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Friday, June 22, 2012

Networking in the New Millennium

Friendship Redefined
by Tom King (c) 2012

In just a couple of decades, the concept of friendship has undergone a polar swap – nothing so drastic as the Mayans might have predicted, but pretty significant for society in the new world.  Even the term “friend” has become a verb as in “to friend” or to grant someone friend status on your favorite social media website and thereby the right to access personal information about you and to engage in conversation with you at will.
Used to be you built a friend network through repeated social contacts, exchange of letters, phone calls and visits. Practically, your network of friends consisted of a relative handful of close friends and a couple more handfuls of acquaintances. If you were a celebrity, a lot of people knew you that you barely recognized.

Enter the Age of the Rolodex
A generation of business gurus began teaching you how to collect business cards and turn the sturdy Rolodex into a networking tool of incredible power. Audio tapes and later video tapes were offered up to teach you the secrets that high power and incredibly rich business executives used to build networks of contacts that enabled them to wield power and make obscene amounts of money. It took serious work to manage the hundreds of contacts in your Rolodex and to make them all feel like you were their buddy, but in the process we learned the power of having knowledge about people at your fingertips.

Enter the Computer Age
The Rolodex was soon threatened by a legion of contact management software. Rolodex itself soon got into the act and before long specialized calendar/contact tools like SideKick became a business staple. Everybody had to have a contact manager on their desktop.

Enter the Age of Windows
Apple Macintosh and IBM PC dueled it out for supremacy. Meanwhile Bill Gates made money off both of them and along came the Internet Browser and its little buddy, the email browser. Equipped with address books tied to email addresses the savvy business tycoon of the 90s began collecting email addresses and building.  We got an early peek at which way things were going with the rise of Usenet, online bulletin boards and user groups. Limited to emails among people with similar interests, you could, however, share a few pictures, computer files and such with fellow users (we weren’t calling them friends yet). You might even sell each other things, call or send presents to friends if they shared their addresses or phone numbers with you.  

Enter the Age of Facebook
Then came MySpace and Facebook. Though there were some other similar social networks that quickly arose in and around the arrival of these two social networking pioneers, they were the primary duelists until MySpace’s attempts to be cool collapsed it under its own weight and more practical users fled to the faster, more sensible, less teenage girl ambience over at Facebook.

Originally designed to provide speedy links between friends in the queasily named “meat universe”, soon people began accumulating vast unwieldy lists of friends that strained even the mighty Facebook’s servers.  Search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN/Bing provided new tools for finding your way around the ungodly piles information resting in servers connected to the World Wide Web. These have been quickly integrated into social media right and left. One search engine, the venerable Google, not satisfied with its dominance among search engines and e-mail hosting sites, has risen to challenge Facebook in the social networking arena. Despite some fans among the critics Google+ hasn’t drawn nearly the number away from Facebook it expected to and remains an also-ran for the present.

The Rise of the Mobile Communication Device
High tech companies find themselves scrambling to feed a new technology these days – the smart phone.  Along with tablets, laptops, ebook readers and PDAs, smart phones have taken the powerful communication tools of the past 2 decades and crammed them into your pocket in a device not much bigger and often rather smaller than the average wallet. Applications by the thousands for smart devices pour from the busy minds of huge corporate development teams and from lone entrepreneurs with some nifty ideas about what sorts of things people want to be able to do while sitting in a bus station or doctor’s waiting room. Some of their ideas have been brilliant and many have made nice potfuls of money for themselves. Authors are creating books without the benefit of traditional publishing houses (also without having to share the profits with them either). Many ambitious recording artists have made a surprisingly good living without a record contract by producing their own music and distributing it to their relatively small (by industry standards) fan bases.  On your iPhone or Android, you can even read or listen to a book or play music as well as take phone calls. As the capabilities and power supplies of these devices grow, it’s hard to imagine what else we’ll be able to do.

