Monday, September 01, 2014

IKEA Belfast Crayfish Party (Fri 5 Sep): crayfish, meatballs, kitsch music from Bjorn Identity (& no flatpack)

It’s nearly that time of year again when IKEA turns orange as they host their annual crayfish party complete with ABBA tribute band The Bjorn Identity.

Crayfish and schnapps along with mountains of meatballs, cocktail sausages and lingonberry jam, salads and yummy desserts … and huge orange paper bibs … and Swedish drinking songs helped along by a large Scandinavian contingent – and wannabes – in the IKEA cafe.

From previous experience, it’s a great evening’s craic … and The Bjorn Identity are in their element.

Friday 5 September from 6pm – 9pm.

Tickets on sale in IKEA’s restaurant.

Reduced price entry for IKEA Family members (their free red loyalty card); complimentary drinks vouchers; kids under five get in free.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bleeding Edge (Thomas Pynchon): a fast paced but disappointing detective story about NY's 2001 tech industry

I can't remember who or what tickled me into buying Bleeding Edge (for Kindle) but I'd love to go back and interrogate them.

The basic story [culled from the back cover to avoid too many spoilers] is set in 2001 and the dot com bubble has burst. Maxine runs a fraud investigation business in New York and starts looking into the finances of a computer-security firm hashslingrz (always lower case) and its CEO Gabriel Ice. She is dragged through the 'Deep Web' and an unsavoury Big Apple underworld. Oh, and she stumbles across a video of men practician on a rooftop with a Stinger missile launcher that may link up with the 9/11 bombings ...

A much-quoted Washington Post reviewer described Thomas Pynchon's novel as "totally gonzo". I'd prefer "totally bonkers" or "totally disappointing". The story rips along and you can basically speed read it at any pace to keep up with the unfolding narrative, though you may miss the joy of some of the rich-in-vernacular conversations. Unfortunately the ending comes when the book runs out of paper - or the Kindle version runs out of screens to swipe - rather than when the story is complete or any of the loose plot threads are tied up. How terribly post-modern, with the emphasis on 'terribly'.

The book is well researched, and there are some lovely concepts like hacking a Furby to give it a wireless connection to spy on confidential conversations from an office shelf. And many corporate office workers will smile at the reference to the Disgruntled Employee Simulation Program for Audit Information and Review (or DESPAIR)!

There may yet be a gap in the real-world market for a "Darklinear Solutions" brokerage that maps out unused dark fibre in empty office buildings and matches them with technology clients. The idea of using a vircator to generate an EM pulse to disrupt data centres may not on Anonymous' anarchy list given the amount of power required, and the concrete walls that protect data centres together with the long distance they are set in from public roads?

There's a page-long rant about IKEA which includes the observations that "an entire section of the store was dedicated to replacing wrong or missing parts and fasteners, since with IKEA this is not so exotic an issue" [not true in my experience!] and "exits are clearly marked but impossible to get to". Good stand-up material that is sure to get a few laughs, but it sits awkwardly in the middle of this 500 page book.

The Stinger missile storyline has potential, albeit threaded into the narrative slightly more than half way through. However, rather than becoming the driving force for the rest of the novel, it surfaces every now and again before fizzling out rather than helping to draw the book to a satisfying conclusion.

If Thomas Pynchon has written shorter books, I'd be interested to read one to compare and contrast with the style and lossiness of Bleeding Edge. Perhaps it's a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. The technological/Matrix-style cover didn't translate into a technological detective story, but instead remained a mundane and overall disappointing tale about a very mixed up fraud investigator who should turn her magnifying glass on her own ethics before being set loose on others.

If you've read Bleeding Edge, let me know what you think.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline) - a superb retrospective blast through 1980s gaming and culture

Ready Player One is a both a cracking tale and a much appreciated dredge back through all that was good about growing up in the 1980s.

When the co-creator of a vast virtual world OASIS dies, he sets enthusiasts the challenge of solving his puzzles in order to take over control of the company that runs the software. Think Second Life on steroids with 3D goggles and haptic suits. Total immersion in an online environment that freely educates children reduced to living in stacks of caravans in the modern day favelas of 2044.
The OASIS quickly became the single most popular use for the Internet, so much so that the terms "OASIS" and "Internet" gradually became synonymous ... Before long, billions of people around the world were working and playing in the OASIS ever day. Some of them met, fell in love, and got married without ever setting foot on the same continent. The lines of distinction between a person's real identity and that of their avatar began to blur.

Not that far fetched!

Wade has very little of value in real life except his wits and an ability to learn. In OASIS his avatar Parzival starts of with few artefacts or special powers. His gamesmanship together with his friendships help Wade grow into a powerful player. Like an enormous multi-round adventure game, Wade and his other high-scoring searchers uncover many of the secrets. But a commercial army of Sixers are determined to use brute force and murderous tactics - both online and in real life - to solve the giant easter egg first. In a world of fake identities and virtual relationships, who do you really know and who can you really trust?

