28 May 2007

Microsoft Office 2007 and the New File Formats

Thanks again for Microsoft to try creating a document "standard" that is not compatible with other office application suites.

If you haven't noticed this problem yet, it will probably affect you when a church volunteer sends you a Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document created with the latest version of Microsoft Office for Windows -- Office 2007.

The new file formats are not compatible with Office 2003 or earlier versions of Microsoft Office (more to follow on this).

These formats are also not compatible with the current version of Microsoft Office for Mac OS X or the current OpenOffice or NeoOffice programs (more to follow on this).

Here's the details on the new file format from Wikipedia:
"Microsoft Office uses a new file format, called Office OpenXML, as the default file format. It is based on XML and uses the ZIP file container. According to Microsoft, documents created in this format are up to 75% smaller than the same documents saved with previous Microsoft Office file formats, owing to data compression.

Word documents without macro extensions are now saved using a .docx extension rather than the traditional .doc extension. Files containing macros are saved with the extension .docm. You can save your 2007 Word documents in the old format so that they will still be usable in previous versions of Word. If not, you will have to download a free converter from Microsoft for older versions of Word to be able to open documents created in the new format."
If you're using Microsoft Office 2003, Office 2002, or Office 2000; your best option is to download the "Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats."

According to Wikipedia, the next version of Microsoft Office for Mac OS X (Office 2008) will be file-compatible with the Windows Office 2007 version and should be available in the second half 0f 2007. I cannot find any information on the requirements for Office 2008.

Microsoft has released a beta version of the XML filter for Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac OS X. This filter only converts Office 2007 Word documents (.docx, .docm). Here are the requirements for this conversion filter:
  • Microsoft Office 2004 11.3.4 or later
  • Office v. X 10.1.9 or later
  • Mac OS X 10.4.8 (Tiger) or a later version of Mac OS
A search on the openoffice.org site provided some information for users of OpenOffice. OpenOffice users should expect import filters for OpenOffice between summer and autumn 2007.

If you're using Microsoft Office 2003/2002/2000, you should install Microsoft's compatibility filter.

If you're a Mac OS X user who is using OS X 10.4.8 or later and Microsoft Office, you can install the Microsoft Word compatibility filter for using Office 2007 word documents. You will still need to have the people you work with save their Excel and PowerPoint documents in the older formats (Excel .xls and PowerPoint .ppt).

If you're an OpenOffice user on any platform or using a Mac OS X version 10.4.7 or earlier, you will need to ask the person who sent you the Office 2007 document to save the document in the earlier Microsoft Office formats (.doc, .xls, .ppt).

If this file format issue seems confusing, you can thank Microsoft for creating this confusion for you, your congregation, and everyone else.

E-Mail Is Out With Today's Younger Web Users

On the previous blog post about security issues, I mentioned a disadvantage of using HTML-formatted email for church marketing. But there's another disadvantage of using email for church marketing and communication.

It's a communication tool used more by older people and used less by younger people.

Here's another article from InformationWeek about this demographic difference in internet communication -- a brief quote from the article:
"For most of us in the business world, e-mail is an integral part of our work lives. But for the millennials -- the generation between ages 13 and 24 -- e-mail is for old people. That's right, the first form of communication that brought many of us into the online world is now as outdated as a leisure suit.

For younger Webizens, e-mail today is like sending a letter -- something you do when you have to but not a primary means of communication. For these users text messaging, instant messaging, and social networking sites are the ways they communicate and stay in touch."
This affects many areas of congregational life.

How do we address these preferred means of communication for youth in our congregational safety policies?

How do we ensure that our religious professionals and congregational leaders can use them effectively? Our congregational leaders may have who may be unwilling and/or uncomfortable with these newer methods of communication

Another observation from this article related to campus communication at Virginia Tech during the shooting incident:
"Signs of this shift were evident last week during the horrible shootings at Virginia Tech. Students relied on text messaging and Web 2.0 technologies like blogs and social networks for updates and for social support.

