It’s Important to Reach the Youth in Japan!

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NOTE: This is an updated version of an article I originally wrote for the Summer 2016 edition of Japan Harvest, the magazine of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association. I rewrote some bits and added some pictures to make this more interesting to the people who know me. If you read it please leave a comment!

YOUTH IS A (SOMETIMES NEGLECTED) WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

youthBetween the ages of about 12 and 22, people go through a unique season of life where they make important decisions which will impact the rest of their lives. Through their time in high school and university they are being formed and trained systematically. The values taught by their teachers and professors eventually become the values of the nation, as they grow into law-makers, authors, entertainers, teachers, or otherwise influencers in the community. There is no question that the youth in our campuses now are the future leaders of society. Because young people naturally tend to be less set in their ways and more open about spiritual things, the campus age is the best time to present important values.This is the time when young leaders should be considering foundations and making decisions for their future career, relationship, and most importantly their eternal purpose and relationship to the Creator.  In this age of constant online entertainment it is easier than ever for Japanese youth to float through school without ever thinking about the meaning of life. But if we want to reach Japan and see the good news spread, it is vital that we are fully engaged in presenting the gospel to the youth. Every focused and driven leader was once a young person searching for meaning and truth. And the older I get the shorter this opportune season of openness seems to last. They don’t stay young for long.

william clarkA classic example of the value of reaching young people for Christ is the work of Professor William S. Clark, who remains a national figure in Japan even to this day. He was in Sapporo for only eight months from 1876 to 1877 working at what is now Hokkaido University. But during his short time there he prayerfully poured his life into a handful of students. These young men went on to influence Japanese Christianity and Japanese society for generations to come.

Sadly though, the key demographic of campus aged youth is often conspicuously absent from our local churches in Japan today. One Japanese pastor, a mentor of mine in his 80s, shared his concern about this with me. He encouraged me not to give up on reaching out to the youth because they are the future of the church. I am convinced that he was right. When we invest in the youth we are really investing in the future of the church.

MAKING THE GOSPEL ATTRACTIVE

There is a new type of church in Japan now that focuses on young people. Many of the fastest growing churches in Japan fall into this category. They focus on creating an atmosphere which is easy for young people to enjoy. They use the same cutting-edge lighting and video that one would expect to see at a J-Pop concert. Their leaders purposefully dress and talk in ways that appeal to the sensibilities of young working professionals and university students. Before each service, youth in their teens and 20s gather expectantly and countdown the seconds until the worship music begins. They are excited about their faith and they show it in their enthusiastic praise and worship time.

In our furoshiki (wrapping cloth) culture we know that the wrapping is almost as important as the gift inside. So it’s not surprising that Japanese youth appreciate an attractively packaged worship service. We do well if we engage young people where they are; whether it is through their music, or on their campuses, or through life testimonies from their popular heroes. But engaging them with an attractive “wrapping” on the gift of the gospel is just the first step.

They may not express it out loud, they might not even be consciously aware of it, but what young people are really hungry for is a deep connection with God. So how do we get them there? An article published by a church research company in the United States a few years ago claims that those young people who have personal relationship to a pastor are twice as likely to stay in church, and that those who have a relationship with a mentor in the church are much more likely to stay. Relationships are important and even more important in Japan than they are in many other countries. Building deeper relationships with our youth is the first step in moving them to a deeper relationship with God. So our worship services should certainly be “packaged” as high-quality and attractive, but in the long run discipleship-centered relationships are the most vitally important thing in our churches. As new youth are added to our church, our primary responsibility is to build these relationships

CONNECTING THROUGH SMALL GROUPS

small groupThe best way our Every Nation churches have found to reach Japanese youth and build mentoring relationships is by using small group ministry. We have worked hard to make small groups simple and easy to lead so that young leaders can do the work of the ministry. Both outreach and discipleship can and should happen through small groups. First, young believers can pray for their classmates, friends and relatives. We encourage them to start doing this as soon as they themselves are saved. Sometimes the most enthusiastic evangelist is the one who is a brand new believer. After all, if you know what Jesus did for you then you already know enough to pray for someone else.