References to WarGames [what a great movie and book] abound, along with Zork, phone phreaker Cap'n Crunch [aka John Draper], a DeLorean car, a spaceship called Vonnegut, Serenity, 80s music references, and countless home computer machines, gaming platforms and arcade games. It's a total geekfest - male and female - and will tickle everyone who borrowed and devoured the copy of Hackers Handbook in their local library (the original 1985 edition, not the later more populist and sanitised Steve Gold-edited versions).

Written by Ernest Cline, published in 2011 and sitting on my bookshelf since Easter 2013, I brought the book on holiday ... and its 374 pages lasted less than a day and a half. I'm looking forward to the stories he creates in his forthcoming new book.

Recommended for 40 somethings who've seen a TRS-80 or played Dungeons & Dragons, or spent too long in an arcade or at home trying to get the perfect score in a game they've already completed. £3.95 on Kindle or £6.29 in dead tree format from Amazon, and no doubt available from all good local (second hand) bookstores too.

Friday, August 15, 2014

1 million page views ...

Sometime on Wednesday, this blog received its 1 millionth page view. Traffic comes and goes depending on how often I post (not as often as back at the start eight years ago) and the vagaries of the Google's PageRank algorithm.

A minnow in the blogosphere compared to many other local blogs, but at least I've made it to 1 million (and 2155 posts) without giving up!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Punk Rock - dark teenage school days brought to life in the Lyric Theatre (until 6 September) #LyricPunk

While the open stage in the Lyric Theatre has always put audiences up close to the action, the isometric perspective set, tiled floor, individual metal-legged tables, and wood-covered walls mean that audiences for Punk Rock walk into the school of their childhood rather than a theatre. However, much deeper memories are stirred up in audience as the troubled lives of the seven troubled sixth-form students unfold on stage during the first act.

The play is set in late 2008. Lilly (played by Lauren Coe) is new to this Stockport fee-paying grammar school. At first bright and breezy, she has the audience’s empathy wrapped around her little finger very quickly. The first fellow pupil she encounters is William (Rhys Dunlop) who knows every detail of the school’s layout: he’s quite manic, wandering around with a lollipop in his hand, talking too much, giving too much detail.

The cast is full of characters you know from school. A girl (Cissy, Aisha Fabienne Ross) who struts around like a peahen, subservient to her bully of a boyfriend (Bennett, Ian Toner). A boy (Nicholas, Jonah Hauer-King) with the designer gear uniform. A girl (Tanya, Laura Smithers) who prefers to sit at the edge of the group, watching rather than leading. And the amazingly smart, well-mannered, socially awkward anoraked boy (Chadwick, Rory Corcoran) who knows more about theoretical physicist Paul Dirac than his classmates want to hear. At times it all becomes a bit pretentious, but in a terribly believable teenage way.

Simon Stephens’ play is very televisual and modern, with different conversations allowed to overlap, jump cutting between weeks and months, with the audience catching up as a scene develops. Between the terrific soundscape and the special effects, at times it’s like watching a live-action episode of Utopia.

It is quickly apparent that initial heroes can turn into anti-heroes. The audience is constantly asked to re-evaluate who’s good and who’s bad. Honesty is buried deep amongst the layers and layers of image. The characters match their endless outward observations with internal self-examination. Scene by scene their lives become more and more complicated as the tension in your chest builds towards the interval.

Warning: Punk Rock has the best interval cliff-hanger in the history of theatre!

At the end of each scene the lighting freezes the action, taking the colour out of the stage and reducing it to black and white snapshot. The actors reset the stage, dancing along to a snippet of a punk track that belts out over the PA. (Watch out for the spinning wall clock!)

The seventeen year old world portrayed in Punk Rock is a dark one with issues of family bereavement, self harm, mental health and depression, body image, and identity struggles alongside the normal academic pressures of sitting mock A-level exams. There is strong language, violence and scenes of bullying that make you want to shout out from your seat to intervene.

Punk Rock isn’t an easy play to sit through, and a few people seem to escape at the interval. Its mood lingers the next morning. There is little of joy to cling on to from the shocking climax.

It’s great theatre, and it’s really well acted … but be warned that the characters and their emotions will live on with you as you review and rehearse the memories of your own teenage demons.

Punk Rock plays in the Lyric until Saturday 6 September. (Student concessions available for £10.)

Sunday, August 03, 2014

FILM :: The Purge: Anarchy ... a dystopian vision of what happens when laws are relaxed for 12 hours

This sequel to 2013 film The Purge – though I didn’t know it was a sequel until afterwards – is written and directed by James DeMonaco. A bickering couple on verge of separation are driving home to see family. A waitress is hoping for a pay rise that will help her afford the medicine that would help her ailing father.

As everyone heads from work, they say their goodbyes with “Stay safe”. It is 2023 and it’s important to get home to wait out the annual “purge”, a twelve hour period when the relatively new US “regime” suspends most laws and allow citizens to take the law into their own hands with no comeback. For twelve hours the emergency services are withdrawn and it’s every woman and man for themselves.

Supposed to “deal with the epidemic of crime facing the nation”, the purge instead seems to create a yearly cycle of revenge and opportunistic murder, mostly at the expense of the working class who can’t afford to secure themselves from vigilante gangs.

Of course, when the regime suspends lawfulness and grants citizens license to “purge”, what’s to stop the government joining in with impunity?

