Tuesday 24 February 2015

Through The Wilderness

The old Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca is a great film to think about over Lent, as it is set in a kind of a wilderness: a staging post for refugees moving on from Occupied France, hoping to get to somewhere better. Sadly, seventy years later, this is still happening, but that's not my point today.

When we think of being in the wilderness, we are inclined to think of loneliness and deprivation, I suspect. Yet to the Jews of Jesus' day, the wilderness was a reminder of the Moses story.

Moses fled to the wilderness from the fleshpots of Egypt, and there found God in a burning bush. He later led the Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land, via Mt Sinai where the Law was given to Moses by God. For the Jews the wilderness is a place to meet God, to go back to basics, and to be transformed.

Just as Moses was transformed from a violent murderer into a (reluctant) bringer of freedom to his people, and as the Israelites were transformed from a rabble of slaves to a nation marching into their new homeland, so we can find our mission and our calling as we travel through our wilderness this Lent.

For Jesus the wilderness was a place to work out his mission. He had been affirmed by God at his baptism, "You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased," now he needed to work out what being God's Son looked like in practice.

Should he seek power to make changes? Should he demonstrate God's provision by ensuring he had plenty himself? Should he give public demonstrations of God's miraculous power, to convince the sceptics? Or should he serve and give hope to the poor whilst challenging the rich and powerful, leading the way through consequent suffering and death to resurrection?

I'm not sure what my wilderness is this Lent. I realise that this is leaving things more than a little late, but I suspect the Holy Spirit will find a way. I am sure that I, like you, have a calling, a commission, to serve and to bring hope, to challenge and to bring change. And that I, like you, am affirmed by God: "You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

May your Lent be hopeful and productive, and may your year ahead be a fruitful one.

Warning: Nude Churchgoers

I got an email today from Blogger informing me that there is an upcoming change in their content policy which may affect my account: "we'll no longer allow blogs that contain sexually explicit or graphic nude images or video." Their records apparently indicate that my account may be affected by this policy change.

This was a bit of a surprise, as I try to keep this blog family/workplace-friendly. The only image I can remember using even vaguely close to a "sexually explicit or graphic nude" was one which was supposed to represent a 1920's style flapper (shown on the right, click to see the context).

Then I remembered my old 'angry blog' that I did for a couple of months six or seven years ago. So, after a bit of a struggle to find it, I went and looked at that.

The language is somewhat dubious, but the imagery is, if anything, even less graphic. The most revealing picture is a young woman on a beach in a bikini (with a peach photoshopped over her head - you have to be a certain age, I suspect, to get the reference on that one). I won't post that picture here, because it is meaningless without the text, and the text belongs over there not over here.

I feel rather disappointed in myself. If Blogger feel the need to send me a warning email I really ought to have something somewhere to be warned about.

So here's a picture from Vic the Vicar's blog, containing lots of nudes. It looks pretty graphic to me:

A commenter, Mark, added the caption suggestion: "Best sermon on sacrificial giving ever!".


Thursday 19 February 2015

Son Of God

Back to Mark's Gospel:
"The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God."
That 'Son of God' bit is odd in all sorts of ways, one of which is that it is in some but not all of the best early manuscripts.

Many New Testament documents start with an introduction which is in two parts: an initial title, to attract people's interest and say what the document is (the equivalent of the Subject line of an email), followed by a prologue, to introduce the main themes and/or characters of the document. Mark 1:1 above is clearly a title, attention catching in the Roman Empire of the 60s, in a scary kind of way, as discussed in an earlier post. In Greek this title is cumbersome, three genitive clauses ('of' or 'about' in English) end to end, so most expert opinion is that the 'Son of God' phrase was in the original but got tidied out by some later scribes.

When Mark was written this phrase would have been seen as a direct reference to a title claimed by Roman Emperors from Augustus to Nero: each emperor would be declared a god after their death, so the next emperor would be a 'son of god', expecting to be declared god himself in due course (when Vespasian was dying he is said to have joked: "Oh dear! I think I'm becoming a god.").

Augustus was the first to claim the title 'divi filius' - the son of God. An inscription from 9 BC, found in Priene, speaks of Augustus as 'saviour' and his birth as 'the beginning of the good news'. So Mark is clearly making a political point in his title, but later scribes might have felt it ... unwise ... to offend their emperor quite so obviously.

