Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sing to Christ the King

Tonight we had a concert of sacred music by local choir Cantorion Llandaf, in honour of the Feast that ends the Christian year. I agreed that it should start at six, for no other reason than not thinking before saying 'yes'. As a result I was gently reminded of a long standing agreement I had forgotten about, that Evensong should not be supplanted by a concert. A bit embarrassed I declared that I would say Evensong at five thirty and anyone who wanted to could join me. This was announced a week in advance, and to my surprise and delight, roughly the same number came and said Evening Prayer with me as usually came at six - eighteen people. And, they made up more than a third of the subsequent audience for the inspiring programme that followed.

Apart from a range of well sung choral works with which I was already familiar, the programme featured a fine solo trumpet player and an accomplished soprano. For one item, they joined forces for a voice/brass duet with organ accompaniment, which was exhilarating to hear.

The musicians' energy and commitment made the event an act of devotion, even though it contained no formal liturgical prayer. Perhaps for some people this is as much as they can manage. It's worship of a kind, and it can move others to prayer and reflection, even though it is essentially performance art. I wish there we more we could achieve to bridge the gap between the two. This is a theological understanding I've not properly explored.

Earlier this week I booked my Easyjet flight to Geneva for my long New Year break this year, starting the day the new Parish of Cathays comes into existence. My first port of call will be St Imier in the Jura bernois where my secretary from Geneva days, and her organist husband live. Both are accomplished organists and professional musicians in their own right, conducting and teaching, working in churches and schools. I look forward to taking some theological soundings with them. It's been six years since we last had an opportunity to meet and catch up.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

At the other edge of the Centre

The poor at the gate

Over the past year, if not longer, I've found myself listening to different people expressing concerns about the relatively small number of people, a couple of dozen or so, who live wild in the city centre. It's a bit of an embarrassment to the city's image stylists, but in a way, I'm susprised at how readily it's overlooked. There's a mix of men and women, many of them youngish, hanging around Central Station and the multi-storey car parks, either on drugs or very heavy drinkers, equally dependent on emergency handouts from social services and free food dished out by either volunteers doing soup runs, or the Barclays Bank sponsored / Social Services / Volunteer partnership which runs the excellent Night Bus - a dark blue double decker dispensing food, health care and information on emergency shelter for anyone who needs it. In fact, Cardiff City Centre Social Services has a good record of getting people off the streets and into accommodation within 48 hours, a 98% success rate. This is good news for the vulnerable - runaways, people in crisis, or new arrivals in the city finding their promised job or the offer of a floor to sleep on has fallen through.

The chronic core
That leaves the hardened survivors - people who've been sleeping rough for years, surviving with mental health problems and/or addiction. They can find it difficult if not impossible to adjust to accommodation in hostel for long enough to break the cycle. Sleeping outside means they don't get bothered as much, when all they seem to want to live for is to get stoned, immunise themselves against harrassment and hide from everyday life. One of the consequences of this is the poisonous litter of used needles, and excrement, both human and animals, in obscure doorways, and planter pots in quieter corners of town. So far, no incident hazardous to health has been reported as a result, but given the current risk-averse obsession with health and safety, it's an extraordinary oversight on the part of politicians and senior city bosses, and much to the credit of those who work on the streets to make the city enjoyably habitable, that they are concerned.
Some of the most vulnerable sufferers take refuge on the streets rather than stay in a hostel, afraid because of their experience therein of aggressive behaviour, noise, crime - be it mugging or drugs trading which occasionally succeeds in overcoming all attempts by hostel workers to suppress it.

The vicious cycle
For social service street outreach workers, constant vigilance is necessary to identify and help them, Also they need to be vigilant against the temptation to write off the really needy who seem to be beyond help apart from the money they need for their next fix or bottle of Thunderbird liquor. Most of the beggars who appear near cash machines, or in strategically visible places on the street (like the alley outside St John's Church) aren't begging for food and shelter. They want money to feed a drug habit. Probably the majority of those who are generous to them are unaware that they are able to find free meals twice a day, that they are contributing to the vicious cycle that enslaves them. The police arrest them under vagrancy byelaws. They get a night in a cell off the streets, a court appearance that seldom leads to suitable remedial action, then as soon as possible they are begging somewhere again. It's not an overhwelmingly huge problem on the scale of possible human problems to solve, but for those with eyes to see, it's a nagging concern that here's a group of people it seems impossible to rehabilitate. Now and again, one of them disappears, or is found dead. There's no outcry, little by way of public embarrassment, but among those who care, there's a sense of frustration and failure at the waste of lives through booze or heroin. How to break the vicious cycle?

