Monday, December 09, 2013

My system for creating and remembering secure passwords: Part 3

In my last two posts, I shared ways to create random and/or complex passwords. Now to a system I have recently discovered for remembering random strings of characters and digits, such as passwords.

A memory technique book I recently read talked about how our brains are wired to remember things in unique ways. This was actually a relief to me. Memorizing a string of random characters and/or numbers and/or symbols, such as what a complex password might comprise, I formerly considered to be an exceedingly arduous task. My brain is just not wired to remember a random password sequence. And I actually think, while some are gifted with so-called "photographic" memories, very few of us have brains that function that way.

But what ARE our brains wired to remember? The book I read pointed out two things our brains are typically wired to remember ... and I fully agree with both:

1) Story. Particularly unique stories with unexpected twists. Most of us can create in our heads (and easily remember) stories that contain unique situations or sequences.

2) Journey. Basically a "journey" is a set of signposts in a sequence, incurred during a journey from point A to point B. For instance, you may frequently take walks around your neighborhood, or drive a long distance to work and back each day, or walk around your place of employment, visiting people in their cubicles. It's interesting that after finding our way the first time, we rarely have any trouble remembering exactly where to turn, how far to go before we turn, etc. You can walk through complex neighborhoods, even through forests where the trees all look quite similar, turning right or left at various landmarks or intersections or other signposts, often without even thinking about it consciously. Except in the forest, perhaps, there's little chance of you getting lost. Most of us remember journey (geography) fairly readily. We take daily journeys without fear of getting lost.

So, what if you were to combine these two types of memory together, in an effort to remember random strings of characters and/or numbers? What do I mean by that?

As an example, let me share how I remember randomly generated passwords. I went to just now and asked it to generate me a random password, 10 characters in length. It happened to come up with:
  • 2cAutjR3Ut
Before we start our "journey of imagination," let's create a few arbitrary "rules." One rule is that wherever a single-digit number appears in my password sequence, I will associate with that number an object that rhymes with it. For instance:

one = bun
two = shoe
three = tree
four = door
five = hive
six = sticks
seven = heaven
eight = crate
nine = sign
zero = hero

The second rule is that wherever a letter appears, I will associate that letter with a person I know whose first name starts with that letter. In cases where this doesn't work (such as the letter "i" ... I don't think I know anyone whose first name starts with "i") I will use a little imagination ... for instance, I associate the letter "i" with the famous writers' group known as "The Inklings," which was comprised of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others.

The third rule I have is that when a letter is capitalized, I visualize that person wearing a cap of some sort. If the letter is lowercase, I visualize them with head bared. For instance, for "D" I visualize my brother Don, wearing a baseball cap.

So, the next task is to assign each object (representing a number) or person (representing a letter, either wearing a cap or not) to a signpost point in a journey. The journey can be a walk around your neighborhood, or around your workplace. Wherever, just pick something you can visualize in your mind.

So now, it's easy to use our imagination to create a story. The story is a journey, starting at a specified point and ending at a specified point, with the number of signposts or waypoints synchronized to the number of characters you wish to remember. For our 10 character password, I will assign a journey with 10 signposts, and an easy sequence to follow. For instance, our offices at work ...

The first signpost is the first office (on the left, occupied by interns) which you come to as you enter our department. Since our first character is "2," I visualize a lone shoe sitting on the chair in that office, representing the number "2."

The next office on the left is my office. The next letter in the sequence is a lowercase "c." I visualize our cat, whose name is Carmen, sitting on my chair, staring at my "mouse."

The third office is my boss's, Amy. That's easy ... a capital A, so I visualize Amy wearing a baseball cap, sitting at her desk and engaged in deep thought.

The next office (to the left, we are traveling clockwise) is our director's office, Johnny, up against the window. The letter is "u." This creates a bit of a problem, because I don't know anyone personally whose name starts with "u." So, at this point I can either resort to historical figures, such as Ulysses Grant, or celebrities, such as Uma Thurmin. Since our director is male, I choose Ulysses S. Grant, and visualize the famous general sitting at our director's desk, perhaps directing a civil war battle from his laptop ... bareheaded.

Next is "t" ... that's easy. My brother-in-law, Tom. No hat. Sitting in the office to the left of our director. Tom is a soldier, so I visualize him giving Ulysses S. Grant battle advice over the cubicle wall they share.

Next to Tom is our printer room. The letter is "j." My best friend's name is "John." So I visualize John (without a cap), standing in front of the printer, printing out some sort of report of how the battle is going.

Next comes our storage room. My daughter-in-law, Rebecca is standing in there looking through boxes. (She is a school teacher, and she is always shopping for school supplies.) Since it's cold outside and she's just visiting, she's wearing a knitted cap on her head. (The letter is "R".)

In the eighth position we have the number "3." I visualize a tree, growing in our interns' office (which is on the left of our storage room). This is fairly easy to do, since we haven't had an intern in there since summer.

The next waypoint on my journey around the office is an empty cubicle, which used to be occupied by our corporate relations manager. In this office, I visualize Uma Thurmin, with a cap on her head. (Actually, Uma looks a lot like our former Corporate Relations Manager, which makes it easier.)

Finally, we come to our conference room. And sitting at the table is another lowercase "t" ... it seems my brother-in-law, Tom, has finished shouting battle instructions (apparently Ulysses was victorious) and has now moved over to sit at the conference table and enjoy a victor's cup of coffee. And he is still not wearing a cap.

So, now that we have a story, and sequence assigning individuals or objects to various signposts, it just becomes a matter of mentally rehearsing the journey, which you have to do several times ... close your eyes and visualize yourself walking through the office, stopping at each waypoint and observing the item or person there and what they are doing ...

  • 2 - a shoe in the chair in the first office on the left
    c - our cat, Carmen, staring at my computer mouse ... no cap on her head
  • A - My boss, Amy, sitting at her desk wearing a baseball cap
  • u - Ulysses S. Grant, without a cap, sitting in our director's chair
  • t - Tom, without a cap, in the office next to our director
  • j - John, capless, in our printer room
  • R - Rebecca, with a cap on, in our storage room
  • 3 - a tree, growing in our empty intern office
  • U - Uma Thurmin, with a cap on, in the now-empty cubicle
  • t - Tom, capless, sitting at our conference table enjoying victory coffee
Yes, I know this sounds weird/bizarre, but that's one of the things that makes the "story/journey" memorable. The weirder the better! And, if you walk through the location a few times, visualizing the people or objects which represent each number or letter, before long you will easily be able to remember the whole sequence. Soon you will even be able to repeat it without discretely visualizing the weird little "story" you have created.

Do you find it easy to memorize random sequences like this? Do you use a system? Are you willing to try this one? I'd definitely be interested in your feedback!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

My system for creating and remembering secure passwords: Part 2

One of my jobs as a digital media manager for World Vision is to ensure that the passwords our staff uses to access web and social media platforms are sufficiently secure so that hackers are deterred from taking over our resources and using them to their own evil devices. When I arrived in my current department, nearly three years ago, I discovered that some passwords were as basic as "children." That's not a terribly secure password, especially for an organization that focuses on the needs of children.

I mentioned in my last post that a password like "Fido" can easily be hacked by current hacking software, in a matter of seconds. On the other hand, a randomized, 10-character password (including mixed cased numbers, letters, and possibly a symbol or two) might take 6 years or longer for a desktop computer to hack.

We also talked about sites that can help you create totally randomized passwords. But such passwords are obviously more difficult to remember. So in this blog I want to share with you two systems for creating complex passwords that you can more easily remember.

