Saturday, October 31, 2009

Remembrance Garden Blessing

Seven years ago this was my first big public function after my induction. With little time to prepare with the RBL committee, and get a proper briefing, that occasion was all a bit chaotic. Nowadays, it is all well prepared - although getting some of the persistent spelling errors out of the order of service, prepared elsewhere and imported, is still on the 'to do' list.

These days we have both the Welsh pipe band and the St Athan Silver band in attendance to play the hymns and incidental music, and a servicable outdoor public address system. Not that the military types involved in running the ceremonial side are interested in using it. But I do, as I am not prepared to shout prayers at God, against the background of street buskers and crowd noise. It all works very well, although its evident with the passage of time that fewer and few of veterans of the older generation of conflicts are present. Of the more recent conflicts (post Korean War, shall we say) there are few veterans altogether anyway - so the character of the event is slowly changing. A new generation of much younger veterans has yet to take its lace among the ranks of the elders. I wonder if some of them are wanting to forget their experiences rather than remember them personally at present.

The garden of remembrance looked good by the end of the ceremony, enhanced this year by the placing of the giant artificial poppies in the tree which stands at the centre of the churchyard. I hope this is something that will in time become a 'traditional' practice.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Seventh anniversary at the helm

This day seven years ago was my first day at work after my induction as Team Rector of Central Cardiff by Archbishop Barry. Such a lot has happened in those years, changes of personnel, the losing battle to save St James' Church ( still standing empty until its purchasers can summon up the funds to see through their internal conversation of the building into apartments). Then there was the splitting of the Parish nearly three years ago already, giving me more time to work on the redevelopment process and engagement with the city government. Then the Spiritual Capital research project, the church's internal redecoration, then Countdown 2009, and last week's SDC opening. In a way I feel that all the missionary undertakings that have marked the course of these fascinating period of my life have come to their conclusion.

Right now I feel I could walk away with a huge amount of satisfaction into retirement. I'm no good at just doing church maintenance. There must be creative initiatives and adventures to balance the queit stable routine of pastoral life. I can't enjoy the one without the other. So what am I going to do? It's six months until I draw my pension. I can't be kicking my heels for that length of time.

One of the reasons for my taking an interest in the Religious Diversity and anti-discrimination training is to find out if this kind of adult education process for civil society is something I can contribute to in the long term. In a way it's picking up on what I learned when I did teacher training 25 years ago, which I ploughed into development education work with USPG. I'm also curious about Digital Inclusion - a jargon phrase for government backed initiatives to enable people with disabilities, elderly folk, or those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to take advantage of modern technologies - not just digital telly.

I've a fair amount of technical know-how and have helped a few people to learn about computer use over the years. An odd kind of ministry maybe, but it's important to help all sorts of people to engage with a fast changing world and not be afraid of what it throws at you. One thing that I would like to work on, when I have time to spare, is how to make computer systems more user friendly, and jargon free, less esoteric than they are to complete beginners. In the same way that this job has immersed me in the different worlds of retailing and local government, and given me such positive stimulus, I'd like to think that a return to adult education will also bring freshness to the freedom that pastoral ministry in reitrement brings.

In the meanwhile, there's preparation to be done for my last Advent and Lent seasons at the helm, and an effort to set everything in order to make the handover to my successor as easy and natural as it should be.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Half term

Home from Oxwich tonight, as I have a two day Religious Deveristy and Anti Discrimination training workshop to attend tomorrow and Thursday. Kath and Anto are taking over our holiday let, and Rhiannon will stay with us until her parents return at the weekend.

We climbed Rhossili Down above the Bay this afternoon, the highest point in the Gower Peninula. It has a marvellous panoramic view. The weather was warm for the end of October, and just as well, since it was quite breezy up there, 633 feet above sea level. I could have done with a few more days of fresh air like this.

Coming back to central Cardiff, the difference in air quality is noticeable. Half term week in this recessionary year, less people are going away on holiday. The new St David Centre just opened has meant that the roads have been unusually busy. The Centre has exceeded expectations of footfall, with a million visits estimated in the first few opening days and weekend. Whether that's a million actual visitors, as opposed to people going back several times is not considered. I guess what really matters to retailers is how much money has been taken, and we'll have to wait a little bit longer to get that kind of picture.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

All in the timing

For once on a Saturday night I slept well, perhaps due to all that fresh Oxwich air yesterday afternoon and the advantage of the extra hour's sleep. At eight o'clock we had a young women from Nantes, Cardiff's twin town as a visitor. She's here on a short course at the University. Then at the Sung Eucharist we had a young woman from Hyderabad, a nurse studying management in UWIC, newly arrived. It was good to welcome Vanessa back unscathed from her aid convoy journey to Kosovo this morning. I look forward to all the stories when she's caught up on her sleep. She'll have just about got used to Central European time in two weeks of travelling, and within a day of going back an hour, gone back another hour with the end of summer time. Not quite as bad as losing time and having to make do with less sleep.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Software milestones (2)

Annoyingly my overnight Ubuntu download failed. Either this was because Vista's power management software put the network to sleep during a period of congestion, or the servers were reduced to stasis by other curious people like myself. I have noticed there are times when there's a so much net activity that even a quick broadband connection becomes turgid due to demand. Often it's when there's a big public event and people are streaming broadcast content from a news or sport site. But it could also be as a result of millions of people updating their systems. I understand it is possible to get Windows 7 by download, as opposed to buying a DVD from a shop. If that's the case, cyberspace is going to be a bit busier than usual, I suppose. In any case, the recommenced Ubuntu download only took half an hour, while I was writing up the previous day ready for posting.

Then it was time to drive down to the Gower. We have a holiday cottage booked for the week in Oxwich, our favourite village. We arrived in time for a pub lunch and then a long windy stroll along the beach. I returned home once it got dark, in order to be home to prepare for Sunday services. It was good to have the benefit of the extra hour with the ending of summer time. It meant that I also had time to try the new Ubuntu in a Virtual Machine environment. It worked perfectly first time.

