Thursday, January 16, 2014

How I doubled my workspace... on a smaller desk.

This is not hyperbole. I recently went from one computer monitor to two and it has changed my life.
Because I can flick between windows much faster, it has made working out of multiple documents much easier. Web content in particular is easier to sort out. I have told several people that I don’t think I could go back to having just one screen.

So why has this one simple change made an impact. Very simply it’s because desk-space isn’t workspace. Following two moves in rapid succession around our office, my desk space has shrunk. But I haven’t noticed, because, really, what work does anyone do on a desk anymore?

I can think of two things I do on the desk – if I do a phone interview and am writing notes, and if I print off a large document to proofread. Almost all my other work I do on my screen.
If I’m creating a new written piece I open a new Word doc. If I’m collating research and ideas, then I’m more likely to fire up Google than anything else. If I’m curating content, then I’m looking at on-screen material. If it’s online, then it’s on-screen and most of what I do is online or will end up there. Even documents that we print have an online life and it seems anything with an online life is on-screen work for the most part.
Culturally, we have moved from horizontal workspaces (the top of the desk) to vertical workspaces (the screens on desk-top PCs), but we still don’t think in those terms. I’ve realised that my screens are my workspace, and having an extra screen doubles the space I have to work in, despite having a smaller desk to put them on.
The next step is to add a third screen and see whether I gain the same amount of additional functionality again. I suspect the law of diminishing returns will come into play, with less benefit from each additional screen.
What would that upper limit be? Four screens? Six?  Could I build an in-office IMAX, or will I run out of desk to put the screens on first?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A middle class tale of divine providence

I attend a fortnightly midweek group through my church. Before Christmas we have been watching a series of DVD presentations by a relatively well-known Christian writer, speaker and presenter.

There is quite a career to be had on the publishing and preaching circuit and this chap has been doing it a while. I'm not going to name him because what I'm about to write may come across as personal criticism, when instead it's more of a comment on the demi-evangelical Christianity I haven't been kicked out of yet. (The time is no doubt coming.) But, anyway, despite my preserving his anonymity, I'm sure plenty of people will have seen this DVD.

The session we were watching was on being honest and prospering justly in life. There was a lot of good stuff in there about not cheating your employer and giving your best in work and so on. But then came a personal story that I honestly believe is the most middle class example of God's provision I have ever heard.

I should say, in his defence, it was his own story. He didn't rehash something from the 'Big Book of Dubious Sermon Examples' or give a vague story about something that happened in his uncle's flatmate's church. It was his testimony and perhaps I shouldn't be so harsh.

But this is the gist. The preacher and his wife wanted to buy a bigger house - I think they had a new addition to the family on the way - and they were looking round lots of houses. They saw one that was above their budget and they couldn't really afford, but which they really wanted more than any of the others. So they prayed. And the next day his wife's godmother contacted them and said she felt she 'ought' to give them some money. And wouldn't you know? The amount his wife's godmother gave them was exactly the difference between what they could afford and the price they negotiated on the house.

Huzzah. Divine provision.

It just struck me though, like I said, how irredeemably middle class that was.

First off, we have the 'need'. Not for a house. Not for shelter, a roof over their heads. But for a bigger house.

But it's not as if a bigger house was outside their means. There were others they could afford, but the one they really liked was too expensive. So, it's about having the right house. A nicer house.

And then there's the means of provision. His wife's godmother. Probably a very lovely, saintly person.

But you have to be a certain kind of person to have a godmother. There's a class thing there.

Especially to have a godmother who can afford to bung you a few thousand quid on a whim.

The questions I was left with were, 'What if his wife's parents had been Baptist and she hadn't had a godmother? What would God have done then?'

Along with, 'Why did they need to bother God at all with that request - why didn't they just ask the godmother if they could borrow some cash, which she would probably have just given them?'

My point is that as a testimony it suffers by not being universally applicable - it implies that if you are middle class enough to have a rich godmother your prayers for a nicer house might get answered. It also suffers by not really being about provision. It's about middle class people sharing their wealth with other middle class people.

I keep hearing a lot of talk about 'good news for the poor' and reaching disadvantaged communities with the Gospel. And that's good. But the cause isn't helped when we are mired in our class-based understanding of the necessities of life and our testimonies become about how God has met our middle class wants when talking to a world in need.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Hobbit part two, from a disappointed reviewer

SPOILER ALERT – lots of detail from the film included.

The Hobbit part 2 has been out for a while. I saw it just before Christmas. It’s hard really to articulate how I feel. On the one hand, it’s the Hobbit, it’s Middle Earth, I ought to like it, but on the other hand it was long, clunky, and daft.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the book of The Hobbit, but I can see how it could translate to the screen as an adventure story. The book is fast-paced, funny, intriguing, and carries you along with it to the final battle. The films so far have lost that sense of pace and fun. There is more danger, and this episode of the trilogy lays on the peril with a trowel, starting with Thorin being told he has a death mark on his head, written in the Black Speech, no less.

The thing Peter Jackson doesn’t seem to get about The Hobbit is that the book of The Hobbit concentrates on, er, the hobbit. That’s the point of the story – it’s about Bilbo being unexpectedly recruited for a dangerous quest and contrary to his own and everyone else’s expectations, becoming a hero on the way.

