Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Cloud concerns

This morning Kath, Anto and Rhiannon departed for Kenilworth, Clare set about doing the laundry, three machine loads of it, and I helped by hanging it all out. Fortunately, the weather was mild and kind enough to allow us to have the lot dry enough to finish off on the radiators in the evening. Meanwhile it was a machine minding day for me.

The HP mini had evidently gone through a factory re-set before purchase, and Win 8.1 had to be set up before Win 10 upgrade could take place. Although I'm sure I registered the software properly with Microsoft at the outset, the machine made three two hour attempts to download the upgrade file before it alleged the O/S wasn't MS registered. Hadn't registered on their servers I'd argue. Once done, upgrade proceeded at a snail's pace, another six hours, plus an hour getting rid of crapware and setting up my choice of software for use. None of these choices are reflected by the OneDrive filing system, although passwords are, and I now learn, also encryption keys. Disturbing, even for honest citizens.

I have one piece of previous legacy hardware - a keyboard with Swiss French layout, great for writing letters in French or German. So I had to configure the system to accept its input. The option is rather buried and not easy for a first timer, but being used to it for over 20 years, I didn't take me long to set it up to use with English language as the writing medium. When later in the day, while the upgrade was still happening, I used my laptop, I had difficulty logging in, and quickly discovered that the keyboard settings stored for the desktop machine and Swiss keyboard were being imposed on a standard English laptop keyboard, and producing errors. Instead of setting and forgetting, I had to return to configure for two different switchable settings EN/CH and EN/EN for both devices. Not good news.

Given the number of multi-lingual users owning and regularly using more than one device, not storing and keeping such basic settings on each machine as has happened up to now is a serious error of judgement on the part of our American digital overlords. The reasons are several: 1) if you don't know about keyboard configurations and how to switch them, you're going to waste your own and others' time with trouble-shooting; 2) multiple errors entering passwords could on some systems lead to users being barred access to essential if not urgent functions; 3) the imposition is in effect a breach of my network security. If didn't know about it, I couldn't authorise it.

What if a hacker found a way to replace the keyboard management software on one of my computers with a lookalike containing malware key-logger, activated by switching languages, one whose payload could then be distributed to all my machines via OneDrive? As with the encryption key concern, all it requires is a Microsoft server breach to spread vulnerabilities. OneDrive is attractive and can be quite convenient, provided your devices sync properly, but does it pose too much risk of privacy or security being compromised? 

The more the usage of Windows 10 is extended and explored, the more issues of this kind will arise for debate among the less technically sophisticated who get caught out. Computer systems are complex and hard to grasp. If an operating system does too much for you presuming it's being 'helpful' (as defined by a corporate giant dominating a different culture 5,000 miles away, from which we're divided a common language), it creates unhealthy dependencies and inefficiencies we can well do without.  

Monday, 28 December 2015

Monsoon Christmas

Boxing Day slipped lazily by, the weather was good enough for an afternoon family walk at low tide on the beach and then on the pier in Penarth. Then it was Sunday again, with a Eucharist to celebrate at St Germans for thirty people. We kept the Feast of the Holy Family, but much of what I wanted to preach about was the neglected saints days of the week, St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents, St Thomas a Becket and St Sylvester - all martyrs except John. Cardinal Vincent Nigholls highlighted this in his Christmas Even interview on the radio, and it got me thinking along his lines about martyrdom today.

We took an afternoon family stroll in the riverside park after lunch. Gail and Anwen came to join us there so that Rhiannon and Anwen could spent time together. We followed a very muddy winding path through the woods along the Canal Feeder as far as the Blackweir Ambulance station, a less than comfortable adventure for the adults. At Blackweir Bridge the Taff was discharging huge volumes of water over the weir at high speed. Above the bridge, water was still a metre from the top of the river bank, thankfully. I wondered what it would be like if it had rained so long and hard here as it has done this month in the north of England.

In Victorian times, the river through the flood prone town centre was straightened out. The building of the Bay Barrage greatly improved flood defences. The last great inundation was in the 1979s, when St John's Vicarage was in Cathedral Road, and a boat called to take the Vicar to church. The barrage destroyed the river's tidal character, but ultimately didn't stop salmon and trout returning, or otters and cormorants. Sections of the river bank were raised, and there's now a secondary dyke through the fields beyond the west bank. We're fortunate there's a gradient in the riverbed right along the river as far inland as Llandaff North, where there's another weir. The drop over three miles from there to the sea is two metres or so, and the clear straight-ish channel makes for fast run-off.

Eastern Cardiff is still a worry, as the river Rhymney runs out through tidal marshes to the estuary, and high volumes of water can still back up at high tide and spill over into inhabited areas. The water table is only a metre below ground in the flat lands along Newport Road, and times of high rainfall are still a worry. Much more investment is still needed for flood defences on the east side of Cardiff Bay. But, until there's a crisis this investment in the future doesn't seem to figure much in public debate.

Before lunch today we walked into town to look around the shops for post Christmas bargains. I came home with a HP mini desktop PC at £230 once I'd bought an adaptor to attach to my new monitor. It's Windows 8.1, so there'll be the usual upgrade hassles. My 2009 mini-tower has become unreliable in switching on recently. It's the last thing I need when I want to work at something quickly. Trouble is, having to install Linux as well with the the EUFI boot security hardware is not going to be at all easy.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas banqueting

Unusually this year, I didn't get any requests to take services on Christmas day itself, and I decided not to join a local congregation for a service, but to take time out at home to say the Office of the Day, and then be fully present to the family, for a change. It was lovely to take part in the shared exercise of preparing Christmas dinner, for the most part doing the washing up, and organising the amazing array of wines, brought or bought - a couple of the best dated back to our summer birthday celebration, kept in anticipation.

Clare was up early getting the huge turkey in the oven, organising and keeping everything on track, making the brandy sauce and preparing the Christmas pudding as she always does so brilliantly. Kath prepared veggies and our traditional vegetarian Christmas chestnut casserole, which everyone loves. Owain, our resident roast expert, took charge of gravy, checking the bird, heaving it in and out of the oven, finishing and carving. Rhiannon laid the table. 

