Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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.

Convenience Costs

September 15, 2020

Online ordering and delivery was a Thing long before COVID-19, but I can only imagine how much more money is being poured into Internet-based shopping options instead of traditional brick and mortar stores. Correspondingly, the push for faster and faster delivery times is driving not just technology but policy as well.

Amazon has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin delivery of small (under five pounds in weight) packages to customers. It has been testing such delivery systems since 2013.

I’m curious how this might impact home designs. Could homes have designated rooftop or balcony landing spots where drones could leave packages instead of leaving them by the front door where they are more vulnerable to theft?

The Christian Life and Social Media

September 12, 2020

Thanks to Chuck for sharing an article with me about a missionary pastor in the United Kingdom facing calls for his deportation and the burning down of his church because he expressed views on Facebook offensive to the LGBTQ+ community.

All of which is pretty predictable these days, but once again raises the purpose of social media for Christians. Social media has become ubiquitous and touted as a place of self-expression. However self-expression is routinely being attacked when it doesn’t conform to minority opinions about sexuality and gender issues, not to mention politics in general.

I deleted my Facebook account about a year ago and I haven’t missed it for a single moment. Not one. The concept that was so attractive 13 years ago – being able to stay in touch with people in your life you might otherwise lose touch with – is not the reality. It’s now a place to scream your views and heap abuse on those who disagree with you – even if those people by some miracle are still friends with you on Facebook, surviving the common calls several years ago to purge ourselves of anyone who disagrees with us. I observed a few strange things, to say the least.

Colleagues who are pastors and literally make their Facebook identity their professional one puzzle me. Don’t you have any people in your life you relate to as other than a pastor? Does every single one of your family & friends have your vocation as pastor as the primary means of interacting with you? It seemed odd to me, at the very least. I know a lot of people through a lot of different venues, and my vocation as pastor only comes into play in a certain number of them. As such I tried to keep that in mind on the rare occasions I would post anything. I wanted to be aware of and considerate of not just what I said but how I said it.

I found (and continue to find it odd when I hear about it through my wife or other people) that someone who emphasizes their vocation as a pastor on social media feels as though advocating for a particular political party or platform is appropriate on social media. Again, are the only people they’re friends with on Facebook people who share their opinions on everything? If so, why the need to say something in the first place? And if not, why say something that could be deeply hurtful to people who love you but disagree with you?

Particularly for clergy I find this an egregious misuse of social media. It is a blurring of the line between being who we are and being honest and authentic, and the divine directive to operate with love in all things and to be very cautious of what we say or do – even if we’re right – that might hurt or cause another person to wander away from or further away from God. And when those social media comments call into question the very faith of someone who disagrees with a social or economic or political policy? Good grief people – what are you thinking!?

Some might argue that we have to raise our voices in social media as well as everywhere else, that otherwise Biblical Christian faith gets overwhelmed and drowned out by the discordant clamorings of any number of other ideas and ideologies. It would be good to remember that as near as we can tell the Christian faith did not grow and spread by screaming and shouting at random passersby, but in small acts of love and interpersonal giving and even sacrifice. Tragically the Church is more accustomed these days to thinking in terms of market share rather than trusting the power of God the Holy Spirit to work through the least of his sheep towards not just the transformation of culture but the salvation of souls.

Jesus directs his followers to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. I tend to suspect that if we are to place the emphasis in the proper place, it should be on the latter rather than the former. There is no shortage of serpents in this world – wise or otherwise. But there can never be enough doves.

I’d urge Christians to reconsider social media in general. What does it accomplish? How do you feel when you’re scrolling through your feed? What sort of emotions and responses does it stir inside of you? Is your social media experience true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise? Or are you more often stirred to irritation or anger or offense or lust or sorrow or shame? I won’t advocate for dumping social media, but I do advocate for proper, appropriate, and critical/thoughtful use of it. Simply the fact that you’ve been using it for a long time or everyone else is using it hardly justifies something that may be personally harmful to you.

Yes, anti-Christian rhetoric is on the rise in social media and elsewhere. Yes, it is horrible that people threatening bodily harm, economic injury, and destruction of property are sanctioned and not seen as a threat whereas someone simply stating a contradictory belief is viewed as a dangerous threat to be eradicated. Yes it is unfair. Yes it is wrong. But simply mirroring those tactics and that rhetoric is not only not going to be ineffective, it’s outright disobedient to how we are called by God to deal with a very dangerously sinful world. Not just a sinful world around us but a sinful world within us. Giving reign to that internal sinfulness is just as dangerous or perhaps more so than the dangerous sin around us. We are called first and foremost to be obedient to what God has called us to, regardless of whether this accomplishes the other social or political or cultural ends we would like it to.

Speak the truth but speak it in love. I’m increasingly skeptical of whether that’s possible through a megaphone or social media.