But the film isn’t about the Hobbit at all. Bilbo seems incidental to most of the activity. Instead we have various sub-plots involving Elven warrior maidens being attracted to dwarves, the return of Sauron in a ruined fortress, and the oppression of the good, honest poor people of Laketown by an autocratic ruler.

The bits of the film that are quite good are the bits that are in the book: the Mirkwood spiders, Beorn, the escape from the Elven kingdom in barrels, and the conversation between Bilbo and Smaug the Dragon. But those bits don’t get much screen-time. In fact, the dwarves’ imprisonment – several weeks in the book while Bilbo figures out how to get them out – is reduced to an overnight stay and Bilbo working out the escape route in a matter of seconds.

The bits between those authentic parts of the story, in contrast, seem to drag. The quest was difficult enough without the introduction of a snarling orc leader tracking the dwarves, for reasons that probably were spelled out at some point, but I yawned and missed it.

There are some good bits – Sauron materialising in Dol Guldur from the pupil of the lidless eye was well-rendered – but they are few and far between. Instead we have a load of sentimental tosh designed to make the story more Hollywood. Tauriel, a veteran Elven warrior, barely claps eyes on one of the dwarves before she is smitten in the most unlikely romance ever.

There are other things that make the film suck too. I’m sorry to do this to Stephen Fry, but his ‘performance’ as the Master of Laketown was one-dimensionally pompous. And the bigger problem is that he was obviously playing Stephen Fry, the QI quizmaster host, albeit with the ‘lovable’ setting dialled down. I was half expecting a klaxon to sound and one of his minions have points deducted for saying something wrong or too obvious.

The film didn’t need Legolas either. Or rather, if you did include him, include him in a knowing cameo inside the Elf citadel, maybe commenting on how he would never trust a dwarf. And then we could all smile to ourselves, because, of course we know what’s going to happen later and the friendship he would forge with Gimli. Instead, he is over-used as a cross between a ninja and the Green Arrow, slaying orcs left, right and centre.

We also have a ridiculous escape plan inside the Lonely Mountain, where furnaces that have not been fired for years are lit and instantly produce a river of molten gold for Thorin to ride on in a wheelbarrow. I’m no metallurgist, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how blast furnaces work and it’s impossible to ride molten metal like that. Not only did it not make sense, but it looked like a sequence crafted solely for inclusion in a computer game of the movie. And not even a good computer game. A shitty platformer churned out to cash in on the movie.

Now, I know at this point, you could be forgiven for saying,‘Well, it’s a fantasy movie, it doesn’t have to be real.’ And I’d agree to a point. I can forgive the highly unlikely barrel ride, even though that stretched the bounds of credibility. But the ‘it’s only fantasy’ doesn’t work. If you have created a universe that is supposed to be real, it has to have a certain level of authenticity, otherwise you could just make up any old crap. Why bother with the wheelbarrow? Why not just have Thorin surf the molten gold in a pair of magic ski socks knitted by Beorn from his shape-changing eyebrows? It makes as much sense.

The Hobbit is a well-known, much-loved book, with an existing fanbase that any movie can tap into. So, my main question is, why does Peter Jackson cock this up so badly? I know I’m inviting the charge that I haven’t directed any Hollywood adaptations, so what do I know. But that’s the thing, having watched this, I’m not sure what I could do to wreck the story any further.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The big 2013 Christmas Card Audit

I did this for the first time last year, and that means I can be all uber-geeky and do like-for-like comparisons. I have further subdivided the themes to throw further light on what Christmas means in the minds of the people who make Christmas cards, and the people who buy them.

(Of course, it's not a truly scientific sample as it's based only on the people who gave us Christmas cards. If you're one of them, thank you.)

Total number of Christmas cards: 97 (last year's figure: 104)
Hand-made / home-produced cards: 7 (6) plus two designed by kids and printed by schools
Cards with magnets on: sadly none (last year: 1)

Cards sold in aid of charity: 44 (42)
Of which...
Traidcraft cards: 5 (down from 6 last year)
Oxfam cards: None (2 last year)
Main charity represented: Diabetes UK with 5 cards.
Total number of charities represented: 62 (up from 40 last year). This includes one card that raised funds for 30 different charities.
Marks and Spencer cards (new category): 12

Religious-themed cards: 33 (down from 37)
Cards featuring the Nativity: 15
The following Christmas story 'characters' appeared on cards too:
Three kings: 5 (down from 9)
The shepherds: 4 (up from 2)
The star of Bethlehem: 2 (up from 1)

Other themes (new categories asterisked)
'Peace': 2 (down from 4)
Santa: 10 (compared to 6 in 2012) plus one that was just several Santa hats
Penguins: 3 (down from 5)
Various cartoon bears: 2 (down from 12 bears in 2012)
Dogs in Santa Hats: None this year! (2 last year)
*Deer/reindeer: 6
*Christmas decorations: 4
*Christmas trees: 5
*Robins: 3
*Mistletoe: 2
*Winter scene/scenery: 7
Cards that mention 'Christmas' on the front: 35 (down from 45)
Like last year, many of the religious-themed cards don't mention Christmas on the front.

So, that's it. Fewer cards, but more charity fundraising cards - aren't our friends lovely - with a mix of themes. A third have a religious theme and a third mention 'Christmas' on the front, with some overlap, but still the religious elements of the midwinter holiday haven't quite faded away.