It was a superb Christmas dinner, to relish at a leisurely pace with a series of different wines to share - Cava, Bardolino Classico, Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Chateuneuf du Pape, Rioja. It sounds a lot, but taken at the right pace over eight hours, everybody was happy, nobody got drunk, and we all sat down together in the evening and watch the DVD of 'Elf', and laughed together with delight. 

A happy family day, the sort worth living for.

Festivity commences

More shopping and cleaning to be done this morning, plus a couple of sermons to complete for tonight, and a present to buy for Clare - all before lunch. Early afternoon, Kath, Anto, Rhiannon and Auntie Viv arrived by car from Kenilworth. Amazingly there were plenty of spare parking places in the street, for a change. Only one of three builder's skips in the street for the past couple of months now remains, releasing an extra four parking places. There were several more empty places in addition, as a number of families have gone away for Christmas. This holiday week, nobody need park in proscribed places at the street entrance, where several people have been unfairly fined for leaving their cars overnight lately. Not long after, Owain arrived from Bristol to complete the household, and we spoke to Rachel and Jasmine just after breakfast in Phoenix, first on Viber, then using face time on Clare's iPad.

Then I popped into town on the bus to shop for another last minute present for Clare, and made it there and back in just over half an hour, a record time. The rush of homebound shoppers from the retail hub, as shops were closing for the weekend, was already under way, but I was going in the opposite direction. The roads were empty when I took off for the six o'clock Vigil Mass and crib blessing at St German's. It was attended by nearly fifty people. Santa must have slipped in when we weren't looking, and left boxes of chocolates for all churchgoers. I received three bottles of favourite wines from members of the congregation in addition. What a lovely treat!

I returned to eat a big pasta supper with the family, for which I prepared the sugo earlier in the day. We sang a few carols, and Rhiannon played her flute accompanied by Grandma on the piano, before I headed off to St German's again for Midnight Mass, thankfully, starting at eleven o'clock. There were thirty of us this time, and we were all parting company in good cheer by a quarter past midnight. I arrived home to a slumbering household. The biscuit and beverage left for Santa's visit to Rhiannon had already been nibbled and supped. And, there was a full moon over Cardiff.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

O Emmanuel

I went to St German's this morning to celebrate the midweek Eucharist for eight people. Afterwards I talked for an hour in the church hall with Hamid, about preparing for his baptism in the New Year. In order to do justice to this, in every sense, life-changing moment for him, I need to find the Urdu liturgical text of the service, so he can make his promises and hopefully teach me how to pronounce the baptismal formula in his mother tongue. Essential under the circumstances, I believe.

How frustrating to find another card from the postman when I got home, summoning us to collect a piece of mail and pay two pounds because it had insufficient postage. More time wasted in traffic queues to retrieve an un-stamped Christmas card. Accidents happen, and the Post Office makes you pay double, rather than the offender. The new streamlined service and its management sure know how to cultivate customer resentment and ill-will !

When I returned from this errand, I was dispatched to collect the Christmas turkey from Driscoll's, on Cathedral Road, our excellent local butcher. The shop was busy with customers, and I didn't mind queuing, as it was nice to see how cheerful the staff were as they went about their business. Likewise at the Fruit Bowl, the greengrocers shop a few doors up. We are surely blessed with local small shops in our part of town, and using them adds to the conviviality of the season far more than ploughing through crowds in the town's heaving shopping malls.

And so to our last great 'O' antiphon, naming the name Isaiah 7:14 gives to the Anointed One whom God sends us as our Saviour, quoted in Matthew 1:23, and translated in 1:24 as 'God is with us'.

O Emmanuel you are our king and judge,
the one whom the peoples await, and their Saviour.
O come and save us O Lord our God.

Each of the six previous antiphons add in different ways to a portrayal of God as 'All in All'. The seventh declares that the 'All in All' is with us in the One who is to come, entering human existence, born a helpless child, needing to receive everything from others to sustain his life, in order that he can give life to others, the priceless gift of salvation to eternal life. The elusive paradox, that is the very heart of God's loving initiative to those who wait.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

O rex gentium

The Christmas cards keep coming in the post day after day also eCards from some further afield, with news of family and old friends. I was delighted to learn that a former colleague from St Paul's days, Bernice Broggio, did a month's chaplaincy duty in Taormina this year, and read the blog written while I was there in December 2012. She was able to travel around and saw more of Sicily than we did. For me it was more of a long and valued retreat, in a place of great beauty, with not quite enough to do.

Talking of mail, there was one of those non-delivery notices for a 'signed for' package addressed to Clare waiting for us when we got back yesterday. I drove to the main sorting office to collect it, and despite presenting my driving license to identify myself, was not given the package because it was addressed to Clare. Without presenting her i/d or some other form of authorisation, the Post Office Terms and Conditions small print said it couldn't be handed over. Previously, this has been ignored by workers less conscientious. I noticed the man in front of me in the growing queue got the same treatment. 

How many others I wondered would be obliged to go away and come back again to collect. It took me half an hour in slow moving traffic to make the ten minute journey. For others, not living so close to the main sorting office, it would have taken that much longer to get there and be obliged to make a double trip. Doubtless many of those 'signed for' packages would be a range of small mail order gifts, as was Clare's, who later returned with me to collect Rhiannon's present. How much does this extra traffic to and from the sorting office add to seasonal traffic congestion, waste of fuel and pollution, waste of people's time? Surely there must be a better solution to ensuring goods are delivered as intended by senders. The Post Office is meant to be a service to people, not a tyranny. 

Sad to say, wherever I've been on my travels, queues to get served in Post Offices have been long, despite countries having local mailbox services in local Post Office branches, and valiant efforts to manage more queuing customers than the institution has capacity for at any time. Competing parcel delivery services do somewhat better with internet tracking services often available, but there's still room for effective innovation in this area of common life, to make home deliveries more predictable. Ah well, while I was out and about, I was at least able to get some food shopping done, to share the domestic load. I could have done more, before it was time to go into the office for the last time before Christmas. Today's great 'O' antiphon uses the image of sovereignty to hail the coming Messiah.