Diverted giving
Steve, a member of the city centre management team had the idea of establishing secure collection boxes at strategic points, and running a publicity campaign to draw attention to the fact that giving to beggars here changes nothing for the better. The collecting boxes are intended to raise funds for voluntary rehabilitation work. Suitably secure boxes, to be set in a ground mounted pillar were acquired. Permission has been granted, so far, only to install them in NCP car parks near the pay machines, a favourite site for beggars. Heaven knows what the banks would think of having boxes near cashpoints, as they seem reluctant to do anything about the sad characters who regularly squat near them at night importuning, sometimes even intimidating customers. Steve's hard hitting publicity poster awareness campaign promoting 'diverted giving' has been watered down with help from anxious local authority lawyers. All is now set to run, with a bit of extra enforcement help from the police.

Will this shake up the routine of the hardened addicted rough sleepers? Will the extra hassle nudge them in the direction of compromising their anti social demands and accepting the professional help that's there waiting for them? We wait and see - in my case, watch and pray. The start of recent police crackdowns on vagrants in the centre co-incided with a series of purse thefts from volunteers looking after the 'Cards for Good Causes' shop and the South Wales Arts Exhibition in church. These incidents may be unrelated, but it has church workers all a bit edgy at the moment.

Unconsidered impact
The other worrying factor in attempts to address the homeless problem has been the impact of the volunteer soup run on the area in which it is located. A couple of times it has moved in the past year. Crowds of meal seekers gather, drug dealers seek them out. Sometimes there are fights. Sometimes shoppers passing by are intimidated. There's always discarded remains of food and containers strewn about the street adding to the burden of night cleaners and neighbouring shop workers. Children who are not homeless or runaway gather to be fed, sent by parents unwilling or unable to make them a meal at home. These can be vulnerable in the presence of unstable people, and vulnerable to predators who target children for their own reasons. Some experienced volunteers are aware and concerned about the problems caused. There's no doubt about the keenness and sincerity of all the volunteers, but for the most part they little or no training, and are unable to handle problems which arise. The danger is they become part of the overall problem. In some British cities, and also in the US, street based feeding stations have been banned because of the public nuisance factor.

A middle way?
Discussions about these concerns in Cardiff, between city centre social workers, city centre management, retailers, politicians, police and clergy colleagues which I've been privileged to share conclude that the volunteer contribution (over a hundred people, mostly from suburban churches) should not be banished or punished, but supported and encouraged to work with the professionals and the authorities, offered suitable training to make them more effective as 'street carers' - nice new piece of civic jargon.
Everyone argues about the hows and wherefores, and the pastoral methods to be applied, but the bottom line is that everyone's desires and aims for rehabilitation. Without it the problem persists. Many religious believers may hope for conversions, morally reformed characters etc., but it's healing at every level that's most needed, setting sufferers free to live full lives, no longer defined merely as a victim or a micro contributor to international organised crime and the Afghan economy.
Progress in setting up a scheme to empower street carers is a painstaking task, requiring political and diplomatic persuasiveness to keep everyone on-side. It's a complex, many layered project that needs trust and good-will all round. Better that it happens in a low key way, than being driven by the media which can quickly raise a storm of attention, and equally quickly pass on to the next minor sensation, having provoked over-reaction in every direction. It doesn't matter if any of this effort ever makes a decent headline. What matters is people working together to bring such suffering to an end.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Far away thoughts

Finally the winds and rain are sweeping the bulk of the golden brown leaves from the trees around the Square. It's back-ache time again, with so much raking to do after each big storm, or else get overwhelmed. Ten bin bags of leaves to take to the rubbish tip each time, forty kilos or so, three or four trips during November, despite the fact that the lawn contract maintance people put in a weekly visit, weather permitting, and shift lorry loads of leaves from the knee high drifts on the grass in the middle. This month is averagely warmer than the same time last year. I have yet to see my breath making mist as I labour at the leaves this year.