In small groups, discipleship happens through discussion around what the church is learning from the Bible and how to apply it personally. Because they are praying and encouraging each other to reach out, more young people get saved. As these newer ones are added the leaders have to learn how to mentor and lead them. They have to learn to minister to others.They have to learn to make disciples. Our Japanese churches have many young people, but only because at some point someone took a chance and empowered them to lead. Someone took a chance on me when I was younger and that is why I am a church planter today. Shouldn’t we be looking for the next generation of leaders too?

THE ONLY WAY TO REALLY LEARN IS TO GET IN THE GAME

pbc-bball

The first time I played in a school basketball game I ran onto the court, received a pass, and started dribbling towards the wrong hoop! Fortunately my teammates corrected me and turned me around before things got even more embarrassing. I understood the game well in theory but it was different when I was responsible for the ball in a real game. I know now that if that coach had not taken a risk on me and put me in the game, I would have never really learned how to play basketball. The only way I could learn was by getting in the game and making some mistakes.

All too often in our churches we have believers who sit through years of teaching but who have never really learned how to minister to others. We are ministers today because someone took a chance on us and gave us some responsibility when we were younger. Shouldn’t we also be prayerfully looking for young leaders to put in the game too? Even brand new players become veterans with the proper mentoring relationships. Just imagine a sports team where every single player is only one year away from retirement. The team might look great now but how is the coach going to look next season? He hasn’t spent any time building the rookies and future stars. That coach would probably lose his job!

INVESTING IN YOUNG PEOPLE IS WORTH THE COST

young-peopleWorking with future leaders takes a lot of time and energy. They can cause problems – especially the first time you try to put them in the game. Young people are naturally inexperienced and they do make mistakes. They might need to be taken out and coached for a while before they become successful team players. I have had people tell me that you can’t build with young people. Young people are irresponsible. Young people don’t make as much money as older members so we should focus on the ones who give more. Young people move away when it’s time to go to college. Or, they move away after they finish college.

Why not just focus on the more mature believers who are more stable? Because the youth are the future of the church that is why!  If we begin to reach them now, revival in Japan is not far off. If we ignore them, we are only robbing from our future. It is vital that we pray and ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to build mentoring relationships with the youth that God has entrusted to us in our own context. Will you accept the challenge of equipping and empowering this next generation for the work of the ministry? They don’t stay young for long.

Letting go of Visual Basic
(my former life as a programmer)

GOODBYE VISUAL BASIC, GOODBYE
msdn-CDsToday I finally said goodbye to Visual Basic. I made a decision to throw out hundreds of DVDs containing software worth thousands of dollars. For about six years, I was awarded Most Valuable Professional by Microsoft and because of that I annually received two complete Microsoft Developer Network subscriptions, one from Microsoft Japan and one from Microsoft U.S.A. I have finally decided that I will never need to install or use this again, even though it was a big part of my life for so long. The software, programming books, computer hardware and other perks, came to me because of my work with the Visual Basic programming language. VB allowed me to create some pretty good software and I really loved it. I used VB from version 3 through version 6 and I would probably still be using it today if I had the choice. Unfortunately, Microsoft made a very misguided attempt to re-invent the language starting in about 2001 and decided to change it into something totally different.

MY LIFE IN A JAPANESE COMPANY
In 1994 I joined a high-tech Japanese company in Yokohama, Japan and so I moved from a hobbyist in the BBS world, using command line FTP clients and dial-up modems, to a professional developer with access to multiple T1 connections, cutting edge hardware and a whole new internet protocol called http using “browsers” like Cello and then Mosaic. The world was getting smaller and that was fine with me. Being an American living in Japan, I really loved the fact that I could communicate with anyone, anywhere for free over the internet. It was sort of like short-wave radio, only so much better, and there was a whole world of servers and new technology to explore.

In the early 90s the smartphone had not been invented yet. Internet giants like Yahoo, Google and Facebook had not yet appeared. Killer applications like Wikipedia and GMail were yet to be invented. Videochat was a new and exciting emerging technology. In 1995 I was assigned to the Multimedia Product Development Division in my company and became part of the team that ported Cornell University’s iconic CUSeeMe software to Windows and to Japanese.  We ran the official “reflector” servers for CUSeeMe in Japan and we hoped to sell lots of hardware webcams to the growing market of computer users in Japan. Eventually, it was decided that my company would try writing original software that made use of video so we could bundle that with our hardware inexpensively.

