February – Sikhism

This is part two of my Beyond Belief project, where every month during 2019 I plan to experience a different religion that I know nothing about. This month its Sikhism. I have to admit, this one I knew absolutely nothing about.

There is a large temple-looking place not far from where I live so I dropped in the other day to see what it was about. Turns out it is a gurdwara, which is a temple for Sikhs. The only thing I really knew about Sikhs was that they typically come from Northern India and they wear turbans (at least the men do). I’d never really thought that being Sikh was a stand-alone religion, and just assumed it was some offshoot of Hinduism. That’s definitely not the case.

When I dropped into the gurdwara to take a look, there was a guy with a beard and turban near the entrance measuring up a noticeboard, so I approached and explained that I am trying a different religion every month this year. He put down his measuring tape, then spent the next 90 minutes showing me around, explaining the religion and telling me about the beliefs. His name was Padam, and he was super helpful. He pointed out the large TV screen near the entrance that displayed a piece of scripture for the day, and Iearned that it came from the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the Sikh holy book. It displays a different piece of scripture each day, which is made available from “the opening” of the book at 4am each morning, until 8pm each night. Padam suggested that if I read it, it would contain a personal message that I needed to hear because of me turning up on this day at this time. I read it and maybe I just missed it, because I’m not sure I gleaned anything particular. Maybe it’s just me.

I took off my shoes and put on a head covering and we went into the gurdwara, knelt in front of the holy area where the Guru Granth Sahib was kept, and Padam told me lots and lots of stuff about the Sikh religion.

He stressed that the Sikh religion is extremely egalitarian, and treats every human with respect and reverence. A good Sikh, he told me, is peace-loving and is blind to race, to colour, to nationality, to gender. Every human, regardless of who they are, is equal and welcome. Sikhs are welcoming to all other religions, and even though they have been persecuted and even executed over the centuries by Muslim and Mughal invaders, they still harbour no ill feelings towards other religions or races.

I learned that the word “Sikh” actually translates as “learner”. Does that make me a Sikh? Probably not. But I was definitely learning. I learned that Sikhism is a monotheistic religion (one god) but that god is a universal god, acknowledged as the same spiritual creative force as recognised by other religions. The message of this god is communicated through Gurus, starting with the first one, Guru Nanak in the 1500s, and then a succession of other Gurus who became the messengers of this god on earth. The holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, was steadily edited and extended by the successive line of gurus that followed, each adding more wisdom to it. I asked Padam who the current living guru was and he pointed to the book, which I didn’t really understand right away, but it turns out that the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, named the book as his successor, and the book itself has been “the Guru” ever since. (India is famous for outsourcing, but I never expected something like this!) The book is treated as a real living human person, complete with a real funeral when a copy gets too old to keep using.

The other thing I learned about was “The 5 Ks”, or the symbols that every practicing Sikh carries with them at all times. They are kēs (uncut hair, which is why most Sikh men have beards and under the turban usually long hair), kaṅghā (a small wooden comb kept in the hair), kaṛā (circular steel or iron bracelet designed to both represent the eternal nature of god, but also to represent a handcuff, connecting them to god), kirpān (a small sword or dagger carried on their person. Padam said that Sikhs have special permission to carry the dagger under Australian law), and kacchera (the special underpants designed to remind them of chastity and faithfulness).

Things must come in fives because there are also five things that Sikhs try to avoid. They are referred to as the “Five Thieves” – Lust, Anger, Greed, Attachment, and Ego. Padam spent quite a bit of time explaining the meaning of these and the effect it has on the way they approach life, but I probably can’t do it justice in this blog post, which is already getting long! The wikipedia article about Sikhism is very good if you want to learn more.

Before I left, Padam invited me to come back on Sunday to experience part of the Kirtan certemony and stay for Langar. I turned up at about 12:00pm and sat in on the holy prayers being sung, then the scriptures being read, before heading downstairs to join Langar. Langar is a community meal, provided free to anyone who turns up. You sit on the floor with rows of other people, with a large metal dish in front of you, and people come around and put food on it. It’s all vegetarian, with dhaal, flatbread, rice, aloo, and salad. It’s quite the communal experience.

So that’s my investigation to Sikhism. It struck me as a really nice religion that has a whole lot of interesting traditions, history and beliefs, and some very friendly and welcoming people. I’m not about to convert (to this or any other religion) but I’m glad I checked it out and know a little bit more about it now.

Now, which religion will I try next month? Leave a comment with your ideas! Also, I’d love your comments on this project of trying a different religion each month. Is it a good idea? A dumb idea? Is there something you think I should do differently?

