Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Ronald J. Sider)

Cover of Robert Sider's The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

The book came up in conversation in July. First published in 2005, a quick trawl of the likely suspects in Belfast (Faith Mission, Wesley Owen and Waterstones) proved that no one had it in stock. (Never thought to check the Evangelical Bookshop!)

But with a recent review in CCCI’s Lion and Lamb, a copy of Ron Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience was retrieved from the outsourced reading list pile that Amazon so kindly keep in a Milton Keynes warehouse to save my bedside table from collapsing.

The main premise of the book is that Christians lack distinction from their neighbours. In fact the longer version of the book’s title goes on to ask “Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?” That includes those Christians who can be pushed into the researchers’ category of being evangelicals. Their moral standards are as shoddy and scrupulous as the next person, and certainly the transforming power of God seems curiously absent from the majority of their lives. While the book’s statistics are all US-based, I read little that would assure me that a similar Western European analysis would be any different.

It’s a quite a short book, but deserves a careful read and a long review/reaction ... though perhaps more concise that I’ve managed!

Sider’s view of the Christian position is crudely summarised in the book’s introductory chapter:

“In spite of the renewal movement’s proud claims to miraculous transformation, the polls showed that members of the movement divorced their spouses just as often as their secular neighbors. They beat their wives as often as their neighbors. They were almost as materialistic and even more racist that their pagan friends.

The hard-core sceptics smiled in cynical amusement at this blatant hypocrisy. The general population was puzzled and disgusted. Many of the renewal movement’s leaders simply stepped up the tempo of their now enormously successful, highly sophisticated promotional programs. Others wept.

This, alas, is roughly the situation of Western or at least American evangelicalism today.

... With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.”

The book takes a look at divorce, discovering that people willing to tick the “born again” box are very average in their rate of divorce, nearly always happening some time after their conversion. In the southern US Bible Belt, the rate was “roughly 50% above the national average”. Frank Keating (Governor of Oklahoma) pointed to “a scalding indictment of what isn’t being said behind the pulpits”.

The figures for materialism feel even worse. Patterns of tithing, generosity and justice for the poor seem to have gone out the window as household incomes have increased. Tithing amongst born again adults in the US dropped from 12% to 6% in the two years leading up to 2002. And by then, only 9% of “evangelicals” tithed. While there are many pockets of church-based social action, where is the evidence of Christians obeying God’s call to have concern for the poor?

And so the comparisons and disappointment continue.

While some evangelical leaders have called clearly for racial reconciliation across the US, Sider goes on to suggest:

“Evangelicals may have some good biblical theology about the body of Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white. But if they do not work out this theology in practice, such that white evangelicals welcome black neighbors and work to end racist structures, then ... the whole thing stinks.”

Starting with the Gospels, Acts and on through the New Testament, Sider looks at the biblical vision. Jesus intended his followers to be distinct, and warned the disciples that society would hate them for being counter cultural. (John 15:19).

“Today, unfortunately, many people despise Christians, not for their unswerving obedience to Christ, but because of the hypocritical disconnect between Jesus’s teaching and our actions. But precisely because Jesus expected his followers to live so differently from their neighbours, he could say that they would also be salt and light, preserving and even changing a corrupt, immoral world.”

Materialism wasn’t an option: “It is easier for a camel to go through their eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).

Being Christ’s, being a Christian, wasn’t to be about a single moment, but about an ongoing journey. A process of following and obeying. Relying on God’s strength and guidance.

For the early Christians in Jerusalem “economic sharing was the norm” and was noticed by their neighbours. Noticing how the Hebrew leaderships had “neglected widows from the Greek-speaking minority ... they appointed seven deacons (their Greek names indicate they are all from the Greek-speaking minority!) to take charge of all the widows”. Integrity and obedience quickly overcame racial and economic discrimination.

In Romans, Paul lists lots of patterns which would be found in Christ followers as they continued to be daily transformed: “giving generously to those in need”, “blessing those who persecute you”, “sharing others’ joys and sorrows”, “not repaying evil with evil”, “love your neighbour as yourself” ...

1 Peter’s call to “be holy in all you do” seems to have fallen a bit by the wayside.
Julian the Apostate (an emperor briefly between AD361–3) made “a grudging comment” having “tried to roll back several decades of toleration and stamp out Christianity”.

But he was forced to admit to a fellow pagan that “the godless Galileans [Christians] feed not only their poor but ours also”. [He] acknowledged that his fellow pagans did not even help each other: “Those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them”.

Sider wonders if cheap grace (reducing salvation to “fire insurance from hell”) misses the point while

“slick marketers have offered eternal salvation as a free gift if you can just say yes to a simple formula ... eternal security ... no future payments, just simple verbal ascent ... deal specified nothing about life change”. While forgiveness of sins was at the centre of Jesus’ gospel message, “he formed a new community of forgiven sinners ... he challenged the rich to share with the poor ... he rejected the way society marginalized and neglected lepers, disabled folk and women ... he rejected the popular, Jewish revolutionaries of the time who were calling for armed rebellion against Rome.”

