December 24, 2011

Our traditional view of the nativity is wrong

Photo by Kristen Stieffel.
Yeah, I put this up every year, despite the inaccuracies. 

Most of our nativity scenes, depicting the holy family in a wooden shed with some animals, a shepherd or two, and three kings, are—how can I put this gently—wrong. I wrote earlier about the visit of the unknown number of non-royal persons. But the whole picture, especially the lonely couple relegated to a lean-to, doesn’t match what scholars know of that time and place.

In teaching our advent study this year, based on Adam Hamilton’s excellent book and video The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, I added a new word to my Greek vocabulary: καταλυμα, or kataluma.

It appears here:
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (NRSV)
The same word is used in Luke 22:11 to identify the upper room where Jesus observed Passover with his disciples.

A kataluma is a guest room. So why does almost every English translation have “inn” at 2:7 but “guest room” at 22:11? Much as I’d like to lay all the blame on King James’s translators, William Tyndale did the same thing.

Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey wrote, in the Theological Review of the Near East School of Theology, “the Arabic and Syriac versions have never, in 1900 years, translated kataluma with the word ‘inn.’ This translation is a product of our Western heritage.”

Bailey goes into great detail about first-century life in the holy land and Middle Eastern culture. It comes down to this: A room on the ground floor would be used by the family during the day, but the animals would be brought into it at night for safety. So it would have feeding troughs in it. The family and guests slept on an upper level.

Hamilton points out that since Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, they probably stayed with family. Instead of a wooden shed, Mary and Joseph were likely in what Bailey calls “the family room.”

So although some newer versions, like Today's New International Version, put “there was no guest room available for them,” many translators stuck with “no room in the inn” for no better reason than: That’s what we’re all used to. 

Mind you, it doesn't really matter whether it was a barn or a four-star resort. The apostle John reminds us of the important thing: God put on flesh to dwell with us. Praise be to God.

December 20, 2011

A lovely place to visit

SmittenSmitten by Colleen Coble
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The town of Smitten, Vermont, is as much a character in this book as the four women who make up its core. This is not a novel, but a tetralogy of novellas, each with a different heroine. Disclosure: I was given an advance reader copy of this book at a conference.

The authors do a great job of intertwining their characters’ lives, and their voices are similar enough that the stories flow into one another without clashing. The overall story arc, of the character’s efforts to transform Smitten from mill town to vacation destination, runs as a thread through all four stories, binding them together. Together, the authors create an appealing place we would like to go visit.

The characters are well-rounded, and although some of them have superficial quirks, those add to, rather than substitute for, some very realistic, deep-rooted traits that make the characters believable.

The quality of the writing is very high, although there are a few continuity problems. A character suddenly has an object in her hands that we never saw her pick up -- where did that come from? One character is introduced as a good friend -- halfway through the book. Another, who appears early in a minor role, is described as one woman's "best friend." If he's her best friend, how come she doesn't talk to him until we're three-quarters of the way through the book?

But these are quibbles. Overall, this is a charming set of stories that make for a delightful getaway.

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December 15, 2011

Sorting out "less than" and "fewer" isn't difficult

Writers are notoriously bad at math, but that doesn’t explain the prejudice against “less than” in expressions with countable items.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian —
The sticklers are correct when they say “fewer” can be used only with countable items, not masses. If your hen laid six eggs yesterday and only four today, then today she laid fewer eggs. But when you crack eggs into a bowl and whisk them together, they cease to be eggs and become “egg.” So there’s less egg in the bowl today than there was yesterday. But you wouldn’t say there’s fewer egg in the bowl. Even without a grammarian’s advice, you wouldn’t say that, because it feels wrong.

Fewer eggs but less egg. Fine. The problem comes when people assert that since “less” goes with egg, it can only go with egg and may not go with eggs. These are the sort who call the grocery store sign “ten items or less” grammatically incorrect and claim “ten items or fewer” is the only correct form.

Fewer than ten, less than ten, ten or fewer, ten or less — all perfectly valid constructions. If you have nine items in your cart, you have less than the guy with eleven items. Or, as a mathematician might say, 9 < 11.

In the absence of a number, “than” is an important part of the construction. “Today the hen laid fewer (or less) eggs” begs for the completion of the comparison. Fewer (or less) than…what? Yesterday? Six? Her sister?

People don’t get quite as hung up on “greater” and “more than,” but the same principles apply. Except that if your hen laid four eggs yesterday and six today, you wouldn’t say today she laid greater eggs. You’d say she laid a greater number of eggs today than yesterday. Actually, you’d be likely to say she laid more eggs today. And you’d be correct.

November 30, 2011

Learning about practices that edify the church

Five Practices of Fruitful CongregationsFive Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert C. Schnase
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I taught this as a small-group study at church, and the class loved it. You know the book is good when your students tell the preacher he should read it.

Schnase's book is full of thought-provoking ideas. I was pleased to say that a lot of suggestions we could check off as "got it," but there were still plenty of creative ideas to implement.

The author is Methodist and most of his examples come from that tradition, but I am sure any Protestant church -- any church, probably -- can glean information from this book to use in its own congregational life.

I found the author's Biblical examples to be a little thin, but then he wasn't writing a Bible study. I was teaching one, though, so I found a parable to illustrate each practice.

I especially appreciated the way Schnase shows how each practice provides a foundation for those that come after it.

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October 22, 2011

Myth: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition

Sir Winston Churchill supposedly* said this was “the kind of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

Now I ask you, does that really sound more natural than “That’s the kind of errant pedantry I will not put up with?”

No, obviously not.

Scholars are mainly the ones who fall for this baloney, but sometimes people who were traumatized by a misguided English composition teacher early in life will cling to it also.

Truth: There is no grammatical rule forbidding the ending of sentences with prepositions. But rhetoricians dislike such constructions because they make the end of the sentence feel weak. If I were inclined to edit the version attributed to Sir Winston, I would put “I will not put up with that kind of errant pedantry.” See? Ending with “errant pedantry” is strong.

