Occasional nerdy thoughts about tech

Unplugged (Sort Of)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about God, it’s that he likes to throw monkey wrenches in our plans, and substitute his own. To disrupt us if we start to get too comfortable—not because there’s anything wrong with comfort, but because if we’re too comfortable for too long we start to get stagnant.

A week ago I shared my intention of delving into technology on this blog a little more. I specifically said that I was going to start with a review of an app called Moves, and that I was going to write said review this weekend. I actually started it this afternoon, and wrote for a little while until I had to go to 130 Jackson for sound check and band practice before the service. Once we’d gone through the sound check, and I’d got the mix about where I wanted it, I pulled out my phone and picked up where I’d left off (the beauty of cloud sync) while the band practiced.

Then the service began. [nlcf] is doing a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, leading up to Easter. Last week we started with Pride, and this week was on Gluttony. Jim defined gluttony more broadly than it is commonly used, to mean an unhealthy over-indulgence of anything, to the point of waste, and to the point of turning our focus away from God. At the end he brought up Lent, which begins on Wednesday, and encouraged us to think about something we could give up for the forty days, that could make room in our lives to grow closer to God. He gave a few examples of common fasts, including chocolate or Facebook. Even while he was still talking, I knew. I’m going on a technology fast.

I mentioned in last week’s post that my biggest time waster is technology blogs. It may not have come across in what I said there, but I’ve been realizing over the past several weeks that this is a big problem. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with them, but because they suck away so much of my life.

In addition to the Seven Deadly Sins series, over the first four weeks of the semester, at [nlcf] we’re focusing on listening and hearing from God, and freeing up time to do so. That is, we’re spending the four weeks looking at it in depth—particularly in our Engage Groups, but enmeshed with everything we’re doing—in order to become a congregation that practices it habitually, setting the tone for the semester and beyond. A major aspect of it that we’re taking on is time management. This is something that has plagued me…probably as long as I can remember. But God’s been turning the heat up on this issue for me recently, and now that we’re honing in on it at [nlcf], it’s something that I really want to tackle head-on this semester. Not only to free up time for God (although that’s the most important reason,) but also to stay on top of homework better, so I’m not getting it done late at night when it’s due the next morning, and to have time to do other stuff that I just can’t now. All that stuff that falls under the umbrella of “being a good steward of my time.”

Part of this has been looking at things we can prune back. The amount of time I spend on tech sites (or their app counterparts), YouTube, and the like, jumped quickly to my mind. So I’ve already been thinking about ideas for regulating my time spent on non-school-related or unessential surfing. But after Jim’s sermon tonight, I’ve decided that for Lent, I’m going cold turkey.

My plan is to only use my iPhone, iPad, or laptop to do the things I actually need to do. It’s unrealistic to unplug from email, texting, or even Facebook, because I need to be able to stay in touch with people, and all of those are necessary for that at some point or other. So I’ll launch the Facebook or Facebook Messenger apps if I get a notification, I’ll take appropriate action, and close them. (Historically, wasting time on Facebook has not been a huge issue for me like it is for a lot of friends. I have other issues.) Same goes for email—I’ll open it when I get an email, respond accordingly, and move on. (More on email below.)

It’s unrealistic to stop managing my schedule and to-do lists in their appropriate apps. (Well, technically this one’s probably doable, but I don’t think it’s necessary or beneficial. I’ll still be carrying around my phone, so I may as well use the calendar and task management apps. I’m not about to go out and buy a paper planner. I really think that would just make it harder to be effective with my time.)

It’s certainly unrealistic to stop using the apps and websites I need to do homework and stuff.

But other than the essentials, I’m unplugging. I’m not gonna read up on the latest iThing and everything it can do. (I think that’s gonna be the hardest part of this for me. What might Apple do between now and Easter, that I’m gonna miss? I’ve heard rumors of updated iPads sometime this quarter, and of an up-and-coming iWatch sooner or later. Of course, if they do something big, I’ll hear about it somehow or other. But I won’t get to read all the juicy details myself.) I’m not gonna browse the App Store looking for apps to experiment with. I’m not gonna play Letterpress or Angry Birds Star Wars. I’m going to resist the urge to pull out my phone anytime I’m standing in line or waiting around for class to start, just to fill the time. Or to reach for it when I wake up and spend the first minutes of my day reading a review of Blackberry 10.

I’m going so far as to rearrange my home screens to put the apps I’ll need on the first one. And not even go to the others. (This is actually a very strategic step. As long as my home screens look like they always do, I won’t think twice about tapping open my News folder and tapping one of the icons sitting inside it, before realizing what I’ve done. But if that folder is nowhere to be found on that first screen, I’ll remember that I’m supposed to be staying away from it.)