Virtualisation is a new aspect of computer use for me - using software on top of one's usual operating system to create a separate virtual computer using some of the existing computer's hard disk and memory. So you can install a separate operating system to work independently inside an operating system, (like Russian dolls) and this is very useful for testing new developments. It is also used to learn how viruses and malware attacks work. One can deliberately download files or programs with concealed viruses into a virtual computer, watch how they wreak havoc, then switch off the virtual machine program confident that the computer's main operating system is untouched - known as 'sand boxing', a term derived from the science lab where dangerous or flammable chemicals could be handled in safety without damage to the wider environment.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Software milestones

Yesterday, not only did the St David Centre open, but the Wales stage of the GB rally began down in Cardiff Bay, attracting another large contingent of people to spend a few days in any around the city. Also yesterday was the launch of Microsoft's new operating system Windows 7 - widely thought to be a significant improvement on the ill starred Vista. However, an upgrade costs a hundred quid, and to be fair, the way it runs on my new desktop machine leaves me will little to complain about. The version on my laptop is now 18 months old, and although it has been improved piecemeal with updates it hampers anotherwise excellent machine which shines using Linux. In a quick walk around of the Centre, I noticed all the phone shops were promoting '7' as part of their netbook/3G dongle deals and likewise Currys Digital, but without much excitement or enthusiasm. It must be hard to get enthusiastic about a product which now works properly replacing an over hyped product which often worked badly.

Next week the latest version of Ubuntu Linux will be released, and already a nearly complete version is available to download for trying out. No marketing hype, no promises, but lots of useful software freely available, and I have confidence that will be every bit as good as the latest offering from one of the world's largest digital corporations, representing as it does a global collaborative network of dedicated programmers eager to share their creative efforts at no cost, aware that doing so in no way impedes the possibility of generating income from the product by other means. It's one of the paradoxes of the Open Source software movement's philosophy. Any single use may learn for themselves how to operate an Open Source product, but scaling that up for a company with paid for training of hundreds of people with no interest in technicalities, or troubleshooting, makes for good business. It's a social and technical development of the bridge decades of the 21st century with enormous significance for the future.

Tonight I shall leave my machine on and download the preview version of the new Ubuntu to try out tomorrow, when out half term break begins.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Opening day - part two

One of the highlights of the Centre opening for me was the opening of the Apple store, not simply because of all the up to the minute gleaming new tech' products on sale, but the way it happened. There was a wait of half an hour after the Centre opened, and a long queue formed outside the closed doors. Inside, a large team of tee shirted sales team stood close to the windows cheering and clapping the customers on the outside with wild enthusiasm. Later, when all the free Apple tee shirts had been given out, and the craziness had died down, I went in for a look and chatted with one of the sales team and quizzed him about this. He said it was a tradition at the opening of any new Apple store worldwide. "We love or customers" he said, "They're most important to us, as we have so much we want to share with them." Thkis reminded me of the words of Steven Madeley at last weeks Retail Partnership Board meeting, when he said there would be no celebrities officially opening the Center. "Our customers are the celebrityies" he said. Is this were he got it from? I wonder.

After the midday Eucharist, I walked over to St John's Priory headquarters in Ocean Way for a meeting of the Order's Chaplains, gathered from all over Wales. Then, back home by teatime to catch up on the office routine of the day, prior to going out for the evening to the St Davids Centre post-launch party at the SWALEC. This was for all the construction teams, back office people and their City counterparts. Some, though not all, had been there in the morning as well. The 'do' was held in the multi-functional area that serves as the indoor practice nets enclosure. A huge area, large enough to contain a stage (for a 70's soul tribute band) fifteen yards of tables laden with food, a free bar of the same length on the opposite side of the room, and enough space for five hundred or so party goers. This was the first time I had ever seen most of the people there out of work and without a hard hat or hi-viz jacket.

Archdeacon Peggy also got an invite, and this gave me great pleasure, as I had an opportunity to introduce her to many of the people I've got to know in the city centre over years past. I had the impression she was in her element. This was a very satisfying experience for me as it was the only time in seven years any such opportunity to share my daily life and work experience with someone in church management above me has been possible. The only other comparable occasion was at the opening of the new churchyard garden and dedication of gates, except that event was just a formality in the middle of a busy working day. Knowing that someone up there is in the picture will make a great difference to my contentment at moving on next year.

There is something special about being a witness and an ambassador of the church in the world of everyday work. It grieves me that this ministry is now widely undervalued, compared to the way it was when I was first ordained.

St Davids Dewi Sant - the grand opening

I was up and out of the house, armed with two fully charged cameras, and walking the streets by ten past nine this morning. Along the Hayes, some window cleaning and sweeing up was still going on as the media's TV cameras were being positioned. ITV's satellite relay van was down by the library and BBC's up in Hills Street. The Red Dragon Radio Car was parked in the shadow of the ever patient edifice of Mr Batchelor. I noticed this morning that he is portrayed smiling, almost Buddha-like. This is the third makover of the city centre since his heyday in Victorian times.

Miracles have happened overnight. No spaces to be seen anywhere, enclosed by Heras fencing, or plastic barriers. All clean and tidy, people able to roam freely, try out the new shiny black marble topped benches, hardly a hi-viz jacket in sight anywhere. What an achievement in just fifteen hours. Somebody told me that a thousand people were working into the night on various aspects of the preparation, contractors and shopping centre staff, all working together for a common outcome, an achievement all can take pride in.

The energetic young women of the SDC public relations team were all out and about, smartly dressed and made up, bright eyed and bushy tailed despite, as two told me independently, getting only two hours sleep the night before.

I made my way into the old shopping centre, checked in and ascended the escalator to access the Grand Arcade for the first time, and walk the two hundred yards to the intersection with the East West arcade, where opening reception was to take place. Already there were a hundred plus people there - council officers and members, Suits from London, SDC staff, contractors - all smartly dressed. A champagne breakfast had been laid on for those who hadn't taken time to eat before leaving home.

