Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Man's Last Freedom

"In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature…
The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."
From 'Man's Search for Meaning' by Viktor Emil Frankl

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

An Obituary

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, but in times past he walked with great men and had a long and productive history.
He will be remembered as having imparted many valuable lessons, such as: Knowing when to come in out of the rain; Why the early bird gets the worm; Life isn't always fair; and Maybe it was actually my fault afer all.
Common Sense lived by simple, sound principles. He planned and set goals, never spent more than he earned and always believed that adults, not children, were in charge. In life he was seldom overtaken by events because he always considered the consequences of each action and was careful never to overlook the obvious.
His health started to fail when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were put in place. News reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash and playground conker tournaments banned on health and safety grounds caused him much distress.
He declined further when teachers were required to obtain consent to administer sun lotion or an Aspirin to a student but could not inform her parents when the girl became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion. And although he continued bravely to speak out his voice grew faint, possibly as a result of being beaten frequently about the head with The Rule Book by those who hide behind it as an alternative to independent thought.
His condition became grave as the churches became businesses, criminals received better treatment than their victims and you could no longer defend yourself from a burglar in your own home because the burglar might sue you for assault.
Our friend finally lost the will to live when a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of fresh coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, sued the restaurant and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.
Common Sense was preceded in death by his parents, Truth and Trust; by his wife, Discretion, his daughter, Responsibility, and by his son, Reason. He is, however, survived by his four stepbrothers; I Know My Rights, I Want It Now, It's not my fault, and I'm A Victim. All four of these are now squabbling over his legacy.
Not many attended his funeral because, sadly, so few realized he was gone. If you still remember him, please spare a moment to reflect on his passing. If not; join the majority, shrug your shoulders and do nothing.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Kindle for PC

For those of you who already love your Kindle here's a nice little application from Amazon. 'PC to Kindle' does what it says; install the prpgram and you'll get a right-click option in Explorer that will let you dispatch one or more documents to you kindle with the minimum of fuss. Even easier than emailing to your Kindle email address.
Can life get any better than this?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Undemocratic Democracy

Well, here we go again.
The Greek Prime Minister may not have been making too many wise choices recently with regard to his country's finances but just the other day he distinguished himself. His call to give the Greek people a referendum on the latest Brussels-imposed series of swingeing austerity measures was like a breath of fresh air, and for two reasons. Firstly, because the Greeks ought to be given a voice. Their whole society is undergoing rapid and far-reaching change and it's only fair they should be consulted. But also secondly, and I feel far more importantly, because of the outcry it's provoked. Across Europe leaders of every flavour have been queueing up to denounce the Greek decision and say what a terrible idea it is that the people should be given a say in what their politicians are doing. One Radio 4 interviewee this morning expressed his fuming outrage at this "total lack of Greek support for the European project".
Interesting comment, that. The truth is that the European leaders do have a project and it's most inconvenient for them when democracy gets in the way. The Euro is a prime example. The Greek economic crisis is not a new thing, their economy has been in a mess for a good fifty years; they are vastly indebted, hardly anybody pays their taxes and their highly-paid public sector is vast and flabby. Anybody with half a brain could have seen the problems coming and that according to the figures Greece should never have been allowed into the Euro in the first place. But the figures were an inconvenience to the great European agenda so they were fudged, and here we are today. And it wasn't just Greece - several other nations were borderline cases for Euro membership too but were nonetheless triumphantly welcomed with much European flag-waving and booming recitals of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
Most European governments do everything they can to avoid consulting their people on anything concerning Europe, our own included. They always have, but in recent years their fancy footwork to sidestep referenda on Europe or the Euro makes Strictly Come Dancing look like the painful hobblings of an old man with a stick. And what about the referenda we do get? Think back a little and you may remember that the Irish voted 'no' to the Lisbon treaty in 2009, and what happened? They re-ran the vote! Imagine if our next General Election didn't elect the government those in charge thought best for us. What would we say if they discounted our choice and told us to keep trying until we see it their way? Over my dead body - but that's what Europe did in 2009 and the Irish government let them.
An isolated occurrence? I'm afraid not. The Danes voted 'no' to the Maasticht treaty in 1992 and that one was circumvented as well. No wonder then that the Danes were denied a referendum by their own government on the Lisbon treaty in 2007. Wouldn't want the Danes throwing a spanner in the works a second time, would we?
Europe, when it was formed out of the ashes of the second-world war, was a good idea with noble aims but where are those aims today? The current crisis is exposing just how undemocratic Europe has become and how far it has strayed from its original purpose, and it is also exposing some senior Eurpoean politicians for the duplicitous and self-advancing scum they are. Which ones? Well, why don't you listen to their own voices on the radio and the TV and decide for yourself?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Why Getting it Right so often Goes Wrong

