Jokes from class today

The question of the day in today’s middle school class was “What’s your favorite joke?” This unleashed a spate of jokes. We all laughed (and groaned) a lot, and I realized that during the pandemic I don’t hear jokes much any more. Below are some of the jokes I can remember from today’s class; add more (clean ones preferred) in the comments.

Why is pi the loneliest number?
No one talks to him because he goes on forever.

A goat, a drum, and a snake fall off a cliff.
Baa, dump, tss.

What do you call a cow with no legs?
Ground beef.

Why did the whale cross the road?
The chicken was on a break.

What’s the stickiest Greek monster?
The Mino-tar. (thanks, Benjamin!)

Research on Zoom fatigue

An article published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, Jeremy N. Bailenson reviews existing research to try to understand why Zoom meetings can be so fatiguing. The article’s title, “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue,” summarizes what Bailenson perceives to be the primary cause of Zoom fatigue: it’s the nonverbal elements of Zoom that are so tiring. In the article’s abstract, Bailenson also states the limits of his paper:

“The arguments are based on academic theory and research, but also have yet to be directly tested in the context of Zoom, and require future experimentation to confirm.”

Bailenson outlines four “possible explanations of Zoom fatigue”:

“Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility. All are based on academic research, but readers should consider these claims to be arguments, not yet scientific findings.”

Bailenson then suggests small changes to the user interface of Zoom. Smaller default size of heads in the Zoom window reduce the load of “close-up eye gaze.” Cognitive load may be reduced by making audio-only calls the default. Using the “Hide Self” feature in Zoom does away with the problem of staring at one’s own video feed. Finally constraints of physical mobility can be handled by hardware solutions: “Use an external webcam and external keyboard that allows more flexibility and control over various seating arrangements.”

Note that Bailenson firmly states that all his suggestions need to be confirmed by further research. I already disagree with Bailenson on at least one point. I don’t use the “Hide Self” feature on Zoom because it’s too easy to go off camera; instead I prefer the user interface of Google Meet which shows a tiny thumbnail view of oneself, too small to see details, but just large enough so you can see if you’re going off camera. Bailenson also points out some interesting possibilities for further research. For example:

“Very few psychology studies on mediated interaction examine groups larger than two or three people, and future work should examine the psychological costs and benefits of video compared to audio in larger groups.”

As I think about Bailenson’s article, here are some changes in the way I use Zoom that I’ll implement for myself:

  • I’ll sit further away from my webcam, to reduce excessive close-up eye gaze
  • I’ll continue to use my remote keyboard, and my under-desk cycling machine, to reduce my fatigue by allowing more physical mobility for myself
  • When teaching small groups, I’ll use more screen sharing, which reduces apparent head size and provides another center of interest so participants don’t have to stare at me or each other

One big problem with any video platform, from my point of view as a religious educator, is that a lot of what I do is social-emotional learning. And a big chunk of social-emotional learning is about using nonverbal communication in a way that simply isn’t possible on video calls. So I’m also going to remain aware that videoconferencing has definite limitations, and I’m not going to expect it to do things it cannot do.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on improving our uses of videoconferencing.

The Turtle and the Geese

Possum, Sharpie, and friends act out one of their favorite Jataka tales — the one about the Turtle who decided to migrate with two of his goose friends. Let’s just say the migration flight does not go well.

Click on the image above to view the video on Vimeo.

Thanks to guest puppeteer Carol Steinfeld. As usual, the full script for the video is below.

Continue reading “The Turtle and the Geese”

COVID-safe outdoor program space

The pandemic has forced many readjustments. Children’s programming is, I feel, a big challenge. Given that there’s still no vaccine in testing for children 12 and under, we may be looking at COVID restrictions in children’s programming for another academic year. Offering only online programming for another academic year does not feel like a good solution to me.

Our congregation is fortunate in having lots of good outdoor space. The problem with our outdoor space is that anyone can access it, and current regulations for children’s programming in our county require limiting access to children’s programming space so that only the children and staff may enter. So the congregation purchased that ugly orange emergency fencing and a bunch of steel fence posts, and last week I and one of the members of the Board of Trustees (who is teaching in one of our in-person classes, and who is also the teen member of the Board) installed a fence around our primary children’s program area.

It’s not very attractive, but it seems to do the job of keeping unauthorized persons out of the program area. Once you’re inside the children’s program area, it’s less visible. In fact, the program area looks reasonably attractive.

We have some more improvements in the works, and soon should have another COVID-safe in-person children’s programming area ready. We’re going to max out at two in-person children’s programming areas, however, because at this point each program area has to have its own bathroom. With the bathroom limitation and the maximum allowed group size fo social distancing, our capacity for in-person children’s programs has dropped from 80 children pre-pandemic, to 16 under current COVID regulations.

