Friday, August 31, 2007

FaceBook and Virginia Tech

The more I take notice, the more I'm convinced that Thomas Friedman may be right: the barriers to communication are being flattened, and quickly.

I made these voice notes one bright and sunny day in the middle of this past April; the day now permanently seared into my memory as the Virginia Tech tragedy. We live in a changed world, but the point of this journal entry is not to comment on the murderer or the tragedy itself, but rather on how people responded, both during and after.

On April 16th I sat on a couch in the Pause (a student recreation area at St Olaf), eyes glued to the TV as CNN covered the breaking news out of Virginia. As part of their coverage they interviewed several students from VTech, most of whom provided the typical, not-so-great-quality of responses one would expect from inexperienced college kids doing their first news interview. But one of the interviewees really grabbed me–she was calm, incredibly well-spoken, and the insider's story she had to tell was eye-opening. Maddie level-headedly recounted to the anchor her experience of the building being locked down, and she and her classmates being confined in a computer / publications classroom. Rather than sit by idly, they took that opportunity, in true journalistic style, to start reporting, gathering information as best they could, and writing about the events even as they were still unfolding. With the phones non-functional, they were still able to keep in communication with friends in other buildings through means like instant messaging and FaceBook, gathering any relevant details, but more importantly to make sure they were unharmed.

Hearing that is when I realized: FaceBook has changed the way people respond to tragedy. In the days to follow, many VTech students chose to honor their fallen classmates by changing their profile pictures to a specially designed VTech ribbon of mourning, and countless groups were created in the global network (meaning open for anyone anywhere to join) as a way for others outside the community to show their support.

As her interview was finishing up, I found Maddie on FaceBook and sent her a message, just something simple along the lines of "You did a really great interview on CNN; you and the VTech community are in my prayers". FaceBook has changed what it means to be a college student–it's connected us to each other, bridging the boundaries between schools. That's not a bad thing. And in this particular instance, FB gave us all the chance to show our support, to send messages of encouragement and hope, to reach out to our fellow classmates several states away. Even though it was so many states away, this tragedy, I think, touched all of us (meaning college students)–the victims were our peers; the campus, just like any other, just like mine.

Within a day or two VTech had created an entirely new section of their website whose sole purpose was to provide continuous updates on the status of the campus. Seeing this I must morbidly admit I spent a few minutes thinking about how we'd do something similar at MA should the need ever arise. In any event, I was impressed to see how quickly, and how lovingly, the web folks responded.

Thomas Friedman is really on to something. The face of communication was completely changed this time around. Videos taken on cell phones on campus in Virginia were being streamed all the way to the TV set I was watching in Northfield, Minnesota not more than half an hour after the fact. People interviewed out of VTech were just a FaceBook message away. And, in general, the Internet, for all the problems it may be causing in the world, flattened the barriers to communication, not only so that students could contact friends and family to reassure them they're okay, but also so that other students across the nation, and other people around the world, could come together as a united family to offer prayers and support.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

WWDC07 & San Francisco

This past June I was privileged to attend Apple's World Wide Developer's Conference in San Francisco, which for someone like me, being the Apple lover I am, was really really neat. With an entry ticket price of $1600, there's no way I could normally afford to attend, but on a whim, several months prior, I'd filled out an application to receive a student developer scholarship to attend, and by some small miracle I was actually granted one, meaning the ticket was covered, all I needed to do was get there.

I didn't take nearly enough voice notes to make a very detailed journal, but suffice it to say the week was enjoyable. It would have been much more so had I actually known anyone, but regardless, it was an entirely new (and cool) experience to be walking the hallways and see other developers wearing polo shirts with the logos of software packages that I use. Wow! These are the people who actually make the programs I use in my day to day life. Pretty neat. (Putting in an in-person feature request to the Panic folks who developed Coda was definitely a highlight of the week for me).

With that summary, I digress to the actual voice notes I did take, both about WWDC itself, and about my explorations around the nearby streets of San Francisco.

