Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

We went to see this today as a family with my parents, my sister and her kids. Taking ten people to a movie is always an adventure, but we pulled it off and even got there on time! The movie was presented in 3D, which is mostly pointless with a movie filmed in 2D, but it did add a nice sense of depth to the picture. At first though it makes everything feel rather unreal, which I don't care for. It was only showing in 3D nearby, but I really think we would have been just as happy without the glasses and effects.

Our whole family enjoyed the film quite a bit, which is the point of a movie in the first place. Although it does stray from the book quite a bit, it makes for a good movie without forsaking the source material. The story is well told, and at the end of the film I felt that this movie best captured the essence and feel of a Narnia book better than the other two that proceeded it.

The character of Eustace was very well played. Additionally, the changes made in relationship to the dragon in the story were much better suited to film, and gave the character a sense of purpose and participation in the overall adventure.

On the whole I really enjoyed this film, and it is absolutely one that will end up in our library. It was a significant improvement over Prince Caspian. Worth taking the family to see.


Monday, December 13, 2010

The tyranny of the television

My daughter suggested we go to church on Saturday night this week, and so we did. This provided the opportunity for all of us to be home yesterday with nothing on the agenda. 

Feeling festive, I decided to put on some Christmas music. I fired up the xbox and browsed the music collection on the attached hard drive (some years ago we imported all of our CD's into iTunes, and I put those files on a drive attached to the xbox for music in our living room) and selected 252 songs for the day, and then turned the tv off and let the music play through the stereo.

With music playing, I started reading. After a while the first request came "daddy, can I play xbox?" to which I replied no, we were listening to music. An hour later another request for xbox and/or television came, and the response was the same.

What happened next was amazing. My son shows up with a baseball and bat, and asks if I will throw him pitches. We haven't done that in MONTHS. After doing that for a while we played tetherball, and then I came inside and continued reading. Jacob wasn't done, so he rounded up his sister, and they played tetherball together for what feels like the first time ever. 

With the tv off, jacob started playing with legos (to be fair he does this a lot) and my daughter did all sorts of things that she doesn't normally do because she couldn't watch tv or play video games. I was struck by how many good things our family did when the television is not available. 

Had we had the tv on, I probably would have watched a football game I don't care about, or watched some old episodes of top gear or who knows what. Instead I decided to go through a HUGE stack of magazines that I've been wanting to read and get rid of for ages. I probably breezed through about 2000 pages of magazines (no joke. I read fast and only read the stuff I cared about) throughout the day, in between cleaning, cooking, playing baseball, etc. 

It's not that we sit around and watch tv all the time, but it is amazing what happens when that option is removed from the list of choices. It seems like the house comes alive in a magical way.

We had already decided to turn the tv off for the month of January, and after Sunday, that can't come soon enough. 


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book of Eli

I don't watch a lot of movies, but this is one that I was interested in from the first time I saw the trailer. Denzel Washington plays a survivor in a post apocalyptic world. I'm not sure why these type of movies have such an appeal to me, but I always am fascinated by them. What makes this movie unique, is that he is a devout follower of God, who is on a mission to take the last surviving bible to "the west" where it will help rebuild society.

On his journey he encounters, and kills, a lot of people. The primary villain is someone who seeks the bible as a weapon to control the "weak minded" and is very brutal towards anyone who crosses him. The movie is violent, but not gory and contains a language at times.

Overall I really enjoyed The Book of Eli. The bible is treated with respect in this film and the main character and the main villain both value it highly, although for different reasons. This movie is not without its faults, there were a few things that are simply beyond my willing suspension of belief, but they did not detract from my enjoyment of the film.


Monday, November 8, 2010

ChMS - iPad Checkin is Live!

We first floated this idea in June, and after a few snags (for example, Zebra's wireless printers don't work on wireless, go figure) we went live with check-in for our second campus this weekend. Our check-in station consists of:

(1) Network in a Box (soon to be replaced with network in a brick)

(2) An old G4 laptop to be used for entering new families and correcting information

(3) Three iPads

(4) Three Zebra GK420d network label printers

(5) Three Apple Airport Express wireless bridges

(6) One really big box from Home Depot that allows it all to be packed up and rolled away.

The first thing that happens is that Network in a Box is plugged into the school's internet connection, creating our own wireless networks on the campus. These wireless networks are routed via a VPN to our main campus, creating an extension to our network in the remote location.

The iPads connect directly to the wireless network and then access our check-in system. We are using a custom Arena module developed in conjunction with CCCEV for check-in. Only minor changes were required to make it work with the iPad.

We tried wireless printers from Zebra, but on a secure network they would lose their network connection after 20 minutes, making them useless. After working with them for a month or so to resolve the issue we threw in the towel on them and exchanged them for standard ethernet label printers. We purchased Apple Airport Express switches to connect the ethernet printers to our wireless network.

Printing is handled directly from our server over the VPN. The print speed is nothing short of astonishing. It is every bit as fast as printing on our local network, even though it is being routed over the internet through our VPN. We could not be more pleased.

The only hitch we ran into was that the usb flash stick that hosts the OS for network in a box lost connection at one point causing the server to be unable to issue new DHCP leases. Thankfully we found that while nobody was checking in. We have ordered a hard drive for Network in a Box for the short term to prevent that from happening again. In the near future Network in a Brick (a very small replacement for the entire network in a box) should make that obsolete, but we are having some issues getting network in a brick to work through the school's firewall at this point.

The iPads are really what made this possible for two reasons. First, they are much smaller and vastly more portable than a machine + touchscreen solution. Second, they are cheap at around $500 each, costing roughly the same as the touchscreens on our Victorville campus kiosks. Out the door we spent about half the money per kiosk that we did on our Victorville campus. The downside is that they require more attention (can't leave them alone, they can walk off easily) and they have to be setup each week. The kiosks are still a better solution, but they cost more and are too big and bulky for a campus that does not have permanent facilities...

All told iPad check-in was a resounding success. We have learned a lot and should be able to go live with check-in week-1 at our next new campus.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

39 Years

I turned 39 today. As I was out walking with Jacob (nearly a five mile walk, woohoo!), I started to reflect a bit on how different each ten year period of life has been.

In my first decade we lived in western New York, outside of the city of Rochester. We also traveled a lot, spending a year in Pittsburgh, a year on Yap, and taking long trips to Brazil, Guatemala, and England. I enjoyed my childhood and spent a lot of time with my best friend, John Bierstaker and my friend across the street, Kurt Williams.

In my second decade we moved from New York to California. Although I really didn't care for La Mirada, I made the best of it and decided that to make the most of living in LA. I got heavily involved in band, playing in marching band, jazz band and wind ensemble, and marched in the rose parade for two years. I went to see movies on opening night in Hollywood and ate at great restaurants all over the city. And best of all, I met a woman named Patty who would ultimately become by wife...

My third decade, the nineties, are best summed up by graduating from college and living in Orange County while working for the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton. We were married in 1993 and our family also expanded with the addition of Grace, who was born in 1998. The hallmark of this decade for me is the development of lifelong friends who, despite being geographically separated by hundreds and even thousands of miles (many of them are now international missionaries) still remain in close contact.

The fourth decade saw the addition of Jacob to our family in 2001, and we have lived in the desert. I've been privileged to serve at High Desert Church during this time, and we have made the most of living in the desert, taking up 4x4ing and living on 2.5 acres of property. Our kids love the space around us, and have great friends in the neighbors next door. We have also made great new friends and mourned others who left us far too soon.

It's amazing how different each of the four decades has been. My life has been very different in the 70's, 80's, 90's and 2000's and I can't wait to see what God has next for us in the next ten years.


Friday, October 1, 2010


I've been reading Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N.T. Wright for a while now. A chapter on worship got me thinking about communion.

I grew up going to a community church that was around the corner from my house. We walked to church every Sunday, and I have a lot of memories in that little white building. But my family roots are in the Grace Brethren denomination, and my grandfather was a pastor in the Grace Brethren church for fifty years. Any time we were in Ft. Wayne we would go the Brethren church and I have great memories there as well. The one thing that I believe they do better than any other church is communion.