Individuals, acting within community, agitating and practically making a difference in society. Doing stuff as well as talking about it.

As well as becoming materialistic, we have also become individualistic. The me is more important than the us.

“Sin is both personal and social, so overcoming evil demands both personal and structural transformation.”

Sider returns to the subject of sin, pointing out that the sometimes forgotten community aspect.

“... the prophets make it perfectly clear that we sin both by lying, stealing, and committing adultery, and also by participating in unjust legal and economic systems without doing what God wants us to do to change them.”

The adage that “God moves in one heart at a time” is only partly correct. Wilberforce did not feel constrained to convert each individual slave owner in order to end slavery. He took a systemic approach to bring about new laws as well as pointing out the sinfulness. Being communal beings, we need to work as and in community as well as dealing with individuals.

“If we grasp the New Testament understanding of the church, then we realize that the modern, evangelical reduction of Christianity to some personal, privatized affair that only affects my personal relationship with God and perhaps my personal family life is blatant heresy.

The church is a new, visible social order. It is a radical new community visibly living a challenge to the sexual insanity, the racial and social prejudice, and the economic injustice that pervade the rest of society.”

This strikes me as being important.

Being countercultural means not being “a carbon copy” of the world. But instead to form a transformed community, faithful to Jesus and in stark contrast to the surrounding world. Also forming a community ahead of the rest of society, more tuned into poverty, housing, equal access to good education, racial tension, marital fidelity etc. A good place to start would be raising these issues from the pulpit, examining what God has to say about them in order to put them on the faith community’s agenda.

The book finishes with a strong call to accountability and discipline. Haddon Robinson is quoted:

“Too often now when people join a church, they do so as consumers. If they like the product, they stay. If they do not, they leave. They can no more imagine a church disciplining them than they could a store that sells goods disciplining them. It is not the place of the seller to discipline the consumer. In our churches we have a consumer mentality.”

If I find fault in the book, it is that occasionally it lapses into too easy stereotypes about sections of society. Even Darwin and his findings come across pretty one dimensional in their brief materialistic mention in the fourth chapter, not giving Darwin’s wobbly faith any credit.

But the overall premise stands, and the book is worth a read. Why is there so little evidence of the transforming power of Christ when you look at the lives of Christians? Why is their salt so bland?

The Ghost – Robert Harris

Robert Harris - The Ghost

The premise of Robert Harris' novel The Ghost is pretty good. Adam Lang is the previous prime minister, writing his memoirs in the US, and needing a ghost-writer to help. Except the original ghost, one of Lang’s former political aides, has died on location and needs to be replaced. Enter the story's never-named narrator.

It didn't live up to my memory of Harris' previous fiction. Nothing like as well written as Fatherland, Archangel or Enigma. The book seems rushed and forced in places. Big gushy descriptive chunks of text where none was really necessary.

The story has a few twists and turns as the prime minister's involvement with the illegal seizure of British nationals abroad and their subsequent detention and interrogation/torture at the hands of the US military becomes public, and the ghost-writer delves into his predecessor’s lousy first draft and unexplained death. But the revelations felt formulaic.

From a quick scoot around the web, it seems that following Blair’s resignation, Harris immediately shelved his other projects to write and publish this book. So like the book’s narrator, Harris was writing to a deadline.

While its standard of literature may be in doubt, The Ghost is certainly a page turner, lasting only three bedtimes before reaching the end. And the parallels between Tony and Cherie Blair and Adam and Ruth Lang are uncanny and deliberate.

Recommended reading for a long plane journey. But get hold of a second hand copy. Don't buy it new.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish – Geoffrey Perkins

Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy - The Original Radio Scripts

When I heard this morning that Geoffrey Perkins had died, my mind went back to the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – The Original Radio Scripts.

As I’ve mentioned on AiB before, I discovered at about age 11 or 12 that the school library had the published scripts from the original Radio 4 series squirreled away in the non-fiction section. (They were republished in 2003 and still available.)

Geoffrey Perkins

Geoffrey Perkins produced the radio series of HHGTTG – the first BBC radio comedy in stereo – and gets two prominent credits on the front of the script book.

A comedy performer and producer, Perkins created the Mornington Crescent game featured in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and the and newsgroups. He went on to become BBC TV head of comedy, as well as producing Catherine Tate Show, the Fast Show and the first series of Father Ted.

He died after being knocked down by a flatbed van in London’s Marylebone High Street on Friday morning. His latest production, Harry And Paul, with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, is due to start airing on BBC One next Friday night at 9pm. Update - Guardian's obituary.

Dalek Cookies

Close-up of Dalek cookies

While searching for a bun baking kit for Littl-un in Sansburys, I couldn't resist the box of DIY Dalek Cookies.