But I’m not inclined to edit it, because it is funny.

*—There's no evidence to back up that story, but it does provide a useful example.

October 14, 2011

Every manager should read this book

How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and LifeHow Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life by Tom Rath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like parents who focus on the F's on a report card rather than the A's, many managers focus on critiquing weaknesses rather than developing strengths. But as "How Full is Your Bucket?" points out, our emotional buckets are filled by positive encounters and drained by negative ones.

Among the authors' key points:

* The Number One reason people leave their jobs is they don't feel appreciated.
* Praise must be meaningful and specific.
* Recognition is most appreciated and effective when it is individualized, specific, and deserved.
* Every interaction is an opportunity to fill someone's bucket -- or drain it.
* We are at our best when our buckets are full, and at our worst when they are empty.
* When we fill other people's buckets, we simultaneously fill our own.

Mind you, it's not possible to simply offer groundless praise. Every worker has room for improvement. But constructive feedback about what needs fixing is more effective when it's bracketed by genuine compliments and praise for strong points. Employees, like students and writers, need to build on their strengths in addition to improving their weaknesses.

Individualization is important, because while one worker may appreciate a plaque to hang on the wall, another might prefer some extra time off to spend with family. To aid in this, the book includes a "Bucket Filling Interview," which can help managers learn about what really motivates each employee.

The only drawback to this book -- although some might call it a strength -- is its brevity. I suspect there is much more to say on the subject of positive reinforcement in the workplace.

How Full is Your Bucket? will not only help managers encourage employees, it will help anyone see where they've been missing opportunities to fill other people's buckets.

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October 7, 2011

The wedding garment parable? It’s not about clothes.

David Stuart | iStockphoto
Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast contains an odd aside about an improperly attired guest. The king’s invited guests have failed to show up, so to fill the house and consume all that food, the king sends his servants out to find all and sundry and invite them to the party. So one fellow shows up in his workaday clothes, and the king says, “‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matt. 22: 11-13)

This seems harsh. I mean, this improperly robed fellow could hardly be blamed for not dressing up when he didn’t get the invitation until long after the last minute.

Some commentaries say the guest is in trouble because the king would have supplied a robe, so the guest’s refusal to wear it was rude. But others say there’s no evidence to support this idea that hosts supplied clothes for guests -- especially a bunch of hastily rounded-up substitutes.

The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible said, as I suspected, that this passage isn’t about a literal garment. It’s about righteousness.

I pulled out William Barclay’s And Jesus Said, which examines the parables. Barclay’s theory is that Matthew recorded this as a warning against the sort of misconception Paul later addressed in his letter to the Romans. Some people apparently thought forgiveness means we can continue in sin so grace can abound. To which Paul replied: “By no means!” Barclay puts it this way:
It may well be, then, that Matthew is saying, “It is true that there is a free invitation from God to the most unlikely people; but that does not absolve them from the duty of trying to fit themselves to be His guests.” (And Jesus Said, page 159)
The ejected guest lacked three things: propriety, understanding, and reverence. He didn’t know what was appropriate, he didn’t know why the occasion was important, and he didn’t respect his host, the king.

How does this relate to our Christian walk?

We practice propriety in church buildings but forget that God is everywhere. Barclay writes: “It is not only in churches but in all the world that life must be fit for God to see.”

We forget what worship really is. We go through motions and recite creeds without understanding why it’s important to praise the One who made us.

We worship irreverently. Barclay notes that people will stand at attention for the national anthem, but slouch through a hymn; “and yet the hymn is sung to the King of Kings who is present at the service.”

Reverence is remembering that you are in the presence of the Lord Almighty, and behaving accordingly. The lesson of this odd little parable is that we ought to prepare ourselves for worship. Yes, we may approach the throne of grace with confidence. But we ought not do it five minutes late, disheveled, and preoccupied with worldly minutiae. We ought to do it with mindful care, clothed with “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

October 1, 2011

A fabulous fantasy adventure

By Darkness HidBy Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jill Williamson has crafted a deeply interesting storyworld with a rich culture. The kingdom of Er'Rets is fraught with internal conflicts, as nobles jockey for positions of power. Achan, a mistreated slave, is drawn into the country's power struggles when he's enlisted as a squire. Meanwhile, Vrell, the daughter of a duchess, masquerades as a slave to evade an unwelcome royal suitor.

The characters in this story are engaging and well-drawn. Williamson understands young people, and wonderfully captures the fickleness of young attractions, as Achan's heart wavers between his childhood sweetheart and a lovely young noblewoman. I found myself rooting for them in their struggles as the fabric of their culture shifts around them.

I'm sorry I didn't read this book sooner. But at least I was able to get Books 2 and 3 of this series even while I was still working on Book 1. I finished Book 1 while sitting in the Memphis airport waiting for my connecting flight home from the ACFW conference. I wrote this review. Then I started Book 2, which the author kindly signed for me during the conference. I love this story, and look forward to spending more time with Achan and Vrell and their knightly comrades.

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September 11, 2011

Trade Center cross is not about religion

Photo by Samuel Li
When this story first appeared on Facebook, my debunker's alarm went off. The story is so outrageous, it defies belief. Atheists had sued to prevent an I-beam cross from the World Trade Center site from being displayed at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Outrageous, but true.

An ABC news story quotes Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, as saying: "It just so happens that the WTC was made out of T-joints and they found a T-joint. They put it in the church, kept in the church for years, prayed over it, blessed it. You don't get to do that just in the coincidence that your icon looks like a T-joint."

Why not?

Silverman described what actually happened. The cross was found at the site on Sept. 13 by Frank Silecchia, a New York City Fire Department worker. He found comfort in the sight of that T-joint, as did many others.

