The problem with Diffen

Someone in our congregation pointed me to diffen.com, which says it will et you “Compare anything.” Want to compare the first generation Apple TV remote with the second generation version? Diffen has got you covered. My informant said that Diffen also has a religion category, so of course I had to check it out.

Diffen’s comparisons of religion would have gone well back in the 1960s, when we were beginning to understand that there was a great big world out there but we still unquestioningly accepted a world view centered on Europe and the United States. (A less polite way of saying this is that Diffen is about fifty years behind the current state of religious studies scholarship.) Yet Diffen’s understanding of religion is probably similar to that of the majority of Americans and Europeans. In other words, Diffen probably represents an accurate picture of pop culture notions of religion.

Let’s take one of their comparisons between two religions and pick it apart. Let’s click on Cao Dai vs. Confucianism.

“Place of origin” seems pretty straightforward, right? Clearly, Cao Dai originated in Vietnam, and Confucianism originated in China. Well, sort of. It might be more accurate to say that Cao Dai began in French Indochina; yes, that’s Vietnam, but Cao Dai emerged partly in response to colonial oppression. As for Confucianism arising in China, there was no nation known as “China” when Confucianism began, and indeed the teachings of Kongzi (“Master Kong,” i.e. Confucius) were often a direct response to the political situation of the Spring and Autumn period of the Eastern Zhou empire. Imperial China arose several hundred years after Kongzi lived, during the Qin dynasty.

Emphasizing the historical nature of religion is not mere nitpicking. One of the key goals of religious literacy, according to the American Academy of Religion, is helping people understand that religions change over time. With its simplistic category of “Place of origin,” Diffen removes historical nuance and may even lull you into thinking that religion is some timeless thing outside of history.

Later we come to “Use of statues and pictures.” Maybe Diffen thinks its intended audience isn’t smart enough to understand a term like “material culture.” But to me this feels like another instance of Western bias. We Westerners are still concerned with the split between Protestants and Catholics. We still think it’s important to know if a religion uses a lot of statues and pictures, because we want to know if that religion is more like Catholicism or Protestantism. But a more fruitful, and more nuanced, line of inquiry is to ask about the material culture of a religion. What physical objects are important to the religion? How are physical objects used by the religion?

You see attempts at nuance as you go down the list of comparisons between Cao Dai and Confucianism. There’s an item asking for a comparison of “Concept of Deity,” and under Confucianism it says, “Most [adherents] believe in One God, but this is not necessary since Confucianism is not a religion but a belief system about social ordering.” Whoever wrote this at least understands that Confucianism doesn’t fit well into the Western category of religion; whoever wrote this also understands that there’s at least some internal diversity within Confucianism. But once again Confucianism is reduced to some kind of simplistic East Asian Christianity. The underlying problem here is Diffen assuming that the way you must compare religions is to compare the “Concept of Deity” — given their Western bias, they obviously assume that all religions must have a concept of a deity. And indeed, a little further down the list, Diffen asks for a comparison of “Concept of God.” Because if it’s a religion, it must have a God (capitalized and singular).

I’m trying to be kind to Diffen. But — wow, I thought Wikipedia’s articles on religion have problems, but Diffen is unbelievably bad.

I don’t think the problem lies in Diffen, though. I think the problem lies in the religious illiteracy of Western culture. Most college graduates haven’t reached the basic, low-level standards for religious literacy established by the American Academy of Religion (more about those standards here). Many Americans are actually proud of being religiously illiterate: many American Christians think all they have to know is their Bible, and many American atheists and nones think religion should be ignored. Americans have a sense of cultural superiority and insularity that allow them to ignore the rest of the world. If you’re a white American, you can say: Why should I bother with Black culture, I’m not Black. If you’re a Christian, you can say: Why should I bother about Jewish culture, I’m not Jewish. If you’re an atheist or a none, you can say: Why should I bother about religious culture, I’m not religious.

Unfortunately, when it comes to religion, Diffen plays right into this sense of cultural superiority and insularity. Diffen might be great for comparing two different Apple TV remotes, but it’s not up to the task of comparing religious traditions.

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.

