Behaving well in the era of COVID-19

According to the Associated Press: “Louisiana authorities arrested pastor [Tony Spell] on an assault charge on Tuesday after he admitted that he drove his church bus toward a man who has been protesting his decision to continue holding mass gatherings at church in defiance of public health orders during the coronavirus pandemic.”

By contrast, after learning that the governor of Georgia planned to reopen churches and other businesses, despite contrary advice from public health professionals, “Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, the presiding prelate in Georgia for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, instructed the state’s roughly 520 AME congregations not to gather,” according to Religion News Service.

And by way of further contrast: Angelus Temple, a megachurch in Los Angeles, has now served 350,000 free meals during the pandemic, according to Religion News Service. The pastor, Matthew Barnett, said a few people disagreed with the decision to stop holding services in mid-March and concentrate instead of feeding people in need, but such criticism is “not productive in bringing about healing and possibilities of what we can do during this time.”

The difference between Tony Spell on the one hand, and Reginald T. Jackson and Matthew Barnett on the other, is that Jackson and Barnett have a more mature understanding of Christianity. They understand that their actions go far beyond the churches they supervise; their actions have ethical and moral implications that transcend their own self-interest.

What I’m taking away from this: I’m going to do my best to NOT be like Tony Spell, selfish and immature when it comes to quarantine restrictions. Instead, I’m going to do my best to model my behavior after Jackson and Barnett — looking to the greater good, acting with kindness and compassion.

Adventures in online learning

I spent much of this week producing and aggregating online content suitable for UU kids. I’ve been trying to keep up with my sister, Abby, who’s been recording read-aloud videos at a breakneck pace — some of her videos have their own dedicated playlists at the UUCPA CYRE Youtube channel: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’ve been posting Beth’s Aesop’s Fables on another playlist. Yet another playlist has Amy reading aloud The Secret Garden.

And I had enough time left over to make another video in the “Things To Make” series, as well as adding another episode to the ongoing “Back in Time — to the Year 29!” saga.

Barnabas (played by Greg Becker) in the latest installment of the “Back in Time” saga.

It’s not easy to figure out how to make good online religious education content in the era of COVID. First and foremost, parents tell me that they don’t want another lesson plan; they’re sick of helping their kids do online school lessons, they don’t need another burden. So that means the videos I post have to require minimal supervision from an adult. Second, religious education is always optional, which means it has to be fun or engaging or no one will watch it.

These two constraints mean I have to interpret “religious education” pretty broadly. How is listening to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” religious education? Well, Unitarian Universalist religious education has always included the broad goal of supporting literacy; we want children to grow up thinking for themselves, and literacy promotes that in a number of ways. So while “Alice” doesn’t have any religious content per se, it’s a book that encourages literacy because it makes kids want to read.

And how is a series on “Things To Make” religious education? Well, the things I’m showing kids how to make promote independent play; they give kids a sense of agency; they cultivate creativity instead of consumption; and they have kids engage in hands-on embodied activities as a partial antidote to the disembodied lives many of us are now forced to lead online. This is rooted in good feminist theology: promoting embodied activities, promoting agency instead of passivity.

The “Back in Time” video saga could be considered religious education by almost any definition. (Yes, it would be considered rank heresy by many, but it’s still education on a blatantly religious topic.) The Aesop’s Fables series could certainly be considered moral education. But I think both showing kids how to make things, and reading aloud to kids, help us achieve some of the larger educational goals of Unitarian Universalist religious education.

Update, July 24: I’ve now added posts with links to the “Back in Time” series of videos on Youtube, as well as to subsequent video “Stories for All Ages.” The posts are backdated to the release date of the video, and include the full script for each video. You can see the entire series of posts here.

Adventures in mask making

As of April 2, the San Mateo County Board of Health recommends that everyone wear a mask when they’re in public places.

I’ve been doubtful about the efficacy of masks, since my understanding is that wearing a mask won’t do much to protect you from being infected by others. But I’ve come to understand that masks might protect others from being infected by you, if you happen to have COVID-19 but are still asymptomatic.