Silverman and his comrades seem to believe that freedom of religion, which includes the freedom to abstain from religion, requires the removal of all signs of religion from public life. This is patently foolish. In a country where we are guaranteed not only the freedom of religion but also the freedom of expression, those who find comfort in the shape of a T-joint have the right to express their faith and the right to have the evidence of that expression entered in the nations' historical record.

Ultimately, then, the fight over this T-joint isn't about freedom of religion, or even freedom of speech. It's about history.

Jan Ramirez is the museum's chief curator. It is her responsibility -- and no one else's -- to decide which artifacts belong there and which don't. Silverman has no business telling her how to do her job. Ramirez must make her decisions based on the historical record.

A museum's purpose is to preserve memories and tell stories. Ramirez and her staff are tasked with ensuring that the museum records what happened on Sept. 11 and in the days that followed. That Silecchia found a T-joint, and that he and others found it meaningful, is part of the World Trade Center story and deserves to be told.

August 27, 2011

Print to PDF provides Instapaper to GoodReader link

Instapaper's clean display
I love Instapaper. It's a simple service that makes reading websites much easier.

You know how junky some websites are -- I'm sorry to say my employer's is among them -- with multiple columns and ads and gadgets blinking for your attention. Add the propensity of web designers to use gray text, and it means a lot of web pages are hard to read.

Instapaper solves this problem, along with that of "this looks like a great article, but I don't have time to read it right now." Install the Instapaper bookmarklet on your browser's toolbar, and you can send those articles to your Instapaper account for reading later. You get just the article, in an easy-to read font with no surrounding distractions. I use the iPad app to read articles on my lunch break.

It's hard to complain about a simple service that does one thing really well. But the feature I long for in Instapaper is the ability to annotate. I like to highlight articles and write marginal notes.

Print to PDF is prepared
to export to other apps;
even its competition.
Figuring I couldn't be the only one who felt this way, I searched for an Instapaper annotation solution. I was 2.5 hours on the hunt before I found this thread, which offered two solutions. Then I had to pick.

Unfortunately, the only way to try most apps is to buy them. So, given the multiple accolades for Save2PDF for iPad, I bought that one. It's got more features, and got a good review from MacWorld.

I was disappointed. The PDFs it rendered were not attractive. For example, an article that appeared in Arial rendered in Courier once Save2PDF was done with it. Its user interface is nonintuitive, with inscrutable icons. And getting the PDFs out of the app and into GoodReader so I could annotate them? I can't figure out how to do that, other than e-mailing them to my desktop Mac and then syncing to GoodReader. Not an elegant solution.

So then I bought the newer, cheaper app that had fewer referrals. It does what I need it to much better. Print to PDF is a simple app that that does one thing really well. And it has a "Share" button that includes an "Open in…" command, and GoodReader appears in that list, along with iBooks, Dropbox, and Evernote. Perfect.

In GoodReader, I can
highlight all I want.
You might well ask why I don't just send the articles from Instapaper to Evernote and mark them up there. Well, sometimes I do. But Evernote, so far, lacks a highlight feature. So I use Evernote when I'm adding a lot of notes, and the PDF method when I'm making a lot of highlights.

The Internet offers a flood of information, and an increasing number of ways to manage the flood. How do you manage your flood?

August 10, 2011

US debt to income ratio is 667%

Freeze Frame Studio, Inc. — iStockphoto
I've seen this quote, supposedly from Dave Ramsey, making the rounds on Facebook:
If the US Government was a family, they would be making $58,000 a year. They spend $75,000 a year, and are $327,000 in credit card debt. They are currently proposing "big" spending cuts to reduce their spending to "only" $72,000 a year. These are the actual proportions of the federal budget & debt, reduced to a level that we can understand. What I want to know is how they are somehow still AA+.
I've been unable to verify whether Ramsey actually said this: I looked on his website and could not find it. All the references I find online are out-of-context quotes. So the claxon on the the File 13-O-Meter sounded, and I started checking the numbers. Here's what I found:

The 2012 budget forecasts federal receipts of $2.174 trillion and outlays of $3.729 trillion. This is the proposed budget: The bipartisan commission formed as a result of last week's debt ceiling deal will presumably figure out how to close the $1.101 trillion deficit.

The national debt, meanwhile, is $14.5 trillion. But there's a number left out of the "Ramsey" equation: the gross domestic product, which is $15.81.

By comparison, in 2009, the most recent year for which I could find complete statistics, the U.S. median household income before taxes was $62,857, and average annual expenditures were $49,067.

An Associated Press analysis of a Federal Reserve report from about the same period shows average household debt of $114,434 and average household net worth of $455,173.

So let's see how this stacks up:

Federal Government "Ramsey" example Average US Household
Income $2.17 trillion $58,000 $62,857
Expenses $3.73 trillion $75,000 $49,067
Expense/ Income ratio 171.5% 129.3% 78.1%
Debt $14.5 trillion $327,000 $114,434
Debt/Income ratio 667% 564% 182%
Net worth $15.81 trillion -- $455,173
Debt/Worth ratio 91.7% -- 25.1%

What surprised me about these numbers is that the average household net worth was as high as that. Remember these numbers are from 2009: Two years into the recession, after the housing market collapse destroyed a lot of value by pushing home prices down.

So yes, American families are doing a better job of managing our money than the federal government is. But remember this is a democracy, and the people in Washington are only there because enough citizens voted for them. The only way to see real change is to contact your senators and representatives and tell them what you expect from them. And then, when they are up for re-election, hold them accountable for the job they have done. Or failed to do.

August 5, 2011

As Silver Refined: Learning to Embrace Life's DisappointmentsAs Silver Refined: Learning to Embrace Life's Disappointments by Kay Arthur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I filled with Post-It notes and highlight marks. I filled a legal pad with notes. The insightful wisdom in this book helped me through a difficult time by getting my eyes off of me and my petty problems and onto God. Kay Arthur's teaching is firmly based in scripture and has been a major contributor to my maturity as a Christian.

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July 25, 2011

Letting the Spirit foster change

Paola Murias — stock.xchng
How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
What do you mean, change? We’ve always had those light bulbs!

