This blog’s new home is MLJohnson.org

This blog has a new home at http://MLJohnson.org. New content will go there. (This one will hang around so as to not break existing links, and as a backup in case evil befalls the other server.) Check it out!

Posted in Journal

Electronic Scripture publishing is what I do.

Bimin New Testament by kahunapulej
Bimin New Testament, a photo by kahunapulej on Flickr.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clarke

As people watched intently in Bulal Village, I worked on some things using a notebook computer, using some of the precious little electricity I got walking a mile to a church that had a connection to a generator. In Melanesian village culture, people watch and listen to learn what others are doing. This works great for basic life skills, like cooking over a fire, hunting, fishing, coconut husking, learning languages, building bush houses, gardening, canoe construction, etc. In the case of things I do on computers, it is a woefully difficult way to learn. You can’t really see what is going on in the computer and in my mind, just by looking. I might visualize data structures, algorithms, and program flow in my mind while all an observer sees is that I am poking buttons and silently looking at incomprehensible (to him) text on a screen. Now, as I work at electronic Scripture publishing in many languages, it is kind of like that even for observers who have much more formal education and who even use computers themselves. I imagine that it looks something like this to the casual observer: I sit down at my computer, wave the mouse, press buttons, study the screen, press some more buttons, and lo and behold, web sites appear on the public Internet with translations of the New Testament and other Bible portions in many languages. The more I do that, the more Scripture translations appear. Cool, huh? Of course, I get some interesting questions about that.
Q: How do you learn all of those languages?
A: I don’t. Teams of Bible translators spend a lot of time, usually between 3 and 30 years, to learn a language and translate a New Testament into that language. I just help with the electronic publishing of the Scriptures once it is ready. The number of people involved in translating all of the Scriptures I have posted so far, plus all who support them, adds up to a true army of people.
Q: How do you type all of those languages?
A: First, I don’t retype Bibles. Think about that. A good typist can type 33 words per minute at simple transcription in a language  she understands, and there are about 788,280 words in the Bible. That means it would take about 50 8-hour days of fast typing to do one if I could type as fast with a language I can’t read as a good typist can with one she can read. But I do type small amounts here and there. From time to time, I need to type some characters not found in English, like a r̃ or ŋ. For those, I either use an alternate language keyboard layout, or if it is only a few characters, insert them from a character map. I also made an alternate keyboard layout of my own that contains every character found in every written Papua New Guinean language.
Q: Do you have a computer translate Bibles?
A: No. Machine translation of natural languages is tolerable, if somewhat humorous at times and dead wrong at other times, for a few of the largest language groups. This is the result of a great deal of work and refinement for large customer bases. Nobody does that kind of work for the little tribal languages. Not yet, anyway. Even if they did, it would still take human review to make sure it was right.
Q: Don’t computers help the process of Bible translation?
A: Yes, of course. They greatly assist in the process of Bible translation, especially with some of the new software that is being made available to Bible translators, like Adapt It. Good Bible translation remains utterly dependent on humans who are utterly dependent on God.
Q: Are you a one-man show?
A: No. There is no way to do this by myself. This project involves cooperation and coordination between several organizations and many people. I work with people in different countries helping with different aspects of the process of Bible translation and publication. There are also others who work on electronic Scripture publishing in other geographic areas.
Q: So what do you actually do?
A: I help write open source software that processes Scripture files, essentially typesetting them into different formats. These formats are are then made available to people to read and study the Bible on various electronic devices. I also create and maintain several related web sites. My goal is to post Scriptures without barriers to making and sharing faithful copies so that they can spread to as many people who can read them as possible. I’m focusing right now on the Pacific area, but have helped a few people in other areas.
Q: How fast can you post new Bible translations and formats?
A: That depends on many things. It depends on what format I get the Scripture in and how much work I have to do to get the files into the format expected by the conversion programs. It depends on when I get translations and permission to post. It depends on how long it takes to write software to convert to a new format. The biggest limit to the speed of this work is the time it takes to actually translate the Holy Bible. Actually running the software and posting Scriptures is very fast, once the software is ready and the Scriptures are in the correct input format. This can make for some impressive bursts of speed, but there can be longer delays between postings while working on more challenging input formats (like, for example, paper only) and writing software to produce alternate output formats (like software for specific Bible study programs). The net result looks like intermittent bursts of activity that are hard to predict.
Q: How many many languages have you posted Scriptures for?
A: That is a rapidly-moving target, right now. Check out the current count at PNGScriptures.org and VanuatuBibles.org. I suppose you could count English, too, with eBible.org.
Q: Do you do any actual Bible translation?
A: Yes, for the World English Bible, which I’m the senior editor and chief bottleneck for. Please pray that I stop being a bottleneck and start being more of an editor. Its claim to fame is being free. Free of copyright. Free of hassles. Free to use and publish. It is a bold statement that I believe that God’s Word really belongs to God, not me. If it were copyrighted and designed to make money, there would be no need for it, really. There are already plenty of those in English.
Q: Are the Scriptures you post whole Bibles?
A: Only a few are. Most of the minority languages don’t have a whole Bible translation. Many have a New Testament. Some have a few books of the Old Testament and/or New Testament. Some only have one book. I post whatever has been translated and sent to me for posting.
Q: Does anyone else post freely downloadable Scriptures on line?
A: Yes. One good example is ScriptureEarth.org, which hosts over 230 minority languages spoken in North and South America. We keep in touch with each other and, where practical, help each other. I’m concentrating on the Pacific nations.
Q: Who is going to read and listen to the Scriptures you post?
A: The current primary audience is the diaspora. Those are the people who have moved from their remote villages into towns and cities where they have Internet access, access to computers and smart phones, etc. The secondary audience is those who already have that access in their own villages. The secondary audience will grow in time, and become primary, as access to technology and networks improve in remote areas.
Q: Will electronic Scriptures replace printed Bibles?
A: No, but they make a great supplement. There are many advantages to electronic Scriptures. I carry an impressive library of Bible translations to church in my smart phone, but I’m not ready to get rid of my paper Bibles altogether. People’s preferences and situations will vary. The more ways to get God’s Word to people, the better.
Q: What do you charge for Bible software and Bible web hosting services?
A: Nothing.
Q: What do you charge people for downloadable Bibles?
A: Nothing.
Q: Who pays for the costs of Scripture web hosting, other ministry expenses, and your cost of living?
A: Our partners. May God bless them all!