On a few days when the temperature went almost to zero and there was a modicum of frost, I wore my ski jacket. It made me think of Switzerland and memories of much colder days past. Eventually this sentiment drove me to the EasyJet site, to book a flight to Geneva for my winter leave in January. This year I'll have worked six straight months with no more than a four day autumn break, and few regular days off to punctuate the working week - my own fault entirely. With a week's holiday in hand, I'll be able to stay away for nearly three weeks. I need it now really, but have to practice patience. Making the booking is a definite commitment however. Now I have to make some decent plans, to make sure I get to see all the old friends I'd like to during my sojourn, and have time to spend in the Jura and maybe even the Alps, absorbing the scenery which has so deeply touched my inner life over the past twenty years or so.

Living in a city built across a coastal plain means for me a bit of an effort to get to a place where the surrounding chain of hills (100 metres max) is visible. I was brought up in a Welsh Valleys village, where in every direction Psalm 121 "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills." came true. Despite the ravages of coal mining on the environment, we were still surrounded by lovely woodlands and pastures, and had mostly a green hilltop horizon to gaze at. My first discovery of the much vaster scale of mountains in the centre of Western Europe was an experience which brought tears of emotion to my eyes as a young adult, and indeed still does whenever I revisit.

Clare says she feels overwhelmed and diminished by the scale. For me it's the opposite. I was glad to quit the Valleys as a young man since in those days I felt the environment constrained my spirit. When I discovered, some years later the large scale version, it was as if I found somewhere that I could expand to the full, in awe and wonder at the beauty of creation. Soon I understood why so many monasteries and hermitages have been established in places of outstanding natural beauty. The hardships of ascetic life are well balanced by the joys of truly aesthetic environment. Despite all the pleasing architectural marvels, not to mention great award winning parks and gardens of this city in the plain, my experience of it more resembles that of being in a wasteland. Everything, even the naturally beautiful things here, are managed by man. Wilderness places, with or without people, charged with natural beauty, and some of the unpredictable dynamics of nature, speak to me deeply.

These days, we discuss more frequently what we'll do when we retire - another three and a half years or so from now. We can't make up our minds. We'd love to be close to our children and their families, though there's no guarantee we'll all want to live in the same region, even though being close enough to visit each other is important to us all. One way or another, provided I am fit and healthy, I'd like to spend time living again in a mountainous area of outstanding natural beauty, or perhaps several diffrent places in spells over a period of years. Maybe Andalusia, or the Valais, the French Jura, or the Brecon Beacons. With careful budgeting and a simple enough lifestyle it might just be possible. Each region has its distinctive characteristics and culture that can best be savoured by resting a while through the passage of seasons. There's much more to experience than the transient visitor can ever take in. And why do this? To have sufficient time, God willing, to contemplate the beauty of creation to the full, and return praise and glory to its almighty Creator.

Often it seems, in the city, we are too busy and preoccupied to give enough time to the adoration and worship that really belongs to a life that takes seriously relationship with God. I see God's grace and beauty in my neighbour and in the stranger, in all sorts of people every day, but it never feels enough to stop there. I just have to get away, be somewhere with a horizon not man-made before me to draw strength and perspective and a bigger better sense of being human.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hospitality to the Deanery

Yesterday, St Teilo's church hosted a Confirmation service foe Cardiff Deanery. When parishes were asked, a few months ago if anyone would be willing to do this, I volunteered our Parish, though there was no certainty of being able to present any candidates at the time. There was the possibility of the odd student seeking confirmation, but what I had my eye on was the possibility of making good use of this spacious church for a conventional liturgical celebration in an unusual way.

Five years ago St Teilo's was the subject of a development project which led to its daily use in term time by hundreds of music students attending rehearsals. The revenue from this and from a telecvommuications mast helps keep the church solvent, with its small, dedicated congregation. It's a beautiful building with huge potential for experiment as a place of worship - so I seized the opportunity, despite the work involved in preparing the service.

The church was in use for rehearsal up until four on the day. A handful of us turned up and set about re-arranging (humping) pews, chairs, altar and lectern, so that we could have the majority of the congregation along the north and south side lengths of the nave, with the Bishop's throne and candidates at the east end, the lectern at the west end, and the altar in the centre. This arrangement worked well, once the chuch filled up. There were about 130 people present, and 19 candidates.

