Online Church Services

Pastor, Dave (our main organist) and I have been rapidly figuring out how to put together online church services more efficiently. The first week was Pastor recording from his laptop in his living room but now we’re doing full services recorded at church with multiple camera angles, music, hymns, and liturgy. It’s far from a professional operation and this makes me want to upgrade our gear even more, but we’re certainly doing a lot with what we have available.

Here’s our basic flow for the week:

  • Pastor records the liturgy and children’s sermon. Those get copied to the computer at church and then it slowly uploads it to our Backblaze cloud backup provider so that I can download it. I usually have the files by Wednesday or Thursday. There is an MP4 file from each of the camcorders and the audio from the mics ends up on a DVD.
  • Pastor records the next day and sends those to me the same way.
  • Dave records pre and post service music along with all of the hymns and liturgy. He can get a WAV output file from his organ/computer at home and those files go on Dropbox.
  • As the files come in from Pastor, I strip the audio out of the DVD files, align it with each of the video files and then I align the video files with each other so I can switch camera angles.
  • From there I watch all the video, cut out the spots where Pastor may have done multiple takes, and remove all the points where the cameras are being moved, etc.
  • For the hymns and Dave’s music, I need to have something to display on screen. We’re using only the public domain hymns so I’m able to get images of the hymns and display those.
  • That would be sufficient but I’ve been adding some polish on them as well:
    • Normalize the audio. Speaking is -7dB and organ is -10dB.
    • Run a dialogue processor over Pastor’s audio to try and clean it up a little. Our microphone setup is really basic. It sounds fine in church but on a recording, it’s not great. This helps a tiny amount.
    • Add titles at various points in the service.
    • Sometimes I’ll do a little color correction on the video and I try to rotate it to make sure it’s perfectly aligned.
    • At any point where the viewers are invited to sing along, I started making animated highlights that show what is being sung.
    • Add subtitles for all Bible readings and the Apostles Creed
  • Once everything is done, I render the video to a single MP4 file. Thanks to my new PC build, this only takes about 15-20 minutes. I end up with a file between 1.5 and 2GB.
  • That file gets uploaded to both YouTube and Facebook. We get better numbers when the files are posted in each place natively instead of posting a link to YouTube from Facebook. Each of those videos needs to have all the metadata tags filled out and I make a description with timecodes for each key point in the service. Then I pick a thumbnail and schedule the release for 8am on Sunday morning.

Then I’m done! With any luck I’m done early afternoon on Saturday, but we’re getting better and Pastor is moving his schedule up so I think that soon I’ll have a week where I’m done by Friday.

Then on Sunday morning, I sit down with Tyla and Elijah to watch the service. I try hard to focus on the message but in the back of my mind I’m always cringing a little bit wondering if there’s going to be some huge mistake in the video. So far so good.

Spring in Winchester Hills

I think it’s safe to say we could all use a little fresh air and wooosahhhhhh about right now. We’ve been going on a lot of walks and our neighborhood has a lot of beautiful flowers right now. I used a combination of my drone and my cell phone to record some of them and made a quick video. Thanks to all of our neighbors for making our spring very colorful!

Geek note: This is also the first high res video I’ve rendered out with Resolve. It’s 2720×1530 (2.7k) because that’s the max that my drone can record but it still looks gorgeous on my 4k monitor.

COVID-19: Part 7

I’ve been working from home for over a month now and schools have been closed almost as long. Let’s start of with great news: IT IS WORKING. While there are hot spots where the hospitals are overrun (e.g. New York and New Jersey) the curves are starting to flatten and in some states we’re even seeing the total number of cases decrease. Washington was one of the first states to notice the outbreak and we’re leading the charge on the downslope too. It looks like we hit peek hospital usage around April 5.

Now that there is a glimmer of hope, people are starting to think about when we can lift the bans. Short summary: don’t hold your breath.

Let’s look at the data. We just peaking now. We’re roughly halfway through this. My new favorite data site (in addition to this one) is Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation site. Their data can be viewed by lots of different areas and it shows how counts are increasing and decreasing relative to the available ICU and standard hospital beds. It also does a good job of describing the uncertainty in the forecast models. But it generally looks like by early to mid-May, states might see their first days of no deaths from the virus.