Mister Men and Little Liss buns + Dalek cookies

Not quite a Daring Baker challenge ...

A plate of Dalek cookies

... but I'll bet they're popular in work on Monday!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Terry/Gerry Anderson

It's only a small distance between G and T on an QWERTY keyboard ... and it explains why Gerry Anderson is being called Terry in the advert on BBC NI's homepage for his show tonight on Radio Ulster looking at the history of the walls of Derry/Londonderry, "a city with a division through its own name".

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Gloucester Gee Gees

It's not just Glasgow that can artistically place a traffic cone on top of a statue.

The eternal flutter ... Beijing Olympics

Having been away over the weekend, I've just got around to watching through some bits of the Olympic closing ceremony. The over-riding impression I was left with as I watched was the sheer organisation and discipline of the Chinese organisers.

Light wheels at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics 2008

Huge numbers of performers, working in low light, with few cues. Beyond military timing. But close to perfect.

And taking chances with high wire jinks and acrobatics, light wheels (gyro-cycles) and synchronised fireworks.

Fireworks that can spell out numbers. That can be fired by cannon into the air. That make the coloured Olympic rings.

Bus 2012 at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics 2008

With no way of practising the closing ceremony in the stadium after the sporting events had started, there was no opportunity for a last minute dress rehearsal. (Maybe explains why the camera work around the London eight-minute segment was so poor. Though I did like the mellow National Anthem ... better than Whole Lotta Love.)

Olympic flag fluttering at the Beijing closng ceremony

But perhaps the clearest example of organisation and leaving nothing to chance were the flagpoles, with compressed air blowing out near the top to keep the huge heavy flags fluttering inside the windless stadium.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Can you tell what it is yet ... Sheffield?

I spent yesterday working in Sheffield. After the two and a bit hour journey up from Gloucester, it was a pleasure to walk up through the town from the station to the building I needed to get to.

I've no idea what the building is, or will be. But it was quite spectacular to walk past.

Maybe someone with local knowledge can leave a comment to explain!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Belfast Apple store ... more shots to satisfy the curious

Belfast Apple Store - icon

Update - review of the opening.

Update - opens Saturday 20 September at 9am

Posting photographs of the under-construction Belfast Apple Store feels like some kind of online pornography. But here's a shot of the Apple logo to satisfy the hundreds of folk who hit this blog looking for news. Nearly puts me in the mood for joining the queue when it does eventually open!

With shop staff returning from working in English stores and holed up in a Belfast hotel this week, it couldn't be too long before the glass doors open and people are able to float up the glass staircase to hang up in Belfast's very own iStore. My money's on the first week of September.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Airport living chef can't keep away ... now jailed

I’ve had a Google Alert following the story of Anthony Delaney for months now. And I’ve mentioned him on AiB before.

He’s the unemployed chef who has been living in Gatwick’s South Terminal and has repeatedly broken the ASBO that bans him from the airport and its train station. While the airport bylaws banned him in 2005, it was the criminal convictions for “stealing from airport shops and passengers, which led to [the] ASBO”.

The sad news is that he’s back in jail, having been picked up “within a few hours of being released from custody” the last time. The Guardian reports last week that his defense lawyer told the court that

Delaney had found a room in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, but became homeless again as a result of a complication with housing benefit. He had been for two job interviews.

Delaney was trapped in a "vicious circle" of unemployment and homelessness but accepted he should stay away from the airport ...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Did you hear the one about the wooden train?

... it wouldn't go!

Yesterday's train theme unexpectedly ran through to today.

The wee wooden trainset from Sainsburys provides much amusement for Littl'un during the day when she's across in Gloucester. But once she's in bed, the adults get to have fun.

All the parts had been used to make a gigantic affair before bedtime. And the comment was made that the exciting parts were the bridges and level crossings, whereas the straight bits in-between were duller.

So I challenged those remaining downstairs (while I did stories and settled Littl'un) to improve its excitement density. You know that I mean? To eliminate as many of the dull parts and make the remainder a thrill a minute.

Little did I know how seriously they'd take the challenge. Nor how great an excitement density coefficient they'd achieve, by even making the spare straight rails and boxes into bridges.

A wooden trainset with a high excitement density coefficient

Fun too as three adults crawled over the floor to get a photograph of their creation.

I'll add any better shots (from the grown-up cameras) if they become available.

In the meantime, it's ok to consider us all mad - we must need the holiday!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Buses, planes, trains ... and a ticket adventure

Work's been particularly hectic this week - so there hasn't been a lot of time for blogging.

The terribly useful Translink timetable for the City Airport bus

Having caught the bus to work this morning, and then managed to find a bus stop that the Metro 600 to the City Airport would pull up at near the Waterfront (Chichester Street, stop B - the one nearest the car park outside Argos ... are you confident looking at the Translink map where you'd stand on Chichester Street or where near the Albert Clock?) and making the short hop across to Birmingham, I'm now in England for the long weekend, and a day in Sheffield on Tuesday to visit some internal customers.

