Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Here We Go Again

September 17, 2022

It all sounds so new and exciting. Virtual property. Virtual reality. The Metaverse. Companies flocking to buy up space and presence. What baffles me is the frightening shallowness of context. After all, this isn’t the first time companies and individuals have laid out real money for virtual value.

Dial the time machine back about 15 years and it wasn’t the Metaverse it was another alternate reality option called Second Life. It still exists though you rarely hear anything about it anymore. Like so many iterations of Internet phenomenon it crested in popularity over a decade ago. It also promised broader vistas than the humdrum everyday work-a-day world of actual reality. Pick your look. Pick your outfits. Spend real money to upgrade and customize, to suit your every whim and taste. Not just your personal avatar but your living quarters and even your business. Yes, Second Life boasted a robust commercial presence of major industries as well as hopeful start-ups selling skins and other in-world options.

So to read the breathless hype about Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is somewhat, well, stale. It’s been done before. Maybe not on the scale Zuckerberg promises or envisions. Then again, perhaps those visions are supported by tenuous presumptions. And though Facebook’s run has been impressive, the Internet is a short history with a lot of corpses. Many of which were top dog in their day, and people could never imagine an Internet without them.

Granted, Second Life never claimed to be more than entertainment, while Zuckerberg undoubtedly has loftier goals. Still, it’s a precedent at least worth mentioning and remembering.

So, don’t sink your 401K into buying virtual property just yet. It may well be true there’s nothing new under the sun, and therefore there’s a sucker born every minute. Or every decade or so.

Ending With a Whimper

August 14, 2022

After over two years of sacrifice and fear, I guess this is how it ends. A barely reported update from the CDC that two cornerstones of the Covid pandemic era are no longer necessary. Social distancing is no longer recommended nor is at-home self-quarantining after being exposed to someone with Covid. Apparently there are enough people with antibodies that the unchecked spread of Covid is less a concern. That and weakened strains of Covid that don’t hospitalize or kill nearly as many people – though that’s not mentioned as prominently.

I wish there was a party. I wish we could celebrate making it through this together. I wish there was some acknowledgement that our efforts were helpful and effective. We did bend the curve enough to avoid completely overwhelming hospitals and healthcare institutions globally (although some places were indeed overwhelmed at various points). For all the jobs lost, educations disrupted, livelihoods reduced, emotional grief experienced, for all the fear and anxiety and uncertainty – to be able to have some sort of cathartic release would be so nice!

But we’re not going to get any of that kind of celebration. No hurrahs, no congratulations. Nothing. I suspect there are a several possible reasons.

First, I think there is a recognition of the power of mass fear in modifying human behavior, and acknowledging that a fear is passed doesn’t contribute towards that power. Other than 9/11 which was far more limited in scope there hasn’t been an opportunity in the US to see how far people’s behavior could be dictated and forced to change in America in our lifetime. In several generations, in fact. To celebrate the fact that such changes were unfortunate and only necessary for a short period of time might short-circuit the use of such tactics in the future, whether pandemic or otherwise related.

Secondly, people have been conditioned to fear, and there is no shortage (apparently) of possible new contagions to be fearful of. Monkeypox is an obvious example, though exact numbers are quite elusive and the apparent relegation of the disease primarily to the LGBTQ+ community hasn’t made it quite as comprehensive and able to generate the same level of fear – though media outlets are doing their best. Future variants of Covid will no doubt all get their airtime full of suspense and uncertainty whether they merit them or not. Insistence on tracking and reporting Covid cases rather than hospitalizations and deaths will also mean that inevitable spikes will be a cause for further pot-banging, even if they don’t cause more damage than any other illness we’ve taken for granted all our lives.

Thirdly, I suspect there is some level of bitterness in the scientific community. Though initial calls to shut down businesses and lock ourselves in our houses were couched in terms of bending the curve and trying to mitigate the rush of cases and hospitalizations and deaths in the early months of the pandemic, it became quickly clear this wasn’t really good enough for some in the scientific community. Instead, reasonable language was replaced with irrational language – warfare language. We weren’t simply going to endure Covid and ride it out and have as few deaths as possible, we were going to beat it. Defeat it. Stop it. End it. We were going to win because we had the science and technology to do so. Allegedly.

Vaccinations were a big part of this shift in language and I think there is some latent bitterness the vaccinations proved far less capable of protecting people from infection than initially asserted. Granted, the vaccines apparently lessened the severity of infection for some people, but I think there were more than a few folks convinced we could develop a vaccine that would essentially make people bullet-proof to the virus. Instead, we all got a first-class education in the limits of science and technology. And humility is not pleasant.