I’m even going old-school and pulling my old (imitation?) leather-bound Bible off the shelf. The one with pages and stuff. (The books I’m reading are stuck in iBooks, though, and I think it’s still worth reading those.)

And during these forty days, I’m going to be thinking long-term—about what boundaries I can set on myself in this area for once Lent is over, and about other steps I can take to manage my time a little better.

I will probably still be blogging some. Maybe even a little more frequently, because with more time to hear from God I’ll probably have more stuff to share. But if you were excited about hearing about apps, sorry. I’ll leave you with a consolation mini-review. (Last chance to plug an app here for a while—and this is actually relevant.)

Going back to email, I actually just started using an app that I think will really help in the battle of the inbox. It’s called Mailbox, and it conveniently just launched the other day, although I’ve been waiting for it for months. The basic premise is that the only emails in your inbox are the ones you need to address at this moment. The app badge actually shows the total number of emails in your inbox, rather than the typical unread count. You can archive or delete an email, move it to a list, or snooze it. This snooze feature is where the innovation really lies. You can tell it to snooze until later today, tomorrow, next week, or even later. It will move into a Later section (where you can still go to see the emails you’ve snoozed) and will come back to your inbox whenever you told it to, so you can deal with it then. Sure, it’s a fancy way to procrastinate, but it’s a good way to handle those emails that you’re leaving in your inbox until it’s a good time to take care of them. It makes me really think about each email—whether I can respond to it now, or if there’s a better time when I actually will. In the meantime, I can get back to “Inbox Zero.” Which feels really, really good.

They’re launching for just iPhone and Gmail and will expand from there. (In anticipation of this app, I set up yet another personal address over break, at Gmail, and have my previous email addresses (iCloud, etc.) forwarding to it. Virginia Tech mail is conveniently Gmail-based.)

They’re also rolling it out first-come, first-serve, slowly at first, but speeding up exponentially. I was fortunate enough to hear about the up-and-coming app back in December, from a blogger who got let in on the private beta and said it was the best thing since sliced bread. I got on the waiting list way back then, so I was only #18,728, and I got access to the app only a couple days after it launched last week. People getting in line now could be waiting a month. (While you’re waiting, the app shows the number of people in line in front of you and behind you. Last I saw, there were more than 600,000 behind me.) But I think the app is worth the wait.

If you’re an iPhone/Gmail user, you can read more about Mailbox at, and get it on the App Store here.

Back to Lent. Seeing as it starts Wednesday, I have a couple days to think about this some more, and see if there are any other ways I can unplug. (If you have ideas, drop them in the comments below.) In the meantime, I’ll probably start easing into the ideas I have so far, before going all-in on Wednesday. So there you have it. This could be an interesting six weeks. But I think it’ll be good. Really good.

(Also, in case you were wondering—my iPad and keyboard only stayed in the trash can long enough to take the picture. I actually wrote this on that iPad, with that keyboard.)


When I started this blog I said I wasn’t going to limit it to any specific topic, but that anything I think is worth sharing is fair game. So far, I’ve mostly written about matters of faith. Actually, that’s all I’ve written about, save the first paragraph of one post in which I got into a bit of a technology tangent. You probably didn’t notice, but I added a Technology category that I used on that post alongside my standard Christianity one. As I was writing that post, I had the thought that I just might get into that area a little more in the future. Now I’ve decided that I will.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a bit of a nut about gadgets and stuff. I keep up with happenings in the tech world (lowercase t, not to be confused with Tech, that is, Virginia Tech) the way normal people follow sports or politics, and with the same intensity. My biggest time waster is not Facebook but sites like Mashable, TechCrunch, and various individual tech bloggers. Which often include news about Facebook. So this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about doing some of my own tech blogging. I’ve never gone through with it because I didn’t really feel like I had anything to add. There are plenty of sites out there to get news. Mashable and TechCrunch are just two of them. The individual tech bloggers generally don’t break news but weigh in on it, giving their own insights, predictions, etc. But I didn’t really feel like had anything to add in that respect, either. Then the other night it hit me. Reviews. I enjoy trying out new apps, and when I can, new devices. And I can be very opinionated about what I like and what I don’t. Apple has left me with a deep appreciation for design—in aesthetics, functionality, and overall experience. As have many of the great iOS developers out there.