It had been a great idea late last night to book all the train tickets I needed for this weekend and next week through the website, marked for collection at a FastTicket machine at Birmingham International (the airport/NEC station). It would cut out all that queuing at ticket desks and busy kiosks while the seconds count down to the train leaving the platform.

VOID ticket

The first set of tickets, seat reservations and receipts popped out ok. But with the second set, the kiosk omitted the actual ticket, just printing VOID where there should have been a whole lot more words and details.

"Oh, that's been happening a bit today ... Will have to get someone to talk to you" said the guy at customer reception at Birmingham New Street.

The resolution? Convince someone brought out wearing a Virgin uniform to ask the same guy behind the customer reception desk to write out a Special Authority to Travel - essentially a paper ticket and staple the remaining reservation coupons etc to it.

So now I've queued after all, and got the least credible looking train ticket ever ... but it'll be worth it at 07:02 on Tuesday morning when I start the long trek north east.

Thank you Virgin for a good piece of customer service - and even predicting the platform I should head to for this crowded train down to Gloucester.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Newsletter website down ...

The Newsletter's front page of seems to be having problems this afternoon. Links to the underlying subject areas look to be ok. Update - it's back.

Newsletter home page

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Broadway/Westlink flooding ... some explanations

You can get a fairly comprehensive view of the Broadway/Westlink flooding from the perspective of the contractor a local road fan Wesley Johnston from their his website.

16 August 2008

Broadway roundabout is unique among the five underpasses on the Westlink in that two live rivers run beside it - the Clowney Water a few metres to the west, and the Blackstaff adjacent to the east.

The problem is that these rivers are underground and therefore have a fixed capacity. Despite the construction of a large overflow chamber under Broadway roundabout, the fact that the design has now failed so disastrously just six weeks after opening suggests fundamental design flaws in terms of its ability to handle this type of heavy and persistent rain, that has become more frequent in recent years.

The author of the 17 August report comments:

I spoke to some contractors on the site. They insisted that there was no design fault with the underpass and that it had simply been overwhelmed by an extreme weather event. Certainly it would be hard to conceive of a pumping system or overflow chamber that could hold back 20 million gallons of water.

Still, with climate change now a reality, weather events like this are no longer uncommon I do feel it is valid to ask whether the design is at least "too optimistic" in terms of the amount of water likely to come down the Clowney and Blackstaff Rivers.

When the Broadway roundabout last flooded (December 2007) it was caused by the same river overflowing at the same spot. Only the fact that the underpass had not been excavated prevented a flood of this scale.

It could be that this is not the first time we see the Broadway underpass submerged in water and the ensuing chaos.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Holywood Exchange – new stores soon

While B&Q and Secret Sainsburys have occupied their units at Holywood Exchange for many years now, the other side of the roundabout remained built but unoccupied. Then the Swedish chef furniture giant Ikea arrived last year.

Harvey Norman logo

Jim Rodgers confirmed before he left office as Lord Mayor that two firms were lined up to fill the unoccupied units. At the time he wouldn’t name them, but it looks pretty certain that it’s going to be a homeware-fest with Next (who have advertised vacancies) and Harvey Norman (an Australian electrical and home furnishings company). Thanks to Andrew for the tip-off.

Next logo

There was talk of Next coming to Holywood Exchange all the way back in 2004, with the Irish News reporting that the Belfast Chamber of Trade wanted to appeal the planning decision. But patience has been rewarded.

Friday, August 15, 2008

15 August ... Omagh

Growing up in Northern Ireland, I’ve childhood memories of family trips into Belfast to go shopping, passing through the security barriers at the top of Royal Avenue, being frisked, and the whine of the handheld scanners (that wouldn’t have looked amiss as props in Blakes 7).

There would be the inevitable reminder that if there was any kind of trouble and we got split up, we should meet up the Lisburn Road at the Medical Biology Centre car park. It was far enough out of the city centre that it should have been well away from any incident affecting the main shopping area. Thankfully, we never had to use this precaution.

The fifteen of August marks the day I started work after graduating in 1994.

Four years later, on the morning of Saturday 15 August 1998, we’d headed west from Lisburn to take a church summer team to the Marble Arch Caves. Along with teenage leaders from across Ireland, there were a handful of Americans over lending a hand. We had a fun time meandering along the underground walkway, ogling at the stalactites and stalagmites, and surfaced into sunlight mid-afternoon.

On the way home, we stopped off at Erneside Shopping Centre, arranging to meet back at the cars in half an hour.

Ten minutes later, there was a bomb scare.

Where were the team? Some were still in sight, others had wandered off through the shops. Some maybe had gone into the town centre. An awful sick feeling of a complete lack of control.