The Consequences
Social critics once wailed about the Internet, making dire predictions that society would collapse as we all withdrew from society and holed up in our basements with our soulless machines.  Actually, quite the opposite has happened. Excepting a few folk who would have wound up in their basements (or their mothers’ basements) anyway, the Internet has gone mobile as rapidly as possible. Rather than isolating us, the combination of cell phone technology married to the Internet, has led us to do what makes us human – we communicate.

Mike July of Internet Marketing & Web Design claims, “I’ve met a ton of cool people through Facebook and Twitter that I’d never have had the chance to encounter otherwise.” His experience is the same as many others.  Communities have gone from being based around geography - whoever happened to live within, first, walking, then driving distance, to whoever you share an interest with. Even the telephone hasn’t had the impact of the Internet. It took us a while to escape our geographic mindset.  Long distance was something special (and expensive).

Notice how in the past decade, free long distance has become more and more a standard feature of your telephone service as geographic bounds become less and less important. This is happening as we become less and less surprised that we can create friendships with people on the other side of the world from ourselves and maintain them. And it’s not just the lonely, spinster types that used to join pen pal clubs that are embracing relationships that ignore geography. People of all kinds are becoming clued in to the power of virtual friendships.

Because these types of relationships have become the norm rather than rare and exclusive, the tools have been democratized.  As a result we now have communication tools like the video phone (thanks to Skype and Ovoo) that not only work very well, but don’t even cost anything to use unless you want the fancy add-ons.  Some of the tools like web connected PDAs, phones and portable computers, were barely even imagined in science fiction just 30 or 40 years ago.  Even Star Trek’s communicators which presaged the cell phone in form and function, didn’t get as far as the smartphone.  Kirk never was able to scan, photograph or analyze things on his communicator. He had to have a bulky tricorder for that.

The Implications for Us Geezers
Who knows how long, even those of us who were early adopters of the new communications technology will be able to keep up. Some of my friends avoid computers altogether and live in a primitive kind of cone of silence, isolated from the hubbub going on invisibly in the air around them.  Others, like me, tend to be at least one or two generations behind. My photo and desktop publishing software is over a decade old and I have no intention of upgrading until the price of the software drops drastically.  I use XP because I like it and newer versions of Windows lead me into traps. Increasingly, the new operating systems and protocols are designed for kids who grew up with computers and become steadily less intuitive for us old geezers to master.

Perhaps, the purchasing power of the Baby Boom generation will either slow things down so we can keep up or induce the designers of communications tools to use the burgeoning technological capabilities at their disposal to take things back to a more human style interface.

Who knows? So far, all we’ve got out of the deal are cell phones with big buttons. I still want to take pictures make videos and surf the net. I just don’t want my phone to make me feel stupid because I can’t figure out what menu button (or tangled combination of keystrokes) makes the video camera work.

And don’t tell me Apple or Macs are easy to use. I’ve tried to figure out Macs and they are just every bit as confusing and I already learned to use a PC, so I don’t need the stress of learning a foreign system.

I am so doomed to obsolescence.

Just one man’s opinion,

Tom King

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Thieves In the Garden

The boys playing on the "trolley"  at Honeymom's and Grandpa's
When my boys were little, my wife taught them to love raw veggies.  She'd set broccoli, peas and cauliflower on their high chair tray and pour a little puddle of ranch dressing beside them. They were at that fiercely independent stage where they didn't want to be fed anymore. They wanted to do it themselves.

My wife, a scathingly brilliant educator where it came to getting children to do what she wanted, came up with this little ruse to get our kids to eat things they would normally have resisted. People at restaurants would marvel that we could get two and three year olds to eat raw veggies.

Honeymama, who recieved her nickname from her grandkids, planted a garden every year. My grandpa plowed up the ground, dug the rows and together they planted vegetables every year. They started in January with the English peas - two or three rows of them.   My grandmother for the longest time thought she had racooons because she kept finding all these empty pea pods when she went to pick peas.

It wasn't coons.

My Grandmother
Whenever we came out to visit, the boys always loved ot go out and play in the backyard. My grandpa had built a swing and a zip line trolley made from a pulley and a steel cable strung from the top of an oak tree to the bottom of another one. They also liked to poke around the barn and climb on the cow pen fences.  Turns out they were also sneaking out into the garden.