Despite our willingness to joke about being the “Frozen Chosen,” we Presbyterians are stuck in our ways, and we don’t like change. But when you look back at the 2,000-year history of the church, it has been nothing but change.

The first Christians were Jews who followed Jesus’ way. Then the church changed as more Gentiles joined, and you can read in the New Testament how Peter and Paul led the church through those changes.

In the first century, women were leaders in the church: Priscilla, Junia, Phoebe. Then that changed, and it was a millennia and a half before we had female church leaders again.

The Gospel is given to us as an inheritance, and as such, it must be passed on. But not in a dead, petrified way. The word of the lord is living and active, as is the Holy Spirit.

In the parable of the talents, the one who buries his talent, preserving it but not investing or earning interest on it, is scorned by his master.

In the same way, to pass down the faith unaltered and stagnant dishonors it. Faith directed by the Spirit should be re-thought, re-minted in each generation. The church reformed, always reforming.

Just don’t put in those spiral-ly fluorescent bulbs, and we’ll be fine.

July 2, 2011

SunRail off the shelf and on the way

After being shelved for a time while the governor decided whether it was worthy of his blessing, our local commuter train, SunRail, has finally been given permission to proceed. It was a bit iffy for a while there, despite lots of local support, because of course the governor already axed one local rail project. I was surprised to see a story about our little commuter train in the New York Times.

Comments on the article, though, reveal a common misconception about Orlando. Even the author of the article notes about SunRail, "It will not link to the Orlando airport or Disney World, among the region’s biggest traffic generators." A number of commenters (from everywhere, it seems, but Orlando) proclaim their shock that SunRail doesn't connect to the airport or Disney, and declare it therefore useless. Such comments reveal a lack of understanding of our geography and of the purpose of SunRail.

Tourists visit "Orlando" by flying into the airport (which is as far south and east as you can go and still be in the city limits) and then leaving the city limits and going waaaaaay south and west to WDW. They rarely come downtown. SunRail was never meant to serve them. A rail line serving tourists would run from the airport to International Drive, the convention center, Universal Studios, and then waaaaaay the heck down to WDW. And it would be of little use to most people who live here.

Most locals seldom visit WDW. But we commute to work five times a week. Many are stuck on the Interstate 4 parking lot at the beginning and end of every workday. They are the people SunRail is meant to serve. SunRail is meant to alleviate that I-4 traffic, most of which is caused by people driving from the suburbs in the north (Winter Park, Seminole and Volusia counties) to downtown. That's why plans call for building the northern part of the line first -- that's where most of the bedroom communities are.

One local commenter notes that right now, Central Floridians can't leave their cars home. There are no other options. It's true. I once looked into talking the bus to work, and found multiple problems:

Inconvenience: The bus route in my neighborhood was eliminated because of budget cuts, so I'd have to walk 1.8 miles to the closest stop, take the bus downtown, and walk 0.3 miles from the bus stop to the office. Walking more than 2 miles? In Florida? In the summer? By the time I got to work, I'd need a shower.

Cost: Bus fare is $2, one way. I drive an economical car and get about 29 miles to the gallon in the city. The trip from home to office is 9 miles. So even if gas were $6 a gallon, I'd still save money driving.

Time: This was the deal-killer for me. The walk to the bus stop would take about forty minutes. I'd spend half an hour on the bus. Then it's about a five-minute walk to the office. An hour and fifteen minutes for a commute that usually takes me 20-25 minutes by car.

I will ride SunRail, since it won't waste as much of my time as the bus. A station is planned for five minutes from my house, and another a short walk from my office.

Low projected ridership is a problem for SunRail. I don't know what the solution to the ridership problem is. But adding more lanes to I-4 -- on the false supposition that Central Floridians won't ever use a train -- is not a viable solution to the traffic problem.

June 27, 2011

Pay attention to God

“Can one reach God by toil? He gives himself to the pure in heart. He asks nothing but attention.”—W.B. Yeats, Autobiographies
Billy Alexander—
I resisted for many years the advice to take time in the morning to meet with God, even though I heard it repeatedly from multiple ecumenical sources. Chief among those was Chip Ingram, whose podcast I listen to regularly. He returns to this topic often. In his book Good to Great in God's Eyes, he identifies this as a habit of great Christians.  Good Christians, he says, can meet with God anytime. But the point of the book is that we don't want to be mediocre Christians or even good Christians, we want to be great Christians. And great Christians, Ingram writes, "give their first and best time to meet with God before anything else."

Pride is among the worst sins, and there is nothing more arrogant than believing we can handle everything this fallen world will do to us without help from above. We may think we can manage our lives, but how much better could we manage if we took time to consult the King of the Universe before we begin?

“The only way to receive the Spirit is silently and prayerfully to wait upon the Spirit.…For [one] whose every waking moment is occupied, and who even steals time for work from the hours of sleep, there may be necessary a complete reorganization of life if [one] is to find time for this silent waiting on the Spirit.”—William Barclay, The Promise of the Spirit

As one who has indeed stolen time for work from sleep, I can attest that a reorganization need not be complete -- sometimes a minor adjustment is enough. Setting the clock five minutes earlier each week worked for me, along with increased diligence about not staying up half the night.

We make time to watch our favorite TV shows, yet we resist making time to meet with the One who made us. Maybe that's because a morning devotional requires not only stillness and quiet, but concentration. But it can be done.

"All my life I have risen regularly at four o’clock and have gone into the woods and talked to God. There He gives me my orders for the day."—George Washington Carver, quoted in The Man Who Talks with the Flowers by Glenn Clark

A morning devotional, what some call "quiet time," ideally includes reading the Bible, meditating on its message, and prayer. It can also include devotional reading and journaling. I also use this time for reviewing three-by-five cards of scriptures and inspirational quotes I'm using to train my brain.

Jesus modeled the practice of communing with God early in the day: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)

It is appropriate for us to do likewise.