So today I decided to be a good citizen and sew a couple of masks, one for Carol and one for me. I am very slow at sewing, partly because I don’t know how to use a sewing machine, and partly because I don’t know what I’m doing. But I found a good online video showing how to make one of the 2-layer pleated masks that are supposed to be the most effective handmade masks. I didn’t have the elastic bands called for in the video, but I had some 1/4 inch polyester cord to use for the ties. Carol has a big bolt of unbleached cotton muslin, and I sacrificed an old t-shirt. Sewing the pleats by hand was kind of a pain at first, but I quickly figured it out.

After two or three hours, I had a mask for Carol and a mask for me. We went to the grocery store, and three quarters of the people there were also wearing masks. Mask wearing peer pressure has begun.

Me wearing my mask

As soon as we got home, I washed both masks in hot water, as you’re supposed to do.

Next step: make another mask for Carol using a high fashion fabric for the outer layer….

Maybe good news?…

Update, 3/30: We saw a BIG uptick today, to a total of 848 cases. What we saw a couple of days ago was merely an anomaly. We are still in deep doo-doo.

Update 3/31: Kaiser Permanente, my healthcare provider sent out a mildly optimistic message this morning: “Thank you for accepting the challenge of sheltering-in-place and practicing social distancing … we think it is making a difference. Calls about cold and flu-like symptoms have declined over the past 10 days. That is a good sign. It doesn’t mean we won’t see more illness….” …but at least that’s some good news.

Original post: It’s really too soon to tell, and it might just be an anomaly, but the total number of COVID-19 cases shown on a bar graph on the Santa Clara County Board of Health Web site has not been rising at the same breakneck pace in the past three days:

The bar graph showing the number of new cases also declined in the last two days. However, that graph has a lot more noise in it, and two days’ worth of low numbers doesn’t indicate a trend.

In other good news, the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus pandemic began, has “partially re-opened” according to the BBC. Now it appears that the biggest threat is coronavirus imported into the province of Hubei from elsewhere: “On Saturday the province reported 54 new cases emerging the previous day — which it said were all imported.”

We started sheltering in place a week ago. Let’s hope that by mid-May, the number of cases in California will have gone down enough that some of our restrictions can be loosened.

National Emergency Library

The Internet Archive has opened up their collection of 1.4 million books with no waiting list during the COVID-19 crisis.

They’re trying to support schools which are doing online learning, and trying to support everyone who has been shut out of their local library.

Their collection consists of mostly 20th century materials, mostly still in copyright, that are out of print and not easily accessible as ebooks. I’ve used some of their books in the past, when you had to “check out” books for a specific period of time (and if the book was in use, you had to wait for it). It’s a small but excellent collection. Best of all, their online reader is excellent — their reader makes Google Books look absolutely sick in comparison.

So if you’ve been suffering from book deprivation, access the National Emergency Library here.

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.

Copyright free hymns

For me, the biggest stumbling block for livestreaming worship services has always been copyright issues.

Especially troublesome are hymns.

Many of the most popular hymn tunes are protected by copyright. Even if a tune is in the public domain, the arrangement may be copyrighted (and it can be difficult to find out if the arrangement is, in fact, copyrighted). Even if the arrangement is copyrighted, some people will claim copyright for their typesetting of the hymn. If a hymn is protected in any way under copyright, you’re not supposed to photocopy or project or electronically disseminate the printed version of the hymn; if any part of the music is protected under copyright, you’re not supposed to broadcast audio of it. No, not even if you own hymnals with the hymn: owning a hymnal just allows you to use the hymn in an in-person event such as an in-person worship service.

The solution to this problem: copyright free hymns.

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting copyright free hymns and spiritual songs. I have huge disorganized files (both electronic and hard copy) of public domain tunes and texts and arrangements. I’ve pulled many songs from the great early African American collections, including Slave Songs of the U.S. (1868), the Fisk Jubilee Singers songbook (1873), and Cabin and Plantation Songs, assembled by the Hampton Institute (1901). Although most of the hymns I’ve found are Christian, I’ve also found some good hymns and songs with Buddhist, Jewish, Neo-Pagan, Ethical Culture, or secular content. All the hymns I’ve found would be suitable for use in a Unitarian Universalist worship service; indeed, many of them are public domain versions of hymns in our current hymnal that are protected by copyright in some way.

