Monday, March 13, 2017

Coincidence? I think not ...

How did this photo of Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway get here, anyway? I certainly didn't post it. And, do you notice the way her eyes follow you, wraith-like, wherever you go???
How did this photo of Donald Trump and
Kellyanne Conway get here, anyway? I certainly
didn't post it. And, please observe two things:
1) Her Nazi-esque salute; and 2) the way her eyes
follow you, wraith-like, wherever you go!
With all the attention recently being paid to conspiracy theories, and the slow, dawning realization that one can assert that they are true without having to provide any proof whatsoever and thus capture the attention of the world, I was starting to feel left out. Hence this morning (in the shower, where all my good ideas flow down from above, then disappear, never to be seen again), I had an epiphany: I need my own conspiracy theory! And it must be bigger and better than all the rest. It must be YUGE!

So, here it is. And, I assure you, everything I am about to tell you is completely, unverifiably true.

Well, at least it's true to me ... or perhaps I should say, it is an alternate fact.

Anyway, I digress ...

It all started about this time last Spring. Spring sprang forth on Saturday, March 19, 2016, three days after my 59th birthday. (Coincidence? I think not. Please consider the fact that three is the number of Deity ... you've heard of the Trinity, right? ... and 59 is divisible by three 19.666 ad infinitum times, which means those sixes go out into infinity, which can't actually be practically verified but is what ad infinitum means, so I guess it's theoretically true; so, what I'm trying to say is that's sort of like the Mark of the Beast multiplied by infinity, which naturally points to the unverifiable reality that a great battle between the forces of good and evil began on that day.)

I was blissfully unaware of this alternate fact, of course. In fact, I was safe and secure in a job I enjoyed for a wonderful company, we had just paid off our house, and I was experiencing that sense of financial security which led me (about a month later) to make a large purchase decision, thanks to the encouragement of my pastor, of a new RV. Because of the collusion of my pastor, I assume this must have been a godly decision.

But, I digress. Or I digress into the future ... (is there a word for that? To pregress? I think not.)

So anyway, back to Saturday, March 19 ... as I said, it seemed a new spring day, like any other. Sure, Donald Trump had already announced (a little more than nine months earlier) that he was running for President of the U.S.A. But, in the light of that new spring day, it still seemed a laughable prospect. Donald Trump? President? You have to be joking, right?

But something else happened that day, which barely made the news at the time. A dual Iranian-Turkish national named Reza Zarrab was arrested when he flew into the Miami International Airport. Zarrab had been accused of violating sanctions against Iran when he apparently convinced Turkey's president, Tayyip Erdogan, to use illicit funds to provide weapons, financing and logistics for jihadi groups in Syria -- including ISIS!

And, it just so happened that I had been tweeting vigorously about the need to treat refugees with justice and compassion. I now realize that Zarrab must have used my tweets as cover to attempt to enter the U.S. illegally. And then he was caught at the Miami airport and arrested! Did he have a cellphone with him, containing tweets I had written? It's reasonable to assume. Then he was arrested! With my tweets in his possession! I was set up. Ohmygoodness, how could I not see this at the time?

Coincidence? I think not.

Unfortunately, as I alluded to, at this time I was completely unaware of this alternate fact. And so I continued, as usual, tweeting about refugees, and the need to be nice to them. And I also began tweeting, more and more frequently, my distaste for the prospect of a Trump/Conway presidency.

Then on Thursday, August 2, came the fateful tipping point. I tweeted: "You can blame the Republicans, Hillary Clinton, and the media ... but if @realDonaldTrump wins, it will be through the power of #fear."

The very next day, Friday August 3, 2016, I was laid off from my job. Coincidence? I think not!

Moreover, let's look at those numbers again ... there's a "three" there, we've already talked about that. But, if you divide 2016 by three, what do you get? That's right ... 702! Work with me here. If you subtract (working backward, kind of like backward masking, only with a calendar) 702 days from August 3, 2016, you arrive at August 12, 2015. And what happened on that day?

You guessed it. That was the day things really began to go south for Hillary Clinton, the day she handed over her email server to the Justice Department; and also the day Bernie Sanders overtook her, for the first time, in the New Hampshire polls. Ultimately, of course, she became the nominee; but even Hillary blamed these events for her ultimate loss to none other than Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Anyway, I digress ... let's fast forward to my post-layoff life:

Since August 3, I have been haunted by the sense that I am being watched. It started with my SmartTV. I would change channels, looking for something good to watch. CNN? Kellyanne Conway was there, her lips moving inanely as she tried to avoid answering whatever question she was being asked by a reporter. NBC News? Donald Trump stared out at me balefully from my screen, just daring me to tweet out another pro-refugee message as he assured me that Mexico would pay for The Wall. Fox News? Kellyanne Conway again. (How can she be two places at once, anyway? That woman gives me the creeps.)

One day I thought, this was a good time to get up off the couch and go get a beer, right? (If I ever become an alcoholic, at least I can blame Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway.) But as I did, I looked back over my shoulder ... and there were Kellyanne Conway's eyes, wraith-like, following me to the kitchen!

She WAS watching me. I knew it!