The title 'Son of God' also had political implications for Jews. In the Jewish scriptures (the 'Old Testament') the title is used for Israel as a whole, and for her princes and leaders, but most especially for kings thought to be divinely anointed (ie Messiahs), epitomised by David.

So Mark's initial use of 'Son of God' is profoundly political, to both Jewish and Roman hearers, claiming Jesus' rule over Jew and non-Jew alike.

Later in the prologue there is a more personal introduction to this theme: as Jesus comes up from his baptism, he hears God's affirmation and commission:
"You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
In the first half of Mark's Gospel it is only demons and evil spirits who recognise Jesus as God's son. It is not until the pivot point in the story, at the end of chapter 8 and the beginning of chapter 9, that the disciples begin to grasp that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one. Jesus promptly starts talking about suffering, rejection and death, horrifying Peter.

In chapter 9 God repeats his affirmation of Jesus, this time for Peter, James and John to hear:
"This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"
From then on the road is to Jerusalem, to Golgotha and to the tomb.

At Jesus' trial he is challenged by the High Priest:
"Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?"
"'I am,' said Jesus. 'And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.'" 
Enough for the religious leaders to find Jesus "worthy of death".

Finally, at Jesus' death the centurion on guard exclaims:
"Surely this man was the son of God." 
In Mark (unlike John, say) the use of the title 'Son of God' for Jesus is not explicitly Trinitarian. It is about the rule of God: about God, through Jesus, beginning the process of taking the reigns of political and religious control over the world. Not in a top-down, coercive way, but by being recognised and trusted by ordinary people as Lord and Saviour.

Religious and secular rulers conspired to murder Jesus, ordinary Jews and Romans, even a centurion, trusted in him, By the time Mark wrote this Gospel, Jesus' followers had been suffering unjustly, just as Jesus had suffered.

Now Mark is asking the question of his readers (including you and I): will we follow Jesus, even through hardship, or do we continue in the ways of a corrupt and ultimately doomed society, where might is right and justice makes way for expedience?

What is your choice?

Monday 16 February 2015

Defragmenting Windows 7

I'm a big fan of Windows 7, more so than any other version of Windows since Windows 2000, and far more so than Linux and the like. I find the user interface easy to use for everyday computer work, yet flexible and easy to drill down in when there is a problem or I want to do something more complex. However, as Windows 7 gets older it is starting to develop a couple of bad habits.

One problem has been a tendency to corrupt its own user login, leading to the dreaded "User profile cannot be loaded" message when you try to sign into Windows. This is discussed by Microsoft here, although their solutions are somewhat incomplete, I think. I haven't seen this problem recently, so with a bit of luck Microsoft have corrected it in one of the enormous number of recent fixes they have put out.

The other problem is the old bugbear of disk fragmentation. This is where files are held on the disk drive as several different pieces, which Windows then reassembles as it reads them. This can slow things down a lot because it takes several disk accesses to get one file, because it undermines various read-ahead strategies used to speed things up, and because it uses up processor power doing the reassembly.

Important: for SSD drives, disk fragmentation doesn't affect performance as much, but defragmenting an SSD can significantly reduce its life expectancy. Don't do it.

'Defragging' used to be one of those things which 'everybody knew' was needed to speed up your PC, although by Windows XP disk fragmentation was unlikely to be the main cause of slow PC performance. Fragmentation came out of the cold with Vista, where the built-in defragmenter is supposed to run automatically, but often doesn't, and where the interface heavily discourages manual defragging. Windows 7 was supposed to have sorted this, though, by making automatic defragmentation more effective, and by making manual defragmentation at least a little more visible and easy to run. For several years I thought this was working well.

At Christmas I got a copy of the game Dragon Age Inquisition. It is an enormous game, which takes an age to set up, and is very slow to load. Even given the game's size though, I was getting level load times of around two and a half minutes, which is simply ridiculous.

Pretty much the first thing I checked was disk fragmentation: the Windows defragmenter had run a few days before and reported a fragmentation level of zero. So I checked various other things, to no effect, then went online to see if anyone else had this problem. A few people did, and it was clear that my load times for changing level/area were way over the top. One common factor in other people's problems seemed to be disk fragmentation.