Ten years ago, bomb scares had become a rarity, no longer a “normal” part of life to be factored into planning. So there had been no instruction to meet anywhere particular in the event of any problems.

Thankfully they all appeared back within a few minutes as word spread across the town. And we got back in the cars, and headed back to Lisburn. Everyone in the cars was chatting, so the radios weren’t on, and we reached home before we heard the news about Omagh.

The bomb scare we’d experienced in Enniskillen was one of many in the area following the enormous blast in Omagh town centre around 3.10pm, killing 29 and injuring. As the radio in church hall’s kitchen relayed the scale of atrocity, the team came to terms with being unexpected so close to the tragedy, their anxiety heightened by the bomb scare they’d got caught up in.

Maybe the rest of us had become hardened over the years, still shocked but with defence barriers that limit the outward expression of emotion. But the Americans were particularly shaken, visibly distressed. And I’ll always remember that despite being offered a phone to ring home and allay any family fears that they might have been involved, they instead preferred to walk together as a group into Lisburn and huddle together around a payphone on Bow Street to talk to their parents who would be waking up to the news from Northern Ireland on breakfast TV. In the absence of parents, they became family for each other, providing emotional support in their situation.

And so today, ten years later, I remember the day that Omagh was bombed and those affected by it in and around Omagh, in Donegal, in Spain ... as well as those in America who’ll remember and reflect on that day for the rest of their lives.

Belfast Apple Store ... being built under wraps

Update - review of the opening.

Update - opens Saturday 20 September at 9am

That'll be the builders working in Victoria Square to create the Belfast Apple Store that's due to open at the end of the month. Expect the glaziers to arrive in a week or so. But will we get a glass staircase?

In related news, various folk who've got genius jobs in the Apple store have obviously started their training and been going around the blogosphere removing evidence of their job applications and opinions on Apple products.

Given the general lack of queues for iPhone launches in Northern Ireland, it'll be interesting to see how many fan boys and girls queue up outside on the opening day to collect their free T-shirt and goodie bag.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Airport living

Earlier this year, the story of Anthony Delaney hit the headlines when he breached an ASBO than banned him from Gatwick Airport where he’d been living for the past few years. It was a sad yet fascinating story.

For the last few years, whenever anyone has asked where I work, I’ve tended to flippantly reply “at the airport ... or at least my car lives in the airport car park and I seem to spend a lot of time there too.”

But to have no other home, and to have run out of better options than camping in a airport terminal, is quite a different matter.

For all my joking, I’ve only had to spend two nights in an airport. Once was about six or seven years ago on a stormy night when a flight arrived so late at Heathrow that the trains and tubes had shut down for the night, there were enormous queues for taxis, no rooms in any airport hotel.

Travelling with a colleague we tried to book a hire car – but the firms wouldn’t accept new bookings outside normal business hours, and wouldn’t take us on their shuttle bus. So we rang the hotel, cancelled our room (at midnight!) due to weather conditions, and settle down on the uncomfortable seats in Terminal One.

Woken the next morning by the BA staff coming on shift around half four, we caught the first (and one of only a handful) Heathrow Express that made it into London that morning, reached the meeting, and later found that none of our London colleagues could make it in from the suburbs – though a Wales colleague did arrive half only half an hour late. Meeting cancelled, tubes suspended due to flooding, we got a minicab out to Heathrow, where we got on a (delayed) flight home, and the Welsh guy hired a car to drive to Cardiff.

It’s only occurred to be now – six or seven years later – that we could probably have got a bus from the Heathrow Central Bus depot into London throughout the night, avoiding the taxi queue, and the night on the bench. Hindsight is wonderful.

Of course it happened again about three and a half years ago. This time easyJet cancelled the Friday night 1830 flight from Stansted to Belfast. They’d had problems all day, and at ten o’clock decided to cancel our delayed flight and let the 2230 flight go pretty much on time.

Once a flight’s more than an hour late, it gets counted as a late flight on their CAA stats. If you’re a league table-conscious airline, there’s no point making two flights late, even if it seems unfair to the passengers. Except, they’d already tried this trick at lunchtime: announcing the boarding of the 13:15 flight while the 11:00 passengers were still waiting around for information. The Northern Ireland-bound passengers didn’t take it lying down, and the airport police were called by the gate staff … and the 11:00 flight departed first!

So they didn’t make that mistake with our flight. There hadn’t been an orange-jacketed member of staff at the gate for over an hour when the armed airport police arrived and shortly afterwards, the tannoy announced the cancellation of our flight: “Please make your way back to departure hall to collect your bags”. This was despite the couple of times they’d announced that “your flight has just landed and will be ready for boarding shortly” throughout the evening.

The losers that night were a primary school class heading home from a trip to Paris and EuroDisney. With tired teachers, and parents waiting at Aldergrove, they’d been sitting cross legged at the Stansted gate for four hours.