- WWDC truly is an international event and community. My first day I sat for lunch with someone from England, and that evening met someone at my hotel from France. Roaming the hallways I saw any number of people with power adapters and converters for their laptops' power adapters, allowing them to plug into American outlets in the same way that I've had to use electrical adapters when I've traveled overseas. And there were Asians everywhere, and they were all really smart.

- Walking the streets of San Francisco the day before the conference was an entirely new experience for me: I'd never been that close to so many homeless people and beggars walking around on the street. Reading their signs was a might bit depressing, though the one that read "I need a girlfriend" I just found to be terribly hilarious. Conversely, the sadest sign I saw offered "Will take verbal abuse for spare change". During the conference days themselves, there was a beggar with a very clever line sitting not too far from the Moscone entrance: as we (the attendees) walked past he would call out "My name is [so-and-so] and I'll be your pan-handler for the next 5 feet"–he had a fairly sharp sense of humor about him.

- San Francisco has an overabundance of banks and cell phone store: without fail I passed at least one or two per block as I walked around. Scary.

- The Golden Gate bridge was too far away to walk to from where my hotel was, and I didn't feel like braving a trolley to get there, but I did manage to find my way to a peer overlooking water, which was beautiful. All in all, despite the somewhat cultural shock of seeing the inner city, walking around the city for those several hours was definitely fun, and relaxing.

Walking Her Home

Excepting the times when I find myself in an emotionally vulnerable place, very few songs can touch me deeply enough so as to make me cry. Some may make my eyes water a little bit, like Mark Schultz's "I have been there", Third Day's "Cry out to Jesus", or the Newsboys's "Something Beautiful", but very rarely will a song actually make me teary.

The other day, or, at least, what was "the other day" back when I made this voice note on February 20th, 2007, I caught the last part of a new song by Mark Schultz on the radio: "Walking her home". As I listened I recalled hearing a preview of this song at Mark's concert a couple years back, before the song was fully written. When I got home that day I looked to see if, per chance, this song was on the Broken and Beautiful CD I'd just purchased, and lo and behold it was.

And so I listened to the whole thing, and as I listened, I cried. I cried not of sadness, but of heartstrings–this song, much like the third verse of "I have been there", reminded me so much of my Grandma and Grandpa, their life story, their life together, and Grandma's passing a year and a half ago. It was as if Mark took their story and wove it into song, and it was beautiful:

Looking back
He sees it all
It was her first date the night he came to call

Her dad said, "Son,
Have her home on time
And promise me youll never leave her side."
He took her to a show in town
And he was ten feet off the ground

He was walking her home
And holding her hand
Oh the way she smiled it stole the breath right out of him
Down that old road
With the stars up above
He remembers where he was the night he fell in love
He was walking her home

Ten more years and a waiting room
At half past one
And the doctor said, "Come in and meet your son"

His knees went weak
When he saw his wife
She was smiling as she said, "He's got your eyes"

And as she slept he held her tight
His mind went back to that first night

He was walking her home
And holding her hand
Oh the way she smiled it stole the breath right out of him
Down that old road
With the stars up above
He remembers where he was the night he fell in love
He was walking her home

He walked her through the best days of her life
Sixty years together and he never left her side

A nursing home
At eighty-five
And the doctor said it could be her last night
And the nurse said "Oh,
Should we tell him now?
Or should he wait until the morning to find out?"

But when they checked her room that night
He was laying by her side

Oh he was walking her home
And holding her hand
Oh the way she smiled when he said this is not the end
And just for a while they were eighteen
And she was still more beautiful to him than anything
He was walking her home
He was walking her home

Looking back
He sees it all
It was her first date the night he came to call

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Just Meaningless. Or is it?

I've paid some great amount of attention recently to my own speech patterns and language choices: what words I use, how often I use them, etc, and I've frequently noticed that the word "just" has really just crept into my vocabulary just a bit, and I just use it a little too often. That's just what I think, anyway, and so it seems like it has become just meaningless. But has it really?