First System: Divide and Conquer

Step 1. Select a series of something you will easily remember. It might be favorite foods, restaurants, cities you have lived in, books of the Bible, names of friends, pets' names, whatever. For instance, let's say you are a big Mexican food fan. Your series might include:
etc. (Note, I am color-coding different components of the password just to make it easier for you to see how it all comes together!)

Step 2. Now think of a series of numbers that you can easily remember. It might be the last X number of digits of your social security number, or a phone number, street address, whatever. Let's say your phone number is 253-555-1212.

Step 3. Next, divide each word as close to the halfway mark as possible. (I divide between syllables.) Start at the top of the list. The word "enchilada" easily divides into "enchi" and "lada."

Step 4. Now insert your selected number between the two halves of the word, like this:


Step 5. Next settle on one or more character positions you are going to capitalize. For instance, in your series of words, the short word is "tacos" which will probably divide like this: ta2535551212cos. The first half of the word is only two letters long, so let's say you decide to capitalize the 2nd letter of each half. So your two passwords now are:


And your next password in the sequence would be:


Step 6. Finally, decide on a special symbol and insert it in a set place, such as the beginning of the second string:




You will always put your symbol in the same position, so you can remember where. (Note: Some websites may not allow some symbols, which can mess up javascript processing. But an exclamation point is usually fairly safe.)

So, now you have a base password to start with (eNchi2535551212!lAdas). That password is 21 characters long, and says it would take 32 sextillion years for a desktop computer to hack this password. Pretty darned secure. But next we're going to make it even MORE secure!

Because, you know that you should NOT use the same password for more than one site, right? You should have different passwords for your Google, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, for instance.

Step 7. How to do this? The easy way is to simply add the specific platform name to the beginning or end of the password, like this:


That password is now 27 characters long and would take 6 decillion years to break. (Yes, that is a real number! A decillion, says Wikipedia, is 10 with 33 zeros after it.)

Now, some of your sites may have password maximum length requirements shorter than 27 characters. (Also, 27 characters may be a little onerous to type each time you need it.) For these two reasons, I recommend shortening either your string of numbers (say, to the last 4 digits of your phone number), and/or abbreviating your platform name (hence Google becomes G, Facebook F, Twitter T, etc.). Doing it this way, the shortest password in the series would become:


only 11 characters ... but even that short of a complex password would still take 4,000 years for a desktop computer to crack. Plenty secure! If you use GtA1212!cOs for Google, you would use FtA1212!cOs for Facebook, etc. (That way if someone ever hacks millions of Google passwords, they won't automatically get your Facebook password too.)

Hence the beauty of this system is that you can use a similar (but not identical) password for all your different platforms ... but then when you have to change a password (and I recommend changing them all at the same time), you simply move to the next phrase in the series ... from "tacos" to "tortillas", for instance. (Therefore your next Google password would become GtOrtil1212!lAs ... assuming the syllable breaks between the Ls? I'm not sure.) Your number stays the same, your sequence stays the same, your symbol remains in the same position ... in short, your system doesn't change. So as long as you have a commonsense system and a sequence of associated words you can recall, and a number you remember easily, it's relatively simple to create and keep track of all those different passwords ... while making each one very, VERY secure.

Second System: Punctuated Phrases

Other people I know use other systems which also make sense to me. For instance, some recommend taking a string of words you will easily remember ... like a portion of a Bible verse or a stanza of a song ... and inserting something (like a sequence of numbers you will remember) in between each word. Like this:


And of course you could combine this with my method of identifying each platform (Google etc.):


That 28-character string would take a desktop computer 525 decillion years to crack. (Better than the 52 seconds it would take to crack the password "children"!)

Or, you could even insert at least a portion of the reference (John 3:16 in this case) in between the words, like this:


Whatever you decide to do ... be consistent! But make sure it's sufficiently complex (at least 10 characters, including mixed case letters, numbers and possibly symbols) to put hackers out of business.

Insert special note here ... while I am giving you the details of a system I use and recommend, I am NOT giving you the details of the components of the system I use for my own passwords! (In other words, I am not revealing specific decisions I have made about the series of words or numbers, cap or symbol position, etc.) All my examples are just that.

So, go ahead and try if you'd like ... and good luck hacking me!

Next up, in the final part of this series, I want to talk about how to memorize truly complex or random passwords, or other difficult strings of letters and/or numbers. I have a terrible memory (I blame genetics) and so I was recently stumbled across a memorization technique that really works for me, much to my delight. I'll share the details in my next post ... so stay tuned!

Thursday, December 05, 2013

My system for creating and remembering secure passwords: Part 1

I know, I keep interrupting my current ShBlog series to talk about something else! Y'all know I'm ADD, right? Not severely (I don't take medication or anything, unless you consider chocolate to be medication), but just enough where I do this kind of thing a lot.

About 5 years ago Darlene told me she thought I was ADD. "No way!" I said, then went to work. In a meeting with my boss, he then told me the same thing.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yes, interrupting my blog. In the news yesterday was an item about a major social media hack affecting Facebook, Twitter, and Google users, and then some. About 2 million users have been affected, out of some 2 billion social media accounts on the planet. That gives you a 1 in 1,000 chance of being a victim of this hack.

Which is not huge, but for other reasons you want to be sure that your various online accounts are secured with great passwords. And truly great passwords are complex. "FIDO" is not a great password, for instance, especially if everyone knows the name of your dog is Fido. But, "MY2892fricken4613dogs8816name0109is9238FIDO!" is a pretty secure password.

Testing Password Strength

How do I know that? There are sites where you can plug in a proposed password, and they will tell you how long it would take a computer (which most people will use nowadays) to crack it. One such site I use is If you plug "FIDO" into the proposed password field on that site, it will give you the following info about how secure your password is:

It would take a desktop PC about 0.000114244 seconds to crack your password

I know, that's a hard number to read. Basically that's about one ten-thousandth of a second. And that computer doesn't even know your dog's name is Fido.

But how about "MY2892fricken4613dogs8816name0109is9238FIDO!"?

It would take a desktop PC about802 vigintillion yearsto crack your password

Now, I actually have no idea how long a vigintillion years is. But, I'm willing to bet it's a long time. (Actually, Wikipedia defines a vigintillion years as 10 to the 63rd power of years ... that's 10 with 63 zeros behind it. Like I said, a long time.)

So, it's actually easy to create a secure password. What I did above was take a random phrase I should be able to remember ("My fricken dog's name is Fido" ... although I think I misspelled "Frickin'"), replaced each of the spaces with random sequences of 4 numbers ... which you could do by using your social security number, telephone number, address, whatever numbers you might already be able to remember. I also added a symbol (the explanation point) in there. The longer your password is, and the more random, and the more mixed case (caps) and/or symbols and/or numbers it uses, the more secure it's going to be.

Random Password Generators

In case you have trouble thinking up such passwords, you can also use any one of a number of tools on the Web which allow you to easily create totally random passwords. My favorite is the password generator found at It allows you to create up to 100 passwords at a time, of any length between 6 and 24 characters. This particular site uses letters and numbers (not symbols), of mixed case. It also avoids letters and numbers that can easily be mistaken for others (so no 1s, Is, 0s, or Os, for instance). I just asked for a 16-character random password and got:


Plugging that into the "How Secure Is My Password" site yields the following:

It would take a desktop PC about377 billion yearsto crack your password

377 billion years is probably secure enough for most people. In fact, if you work your way down to something a little shorter, say 10 characters, you end up with something like this:


Plugging this random 10-character password into the "How Secure Is My Password" site yields the following:

It would take a desktop PC about6 yearsto crack your password

If you go any less digits than this, your time-to-crack drops dramatically (I tried an 8-digit randomized password and was told it would take a desktop computer about 15 hours to crack that). So, I would recommend a minimum of 10 digits for any password. I doubt there are many hackers out there who would work for six years straight just to crack your Facebook password.

