil fuels. And it looked like the technology was just in time to let me achieve this dream. But I decided to put off getting one for a while, partly to let my credit score improve/save enough money, but also just to see how it went, Then, as I saw how possible living without a car was, I decided to just forgo it altogether.

I have several reasons for not wanting a car. With the construction and parking insanity around campus, a car has become to me more of a liability than an asset. I didn't want the hassle and expense of paying for gas (if my car used it), insurance, maintenance, etc., not to mention the actual car. But most of all, I really just don't like driving, especially in traffic. Every time I slow to a crawl with a sea of brake lights in front of me, I feel like there are too many cars on the roads already and that by getting one I would become part of the problem. And, of course, as you may see in my previous post on transportation biking is far more efficient.

Luckily, thanks to Metro Transit I can get from my apartment to work with about a quarter mile of walking. It just takes forever, giving me all the time in the world to read or think on the bus. And I have plenty of thinking to do about where God has put me. Since I'm spending the majority of my waking hours at work or commuting, how do I live a life of faithfulness to God in that context? How do I keep building relationships now that I'm out of school? How do I effectively love the kids in my Sunday School and train them in the way they should go? How do I, Lord willing, begin to seek a wife? I'd appreciate prayer on any of these things.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Glory of God

As a newly-minted working stiff, I don't have quite as much time to ramble as I used to. Continuing in the vein of Things God Has Been Teaching Me Lately, I'm going to talk about 1 Corinthians 10:31.
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
Yeah! The glory of God! This is how we Christians should strive to live! Sounds great, right? Well, unfortunately, I have come to realize that this verse is totally, completely wrong.

Just kidding--but now you're listening, right? I realized I never really understood this verse before today. Maybe I still don't. But here it goes.

"Do it all for the glory of God." The ESV (Extra-Spiritual Version) renders it as "Do all to the glory of God." For so long I thought this meant something along the lines of going through your day consciously directing your thoughts and intentions to Heaven. That if I'm coding, I should be thinking, "Here I am coding, God; it's all for You; help me to work well." If I'm in a conversation, I should be praying (without ceasing), "God, help me to love this person as You love them, for Your glory." And so on. My focus had to be on God in everything I did.

Here's a secret you may not have heard: people can only think about one thing at a time. (Well, unless the hemispheres of your brain have been separated or something) If you're constantly thinking about God, you're not thinking about what you're doing. If I'm using all my mental energy trying to "program to the glory of God", I likely won't get much quality programming done. But it's to the glory of God, right? No, it's just a poor day's work.

Since our relationship with God is often compared with marriage, consider the case of an actual marriage. A husband's every waking thought isn't occupied by his wife--that would be obsession, not loving marriage, and he is to be pitied. But though he isn't always thinking of her, a good deal of his actions are "for" her in some way--working to provide for the family, buying food to feed them, doing housework. And how much more with God, who demands our whole lives!

You see, we don't devote our daily lives to God by willing them to be His. If we have made God our Lord, then we are His because He says so and for no other reason. So we had better live like it! (This is a joy for the Christian, not a burdensome command) What does this look like? Let's reason the verse again in context.
23 “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. 24 Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience,26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
27 If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake — 29 the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—33 even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
The context here is the early church in Greece, a nation with a strongly paganistic background. As a result, it was not impossible for a Christian eating with non-Christians to be served, say, meat that had been sacrificed to Zeus. Paul's argument in this chapter and earlier is basically that even though Zeus isn't real, not everyone knows this. In particular, non-believers and new believers still breaking free from their old superstitions might gain a very twisted picture of Christianity if they see a faithful Christian eating meat that had been sacrificed to an idol! They might have questions like "You mean I can worship God and Zeus?" or "Could God and Zeus be the same deity?" or "I don't think Christians should eat food that's been sacrificed to idols, but if Paul is doing it..."

This is the context that verse 31 is in. The verses before it are two questions that I don't think are rhetorical, because they seem to threaten Paul's argument. He wants us to answer them--we should follow his example and lay down our freedom if it removes obstacles to people believing the gospel! this is also the moral he lays out in the verses right after 31. 31 itself seems to offer an alternative to "causing anyone to stumble". It is the opposite: live in such a way as to make God "look good" to those around you and invite people closer to salvation. As I said in my post on work, this means being committed to excellence in what you do. This means that if I'm programming, I'm trying to write the best, clearest, most maintainable, and bug-free code that I can. This means that if I'm (say) a bus driver, my eyes and mind are fixated on the road ahead of me. I would go on, but I must go and bake some cookies to the glory of God.