University officials faced criticism for e-mailing out alerts more than two hours after the first wave of shootings. In the wake of this tragedy, technologists have called for universities to adopt technologies like text messaging to build more immediate alert systems instead of relying on systems like e-mail."
The final quote from this article provides three possible explanations behind this generational shift in internet communication:
"So why is e-mail dying? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, younger users want more controlled systems of messaging. The advantage of text messaging, IM, and social network sites, compared with e-mail, is that these systems are controlled by users' buddy lists. While spamming inside these modes of communications does happen, it's still much harder and more expensive to spam people through IM, text, and social networks than it is through e-mail.

The second is immediacy. IM is instant and so, too, is SMS. Social networks are immediate, too. E-mail is slower. Users have to wait for a response and e-mail communication isn't, in most cases, a real-time dialogue.

And the third reason is personalization. E-mail is a cold medium. It's not as personal as social networking, where message updates and friend connections extend users' online personas through their communications. Cell phones are, almost by definition, highly personal devices and, likewise, younger users see text messages as more intimate."
So ... I suppose if our congregations want to appear cold and impersonal to younger members and potential members, email is the way to go.

5 Cheap But Effective Tips To Improve Security

Here's another article from InformationWeek to improve computer security for your church. A summary listing of the five tips can be found below:
  1. Periodically check for rogue wireless access points in corporate buildings
  2. Enable Windows Update on all computers
  3. Don't allow html e-mail through
  4. Training, whether for users or the IT staff, will pay off in the long run
  5. Consider using Mozilla Foundation's Thunderbird and Firefox as possible alternatives to Outlook and Internet Explorer
The entire article can be found online here.

The second suggestion on this list could be generalized to suggest updating and patching all systems and software used in the church to ensure they are protected (e.g. Linux, Mac OS X, Firefox, Thunderbird, PowerChurch, etc).

The third suggestion could impact churches that want to use HTML-formatted email for marketing purposes. HTML-formatted email as a marketing tool was a suggestion from the Unitarian Universalist Association's District Services Staff. They recommended using an email marketing vendor called Constant Contact. One disadvantage of using HTML-formatted email can be found on Wikipedia:
" ... the sheer volume of spam e-mail has led some users to mistake legitimate commercial e-mail (for instance, a mailing list to which the user subscribed) for spam — especially when the two have a similar appearance, as when messages include HTML and flashy graphics."
If our church outreach materials were to be lumped in with "spam" junk mail through filtering, it won't be very effective. Plain-text email would be preferable to HTML-formatted email due to this concern.

Using Firefox for web browsing and Thunderbird for email instead of the Internet Explorer and Outlook programs that are bundled with Microsoft Windows is one of the best suggestions on this list in my opinion.

Endpoint Security -- 6 Questions To Ask Before You Buy

Endpoint security solutions enable organizations to evaluate, protect, and repair managed and unmanaged systems as they connect to corporate assets.

Any endpoint security beyond client antivirus software, client firewall software, and a hardware firewall/router for sharing a broadband the is probably overkill for smaller congregations but larger congregations may consider these security resources due to their larger and more "corporate" nature.

This article in InformationWeek provides some basic questions to ask before buying security resources.

"The Best Macintosh Office Suite Money Can't Buy"

For Macintosh users, there is an office suite option that is both compatible with Microsoft Office and very affordable.

The cost is $0.00 and it's freely downloadable.

This office suite is NeoOffice, which is described on Wikipedia as:
" ... a fork of the free/open source OpenOffice.org office suite that is ported to Mac OS X. It implements nearly all of the features of the corresponding OpenOffice.org version, including a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, and graphics program. It is developed by Planamesa Software, and uses Java technology to integrate OpenOffice.org — originally developed for Solaris and Linux — with the Aqua interface of Mac OS X."
Unlike the existing version of OpenOffice suite for the Macintosh, NeoOffice does not require the X11 windowing system and it has the expected look and feel of Aqua interface applications on Mac OS X.

Check out this online review of NeoOffice from InformationWeek magazine.

The magazine reviewer does suggest that the $400.00 you save by not buying Microsoft Office for your Mac could be used for buying an iPhone instead.