As visions of dystopian societies go, The Purge: Anarchy is promising. Anarchy fostered by the government, and the makings of a citizen-led revolt to upset the rich-favouring purge.

Unfortunately the philosophy is quickly laid to one side and becomes drowned in the brutal scenes of killing on the streets of Los Angeles. [A bigger scale than Channel 4’s Utopia, but significantly less artistic.] You’ll need to suspend disbelief and not ask whether hospitals are safe and staffed during the 12 hour purge, whether prisons turn into convenient sanctuaries, and what other states and the UN have to say about America’s annual call to arms?

The film quickly shows it true colours as an action adventure that revolves around the gun toting Lea, a man driving through the lawless streets in an armoured car on a mission to avenge his son’s death. Along the way he ends up with the bickering couple, the waitress and her daughter to look after. Will he turn out a hero or an antihero?

If your stomach lasts until the end of this brutal film, you’ll hear the haunting refrain from America the Beautiful breaking through the credits. Perhaps it’s from the second verse?
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

I can’t help wonder whether the producers were making the point that when the federal government takes the law into its own hands abroad, what is there to stop it entertaining similar measures on its own shores?

Ultimately The Purge: Anarchy is a disappointing film, with an ending the ill-befits the characters. However if gang warfare and families settling scores permanently is your thing, you'll find it showing in cinemas right across the UK and Ireland.

FILM :: Mood Indigo (L'écume des jours): melancholic surrealism where not all is as it seems (QFT until 14 Aug)

Colin lives in Paris in a parallel universe. Played by Romain Duris, he’s terribly French and feels that his solitude is unfair. A solitude that includes a live-in cook Nicholas (Omar Sy), and a vegetable-growing mouse who scoots about the house – itself a train carriage lodged between two buildings – in a series of tubes, and occasionally a car! But a solitude that lacks a significant other.

At a dog’s party, Colin meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou). [Watch out of the Amélie red dress!] Soon they are on cloud nine travelling across Paris in a cloud-shaped vehicle with a dome windshield. This was the point that reminded me of The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves), a film I dragged an un-convinced colleague* to in London seven and a half years ago. And sure enough Mood Indigo and The Science of Sleep are both directed by Michel Gondry. [* Norwin blogs at Destroy All Onions]

Themes and common imagery abound: typesetting, clouds, beds and angsty love. Just without the cardboard cars this time. Instead there’s a pianocktail created by Colin that makes a drink based on how you tickle its ivories.

After a cross between a ghost train ride and a religious ceremony, the happy couple go on honeymoon. Chloé falls ill and Colin’s world visibly shrinks as his true love weakens. While the disease and its cure are equally surreal, the declining health takes its toll on Colin’s soundness of mind and dwindling finances.

Mood Indigo is let down by less than three dimensional characters who remain flat and limp throughout the largely surreal and constantly imaginative scenes. The spark between Colin and Chloé is not terribly bright. Perhaps the most vivid person is Alise, the long-suffering girlfriend of Colin’s buddy Chick (who compulsively collects anything connected with the writer Jean-Sol Partre).

Ultimately, while the props and effects are mesmerising, and the fantasy world is intriguing, I left the QFT screen after ninety five minutes unfulfilled by the melancholic love story at the centre of the plot. Bittersweet but shallow.

Yet quirky Michel Gondry films are few and far between, so for that reason – and also for the near-Monty Python moment near the end at which the audience erupts with inappropriate laughter – it’s worth going along to see Mood Indigo at the Queen’s Film Theatre between now and the 14 August.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Panti Bliss versus Homophobia // the annual Amnesty NI Belfast Pride lecture (+ audio)

The annual Amnesty NI Belfast Pride lecture was delivered by Panti Bliss this evening in The MAC.

The packed audience listened to Panti's forty five minute address [MP3 download] which took in reaction to her comments on RTE (which resulted in legal action) and her subsequent after-show speech in the Abbey Theatre. During the talk, Panti looked at many of the common arguments put up by anti-gay campaigners and tried to debunk them, including some of those raised by EANI's Peter Lynas and callers to this morning's Stephen Nolan show. Why should those attacking equal marriage and other gay rights issues be allowed to define what gay people should judge to be homophobic?

Smart, witty, and avoiding over-stereotyping those who oppose extending gay rights, Panti was rewarded with a standing ovation at the close of her speech.

The Q&A afterwards (not recorded) chaired by William Crawley took in a wide range of topics. Is marriage a hyper-romanticised institution? Is it possible to change the minds of people to support equal rights? (Answer: Yes for those in the middle ground - "Susan from Banbridge" - but the fervent campaigners are probably a lost cause.)

Féile an Phobail (31 July to 10 August): music, drama, politics, talk, tours

Féile an Phobail – sometimes known as the West Belfast Festival – is now underway, running until 10 August. The programme is 100 pages thick; the festival is enormous, taking in music in the 5,000 capacity tent in Falls Park, drama, debate, talks on the First World War and Palestine Day, sport, tours and sessions in pubs and libraries.