Communion at my grandfather's church was always an amazing event. It started with a big potluck dinner. Say what you want about potlucks, but they can be fun and as I remember them, it was a roomful of people having a good time and enjoying dinner together. This was always followed by a foot washing service, in which we would move to classrooms in the church and then take a basin and a towel and wash the feet of the person sitting next to us. This tends to creep people out, but it is taken directly from scripture:

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?" Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand." Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you." For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean." When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  - John 13:3-16 (ESV)

The point Jesus is making is not really that we should be washing each other's feet, but that we need to be servants, and serve one another out of reverence for Christ. Washing feet was a dirty nasty job, something that nobody wanted to do, and incarnate Deity, the creator of the universe was teaching His disciples through it that there was no job that they should not be willing to do for another.

As a kid, the ceremony was profoundly impacting. I still remember tying the towel on and using the basin. It was always a somber and quiet experience. It was never one that I looked forward to, but I think that was part of the point. I don't know how many times I have attended a Brethren communion service (we attended a brethren church from Jr. High on) but they have left a deep mark on my soul. I am always grateful for those experiences.

After the foot washing ceremony we would return to the fellowship hall for a time of singing and worship, that culminated with the breaking of the bread (think of a cracker that you would hold with another person and break in half) and the drinking of the cup.

So, with that in mind, as I am reading Simply Christian I come upon this:

"First, we break bread and drink wine together, telling the story of Jesus and his death, because Jesus knew that this set of actions would explain the meaning of his death in a way that nothing else--no theories, no clever ideas--could ever do. After all, when Jesus died for our sins it wasn't so he could fill our minds with true ideas, however important they may be, but so he could do something, namely, rescue us from evil and death...This action, like the symbolic actions performed by the ancient prophets, becomes one of the points at which heaven and earth coincide. Paul says that 'as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes' (1 Cor 11:26). He doesn't mean that it's a good opportunity for a sermon. Like a handshake or a kiss, doing it says it."

It got me thinking about communion, and how much it is marginalized in the modern protestant church. Wine is too messy or too controversial or too expensive so we use grape juice. Bread is too much work so we use prefabricated "communion wafers" that are a lot like pet food and very little like bread. We've legislated it into our constitutions and so we cram it into a service in between songs, or perhaps we might get out of our seat and walk to the front. Nobody wants to deal with glassware so we use tiny plastic cups.

None of these things are, in and of themselves, wrong. One of the very best communion experiences of my entire life was in my dorm room with a few friends, a can of coke and some crackers. But I fear that we have gotten so efficient at doing communion that we have forgotten the meaning of it altogether. Communion should be one of the greatest experiences we can ever have. As NT Wright says so eloquently, it is a point at which heaven and earth coincide. I think we are doing ourselves a significant disservice by making it quick, efficient and a tiny piece of a larger service. Maybe we need to rethink how we do communion in 21st century America.


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Outsourcing and IT Spending

From time to time vendors come to me with ideas on how to outsource our operations using their products. Somehow it always seems to me like their solution to save money is to spend more money on their product. Needless to say I'm not a big fan.

Many years ago I was part of a decision to outsource some of our custodial work. At the time we were promised many things, among them significant savings over what we were spending on the employees to do the same work. After the switch I saw our savings all but evaporate as we "fine tuned" everything with the vendor. At the end of the day I felt like the savings were immaterial, and we had traded quality employees invested in the church for high turnover people who worked for another company and made less money. Lesson learned.

Today I read an article in Information Week entitled "Outsourcing Doesn't Cut Total Spending" about this very thing. The first line under the heading Practical Insight reads: "Companies that outsource tend to increase their total IT spending, not lower it." Another rather fascinating quote was this: "New outsourcers see immediate IT spending increases, while firms stopping [IT outsourcing] see immediate decreases."

The point being made here is that you do not outsource to save money, you outsource to increase capacity. Perhaps you can't find the in house programmers you need, ok, hire a firm to help you accomplish those projects. But don't do it expecting to save money. The article I read links to the original research available (for a fee) here.

Outsourcing has its place, but be very careful anytime you try to justify it by cost savings. In reality, you are bringing another organization that has to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of the same salaries you do, but you add to that their overhead and profit...

In the area of ChMS, moving to a modern platform will almost certainly increase your spending. This is true if you go with FellowshipOne, it's true if you go with Arena. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, but it's something to be aware of. Sales guys love to say with a SAAS product you won't need IT and you won't need a server room, but if you are a large church chances are you already have those things. Don't think that a move like this is going to save money. It's not, but it's going to dramatically increase your capability. The money we have spent on Arena has been worth every penny. We can do far more than we ever could before. That's why we chose a platform not based on cost, but on capability.


Monday, August 23, 2010


I recently finished up reading Markings by Dag Hammarskjold. This book is not the type of book you can read quickly. This book requires you to read a bit and ponder, and then maybe read it again. I can usually read a book in one or two nights, I read this on and off for months. In fact I have blogged from it before, on contentment.

This book contains verses, poetry, quick thoughts and ruminations on life and God and the interaction between the two. It's difficult to review this book, because it reads so differently depending on the state of mind you are in. Many times various things in here struck me. I'd like to share a couple of them here:

Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art--
Also within us,
May all see Thee--in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee,
May I thank Thee for all that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others,
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldest that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand,
And in Thee is all power and goodness.

Give me a pure heart--that I may see Thee,
A humble heart--that I may hear Thee,
A heart of love--that I may serve Thee,
A heart of faith--that I may abide in Thee.


The first time I read that page I blazed right on by, the second time it hit me hard. This is a great prayer, that others would see Christ in us, that we would thank Him for everything, good and bad, that comes our way, and that we would think of others. That everything we do would be directed to His glory!

Another passage that spoke to me deeply:

"The best and most wonderful thing that can happen to you in this life, is that you should be silent and let God work and speak."
   Long ago, you gripped me, Slinger. Now into the storm. Now towards your target.


Simple, yet profound. That is the best way to describe this book. I've read chapters multiple times, and had different things strike me each time through. I really enjoyed Markings, but it's definitely not for everyone one. As for me, I'm pretty confident I'll read it again, and relatively soon.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

ChMS - MinistryPlatform

Church Management Software is not standing still, and in an effort to keep this blog up to date and useful to people who are reading it I try to follow new developments and write on them when they come up. A new player in the market that is not reflected anywhere in my work to this point is MinistryPlatform. While the name may seem a bit plain at first, as you will see it describes the product perfectly (not that it's plain, but they have built a very robust platform!).

MinistryPlatform (hereafter MP) has been operational since May of 2009 and utilizes the SQL Server 2005/2008 platform and like any modern ChMS is a browser based platform agnostic system. Kevin McCord, the gentlemen who showed me the ropes with MP has a background as a professional DBA, and as such the backend of this product is designed to be incredibly robust and to follow the rules of an ideal database (things like all the data being in third normal form for those of us geeky enough to understand what that means). Kevin's statement to me was that they work to leverage the DBMS as much as possible, and do everything else through an API.

Ah, now things get very interesting, and if you are early in your search and haven't spent a lot of time thinking about this your eyes are going to glaze over very quickly. Let me see if I can explain this simply: Church Management Software is really two things in one. The first part is the database, which is the actual repository for the data. In its simplest form a database is just a table. A single table might have your name, your birthday, perhaps a social security number and anything else that is always completely unique to you. A database for a church management system will have hundreds of tables, all related to one another. To interface with this data you need an application, and it is this application layer that we think of as the Church Management System. The application interfaces with the database and presents the data to the user.

The approach that MP has taken is to build the best set of tables possible, and then build an API that interfaces with those tables. The advantage of this approach is that it makes no presumptions about what you want to do with the data, and provides the maximum flexibility for developers to utilize that data. This approach takes more time on the front end (building API's isn't easy, and it doesn't result in anything an end user can actually use), but once the API is complete this allows a church to build pretty much anything they want.

