Friday, December 12, 2014

The Diner Story

Back a few years ago I was taking a trip across country.

I decided to avoid the many eateries clustered at the exits from major highways, and instead go to into town at meal time and find a diner.

One place I went had an obvious DINER sign, but finding the door was a bit of a challenge. I eventually found my way in, and was seated at a booth. It was then that I realized I was somewhere with “character”. The booth had the usual napkin dispenser, salt, pepper, grape jam and various color sweetener packets on it. But it also had ketchup and mustard, two types of Worcestershire Sauce, three types of steak sauce, six varieties of hot sauce, vinegar-- white and red and balsamic, something that looked like horseradish, two types of soy (one organic) and something that might have been rosewater. Every booth seemed to have a full set, so did every stool at the counter. Every table between the booths and the counter was practically covered with bottles too. How two people could sit there, I did not know.

The server came over, pushed a few of them to the side and plunked down a glass of water.

“What can I get you?” she asked.

I realized that I didn't have a menu, so I ordered the obvious breakfast: eggs over easy with toast and bacon, which seemed to be what everyone else was eating. “Oh, and coffee, too please.” I said.

When she brought the coffee we did a bit more rearranging of the bottles, making enough space for the cup, and when the plate with breakfast arrived she had to remove the water to make space for the grits.

The food was tasty, but some of the other customers looked at me with suspicion. One had put ketchup on everything, while another added hot sauce (the one in the blue bottle) to eggs, grits, homefries and even his coffee before even taking a taste. It would be pretty disheartening to be the cook here, I thought. Nobody likes the food you prepare.

As they left customers all argued about the bill... wanting twenty-five cents off because the coffee hadn't been completely filled, or half a buck off because the grits were cold. I didn't see anyone leaving a tip, just a lot of scowls.

When the serve came by with more coffee I asked her why the table was full of bottles. “We take pride in serving every customer's need,” she said, in a neutral tone. Was she serious? I wondered.

I had noticed that the booths seemed to have been shortened by about a foot, so when two people sat together the outside one's butt stuck out into the aisle. (How they found space to put down food, I'll never know.) I asked the server why they had cut the ends off the booths and she said they had to do it to fit the tables in. When I suggested that maybe the tables weren't necessary she seemed offended, turning and leaving before filling my cup. I never did get that refill.

I suppose I should have been upset. I should have stiffed the server, or found the manager for a talk about customer service, but instead I said thank you, paid the bill with tip and went on my way.

For all I know, that place still exists, in some small American town.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Thoughts on Church Systems Improvement

Every good blog post begins with a story, right? So I was heading down to Washington, DC a decade or so ago. The trains out of NYC were delayed. I fell into conversation with a fellow on the platform who had a highly unusual job. He worked for a consortium of Home Insurance Companies, and his job was to facilitate week long visits between recovery contractors.

Now recovery contractors are very special folks. They are the ones who bring in the big fans when the water pipe bursts, or who replace the bottom foot of drywall, or get the smoke smell out of a hallway after a fire. They are mostly small companies. Insurance companies like to call in small companies because they do the job as if their future depended on it-- and it does. A bad reputation ruins the business and also hurts the Insurance Company. So they are tied together in a network of mutuality.

The facilitation brings together about five companies who do not compete with each other. The fellow on the train platform had done a meeting of firms from Rhode Island to Maryland, all similar size and with similar problems: How to do finances? How to get residual smoke smell out without perfumes? How to encourage middle management? None of them was an expert, nor was any of them the leader. They met as equals, twice a year in a continuing relationship. Each meeting was at one of the companies, and they rotated through in 2.5 years.

The meeting included presidents, CFO's and maybe a particular underling-- scheduler, maintenance, HR director. So, 15 people together for a week, comparing notes. The hosts would present about their business to the visiting 12, and the subgroups would pick areas of study, as groups of 5 CFO's, etc. The visiting managers could spend time asking employees about how they did things, what problems they were encountering, etc. The bookkeeper might show the CFO's how they did their tax accounting, for example. The visitors don't instruct the host workers, but as a group talk honestly with the CFO who can take or leave the advice.

