Church Offering Counter Forms

One of my responsibilities at CBC is serving as the 2011 Financial Officer. I’ve recently finished a new set of contribution recording forms for use by our offering counters and wanted to make them available for general use. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for improvement or if you end up using them and find them useful.

The images below link to the PDF versions. The original MS Publisher (.pub) files are also available in the ZIP.

Cash Contribution Worksheet
Contribution Recording Form

Restoring that clean dishes sparkle?

secret ingredientIf you have a dishwasher (and especially if you have hard water) you’ve probably noticed sometime in the last year that your dishes haven’t been getting as clean, and end up with a dull finish or white film. What you may not know is the reason why.

It turns out that in July laws went into effect in several states banning the sale of phosphate-containing dishwasher soaps. Phosphates are chemical compounds that among other things help soften water (which enhances sudsing) and suspends particles of solids to keep them from sticking. Because of the number of states simultaneously enforcing the ban, practically all manufacturers have been forced to modify their formulas to leave out phosphates, even in states where there is no ban.

So, what to do if you’ve recently found your dishwasher to be practically useless? For one thing, some reports indicate that phosphate-free formulas are improving, although still not as good as the old stuff. For us, we haven’t yet noticed an improvement, probably because our Arizona community has fairly hard water and we don’t have a water softener.

The solution we’ve discovered that actually works is to enhance our dishwasher soap with a small amount (typically a half a teaspoon or less per load) of TSP. TSP is a heavy-duty commercial cleaning product that turns out to have as it’s main ingredient trisodium phosphate (hence the name), which is not coincidentally the exact ingredient that used to be in your dishwasher soap. It’s sold at most hardware stores, so we’ve been picking up a pound of it for about $4 at Home Depot, which lasts for quite a while.

You shouldn’t need much of it at all–the original formulas only contained 5-8% phosphates, so don’t go overboard. It’s powerful stuff, so it can potentially discolor or worse if you use too much. That said, it’s been nice to finally be able to use our dishwasher again since we discovered this about a month ago.

Gapminder: An impressive tool for data visualization

A few days ago I ran across a really intriguing video showing researcher Hans Rosling introducing the new BBC documentary “The Joy of Stats”. Take a look below:

YouTube Preview Image

The data visualization in this video was impressive enough that I had to find out more. That led me to a talk by Rosling at TED in 2006. This video is basically a longer version of the one in the youtube video. Again, impressive stuff. While he makes some compelling points, I’m not really qualified to judge the validity of all his arguments. What I was really struck with is the power and intuitive beauty of the software he used in the presentation.

I did some more research, and sure enough, Rosling actually founded the nonprofit software company responsible for the tool you see in the videos. It’s called Gapminder, and it’s available for free both as a browser-based (see below) and a desktop version. Needless to say, this is the kind of tool that a geek like me could get lost playing with for a couple of hours. It looks like something that would be a great tool for social studies teachers, students, or even public policy makers.

Interestingly, the major intellectual property and talent behind the product was purchased by Google in 2007, shortly after execs were introduced to Rosling and Gapminder (the software was apparently called Trendalyzer at the time).

Use Dropbox as a CDN for your WordPress site

Using a CDN is a great idea in order to optimize the load time of your website, especially when it’s content-heavy. Basically you place your static content (pictures, sound, video, CSS, Javascript, etc.) on a third-party’s network of servers. Some of  the big CDNs are operated by Akamai and Amazon, among a bunch of others.

This has potential to speed up your site several ways. First off, the CDN’s servers are often just plain faster at delivering static content than the server your website runs on, particularly if you have a low-cost shared hosting plan.

Second, a well-designed CDN host your content on s geographically distributed network of servers, so users visiting your site download CDN-hosted content from whichever node of the network is closest rather than from your webserver, which could potentially be on the other side of the country or the world.

Finally, the HTTP protocol limits the number of simultaneous connections your browser can make to the same domain name (the limit has historically been 2 simultaneous connections, although some (most?) modern browsers increase that).  This was especially important in the early days of the web–if you let every browser make as many connections as it wants, a busy web server would quickly be brought to its knees. Your browser needs to make a separate server connection to download each file on the website–every image, video, stylesheet, etc. If you can come up with a quick way to double the number of possible HTTP connections, it would obviously speed up the page load process. Well, since all the files on the CDN have a different domain name, the browser can now max out its connections to the second CDN server too.

So far so good, but CDNs have typically been difficult and expensive to implement. However, I ran across a brilliant idea today that solves both of these problems: use a free Dropbox account as a CDN server using a WordPress plugin that takes care of all of the hard stuff for you. As a big WordPress fan, I obviously love this idea. There are of course a couple of limitations–Dropbox limits the total bandwidth on free accounts to 10 GB/day, and the plugin supports only WordPress theme files and not uploaded content so far. Still, that’s a good start, and 10 GB/day is a lot for most websites.

I’m going to be trying this on a couple of WordPress sites I run sometime soon, and I’ll post back with the results.