A worrying vista

By , 25 January 2008 7:30 pm

Curiously enough for a blog, I don’t often talk about technology. After all, rumour has it that we blog writers are technology freaks: at best geeks, if not nerds. Anyway, in addition to many good things this week (the next generation down for a wet weekend, generally keeping ahead of work and students and even a few hours of sun), I have been also trying to make the most of my new Vista-equipped Dell computer.

In theory, it is a bit of a beast: 3Gb of RAM, fast Core2Duo 2.66 GHz chip, pretty reasonable graphics card and 22 inch monitor. All ought to be sweetness and light after my rather elderly machine running Windows XP. And don’t get me wrong: most of the time it looks wonderful, and acts wonderful. But I worry about what I see.

The main thing is that operating system has become so vast as to become almost incomprehensible. When I first started using PCs 22 years ago, I used to worry that there were files in MS-DOS that I didn’t know what they did. Then with Windows 95 I was concerned about the subdirectories that I didn’t know what they did. Now, with Vista, I worry about entire directories (occupying tens of megabytes) that I have not the slightest idea what they do.

Here Mr Gates might say, ‘Chris, that’s the price you pay for full stability. Ignorance is the price of bliss.’ Well, I might believe that if I felt I knew what Microsoft is doing. But clearly, it doesn’t. So, for instance, I have cancelled the automatic download of security updates because every day Vista downloads a 5.4 Mb Security Update (KB927978 for those who are interested) and then tries to install it when I try and shut down. But it never fully manages to do this, and so repeats the procedure. Every day. At this rate, my hard disk will be filled with useless security updates. The only way round seems to be to switch off the automatic download so that I get a little red cross in the corner to nag me that my security system is deficient.

As someone who has an environmental commitment I am also irritated by the fact that Vista seems to prefer that you put it in sleep mode rather than switch off mode. The naughty thought comes to me that this is to make the machine appear faster than it really is; it is pretty slow to start up (yes, I have removed most of the superfluous programs that it came installed with). The machine is also prone to long periods of doing nothing. I gather I am not alone in experiencing these things.

This is the point at which I expect the great army of Mac lovers to leap in and say ‘Yes! You should have bought a Mac.’ Well, I have a Macbook, and it’s good but it’s not perfect. Leopard shouldn’t have been released in the buggy form that it was and I also think that the Mac operating system seems to be heading very much to the state that Windows has already reached, of ever greater complexity and ever greater incomprehensibility. Anyway there are so many programs that I need Windows for. (Except of course that I have had to reinstall – and in some cases repurchase – programs in order to get them to work on Vista.)

The whole trend towards bloated and inscrutable software troubles me. It is probably not an original thought that operating systems are like religions. They are there to lead you to God and not get in the way. Vista reminds me of the worst sort of high church ritual; glorious to behold, completely incomprehensible, encrusted with all sorts of completely over-the-top additions, and ultimately, largely unnecessary. I have a determined Protestant desire not to be fobbed off with the pompous, the irrelevant and the bloated. I just want the job done quickly and securely. Let’s have a computer Reformation!

The problem of blessing

By , 19 January 2008 9:38 am

A number of years ago I had a slightly unpleasant experience. We had just come back to Swansea from Lebanon and I was at a church meeting where one of the current evangelical gurus from London, a suave, smart-suited fellow with not a hair out of place, was holding forth on the subject of workplace evangelism. In the best tradition of not lecturing at people without a break he made us do some exercise on, I think, what our work colleagues liked. I stared at the blank sheet of paper for some time. The suited man strolled over and stared at me. “Are you finding it a bit too easy?” he asked. “No,” I said. “I’m unemployed.”

I was reminded of this salutary tale last night, when feeling like some dynastic Victorian father, I gazed over the table at not just my wife but Son I and wife, and Son 2 and fiancée, just arrived for the weekend through rain and wind, all discussing the Puritans. I felt blessed and want to share it but, mindful of my readership, feel uneasy. For there are those who are not so blessed.

I know I am not alone in being made uneasy by blessings. In our church, for example, we have taken a decision not to mark Mothering Sunday. We have too many failed marriages, single women and infertile couples. (If your church is different, please don’t tell me.) In a city where unemployment has never really gone away, we try, unlike the besuited speaker, not to assume that everyone has a job and a pension. In writing this blog to a largely unknown readership I must assume that not all out there are as blessed as I am. This raises a problem: what am I to do with my blessing? How am I to express my pleasure at friends, family, health, a measure of wealth (at least by the standards of most of the world) and yes, blog readers and fans? And all entirely undeserved.