 

Posted in Bible translation, Free software, Journal

Volcanic Parable

Very early Friday morning, 21 January 2011, I had a dream in which I saw a very large house in which we were working and living. It was in the mountains, and a creek ran between the house and a tall volcanic mountain. From time to time, hot lava rocks fell from the top of the volcano and landed in the creek, where they cooled and solidified. Nobody was afraid of the rocks, because they seemed to pose no threat, and any fire started across the creek would be quenched before it reached the house, even though the house was not far from the creek. This went on for some time, and people ignored it, eventually. Then I looked and saw an open crack, a fumarole, from which toxic gasses (H2S, etc.) came from deep in the earth. People looked at it, then carried on after a while, becoming used to both the hot rocks from the top and the fumarole. Again I looked, and the fumarole started slowly oozing hot lava. It attracted attention again, people took pictures, then got used to it and carried on. The lava stopped and froze at the creek, boiling lots of the water in the process. Nobody saw a threat, so they carried on as usual. Then the Lord told me to pack up and get ready to leave, so my family and some others did. Some didn’t. We had all of our stuff in the cars and trucks behind the building. Then I saw the hill across the creek starting to bulge, and the Lord told me to tell everyone to leave. Some did. Some did not. One crazy woman went and stood on the lava flow, and burned to death. She had told her daughter to go with her, but we kept her with us, instead. The Lord told me to give a last warning, so I did. Then those who were willing went to the loaded vehicles and drove away. As we left the area, there was a huge explosion of lava, rock, and gasses behind us, leaving no survivors among those who did not listen.
It was a vivid dream, with more details than I have written. It reminded me of the watchman warning to Ezekiel (33:6-7). The interpretation may be obvious, but I reserve the right to state the obvious. People get used to sin in increments, and don’t always perceive the danger that they should when they should when it gets close to them by degrees. Woe unto those who don’t heed the voice of the Lord, directly and through prophets, but listening and obeying can save your life, which is far more valuable than anything you might leave behind.

Posted in Journal

Microsoft Virus Call Scam

I got a call from someone claiming to be from Microsoft, today, wanting to warn me that my computer was downloading viruses from the Internet continuously. They lied. Microsoft doesn’t do that! Criminals who want to steal your money, damage your reputation, and take over your computer do that. Beware! If you get such a call, don’t even THINK about following their instructions.