Thursday 31 July

On the Journey to Peace and Reconciliation at 8pm in St Mary’s University College // Colin Parry’s 12 year old son was killed when an IRA bomb exploded in Warrington in 1993. He’ll be sharing his journey along with deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Friday 1 August

Hidden History: Protestants and the Irish Language at 3pm in St Mary’s University College // Linda Ervine speaking about the influence of the sometimes unexpected Irish language on places, words and organisations, and debunking the myth that Irish is to feared.

Shrieking Sisters at 7.30pm in the Library at Coláiste Feirste // In the early hours of 1 August 1914 a group of suffragettes led by Lilian Matge attempted to blow up Lisburn Cathedral. The drama asks what made a respectable middle class supporter of women’s rights resort to active militancy? Written by Maggie Cronin and Carol Moore, and joined on stage by Laura Hughes. £7.

Monday 4 August

Human Rights & Investigative Journalism at noon in St Mary’s University College // Amnesty’s annual event returns with investigative journalist Iain Overton. He has exposed the truth about CIA drone attacks, deaths in police custody and been witness to the devastating impact of armed violence – making documentaries under fire in Somalia, Iraq and Colombia. Chaired by Malachi O’Doherty.

An End to the Drift or a Drift to the End: Protestants and Politics in Contemporary Ireland at noon in Clifton House // A self-confessed dissenter, researcher and writer Robbie McVeigh offers a radical re-envisioning of Irish Protestant identity as a way out of present discontents.

Haiku Peace & Prayer Flags Workshop at 1pm in Cultúrlann //Embrace your inner poet, write a haiku, express it on fabric and string it up as a Tibetan prayer flag! Free, for children aged 8 to 13. Contact kevin at feilebelfast dot com or 028 9031 3440 to book a place.

Ceasefire at 7pm in St Mary’s University College // Twenty years on from the ceasefire announcements from the IRA and the Combined Loyalist Military Command, journalists reflect on those headlines and the beginnings of a new peace. Eamonn Mallie, Charlie Bird, Ivan Little, Judith Hill and Brian Rowan.

Tuesday 5 August

The Wheelchair Monologues at 8pm in Cultúrlann (runs Tuesday 5–Thursday 8) // Aisling Ghéar’s one-man show, in which Gearóid Ó Cairealláin takes a look back over the ups and downs of his wheelchair bound life since suffering a haemorrhagic stroke at the age of forty-eight. The man who founded the Irish language daily newspaper Lá and co-founded both the Cultúrlann and Raidió Fáilte has slowed down somewhat. But his spirit and zest for living remains. In Irish with live translation into English via personal headset.

Wednesday 6 August

West Belfast Youth Talks Back at 2pm at Whiterock Leisure Centre // Anna Lo (Alliance MLA), Stephen Corr (Sinn Féin councillor), Sean Connolly (local author) and other as-yet unnamed panellists will be joined by chair Yvette Shapiro.

West Belfast Talks Back at 7pm in St Louise’s Comprehensive College // Noel Thompson hosts this year’s panel discussion. Confirmed panellists include Fr Tim Bartlett (Catholic Church), Rev Lesley Carroll (Presbyterian Church in Ireland), Danny Kennedy (UUP MLA, Minister for Regional Development) and John O’Dowd (SF MLA, Minister for Education).

Thursday 7 August

Dealing with the Past: Hugh Orde in Conversation with John Ware at 3pm in the Balmoral Hotel // Hugh Order was the first Chief Constable of the PSNI and is now President of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He’ll be speaking about dealing with our past and truth recovery with well-known investigative journalist John Ware. Relatives for Justice chair Clara Reilly will open the two hour event, and Denis Bradley will make the closing remarks.

Poppy and Lily at 3pm in Felons Club // Historian Philip Orr and Joe Austin from the National graves Association will discuss these two symbols.

Saturday 9 August

The Story of Philomena at 1.30pm in St Mary’s University College // Martin Sixsmith speaking about his introduction to the story of Philomena Lee, an unmarried mother whose son was taken away from her at the age of three because he was born out of wedlock. The story became a book and a much talked-about film.

Also ...

Walking Tour of Milltown Cemetery at 11am daily from Saturday 2 to Saturday 9 August. Pod Devennay picks through 130 years of history over two hours. £5, pay at gate. Tom Hartley’s book Milltown Cemetery: Written in Stone launches this evening at 6.30pm in St Dominic’s Grammar School. (Available for £9 on Amazon as well as local bookshops.)

Walking Tour of Belfast City Cemetery at 2pm daily from Saturday 2 to Saturday 9 August. Tom Hartley tells the story of the city’s troubled history, its rich, its entrepreneurs and empire builders in a tour that promises to “upend old stereotypes and provide a fresh approach to the history of Belfast. £5, pay at gate. Tom’s book on Belfast City Cemetery is also relaunched tonight. Available for £13 on Amazon as well as local bookshops.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

film, faith, fostering, dancing, bopping and parading … Belfast Pride Festival (25 July-2 August)

It’s the middle of the summer and Belfast will shortly host a couple of large festivals.

Amongst the dancing, music, drinking and parading, Belfast Pride Festival throws in film, plays, comedy, debate, faith as well as workshops on fostering, adoption, health and well-being workshops. The festivals tagline this year is Diverse - Equal - Proud.