Once back in departures, the tannoy was again used to tell us that the first available seats to fly home would be on Sunday ... a day and a half later. To get hotel accommodation, you had to queue to book onto a new flight (only two staff to cope with four cancelled flights).

An AMEX 24 hour emergency travel booking number on my mobile finally came in handy as I booked onto the first flight out of Heathrow on the Saturday (needed home to view a house at 11am the next morning!) and headed down along with my new best friend from the Royal Mail to catch the midnight National Express coach to Heathrow. But as we left, the primary school class and teachers still hadn’t been told if they could all be accommodated in the same hotel, or where it would be, and what they might do to occupy thirty over-tired children all day Saturday.

Second time around, Heathrow Terminal 1 had improved. The Costa coffee was now open all night with someone sitting strumming a guitar and giving a bit of atmosphere. The lights were a bit too bright, but a doze was possible, and it wasn’t as draughty as I remembered it the first time.

Well, that was cathartic. Just think of the miserable posts I’d have been publishing if I’d been blogging back then! It would have been twitterific :)

But two nights in an airport is more than enough to teach me that it’s not a nice place to live. It’s not a place you’d chose to live if you felt you had any other options. While airports are full of interesting people, you don’t get to talk to them unless you’re travelling, standing in the same security queues, joking in the same airport departure lounges. That’s not available when you’re stuck in departures, and never get airside.

logo of the Independent newspaper

Writing for the Independent, Tom Mitchelson spent three days and nights at Gatwick’s South Terminal this week. He had the keys for a flat to return to, money in his pocket to spend on food and entertainment, and no reason to hide away or be shy of the authorities. And even with those safety nets, he had a miserable experience.

How much worse for the 110 people reckoned to be living at Heathrow, or the twenty or so hiding away in the shadows of Gatwick?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

365 Penguins and Spinderella

One of the things I missed while away at Tech Camp for the week was doing bedtime stories. Though maybe the campers would have enjoyed a browse through some of Littl’un’s weirder books!

Last night’s reading around the kitchen table had a mathematics theme.

365 Penguins

365 Penguins is a large-format book that tells the story of a household which receives a delivery of a penguin in a box one day. And the next. And the next. The problem of feeding, cleaning, amusing, never mind organising all these penguins takes over the household’s energies. There’s lots of numbers and counting built into the story, and it’s a joy to read. It’s also quite surreal ... translated from the French story by Jean-Luc Fromental and illustrated by Joelle Jolivet. Recommended.

I love the dog’s review on which finishes with the line:

“Its modernist stance on penguin management should appeal to teachers and parents alike!”
Spinderella by Julia Donaldson

The other piece of numerical literature comes from children’s favourite Julia Donaldson. More wordy and with less rhymes that her better known works. Spinderella tells the story of a spider who overcomes her brothers’ and sisters’ distain for numbers by learning to count with the help of her Hairy Godmother.

A tale that values numeracy and shows its usefulness ... particularly for getting balanced teams and counting goals when the spider family play football.

So often maths is made into a chore and a bore. And as a fan of numbers and such like, it’s good so find positive ways of increasing Littl’uns’ word count.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Creative times

It's been a busy couple of days.

The Tech Campers took to stop/go animation like naturals. In fact, like naturals with a good smattering of talent. The campers' first attempts to make a short and simple animation in order to rehearse the steps were more creative than we'd hoped, and they then continued to keep their heads down throughout the afternoon, cutting out coloured card, making 3D scenery (jumping from 2D to 3D of their own volition), moulding Play-Doh figures and recording voiceovers. (All this despite the promise of a games afternoon on the Xbox!)

You can catch some of the results over on Youtube. And some the week's best photos are over on a Tumblr blog.

After yesterday's time lapse plasticine-fest, today was an accumulation of visits.

View of a sound desk at Whitewell

Up to see Ian at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in the morning to give the campers a chance to see how the technologies that they're looking at this week can be used behind-the-scenes (and very practically) in a church context.

Ceiling mounted speakers at SARC

This afternoon included a trip down to SARC - the Sonic Arts Research Centre at QUB - with an experience of true surround sound (left, right, front and back - as well as above and below) and a look at what the undergraduate/postgraduate students get up to.

The final visit of the day was to a production company in the centre of Belfast - Sixteen South / Inferno - which is probably best known in recent times for bringing Sesame Tree to our small screens. How cool to wander past Potto's Big Whizzing machine in reception and to see the Hilda and Potto in the flesh fur.

A goldfish bowl full of chocolate ... and a couple of furry friends hiding in the background

The challenge laid down not to waste their creative and technical talents provoked much conversation in the car on the way home, and over dinner. A big thank you to Colin for volunteering the opportunity for Tech Camp to come down and invade his space, hear about his work ... as well as gobble up the chocolate in his goldfish bowl!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tech Camp – day one over

Small Aygo packed to the roof

So day one of Tech Camp is over. A morning thinking about voxpopping, editing some video in iMovie (which is a completely novel experience to all but one of the campers).