25 May 2007

Southwest District Our Whole Lives Training

The Southwest Unitarian Universalist Conference (aka "Southwest District" or "SWUUC") is hosting an all-ages Our Whole Lives training weekend on 8-10 June 2007.

Our Whole Lives (OWL) is the lifespan, comprehensive sexuality education program jointly developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.

This weekend will offer three separate facilitator training tracks.

Here's a brief summary of the details:
When -- 8-10 June 2007, Friday 6:00 PM until Sunday 4 PM

Where -- Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church, 3315 El Salido Parkway, Cedar Park, TX 78613-3357, 512-219-9008

  • Grades K-1/4-6 -- Presented by Sherry Kircus and John Sulzmann
  • Grades 7-9/10-12 -- Presented by Mary McIntosh and Peter D'Ascoli
  • Adult -- Presented by Penny Ramsdell and Steve Caldwell

The registration deadline for this weekend workshop is 28 May 2007.

Ideally, a church or community organization would send a male-female teaching team for training in the age/grade level desired.

This OWL Teacher Training weekend is sponsored by the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Conference Religious Education Committee.

Online Registration

Downloadable Registration Forms

For more information or if you need to inquire about last-minute registrations, contact Jennifer Nichols-Payne at jnichols-payne@sbcglobal.net.

09 May 2007

"Push Polling" and Louisiana Attorney General Race

Last night, I received a phone call for a person who was conducting a political opinion poll related to Royal Alexander, Charles Foti, and the Louisiana Attorney General race.

After a few minutes, it became very clear that this poll wasn't a real poll but rather a "push poll" being conducted by Mr. Alexander's campaign or by a group sympathetic to Mr. Alexander's campaign.

A "push poll" is defined as:
" ... a political campaign technique in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll. Push polls are generally viewed as a form of negative campaigning."
This so-called "poll" asked a few questions about my familiarity with Charles Foti, Royal Alexander, and the Attorney General election. The pollster then went on to read a series of statements that portrayed Mr. Foti in a negative light (e.g. arresting medical professionals for engaging in euthanasia and "playing God" in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath and then not pressing charges against these folks) and would then if the statement would affect my opinion of Mr. Foti.

After a few statements, I asked the pollster if this was a "push poll" and she refused to answer my question. I then said that I would not participate in this type of negative campaigning.

I think this is a newsworthy issue and I'll probably write a letter to the editor about this negative campaigning.

07 May 2007

Sexuality and the "Direct Experience of That Transcending Mystery and Wonder"

Back in February 2005, I had blogged about how self-discovery through masturbation could be viewed as a "spiritual practice" akin to prayer, meditation, journaling, etc.

This past weekend, I discovered a similar suggestion about the connection between sexual ecstasy and spiritual exploration on Greta Christina's blog. The following quote is a reader reply to Greta from Nina Hartley:

When I got older I found Betty Dodson's book and began using sexual energy as my "way in" to myself and, like you, found that ecstasy, joy, love, abundance, etc., were physiologic states that could be accessed through many doors: fasting; meditation; self-flagellation; twirling (as in Sufism); psychoactive drugs; chanting; drumming; dancing; prayer; singing and, most universally, sexual pleasure and orgasm. No wonder the powers that be want to keep little children from touching their genitals! We'd all see that we can talk to god anytime we want to, simply by touching our vulvas and penises, breathing deeply and paying attention to what feels good. Too easy.

These feelings emanate from our mid-brains and the limbic system. They have no words or images associated with them, they simply are. It's our pesky forebrains that must label every sensation and thought that comes through. So religiously indoctrinated people would label it "god," and I would label it "good." All these people seeking god, when he or she is at the end of our arms and the junction of our legs, there for the knowing.

And that's why religion spends so much time obsessing on sex and sex pleasure -- they need to keep up the lie that the average person needs an intermediary between him and god, and the priest class is that go-between. If more people found joy on their own, the church might go out of business. Hmm, it's an idea ...
Unlike some religions, Unitarian Universalism is OK with the sort of spiritual exploration described by Nina. While we haven't taken a vote at General Assembly in support of it, our lifespan sexuality education programs affirm both pleasure and self-discovery.