Of course if all MP amounted to was a database and an API, there would be very few churches that could ever do anything with it. With the foundation in place Kevin and his team have built a very nice full featured Church Management System, ticking all of the important checkboxes and even adding a few that others miss. At this point the system is geared towards churches of 2000 people or more (although they are targeting 750 and up), and is designed with scalability and speed in mind. Most of the time that is a good thing, although there are some things about the interface that I don't like that Kevin explained are built that way with speed as the highest priority. This is part of the reason for the large church focus. When you only have a few thousand giving records in your system speed isn't really an issues. When you have millions of records, speed quickly becomes very, very important.

Kevin explained it like this: "At times it is important to distinguish between the Software Application Framework and the API.  The API is part of the Software Application Framework and it allows other applications to leverage MinistryPlatform.  MinistryPlatform is an Open Architecture, Software Application Framework that allows you to extend the scope of data it can manage without development.  In this way you can leverage MinistryPlatform to manage that new data.  At times a developer might also leverage the API for the new data that the framework is extended to cover.  It isn’t that we spent a lot of time on the API, we did!  However, we spent a lot more time on the framework that allows developers who use our API to focus on the specific ministry need behind the software they are building without worrying about managing all the data, developing workflow, or creating a security model. With MP you really don’t need a programmer to leverage most of what the software application framework can offer."

To drive home his point Kevin showed me a missions module that he had created as a non-programmer using only the application framework, in other words, only what you could do yourself not being a programmer.

I've talked a lot about the platform, and very little about the app itself. Part of that is because while I have looked at the product, I simply cannot give it the time and attention that I did to the products that were actively under consideration. For example, I spent five hours on the phone with FellowshipOne before bringing them in for an all day demo. All told I probably spent upwards of 20+ hours evaluating that solution for HDC. In the couple of hours getting to know MP I like what I see, but can't speak about the app with the same level of confidence I can of ArenaFellowshipOneConnectionPower or any of the finalists in my original comparison.

That doesn't mean I didn't learn anything in the time I spent. First off, MP is multi-site at its very core. The database is designed around multiple sites. As such, multi-site is not an afterthought or a tag, it is integral to the data design and table structure. If you are a multi-site church, this fact alone should have MP on your list of solutions to evaluate.

The overall interface of the product, as I reflect, felt a bit clunky. It seemed to me like I would have some training issues getting users fully up to speed on the product. It was very flexible and Kevin could definitely move around quickly, but the interface is not as polished as some of the competition. That said, I've seen far worse interfaces in my search than what MP presented, it just wasn't my favorite.

The product has solid assimilation and workflow features, including the concept of journey vs. milestones. Each person in the database can be in various journeys, and there are milestones that you can track and help move them along within those journeys. The workflow features seemed good, but I really didn't get to delve deeply into them to see how they would or would not work in our setting.

Another thing I liked about the product was the fact that you could add data from multiple locations. In other words, you weren't always having to go to the "right" place to enter the data you needed, the product seemed geared to allowing efficient operation across the board.

MinistryPlatform also includes event and facility management, which is not an essential part of a ChMS suite, but one that many churches ask for.

All told I was very impressed by what I saw with MinistryPlatform. If we were doing our search right now I am very confident that they would be a finalist. I really like the back end of the product and the philosophies on which it is built. The focus on API makes it extraordinarily powerful and customizable. If you are a church with weekend attendance over 2000 (or well on your way there), you should absolutely take the time to evaluate MinistryPlatform as part of your ChMS search.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010


This is my coffee mug. It was given to me by my friend Dathan Brown, who was on staff with me at the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton.

Last week I was preparing to put it under the Saeco Magic for another glorious cup of coffee and I dropped it. It hit the ground and the handle broke off and shattered.

I stood there and looked at it, and realized there is so much in common with this season. The hopes and dreams of Dodgers fans lie broken and shattered on the ground like the handle of my coffee cup. Furthermore, like my cup, the handle has truly come off the season on this Dodger team.

I think I will keep this cup in my office until the end of the season, at which point I will throw this out like the garbage that is the Dodger 2010 season.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Making Ideas Happen

The latest book to move from the "read soon" pile to the bookshelf is Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky. I picked this up because I saw it listed on Dan Kimballs blog as one of the "books by the bed" and it looked interesting.

The thesis of this book is this: Vision is useless if you don't ship. Belsky does a great job of showing the importance of organization coupled with the creative process. He introduced a formula that I really liked. It goes like this:

100 Creativity X 0 Organization = 0
50 Creativity X 2 Organization = 100

The most gifted and creative person in the world is going to be unsuccessful without organizational skills to enable them to ship product. On the other hand, it only takes a little organization coupled with some creative ability to make a big impact.

Belsky then talked about James Patterson and Thomas Kincade. Say what you want about their work, they are dang successful at both shipping product and profiting from it. This is followed by a section entitled "The Action Method: Work and Life with a Bias Toward Action." This is one of the most valuable things I've ever read. It caused me to completely rethink how I approach my workday, and reconfigure the way that I manage the myriad of tasks I have to accomplish at any given time.

If you read this blog regularly, you've probably noticed an increase in posts in the last couple of weeks. That started after I read this book, and my productivity has increased dramatically (and allowed me to budget time for things like updating this blog). It wasn't that I wasn't doing anything before, but I have really been able to focus in and accomplish a lot more in the same amount of time. The great irony for me is that the system I have settled on is entirely paper based. For someone who is as technology oriented as I am, that is a huge shock. But I've found that nothing works as well for me as the tactile experience of writing out tomorrow's to-do list at the end of each day. As part of this process I try to create a list that I know I can accomplish after looking at my calendar, rather than one giant list of everything I should ever do.

The rest of the book is good, particularly the section on the forces of community. I am reminded of how much better our search for a database went by the fact that I chose to blog it and open up the process to the world. But for me the second two thirds of the book was overshadowed by the first third.

This is an important and valuable book that will help you be more effective at your job, even if you are not in a creative industry. Highly recommended.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Drops Like Stars

Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering is the latest book and tour by Rob Bell. I hadn't heard about this book when I ordered it, and I was quite surprised when it arrived. The book is big, something like 9x11 and beautifully illustrated. Yes, illustrated.

It's hard to quantify exactly what category to put Drops like Stars in. It's a book, yes, but also a work of art. Think coffee table book coupled with theologically based musings on creativity and suffering.

The first page of the book is completely blank except for the words "I know a man who has two sons." As soon as I saw that, I knew this was a different kind of experience. This book is not meant to be read quickly, it is meant to be experienced. There are lots of moments to pause and reflect, and the book is paced very well.

Rob also did a "Drops Like Stars" tour in which he presented the material from this book, making it into a multi-sensory experience. It was fascinating to watch, although on the whole not as good (IMHO) as the "the gods aren't angry" tour of a few years back.

But what the live presentation really did was help this book to come alive even more, because you can hear Rob's voice and enthusiasm as you read it. Likewise, the audience responses add to the experience as you read the book. The book is better having experienced it live, although it definitely is not essential to enjoying the book.

All in all I really like this book. It's hard to review an experience, and pull quotes and such won't really convey what is inside. Suffice it to say, I will read this book again, many times. Don't miss this one.


Friday, July 30, 2010

ChMS Wish List - Are we meeting it?

Several years ago Tony Dye posted a blog musing about the lack of Innovative Church IT, and then developed a wish list for a ChMS. His comments were helpful in our search for a new database, and I wanted to step back and see how Arena today meets, or does not meet, the ChMS wish list Tony created. Note: Tony uses the term "CMS" which was more common in 2005, but was changed to avoid confusion with content management systems and contact management systems. Also, I use the term database interchangeably with ChMS.

(1) Trusted - The general principle here is that people must trust the data and count on the ChMS being the best source of current information. I give Arena a 5 out of 5 here. Our people use it and trust it, and it is always available (virtually no downtime).