So we can crank up the baseball season? Nope, at least not with crowds attending. Those models assume that everyone stays in lockdown. At this point, there’s nothing to stop this from starting up all over again. Until we have tests that work very soon after you get infected, give quick answers, are cheap to purchase and can be manufactured by the millions/billions, we will be keeping some form of restrictions. If a vaccine gets developed in 18 months, it will be the fastest vaccine ever completed. Then we have to manufacture lots of the vaccine, get it to everyone, etc. And remember we’re only talking about the first world here. What about the third world countries where staying home and not working means that you and your family starve?

Washington leaders are talking to various sectors of the economy about what it might look like to relax restrictions so those talks are starting to filter out to the public through word of mouth. Obviously these are early talks transmitted by word of mouth so the reliability is low, but I’ve heard from multiple people that it’s possible we won’t be eating together in a restaurant for another year.

If you doubt the legitimacy of that, look at some summer events like the Marymoor beer festival. That’s postponed indefinitely. And check out the news from Microsoft saying they have converted every in-person event/conference into an online-only event through July 2021 with a note that they might push beyond that. That’s not a typo. 2021.

Will we be working from home that long? Will kids be schooling from home in the fall? My gut says no, but even if schools re-open in the fall, they’re going to need some very strict measures in place. In some schools you have to walk through a metal detector to get in, but maybe now you’ll also need to be tested or at least have your temperature checked. Life is not going to be “normal” for a long time.

Luckily for all of us, this is an election year. So science and math will get politicized and ripped apart by both sides until it’s only very loosely related to the original evidence. We’ll get to hear both sides screaming at each other about how they did or didn’t do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Yay. I’m sure that will be helpful.

Maybe I’m way off base, but as we start to start coming down from the peak, I hope they start getting the message out to the public about what the changes will look like. It’s good for people to get excited and see that their efforts are working, but I do think there are a lot of misconceptions about how this is going to play out.

Until we know more, stay home. Don’t have contact with anyone other than people you live with. The only reason the numbers didn’t immediately stop after 2 weeks of lock down is because people are still having contact. Obviously there are some essential workers and we all need to get food, but there is plenty of unnecessary contact still happening. Stay home. Let’s end this together and then we can figure out how to keep it from flaring up again.

Isaiah 43:1-2

But now this is what the Lord says,
    the Lord who created you, O Jacob,
    the Lord who formed you, O Israel.
    Do not be afraid, because I have redeemed you.
    I have called you by name. You are mine.
When you cross through the waters, I will be with you.
    When you cross the rivers, they will not sweep you away.
    When you walk through fire, you will not be burned,
    and the flame will not set you on fire.

COVID-19: Part 6

It’s been almost 2 weeks since the last update, and it has been nice to tone down the obsessive reading about the virus. I limit myself to a couple minutes per day. My basic routine is:

  1. Hit the home page of a local TV station. If there isn’t anything new on that initial screen, close it and move on.
  2. Visit the excellent page of graphs and scroll through to see how/if things are changing, especially for Washington.

It’s wonderful to see that some countries are actually peaking. I don’t believe any of the data coming out of China, but even ignoring them, but even ignoring them, countries like Australia, Taiwan and maybe even Italy are starting to actually have fewer new cases each day than the day before.

Washington has beautiful mountains, but being the flattest state is nice too.

In most other places, we’re just happy to be seeing the rate of acceleration slow. That means we’re still getting more cases per day than the day before so the worst is yet to come, but those logarithmic curves are bending down closer and closer to horizontal and having the same number of new cases tomorrow as we did today is the first big milestone. From there we can watch the number of new cases each day decrease until finally, the total number of people with COVID-19 is less than it was the day before.

I think that is still quite a ways off. Anytime someone tells me a date of when a particular restriction is going to be lifted, I wonder why anybody even puts out those dates. It feels unlikely that any of them are correct. Weeks ago my company said, “There’s no end date. We’ll tell you when there is one.” That feels more reasonable at this point than saying the lockdown is over in X weeks.

