Seat at the table

I’m following the story of how workers in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are currently voting whether or not to join a union. The management of early twenty-first century Amazon warehouses sound a lot like the management of early twentieth century cotton mills: speed up work until the workers break, fire anyone who raises safety concerns, do anything to keep the unions out.

A BBC article on this story quotes Peter Romer-Friedman, a civil rights lawyer:

“The key question in America at the moment is are we going to have fair treatment of workers in the businesses that will dominate our future? … The concept that workers get a seat at the table is a radical concept for people in Silicon Valley.”

In fact, the assumption that workers should not have a seat at the table is a cornerstone of the Silicon Valley business model. Tech firms have been leaders at offshoring, outsourcing, using “contractors,” and requiring their few actual employees to put in 10-12 hour days as a matter of course. So why would they give workers a seat at the table?

The problem for workers: if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re on the menu.

Living in a sick world

Gospel singer Deitrick Haddon has released a new single in which he takes on pandemic deaths and grief. Listen to Haddon’s soaring, swooping gospel voice over a compelling trap backing track: “Sick World” by Dietrick Haddon.

What I especially like about this song is that Haddon gets the way grief is additive. All the grief we’ve experienced since the pandemic began gets added to all the grief we’ve experienced from COVID deaths and COVID-related deaths. Haddon specifically mentions Kobe Bryant’s death, and the official music video references the insurrectionists storming the Capitol building: these and many other events get added to the people we know who’ve died because of COVID. Here are some of the lyrics:

“We’ve got kids killing each other in Chicago,
Detroit just ain’t the same no more,
And it ain’t getting better on the West Coast —
Tell me why we treating each other so cold.
People would rather put faith in a vaccine
Than wearing a mask, keeping their hands clean,
And this will all go down in history
That thousands have died cause we cannot agree, yeah.
Living in a sick world, but I’m praying you are well,
We can’t stand to lose nobody else,
Can’t stand to lose nobody….”

I don’t listen to much gospel or hip hop any more, but the powerful lyrics and the high level of musicianship make this song worth a listen. And yes, I am praying that you are well.

YouTube is evil

I’ve hated YouTube for a long time, but they finally went too far. I’m going to start moving the videos I make for kids to another platform.

What was the final straw that’s causing me to ditch YouTube?

I created a children’s video for this Sunday’s online worship service. I was careful to use either my own content, or public domain content (e.g., music), or Creative Commons content (e.g., sound effects) I have a great respect for the rights of authors and creators, and I don’t want to violate copyright.

YouTube has a new process whereby when you upload a video, they scan it for copyrighted material. Fair enough. The scan of my latest video claimed to have found copyrighted material on my video. That’s not fair, but that happens because YouTube relies on machine algorithms instead of humans to review copyrighted material, and they give free access to the algorithms of known copyright trolls. So while it’s not fair, I can deal with it. I’ve dealt with it before — you submit a claim showing why the copyright claim is incorrect, wait seven days, and it goes away.

But as it turned out, this time not only did I get a message telling me that there’s a claim, but for the past two hours there’s been another message freezing the video because, so they say, they were still scanning for copyright violations. The effect of this is that YouTube has given me no way to contest the claim. Which is utter bullshit. And don’t tell me to contact customer support. YouTube is notorious for having no customer support at all — because, hey, we’re not customers, we’re the product they’re selling (or more precisely, our data is the product).

There are plenty of other reasons why I hate YouTube. I know they’re collecting unbelievable quantities of user data and using that data for purposes I don’t approve of. I don’t mind so much for myself — I’m going into this with my eyes open — but I’m making videos for kids, and I simply do not trust YouTube with kids’ data. Plus YouTube video compression sucks, producing inferior audio and video quality. Remember, their business model is to provide the absolute minimum of quality, with the least amount of paid human time, while selling the absolute maximum amount of data to advertisers and others; their sole goal is to make tons of money, with no apparent effort to provide any redeeming social value. By saying this, I don’t want to denigrate their workers, who work incredibly long hours and work software engineering miracles; but YouTube’s corporate management is, at best, amoral.

Do I need to add the fact that, as is true of all Big Tech employers, YouTube has insufficient numbers of women, people of color, and people over the age of 40 working at the company? The Big Tech firms are notorious for their sexism, racism, and ageism; YouTube is no exception.

I’ve known for some time that I need to move the children’s videos I make to a paid hosting service. So I finally bit the bullet and opened a Vimeo account. That’s where I’ll be posting all future kid’s videos that I make. Eventually I’ll move older videos there, though that will take time.

It’s been a relief to take this step. I’ve long been uncomfortable with YouTube’s exploitative business model. I’m glad I can stop feeling morally compromised.

Sweet sixteen

I completely forgot that February 22 was the sixteenth birthday of this blog. So here, a week and a half late, is this blog’s sixteenth birthday post.

Blogging is completely different now than it was on February 22, 2005, when this blog started. Back then, blogs were social media; there was no other social media to speak of. Back then, blogs were mostly run by individuals who were willing to learn how to install cranky software on remote servers, and social media was mostly a labor of love. Now, social media is dominated by big corporations like Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube, which seem bent on destroying democracy. Now, social media is a big business where your data is the product that’s being sold. So now that “social media” is a dirty word, I’m proud to say this blog can no longer be considered social media.