Next Time: Remembering Random Passwords

But the question remains: How do you easily recall a randomized 10-character password such as "Q2ka4nXW8w?" And moreover, since you shouldn't use the same password on all your accounts, and you should change passwords every-so-often, how do you remember (and keep straight) multiple numbers of such passwords?

Since I'm out of time and space, I am going to leave you to ponder these cliffhanger questions, and pick up this conversation in another blog, very soon! Until then, be safe out there! (And also, be sure to let me know your own ideas for creating and remembering secure passwords!)

  • Wednesday, December 04, 2013

    How to be Transformed by the Discipline of Thanksgiving ... Part I

    Before Thanksgiving I promised I would provide a "Reader's Digest Condensed" version of a wonderful series on gratitude, blogged by my friend Dr. Doug Lee on his Whole Life Worship Blog.

    Here you go, starting with his November 11 post ...

    Exercising Thankfulness. Gratitude is like a muscle which grows with use. Like exercise, it's hard work, a discipline ... but worth it. As we go deeper into thanksgiving, we will discover how to leverage its transforming power for life!

    The Hardness of Starting to Give Thanks. If giving thanks were easy, a lot more people would be doing it! It takes discipline to set aside time, quiet yourself, focus your thoughts, and intentionally express thanks for all you should be thankful for (especially when you don't feel thankful!). As a good exercise, try using the inconvenience of a stoplight to express thanks for three things in your life.

    Thankful for Loved Ones. Many of the blessings God pours out on us come in the form of those family and friends who love us. Be sure to thank God daily for them, and to let them know how thankful you are.

    Thankful for What We Have. The most basic things we tend to think of as "ours" (like time, or breathing air into our lungs, or our ability to think, or move around) are not really "ours" ... they are gifts from God! A "sense of entitlement" is the besetting sin of our culture. In reality we are simply stewards of these basics of life. As in the Parable of the Talents, how are we investing what God has given us, even if it's somethign as simple as our time? Are we seeking to multiple the impact for His Kingdom? And the first step in such investment is gratitude.

    Thanks for the Memories. How often do we think about the people who have gone before us, and how their actions paved the way for the blessings we have received. My mom and dad have both passed into the presence of Christ, and how grateful I am that they shared Christ's love with me as a child. I have a half-lifetime of memories of fun family times with my family, which is now continuing with my four brothers and sisters. Too often we think only about the negative impact of any dysfunction (and all families have it). But, without the godly input from others that I have received into my life, where would I be today? And what about all the Sunday School teachers, pastors, Bible study leaders and more who have poured into my life?

    Thanking God for Our Jobs. Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans hate their jobs. But God has created us to be creative and industrious people. Our jobs are simply another opportunity to exercise stewardship and make a difference in the world around us, all while receiving the sustenance we need as a result! You may not be able to change the circumstances of your work, but, once again, you can change the most important thing about it: your attitude. And remember that, with God, "nothing is impossible."

    Giving God an Opening. Saying even the littlest “thank you” to God is like saying “Welcome, Lord! Come into my life!” It’s not just an acknowledgment; it’s an invitation. If we give God even a little opening, He does the rest. Ultimately he opens our souls to His everlasting and enduring presence.\

    Thanking God When It's Hard. The Bible says to "give thanks in every circumstance." But sometimes we can be confronted by horrendous, unthinkable trials: The loss of a child. Betrayal by a spouse or loved one. A desperate illness or injury. How can we truly be thankful for such things? The patriarch Joseph, who endured more such trials then we ever will, gives us a clue when he says: "You meant it for evil ... but God meant it for good." Paul assures us that God works all things together for the good for those who love Him ... and that nothing can separate us from that love!

    Recognizing Gifts From the Father. The man born blind, whose story is recounted in John 9, no doubt felt his blindness was a curse for many years, rather than a gift. But the reality was the opposite. Christ said that the blindness existed to display the glory of God in his life. It changed the course of his life dramatically. After being healed and becoming a disciple of Jesus, it's not difficult to believe that the man realized what a gift his "curse" had been, at least from an eternal perspective! Some of God's gifts are easy to recognize, others are "in disguise." Thankfulness is the key that unlocks the disguise.

    You Get What You Get, So Be Thankful for It. The Bible says that "contentment with godliness is great gain." We all know people who have a lot of stuff, but aren't content. We may also know people who don't have much of this world's goods and advantages, but are very content. Who between the two has the greater blessing? For so many of us, the goal is accumulating stuff, when it should really be gaining contentment. And thankfulness is the key to gaining contentment.

    Starting with Doug's November 25 post, "Thank You for Creating Me," he adjusted his focus to those things which God has done (universally) for all of us. I will finish up this summary tomorrow by highlighting his remaining three posts. In the meantime, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday and will continue to practice the discipline of gratitude!

    Friday, November 29, 2013

    Combatting American Greed

    I'm interrupting my current blog series to give vent to my disgust at U.S. consumerism which has reached a new low, and at the big store chains like WalMart, Target and others which aid and abet it.

    What is that new low? Excessive consumerism (in the name of "Christmas"), driven by the emptiness of the American soul and the greed of corporations which seek to exploit consumerism for their own selfish ends, which have crossed a symbolic line by moving their so-called "Black Friday" sales onto Thanksgiving Day itself.

    Thanksgiving ... that holiday which used to represent our thankfulness to our Creator for the blessings that He bestowed upon us as a nation. A holiday to gather with family, to rest (mostly), and to refrain from the usual busy day-to-day consumer mentality.

    But no. Now we get to wait in long lines outside stores with "killer deals" on big-screen TVs, etc. Who has time to be thankful when we're so busy salivating over the latest "sale" and strategizing ways to bring home the newest toy?

    I don't think I'm the only one. A lot of my friends have also expressed their disgust at this new, pathetic low. So, what can we do about it? Is "resistance futile?"

    I don't think so. Here is a three-pronged approach for combatting consumerism and greed:

    1) Boycott. Those companies which have (because of their greed) crossed this line should know not everyone out there will jump into their shopping cart with wads of cash wafting out of their pockets. Pick a company which honored the spirit of Thanksgiving Day (like Costco) and do your shopping there, instead. And,

    2) Share. Let these companies know what you are doing. In this age of social media, you have the power. Tweet something along the lines of the following:
    .@WalMart - I'm doing all my #Christmas #shopping @Costco & @REI this year, because THEY were willing to honor the spirit of #Thanksgiving.
    Or, taken from another angle:
    .@REI @Costco: Thank you for honoring the spirit of #Thanksgiving & stayed closed yesterday! @WalMart & @Target have much 2 learn from you.
    Or Facebook, Google+, or your social media poison of choice. I think if enough people do this, perhaps they will reconsider next year. And, perhaps most importantly:

    3) Give back. The most effective way to combat greed is to: 1) Be satisfied with what you have, and 2) Be generous with what you have been given. Change the mindset of consumerism by honoring the idea of Giving Back.

    Giving Tuesday (Dec. 3) should make Black Friday (or whatever you call what happened on Thanksgiving yesterday) look like child's play. Select your charity(ies) of choice and give generously on Tuesday! Then share Giving Tuesday options and opportunities with your friends and family.

    How do you feel about the new lows to which we have stooped? And what are you going to do about it? Please share your ideas!