The results: Five CEOs who get advice and validation for what they are doing. Improved financial, management, processes, product. The Insurance consortium wins because the product is more consistent. This is worth funding the facilitator's time! The Company has to host 12 people once every 2.5 years, and loses use of their top managers every 6 months for a week.

OK, I'm not in insurance or remediation. But I can see the value in this model. What if we apply it, almost verbatim on congregations? Groups of 3-5 congregations of similar size and format covenant to send president and treasurer and pledge chair (or some other combination) away for one weekend every six months, and agree to host others every 1.5 to 2.5 years, with an “all hands on deck Saturday” and maybe some extra meetings on Sunday afternoon. (This could also work with Minister-DRE-Music Director as the group, perhaps, though each of these roles have professional associations for sharing ideas.)

The group's covenant includes “no fixing behavior” – Visiting pledge chairs do not lecture on “good” pledge drives/stewardship when observing a Saturday Stewardship planning meeting. Appreciative inquiry is the order of the day as Presidents talk to host board members, social justice team, etc.

Oh, and the facilitator says nothing about the business! Facilitator's job is to make sure the visitors are cared for and congregation is ready to present real information. They show up earlier in the week and double check that host families can house the visitors, that rides are planned, that meeting rooms are ready, snacks, dietary requirements... everything to make sure the meetings are a success. And then after the weekend they meet with the tired hosts and ask how it went. How was the facilitation? What can I do better next time? (What can I share with other facilitators to improve the process?)

The fact of the matter is, our churches are small companies and often act in isolation. Our Facebook groups are full of questions about “How do you do X?” or “We did Y and now we have a problem.” We need ways to improve our processes. This is a very different model from “go listen to the expert” or a seagull consultant. It is much more hands-on and complements the abilities of resources at the District/Region level. The hope is that these congregations will develop a lasting relationship of MUTUALITY, and all benefit from innovations in individual congregations. There is no homework, the experience is the deliverable!
(adapted slightly from original)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

How rust saved America...

Rust, iron oxide, is all around us, giving rocks a pumpkin hue, infusing crossing a cast iron bridge an element of danger or allowing the outside world to permeate the floorboards of old VWs.

But this morning I am neither on a country road, a rock quarry or a VW, though my Scion is getting a bit old, I think the floor is still in good shape.  Instead I'm cleaning up the living room, and have just come across a box of VHS VCR tapes.  I snagged them from my neighbor's trash when he was moving out, maybe 9 years ago, and they have just been sitting there. 

My neighbor had cable TV, and I didn't, so I thought I would find a treasure trove of old movies recorded on them.  No such luck.  He worked nights and slept days, and seemed to enjoy auto racing, so I now own about 30 recordings of various NASCAR and perhaps other races... I haven't watched them all, or even one of them all the way through.  I am not sure what I could learn watching the Daytona 500 from 1991.. wow, has it been that long since everyone had a VCR?  Maybe I can discover something important, but I won't, 'cause I am not interested at all.

But sure enough, the iron oxide on Mylar holds traces of the signal from that day.  Wipeouts, missed pitstops and lots of commentator speculation all kept in the magnetic fields never to be sensed again.

The age of iron oxide began sixty or so years ago with the development of magnetic tape audio recording.  An audio recorder was featured at the beginning of Mission Impossible each week.  I was aghast when the tape (and tape player, presumably) self-destructed after the message was delivered.  I remember feeling it was a waste of a perfectly good miniature tape player!  All in the name of some spy mission.

In the 1960s my father was given a reel of digital tape from a gigantic Honeywell computer tape drive... the type you see in 1950 movies with vacuum columns on either side of the tape head to keep the speed exactly right.  The type with huge plexiglass doors so if the foot-wide reel of tape flew off it wouldn't kill anyone.  My father was leaving his computer job, and the reel had signatures of the team who designed computers all through that era.  My uncle Dick Lawrance, another engineer, had DECtapes, made for Digital Equipment Corporation's mini-Computer, the PDP-8, which he helped design. I guess my family was an iron oxide early adopter.

Iron oxide had its part at the Watergate, with the Beatles at Abbey Road Studios, in the Nixon White House.  Video tape made football understandable, and the eleven o'clock news interesting.  And iron oxides on floppy disks built Microsoft and Apple.  Its ability to store information in its magnetic alignment "saved" America, and the world.