We also, hopefully, got a first-class lesson in the reality that America is different from any other country in the world. And while we’re quick to tout the benefits and glories of this, there are inevitable trade-offs. Our foundation on individual human rights rather than individual obligation to a government is a huge difference between the US and every other country in the world, democratic or otherwise. The insistence that the individual should be the primary arbiter of their risk-taking and general behavior has provided incredible opportunities that people from around the world still literally risk their lives to participate in by entering our country (legally or illegally).

On the flip side though, Americans are not as willing to accept mandates, directives, or recommendations, and as such vaccine rates were far lower than political and scientific individuals and groups wanted. The stubbornness that prefers to take somewhat known risks rather than the unknown risks of a newly developed vaccine was vexing for political and scientific leaders alike, and I think there is still bitterness over this. Nobody wants to congratulate a population that to varying degrees resisted the exhortations and pleadings and in some cases demands. Rewarding such behavior is counter-productive for future situations.

As someone who put off vaccination until the last possible moment and who personally had the illness, I commend this hard-headedness. I commend people insisting on making their own decisions rather than relegating that authority to some other agency. At least as much as possible. Such a line of reasoning does not – contrary to popular media – make people monsters. I think it makes them Americans (which some might equate with monstrosity). This applies in reverse as well – those who opted for the vaccine should be free to do so without denigration from others. Options are a blessing, as is personal agency. You’d think that was not the case to hear some people talk over the last couple of years.

So I think you should throw yourselves a party. Gather your family and friends. Gather your Covid-community that endured the hardships together. Do what’s healthy for yourself rather than expecting the powers-that-be to encourage or sponsor it. Don’t wait for someone to establish a day to celebrate when we collectively started to breathe sighs of relief that Covid was merely endemic. Because they aren’t going to.

While you’re at it, maybe give some consideration about how you’re going to pass down your experiences to the generations after you, especially the ones too young to remember or not around yet. Figure out how to convey your personal and family and community experience of Covid to future generations, rather than allowing whatever official reports exist or will be created to do that for you. You lived through a peculiar piece of US and world history, and your kids and grandkids and great grandkids and beyond would love to hear about it!

And good job, by the way. Whether you fought for vaccines or against them. Regardless of what philosophy you espoused or what political machinations you worked with or against. You made it through. By the grace of God, and that’s something to give thanks for, even as we remember those who didn’t.

My Technology Timeline

June 14, 2022

As someone who has been on the Internet for over 30 years (I was online before there was a World Wide Web and the graphical interface so ubiquitous to the online experience now), this is a really cool stroll down memory lane, as well as a fantastic visualization of the Big Dogs of Internet companies and how they have changed over time.

Which onramp did you use to get on the information highway and when? I had my first dial-up account in the early 90’s, and was checking e-mail through Unix-based systems like Pine and ELM. My route into IT was unexpected (and for some hilarious), but it was a part of roughly two decades of my professional life to some degree.

I remember the arrival of Yahoo! and providing internal training to staff at the corporate IT training company I joined in the mid-90’s, teaching them about the rapidly shifting Internet landscape as Yahoo! and other companies began to gain on American Online (AOL) in terms of providing portals or gateways to online web sites and destinations. Being able to see how companies arrived, jockeyed for position, enjoyed their moment in the sun, and then disappeared is fascinating. Good to find useful and fun things on the Internet instead of just fear-mongering and mis/dis-information!

Christianity and Aliens

December 29, 2021

I was more than a little surprised the first time someone asked me (prior to my career change to the ministry) whether I believed in extraterrestrial life and what the Bible has to say about it. My response then is more or less my response still – the Bible doesn’t preclude the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, but nor does it lead us to expect it. The person who first asked me this was convinced that John 10 and Jesus’ talk about other sheep was a veiled reference to alien life. I disagree with his interpretation of that passage as I’m pretty positive Jesus is talking about peoples here on earth beyond just the Jewish people rather than aliens.

At the end of the day, as a Biblical Christian if it were demonstrated that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it wouldn’t alter my faith in any way as it would not in any way contradict Scripture. NASA found similar responses recently from representatives of the major religions of the world.

Actually it was Ray Bradbury who first got me to think about this topic. He wrote several short stories dealing with the possibility of alien life and the theological implications of such a discovery. Would such aliens need salvation? His short story The Fire Balloons considers what that might mean. In the short story The Man Bradbury suggests that Jesus would – if there were life on other planets – visit those planets as well. C.S. Lewis also prompted consideration of this theme with the first two books of his Space Trilogy.

