Make yourself look good on camera

With the shelter-in-place order, any socializing we do is on camera. Plus many of us have to use videoconferencing for work. As long as we’re going to be spending lots of time on camera, we might as well look our best. So here are some tips for making yourself look good on your laptop’s (or your phone’s) crappy little web camera.

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, have your laptop or phone sitting on something stable. Ideally, you want to move the camera as little as possible, for two reasons. First, if you’re in a videoconference, you want to focus attention on your face, and if you move the camera around that’s going to be a distraction. Second, unless you have a really fast internet connection you probably want to save bandwidth; if you have a stable backdrop, that will be less information you’re sending out, and so you’re less likely to have degraded audio or video.

Second of all, don’t place your camera too low. If your camera is too far below your face, people will be looking up your nose, and if you’re middle-aged they can see all those incipient jowls that you’ve been trying to hide. In other words, don’t do this:

Camera placed too low, and only one source of lighting

Boy, do I look ugly in the photo above! Don’t make yourself look ugly. Place your computer or phone so that the camera is about at the level of your chin. However, don’t place your camera too high; there’s a psychological disadvantage to giving your viewers the impression that they are higher or taller than you.

In addition, learn about the Rule of Thirds. Imagine that your screen is divided in thirds both horizontally and vertically, sort of like a tic-tac-toe board. Have your eyes placed so that they’re about a third of the way from the top of the screen. Move so that your head is NOT in the center of the frame, but about a third of the way to one side (I like to move to my left, so that my right hand, my dominant hand, can make gestures in the space to my right). Setting up your camera using the Rule of Thirds will make you look more professional, because that’s what we’re used to seeing in movies and on television.

Use the Rule of Thirds to place yourself in the frame of the camera

Now let’s take a look at lighting. In movies and television, they use what’s called “three point lighting.” That just means that they use three light sources to light someone’s head. First, you set up the “key light,” which is the most important light. If you’re at home and on a videoconference during the day, your key light is most likely determined by the nearest window — in that case, try to sit so that the light from the nearest window is coming towards you at about a 30 degree angle — and you want diffuse daylight, so make sure there’s a curtain or something to give diffuse light. At night, sit so that the strongest light in the room becomes your key light.

With only the key light, your head will look a little one dimensional or washed out; and if you have any wrinkles or blemishes, they will tend to stand out. Therefore, you need to set up another light, called the “fill light,” which will fill in the stark shadows cast by the key light. The fill light should be less bright than the key light. The drawing below shows where the key light and the fill light come from:

Diagram of three point lighting

Then if you want really professional lighting, you’ll add what’s called a “back light.” This comes from the same side as the key light, and it lights up the back edge of your head. By lighting up that back edge of your head, it makes you look that much more three dimensional. However, it’s super time consuming to set up a back light, so I don’t bother when I’m on a videoconference.

Now here are some examples of what I look like with these different lights. Here I am with just the key light — it’s adequate, but pretty stark:

Continue reading “Make yourself look good on camera”

Further adventures in livestreaming

The shelter-in-place order has made livestreaming our church’s worship services a little more complex. We just had a tech rehearsal with worship leaders and tech support people each in their own locations, using Zoom as our basic platform. We have learned a lot since we livestreamed last week! Here’s a summary of what is currently working for us:

(1) Before the rehearsal, whoever owns the Zoom account needs to log in to their Zoom account and go over the settings carefully (see the screenshot below to see where to find “Settings” when logged in to Zoom). The critical settings you need to be aware of are as follows:
(a) Do not allow “Join before host.” This is to prevent someone from hijacking the feed with inappropriate screensharing before you take control.
(b) UNtick “Participant video: Start meetings with participant video on.” You want participant videos off, partly to prevent distraction, but also to prevent trolls from putting inappropriate content on their video feed. (Zoom will allow participants to start their video feed again, so you’ll also need someone to monitor participant videos during the service; see below.)
(c) Tick “Mute participants upon entry.”
(d) Tick “Allow co-hosts,” for two reasons: First, you’re going to need 2-3 people to manage the video feeds; second, make all worship leaders co-hosts because that puts them at the top of the participant list so you can more easily find them when switching back and forth between worship leaders and musicians.
(e) Tick “Allow host to put attendee on hold.” Just in case.
(f) Under “Screen sharing,” make sure you select the option where only allow host(s) can share screens. This prevents so-called “Zoombombing,” where trolls put up inappropriate images on your Zoom feed.
(g) Tick “Disable desktop/screen for users.”
(e) Tick “Allow users to select original sound in their client settings.” This improves the audio quality of musicians enormously.

(2) Well before the service starts, make sure you have email addresses for all co-hosts and worship leaders. Cell phone numbers would be a good idea too. If something fails, it’s nice to have a backup communication method besides private chat within Zoom.

(3) Start the Zoom call at least 15 minutes before the stated start time for the worship service, and make sure your co-host(s) who are managing participants also log in early. You want to have at least two hosts managing participants before the stated start time, when you’ll have your big influx of participants log in. Have your worship leaders log in early as well, and assign them co-host status so they appear at the top of the participants list.

(4) During the worship service, you’ll want people in the following tech roles:
(a) One host to “Spotlight video” of whichever worship leader or musician is on.
(b) One or two hosts to manage the participants. If you have a really small service (say, 30 or fewer participants logged in), you might be able to combine this role with the previous role.
(c) One or two people to work on audience engagement; these people will be monitoring the chat. Specific tasks might include monitoring chat for joys and sorrows (we’re going to allow joys and sorrows in chat); pasting hymn/song lyrics into chat at the appropriate moment; watching for newcomers to the service and perhaps greeting them privately in chat; generally monitoring behavior.
(d) Optional: we’ll also have a few knowledgable people monitoring audio and video quality, and providing feedback and/or advice as needed.

(5) Send out a script ahead of time. Our script, which was the basic order of service, proved to be inadequate. The primary worship leader (the senior minister in our case) is going to send out a full script, and our music director is going to insert cues for the host who’s in charge of switching the video feeds.

(6) We did a brief postmortem to talk about what worked and what didn’t work, and of course we’re doing email follow-up as well.

One final point: While putting on a worship service is always a team effort, it becomes even more of a team effort when you’re livestreaming (especially when everyone has to watch from home), because the tech crew becomes an integral part of the worship team. I consider this a major benefit of livestreaming services: in these times, when we’re all feeling a little isolated and scared, being a part of a team effort can be quite comforting.

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.