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Monday, February 24, 2014

Big Can Be Beautiful

At times, it would appear that mega-companies and governments control certain aspects of our destinies. Big oil sets the price we pay for gasoline. Banks charge their fees and we accept them. Governments raise our taxes and we hardly fight back. (Property values declined over ten years in our area, but our property taxes…went up!)

Recently, Comcast made an offer to buy Time Warner Cable, the second largest cable company in the U.S. Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast, described the pending acquisition this way: “pro-consumer, pro-competitive, and strongly in the public interest.” He also argued that the deal "does not reduce competition in any market or in any way.” We shall see.

As a New York Times report reminds us, Comcast has many media tentacles. Our home phone, Internet access, and cable television services are all Comcast. And, yes, as the article states, as the company has grown, the costs only seem to go in one direction: UP!

In similar fashion, our auto, life, and homeowners insurance are all connected to State Farm. The advantage is in the “bundling”—where having all services with one company gives the consumer a lower overall price for loyalty. The disadvantage is that to break away from the bundling, your costs can go up significantly.

The Los Angeles Times gave a less generous view to the Comcast deal. They dared to use the word “monopoly.” The way the Times sees it, “We need more competition, not less; and allowing Comcast and Time Warner Cable to merge means much, much less.”,0,867041.story#axzz2tmu47JK9

From my perspective, massive companies and massive governments have something in common. IF the leadership is truly focused on customer benefits, it can be good. But more often than not, mammoth organizations tend not to run “lean and mean” and customers get bad service, bad value for the money, and a bad attitude when customers complain.

It isn’t a profit issue. It’s the problems that arise when a larger than life organization takes advantage of their size to exercise power over the people. It happens far too often.

In reality, most of the time we are NOT powerless. I don’t have to use Comcast. Or State Farm. I still have a choice. I may not like my options, but I can choose. Government, on the other hand, makes it much more difficult to “opt out.”

A good friend once commented to me that Godless capitalism was no better than Godless communism. Or Godless socialism. Another has said that the most efficient and productive way to get things working is with a benevolent dictator. That is one who cares about people deeply and has the power and a commitment to make policies that best serve them. (I still have to think that one through.)

The Bible says in Proverbs 20:28, “Love and faithfulness keep a king safe; through love his throne is made secure.” (NIV) Business titans, military leaders, government officials, and all in authority do well to take this proverb to heart. The leader who commits to this path is one for whom we can cheer and support.

Big CAN be beautiful…when it shows up with a servant’s heart.

That’s The Way WE Work. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Holy What?

Of Cursing and Vile Speech  Let the Reader Beware

As a young lad, I was taught by my parents to avoid at high cost the offense of “bad language.” From my earliest recollection, there seemed to be a bit of a ranking. The more minor infractions were replacement words like “Darnit” or “heck.  Those were modified to avoid the actual cursing of damnation or hell. At the top of the list, was taking God’s name in vain, expressed most dramatically by the exclamation of “G— D——-!.”  Let the reader interpret.

Apart from these words, another category existed. This was considered “vile speech.” The oft-repeated replacement word for “dung” and the dreaded “F-word” were never to be uttered around or by any of our family. Violations of both cursing and forms of vile speech were punishable by spanking. Moreover, this kind of language was generally unacceptable, both in school and in the broader social environment.

My how times have changed! I recently read that Navy Seals use the “F-word” so commonly that it is seemingly an essential part of their work jargon! It likely would not earn a Seal of Approval from their mothers.

This issue came front and center to my attention when my wife and I recently saw the film, The Monuments Men.  The film is based on a true story in book form by American author Robert Edsel. What great irony to have a film purporting to honor men who cared passionately about preserving great works of art, while often blaspheming the name of the Creator and using vile speech. A truly classic moment of the most vile of ironies came near the end of the film. 

Spoiler alert: A precious art treasure had been located in a German mine: The Madonna of Bruges sculpture. It was an art piece that had been most sought-after by the lead actor, played by George Clooney. In discovering its location, The Monuments Men had to scramble to get the sculpture out of the mine before the Russians could arrive to claim the grounds. As the men were taking this beautiful piece from the mine—this Madonna figure of Mary holding the Christ child—several men repeated over and over, “Holy Sh—-!!” Let the reader interpret.

