Browser privacy

I’m not keen on having anyone know my Web browsing habits; I’ll go into my motivations in the last paragraph of this post. I’ve taken the obvious steps to reduce the risks of being tracked online: using DuckDuckGo in private mode as my primary search engine, and Firefox as my Web browser. But online surveillance is only getting worse, and recently I decided to become more resistant to Web tracking.

I had already enabled private browsing and other privacy and security features in Firefox’s preferences, and I had already installed the Privacy Badger add-on in Firefox. I checked what I had done against a number of online privacy checklists (such as this one). Next step was to change advanced about:config settings based on this list.

Now I was ready to test my browser’s privacy using Panopticlick, an online service of the Electronic Frontier Foundation that checks if your browser is safe against tracking. My browser was blocking ads and invisible trackers, but it was not protecting against fingerprinting. Yikes! fingerprinting made it way too easy to track me online. So I installed the NoScript add-on in Firefox: problem solved. Now my browser runs a little differently from what I was used to, but the inconvenience is minor.

Why should anyone care about their Web browsing privacy? For my part, I don’t want to give my information away to for-profit companies: I don’t need targeted advertisements, and I don’t need them accumulating my data. And, in the increasingly polarized political climate of the U.S., even though a philosophical theologian like me should be reading Karl Marx’s works, or a speech by Fred Hampton, or theology essays by William R. Jones, there’s no reason to let others know about it. In short, I decided to give Big Tech (corporations, the Russians, the “Gummint,” whoever) as little information about myself as possible. You will make your own decision of what to do, from freely giving your browsing data away, to being very privacy-conscious by using something like the Tor browser. I suppose this is really an existential point: you define yourself by how much of your data you give away.

Updating Web site security

This site, as is true of many Web sites, has been experiencing attacks for some years now; one such attack took down this site in early 2011. Believe me, having your Web site go down definitely sucks. Since 2011, with the expert help and advice of my Web hosting service, the security on this site has been continually upgraded. Among other measures, Wordfence has been installed on the WordPress installations, Cloudflare is in use, and the site was moved to servers optimized for WordPress.

And now, finally, thanks to Dennis at Deerfield Hosting, this site is using SSL certificates. SSL Labs now gives this Web site an “A+” rating on its SSL report.

Some things to look out for:

1. Dennis writes: “I have purposely limited the cipher suites available to deliver the site. Analysis and specifics here. Some people will and do disagree with doing that. Some visitors will not be able to see your site. I’ve looked at the stats and the numbers are very low, to the point where calling these cases very rare is accurate.” If you can’t see the site, you obviously won’t be reading this. But this is still a reminder to use up-to-date software. Also, one possible browser upgrade you might be interested in is the “HTTPS Everywhere” plugin for Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, available from the Electronic Frontier Foundation here.

2. This Web site should automatically redirect an “http” link to an “https” link, but there may be occasional problems. If you find such a problem, please let me know (so far I’ve heard from one Web manager who found this problem).

3. In a similar vein, I am updating internal links. Until I have finished doing so, some internal links may not work. Please let me know if you find one, and I will fix it ASAP.

4. Web geeks will be interested to know that Dennis also switched this site to HTTP/2. He writes: “Your site is now among the first sites on the Internet to employ HTTP/2, the successor to HTTP/1.1. Only about 2% of sites have this distinction. One of the advantages is faster site delivery. Page components are requested and delivered asynchronously over a single connection. More information here.”

Finally, I can’t thank Dennis at Deerfield Hosting enough. Most Web hosts these days just provide a commodity, and it’s great to be with a Web host that still provides actual customer service.

Update:
To clarify a little, software which will be unable to establish a secure connection with this site includes:
— Android 4.3 and earlier
— Internet Explorer 6-9
— Safari 5-6
If you’re reading this, your browsing software is reasonably up-to-date. Yay, you!

Going from “Oops” to “Yay!”

My denomination recently did an excellent redesign of their Web site, making it completely responsive and easy to view on tablets and smartphones.

My denomination then updated the denominational bylaws so they are now only available as a PDF. Which means the bylaws are now neither responsive nor easy to view on tablets or smartphones.

Improve a Web site. Yay!

Then break it. Oops.

This is why it is essential to have processes in place to continually monitor a Web site’s usability. Because it is way too easy to do something stupid that breaks the functionality of even a modestly complex Web site (he says, speaking from personal experience). And because when you go from “Yay!” to Oops,” you need to be able to get back to “Yay!” as quickly as possible.