Posted in Journal

Missions and Money

picture of money

Once again, I’m tasked with writing a missionary prayer letter. Unlike this blog, its size is limited. I guess that I could write. “We need money for our mission work. Please send some every month.” Or I could give the amount. That is difficult, because if I give the amount, then it just begs for an explanation. The explanation is long, complicated, and full of uncertainties. Our income is currently variable. Wildly variable. I usually use a one year running average to figure out what our income really is. We have a few partners who give the same amount every month, like clockwork. May God bless them. That helps keep the minimums from being zero. We have some who give sporadically. We have some who give only at times and in response to conditions, like bonuses, that we can’t predict. It all adds up, and helps keep us working full time in Christian missions. We greatly appreciate all who give whatever the Lord puts on their hearts to give, because without that, we couldn’t keep doing what the Lord has put on our hearts. That is very Scriptural. Even Paul and Jesus had people who gave to them in support of their physical needs while they went on their missionary journeys. (Phil. 1:5; 4:13-17; Luke 8:1-3; etc.). There are other ways to fund missionary work, but this is the model used by the mission organizations we work with. It leads to good accountability between those who go and those who send them, encourages people to pray for the missionaries they support, and is remarkably efficient. It is especially good when all involved (both the goers and the senders) are sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

I have known missionaries who don’t think it is proper to tell people how much they need, but just to pray. Most, however, don’t mind giving people a clue as to how well supported they are. This, of course, involves doing some math to figure out. I suppose that some might think that missionaries would tend to raise too much money and live excessively. I know MANY missionaries, and I haven’t actually met anyone like that. Usually, the opposite problem prevails. It is HARD to raise support. We would just as soon be done with it all and just get on with the work God has called us to, without having to worry if there will be enough money in the bank to pay the necessary bills. So what usually happens is that they raise just barely enough– and then only if their mission organization makes them raise a minimum amount. As time goes on, support tends to decay. People lose jobs, die, lose interest, or whatever, and stop giving. Sometimes churches split, die, or decide to reallocate their mission money. This forces the missionary back to fund raising, or worse yet, off of the mission field to get a paying job.

So how do we come upon an amount that we need to raise for support? In our case, we used two different methods, and they both came out to about the same amount. Method one was to use a formula given by a large and respected mission organization (Wycliffe Bible Translators), using a spreadsheet that they supply to their members. Method 2 was to add up the expenses we knew we had committed to (tithes, taxes, insurance, utilities, cheap housing, food, school fees, ministry supplies, transportation, etc.), and see what that came to. Both methods came to within a couple hundred dollars a month of each other, so we figured that it was reasonable and that we could survive on that and still devote our full attention to the ministries God has called us to.

Two questions come to mind regarding the actual amount. The first is “Why so much? It looks like more than most people make!” The answer, of course, is that most people are thinking of their take-home pay, and not the fully burdened cost to the employer of having them work for them. There is a huge difference in those numbers, consisting of facilities, supplies, retirement, taxes that you see on your pay stub, taxes you don’t see on your pay stub, insurance, travel, corporate utilities, etc. Missionaries like us have to raise support to cover the full cost of all of that plus a share of the organizational overhead, because there isn’t another place for that money to come from. And yes, we have to pay taxes, too. We often pay taxes in more than one country. So really, it takes some math to compare income on a fair basis. When you do the math, it usually comes out with the missionary looking poorer than the people supporting him or her.

The next question is “Why so little? How can you possibly live on so much?” I’m not making this up. I had to answer that question on scholarship applications for my sons in college in follow-up questions. It is as if they thought we must be hiding income or something, but we reported it all. Anyway, I’m not sure how we do it. Sometimes we don’t, and we go back into debt for a while. Sometimes we cheat ourselves by not making retirement fund contributions so that we can buy food now. Sometimes our living expenses are really low because we are off in a jungle somewhere with no place to go shopping. To be honest, we really should raise a higher amount.

There are other ways to finance missions, with varying credibility and results. The best alternate strategy seems to be the one where the sending organization separates fund raising and mission activities, and just pays missionaries fixed salaries and benefits appropriate to their mission field. Some well-known and effective organizations do this. It solves some problems, but creates others… and frequently results in fewer missionaries on the field. A close runner-up is the one where a missionary is self-funded. Few can actually pull this off for long. I know of a few “retired” people who can. It also works for some short-term missions, but rarely for a career in missions. Then there are the spurious suggestions of multi-level marketing, or worse yet, “Nigerian” scams. I know of one missionary who sent more money than he had to such a scammer, and had to leave the mission field and work a secular job for a few years to pay back what he had been tricked out of. Needless to say, no large inheritance or windfall funds were forthcoming after the “fees” were paid.

The one way that certainly doesn’t work is to expect the unevangelized to pay for the costs of bringing the Gospel to them before they even understand the infinite value of the Gospel, which is supposed to be given freely, anyway. No, it is the responsibility and privilege of those who believe in Jesus Christ already to bear the burden of obeying the Great Commission as both senders and goers. The law of LOVE compels us to make it so.