January – Balinese Hinduism

Here we go with part one of my Beyond Belief Project, where I plan to experience and learn about a different religion every month for all of 2019. I’m a little late posting this one, as it was for January, but better late than never.

I spent nearly five week in Bali over the December/January period, so Balinese Hinduism seems like an obvious place to start. As part of Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, Bali is a religious outlier with nearly 85% of the island’s population identifying as Hindu. Its version of Hinduism is a little different to that traditionally found in India, which is polytheistic (believing in many gods), and it has quite a different feel to the other Muslim parts of Indonesia. Balinese Hinduism claims to be monotheistic, with only one god, although it seems to me that in practice this is not always the case, based on so many different statues I saw everywhere. There were statues of Vishnu and Ganesha and many, many others that I didn’t recognise, so I’m not totally sure how the monotheistic thing applies.

As used to be the case in India, there is a caste system in place in Bali, with priests and holy people (mostly men) called the Brahmanas at the top. Below that are the Satrias, Wesias and Sudras. The Sudras are the common class of people, and make up 90% of the population – these are your farmers, workers, etc. There are all kinds of specific rules and conventions that get applied to you depending on what caste you belong to. For example, the Sudra caste are given a name based on their birth order – first born is named Wayan, Putu or Gede. The second born is named Made or Kadek, the third goes by Nyoman or Komang, and the fourth is named Ketut. If a family has more than four children, the cycle repeats and the next ‘Wayan’ may be called Wayan Balik, which loosely translates to ‘another Wayan’. I met a lot of people with these names!

You also can’t miss the temples in Bali; they are absolutely everywhere. In fact, as well as the really big major temples, each area or village has several mid-sized temples serving the locals, and most people’s houses even have a small temple within the family compound. You honestly cannot walk more than a few hundred metres without seeing a temple. At the temples you see lots of offerings being made all the time, giving thanks to the god(s), and praying for good luck. The Balinese people seem to be deeply spiritual, and the culture is fairly traditional in its expectations. There are so many rules about how life should work, defining the different roles that men and women take on within society, how the structures of marriage and family should work, how lineage is passed down, and so on. The expectations of what men and women are supposed to be and do seem quite conservative (to me) but they are clearly very entrenched and valued by the Balinese people.

As I mentioned, you see offerings everywhere! Known as Canang sari, these are usually small baskets woven from strips of palm leaves filled with rice, flowers, incense or other things, and left out in front of houses, shops, temples, beaches, in fact everywhere that needs blessing. One morning while I was in Ubud, I went to get on my scooter and there was an offering sitting on the handlebars of my bike, and every other bike in the street. These offerings have great importance and happen several times a day, and are mostly managed by the women. They are offered every day as a form of thanks for the peace given to the world. The philosophy behind the offering is self-sacrifice in that they take time and effort to prepare. I was talking to one of my AirBNB hosts who said that they go through about 50 of these offering baskets every day. They get put in front of pretty much everything, and there are times when you literally have to step over bunches of them in the streets. They are obviously really important to the people and their beliefs.

One of the more major temples I visited was Tanah Lot, a spectacularly beautiful temple on the west coast of Bali. It’s built on a rocky outcrop that juts into the ocean but at low tide, you can wade across the water to the actual temple. There you can, for a small donation, get a blessing from the holy men. You need to wash your hands and feet, then they stuck rice onto your forehead. No idea what the purpose it, but they all seemed pretty reverent about it. I would have liked to have explored the actual temple but it was closed off to the public.

I happened to be in Bali during two of the biggest religious festivals of the year, Galungan and Kuningan. During this time, the temples get dressed up, there are big baskets of offerings being given, flowers are used to decorate the temples, etc. All the statues get dressed up in black and white checkered sarongs. The streets get decorated with big bamboo poles. And the people gather together in the temples to celebrate, talk, play music, and give thanks. It’s all rather beautiful.

I visited a biggish local temple just outside Ubud during the Kuningan festival and stayed for about an hour just to watch what was going on there. The women sat gathered together in groups, all dressed in traditional costumes of a sarong and a traditional lace top. The men stayed in their groups, also dressed in sarongs and mostly white shirts. There was music being played on traditional instruments – mostly percussive instruments, so to an untrained ear it does tend to sound like a lot of banging and crashing noise – and although the banging can sound a bit random, the musicians all clearly knew what was coming next as they stayed in time and tempo and knew exactly when to vary the intensity of their contributions. Although I wore a sarong and tried to be discreet as I wandered around the temple, I felt a little conspicuous being there. People were very welcoming though. It was quite amazing to experience.