You’ve got to be kidding me!!??  Did NO ONE catch the absolutely totally inappropriate use of that phrase at that moment? Rather than stand in awe and respect of both the art and its meaning, the film despicably cheapens the moment with vile sacrilege. Abominable.

This blog is geared toward a message for the workplace. So let me summarize by saying that vile talk and cursing has become much more common everywhere. While we cannot mandate people change speech behavior in their private worlds, people of faith can and should become more vocal about its offensiveness. In a culture saturated by political correctness, this demand for correctness may be our fortress of opportunity.

The Bible tells us in Ephesians 5: Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” The chapter has more to say on our moral conditioning and is worth a read. Christ followers may need a refresher course on these matters.

If you are in a position of leadership, then set some standards for appropriate speech in the workplace. And if you are offended by the increasing use of foul language, speak up. If you dare.

Getting this message across to an increasingly vile world, is a true work of art.

That’s The Way WE Work. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Stress Fracture

It could make you feel better, or worse. The list of "The Most Stressful Jobs for 2014" came out recently. It was noted that “stress levels seem to be on the decline from a year ago.”

As one might suspect, military people and rescuers (firefighters) are right there at the top of the list. Military personnel in combat top the list. Military generals are next. The price of freedom often brings the wages of stress on service men and women and their families. Thank God for their willingness to shoulder this burden.

Having served in the military, I was spared any combat role. My stress at the end of my four years of service was preparing an evening sportscast on American Forces Radio and Television Services in Iceland. Whew. Imagine THAT stress! But I digress.

Airline pilots were in fourth place. Then “event coordinators.” (Who knew that planning a bar mitzvah could kill you?) Public relations execs and senior corporate players are rated right up there. Newspaper reporters, police officers, and taxi drivers round out the top ten. No comment.

A lot of the job stress comes with life risk—either to you or others. But another major factor was facing deadlines. That’s the kind that most people endure each day. It was not stated, but I am sure that stress also comes from relational issues with people who hold some aspect of your life in their hands. That list can be lengthy.

There is no need to spend time here identifying the health issues related to stress. In his book Margin, Dr. Richard Swenson argues that a majority of our health problems are connected in some fashion to stress. His prescriptions fall into categories of time, money, emotional well being, and our physical state. He’s very wise in showing how most people live so near the edge in these areas that it doesn’t take much to break them. If you haven’t read any of his materials, seek them out.

Some folks face another kind of job related stress. Like…NO job! Unemployment or underemployment can cause great burdens on the soul and with relationships. I’m currently a “tweener”—between my last job and what I hope is my next assignment. So far, my stress level is pretty low.

Here is what I know for a fact: God is aware of every need I have. He is mindful of my circumstances. He is capable of dealing with any obstacle. Like…any.

The Psalms are replete with words of encouragement from a guy who lived with a huge amount of stress: King David. His life seemed to be a stress magnet! And he offers this great counsel through a question: “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Psalm 118:6)

I admit that mere mortals can appear to have control over our circumstances. But if a man who frequently faced LIFE ENDING situations can grasp the truth that God IS in control…then we should learn this message. And abide in its truth.

Of course, you MIGHT want to consider taking up one of the LEAST stressful jobs. Like a hair stylist. Or a librarian. Or an audiologist. I “hear” no complaints from them.

Meanwhile, take a deep breath.

That’s The Way WE Work. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Monday, February 3, 2014

More than Meets the Eye

They were a big deal around our house when our boys were growing up: Transformers! Now, at least one of my grandsons is loving these robotic change artists.

Hasbro is apparently working on “reinventing” the product line. The sophistication of the robots has become too complicated for some. And the new toys will be hitting the market to coincide with the new Transformers movie release as this story reveals:

So what about this revisionist work of Hasbro and the movie franchise? I asked a Transformer fan and user to share his thoughts in an exclusive interview. If you are, or know of, a fan of Transformers, you’ll relate.