(2) Consistently Used - If a ChMS is not used, then it is worthless. Our old database was used infrequently by a few staff members. Arena is used everyday by almost all of our staff members. Again, a 5 out of 5.

(3) Easy - A datatbase should be easy to use. Tony broke this down into five sub-points:

1 - No training required
2 - Simple things are simple
3 - Discoverable
4 - Work flow oriented
5 - Easy to do the right thing

I'll let you read Tony's post to get detailed breakdown of what each of these mean, but I think Arena nails all of them except possibly workflow oriented.

(4) Consistent - Does the product work consistently, in other words do menus work as you'd expect, is the user interface consistent, does the product feel like one well designed whole. This one is not where it needs to be with Arena. There are lots of inconsistencies throughout the interface, terminology and so forth. The product out of the box has three windows apps (check-in, contributions and bulk mailing) rather than being entirely web based (to be fair, so do their competition, but that doesn't make it right). I'd give Arena about a 2 out of 5 on this one. Lots of room for improvement.

(5) Available & Reliable - A database should run with near 100% uptime, be available on many platforms, and be available to more than just staff. Arena hits the mark here in spades. The server is rock solid and being browser based Arena is always available and ready to go for our people when they are at their desk. But beyond that, the iPhone client (the official one isn't so hot, but the HDC one rocks), the mobile site (works on iphones, blackberrys, and even android if you are desperate), and even from an asterisk phone if you set it up right. There are ways for volunteers and small group leaders to get access to what they need and to assist the staff as well. I believe Arena nails all of Tony's points here, 5 out of 5.

(6) Comprehensive - As with easy, Tony has several areas he identified here:

1 - Contact Management
2 - Engagement Factor
3 - For the members, too
4 - Easy to get data in, easy to get it back out

as well as two open ended questions:

5 - Financials as well as people and groups?
6 - What about all the add ons?

I'm going to take these one by one, because they are all pretty important.

Contact management - Arena is an ok cms, one that could be better. We haven't had time to do the Asterisk integration to provide click to dial on our phones, but once we do I think people will be more apt to enter notes and such in Arena when they talk to people. We can't do the incoming call record linking because our PRI doesn't properly provide us with callerID (go figure, something is borked at Verizon and we are tired of arguing with them). I would give Arena about a C- on this at this point. The basics are there, but it could be a lot better.

Engagement factor - The tools are there to track this really well (if you have no idea what this means, click on the link to Tony's post), but we aren't using them all yet. This is pretty key, and I believe Arena does this pretty well, although it could be better. I give Arena a 4 out of 5, and our implementation of it about a 2 out of 5 at this point. Definitely need to improve here.

For the members, too - Arena has made strides here, but still needs to come a long way to have compelling members functionality. I'd say a 2 out of 5 again. The basics are there, but they feel a little half hearted and unfinished. Online giving works pretty well, but they could do a lot more here.

Easy to get data in, easy to get it back out - Arena is SQL, and you can build monster complex queries if you want. The lists functionality is pretty good for getting dynamic data, and the fact that you can hand tweak the sql on them before execution is awesome when what you want is just a touch beyond what it can deliver. I give Arena a 4 out of 5 after the latest updates, but they need a really easy sql generating query builder before they can get a 5 out of 5. Also, Arena gives you quick and easy ways to export almost everything to word and excel, which is cool.

Financials as well as people & groups? - I have blogged about this before. I do not believe that financials (not contributions, but actual financial management) should be part of a ChMS, but rather a separate product. I'm glad Tony phrased this as a question.

What about all the add-ons? - Registrations and event management are built-in to Arena as is work flow to a limited extent (some of the community churches have made great strides here and built really awesome stuff). Arena can take payments as part of event management and registration, so I think that tag's Tony's "Web Store" base as well, although it is not setup out of the box to handle things like selling t-shirts or books or other such stuff. The only item on Tony's list that is not included is facility management, which shouldn't be included anyway...

(7) Extensible - Arena has a web services API that can be used to access arena data, as well as taking advantage of other API's for complementary data. For example, the Planning Center integration is almost done, and another church is working with ShadeTree to be integrated with Arena. These are just two examples (integration with facility management has been underway as well), but I think Arena does extensibility pretty well. That said, it's not perfect. Nobody has figured out how to properly integrate facebook into a ChMS yet, and the API has a lot of holes, but I think there is a good start. I like the fact that Arena is open and willing to work with people to connect rather than trying to stay a walled off little world. Arena is probably a 3 out of 5 right now, and it's getting better.

(8) Robust & Scalable - I have been very impressed with Arena in this area. In the research for my post entitled "What do the big guys use?" I found that three of the top ten largest churches in the country were using Arena (tied with FellowshipOne). Our own experience (weekend attendance is around 4500 adults) has been that Arena is very robust and stable at our size. In talking with the guys at Willow Creek and Southeast Christian, it seems like it is a solid product at their size as well. I think this is a 4 out of 5. It could be better, but it's pretty good as is.

(9) Secure and Integrated - Arena does a good job here. Database activity is logged, and history provides a convenient way to see who did what. Security is setup through templated security roles, and the default is no access. Arena can utilize active directory authentication if you have that setup and running. Other than the password complexity requirement (which we set, not Arena, so we are good) it almost feels as if Arena was designed while reading Tony's post on this topic... I really like the way Arena also allows notes to be set with private security, meaning they can't be read by anyone else at all (including the administrator). This allows pastors to place counseling notes and such and know they are secure. The security templates make ease of use for end users setting security on notes simple as well. Definitely a 5 out of 5.

In 2005 Tony lamented that there wasn't a product on the market that addressed these needs, and this was his wishlist. Five years later, I think it's pretty clear that Arena fits the bill pretty well and this no longer needs to be a wishlist. I can't help but think that Tony had some influence here.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Deep Church

I've been trying to catch up on my reading (and my reviews) and recently finished Deep Church by Jim Belcher.

In reading this book, I think it's important to understand a bit about who Jim Belcher is. Jim is a graduate of Fuller and Georgetown, and someone who included postmodernism in his doctoral thesis. This is key to me, as I believe Belcher has credibility in this area. A lot of people are critical of the emerging church without ever really understanding it in the first place. Since there is no denomination to look at, no central body to appeal to, critics tend to find pastors who write things they don't like and assume everyone else thinks the same way. Belcher does not do this, and I appreciate his approach. At the same time, Belcher respects the "old ways" as it were, as he planted his church as a member of PCA, the Presbyterian Church in America. This combination of old and new is definitely what has brought Deep Church a lot of positive attention.

The book starts strong, as Belcher does a good job of explaining the nuances of the emerging church (if you don't like that term, say missional church, re-envisioned church, or whatever other term you prefer...) and its complaints with the traditional church. He then talks about the need for unity, which I wholeheartedly agree with. It is important that we discuss and learn from one another, not stand back and lob barbs over the wall at people who love God and are seeking the scriptures and trying to find what they believe to be the right approach to ministry (whether that be traditional, emerging, or whatever).

Belcher then delves into the enlightenment vs. postmodernism debate that rages in the church, and does an excellent job of explaining how different understandings of what postmodernism is create conflict within the church.

It is in the chapter entitled Deep Evangelism that my enthusiasm for this book began to wane. Up to this point (nearly 100 pages in) I found this book very helpful and informative. But this chapter began a pattern of emerging says x, traditional responds y, and we are z, the right way. Maybe I'm a bit overly sensitive to this, but it started a little bit in this chapter and became a constant drumbeat for the rest of the book.

I have no issue with Belcher being proud of his church. He should be! If he doesn't think they are doing it right, he has no business being the leader! The problem is that when you are trying to lay out contrasts, you tend to gravitate towards extremes. For example, in this chapter he implies that emerging churches focus only on being in community and never on a moment of decision for the gospel. While this may be true of some, I don't think it accurately reflects the predominant approach of leading churches.