What’s good about the pandemic?

I’ve been trying to think of good things that have come out of this pandemic. Most of the pandemic is bad: personally there’s the loss of social contact, cabin fever, the fact that every task at work seems to take much longer so I either have to work long hours or things don’t get done, we can’t go to visit our relatives (who live far away)…. Then in wider society, there’s economic disaster, increasing mental distress and illness, rise in domestic violence, children not learning, widening gap between the rich and everyone else….

So is there anything good to come out of this pandemic?

Well, I haven’t had a cold or any other illness since the pandemic started. Wearing masks in public places (as everyone does here in San Mateo County) and frequent hand washing really do reduce the spread of illnesses.

I only have to commute to the office twice a week, and traffic is light when I do drive. Pre-pandemic, when there was a lot of traffic, I had a grinding, soul-sucking commute, so this is a benefit.

Since I’m stuck at home, I’ve been practicing the guitar more. I haven’t become a good guitarist by any means, but at least I’m no longer bad.

That’s really all I can come up with right now. Maybe you can add to this list?

Unpleasant meditation-related experiences

A peer-reviewed paper published back in 2019 states that significant percentages of regular meditators may have negative meditation experiences:

“Surveying over one thousand regular meditators, this is the largest cross-sectional study to assess particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences to date. Approximately one quarter of participants reported that they had encountered particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences (e.g., anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world) in the past.” Schlosser M, Sparby T, Vörös S, Jones R, Marchant NL (2019) Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216643.

I’m glad to see that this phenomenon is finally being studied. I meditated for years, but stopped because it became — well, unpleasant. As a minister, I’ve come across other people who don’t meditate for the same reason. Unfortunately, almost all of the recent scientific studies of meditation and mindfulness focus on the purported benefits of meditation and mindfulness; indeed, Schlosser et al. were only able to find two other studies that looked at the negative effects of meditating (both those studies also reported high percentages of people with unpleasant meditation-related experiences).

To my mind, there’s been a bias at work among scientists studying meditation and mindfulness, not unlike the biases in those scientific studies that purportedly prove the power of prayer. This bias is prevalent, not only among scientists engaged in studying “contemplative science,” but also among Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists tend to be skeptical of prayer, and have tended to be skeptical of studies proving the power of prayer. Yet Unitarian Universalists seem to abandon their skepticism when it comes to mindfulness and meditation.

But back to the study of unpleasant meditation-related experiences. The authors of this study make the important point that these unpleasant experiences need additional study:

“The high prevalence reported here and previously points to the importance of expanding the scientific conception of meditation beyond that of a (mental) health-promoting, stress-reducing, attention-enhancing, self-regulating technique.”

I would add an important ethical warning to anyone who teaches or recommends meditation. Those who teach or recommend meditation or mindfulness have an ethical duty to acknowledge to potential students that meditation can result in unpleasant side effects. Schlosser et al. cite a study which outlines some of the unpleasant effects meditators may experience: “fear, anxiety, hallucinations, social impairment, and changes in motivation, worldviews, self-world boundaries, sleep”; some of these are not trivial.

Those who teach meditation and mindfulness to children have a special ethical burden. Not only do they need to recognize that as many as a quarter of their students may have unpleasant experiences from meditation, they need also figure out how they’re going to support vulnerable children who have these experiences.

I’m not saying that we should not teach meditation and mindfulness. But if you do teach these practices, do it ethically.

The biggest environmental threat in California?

Here’s another environmental threat to keep you up at night:

“Nitrogen deposition and pollution is [a] more acute threat than climate change. … [But] few people are paying attention.” — Dr. Stuart Weiss, Chief Scientist of Creekside Science.

Weiss’s key paper on Bay Area nitrogen deposition, written while he was at Stanford, has a great title: Cars, Cows, and Checkerspot Butterflies: Nitrogen Deposition and Management of Nutrient-Poor Grasslands for a Threatened Species (Conservation Biology, v. 13 no. 6, Dec. 1999, pp. 1476–1486).

I’m listening to Weiss talk to the California Naturalist class I’m taking right now. Weiss makes some interesting points: Smog does an amazing amount of damage, not only to human lungs but also to non-human organisms. Non-native grasses are big contributors to the increase in pollen in recent times. Free-range cattle on California grasslands can keep non-native invasive grass species under control, providing habitat for endangered species as well as reducing allergens.

Radio silence

Aside from the weekly videos, I haven’t had much time for blogging recently. Looks like we’ll be starting a few in-person classes again in our congregation. Making that happen safely is a time-consuming process. Which means not much time for anything else.

Dealing with the pandemic is a time-consuming process….