An Afternoon Musing

In the last 25 years about six to eight Barn swallows usually appeared around the temple compound in May and several dozen departed in mid-August. This year they appeared when expect, but only three or four showed up. It is now August 30th. Around a dozen swallows left a week ago and today there are more than a dozen that are still doing acrobatics on the grounds around the temple. There are also many more bears in closer proximity, the deer seem to be around at different times. What’s up – global warming – even the critters are confused by our strange times?

Several years from now a book will be published titled, ‘The Year of Living Uncertainly’.  It will later be made into a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Will Smith, with William Macy and Lupita Nyong’o as supporting cast. It will have three major plot streams.

The first the awakening to the white privileged majority that the wanton killing of black Americans is just the tip of the iceberg of injustices committed against African Americans historically and currently, Black Lives Matter will be a focus. The second strand of course will be the Covid 19 virus and the battle between science and ideology as the dominant theme, with the front-line workers as the new heroes, and a subplot of economic equality. The third stream will be the political discord driven by the exploitive culture wars, the focus will be the 2020 election and its aftermath.

If this film has the Hollywood ending of a disaster movie, we will see Morgan Freeman standing with Mila Kunis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as people are remerging from their isolation onto a debris spread downtown gazing at a bright sunrise – the music will be inspiring.  That’s our hopeful dream.

If the film has a dystopian ending, Angelina Jolie and Dev Patel will be walking into the sunset and amid  burnt out shells of homes and derelict cars in South Los Angeles. Mad World by Imagined Dragons starts loud and fades as the film credits screen. That is our pessimistic ruminations.

The third ending is one typically depicted in French cinema. A poignant neorealism in which we are not quite sure of who survived, who won, and what the future will bring. Viola Davis and Jean Reno are dancing slowly in an empty hotel ballroom with election banners all around, “Can’t Find My Way Home” Tom Petty & Steve Winwood is the closing song. A pragmatic likelihood.

OK – the foregoing pretty much describes my musings these days. Which film will be produced as a result of this tumultuous period in the lives of millions? How will it turn out? Where will we be three years from now? Our actions both out of our control and within our control in the next two years will determine which book will be written and film produced.

Science and Technology

My parents moved back up north, from Pipestem, West Virginia, to Albany, New York, in 1963,. I had been living in Albany with my grandmother in order to go to better schools. Shortly after my parents moved we were living together as a family again, we acquired an RCA color television set. Those of us old enough to remember that time will recall the early color TVs were a wooden cabinet that was around 3-foot-wide by 2 foot deep and almost 4 foot high, with a 21″ round screen. The major selling point that I gave my parents for acquiring this magnificent piece of advanced technology was that I would be able to watch Man from U.N.C.L.E.  and Bonanza in color, my father could watch sports – the way they were intended to be watched. I was permitted to watch TV for an hour an evening on school nights and two hours on weekends. That did not include football and baseball games that my father would watch. The cost was about $450. In today’s dollars that would be about $3,750. Today the television screen in the kuri (abbots living quarters) is 45 inches wide by almost 30 inches high and couple of inches deep. There is almost no cabinetry. Basically, it is just a screen. The cost is equivalent to one quarter of that first color television. The main selling point to Shumon was that I need such a set to better appreciate movies and sports; oh yeah to show PowerPoint presentations on Wednesday evenings.

Physicists developing theories of electromagnetism in the late 19th century gave rise to the first working television in the early 20th century. The television receiver was imagined as a possible medium for education and interpersonal communication. The first analogue service in the world was WGY (now WRGB), Schenectady, NY inaugurated in 1928. Those were the days in which Schenectady, NY and General Electric were synonymous, Schenectady being where Thomas Edison founded GE in 1886.

While there were early stations with regular broadcasts, mostly news, drama and education in the 30’s and forties, it was not until the early 1950’s, with the innovation of commercial sponsors, that TV became more widely available in major metropolitan areas around the world. The time from the first broadcast to commonly available programming was about 25 years.

I mention this not because I am taking a trip down memory lane. The point I would like to make is that technology transforms our daily life. Science leads to technology; technology and science together bring about innovation. As we all know by our experience with personal computers, each generation the technology become more advanced and less expensive. This has led to expectations developing faster than the reality of the technology.

Technology’s Growing Pains

Our first Virtual Sangha Gathering was on March 25. We did not know how long we would be meeting digitally when we started. We are now in the sixth month of the Zoom meetings. The experience has been mixed. I would like to share some of what we learned, what we have gained, and what we lost, through this experiment.

There are about 24 to 30 internet devices, computers, tablets, and phones, that are tuned into the Wednesday evening virtual gatherings, and this translates to 28 to 35 people attending, in some cases more than one person is on one screen. Meeting in-person before COVID 19 about 15 to 20 people would be attending the services in the hondo (main building of the temple). These people are tuning in, while the other 12 or more people our joining us from Germany, Puerto Rico, Colombia, France, Japan, Canada, and all over the US. As with any Buddhist service, in person or virtual, some people attend for one week not to be seen again, others for several weeks, and others are regulars.

PowerPoint is used to organize the virtual meetings. Using Zoom and PowerPoint we find our way through a discussion (for which the PowerPoint is very adept) elements of the Daily Service, a meditation followed by a Dharma talk, joys and concerns, etc.  The Daily Service elements and meditation are less intimate, less coordinated, and a bit stilted, from my perspective. 

Last month we held an in-person service in the hondo, with a limited number of people (17), which we will continue to do once a month. We used this as an opportunity to digitally record the service so that we could make a videography for use during the Wednesday Night Virtual Gatherings. Kairen, our temple assistant, edited the video, cutting repetitive portions, added stills of the hondo during long parts of chanting, and left out the quiet during the meditation. I then pieced this into the PowerPoint, so it is intended to have a flow, somewhat replicating the in-person experience. After we tested this approach with sangha members it was deemed necessary to upgrade our internet service to accommodate the increased bandwidth required for video streaming. I won’t bore you with the details, suffice it to say that we now have a system at the temple that is adequate for the technology.

When we ran the “new and improved” Virtual Gathering on Wednesday, September 2nd, there were several issues that immediately cropped up. Some people loved it. I received several glowing reports at the time and several more emails after. There were even some very good suggestions as to how we might improve the presentation for content. For some people it was a complete bust, their device froze up or completely crashed. They communicated we should go back to the previous iteration with elements of the service and no video. Yet others liked the idea, and they thought the video was good, but they had either visual problems or audio issues. Kairen has been investigating this and we are going to be improving procedures. We have already made some changes and will continue to improve as time goes by.

However, we realize that the technology is not keeping pace with our expectations. First, Zoom itself has certain limitations. Further, Kairen and I, had not contemplated that not everyone’s device has the processing power, sufficiently robust video and audio cards, or an internet connection with adequate broadband. It seems Chromebooks are especially vulnerable and don’t have enough oomph under the hood. Though we do have some things we can try. For some people the process worked the way it is intended to work. For some it works, sort of but not great. Yet others they were excluded from the service. It worked OK in our tests because all the parties were using equipment up to the task. We have no control over other people’s internet capacity or equipment.

There are several technical measures we will be employing to improve the finished presentation in future Zoomcasts. The difficulty is most people have responded that the use of the video enhances their experience, even when there are glitches, and a few have less than acceptable experiences. Some people will get the short end of any decision we make. I have decided to continue to search for ways to improve everyone’s experience with the video. If you have specific issues, let us know so we can address them individually. We have expectations of technology that are unmet. We expect color on a B&W TV.


To Be Continued Next Time: Science and Technology Are Not Magic (though it sometimes seems so).