May 31, 2011

Cloud hopping

Billy Alexander - stock.xchng
I finally understand the cloud thing.

For years, the cloud made me nervous, and not just because of the spectacular failure of Apple's Mobile Me debut.

Amazon's recent server crash didn't help.

But since I bought my gorgeous iPad, the cloud is starting to make sense. One of the major points on which my other half likes to chide me about this gadget is its lack of a USB port. But it doesn't really need one. There are other ways to put data on an iPad.

There's the proprietary dock cable, which is just like those for iPods. I mean exactly. I plugged the iPad into the iPod cable that was already attached to my Mac. Worked perfectly.

You can also download apps, e-books, music, and other stuff from the cloud by Wi-Fi or 3G (cellphone signal). I use 3G a lot because at the office, there's no open Wi-Fi network on our floor. You have to go downstairs to Starbucks for that.

Evernote is the app that made me love the cloud. Now, if I get a file by e-mail, or find something on the Web, and want to access it later on my MacBook or iPad, I just save it to Evernote. It lives in the cloud, and I can get to it from anywhere. I don't have to fiddle about with USB flash drives, although I'll still used them for files that are really large, or important, or both, because, well, see the Amazon story.

May 28, 2011

Breaking through writer's block

A correspondent recently asked whether I ever get writer's block.

"Hammer Fist" by Gerville Hall
Not as such, I told him. There are times I don't feel like writing, or when I don't feel like writing what I've been assigned to write. I usually just muscle through it, especially in the latter case. That's one good thing I learned in the news business. If it's your job to write about GDP growth, you write about GDP growth, even if you'd much rather be shopping.

The hardest time I ever had breaking through was writing the fight scene in Alara's Call, when Alara is captured by enemy soldiers. In the original version, It went something like: They fought for a few minutes, and then she was knocked unconscious.

An editor firmly informed me that was not acceptable. I had fallen into one of the classic blunders (see No. 24).

I needed to describe the whole thing, blow by blow. I didn't want to.

It took a whole afternoon, and a couple pots of tea, but I did it. I would write a sentence, get up, pace around, try to visualize the fight, go back write another sentence, repeat...and periodically realize half of what I had done was crap. Rewrite. Repeat. Wore me out.

And the story is much better for it.

May 20, 2011

When is it OK to spell it OK?

Poynter is holding a poll about the punctuation with quote marks issue (periods inside or outside?), putting the question this way:

© 3d_kot -
"How outraged are you by the idea that it might be OK to put commas and periods *outside* quotation marks?"
One commenter proved McKean's Law (that when you correct someone else's speech or writing, you're likely to commit an error in the process). The poster wrote, "It's okay, not OK."

Erm, how can I put this

Poynter, as an organization serving what's left of the newspaper business, almost certainly follows AP style, which calls for using first-listed spellings whenever a word has two allowable spellings.

You'll find the spelling "OK" listed first in all the major dictionaries. The alternative spelling, "okay," is given equal weight in most, but not all. The Compact Oxford gives the OK spelling more weight.

When a dictionary lists two spellings separated by "also," as Compact Oxford does with OK, then the first is preferred, but the second is acceptable. When two spellings are separated by "or," both are equally correct. Which to use is a style choice. All that matters is that one be consistent, at least within each work, if not across all works from a given publisher. Many book publishers prefer "okay" because it behaves like a word, forming other words such as okayed and okaying. And it looks like a word, instead of looking like a cheerleader jumping up in the middle of your book yelling O-K!

I've heard a couple of writers say "okay" is Chicago style. It's not. I asked. Here's what the staff at Chicago Manual of Style had to say:

CMOS doesn't specify, but as it happens, the manual uses "OK" twice (at 2.66 and 2.113) and does not use "okay." … We follow Webster's 11th Collegiate, which puts OK as the first spelling, but lists "okay" as an equal variant (also standard).

So you oughtn't say with certainty, as the Poynter commenter did, that one way or the other is right or wrong. It depends on the publication. When I edit for Orlando Business Journal, it's OK. When I edit for Splashdown Darkwater, it's okay. Each is right in its own way.

For more about "The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word," including its incredible origin, see the book by Allan Metcalf, which, I must point out, is titled OK.

April 21, 2011

The Shackelton advert myth

Endurance sinking in Antarctica, November 1915
Royal Geographic Society
Among the lore of businesspeople is the story of the ad Ernest Shackleton reputedly placed in a London newspaper to recruit a crew for the Endurance expedition:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.

The ad is generally said to have resulted in thousands of applications being sent to Shackelton. It’s usually cited to illustrate the idea that rewards are more important to workers than money.

The premise has some truth to it. For example, a group of teachers once toured the newsroom, and one of them asked about the cow on my desk. Betsy -- a 12-inch-high wooden figure of a Holstein -- was, I explained, a traveling trophy, passed from each employee of the month to the next.

The teacher noted how important such rewards are. “No one works for money.”

“Yes,” I said, “if everyone only worked for money, there would be no teachers and no one in the newsroom.”

They all found this rather funny.

But I’m not sure people work for “honor and recognition,” either.

During a June 4, 2010 public forum held in Orlando by the Task Force on Space Industry Workforce and Economic Development, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said of the thousands of shuttle program workers who are being laid off, “they are not looking for a job. They are looking for something that will help them make a difference.”

That’s really why dedicated workers do whatever they do. That’s also why people leave jobs others think of as good ones: they’re not being given an opportunity to make a difference.

And that’s why five thousand people, by some accounts, applied to accompany Shackelton to the South Pole. But -- and you know I had to do some mythbusting here -- they were not replying to the above ad. So far, no one has proved that ad ever appeared.

Shackelton recruited by letter, in geography journals and in The Times (London), but his letters are very pragmatic and contain no dire predictions or promises of honor.

The folks over at The Antarctic Circle have been working for over ten years to find the original ad. Despite a $100 prize and many people combing through microfilm of London newspapers, no one has found it.