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.

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.

Adding links to video series

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing and producing videos nearly every week for the online worship services at the UU Church of Palo Alto. For my own reference, I just created blog posts for each of the videos I’ve done so far, including a still from the video, a link to the video on Youtube, and a full script. The posts are backdated to the Sunday on which the video appeared in the worship service.

You can see all these blog posts here.

Clicking on the image above will take you to my Youtube channel where the videos are posted

Stuffed Animal Sleepover in the worship service

The stuffies who were staying on the Stuffed Animal Sleepover appeared in the worship service today, and participated in the Flower Communion. Here’s a photo of the senior minister, Amy Morgenstern, welcoming the stuffies to the service:

Clicking the image above will take you to the video of the worship service on the UUCPA Youtube channel

Welcome to Chaos Manor

Beginning back in the 1980s, science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle wrote a column for BYTE magazine called “Computing at Chaos Manor” which consisted mostly of entertaining accounts of his struggles with computers and other IT software and hardware. Later on his blog “Chaos Manor,” arguably the first blog ever, Pournelle continued to write about his IT struggles, though unfortunately it looks like those old posts disappeared when Pournelle moved his blog to the WordPress platform in 2011. That’s too bad, because it would be fun to read those posts today, and se whether we’ve made any progress in home computing.

This past week, I’ve felt like I entered the land of Chaos Manor.

My troubles began when my HP Laserjet 1320 started malfunctioning: it would only print a page or two of a multi-page document, then shut down. At first I suspected that perhaps I’d missed an update for the printer driver, only to learn that HP no longer issues updates for that printer; I have to rely on Apple’s drivers. I’m told that writing printer drivers is not that hard — if you’re a software engineer, which I’m not. Instead, I looked online and bought a smaller, more energy efficient monochrome laser printer for under a hundred dollars. I had grown to like the old printer, as one grows attached to well-designed and reliable tools. Plus there is still plenty of toner in the cartridge (a corollary of Murphy’s Law says that a printer will die not long after you’ve purchased a new toner cartridge), and it can still print one page at a time. So it will go to my office as a last-ditch emergency back-up printer.

Then I made the mistake of learning how to use JamKazam, a service that allows you to make music online with other people, in almost real time. The problem with making music with other people online can be summed up in one word: latency. From a musician’s point of view, latency is the lag time between musicians, measured in milliseconds. 10 milliseconds of latency is approximately equivalent to standing 11 feet from your fellow musician; for a rule of thumb, think of 1 additional millisecond of latency as being 1 additional foot away from a fellow musician. Most musicians won’t even hear a latency of 10 milliseconds; 20 milliseconds becomes noticeable and may require extra concentration; and a latency of, say, more than 35 milliseconds makes it difficult to play in synch. If you want to know more about latency, you can read these posts on JamKazam’s support forum.

Jam Kazam provides a way of minimizing the latency, but it is not a plug-and-play-music solution. As I found out very quickly. When I tried to use the JamKazam service, their desktop client gave me several error messages. After a certain amount of swearing and head-scratching, the problem proved to be in my 11 year old wifi router. I attempted a firmware update, and the router stopped working. I had a moment of panic — Carol and I both rely on our internet connection, and we’d be in deep trouble if the router went down — but when I shut the power off and rebooted the router, it started working again. Sort of. Clearly, it was time to buy a new router.

The new router arrived today, and setting it up was mercifully easy. I started up the JamKazam desktop client on my MacBook Air, and everything worked well. However, the Jam Kazam client reported that at time I was using 20% of my processor power — and that was with just me, and no other musicians. So I started up the JamKazam desktop client on my Mac Mini, which has a much faster processor, plugged in my Blue brand Snowball USB microphone — and JamKazam returned an error message. The Snowball microphone samples at 44.1 KHz, and although JamKazam claims to allow you to change the sampling rate of your microphone, it soon became clear that unless I used a USB mic with a sampling rate of 48 KHz, the audio quality would be poor. In addition, the JamKazam desktop client revealed that the internal latency of the Mac Mini was quite high; it turns out this is a known issue with Macs: the Mac sound card introduces significant latency, which can be overcome by purchasing an external audio interface for, oh, two or three hundred dollars, or more.