My rather public affair with the word "just" first saw light perhaps two years ago while assisting in a teacher workshop. I was helping one of the teachers do something, saying "just click here and just do that" when she [more or less] jokingly pointed out to me that, yes, for me it may be "just" do this and that, but for her it wasn't always that obvious. To clarify, she wasn't getting upset, but it was a revelation to me nonetheless that I do tend to diminutise tasks that I consider trivially or, at least, relatively, easy; If something's simple to me, I consciously or unconsciously assume it must also be simple for everyone else. And so I command someone "just click here and change this setting", because of course I've done it a hundred times, but I'm working hard to remember that doesn't mean the other person has any clue whatsoever.

In addition to the outward expressions of affection for "just", I've discovered it and I have a secret relationship in my prayer life, as well: "Just" has crept into my prayer vernacular and takes every opportunity it can to jump out and assert itself. But I realised something, and now I've concluded that I think it's okay for "just" to be so closely bonded with my prayers: overused as it may be, it may never be meaningless in a prayer setting. In the same sense that I use "just" out loud when discussing something I think is simple, any situation I could possibly be praying about must be so simple, so absolutely trivial to God, that to say "just" remains perfectly applicable.

This came to my mind some number of weeks ago when I first made the voice note that spawned this journal entry: I heard a siren, and I've gotten into the habit that, when I hear a siren, I always say a little prayer for the people in need and for the emergency crew helping them: "Lord, I just pray that you would be in that situation, that you would just be with them".

You may have noticed two sneaky little "just"s lurking in there: The first is used in the sense that it's so simple for me to pray–10 seconds and I'm done. Quick, easy, simple, painless. That's one of the amazing things about believing in a personal Deity and having a direct line of communication. The second "just" in there, I believe, is valid because it is a reminder of the fact that this situation I'm praying about remains something so incomprehensibly small for a God of the universe, and yet I believe that God still cares. God's just awesome like that–another use of "just", this time to exemplify something far above and beyond the ordinary.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Very Quick Rant About "Harry Putter"

I recorded this voice note on the road a couple days ago (I like to write things while I drive). Let me just say, it's so true:

I absolutely cannot believe how stupid some people are. Okay, to be nice maybe I should say "dense" instead. Let's stick with that: "dense". Why are they dense? I'll tell them about this movie I'm working on, "Harry Putter and the Chamber Pot of Secrets", and they'll just sort of stare at me blankly. The ensuing conversation looks something like this:

Dense Person [assuming I must be talking about Potter and not Putter]: "I don't read the books, I haven't seen the movies, I don't know anything about that".
Me: "Well, you don't need to, see, it's a parody: 'Putter', and 'chamber pot', see chamber pots are funny".
D [clearly not bothering to understand/process anything I just said]: "Oh, good for you"
M: "No! You're not getting it! Ahh!"

I generally skip saying the last line out loud, I just think it really really hard in the hopes that my mind will be powerful enough to break through the dense person's apparent complete block of mental activity and inspire their brain to start working again. This has yet to be successful.

Day 30 - Part 2

30 days of journals, but did I get anything more out of it than that? Did God really touch me more than just writing down what I did each day? What have I learned from doing this?

I never truly limited myself to just saying "surprise me"; there are so many people in need, so many of my good friends, who are so much more important than my silly experiment, and I prayed for them daily by name. I also prayed selfishly: "Please help me on this test", "Please let this email be received well", etc, but even so I feel I always kept an honest, welcoming approach to saying "surprise me", and then spotting the surprises when they came.

A lot of "surprises" aren't necessarily from God, Terry even talked about that a bit on Day 14 in his book. I'm not going to claim they are, or that they have to be, but God is still creator, He created surprises, so it doesn't seem wholly inappropriate to offer thanks for all these surprises in my life, anyway. Any number of the things I've written about can easily be dismissed as coincidental, or just "normal"; life would have done that anyway (like the date formatter in address book, to name just one trivial example from a while back). It's easy to say that wasn't really God surprising me, it was there already, only waiting to be discovered. Maybe so, but regardless that doesn't change how I became so much more aware of just how many surprises come in a day. I paid closer attention to all the glorious things God's put into my life, and maybe that's the real heart of what this experiment is about. Yes, it's a lot about learning to give control over to God, but I also think a major part is simply learning to see what God's already doing in my life. And it doesn't take a special prayer for Him to keep doing that; I just need to pay better attention.

