Unfamiliar tools for shared church work

I really was thinking about unfamiliar tools for shared church work; that is, tools where people can work collaboratively without having to all be in the same place. This is normal and increasingly common in business, but well all know that church is slow to change and underfunded. Or slow to change because it is underfunded.

About the time I had this thought, the news cane out the Metro will be shutting down at midnight tonight and all through Wednesday until Thursday morning. I’m just grateful my workplace has some systems — developed before blizzards — to cope, and most of my officemates will work from home. Of course, we will use Google Docs and Dropbox, and I bet many my readers do too.

But can you imagine the possible uses of something like Github, a software development tool used to manage the versions of documents. For churches, perhaps reports and resources, and to keep repositories of documents and graphics files? And webpages (Github Pages) easily stood up to share and promote those products. The humanities has a small presence of Github, but the Open Siddur Project (on Github) is objectively religious and liturgical, and makes me wonder about other possibilities. My sleepy Github account is here.

The other tool I want to point out now is Overleaf, an easy-to-use frontend for the very-powerful LaTeX typesetting software that’s widely used in academia, especially mathematics. Indeed, Overleaf’s market seems to be universitites, and if I were writing a thesis now, I’d be all over it. And if I were to get some people together to make a book or serious journal, I’d start there.

Are there unlikely tools you use that might be used in collaborative church work?


Yes: this daily blog post is a fill-in until I get to the blog post about Peter Morales’s ink blot of a white paper. I was feeling sickly today and my heart wasn’t in it. Speaking with other bloggers reveals there’s much there — and too little there — if that’s not too crypic. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Until then, a tool to explore. I have two piles of flashcards on my night table: Esperanto vocab and questions for the technician’s amateur radio license. Flashcards are handy, especially if you have scraps of time and content to learn. Cheaper, too, than fiddling with a smart phone.

I make them using a GNOME Linux application called gLables, which is great for labels, postcards, name badges, membership cards and the like but is very hacky for making something two-sided.

Here some LaTeX to the rescue. Seems there’s two class called flashcards (PDF documentation) and flacards (PDF documentation). While the former is the older class, it may be more useful for U.S. based users since the cards can be printed on the standard perforated business cards blanks that are so easy to find. Flacards, on the other hands, is simple and draws the lines (on one side) for hand cutting. I can’t wait to play with these and see which makes the better flashcards.

Graphite technology for better church publications

I’ve often written about the potential quality of church publications — that churches with the money and wherewithal can and sometimes do produce amazing print pieces, but that the technology is exists to help the rest to improve, even if that doesn’t mean a professional job. I’ve gone back and forth about TeX, LaTeX and related typesetting languages, and the reason I’ve not committed it that it doesn’t pass the ease-of-use test. And word processors are meant for easy of use and not beauty of product.

I’m experimenting with Graphite, a text-rendering technology, for Microsoft Windows and Linux. For Linux (and perhaps Windows, which I don’t use), it’s supported in the free- and open-source office suites OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice. It can substitute gylphs (the particular shape that corresponds to a letter) making use of an advance typeface’s true small capitol letters, text figures and other typographical features. (Most typefaces the average person uses lacks these features, and it’s one of the almost-imperceptible features that differentiates good printed items.) It’s also free- and open-source software, and there’s support for one of my favorite typefaces, Linux Libertine.

I won’t go any further: this could very well be another dead-end, but will report back if something pleasing comes of it.


Liberate your documents by choosing a better format

Microsoft owns the ideas around word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. “I want it in a .doc” “Put it Excel” “Look, another PowerPoint!” But it need not and should not be that way.

I’ll cut to the chase: if you create content in proprietary format, you will always depend upon the company that supplies the company to access your work. And as the saying goes, “if you can’t fix it, you don’t own it.” So much more for simply opening what you’ve created.

Or inherited. I’m thinking about documents in the long game. Proprietary document formats are a dead end. I have files from the 1980s and 1990s I can’t open; what the chance that a church archivist will open your membership list in a hundred years?

You can (and should) use plain text and comma-separated values for simple documents. I have a fun, easy and public-domain resource for presentations that I’ll write up in about a week. Perhaps some will use (La)TeX for graduate theses and dissertations. (Right, mathematicians?)

And for more complex, but everyday tasks of word processing, spreadsheet and presentations, please use the Open Document Format. The world of open format advocates are celebrating Document Freedom Day today.

You can participate by considering how your casual document format choices have limited your access — like sending or having been sent one of those .docx files — and considering your options. The Open Document Format (ODF) is used in Google Docs, and the mature and free (both in licencing and cost) office suites OpenOffice.org and its continuing spin-off LibreOffice. (These can also read the proprietary formats, so I’m not setting you adrift.)