Let’s talk UU SEO

Behind the scenes, several Unitarian Universalist bloggers have been discussing how to increase traffic to blog posts that the blogger thinks are useful or important. One UU blogger observed that if you write a post that is some combination of controversial, critical, or ranting, you are more likely to get a lot of hits on that post. But how do you drive traffic to more thoughtful posts that you think are worthy of a wider readership, but which aren’t the kind of traffic you think they deserve? The advice given by several bloggers was to write headlines and titles that are carefully designed to drive appropriate traffic to the blog post.

This is a sound approach to driving traffic to your blog, and I have no intention of following it.

Over the years, I’ve tried this approach a few times, and I’ve written a few blog posts on controversial topics that, judged by my low standards, got a fair amount of traffic. I discovered three things: First, writing controversial blog posts that attract lots of traffic forces me to think about the world in ways that I do not enjoy: you have to start looking for controversies everywhere. Second, once you start getting more than half a dozen comments on controversial blog posts you are going to have to spend time moderating whackos and fending off trolls, activities I find dull and unpleasant. Third, controversial blog posts tend to attract readers who either have an axe to grind or who aren’t interested in nuance, people with whom I have little in common.

So I came up with a different strategy for writing blog posts.

I tend to write carefully-written, well-documented posts designed to have a long shelf life. Such posts might provide information not easily available elsewhere on the Web, e.g., the posts I have done on Black theologian William R. Jones. Or such posts might provide authoritative information on an area where I have some level of expertise, e.g., the post I did on implementing #FergusonSyllabus in Sunday school. Or such posts might provide useful summaries on an obscure topic (note that since Unitarian Universalism is a tiny sect, most UU topics are obscure), e.g., the posts I have done on the theological influence Mary Rotch had on Ralph Waldo Emerson. In SEO (search engine optimization) terms, this is a variant of “long tail search”; my SEO goal is to have lots of authoritative posts with just a few highly specific links going into them.

To put it another way, trying to compete for traffic with Huff Post (or for that matter with Doug Muder and Vicki Weinstein) is a mug’s game, a strategy with a low chance of success. At least, it’s a mug’s game for someone like me, because I’m not that kind of writer.

I’ve spent some time thinking about the kind of writing I am best able to do. My partner, a former freelance writer, talks about being an “information hunter-gatherer,” and I can do some of that. My older sister, a professor of writing and an author, talks about the book by Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work, and I can do some of what Coles describes. Then too I’m a minister, and every once in a while I’m able to do some writing on spiritual topics.

Once we’ve gone this far, the rest is obvious. Finding out what kind of writer you are means figuring out who your readers are, and what they are interested in reading. Finding out who you are as a writer means learning how to write well for your readers. Depending on who you are as a writer, this could mean learning how to write clickbait headlines, and keyword-rich blog posts. Or if you’re a different kind of writer, this could mean something different. In my case, it means trying to write well-crafted short essays on topics about which I have knowledge. And in your case, it might be something else altogether.

I don’t believe there is one best way to write a blog. I believe what you want to do is know who you are as a writer, know who your readers are, write well-crafted blog posts aimed at your readers, and then find the SEO strategy that best allows you to reach your readers.

Secure video chat

Deborah, another UU minister, told me about VSee, a video chat service with 256-bit encryption. VSee is designed as a “telehealth” app, for use by doctors and other medical professionals; the company claims that it is the first such application that complies with HIPAA.

Clergypersons working in congregations do not have to comply with HIPAA, and certainly HIPAA would not be the right set of standards for congregational work. But maybe we should be thinking more about how to protect the privacy of congregants. Email is far from secure, yet I find myself doing pastoral car via email. I don’t know that VSee is an appropriate product for me to use (I’ll have to experiment with it), but maybe it’s time to research options like this.

Tenth anniversary

On February 22, 2005 — ten years ago today — I published the first post on my blog. If you want, you can read the first post here. I’ve posted a summary of how the blog started elsewhere, so no need to rehearse that history now.

Ten years is a long time in the world of social media. When I started this blog in 2005, blogs were about ten years old, and their popularity was still rising as we migrated away from the command-line interface of the old social networks like Usenet to the amazing world of the Web. In 2005, MySpace was arguably the coolest social network, LiveJournal had just been purchased by Six Apart, and Facebook was limited to students in Ivy League colleges. How things have changed.