The Lark in the Park and Family Fun Day will be held in Ormeau Park from noon on Sunday 27 July with circus performers, storytelling, face-painting, Segways as well as a basketball free-throw competition, tennis, roller derby, soccer, GAA and an egg and spoon race.

There’s a singalong screening of Mamma Mia! on the City Hall’s big screen on Sunday 27 July. Gates open 6pm, film starts 7pm. The event is free, but you need to pre-register for a ticket.

All Souls Church on Elmwood Avenue will be open for prayer and reflection from 6.30pm to 8.30pm on Monday 28, Wednesday 30 and Friday 1 August. It will also be the venue for the Annual Pride Service on Sunday 3 August at 3pm.

GLYNI (Gay & Lesbian Youth NI) are holding their annual debate/question time in the Black Box on Monday 28 July at 7pm. The panel and audience, chaired by William Crawley, are expected to cover religion, transgender rights, gay cakes, HIV stigma and more. The panel will include: Fr Timothy Bartlett (Spokesman for the Irish Catholic Church), John O'Doherty (The Rainbow Project), Marie Quiery (Psychotherapist), Ellen Murray (Trans activist), Rev Chris Hudson MBE (Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister).

Action for Equality replaces Pride Talks Back this year as the Equality Commission-supported event aims to move beyond political discussion to give a wider range of voices a chance to share and discuss practical ideas about speaking up for change and delivering equality in their communities. Ulster Hall Group Theatre at 7pm on Tuesday 29 July.

An Educating the Educators workshop takes place in UU’s Belfast Campus on Wednesday 30 July at 6pm, with GLYNI, BELB and UU School of Law combining to help those working with young people best support people coming to terms with their sexuality or gender identity. Registration required.

Pádraig Ó Tuama will host An Exploration of Christian Voices in Uganda in the Black Box on Wednesday 30 July at 6pm. Pádraig travelled to Uganda in 2013 and will explore some of the roots and international connections of the anti-homosexuality bill. Immediately afterwards at 7pm the Tenx9 storytelling event will give nine people up to ten minutes to tell a real story from their lives abut labels chosen, labels imposed or even the importance of redefining or rejecting labels.

Panti Bliss came to prominence with her powerful Noble Call post-show speech on the stage of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The drag persona of Rory O’Neill will take to the stage of The MAC at 7.45pm on Thursday 31 July to deliver the Amnesty International Pride Lecture to challenge discrimination and persecution. [There might be a couple of tickets left!]

As part of Féile an Phobail, the Rainbow Project host Different Jurisdictions and Different Roads to Equal Marriage in St Mary’s University College at 12.30pm on Friday 1 August. A panel will discuss international trends - eg, France passed federal marriage statutes whereas some American states have relied on judicial review to guarantee citizens’ rights - and ask how this affects the marriage equality movements on the island of Ireland?

Rhoda Cameron will escape the Commonwealth Games to be amongst the comics at Comedy Night in the Black Box on Friday 1 August from 8pm. And at the same up the road in University of Ulster’s Orpheus Building, the UUB LGBT society are running a movie night with tea, coffee, popcorn and sweets thrown in with an as yet unadvertised movie for £3.

The 24th Belfast Pride Parade leaves Custom House Square at noon on Saturday 2 August, and will snake down Donegall Street before marching the length of Royal Avenue and Donegall Place, anticlockwise around the City Hall, down North Queen Street and along Castle Street and High Street to return to Custom House Square.

The largest cross-community festival parade in Belfast is followed by Party in the Square with Stooshe, Misha B, The Björn Identity and many more from 1.30pm onwards. There’s a family zone in the Pride Village in Buoy Park (between the UU Art College and St Anne’s Cathedral) with stalls, children’s entertainment and coffee.

Check older posts about previous Pride festivals and interviews back in 2012 with Christian groups supporting and opposing the parade.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Setting the agenda? My Presbyterian Herald article reflecting on June's Presbyterian General Assembly #pciga14

I wrote a piece for the Presbyterian Herald magazine offering some personal reflections on June's General Assembly. It's reproduced below, along with a few extra sentences that missed the final version due to (already generous) word count restrictions!

Your comments and feedback welcomed.

- - -

What kind of a General Assembly was it when Presbyterians returned to the comfortable air-conditioned Assembly Buildings in Belfast after their sojourn in Derry’s Millennium Forum 12 months ago?

The opening night started strongly. Dr Barry called on the church to “look not only on your own interests but also to the interests of others” and speaking out against civic rioting and those “who would attack verbally or physically people they do not like”. He contrasted the tendency to say “come and listen to us” with Jesus’ command to “go into all the world”. Overnight this message was picked up by the front page of the News Letter and for once the denomination was there for the right reason. But did PCI continue to be so challenging throughout the rest of the week’s business?

Despite the nearly equal numbers of ministers and elders who can register to attend the General Assembly, there was an overwhelming clericalism. Apart from the singers and musicians – and a cameo appearance by moderatorial runner-up Rev Liz Hughes – the opening night was once again dominated by men wearing clerical shirts. Does this really epitomise how we want Presbyterian democracy and governance to be seen and heard?