Half a dozen members of the 'home team' supported the event. They worked hard and graciously to make the celebration thoughtful and dignified, something which Assistant Bishop David noted and made use of in his way of leading the celebration. I was pleased that our Deacon, Christine, and our theological student on placement, Andrew, were on hand, able to support the Bishop, which led me, after last minute anxious battles with photocopying the order of service, to help by leading a few of the musical elements of the service. That part was easy for me. Having to fuss over anxious colleagues or members would have been for me a nightmare. I'm lucky to be surrounded by mature aware and confident people who support me more than I support them.

I was glad that people in the Deanery enjoyed the event and the way it was carried out, thus able to see the potential for using a traditional Edwardian church building in a less than usual way. When I first came, the congregation were hostile to moving furniture into new arrangements, zealous about preserving the ancient status quo. Much has changed since then. The congregation has shrunk, but what is absent in numbers is made up for by the freedom and flexibility shown by members keen to find out how it is possible to make credible again the life of worship they long to see continue in this fine building.

It's a long hard struggle against the grain. The vision of a humble serving church that drove adaptation of the building for new puposes will, in the long run, be proved to be authentic - so long as this generation doesn't lose heart in the momentous struggle.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Recycling technology assets

Last night I met up with Chris and Vic, a colleague of his from Chapter Arts in the Church Office, created on a newly constructed mezzanine floor in high roofed sacristy of St John's church over a year ago. In the free space there I have three redundant old computers set up and linked to each other. Each is running on the same set of Open Source software driven by the free Linux operating system, issued with the name 'Edubuntu' ( derived from the Ubuntu Linux operating system) , and concentrating on assembling a useful suite of educational software programs for use in schools. Like a scrap or antique dealer, I've been able to gather together these technological rejects, and with Chris's expert help, and got them all running and talking to each other (and to the office computer) for the cost of a couple of network cards and cables, plus the CD on which the program suite was downloaded from the Internet.

For ten quid plus equipment donations, we have three computers which could be deployed in the corner of a classroom, easily able to support various basic learning schemes, even collaborative learning projects among small groups of children. What I'd like to be able to do is to lay on workshops to introduce IT specialist teachers to the possibilities of this kind of DIY approach to equipping a classroom. There's rarely enough computer equipment to go round in a school, even when the IT budget is generous. A few pieces of old kit like this could help schools in a poor area get started, and help them maintain a low cost IT budget. However, I couldn't succeed in this kind of enterprise on my own.

Chris' interest - he has two small children - encouraged me to develop this idea. Tonight's demo persuaded Vic to get involved. What we now need is a few more collaborators in organising and publicising workshops to promote use of Edubuntu with old hardware. What we also need is Talk Talk to deliver their much vaunted free broadband service to the ready laid phone lines at the church. We've been with Talk Talk for nearly five months. Our phone bills have been small, admittedly, but then we don't make that many calls from church. It's the Internet connection we need most, and all our email enquiries have so far met no response. Do they really exist?

Sunday, November 12, 2006


This particular Sunday, it was tough getting through the usual five services. I was well and truly exhausted. All day yesterday and through the night, our younger daughter Rachel was at home chez nous with John her husband, and she was in labour, finally producing Jasmine Aurora around dawn, on the Lord's day.

On Saturday, elder sister Kath and her daughter Rhiannon, now two and three quarters, came on a visit, to see Rachel with her giant tummy. It was a day of joyful expectation and family intimacy. A birthing pool replaced the coffee table in the lounge for the duration, and Rachel insisted the room should be adorned with aromatic oils, candles and fairy lights to create a happy atmosphere. She coped well with labour, but the two late shift midwives were tired out when they arrived and exhausted by three in the morning, so in the end, they called in an ambulance. The final stage of labour and birth happened in the Heath Hospital, ten minutes away from here.

It was quite a busy night. I was tired enough to sleep, anxious about getting going for the eight o'clock Eucharist, but excited, and easy to disturb, with all the noises off - Rachel managing each contraction with a loud resonant 'AOUM' - In dreams I was timing the minutes between them. Finally I must have conked out properly because I didn't realise she'd left by ambulance - you'd think the blue flashing lights outside the bedroom window would have registered something in my subconscious, but they didn't.

By one o'clock, Rachel had been discharged. She and John were back home again eating lunch and telling their story, after a difficult though normal birth, and we were all over the moon with delight that it had gone the way it had.