So, I turned off the SmartTV. (Now I just watch British period dramas with my wife. If I ever see Kellyanne Conway on one of those, I'm moving to Canada.)

Then, in October, I began driving for Uber. Now, you must understand that I have to keep the Uber Driver app running while I'm driving. That's the way it works. (I wonder who made it work that way? I'm willing to bet Kellyanne Conway had something to do with it ... it's probably no coincidence that her last name is a compound word formed by the verb "to con" and the noun "way.")

Anyway, normally the "way" the app works is that you switch into driver mode, which indicates you are available for a fare, and drive around aimlessly for awhile while it tries to "con" you into chasing this elusive thing called a surge cloud; and sooner or later you get a ping that somebody wants to be picked up (though NEVER in the surge cloud since no one in their right mind would pay prices equivalent to riding in a taxicab, would they?), and you accept the ping if their name isn't either "Donald" or "Kellyanne," and then the mapping software leads you to their location.

So far, so good, right? But I began to notice, while I was driving around chasing digital clouds, that sneaky little notifications began to pop up over the top of Uber driver app. Most of them were from CNN (which I soon began to suspect really stands for the "Conway News Network") and began with phrases like "Donald Trump attacks ..." or "Kellyanne Conway asserts ...." These little notifications appeared at the top of my smartphone screen along with soft little pinging sounds, drawing a quick glance when it is safe to do so, and by the time I realized in horror what was happening and was able to look back, the notification had disappeared as quickly as it had sprung up.

Coincidence? I think not. Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway were spying on me, through the Uber app in my smartphone!

(And why not? Just yesterday Kellyanne Conway asserted that it's possible to spy on someone through the camera in your microwave oven. Which was a real revelation to me, as I didn't even know my microwave oven had a camera! But I digress ...)

I couldn't avoid using the app while driving, of course; but I began turning my phone face-down on the bathroom counter each night, where I plug it in to recharge for another UberDay. But, just as I was dropping off to sleep, I would hear that insidious little "ping" and see the soft edges of bluish light glowing there in the bathroom, and soon in my mind's eye I could just imagine Kellyanne Conway's face hovering there over my bathroom bathroom sink, mouthing alternate facts. So soon, sleep began to elude me.

And inevitably, the two of them invaded what few dreams I had left. Donald Trump attacking. Kellyanne Conway asserting. Was there no place I could hide?

Well, I realized one day, after not having slept a wink for a solid week: if you can't hide, you can fight! So, I began to use social media to fight back. I began launching my own attacks, and making my own assertions.

Twitter and Facebook were my tools of war. I tried to use them to alert all my friends to what was happening.

And, I had a lot of friends to alert. (After all, at World Vision I was a social media guru ... the "Dark Lord of the Web," they called me. I had over 11,000 followers on Twitter, and over 1,000 on Facebook.)

For years, my social media numbers had been growing. But, let me tell you, as soon as I began my campaign to fight back and assert myself against the ubiquitous Donald Trump and the wraith-like Kellyanne Conway, my follower counts began to drop. The numbers began to ebb. I knew that this could not POSSIBLY be because there were people out there who might actually vote for Donald Trump / Kellyanne Conway. Well, I did know one or two who publicly admitted that they might, but they had mostly stopped following me on Facebook already, so I assume they were too ashamed of themselves to use social media.

But still, my social media numbers, which had inflated contrary to all logic and reason for years, began dropping. Coincidence? I think not.

Three weeks before the election, my wife was saying something to me while I was tweeting. "That's nice, dear," I asserted, and kept tapping away at my screen. Then she shouted something. "Don't worry," I assured her, "I'll take out the trash as soon as I'm done here."

Then suddenly, she grabbed my hands and yanked them away from my phone. When I didn't look up, she slapped me across the face. Hard.

Well, not really, But she did get my attention with these ominous words: "You need to stop tweeting about Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway. NOW! Or soon, we won't have any friends left at all!"

Well, I try to ignore most people because I suspect they may be stooges of Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway. But not my wife! One cannot ignore my wife and experience any hopes for survival and a happy life. And so, I agreed. I stopped tweeting about Donald Trump and started tweeting about mushrooms instead. On Facebook, I stopped asserting myself against the wraith-like Kellyanne Conway, and instead began posting photos of my granddaughter, cuddling with kittens and ducklings. (My granddaughter, unlike Conway, is VERY cute, by the way! As are kittens and ducklings.)

The slide in my follower numbers magically stopped sliding. My Facebook follower count stabilized at three. (My wife was still following me, bless her heart. Of course somebody needed to make sure I actually followed her instructions.) And my Twitter account also stabilized at three. One was my friend John, who is a faithful supporter of Donald Trump, but who cares about me enough anyway not to unfriend me.

The other two? It's a mystery to me who they are (as I've never really been aware of who two-thirds of my social media "friends" are anyway), but I rather suspect they are stooge accounts for Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway, who are no doubt following that sage advice: "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." And waiting for me to make one more misstep. One more nice tweet about refugees, or even a link to two self-contradicting "alternate facts" uttered by either of them, and I'm sure I'll find myself on some terrorist watchlist and detained the next time I Uber somebody up to SeaTac airport. (I've told my wife that if I disappear, she can look for her red Prius up in the Uber waiting lot north of the airport, hidden amongst 253 other red Priuses all driven by men with turbans who will no doubt also abandon their vehicles the moment an ICE agent appears.)