O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one; 
Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.
On of the essential givens of human life together is that people of every tribe, tongue, people and nation have a symbol of shared identity, of citizenship, in the person of the king, who represents them to the rest of the world. Kings bestow honorific recognition on those who serve their country well, and represent the rule of law and governance, although these functions are carried out by others on their behalf. This merits them being described as a cornerstone or keystone of society. 
This antiphon speaks of kingship over humankind - 'King of the nations' - celebrated of Christ in the liturgy of the Sunday next before Advent. God is the author of existence. Shared acknowledgement of our creator's sovereignty calling upon the Lord in worship, is how mortal humanity can be redeemed from its self-inflicted wounds and fatal flaws.

Monday, 21 December 2015

O Oriens

On this the shortest day of the year, we started our return journey from Kirton to Cardiff, driving up the A14 early under a clear morning sky, taking our niece Anneke with us as far as Ipswich County Council Headquarters, where she was to interview for a job at ten. 

Bright sunshine at the start gave way to overcast skies and rain, but by the time we reached home, the skies were clear again. We followed the A14 beyond Cambridge to the M6 to Coventry ring road, then followed the A46 to Stratford. This took us past Kenilworth so we stopped for an hour to visit Kath, Anto and Rhiannon, before following our usual cross country route enter Wales via the M50. 

Anto is in the throes of migrating a large amount of data from his current website to one that's being designed for him. For technical reasons outside his control, it's become labour intensive job demanding much hard concentration. I feel for him, having spent so much time myself recently migrating an even smaller dataset to a new software platform. I'm amazed he can be so cheerful about it. He's looking forward to a new enhanced website launch early in the New Year with added features.

After supper, I brought this year's new Christmas tree indoors for installation in the lounge, and then we decorated it together, so that it's ready for when the family arrives. It's a good while since we did this together as usually there are younger people around willing to do it. I really enjoyed doing this. Such an appropriate thing to do as the longest night enveloped us. 
My Blackberry Accuweather app, told me that the sun set over Kirton at 15h45, but in Cardiff at 16h06. I knew there was a time difference across the country, but had never quite realised how much until today.

This week's BBC Radio 4 edition of 'Beyond Belief' was all about Christian and Pagan observances of the Winter Solstice. Something more I learned from this programme was that the sun's position on the horizon is as southerly as it can get today. It's the same until Christmas Day, when it begins its ascent into the northern skies again. Good enough reason, I suppose for the great 'O' antiphon of the day to be about the rising sun, symbol of both the birth of Jesus and his resurrection.

 O Daystar, you are the splendour of eternal light and the sun of justice. O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

The dawn of a new day has been received as a sign of hope by the whole of humanity down the ages, regardless of religious belief and culture., and by analogy also, the dawning of a new year.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

O clavis David

As there was no Communion service this morning in the churches of this rural grouping, we drove to riverside town of Woodbridge for the Parish Eucharist at the church of St Mary, a fine 15th century building with a very tall tower, no doubt used to keep a look out over the comings and goings in the estuary in past troubled times. The town is ancient, and there was a church on this spot a century before the Domesday book records it.

Clare came to church here with Ann on her last visit, and remarked on how well attended it was. Even more so today, with a couple of hundred of adults and thirty children. We arrived just as the service was about to start. The Vicar was making an appeal to support an ancient village church near Carlisle, whose decades of restoration work have been undone by the recent floods, as an act of solidarity. His brief exhortation was met by quiet murmurs of approval some members of the congregation seated near to us. In place of a sermon, the children presented a nativity tableau, spiced with humorous moments. It was a refreshing change, being part of a big congregation, and not on duty. And it was great to return to a family Sunday lunch already prepared, with Ann, plus Anneke and Stefan who arrived last night.

This evening, we walked to Kirton Parish Church for their service of Nine Lessons and Carols by candlelight. I was honoured on behalf of the family to read the third lesson, in place of Eddie, my dear departed brother-in-law, who often read lessons at church services, and helped clean up the mess afterwards and get ready for the next festive service. The church was full. An adult choir and a group of children from the local primary school each sang carols. Readings from the King James version of the Bible were beautifully delivered with understanding and relish by parishioners, a pleasure to listen to. Afterwards there was mulled wine and mince pies in the church hall where six weeks ago we gathered for the reception after Eddie's funeral. The moon and stars were visible on our walk home in the dark, as they were when we walked home on that sad evening. So much can happen in between our annual celebrations of great feasts. Somehow they enable us to carry on despite the burdens to be borne.

O Key of David and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no one can shut, who shuts and no one can open. Come and bring the prisoners forth from the prison cell, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

To carry out their role, those in positions of great power must delegate functions of government to others. Anyone with charge of the keys of any establishment or domain is a trusted person, responsible for giving access to places or people. The sceptre is a symbol of the administrator of justice who is, or is meant to be guarantor of equal treatment in the eyes of the law. There can be conflicts of interest when the priorities and values of office holders differ. Justice can all too easily be exercised unequally in favour of the privileged, who can influence to ensure their causes are legitimised.

The Messiah sent by God the ultimate sovereign, as saviour and judge of all, is described as one who combines both these trusted roles in himself, and thus holds ultimate power over human destinies. The longing of all who pray for His coming is that he will liberate and restore victims of injustice, trapped, dis-empowered, robbed of life. It's an appeal echoing the text Jesus declared fulfilled, when he read these words of Isaiah 61:1 in the Nazareth synagogue.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to tell the good news to the poor. He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set oppressed people free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."

God's surprise begins, however, not with the appearance of a full grown man of power, but with this child born for us in obscurity and poverty. The exercise of equity and justice is to be measured by how people treat each other in their weakness and vulnerablity, rather than their capability and strength.

'And a little child shall lead them.' (Isaiah 11:6b)

Saturday, 19 December 2015

O radix Jesse

After a lie-in, a late and lazy start to our day, just spending time together with Ann, eating, talking remembering. A prospective purchaser for Eddie's vintage Alvis arrived at lunchtime, but the start of negotiations was aborted as the car with its ancient magneto system, prone to winter damp, couldn't be started. The car started fine several weeks ago, and it lives in a locked garage, but this is not unusual with ancient cars. Altogether frustrating, as it means more preparation is needed for the next visit. Nothing is ever simple. Daughter Anneke and grandson Stefan arrive late this evening, so we needed to prepare the other spare bedroom for them. This led to a late afternoon expedition into festively decked Felixstowe to buy an air-bed for Stefan to sleep on.