For me it was a special experience for one reason. Gathered in one place for this opening were many people that I've become acquainted with over the past four years of being involved with this project, from all sides of the enterprise. The makeover of the churchyard was the point at which I started to engage properly and get to know people, and from there many different connections have been made and initiatives taken. Politicians, project managers, promoters and administrators, every one a stakeholder in this huge undertaking.

All I've been able to do is to accompany them on their journeys, understand the sheer complexity of everything as it has happened, and attempt to interpret it to those who haven't understood. I've been a kind of interested by-stander. My career and daily bread has not rested on any kind of responsibility for this great achievement of collaborative enterprise. The privilege of being a priest and pastor, literally at the 'edge of the centre' during this time, is that I've been able to tell the story of some of the things I have witnessed, and express some kind of appreciation for creative processes at work on a grand scale, as I continue to search for the deeper meaning and purpose it all.

I dislike the glib phrase 'cathedral of shopping', because it denies the market place its dignity as a realm of exchange and encounter, creativity and challenge. Too much theology expresses a kind of snooty bourgeois disdain for trade, oblivious of the honour acquired by anyone regarded as trustworthy or offering valuable service. The market place is a realm where people express faith in each other. It's a place of exchange between believers and non-believers of all religions and none. It's a place where people get to put their ideas of beauty, truth and goodness into practice. A place of action rather than of contemplation. Yes, a place where it is wise to reflect and contemplate on the significance of what is going on more often than relgious people do.

Anyway, musing apart. The doors opened on time, and the story is well told in media annals. At 9.30, the doors opened and hundreds of people rushed in through the Hayes Arcade entrance - the only one I could see from my vantage point, but I believe the other main entrances also opened at that time. Within minutes upstairs and downstairs were thronging with excited people, gazing into windows, taking in the grand vista. Far from resembling a cathedral, the Grand Arcade resembles a stylish railway station with its high arched glazed roof, which pays homage to the 19th century grand arcades of Milan's city centre retail heart. A place of departure, adventure, interaction, conviviality. And in every sense a place worth visiting. That's what it's built for.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Last minute rush

The city centre has been a hive of activity and excitement today. The building contraoctors are all working against the clock to complete the public realm works by tonight, the big clean up is going on inside the Grand Arcade, while the shopfitters arrange their stock and finish their window dressing. Several more new shop displays have appeared on the Hayes and Hills Street overnight. Hayes Island has acquired three stone tables with chess board markings built in. The first tournament is on Saturday this week. I wonder what the weather will be like.

I had a meeting with Archdeacon Peggy before the Eucharist, and that gave me some tasks to do in the afternoon, to provide her with necessary briefings on works achieved or in hand at St John's. Not an onerous task but one full of surprises when I look back over several years and realise how much we too have achieved and also planned, in order to 'regenerate' the place as one of the city's key visitor attractions. Already the increased number of visitors to the city centre has led to an increase in visitors to St John's and the tea room. I hope we'll be able to keep up the good service!

At six I returned to the centre to take photographs of the night before the Grand Opening. The streets were still busy, the Heras fencing still in place. The wide expanse of Hills Street next to John Batchelor's statue was still cordened off and turned into a temporary park for platform lifts and other machines. Outside Royal Arcade a fashion show catwalk has been constructed for a series of performances linked in to the opening of the St David Centre and the launch of the fresh branding of the Cardiff as a centre of fashion retailing. Will it all be ready for 9.00am tomorrow?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Appointment by ordeal

I've spent the last two working days with the head, governors and advisors of Tredegarville School in a carefully desighned interview process to choose the next deputy Head Teacher. The short listed candidates spent a day in school, each taking a year group act of worship and teaching a class for a subject session. The school council, composed of year five and year six pupils conducted their own interviews of the candidates in the afternoon, using a set of questions they had earlier discussed and devised, reflecting their own interest. I was amazed at the maturity of their brief engagements with the candidates and the discussions that followed. It was illustrative of the real quality of schooling they are receiving, developing their thinking and their social skills.

The second day was the formal interview panel, with set-piece Q&A sessions, a formal presentation on an aspect of school management policy, and a simple problem solving exercise, simulating the role required of a deputy head teacher. This I found really difficult as the whole framework was designed around meeting the set requirements of the County's Human Resources department, to produce a paperwork train of the decision making process for reference just in case any of the candidates should have a complaint to make afterwards.

We did it all conscientiously - but in my case it was with deep resentment, because of the ordeal the candidates were submitted to. It was all over intellectualised and abstract, revealing little of the candidates personality or creative ideas, and giving us little additional information about them as potential deputy head teachers. It did, as one of the panellists said in defence of my open criticism of the process, reveal how well the candidates performed under pressure. Yes, but it was only a performance, out of context.

What we'd preferred to know was how well candidates could think on their feet, summarise, exercise right judgement in a real life, real time crisis, say with an outbreak of violence in school, or an angry dysfunctional parent on the rampage, seeking redress from child or teacher for some imagined offence. These are the stressful contingencies that leading teachers have to cope with. Not to mention the stress of so much useless paperwork and meeting bureaucratic deadlines out of synch with the educational cycle.

I was disturbed to have to go through beforehand letters of application which read as if they were references for the candidates written by themselves to sell themselves, much of this effectively repeating the content of the application form. These were all excellent highly qualified candidates, to judge simply by the forms they'd returned. Discovering what additional and original information they offered about their view of the school and how they saw themselves performing in it was really spoiled by all the self promotion. Unfortunately the interview questions encouraged more of the same. It was as if transparency and common sense were being de-railed by expectations of the process and how the candidates had been encouraged to perform in order to sell themselves. I found it demeaning of their human worth as skilled and gifted, otherwise self effacing pedagogues. What are modern personnell management systems up to?