They would sit between the rows of English peas where we couldn't see them and strip young sweet peas right out of the pods. Inevitably, they got so busy snitching peas, they didn't hear my grandmother come out the back door.

She saw what was happening and slipped back in the house, calling us to the window.  There, out in the garden, were our offspring crawling around amongst the peas, their heads bobbing up and down like a pair of cows grazing in a pasture. I was all set to rush out there and punish them, but Honeymama told me to leave them alone. She kind of got a kick out of them sneaking around eating raw peas, I think, even if it did reduce the size of her pea harvest..

Her solution?  Every season after that she just planted an extra row of peas for the boys.

There's a lot of Godly wisdom in that somehow..

Tom King - (c) 2012

Monday, June 04, 2012

Be Careful What You Pray For

© 2012 by Tom King

Back in my halcyon days at summer camp I enjoyed a brief period in my life where I felt strong, highly-skilled at my job and confident that I knew a little about everything that needed to be known.  I worked for five summers at Lone Star Camp during my academy, college and early teaching days. I realize now, I was attending God’s summer school for emerging Christians.

One camp director that I highly respected used to describe me as “walking to the beat of a different drummer”. I grew a beard every summer, wore leather moccasins and a leather headband that my buddy and I had made from scraps from leathercraft class. I’d passed a very tough life-saving class and had advanced from garbage man to small craft safety instructor and for possibly the first, last and only time in my life felt competent to do my job. 

I learned a valuable, if uncomfortable lesson one particular summer. We had a Texas Conference youth director who’d been imported from the South American mission field. We gave him a fairly tough time. He was used to being obeyed. We were used to doing things our own way. Our camp director ran interference, between the big boss and the line staff and kept things pretty happy all in all.  Then teen camp came.
We had a group of boys that drove up from Houston. Their dad was a doctor. They brought their own skis and ski jackets. They wore sunglasses and had attitude. You could tell right off they’d come planning to do things pretty much their own way.

The staff managed to shut them down by threatening to kick them all out of skiing and put them in a nature class for the week. After that, we managed to get a more cooperative attitude from the boys, but all week long they chafed under the reins we kept on them.  By Sabbath they were ready to explode. Word got around Saturday afternoon that the boys were planning to “tear the camp up” that night.

This spooked the big boss and just before campfire that evening he announced to staff that after campfire he was taking all the kids over to the swimming area for a watermelon scramble. “That’ll wear them down,” he said. “Then they’ll be too tired to get into trouble tonight.” The lifeguards went pale. 

A watermelon scramble is a contest we do at the water show as part of the week’s ending activities. We’d had to cancel the popular event that week and the kids had been very disappointed. The scramble works like this.  You place a greased watermelon in the middle of the swimming area, line up two cabins full of kids on opposite docks, blow a whistle and they all go after the floating melon. The winner is the cabin that manages to wrestle the melon free from the others and drag it to their own dock. The side that gets it out of the water wipes off the grease and eats the watermelon. The game can get rough so we always have lots of lifeguards in the water, on the towers and docks to keep it clean and make sure no one drowns. The scramble is tough enough to lifeguard with 30 or 40 wrestling kids in the water in the daytime. The idea of doing it at night was horrifying. 

“Sir,” one guard held up her hand. “That’s awfully dangerous – doing a watermelon scramble at night.” I thought she was understating the case, myself.

“We have plenty of lifeguards,” the boss dismissed her objection. “When I was in Chile, we used to take 200 kids to the beach with just two adults to supervise.” 

“Well, yeah,” one wit muttered under his breath. “But in America, we actually like our children.”  Someone jabbed him in the ribs aside from a snicker or two, nothing more was said. We knew the boss too well. The more we pushed him, the more firmly he would stand by his decision. He walked away and left us talking worriedly among ourselves.

“What’ll we do?” one guard said as we put our heads together. This is crazy!” 