I continue to wonder what will happen to schools. There are so many ideas floating around and none of them are good. Some states have already said there will be no more school after the scheduled end of the year. I can see how that might work for older students who are getting a reasonable online education, but what about my first grader? Despite having a trained teacher staying home tutoring an only child, there’s no way he’s learning as much as he would be at school, especially when a lot of that learning centers around social skills. We’re working hard and doing our best, but will they really just bump him up to second grade? Tyla and I are thankful that we didn’t hold him back a year when he started because that will leave the possibility open for that down the road if needed. I think one outcome of this whole experience will be an almost complete removal of the stigma surrounding repeating a grade. That’s going to be so much more common than it was when I was growing up.

Personally, I’m getting in to the groove of working from home, but this is probably the busiest I’ve ever been since taking this job. Cloud computing is booming and with supply chains disrupted, work is… challenging. As if that wasn’t enough, I’m also putting in a lot of hours helping our church to get services online. Pastor and Dave, our main organist, are doing a great job getting me recordings, but my evenings are spent at the same computer where my days are spent so I can edit everything together. It’s all important work and I know people are thankful, but it’s all so draining physically, emotionally and mentally. On Wednesday of last week, I realized I hadn’t been outside (except to put up the flag or take out the trash) since Sunday. Since then I’ve abandoned my post over lunch, left the phone in the house, and gone for a walk. And oh yeah, my family needs extra attention and time through this too!

When I do get a few minutes of free time, I feel like I should be spending it on work, church or family. But if I do talk to friends, watch my favorite YouTube creators or listen to podcasts, it feels like a never-ending stream of “I have so much time.” I know that everyone has their own challenges and the grass is always greener on the other side, but the idea of having an entire day (much less multiple weeks) with no responsibilities feels like the Shangri-La to me. If you are in that position, don’t squander your time! Don’t blow it watching Netflix all day. This is an amazing opportunity and if I can’t have it, I can at least enjoy seeing you be productive. It would feel so amazing to spend a couple days out in the garage working on that dresser project which is taking me so long.

As a family we’ve totally cut ourselves off from outside contact except for groceries and occasional food deliveries. We took a family “adventure” on Saturday which amounted to driving around. We drove through the new tunnel under Seattle. I’ve always wondered what it would look like to drive through four billion dollars. Now I know. We continued our tour around the Space Needle where we parked right in front and hopped out for a quick photo. We wrapped it up by driving down the main drag at Pike Place Market. That’s an impossible feat on a normal Saturday. It’s a measure of Elijah’s boredom that he thought this long car ride to nowhere was exciting.

Speaking of Elijah, he’s handling this all pretty well. He, like of all of us, has his moments where it all feels like too much, but overall I give him a thankful thumbs up. It’s especially hard for him when he sees other families who are interpreting the lockdown differently than we are. I try to let him feel that frustration but treat those as teachable moments. (If you’re a parent, this is a great 5 minute watch.) But in the back of my mind, I do wonder if we’re drawing our own boundaries correctly. However, deep down I still believe that if we all suck it up and cut off contact, we’ll be back to normal sooner than if we do this halfway. It would be different if you had symptoms as soon as you were contagious, but any one of us could have it right now and not know it so having contact with other people feels irresponsible.

In the end, my bar is “If everyone did this, would it be ok?” You can twist that in lots of ways to make anything seem permissible or not, but when viewed honestly and for lack of anything better, it feels like a reasonable starting point.

As I struggle to live up to my responsibilities as a Christian, husband, father, employee and church AV geek, I constantly have to remind myself that I’m not doing this alone. Yes, I have my family to support me, but more importantly, God is here with me. He’s guiding me through all of this and I’ll come out better for it having experienced it.

Psalm 50:15 Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.

COVID-19: Part 5

I wasn’t planning to make the next post yet, but now it seems like a good time because our governor just announced a “Stay Home” order. First of all, +10 points for not calling it “shelter in place”. I don’t know about you, but for me that term means there’s rampant mobs or zombie mosquitoes. It feels weird to people to “shelter in place” and then say “walks around the block with your family are ok.” And secondly, kudos for making this proclamation. Now I await actual enforcement of the order because until we do that, I don’t see how this is going to end. Think I’m crazy? Let me walk you through my thought process and we can see where we diverge.