The Windows 7 defragmenter doesn't show the pretty picture of where everything is on the disk, colour coded according to how fragmented files are in each disk area. Defraggler does, so I downloaded it and had a look.

According to Defraggler, the disk defragmentation level was something like 33%, most of the occupied drive showed up red, and when I looked at individual files there was a whole stack of Dragon Age files all with multiple fragments. It seems that the Windows 7 defragmenter has a different definition of fragmentation from Defraggler (and from me).

So I ran a Quick Defrag from Defraggler - it made no difference. Then I tried a Full Defrag - it took forever and made little difference. It looks as though the built in Windows defragmenter doesn't report fragmentation which can't easily be dealt with.

When I looked at the details of what was fragmented, it turned out to be mostly System Restore files. Windows 7 has massively increased the amount of stuff it puts into system restore: it uses it for file level 'old versions' as well, so that is probably why fragmentation is suddenly becoming important again.

On another PC I have looked at, with Norton 360 on, there was also a pile of hard-to-defrag Norton files, and Norton's own defragmenter also failed to either defrag or report on fragmentation it couldn't fix.

Defraggler lets me defrag individual files, so I manually defragged everything I could. Then I went to 'Disk Cleanup' and chose 'Clean up system files' when it came up. As well as (partially) emptying temporary files, this also gives the option (on the 'More Options' tab) of removing all but the lastest System Restore files. NB: this should not be done lightly. I made sure my backups were good before I did this.

For the computer with Norton 360 I then went to Safe mode and manually defragged the Norton files in Defraggler.

Then the full defragment worked a lot better, as there were fewer immovable files present.

Then I created a fresh set of System Restore files, in the less-fragmented space now available, and went around the cycle of cleaning up old System Restore files and defragmenting again. Finally I had fragmentation on that disk down to about 2%, which is good.

After all of this Dragon Age Inquisition loads levels/areas in just under a minute, typically. Since I am playing it a lot, and moving between areas is a big part of the game, I consider all of the effort spent defragging well worth it (especially since I was able to apply the knowledge gained to massively improve the responsiveness of a customer's PC shortly afterwards).

Sunday 15 February 2015

Grey Day Ramblings

Grey, gloomy, damp and chilly. I think I must be letting it get to me.

There is a story that has been floating round Facebook for a few days now about a Muslim family allegedly asking that a Romany Roman Catholic be exhumed because he had been buried in the grave next to one of their relatives.

The story was originally reported by The Hinckley Times, before being picked up by right-wing newspapers and Islamophobic groups around the world.

The Hinckley Times have now pulled the story from their website (it was here). When I looked at it earlier in the week it was a classic 'local news' unresearched story, basically reporting on someone feeling upset about what they thought they had been told, but not bothering to check the story out with any of the officials involved. The mainstream newspapers who had copied the story did their follow-up the next day and promptly printed stories saying that no there would not be an exhumation. It was a non-story.

The local parish council, the officials involved, later put out a statement saying:
"An inaccurate, divisive and inflammatory article printed in The Hinckley Times appeared to indicate that Burbage Parish Council has considered the exhumation of a person recently interred at Burbage Cemetery – this is totally untrue and without foundation."
The underlying fact is that in England parish councils cannot exhume anybody, that can only be done by a direct order from the Home Office, which there was never any prospect of in this case.

It looks as though there was a misunderstanding about the purpose of this particular area of the cemetery, the council tried talking to the people involved, the local press found out and misreported the situation, the bigots and racists picked up their report and ran with it, and people get indignant because they cannot be bothered to check things out for themselves.

On a more religious note, I have been trying to find a commentary on Mark's Gospel which mentions what was going on in the Roman Empire at the time (civil war and chaos, basically). None seem to. It is as if this Gospel just exists in a sort of religious bubble, unrelated to the concerns and fears of those it was written for.

Churches wonder why non-churchgoers find what we do irrelevant to their daily lives. If those who study the Bible - which we claim to be the foundation of our faith - cannot even be bothered to think about how what was written related to the daily lives of those who lived then, what chance is there of any of them bothering to look at how it relates to the real world now.