Staying Sane

April 1, 2020

As people deal with shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, here are some interesting options for staying sane both individually and as a family.

Here’s a list of movies suitable for watching among multiple generations of adults.  I can vouch for The Two Popes as a worthwhile watch.  Our family has also (previously) watched The Hundred Foot Journey, and were not as thrilled with the overall quality of the movie despite a few good moments.  The Shawshank Redemption is one I only recently watched and found to be deserving of the accolades it has collected over the years.  Likewise Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great family classic.  Romancing the Stone isn’t nearly as good in the adventure category, and goes for some more sexual humor than Raiders does (although sequels to Raiders up the sexual innuendo substantially).  While it might sound boring, The King’s Speech is a phenomenal movie from an acting perspective.  As I remember, A Fish Called Wanda also has some sexual innuendo but also some stellar performances.  The Usual Suspects is one of my all time favorite films.

Perhaps you’d rather do some explorations in the real world?  Maybe a virtual trip to Disneyland would be a fun diversion?  Or if you’d rather wander farther afield, here is a collection of walks through various places in the world.

Strike 1

March 24, 2020

Although I’m not overly happy with the technical qualities of the first sermon I posted to the Internet, given the last minute rush to figure it out at all I don’t consider it a strike.  But I was very disappointed today.

I’m a Windows user, as far as computers go.  Though I dabble in Apple products (such as their early generation computers were the norm in high school and college labs, and I use an older model iPhone) my daily work for decades has been done on Windows-based PCs.  Although I enjoyed brief experiences with UNIX and Linux, I never considered them reasonable replacements for Windows.  And more and  move I’ve migrated from proprietary software options (such as Microsoft Office) to freeware solutions (such as OpenOffice).  That is also the case for the software I’ve used to generate audio files over the years – Audacity.

So I hooked up the mixing board and mics to a new computer I had installed Audacity on and put together my first Internet-destined audio file.  The only problem is that when I went to upload it to YouTube, it was rejected because it’s an audio file rather than a video file.  Now I have to figure out if there’s a way to fold the MP3 data into a video file that YouTube will recognize and accept.

Some might ask why I don’t just film me doing the Bible study and post said video.  It would be much simpler, ’tis true.  But I’m a rather cantankerous person at times.  I naturally resist the cultural obsession with visualization and our predilection to juding everything by looks rather than content.  As such, I take opportunities to kick against these goads , resulting in the predicted discomfort (such as losing a District election several years ago by one vote, in no small part because I refused to provide a photo to be used with my bio).

The current example is not wanting to film myself.  Go online and you’ll find scads of preacher videos.  What’s the first thing you notice before you hear a word out of their mouths?  What they look like.  Old or young?  Hip or outdated?  Liturgically vested or skinny jeans?  This is how we’re trained, but the Word of God encourages us to move past these surface level things to examine what’s underneath.  Oftentimes a nice exterior hides rottenness within.  Likewise, if we can ignore how someone looks, we might find they have something valuable to say.

My congregants already know what I look like (and I feel bad for them in that regard!), but those who don’t know me (and who aren’t compelled by a divine Call to listen to me on a regular basis!) should judge me not by what I look like or how I dress but rather by what I say and whether what I say is in line with what God says to us in his Word, the Bible.  If I’m going to reach a larger audience, I want to reach that audience not with me, but with Christ.  And while I’m sure there are plenty of preachers who can upload videos of themselves without a hint of pride, I’m not sure I’m as immune to the temptation to value what I’m doing  by the number of views or likes or whatever other means of cultural approbation we come up with.

So I kick, and it hurts.

I’m hopeful I’ll figure it out, but it’s a learning curve I’d much rather not have to be climbing at the moment!  I’ll keep you posted.

SETI@Home Alone

March 5, 2020

1999.

The war in the Balkans is still raging.  The Euro is introduced to Europe.  Napster is released.

Clinton is acquitted of perjury charges in regards to his relationship with an intern.

Spongebob is released.

The Columbine High School massacre occurs.

Internet Explorer version 5 is the current one, and fears about Y2K are ramping up.

The Matrix and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace are both released.

And an experiment in massively distributed computing possibilities is launched.  SETI@home aims to utilize spare computing cycles on dormant, Internet-connected computers to analyze data in the search for intelligent life beyond Earth.  It isn’t the first experiment in massive distributed computing, but it’s perhaps the best known and longest running.  And as of March 31 it is being put on hiatus as researchers have so much backlogged data they need to analyze.

I never downloaded the software to participate.  Even then I was skeptical of other people using my computer in one way or another, a skepticism that has only grown and intensified as such intrusiveness becomes the norm rather than the well-intentioned exception.  But I remember thinking it seemed like a good use of all those PCs out there and our increasing bandwidth capabilities.

Did any of you participate in this?