Do we all agree that it’s bad if this spreads unabated? There are plenty of papers talking about the percentages of mild, severe and critical cases. Let’s take the bottom end of estimates and say that 5% of cases require hospitalization. There are 924,000 hospital beds in the US. So if all the cases in the US were evenly distributed (they’re not) and all the beds were capable of helping COVID-19 patients (they’re not), then that means once 46 million people have this, we’re going to overflow the hospitals. That 46 million number might sound rosy (it’s not… it’s only 3.5 weeks away, but more on that later) but it’s wildly optimistic because one of the real shortfalls is the number of ventilators. You may only have hundreds of those in your area. The federal government has some for emergencies but that number is around 10,000. Who cares about having a bed if you can’t breathe? There are already stories about Seattle hospitals being full and out of ventilators. Italian doctors were picking who they would try to save with the equipment at hand. I hope we can agree that this is bad if it spreads unabated.

Do we all agree that this spreads very quickly when we don’t do anything about it? Again, the math isn’t too hard to calculate but exponential growth can be hard to internalize. In my last post I guessed we’d be crossing 500k worldwide cases sometime around today. I probably missed that by a day or two because my formula didn’t take into account enough of the countries that are getting this under control, but I wasn’t off by that much. How can we make those predictions? It’s because when COVID-19 is spreading freely, the rate of cases increases by 35% every day. Whether it’s China, Italy, New York, Seattle or anywhere else, you get 35% more cases every day. Once more restrictions go into place, the growth slows to 22% and if you’re in a warm weather country then it grows at 14%. This is exponential growth and the best way to view exponential growth is on a logarithmic scale. A straight line on a logarithmic scale is exponential growth while linear growth looks like a downward curving line. We need to start seeing a change from exponential to linear before we can feel like we’re winning the fight. The best COVID-19 site I’ve seen is by a guy named Mark Handley. All this data is on github so you can draw your own charts, but it’s hard to tell the story more clearly than he does. I’ll just choose one chart that shows the growth per million inhabitants with some alignment of when the outbreaks started in each place:

Credit: Mark Handley,

You thought Italy was bad? We are getting more cases than they did and we aren’t slowing down yet either. So we’re all in agreement that this spreads very quickly in similar climates and that if we do nothing, we’ll stick on this 35% daily increase? That would put the US at 500,000 cases by April 1, one million by April 3 and 10 million by April 11 and by April 22, everyone in the US has gotten it.

Ok, so it’s bad if everyone gets it, and it’s bad if we don’t try to stop it. How can we stop it? Right now the only tool we have is staying home. More and more states are enacting “stay at home” guidance, but how closely it’s followed varies widely. The only successful examples of reducing interaction are countries like China, Singapore and South Korea who have much stricter policies in place. Washington had the first big outbreak in the US so we’re a bit ahead of everyone else in shutting things down and over the last few days, it has looked like we’re finally slowing to the 22% rate. It’s good to see the improvement but we have to slow it a lot more. Whether you live in an area with a rule or not, stay home! We need to starve the virus of new hosts. The Washington Post has some great visuals to help explain the effect of staying home.

I hesitate to use the “flatten the curve” hashtag here, but time really is our friend. Even if we all eventually get sick, the longer we can stretch that period out, the better. Test kit production and ventilator production is being pushed to the limits. A vaccine is 18 months off but research is under way. Treatments are coming sooner than that but we’re still months away from that as well. It feels like our biggest hope is that once we’re swimming in test kits and those tests can be done in-private at home then we’ll really be on a good path for getting back to “normal”. And once we’re a couple months down the road, temps will be warmer which Cliff Mass thinks will help too. For even more hope from a disease expert, read Bill Gates’s Reddit AMA or read the lightly condensed version on Tech Crunch.

Ok, so it’s bad if everyone gets it, and it’s bad if we don’t try to stop it, but we are working to stop it and there is a lot of hope for the future. This will end and it’s not going to end in the downfall of civilization. We’ll pull through this and this data will spawn thousands of doctoral papers for years to come about how to handle these situations in the future. Is it going to be destructive to the economy? Absolutely. Is it going to be tough on individuals? Absolutely. But we will pull through this.

The signs we made after watching Pastor Novotny’s video.

The Time of Grace website has been one of our favorites in this house and after watching Pastor Herrmann’s devotion on Sunday, we happened to catch Pastor Novotny’s live stream from his house. I recommend you watch it as it has really stuck with us. God is here. God is with us. God has this under control. God is working this for our good. We’re not alone. Remember the words of Paul from the book of Philippians as he was imprisoned (or forcefully quarantined?):

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.