It’s good for NASA to ask these questions and invite formal discussion on the topic, just as it’s good NASA continues to scan the skies. I just don’t think the biggest problems of any discovery of extraterrestrial life are likely to be theological in nature.

A Collection of Misinterpretations

August 11, 2021

A random assortment of interesting/frustrating news articles that caught my eye today.

First, as usual a great article from GetReligion.org (the Protestant jab aside). The press is insistent on characterizing the refusal of Sacraments to public and unrepentant members as ultimately a political ploy aimed at President Biden. That’s hardly the case. The press willingly and repeatedly ignores actually reporting on the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) in favor of straw-man caricatures that suit their intentions of disparaging organized religion (particularly Christianity – you don’t see many similar articles about Judaism or Islam) or pressuring believers to view their historic and clearly articulated faith as no longer valid or binding in our more enlightened culture.

Second up in terms of allowing our implicit and explicit biases’ to affect our interpretation of things is this little article. The presence of gender-specific articles for both men and women in a single grave becomes an argument for historical evidence of a non-binary leader – someone 1000 years ago who didn’t neatly fit our allegedly cultural sex and gender classifications.

Because, you know, that’s the only possible explanation, which just so happens to justify the latest in cultural fads.

Because nobody is ever buried with items from someone else – possibly even someone of the opposite sex. A meaningful piece of jewelry from Mom or Dad, for example. How is it that objects can or should be used to argue for a sexual orientation (or lack thereof) in a burial from a thousand years ago? Is that good science? Good archaeology? Or just a convenient way of appealing to the apparent swing of the cultural pendulum, a swing that might mean a few bones thrown in terms of grants or donations?

Ugh.

And finally, I’ve been loathe to blog further regarding Covid and our responses to it (or responses imposed on us). I’m simply so tired of it all. The rhetoric on both sides is ridiculous. But this article I found somewhat darkly amusing. Apparently there have been posts online referencing I Am Legend, a mediocre but different zombie movie. People are referencing the movie claiming the zombies in it were the result of a vaccine.

That’s not literally true, as this article points out. But that’s rather splitting hairs, I’d argue. Yes, this is just a movie. A piece of fiction. And I’d hope that most of the people posting the memes are fully aware of that and aren’t presuming to claim the movie as any sort of evidence or justification of rejecting the Covid vaccine.

However it is fair game to remind us all that even the best-intentioned efforts can have unanticipated consequences, something the critics of such memes are quick to forget. The fact that the scientific method and scientific processes and individual and collective scientists did and continue to do their best in formulating Covid vaccines does not, in and of itself, preclude the possibility of unanticipated, negative side-effects. Rare but causal side effects have already been identified in many of the vaccines, and such observations are quickly drowned out by shouted insistence that the benefits are far greater to far more people than the infrequent side-effects. That may or may not be true – we won’t know for some time, as more and more unanticipated side-effects are identified, and as the overall effectiveness of the vaccines becomes better understood.

The role of good science fiction is to contemplate not just literal science but potential side-effects or abuses of science. Great heroes and villains populate the genre for their manipulation of various aspects of science and technology or their responses to it. The genre provides a ‘safe’ zone for contemplating real issues in the context of make-believe. The original Star Trek series utilized it for these purposes, as have great authors such as Ray Bradbury and Walter Miller Jr. Even The Lord of the Rings could be (and has been) interpreted as a commentary on science and technology and industry, noting that it isn’t these things in and of themselves that are evil, but only how they are used or misused or, just as validly, accidentally developed or implemented without enough information to accurately determine longer-range consequences.

End of an Age

May 20, 2021

Roughly 25 years ago I made my first major career transition, moving from a network support role for a major private educational institution to a small company providing cutting edge IT training primarily to corporate customers. I became known within this new company as the Internet expert, though I doubt my credentials were a lot better than most of the other trainers. However my familiarity with the Internet from the pre-World Wide Web version we’re all familiar with today was considered deeply qualifying to make me the Internet expert.

I was sent to Redmond, Washington to be trained by Microsoft, Inc. on their new web browser – Internet Explorer. I had cut my teeth on UNIX command line interfaces and then moved to NCSA Mosaic and then Netscape when the World Wide Web began to be a thing beyond the limited scope of university pages and home pages dedicated to pets.

It was heady and exciting to be sent off for training by the premiere software company in the world. But it also seemed crazy. Someone was going to challenge Netscape’s practically universal dominance of the browser market? After Microsoft had essentially ignored the potential importance of the emerging Internet? Crazy! And yet, a quarter century later IE is still running out there while Netscape is long dead and buried.