We are in a vastly different social media landscape today. A great deal of social media now happens away from the Web, in the social universe of texting and phone apps. Web-based social media has become dominated by for-profit companies which are really in the advertising business, not in the social media business. Blogging itself has become dominated by for-profit publishing companies like the Huffington Post. A great many amateur bloggers have discovered that it’s much easier to put your thoughts out on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest.

Yet in spite of all the changes in the social media landscape in the last ten years, there still appears to be a place for blogs written by amateurs. Blogging continues to be a fairly interesting publishing platform, one that attracts some fairly interesting writers. With that in mind, what better way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog than by pointing you to some blogs that I continue to read:

Charlie’s Diary, written by SF writer Charles Stross, along with guest bloggers and a host of literate commenters, brings back the glory days of blogging — heck, this blog takes me back to the glory days of Usenet, when intelligence, snark, wit, and seriously geeky knowledge ruled social media. Still more fun than Facebook or Twitter.

• I’ve been reading Hoarded Ordinaries off and on for over a decade. Sometimes the subject matter is trivial (this happens to every periodical; even Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote some real crap for The Rambler); sometimes the writing sounds a little too much like the creative nonfiction I used to hear in writing workshops. But Hoarded Ordinaries remains a fine example of the best of amateur blogging, and I keep going back every few months to check in.

• Scott Wells is still writing about religion at Boy in the Bands, and after more than a decade of reading him I still find it worthwhile to listen to what he has to say. This is one of the few religion blogs that I read regularly. I’ll admit my bias: Scott’s one of the few Universalists on the Web, and sometimes I read his blog just to get my fix of Universalism.

• Another religion blog that I read regularly is Roy King’s Mediterranean Wisdom. Roy’s training as a psychiatrist (and former professor of psychiatry at Stanford) and his training as a minister informs his writing about religion, which makes for some interesting reading. Since Roy is also a Universalist, I’m probably biased in his favor, but I can still recommend his blog.

A final note: It’s thanks to readers like you that amateur blogs remain viable. Thank you for supporting these independent voices!

REA: Teaching and learning in online spaces

In the afternoon pre-conference session of the Religious Education Association 2014 conference, Eileen Daily of Boston Univeristy and Daniella Zsupan-Jerome of Loyla University presented a workshop titled “Teaching and Learning in Online Spaces: An Experiential Engagement with Digital Creativity.”

While online media are new, Daily reminded us that religions have always used mediated forms of communication. “What did Paul do? He wrote letters!” she said. “Email is just another form of letter,” she added. “These are just new names for things we’ve been doing for a long time. There’s a difference of form, but there’s not necessarily a difference of message.”

Daily told us that when she teaches religious education online, she emphasizes nonlinearity. Whereas face-to-face learning environments lend themselves to a linear path through a subject, online environments lend themselves to a nonlinear approach. However, you still have to pay careful attention to course structure; there is a “Skinnerian side of education,” so there’s always a sense in which you have to “keep students in the rat maze” to produce behavioral outcomes. And Daily reminded us that the goal of any religious education is to “integrate religion into people’s messy lives.”

Daily and Zsupan-Jerome then led us in “a mini non-linear learning event that will appear on a curated platform at the end of the session.” As a subject for this experience in non-linear online learning, Daily and Zsupan-Jerome had us investigate the Salt Creek watershed; Salt Creek runs immediately behind the conference hotel. They split us into six groups, each group charged with investigating the environmental challenges facing Salt Creek through different approaches. Thus one group conducted Skype interviews with people who knew about Salt Creek; one group investigated sacred texts on the subject of the environment; another group researched specific environmental challenges facing Salt Creek today; etc.

Continue reading “REA: Teaching and learning in online spaces”

Developing online curriculum

Over the past few years, I’ve slowly been developing UU religious education curriculum that are meant to be published online. This past week, I finally put together a new Web site to publish them: Yet Another UU Curriculum Site.

At present, three curriculum are published on this site: “Beginnings,” an 8-session course for upper elementary grades; “Coming of Age,” a 9 month, 17 session, program for gr. 8-9; and “Greek Myths,” an 8-week course for upper elementary grades that’s still in development. In addition, I’ve included a selection of games that are appropriate for Sunday school classes and youth groups.

Why publish curriculum online?

First and foremost, I wanted to have the complete curriculum available in a format so that a teacher can access it with their smartphone or tablet.