As a home delivery had been planned, the hospital Maternity Unit, in the wee small hours of Sunday, weren't quite on the ball, investing great energy in filling in routine forms and taking blood tests, as opposed to assisting a mother in her final birth pangs. Fortunately, John was there in her defence and aid, and fully participated in her moment of triumph.

We'll get used to more broken nights, with the new parents staying with us a fortnight more, then away for Christmas, with Rachel returning to us for a few weeks before she is able to fly home to Saint Martin (French West Indes), where they now live. Such a long way away. I guess Jasmine may well be walking by the time of her next UK visit. Such is family life in the jet age. Nevertheless there's nothing to match the experience of welcoming a new child into your home. And the children of your children ... an unmeasurable blessing, even the second time around.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Museum piece inspiration

Just as I was leaving church one Saturday recently I was accosted by a young man who was asking what the words : "Welcome in Christ" were in Welsh - easy - "Croeso yng Nghrist", I told him, and we parted company. A week later I received an email from a name I didn't recognise. Dave Lewis introduced himself as this passing enquirer, and told me how he had needed the phrase in Welsh to complete a poem he had been writing, inspired by a visit to one of the two church buildings preserved at the National History Museum at St Fagans outside Cardiff. (Have a look at:-

One Museum flagship project is the re-building of the mediaeval church of Llandeilo Tal y Bont rescued from a churchyard on the flood plain outside Pontarddulais on the West Glamorgan border with Dyfed. The thirteenth century Parish Church is dedicated to Teilo, a local South Walian fifth century saint. It has been carefully demolished and re-built exactly as it was in its original site. Frescos were discovered under the whitewash on the walls, adding to the interest. It is being restored to appear as it would have done on the eve of the Reformation, in the fifteen twenties. Craftsmen have been engaged to build a rood screen in the mediaeval style and to paint it also. Eventually, copies of the frescoes will adorn the walls. As a conservation measure, the building has a geothermal heating plant, to minimise long term running costs, and keep restored fabric at a stable temperature. Staff and local visitors alike are immensely proud of this building. It will be used occasionally by ecumenical and denominational groups for acts of worship, though it is mainly an superb piece of educational history hardware, a must for visiting schools. (More at:

Anyway, his visit to this church inspired Dave to write a poem about it. He told me poetry writing was something he was committed do, without making any grand claims for his output, and included a copy of the poem with his message. With his permission, told the story in the next Parish Magazine (since we also have a St Teilo church), and here it is as well. Dave is also a blogging poet and you can find him at : Can't find his poem on the blog. I'll have to ask him if he'll let me publish it here.

It's good to know that a visitor from outside Wales can find a bit of very local Welsh history as inspirational as many of us do. Pete, one of my church-wardens, a Lancastrian who came to Cardiff from Cheltenham often says how taken he was with the discovery of just how many Celtic saints there were all over Wales who were unknown the other side Offa's Dyke, and for him how immediate and almost personal this made the continuity of Christian history over more than fifteen centuries. He's right - but how easily we take that for granted, once we can pronounce their sometimes difficult names.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Remembrance - afterthought

In the fortnight before Remembrance Sunday, RBL volunteers sell poppies just outside the church gate in the pathway crossing the churchyard, where they always get good custom. A little further along on several occasions sits a poorly clad homeless man in his early thirties who begs to buy drugs. He's often there. He gets arrested several times a week. He spends a night in police custody, is charged and taken to court next day, then released as there is no suitable facility to take him or treat him, and no punishment sufficient to serve as a deterrent. The charity soup runs for street people morning and night feed him and his associates.

There are no more than a couple of dozen destitute addicts at the most, haunting the centre day and night, dealing and/or consuming drugs, they either steal or beg to fund the habit. It's a source of frustration to social workers, city centre management, police and community health and safety officials. Within an hour of the Magistrates releasing him, he is back begging again, until he raises enough for a fix, or gets arrested again. Professionals speak of the 'rotating door' they are helpless to check, despite their experience, training and resources. They all have the will and the desire to help, but lack an inspired remedy.