It gets a lot worse in chapter six, when Belcher begins to quote Brian McLaren as the beliefs of the emerging church, and then contrasts this with the traditional church response to Brian. Suddenly we have moved from a valuable discussion of the differences between the emerging churches and traditional churches, and have instead picked an easy target and then shown how we don't think the same way.

Maybe the reason I have such a problem with it is that I don't think the book fairly compares the two sides once we reach these chapters. It's almost more of a couple of easy arguments thrown up, and then Belcher's church setup as a model that looks very different from those rather two dimensional targets. Maybe I'm a little harsh, but I was quite disappointed by this book.

The odd thing is that, for the most part, I think Belcher DOES have it right. I am a fan of the ideas he sets out and agree with him on the need for balance in church ministry.

I think I can best explain my feelings about this book by briefly talking about another book. I am a fan of science fiction, and one of my favorite books is Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick. This book is approximately 185 pages long in the copy I have. The first 175 pages are among the most brilliant works of science fiction ever written. The last 10 could have been done by a reasonably literate fourth grader. Why the contrast? I imagine PKD's publisher on the phone screaming at him "I don't care what you write, just finish the book and have it on my desk by tomorrow or you don't get paid!" and so a very disconcerting and boring ending was slapped on what should have been a landmark in science fiction, ruining the final product.

In many ways, Deep Church feels a bit like Flow My Tears. The first hundred pages or so are well researched and well thought out and very balanced, and then Belcher simply needed to finish his book. The second half of the book deals more in extremes, with Redeemer Presbyterian Church standing seemingly alone in the middle. That's really a shame, because I think Belcher laid a terrific foundation, and I really wish the second half of the book had been up to the same standard.

Is Deep Church worth reading? At the end of the day, I think it is. Despite my complaints, the book is worth it for the first hundred pages alone, and the second half is still valuable to read to challenge your thinking on what a church should look like by reading about the example of how Redeemer is doing ministry.


Friday, July 23, 2010


A while back Mark with BigBadCollab gave us a demo of ShadeTree. ShadeTree is a platform being developed that seeks to integrate church members into church life through social networking, spiritual formation, etc.

In some ways ShadeTree could lead to a full blown ChMS at some point, but right now it's really meant to augment what you currently have in place. I was privileged to look "behind the scenes" a bit with a beta church, to see how they are working on using ShadeTree.

Of most interest to us was the Spiritual Formation elements of ShadeTree, and how we can utilize it to help our people easily identify what their next steps are. These steps might be books, sermons, conferences, serving, attending events or whatever else the church establishes. The important thing is the front end survey that helps identify where each individual is, and what resources would be the most beneficial next steps for that individual.

ShadeTree is designed to be fully "skinnable" so that it fits within your website and design philosophies and looks like your church, rather than a generic look. I'm really excited about the platform as a way to give our people access to a path of spiritual formation. This is an area where HDC currently doesn't do a great job, and I really think ShadeTree can help us. The biggest issue will be figuring out Arena integration with the data, but the beautiful thing is that the church working on this with BigBadCollab is an Arena church, so I know they share that desire.

ShadeTree also does social networking. This is where I get less excited. I do believe that the church needs to be involved in social networking, but I don't agree with Mark that the church should be the place where it happens. To me, our people are already on Facebook, we should work to have a great facebook presence and to see how we can best integrate our members church and unchurched lives, allowing their relational networks to see their commitment to Christ. IMHO, if we create our own playground, we lose important opportunities to model our lives to those of our friends who do not know God.

It seems like there are a lot of products that try to integrate the church and social networking, but most of them seem to want to create an isolated sandbox away from "the world" and that isn't an viewpoint I share. That doesn't mean that I'm right though, only time will tell. Perhaps there is a sweet spot of integration between the two that I haven't seen yet.

Technologically ShadeTree is based on the LAMP stack, Linux Apach MySQL PhP, which I absolutely love. The cool thing about this is that all of those products are opensource, and ShadeTree is being developed as an opensource solution. This means that, once available, your church can download and test and even deploy ShadeTree for free. Awesome. If you need help, pay BigBadCollab and they will help you get it all running.

Good guys making good products to further God's kingdom at the lowest possible cost for the churches involved. Awesome stuff all the way around. If I've piqued your interest, click the ShadeTree link at the top and signup for more info when ShadeTree is released.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Deliberate Simplicity

I am way behind on book reviews, so it's time to get caught up. The first book I read recently is Deliberate Simplicity. This book is written by Dave Browning, who is a friend of our senior pastor's.

We read this book as a staff, and I expected a lot from it. Perhaps my expectations are part of why i was disappointed (a theme you will find repeats itself in this round of reviews). The book begins by demonstrating the power of simplicity. In-n-Out vs. McDonalds, Costco vs. Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's vs. The Mega-Supermarket idea etc. In-n-Out, Costco and Trader Joe's all use simplicity to their advantage, offering fewer, higher quality items to great profit and business success. The question Dave then poses is "Have we made church too complex?"

On the whole, this concept appeals to me. Our culture has given up speciality and expertise (when was the last time you went to a butcher shop? never been?) for convenience and price. Perhaps the church has gotten too caught up in trying to be the hub of your social life and needs instead to focus on teaching the gospel. In essence, Deliberate Simplicity is about what a church should not do, and that's a concept I am totally behind. "Deliberate Simplicity advocates restricting the activities of the church instead of expanding them. It calls for less programming instead of more...working smarter instead of harder." and later "It calls us to move the fulcrum so the same (or less) energy is leveraged for greater results. Minimality is how less turns out to be more."

At the same time, I'm not sure I agree with Dave's take on scripture. He makes some pretty inflammatory statements, like "While all scripture is God-breathed and profitable, it is not equally profitable." I know what Dave is getting at, but I think you have to be very careful with approaches like this, as it can often lead to de-emphasizing important but unpopular scripture and allowing your views to shape your theology rather than vice-versa. That said, every church is guilty of this to some degree. When was the last time your church taught out of Obadiah or 3 John?

While this book starts strong, it seems to devolve a bit as we dig through the chapters. It begins to take a pattern of "Most churches do it this way, and this is bad! We do it THIS way, and that is good!" Dave also emphasizes outreach as the primary focus and purpose of the church, but the book tends to minimize the importance of discipleship and spiritual formation of the believer as well. Unfortunately, churches all too often are unbalanced and are all about evangelism or all about growing the believer. I believe the church is called to both, and should be both a group that is outwardly focused while working to continually focus the hearts and mind of its members on God.

In the chapter entitled Multility Dave argues for decentralized leadership in the church, in which the individual congregations are more or less autonomous. While I like what he has to say, I couldn't help but cross out the word "Multility" in my mind and write "Denomination" across the top. What Dave describes and advocates is, essentially, a baptist denominational structure. It's funny how the same ideas come around again with different names attached to them. As I reflect on the history of denominations, I see a lot of the same motives and reasons for creating denominations that are now being used to create multi-site churches and "networks" which are somehow different than denominations in a way nobody can really articulate beyond the name...

Overall I liked the general idea behind this book (less is more) but found it a bit of a tiring read. There was too much "this is how we do it and why it's better" for me. To be fair, you could say this book provides practical real world examples rather than theory and that would be accurate. It didn't hit a homerun with me, but it does provide food for thought.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

A New Record

Approximately 12,000 people attending HDC regularly.

Approximately 7,000 programs stating the time and date of the business meeting distributed over two weekends.

Approximately 5,000 adults in worship each weekend.

Approximately 2,000 voting members.

Exactly 0 non-board members or staff (or their immediate families) in attendance at our semi-annual business meeting.



Thursday, June 24, 2010

ChMS - Checkin Q&A

My last post has sparked a few questions that I thought were worth answering regarding some of the decision making on our kiosks.

First up:

I just read your 22 page essay on your check in build process. Did you give any thought to RF wireless keyboards? That would reduce the cabling spaghetti in the cabinet. The down side is batteries and the keyboard might disappear. I would hope that last problem wouldn't be a big problem in a church.