Oh dear. Three Facebook followers. Three Twitter followers. There's that number again. And what about 253? Let's see ... divide it by three: 84.333 ad infinitum ... yes! There is HOPE! Good will ultimately prevail in the battle against evil!

So, that's my conspiracy theory. I'm sure this post will be continued, even if I'm not here to continue it. (I wonder if they'll let me keep my smartphone at Guantanamo?) If you'd like to respond (and yes, I'm speaking to you, Darlene, John, Donald, or Kellyanne), please post a comment, which will be reviewed and hopefully approved by 253 men in turbans who are currently sitting up in the Uber waiting lot north of Seatac airport with nothing better to do.

Coincidence? I think not.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Laboring in the Chick-Fil-A Vineyard

I think one of the more interesting parables of Jesus' is the one found in Matthew 20.

In it, a vineyard owner goes out to hire workers to harvest his crop. Early in the day, he hires a group of workers, and promises to pay them a certain wage (a denarius), as he puts them (gladly!) to work.

But about noon, he decides he needs more workers, so he goes and hires more to complete the second half of the day, also promising to pay these a denarius.

Finally, with only about an hour left before quitting time, he then goes out a final time to hire a final group of workers. These he also graciously promises a denarius to join the (labor) party.

At the end of the day, when all the workmen gather around to receive their wages, those who started first are (someone understandably, to my twisted way of thinking) unhappy about the fact that those who only had to work an hour, were paid the same as they. But you know the story: The vineyard owner says, "Why are you grumbling? Didn't I pay you what I promised? Isn't what I pay those others my own business?"

I guess my struggle with this scenario has been the seeming inequity of it. A workman is worthy of his hire, after all. It seems unfair of the vineyard owner to pay some more than others, to pay some people a full day's wage for just an hour's work, when others have worked hard all day for the same amount.

I think the source of my discomfort comes from the fact that the workers are working for the vineyard owner. And we realize that, in this scenario, the vineyard owner is God. Does God truly reserve the right to distribute His grace unfairly?

One Long Night at the Chick-Fil-A

Recently our friends Jason and Hannah Comerford told us about an opportunity to win 52 free meals at Chick-Fil-A. The Christian-owned fast food operation (known for its solid Christian values) just built a new restaurant here on South Hill, and they always celebrate such openings with a promotion called #CFAfirst100. The first 100 people to show up before 6 a.m. on the day they open each get 52 free meals with a discount card good for up to a year! Sweet.

Jason and Hannah love Chick-Fil-A and they were excited about being among the first 100. The trick was, typically, people start lining up 24 hours in advance of the Grand Opening, which is when they open the Chick-Fil-A's parking lot and bathrooms to campers who get in line.

Jason and Hannah wanted to be sure they were in the first 100, so they showed up before 6 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8. (Grand opening was 6 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9.)

You may recall what Feb. 8 was like ... it was cold. And wet. Piles of mushy snow still on the ground. So, picture sitting in these miserable conditions for 24 hours, waiting for Chick-Fil-A to open, just so you can win free chicken meals for a year! But, that's what they wanted to do. So they packed up a tent, cots, sleeping bags, and lots of warm clothing and claimed their spot in the cold, wet, Chick-Fil-A parking spot. And they found themselves within the first 10 winners!

Later that day Martin and I were planning on having lunch, and on my way I stopped by to see how they were doing. When I arrived, shortly before noon, I learned that the usual crowds hadn't materialized and there were still about 50 slots open in the #CFAfirst100 promotion! Since I was hungry and the smell of mouth-watering Chick-Fil-A filled the air, I decided to grab my camping gear and join them.

After lunch, I arrived with my gear at about 2 p.m. and became #CFAfirst100 winner #52. Now all I had to do was survive about 18 hours of bitter cold, wet weather. (Mind you, by this time Jason and Hannah had already been on scene for more than 8 hours!)

Later that night, about dinnertime, we learned there were still a dozen or so slots available. So we began "phoning friends." One of them, Rebekah McKenzie, said she would like to join, but it wouldn't be until later that evening.

We joked about how seemingly unfair that would feel ... now that we had suffered through hours and hours of cold, wet temperatures (6 hours in my case, and 14 hours in Jason and Hannah's). That's when Hannah first said: "Yeah ... that would be kind of like Christ's parable of the vineyard workers, wouldn't it?" The lightbulb began to go on ...

... then it went off until 5:30 a.m., when loudspeakers began urging us to arise and claim our final prize. When I dragged my sorry carcass out of my warm (but slightly damp) sleeping bag and headed for my place in line, there was Rebekah! And also Samantha Naron! They arrived about the time I bedded down the evening before. And Rebekah said she was winner #100!

So Rebekah and Sam had to put up with about 8 hours of nasty conditions in order to get their 52 meals. I had to put up with about 16 hours ... but Jason and Hannah were there 24 hours!