I had been trained on programming languages such as ASM, C, and then C++. There were new languages popping up like Java that held great promise. But when I was assigned to write new software for Windows 3.1, I decided to try Visual Basic 3.0. I wrote a screensaver to learn the basics. Then I wrote an app to control playback of Video CD discs on Windows. Because there was a great community of developers on BBSs (especially CompuServe) who then migrating to the nntp (especially the Usenet) and eventually on to http websites, it was a great time to be learning about computers, programming and the internet. I learned from the VB masters like Dan Appleman, Matthew Curland, Karl Peterson, and the whole CCRP gang.

BECOMING A MICROSOFT MAN
Eventually, I was put in charge of a team that was developing an original videochat application software for Japan. By this time I was using VB4 and the big change from 16-bit Windows 3.1 to 32-bit Windows NT was happening. I spent about 12 hours a day working in Visual Basic and understanding the internals of 32-bit Windows and the way video-capture and video playback happens. By the time we finished the video software I was somewhat of an expert on using the the Win32 API and the Visual Basic programming language. The internet community had trained me and I felt it was only right to give back so I spent a lot of time helping to teach other aspiring VB programmers on the Usenet. I was awarded Most Valuable Professional status by Microsoft the first time in 1999, and being a VB programmer felt good. It seemed like computers and the internet were still young, the possibilities were endless, and I had a great tool to explore everything the Windows OS was capable of.mvp-2003

By now, I was a loyal VB programmer and I was loyal to Microsoft and MS Windows. In my spare time I released some free software tools written in VB. I even made some money on the side by taking contract programming jobs for custom sports and medical applications that used video capture. I continued to be awarded Most Valuable Professional status by Microsoft for five years.

VB4 was better than VB3. VB5 was a LOT better still. VB6 was another improvement. I was making good money with my knowledge of Visual Basic programming. I assumed that things would just keep rolling and getting better. Microsoft was sending me goodies every month, software and hardware – even perks like buying items in the Microsoft employee store.

When MS released a “Multimedia Jumpstart CD” for their new Windows NT Operating System, they included my software on it as an example to multimedia programmers. They even invited me to Redmond to talk about how I had done the video capture and compression and video overlay all in Visual Basic using functions already built-in to Windows NT. And then came the big surprise.

mvp-goodie
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
I think it was in 2001 that Microsoft invited me and all the Visual Basic MVPs to Redmond and had a big event to announce VB.NET. The project manager for the new version of Visual Basic, tried to sell us on the new features of VB.NET but we soon realized that it had already been decided that VB as we knew it was going to die. I had the sinking realization that all of my old code and all of my expertise as a VB programmer was going to be thrown out by Microsoft just because they were afraid of the growing popularity Java (and indirectly Linux and also Google). Instead of letting VB be what had made it so popular they tried to leverage the popularity of the name and developer-base to sell their gamble on a totally new concept. The .NET team seemed driven by a vision of .NET becoming some kind of meta-OS that could take over and be ported to run on any Operating System. I got the feeling that they truly felt that all VB programmers would see how wonderful it was that they were going to change the language and even the purpose of the language. They simply felt that classic VB was holding back progress. I’m sure they sincerely believed that Java would take over if they didn’t sacrifice the Windows-centric API and COM based VB Classic and move as quickly as possible to some amazing miracle product. Now, over a decade later, it is pretty obvious that this was a mistake.

Visual Basic was one of the top 3 most popular programming languages in the world in the 90s and that is pretty astonishing given that it was a Windows-only language. Each version of VB increased in popularity until the age of VB.NET. Google Trends doesn’t go back to the 90s but look what happened in the 00s…

EULOGY
Even this year, articles are being published and petitions are being submitted for Microsoft to bring back “Classic Visual Basic”, or at least to open source the code so that the developer community can own it and bring it into the 21st century. But I have resigned myself to the fact that VB is dead. Microsoft will not bring back their best Windows programming language and I will not try to learn their new ones. I already hear rumors that VB.NET will be discontinued because it is similar to (and not as popular as) C#…

Understanding Shinto

NOTE: This is an updated version of my article originally published in the Winter 2014 edition of Japan Harvest, the magazine of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association. I am no expert, but then again most Japanese people are not Shinto experts either and this is just an attempt to understand and reach the amazing and wonderful people of Japan. 