Meet my son, and tech world genius, Marshall Elfstrand, guest critic. I play the part of the interviewer.

What were your favorite Transformers growing up?

I think the favorite of almost every kid—including me—was Optimus Prime. I never had the original toy, but wanted it. And since Megatron was Optimus Prime’s arch-enemy, that was also a desirable toy to have. As characters, I also liked Hot Rod / Rodimus Prime, Wheeljack, the Dinobots, Kup, and I’m sure various others. I still have the Rodimus Prime toy today. While the villains (the Decepticons) weren’t admirable characters, the most memorable ones were Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave, Shockwave, and later Galvatron (Megatron reconstructed).

What did you like about them?

Here I have to distinguish between the toys and the cartoon:

• The toys were fascinating because of the ability to turn them from one thing to another, and that kind of thing has just had a general appeal for some reason: with Voltron, the lions change to combine; with Mask, the cars change into planes and boats; and even Transformers featured combinations of some concepts with toys like Devastator, where the individual Transformers—each with their own vehicle and robot forms—combine with each other to form an even bigger one.

• The cartoon, of course, was made to sell the toys by giving them character, and it did it well: the characters and supporting backstory were what made the show so enjoyable. There was a whole origin story with the creation of the Transformers that was revealed over the course of the show. 

Optimus Prime was everything a heroic leader should be: wise, brave, self-sacrificial, caring for those who followed him, willing to fight for what’s right no matter the personal cost. The Dinobots were bumbling but lovable, kind of like talking pets. Soundwave was loyal to the scheming villain Megatron, which contrasted directly with Starscream, who was constantly trying to undermine him but never succeeded. When Optimus Prime died in the 1986 movie, there were kids who were traumatized by it, because he was such an admirable character and even a kind of father figure for those who didn’t have one. The backlash was so strong that it actually caused the makers of the show to bring back the character at the end of the next season.

What was your take on the Transformers movie?

The new movies focus primarily on human characters reacting to the Transformers rather than the Transformer characters themselves, with a heavy focus on American military involvement. They are more like alien invasion disaster movies, and not particularly good ones at that. As such, I don’t really care for them. Nearly all character has been stripped away from the robots; reportedly Michael Bay didn’t even want them to talk at all (and one of the primary robots, Bumblebee, still doesn’t, despite being a memorable talking character in the show). They got Peter Cullen, the original voice of Optimus Prime, to do that character’s voice in the movie, but he is no longer the noble model leader: he's angry, moody, and in one scene, stumbles around a yard clumsily stepping on things, muttering inane dialog like, "my bad." The second movie was particularly awful, featuring robots with stereotypically racist characteristics, unfunny drug-related jokes, and a human character dying and going to Transformer heaven before being sent back to save everyone.

What did you think of the commitment to make the new toys easier to use?

I never found the original toys to be too difficult; my complaint was more that they often didn’t resemble their characters from the show, and there were vast size differences between toys that should have been around the same size. This mainly stems from the makers of the toys mixing together Japanese toys from a couple different lines and then writing the show later on. There were some simplified Transformers later in the line; these felt too simplistic to me and took some of the fun away. While I’m all for making technology in general easier to use, part of the enjoyment of Transformers was working them out, like a kind of game or puzzle.

Will you go see the new Transformers movie? Is this only for kids today?

Again, since it’s not really about the Transformers anymore, and is more of a military action movie, I wouldn’t say it’s just for kids. In fact, each of the movies has been PG-13, and each contains substantial content not suitable for kids the age I was when I was enjoying Transformers in the '80s. I haven’t gone out of my way to see the movies since being so disappointed by the first one, and I won’t go out of my way to see this one. But if friends are going, or if I’m bored sometime and it’s available for streaming on Netflix, I might watch it.

So there you have it, Transformers fans, a critique from a 30-something toy robot aficionado.

I’m a big fan of another kind of Transformer. He is the one who takes a broken life and transforms it into one of great Kingdom value. In just three years, Jesus transformed thousands of sick and hopeless into followers and lovers of God. He’s still doing these amazing works today.

Read The Book. It’s a classic. Just watch out for the Decepticon. He’s a nasty one.

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