User Interface On Bank Statements

I realize I'm in the small minority of people who still get paper bank statements every month. In fact, I'm one of the last six people who still actually balances his checkbook every month with that statement with paper and pencil. So this rant won't have any impact to the vast majority of Quickbooks, Mint or whatever else online money management users. But... The first blank I have to fill out on the balancing form on the back of the statement is "Enter the ending balance on this statement". There's a blank to the right where I'm supposed to write in the closing balance from the other side of the page. Question: why don't they do that for me? I mean the whole thing's done on a laser printer, my account number, the date and page number are on the top of the balance page already. So why don't they just carry the closing balance forward and fill it in for me? I realize I'm looking at the world through web-usability rose-colored glasses, but such issues carry over to physical artifacts as well. What other examples of real-world user interfaces would be different if we applied the same usability standards we do on the web?

Politically Correct Fruit?

I was at Costco the other day and saw raisins advertised as "Now Plumper and Jucier." I thought we used to call them 'grapes'. I also saw "Dried Plums." So what the difference between these and 'prunes?'

The First Item on Humanity's To-Do List

The fist job God gave to man in the garden of Eden in Genesis 1:28 was "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it;..." (NASB). Ok, so when do we get to cross this item off our collective to-do list? At what point do we consider the earth 'subdued'? With close to six billion humans, at what point can we say we've officially been fruitful and filled the earth? Shouldn't we be getting close? I say it's time to consider putting a checkmark by this one. What say you?

Have We Forgotten How to Vacation?

This week a couple wanted to rent our cabin for a few days this fall. They backed out when they learned that our cabin didn't have broadcast TV. They said they're used to starting and ending their day watching the news. I wanted to write them back and say "I'm sorry you've forgotten what a vacation's all about." A vacation is to take a break from our regular routine and to get away. If one's going to continue their regular routine, why go someplace different? You can continue your routine at home! A vacation is to renew our perspective, to rest, to learn again that the world continues to spin on its axis without our aid. If any of you would like to truly get away, then see our cabin's website and book now. It's DeerViewCabin.com. But no, you won't have Fox News or CNN.

Avenue of Approachability

Yesterday I taught a class at Emory's Center for Lifelong Learning, their name for their Continuing Education program these days. A couple of years back, all us instructors had to get 'certified'. Those that taught Adobe or Microsoft products with their certifications, or for us generalists, we had to pass the CTT+ exam. One of the things emphasized was that the instructor should always dress better than the student, creating an air of authority. Thereafter, all male instructors had to wear ties. One thing they don't teach you at the CTT+ exam is that some people are still intimidated by instructors. Chalk it up to authoritarian grade-school teachers, the nuns at parochial school, whatever. I noticed that the more successful instructors created what I'll call an 'Avenue of Approachability" to help this. What do I mean? I mean some bit of informality in the instructor's dress or demeanor that helps put the students at ease.  Greg Creech wears color-coordinated Keds sneakers. Richard Roberts encourages students to call him "Doc", as one would one of the seven dwarfs. What did I decide to do? I've adopted wearing a tie, but leaving it slightly loose around the neck, with the collar button unbuttoned, as if I've just loosened up a bit after a more formal engagement. Any other examples or discussion are welcome.

That Time of Year Already?!?

I went to Costco (one of my favorite places) this week. In among the back-to-school items was a big box of ribbons: red, white, sparkley. The box wasn't labeled "Christmas Ribbons" but that's sure how it looked. So.. can we state that the Christmas Shopping Season has officially begun?

An Interesting Combination

One day as I was driving past a suburban strip mall, I did a double-take at a sign that read like: "Smith School of Dance and Martial Arts". Clearly they were trying to appeal to both girls and boys. But what if we were to combine their end-of class recitals? What a great idea to enliven an otherwise tedious ballet? I imagine things like "Ninja Nutcracker", "Samurai Swan Lake", "Capoeira Cinderella" or maybe "Dojo Quixote". It could inspire a movie version of "Kill Bill in the Red Shoes" or such. Hey, ballet and martial arts are both about grace, balance and discipline. Why not?

Chinese Night at the Picadilly Cafeteria?

A while back I saw a sign at a Picadilly Cafeteria proclaiming that Thursday night was Chinese night. My mind started to spin. Sweet and Sour Salisbury Steak? General Tso's Liver and Onions? Sesame Fried Chicken? What other culture clashes might be possible?

Imitation or the Real Thing?

In talking around the dinner table the other night friends were describing a church service they attended, where the drum solo was a takeoff on some well-known pop band and the drummer and lighting were in the style of another. Something seemed out of kilter for me. The absolute first thing we learn in the Bible is 'In the beginning, God created....' God is a creative God. An ancient principle says that Satan cannot create, only imitate. James Blish used this effectively in the novel A Case of Conscience.

So what is the role of imitation in Christianity? Paul says in I Cor. 4:16 for us to imitate him, and in Ephesians 5:1 for us to imitate God. There's the Christian classic devotional The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. (proud of myself for actually finding the acute-a in this thing!) On a more contemporary note, the all-pervasive WWJD: "What Would Jesus Do?" based on imitating Him. The major problem with that is: I can't. As a friend pointed out, if you read the Gospels with a fresh eye, as if you don't know how the story's going to come out, you have absolutely no concept what Jesus is going to do. Even if I did, he's healing or working miracles. So I'm afraid imitating Him is rather unrealistic. So it looks like the WWJD and imitating Him just boil down to 'be-good Christianity." This is where we obey the golden rule and treat everyone nice and call it Christianity. I'm not sure this is the Real Thing.