We parked near what remains of Felixstowe's railway station -  just one platform serving the line to Ipswich now stands in splendid isolation flanked by car parks where once there were several rail tracks leading into an simple but elegant brick terminal building with several platforms and wrought iron canopies. Fortunately the architectural features of the old station have been conserved and integrated into a retail centre and Co-op supermarket, a nice piece of adaptation. I've walked the high street many times in the past, but this was the first time I've seen this, and it's been there thirty years.

Today's great 'O' antiphon is a reminder that the one sent by God to rescue his people was to be one of their own kind. The purpose of the evangelists in placing genealogies of Jesus early in two of the Gospels, even though they lack historicity in the modern sense, is to declare that he belongs and is no outsider, either to the Hebrew people, in Matthew's case, or the human race in Luke's. 

O root of Jesse, you stand as a signal for the nations; kings fall silent before you whom the peoples acclaim. O come to deliver us and do not delay.

Jesse is the father of the Davidic clan, and a common ancestor to all those who look to Jerusalem and the hill country surrounding it, as the heartland of their faith and way of life. Because he 'who comes to be our judge'. as both the creeds and the ancient Te Deum hymn remind us, belongs in this specific way, that none of those who recognise him as one of their own can escape his scrutiny, his diagnosis of the aliments of their spiritual lives, their culture of faith. This gives even more significance to the rejection of his ministry and his deliberate killing to exclude him and the offer he brings from their lives. 

While Matthew's Gospel is addressed primarily to a Hebrew audience, from a Jew to the Jews, Luke's genealogy, like his Gospel, tracing Jesus' line back to Adam recognises this not as an 'ethnic' story but one that speaks of our common human condition, and the fatal impulse that can lead us to deny and reject that which is most beneficial for us. Do we recognise this when we appeal to God to come and sort out the messes we make of our lives, of our world? 

Friday, 18 December 2015

O Adonai

Late morning, we left Cardiff and headed up the M4 to London and the M25 for our weekend with Ann in Kirton. The weather was dry and we made good time until we got beyond High Wycombe, when we were diverted in a long slow traffic queue off the northern orbital, as the section between Junctions 20 and 21 was closed. Instead of five o'clock, it was half past six when we reached our destination. 

For the first time I got to road test my new night driving spec's. I found my distance vision was more vivid, my sense of perspective enhanced, making it less of an effort to read the road ahead and behind in the mirror, I wasn't nearly as tired at the end of a journey ending in the dark as I usually am. Clare was also rejoicing as she'd received a new pair of spec's yesterday, and found a marked improvement on a previous pair, leading her to wonder if she hadn't been incorrectly prescribed previously.

Kirton village green has a large Christmas tree covered in coloured lights, and some of the houses have their garden bushes and trees decorated with white or blue light, some of the flashing, like a migraine aura. There's aren't so many street lights hereabouts which usually makes for restful darkness at night, so the bright decorative contrast came as a surprise assault on the senses. Ann has the house festively decorated already. Back at home, our new little Christmas tree has yet to be brought indoors, let alone decorated. It's a job waiting to be done when we get back.

This day of Advent has a different expression of divine light manifesting itself. R.S. Thomas in his poem 'The bright field' contemplating the play of natural light in the landscape speaks of "... the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush" - where God recruits Moses to be his spokesman and servant.

O Adonai and leader of Israel, 
you appeared to Moses in a burning bush 
and you gave him the Law on Sinai. 
O come and save us with your mighty power.

A respectful circumlocution for the unutterable divine name, Adonai translates into English as 'My Lords', a plural form - reminding me of the use of 'ustedes' in Spanish, 'Lei' in Italian, 'Vous' in French and 'Ihr' in German, when the intimate singular form is thought inappropriate. This convention is lost to common English parlance, where 'you' can be singular or plural, though there are other ways respect is conveyed. In Hebrew scripture, this convention of language applies to people as much as to the divine.

On Sinai, Moses spoke with God as a man speaks with a friend, yet he wasn't allowed to get to close or see God face to face, "for no man can see God and live". The presence of the divine is signalled in powerful manifestations of natural phenomena, inspiring awe and wonder. In this context, the Torah is conveyed to Moses, stressing its absolute importance, and connection with the divine life. Calling upon God in this ancient frame of reference is an appeal to the Almighty to come and restore law and order to this chaotic world, based upon principles higher than the best and highest of ideas conceivable by the human mind. Our sense of law and order, however exalted, is derived from what is above and beyond ourselves. As time passes we continue to learn what is right and true, just and worthy of trust and honour, in the face of life's changing scenes. There are times however, when we realise "we have no power of ourselves to help our selves", and that's when hearts learn to cry out "Come and save us!"

Thursday, 17 December 2015

O Sapientia

After breakfast, a massage came from Julie in the office, puzzled because she was unable to log into her workstation with her usual credentials. Earlier in the week I'd used the machine to try OneNote, which required a different log-in, but after I'd logged in using her credentials. I didn't understand why she didn't have the usual menu of login options, so I left early for the office, to troubleshoot, while she worked on another machine, as a precaution - just in case there was a security issue behind it.

I was able to rectify the situation, but am still unsure why this machine doesn't offer the same full option menu as other Windows 7 upgraded machine I've worked on. At least she now has a way of accessing user accounts she needs. Then, I worked for several hours on completing the migration of the last one third of the user information dataset to OneNote, and making sure it was accessible on the various machines used in the office. One job I was glad to see the back of. My next task will be to look at alternative software apps, to see if they offer more functionality, and if it's possible to interchange datasets between different apps.

I went home early, quite tired with all the head-work, and had a rest before going out to Russell and Jackie's house for their annual pre-Christmas celebration - some stories, some carols, an a mediative lighting of their Christmas tree. There were about twenty people squeezed into their lounge. It was nice and relaxing, with good food and conversation afterwards, and I didn't have to do anything apart from enjoy a quiet evening with friendly people. A lovely respite.