The day in school with the children revealed the candidate with the best potential. The day of formal interviews came to the same conclusion after a long exercise in detailed analysis and point scoring, but it actually told us nothing more than we had already witnessed by letting candidates be themselves in a new schooling environment demonstrating their gifts and vocation in the real world with real children and adults. On the second day only the brief simulation exercise added anything new to what the candidates had revealed in school, fortunately consolidating the move towards a concensus in appointing. It was for us involved a learning experience which might give us cause for review and reassessment next time an appointment of this kind has to be made.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Half Marathon on St Luke's Day

Cardiff's half marathon race this morning brought eleven thousand runners to the streets of the city centre, road closures, and traffic chaos. I cycled in for the eight o'clock Eucharist, but nobody else turned up, reluctant to negotiate an obstacle course to get to church.

The regular congregation at ten o'clock, was much diminished, although several people arrived a lot later than usual, during the service. However, the congregation turned out to be larger than usual, because there was a coach party in town from the Wrexham district, and many came to church, including a Vicar and his parishioners from Johnstown. Whether it had been unable to leave on time because of the race closures, or had planned to leave late enough to allow peope to come to worship I'm not sure, but we were glad to share our celebration of St Luke's Day with a goodly number.

City centre streets were crowded earlier than usual with post-event runners, taking advantage of their visit, some of them not all that well mannered, evidently tired after their exertions, but drawn in by the allure of John Lewis' welcome.

I ran the Bristol Marathon thirty years ago. That was on a Sunday too, but the starting time enabled me to celebrate the eight o'clock Mass before getting into my running kit and heading for the start line. The Gloucester marathon, which I ran the following year was on a Saturday. The Sunday after was as tough as any race with all the aches and pains I'd acquired. It was pleasing to raise my fitness level that much for a while, but it's not something that I've wanted to repeat since. Now, I'd just like to get my weight down to a level where running any modest distance would not wreak havoc in my leg joints. It's something I wouldn't have give a second thought to a few years ago. Time marches on.

I learned this morning that Vanessa's lorry, being used for local distribution runs around Prstina has broken down. It's fixable, but this adds a day to their stay in effect. They had a team get together last night, at which Vanessa sang, as we'd expect her to. I'm looking forward to her stories, and the photos.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Suzuki violin workshop

Rhiannon's Suzuki workshop was not what I expected. No violins were involved on this occasion, because the group, two dozen children was working on basic rhythm structures, involving lots of clapping games. It was enchanting to this diverse group of mostly 5-6 year olds at play with their teacher, with all their different approaches, personalities and temperaments displayed.

The second half of the morning, children from the higher classes came in, and all performed in a concert. Altogether seventy odd children of junior school age were playing violin together, and the sound wasn't nearly as excruciating as might be imagined - but such is the marvel of the Suzuki learning technique. It was well worth the journey to witness.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Order from creative chaos

Six days to go now to the opening of the St David's Centre and each day sees new shop front signs going up along the Hayes. Work to complete all the paving, seats and finger posts, as well as tidy everything before next Thursday gets more and more intense.

Behind the Heras Fence on the corner of Treegar Street today, I photographed a young man at work hand finishing bolts to use in securing the glazing into the canopy over the shop fronts. He had a work table on which he had laid out neatly in rows, scores of sets of bolts with shiny chrome nuts at either end. Each section of canopy has half a dozen support struts, each requiring five bolts. One of his workmates saw me snapping away and asked what made this interesting enough to be subject of a photograph. I expressed my admiration for the orderliness of his labour, and explained that I had been documenting the whole project for three years - yes, three years this month.

His work table was of interest because behind the fence is an environment which to an outsider seems chaotic at first sight, because there aren't many normal expressions of neatness, except when materials are being bundled up for transport. It's not wholly untidy, however. That simply wouldn't be allowed, due to the demands of site safety. But with the working patterns of so many different activities going on alongside each other at the same time, it doesn't appear to be quite as organised as it really is. Only when jobs are done and the fencing is moved back to reveal acres of clear space and neatly mounted street furniture does a sense of order emerge from the chaos, that a by-stander can appreciate.

Publicity has started to appear for the the new city centre free circular bus service linking up the three new departure modes. I've been giving out leaflets to regulars at church this week to put them in the picture as soon as possible. As my supplies were low, with a Sunday distribution in mind, I went over to Southgate House after the lunchtime Eucharist to get some more, but they were out of them. Thankfully the Cardiff Bus ticket office on the opposite side of the street was able to oblige. Confusion about the location of departing buses has caused a fair amount of distress this past couple of months. Hopefully, when the new service starts on Monday next, a little order will spread into another area of peceived chaos.

I had news of Vanessa yesterday, who has arrived in Prstina with the aid convoy, the best part of a day late because of Balkan border delays. Apart from that all's well. They will be distributing aid packages for four days before their return journey begins.

With my preparations for the weekend done ahead of time, I set out for Kenilworth in daylight to visit my grand-daughter. She has recently started Suzuki violin lessons, and tomorrow has a morning workshop with other children. I so want to be there to delight in her participation in such an excellent form of musical pedagogy. It's a trip down memory lane really, as her uncle Owain was a Suzuki violin student over 25 years ago. All the basic repertoire of tunes in Book One is firmly part of my long term musical memory.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Information world

Tredegarville School held its Harvest Festival this morning, and I attended to say a prayer and give the blessing at the end. It was good to see that it was given a dimension of global social justice by some of the content about haves and have-nots. Even at primary school level with such an international constitutency of pupils, this is an important dimension of the learning agenda.

I went on from there to celebrate Mass at St German's as Fr Roy Doxsey was away, and went from thence to St John's for the midday Eucharist. I was expecting someone to turn up afterwards, who had emailed a request for counselling, but they didn't show up, so I went over to the City Centre Management office to pick up more copies of the publicity leaflets about the free shuttle bus that's going to link all the central bus stop nodes. I was unable to acquire sufficient leaflets at yesterday's meeting to cater for all the worshippers, weekday and Sunday, whom I'll see between now and the bus' public launch next week, so I walked over to get some.

Walking down Westgate Street, munching a pork pie as I went, I heard a voice call out faintly after me from a table of drinkers outside the pub. As this is far from unusual, I tend to ignore it when it happens, not least when I'm lunching on the move. Half an hour later, I returned to church, to find a man sitting on the front bench. One of the volunteers helping set up the 'Cards for Good Causes' shop in the north aisle said that the man had come in looking for a priest to talk to. We met as he was about to leave, told me his story and asked if I would pray with him. It was the man outside the pub. Well, it was a lot easier to pray with him in church that outside the pub. Pubs and clubs have never been a strong point in my ministry, I must confess.