Use those formats, please — and I’ll make the pledge. If I need to put a word processing document or spreadsheet on my blog, I’ll make it available in ODF.

And learn more at the Document Freedom Day site.

Later. Jeremy Carbaugh, a colleague in the Sunlight Foundation Sunlight Labs team, was the one who told me about Document Freedom Day, and he also wrote about it. Sunlight makes a similar pledge about publishing these kinds of documents additionally in ODF.

Even later. Another member of the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere has gotten in the act: The Prayerful Sceptic, linking to another self-written blogpost at Intuitionistically Uncertain.

Software for that comparative liturgy project

A few days ago, I suggested a common dependence on Frederick Henry Hedge’s translation of the Liturgy of St. James for Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian communion practice. Rashly I said would create a parallel text showing this development if I could find the software to typeset it.

I think I found what I was remembering: the parcolumns LaTeX package, in part because it can handle more than two columns in parallel. Shall test it, sooner or later, but I thought this tool would be helpful for others making liturgical comparisons.

As I proceed, I’ll also note which LaTeX graphical user interface (GUI) I’ve chosen, ’cause there’s no way I’m doing this in a plain text editor.

Feature set for LaTeX order of worship project

On my netbook, tapping out ideas while my home desktop computer finishes updating the latest version of Ubuntu Linux. That massive software project makes me think about the little, somewhat procedural and documentation-focused project I’ve started. To recap, I want to help automate the production of orders of service using LaTeX, a typesetting language more associated with mathematical journals or scientific dissertations than anything religious.

So here are the features I want to see in this project, both to cultivate some interest and to guide my work.

  1. select correct standard LaTeX document style, as project basis, if one exists
  2. project creates makes 5.5 by 8.5 inch pages
  3. prints in selected typeface
  4. set up LaTeX file with comments to allow easy editing
  5. prints lines where half of the content is forced left, flush left and the rest is forced right, flush right
  6. can print as a booklet with pages in the correct order
  7. associate the correct package to allow her/his and he/she pronouns within a service automatically
  8. link file to data source, to create “mail merged” output
  9. insert an image of music, generated from a text file, such as ABC notation
  10. associate correct heading levels with sections within a customary order of worship
  11. insert hooks to pull repeated (“ordinary”) liturgical fragments

Beauty tips for orders of service

With apologies to Victoria Weinstein, and her Beauty Tips for Ministers blog.

One of the tasks that took the most time and caused the most unnecessary trouble was getting the Sunday service bulletin/order of service/order of worship/service sheet to look right. Those of you with limited office staff will understand.

I’m trying to work up a simple workflow, with free and open-source tools, to make this task easier; in particular, TeX and LaTex, which might seem odd choices for church work. It will be an iterative process: the first result will be painful and ugly and should improve in ease and quality.  I’ll be doing it even if there’s no expressed interest — I leave things on this blog that take years to get attention. But if you do have a real-life need, please note it in the comments.

"The Everlasting Gospel" to download

As I promised, today I’m pleased to release a PDF (and the source XeTeX file) for Seigvolck’s The Everlasting Gospel. It looks pretty good if I do say so, and it makes a thrilling — and occasionally bizarre — read.

I’ll gladly take “bug reports” — it would help if they were keyed to line numbers in the XeTeX file — plus I’ll make improvements from time to time, including a notice that it’s in the public domain. Enjoy.

PDF version (311 kb)

(Xe)TeX version (239 kb)  (About XeTex)

"Everlasting Gospel" in PDF, October 2

Well, I figured the best way to carefully read Siegvolck’s The Everlasting Gospel is to clean up a scan for re-publication. (It’s worked before.) And the best way to get to out is to promise a PDF (and text file of the LaTeX markup) to my readers.

So, on October 2, I will publish both. I will not promise they will be beautiful. That’s for a later iteration. Both will, however, be in the public domain.

Church Tool try-out

There aren’t that many church-focused free- and open-source content management systems. Perhaps I should be happy there are any, but each of them has its quirks.

I found kOOL — even the name is a quirk — at churchtool.org. I found it because I was looking for church-related uses for the typesetting language LaTeX, which kOOL claims to support, and which I think has untapped possibilities to make church-related publications easier to produce and more beautiful.

We shall see. It took me quite a bit of time and some expert help just to get an instance of it installed on my home machine. So as I play with it, I’ll see what it does well and not so well, with a particular eye to complex family systems.  Any features or bugs I should watch out for?  And screenshots you’d like?