Other things have changed over the years. Back in 2007, I attended Podcamp Boston and learned from innovative people called “vloggers” who were using videos to blog. So for the next twelve months, I uploaded a weekly video to my blog; the videos were hosted on a service called Blip.tv, which went defunct a few years later, taking all fifty-plus of my videos with it when it died. (And it’s just as well those old videos are gone: I still have files for one or two of them, and they were pretty crude.) To produce online videos in 2007, I had to purchase a fancy camcorder, edit the video footage on my laptop, make sure the encoding wouldn’t choke the host service, then upload it to the host. But today, people can shoot video with their phone and upload it directly to TikTok or Youtube.

And I’ve watched the audience for this blog change over the years. In 2005, my readers were the forty other UU bloggers, plus some tech-savvy people who thought to do a Web search for “UU blog.” By 2008, the peak of blogging was over; Facebook had begun its climb to dominance of social media; Twitter was just starting to become popular with what was then known as “microblogging”; and Youtube was becoming a destination on its own rather than just a host for video content. I had already begun to see a shift in who was visiting my blog. Half the traffic to my blog was readers looking at the front page to read the most recent posts; but half the traffic was through Web searches that found older posts. Today, most of my visitors are going directly to older posts.

But I still have a few regular readers who stop at the front page to check out the latest posts. I hope I continue to publish material that’s interesting enough that you, dear readers, continue to return here for another sixteen years.

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.

A historical materialist looks at the “Jericho March”

There’s no doubt that today’s armed insurrection was driven by white supremacy. The well-publicized photo of a white man smiling as he carried a Confederate battle flag through the Capitol building makes that clear, if we hadn’t already figured it out.

There’s also no doubt that today’s treasonous actions were driven by the idolatrous heresy known as Christian nationalism. This New Religious Movement — maybe we should use the pejorative term, and call it a cult — followers of this cult of Christian nationalism believe that their god is somehow specially aligned with the United States.

The white supremacy, and the heretical idolatry, helped drive these white terrorists. But I think economic desperation is also driving the broader movement that thinks the election was stolen from their populist hero Donald Trump. There’s too much economic desperation, and that desperation is increasing as the pandemic drags on. There’s a growing number of people who can’t work from home, whose businesses have gone under, whose jobs have disappeared. The divide between the haves and the have-nots has been getting bigger for decades; the pandemic has accelerated this trend.

If we’re going to turn our country away from the treasonous armed terrorists, we absolutely have to address white supremacy. We absolutely have to address the idolatry of the cult known as Christian nationalism. And we also must deal with the economic desperation in the U.S.

Let’s hope today will be the end of Trump’s influence. But even if Trump goes away, the underlying problems will still be there. We have learned that white supremacy, idolatry, and economic desperation are a toxic mix, and we must address all three.

Using Jamulus to sing online in real time

The Bay Area Sacred Harp (BASH) singing community has been using Jamulus to sing together online, in four part harmony, in real time. The big problem with trying to sing online together is that the Internet has built-in “latency,” or lag time. Jamulus is free open source software that minimizes latency to allow people to make music together in real time.

Last night, we had eight singers logged in to our Jamulus server, including two singers from Southern California. And it finally felt like we’re getting the hang of how to do this.

We started experimenting with Jamulus back in June, and since mid-August we’ve been singing twice a month, so this is our seventh regular meeting. Singing online requires several adjustments on the part of singers. First you have to get used to the Jamulus platform, including watching your volume level, adjusting the volume levels of other singers, etc.

Beyond the technical learning curve, there’s also a musical learning curve. You have to get used to the fact that you have no visual cues, so instead of watching someone beating time you have to maintain a very sure sense of the tempo. You also have to get used to the fact that there’s more lag time than when singing in person; in person, you can rely on another singer by listening to them and following a split second behind, but singing online has just enough lag time that you have to be exactly on the beat (or even the tiniest bit ahead). In short, you have to be very confident of your part.

No, it’s not as good as singing in person. But because of the pandemic, singing in person simply isn’t possible. This is the best alternative; and really, given how good it feels to be able to sing with others, it’s a pretty good alternative.

I’ll continue after the jump with more technical details.

Continue reading “Using Jamulus to sing online in real time”

Flipgrid

This year, the Religious Education Association (REA) invited anyone who’s going to participate in their online annual meeting to post a video response on Flipgrid, answering the question, “Why REA?”

Of course I had to try it. I’m always a sucker for trying out new forms of social media, especially when they’re designed for educators. And Flipgrid advertises itself as a video making Web site that can be used from preK to PhD — how cool is that?

But then I logged in — you can log in using your Google account — and Flipgrid told me it only supports Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge. Seriously? no support for Firefox or Safari? Oh, right, it’s a Microsoft company. At least they allow video uploads, so I recorded a quick-and-dirty video and uploaded it. But I won’t be using Flipgrid with kids, because what about that kid who doesn’t have Chrome or Edge….

Aside from that fatal flaw, Flipgrid seems like it has potential. You as teacher can post a video, kids can respond to it, Flipgrid gives you a QR code that you can send to parents so they see the video responses. Although, uh oh, what about media releases to show videos of legal minors? Given the safety policies in our congregation, that’s another fatal flaw if I want to use it with kids.

Even though Microsoft has incorporated at least two fatal flaws in Flipgrid, the basic idea still has potential. And it still could work with adult programs.