In Which I Attempt Too Much Dimensional Analysis

I did my best with the research for not having a lot of time. I made the assumption that number of passengers doesn't affect fuel economy, but this shouldn't significantly skew results. And, uh, yeah, of course cycling came out on top. I assumed that the cars (except the Leaf) ran on unleaded and the other vehicles (including the 747) on diesel; the Person-MPG equivalents were all calculated using unleaded.

Mode Efficiency (kJ/km*person) Person-MPG equivalent
Hummer H2 9036 10
Ocean liner (Queen Elizabeth 2, fully loaded) 6170 15
2011 Toyota Camry (1 person) 3475 26
LRT (Minneapolis, estimated) 1766 51
2011 Toyota Camry (2 person) 1738 52
2008 Toyota Prius (1 person) 1632 55
Bus (average occupancy = 9) 1577 57
Boeing 747-400 (fully loaded, maximum range) 1120 81
2011 Toyota Camry (4 person) 869 104
2008 Toyota Prius (2 person) 816 111
Nissan Leaf (1 person) 768 118
2008 Toyota Prius (4 person) 408 222
Nissan Leaf (2 person) 384 236
Bus (full) 355 255
Running (16 km/h) 267 339
Walking (moderate speed) 205 442
Nissan Leaf (4 person) 192 471
Cycling (16 km/h) 110 823


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Fearing the Lord

I confess that I've never liked all the Biblical language and commands about "fearing" the Lord. I thought it gave entirely the wrong idea of God as this great and terrible judge who will snuff you out at the slightest misstep, or an out-of-control cosmic force that could destroy us without warning. We shouldn't "fear" the Lord if we are in Christ, I thought, because He is for us, He loves us, He came so that we might have luck. 1 John 4:18 says that there is no fear in love, for God's perfect love drives out fear. A much better word than "fear" would be "awe", or "reverence".
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. - Psalm 97:5
Then tonight I was biking home from church. as luck would have it, I had failed to check the forecast and a thunderstorm was raging all around me. A few blocks form home, about seven lightning flashes in rapid succession lit up the neighborhood brighter than daylight, quickly followed by the loudest thunder I have ever heard, under a mile away and apparently directly overhead. And in that moment I realized what it really means to fear the Lord.
'But', he said, 'you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.' - Exodus 33:20
It's certainly true that if we are forgiven in Christ, we don't have to fear being wiped out by God's wrath and judgment, or by some capricious outburst of power. Just like with the much-taller Oak St. parking ramp across the street from me, I didn't have to fear any physical harm from that lightning. But despite that, it was still terrifying in the sheer immensity of it--the flashing brighter than any manmade light and the boom that sounded like a bomb had gone off. As my friend Joe put it, "most people desperately strive to avoid feeling small", and I felt very small indeed.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. - Revelation 1:17
So God, in a literal flash of inspiration, conveyed to me something like what He spent several chapters explaining to Job. What I took to be a well-informed disagreement with the "fear" language was just my complete inability to grasp the sheer scale of the God who created not just lightning and thunder, but entire planets, stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies. "Awe" and "reverence" are inaccurate because they aren't nearly strong enough. In fact, "fear" probably wasn't strong enough for Biblical figures like Moses and John who came as close as anyone ever has to seeing God face to face.
Since, then, we know what it is to fear [φοβος, "phobos"] the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. - 2 Corinthians 5:11
So this is what I think is meant by "fear of the Lord"--our apprehending a Power unimaginably greater and more vast than ourselves, and our incredible smallness in comparison to it. May you know what it is to fear the Lord and spend your life (metaphorically) situated at the foot of His throne like John.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Love of God > Our Sin

In Romans 7, Paul lets you in on a little secret: Christians still sin. All the time. Even though we're "dead to sin, but alive in Christ",  we all still struggle with our former, sinful selves. What gives? And what do we do about it?

This is a lead-in to a passage we spent a while discussing in my small group, 1 John 5:16-17. Here it is within the immediate context.
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that.17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
After reading this admittedly-confusing, you should at least have two pressing questions: What is "a sin that does not lead to death", and "a sin that leads to death"? And why isn't Paul saying we should pray about the "sin that leads to death"? On the way I'll touch on some other issues regarding the security of our salvation that should nicely complement my thinking on Calvinism and Arminianism.

1. What is "a sin that does not lead to death?" What is "a sin that leads to death"?

This is what makes the verse so jarring to read. After all, Paul writes that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). And earlier in this letter John writes that no one who continues to sin really knows God or has life. Then how can there be a "sin that does not lead to death", and what is it? (I hope it's fun and easy so I can do it all the time!) I see three main possibilities for what John is talking about here.