Posted in Journal

The Holy Bible, Technology, and Remote People

I am passionate about getting God’s Word to people where they are, in a language they can understand. I believe in the heart-transforming power of God’s Word so much that I actually left behind work as a well-paid software engineer and went full time into Christian missions. Instead of a regular, predictable paycheck, we have lived on donations for the past decade and focused on using our talents and skills to advance the Kingdom of God. Has it been worth it? YES! Will my wife and I continue to do this? Of course!

Technology is advancing, providing access to books and educational materials in very remote areas, as with the One Laptop Per Child XO PCs shown in the picture. I’m working to make Scripture available to them in their own languages.

Posted in Journal

Christ Revealed on World Networks

Last Monday, in a meeting at the University of the Nations, I was struck by the term “viral” electronic Scripture distribution. Of course, as a man who done battle with computer viruses and been tasked with protecting many computers from malware, the term “viral” has many negative connotations. I’ve been trying to think of a better analogy, but the only other one that fits is that of supercritical nuclear reactions, and that isn’t exactly devoid of negative connotations, either. So, I embrace the term “viral” in this instance. I like the idea of creating weapons of mass discipleship and evangelism resulting in a pandemic of repentance, salvation, and righteousness. And, as much as I detest the sort of computer virus that illegally and immorally usurps other people’s computing resources and cause damage, there are a few things that we can learn from them. The main difference is that we seek to spread the Word of God with the permission and consent of the propagating agents, not violate laws where those laws do not contradict God’s Law, and doing good instead of evil with our payload, which is the Holy Bible.

To be effective at viral propagation, Scriptures, like their biological virus and computer virus counterparts must have:

  • An initial distribution or creation point (i. e. a web site),
  • Adaptation to the hosts that carry them (i. e. formats for different devices and programs),
  • Fruitful reproduction (i. e. freely downloadable, permission and ability to easily copy and mirror),
  • Effective means of transmission (i. e. various Internet protocols, memory sticks & cards, etc.), and
  • Resistance to attempts to control or slow their spread (i. e. legal operation in Christ-friendly countries, diversity of sources and channels, applied computer security technology, design for survivability and tamper resistance, etc.).

Viral electronic Scripture distribution goes beyond conventional publishing, and it goes beyond direct control of the initial publisher over the distribution. The initial publisher can digitally sign releases to provide a tamper-evident seal, and forbid alterations (other than legitimate revisions and adaptations), but intentionally makes no attempt to control or limit redistribution beyond the initial publication. There are well-accepted legal ways to express this desire, in the form of Creative Commons Licenses and similar copyright licenses.

Virally published Scriptures that have been in distribution long enough cannot be effectively censored or eliminated by active persecution, even by major totalitarian governments known for similar activities. There are just too many copies in too many places, and those copies can be easily and quickly copied to other places to fill in where persecutors thought they had eradicated it from.

I’ll mention in passing that for the world’s majority languages, there are several sources of Scriptures in electronic form, mostly in the form of copyrighted, proprietary software, usually with deliberate safeguards against making further copies to protect the worldly intellectual property rights of the Scripture publishers. There are also web sites with permission to serve limited amounts of Scriptures at a time, and no permission to redistribute. There is little risk of a global pandemic of Scripture from these sources, but they do some good in their realm.

If you look diligently for viral Scripture distribution points today, you will find a few good ones. These include the Crosswire Bible Society, eBible.org, PNGScriptures.org, and a few others. There is not yet a single authoritative site to find all of these, and they are being put up by different people. There is a bit of cooperation and communication going on, though. For example, I’m using and adapting Prophero for use in PNG, Vanuatu, Jamaica, and a couple of spots in Africa. Prophero was first put together for a few Indonesian languages plus Hawaiian Pidgin, and I’m using that software, improving it, and sharing it with others. For a longer list of Scriptures on the Internet that also includes nonviral Scripture distribution points, see http://eBible.org/bible/.

Looking to the future, there are Scripture portions in at least 200 languages that could be put on the web in viral forms within the next year, as well as improving the viral nature of what is already there by increasing the number of formats that can be downloaded to fit both the leading edge/affluent platforms and networks and the sorts of things I see in the developing nations (OLPC, second-hand computers, expensive pay-per-megabyte Internet, etc.). Doing all of that in a year is way too much for the current team to pull off by ourselves, but in partnership with YWAM‘s CROWN (Christ Revealed on World Networks) Information Technology ministries based at the University of the Nations, and following God’s leading, it can indeed be done.

I would like to thank those who have been working to provide copyright permissions for many Scriptures. A major roadblock to viral distribution of Scriptures has been knocked out, and soon we will see the Lord show us how to break through the remaining barriers to getting the existing Bible translations published. We will see the ideal of Scriptures being published electronically in many formats, book by book and language by language, as soon as they have been translated and properly checked.

Posted in Journal