Another fascinating temple was Tirta Gangga, on the way up to Amed on the the north coast. I believe the name translates as Water Palace, and it was probably one of the most beautiful temples I saw. and quite different in style to the others. there were lots of statues everywhere, but the main feature was the beautiful waterways and ponds filled with fish.

One insightful moment I had about the effect of religion on the culture was when I was talking with the caretaker of another of my AirBNBs, a delightful Balinese woman named Patliany. I mentioned to her how much I liked the villa I was staying in and how nice the layout of the space was. She laughed and said she had just had a conversation with another guest from an identical villa who was complaining that the open design was insecure and that he was concerned that people would be able to break in and steal his belongings. Patliany said to him “This is Bali. We are Hindu and we believe in karma. Nobody is going to steal your things.” (Ironically, the guy complaining was from India, and also a Hindu!)

That really summed up a lot to me about the impact that Hinduism has on these people. There is a genuine sense of kindness and helpfulness from the Balinese people that, I think, largely stems from this idea of karma… that whatever you do to other people and however you treat other people, it will eventually come back to you. The Balinese have a beautiful spirit, and I can’t help but think their Hindu beliefs about life and the world play an important role in the way they think and act.

The other interesting fun fact I learned about the way Hindu beliefs influence the culture was with the doorways. Balinese doors often have a series of steps that lead up to the entryway, and as you step through the door, there are more steps going down the other side. Basically, you have to climb up and down to go through a door. It struck me as somewhat odd… my western brain, trained to always aim for efficiency above all else, thought “why not just have no steps up and no steps down, so you can just walk through the door easily?” Apparently these steps are symbolic of the Hindu belief that everything in life involves some kind of struggle and reward. To get through the doorway, you have to climb up – the struggle – and then go down – the reward. Once I learned this, I noticed it everywhere. (I also didn’t see many people in wheelchairs either!)

So there you go, that’s my experience with Balinese Hinduism. Stay tuned for next month where I pick another religion to check out!

Une leçon de Creative Commons

The article from Le Republicain Lorraine

For many years, we had a beautiful Golden retriever named Buzz.  He was a really lovely dog. We got him through Golden Retriever Rescue NSW and he was pretty special to us. He eventually  became quite old and unwell, and we had to put him down last year just before Christmas.

I was a little surprised today when I saw an article on a French news site about a Golden Retriever. It was a fairly sad story of a Golden who went to the vet for an operation and was accidentally euthanised.

Whilst it was a sad story that brought back some painful memories of the night we lost our Golden boy, I was a little surprised that the photo being used was one of my own, taken of Buzz a few years ago. Because I believe in sharing as a default, I published the photo on Flickr under a Creative Commons BY SA licence, as nearly all of my photos are. So this French news site has every right to use my photo as long as they respect the CC guidelines under which I published it, namely the BY (Attribution) and the SA (Share Alike).

While I am very happy to share, and I enjoy seeing my photos being used by others, the CC licence (and general politeness!) requires that I receive attribution and acknowledgement for their use of my image. While they did indeed do this by mentioning my name, it is also usually expected that they would link to the source of the image, in this case the photo on Flickr. This did not happen even though this is the normal thing to do on the Internet when using someone else’s image.

But I was especially not impressed when I clicked the “Photo HD” button to find that they have placed intrusive watermarks all over my photo to prevent anyone else from using it, with a note above it saying “L’accès aux photos HD sans filigrane est réservé aux abonnés”, which translates as “Access to HD photos without watermark is reserved for subscribers”.

This kind of pisses me off, because they do NOT have the rights to restrict access to my image like this, especially when they make it a subscription access thing. Whilst I choose not to use the NC (Non Commercial) aspect of the Creative Commons licensing system – which mean that people can indeed make money from using my photos if they wish – the SA (Share Alike) component means that they must publish under the same licence as they got it. In practical terms, this does effectively mean that my photos cannot be used commercially, since anyone using them has to make them freely available in the same way that I did. But what they are definitely not allowed to do is to restrict others from using them in any way, including watermarks or paywalls.  I see this as a clear breach of the terms of my Creative Commons licence.

Anyway, here’s a copy of the email I wrote to them. Let’s see what happens…


Bonjour,

I noticed that you used one of my Flickr images on your story about Golden Retrievers.  (https://www.republicain-lorrain.fr/france-monde/2016/12/19/le-veterinaire-euthanasie-un-chien-par-erreur)
The photo is licensed on Flickr under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence, which means you are allowed to use it, but only under two conditions that must be met…

  1. ATTRIBUTION – You acknowledge the owner of the image.  While you have done this by mentioning my name, the more usual way to acknowledge this is to also provide a link to the source of the image.  