I had a courtesy call from TalkTalk when I got home, and I was able to report that all was now OK. The caller explained that they didn't openly publicise the routine for getting one's access key allocation modified when a user changed computer, because this was capable of abuse. As the logging system couldn't identify the specific computers covered by the product license, any key exchange routine had to involve a help-line call to confirm identity and circumstance. This would prevent a user deploying the software on multiple computers in excess of the three specified.

Given the sophisticated nature of F-Secure's product, that response surprised me. Internet linked routers can identify the unique identity (the MAC address) of all computers connected to them, in use at any time. It wouldn't be impossible for this information to be accessed without compromising the security of any computer on that network - but for all I know doing so may be legally questionable, too difficult or too expensive to administer.

This brave new world of the age of information is nothing if not complex.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Countdown 2009 in single figures - TalkTalk trouble ends

The City Centre Retail Partnership board meeting met first thing this morning. The sense of anticipation among members was palpable, with the opening of the St David shopping centre now just nine days away. Stephen Madeley, the centre manager, gave us an update on the progress towards the Big Day, with 49-50 shops promised to be open for business, and another thirty to come on stream before the Christmas rush.

He told us that the staff team overseeing the centre expected to be working 24/7 for the next week, and were booked into hotels to ease the pain of the long hours. With fifty shops to equip, the access of vehicles into the shopping centre has to be carefully controlled. Shopfitters and suppliers are required to park at the building contractors' storage site at Wentloog, and wait there until called in to the city to make their deliveries. It's a terrific piece of organisation to ensure that everything is in place for the Big Day.

On the way back from the meeting, heard a random voice out of the crowd, a woman saying loudly to her friend "It's the twenty second of October", The answer to the question "When's it all opening?"

A couple of weeks ago, Heras fencing returned to St John Street, enclosing that plane tree which was planted too close to the church, and a couple of dozen paving slabs around it were then dug up. What next? I wondered. It didn't look as if the tree was going to be extracted. It was just a question of Wait and See. Last Friday it became clear a semicircular bench was to be installed, as one has already appeared on Hayes Island, and possibly more around new trees down the Hayes. The bench installation outside church was complete by this morning. There's only the paving to tidy up now. More new signposts have appeared, new lighting columns, extra bins, and the areas enclosed by Heras fencing are progressively shrinking. Changes take place now on a daily basis.

No wonder there's a sense of excitement in the air.

I got home to an email timed at just after ten thirty this morning, from TalkTalk, containing the new access key for installing F-Secure Anti-Virus. Receiving this meant the de-activation of the existing key, which somewhat confused my laptop. It took several reboots to get to the desktop, eventually with internet access switched off, in order to access the installed Anti Virus program and re-enter the key. After that it worked fine.

Monday, October 12, 2009

TalkTalk trouble -3

Yesterday's modem crash caught me unawares. It was fixable fairly quickly, except for Clare's Linux installation. It had worked fine for ages, but the last upgrade I did wasn't 100% perfect. Linux is so rubust, it just worked anyway, without problem, until I had to change the router access password and couldn't find any way to access the desktop software which makes changing it a trivial thing. I resolved to re-install Linux, normally a half hour job, but not this time. The up to date install disk I had didn't work properly. I downloaded the .iso file, burned another disk. It didn't work properly, faulty disk. Burned another, it didn't work either. A poor batch of CDs. So I burned the .iso on to a DVD, and finally it worked flawlessly. All this tied me to machine minding for most of a day I try to spend quietly until I go to school. Not a happy experience.

I was glad to get out for a couple of hours, even if it was only to a Governors' meeting. I was pleased to draw the meeting's attention to the school's new IT classroom suite, the fruit of our enterprising Head Teacher's activity since last summer term. He's great a getting value for money. I'd love to see the introduction of free open source software into the school, with the potential to save lots more on IT resources. But the County Education department isn't keen, because they are tied into all the standard maintenance contracts which won't touch anything but Microsoft products and are even doubtful about the Mac. All the curriculum material and training for its use seems to be built around the use of branded products. Open Source products that can do the job just as well don't get a look in, and won't untill educational designers cut loose and start training users to work on ability to deploy different IT resources. It's almost impossible not to go with the dominant market flow in these conditions.

Finally, when I got home and logged on, a reply to my urgent request to TalkTalk of Saturday, timed at four o'clock this afternoon. All apologies and promises of immediate investigation, as ever. That's 53 hours after my first attempt to acquire a key to unlock my Anti-Virus program re-installation, 58 hours at the time of posting.

If I wasn't so obsessive about computer security, and let this matter slide, there's no way of knowing what nasties might slip on to my speedy new computer with its temporarily flawed defences, in the 4-5 hours I spent in that time, emailing and surfing. I've spent enough time over the years diagnosing and cleaning up the accidentally infected computers of friends, that it's made a zealot of me. I hate to see the angst in people who know there's something wrong and are helpless to know how to start doing anything about it. It makes me hate the whole business, relying so heavily as we do on these unreliable communications tools. No wonder modern life is so tense for many people! Sometimes that means me too.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

TalkTalk trouble (again - 2)

At the eight o'clock Eucharist this morning, four young Turkish women joined us, two were wearing the hijab (forbidden in secular Turkey), two were not. Three were on a six month course in the University, the fourth is a PhD student in Theology. She was the one who sat in choir with us (wearing the hijab) and followed the prayer book carefully. She said she wanted to learn more about Anglican Christianity as part of her studies. She is investigating the Saint Gregory of Nyssa, one of group of great fourth century orthodox theologians, known as the Cappadocian Fathers, from their place of origin. "I too am from Cappadocia", she said with a great smile.'