Since a Google search on the phrase “Shackelton ad” turns up The Antarctic Circle’s well-documented debunking, there is really no excuse for quoting the bogus ad.

April 15, 2011

Winter preview

This is the promotional trailer for Winter by Keven Newsome. I had the privilege of editing this phenomenal book. It's a supernatural thriller with a powerful story of redemption.

March 21, 2011

Survey of…Alara’s Call

This “survey of your novel” form has been making the rounds online. For example, Robynn Tolbert surveyed her book Elementals over at New Author Fellowship a while back. I’ve been sitting on a survey of my novel ever since, because at 1,167 words, it was a bit too long for a blog post. Here's a short version.
Kriss Szkurlatowski
How long did it take you to finish the book? More years than I care to admit. Mind you, it spent many of those years in a drawer.

Did you outline? Not when I started. I did before I finished the present draft.

What’s your novel’s theme song? “Lionheart” by Angels of Venice

Who is your favorite character in your novel? General Rariden. In the movie, his part will be played by Harrison Ford.

What’s the best line? Many of my critique partners loved the first line: “You realize we could all be tried for treason.”

Have your characters ever done something completely unexpected?
Often. Some days, I just take dictation.

Is any of your novel based directly on personal experience? Yes. In an early draft, the hero fell, hit his head, and was knocked unconscious. Then I fell and hit my head and was NOT knocked unconscious. This version is so much more interesting, it’s worth losing 20 minutes of memory.

Has your novel provided insight about your life? More than I care to admit.

Has your novel inspired anyone? My pastor said, “I am in awe of what you have done.” Does that count?

What advice would you give to a fellow writer? Outline!

February 25, 2011

Hiking up recovery mountain

If you, like so many others, are still hurting financially, you may wonder what the economists are thinking when they talk about our economy being in recovery.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession ran from December 2007 to June 2009. If we've been in recovery for a year and a half, why does it still feel like a "recession" to so many?

It's important to understand what economists mean when they speak of "recession." If you graph them, periods of growth, or expansion, are rising lines leading to peaks. Periods of contraction, or recession, are descending lines that lead to troughs.

The GDP, one of the main factors in measuring economic growth, has been rising since June 2009. Though that growth was sometimes small, the numbers were positive, as opposed to the negative numbers seen during the recession.
Photo by Christophe Libert

So why does recovery seem so crummy?

Imagine you're climbing a mountain. When you reach the peak, you stand in the bright sunshine and can see for miles.

Then you fall. You roll down that steep slope for a year and a half. You land in a valley. Bruised, but not broken, you stand up. That mountain behind you now blocks the sun. You're in shadow.

You can't go back the way you came. Ahead of you is another mountain -- maybe not as tall as the one you fell from. It has a shallower slope. You begin climbing. Slowly, surely, you ascend. You leave the valley floor behind. But the next peak is still far away, and you are still in shadow.

In The Great Reset, Richard Florida compares the 2007-2009 recession to earlier ones. "Recovery from both the Long Depression of the 1870s and the Great Depression of the 1930s -- the First and Second Resets -- took the better part of two or three decades."

He says forecasting where we'll be once the present crisis is history would be like predicting "the full flower of postwar suburbanization from the vantage point of Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration day in 1932."

As we climb, remember we have a mighty counselor who climbs with us out of the valley. "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." — Isaiah 9:2

A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared at the Central Florida Christian Chamber of Commerce blog.

February 5, 2011

For sincerity, try a dictionary

Simon Cataudo | stock.xchng
I've heard the one about "sincere" meaning "without wax" several times now, but I ran it through Google anyway, just to see what happened.

Oddly enough, it turns up in Dan Brown's novel Digital Fortress, which was published in 2008. Now I'm striving to remember whether I heard the "without wax" story before then. I don't think I did.

It has that pseudo-real factoid feeling Brown so well known for. He puts his version in a paragraph of pure exposition that any sensible editor would have struck and labeled "telling." He also sets his version in Spain, while the usual setting is ancient Rome. The standard version (and there are many) goes something like this:

Marble merchants used to disguise flaws in the marble by filling  them with wax. So honest marble merchants would advertise their wares as being "sine cera" -- without wax.

However, as even an Elementary Latin Dictionary can tell you, "sincere" is itself a Latin word meaning -- brace yourselves -- "honesty." It's probably related to "sincerus," which means "pure" or "entire."

Any good dictionary will give you the proper history of a word, so consider looking things up before including spurious folk etymologies in your article, speech, or novel.

January 26, 2011

Nasdaq value more than double '09 market low

Red=Nasdaq, Blue-Dow, Yellow=S&P 500
A lot of headlines today focused on the Dow Jones Industrial Average moving above 12,000. But the other major indexes also reached major milestones.

The S&P 500 is tantalizingly close to 1,300, but even at its close of 1,297, it has reached a level not seen since August 2008.

And the Nasdaq Composite, bless its techy heart, closed at 2,740, reaching a point it hasn’t seen since December 2007.

Alas, they are all still off their record highs:

Dow: 14,163 Oct. 9, 2007
S&P 500: 1,565 Oct. 9, 2007
Nasdaq: 5,048  Mar. 10, 2000

OK, this last one may not be fair, since that was the height of the tech bubble.

The recession started in December 2007. Compared with Dec. 3, 2007, The Dow is down 10 percent and the S&P 500 is down 12 percent, but the Nasdaq is up almost 4 percent.

From Dec. 3, 2007 to March 9, 2009 (when the indexes hit their lowest point of the recession), the Dow lost 50.8 percent, the S&P 500 51.1 percent and the Nasdaq 51.8 percent.

From March 9, 2009, to today, the Dow is up 83 percent, the S&P 500 80 percent, and the Nasdaq is up 116 percent. That deserves a headline, I think.