It's a week to Christmas, and tonight, the first Great 'O' Advent antiphon of anticipation is said at the Magnificat, inviting meditation on a cosmic scale. Quite appropriate for a week which has seen the celebration in the media by mathematicians, and astro-physicists of the centenary of Albert Einstein's publication of relativity theory equations,

O Wisdom, 
you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. 
You fill the universe, and hold all things together 
in a strong yet gentle manner. 
O come to teach us the way of truth.

Einstein is understood to be an exceptional human being. His mathematical conclusions are regarded with the kind of awe and wonder resembling idolatry, if it were not for the fact that its apparent perfection is limited to interpreting the macro but not the micro universe (which relies on quantum mathematical theory). Both kinds of mathematics are subject to theoretical testing and scientific verification that treats nothing in the universe of knowledge is sacred, no matter how much it's relied upon. Investigators are still looking for a Grand Theory of Everything - mathematics that will unify the macro and the micro dimensions of the universe. It's going to be the next great break-through when it comes, we're told by the confident. Why be skeptical of such a great intellectual adventure? However much we succeed in explaining of realities we can perceive, there will always be 'things unseen'. We cannot go beyond our selves, our universe, beyond the limits of imagination to see the whole from above and beyond, because we are not the author of our own existence at any level. One alone is above and beyond all things, and is in all and through all things. The more we know, the more the Unknown remains approachable only through openness to awe and wonder, love and praise.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Demands of the information age

Last night before bed, I started preparing a soup of butternut squash and red lentils for the Ignatian meditation group lunch today at our house, and finished it off before having breakfast this morning, in time to head across town to St Germans for the midweek Mass. There were a dozen of us there. It looks like I'm going to continue helping out there in the New Year, with two baptisms on the Feast of Christ's Baptism, and a wedding in February, to prepare for. It'll be the first time for me to officiate at a wedding in UK since retirement. 

Regulation is now more demanding because of abuse of church wedding ceremonies for marriages of convenience. Also people with a family connection to a church can now ask to be married there, even if they don't live in the Parish. Passport and address checks are now required at an early stage in the preparation. Clergy must prove they have no criminal record before they get permission to officiate in a new diocese. Trust and credibility must be legally formalised and kept updated, consequences of ministering in a society where a priest and the people served are no longer known to each other, as was used normal in previous centuries. It means ministry is far more based on the required function than relationships between people. No matter how much effort goes into making the offer of ministry personal, it is far more likely to be transient in nature. I wonder if we've yet taken into account the impact of this on Christian spirituality as well as practice.

There were five of us for the meditation session. As the group meets most months and has done for years, it's an appreciated part of the more permanent aspect of our respective journeys in faith. The same can be said for the small core group of people in each church congregation that's responsible for maintaining services and keeping the building open. Sometimes these relationships are life-long, and without them, something of the mind and heart of Christian tradition would be lost. They often seem to be older people, simply because they are people who stayed in a place to grow up and grow old together. The group always seems to be dying out, but more often than not its membership gradually changes over the years. A small aspect of growth which often goes un-noticed.

Much of the evening I spent working on migrating CBS user account record notes one by one into a OneNote file that can be easily accessed by all who need to. It's far from being an ideal solution, as the software doesn't offer all that it would be useful for it to do, but once the migration of data is  complete, it'll be easy for anyone with information to add to the common cloud based file. It's quite a dull routine task, but it requires concentration to maintain. I'll be glad to see the back of it, so that I can relax my worries about us keeping an up to date set of working information, easily accessible right back to when the business was set  up, going digital in 2009. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

First ever prescription spectacles

This morning, Clare and I returned to the School of Optometry to collect pairs of spec's ready for use. In addition, I had my first ever 'field of vision' test, which came as something of a surprise, reminding me in turn of trying to play a computer game, as you have to press a button when you glimpse a moving dot of light, also driving at night and keeping alert to distant lights from cars and reflectors on the road ahead. I'm impressed by how friendly and helpful the staff are, and ready to answer a curious man's questions. They really seem to enjoy the work they do.

I was pleased to find out the test showed my field of vision is as good as it gets. Then I drove home using the new spec's. They'll come into their own in the dark, but immediately I noticed looking into the wing mirror to check behind me was less of a strain, and there's a fresh sharpness all round, so I anticipate that driving will seem less of an effort, as I get used to wearing them.

After lunch I walked over to Tesco's and Staples to get a small present for Owain, then walked back in the dark, but the spec's were in the car, and couldn't be tested. I can see quite well in the dark but know I don't see quite so sharply, but it doesn't matter, on foot. The waxing moon was visible through broken cloud as I walked along the avenue of trees that runs the length of Llandaff Fields. One small rewarding moment of enchantment to rejoice in.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Life, but not as we know it

Yesterday was the day of Sta Lucia, and Sara over there in Gothenburg sent me some photos and a video link to a TV recording of a national celebration of carols. Then again this morning, photos from the early morning ceremony at the school where she teaches. Lucia customs aren't that widespread or embedded as part of our winter folk ceremonies. It's very charming and beautifully atmospheric, but what is it really all about? I ask and get no answer that satisfies. In our email exchange I quoted Spock from Star Trek "It's life Jim, but not as we know it!", but Sara didn't get it. She was born around the time the first series got shown on UK TV, and has never watched. 

So, this led to me writing her a brief summary description of what it was all about and why it mattered to people of my age, quite apart from all the antics of the world wide fan-base of 'trekkies'. Putting down my thoughts made me realise how much the Star Trek narratives had reflected the debate about multi-culturalism and pluralism, and working at eliminating conflict. The other great sci-fi saga of the age influencing many is Star Wars, again in the public eye due to the new movie release. All the rage when Owain as a little boy, it never grabbed my attention, and I'm not even sure I can recall sitting through one of the movies on telly, let alone in a cinema. Having been raised on a diet of heroic World War Two battle movies, with roots in recent history much nearer to recent reality, I was destined to lose interest in Star Wars early on. Sci-fi that envisaged an era when we would 'study war no more' engaged with my idealism better.