    Monday, November 25, 2013

    Pain ... and the Potent Power of Thanksgiving

    I love Thanksgiving week. (And not simply because it's a short workweek!)

    I know what you're thinking ... "It's the food." Well, I do love the food. But that's not the main reason, either.

    My broken walking stick.
    This year, in particular, I've been thinking about the power of Thanksgiving. A lot of things have converged in my life to help me in my quest to become more thankful. A good friend from my days in Southern California, a wonderful worship pastor named Dr. Doug Lee, has been blogging for the past few weeks about the blessings and challenges that come with gratitude. And it strikes me how spectacularly potent this particular discipline really is.

    One of those things I mentioned which has converged in my life is a short period of trial. When I was in college I tore a muscle in my lower left back. Every few years or so it flares up and when it does it can be extremely painful. It flared up again a few months ago, and after a few days when it began to subside I thought, "Thank God that's over, at least for awhile!"

    Then about three weeks ago it went out again. And this time, it was much worse than usual. A day or two in, I was using a walking stick to try and haul myself up off the couch and hobble around. I had salvaged this stick from the bad 2012 Lone Pine Canyon fire in Southern California, a piece of mesquite which had some surface burns on it but otherwise seemed intact. But as I was putting my weight on it to get out of bed, it broke. I went down -- hard. And I felt whatever was left of that muscle really tear as I went down.

    Now I was in a pickle. For 10 days I could barely move. The muscle spasmed constantly. For a few days, the only relief I could get was flat on my back. But then even that became nearly unbearable. It hurt too much to move, and it hurt too much to stay still. I was having to do the kind of "hee hee" breathing they teach you in Lamaze class, just to keep from crying out. I was taking prescription doses of Naproxin (basically like double-dosing Aleve), applying heatpacks, anything I could think of. In order to sleep at night I began taking Oxycodone, a painkiller. (I thank God for this, but hate the side effects.) I could knock myself out for four hours that way and wake up without having moved. But then it was back to the spasms and pain.

    In the midst of all this I began to realize how much I normally take for granted such simple tasks as sitting, standing, walking, even lying down without pain. The breakthrough came when I began to thank God for what the pain was teaching me.

    Doug wrote about this in his blog (much more eloquently than I ever could), pointing out how being able to thank God for trials gives Him an opening to work in our lives. And it was so true for me.  At first not much changed ... other than my attitude, but I realize now that was the true change I needed. (Like so many of us, I had been thinking of "my time" as my own, and the injustice of my back problems imposing themselves on my busy schedule really grated me. It wasn't until I realized that God owns my time and had appointed what I was going through for my good, did my attitude about my trials begin to change.)

    Several days after this, the pain and spasms began to subside. I was able to walk again and even sit for short periods of time. While the pain is still there (particularly when I sit), it's bearable now, and I can sleep without painkillers. (My osteopath has done some "adjustment" which helped, and has also referred me to physical therapy. Looking forward to that!)

    Anyway, Dr. Lee has graciously given me permission to use this space to summarize some of the things I've been learning from his focus on gratitude these past few weeks. (In return, I'd encourage you to become a regular visitor to his "Whole Life Worship" blog!) So, please return to this space tomorrow, where I will post a "Reader's Digest Condensed" summary of what I have learned from Doug's blog posts so far!

    Friday, November 22, 2013

    A Rude Awakening

    Today is the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. It is also the 50th anniversary of the death of my favorite author, C. S. Lewis.

    C. S. Lewis
    News of Lewis' death was eclipsed (understandably) in the papers by the JFK assassination, but both of these events, as it turns out, played a significant role in my life.

    The assassination itself was the only of the two events I remember from that fateful day. At 6 years of age I don't think I would have recognized the name "C. S. Lewis" yet. I was just beginning to be an avid reader at this time, but I don't think Lewis' works were yet on my reading lists.

    But, I do remember in stark detail the events surrounding JFK's assassination. I had just begun the first grade at Osceola Elementary School in Sylmar, California. We lived just a few blocks down the street from the school. My teacher's name was Miss Mendenhall. I have a visual memory of the classroom, the students, and Miss Mendenhall on that fateful day ... but mostly of Miss Mendenhall.

    She had gotten called to the office and was gone a few minutes. We were laughing and joking and doing all the things a classful of students was wont to do when left to its own devices. But when Miss Mendenhall re-entered the class, there was sudden and stark silence. For she was visibly very upset, and crying.

    And she didn't tell us what was wrong ... just shared through her tears that we were all being given early release that day, and were to go immediately home.

    This was startling, and unusual, but in and of itself wasn't yet enough to rock my world. We had done a number of unusual things in first grade, including the "duck and cover" drills where we would scoot under our desks at a certain signal and huddle with our hands clasped over our necks. In case of nuclear attack, was the reason we were given. I remember this was vaguely disturbing, but not really yet having a full understanding of the horror of a nuclear attack (and the true futility of trying to hide from one under your desk), I did what most first graders are wont to do ... make a game out of it, then not really think any more about it.

    But, when I arrived home that cool November day, and opened the side door into our small streetcorner home, I was suddenly confronted with something very much bigger than my view of the world, and quite difficult to explain. For there was my mom, bent over the washing machine.

    And she, too, was weeping.

    An event big enough, and serious enough, to cause both my first-grade school teacher and my mom to both cry must be very serious indeed. And as my mom slowly and tearfully explained to me what had happened on that fateful day in Dallas, I began to get a rough sense for how dangerous of a place this world really was.

    You might ask, "So what does this have to do with C. S. Lewis?" If I began, as a young man, to be truly awakened to the fact that we live in a world where almost unthinkably horrible things can and do happen, C. S. Lewis was the one who gave me the most useful perspective on WHY they happen ... and what our attitude should be about them.

    First, there is the very important principle that God must use pain to truly get our attention. And, believe me, our attention needs to be got: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."*

    About the existence of sin and suffering, Lewis' razor-sharp logic concludes: "Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself." He helped me to see that tribulation was a necessary element of redemption. Therefore "we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable."

    One other principle which Lewis drove home, and it's embodied in the words of the old hymn, "This world is not my home ... I'm just a-passin' through." ...

    “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

    God has created us for something much greater than this earth, in all its decaying corruption, has to offer. This "something" is hinted at in "All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul ... tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say "Here at last is the thing I was made for."

    Ancient philosophers called this the "God-shaped hole," the thing He created us for, which can only be satisfied by Himself.

    Most people my age can recount a series of additional "rude awakenings" since that dismal November day in 1963. Things (like 9/11, and the wars that still follow in its heels) that make us realize "this world is not our home" and put contrast to our deepest longings for "Peace on earth, good will to men." I guess the truly good news, for me, is that today I am exactly 50 years closer to the day when I will finally cry "Here at last is the thing I was made for!" than I was on November 22, 1963.

    * All Lewis quotes from "The Problem of Pain."

    Monday, October 14, 2013

    Seven Mushroom Hunters' Rules

    1) Leave no trace. If you pack it in, pack it out. if you harvest mushrooms, cut them cleanly at the base so as not to disturb the mycelium (so they can grow back next year).

    2) Hunt with a friend. It's too easy to get lost or injured in the wild. Let others know where you've gone. Carry essential survival gear in case you get lost/separated: compass/GPS; warm clothing/emergency blanket; first aid; flashlight, waterproof matches and flares; noisemaking devices; any necessary protection against wild animals or insects; a cellphone or walkie-talkie if possible.

    3) As a collection device, use a basket or something that will allow spores to fall through and repopulate the forest as you hike.