If anyone ever asks how I can justify doing the eight o'clock Eucharist on Sundays for a handful of people, especially when it's a huge effort after a late night of banqueting, I can say in all honesty, that I never know quite what else is going to happen that will amaze me and make my day different. It's a time not to be missed.

The four also sat through the Sung Eucharist as well, and looked surprised when I greeted them with the arabic Christian salutation Mar hab'a at the Peace. I couldn't, however, persuade them to stop for tea afterwards. Perhaps next time.

Still no reply from TalkTalk, so this evening, I copied my email request to their CEO Charles Dunstone, to see if that can wake the dead. No doubt this will lead to a lecture about procedure thinly veiled as an apology from some defensive minion, but it's not unreasonable to expect some acknowledgement, even if it's only an auto reply saying they've gone home for the weekend.

I needed to use my unsecured desktop computer briefly to use the scanner hooked up to it, to prepare a Christmas card image for the publishers. As a precaution, given the anti virus was not properly installed, I switched off the router while the system was active. In doing this, by no means I yet understand, I managed to wipe the router settings competely. This took me half an hour to diagnose and a lot longer to re-instate the wireless password settings on the various computers in the house. What a lot of trouble and time wasted, all emanating from TalkTalk's non response.

Lisa, the daughter of two of our oldest friends, Mike and Gail arrived to stay with us during the afternoon. She's a singer, doing an opera course with grand mentor Dennis O'Neill. It's marvellous for us to have an opportunity to get to know her as the musical daughter of musical parents, establishing herself in that most demanding of career.

By the end of the day, still no word from TalkTalk, so I went to the F-Secure site and took advantage of their 30-day free trial Internet Security offer. That will tide me over until TalkTalk wake up. Or until we revert to BT, for the certainty of service.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

TalkTalk trouble (again)

The free three month MacAffee anti virus trial that came with my new desktop computer expired today. It's been effective and unobtrusive in action, not not free to continue to use. My ISP subscription to TalkTalk pays for F-Secure anti virus cover for three computers, so today was re-installation day. A nominal chore. However, in this age of wizardry, the anti-virus installer told me that my three subscriptions were already used, evidently incapable of recognising that I had uninstalled the anti-Virus program from the computer as part of decommissioning, and that as a result it had not been accessing updates for three months. The access key for all three machines in my possession now inconveniently has to be exchanged, and the means of obtaining an exchange was by no means obvious either from F-Secure's website or TalkTalk's. At 11.00am, I sent an urgent request via their very fiddly webmail, giving my account details. I had received nothing in response by 5.00pm, so I used the email address by which TalkTalk delivered the original key to me.

This evening, I preached for the Welsh Livery Guild's annual installation service, at St John's and afterwards Clare and I joined the Guild for their annual installation banquet in City Hall. It was a grand affair with lots of ceremony and speech making, and the food was good. It was 11.45pm when we got home. I checked my email, and there had been no response from TalkTalk while we were out. I wonder how long it will take to get anything from them? Watch this space.

Friday, October 09, 2009

An imaginative cure for slovenliness

Many times and oft have I griped about the discarded rubbish that despoils our streets, and our churchyard. The Big Issue salesman at the corner of the churchyard on Working Street yesterday had spiked two styrofoam fast food containers and a cup on our railings. As I was outside clearing a few cans, bottles and ciggy packs, I walked up behind him and removed the containers from the railings. He heard the noise, turned round and said shamelessly. "Uh, I was just waiting until the bin man came past." "Can't you use the bin" I said; "It's only ten yards away." Then I bit my lip, and renounced giving him more of a hard time. I got yellow curry grease on my fingers that neeed soap to remove, and was not amused.

Nevertheless, my spirits were much lifted by a Swedish video clip I found on one of the tech blogs this morning.

Now here's something that's fun to help keep Cardiff tidy. 72 kilos of rubbish deposited per day as opposed to 31kilos in a conventional bin. That's got to be worth campaigning for. In fact, I've just written to my local Councillor about it.

Organ organ all the time

Last night I accompanied David, my second adult candidate of the year to his confirmation at St Martin's Roath. I was his sponsor and was pleased to meet his family there for the first time. David is one of our regular weekday worshippers who work in the city centre and live elsewhere. His family are Baptist church members. I wondered what they made of the incense charged ritual pomp, in that vast echoing building, where the voices of the eighty plus congregation hardly seemed to make an impression in that huge space. To me, it seemed on times as if they were stifled by the sheer loudness of the organ playing, a musical equivalent to the preacher's maxim - 'argument weak, shout louder'. Not to my taste. Admittedly, it's difficult to use a church to best effect for worship, built for 500 (with a wide open liturgical space) when a fifth of that number is present, much harder than using a medieval church with its subdivisions and chapels.

Finally, this morning after a five month wait, I had a hospital appointment to check the night nose-bleed problem that has injected a degree of uncertainty into my life over the past eighteen months. The nurse specialist examined me thoroughly after I'd told my story, and declared that the lesions are now healed, and nothing else suspicious is lurking in there. I arrived early for the clinic and was out again before I was due to be there. Having taken the precaution of getting Archdeacon David Lee to stand in for me at the altar, just in case of delays in being seen, I was under no pressure from my next deadline.

However when I got back to church, it was clear the tea room had been busy from the time it opened, so I installed myself at the sink and washed dishes until closure. It was busy with early shoppers (maybe due to recent press publicity), and also with concert goers. Around three hundred people were present to hear organ maestro Thomas Trotter play, and a good proportion of these came in to eat as well.

I missed the concert but took a short break at the end to greet people. and was myself greeted by a departing concert goer, who introduced himself as Selwyn Morgan, organist at St Paul's Newbridge. We'd last been together fifty years ago in the Lewis School Pengam, where we'd started in the same class. It's not the first time this kind of reunion has happened since I've been at St John's. One of the nicer consequences of being in such a public ministry.