IN JAPAN, children grow up hearing ghost stories and attending festivals to honor a world of thousands of kami (spirits), which interacts freely with our own natural world. This mindset is part of everyday culture. So it’s normal for sophisticated and materialistic Japanese adults to say they have no religion, and yet buy omamori (good luck idols) for protection over their car. It’s part of the ordinary process of building to have the land blessed by a Shinto priest before construction begins. It is considered safer to do this to avoid upsetting any spirits who just might be disturbed by the use of the land. How can we effectively reach into a very modern, but obviously Shinto-influenced worldview like this, and become an effective bridge for the Gospel? One of the challenges in reaching any people is to understand them. In this article I will present an overview of Shinto’s influence on the Japan and her people. My goal is to give context to the things in Japanese culture and society that might be puzzling to someone who did not grow up in a Shinto-based culture.

Shinto purification rope

A ritual Shinto rope used to mark the boundary of a purified area

HISTORY OF SHINTO
With origins dating to 500 A.D. and earlier, matsuri (festival worship) and other Shinto practices began as ritual worship of the ujigami, or local clan deity in each area and village. They sprang from a type of shamanism unique to these medieval agricultural communities. Over the centuries ancient Shinto was influenced by and syncretized with Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other elements from continental East Asia.[1]

Jizo (stone idols) and vending machine

Even in big cities stone idols are a common sight on Japanese roads

SHINTO IN MODERN JAPAN
Many aspects of syncretized Shinto worship practices are common in modern Japan. They are as ubiquitous as the stone idols one sees scattered throughout every town. Surprisingly, most Japanese people do not associate these things with religion at all. Engage a typical Japanese city dweller in conversation about their participation in ceremonies, and worship of idols in shrines, temples, or the family kamidana (household altar) and it will soon become clear that these are seen as essential cultural duties and not as religious. Shinto worship practices are widely seen as traditions that must be followed to honor family and country.[2]

Even “churched” Japanese are not free from the strong cultural influence of Shinto. Earlier this year a Japanese man came to my office asking for donations for a local matsuri (festival). After a brief conversation I discovered that he attends a Protestant church. I asked him why he was raising funds for the mikoshi (portable shrine for carrying a local idol) when the Bible explicitly forbids worshiping idols. His answer was that it was Japanese culture to do so. I continued to press him, explaining my hope that Japanese culture might someday be transformed so that festivals would be held to honor the true Creator God rather than idols, but he didn’t seem to grasp this idea at all. He left a bit disappointed that I would not give an offering, but undaunted in his efforts to raise money for the local matsuri.

THE FOUR AFFIRMATIONS OF SHINTO
Although Shinto has never been codified in the way that Christianity has, there are four affirmations that seem to be generally agreed upon [3] and it’s good to consider how the Bible helps us to respond to each.

Family and tradition

Tradition and family are supremely important in Shinto practice. This is often expressed through ancestor worship and even “tradition-worship”. Of course family is important to God. The Bible teaches us to honor our parents and to give importance to the family, but in Luke 14:26 Jesus clearly set honoring the Lord above all other relationships, even familial ones. I have found that the best way to approach Japanese culture regarding familial relationships is to emphasize that sincerely obeying God is the best way to honor and be a blessing to one’s family, even if it means going against Shinto traditions in some ways.

Festivals

Another affirmation of Shinto is matsuri to honor local deities or ancestral spirits. Almost every shrine in Japan has its own matsuri, originally held to influence things like the harvest or the local fishing. Christians believe all humans were created to worship and enjoy their creator and the beauty of dance, art, music, ceremony and ritual should all be purposed to honor and thank the true God and true source of blessings. As missionaries and ambassadors of our faith we need to identify and affirm the beauty and harmony in Japanese traditions that can serve to honor God, and at the same time clearly explain why animistic and pantheistic practices are contrary to God’s will. Our human artistic expression echoes the ultimate beauty in Christ, which is what the Japanese heart is really searching for.