Now today is the feast of St John of the Cross, whose poetry I have started dipping into in this past week for the first time. The Breviary office for the day contains a text from his 'Spiritual Canticle', all about suffering as a route to contemplation. Thought provoking, to say the least. I like the joyous innocent simplicity of his poetry. By contrast, the simplicity of Pablo Neruda's observations of life are of a different. He looks in detail at ordinary people and the things of life, giving an almost sacramental value to that which others would treat with contempt or ignore. His socialist humanism, if I may call it so, has a truly incarnational ring to it, an earthly mysticism. Two Spanish poets five centuries apart giving much much delight and inspiration this Advent, helping me to cope with the darkness of the year more cheerily than usual.

This morning I did the week's food shopping on foot, visiting first the Co-op and then Lidl's, braving the rain and getting four miles worth of exercise, much needed. I posted all the foreign cards, and then finished off the rest of the British ones. Seventy in all. Very satisfying.


Sunday, 13 December 2015

Annual Advent mail out

Finally yesterday, I knuckled down to the task of checking my email circulation list and sending out batches of our annual Christmas letter, written a fortnight ago, together with a greeting e-card, with photos of our joint 70th birthday on it. It's a job I've been putting off. Out of about eight addresses I only got a couple of bounce backs. Some of those on the list will also get a card in the mail. I bought a batch of cards in the St John's Charity Card pop-up shop back on December 1st, plus the necessary stamps, but I've not had the energy to 'test and finish' as they say in the Council. The excuse is that I've had some extra shopping and cooking to do as Clare's had a heavy cold this past week, but it's only an alibi for inertia. Something to day with low cloud and rain making me want to hibernate.

In the week I was asked to cover the eight o'clock at St Catherine's, which I gladly did, and then had breakfast with Clare before heading out to St German's for their Ministry Sunday Advent 3 Mass. After the service, I joined the group of half a dozen people who were decorating the Christmas tree before returning home and cooking lunch. I really enjoyed that. There were more decorations than could be fitted on the tree, but many were not in a fit state to be used, so some sorting was necessary as part of the process - a great group exercise!

In the latter part of the evening, I printed off the necessary address labels for the Christmas cards to be posted, and did as many as I could manage without further address checking. Although it was very late, I took a batch of forty two cards out to the post office box, just to get some exercise before bed. How much I have to push myself to exercise on these days when going outdoors is hardly pleasant. If I don't, my dodgy left knee cartiledge begins to play up, as muscle tone slackens. I really need to be walking several miles a day, and it's more a lack of mental energy than physical that hinders me, if I don't have much to do. Keeping active is more than ever vital. Slacking doesn't pay!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Meditation pleasure

A special treat this morning, in the form of a meditation workshop with other members of the Rising Phoenix Tai Chi Group in the Albert Road Methodist Church community hall in Penarth, where I used to attend Thursday evening Tai Chi sessions. We did some Chi Gung warm up exercises and then three guided 'sitting' sessions, with a group 'sticking' exercise before the final sitting. It's a good space in which to move about and to be completely still, with just occasional background sounds from the wind and rain outside, and a drama group rehearsal in a basement hall below. Nothing that could distract us from the work of silence in hand. I love group meditation in every shape and form. Next Wednesday, by way of contrast, we will be hosting the Ignatian Meditation group session at home, and that too will be refreshing to the spirit.

After lunch I walked into town along the riverside, more for the exercise than anything else. There was nothing really that I set out to purchase. It was very busy and I soon got bored and headed for home. The sounds of Mozart operatic themes have been in my head a lot recently, and in the evening, I found a full performance of 'The Marriage of Figaro' recorded in the opera house at Florence, on YouTube, and listened to it while I worked on a sermon, and pottered about further with OneNote to see if I could adapt it for my purposes. Then another couple of episodes of the long drawn out crime saga which is 'The Bridge III', bizarre bordering on the bewildering. It mostly seems to be set in semi darkness, and I keep on wondering how many more hard to decode twists and turns must be endured before the baddies are defeated, whoever they are. A 'penny dreadful' type tale doesn't really make our kind of winter darkness any more endurable.

Lately I've been reflecting on the nature of darkness. Winter here means much low cloud and rain. Back in Geneva days the cloud cover could sit a few hundred metres above the lake for months at this time of year. It could feel stifling, but at least it was possible to drive up to a col, and rise above the cloud layer, to see sun, or moon and stars in clear sky above. It doesn't happen here, sad to say. Thinking of the darkness St John of the Cross speaks of, like the mystical 'cloud of unknowing' in English tradition is about adventure within, or above and beyond thought, being taken out of oneself, absorbed in wonder love and praise, just 'being'. That's a liberating idea, in contrast to the many shades of grey and darkness associated with enduring grim weather. 

Then I was reminded of nights under a clear sky, summer or winter, whether here or in countries around the Mediterranean by the sea or in the mountains, away from urban lighting. Nights of that kind draw you out of yourself and encourage a kind of 'eyes wide open' meditation or communion with creator and sacramental creation. I try to remember that it can be like that sometimes, but now I have to settle for delving within, until the heavens above are returned to us, like a fresh gift.

Friday, 11 December 2015

OneNote disappointment

As the CBS team member who looks after the office equipment and ensures that all our business data is accessible, moving from just using a local area network for work data to using Cloud storage has not exactly been a straightforward journey. Once upon a time we used Google Drive as a secondary back up to our network drive. Then SkyDrive turned up morphed into OneDrive and we had computers on Windows 7 and 8.1, and theere were glitches because they didn't work quite in the same way. Then the big upgrade of everything to Windows 10 took place, but this didn't solve all the problems, but rather masked earlier problems which we thought we'd dealt with, but not quite. 

Eventually, with a little extra concentration and graft, we sorted this out. Also, I migrated our client dataset across to Libre Office Base to future proof its handling with software that has a reliable tested upgrade path. This I felt was necessary, as we've used MS Works database, dating from prior to 2000 since I set about building the CBS database in 2010. Although Works database is perfectly reliable, I don't quite trust Microsoft not to depart one day from its software backwards compatibility policy with an operating system upgrade installed automatically. 

Microsoft, over the years has retained dominance with its various file formats, and imposed changes through various versions of its MS Office software, driving people to spend on upgrading and the inevitable extra learning required that obstructs the flow of business. I'm a fan of the well recognised Open Document file format of the Open Source Software community, and Microsoft's resistance to accepting universally recognised file formats not its own is far from good for a global communications network medium. One could say the same about the many competing audio and video formats as well, but thankfully there are many software engineers worldwide developing workarounds and alternative solutions.