There’s a kind of Mac vs PC war of attrition building up, with the majority unfamiliar with the peculiar layout of Apple keyboards and the UI. But there’s a general agreement, that while iMovie occasionally crashes, it’s no where near as unstable as Pinnacle’s Studio products.

Foodie blogger Ruth is not only in charge, but looking after our (spiritual and calorie) food intake. Only one brush with a Daring Baker challenge ... a yummy chocolate cake that went down well with a blob of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream!

This afternoon’s photo scavenger hunt (email me if you'd like a copy of the clues to reuse with a group/event) saw us tramping around Belfast City Centre, tracking down 26 shots. Victoria Square’s closure of the Dome “for essential cleaning” – though no sign of any activity when the lift doors opened at the top – made the “someone you don’t know up in the dome of Victoria Square shopping centre” shot difficult to catch.

Surprisingly hard to find a bilingual (English/Irish) sign in the city centre. More likely to find information in the Belfast Welcome Centre in Polish than Irish! Not even a tokenistic sentence or two.

But we did get a bus driver to smile behind his/her wheel, and one team caught the white rabbit (not) playing the keyboard as “a busker”.

Perhaps the best shot of the day was in response to the challenge to “the entire team standing beside a big fish”. Rather than ask anyone else to take the picture, the camera was set on the ground on a timer. Out of focus, but with a certain beauty.

The Big (blurry) Fish (by Andrew)

Judging the two team’s photos was made easy by borrowing the three projector set up that’s part of the Add to Set photo exhibition in the Waterfront. Thanks Adam! For each of the challenges, being able to judge the two teams side by side with the wording of the challenge on the middle screen made it into a communal effort, and the size of the images (despite the lousy lighting that kills the contrast of the pictures projected on the wall).

Fun too to quite randomly bump into Red Mum and Mymsie who were in Belfast and checking out the exhibition on their way back to Dublin. And interesting to watch and listen as the campers dissected and commented upon the photos stuck on the walls, finding the TtVed bunny shot from Moochin Photoman (whose TtV/Through the Viewfinder exhibition opens next week in the Black Box).

The evening’s activities finished off with a blast from the past (boom boom) and a showing of War Games – a film I well remember dragging my parents to in the cinema when I was still in P7. (I keep thinking I’ve mentioned it before on the blog, but I haven't.) Very retro. And full of technology and devices (acoustic couplers, dumb terminals, Space Invaders and Pac Man arcade games) that are completely alien to today’s teens.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Saturday’s often turn out to be interesting ...

Two week’s ago featured Eddie Mullan’s Podcasting workshop in the Waterfront, run as part of the Trans festival in conjunction with 4talent.

trans festival logo

Last week followed up with a Writing for Film workshop, talking about the basics of short film plots, storylines, plot narratives, plot points, the climax, the resolution. (The Trans website suggests that Vincent Kinnaird is running a repeat session in the Waterfront on 9 August.)

A couple of weeks ago at the animation training offered by the good people at NI Screen to the Tech Camp leaders had started off with a quick look at film grammar, and a listen listening to a short animated. No picture first time through. Trying to figure out the location, the characters and the action based on auditory clues alone. A really interesting way to get underneath the skin of a film.

The equivalent exercise at the Trans/4talent workshop was to do a read through of a short film’s script. Getting a feel for the storyline, figuring out the various plot points, and sensing the symmetry before watching the finished product.

It was really interesting. And despite being a non-writer of fiction (the blog’s not made up!) working along with Bob we managed to dream up a plausible plot for a short film inside twenty minutes and made a pretty good 70 second pitch of our idea. (And the more I think about it, the more I’d like to see the story developed and made!)

Oh, and there was an unexpected vicarage tea party ... a tea party, complete with cucumber sandwiches, lots of cake, and fruit punch, in the back garden of a vicar’s house. Quaint, yet delightful.

This Saturday’s excitement could have been breakfast at Sainsburys. Or the fun as Littl’un looked approvingly and climbed into her car seat in the back of the Aygo for the first time. (No more sitting in the front passenger seat of the two-seat Smart!)

But rather, the highlight of this Saturday was finding myself sitting behind at the side of the sound desk for a wedding. Sitting behind the sound desk wasn’t that exciting – though it has been a while, and sideways-on mixing (desk at right angles to the pew) really is a recipe for disaster. But there’s always something in the air at a wedding. A feeling of expectation. Couples in various states of union sitting in the rows facing the front, thinking about their pasts, presents and futures.

I hadn’t realised before the different shades of fake tan – can be scarily deep – and this year’s trend for strapless dresses is pretty strong – though I’m not sure I have the shoulders.!