Today we find it on the backs of credit and debit cards... "can you swipe it again? It didn't work."   It is still hiding on the surface of hard drives.  It spins past high speed heads keeping the past forever.  Huge disk farms spin at Google, Yahoo, AOL and Facebook. 

But other than a small splotch on your plastic money, it has mostly left our lives.  No more 8-tracks of cassette tapes.  No reel-to-reel, VHS or Beta.  Floppies and Micro Diskettes by the billions are now in landfills, returning their rust to the earth in a glacially slow descent.

Today most HDTV is recorded on hard disks -- TIVO and its descendents, or, more likely, lives at some corporate head-end-- a climate controlled clean room that would remind you of a 1950's Computer Room, with servers instead of tape drives humming through the night, serving thousands to video streams. As densities increased, hard drives moved from iron oxide to cobalt and other specialized materials.  Iron oxide disk drives went into the corporate scrap heap.

Back in the late '90s I went to a small invitation-only conference on magnetics to give a talk about High Definition VCRs... not a very good talk, but the lack of inspiration was an indication that iron oxide tape and digital TV were not going to be friends. 

Perhaps the best take-away from that conference was a "Magnetics Magic Show" item performed by one of the experts from a disk drive company..  He took a magnet and wrote a word on a dollar bill, then used a small sealed petri dish filled with iron filings to show that the dollar bill's ink had retained the word. 

Yes, as the Moody Blues sang, we are all magnetic ink, or at least our money is. 

Monday the memories of NASCAR racing will go out in the trash, and I will return to the present, and the future, and worry about that area of rust on my back porch railing.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Wiki On A Stick-- like a pile of cards in your pocket.

It is Monday... a good day to talk about something I love, called “Wiki on a stick” (0.13.0 Beta 1)

My uncle Dick was an engineer, he would always have a stack of IBM cards in his shirt pocket-- you may not remember them ( but they were great... he wrote little notes to himself on them, phone numbers, to do lists, combinations for locks... directions.

Fast forward 20 years, to the early days of Apple Computers, and the creation of “HyperCard”-- a sort of program for early Mackintoshes, which presented hyper-linked “cards” – the predecessor of web pages, which you could navigate around and between by clicking. It took a bit of work to create a new card, and to put comments onto the cards, but the stack was modifiable by the user...

Of course now one has big Wikis (from wiki wiki = “quickly” in Hawaiian) like Wikipedia to manage information on a large scale, and thousands of people work on structuring the information for simple access and navigation.

But I want the old thing my uncle had... a stack of cards that fit in my pocket-- but electronic, private and free. It can handle little notes I write down-- perhaps a poem I find on Face**** or a book suggestion. I want to be able to find all these poems by searching for “poem” without having to remember secret keywords or processes.

The solution I have found, which is a single “HTML” file that resides on my computer, is “WOAS” or Wiki On A Stick. It could live on a memory stick-- it doesn't need a database (as many Wikis do) and it is dead simple to use. You access it from a browser that is capable of saving .html files (I use Firefox, Chrome and IE also work-- though you may have to add a browser extension called TiddlyFox)

Click “New Page” to create a new page
Write in a title, write in or paste in the content, save it.

You can also make lists of pages, set it up for making a diary (search for “diary” – it will tell you how to modify the file to allow diary entries)

You can encrypt some or all the pages, so nobody else can see the content. This is especially useful for diary entries. I don't think you can search encrypted pages-- haven't tried.

Then I can make connections: Good poems or readings for funerals. Sermons I liked, sermons I preached, readings I have used, good places to eat... the links can be anything!
You can also create whole websites with this, then cut and paste the content-- or there is an export function that makes normal, non-modifiable HTML (for example, for a resume or a posting on Blogger!)

I have not yet found the holy grail – a private, confidential stack that also works with Android... but since I tend to use my WOAS for written content, rather than whatever Android is good for, I am happy with it on my PC. (I still can't cut and paste on my tablet... and typing is a chore)

I suppose if I put the .html file on “box” or “dropbox” shared with my Android, then it would appear as a file on my android and I could at least navigate through it to retrieve information.

Please tell the folks who are working on this free project that you love their work, and maybe even send them $10 to say thank you.