  2. SHARE ALIKE – You publish it under the same terms as you got it, and you do not prevent anyone else from using the image.  In the screenshot below, I notice that you have covered the HD version of image in watermarks, with a message saying “Access to HD photos without watermark is reserved for subscribers”. This effectively prevents anyone else from using the image without making a payment to you. Because this image is published under a Share Alike licence, you do NOT have the rights to restrict access to it by others, or to suggest that a payment is required.

These conditions are clearly marked on the Flickr page where you found the image.
Those of us who publish our content under a Creative Commons license do so in good faith that our copyright will be respected under the terms of the CC licence we choose to publish with. It is frustrating to find that mainstream media publishers such as yourself either do not understand the requirements of using a CC image, or choose to ignore them.
I am ok with you continuing to use the image, but please remove the watermarks and restrictions in your HD image preview, and provide a link back to the original work. If you cannot do this, then kindly cease using the image.

Please reply to let me know how you plan to deal with this.

Choosing a Music Streaming Service

It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that the music industry was still resisting any attempt at allowing consumers to access music in any way other that buying CDs. So many other industries have been disrupted by digital technology, and while a few notable ones stuck doggedly to their “principles” until they literally vanished (I’m looking at you Kodak and Blockbuster), most industries either embraced the disruption or eventually waved the white flag and gave in.

One of the industries that probably should have most logically embraced the opportunities of being digital was the music business. After all, with a product that is essentially just a collection of digital bits, the decision to move those bits directly to consumers via the Internet should have been a no brainer. Yet the record company cartels fought the inevitable digital transition for years.  Rarely have I seen such a group of people with so little vision for the future be so obstinate about protecting their incumbency.

Thanks in large part the disruption of Apple and the iTunes Store in popularising the idea of moving music off plastic disks and making it into downloadable files, the door was opened to companies like Spotify to avoid all that messy iTunes syncing nonsense and just let you listen to music directly on your device as a stream of bits.  And of course, without the pirate attitude of early filesharing services like Napster, it may have taken a lot longer to get to that point.

So here we are in 2018, and we are now almost spoilt for choice when it comes to streaming music services. Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music and Amazon Music seem to be the popular choices, but there are plenty of others to explore like Deezer, Pandora, IHeartRadio, and more.

I’ve been using Google Play Music for a while now, and I quite like it. While it was a bit rough when it started, it has definitely improved it’s recommendation algorithms over the past year or so (although sometime the stuff it serves up based on my apparent listening tastes still seem quite bizarre).  As a paid subscriber I also get access to YouTube Red, which apart from access to special YouTube Red limited content (which I don’t really watch anyway) it’s nice to not have ads appearing in YouTube.

My biggest gripe with Google Play Music is that it’s tied to a single Google account (my Gmail account), so it’s a nuisance when I’m logged in to another account, like my work account.  Yes I know can have multiple windows open, I understand that, but I think this idea that my content (files, music, photos, etc) is tied to an account and not an identity is ridiculous and a major problem with the way Google handles these things.  I am still me, and my content is still mine, regardless of which account I am logged into.

Like many people, I also have a free Spotify account.  Because it’s free I have to put up with ads, so I’ve tended not to use it as much as Play Music. But the predictions and recommendations of Spotify seemed to be quite good, and it’s a great way to discover new music or hear old favourites. However, what I really like with Spotify, is that I’m allowed to be just me. I can log into Spotify completely independently of any other accounts I may or may not be logged into. I like that a lot.

That independence carries across to devices as well, with Spotify also playing nicely with most major hardware platforms.  It plays nicely with Chromecast, which is important to me, but also with many other services and devices. And of course, because it’s so widely used by so many people, it’s pretty easy to share and access playlists with friends. I signed up for the three month trial and am digging it so far.

That said, it’s not perfect. For example, there is no option to upload your own music. I have a number of files that are simply not available online because they are not commercially available.  Old singles, obscure bands, recording of my kids when they were little, songs recorded by my musically talented daughter, and so on.  None of these are available online. Spotify has a Local Files option, so I could theoretically access these things from my local drive, but the files don’t sync across devices, so I’d have to copy them to every device I own, which not an ideal solution.  With Google Play I can simply upload these tracks to the service and access them via Play, so that’s a definite benefit.

I’m trying to decide which of these pros and cons are most important to me as I think about which streaming music service I want to continue using going forward.