I wonder if poppy selling veterans make the connection between this sick sad feller and the young squaddies blown up in Afghanistan. Worlds apart, except that the heroin consumed begins its life in Afghan poppy fields as a cash crop, earning money that not only feeds farmers' families, but as it increases in value travelling West, it pays for weapons used against 'our boys'. What on earth can be done to break that vicious economic cycle, so dependent on the 'consumers', who are the shadow side of the city's flourishing commercial economy?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Giving Remembrance its proper place

At noon today St John's hosted the annual ceremony to bless the Garden of Remembrance in the churchyard. There were a hundred and fifty people in church for the brief service, with the rich sound of the prizewinning St Athan RAF Voluntary Band, playing for the second year running. The Mayor and the Lord Lieutenant were there, also the Presiding Officer of the
Senedd, our Welsh Parliamentary Assembly. Some military representatives were present, but few local politicians. For the most part, participants were Royal British Legion, Veterans' organisations and their supporters - still plenty of them, in these times when British lives are again at risk and being squandered unpredicatably in far off conflicts.

The main Remembrance ceremony is on Sunday in eight days time at the national Cenotaph in Cathays Park behind the old City Hall. Everyone who's anyone in pubic life turns out for that. It's at a time when usually I am chasing from one church service and act of remembrance to another, so I'm not oging to be there. The national Cenotaph a dignified public memorial, resembling a Graeco-Roman temple, set in an exquisitely maintained small park. It's more usually a venue for students snogging or having impromptu liquid picnics. Once a year, serving soldiers and veterans take over for a day. There's another larger field of crosses here (sadly it's defended by a security company this year because of casual vandalism last year), close to the marble memorial.

Military and ex-military assemble there from early morning until eleven, for the traditional annual service and silence, followed by a proper parade with a salute taken, with bands and the goat mascot of the Royal Welsh Regiment, as it it now called. The goat is older than the regimental merger - does he have the kind of identity crisis the men have?

Our affair at St John's is a more homely and local (to Cardiff) event, well run by the Cardiff and Vale Branch of the RBL. It complements rather than competes with the national event, and maybe it owes some of its good support to the fact that in the evening following it, the RBL Festival of Remembrance takes place in St David's Hall, just down the street from the church.

Syd Nash, local RBL Branch secretary organises the St John's memorial garden. He also acts on Remembrance Sunday as Parade Marshal for the Veterans. He'll be there at the end of the line in a brown bowler hat, next week. This hat was bequeathed to him by the widow of the previous Parade Marshal, Major Bernard Schwarz, who led the veterans' parade, thus hatted, without fail for sixty years. He was one of Cardiff's great characters - the only Jewish officer to serve in Palestine with the Arab League in World War Two, a stylish businessman, president of the Synagogue, raconteur. I was so proud when the RBL asked St John's to host a memorial service for him. He belonged to us all. And, frankly I'd want to say the same of Syd too, who beavers away in the background without fuss, in a good humoured way, passionate about giving proper respect to all the fallen, whether they were killed yesterday, or nearly a century ago.

We started our celebration today in church with the dedication of a new, first-ever Standard for the War Widows Association. They celebrated the 60th anniversary of their foundation with us back at the end of the summer. Their Standard was brought forward to be prayed over, borne by a young woman who was a Sea Cadet. The mainly elderly membership of the Association were delighted at this. In the few years I've been a Legion Chaplain, I've learned St Benedict's advice about prayer is much taken to heart in military circles: "
First let your prayer be brief and pure." Thoughtful conciseness is appreciated - something I have also learned from attending Mess dinners as a Chaplain. If I work hard to prepare something short, I get good feedback. It's as hard as doing 'Thought for the Day'. Silence in relation to the words is also as important to them as the words. It stands to reason actually. So often, Chaplains pray with warriors in the open air, or else in the proximity of noisy engines of war, so that it's difficult for anyone to hear a prolonged discourse. How many situations are there in which clergy learn to speak sparingly?

Unlike last year, when it was cold and rainy, today was unseasonably warm, blue skied. The streets were full with extra visitors for the Wales v Australia Rugby match. When we stepped out, as we could this year, to bless the garden
in situ, passers by surrounded the churchyard railings to watch and listen - not only to the RAF Band, but also to Cardiff's Scottish pipers, who have now attended three years running for the open air part of the ceremony. Imagine the delight of the crowd when the two bands played 'Amazing Grace' together! Followed, after the ceremony's conclusion by 'Scotland the Brave', for which they received an ovation.