I don't think that Unitarian Universalism will go out of business because of it.

Religion Without Supernatural Theism?

The retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has written a book titled titled Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

Implict in this book title are the two possible outcomes for Christianity (and perhaps some other religions as well) in North America and Western Europe -- adapting or dying.

The death could be in a literal sense like the shrinking influence of religion in Western Europe or it could be an intellectual death where the religion still exists and has influence in the world but is unable to adapt to changing times.

I'm curious to see where our Methodist, Anglican, and other Christian neighbors will be in 50 years. Will they be moving towards a "Spong" form of Christianity or will they be moving towards an "Akinola" form of Christianity?

The criticisms of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others may sound harsh. But many of the ideas raised in their "Atheist" books have also been raised by Spong, Crossan, and others in "Christian" books.

For example, John Dominic Crossan has suggested that we have a good empirical benchmark for the ability of God to perform miracles.

The shrines at Lourdes and Fatima have discarded crutches testifying to the miraculous healings. But there are no discarded artificial limbs testifying to miracles of regeneration. Apparently, there are some limits to God's power in the world. Here's a brief quote from Crossan's book Who Is Jesus?: Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus:

I have visited Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, healing shrines of the Christian Virgin Mary. I have also visited Epidaurus in Greece and Pergamum in Turkey, healing shrines of the pagan god Asklepios. the miraculous healings recorded in both places were remarkably the same. There are, for example, many crutches hanging in the grotto of Lourdes, mute witness to those who arrived lame and left whole. There are, however, no prosthetic limbs among them, not witnesses to paraplegics whose lost limbs were restored. What do I conclude?

Faith heals! That is as sure as anything we can ever know. Certain diseases for certain people under certain circumstances can be healed by faith in that very possibility -- at Epidaurus for a pagan, at Lourdes for a Christian, at Benares for a Hindu, and so on. But certain diseases only, certain people only, and certain conditions only.

Another limit to God's power in the world is the trend towards shrinking area of responsibility for God to use God's divine power.

The atheist blogger Greta Christina has pointed out that the trend has been for natural explanations to replace supernatural explanations in the world. And there are no documented cases of a natural explanation being discarded in favor of a supernatural explanation. Here's a brief quote from Greta's blog:
When you look at the history of the world, you see thousands -- tens of thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands or more -- of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one. Why the sun rises and sets; what thunder and lightning are; how and why illness happens and spreads; why people look like their parents; how people got to be here in the first place… all these things, and thousands more, were once explained by gods or spirits or mystical energies. And now all of them have natural, physical explanations.

Natural explanations, I should point out, with mountains of solid, carefully collected, replicable evidence to support them.

Now, how many times in the history of the world has a natural explanation of a phenomenon been supplanted by a supernatural one?

As far as I am aware, exactly zero.

Of course, people are coming up with new supernatural explanations of naturally-explained phenomena all the time. Intelligent design is the most obvious example. You can pick up any New Age magazine to find more.

But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?

Again, as far as I'm aware -- none.

Which brings me to my point: the question of likelihood.

Given this pattern -- thousands upon thousands upon thousands of natural explanations accurately supplanting supernatural ones, zero supernatural explanations accurately supplanting natural ones -- doesn't it seem that any given unexplained phenomenon is far more likely to have a natural explanation than a supernatural one?
This all leads to a few interesting questions and suggests to me that the supernatural in religion has a limited future.

But will supernatural theism remain a part of Christianity and other religions?

And what will happen to Christianity and other religion if the supernatural theism is gone?

05 May 2007

Do We Really Talk Too Much About Sex?

My blog post is a response to Rev. Christine Robinson's concern that we spend too much time on sexuality education in Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Wow ... where should I start?

I hate it when folks use numbers as a rhetorical device and not as a tool for conveying accurate information. I think I've said this a million times that we should not exaggerate numbers for rhetorical effect.