    4) Don't take more than you can use and make note of any local regulations about collecting. Don't hunt on private property without permission.

    5) Take a camera. Many times you will wish to document rather than collect.

    6) Don't eat anything that you haven't made a 100% positive ID for. Know which species have poisonous counterparts that look similar or identical. Always cook mushrooms you have collected in the wild thoroughly.

    7) Have fun! It's as much about enjoying and appreciating God's creation and getting fresh air and exercise as it is about the actual hunt.

    Finallly, this isn't a rule as much as a suggestion. You may not want to disclose the specific locations of "mother lodes" of wonderful mushrooms you have found ... but, mushroom hunting is a sport best shared, and you will enjoy it most if you invite others to participate, and teach them what you have learned.

    I take out groups of hunters each year, simply to share the joy of hunting mushrooms! (Let me know if you are ever interested in participating.)

    Wednesday, September 11, 2013

    Chickens Versus Children

    I just read (in an article on Grist titled "Has the world reached peak chicken?") a report that a Northern California animal sanctuary, Animal Place, just spent $50,000 to airlift 1,150 elderly laying hens from Hayward, California, to a sanctuary in Elmira, New York. They chartered a private jet, an Embraer 120 turboprop, to do so. The entire cost of the operation? $50,000.

    If you do the math, that's more than $43 per chicken.

    Now, don't get me wrong, I love chickens as much as the next guy. (Okay, there's a joke in there somewhere ... "I love chickens ... they taste just like chicken.") Seriously, I've raised (cage-free) chickens, and even ventured out in the darkness of night (with a spotlight and a 12-gauge shotgun) to protect them from maurauding raccoons.

    And, I don't doubt that what Animal Place says on its website is true ... that it saved these "elderly hens" from certain death.

    Well, at least from imminent death. I guess death is still certain even for the 1,150 hens it airlifted across the country at a cost of more than $43 per bird.

    Here's where I think Animal Place has gone afowl. If you took that $43 per chicken and applied it instead to the very real needs of very real HUMAN children who are struggling to survive (and starting out in life, unlike the chickens, who are already on the downhill slope of their bell curve), what could you do with that kind of money?

    To answer this question, I turned to World Vision's website, which reports that a gift of only $35 will provide $350 worth of medicines. "Every day, thousands of children die because they do not have access to basic medicines that could save their lives. Your gift will multiply 10 times in impact to help ship and distribute essential pharmaceuticals and medical supplies like: antibiotics, anti-fungals, anti-parasitic drugs, deworming medications, disposable syrinees, gastrointestinal drugs, painkillers and surgical supplies."

    If you extend that out to encompass the $50,000 spent by Animal Place on old chickens, you could literally provide a half-milllion dollars' worth of life-saving medications through an organization like World Vision. Thousands of childrens' lives would be enhanced and even saved, as a result.

    By the way, that site didn't even mention immunizations, or the oral rehydration therapy needed to save the lives of children dying from severe malnutrition. These things cost mere cents.

    With that kind of money, you could most certainly save even more human children than old chickens.

    I also discovered (here) that for a gift of $25 you can provide a gift of two new chickens (as opposed to paying twice that to send one old chicken to a supposedly comfortable retirement) for a family in poverty in the developing world. Such a gift will "give children and families a lasting source of nutrition and income. Fresh eggs raise the levels of protein and other nutrients in a family’s diet, and the sale of extra eggs and chickens can pay for vital basics."

    Sometimes, you just have to prioritize. Chickens ... or children? Which will it be?

    Wednesday, May 08, 2013

    Hearing the voice of God

    Atheist or agnostic friends frequently tell me: "Prove to me your claim that God exists. If I could see him, hear his voice, see a true miracle, I would believe."

    They are in good company: The Apostle we know as Doubting Thomas didn't believe his best friends when they testified that Christ had risen from the dead. "If I could stick my fingers in the nail scars in his hands," he told them, "I would believe."

    I have one very sincere friend (I'm honored that he reads my blogs and I'm certain he will respond to this column) who has said, "If I could see a severed limb, miraculously regrown by the power of God, then I would believe."

    There was a fascinating article in the New York Times recently, titled, "Is that God talking?" The writer explored the gamut of people who claim to have heard (audibly) the voice of God. The reports range from those which seem to have a certain degree of credulity, to those which are fairly incredible. (I laughed about the one where the person heard God say: "Vote for Bush." She replied: "But I don't like George Bush!" And God [supposedly] responded: "I didn't ask you to like him ... just vote for him.")

    I don't doubt God speaks, occasionally, in a voice audibly perceived. But I don't think this is the experience of a vast majority of Christians, and it's certainly not mine. (Yet, anyway.) I certainly believe I have heard God speak, but I don't mean it that way.

    I have heard Him "speak" powerfully to my heart, convicted of my sin by a Scripture or a song or a word of truth spoken by a friend. I have heard Him "speak" by gazing up into the awe-inspiring night sky in rural Zimbabwe, where our galaxy was displayed in all its glory. (Well, in reality in only a very small fraction of its glory! But it was breathtaking nonetheless.) And I have heard Him "speak" through indescribable impressions upon my spirit, which ended up (in hindsight) to be important timely insights I really couldn't have known any other way.

    For example, read this blog post about the time just such an impression very dramatically prevented me from reversing my truck down a driveway with a toddler sitting (unbeknownst to me) on my rear bumper.

    But the truth is, these things all can (and will) be explained by the skeptic. And, taken alone, these are not why I believe in the reality of God and His presence in my life. My faith is not (solely) mystical. It is fundamentally (though not solely) rational -- I believe in God because it makes sense. He has left (in the Bible) a very compelling historical record of His mark on humankind. In so many ways our world revolves around the advent of Jesus Christ, that humble carpenter from Nazareth, who claimed all the way up to His crucifixion to be God. The counterintuitive story of His love and grace and mercy which any holistic reading of the Bible provides drives the final rivets into the bridge of my faith.

    And to mix my metaphors for good measure, hearing His voice in this daily walk of life is icing on the cake.

    New York Times readers are not known for their embrace of Christianity, so I wasn't shocked to read the incredulous replies to the article. One castigates those who claim to have heard the voice of God for "their inability to distinguish between sensory experience and reality."

    So, what if my atheist friend did indeed witness a severed limb, miraculously regenerated? What would prevent these atheistic observers from castigating HIM for his "inability to distinguish between sensory experience and reality?"

    Jesus Himself, while demonstrating through many miraculous proofs the power of God, dealt quite neatly with this tendency of ours to say, "If you would only show us more proof, we would believe!" In Luke 16 he shares the story (He doesn't say it's a parable) of an unnamed rich man, and a miserable beggar named Lazarus, who dies of hunger on his doorstep. The selfish corporate suit then goes the way of all the earth, only to discover to his chagrin and horror that eternal life and the judgment of God are very real. In his place of torment he sees Lazarus walking with Abraham afar off and calls out to them for relief. After being told that there was nothing they could do any longer to bridge the chasm and bring him help, he then cries out:
    "Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
    “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
    “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
    “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
     And those words were, of course, prophetic ... Jesus Himself later rose from the dead. Did those who were not already inclined to do so, believe in His words as a result?

    Scripture holds a different view of faith than we often do (in our lack of it). We seem to think faith will be easy and automatic if only we had "more proof." But we have too much (unwarranted) faith in ourselves. The truth is that faith is never easy and automatic, no matter how much proof is at hand. Jesus taught that faith grows slowly and inexorably, like a mustard seed, only when it is invested, or planted. That faith should have a rational basis, but it will nonetheless be faith. We may not "feel" like believing, but we all should know already that our feelings are not the ultimate judge of reality. (When did you last "feel" like going to the dentist ... even though you know it's good for you?) When true faith is called for, we must take a risk, stake a claim on it.