Then start clicking and collecting your own “stack of punch cards”

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Who had no room at the inn?

In preparing for a Christmas Eve service this year, I found myself re-reading Luke 2:7.

Now we have all heard stories of Mary and Joseph wandering around Bethlehem looking for a room... and finding none until a friendly innkeeper said "I don't have a room, but you can sleep with my animals!" Or something like that.

But the verse is much simpler. gives a very good literal translation of a Greek text, and I assume it's one of the accepted texts.

And/she-brought-forth (gave birth to)/the/son/of-her*/the/"firstborn"/and/swaddles/him/and/"cradles"/him/in/the/manger/"because-that"/not/"there-was"/to-them**/place/in/the/"caravansary"

Words in quotes are idioms, I think... "caravansary" is actually 'Down-loose' for example... sort of like 'fleabag' might be hard to translate...

But the two interesting things are marked with asterisks...

*of-her Why is this not 'of-them'? Perhaps it is reflecting the subject (her) or perhaps Joseph is not in the picture. Also, the possibility that it was not his firstborn child exists. (the/son/of-her*/the/"firstborn" = her firstborn son)

**to-them "For there was no place for them in the inn", or so we learned in church. But who is 'them'? I always assumed it was Joseph and Mary, but the previous verse says, essentially "while they were there", not "as they arrived." This implies that they had had space to stay already, rather than going door to door pleading.

If we make 'them' be Mary and Jesus, then there is another simple interpretation. There were no private rooms in those days, and a woman giving birth is not only noisy but also ritually unclean. Instead of staying in the (crowded) women's hall, making everyone ritually unclean, Mary and sympathetic women might have moved to the stables, where her screaming would not disturb folks (as much), and the blood etc. wouldn't get on people. Oh, maybe Joseph was there too... we don't know. I also don't know if there was a 'women's hall' in the inn... just a speculation.

So there may have been space at the inn, just no space "FOR THEM" inside... where "THEM" is a woman actively giving birth.

There is a tradition that Jesus never cried... (except in the verse where he wept) but there is no similar tradition that says "Mary gave birth silently." At least I don't know of that tradition.

We do know that Joseph and Mary worried about ritual cleanliness, see 2:22.

That's my observation for today!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The spillway takes the pressure off New Orleans levees

Today (5/15) I had off work (I worked yesterday) and so after a very nice nap, I decided to go see the river. The best place to view the Mississippi is just north of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, in Norco, LA.

In the image above, the Mississippi is on the right, and the normally dry spillway is on the left. it leads to Lake Pontchartrain.

The scale of the thing is hard to photograph... each hole is pretty big.

I tried to capture a photo of the fish trying to swim UP to the Mississippi, but ran out of memory first.

This is the "Airline Highway" designed to be well above the bayous and a safe way to get out of New Orleans. The designers didn't expect 20' of flood waters from Bonnet Carre!

And a few trees seen from Airline Highway.

Locally, everyone seems to be on edge. The big debate was the opening of the Morganza Spillway, north of Baton Rouge, which will flood houses built in the Atchafalaya floodplain, but take pressure off the New Orleans and Baton Rouge levees.

Unlike the surge from Katrina, the Mississippi River's water is well above sea-level, and could flood the entire city (and Metairie, where I live) to a greater depth if those levees fail. This includes areas that didn't flood in Katrina, like Uptown and the French Quarter.

So we have reason to be nervous.

The paper ( has articles about wildlife and how they will escape the rising waters. Friends to the west in Morgan City and Bayou Sale are behind levees, so they shouldn't flood, but sandbags are being filled anyway.

We have had a drought here this past month. I hope we get some rain, but not that much.

(update June 5)
The spillway is still open... though the river has come down a bit. We still have a drought.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

More pictures of the spillway, this time closer to the lake (further north)

A few days after seeing the Bonnet Carre gates I had a chance to go up to Baton Rouge... so I snapped some pictures of the Spillway:

In front of me, Interstate 10, a long elevated roadway west of New Orleans.
On The Left, Lake Pontchartrain,
On The Right, The spillway!
(New Orleans approaches are almost all elevated highways, from the north, east and west.)

The water is flowing under the train tracks and under the highway.

Still very dry weather, which is good.