I had to explain to an Australian passer-by that it was a War Veterans' occasion, still relevant to all of us, and she seemed to understand what it meant. The planting of the individual memorial crosses in plots representing particular military campaigns is very moving, and so much easier to carry out when the ground is not soaked and slippery with rain. It speaks for itself.

This year, in the days beforehand, a major tidy-up of the churchyard was necessary to have any useful space for the bands, and the field of crosses. The pruning of shrubs and trees yielded an embarrassing huge heap of garden waste. Thanks to the immaculate diplomacy of Phil Thomas, St John's organist, and one of the cherishers of the church building, the City's waste management team did a special mission and removed not only the rubbish essential to clear the space we needed, but an assortment of accumulated bags and heaps of rubbish in other quarters of our domain, including the larger part of a whole tree! The sight of a smallish 'bin lorry' ('
prehistoric garbage trucks' according to Mark Knopfler's 80's lyrics), chewing up the trees was an amazing sight that left me kicking myself that I'd left my camera at home. The city's waste management team did us proud that day - as they do around the city, just about every other day of the year as well.

It was a memorable day, a privilege to be part of something so valued in the city, part of its enterprise in building a community of citizens. And not only that, Wales held its head high and drew 29 all with the Wallabies.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The technological bee in my bonnet

Computers have played a big part in my working life for the past twenty years, as church organisations have been less and less capable of affording administrative help. It’s as much a hindrance as a help really, if things go wrong, or the work load builds up. Being a priest is about working with people, not about machine minding, or organising working with people, except that in our present culture, the two have become hard to separate, and the tasks harder to share out.

That said, I have been much entertained, out of work hours, not by computer games but by following the developments in technology and its social use. I discovered early on that I wasn’t much good at programming, but at least I understand how things work. I can troubleshoot computers, take the lid off and tinker with insides, like many blokes do with cars. In my wife’s eyes, I blur boundaries between work and leisure in a unhealthy way; i.e. it takes up too much of my spare time.

For the past seven years years, I have followed very closely the rise of the free Linux operating system, and Open Source Software, learning to use it, unaided, not without difficulty, but with growing commitment. Now I run a Linux system alongside my standard Microsoft PC for variety and interest. I follow most discussions in the tech journals and blogs (Curious? Try for starters) about the merits and de-merits of contrasting software cultures, and how they can be used to make the world a better place.

Following the recent Cardiff Vision Board conference presentation about new technology applications in local government services, I felt emboldened to write to Crispin O'Connell, Cardiff's head of ICT and ask about Cardiff’s attitude to Open Source Software. It was a small attempt at advocacy, putting down in writing some of the issues which matter to me about the world I'm part of. The collaborative enterprises which make up the Open Source community represent one of the most significant social projects of modern times, not recognised or valued nearly enough. It’s another kind of good news I want to promote. It may not seem so religious, but the movement is about people freely forging creative working alliances for the common good. There are people of faith (and of no faith at all) participating. The substance of what I wrote, minus some of the specific questions I wanted to raise is what follows..