For the first time I heard complaints about a queue forming for the women’s toilets during the breaks in business. Given the tiny minority of women ministers (remember less than 40 have been ordained by PCI in the last 40 years) and the vast majority of male elders, this was a significant and long overdue queue.

We should welcome the small increase in the number of elders speaking in Assembly debates. However, despite their vote being equal, non-clerical voices were very much still in the minority. The Clerk and Moderator might consider encouraging the full participation of all those ‘in the house’ during every session and not just at the introduction to Assembly business on the first morning.

Since its inception in 2007, the SPUD (Speaking, Participating, Understanding, Deciding) youth initiative has been as much about “listening to the views of others and to the rest of the church” as it has been about making the voice of young people heard in the General Assembly.

SPUD neatly summed up their contribution: 1 report, 5 speeches, 3 resolutions, 150 bacon/sausage butties, over 500 cups of tea/coffee, 500 tray bakes, serving God and blessing the Church.

Their focus was on relationships and networking, making the vacant Familybooks unit into a space for prayer, a haven of hospitality, an acoustic café late on Wednesday evening, and over Thursday lunchtime a venue for a discussion about sharing our faith and how to be a people of service and outreach. Our denomination should celebrate the example of the 12 SPUD delegates: listening, relating, serving, feeding and challenging.

The week of General Assembly is an odd mix of a Christian worship festival, a theology symposium, a corporate Annual General Meeting of shareholders, and a trade union rules revision conference. In behind the scenes, an army of office staff, building managers, clerks, stewards, IT support, sound and video engineers, not to mention the caterers and those who look after delegates visiting from other denominations and countries, invisibly hold the Assembly together.

This year it was impossible not to compare and contrast this year’s General Assembly with the experience from twelve months ago up in Derry’s Millennium Forum.

A majority of delegates in 2013 were residential, spending 72 hours living, eating, socialising, worshipping and debating together up in the north west. The relaxed atmosphere included the chance to walk around the walls to First Derry for communion, showing off the City of Culture’s heritage in the fabulous weather. Ministers and elders who normally only pop into General Assembly for a day stayed for the duration. There were lots of new faces at the opening night and Wednesday rally.

Back in the mothership of Assembly Buildings in Belfast, fewer people needed to stay over and were around to let their hair down in the evenings. In familiar surroundings, delegates sat in their favourite corners again. Some of the business was familiar too, with multi-year debates continuing on the restructuring of the denomination’s boards, ministerial pay progression, and another report on the theological considerations of congregations wishing to install baptisteries.

While Jesus sometimes seemed to get lost in the administrative minutiae and reporting, the work of the Board of Social Witness stood out again this year playing its part in the ‘Big Society’, directly impacting the lives thousands of vulnerable adults. The Board reported that many congregations are running or supporting local foodbanks.

At times, significant business that perhaps deserved debate and wider discussion was rushed through. Many larger boards failed to squeeze their resolutions into the allotted times, and lapsed business mounted up alarmingly. By Thursday afternoon, there was a mixture of leftover resolutions and overtures to complete before the Assembly could close. Extending back into Friday morning must surely now be considered to give Assembly business the scrutiny that it deserves.

An amendment that might have delayed the restructuring of boards into councils for another year of review was discussed at length. When it failed the original plans sailed through with very little resistance to the shape of the new leaner organisation. With a smaller number of people being appointed to the new councils, Presbyteries will need to intentional about the need to promote a diversity of age, experience and gender in their nominations.

The substitution of “God-given right” for “inalienable right” in the revised Standards of The Church merited considerable deliberation. An attempt to reverse the change was blocked. Yet at no stage did anyone stand up and clearly explain and justify the moral and legal nuances that “inalienable” conveys in the original text.

Minutes later another important nuance was accepted without comment when no one pointed out that the ordination and installation service liturgy had been subtly amended. Ministers will no longer agree that the Word of God is “set forth” in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, but instead will agree that they believe those Scriptures “to be” the Word of God. Quite a theological change buried in the pages and pages of overtures in the blue book, and a change inconsistent with the wording elsewhere in the Code.

Excitement mounted on the third afternoon when a vote was finally close enough that a simple oral Aye/No followed by up a standing vote (counted visually by tellers) were insufficient and members were asked to place their voting cards in the boxes passed around. After a long wait the result was announced … a tie! 106 votes to 106.

Amazing that out of 616 ministers, 472 elders, 47 Assembly Elders, conveners and nominees of the Business Board, only 212 people voted on the issue of the Central Ministry Fund Bonus! The Assembly will return to the matter next year.

As the Assembly rose to sing a final hymn on Thursday, from my vantage point up in the gallery I wondered what the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan Rev Peter Gai Lual made of the business? Based in a three year old country that is tearing itself apart in a brutal conflict, with massive displacement of families, little food and many people living in camps for shelter, his denomination is barely able to function.

How would it change the way we do our business if the whole traumatised Assembly took place in the context of this wider perspective.

Have we got into the habit of following the agenda rather than setting it? Our radical gospel seems subdued. Across our denomination there are surely opportunities for the church to speak out on issues that matter to people. Issues of justice and equality. Issues that could impact poverty and stamp out discrimination.