As we talked about that, it occurred to me how starkly like the true parable of Christ's that was. In some senses, us hanging out in Chick-Fil-A's parking lot was work. But it was also fun. And, it was definitely a blessing. They had games, and good food, and there were great people to hang out with. I renewed several old acquaintances and made some new friends as well. (I'm still amazed at how many people Jason and Hannah already knew in that parking lot!)

Perhaps even better was the sense of grace and blessing. Rather than be jealous for Rebekah and Sam's good fortune (relatively speaking), I found myself excited for them. We all got the exact same reward, no matter how long we had persevered.

Jason and Hannah were there a lot longer than I was, of course ... which also made me realize how blessed I was to get the 52 free meals without having to actually suffer the full 24 hours of "parking lot life" for it.

It's not really about the work, is it?

This new analogy of God's grace has given me a renewed appreciation for Christ's parable. I really don't think His focus was the same as mine was, on "the work" completed by the vineyard workers. In reality, the day's wages was a blessing for all who received the denarius. And work itself is a blessing from God! Rather than grumble about the seeming disparity, the earlier workers should have been grateful to the Lord of the Harvest for being included in the party at all. And the newer workers of course should have been overwhelmed with blessing at their good fortune.

Grace all around!

Eat more Chickin'!


This event has also given me a new appreciation for Chick-Fil-A. This wonderful business is bearing witness to the culture in so many ways. Everything they did during those 24 hours was excellent and "in order." We even got to go indoors for a few hours, where it was nice and warm ... to pack meals for local homeless! (They supplied the materials, and the venue, and we supplied the labor. It was A LOT of fun! Not to mention their nice, clean, warm, spotless bathrooms!)

And the entire time, they had music and entertainment going. I noted with interest that the music seemed to mostly be instrumental versions of popular worship songs that I enjoy! Interesting.

Something else my new appreciation for Chick-Fil-A is doing for me ... it's making me hungry! Time for lunch. Chick-Fil-A, here I come!!! One down, 51 to go.

* * *

P.S.: Here's a fun article in the Puyallup Patch about the "First 100" event. The photo features my good friend and World Vision colleague Jack Laverty, who just happens to be the son-in-law of Elimites Gordy and Linda McCoy!

(So, if you want to eat more chickin', spend some time hanging out with the McCoys, and maybe it will happen! Don't come a-knockin' at my door, though ...)

P.P.S.: I apologize to Rebekah that in an earlier version I got her arrival time wrong ... I blame sleeping standing up. (And I'm still not exactly sure when Sam arrived!)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Uber Vs. Lyft

I have been driving for Uber since October 2016 (nearly five months now). Recently (about three weeks ago) I was accepted to also drive for Lyft. Simultaneously, I was certified to drive in King County, Washington, as well as my native Pierce County, for both Uber and Lyft.

Many people have asked: Which do I like better, Uber, or Lyft? And what's the difference? I thought I might use this blog post to try and answer that question.

Driving for Both Uber and Lyft

I can drive for both Uber and Lyft because I am an independent contractor, a driver for hire. Each company has very similar requirements, though in this county, Lyft is probably more stringent. (They require licensing in both Seattle and Tacoma, whereas Uber just requires Tacoma. Lyft also requires a Washington State business license; Uber does not. Both require a federal defensive driving course certificate, and also city knowledge courses, as well as passage of a vehicle inspection and background security check.)

The Seattle business license is more than twice the price of the Tacoma one. But now that I have a driver for hire business license in both Tacoma and Seattle, I can pick up riders in both Pierce and King Counties. Which means I don't necessarily have to "deadhead" it back from an airport fare, but can pick up riders on the way back. (This sounds great in principle, but I have yet to find any riders returning from the airport. There is a long queue for both Uber and Lyft drivers at the airport.)

Both Uber and Lyft use sophisticated apps for drivers. It is easy to tell the app you are available for riders. I typically turn both apps on at the same time, and wait for my first rider. If the pickup is within 20 minutes, I accept the fare, and turn the opposite app off for the duration.

What I Like About Driving for Both Uber and Lyft

Both services give you a great deal of flexibility. If you want to work, you simply turn on the app. When you are done, you just turn it off, and that's that. As an independent contractor, you are basically your own boss.

With both services, I've found you have the potential to make between $10 and $20 per hour. They both advertise that more is possible, but I have yet to figure out how to actually make more. So much simply depends on the luck of the draw: The fares you get, how quickly you get them, how far away they are (your drive to the fare's pickup location is totally on your own dime), what kind of gas mileage your vehicle gets (you pay for your own gas), whether or not the fare is picked up in a "surge" area (more about surging later), how far the fare is traveling, etc.

What I Don't Like About Driving for both Uber and Lyft

My main frustration about both services is that neither tells you (until your fare is in the car) exactly where you are taking them. For all you know, they're going to Montana, and once they are in your vehicle and you discover this, you are pretty much committed to taking them there. This is (obviously) a major problem for drivers.

One Sunday afternoon I wanted to do a little driving. My first fare was to the SeaTac airport, a 45-minute ride up from Graham. I got paid (minimally) for the 45 minutes up, but the 45 minutes back were at my own expense. (This is called "deadheading.")