It may disturb you to learn this, but almost nothing ever gets done properly.
Take the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan for example. I read a report today that told me what I suspected almost from the moment it happened. In their report in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Johannis Nöggerath, Robert J. Geller and Viacheslav K. Gusiakov said:
"The tsunami countermeasures taken when Fukushima Daiichi was designed in the 1960s were, arguably, marginally acceptable considering the scientific data then available. But, between the 1970s and the 2011 disaster, new scientific knowledge emerged about the likelihood of a large earthquake and resulting tsunami; however, this was ignored by both the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, and government regulators. The regulatory authorities failed to properly review the tsunami countermeasures in accordance with IAEA guidelines and continued to allow the Fukushima plant to operate without sufficient countermeasures, despite having received clear warnings from at least one member of a government advisory committee..."
As an engineer this comes as no surprise. Almost everywhere I've ever worked makes the mistake of failing to consult the people at the sharp end, the ones who really know what the job entails and what it will take to do it right. Engineers know how to design things that won't go wrong, doctors know how to treat patients and sales assistants know how to keep customers happy but most of the time they don't get a say in how their organisation is structured and how their jobs are done. Instead these decisions are taken by managers, finance boards and steering committes that have no idea what really goes on at the shop floor. This causes a number of issues such as poor staff morale, inefficiency and wasted resources but the real problem is more subtle. And more worrying.
Let's suppose you're hiring a photographer for a family event. You'd explain to them exactly what you want them to achieve, and then you'd ask them what they would need to deliver that - what the cost would be, how much time they will need at the venue and what approach they recommend. A project like that has a good chance of success - you started off on the right foot by asking a professional to do a professional job and giving them the resources they need to achieve a professional result.
Unfortunately, though, most projects are anything but. What usually happens is that you tell the photographer they can only have half the money, must be in and out in fifteen minutes and you've already decided the shooting order - take it or leave it. Well, business is business so many photographers would just shrug and take the job anyway. They know the customer is not going to get a great result, they know corners will be cut and risks might be taken, but after all they are working within the constraints imposed on them so they will do the best they can under the circumstances, take your money and leave the consequences with you. And anyway, what's the problem? Less-than-perfect photographs wouldn't be the end of the world.
True - but a nuclear power plant like that just might be.
So often in today's world the driving principles are politics, vested interests and short-sighted economics instead of the quality of the outcome, and the result is Fukushima - a sub-standard bodge job that was never really fit for purpose and which almost blew up in everyone's face.
The same underlying mistake is repeated everywhere, over and over again, both throughout our public services and in many private companies. Decision-makers lose sight of the fact that without the product, their organisation would not exist. The product - be that a nuclear reactor, a satisfied customer or a healed patient - is everything. And their organisation is filled with people who have dedicated their working lives to providing that product in the best way possible but who rarely get listened to. Instead of making decisions for excellence they make them for expedience, and instead of creating products to meet a specification they make them fit a budget. And worst of all, they so often ignore the sage advice of Proverbs 11:14 - "In the multitude of counsellors there is safety".