Has the General Assembly heeded the wise words of Prof Donald Macleod who addressed a January conference on ‘The Church in the Public Square’ from the same spot on the stage where the Moderator sat during Assembly?
“… our calling as Christians, as the church in the public square [is] to bring warmth into civic life. Not higher standards first and foremost, not law and order, not discipline, but warmth. Individuals and formal governance which are compassionate, which bring hope which bring love, which bring affirmation. You bear God’s image, you matter to God and you matter to us.”

As followers of Jesus, our denomination and its General Assembly should be among the first to challenge the status quo in society and in public and political institutions. We should be the first to defend the rights of those we don’t naturally agree with. We should bring warmth and grace into homes and businesses and hearts across the island, whether they are Presbyterian or not. That’s the kind of General Assembly I’d love to see.

Alan Meban blogs online as Alan in Belfast and sits on the Board of Finance & Personnel … at least for the next six months (until it is restructured out of existence!)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finally visiting Titanic Belfast, twenty-seven months after it opened!

Oddly until today I’d never set foot in the exhibition halls of Titanic Belfast. More than two years after its opening in the centenary year of the ship’s launch, I’ve been up in the top floor conference venue more times that I can recollect, but had never made it as far as the displays downstairs.

Titanic Belfast certainly goes out of its way to set 1912 Belfast in context, with early galleries introducing visitors to the linen industry, the local political situation and the scale and technology behind Belfast’s ship-building tradition. It is clear that the museum and the city are celebrating more than one single boat.

The short themepark ride was a welcome chance to take the weight of our legs and flew us through the noisy shipyard. Later there was footage of the Titanic’s launch and detail about its intricate fit out.

The ship’s sinking is handled sensitively and is not sensational. Morse code transmissions and survivor statements provide glimpses into the horror of that April night. Where the exhibition is at its weakest is in telling the stories of the passengers and crew, whether lost in the accident or survivors.

Touch screens tucked into a corner offer access to the passenger and crew lists, allowing them to be sorted by age, gender, class/crew role, port of embarkation and whether they survived. However, detail about individual passengers was scant with a only few static displays dotted around the building’s galleries picking out particular stories. As a local visitor I wanted to be told about the men from off the Newtownards Road who didn’t return, to place their names and their stories in the local community.

And I really wanted to be overwhelmed by the human scale of the tragedy: maybe to have had to walk through a dark tunnel with the surnames being randomly projected at angles onto the walls and ceilings. Somehow I didn’t want to be allowed to so easily stand back and opt out of any emotion.

While there’s a gallery dedicated to the US and UK inquiries that followed the sinking and some audio-visual reconstructions of key exchanges, the information is high-level and there is no access to more detail. While even the hour-long Titanic Inquiry docudrama by the Hole in the Wall Gang doesn’t do full justice to the questions around SS Californian’s lack of curiosity about the nearby shipping firing distress rockets, there is little room on the walls of Titanic Belfast to explore these events without recourse to a local titanorak or a guided tour.

Perhaps hiring an audio guide unit would have filled in a lot more of this detail and told alternative stories? I’ve just discovered that the reason some visitors seemed glued to earpieces plugged into their iPhones and iPads was the £1.49 audio app for Titanic Belfast (available in six languages). It’s a shame this isn’t more prominently advertised throughout the building (which has seemed to have excellent wifi in every nook and cranny).

Titanic Belfast is certainly attracting tourists with a multitude of languages heard and overseas visitors seen walking around the building this afternoon. The staff crew are a major asset and the galleries seem to be organised so you’ll have to you’ll walk past a member of staff every half hour or so. They were all bubbly, approachable, but not pushy or nosey: a credit to the attraction and a major part of its success.

Like all museums and visitor attractions, some screens were dead and some lights/buttons were no longer working or missing (eg, the morse code keys in an early gallery). Attention to detail and rapid maintenance is often the sign of truly world-class venues.

Every now and again it was a delight to find a corner of a gallery or a balcony overlooking the atrium with no atmospheric sound effects in which to rest and get a break from the auditory turmoil.

Compared with other touristy attractions I’ve visited in Europe over recent summers, the Titanic Belfast souvenir shop doesn’t seem to be too overpriced. (It was good to see that there’s been no tea-bag price inflation since 2012 with the price of Thomson's Titanic tea steady at £2.99, not far above the supermarket retail price).

Overall, we spent two and a half hours wandering through the galleries. It was well worth a visit – particularly now that the centenary hype has calmed down. Maybe sometime I’ll return with a headset on – or a knowledgeable expert at my side – and soak in a little more of the story of which Belfast is no longer ashamed.

Bricks, Belfast and July ... no not a deterioration in community relations, but the Brick City exhibition in Titanic Belfast!

Bricks, Belfast and July usually refers to a deterioration in community relations around the Twelfth. This year, everything was more positive – if not quite awesome – as The Brick City LEGO exhibition continued its residency it Titanic Belfast.