All in all it was fun to watch, to pay that extra attention, and maybe I'll do it again sometime. Actually, in writing this 5 months later I can say that I have continued, off and on, to pray "surprise me", but I opted not to keep the detailed journals–it just takes too much time, and I think that's where the real drag came in, too: I forgot the purpose behind the prayer because I was so worried about keeping up with writing that I didn't really look any more at all that I was missing, all the surprises that were coming to me anyway. So, I still plan to journal about my really great days, but otherwise, the only record I'm keeping of the surprises will be in my memory.

As for this journal, it's complete. It's something my children or grandchildren can look back to read someday, or me, for that matter, to see what I was like at this age (for the future record, I was 21 during my "surprise me" month). I do realise, of course, that my little writings really pale in comparison of quality to Terry's; some days I had it in me to tangent and just talk and talk, other days it became merely summary. Some days I felt closer to God than others, but it was still a fun experiment to just open my eyes and try and see what is happening here, what's happening in my life, what God's doing for me.

It's been a good 30 days. Thank you, God, for everything.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Day 30 - Part 1

Day 30: March 29th. Almost 5 months have passed, and now I'm finally getting the journal done. But hey, at least I'm getting it done! That's one more thing to cross off my to-do list. W00t. Back in time...

I was up until probably 1:30 or so last night, so I slept in until the late hour of 9:00. "It's day 30", I realized, bringing excitement, relief, and then slight frustration as I pulled out not just one, but two, socks with holes from my drawer.

Somewhere I'm sure I had heard or read that today was Founders Day at Minnehaha, but nevertheless, I was surprised to see quite a few extra cars parked in the lot. Yet somehow, miraculously, there was a spot open just about as close to the door as one can get, so I shamelessly took it. and went on inside to observe the founder's day chapel. There were a couple speakers lined up, most of whom were rather dull, but one, ironically probably one of the oldest men there, was actually interesting to listen to, and I was certainly caught unsuspecting at how in tune he seemed to be in appealing to his audience of students. Perhaps he won them over with his opening joke about a Christian tiger praying "Come Lord Jesus, be my guest..." over the missionary man he'd just caught for dinner.

In the early afternoon I had a most pleasant surprise encounter waiting for me. As part of the founders day festivities (ie, the development office brunch for the rich donors), one of my former teachers and mentors, Dan Olson, the man who taught me my first lick of HTML and debating skills, was back to give a speech! I accosted him while he was eating lunch with the rich folk and we spent a couple minutes catching up ever so briefly, but it was so great to see him again!

Beyond that conversation, the highlights of my day were unquestionably the random positive comments from various peoples about my presentation on Tuesday, and how impressed they were that I had been able to capture the students' rapt attention so effectively. Wow! I thought my speech was good, but I didn't know it had been as captivating as it apparently was. I was especially moved by Merrett's compliment, and her comment that the students are still talking about my speech two days later. Hearing that from her really meant a lot to me.

One other significant highlight came in the form of another random compliment, this one from Rich (my former math teacher, now co-MA-website-maker), about how impressed he's been with some of the things I've done on the new MA website. He wouldn't have had to say anything, which made it all the more meaningful to me, especially coming from a mentor, and someone for whom I hold a very deep respect.

The evening was not terribly eventful, though there was some excitement in store: I mailed my taxes, for one, and that's pretty exciting. I bought some stamps from the self-service machines in the post office entryway (which, huge surprise, was open past 5:00!). And I filled up my car with gas, after being surprised to see how much the price had increased [it had raised up to 2.589/gallon–note from the future, how I long for those days of "cheap" gas!]. Later I did a location tour at Minnehaha for a WaZoo sketch ("Dracula: Hall Monitor") that I got us permission to shoot there, and then, at home, [on my first try!] I successfully set up Address Book to look at Minnehaha's LDAP directory, meaning that Mail will now integrate automatically with both MA and St Olaf's email addresses (there's only going to be like one person who reads this that actually understands what that means; basically it just means that I can start typing a person's name and, even if they're not in my previous contact list, Mail will be able to fill in the rest of their name and email address automatically–it's a huge timesaver because it means no more having to look up email addresses in online databases).