In the technology/startup world, a pivot is a company’s change in direction or focus from their original product or service. I’m blanking on an example right now. In the case of this blog, a pivot would be if I were to turn it into a technology blog. But don’t worry, that’s not what I’m going to do. What I’m doing isn’t really pivoting, in the strictest sense of the word. I will still be posting along the lines of what I’ve written on the blog before. That probably will remain my primary focus. I believe that matters of faith, of Truth, are the most important things I can discuss and share. That’s why so far that’s all I’ve written about. But I think there can be value in discussing technology as well.

So what you can expect in the future: as I said, I will keep writing about stuff God is showing me much, if not most, of the time. But I will also start posting reviews now and again. Unfortunately, unlike the tech blogs I read, I don’t have access to review units or the money to buy every new gadget that comes out. When I do get new hardware, I may decide to write a review. But I think the most valuable opinions I have to give in this area are on apps—specifically of the iOS variety. I’ve gotten comments about the number of apps I have on my home screens (although my brother beats me by a factor of…a lot.) (Update below.) Because most apps are free or cheap, I download new ones a lot to try out. Some become essential to my daily life, others find a place on my last home screen, so I can access them if I ever find a need for them. Others I get rid of. All that to say, I think it might be interesting for others out there to hear my thoughts on the apps I use, because we’ve entered an age where a significant percentage of the population of the developed world (and a growing number of people in the rest of the world) depend on pocket-sized computers that moonlight as phones, and on the apps that run on them. After all, smartphone sales have overtaken PC sales around the world.

This tech reviews thing might expand from here. It might get to a point where I decide to spin it off into its own blog. We’ll see. This is just another step in this big experiment that is this blog.

To whet your appetite a little: I downloaded a new iPhone app the other day called Moves. It’s basically an app that tracks your activity—walking, running, and cycling—as you go throughout your day. I’ve been using it the past few days, and while I have some initial impressions, the nature of the app is such that I want to get a good week of use out of it before writing about it—probably until next weekend. If you want to see it for yourself in the meantime, check it out on, and on the App Store. Stay tuned.

If you’ll excuse me, I have a Super Bowl party to get to.

Update: The results are in: my brother and I have compared numbers and it turns out I was wrong—more like using outdated information. I’m still pretty sure a couple years back he had a lot more apps than I did, but somewhere along the way the tables turned.

Good Books

I’ve been reading a book this week. As in, one of those things consisting of a bunch of pages held together at one edge, that you actually have to turn as you read. It’s been a strange experience. I had to get used to holding the book in my hand in such a way as to keep it open as I read, a position that used to be very familiar to me, but one that I haven’t had much practice with recently. I do all my reading on my iPad these days. As I’ve mentioned before, that includes reading the Bible. (Side note: What has me really drooling over the iPad mini is that its size and weight (from what I’ve heard) make it pretty much the most perfect reading device ever built. Whenever it gets a Retina display, perfection has been achieved.) I have a couple dozen books on a shelf that I have from before I started phasing out books that take up space on a bookshelf and pounds in a suitcase in favor of books that take up megabytes of digital storage. I hope to replace them with their digital counterparts eventually, but until then, I’m hanging on to the paper versions. But anything new I get, I get digitally. My textbooks this year are all digital rentals. Except for Waking the Dead, one of those books I mentioned that sit on my physical shelf, my entire John Eldredge collection resides on my iBooks bookshelf. I could go on.

Reading on an iPad has literally changed the way I read. I can’t bring myself to markup pages of books. But in iBooks, with highlighting and note tools built in and a swipe or a tap away, I find myself doing it more and more. When I picked up this book this week, several times I have really wanted to reach out and slide my finger along a sentence that really struck me, before I remembered that, well, that doesn’t work on this kind of book. I also wanted to tap on a word several times to bring up a definition. But, well, that doesn’t work either. And then when it came time to stop reading, it was really a jolt to remember that I needed a bookmark. I put the book facedown on my desk, open to the page, while I started searching through my desk drawers for my collection of bookmarks from back when I was an avid reader of the kind that required such things.

I actually didn’t start writing this to discuss paper versus digital, but I couldn’t resist recounting my experiences with this ancient technology. Anyways, you may be wondering what the book is, and why I’m reading it in this form factor. And where I’m going with all this.