Thankfully the cabling in the cabinet is not a huge issue, but there are three very good reasons why we chose the keyboards we did over something RF:

(1) This was the smallest usable keyboard + mouse that we could find. It had to be very thin to fit on the hideaway tray.

(2) Cables are more reliable than RF, no lost connections and such.

(3) Batteries are another maintenance and cost item.


Next up:

Joel - just read through the PDF on your blog about your kiosk system - or at least the Mac mini versions... just curious why you chose to hook up the printers as ethernet printers (which required buying a switch) instead of just using USB? and for that matter - why did you go with a wired network connection?

if you were starting over today do you think you'd still go with the Mac minis or would you just use iPads? (especially since the new minis cost $100 more.)


The printers are network printers connected to the windows servers, not local printers to the workstation. Since its 100% browser based and not OS specific this was the best way to make it work. Much faster and more stable than USB printer sharing on the minis. I have huge crowds of people using these things in short periods of time, and being rock solid is the single most important factor.

Wired network connections are more reliable than wireless, and I don't have as a single point of failure a wireless hub, I have a very nice POE Ethernet Switch. Since they have to be plugged into power anyway, a second cable is not a big deal.

As for today, I would still build this as is for our main campus, but we are using iPads for checkin at our second campus because an iPad + Network printer = $1100 or so instead of the $2500 these kiosks cost each. There is a downside though. The iPad requires a volunteer for every station. We generally have about eight checkin kiosks running with two or three volunteers. The kiosks do not have to be manned. If i left ipads out on a table for people to use for checkin, we would be replacing a lot of iPads that mysteriously disappeared...


The iPad checkin for the second campus has been built and tested, but we aren't "live" with it yet because I am waiting for the budget approval from the campus lead to buy the equipment to make it happen. Still, it's a pretty slick solution. I'll share that in another post.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

ChMS - Implementing Checkin

If you follow this blog, you know that we implemented check-in at HDC last summer. In the fall I wrote up a long document explaining our process, as well as detailing the design and construction details for our kiosks. I realized today as I went to point someone to it that I never actually posted it here. Please click on the link below to read the PDF on how we implemented check-in at HDC.

Implementing Check-In

Recently we paid for a secret shopper firm to come to our campus and evaluate HDC. We received very high marks on children's check-in, and perfect marks on check-out. This is in stark contrast to the last time they came to our campus when we got hammered on both of these points. All in all children's check-in has been an amazing success and is one of the best projects the IT department has been involved in.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Developer Roundtable 2010 Day 2

Day one was about the community and what we (collectively) are working on. Day two was focused on Arena and what we, the community, think they should be working on.

First off, props to Arena for involving us in this. It's not about saying "this is what I need, vote for me!" it's about the developer churches considering the needs of the community as a whole, and looking at what should be the highest priority.

Mike Gold is introducing a new development process known as SCRUM. The point of the scrum process is to distill requests down to concise stories that can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. After a week of planning, the developers are given three solid weeks to code and burn through the backlog, at the end of which there is a measurable product. During that time the scope is not allowed to change, and the purpose of this methodology is to produce a continual re-evaluation of development priorities while allowing important things to be produced quickly.

One key aspect of all of this is organizational. The scrum team also involves dedicated QA people, so they are testing during the development process and are committed to the same deadlines. Thus, at the end of the scrum the items should actually be ready to ship, rather than just sent over to QA for aging. Another key is that bug fixes have a completely different team, one that uses the scrum process as well. By separating out product development and bug fixes the development team isn't continually interrupted with high priority projects (because bug fixes always should be high priority) and the bug fixes can be patched and released faster.

For day two of the roundtable we as developer churches participated in what is known as the Sprint Planning Meeting. We looked over the product backlog, added items that were of importance to us, and then prioritized that backlog. From here Mike Gold and his team will schedule the scrum and kick it off, I assume next week.

I cannot stress how incredibly empowering it is to be sitting at the table with the other developer churches having direct influence on the development priorities of a software product. Obviously our decisions aren't the only ones that matter, but having a seat at the table for this discussion is simply huge. I can't think of another product that is so directly in touch with it's customer's needs.

At the end of the day we (the group, not HDC) had five items that will be placed into the first sprint, and should be in the next release of Arena.

Daniel and I left at 4pm and headed to the airport to catch our 6:45 flight, which departed at approximately 11:30pm... Needless to say, that made for a very, very, very long day. I am completely exhausted. But the roundtable was 100% worth attending, and one of the really great things about being an Arena developer church.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Developer Roundtable 2010 Day 1

As part of the Arena developer churches program we are invited each year to the Arena Developer Roundtable. Last year we heard from CCV about their fork of the code to allow them to develop features without being concerned about the business case for their development priorities etc. One of my concerns was that without a church involved in the development of the core that Arena could lose their focus, but we waited to see what would happen.

This year is different, but in a good way. Jon and David are not here in person, although they have been following the live feed. It's a bummer not having them here, they have become friends over the last nearly two years. THe biggest change with Arena is not the loss of Jon and David (they aren't gone, just not as involved as they used to be), although that is a significant loss, but rather the addition of Mike Gold. Mike came from Willow Creek, and brings a level of enthusiasm and professionalism to the whole development process that is incredible.

Today Mike lead us through an introduction to the SCRUM process of development, something that he is implementing at Arena. What is really, really, really cool is that we are part of that process tomorrow. As stakeholders, we are working with Mike Gold, Mark White, Jeff Maddox and the other Arena guys to narrow down and refine the development priorities for Arena tomorrow. This is exactly why we come to the roundtable: To have input into the future direction of Arena.

We also shared the CCCEV / HDC check-in suite, which is a full featured windows free alternative to the official check-in solution. We demoed check-in on the iPad, as well as using an iPad as a number display for parents in a service, and showed our solution for multi-site network in a box. We also showed a module that Daniel wrote to export any dataset in Arena to a .kml file for display and analysis in google earth.

Trey from Brookwood Church showed their members portal, and its very awesome integration of "contact us" and assignments, allowing people to sign in and initiate staff followup. Several other people showed stuff they had been working on as well, and then in a huge surprise, Scott from Watermark Church showed us their ShadeTree implementation via Skype. Scott is not here but has been participating on the developer IRC and watching and listening to the feed that Mike Gold setup. ShadeTree is a very cool spiritual formation app that also includes a very nice members portal and social networking features. I like ShadeTree a lot, and it already looks better than the Arena public portals in a lot of ways, but I think for us our preference is to keep things as tightly integrated with Arena as possible, and that means not using ShadeTree for group management, even though it's pretty good at it. But the spiritual formation aspects are really exciting, and I am looking forward to making that happen at HDC.

Finally at 6 we called it a day and headed off to dinner. After dinner we moved to the lobby where we are sitting now, discussing Arena, coding, comparing notes and just hanging out together. Day one has been great so far, and it's not over.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I have been reading Markings by Dag Hammarskjold recently, and I came across this:

He came with his little girl. She wore her best frock. You noticed what good care she took of it. Others noticed too--idly noticed that, last year, it had been the best frock on another little girl.

In the morning sunshine it had been festive. Now most people had gone home. The balloon sellers were counting the day's takings. Even the sun had followed their example, and retired to rest behind a cloud. So the place looked rather bleak and deserted when he came with his little girl to taste the joy of Spring and warm himself in the freshly polished Easter sun.

But she was happy. They both were. They had learned a humility of which you still have no conception. A humility which never makes comparison, never rejects what there is for the sake of something "else" or something "more."


I've read this page a dozen times or more. It makes me think of going out with my daughter and just enjoying her company, not caring about anything else in the world. I love the reference to hand me down clothes and the fact that they missed the party. None of it matters. What matters is that they were out, together, enjoying springtime.

How often do we find ourselves disappointed by what is, only because we imagine what was or what might have been. Rather than rejoice in the abundant blessings of God, we fret about what we missed, or what we wish we could be doing.

Our culture thrives on sowing of discontent. Your car isn't good enough, your house is too small, your friends aren't the right friends, your kids aren't the star of the team, your wife has too many wrinkles, and the list goes on.

Discontentment often leads to poor choices (buy a car or house you can't afford, do things to impress people you don't even like, push your kids too hard, trade your wife in on a new model etc.) that may become outright sin. I think of Luke 12:

“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:27-31 NIV)

Enjoy the moment, be grateful for what God has given you, and seek after Him, not the things of the world. This, we are called to do.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010


In 1984 we were visiting with my dad's aunt and uncle in San Jose, and my sisters and I decided to go to a movie. We went to see Dune. We were a little late. This is probably the worst movie ever to be a little late to as it was incomprehensible. People who weren't late had a hard time figuring out what was going on, and for us it was even worse.

The saga of that movie is a sad one in which a 4.5 hour rough cut was hacked down to a little over 2 hours, leaving far too much out of a very complicated story. Audiences were generally baffled and the movie flopped. Me? I was intrigued. It was a tantalizing glimpse of something really cool, and I sought out and read the book.

That was a long time ago, and recently I found myself thinking about the book, the movie, and the later sci-fi channel miniseries. Patty and I watched the DVD of the sci-fi channel presentation again and it's very good, but it got me thinking about the book so I cracked it out and read it again.

Dune is fascinating because it's not a simple story, it's an amazingly complex web of political intrigue, deceit, religion, and science fiction. The book repeatedly refers to the plan within the plan within the plan. What appears simple on the surface never is, and there are always other things brewing.

The most precious resource in the universe of Dune is spice, and spice only exists on one planet: Arrakis (Dune). Each of the entities is focused totally on self preservation and advancement, at the cost of all others. It's an interesting study in greed, self centeredness, and the inevitable calamity that follows.

Well worth the read if you enjoy science fiction from time to time. If you are more of a movie guy, go for the scifi one over the original film, as it's much closer to the book and easier to follow. It helps that it's around six hours long... Sure, the original movie has Sting, but that doesn't necessarily make it better :-)


Monday, May 10, 2010

look. at. me.

I don't generally post videos on my blog, so it's crazy weird that I have two in a row. Generally I don't like video. I read fast, and would rather skim an article and glean the information I want than sit through a video that forces me to take the information delivery at their pace, not mine. But sometimes video is extremely effective in communicating something that is hard to communicate in print, and I think this is one of those times:

Television is a drug. from Beth Fulton on Vimeo.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Just for fun

I love it when kids are creative, and my friend's son did this video on lunchbreaks at school using only the built in webcam on his macbook. Enjoy!


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Time to remove HFCS from your diet

A group of scientists at Princeton University have released a study that shows that High Fructose Corn Syrup is bad for you, and makes you fat. What's worse, when compared with sugar, equal caloric intake of HFCS can result in weight gain where sugar does not.

I've been distrustful of HFCS for a while now (wondering to myself if this has something to do with the huge rise in diabetes in this country that, remarkably, seems to coincide with the increased use of HFCS everywhere), and we've been trying to remove it from our diet anyway, but this makes that far more important. It's time to go back to sugar folks, even if it costs a little more.

Now, the scientists that used to work for the tobacco industry claiming smoking was safe have apparently have moved on to defending high fructose corn syrup these days, so you are welcome to read their comments here.

As for us, we'll continue to purge our household and diet of something we don't really like the flavor of anyway. Goodbye HFCS, you won't be missed.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

NAB & the church

NAB comes around every April in Las Vegas. It is the trade show for broadcasters, and covers everything from where to find a $5 cable to a news helicopter (considerably more than $5). When I first attended NAB it was very novel for churches to be there. Responses were usually along the lines of "You're with a church? And you want this switcher? Really?" as people tried to reconcile the idea of the little white steepled building they think of as church (disclaimer, the church linked to there is the church I went to as a kid and I have nothing but positive memories of it!) and the modern megachurches that have sprung up in the last twenty years or so.

Within about a five years the comments went from "a church? really?" to "we are targeting churches and other assembly halls with this product." It was a pretty stunning turnaround. Things have continued, and this year there is a Technologies for Worship Pavilion at NAB. I received an email today from Jason Rouse, representing NAB and this is what he had to say about this development:


The Technologies for Worship Pavilion offers comprehensive training for house of worship staff and technical volunteers and is the focal point for all things related to worship technology at the NAB Show. In addition, you may be interested in Destination Broadband - the newest broadband-centric exhibit at the 2010 NAB Show. It will be featuring technologies like online video platforms, streaming video, mobile video distribution, and much more.

Technologies for Worship Schedule:
Destination Broadband:


Personally, I think this is awesome that technology use in church is being embraced by the industry. One of my titles is "Technologist" and finding ways to apply technology to HDC to further the gospel is part of my job description. I'm excited by the prospect of higher visibility for churches at this year's show. I haven't been in a few years, and looking at my April I'm not 100% certain I can go this year either, but I think it's well worth writing about.

I'm certain that Jason was hoping I would publicize NAB here, and I'm happy to, but he also passed along a code that you can use to register for free if you would like to attend:


The reason I'm reaching out to you is because I have a special registration code for you to pass along to your readers, giving them access to the show – a $150 value - for FREE. This special pass includes the exhibit floor, the Opening Keynote and State of the Industry Address, Info Sessions, Content Theater, Destination Broadband Theater and Exhibits. All you and your readers need to do is visit to redeem or register at with the code A913.


If you can arrange a trip to Vegas in the middle of April, take at least a day and attend NAB. This is a fantastic opportunity to see the latest and greatest technology, and hopefully will cause you to think about great ways to enhance your ministry.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Doing the Right Thing

Glen Thomas Dodge listed a Dodge Challenger on eBay, and apparently in updating the auction somebody screwed up and removed the reserve and the car sold for $29,100. This is an amazing deal for a popular, $45,000 car. Beyond amazing. Impossibly amazing.

But an eBay bid is a contract, and after freaking out for a bit, Glen Thomas Dodge did the right thing. They honored the auction and sold the car to the winning bidder at the eBay price.

I think they deserve props and a little free advertising for doing it right. Unlike a certain Hyundai dealer who made the same mistake and basically had to be forced to honor their auction by Hyundai Motor America...

So if you are in the market for a Dodge, you know where to start.


Friday, March 5, 2010

I miss the olympics

I grew up in western New York. About fifty miles from Buffalo. Needless to say snow, and lots of it, was part of my childhood. As a result, the winter sports were a big part of what we did. I think I went roller skating once as a kid. Ice skating? I went every chance I got. I loved it. Cross country skiing? Well, we didn't have to go far, that's for sure. We would walk out the back door onto the porch, put the skis on, and make our way out the backyard and into the fields and hills beyond. Not exactly a lot of pre-planning required... Although I've never been on a luge or a bobsled, they have their roots in the sleds with metal runners we grew up using and the big old wood toboggans that we'd use on the big hills.

As I got older I found a passion for Alpine skiing. By the time I graduated from high school, I was quite good. I never raced in any formal events, but I did race against a friend in a timed event called the Jeep Downhill Challenge or something like that. If I remember correctly I beat him by .01 second on one course, and he beat me by .01 second on the other course. Hey, at least we were consistent, if not terribly fast compared to the rest of the field. Having tried a lot of the events, or some semblance of them, makes it a lot easier to understand just how impressive what these athletes can do. And if you haven't tried these sports, trust me, these athletes are very, very good.

The first winter olympics I remember watching was 1984, mainly because we were living on Yap when the 1980 olympics happened (in New York state!) and there were no tv's there...

I caught a HUGE passion for the winter olympics when Bill Johnson came out of nowhere and won the olympic downhill, becoming a bit of a hero of mine. I've been hooked ever since, and every four years when the winter olympics comes on we watch as much of it as possible. In 2002 we actually went to Salt Lake and went to the events live, which was a tremendous thrill.

This year was a record year for the US, winning more medals than at any prior winter games with 37. That is very strange to me. In 1984 we won eight medals total. In 1984 the soviet union won 25 medals and east germany won 24. Both of those countries do not exist anymore (WILD!).

But the olympics are over now. I miss the competition. I miss the patriotism. I miss the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. So now back to life, and we wait another four years for another round, this time in Russia. I honestly hope Russia has a HUGE showing at their own games. I kinda miss being the underdog...


PS - The most impressive moment of the olympics came on the last day. Click here and watch the video of Peter Northug of Norway sprint for the finish line at the end of a 50km cross country ski race. Ask yourself this question after you watch it: Do you really think you could ski that fast at the end of a 1 kilometer race? Now imagine doing it after fifty!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Really? This is sad.

Microsoft is running ads during the olympics talking about how awesome Windows 7 is. In one ad this ostensibly British woman talks about how she said Windows 7 should be easier, and she shows as proof the new task bar. I nearly died laughing. Here's a screenshot of windows 7:

Now, there are several things that make this funny. First and foremost is the taskbar mentioned in the ad. This AMAZING new feature makes windows easier to use, or so says the ad. Ok, fair enough, I'm sure it does. So how innovative is this new feature? Look at this shot from the Mac OS X public beta, released in October of 2000:

See that at the bottom? Look familiar? Yes, that's called the Dock. It's the exact thing that Microsoft is ripping off for Windows 7. When Windows 95 came out there were T-Shirts that said "Windows 95 = Macintosh 87" and they weren't far from the truth. Apparently Microsoft has fallen further behind, because now they are nine years behind the Mac...

Don't even get me started on the "Gadgets" that are a ripoff of the Dashboard, first introduced with Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" in April of 2005. To be fair, the gadgets debuted with Windows Vista, which is a bit like saying you got your start in film working on Ishtar...

It's sad really. Microsoft tries so hard, and fails so spectacularly over and over again. I honestly don't understand it. I've been to their campus. They have bright people who work very hard in a great environment. I walked away very impressed. But at the end of the day, I use the mac because I don't like being 5-10 years behind in technology...


Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Lightning Thief

This weekend was my daughter's birthday party. It's a sleepover involving no less than ten adolescent girls. As you might expect, I make it a point to be out of the house as much as possible...

Every year I take Jacob and go to a movie during this event. This year I looked at the movie choices and it came down to The Tooth Fairy, The Spy Next Door, or The Lightning Thief. It seemed like The Lightning Thief was the best of these choices, so we figured we'd give it a try.

But first... This movie is based on a book, and I have a general rule about movies based on books: READ THE BOOK FIRST. This stems from reading the hobbit as a kid and then seeing this on TV. In the book the Hobbit, the Arkenstone is described as, basically, the most beautiful gem ever created. It has an inner light and also reflects every light that shines on it. How do you imagine the most beautiful gem ever created? What does it look like? In the tv special it looked like a chunk of white plaster with gems stuck in it. Not EXACTLY how I would envision the most beautiful gem ever... From that point on, I have made it a point to always read the book first, so I have my images in my head instead of seeing the movie maker's images when I read the book.

So, on Friday I took Jacob to Barnes and Noble, and bought him the book. I told him that if he wanted to go to the movie, he had to read this first. It's 375 pages and he is almost 9. Sounds daunting, but he pulled it off. He is a pretty good reader. After he went to bed I took the book and read it so that I would not be waiting for him to finish it the next day.

The book:

The book is delightful. It is a little linear (go here, fight monster, go here, fight monster, go here, fight monster) but still a good read. The main characters are 12 year old kids, and the book does a decent job of grappling with the problem of how three young kids would get from New York to California without taking a plane and not being old enough to drive.

There are really great moments in the book, my favorite of which is when they go up in the St. Louis Arch and encounter a fire breathing chihuahua. Throughout the book, Percy receives small amounts of cryptic help from his very famous father (if you have no idea what these books are about, Percy is the son of a greek god). There are good characters that they encounter, and it's a fun and easy read from start to finish. If you have a child who is into fantasy, this is a great book for them to read. It bears some similarities to Harry Potter, but that doesn't really detract from the book.

The movie:

Let me start by saying this: I am not one of those people who thinks it makes me sound intelligent to say "the book was better than the movie" or just, by default, always likes the book better. For example,Jurassic Park is one of the best books ever written, and a pretty good movie as well. I enjoyed both (well, I was completely obsessed by the book, but that's not for this discussion. No book has ever grabbed me as that one did). The Hunt for Red October was an awesome book, and an awesome movie. The best part was, the book was a better book, and the movie was a better movie. To me, that's exactly how adaptations should be done. Take the best stuff from the book and re-write it so that it is appropriate for the screen and has the right level of action and suspense.

On the other hand, it is possible to follow a book too closely. The film Screamers showed us this. I can't think of a movie that followed the book more closely, and failed so spectacularly as a movie. The book was amazing, the same thing as a movie...not so much. I went to see the movie on opening weekend, and was completely underwhelmed. So was everyone else, as the movie was a total flop.

So, how does all of this tie in to The Lightning Thief? Simple. This movie bears very little resemblance to the book. Some of the characters are the same, but the plot is very different. Not only is it very different, the main villain of the book is entirely absent from the movie! The movie took a few characters, a couple of plot elements, and a general premise from the book. That's it. Which is a huge shame because the book could have made a really great movie. There was an attempt to make the movie have a bit of Lord of the Rings scale and feel, which is also unfortunate because this is NOT a book about epic battles and hundreds of people with swords. It is a story about three twelve year old kids going on an adventure in a world in which the greek gods really exist. But the movie is a story about three 16-18 year old teenagers who drive around the country looking for pearls and then go visit Hades.

The plot is very weak and rather disjointed. The effects are fine, but nothing special. The characters have no depth to them at all, and readers of the book will be left very disappointed. My son was, and he is not exactly a movie critic. The weirdest part of all of this is that the book reads a bit like a movie, and you get the feeling it would be a great movie. Unfortunately it was not to be. This movie falls short in so many ways it's hard to fathom. Pass on this one.

But read the book.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Never, ever, trust anything to microsoft DRM

I have an Xbox 360. It is a toy, but a fun toy. The kids and I love playing games on it. A few weeks ago I got the dreaded "Red Ring of Death" on the box. Thankfully, I am covered by the three year warranty for this exact problem. So I send it off to Microsoft. Their solution is simply to send us an already fixed box rather than making customers wait to have the machines fixed. Great, sounds good.

So I get the new xbox today. In it is a note. To transfer my downloaded content to my new xbox I will have to connect to xbox live and redownload every single item (all 58 of them) to my new console. This will transfer the licenses and then they will work offline. This is HUGELY important to me, as I don't have internet at home. So without the DRM transfer, I cannot play many of my games. Incidentally, since the "media update" which allows it to play aac's and every kind of video I care to watch is also protected by the drm, the console is significantly hampered without this transfer.

Included in the box are instructions on how to do this. Connect to live. Redownload everything. Things should work now. Included is this line: "License restoration will only work on this console."

So, I follow the instructions. Works when I'm connected to the internet, doesn't work when I'm not. Looks like it didn't transfer. So I call Microsoft. They give me a bunch of useless steps to take, and it still doesn't work. They try other things, things that will probably create more problems when I get this home, and it still doesn't work. I am getting annoyed.

It's been an hour, and my xbox still isn't working properly.

Thankfully, this is only a toy. If this stuff actually mattered, I would be hosed. What if this was a license to my server? What if this was something that the church required to operate for a weekend? Yeah, sorry.

DRM is evil. This is exactly why. Paying customers are inconvenienced to the point of sheer frustration. I'll bet if my console was hacked and I had pirated all of this, I would be back up and running. DRM punishes the people who do things legitimately. Anytime anyone says "the future is online content" remember this lesson. If it isn't DRM free, it is likely to not work at some point, no matter how much you've paid. Once that happens, it's useless.

I hate Microsoft, and I hate DRM. Put them together? Bad news. Bad, bad news.