Much as I enjoy organ music and take pleasure in our good instrument in St John's, I miss the unaccompanied monastic singing of Ty Mawr over in Gwent, Taizé, in the Burgogne and the Abbeys of Tamié and Haute Combe in the French Alps. All these have played a part in my spiritual formation. No matter how well our worship goes, there's a part of me that craves that route into contemplative silence where only the human voice, in unison or harmony, bears the Word of life to God's people.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

On-line and spiritual security

There's been widespread news coverage of the publicised theft of thousands of people's email account and banking details, and experts are still working out how. Many if not most of these thefts will be the result of people working with computers which are have no security software. However, so many people are ignorant or uncertain about how things work that they use their systems with low levels of confidence if not anxiety, and these become the target for exploitation.

Having persuaded my sister to buy a computer, and helped her to learn how to use it over the last nine months, I have become acutely aware of how difficult a learning curve it is for even an intelligent person to get to grips with the complexity of a modern computer interface. She is 75, still capable of travelling abroad on her own and negotiating London's public transport with great skill and efficiency. I have observed how long it has taken her to build her confidence as a basic user, and for entirely justifiable reasons, given the new terminology and the routines which have to be absorbed to do anything new. It's not half as easy as it should be to use XP or Vista. The new Sugar OS and user interface used for school children on the One Laptop per Child project is far superior for beginners. Anyway, that's no help for coping with present tribulations. I thought I'd share what I've just written to my sister.

Dear Junie,

This new item is worth a careful read

You know you're covered by computer software - OK?

But some of your contemporaries may not be conscientious about keeping up to date their anti-virus stuff, and they may surf a bit on the net and not realise the risk from not being covered properly. These are the ones that get an infection from the net and get their account details stolen and used to spam others. You don't pay for things on-line, so nobody could secretly copy your bank details anyway!

Simple rule of thumb - if anyone whose email address you recognise sends you an email telling you to check out a shopping or a money site, in the subject heading line delete it without reading. Same with anything pretending to come from a bank or a public utility company or the inland revenue. They simply don't operate via email. All these scams play on the feeling many people have these days that they are no longer in control of the lives, that they don't really know enough to understand what's going on. Also people feel not in control either because of foolish impersonal bureaucracy, and the stupid jobsworths they deal with. But worst of all to my mind is badly designed user interfaces on computers - web pages which are horribly confusing, far too detailed and demanding, that getting used to them is fraught with difficulties. So much so that it's a doddle to design spoof web pages of allegedly secure sites and use them to deceive people by playing on their anxieties or their base desires.

Any message that hints of anxiety, greed, vanity or lust will lure people to click rather than delete. It's even been known for emails trumpeting noble causes, fight famine, stop the war, end racism, sexism, protest against this or that to be used to direct people to malware download sites or which exploit your email addess without your authorisation.

You stay safe if your anti virus is up to date and you keep alert, asking about a new message - can I trust this? before opening it. There's no need to be anxious, but determined. That question keeps you in control. Just like having a chain on the front door. Yes, you're in control. If you don't feel in control. You can switch off, either the computer or the router or both, take advice and start again.

So many of those seeking to exploit people through the internet play upon their moral and spiritual vulnerabilities. Vigilance, discernment, patience and self control are essential for good security. When we're surfing the net on a computer, we may well be alone, and even alone in a roomful of people, because of the focussed nature of the activity. It makes solitaries of us, and this brings to the fore those very same inner elements that sustain monks and hermits in their spiritual struggle to stay sane, free and faithful to God. In place of security software, as believers, we have the resources of scripture, liturgy and millennia of spiritual wisdom to draw upon in self-defence. It's worth thinking about.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Over the starting line at last

Yesterday evening the Street Carers' Forum first training evening took place at long last, four months later than planned because of the difficulties that needed to be overcome. The Forum is now a lot clearer about its working policies, and the training evening as delivered was much improved for all the additional thought that went into it.

I had nervously hoped that we'd get as many people turning up as we did for the first few meetings of the Forum this time last year. To my surprise and delight there were double those numbers - 68 volunteers, and seven Council professionals, who did the occasion proud with the presentations they gave. I gather they were pleased as well, because some of them wanted a partnership of this kind since well before the Street Carers themselves realised it was both necessary and possible.

I gave a brief introductory talk about voluntary and public agency partnership, (read it here) citing St John Ambulance as a long established example of partnership, and the Street Pastors as a very new example, barely a year old. People have been engaging in street care work since time immemorial, in both spontaneous and organised ways. There's every reason for it to benefit from closer working with the professional social workers who are out there.

Apart from this I spent much of the evening videoing the proceedings, just in case some of the material could be of use for training in future, or at least as a taster for people hoping to come on the next training evening. I arrived home high on success and stayed up very late video editing unsophisticatedly to preserving as much of the evening's real content as possible. I ended up with eighty minutes of footage, which is over-long for You Tube, so now I have to think about how I can condense this and post it so that Cardiff Street Carers blog readers can access it.

Now that we have the success of an initial training evening behind us, I feel that at last we have crossed the starting line in a really constructive social initiative.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Swords into ploughshares - when?

The 'Echo' did an excellent piece today on the launch of this year's poppy appeal by two serving soldiers standing under the tree in St John's Churchyard, which is decorated with giant poppies, for the three weeks before the RBL's annual Garden of Remembrance is set up. I was glad to be asked for a quote for the article last Friday. It's so important, given the terrible conditions now being faced in Afghanistan as in Iraq before, that our service men and women are acknowledged and supported. The veterans of the RBL are among the best placed people in the country to give a lead in this, and I'm proud, as their chaplain, to support them in this.

It must be said that there is a certain irony about poppies in the context of Afghanistan. Those that flourish in the killing fields of Flanders don't contain the high level of opiates that make Afghan poppies into a lucrative cash crop, to convert into heroin to feed addicts all over the world. The income buys weapons, explosives and other technologies which make the Taliban such a powerful adversary, as well as providing poor and marginalised farmers with a meagre living. If only an end could be made to the vicious wealth creating cycle of addiction and armaments, which makes it so difficult to raise up the poorest of the poor, by education and the tools for sustainable means of development.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Promise kept

I received an email from Steven Madeley, St David's Shopping Centre manager, to tell me that the centre's Quiet (aka prayer) Room is now ready for a preview visit by potential end-users. This was an initiative the Faith Focus Group proposed before it disbanded back in July. So, it meant that finally I could ask Sue Garwood the trusty FFG secretary to contact some interested parties and arrange the visits, and keep the promise made earlier. I'll be pleased to see the facility eventually for myself, but for the time being it will be better to make sure that members of other faith communities which might want to pray in the course of a day's shopping (or working in retail) receive an opportunity and offer their own feedback to the developers.