I also need to factor in that Google Play Music is going away soon and is being replaced with a new service called YouTube Music.  I have been given an early look at YouTube Music and I’m not sure it’s grabbing me yet. The new pricing model removes the Ad-free YouTube option unless I pay more. I also don’t have the option to upload my own tracks (although I hear that feature may be coming). And while it can be used just an audio playing service, there’s also a focus on music videos which I don’t particularly care about. The interface also seems a little unintuitive (although maybe I just need to get used to it). Overall I haven’t warmed to YouTube Music yet.  It’s possibly another case of Google being too late to the music party – a party that is well and truly being led by Spotify at this point in time – with yet another confused strategy of multiple semi-great apps all competing for our attention.

There are other services I could consider, like Apple Music, but to be honest I am actively avoiding getting sucked into any ecosystem that Apple runs simply because of their proprietary approach to most things.  Deezer has the biggest library of music, and works on my Fitbit Ionic (if you consider the way Fitbit expects you to get music on the device to be “working”). And Amazon?  Meh. Probably not.

Right now, given that Google Play Music is going away, I’m leaning towards a switch to Spotify. Although if the New YouTube Music service adds the ability to upload my own files, then I could be swayed to stay in Google land, even if they do want an extra $2 a month to remove the ads from YouTube.

Wikipedia has a good comparison table of all the streaming music services if you’re interested.

Decisions, decisions!  So tell me… what do you use? And what advice do you have for me?  I’d love you to take the poll about your choice and leave me your thoughts in the Comments!

Which streaming music service do you prefer?

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Header Image CC BY-SA:  Ian Hunter Rant Band on Flickr by bobistravelling

EdTechTeam. One word, No spaces, Three caps.

As many of you know, my current role is working with EdTechTeam in Australia and New Zealand. It’s a role I enjoy and I know we make a difference to many teachers both here in ANZ and globally.

As a team of educators working in the field of educational technology, I have always thought the name “EdTechTeam” is a good one.  It seems clear and unambiguous and I feel like it describes who we are and what we do.

So one thing that has always puzzled me is the way people consistently get our company name wrong. We commonly get called just “Edtech”, “Ed Tech”, and even “Edutech”, which is something entirely different. We sometimes get “EdTech team” or “Ed tech team”, both of which are close, but no cigar.

Say it with me. EdTechTeam.

I have lost track of the number of times I have received emails referring to us as Edtech, or been introduced as Chris from Edtech, and while I try to politely correct the error, I truly am astounded at the general lack of attention to detail it shows.

So please folks, it’s EdTechTeam.  One word. No spaces. Three caps.

Thanks!

Gridding up

I was turned onto this rather cool new tool that I think has a ton of great potential in the classroom. It’s called Flipgrid. It’s a way to collect short video responses to a prompt. As well as looking great, it works on mobile (with the Flipgrid app), doesn’t require a login, and is super simple to use!

I’ve embedded a link to an example. Just click the container below and it will take you to a topic page. Then just click the big green plus button to start recording (and you’ll probably also need to click “allow” to give permission to your camera). Then just record your message, add your name and a poster frame, then submit it. As more people submit theirs you can revisit the site to see what they add. Give it a go!

[advanced_iframe securitykey=”e20f69bb07ee554d20e708c550a00b401b5dc7d2″ src=”https://flipgrid.com/embed/topic/2a35ea” width=”100%” height=”420″]

After you click the button, say who you are, where you’re from, what you teach, and how you might use this with your students. You have 60 seconds! Go!

The direct link to the topic page is https://flipgrid.com/2a35ea

The administrator of the grid has a lot of control over things like moderation and approval of comments before they go live, whether replies are allowed, whether likes and plays are shown, whether auto transcription happens, and more. This tool is well designed for classroom use!

I see this as a great way to collect feedback from students, allow them to share their learning with the rest of the class, reflect on an activity, brainstorm ideas, and so much more. What suggestions can you come up with?

PS: If you’re on mobile, grab the Flipgrid app for Android or iOS. I love that it works so well on mobile as well as the web. Well done, Flipgrid!

Header image: Sprites by Thomas Quine via Flickr CC BY

 

Be Smart On Air Interview

I was recently asked to be a guest on the Be Smart On Air podcast by Niilo Alhovaara. Niilo is a fan of The Google Educast and was keen to catch up to talk about podcasting, technology in education, and the good old days of the internet.

I thoughts I’d cross post the recording here, because, well, that’s just what the Internet does.

You can Tweet Niilo at @niiloa and check out his other interviews on his YouTube Channel.