    Our faith will then grow. Jesus said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). Unfortunately it doesn't work the other way around.

    The secret of finding God lies in the earnestness and honesty of the seeking. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33). "But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut. 4:29).

    Occasionally the rule has its exception. My favorite writer, C. S. Lewis, launched an honest skeptic's search for God. He assumed that in such a search the existence of God would be disproven, but God had other plans, and he was brought full circle to the point where he was confronted with the undeniable reality of God's existence and love.

    In a more modern day, Chicago journalist Lee Strobel tells a very similar story, as detailed in The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.

    But, as far as writers (or at least journalists) go, these men are unfortunately in the minority. I wonder if most journalists today have the fundamental motivation, energy, and integrity for just such an honest search (in addition to the courage to embrace its very uncomfortable conclusions). In my line of work I have met a number of journalists who have shared that, in their profession, there is indeed a cost to loving Jesus out loud.

    I would love to convince everyone I know of the existence and love of the Creator God I know and love. But I long ago realized the truth that I am ill-equipped to do so. This is God's problem (not mine), and there's nothing I can do or say, absent His inspiring power working through me, to make a difference in this regard. Even if I had the power to invoke miraculous regeneration of severed limbs, I'm not sure how much real good that would do. (Honesty, I have trouble just darning my socks, let alone regenerating limbs ... actually I'm not even sure I know exactly what it means to "darn" a sock, gul darn it!)

    So, once again, I simply need to trust. It all comes back to trust!

    Saturday, April 06, 2013

    Siri: The Horror Movie

    One year ago last week I blogged about my budding love affair with my new iPhone 4S and Siri, its "intelligent agent." I recognize within myself a tendency to be very optimistic about new technology and how much good it can do us.

    This tendency, I admit, sometimes inures me to the darker side of what is really a morally neutral technological advance.

    So, what is the darker side of the iPhone ... and of Siri herself? Could she potentially become a HAL9000 and murder us all in our sleep?

    This clever video by Rooster Teeth Shorts (no relation) poses one terrifying answer to that very hypothetical question.

    Wednesday, March 20, 2013

    How much space on the planet is yours?

    Did you ever wonder how much space, out of all the space in our country, is uniquely yours? I'm not talking about land that you actually own, I'm talking about how if you were to take the entire country and divide it by the number of people, how much square footage you would end up with. The entire area of the United States is 3,794,083 square miles, and if you divide that by the current population of this country (307 million people), how much space is there in this country for each person living in it?

    If you have a math brain you will quickly see that the answer is: a little over a hundredth of a square mile per person (307 million people divided into nearly 3.8 million square miles).

    The precise answer is 0.0123585765472313 square miles per person. Which doesn't sound like very much ... until you convert it to square feet. That 1.2~% of a square mile converts to a few inches less than 37,847 square feet!

    Think of it this way: If you live in a 2,000-square foot home (fairly roomy for a family of 4, at least by most people's standards), you could fit nearly 19 such homes in "your space." Though no room would be left over for a yard ...

    For some people, particularly those raised on farms, it might be easier to think of this in terms of acreage. In our town, five-acre plots were once the norm, though this has since come down in size quite substantially. Our 2,000-square-foot home sits on five-eighths of an acre, which feels quite roomy to us. (And much of our property is actually covered with forest.)

    An acre is 43,560 square feet. Therefore your 37,847 square feet of land converts to just shy of an acre (about 87% of an acre). Comfy, eh?

    Of course most of the 3.8 million square miles of land in the U.S.A. is private land which you do not actually own. (And very few of us actually own an acre of land!)

    Also, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, state and federal governments own 34.71% of all land in the United States. (I assume that additional land is owned by local governments, such as city and county governments, but I'm not sure how much.) But much of this land is actually accessible to us as citizens as recreational land. In fact, federal and state governments will tell you that they hold such land "in trust" for we mere citizens.

    My next question is, in terms of space, how do we here in the U.S.A. compare to people in other countries? Here's what my research turned up, from most spacious to least spacious:

    Russia141,419 sq. ft. per person
    DR Congo37,671
    Costa Rica12,968
    Jerusalem/West Bank/Gaza6,461
    Bangladesh1,145 sq. ft. per person

    It's amazing to think that Bangladesh has 123-1/2 times the number of people crammed into its land mass as one of its neighbors to the North, the Russian Federation!

    And that Russia has almost four times the square footage per person than we do here in the U.S.!

    And that we have more than 10 times the amount of space per person than Haiti does.

    Also, the global average (if you take all of the 7.1+ billion people on the planet, and divide this into earth's total land mass, you come up with an average of 24,785 square feet per person on the planet -- a full third less than what we live with here in the U.S.

    Also should note that when the world's population doubles to more than 14 billion (about 2100? Experts disagree on the answer to this question), the average square footage per person will drop to about that currently enjoyed by Costa Rica's residents. (But we will still have four times the space they currently have in India!)

    So ... do you feel like you have enough space in your life? Need more? What would you do with it if you had it?

    Saturday, February 09, 2013

    Be ready to be shaken!

    It's been a week of big earthquakes on the so-called "Ring of Fire," starting with a massive 8.0 shaker in the Solomon Islands chain (which sent a small tsunami crashing through and destroying hundreds of homes, killing at least 9 people), hundreds of aftershocks (many 7.0 or larger), followed by a major quake in South America's Colombia and Ecuador this morning.

    My colleagues have been discussing this and I've been thinking about a couple of blogs I wrote last year, speculating about how we here in the Northwest are overdue for a major quake on the Cascadia Subduction Faultline (50 miles out to sea, west of the state). The last time this fault let loose was in January of 1700; the estimated 9.0 quake released enormous tidal waves that inundated fishing villages in Japan, and the entirety of Vancouver Island was shifted an estimated 15 feet south of its previous position.

    Scientists estimate this fault has slipped catastrophically, an average of about every 300 years or so over the last 10 millennia. So we are currently due for another big hit.

    As someone who works for an organization specializing in disaster relief and recovery, I've put a lot of thought into being prepared. Therefore I thought today I would share with you my recommendations for being prepared. Many if not all of these you have probably heard before, but it can't hurt to state the obvious.

    Think About Where You Are, and Have a Disaster Communications Plan

    My wife and I have a fairly variable work schedule. We each work outside of the home at least three days each week (different days). She works at three different schools. If a large quake struck while one of us was at work, making communication difficult or impossible, I would really want to know where she was. So recently we have been beginning each day, touching base on our whereabouts. "What are your plans for the day? Where will you be, when?" And I've been making more of an effort to pay attention. I would like to do the same thing, as well, with both of my kids and their spouses. If the big one strikes, it might minimize my efforts to find them or my worrying about where they might be.

    Experts also tell us we should plan on a strategy for meeting or touching base (communicating our status and whereabouts). And be sure and communicate your strategy to those you love. I am trying to carry my cellphone at all times now, and make sure it's well charged. It might be impossible to get a call out, but my primary plan is to tweet out my status and whereabouts. Such technologies are more likely to remain "up" longer in a major emergency, and are accessible to anyone with an internet connection. I am letting people I love know they can check to get updates in an emergency. I am also suggesting to all my friends and loved ones that after any disaster, if possible they send a quick text message with their status/location, and the sooner the better.