Work on completing the public realm refurbishment and fitting out shops is speeding ahead now. Changes are visible on a daily basis. St David's Centre is fully engaged in its publicity campaign, but the work on the streets, glimpsed by passers by is itself a kind of advertisement, generating more interest. I'm so glad I've been around to see the whole project through from start to finish.

Sunday, October 04, 2009


It was good to welcome Andrew and Sarah Highway and their children to worship today. Harvest Festival seems to have taken many people by surprise. Routine publication of dates in Parish Magazine and weekly bulletin doesn't guarantee that everyone will be remember, as there is little in our city centre social environment to remind us of this. Even those with regular contact with the schools will come across different Harvest celebrations from the last in September to the middle of October - the date is whatever is convenient in the midst of the rest of the autumnal educational busyness.

I took this occasion as an opportunity to tell people about the recent climate change conference, as a rather negative harvest from misusing earth's resources. Not much cheer, but a necessary matter to keep within one's attention span. Church plans to install geothermal heating are making slow progress. Inevitably there's caution on the part of the Representative Body about making sure we get value for money at every stage. Just as well really. It's vital that it's a success. The long term sustainability of a church in the heart of the city depends upon it, as much as it does on attracting new worshippers and new tea room clients.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

More than a load of beans

Since Bill's fall last Saturday I have felt exercised in conscience about getting on with the task of re-ordering the West end entrance of the church to make it less risky a area than it seems to be. We have plans to remove the wooden porch and replace with glass doors. This will improve the general visibility on initial even more than installing more extra lighting. However my requests to press on with this have run into the usual procedural cautions, and Martin our architect had to come in yesterday and measure up for some additional drawings to show how we propose to re-use the admittedly excellent materials of the George Pace designed wooden porch. We're also having to chase up the city engineers of about the south entrance pathway re-paving, which has also stalled, despite the work being urgently necessary for safer access, although its more than two years since we set out to do this.

The urgent concern is a pathway with poor surfaces and trip hazards. Risk is greatly multiplied by the large number of first time or occasional visitors through both church entrances. Mostly, though not always, our own regulars are aware, and careful how they negotiate the risky bits, but no amount of warning signs make it safer for people who enter rarely, or for the first time. The tourism boom brings in a higher proportion of older visitors too, so it will remain a worry to us until it's all properly done. We have a duty of care which we are eager to discharge. Living with the possibility of accidents which could be prevented is not something anyone should be comfortable with.

The calm detachment of the required bureaucratic processes of the church delivers no pastoral reassurance or support whatsoever. The church is governed more by law than grace, and that does nothing to commend the Gospel to any but the severely neurotic. However, we're stuck with it, and if I ever stop complaining, it will mean that I have abandoned the church altogether, or that by some miracle, the system has been reformed to make it truly fit for purpose - i.e. putting the welfare of people before things.

I wasn't looking forward to Alban Berg's 'Wozzek', for which we had tickets at the opera last night, but was surprised by the vivid power of the orchestral score to illustrate the fifteen scenes which comprised the narrative. The set was modern and industrial minimalist in character, presenting a narrative in a way that resembled a strip cartoon. The story depicted the oppression of a poor bullied industrial proletarian, working in a baked bean factory and living off its product, driven to madness, murder and then suicide by the cruelty and contempt to which he was exposed by society's leaders and followers. It was bleak tragic satire on modern times presenting no hope of redemption, even though God and scripture got a mention in the usual context of guilt. There's wasn't even a whiff of marxism to raise indignation let alone hope. Just bleak nihilism.

I'm glad we braved it though. It made me think, and the music was very special, as Clare said, in the same way that Wagner is special (we both like Wagner, despite his politics). For baked bean factory in the story, I was mentally substituting today's drug/alcohol game, how it keeps millions co-dependent, locally, internationally one way or another, and never delivers freedom, dignity, self-worth, fullness of life. Some would say the same about religion and all its works. There are so many places where the Gospel has not yet penetrated, not least in the heart of consumer society in love with atheism and all its works.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Life in dialogue

I had a good session after the Eucharist with David, the second of my adult confirmands, getting ready to renew his baptismal vows a week today at St Martin's. He thinks deeply about prayer and how it works with the analytical mind of a computer scientist, and asks really good questions as he strives to strengthen the connection between his faithful searching heart and his intellect. I really enjoy this. It stretches me, and helps me to believe that I am still learning how better to express the faith that hold me together.

The sense of being called to be a missionary and evangelist has increased as I have got older, despite my deep disaffection with the church and its institutional preoccupation with structures and procedures that seem to have contributed nothing to halt the hemorrhage of people from the life of common prayer and fellowship. I love preaching more for the preparation and fruitful reflection it requires than for its actual delivery - not least because within our social context and delivery time frame, it's impossible for preaching to become a dialogue without becoming trivial. Working informally with individuals and small groups in ways that permit exchange is what gives me a real creative sense of sharing the word. Finding exactly the right framework to do this in an ordinary parochial context with so many customary expectations is difficult. Maybe retirement will open up windows of opportunity. Who knows?

This evening my new student on placement from St Mike's came for an initial briefing chat. He's another Andrew. We first met seven years ago when he worked as city centre operations manager locally. He does a similar job now in Caerphilly UDC, and is just beginning the hard slog of non-stipendiary ministry training. As he knows the Parish well, and many aspects of its life - he started life as a city center police constable, another pastoral role - the shape of his time with me will be unlike that spent with the previous three students I've taken on board. Needless to say, I look forward to the dialogue I'll be sharing with him over the next six months.