Love of nature

Shrine festival worship ties in with the third affirmation of Shinto, which is a love of nature. Scripture tells us that all of creation bears witness to the sovereign power of the Creator. But the Shinto affirmation of nature elevates nature to the point that each unusual rock or tree is given the status of a minor deity. Hence the Japanese saying, there are over eight million gods (yaoyorozu no kami).

Because this spiritual error is deeply ingrained in the Japanese worldview, gospel teachers must clearly preach the words of Christ, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Without a clear understanding of this Japanese people may believe that Jesus Christ is another one of many gods, but miss that he is the one and only Creator God. Jesus came to affirm the true intended order of the creation by revealing Himself at the pinnacle. If other good things, such as family or nature are elevate above Jesus Christ, they become idols. In essence, the good becomes the enemy of the best. This truth about the ultimate authority of Christ will resound with the strong desire in the Japanese heart for harmony and proper order, if they can only see it. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 NASB).

Physical cleanliness

Shinto purification

Cold water purification at a Shinto shrine

The final affirmation of Shinto is physical cleanliness. Taking baths, washing the hands, and rinsing out the mouth are all encouraged because of Shinto’s emphasis on ritual purity. In the past, believers practiced misogi, ritual bathing in a river near the shrine. In recent years it is more common to merely to wash hands and rinse out the mouth in a washbasin provided within the shrine grounds. Because Jesus came to make us truly clean, there are many ways we can use this affirmation as a “redemptive analogy” for the Gospel. Imagine the impact of a sermon that contrasted ritual Shinto washing in water with Ephesians 5:26 (“washing with water through the word” NASB), or 1 Corinthians 6:11b (“you were washed… in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” NASB).

Water baptism is a big step in a new Japanese believer’s life. Although in some ways it appears similar to Shinto ritual purification rites, the Bible is clear that it represents more than just “washing” but rather a symbolic death and resurrection. Of course baptism also means a public confession of identity as a Christian and to many new believers this is a weighty decision. Because rituals are important in Japanese culture; water baptism strongly brings home the reality of a believer’s commitment to follow Jesus as Lord.

Taking the time to understand and prayerfully consider some of the influences of Shinto on Japanese culture can be very beneficial to a Christian who would like to share the Gospel in Japan. This article originally came from a paper I wrote called The Theology of Shinto. If you are interested, you can read the original paper at:
http://www.raymercer.net/wp/wp-content/uploads/Theology-of-Shinto.pdf.

If you have read this far, would you take a moment and pray for Japan? I have focused on Shinto in this article but that is just one aspect of this amazing nation. I have lived in Japan for more than 20 years but I still learn things about the culture every day. I would love to hear your thoughts about Japan in the comments section below.


[1] Dr. David K. Clark, Shinto, A religion profile from International Students, Inc., (Colorado Springs, CO: ISI, 2004), [book on-line] available at http://www.isionline.org/pdfs/Shinto%202004.pdf, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

[2] For example notice the following paragraph in the “About” section of The International Shinto Foundation official website – “Those involved in establishing the Foundation shared the belief that without study that takes account of Shinto a true understanding of the Japanese people and Japanese culture will remain inaccessible.”, [website] available at http://www.internationalshinto.org/, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

[3] The definitions of the “Four Affirmations” are a generalization but can generally be observed in Shinto practices and literature. See The Japan Reference, [database on-line] available at http://www.jref.com/glossary/shinto_traditions.shtml, Internet, accessed November, 2013. Also see the website for the book Religion for Dummies, Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, [website] available at http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/four-affirmations-of-shinto.html, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

My recollection of what happened on March 11th, 2011…

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When the earthquake started I was on the third floor of building that our church meets in with my children, James and Alishea. As it shook my first concern was for the new speakers and lights we had just hung from the ceiling. But as the tremors continued and then intensified I began to realize that this wasn’t the typical earthquake that one becomes accustomed to in Japan. I began to think about how we would get out of the building. “Should we try to take the stairs? It’s really shaking bad!”  Then I realized that there were probably dozens of grade-school children in the day-care coop on the floor just below us. The thought came quickly, “Should we try to help them get outside too?”  But I knew there was no way to get downstairs now – the building was shaking too hard.