This is good for teachers because all lesson plans and associated resources are easily accessible, and teachers don’t have to worry about leaving their curriculum book or binder at home. Long term, I will convert at least some of the curricula to epub format, and/or to printed books available as print-on-demand copies, so teachers can use whatever format they prefer.

View: Smartphone

Above: The site as it would be seen on a smartphone.

This is also good for parents, because parents can ask which lesson their child did on a given Sunday, and then look up that lesson online. Then they will can go over the material with their child if they want to. Some of the curricula I’m developing have a story associated with each lesson, and long term I’m planning to create storybooks in both epub and affordable print-on-demand print editions.

View: Laptop

Above: The site as it would be seen on a laptop or home computer.

Second, I wanted to have curricula online side-by-side with supporting resources. Thus, one of the first resources I’ve put up on this site are lots of games. That way, if a lesson plan fails, a teacher will have immediate access to back-up activities. Long term, I’m working on an online how-to-teach resource, with tips and techniques for adapting printed lesson plans for your own needs.

Finally, I want to see where this leads me, and I suspect I’ll start thinking differently about curriculum development. With cheap, easily accessible online publishing, it won’t just be teachers who are accessing curricula — parents and even kids will be able to do so as well. I’m going to start allowing people to add comments (which I will carefully curate), and that will enrich the curriculum. Finally, I’m contemplating adding some sort of assessment section to some of the curriculum, by developing fun ways for learners to show what they’ve learned.

This is very much a project that’s in development. I would value your thoughts and comments. To view “Yet Another UU Curriculum Site,” click here.

The year in review: UU social media in 2013

It feels to me as though there was a resurgence of energy and creativity among Unitarian Universalists using social media in 2013. I’m not sure we were always as effective as we could have been, but I saw energy and enthusiasm amongst Unitarian Universalist (UU) social media creators that led to some of our best use of social media ever. Here’s my list of the 2013 UU social media top three — two exemplars of how to use social media and one milestone in the evolution of UU social media:

1. CLF: This year, the best producer of UU social media was, without doubt, the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF). When you go to their Website, delightfully titled “Quest for Meaning,” you’re immediately presented with several ways you can engage with the CLF community: you can share your joy or concern; you can light a virtual chalice; you can click through to one of their blogs; you can register for an online course; you can find out about their online worship services; you can donate money or buy books that will provide them with a small kickback; and more. The front page of their Website lets you know that they really do have an online community — and their Website draws you in and offers you many ways to participate, at multiple levels of commitment. I’m pretty jaded by online engagement these days, but even so simple a thing as lighting their online chalice brought a smile to my face.

I’m even more impressed by CLF’s video offerings, which are easiest to track down on Youtube. You can watch video meditations, you can listen to their religious educator, Lynn Ungar, tell stories, you can hear homilies by their senior minister Meg Riley and others, and you can watch “The VUU,” an online UU talk show. I was particularly impressed by “The VUU”; I was prepared not to like it, I thought there was no way that I’d watch an hour-long video, I half-suspected it would be the usual overly-serious religious liberal talkfest. But it turns out that “The VUU” is funny, entertaining, thoughtful, and definitely worth watching. Ever since I watched the early videoblogs by Steve Garfield and others, I’ve been waiting for some Unitarian Universalist to figure out how to do something fun and creative with online video — and “The VUU” has finally done it; indeed, it exceeds my expectations.

2. UU World’s “Interdependent Web”: When Kenneth Sutton stopped curating “The Interdependent Web,” a weekly list of the most interesting posts from UU blogs, I was a little bit worried; I didn’t think anyone could be as good a curator as Kenneth. But I can say without diminishing Kenneth’s achievements in the least that Heather Christiensen, the new curator of “The Interdependent Web,” is even better. Heather has cast a very wide net, and tracked down new and unusual UU blogs that I otherwise would never have heard about; she has been unafraid to mention posts on controversial subjects (and her editors at UU World have obviously supported her in this); and she has been pretty consistent at finding good and thoughtful writing. Continue reading “The year in review: UU social media in 2013”

The next UU app

I’ve been talking with some people I know, and we’ve been brainstorming about the next UU app for Android and/or Apple iOS. Since some of these folks have experience in software and app development, this is not just a pipe dream. At the moment, we’re talking about really basic stuff, like an app for your congregation that lets you know the sermon topic for the week, then on Sunday provides you with an order of service so you don’t have to kill trees by taking a paper order of service. But I’m seeing this as just a first step.

So here’s my question — what UU app do you really want to see on your smartphone and/or tablet?