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Kindle for Preachers

I got blessed with an Amazon Kindle recently and thought I'd share my impressions for the benefit of anyone else considering this remarkable device.
First, it's not a smartphone. If what you want is a touch-sensitive colour screen on which you can watch mindless You-Tube clips, make stupid noises, pour virtual pints of beer and play angry birds then don't get a Kindle - get a life. If, however, you want a device that lets you carry an entire library of electronic books and other documents around with you, and lets you read them almost instantly, any time and anywhere, then you want one of these.
Oh, and did I mention it's also about a quarter of the price?
It's about the size of a paperback book but half the thickess and weight. And if you don't count the experimental features (it has a basic web browser, it can read your books aloud to you and it can also play MP3s) then the controls are so simple you can master it in minutes.
The screen is unique. Firstly, it's big. And secondly, it's black-and-white. That, however, is one of it's great strengths because the printed word is generally black ink on white paper and because of that the Kindle is the easiest electronic display to read that I've ever seen.
Rather than being a multi-megapixel LCD the screen is actually e-paper. This means that the background is white, and stays white, but not the kind of white that's generated by some lamp glowing behind it. It's a surface and it doesn't glow from within. Rather, it reflects light just like the page of a book does, which means you can read it just as well in full direct sunlight as you can indoors.
Try that with an I-Pad or a laptop.
The text appears as black e-ink on this white e-paper and you can vary the size, font and layout to suit your eyesight and preference at the touch of a button. This makes it great for both personal reading and as a real-time source for preaching, teaching or public speaking of any kind. All you have to do is upload your notes to it (more on this later) and press the 'forward' and 'back' keys to navigate. It's so well designed for this that you can hold it in one hand and turn the pages with your thumb.
Also, because this kind of display takes very little power, a fully charged battery lasts an entire month. Yes, you heard me - four whole weeks. No remembering to lug some stupid charger around with you when you travel. No plugging it in every single night. No plaintive cries of "Me battery's runnin' out!" when you need it to work at a critical moment. Just like a book, the Kindle will always be there for you whenever you need it.
Capacity-wise it can store hundreds of books and documents which you can group into collections for ease of access. Brilliantly, though, you can re-think your collections as often as you want, and deleting a collection doesn't delete the documents you've stored in it. You can also store a document in multiple collections if you like, or in none of them; it's entirely up to you.
The Amazon site offers thousands of e-books, and a surprising number are free. For example, The Complete Works of John Bunyan, the King James Bible, The Works of Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare's Plays and many other classics are completely free. What isn't free you'll generally find for under a fiver, and very often for much less that that. You can either buy from the Amazon website or browse directly on your Kindle and, assuming you've got internet access, the book will be on your device in moments.
For preachers and teachers though the killer feature is the ability to put your own documents and notes on the Kindle, but before I deal with this I need to explain how it connects to the internet.
The basic Kindle comes with built-in WiFi, so whenever you're in range of a wireless hotspot you've got the 'net. For a bit more outlay you can also have 3G capability so your Kindle can be on-line no matter where you are. In both cases, downloading anything you've chosen from amazon is free - you just pay the price shown in-store, even if that is zero. However with 3G access the download of your own document (as opposed to a purchased one) will cost you a small fee, whereas over WiFi - even onto a 3G equipped Kindle - it costs you nothing. For that reason, for me, there's nothing to be gained by the 3G connectivity. If I'm at home or in church I'll always have WiFi so I can download my notes for free, and I have no need to do so while riding in a speeding car or sitting on a park bench.
So how does it work? When you buy and register a Kindle they give you an email address, and to put a document onto your device you just email it to your Kindle and on it goes. Simple as that. Text files, Word files and PDF files will all work though native PDFs don't make the most of the reader's capabilities. And if your internet's broke and you're really stuck you can still plug it into your computer via USB and do it the old-fashioned way.
Are there any drawbacks? Not really, but there are a few things worthy of mention.
First, the device will auto-power-off after five minutes of inactivity. While this might seem a drawback for preachers, let's face it - if you're still droning on out of the same twenty lines of your notes after five whole minutes then you're congregation might well die and decompose before the end of your sermon. And if it does go off, just flip the power switch and it will be back on - showing exactly the same place in the text as when you left it - in less than two seconds.
Secondly, when you 'turn the page' there is a momentary flick of the display. When I first saw this I thought "That's annoying; I'll never get used to that." But within five minutes of using the thing I'd stopped noticing and it's never bothered me since. Trust me, you will too.
And thirdly, If you're planning to get one I would strongly recommend you shell out the extra for the proper Amazon case. It opens like a book and protects the screen really well, it's also solid but light enough to sit nicely in your hand. You can get them in different colours and you can also get them with a little pull-out LED lamp in the corner that will let you read in darkness (it's e-paper, remember - there's no backlight).
So, what do you think of the Kindle? Do you have one? Are you thinking of getting one? If you've tried preaching from one, how did you find it? Got any tips?
Post a comment and let us know.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Oh. No...