After the first shock began to subside, we all came down the staircase and into the street. It was still early in the afternoon and there were not many children there yet. Most were still in school. The ones who were there obediently followed the supervisor out of the building and onto the sidewalk. They had been trained for this and they knew what to do in an earthquake. Right after we got outside the ground started quaking again. I noticed that the traffic signals were all out. None of the cars were moving. We watched in amazement as the street seemed to roll like the ocean and the large traffic signs above the main highway in front of our building moved up and down on the waves. After a few more terrifying minutes it was all over. The retired men who spent each afternoon volunteering as crossing guards for the children quickly moved out into the intersection and began directing traffic like they had been planning for this type of thing their whole lives. It was amazing how smoothly they switched into emergency mode. No electricity. No signals. No problem! At that moment I was glad that we were in Japan.

Over the next several weeks and months, God used our church to help people in the same way he used those volunteers. We switched into emergency mode. We didn’t realize the full extent of what was happening for quite a long time. I later read that the initial earthquake was so big that it affect the axis of the earth and the rotation of our whole planet sped up slightly. Amazingly, the entire island of Japan moved 8 feet closer to North America. When the tsunami hit, entire towns were totally washed away. The topography change so drastically that maps of Japan had to be redone. But for us at the time, the biggest shock was the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, only about 180 miles from our church.

We really didn’t have time to think about all that. We just kept moving forward and allowing God to use us to help others. We joined forces with many other churches and individuals and switched into emergency mode almost as smoothly as the crossing guards on the first day had done. Even though there were many times when fear came and even exhaustion, we knew that God was working though us because so many doors of opportunity miraculously opened and so much provision and help flowed through our hands.

Sometime between one and two months after the earthquake I was in the shower and I finally felt the weight of it. 16,000 souls just north of us were gone and hundreds of thousand of homeless people had lost their homes, loved ones and even their future because of the radiation. That was the first time I cried after the earthquake. It would not be the last.

Change is now coming to Japan. It needs to come. But change is not without a price. Please keep praying for this nation. If you are praying for Japan please leave a comment on this site to encourage others. Also check out this song that James wrote right after the quake which we used to help raise support for the people of Tohoku.

Rays Login Widget (version 0.2)

Since I want to learn more about WordPress I am working on a plugin that handles various login related tasks. Version 2 adds the ability to customize the login picture on the wp-admin.php login page. I found a plugin called “Login Logo” by Mark Jaquith which does exactly what I wanted to do and merged that code into my Login Widget (see this post for more info on the first Login Widget).

Now if you upload a graphic named login-logo.png to your wp-content directory the plugin will use it as the logo instead of this one:

I’m not really writing this plugin to share – simply for my own benefit in learning and in customizing my sites. But if it is useful you are welcome to it:
Ray’s Login Widget (version 0.2 .zip archive)

EN Team #6 (April 2nd-4th, 2011)

Ray’s Login Widget

Just a small widget to replace the default “meta” widget in WordPress 3.x Shows (localized) login link when user is not logged in or shows logout and server admin links when user is logged in. Does NOT show the feed and WordPress.org links.

 I want to learn to write widgets and this was a good place to start. I might add some more functionality later but for now you are free to use this if you want to add a login link to your sidebar but DON’T want the default feed and WordPress.org links…

Install:
rays-login-widget.php (this file is archived in .zip format for security reasons)
Unzip the file above to wp-content/plugins dir on your webserver. Activate “Ray’s Login Widget” in the admin console plugins page. Navigate to Appearance|Widgets in the admin console and drag the “Ray’s Login Widget” to a sidebar. Enter a title for the login link. Done.

P.S. I learned from Justin Tadlock’s post here and from the default-widgets.php file in the WordPress 3.2.1 install (wp-includes/default-widgets.php).

Using Inkscape with Illustrator files

 I was recently asked to do a quick localization project for a certain non-profit where I received a business card template in Adobe Illustrator format and had to create a Japanese version of the card for their local representative here. I don’t own a personal copy of Adobe Illustrator (CS5 list price in Japan 84,000 yen or about US$1000.00) so I faced a decision. I could do one of four things:

1. Download the trial version, use it for this short project then uninstall
2. Pay about $500 for the academic version (but would probably end up with Japanese software)
3. Download a pirate version from a torrent site (OK, this is not the right option for a Christ-follower)
4. Turn to open source alternatives

Option #1 looked good but it only works once per PC and also leaves registry bloat behind after the uninstall. Because I like open source software (always free) and because I happened to know about a great alternative to Illustrator, I decided to go with option #4.