January 24, 2011

Brick House waitresses let it all hang out

One interesting thing about living in Orlando is that you're likely to have at least a second-degree connection to someone in the hospitality business, and sooner or later, that results in an invitation to a restaurant's pre-opening, when the staff are being trained. Because the staff are practicing, the food is free. You pay only for drinks.

Interesting, but not always beneficial. Because the staff are practicing, pre-openings sometimes have poor service and improperly filled orders. But one forgives, because they are practicing, and it is free.

But the very newness of the restaurant means you don't always know what you are getting into. For example, through a friend-of-a-friend, we got invited to the pre-opening of Brick House Tavern on International Drive. We had no information going in except the name and address.

The restaurant's theme turned out to be "man cave."

Brick walls. Couches instead of booths. Industrial-style exposed ductwork. TVs everywhere. Astonishingly loud music.

And the waitresses -- no waiters here -- are trying to outdo Hooters for scantily-cladness. Tight, low-cut black tops and low-riding pants are the uniform, along with, it seems, big belts and navel piercings.

The waitresses are far too chatty for my introverted taste, but I suspect they are told to be so. One told us she preferred working for Brick House over other restaurants, where wait staff are expected to be more formal. She said, "here, we can just let it all hang out." Yes, she actually said that. Maybe it's part of the training, along with the instruction to sit on the arms of couches next to male patrons, regardless of whether the gentlemen are accompanied by ladies.

Fish and chips, hold the chips. Photo by Rachel Pereira
The food was delicious, although when I ordered a side salad with my fish and chips, I expected to get the fish and chips plus a side salad. Instead I got fish and salad. This was some of the best fried fish I've ever had. the mac and cheese was yummy, too. Great food, but my doctor will probably put me on statins now.

But even though the food was excellent, I will never go there again. The loudness of the music would be enough to keep me away. The prurient overtones just seal the deal.

January 18, 2011

Otronicon: The coolness continues

Jeff Stanford, the Orlando Science Center’s vice president of communications, admitted that performance anxiety is a real threat to the staff when they’re planning Otronicon. There’s a need to each year top what was done before.

So far, they’ve managed to do it.

This year, one of the founding sponsors, Full Sail University, ended its five-year run so its staff could focus on other objectives. That could have been a real setback. But it opened the door for the University of Central Florida and its Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy to come in with new workshops and ideas. And the arrival of EA Sports, Stanford told me, made Otronicon “like a new show.”

Even so, Otronicon has continued to focus on career opportunities. Many exhibits, especially the medical and flight simulators, clearly highlight career paths. Posters throughout the center are designed to help kids match their interests and skills to jobs in the gaming and simulation businesses.

It’s this ability to connect the fun to the fundamental that makes OSC an important part of the community. And when I say “community,” I don’t mean just Orlando. OSC’s reputation drew school groups from as far away as Rhode Island.

"Psst…let the bounty hunter win."
Orlando Science Center photo

At this point, there’s no telling what the OSC team will come up with for the 2012 show. But at Otronicon, OSC announced it will host the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit starting in the fall of 2012. It will run through the subsequent Otronicon, so for 2013, at least, the crew will get some anxiety relief.

January 17, 2011

Embracing the old games while showcasing the new

I asked the Otronicon volunteer coordinator please not to put me in the Rock Band theater because it’s just too darned loud. So she put me downstairs in the Classic Arcade Lounge. That’s more my speed. Or, as one fellow remarked when he walked in and saw the vintage Donkey Kong cabinet, “that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

Another guest said he felt like Marty McFly when he went to the future and found his favorite arcade game at “The 80s Cafe.”

All the old favorites are there: Ms. Pac Man, Galaga, Asteroids. Alas, I am not the asteroid blaster I used to be.

Orlando Science Center photo
It’s not just my age cohort that enjoys these games. Even those who postdate these games by decades enjoy the challenge of figuring them out.

For example, one of my contemporaries called SiniStar “one of the best games ever.” He played it for a few minutes. Later, my son played long enough to enter the four top scores of the day.

Louis, a member of OSC’s education team, entertained us with tales from the history of video games. There’s enough information in his head to teach a graduate course on the subject. But he was the first to admit he got it from the Play Value video podcast.

One of those stories was about how Dance Dance Revolution revived the arcade business. Once home game consoles became common, there was little incentive for people to go out and plug quarters in machines. But DDR is a social activity, and fun to watch, so many arcades put it near the entrance to draw people in.

The c.1999 DDR looked a bit out of place in the back corner of the Classic Arcade. Back at Otronicon v.1, DDR was a featured element, alongside Guitar Hero. Now they've yielded that position, as Rock Band takes center stage in the Darden Theatre.

Orlando Science Center photo
Rock Band is more popular not only because it’s a multiplayer game and has music from great bands like The Beatles. At OSC, Rock Band is a centerpiece due to Buzz Dawson’s* drums. He replaced the drum controller pads that come with the game by wiring a real drum kit into the software. It rocks.

If DDR was a fun-to-watch social activity a decade ago, Rock Band is even more so now. Some people go to the Darden Theatre just to watch the players and listen to the music. If, unlike me, you enjoy loud music, that's gotta be way more fun than watching people play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

* Mom brag: If you go to Buzz’s page, near the bottom, as of this writing, he shows a snapshot of an Orlando Sentinel article about the robotics class he taught at OSC a few years ago. My son, one of the students, is in the lower right-hand corner of that image.

January 16, 2011

Simulators are designed for failure

A more steady-handed person than me, practicing brain surgery
Orlando Science Center photo
As I said last year, I have a long history of crashing flight simulators. Which, if you think about it, is what simulators are for.

The simulation industry is big in Central Florida, and the two simulation halls -- Military Tech and Medical Sim City -- take up more floor space than any other part of Otronicon.

I got to try out a simulated brain tumor operation. Using a tool rather like a Wii controller with a knitting needle on the end, I went through the patient’s nose while a computer monitor showed three views of the inside of the head based on the patient’s MRI. I had to find a brain tumor by coordinating the three images simultaneously. Good thing it was a simulator. I am not steady-handed in the best circumstances. The way I stabbed and wiggled, I would have turned a real brain into cervelle de veau.