My next fare wanted to go to Seattle. I made a little bit more on the ride up, but now the deadheading back took an hour.

I decided to take one more fare, and prayed it would be local. It was nearly dinnertime and I was quite tired. But they wanted to go to a restaurant north of Seattle. It took more than an hour to get there, and at least that much time (unpaid) back.

I had invested more than 5 hours of driving the three fares. I made a little over $100, but my gas was probably $30, so $70 for 5+ hours of driving. Barely over minimum wage, and I was exhausted.

What's worse is when you drive out a half hour to puick someone up, only to discover they want to go 2 miles. (They could have walked.) You make the five or ten-minute drive with them, get paid about $5, then have to drive a half hour back to your point of origin. You've invested over an hour (plus about $5 or $10 in gas) for a $5 fare.

This could all be prevented if both Uber and Lyft would simply tell you (before you accept a fare) their destination. But neither do, because they want you to accept every fare, even if it means you as the driver get the shaft in the process. Both services obviously care more about riders than they do about drivers.

Pros and Cons of Each

This major drawback is partly alleviated by something Lyft does which they call "destination mode." If you go to the airport, you can move into "destination mode," which means you tell it you only want fares that are heading your direction (home). You get far fewer fares, but at least you don't wind up with someone who wants to go north of Seattle while you are trying to head south toward home (and dinner).

But, in this county at least, Lyft has far smaller market penetration than Uber. This means you get fewer requests, and that you have to travel further for the few you get. I frequently get pings from Lyft to ask me to pick up a fare a half hour away. My personal cutoff is 20 minutes, but I have no way of telling either Uber or Lyft this, so I end up denying a lot of requests, and they chastise you for this (if your "acceptance rate" is "too low").

However, most drivers (and riders too) seem to like Lyft better than Uber. I think this is because their customer service is a little better, and there are a few things they do that make more sense for both drivers and riders (like allowing drivers to filter according to destination).

Lyft also allows riders to tip using their credit card, and Uber does not (although we drivers can accept cash tips from Uber riders).

Because Lyft's market penetration is lower (at least here in Pierce County), that also means Lyft riders experience longer wait times for a ride than Uber riders do. Which is probably frustrating, since they are paying a little bit more than Uber riders.

Surging

"Surging" happens when a supply-and-demand algorithm determines that there is a higher demand for drivers than there is supply in a given area, and therefore prices for the riders increase. I have seen surge pricing go as high as four times the normal fare, and I've heard it can go even higher than that under extreme circumstances.

In this area, Uber surges daily. I have yet to see Lyft surge anywhere.

But even Uber's surges are very unpredictable and temporal in nature. Surges often last just a few minutes, much quicker than you can typically get there. And by driving into a surging area with your app on, you may change the supply-and-demand balance. I've frequently seen surges evaporate in front of me as I drive into surging areas with my app on.

Also, the services inform riders about surge pricing, and they are often savvy enough to know that if they wait a few minutes, the surge might evaporate. So I've had the frequent experience of driving through a surging area, only to get fares as soon as the surge has ended.

This experience leads me to believe that surging is primarily a gimmick to entice drivers to get out there and drive. It's a rainbow to chase, that you can rarely catch. I have (by sheer luck) gotten one or two surge-priced rides, but such things are rare. So, mostly I've learned to ignore surging, and just drive when I am available to drive.

Conclusion

For me, the jury is still out. Both services are so similar, though there are slight advantages (in different respects) to each. As a driver, I'm perfectly happen doing both Uber and Lyft, at least for the time being.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Summary of Apocalypse (Part 1 of 3)

A lot of people have been asking me what "Apocalypse" (the science fiction novel I am working on now, currently writing on chapter 4) is about. It's been more than a decade in the planning, and I still struggle to summarize it, elevator-speech fashion. So I thought I would take a break from the writing to try and present a brief summary here.

(The challenge, of course — in addition to being brief — will be to not include any spoilers!)

This blog post covers only the first third of the novel, which is subtitled simply ...

Apophis.


Apocalypse starts with the end of Planet Earth as we know it. NASA and other space agencies have been tracking large, civilization-threatening asteroids (near-earth objects, or NEOs) for some time. One which briefly caused them concern as a potential existential threat, way back in December of 2004 when it was first discovered and calculations showed it might come perilously close to striking the earth in 2029, was 99942 Apophis. But further orbital dynamics measurements and observations quickly determined the threat from Apophis was minimal, that it would miss earth in 2029 by a comfortably large margin.

That all changes on September 11, 2027, when "something" (or someone) unseen provides an explosive nudge to Apophis, way out in the asteroid belt as it is inbound toward Earth ... and its chance of striking our planet suddenly changes to 100%. Its new course has the civilization killer striking us dead-center on April 13, 2029, and the world has only six short months to do something about it ... and also, to deal with the unseen enemy who apparently wants us dead.