Today we worshipped at the temple of LEGO, its last day. The scale of some of the pieces was extraordinary. But the ingenious use of pieces bricks from one genre of set to pull off an effect in a completely different creation was pretty cunning too. And the penguins (no photo!) were so cute.

I chatted to the two master builders who created the glued together the LEGO model of Titanic Belfast in Victoria Square in the run up to the exhibition opening back in May.

The finished model was a great replica.

Though it was a shame the timelapse video of the build and interviews playing in the background behind the model had the sound muted.

The Westminster Abbey model was good, but pride of place in the show was definitely Warren Elsmore’s St Pancras railway station which just needed some train sounds and a flickering departure board to complete it.

The Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio had been modified to portray a LEGO man rather than Jesus. Since Western Christians depict Jesus as a blond haired white man in church stained glass windows, why shouldn’t Brick City use their own familiar shape?

A couple of screens played stop/go animations using LEGO. Hopefully they’ll motivate some local movie-makers to produce and upload some more.

One downside of the exhibition was the spotlighting of the displays, which was making everyone’s photography very difficult. Flat shiny surfaces and bright spotlights in an otherwise dull room weren’t a great combination.

You can read more about many of the models on display in Warren Elsmore’s books Brick City and Brick Wonders.

Did you visit Brick City while it was in Belfast? What did you think? Did it inspire you to dig your old LEGO out of your roofspace? Was it worth the entrance fee?

Friday, July 11, 2014

It’s Behind You: the making of a computer game (Bob Pape)

Those of us of a certain age grew up in “the home computer generation”. Hours were spent playing games on our ZX Spectrums: first Breakout (which came on Sinclair’s original tape and was easy to re-programme), Jet Pac, Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, the Live Aid compendium tape ... These and many other titles filled our portable TV screens and taught us to use double-deck tape recorders until we grew up and longed to programme BBC Micros with their built in assembler and floppy drives to write more efficient and faster running machine code.

The wizards of those days wrote games. While many of wrote adventure games in BASIC and typed in listings from magazines, the read nerds overcame the limitations of these tiny computers with a mere 48 KB of memory – about the same your SIM card has to store 250 contacts! – to shoe horn craft amazing games that seemed to cram more and more into the black lump of plastic.

Their trick was to write the code and compile it on other machines – TRS-80s and PCs – and then squirt the finished product down a serial cable to the ZX Spectrum to play and test before mastering on a tape and getting them duplicated.

Over the last 25 years, software has become bloatware, growing in size with each new release of word processor, spreadsheet or internet browser. Even the arrival of smartphones with their more modest on-board memory hasn’t quite nipped the swollen codebase problem in the bud.

But back in the days of 8-bit computers, ingenuity and cunning had to be employed to squeeze games into the limited memory. Everything was compressed and reused; code was self-modifying to make room for extra features and sound tracks.

Bob Pape has recently written up his account of working in the software industry in the 1980s. It’s Behind You is freely available for Kindle as well as PDF and can be enjoyably read in a day. Bob wasn’t a Matthew Smith (programmer behind Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy … though not the sequel JSW II). He didn’t earn megabucks. But despite being underpaid and underappreciated, he did push the early 8-bit ZX Spectrum computer to its limit, and went on to write games for a number of other platforms.

In the book he describes his route from mainframe programmer to creating Rampage (an arcade conversion) and later R-Type. There are a few typos throughout the book – much like my blog posts – but they don’t distract from the personal and technical tale.

It’s a first person account of talent combined with a determination to complete, exploitation by seedy managers and an unreliable web of companies, sleeping on the floor of software offices across Wales and England, and the less than transparent computer magazine industry. Sadly, it’s one tale of many, and the poor pay and conditions of the 1980s will have been common place.
… again like most of the others it was mainly a rewrite of the instructions that came with the game and a couple of sentences of observation thrown in to personalise it a little

… one more ‘review’ that for all intents and purposes just reprinted the instruction manual.

As teenagers all we knew about the computer industry was what we read in computer magazines, and that was terribly sanitised. It’s only know that accounts are available from survivors like Bob Pape that we realise that magazine reviews were being written before games were complete, often publishing early artwork and giving usability scores based on demos rather than full versions.

Battling his way through the 8-level arcade game conversion onto the ZX Spectrum – using a video of the arcade version being played along with a few hours of looking at the real thing – Bob produced a better-than-expected reproduction that was well received by the industry and players alike.
… and another quote guaranteed to increase sales – “This game blows away almost every other shoot-em-up on the Spectrum to date.” To paraphrase the American journalists H.L. Mencken: “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the British computer game magazine buying public” …

Frustratingly, Bob discovered – through a reader’s letter in a magazine – that the Spectrum version of R-Type that went on sale got stuck at the end of level 7, meaning that his final level and congratulatory scrolling message were not seen by players until later releases.

I’m really glad Bob Pape took the time to write up his recollections and experiences. It’s reminded me of the addiction of writing programmes that I oddly shook off at some point ten or fifteen years ago, and the satisfaction of overcoming limited technical resources through guile and slyness to construct pleasing solutions and useful or fun programmes. And it’s provided new insights into an industry that I was too young to appreciate or doubt … and demonstrated that software testing was as bad back then as it continues to be in some teams today.