The book is Confessions of a Caffeinated Christian, by John Fischer. (Kind of interesting given the image I’ve been using for my blog, which I took a couple years ago and started using for this blog when I started it in the spring. I wasn’t even thinking about this book, either when I took the picture or when I set it as the header image of my blog’s first look. In a case of interesting timing, though, my second redesign places the picture prominently again.) I first read it in tenth grade. It was one of the few books I checked out of the high school library during my time there. I checked it out because, being a coffee lover, it sounded interesting. I wasn’t prepared for how much that book would speak to me. It was incredible how much I could relate to the author, and not just in his love for coffee. He is, like me, an introvert. Not just an introvert. A loner. Much of his time growing up was spent on his own, doing his own thing. At one point he describes how much he enjoys sitting in a Starbucks with a cup of coffee, just watching the world go by. Watching everyone doing their thing, and just being removed from everything, in no hurry. He could be talking about me. In fact, I felt like that in a lot of the areas he discusses. The book is pretty much a compilation of anecdotes from his life that he uses to make a point. In almost every one of them, I could very easily put myself in his shoes. I just remember being struck by that, and really challenged in a lot of the things that he talks about.

Recently I remembered this book, and wanted to get my hands on it again. On looking into it, I learned that it seems to be out of print. This means there is no ebook version of it. Not on iBooks, not on the Kindle Store, not anywhere on the web that I could find. The only way I could find to get it was in paperback, used, on the Amazon Marketplace. After a lot of deliberation, I decided I wanted this book enough to do what I thought I was done doing—buy a paperback again. I bought it “Like New” through Amazon for a penny. Plus $3.99 shipping.

It arrived on Monday, and I picked it up from the mail room on Wednesday, and over the last five days I’ve had to force myself to put it down each time after reading several chapters a day. I don’t want to read it too fast, because then it’s done, until I read it again sometime down the road. I want to try and make it last at least a little while. I’m on track to finish it within about a week of getting it. I’d be finished in a day if I let myself.

Why does this book capture me so much? Part of it is the way coffee is kind of a staging point for almost every story, and each point he makes about some profound eternal truth. There’s something about relating profound eternal truths to something so ordinary and everyday. I mean, look at what Jesus did. The difference is that Jesus compared the kingdom of God to everyday things in the lives of first-century Jews. Fischer compares it to Starbucks. Another part of why this book grabs me is the numerous ways in which I can relate to the writer. But I think a lot of it is just how down-to-earth, how real he is. There’s just something about reading about someone else going through life, and all that it brings, and finding God in it. There’s no front, no facade. He’s brutally honest about what he’s thinking and feeling in the situations he recounts. Even when it’s not pretty. But then he gets to the good part, where God teaches him a lesson through the situation, in spite of his thoughts and feelings. Lessons that most of us need to hear. And most of the stories he tells are not spectacular events or anything. They’re the mundane, the everyday scenarios and encounters. That, too, makes the stories that much more powerful, in my mind.

Something that keeps coming to mind when I can’t put this book down is: why is this rarely the case with the Bible? Why is it that, more often than not these days, when I do read the Bible, I’m happy to put it down and check it off my list for that day, so I can get on with what I’d rather be doing?

After all, the Bible is by far the most dynamic book ever written. I mean, think about it. You’ve got genres across the board, from detailed chronologies and tables of figures to intense, R-rated action scenes and murders, to poetry and shockingly explicit love songs. And everything in between. You’ve got the Psalms, which range from cries of anguish and depression to songs of praise and intimate worship to prayers of vengeance against God’s and the psalmist’s enemies. There are the prophets, who put everything on the line to carry God’s message to his people, and in one breath pointed out the rebelliousness of Israel and Judah in incredibly graphic analogies, and then professed God’s undying love and offer of mercy to them in spite of it all. Everything I’ve just described can be found in just the Old Testament. Are you seeing it yet? I mean, if Hollywood picked up the story of the life of David (and if people could get past the stigma of it being a “Bible story”) it would be an instant blockbuster. It’s got everything all the hit action movies are known for. If you don’t believe me, seriously, read 1 and 2 Samuel. Approach it from that angle, not with the mindset you typically have of the Bible, but more like when you pick up The Lord of the Rings. And David’s just one example. From cover to cover, you find stories of individuals, from shepherds to fishermen to kings, going through life, and answering God’s call. Not perfectly, by any means. The Bible is also brutally honest, refusing to sugar-coat its heroes. Their failures, some pretty big ones, are immortalized for all to see in its pages. And yet you see how God used them anyways. You can relate to them. Some more than others, and not always in their specific circumstances, but in their humanity. Their hopes and dreams, their successes, their failures, their strengths, their flaws. These are things we all have. And when you take a step back, you see how each of their lives plays into this plot of epic proportions that is woven throughout, from Genesis to Revelation.