Tools required:

Inkscape

homepage: http://inkscape.org/
download: http://inkscape.org/download/?lang=en

UniConvertor

homepage: http://sk1project.org/
download: http://sk1project.org/modules.php?name=Products&product=uniconvertor&op=download

How I did it

After installing the lastest Inkscape (currently at version 48.1) I found that Inkscape imports ai files natively pretty well. I was able to import the Illustrator CS4 file containing the business card template with no problems. I did have to specify the size, so I used a standard Japanese business card size. The file opened up in Inkscape and I was able to edit text and vector graphics. However I noticed that there was no export to Adobe Illustrator .ai format built in. I was surprised because I thought I had used Inkscape to export .ai files in the past. After a quick web search I learned that the .ai export feature was removed in Inkscape version .47. This is because Adobe Illustrator now (since version 10) supports importing .svg files, which are Inkscape’s native file format. This is good news but in my experience some Mac-based graphics designers aren’t too great with handling different file formats. So I was pleased to find that a separate open-source project exists who’s whole mission is to provide a convertor between the various vector-based graphic formats in existence. Not only that, but this project includes a patch script to run on Inkscape 47.x or 48.x which adds the specific functionality I was looking for. The project is called sk1project and the software is called uniconvertor.

Best free personal anti-virus software

UPDATE!

If you run Vista or Windows 7 you now have a new free anti-virus option called Microsoft Security Essentials (or MSE). When I first reviewed this product (before MS officially launched it) it was going to be a paid subscription option. Since there were free options available, I decided to ignore MSE and review only totally free options. Last summer I set up a new computer for my father-in-law running Windows 7 and when it came time to delete the 60day trial of Norton and choose a free anti-virus product for him I remembered MSE. In recent updates, PandaCloud has begun showing popup nagware screens urging users to update to the “Pro” (literally – “Pay” version). So I was very happy to find that MSE is now available as a totally free add on for all licensed Vista and Win7 users.

MY NEW BOTTOM LINE RECOMMENDATION (for Vista and Win7 only)

The following article now applies to WinXP machines only (please see update above for the best choice for Vista / Win7) 

—— original article published in Dec, 2009 ——

QUICK SUMMARY

Anti-Virus Products – Fear and Bloat
Virus software is sold based on fear. For most users it is the fear of the unknown – because they hear the buzzwords like “worm”, “trojan”, “hacker”, “rootkit”, and don’t really have any technical understanding of what these dangers actually refer to. Virus companies always tend to take advantage of this fact by adding more and more unnecessary features instead of focusing on the basic core feature set which is really all that most users need – anti-virus. So as product lines mature, the product usually goes from “virus protection” to “firewall”, “link scanner”, “e-mail scanner”, “malware”, and even into meaningless items like “shields”, “innoculation”, “cleaner”, and so on.
My History with Anti-Virus (skip this if you are not into geeky details)
Even back in the days when Microsoft was making the radical switch from (16-bit) Windows 3.1 to (32-bit) Windows 95 I felt that virus companies were adding too much bloat. Years ago, I switched from using McAfee’s anti-virus to Norton’s anti virus product. Norton began to evolve its product line to include products like “Total Internet Security Suite.” Well, who wouldn’t want total safety, right? The problem was, these companies started focusing more and more on feature bloat and less and less on efficient use of system resources like memory and cpu. So eventually the virus “suite” in my computer was using just as much processor time and memory as my office productivity suite and slowing my computer down to a crawl. I stuck with Norton Anti-Virus for several years – always using the basic package and not installing the huge bloated versions. ( I also looked at ClamAV for my servers because I was administrating a couple of email servers and I realized early that the best way to deal with email virii was on the server *before* the email ever got to a Windows client. Now I am a big fan of GMail for email anti-virus – let them do the work. Much better!)