Apocalypse follows this story through the lives of three very distinct individuals, who are dealing with the coming catastrophe in far different ways, and who will ultimately be brought together under the most unlikely of circumstances:

Mitchell Feofan is an American astronaut, of Russian descent, who is working on the International Space Station with the Orion interplanetary exploration program when sudden preparations for an urgent voyage to intercept Apophis (and to "deal with" the adversary who nudged it) are drawn up. He leads the three-person, one-way mission into the unknown, which is humanity's only hope for surviving the catastrophe. His ship, the Orion-class USS Menelvagor, is loaded to the hilt with the most lethal weapons ever devised by humankind, in hopes of stopping the fate coming at earth like a titanic steamroller.

And of course, in addition to dealing with the more skin-crawling aspects of their deadly payload, Feofan also has to put up with the antics of Rigel, their onboard artificial intelligence.

Fadi Tanzilur is, in almost every respect, Feofan's antithesis. He is a Middle Easterner who has been cultivated by terrorists to stop the European Space Agency (ESA) from completing its mission to deflect Apophis. The organization he represents believes the apocalypse must happen first in order for a new civilization to be rebuilt under Sharia Law. And Tanzilur and his accomplices are in position to execute their bombing of ESA headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, when something truly extraordinary begins to shake the foundations of his life and cause him to dramatically change direction.

And then there is Ukwambulu Liyana, who lives in a world far apart from the struggles either to stop Apophis or profit from the disaster it brings. An impoverished victim of abusive power, she has risen above her own disempowerment and now works to help HIV-afflicted women living in a shantytown in Durban, South Africa. Along with an Anglican priest who changes her life forever, she finds herself on the day of disaster on the beach which is closest to the asteroid's projected point of impact in the Indian Ocean. There she catches a glimpse of a key role that she will play in the unveiling of a new era for humanity.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What’s Your Exploitation Quotient?

In recent days I’ve felt particularly vulnerable to the possibility of exploitation. This wasn’t something I considered when I got laid off in early August from my 22-year job with World Vision. But being jobless, and the prospect of approaching a time (in the near future) when our income may be considerably smaller than it is today, leaves one with certain feelings of vulnerability.

And the thing that has been a shock to me, which I didn’t expect at all, is all the people and organizations “out there” who seek to exploit that vulnerability for their own ends.

My first real taste of this came about two months ago. I was looking for a new job, hard and fast, and using a legitimate employment site was contacted by a company in San Francisco that was supposedly looking for a Social Media Director. The job seemed a good fit. After an hour-long interview (which I felt went well), the hiring manager offered me a job. The bad news is, it turned out to be a total scam. The good news is, I got suspicious before I actually lost anything. (Read more about this story on my blog.)

I reported the scam to the FBI, but never even got a call back. Someone told me these type of scams were so common they don’t even, apparently, get investigated. This was just the first of many attempts to exploit my current vulnerability. I receive multiple emails daily from insurance companies, employment sites, and others offering me work-at-home “jobs” which are too good to be true. I now realize the vast majority of these are attempts to exploit people who are in a vulnerable position because they have been laid off.

I’ve had lots of time to think about why this happens. People seek to exploit us daily. Sometimes it’s obvious; other times it’s very subtle. Sometimes strangers are the culprits; other times it’s people we know, trust, and love.

Yes, it’s true — we often seek to exploit each other. Even in the Church, sometimes I think we fall victim to this. It might come in the form of trying to “guilt” someone into serving or fulfilling a particular ministry need. Or perhaps it might come in the form of pressuring someone to give to a specific financial need, for reasons other than their best interest.

Or sometimes we might attend worship services or other church events, or participate in small groups or ministries for what WE will get out of it, how it will benefit us, rather than engaging from the core motivation that others might be blessed by our presence, service and participation.

Upon reflection, I also realize that interpersonally we often seek to exploit the people we love, even perhaps without really thinking about it. We might manipulate a spouse or a child or a parent or a friend into doing something we want them to do for us, that isn’t necessarily in their best interest. But because WE want it, we might manipulate the relationship, sometimes without even thinking about it, to exploit their vulnerability to make it happen. Or we might treat them in such a way as to make them feel “smaller,” so that we can magnify ourselves by comparison and “feel better about ourself.”

In 2 Peter 2:3, the Apostle had strong words for those who would exploit others:
And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
You’ve heard the saying: “Don’t use people and love stuff — love people, and use stuff!” One of the remarkable things about Jesus’ life is that there was no trace of exploitation in it. While others frequently sought to use Him for their own personal ends, His every thought, word and deed was for the ultimate good of the people He loved and was sent to serve. 1 John 4:10 says:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
This verse acknowledges the stark reality that we are lousy at loving. And God is very, very good at it! So much so, that it is said of Him, “God is love.” (Sadly, I am not aware that anyone has ever said, “Larry is love!”)

So my question and my conviction is, “How can we get better at loving others?”

I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Christ constantly urged His disciples: “Love one another. By this will all men know that you are My disciples, because of the love you have for one another.”

Not a word about exploiting one another in any of that, is there?

So, I guess I will leave you (and me) with this challenge: What’s your exploitation quotient? Are you (perhaps unintentionally) acting in such a way that exploits those around you, even those you love, rather than loving them unconditionally and seeking to build them up?