The bride was a mere 25 minutes late, accompanied by the usual flotilla of bridesmaids and a film crew – one person with a camera, tripod and a backpack of tapes. Watch out for Stags and Brides appearing on BBC NI in the autumn (?), reliving the wedding preparations, parties, ceremonies and receptions.

Hats off to the Park Avenue Hotel for their great meal on Saturday night. Good soup and beef tha fell apart at the slightest threat of being cut into by a knife.

But all this Saturday excitement has distracted from the crucial task of clearing up the junk, paper, boxes and spaghetti cables in the study, and getting sorted out for Tech Camp.

Next Saturday, it’ll be the family and friends BBQ at the close of camp to showcase the campers’ work ... and the clear up to lug all our gear back home again! And the joy of getting home to catch up with family, my own bed, and mealtimes without dishes for eleven people!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Friday’s antics

It was a morning of frantic, yet choreographed activity. The car changeover day. Leaving one back to Mallusk, picking the other up on the Boucher Road, and collecting kit for next week’s Tech Camp, and a supply of coloured card from Play Resource Warehouse over off Duncairn Gardens.

It started well, getting the diminutive Smart Roadster back to the Fleet workshop. It took a while to get the paperwork completed – they give the car a good inspection for wear and tear before accepting it back – and discovering that the bottle of magic run-flat tyre fluid hadn’t been returned by the last driver when I got the vehicle in January.

We stocked up with paper in the Aladdin’s cave, and headed south to Charles Hurst’s Toyota dealership. That was where the wheel’s (metaphorically) came off the plans. The salesman was off on leave, and while he had registered the car and sorted out the invoice, the car hadn’t been scheduled for its last minute clean and finish.

So after a few minutes of faffing and signing paperwork, we took the hint and left the garage to it for an hour and went into town to pick up the camera kit and laptops to support next week’s animation workshops. It was about then I wished that I’d got some breakfast before beginning this Dora the Explorer-esque escapade. Getting the “if you could be here for 11:45” text message, we hared back across to Boucher Road and arrived just as the Aygo was driven up to the showroom’s door. Good sign: right colour, right registration.

Toyota Aygo BlueThe showroom manager wandered across and spontaneously apologised for the morning’s delay, and explained that in these kind of situations he likes to offer customers a meal on him (up to a certain value!) to make up for inconvenience. So we’ll be taking ourselves out some night and giving him the bill. An unexpected (and appreciated) act of customer service. But then ...

Looking out the window while yet more paperwork was being sifted through, I noticed the smooth back bumper. Umm. Looked wrong. Parking sensors are normally pretty visible, as they are mounted flush on the outside of the bumper. Yup. The XtraProtected extra hadn’t been fitted.

So it’ll be back to the dealer to leave the car in some day next week for them to drill holes in the bumper and finish building it. Glad that Tech Camp’s running over on that side of town!

The only other snag was that paying the balance by Maestro (ye olde Switch) didn’t run smoothly, with the transaction referred to the call centre, who took an age to answer, and then took an age to get through to the bank, and an age to ask me questions and relay the answers over to the bank. Arghh.

Boy was I ever so glad to get to work, grab a tray in the canteen, and get to my desk only a minute late for the 2 o’clock teleconference.

But the good news is that the wee car arrived with a full tank of petrol and is running well. Zooms along quite happily. Turns on a sixpence (quite a large one) and has already had the back seats down and a pile of gear stashed in it. There’s a jack plug input on the front of the radio, so no need for cassette adapters or iPod FM transmitters. And the voice-activated Bluetooth (most major European languages and Cantonese catered for!) has still to be played with. Though I miss the way the Smart kept the brake on for a few seconds after you took your foot off the pedal (or until you hit the accelerator to move away). The handbrake will get a lot more use now!

Friday, August 01, 2008

Belfast/Heathrow - Aer Lingus battling bmi?

Aer Lingus logo

From the Irish Independent (though I can’t find the content via their website - update - website has now caught up) ...

A YEAR after its controversial decision to switch Heathrow flights from Shannon to Belfast, Aer Lingus has cornered just 10% of the Belfast/London air market, new figures show ...

An Aer Lingus spokesman, however, defended his airline's Belfast/Heathrow performance, saying market share "wasn't the main consideration" and stressing the route's improving performance.

Industry figures from the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) show Aer Lingus carried about 87,000 passengers on the Belfast/Heathrow route between January and May ... less than 10pc of the total Belfast to London market, which came in at 888,000 for the five months.

Aer Lingus's sole competitor on the Heathrow route, BMI, meanwhile, carried almost 220,000 passengers during the same five months this year.” ...

The latest figures, for July, show Aer Lingus's Belfast/Heathrow planes were almost 75pc full ...

But considering that on weekdays bmi are running eight flights each direction between Belfast City and London Heathrow, compared to Aer Lingus’ three flights a day, it’s not too bad a performance.

Wonder what bmi's passenger volume was for the first five months of 2007?