 About this same time, a few years back now, I discovered Grisoft free AVG. Not only was it apparently built to use modest system resources, it also consistently scored very well on major comparisons of virus software. But the amazing thing was that it was free for personal use!
AVG is still a good choice for Windows users who want a good, free anti-virus software. But there are a couple of negatives that have creeped in over time that have finally caused me to abandon AVG. Firstly, about once a year AVG does a major version upgrade and cuts support for the previous version – forcing the user to upgrade to the new version. This is not such a bad thing in itself because the product is free anyway, right? Theoretically it is even good because the product has good suport and all resources are being devoted to the latest and greatest – no need to try to continue legacy support on old versions. The problem is that everytime they make users upgrade, they shuffle their website and hide the free version very deeply. So I recommend AVG Free to all my friends (believe me, a *lot* of people ask me which virus software they should use) and then my friends go to the AVG site and see the paid version only. Some of them grumble and just pay the fee (which, like most anti-virus products these days is an annual fee) and some of them come back to me and complain because they can’t find it. I guess it is not as bad as products that nag or show constant ads but it is a little irritating that they have to “trick” users into paying like this. Speaking of ads, they have also started showing ads on the product in the last couple of versions. Again this, by itself, is not enough to make me switch if the product is good enough. But the final straw is that I am starting to sense the same bloat in AVG’s product that I saw happen in Norton’s. The newest version (9.0) seemed a bit heavier, and there are now many other options – toolbars, rootkit protection, link scanners, business versions, etc etc etc.

The Current State of Affairs – My Choice For Best Free Anti-Virus Software! (As of December, 2009)
A few months ago I began watching a free anti-virus contender called PandaCloud AntiVirus. The philosophy is right – minimal system resources – and there is a new technology in this product which finally feels like its time has come – Cloud Computing. PandaCloud installs a minimal client app but the virus definitions and most of the processing is done in the “cloud” (another way of saying on their servers). So your personal computer doesn’t have to use so many resources. I like that! Also, I watched this year as PandaCloud beat AVG in a couple of big computer magazine’s test results. These test ranked products based on how well they detect viruses (which is why I use an anti-virus product!) I installed PandaCloud on one computer to try it out about a month ago and within a couple of weeks I had removed AVG and installed PandaCloud on every one of my personal computers at home and at church. I like it! I ran a few test virii at it and they were all easily handled. It is simple, lightweight and unobtrusive. If the computer magazines can be believed it is also better at detecting viruses than any other free anti-virus available and just as good as the most expensive commercial products. PandaCloud is supposed to release a major upgrade in the next month or two. If they show that they can handle upgrades better than AVG I am definitely going to be recommending this product to all my friends and churches that I work with in 2010.

Podpress (WordPress plugin) once again shows signs of life…

After months of slow death and then a year of no apparent life except one short blog article by Matt Mullenweg, Podpress is once again under at least maintenance-mode development. Thanks to Tim Berger for coming to the rescue. The latest version as of now is 8.8.5 beta, which I am currently running successfully on yokosukachurch.com and the current stable version is 8.8.4 which is sending podcasts out on a few other church sites that I maintain here in Japan.

Years back podpress was the undisputed best plugin for podcasting in WordPress but then the original author suddenly stopped maintaining the code. He promised to return to the project “soon” but eventually even his most ardent supporters began to disappear from the forums. Finally even the support forum got shut down, ostensibly because of spam, but more likely because the grumbling against this developer was getting pretty loud. I can’t cast stones here because it has been years since I touched my active-x controls on shrinkwrapvb.com and I still get weekly, sometimes daily requests for support on those. Life can make one busy and priorities can change. But in order to keep using Podpress I have had to hack and patch on every install and every upgrade since about WordPress 2.5. This brought me no joy since it seemed I was fighting a losing battle – with the original author being long gone, never to return. I actually almost switched to another plugin or two for the same functionality, but the problem of migrating all the back episodes of my podcasts kept me making small bugfixes to podpress.

Until – now! Once again I am using the official svn repository versions of podpress and the only hacks I need to make are on sites where I want to add Japanese text or custom features/graphics. Podpress lives on to fight another day.

DOWNLOAD LINKS FOR PODPRESS

Official page at WordPress.org: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/podpress/

SVN repository: http://plugins.svn.wordpress.org/podpress/