Many ideas were tossed around. We thought about refusing to participate, but we knew he’d have fired most of us and sent us all home. Then he’d have done the watermelon scramble anyway – at least he made us believe so. We were afraid not to be there lest a kid drown and spoil our perfect camp record. Finally, one lifeguard looked off down the lake and saw a single dark cloud scudding across the sky, far off and low down above the trees. 

“We could pray for rain!” he suggested half-heartedly. 

We all looked skeptically down the lake at that one forlorn little cloud on the horizon. “Might as well,” another agreed. “I don’t see any other way out of this. You can’t do a watermelon scramble if there’s lightning.”

So we made a little circle at the back of the campfire area and we prayed for rain. Actually, we got rather more specific than that.  We prayed for a nice big lightning storm to give us an excuse to halt the watermelon scramble. We also added a prayer that God would help prevent our young toughs from starting a riot that night.  For the rest of the campfire program, we watched the horizon anxiously.

Incredibly, that little black cloud grew. The sky turned blacker and blacker. As we stood for the prayer song at the end of campfire, fat drops of rain began to fall.  As we sang “Amen” lightning popped overhead, lighting up the sky.

“We’re going to have to cancel the watermelon scramble,” the boss announced, a touch of irritation in his voice. “Hurry back to your cabins now,” he instructed the counselors. Our little cadre of lifeguards grinned smugly. God had answered our prayers. 

It was very hard not to sing the “Nanny, nanny boo boo.” song as we headed back to toward the cabins feeling pretty full of ourselves.

The rain ratcheted up in intensity. Long peals of thunder rolled across the sky. Lightning cracked. Everybody picked up the pace till we were pelting down the trail for the cabins as the sky seemed to open up. We managed to get the kids inside and the shutters pulled down just as the worst storm I ever experienced at Lone Star Camp unleashed its fury on us. 

Once we got the kids in the cabins, the waterfront staff still had to get back to our own cabins. It was about then that we got the lightning we’d asked for.  A group of us took shelter in the open sided dining pavilion. We wound up huddled close by the big stone fireplace as rain lashed the structure violently, whipping up in sheets under the edges of the roof. It was pretty scary. The lightning popped round us, blasting trees and light poles. It looked for all the world like God was angry with us.

One of the lifeguards, Jack, made a run for the showers from the staff cabin in the middle of the storm. He always made the trip wearing only a towel and flip-flops and carrying a bar of soap.  As he crossed the little meadow near cabin 1 (where our young hooligans were staying) a lightning bolt struck a nearby tree.  Jack did a half flip and landed flat on his back in a puddle, dazed. His towel was blown off, but came fluttering down to landed strategically across his waist. He managed to get back up on his feet and stumbled down the trail to take shelter in the shower house.

In cabin 1, the counselor responsible for our would-be terrorists, my buddy Mark, also a lifeguard, had got everyone inside and they were all hunkered under the covers, listening to what sounded like an artillery barrage outside. These guys, Mark told me later, were really looking nervous, lying there on steel army cots while vast bolts of unfettered electricity raged around them. Mark had been having worship before bedtime every night that week and none of the boys had once shown the slightest interest in participating. Mark had pretty much given up on them, so he made his own prayers and was about to flip off the single light bulb that dangled at the center of the cabin.

Without warning, a terrific blast and blinding flash of light struck the cabin. The overhead light bulb exploded raining shards of glass down on everyone. Electrical outlets spurted blue flames. A couple of the guys screamed involuntarily.

The room went black and silence fell, the only sound the steady rush of the rainstorm beating on the shutters.

“Counselor,” a voice asked timorously in the dark. “Can we pray now?”

Cleanup the next day was massive. Limbs and trees were down all over camp. Trashcans were turned over; gear scattered everywhere. But the kids didn’t “tear up the camp”. It seemed that God had done it for them.

Since that night, I’ve stopped telling God how to answer my prayers. I decided that from then on I would just ask for His help and leave the actual method of answering my prayers up to Him. 
It’s much safer that way.

Tom King