I moan about these things yet again because Julie our CBS administrator discovered a problem which hadn't earlier been noticed with the migration of data to Libre Office. Almost everything works well, apart from the large data fields containing commentary and notes attached to each client record. Some seem to have exceeded limits of which we were unaware, and created a cascade of errors affecting only these large fields, which we'd decided in any case to store in separate records. While the main body of data is completely intact, the notes are a mess, and don't even display well in any form I've been able to desire. No wonder good database engineers are well paid to deliver their product! So, we've continued to update the MS Works file as a repository for notes until we find a solution.

This afternoon, we tried out the Windows 10 app OneNote, which is a respository for various kinds of note taking which can also store links to files and images. Potentially useful but immediately we found its imitations. You cannot import any data into it. If you try cutting and pasting from a spreadsheet or a database it crashes the app. You can search by keyword, but not sort. It only gives information inputted in date order. It looks pretty, but it's not that powerful, and feels a bit like a bright designer idea which is more a work in progress than a finished product, despite its appearance.

After half an hour's annoyance with the app, we gave up on it in the office, but I returned to it later when I got home, to see if I'd missed out on anything. That was when  found it will accept unformatted texts pasted from a text editor, and that you can then add to any time you want, so with a few hours manual labour it would be possible to use this for storage of client notes, though it wouldn't be in a proper database. So, keep looking, I guess. There'll be something better out there to discover.

After supper we went to Chapter for a concert given by folk singer and story teller Robin Williamson and his wife Bina. Both are still going strong in their mid seventies, performing on stage for two hours, very lively and engaging. We met them when I was at St John's. They did a winter concert for us there and I remember it was freezing because the central heating wasn't working properly. The audience was smaller than it was this evening, but they are brave and hardly people, undaunted by the experience, and we've kept in touch with them since then. They had a young teenage daughter performing shyly with them when we first met. Now she's a graduate and a lawyer, working in Bristol. Time passes.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Eye test

Back to St German's again for their midweek Mass this morning, and then a visit to the School of Optometry for my first ever eye test. Free now I'm seventy. I never needed one before as I've been blessed with good eyesight, although I have noticed some minor changes apart from needing reading glasses in recent years, so with some petering from Clare, an appointment was made following hers.

When I arrived I learned that the optometrist was running nearly half an hour late, and this momentarily put the undertaking into some doubt, as I needed to be home in time to be collected to go and officiate at this week's funeral in Thornhill crematorium. Clare and I swapped places, however, and I was though and driving home through slow traffic, and arrived just before my chauffeur turned up.

The eye test was an unfamiliar but interesting experience, and there'll be a further field of vision test to come in the new year. As I needed to drive home and take a funeral, there risk of dilating my pupils for the inspection was not one that could be taken today. Next time I'll walk there. My eyes are, fortunately in pretty reasonable condition for my age, no sign of cataract formation so far, and just some disparity between the ability of my eyes to focus at a distance, something I've noticed in the past year or so. I came away with an order in place for a pair of 'driving glasses', that will be of particular help to keep the eyes sharp and in focus for night driving. Better safe than sorry.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

School Nativity celebration in Church

To be sure of avoiding traffic jams, I took the bus to town and walked from there to St German's this morning to get there by nine thirty for the Tredegarville School Nativity celebration. It was an amazing feat of logistics to get two hundred kids into church, a large proportion of them in costumes and ready for action on time. The teachers had written their own play, full of rhyming couplets, and it featured Dr Who's Tardis, to allow children to travel back in time to see the story come alive. The singing was full of enthusiasm. Angels danced as well as sang. Such a happy event, and a special pleasure for me to welcome parents teachers and children, and then at the end to lead them in saying the Lord's Prayer, in the light of a few comments about the recent controversy over the CofE #justpray cinema video ban.

It is, of course a multi-cultural and multi-faith school, and I caught sight of a few children not joining in, as they are at liberty not to, if their beliefs do not permit this. Every time a class attends a weekday Mass in church, there are children who don't join in, and don't come up for a blessing. It's just part of the normality of school life, one which staff work hard to maintain without fear or favour. Generating the trust and support of all the different families of the school to build a climate of mutual respect is a most demanding yet highly rewarding labour, in times as difficult as ours.

By eleven the church was empty again, and being made ready for a service I was scheduled to take at twelve thirty. The church nave was full for the funeral of an eighty year old matriarch with a large extended family. Such a contrast to when the place was buzzing with excited children, but its majestic architecture succeeds in accommodating such different occasions, leaving people with good memories, even on sad occasions. After the funeral concluded at Thornhill crematorium, I was driven back home in the empty hearse, arriving in time to cook a risotto for a late lunch. 

These days, our different engagements sometimes make it more convenient to eat a main meal in the middle of the day, rather than in the evening, as is our habit. Eating in the middle of the day suits me better, but routines keep changing, but tonight's Chi Gung session takes place just when normally we're preparing for supper, and Clare is out at choir practice. So we have a light supper later, and listen to 'The Archers' on iPlayer instead of live, while we're eating.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Poetic discovery

The second Sunday of Advent Eucharist at St German's this morning, numbers down a little due to the rotten weekend weather. Hamid, an asylum seeker from Pakistan was in the congregation again. His spiritual journey led to family rejection and took him away from his homeland, in his endeavour to study the bible and learn more about Christianity. He has been coming to St German's since he was sent to a Cardiff hostel, pending a case appeal, a few months ago. His life will be at risk if he goes home. He's asked us to write to his solicitor to confirm that he is attending church regularly.

Happily he's found an experience of Christian worship at St German's that speaks to his contemplative side. Punjabi speaking Christian communities introduced him to the Bible in his mother tongue, but their noisy, exuberant style of worship has limited appeal for him. Happily, it's the beauty, peace and orderly dignity of worship that appeals. He's asked for baptism, and we're aiming for this on the feast of Christ's baptism in January. It's going to be a challenge, given his limited English, but it's clear his heart is set on this. 