If you need help loving others the way Jesus loves us, you’re not alone. I think it’s a challenge that confronts all of us. Let’s seek to prayerfully and honestly stimulate and encourage one another to “love and good deeds,” as Scripture commands.

Friday, October 21, 2016

How do we look at faithfulness?

Reprinted from "The Last Word," the leadership blog of Elim Evangelical Free Church.

Cheryl Weller is very faithful to remind us elders when she needs a Last Word from us. Last week, she told me, “You are on schedule to write the Last Word for next week. Can you have something to me by Tuesday?”

“Sure!” I said, then promptly forgot about it. (I almost said, “of course,” but we’ll talk about that in a moment!)

Last night (Tuesday at 10:20 p.m.) she emailed me and (very graciously!) said: “Hey Larry, do you have a Last Word? I needed it today, as I’m publishing tomorrow. Any chance of getting that by noon ready to publish? Thanks! Cheryl :)”

The bad news is, I didn’t receive her email until this morning. I would hit myself in the head with my shoe, but that’s happened too many times before and my head is already sore from yesterday’s abuse. So here I am, pounding it out guiltily! (Referring to the Last Word . . . not my head.)

The good news is, I have been thinking about “faithfulness,” and this whole situation gives me great ammunition. I in so many ways fall short of God’s standard of faithfulness, and this is just another example. As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been listing in my head reasons for my unfaithfulness. They start out as excuses, but end up migrating toward real-life examples of my own sinfulness.

  • My memory is terrible! That’s a big excuse I use a lot for blowing people off when I promise them something (like a Last Word done by Tuesday) and then fail to deliver. I’m a busy person! I have too much going on! Blah, blah, blah. The truth is, I don’t sufficiently value my word, so that when I promise something, I don’t make it a high enough priority to deliver.
  • I de-prioritized delivering on that commitment because I had higher priorities come along. Cheryl has given me grace before, and I knew she would give me grace again. See #1 above!
  • I didn’t really mean what I said when I said it. Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” I interpret this to mean, “God’s faithfulness is known by His Word. Your word should be golden. Tell the truth, mean what you say, and do what you say.” Seems simple, no?

  • Selfishness and other sinful priorities. Here’s where it gets really uncomfortable. What was I doing yesterday that was more important than writing the Last Word? I made three Facebook posts. I did some training for a new job. I made a few bucks driving for Uber. I was tired and took a nap. For goodness’ sake, I apparently (without even thinking about it) prioritized my nap above my commitment to Cheryl to finish this Last Word yesterday! When I look at the topic of God’s faithfulness, I frequently think it’s a no-brainer. Of course God is faithful, I reason. He has a perfect memory. He has all the time in the world. He has the wisdom to prioritize properly. We may simply take it for granted (I may take it for granted) that God will do what He says!

Obviously, this speaks far better of God than it does of me, but here’s the truth: We should never take God’s faithfulness for granted. It’s a matter of life and death for us! Let’s take a look at some of the promises Scripture gives, related to God’s faithfulness:

Psalm 26:3 – For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness.

There are 170 references to the words “faithful” and “faithfulness” throughout Scripture, and many of them tie God’s faithfulness to His steadfast love for us. His faithfulness is proof of His love, as it were. And it’s His faithfulness that creates a path for us to navigate the challenges of daily life.

1 John 1:9 – If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Without God’s faithfulness to forgive us, we would be condemned to pay the penalty (of death) for our own sins!

1 Corinthians 10:13 – No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Because God is faithful, we can resist temptation, knowing there is ALWAYS a way of escape.

Psalm 86:14; 119:75 – But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. . . . I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

God’s faithfulness establishes His mercy and grace as constants in our lives; even when we are “afflicted” (sometimes because of God’s discipline), we can bank on God’s faithfulness to us!

Psalm 89:14 – Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

God’s faithfulness, once again acting in concert with His steadfast love, is based upon the foundation of His righteousness and absolute commitment to true justice.

2 Thessalonians 3:3 – But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.

Like Job, we may be assaulted by the onslaughts of the evil one. But God has promised to establish and guard us in the midst of those assaults. Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world!

Psalm 31:5 – Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

These were Christ’s very last words as he died on the cross and gave up His spirit into the hands of the Father He loved, whose faithfulness He trusted so deeply. At every moment, and at the very end of our lives, each of us will be confronted with a choice to do the same. Do we trust our souls to the One who created us and promises to redeem us for all eternity?

When I think about it, neglecting to deliver a Last Word at a promised time may be among the least of my acts of faithlessness. Every time I cheat somebody something I owe them or am faithless to my wife with my eyes (by fancying a passing pretty girl a little too longingly, etc.), or “stretch the truth” in my conversation, I am demonstrating my own faithlessness.

Thank God He is faithful and just to forgive, and that His faithfulness is a sign of His steadfast love for me! Let’s pray together that faithfulness, one of the fruits of the Spirit presented in Galatians 5:22, would ever more clearly mark us out as those who are called children of the Father.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Nonprofits: Develop your social listening strategy, tools and tactics NOW

I recently left (for financial reasons) a wonderful organization I'd been employed at for nearly 23 years. My history there: I started out at the nonprofit as a writer and editor, founded the organization's web presence (and created most of the products that now help it to raise about half of its billion-dollars-per-year in revenue online), and launched its most integral social media channels (such as its corporate blog, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels), which have also experienced unprecedented success.