I’ve long since moved beyond Internet Explorer. For years I made Google my default browser, enchanted with their early mantra/mission statement of Don’t be evil. They have discovered that this is harder than it might seem, and so I’ve been looking for an alternative. I’ve experimented with Firefox and other options but laziness always drove me back to Google. But now, on my latest laptop, I’ve decided not to download the Google browser and utilize the on-board alternative , Microsoft Edge – the successor to Internet Explorer.

No complaints thus far. Hopefully it’s sucking up less personal data than Google was, but I won’t be shocked to find that’s not the case. But in any event, it’s sad to see that Microsoft has definitely, finally announced the end of support for Internet Explorer. The end of an age…multiple ages perhaps, at least in technology terms.

Silencing Dissent

March 29, 2021

Thanks to Ken for this Wall Street Journal article discussing how social media companies censor religious speech and even eliminate accounts and access to their platforms when it disagrees with vaguely defined rules against fake news or simply contradicts the cultural narrative they prefer to reinforce and support. This means affirming the inherent value of all life (contra abortion or euthanasia) or other traditional and ancient religious views may be grounds for content being banned or deleted. The appeal process in such a situation is by no means clear or guaranteed to result in a restoration of access or content.

A good reminder that while free speech remains a Constitutional freedom, when private companies hold monopoly-level power over digital communication that freedom becomes a technicality. Private companies are not bound to respect freedom of speech and are free to impose their own limitations on what sorts of statements and content are permitted. While they will find politically correct descriptions for these limitations, the effect is further limiting the expression of viewpoints held by a large (perhaps even majority) proportion of our nation.

Again, I urge people to reconsider supporting these platforms and their monopolies through continued membership and usage, whether it costs you anything or not. Between the blatant bias against conservative, traditional Biblical Christian beliefs and the increasingly egregious collection of personal data, the corresponding benefits of such social media giants (and other tech companies such as Google) become questionable, at best. It’s ironic and sad that Google, a company whose motto was originally Don’t Be Evil has come to represent some of the most questionable practices in terms of gathering data on the people who use it’s products.

Making wise choices is not easy, nor is it guaranteed to be easy or inexpensive.

The New America

February 19, 2021

Maybe Australia can be the new America. Somebody has to refuse to cave to these massive companies and their arrogant demands to dictate the terms (and exceptions) by which they should be allowed to operate simply because they’re big.

COVID and Traditional Churches

September 28, 2020

There is much fear and worry in ecclesiastical circles about the lasting impacts of COVID and virtualized worship on the future of congregational ministry. This article references a prediction by leading church demographic and data purveyor Barna Group, that 20% of congregations will close. One in five congregations are at risk to close in the next 18 months, partly due to the effects of COVID.

The hand-wringing is not entirely unwarranted, but in my opinion what we’re talking about in all of this is an acceleration of a pre-existing, pre-COVID trajectory. I remember a prediction by a denominational leader years ago that just in our part of the world (US Southwest) there would be a decline of up to 50% in the number of congregations in our particular district by 2050. It might once have seemed like a far-fetched prediction, but between COVID and skyrocketing cost of living particularly in California, it hardly seems unlikely.

Christianity in America will not die. Not all individual congregations will die. There will continue to be a minority of mega-churches with thousands of active members. There will continue to be far more smaller congregations with less than 200 members. But a great number of very small congregations will close. They were going to close anyways, barring a miracle, but they’ll close sooner because of COVID. You don’t need to be a Barna researcher to puzzle that conclusion out.

Because of COVID and declining giving rates. Because of COVID and the final realization of many traditional church members of what has been the case for a while now – they don’t perceive a need for a church building and the scant programs most small congregations can barely afford. The greying of traditional mainline denominations has been noted for decades, but as long as those aging members were coming (and tithing), many doors could and would stay open. But with many older Americans frightened to go out of their homes let alone assemble at church in a group for worship, and with those fears likely to linger on quite a while after the Coronavirus is no longer a pandemic those traditional denominational congregations are going to start shutting down.

This is further accentuated by the realization of many Christians that they can tune in to live-streamed services from literally anywhere in the world. I have members who, in addition to listening or reading my weekly sermons, tune in to a German-language service from Germany. Others tune in to live-streamed services from larger congregations with a technology staff and the equipment to do live-stream well, to say nothing of a bevy of musicians and choirs and vocalists to further enhance the experience. Members of smaller congregations may find these more robust services more enjoyable and beautiful, and if their ties to their in-person churches have weakened (or were already tenuous pre-COVID), this extended time of suspended services might finally sever the habit of gathering weekly in person for a small and perhaps not-overly inspiring service, whether because of music or preaching!