And of course, in four books tucked in the middle somewhere is the centerpiece of it all, who is right at home in all this. Jesus is undoubtedly the most dynamic person to ever walk this earth. This rabbi from the backwater town of Nazareth, who touched lepers, hung out with notorious sinners, and picked fights with the religious leaders, was a far cry from the one-dimensional person he is mistaken for much of the time. He welcomed kids with open arms when his disciples thought he wouldn’t have time for them. He had compassion on the blind, the lame, the grieving, and set things right. He invited himself over to a tax collector’s house for lunch, and changed the guy’s life. He overturned tables in the Temple and sent merchants, money changers, and livestock scattering—not losing control in a fit of rage, but in an act of premeditated aggression, in which he took the time to braid a whip to do it more effectively. He cursed a fig tree and made it wither up because he was hungry, but figs happened to be out of season. He told his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood. He made a name for himself with his teachings and miracles, but shunned the popularity and skipped town to go preach and heal elsewhere. The crowds were amazed by the authority with which he taught and flocked to him. The Pharisees hated him for stubbornly refusing to stoop to their petty interpretation of God’s Law. He cried out to his Father in anguish in anticipation of the torture, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, that he was about to go through. But then he quietly took the beatings, the mocking, the rigged trial and unfair death sentence. The crowd who had hailed him days before asked for his crucifixion and the release of a revolutionary instead. And with legions of angels at his command, ready to obliterate his executioners and establish his rule on earth, Jesus allowed nails to be pounded through his hands and feet into the wooden beams that he hung on until his strength gave out, and he suffocated. He allowed the weight of the sin of the world and all its consequences to be placed squarely on his shoulders. And then he willingly released his spirit.

But he wasn’t done. Not by a long shot. He wrestled the keys of death and Hades from the devil and walked out of that tomb on Sunday morning. But instead of showing up at Herod’s and Pilate’s and saying, “Nice try,” and proving to the world once and for all that he is the Messiah, he showed himself to his followers, and told them to tell the world.

Who is this guy?

And yet, for all this, so much of the time the Bible can seem dry. Too familiar. I’ve heard it all so many times that sometimes the power of it is lost on me.

I think I’ve rambled enough. What’s the takeaway point here? I think there are a couple.

One is that, as great and important as Scripture is, sometimes God speaks to us other ways. As John Eldredge said, “Truth doesn’t need a verse attached to it to be true” (Waking the Dead). The implication of this is that time spent connecting with God does not necessarily have to be time reading the Bible. For me, it’s often reading books, like the one I’ve been reading the past several days. Sometimes God seems to be speaking far louder to me through those than he is through the Bible. Other times, it’s listening to music. Other times it’s just sitting in silence and reflecting. Sometimes it’s blogging. It can look like a lot of things, and can look different for different people. We don’t have a relationship with the Bible. We have a relationship with Jesus. I think it’s more important to be open to the way God is working than to blindly read the Bible “because I should.”

The caveat to that entire paragraph is that the Bible is the only book that can claim to be God’s inspired word. Even the books I read that point to Jesus are only lenses through which to see the truth of the Bible. Of course, it also is important to make sure that they do line up with the truth of the Bible. These other things can ultimately only supplement Scripture. A Bible-free diet is not recommended. While every chunk of time we set apart to connect with God doesn’t necessarily have to be reading the Bible, we do need to be reading it.

Which brings me to my other point. As I pointed out above, the Bible is an incredible book. Unlike any other. When I get past the mindset that I’ve read it all before, and look at it with fresh eyes, I can be blown away. Sometimes I envy people who are reading the Bible for the first time. While I have an understanding of it that only a lot of experience with it can bring, I don’t always have that wide-eyed amazement at what I’m reading. Many people who start reading it for the first time just can’t get enough of it. It’s so fresh and real to them, and unlike anything they’ve ever read. I can’t remember the first time I read most parts of the Bible. I was far to young to really grasp how incredible what I was reading was. By the time I could, I’d already read it a bunch. The downside of having a lot of verses memorized from when I was young is that it’s easy to rattle them off or read over them without grasping what they’re saying. There are still definitely moments where something strikes me that I’ve never realized before. That’s the beauty of the Bible. There’s always something new to discover. A passage that you’ve read a million times can speak into your situation in a way you’ve never thought of it before. But if you’re just reading it to check it off your list, skimming because you already know what it says, you’ll miss these moments. This is why I said go into it with a different mindset, looking to read it from a new perspective. Asking God to make it come alive to you. More often than not, the times that I get the most out of my time with the Bible are the times when, before I start, I specifically ask God to speak to me through what I’m about to read. And then I go into it deliberately reading with fresh eyes.

Like I said, read the story of David’s life like you would a novel. It’s pretty intense.