In case you haven't noticed, the British people just gave a resounding 'No' vote to voting reform, and in particular the replacement of our first-past-the-post system with the Alternative Vote (AV). That's quite interesting in itself, but what was more interesting was to hear the whinings of the high-profile champions of the defeated 'Yes' campaign on the radio and TV, telling us how we've missed a great opportunity but they were still right all along and will keep on chipping away at us until they get the result they want.
Hang on a minute - I thought this was a democracy, and the people just spoke.
It was an overwhelming and decisive 'No' vote and that surely should settle the matter once and for all. Or are we still back in the bad old days of the European referendums where more than once they've simply rerun the vote because they didn't get the answer they wanted the first time? How inconsiderate of the people to cause problems for their politicians.
Not this time, though. That's it guys, game over. Nobody wanted it. Let it go - and let's get on with more important things.
Why do I say that? Because the outcome of this referendum reveals two things. First, that quite a number of our politicians are still hopelessly out of touch with the will and desires of the people they say they represent. But we already knew that.
Secondly however the referendum shows us something else.
It shows us that the people spoke. They didn't do what the politicans told them to do. They made their own minds up. They saw through the arguments of the experts and leaders who pushed them into a referendum they didn't want, and they confounded them.
If you look at the trends in our society I believe we're going to see this more and more. This isn't like the days of old. This is the internet generation, the day of wikileaks revelations, of bloggers saying what the establishment won't, and of rebels tweeting to the world things their governments desperately want to suppress. More and more people now are thinking for themselves, gathering their own information and coming to their own conclusions. The establishment don't like this very much but it's too late, the genie is out of the bottle and no amount of frenzied cork-pushing is going to set things back to the nice, safe, predictable way they were before.
What we've just seen in the UK is, I believe, a microcosm of this. For the last ten years successive governments have been wringing their hands at the loss of the British identity. "What is Britishness?" they cried. "Where did it go? When did we lose it? How can we bring it back?" Well guess what boys, it's been a long dark night but I think there's a glow on the horizon.
For the last two and a half generations we've lost our way. Blown by every wind of thought and political doctrine we've put up with every kind of social experimentation. We've seen liberalism fail. We've tried the science-will-solve-all-your-problems 'White Heat of Technology'. That was supposed to give us a three-day working week and the paperless office, remember? We've tried liberal parenting and that gave us drink-fuelled thuggery and the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe. We've tried secular humanism and it cost us our soul. We've tried immigration, importing others to do the lowly jobs Britons didn't want. They did them, and did them so well that we now bemoan their prosperity and success. We've tried both left-wing and right-wing economic and political dogma, both promising utopian success but leaving a twisted legacy of chaos. We've messed with the schools and the health service so many times we've forgotten what they are for. We've built tower blocks and torn them down again because they don't work. And most recently we've swallowed the line that if you live beyond your means and pile up the debt then the economy will keep growing forever and we'll all be fine. Instead, we got the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
But something is happening in Britain. People are waking up and asking their own questions. They are beginning to make up their own minds about who they are and what they want. Like glimpses of sun between the clouds, when I read between the lines I see Britishness coming back. That sense of honesty, justice and fair-play. That sense of compassion for the less fortunate. That sense of moral obligation to step in and help, to stand for what's right and to sacrifice if need be to see truth win out in the end. More than anywhere else I see this in the young, and that gives me hope.
Yes, we still have criminals and idiots (some on the streets and some in high office). We still have news reports of hideous crimes and acts of the grossest evil. But behind it all, if you have the eyes to see, things are changing for the better. We're rediscovering our spirituality. We're rediscovering our own inherent value and dignity. We're rediscovering who we are.
You might not be able to see it yet, but I do. Britain is changing. Revival is coming, people, and we need to get ready to embrace it.