For the first time in many weeks Clare went to Riverside Farmers' Market after church, before lunch to stock up with some favourite cheeses, including mature Caerphilly, which to my mind ra
nks with Parmigiano for flavour, eaten on its own with a glass of the right red wine or grated and sprinkled to enhance a cooked dish. She's been making her own mincemeat this weekend, and the house is full of heavenly Christmas aromas.

Having done my DuoLingo Spanish revision exercises for the day, I set about hunting for my copy of the poems of St John of the Cross on the various bookshelves around the house. It's a bi-lingual edition with an classic English translation by Roy Campbell, which I acquired over thirty years ago. I wanted to see how much of the Spanish I can now decipher. It's really time I started reading things to improve my comprehension, as well as practising reading aloud for fluency. 

It took a while to find, but in the process, I discovered on another bookshelf a bi-lingual collection of poems by Pablo Neruda, given to us by a friend, some years ago, when we began spending time in Spain. I was delighted to realise that I could read and follow his work far better than I'd anticipated. There is a directness and simplicity to his writing which makes it more accessible than the Renaissance language of St John of Cross - new sources of inspiration and enjoyment to savour.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Central Square redevelopment - the long view

It's taken me a while to get around to it, but at last I've uploaded the photos I've been taking over the past six months of redevelopment work in Central Square, the area in front of Cardiff Central railway station. You can find them here. The area used to house the city's main bus and coach station, and the east side will, in a few years from now, eventually house the next generation bus and coach terminal, once Marland House and the car park occupying that site have been demolished, and built over. This site is interesting from a historical perspective.

With a somewhat longer memory than contemporary planners and developers, I recall from my time as Vicar of the City Centre Parish Church, that this is the site which, prior to its present unprepossessing edifices dating back to the 1960s, was the crowded site of older buildings, business and residential, dating back to the early nineteenth century. These were on the ancient water-front of the Taff, later re-routed in the heyday of Victorian expansion. They took over land which from the eleventh to the eighteenth century was the churchyard of the original St Mary's Priory, planted by the Benedictine Monks of Tewkesbury, right on the edge of the river where trade ships from around the Severn Estuary and further afield unloaded their wares. 

St Mary's Priory, on the present site of the Prince of Wales pub on the corner of St Mary Street and Wood Street, was reduced to ruins due to flooding, and a new church at the north end of Bute Street was built to replace it in the 1850s. As the riverside area was so prone to flooding, the course of the Taff through the coastal flood plain was straightened and acquired embankments to reduce the risk, much as we see it today. I wonder who benefited from this cemetery land-grab, which led to the Victorian reconfiguration of the ancient port of Cardiff into the familiar layout of today's townscape.

In a couple of years it'll all look different again. I understand the new BBC Wales headquarters is to be built on the old bus station site, now being cleared. A new office block nears completion next to the site on the west side, where once stood a brutalist 1960's County Council building, and prior to that St Dyfrig's Parish Church, next to the road bridge across the river into Tudor Street. 

St Dyfrig's was a Parish with a small dense urban footprint - a fine costly building, someone's vanity project maybe? The site was compulsorily purchased for redevelopment in the name of social progress, and few contested this. Again I wonder, who benefited? There are few left alive now who worshipped there in its last days. It was still standing when I was a youth. I know its last Vicar Bruce Davies, who was University Chaplain. I recall how each year it hosted an outdoor nativity scene behind the church railings segregating the building from the street. When we instituted the same kind of arrangement at St John's City Parish Church, thanks to the City Council a dozen years ago, St Dyfrig's was in my mind, with good reason.

These days, Tabernacle Baptist Church on the Hayes hosts a live re-telling of the Nativity Story several times daily for visitors to the city centre. It's a massive voluntary enterprise, driven by Christian vision and good-will, reaching far beyond the simple figurines behind church railings, accessible to passers by and vandals alike. The St David centre commercial redevelopment has made possible a regular throughput of hundreds of thousands of shoppers to the city centre. I wonder how many will be touched in some way by this energetic contemporary witness, very much a response to the challenges of our very secularised day and age?

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Ross reunion

Clare and I drove to Ross-on-Wye this morning, under ominous grey clouds to meet Mike and Gail at the Royal Hotel for lunch. It was good to be together again. None of us felt inclined to walk around the town, as it was windy and not so warm, so we sat the table we'd booked in the bar, talked, drank coffee, then ate lunch, then finally went for a stroll up to The Prospect, pleased the rain had held off. Indeed, rain didn't arrive until we got back to Cardiff at four. Amazing that at this time of year, the sun had already set, somewhere beyond the low heavy grey clouds that dominated the day's landscape. With reports of heavy rain and flooding in parts of northern Britain, it's as if the weather is determined to drain the vitality from pre-Christmas cheer. Spain is much in my thoughts.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Memorable movie

I drove through the traffic across town again this morning to St German's to celebrate the Eucharist with a Tredegarville school class in attendance, as well as the usual congregation. CBS had arranged another WECTU counter terrorism briefing, and although I drove straight to the office through the traffic, I was too late arriving to join in, so I got on with other tasks I needed to complete instead. The meeting was considered worthwhile although fewer were present despite considerably more effort in publicising it. It's to be expected, once the initial wave of fear associated with a major terrorist attack has subsided. We just have to keep on at our users to remind them to stay alert to unpredictable and unexpected events. Quite an appropriate message for Advent, really.

In the evening Clare and I went Chapter Arts Centre cinema to see 'The Lady in the Van', an excellent rendering of Alan Ayckbourn's play of the same name, based on his experience of living in Camden, with an eccentric old woman living in a camper van in his drive way. I'd heard the play on Radio 4, and heard it discussed. The film was most rewarding, with an outstanding performance by Maggie Smith. Her evocation of the personality of this old woman, a nun in earlier life, and in her youth a concert pianist, awakened memories of utterly different meetings with Moura Lympany in her latter years, housebound by arthritis in a high rise apartment in Monaco. Long after her concert career was ended, she remained a vivid personality, leaving an impression on those who met her. She certainly wasn't indigent, but vulnerable through infirmity, still striving to engage her visitors with charm, when she entertained over a glass of rosé from her own terroir. She died three years after we left, I learned some years later. She was one of those war time celebrities my mother, also a pianist, looked up to. She'd have been amazed to know that I'd visited and taken her Communion.