I had just spent $180 on a blazing fast new wifi router; that expense I can justify. I cannot justify spending several hundred dollars on an audio interface and a new microphone. I went back to the MacBook Air. Using the internal microphone, the basic latency was under 10 milliseconds — more than sufficient for me to try using JamKazam with other musicians to see if I even like the experience.

One final addition to my home office has nothing to do with information technology, though it is the biggest improvement so far. I purchased a small apartment-sized rowing machine for under a hundred dollars. I can’t type while I’m rowing, but I can sit on the rowing machine and watch webinars or even read long pieces on Web sites. And whenever I need a five minute break, there it is, ready for me. If you’re ever on a videoconference call with me, and I turn off my video, you’ll know why — I’m rowing.

Speaking of which, I’ve been sitting at my computer too long. It’s time to row.

Thank you, UUA

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) posted a notice today recommending that Unitarian Universalist congregations should consider NOT opening in-person meetings before May, 2021. You can read the recommendations here.

I’m glad the UUA has issued these recommendations. I had already come to most of the conclusions outlined in their recommendations. I’ve been trying to figure out how to gently break it to lay leaders and congregants who are already feeling weary of being stuck at home, already getting tired of Zoom meetings, that we really won’t be able to meet in person until there’s an effective vaccine and/or an almost universally effective treatment with incredibly robust contact tracing in place. Which means most likely no in-person meetings for at least another year — maybe longer in some areas.

The only thing I’d quibble about in the UUA recommendations is this statement: “It is the UUA’s strong recommendation that congregations plan for ongoing virtual gathering and operations through May 2021.” I would have added the phrase “at least” before “through May, 2021.” I don’t think there’s any guarantee that we will be able to resume in-person meetings by the end of May 2021; human beings are really good at false hope, and I wouldn’t want to encourage that human tendency.

That minor quibble aside, the recommendations are quite well done, especially in how they recognize that different congregations in different locales will face different sets of problems.

Best of all, now I don’t have to go through the trouble of summarizing all the research I’ve been doing. All I have to do is point to the UUA recommendations, and say, “This generally agrees with the research I’ve been doing.”

And then we can all say together, “OK, let’s plan for a year of online programming. How can we unleash our creativity, serve the needs of our members and friends, and make Unitarian Universalism in Silicon Valley serve the goodness of humanity?”

Further adventures in online Sunday school

I’m still trying to figure out how best to deliver kid-friendly and parent-friendly religious education during the age of shelter-in-place.

Videoconference Sunday school, using Zoom, works well for some families. For younger kids, the format that works best centers around a story, followed by some kind of activity to go with the story. Middle schoolers tend to want more peer interaction.

But with any age, kids (and parents) who have had enough videoconferencing through school won’t attend. How to reach them? I got feedback from some parents that online videos might be useful, IF they didn’t require parental supervision.

So I’ve slowly been building up a library of on-demand videos that, while not explicitly religious in nature, at some level promote UU values. Here’s some of what I’ve collected on the UUCPA CYRE Youtube channel:

A series of “How To Make” videos, that mostly require easily obtainable materials like scrap paper, scissors, a pencil, and maybe crayons and sticky tape. These videos show how to make things that promote imaginative play and give children a sense of active engagement and agency. With these, my goal as an educator is to move kids away from being passive consumers of online content, towards actively creating their own imaginative lives.

There are several series of read-aloud books. Senior minister Amy Morgenstern is reading aloud the classic book “The Secret Garden.” Children’s librarian and member of our congregation Beth Nord is reading aloud Aesop’s Fables (with help from her stuffed animal friends); a fun way to do moral education. Abby Kingsbury, UU and children’s librarian (and my sister) is reading aloud Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; Abby describes Alice as an empowered girl protagonist who questions authority.

But this is very much a work in progress. I’m still trying to figure out how to provide the best content for kids that promotes UU educational values. If you have ideas for content I could create, I’d love to hear them! Or if you know videos created by UUs that I should consider adding to curated lists, let me know: