Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Zi and a new feature

Several years ago a man named Zi entered our professional lives. As owner of a small website development company he worked with us to completely rebuild our website so that, among other things, it could accept credit card payments securely. We admired Zi for his creativity, knowledge, and interpersonal skills. He fits the description of “one of the good guys.”

Since that time Zi sold his company to his friend and co-worker, Daniel, who has worked with us on several upgrades to the website. Zi then went on to “bigger and better things.”

About three weeks ago Zi phoned me. We had not talked for perhaps five years, although we have worked with his sister Kira and her Search Engine Optimization company and through Kira had kept informed about him. Zi has been working in an Internet business that, among other things, adds a specific feature to the websites of multinational corporations.  That feature may be described as “Customers who bought this item also bought…” and variations on that idea. The computer application tracks your visit to a website and then offers you feedback on other shoppers who have also visited that website and viewed what you have viewed. To be able to track and report to you the movements of other shoppers requires some sophisticated programming and manipulating of large amounts of data. Our website is not at all that sophisticated.

Zi’s company has created this feature for the million-dollar websites (and the tens-of-million-dollars websites). He described to me that huge corporations that can afford this feature are primarily in this large, somewhat homogenous, and shopper oriented country of ours. By contrast Europe, being about the size of Texas and populated by several cultures and languages, has not been a fertile place for large English speaking corporate websites.

The idea for Zi’s company has been to develop a very capable smaller website application that can offer much of the same functions as found on the huge corporate websites but designed for the smaller but successful websites in Europe.

In a few weeks Zi’s company will be displaying their new website feature at a trade show in Europe. Before they display it they need to have it functioning on some smaller websites that they can use as examples. Zi phoned me to ask if he could have this feature installed on our website, immediately, so that he could use it as an example at the trade show in Europe in a few weeks.

Due to our previous work together we know each other and trust each other. Zi made the offer so appealing to us that we could not turn him down. As a result the last couple of weeks have been somewhat of a whirlwind of activity for me and our website. The feature was installed a couple of weeks ago. It gathered data from visitors to our site for until it had accumulated enough data to display it accurately. Two days ago it “went Live” on our site. The computer algorithms are smart. They are watching and learning from our website visitors. Within a few weeks it will have refined and narrowed the information that it displays to visitors.

We get the use of this new feature for one year at no charge, as part payment to us for agreeing to their demonstration of it for their customers in Europe. At the end of one year we will need to pay the going rate for it if we are to keep it. The “going rate” is breathtakingly large. We can’t imagine that we could afford to pay for it. But at least for a while it is fun to be able to display a quality feature for our website visitors. Another part of this-ministry-which-is-the-store is our willingness to help others. We are helping Zi and having an interesting time with the new feature.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jail chapel ministry

Linda stopped by this afternoon. Before asking for suggestions for reading, she told us about her help with the local jail chapel ministry.

Once a week she joins usually three other women, one of whom is a deacon, as they visit the local jail where they offer a prayer service. With a career as a Certified Public Account, Linda has not been associated with a jail or prison ever in her life. I could tell that it was quite a leap of faith for her to agree to join the deacon and be, as Linda described, a “presence” in the jail for the prayer service.

First she took a four-hour class that trained her in the culture of the jail. Mostly, it appeared to me, to be instruction in what one does not do in a jail setting, rather than what one does. Her animated delivery as she described the experience told me that it was very meaningful for her to be able to be part of that particular jail prayer ministry.

I admire Linda’s care and concern for women in jail. Linda is living her Baptismal covenant by “respecting the dignity of every person.” I also admire her courage by being part of the jail prayer ministry.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Harold Hansen, organist, wonderful human.

If nothing else, Harold Hansen is steadfast, and he is much more than that. After 73 continuous years Harold is putting away The Hymnal Accompaniment book as he retires from his career as organist and choir director at All Saints Episcopal Church, Tacoma WA. Harold is 95 years old.

Harold was in his sixties when he moved to the Puget Sound region after retiring from his full-time career as organist at a famous Episcopal Church in Hollywood CA. He began his “retirement gig” at All Saints, has been the only organist for that congregation since then, and announced his retirement this week. His last Sunday at All Saints, Tacoma, will be on September 10th.

Two of the many stories that I recall from Harold include hymns and license plate numbers, and the famous Hollywood actors that used to sing at his church. In 1982 the Episcopal Church adopted a new hymnal replacing The Hymnal 1940. Harold mourned the loss of the old hymnal because he had memorized most of the 740 hymn numbers in the old book. He enjoyed playing the game of the three-digit number on the license on the car ahead of him while driving and remembering which hymn corresponded to that number. For instance, the license on the car ahead of him would include the numbers 266 and Harold would say, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (…Lord God Almighty). The “new” hymnal of 1982 moved "Holy, Holy, Holy" to hymn number 362. For some time Harold’s game of license numbers and hymns was over, until he began memorizing the new hymn numbers.

Harold loved to recount to us choir members at All Saints about the famous Hollywood actors who sang in his choir in his Hollywood church. He’d say, “Oh, yes, (name) sang with us when we performed this anthem,” and we would be amazed and encouraged to sing it better.

Harold Hansen has been beloved by all throughout his long career as organist and choir director in the Episcopal Church.

Happy retirement, Harold!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The book titles for the grandmother and her grandson

Okay, okay. I’ll tell you the books that I recommended to the grandmother in Hospice and her grandson.

But first, a story.
When I was a science teacher I had a few activities that I enjoyed sharing with my students about how science works, about how we take observations, form them into hypotheses, test the hypotheses, then develop theories that fit the data. In these activities I would present the students with information, and only the information that they asked for concerning a specific situation. I encouraged them to make hypotheses from the information, and test it, ask more questions, gather more information, then to create a theory that explained all of the information that they has acquired. At the conclusion of these activities inevitably the students would ask, demand, that I tell them the Real Answer. My response was that the answer was what they developed in their process.

“But is it Right?!” they would demand. And I wouldn’t tell them, because what is “the Right answer?” Do we really know, to anything?

I presented one of these activities to the school board, at their request, one evening. They expected the same thing, that I tell them the Answer at the end. They even made statements like, “But, we are the school board. You can tell us. We want to know what the Right answer is.”

A few of the school board got it, caught the learning, that their answer was what they had in the end.

With that caveat, and somewhat against my first intentions, here are the books that I suggested to the person who asked.

Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life, by Stan Goldberg. I found this book to be remarkable, the stories of the author and the individuals that he assisted through Hospice are profound. But, each person’s story requires several pages of reading. If they have the time for it I think that both the grandmother and her grandson could have fruitful conversations about each person’s story in this book.

The Art of Dying and Living: Lessons from Saints of Our Time, by Kerry Walters. These stories are even longer, about 25 pages per individual person’s story. A distinction between the individuals recounted in this book compared to the first title, above, is that in that title listed above the individuals are mostly ordinary, every day people, while the ones in this book are more famous people. Some of us gather more insight from famous people, while others learn more from “people like us.”

Grief: A Month of Meditations, from the publishers of Forward Day By Day. An advantage to this little volume is that each selection is short, one page in length. If the grandmother does not have long to live and the grandson does not have much time to spend with her, then perhaps this one-a-day for 28 days will suffice. A disadvantage is that this book is about grief, about the loss of a loved one. The grandmother has not yet died, although they both, no doubt, are grieving.

And, Final Gifts, that is temporarily out of stock.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A book to read while in Hospice care.

One of the joys of this ministry-which-is-the-store is hearing parts of our customer/friends stories, and then offering help where we can.

Here is a part of a message from a local deacon that I received yesterday.
A parish member who is in Hospice care asked my advice today about a book for a 16 year old grandson. He is trying to deal with her illness, and is not very good at “God talk.” I’m not sure how strong his faith is, although he has been raised pretty carefully. He has lots of questions for her about whether or not when she dies it will all “be over.” She has asked me to try to find a book they can literally read together and then talk about. Have you any suggestions?

Some of my thoughts about this message include:
1. The media and the news seems filled with answers for the less important questions, such as which car to buy, how to make yourself look younger, sexier, more appealing, or which politician to support or urge to vote a different way. But, as I see it, this grandmother and her grandson are working on the much more important questions. They are the questions about life and death. It is grace to me to be asked for some small help for these two caring individuals.
2. Both the grandmother and grandson are facing the concept of imminent dying, hers. Do they both have questions or has the grandmother figured it out? And, oh, is she prepared to have her “figuring out” changed as she passes through death to the other side?!
3. I imagine that the grandson will remember their time together through the Hospice care for the rest of his life. I wonder how it will change his life. Yes, they will both remember their time together, for the rest of their lives.
4. One of my questions for the deacon is “How much time do they have?” Both, how many hours do they have right now to spend together reading and discussing a book, and how many days does the grandmother have on this side of life? Part of my suggestions for books was influenced by this consideration.
5. No doubt you the reader will have some ideas about books that the grandmother and grandson can read and discuss together. Imagine the range of answers from all (both?) of you!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tension between publishers and authors

We received this as part of a reply message this morning.

We are using it as our Sunday School literature, this fall. Coincidentally, our pastor is Jim Evans, who wrote this volume. The publisher will not allow him to purchase author copies to resell, however; so we must depend on the Episcopalians in Seattle for our ten copies.

My reply included a brief mention that publishers are having tough times these past several years. Copies of an author’s book were usually quite readily available to the one who wrote the thoughts that became the book. Not any longer.

Here is a longer answer for them, and perhaps for you.

In my humble opinion, from what I have read, not all, but much of the problems for publishers have been the result of, and later to Barnes and Noble and perhaps Borders. First, Amazon did it to the independent bookstores by selling books below the price that bookstores, including Amazon, could purchase them. They did that long enough (several years) to drive out of business tens of thousands of independent bookstores across the country.

Then they did it to the publishers. For a moderate book with a print run of 1000 copies, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and a couple of others, would purchase more than half of the print run. Within a few months they would return thousands of unsold copies to the publisher for a full credit that they would use to purchase other books. During those few months the publisher may have sold out of that title and ordered another print run because sales looked brisk. Then the huge returns arrived and the publisher had way too many books. If they sold the overstock as remainders at pennies on the dollar, the bigger stores would purchase them and price them and sell them well below market price. Once again cutting into the profit margin and stock of the publisher, while reaping large profits for themselves. Alternatively, the publisher could send them to a recycler to make scrap paper out of the books that they had published and thereby losing all of their investment in that book.

Recently, publishers are trying to keep up with the surge of interest in electronic books. Old established book publishers are well practiced at creating books. Adapting to the digital world has been exceedingly challenging for them. You may have seen some of the turf wars where a huge bookseller, like Amazon, sets their price for a new digital book at a specific price, like $9.95 for a book that would sell as a new hardcover book at $25.95, and demanding that publishers sell them digital copies well below that price, that results in not enough margin to pay for the cost of creating the book.

These business decisions have been immensely difficult for publishers. One small result is not allowing authors to obtain copies of their own books without purchasing them at retail price.