Not all of this is bad, it simply is. Hard and difficult to be sure, but not necessarily terrible. It means we are in the midst of a shift in what Christian worship life looks like, a shift somewhat unprecedented since early in the Church’s history. The shift from being an underground or outlawed religion to being a state religion was massive but in what was presumed to be a positive way. The shift away from congregations prioritizing a large communal worship space will be a challenging and unpleasant one for many because we assume any decrease in size to be negative, a sign of failure. We see no strategic advantage in closing a congregation, even though we’re used to businesses making such decisions all the time. This double-standard is confusing at best.

Making a strategic decision to rework ministry is not a bad thing. It’s Biblical (Matthew 10:16). But the vast majority of the congregations referred to in Barna’s prediction will not close strategically. They’ll close because they can’t keep doing what they’ve always done any longer. They will close feeling as though they’ve somehow failed, or God has somehow failed them. And that’s both sad and wrong.

Christian communities need to rethink not only what they need in terms of space but what the relationship of those spaces are to the community around them. The national trend towards decreasing Christian worship levels is not going to change any time soon. Which will leave more and more congregations with more and more space to take care of – space they either aren’t using themselves or are leasing out to others to use and to pay the bills no longer payable by member giving alone. All of which ultimately leads discussions of buildings and property and leases to eclipse discussions of mission and ministry. Again, it isn’t that this isn’t already happening on a wide scale, but COVID is going to accelerate it dramatically.

Not all of these changes will be for the good. Assuming digital church is somehow adequate or even good is dangerous and misguided even if it’s convenient and popular. Worship together, anchored in the ancient command of the Sabbath, is inherently a call on us away from our lives and schedules. It inherently places everything else in our lives in a subordinate role, at least nominally. Anything that upends this more than it already has been upended is ultimately not faithful or obedient, even if people like it. I’ve argued for a long time that Christian communities need to rethink their definition and expectation of the Sabbath, and that it might even be worth considering worship on a separate day of the week so the Sabbath can truly return to the day of rest and a direct consideration of the providence of God more fully.

At the root of all this is not COVID, but rather a continuing realization that many churches are unable to make the Christian faith relevant to life as a whole. They are unable to foster a Christian world-view, and instead settle on a much narrower view of the faith centered on participation in worship and weekly programming. In a world brought closer together by technology and with directly adversarial attitudes throughout educational systems, young Christians need to see how faith connects all of their life together, rather than just being something they do on Sunday mornings. If our culture was ever somewhat homogenous, it certainly isn’t now and believers of all ages need to be equipped to understand this and see how their faith in the resurrected Son of God is more than sufficient not simply to cope with the world around them but to make sense of it as well.

Yes, churches are going to close. This is sad at one level but perhaps necessary at some level. As those churches close, I pray the congregations that remain are able and willing to reconsider some aspects of what it means to be the Church in the 21st century. Not that we abandon doctrine or worship or anything like that! But perhaps the way we physically conceive the Church to be needs to be revised, and perhaps this is a good thing that can challenge the cultural perception of the Church as antiquated in everything from their carpeting to their doctrine. The Gospel always remains the Gospel and the center of Christian life and practice. We just need to be willing to trust that as we make adjustments on the periphery.

Blogging Curiosities

September 24, 2020

I’ve been at this for nearly 15 years, blogging on a regular basis. I never expected it would be a success by any sort of commercial or industrial metric. I never expected to earn revenue from it (and I don’t). I hoped to have some conversations with people, and that has happened.

I have a small following of regular readers (that I know about). A couple of dozen folks from past and present congregations. A little more than 250 followers through WordPress, but I don’t think about that much as I know many of them followed me in the hopes of building their own sites towards commercial viability. I generally get a couple of dozen visits per day, with fluctuation in both directions. Since moving my site to WordPress six years ago, my visitors and views have gradually increased each year. There are at least a few people who read, and that makes me happy.

But it’s interesting to me that yesterday I had double my usual number of visitors. I could pat my back for saying something people found interesting enough to share with friends, but that’s generally not my modus operandi. Rather, I find it curious that some of my visits yesterday came from China, and that yesterday’s post mentioned the conviction of a prominent Chinese opposition figure. I didn’t say much about it, just referenced it in passing. But it makes me wonder just how far-reaching the tentacles of geo-political monitoring go. Did I appear on some sort of Chinese radar for mentioning a related news story? Perhaps. Is that disturbing? Perhaps? Should it be more disturbing? Probably. But I’ll leave it at the curiosity level instead.