Beyond the role of imitating Christ or the Apostle Paul, or some other saintly believer, what's the role of imitating other churches? I remember one church whose planning seemed to be: "See what church X is doing, and let's do it, too!" Today, small local churches seem to look to the megachurches and imitate what they're doing. Is God's creativity so limited that it only is given to the few, with the rest left to copy them?

Then what about churches or believers imitating the world, as the church stage show in the first paragraph? If God is the author of all creativity, and the world copies His creation, and the church copies the world, haven't we just made a copy-of-a-copy and starting to blur the original image?

The Forbidden Sandwich Needs A Better Tagline

Since before the fall, men and women have yearned for things they cannot have. In the garden, Eve wanted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In contemporary Christendom, we hunger for a Chick-Fil-A sandwich on Sunday: the Forbidden Sandwich. All Chick-Fil-As are closed every Sunday, to honor the Sabbath. My idea is to open a Chick-Fil-A location and staff it entirely with Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists. That way, we could be closed on Saturday for the Sabbath, and open on Sunday. We'd clean up on the Baptist and Methodist traffic, not to mention NFL tailgate parties. Superbowl Sunday? We'd make enough to carry us through the rest of the year.

There's something that bothers me about the otherwise wonderful experience of eating at Chick-Fil-A. It's that quote from Turett Cathy on the back wall: "Food is essential to life. Therefore, make it good." I guess it just reminds me of the moivie Animal House where the statue of the college's founder, Emil Faber, bears his most famous quote on its pedistal: "Knowledge is Good". Mr. Cathy's quote is, I'm afraid, about as banal, but without the humor. '..make it good' what kind of good? Good for you? Tastes good? Good for the environment? A good value? I think Mr. Cathy needs a better ghostwriter to come up with a snappier line that could go on the back wall. How about "Chicken sandwiches aren't really essential to life, therefore we can fry 'em up and make them taste real good without killing you"? Probably too honest. How about "In your eye, Colonel Sanders"? Too confrontational. Maybe "You kids better not open these things on Sundays after I'm dead and gone!" Probably the most remembered, but not a public saying.  Help me out here, what would be a better Truett Cathy quote?

Next-Gen CRM

Ok, this is a real geeky post.

In the evolution of computer operating systems, there has been a trend toward smaller pieces working together, rather than larger pieces. The old operating systems like OS/360 were monolithic: everything was in one piece. UNIX decoupled utilities and the user interface from the OS. Linux has a plug-in structure that allows kernel modules to be added as needed. More radical microkernel architectures have the OS only doing inter-process communication and some scheduling. Everything else is done by separate processes.

I'm starting to see the same sort of progress in other software systems. The Apache web server is very similar to a microkernel operating system. Everything (including handling http requests) is done by plug-ins. The Eclipse IDE is very much based on a plug-in system.

My idea is for a microkernel type Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Older systems like ACT or Goldmine were pretty much monolithic: they weren't easy to extend. The current generation of CRM systems like Salesforce or SugarCRM have a plug-in architecture to extend the base system with new functionality as needed. The problem is that the base functionality can't be replaced. When I use a modern CRM system it's fairly painful. They have email clients built in, but they're nowhere as nice as GMail. They have mailing list managers, but nowhere as nice as MailChimp. They have time tracking, but nowhere as comprehensive (note I didn't say 'nice') as Quickbooks. What we need is a CRM system that has no inherent functionality: all the functionality is provided via plugins. That way I could plug GMail, MailChimp, Quickbooks, Basecamp, whatever I like into the microkernel of the CRM system and come away with best-of-breed everything. The limiting factors are, of course, the APIs of the constitutent parts (Quickbooks is notably lacking here). Perhaps the base system would be in the cloud, talking to a Firefox chrome application on the desktop? I don't know. But I do know that almost all the pieces are there to make this happen. Should it be open-source? Probably. Would this attract VC money? Perhaps. Tell me what you think.

The Bowdlerized Bible

There was an English editor named Thomas Bowdler who, in the early 1800s, published the Family Shakespeare. This was a work that removed all the passages in Shakespeare that could possible give offense. "Out, out damn spot" became "Out crimson spot", etc. The overall sense was maintained, but the poetry and grittiness of Shakespeare removed. The man has become a verb, to bowdlerize is to "expurgate (a written work) by removing or modifying passages considered vulgar or objectionable." (thanks dictionary.com)

We as Christians do the same thing. I remember reading bedtime Bible stories to my sons when they were young. The stories were indeed Bowdlerized. Perhaps the supreme example of this was the old VeggieTales esisode of King George and the Ducky. Let's face it, this version of David and Bathsheeba is so cleaned up that almost nothing of the original remains. This always sorta bothered me about VeggieTales. Overall, I found them to be very creative and well-executed. But I somehow always thought that they were on surer ground when they were doing original stories, rather than bowdlerizing Bible stories.

There's a good book Phil Vischer wrote about the rise and fall of Big Ideas productions: Me, Myself and Bob. It was interesting enough. Phil didn't deal directly with many criticisms of their work, like Bowdlerizing.

I always thought that a good way to counter the criticism of playing fast and loose with the Biblical text would be to take a text ultra literally. Computer animation or CGI would be a perfect medium to present some of the stranger prophetic passages. A good warm-up could be the vally of dry bones from Ezekiel 37. The one I'd really like to see would be the rebuilt temple and kingdom from Ezekiel 40 and following. Imagine the voice-over simply reading the passage and the corresponding visual building up everything that's described. It could all be white rectangular solids, then when the narrator says that they were made of wood or had carvings on them like palm trees, the texture map gets applied to the white solids. Maybe someday somebody will take a run at it.

Fun Video, Have a Happy 4th!

Have fun with a great musical take-off. This is for those in a narrow age-range: old enough to remember West Side Story and young enough to get the internet jokes.