    Keep Critical Supplies on Hand

    Experts suggest a minimum three-day supply of food and water, kept with you wherever you are. This is less easy to do in the office than it is at home, but I do try and keep power bars and bottled water in a desk drawer there, as well as in my briefcase. I also keep a flashlight in my briefcase.

    My brother has built a cool device and I am hoping he will get me one for Christmas. It's a USB charger that uses AAA batteries, in a small mint tin, which you can use to connect to your cellphone with a USB cable and trickle charge it. This would also be a very handy thing to keep in case of an emergency.

    At home, we've decided a generator is a worthwhile investment. Our power goes out so frequently that a generator keeps us in business, on the internet and in communication, not to mention warmed and fed. If you use a generator, be sure to modify your home's electrical system, hiring a qualified electrician to wire you a generator switching panel, so you don't accidentally feed power back into the lines and electrocute some poor utility worker who is trying to repair the damage in your neighborhood.

    We also use our Costco membership to buy larger-than-necessary quantities of foodstuffs that will keep (canned beans, fruit, etc.), and store these in our pantry and on sturdy shelves in the garage. Along with a 30-gallon plastic water container, and an extra case of bottled water, we are well supplied at home for any emergency lasting at least three days or potentially much longer.

    For non-drinking water needs, we have a spa with 300 gallons, and a water catchment system that works off our rain gutters and stores another 50 gallons. But in the event of a large earthquake we would probably also quickly fill up both bathtubs.

    Other things recommended for your emergency kits: plenty of first aid supplies, lots of duct tape and plastic sheeting in case you need to seal doors, windows and outlets against any potential radioactive, chemical or biological nuisance. Also a battery-op radio, flashlights and plenty of batteries.

    I am also a proponent of personal security measures that will help keep your household safe in case of a civil emergency. We employ a series of motion-activated driveway lights and cameras, backed up by firearms and the training to use them, for this purpose. One of the responsibilities I take seriously as a husband, father, and neighbor is to keep my family and my neighbors safe, if the power lies within me to do so.

    Most of us also spend a fair amount of time in our car, so I've also through through various disaster scenarios and how my vehicle (and what I carry in it) might help me. In addition to a storebought vehicle emergency kit which provides first aid, tools, lighting, flares, etc., I also carry additional food and water, a strong tow strap, more extensive first aid supplies, etc.

    Be Financially Prepared

    Finally, there is the matter of being financially prepared for a disaster. First of all, please realize that you really cannot do the things I recommend unless you are able to maintain resources in reserve, a buffer. If you are in debt up to your eyeballs, you really cannot maintain such resources on hand. You have to live in such a way as to create rainy day reserves for you and your loved ones. (The biblical story of Joseph and the famines in the Middle East comes to mind.)

    I do recommend that people keep some sort of commodity or cash on hand that would be "liquid" in the event of an emergency. Realize that in an emergency, whatever you have on hands is what your total resources for survival might be. The banks will be closed, store shelves will be empty, etc. You may not have any utilities, You may have to exist on what you have.

    I don't keep a lot of cash on hand, but I do keep in a secure place some items that would be "better than cash" in case of a true large-scale emergency. One never knows -- you might be able to barter or trade these items for other things I might need, or for passage to a safe place. I've read that when South Vietnam fell to the north, those who survived were those who had gold coins on hand they could use to secure passage to freedom.


    Finally there is the matter of disaster recovery. You need to plan to be covered against the key risks you face. If you own a home or rent an apartment, make sure you maintain homeowners or renters insurance that will protect you against loss caused by fire, theft, etc. If you are in a flood zone, you need flood insurance. I am also convinced that if you can afford it (and it costs about $500 a year), earthquake insurance in this area is particularly wise. Your normal insurance will not cover earthquake damage.

    Be Prepared!

    You might think this is all a little over-the-top and that I must spend a lot of time worrying about the unthinkable. But I really don't. Right now I am reading a book about human resilience and how people react to disasters, called "The Unthinkable." The author makes the very good point that people who think about and prepare for potential disaster scenarios are much more likely to be able to survive them and help others, not only by being prepared, but by keeping a cool head in the midst of the crisis. If you have prepared for something, you are more confident if and when it happens, and you don't need to waste any energy worrying about the unthinkable.

    And one final admonition: We do not often reflect on how truly vulnerable we are to those unknown disasters waiting to happen. And in truth, you can only prepare so much. Therefore I am learning to train myself to turn to God first during times of crisis. Too often in the past I have had an accident and have waited too long to turn to God for help. I could tell you several miraculous stories about how the situation changed so quickly for me when I did, finally, cry out to God during a crisis. He wants us, ultimately, to rely not on our own resources or even preparedness, but on His grace and mercy in a time of crisis. I can face disasters with confidence because I know I serve a God who is much bigger than any potential disaster could ever be!

    Friday, February 08, 2013

    Cruising the Twitterverse

    Twitter profile for LarryShort (click to enlarge)
    My Twitter profile:
    I've been wanting for awhile to write a blog to explain my love affair with Twitter. I'm not sure it will help anyone else, but at least it may explain some peculiar aspects of my own personality.

    I was at a Stanford Publishing on the Web conference in the fall of 2006 (I think?) when I heard Silicon Valley venture capitalist and visionary Guy Kawasaki speak. I was leading a delegation of folks from World Vision and knew that Guy was a fan and friend. So I was delighted when happenstance threw us together, just he and I, out in the lobby between sessions.

    I asked Guy what he thought the next big game-changing social media platform for communicators might be. Now, this was a dangerous question because my manager (at the time) had told me not to "waste my time" with social media. He thought it was a passing fad and said we had plenty to keep our hands full just working the bugs out of Web one-dot-zero!

    Without hesitation, Guy answered my question: "Twitter!" I had heard a little bit about Twitter and had kind of dismissed it as a joke, but Guy (who got his start as a "chief evangelist" at a little company called Apple) is one of those few folks who really deserves the title of Web pioneer and social media guru, and so I paid attention as he explained why he thought Twitter had such potential. Then, later that same day I created my first Twitter account, on behalf of World Vision: @WorldVision.

    A year or so later, after working to give this new bird some wings, I handed @WorldVision over to our international office. (I suppose I felt guilty because I had registered for our U.S. office, and by the time our international folks realized it should be theirs instead, that horse had already left the barn. Plus, I wasn't supposed to be working on social media, right?) But our international folks were certainly grateful to receive @WorldVision from my hand and they continued to shepherd its growth. (The stream now has well over a quarter of a million followers.) (UPDATED 2/19/2015 ... now exceeding 454,000 followers.)

    A short time later I also started @WorldVisionUSA (the U.S. office' official corporate Twitter stream), as well as @WorldVisionNews (our journalist-facing stream), and then my own personal stream, @LarryShort. I've since handed @WorldVisionUSA off to our corporate social media team, and still manage the latter two myself.) These three streams now have more than 48,000 (314,000 as of 2/19/15), nearly 14,000 (17,300), and over 4,500 (nearly 10,000 now) followers, respectively. (To put this into perspective, the average Twitter user has approx. 120 followers.) I am grateful for my "early start" in Twitter ... even if I did have to do it on my personal time! (My former boss, by the way, is now vice president for social media with a growing tech company. I guess he must have changed his mind about social media being a fad.)

    Why Twitter?

    Having used it for eight years or so, what is it that I appreciate about Twitter? Part of it is my love of writing. As you can tell by reading my blogs, I am a pretty long-winded writer. Twitter's 140-character limit really forces you to be concise, which I find very helpful.