In fact, I suspect that this last phrase is the key. It is a grace gift: it is all undeserved. (By the way isn’t it the unfortunate and probably inadvertent implication that blessing has been merited, one of the things that makes the prosperity gospel so unappealing?) So friends far and wide, I am blessed: I give thanks and I wish there was some way of sharing it around.

On various other matters, I apologise for the delay in writing the blog; it’s been a busy week. It’s that time of the month when I write a blog for Speculative Faith and I have had a lot of other things to do. And now, back to the family.

Answers please

By , 11 January 2008 7:33 pm

Well, back to teaching this week. The way the UK system works is that there are now major exams at the end of the year 12 when the kids are aged 16 or 17. These are actually extremely significant exams as any university application largely depends on the results. So, my students have come back from Christmas and you can see it dawning on them that very weighty matters which will affect the rest of their lives are just a few months away. It concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Anyway I want to throw out two questions to you today. I have been asked about both and I have no answer to either.

The first was a serious inquiry as to whether or not I had ever considered turning the books into a graphic novel. Frankly, I used to be rather scathing about such things until we went to France, the land of culture, and noticed that in the bookshops they always have a big section of graphic novels which they call bandes dessinée. (As an aside it is worth noting that whereas on British holidays visiting bookshops is pretty much inevitable due to our weather, we have been weeks in France and never considered visiting a bookshop.) It turns out that the French (as with the Japanese but not the British) are big on these things. I actually know very little about them, but I am now much less cynical. At best, they clearly are a distinctive and attractive art form of their own. In fact, I am reminded as I write that we once had a graphic story book of the Bible, which was so impressive that we lent it to someone and have never had it back. Given that many of my students, some of whom are otherwise very bright, do not read traditional books it seems to me that these are an interesting genre. Anybody out there know anything more about them? Anybody write them? Draw them? Know anybody to contact?

The second question, which occurred on the Lamb among the Stars Facebook page was on how appropriately to celebrate the release of the Infinite Day in June. Incidentally, if you have not visited that page and joined the fan club please do. I take a small – and possibly pathetic – pleasure in the fact that the number of people who are subscribed to the fan club has now just edged up over 70. Anyway there was the suggestion that we might try to have a virtual launch party. It is complicated, because in some parts of the world the books will not yet have arrived or been released. And I really don’t want plot spoilers occurring. But it would be fun to come up with an idea to celebrate what is a small, but clearly global association of fans. Something new that would be good publicity might be a good idea. Anyway over to you again: any ideas?

On suicide bombers and cultural suicide

By , 4 January 2008 5:55 pm

Over the last year or so, I have found myself wondering about my hearing. Conversation in crowded places and restaurants has seemed difficult and I have, on odd occasions, misheard students in class. Anyway I got my ears tested this morning and was pleasantly surprised to discover that my hearing was perfectly normal. The sensitivity of the left ear was very slightly down but it was still within normal parameters.

As I thought about the results, two related (trust me) thoughts came together. The first was sitting at my desk, eating lunch in Beirut one Monday in April 1983. In a paroxysm of sound somehow incarnated as brute force, I was picked up off my chair and thrown to the floor. As I staggered to my feet I could see through the door to left of where I had been sitting, shattered windows. Beyond them, a billowing black and grey cloud was angrily boiling rising up from the American Embassy, barely a hundred yards away. It soon transpired that a truck had driven in with what was later determined to be nearly 1,000 kg of high explosive. As stood amid the broken glass, my ears ringing, I heard the surprise in the voices of my Lebanese colleagues as they passed on the rumour that it had been a suicide bomber. Despite nine years of civil war it was an novel concept; it is now generally held that this was first suicide bombing of its kind.

I also remember going up to the American University Hospital shortly afterwards for some reason I cannot now remember. As walked up I saw a young couple – evidently Americans – walking away from the hospital, holding each other for comfort, their once smart clothes, their hair and their grief-stricken faces covered in a fine pale dust that made them look like as if they had returned from the grave. When I saw their kind again on 9/11, I shuddered. So I do wonder whether my slightly weaker left ear is a tiny scar of that blast. In which case I got off lightly: sixty-three people died.

The second thought was this: if it isn’t my hearing, is it my students? Actually I think there is something in this. My students – bless them – as a whole no longer read and they no longer read to people. Many of them have lost the art of clear speaking or any sort of verbal clarity. Their music shouts at them and they mutter at each other and mumble back. With exceptions, they do not express themselves with either clarity or coherence. I’m probably oversimplifying and I’m not blaming them. But I do think we have lost the art of speaking properly and what that portends seems to me far more worrying than any number of suicide bombers.

On a more cheery note; our younger son, Mark has just announced his engagement to a splendid lass, Alice. We heartily approve and the wedding is set for 15 November in the rather tasteful (and more importantly) very evangelical London church of St James Clerkenwell. Hurrah!

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