Mark's Gospel seems to have been written for busy, cosmopolitan, politically aware readers. There are a lot of people like that in Caversham, but nothing to communicate what it says to them/us. Traditional translations, even traditional preaching, are framed as churchey meaningless woffle, without contemporary meaning or content (except for the traditional 'moral' lessons, of course).

What I find most frustrating about this, though, is that I am not clever enough to do it myself. I can adapt and comment on other people's work, but actually clarifying what Mark was saying to people in the midst of civil war and political chaos, then restating that for people living through the economic and political chaos of the beginning of the 21st century, say, is beyond me.

Yet those who are clever enough, and who say they care about what the Bible has to say, seem unwilling to present it as something real, speaking to real people in a real society.

As I say, it's a grey day and I feel grey. Nevertheless, tomorrow is another day, and life is a gift, to be celebrated and enjoyed as best we can. Grace and peace to you, and all you care for.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Three Person IVF

Channel 4 News did a piece on this last night, ahead of today's vote in the House of Commons on the issue. They had two spokeswomen for the new procedure and one against. The one against came over badly, although I think the edge to her voice was mostly down to nerves - the other two seemed much more practised speakers.

The issue is about preventing some very nasty diseases caused by faulty mitochondria - tiny organelles in the cell which are mostly responsible for generating the cell's energy. They are not a part of the cell nucleus, so they are not affected by the normal mixing of genes in sexual reproduction, although each does have its own small parcel of DNA. Instead they are passed directly from a mother to all her children. When mitochondria go wrong this can lead to whole families having some horrible diseases.

One thing that I don't like about media presentations of the issue is that they are less than clear about the procedures involved. The proposed amendments basically allow two different sorts of intervention in the IVF process: 'egg repair' (shown above) and 'embryo repair'. The former takes a donor egg, removes the nucleus and replaces it with the nucleus from the mother's egg. The resulting egg is then fertilised with the father's sperm.

'Embryo repair' is superficially very similar: essentially you do the same thing but with two embryos rather than two eggs. Media presentations, including Channel 4's last night, show 'egg repair' and don't mention the embryo option. The BBC - to its credit - did show both options, near the bottom of its online piece. Other reports I have seen get it completely wrong and talk about moving the healthy mitochondria into the mother's egg to replace the damaged ones; this is not what is proposed.

So what's the problem? Surely preventing horrible diseases is good. Isn't this really just another step on from standard IVF?

The issue with 'embryo repair' is straightforward, I think. It is not really repairing an embryo, so much as creating one embryo solely to be used as a carrier for another embryo's genetic material. Essentially creating embryos for use as spare parts. That is a big ethical jump, one that I find both obnoxious in itself, and scary in the options it opens up: why not remove an embryo's brain and grow it to full term as a source of replacement liver and kidneys for a rich old man, for instance? Also there are major safety concerns with what is essentially cloning technology.

'Egg repair' - again you're not actually repairing anything, more transferring a nucleus into a fresh egg - is trickier. One big objection being made is that it may not be safe. IVF itself turns out to have odd side effects which are only recently being successfully addressed, and that is a far less drastic operation.

The weakness in that argument is that having a child the 'natural' way is pretty much guaranteed to be unsafe, to pass on the mitochondrial disease. Although it is very likely that there would be unexpected side effects in the early years of such a procedure, the probability of them being worse than the original disease is low, I suspect.

The main British church groupings have spoken out against the procedure: Roman Catholics here; the Church of England official statement is here. There was recently a warning about interactions between mitochondrial and nucrlear DNA in New Scientist here; although in general British scientists seem decidedly gung-ho about leading the world in this area.

An issue briefly raised in Channel 4's piece is that this would, at best, only prevent mitochondrial disease in children conceived in this way, it is not a cure for existing sufferers. You could get the same effect if those who know they have faulty mitochondria simply did not have children. The response highlighted that this really is the old issue around IVF of 'a woman's right to have children' if she wishes.

Personally, I hope that MPs reject the 'embryo repair' option today. But on the general principle of 'three-parent' babies, I think we live in a complex time for families, and it would be better for individual Christians and local churches to focus on the point that people matter to God. All sorts of people: people with families and people without; people with genetic impairments and those without; people conceived with and without scientific help. Each and every individual person matters deeply to God; hopefully they also matter to us.