I’ve just put 24 of these copyright free hymns and spiritual songs in a Google Drive folder here.

I’ll put a list of the songs currently in the folder below. And I’ll be adding more copyright free hymns and spiritual songs as I find time to produce fair copies of the versions I have.

Update, 1/18/2022: I’ve more than doubled the number of hymns and spiritual songs in the Google Drive folder. List of the songs has been moved to a new blog post titled “More copyright-free hymns.”

Shelter in place

We got the shelter-in-place order from the San Mateo County Board of Health:

“Effective midnight tonight, the Health Officer of San Mateo County is requiring people to stay home except for essential needs. The intent of this order is to ensure the maximum number of people self-isolate in their places of residence to the maximum extent feasible. … This order is in effect until April 7. It may be extended depending on recommendations from public health officials.”

We’re allowed to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy, and we can go for walks outdoors if we stay away from other people, but that’s about it.

So Carol and I went up to the local grocery store at 5 p.m. We usually go shopping every day, but now we’d rather minimize our trips to the store, so we thought we’d pick up a few things. The store showed all the signs of panic buying — I call it panic buying because while there were no bags of rice on the shelves, there was plenty of bulk rice available. I also noticed that the only canned beans left on the shelf were good old B&M Baked Beans; Californians don’t really like New England style baked beans, not even when they’re panic-buying. In any case, we found plenty of food for our needs.

Then we went off so I could do my own panic buying. You see, the libraries closed a couple of days ago, and I’ve already finished the books I had taken out. I hate ebooks because they make my eyes tired. And if I don’t feed my reading addiction, things get ugly. So we went to Barnes and Noble, and I bought some books:

Yes, most of the books I got are junk — pulp fiction and cozy mysteries and science fiction magazines — but I got some serious books too. The book by Thomas Piketty should be dense enough to last me a while.

But … I don’t know … this may not be enough books … maybe I better rush down and buy more books before the bookstore closes….

Update, Friday, March 20: The Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago is offering free shipping to its book-deprived customers. Amazon doesn’t need your business right now! Feed your book addiction, and help keep one of the last independent coop bookstores in the U.S. alive. I just place an order with them, why don’t you? Below is an excerpt from the email they sent out:

Adventures in online learning

Nadine offered to do a virtual Sunday school session today for our gr. 2-3 group (which we call “Green class”). Her plan was simple: light a chalice, have time for check-in, read a story, everyone say our unison benediction together. I haven’t yet hear from her how it went.

Nadine’s idea inspired Carol and Ed, two of the teachers of the middle school “Ecojustice Class,” who put together an online session for that group. Carol and Ed planned a half hour session including lighting the chalice, a check-in where kids could talk about what’s going on in their lives, and a virtual tour of the Ecojustice Class garden, rain barrels, and composter.

Three middle schoolers logged in, and two siblings tagged along, for a total of five kids. Here’s a screen shot of Carol lighting the chalice:

Though Carol and Ed expected the session to last only half an hour, the kids were having fun, and ultimately the session went on for about an hour. (Carol has the free version of Zoom with a 40-minute limit on videoconference calls, but at 40 minutes she got a message saying Zoom would extend the videoconference for free; thank you Zoom!) They talked about how coronavirus shows that the non-human world still has a lot of power over humans, and they also talked about how people who are poor or otherwise vulnerable get hit hardest by natural disasters like this pandemic. One of the kids drew boba bunnies (don’t ask me what they are, I’m just telling you what Carol told me), and that led to a discussion of how boba tea tastes good but uses a lot of single-use plastic, and where tapioca comes from, and so on.

From what Carol said, it sounds to me as though there was the typical Sunday school ratio of social interaction to learning — more than half social interaction, plus some learning — and since our primary educational goal is to have fun and build community, this class definitely helped us reach that goal.