  • The "sin that leads to death" is the "unforgivable sin" mentioned in Matthew 12:30-32, Mark 3:29, and Luke 12:10. As I mentioned in my post on predestination. the "unforgivable sin", blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is not a sin that is too bad for God to forgive, but a sign that the sinner has willfully, deliberately, and completely removed him/herself from God's forgiveness and mercy. Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit means that you know the Spirit and recognize its work, but your heart is so completely hardened that you still denounce it not out of ignorance but out of knowledge. Again, it's not at all as if you can accidentally commit the unforgivable sin and then be screwed. If you are concerned about it, you haven't committed it. But anyway, I don't think this is what John is talking about, as he is talking about a "brother", someone who is (at least nominally) in the church, not someone who has completely walked away from Christianity. And the unforgivable sin does not lead to death so much as it indicates it with terrible certainty.
  • John is writing about sins that lead to God punishing people with physical death, as with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. First of all, I would like to say that I think that God directly punishing people for their sins with physical affliction or death is extremely rare; the direct consequences of our sins, particularly in how they separate our souls from God, are usually "punishment" enough for those who are covered by Christ's blood. If your response to an affliction or hardship not obviously caused by some particular sin is "what is God punishing me for?", I think you are probably (not definitely) barking up the wrong tree. God actually physically killing someone as punishment for their sin means that not only has he completely given up on saving them, but that He wants them to stop doing any more damage with their behavior. Luckily  it is very rare for Christians to get this out of control, and I don't think this is what John is talking about. (Although the word John uses for death, θανατος, means "death" in general like the English word and could mean this)
  • John is writing about sin that leads to our spiritual death, that is, the loss of our faith and salvation. Not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that indicates we are already lost, but sins that point us in that direction, away from God, sincere faith, and the gospel. This is what I think John is most likely writing about. after all, God is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), so a sin that leads to death also leads away from God. Also, consider the context of this passage. The immediate context is about being assured of our salvation and ensuing adoption by God as sons and daughters. The wider context of the book is an exhortation to live out a sincere, dynamic relationship with God through our love for Him and each other rather than deceiving yourself and living in sin. In light of this, the passage becomes a straightforward application of this lesson for others, watching out to be sure that they are remaining in a real relationship with God and not drifting away.
In light of this, we are ready to answer the first question: what is "a sin that does not lead to death"? A sin that does not damage our relationship with God, that we are able to submit to His saving grace and move past. In other words, the sins that Christians commit every day which, while wrong (see verse 17), do not indicate our home in Christ is in jeopardy or that we should wonder if we are really saved. This is the essential sweetness of the gospel--that through the life and death of Jesus we are declared righteous in God's sight and that he no longer counts our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19) or lets them ruin our relationship with Him! By God's grace we don't have to confess every single sin we commit (which is really another form of salvation by works), but the gospel covers all of our sins, recognized and unnoticed.

So I wouldn't draw a sharp line between particular sins that do or do not lead to death. The difference isn't in what we do, but why--the conditions of our hearts. Are we desiring to remain fully in Christ and willing to confess the sin if we realize it? Or is it "no big deal", or do you just want to keep going for a little longer, or you don't care what that guy with the Bible thinks about your habit? Specifically, I would give these four things to look for if you're wondering about something you see a brother/sister doing:
a. Does the person recognize it? Or does he/she not see it as sin, or try to downplay it, cover it up, say it doesn't matter, etc.
b. Is it deliberate/willful? Does the person realize it's not good but keep doing it?
c. Is there true regret?
d. Is there true repentance? (Different from simply regretting the sin--is there real desire and effort to change?
Anyway, on to the second question, about which I will be a bit less detailed...

2. Why is John not saying we should pray about sin that leads to death?

My answer to question 1 makes this even more baffling. If you should pray about sins that don't appear to be serious threats to someone's salvation, shouldn't you pray all the more about sins that are? If we aren't to pray for these situations (which would definitely be my first impulse), then what is left?

If this is how you read the passage, I think it might be the only time in the Bible we are told not to pray about something. This seems unlikely. I would read it as saying that in these situations, we should not only pray, but there is also definite action to be taken. I am not feeling pastoral enough to expound on what this action should look like, but I think Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 are applicable to dealing with unrepentant sinners in the church. The basic plan seems to be to confront them head-on about it, then if after several warnings they refuse to listen, just let them go. It's really hard, but then God doesn't force us to believe if we don't want to.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Travel Guide's Perspective on America

I really enjoyed this article summarizing advice from travel guides about visiting America. It's really illuminating to get an outsider's perspective on our culture, and good to know that they also find us ridiculous at times.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Touch Screens

You may have seen this video that Microsoft put out last year of its vision or technology in the near future. Virtually all of the fancy tech depicted centers around touch screens, with a healthy dose of Minority Report. Somewhere out there, possibly in an underground volcanic bunker, I swear there is a cabal that is overseeing touch screens' ongoing takeover of virtually all of our electronics. In ten or fifteen years, cars will have no controls save a 21" glass panel where the steering column used to be. Thanks largely to the trends kicked off by the iPhone and iPad, touch screens are practically ubiquitous today; most people use them on a daily (or hourly, or minutely) basis and tech companies are always thinking of where to put them next.