My Introduction to Social Listening

During the last few years I served as a member of the organization's corporate social media team,  and one of my key goals (in addition to providing social content, channel management, analytics and online customer care) was to "figure out" social listening. What is it? Who's doing it and what are best practices? How can it help a nonprofit organization like the one I worked for?

I participated in numerous webinars and did a lot of research, then jumped in.

Creating Your Strategy

The first task, once you understand what social listening is, why you should be doing it and how it can help our causes and organizations, is to develop a clear strategy. As with any strategy, it must be well-informed, realistic and achievable, but also ambitious and visionary. And it must take into account the various realities and the interdependencies of the organization you serve.

I wrote a one-pager that outlined what I thought our strategy should be. My supervisor presented it to senior management and they loved it. The bottom line was: If we did social listening right, using some of the cool new tools out there to help us sort through and make sense of "big data," we could position our organization well for continued growth and success by: 1) informing senior management and key stakeholders of social trends and sentiment of our customers as it was occurring; 2) Become far more responsive to our customers (or, in our case, our donors') concerns and opinions; 3) alert us to vital "risk" concerns early in the game; and 3) Equip our own customer service specialists with the data they need, right at their fingertips, to interact effectively with our customers/donors.

Now It's Time To Talk Tactics

After numerous RFPs and interviews, we engaged a firm that one of our national offices had already been working with, Tracx, because we liked the simplicity of the interface they offered, how well they were connected with and seemed able to sift through "big data" sources, and the apparent simplicity/clarity of their customer interface and reporting system. They also worked the hardest of any of the firms we interviewed to get our business, and gave us a preliminary (first-year) price which truly was a good deal. They wanted the account, and seemed like they deserved it.

My management then tasked me with implementing the strategy I had outlined, tactically. I was to create a daily (informal) reporting system that made key stakeholders, specifically those who needed to be aware of risks in the social arena, aware quickly of either general negative sentiment or very specific negative attacks on our organization occurring out there in social space. These stakeholders included the "risk" group within our PR department, social media management, and key representatives from our donor service area. These would assess the relative risk of the information I presented (by email and phone, if urgency demanded) and escalate as appropriate, to our legal area, or senior management, or other stakeholders.

The next reporting tactic was a weekly social listening report, which I prepared in digital and paper form and presented to a group of content management specialists and key organizational stakeholders. This weekly report graphically summarized sentiment analysis for our organization's social interactions, and for those of some key competitors we had identified and were tracking. It also presented conversation trends (in "word cloud" fashion) for key words and phrases we were following, most importantly our own brand terms. And it tracked general trends related to social conversation on our channels and those of our competitors.

If social media followers were engaging with our competitors over specific issues, it was very helpful to understand this and jump in with ideas about how we could provide content to help us become a part of this conversation. Or if content we had provided was really spiking social interest, in contrast to other content we had "out there," it was extremely helpful to give this feedback to the appropriate department in hopes they could "do more of the same."

Because I was responsible for customer care in association with our key social channels, and in collaboration with those channel managers, I also had my finger on the pulse of how our customers were sharing their concerns with us on channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and how they were feeling about our products or core offerings and our content. I therefore included a section at the end of each weekly report to share highlights of key customer feedback and trends, and I made sure our more "traditional" customer service departments (such as our call center, mail center and email correspondents) were hearing me and paying attention.

Finally, I aggregated these weekly reports together into a monthly report which I "prettied up" a bit so my management could send it on up to senior management and give them an easy, visual way to keep in touch with social sentiment of our donors and of those interacting with our competitors. These highly visible monthly and quarterly reports were designed both to equip senior management ... and keep our own department's bread buttered, so to speak!

There are so many reasons social listening, which is being practiced well by today's most responsive business organizations, is an essential skill for nonprofits who want to be successful in the competitive environment they are operating in.

Taking It the "Next Step" — Integrating Social Listening Into Your CRM

One of the things I was hoping would happen while I was still with my organization, but which they have not yet gotten traction on (due to the complexity of the project), is integration of our social listening data with our back-end customer data, or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

A call center representative accessing the CRM account for a donor who calls in upset about something needs to be able to answer such questions as: Does the complainant have a significant social media following? Are they now airing (or are they likely to air) their concerns on their social media channels? If so, does more damage control need to be done? Beyond simply safeguarding the organization's reputation with this donor and keeping them happy, what would be the public engagement benefits of "going the extra mile" to make sure we hear and address their concerns? Etc.

I'm sure you can see the potential, right?

Integrating a social listening system with your CRM on the back-end is no simple task, but the world's best in class organizations are doing it now. So we should be thinking about it!

I'm Listening ... To YOU!

I'd love to hear how your organization is implementing social listening strategy and tactics. What are you learning? Is it worth it? What are the pitfalls and obstacles you are encountering?

And where do you think it's all going from here?