In the Military Tech hall, I did a better job. An indulgent Lockheed Martin tech gave me some extra time in the multiform simulator, a three-screened, force-feedback behemoth that can be configured to train pilots for many different aircraft. On this occasion, it was an Osprey, that weird hybrid of plane and helicopter.

It was hard to fly, but after a while I got the hang of it. I only crashed three or four times.

Note: if you ever find yourselves at the controls of an Osprey, do not look away for more than a second, no matter how interesting the information is that your trainer is telling you. The Osprey can get away from you quickly, especially if the engines are at an angle.

I had better luck at the ol’ Cessna. Ron, with whom I worked last year, said he wanted a nice, smooth landing.

I did land the Cessna. In the dirt. It wasn’t smooth, but at least it wasn’t a crash.

January 15, 2011

Rolled by the Virtusphere

The virtusphere proved to be quite the challenge, and the trickiest part of the operation was getting in and out of the thing.

The hatch is about three feet across. To get in, you stick your head in, and the sphere operator rolls the sphere around until the hatch is around your middle. Then you step up – a big, knee-high step – and in.
Mayor Buddy Dyer in the Virtusphere
Orlando Science Center photo
You stand in a bowl that shifts with your every move. It’s disorienting to have the ground move with your foot, instead of being firm. And no matter which way you move, the ground is always sloping upward away from you.

I think my tai chi classes helped me a little; I remembered soft knees and feel the ground with your feet. But I could not see much, as I had to take off my specs to put on the virtual reality goggles. The landscape was a high-tech fortress that had been invaded by aliens. Blurry aliens.

I managed to keep my feet, kill some aliens, and not die.

Several who tried the sphere before me got disoriented and fell. I did not, until I got cocky at the end of the ride and took a giant step toward the hatch. I think I’m the only one who fell after taking the goggles off.

To get out, you step down, turn around, and back out as the operator rotates the hatch upward.

This sphere has a diameter of 10 feet – almost double my height – and it was hard for me. It requires small steps. I think a taller person would have a much harder time. For this to be practical for military simulation, it’ll have to be much larger.

That’ll be cool.

January 13, 2011

Virtual reality on display at science center

EA Sports/ESPN
Although Orlando Science Center has put on the Otronicon video game and simulation show for six years, this year is the first time the region’s largest video game producer, EA Sports, has joined the team as a sponsor. EA will give the first public demonstration of its Virtual Playbook software, which is used by ESPN sports analysts.

Otronicon’s EA Sports Arena will feature EA Sports video games. EA also contributed video game concept art for a gallery show titled “The Emotion of Sport.” Although this is the first time EA has participated as a sponsor, another local division of the company, EA Tiburon, contributed artwork to Otronicon in 2007.

What I'm most looking forward to is the Virtusphere, a 10-foot hollow sphere on a platform that allows it to rotate freely in any direction as the user moves. With wireless virtual reality goggles, the user can walk or run through a virtual environment.

Virtusphere Inc. developed this “locomotion simulation” for military and emergency responder training. But it obviously has gaming and fitness applications also.

It's a human-size hamster ball! How cool is that?

Guests at Otronicon can try out the Virtusphere this weekend, as it's one of the public exhibits during Otronicon, Jan. 14-17, at the Orlando Science Center.
 See the Virtusphere video on the Otronicon website. I'll be trying it out once my volunteer shift is over.

January 7, 2011

Stock picking requires analysis -- and really good timing

Is this a good investment?
Or is it not?
Delivering the "OBJ Market Wrap" stock report on WLOQ-FM every afternoon is my favorite part of my job. I love researching the stock market. I'm just geeky that way.

One day, a co-worker noticed it was almost time for me to call the report in to the radio station, and she said something like, "The markets spiralled downward today after some guy said some stupid thing..." I gather that's how she sees the market.

It's true that I often say things like "activity spiked after the Fed announced…" because honestly, sometimes after a Bernanke announcement the stock charts look like those of a patient in V-fib. James Paulsen, chief investment strategist for Wells Capital Management, gave the best description of the market when he told an Associated Press reporter, “There’s nothing down there to move it except rumor and innuendo.”

Over at The Wall Street Journal, Brett Arends offers an analysis of just how wrong stock pickers can be, and he also wrote a clever and contrarian view of "market timing" -- pointing out that "even though Wall Street overall ended the decade pretty much level (when you include dividends), average investors lost a bundle."

We do seem to have lost a decade. A broad index like the S&P 500 shows gains made in 2002-2007 have been wiped out. The S&P 500 is down 4.7 percent from January 2001. But for that same period, just to give one example, Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT)* is up 105.9 percent. And remember to include those dividends. LockMart shareholders have been paid consistently all that time, despite the recession. In fact, LockMart recently raised its quarterly dividend for the eighth year in a row.

Still, analyst evaluations of LockMart are mixed right now. Ned Davis Research has it at "buy," while MarketEdge says "hold," and Credit Suisse is "neutral." LockMart made SmarTrend's list of "Top 5 Companies in the Aerospace & Defense Industry With the Best Relative Performance," second only to Orbital Sciences, yet the group is still "bearish" on LockMart. A more recent item from Zacks notes concern about defense budget cuts.

I do understand where the criticism comes from. If you look at performance since the start of the recession, The S&P 500 is down 14.3 percent and LMT down 36.7 percent. But when you look at LMT's long-term performance -- including those dividends -- it seems like a convincing case for buying and holding. But the difference between those who "lost a bundle" on LMT and those who made a bundle is the difference between those who bought three years ago and those who bought ten years ago. The hardest part of investing -- other than picking what to buy -- is picking when to buy.

* I picked LMT because I follow it for the OBJ Market Wrap. LMT has a large facility here in Orlando, and is also a major player in the space program.