First, the 25% of religious education contact time spent on the Our Whole Lives program isn't factually accurate.

And the misunderstanding that the Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexuality education program isn't "real" religious education (grounded in Unitarian Universalist theology and/or the United Church of Christ understanding of the Bible and their theology) is all too common among some folks who are not familiar with the Our Whole Lives program and the Unitarian Universalist/United Church of Christ Sexuality and Our Faith religious supplement for the Our Whole Lives program.

When one realizes that "sexuality" is more than body parts and lubricated friction and that it includes friendships, relationships, discovering who one is, etc, the time spent in OWL class isn't excessive at all.

This is one religious education (RE) class that we know our youth will use as adults.

Dr. Rebecca Parker has a very short and concise explanation of what Unitarian Universalist soteriology that she presented at the Liberal Religious Educator Association Fall Conference back in 2002. She says that we offer salvation from those things that deny life or make life less whole.

Using this view of salvation, I would suggest that the Our Whole Lives program is part of that salvation that we offer a world badly in need of salvation.

That's enough theology -- let's go back to the numbers.

Here's a breakdown of the time spent in the Our Whole Lives program at each age/grade level for Unitarian Universalists who are not adults:

Grades K-1 - 8 sessions (8 hours)

Grades 4-6 - 8 sessions (8 hours)

Grades 7-9 - 27 sessions (41- 54 hours, depending on the amount of religious ritual used with the basic 90 minute sessions)

Grades 10-12 - 14 sessions (28 hours)

The total amount of time spent in formal sexuality education classes is 98 hours (based on the figures provided above).

The estimate of time spent in all RE activities (based on Christine's estimate) is 520 hours.

Assuming that OWL program happens on Sunday morning instead of non-OWL RE classes, the percentage is not 25% -- 18.9% is what I come up with.

However, I doubt that the figure is any near 18% in most Unitarian Universalist congregations.

For example, my congregation only offers the grades 7-9 program and I suspect this is true for many other congregations (the grades 7-9 program is viewed by many as the replacement for About Your Sexuality, the earlier UUA sexuality education program).

Furthermore, we offer the program outside the Sunday morning RE time slot and it doesn't replace the non-OWL RE program. It supplements it. For my congregation and for many others like it the actual figure is 9.4%.

It's rare to find a congregation that offers OWL at all age/grade levels. I know this from my experience as a trainer in my district. The only OWL training workshop that has happened every year in my district is the training for adolescent OWL. Some years, the children and adult programs don't make the minimum enrollment number.

However, there are some congregations that do offer all age/grade levels of OWL. But they offer them outside Sunday morning as a supplement to the non-OWL RE program. In those cases, the percentage isn't 18%. For these congregations, the percentage is closer to 15%.

Finally, I'm sure that somebody is wondering why anyone would need 27 weeks and 40-52 hours to talk about sex. If all we provided in the OWL program was just the biological - medical facts about anatomy, reproduction, disease prevention, etc, 52 hours of class time would seem excessive.

However, we cover more than just "sexual health and reproduction" in the OWL program.

We talk about sensuality -- body awareness - how we feel about our bodies, how it looks, feels and what it can do. Sensuality is about being aware of and in touch with the pleasure our bodies can give us and others.

We talk about intimacy -- the basic need to be emotionally close to another person or persons and have that closeness returned. Relationships give us a sense of belonging, connection, and affection. Relationships can be friendships, family relationships, or romantic relationships.

We talk about sexual identity -- who we are sexually, including our sense of gender; the ways we express our gender; and the direction of our romantic and sexual attractions.

We talk about sexualization -- the use of sex or sexuality to influence, manipulate, or control other people. Sexualization is not always negative. It can range from harmless flirting to extreme violence.

This multi-faceted and complex model of sexuality that we use in the OWL program can be found online here:

Circles of Sexuality

Teaching abstinence or condom use are both simple skills that can be taught in less than 1 hour. The hard part is providing the opportunity for folks to explore the relationship issues so our youth have the ability to negotiate effective and safe sexual decisions with their partners as adolescents and as adults in the future.

End of my rant.