“Much of our city’s current successful social innovation is driven by and rests upon new information technology. Economic development relies as much on appropriate electronic infrastructure as it does roads and other transport systems. Delivery of information services technology represents a huge investment in hardware, software and trained personnel. Notice is being taken in the heartland of the computer industry in Silicon Valley (CA) and elsewhere about the environmental impact of the multiplication of computer ‘server farms’, consuming huge amounts of energy, and the disposal of redundant hardware.
The need to upgrade to more power-consuming systems is driven by the industry’s business ambitions. New software is designed around state-of-the art hardware which needs to be purchased, rendering perfectly serviceable equipment redundant. Replacement costs become a significant drain on information service budgets, as well as adding to environmental hazards implicit in disposing of old equipment. We have no more than the beginnings of safe recycling procedures for old electronic equipment. The volume of computer hardware needing recycling grows with each major innovation in what computing can deliver. Might it be possible to slow down the rate at which equipment is dumped if some of it could be re-used to good effect?
There is an international movement of academics, technology professionals, and volunteers dedicated to creating, maintaining and promoting reliable software, free to users, not dependent for its effectiveness on having the latest, fastest equipment to run on. Partners in this enterprise, spanning over seventy countries, develop and maintain software and provide web-based user support which costs little to access. Open Source Software (OSS) and Operating Systems – notably Linux – is already deployed to maintain server infrastructures in government, scientific, military and educational settings around the world, because of its proven stability and reliability, and high levels of security. By design, it is nowhere near as vulnerable as many comparable commercial and domestic products. It doesn’t benefit from huge advertising budgets, but commends itself by results. OSS is available for only the cost of an internet download and a blank CD, it can be freely distributed without requirement to pay licensing costs. In the past two years, the adoption of free operating systems and software has started to make an impact on the desktop computer market as well as server infrastructure.
In Europe, the government of Munich and the state of Extremadura are in the process of moving all their computer operations to free OSS. Some departments of Bristol city have switched, also some local government departments in the North West. Altogether a dozen European Community members including Britain are adopting OSS in some government operations, also more than dozen national governments in developing countries, including China, not only because of savings on licenses, but also because it is possible to re-use older serviceable equipment with relative ease, thus expanding computer resources at a lower capital cost.
One high profile OSS related project currently publicised is the ‘One Laptop per Child’ initiative of American entrepreneur, Nicholas Negroponte, now moving towards production of a robust simple laptop, driven by solar or hand cranked power, costing $100-150. It has wireless network capability and can easily be used in collaborative projects at school as well as in the home. The laptop is driven by a Linux operating system and loaded with good free educational software. The Brazilian and Nigerian governments have each placed initial orders for a million. Another major achievement of the Open Source community is to secure international consensus on a non-proprietary file format for many kinds of documents. Called the Open Document format (ODF), files of this type are readable by different brands of software, so that no document is unreadable when switched from one kind of machine to another, as was once commonplace. It’s digital photographic equivalent is the JPEG file. Some states in USA and Australia are now adopting ODF file formats for all future official documents, and implementing a conversion process for all archived documents, to ensure everything in the public domain remains readable in future and thus compliant with freedom of information legislation.
The adoption of Open Source software solutions promises large cost savings, longer life for hardware, lower total cost of ownership. From the user’s viewpoint OSS programs are as friendly in action as commercial software, so there’s no reason why conversion to OSS and re-training users should be a major burden. One criticism of OSS is the lack of driver software for scanners, printers etc, because major manufacturers have been reluctant to write additional software for an emerging minoriy market. The Open Source development community, however has its own engineers producing free equivalent drivers. Some big manufacturers are changing their policies and now producing extra drivers for their machines – HP, Samsung, Epson – adapting their products to diversifying markets.
A thorough investigation of the benefits and problems of adopting Open Source software could well be of strategic benefit to this city. Open Source developers have the freedom to use derived products for commercial benefit, so there is a lucrative crossover between voluntary and commercial sectors. Establishing, promoting Cardiff as an Open Source friendly city could enhance its attractiveness to outside investment, particularly from Asia, which is innovating at great speed through OSS. A policy of OSS adoption in local government and especially in schools could be economically advantageous.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to be overcome is the conviction that standard commercial products must be best, because it is conveniently marketed and consumed, but real value is proved in action. Nobody can be unaware of the expensive, time wasting struggle of computer users, everywhere to secure their systems, free of viruses and ad-ware. Open Source software, by design, minimises vulnerability to attack. It’s not just costly Apple products that have this benefit, but also free Open Source Software.”

Just a day after sending this, I was delighted to receive quite an informative and personal response from Mr O'Connell. Heavens, he could have been patronising or defensive, but he was neither. He just told it as it was, as much as he could to an inquisitive stranger. Without much external publicity, it appears OSS solutions are being deployed where it is found to be worthwhile to do so in the City's computer arsenal. Advocacy of OSS in educational use (my particular obsession, of which more anon), he revealed, even has its own homepage on the Local Education Authority’s website (which to my shame, I had visited without noticing). This was one small fact I hadn’t come across in any computer journal article about Educational uses I’ve read in recent times. Talk about keeping your light under a bushel. Advances are being made in local government, albeit in a discreet way

But what about the Church? Diocesan and Provincial administration centres. How much money are they saving / spending on deployment of OSS software solutions? Is there any adoption? Do they know what I'm talking about here? Llandaff Diocesan Secretary says that he reads this blog. Well, here's a test .... Looking forward to hearing from you, Peter!