Besides the fact that everyone is trying to imitate Apple, I see two explanations for touch screens' popularity. From the users' perspective, touch screens offer a directness surpassing that of traditional mouse-and-keyboard interfaces. Instead of pressing buttons or moving a pointer that controls what's happening on screen, you directly manipulate what's on screen. This is supposedly more intuitive, and touch screen-equipped devices are making tech nerds out of people who would have had little interest in computers twenty years ago. From a developer's perspective, touch screens allow the user interface to be decided by the software, rather than locked in by the hardware; the abundance of touch screen-based app toolkits out there makes it relatively easy to harness their popularity for your app.

So popular are touch screens that people generally seem to take it for granted that they are the future of mobile computing, if not computing in general. All the hottest new phones use touch screens, with cheaper, keyboarded "feature phones" seemingly held onto as a concession to the old-fashioned. Virtually all high-end MP3 players (the gadget that prompted this post) use them as well. I'm not saying that touch screens don't have their aforementioned merits, but generally consumer culture seems virtually blind to the disadvantages of touch screens; they are categorically seen as a shining icon of progress, putting them on more things is a "good thing", and so on. Here are the problems I see with them.

Lack of tactile feedback. This is by far my biggest problem with touch screens. You may be able to display a pretty, near-life-sized keyboard on an iPad, but an interactive display on a glass screen is a pale shadow of even a cheap physical keyboard, much less a nice one like a Model M. The big difference is that a glass surface has no feedback as far as your sense of touch is concerned; unlike the complex surface of a keyboard, a touch screen is completely tactically uniform and there is no way to orient yourself on it by touch; you have to work by sight alone. (Which isn't made easier by the fact that your hands are occluding part of the display)

So basically, the whole touch screen "movement" really underestimates the power of our sense of touch. It's a whole dimension of our senses that can greatly increase the speed and ease of use of a device, and touch screens completely do away with it. For an example, I used to own an 80GB iPod Classic before it was lost/stolen. While walking around the U, I got pretty good at playing/pausing/skipping songs without taking the iPod off my belt or looking at the screen at all. Eventually I even got the hang of binary-searching through my music without looking by picking a song, checking what it was, and then accordingly scrolling closer to where I knew the song I wanted was. It was a cool cooperation between my senses of touch and hearing made possible by the good old "click wheel". On my iPod Touch, reliably pausing the music without looking is difficult enough, and seeking through my playlists is virtually impossible. Or, of course, there's the fact that without my iPod Touch's extensive auto-correct feature, I would type more slowly than I do on my 12-button phone thanks to muscle memory.

So that leads into my next point: because of how they (ironically) take our sense of touch out of the picture, touch screens tend to be less efficient than conventional interfaces at the same tasks. They may be more intuitive in many cases, but for keyboard-shortcut-hungry power users like myself the difference can be frustrating. It doesn't matter when you're playing Angry Birds, but it makes it hard for me to take iPads seriously as business devices. I wonder if I'll see any around Seagate next week and beyond?

On a related note is the lack of precision of touch screen interfaces. Unless you use a stylus, which are so early 2000s, or cut your fingernails into points (which apparently works), your fingers are quite a bit bigger than a cursor, which makes work requiring pointer precision (like selecting a specific point in some text, or image editing) difficult.

Another thing is the limited number of actions you can do on a touch screen. Let's can tap, slide, pinch, rotate, swipe...I can't think of any more; certainly those are the most common ones. And like the standard keyboard shortcuts, they have been pretty well standardized; a tap is a click, sliding pans you around, pinching zooms in or out, and so on. Some of these may or may not make sense of applications, and in general there are simply fewer things you can do on a touch screen relative to many mechanical interfaces with diverse buttons that can be combined. Sure, zooming in and out may be a breeze, but copying, pasting, undoing, etc. are no longer single-gesture muscle-memory actions like they are on a keyboard. And allowing more complicated actions via multitouch that correspond to more things is generally unintuitive and against the whole point of the touch screen. (I still have no idea what three and four-finger swiping on a MacBook do and why)

A note: in my graphics class we did see some pretty cool demos of two-handed touch surfaces for rapidly navigating and designing 3D models in virtual reality. Certainly for some tasks, like 3D drafting and viewing, touch screens are a great fit. But these demos were highly experimental and certainly exceptional, and I was speaking to more diverse and common tasks.

Touch screens are certainly a cool and valuable technology, but recognizing these limitations, I for one hope that they keep mechanical controls for our gadgets around for the foreseeable future.