I finished off the day watching more episodes from season 1 of Joan of Arcadia–probably the perfect way to end any day. And then I remembered there was a bunch of laundry on my bed that needed folding before I could tuck myself in. Afterward, perhaps fittingly, my day was closed by the reading of my own lenten devotion from the St Olaf Student Congregation's Lenten Devotional booklet. It wasn't that I'd planned it that way, mine just happened to be the next one in the book. Fitting, though, because it was a prayer that I'd written, and one that I needed reminding of.

And there was morning, and there was evening, the 30th day.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Day 29

It's been almost 5 months since "Day 29" happened on March 28th, how on earth can I still write about it? Because, like all the previous 28 days, I took plenty of voice notes throughout the day, so even though my memories of those events may now be somewhat lacking, I still have a record of what happened.

On Day 29 I slept in. Shocking. That's one thing I love about my job at MA, though: being able to set my own hours. Besides, it's spring break, I think I'm entitled to a little extra sleep in the morning.

This morning was different than all the other mornings that week: my tube of toothpaste finally ran out after being on its last legs for several weeks. Time for a new one, and, according to my voice notes, that was exciting.

On my way into the lab this morning I had a short conversation with one of my former math teachers, who had just returned back from Ethiopia with his family after visiting their adopted child's aunt; he had pictures and stories to share amidst grading tests.

My focus today was on the Upper School section of the new website, and now we're almost done with that section, at least as far as creating the pages (images are another story). After so many delays with this website, it's great to finally be making some real progress. In addition, one of the consultants we're working with sent us his first draft of a flash animation for the new home page, and it looks super awesome; what a pleasant surprise to get to see the calibre of work he'll be doing for us.

Now begins a rant about unwanted surprises. Of course, I opened my day up asking for any surprises, but frankly there are some I'd rather live without, such as the surprises that DreamWeaver likes to throw at me, and for this reason it would not be a complete misnomer to call it NightmareWeaver.

DreamWeaver is a popular web development software put out by Macromedia (now owned by Adobe), and it's what I use when I build websites. One of the nifty features it has (that I use often) is called "apply source formatting", which formats the source code of the page you're working on, mostly just to make it more easily human readable. Well that's all fine and well, unless you un/intentionally make a change to part of the code that DW thinks is supposed to be a non-editable part of the template you're using. If that happens, the apply source formatting command will give you an error, complaining that you've changed something you shouldn't have, and warning that the change will be lost the next time the template is updated. Then it gives you a choice: do you want to keep the change anyway, or revert back the way it was. Here's the kicker: even if you click "yes" to keep the change, it will still revert, which means you just lost all your work since the last time you saved, which is absolultely infuriating. I've conditioned myself to remember to save first before asking it to do any formatting, but sometimes I forget and it's soo aggravating.

Onto happier notes. At the end of the day I was blessed with a chance to talk to Jenna for a little bit before heading home. I've no recollection anymore what we talked about, but I always enjoy my talks with her, since we're the last of what I call the 'old school techies', the last two who remember the Jerde years. I value her friendship very much.

When I got home this evening I had a slight surprise in finding out that I already owned two of the DVDs I bought yesterday at the CompUSA sale. Crumb. Well, maybe I can gift them away to someone (though 5 months later I still haven't done so).

Later in the evening I finally forced myself to sit down to finish signing all the HP1 thank you notes (while watching Joan of Arcadia), with plans to mail them (with premiere invites enclosed) tomorrow.

And lastly, I did my taxes! What's super awesome about that is that TurboTax runs on the Mac this year, which is great! Now, that said, I've had one pet peeve ever since I started having to file taxes (at age 15), and I'm not only referring to watching my refund amount keep going down as I put in more investment numbers. Our government, in it's infinite wisdom, allows you to contribute $3 to election campaign funds for free, meaning it doesn't decrease your refund or increase what you owe, and then they also give you the option to donate to a state wildlife fund, but this time whatever you want to donate comes directly from your refund, or adds to what you owe. This bugs me! So just to spite them I always donate $5 to the wildlife and nothing to the politicians.

Here ends Day 29.