    And the platform lends itself to the style of content I enjoy reading and providing. I read numerous publications on a daily basis, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Post, MuckRack, PR Daily, and others, both for personal enrichment and as a part of my job. Twitter is perfect for sharing fascinating things I find, as well as commenting on them when appropriate.

    I have discovered there are three ways to gain a Twitter following. 1) You can be famous. Justin Bieber currently holds the record for the most followers, with nearly 35 million. (More people follow Bieber than populate many of the world's countries!) (Now 60.6 million as of 2/19/2015. By the way, he's now been exceeded by Katy Perry, who has more than 65 million followers.) To Bieber's credit, he's also fairly engaged with his followers on Twitter. (I wonder what proportion of his followers are teenage girls?)

    The problem with this method, of course, is that I'm not famous, and don't have very good prospects for becoming famous anytime soon.

    2) You can be rich. Yes, you can actually buy Twitter followers. There are automated systems that promise to increase your follower account by various dubious methods. My understanding of these techniques, however, is that the quality of followers that you get for your money is not very good. That plus, I'm certainly NOT rich.

    3) You can work hard at it ... both by providing great content, and by engaging with your followers, and by connecting with potential new followers. This is the method I have chosen, and I am going to share my secrets with you here and now. (For free!)

    I'll warn you that work (by definition) takes time, energy and creativity. I probably spend at least an hour a day at building my Twitter presence. I sometimes question whether it's worth it ... I know that this too, shall pass ... but for now I feel like it's a good investment that has served my purposes well and connected me with a great new network of friends.

    I've already talked about great content. I make it a practice to publish about 10 tweets a day; that's an average of about every hour and a half if you leave time for sleep. I think strategically about what I will tweet, gathering my thoughts, opinions, observations, etc. throughout the day and planning out my tweets. I try to learn from which tweets seem to engage my followers (via retweets, favorites, etc.) the most. In addition to tweeting out my own content (links to my blog posts, for example), I frequently tweet links to interesting articles I've read, or retweet others who post fascinating tweets. The topics I tweet on vary widely, but I only tweet what personally interests ME. I then seek followers I think will be likely to share my interests.

    One down side about this is that I tend to be very newsy, and often tweet about disasters. (Yes, these interest me greatly. Remember, I work for a disaster relief organization.) As a result, some people have unfollowed me, claiming that I tend to be too serious or frightening. Oh well. I do interject some humor or whimsy occasionally!

    I'd estimate that about half my new followers are generated purely by the content I tweet, or else they reach out to me for whatever reason, unsolicited. (I follow most but not all of these back.) And the other half come as a result of me following people I think might be interested in my stream. I probably follow about 50 new people per day, and maybe 5 or 10 of those follow me back within a few days. There are some people or organizations I follow, even though I know they'll probably never follow me back, just because I really want to keep up with them. But most others, if they don't follow me back within a week, I will dump them in an effort to keep my follower ratios stable. (I don't want to be following way more people than are following me; and I also don't like it when people are widely followed but don't follow back. So I really try to keep my followers number in balance with the number I am following.)

    Here's My Secret for Growing My Stream ...

    Twitter has sort of "gotten to know me" and frequently suggests people I should follow. (These suggestions come both in the form of daily emails, and also a dynamically generated list on my Twitter profile page.) Typically all I have to do is scan a person's profile summary to know quickly whether or not they would be a likely Twitter fit with me. For me personally, I am looking primarily for people who are committed to faith and realizing the impact of a vital relationship with God on their lives; but I will also follow people with similar interests in key areas like social media, acoustic music, or cycling. I've discovered there are certain key words or tags in their profiles which typically indicate people likely to be a good fit. I typically don't even have to read their tweets to figure this out.

    Also, when you follow a person like this, Twitter will usually suggest two more people to follow, with very similar profiles. If both look excellent, I will take one and follow them in a separate browser window, cutting-and-pasting the URL. Then, follow the other in the same window. So now I have two browser windows open, and four new suggested people to follow. In a very short time, using this method, you can follow 70 or 80 new people.

    Before I follow someone, I also look at their follower/followee ratio. A person with a lot of followers but who follows very few people is not a good candidate, in my book, as they are not likely to follow me back. So I don't waste my time following them. I also don't waste time following people whose content or profile photo looks questionable. (For instance, if I see a person use a profanity in their stream, or if their stream is spammy, or their profile photo is a bit racy, I bid adieu. I'm not judging them; it just means I don't think we are going to be a very good fit for one another, is all.)

    By the way, I use two key tools to help me manage my Twitter presence. One is Hootsuite, which gives me a nice interface for seeing what's happening with my Twitter stream, at a glance. It does URL shortening, allows you to schedule tweets into the future, and also offers good analytics. The second tool I use is JustUnfollow, which (on the fly) will calculate key stats about who is and is not following you back. Once each day the "free" version allows me to find and remove up to 50 people I have followed recently, who have not followed me back. Point and click.

    When people follow me or follow me back, I also acknowledge them by @including them in a tweet and thanking them. Some people use automated systems to do this. I put some energy into customizing each tweet. I get too many followers to send individual tweets, so I will batch them in groups, maybe two or three tweets a day ... but I do try to make these tweets very obviously human-written and not exactly the same. And I also try to spend some time each day cruising tweets written by my followers and interacting with whatever they are talking about. I know they appreciate it and I gain a lot of loyal followers this way, not to mention retweets and favorites.

    Retweets are obviously a key measure of Twitter success. If a follower who him or herself has a lot of followers retweets something that I've tweeted, that means my content is getting an exponentially larger number of potential eyeballs. And the more people you follow, the more retweets and favorites you get.


    One automated measure of Twitter success is a service called "Klout," which bills itself as a 0-100 metric score analyzing social media influence. Justin Bieber is at the top of the Klout food chain with a perfect Klout score of 100. (Update as of 2/19/2015: He's since slipped to a 92, and Katy Perry has a 94.) People just starting out typically have Klout scores of 10 or 20. When you register with Klout you connect your Twitter stream, Facebook page, LinkedIn page, Google+, and any other social media platforms you are active on. Those four big ones primarily contribute to your score, though. (Unfortunately, at this time, Klout does not really track blogs, even though they are a key social media influence factor, but they do track traffic on Twitter or Facebook related to your blogging, and I am hopeful they will expand into the blogosphere soon. Now that Google has an "authorship" metatagging protocol, I think it will soon be a simple matter for Klout to track anything that you write on the Web.)

    I have watched my Klout score rise slowly over the past couple of years. I can remember when it was in the 30s, but right now am sitting at a score of 65. (Update as of 2/19/2015: Mine has slipped to a 61.) Klout is quite heavily weighted toward Facebook activity; the Facebook component of my Klout score used to be something like 90%. (I have about 850 Facebook friends.) But as my Twitter follower base has expanded, my Klout score has increased, and Twitter has increased as a share component of my Klout score. Today Twitter comprises 39% of my Klout score; Facebook 58%; Linked In 2%; and Google Plus 1%. And this roughly corresponds to the amount of energy I put into each platform, although I'd say Facebook and Twitter are fairly equal for me.

    Many of my colleagues (who have suffered through a yearlong competition to see who could maintain the highest Klout score) have expressed skepticism that Klout's technology means anything in real world of social media influence. But to a certain extent, it's the only game in town, and I am fairly certain that it's slowly improving in its ability to measure social media engagement. So I think it's a useful metric for success.

    Well, I hope you find these insights into the twisted Twitterverse helpful! Let me know your own thoughts and insights on the topic, puhleeeeze! (I need the interaction if I'm ever going to threaten Justin Bieber's Klout status!)