Friday, September 30, 2005

Too many Crosses?

On the way from Riga to Vilnius, we visited Šiauliai to see the Hill of Crosses. We got a bus out of town - back the route we'd just come, in fact - and then walked for half a mile or so. Getting off the bus we met a couple of students from the local university. She spoke English, which Peter and I can manage, and he also spoke in Russian to Trevor, which he's rather good at by now.

As we chatted and walked along the tree-lined road, we neared a low hill which rose from the flat farmland. Gradually we saw it was literally packed with crosses and crucifixes of all shapes and sizes. Small tracks wove through this thicket, and a broader path let to the top of the hill.

Originally locals had placed crosses to commemorate those who had died during the Soviet repression. From time to time the Soviets removed them, but people brought more - it became a symbol of Lithuania against the regime. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it grew, as people from further afield brought their own crosses (or bought them from stalls at the site), and added them to the hill.

I have rarely felt so protestant as when I looked at the sea of crosses. It was hugely impressive, and I felt a sense of how much oppression and how many victims there had been. But the jostling religious symbolism and the souvenier stalls by the fence left me uneasy. I couldn't help reflecting that there was only one cross that mattered. Hanging crosses on crosses, simply because that is what pilgrims are expected to do, seemed to miss the point - maybe even to obscure the uniqueness of the One.

The hill has become a site of pilgrimage and an attraction - even Pope John Paul II came, and addressed huge crowds. I'm not sure if it's about the original victims any more. There is no longer a Soviet Union to defy, though Russia still seems like a threat to many. In spite of the crosses, I don't think it's about Christ either. I think perhaps it just IS. But just being there, in its sheer scale and detail, it's an arresting sight. It made me pause and reflect. But spirituality is more than just reflecting occasionally, isn't it?.

We'd promised to email the photographs to the couple we met. Unfortunately, when my organiser was nicked in St Petersburg, so was the email address. If you do see this Regina, contact me and I'll send you them...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Intellectual property, or theft?

Extreme Copy Protection for the next generation of digital TV is a bad idea for us, the viewers. It stops us from doing what we're legally entitled to do with TV signals and recordings. It holds back progress in technology. It's a pain. And it's not even necessary.

Now even the Financial Times has noticed. James Boyle, who teaches Intellectual Property Law, and should know what he's on about, says just why we're messing up the basic rules that define what we'll be able to do with the next generation of web and broadcast technology. Basically, it's deals in smoke-filled rooms between studios and lawmakers, with the interests of consumers firmly shut out. Restrictions are added with no consideration of whether they are needed, whether they are fair, or even if they will work! He also highlights a cunning scam that the World Intellectual Property Organisation is trying to pull off to grab ownership of even more content, for even longer than before. Have a read!

- "More Rights are Wrong for Webcasters" - James Boyle - Published September 26 2005

Just today there are reports that the Motion Picture Association of America is trying to sneak more compulsory copy protection through the US Congress - after it was thrown out by the courts [Ars Technica Article].

Why would this matter to the rest of us? Just think of the DVD-region scam the studios introduced to make us pay more and wait longer for our DVDs. What happens in the US infests all our living rooms before too long.

Burdening our viewing and listening with more and more legal and technical locks and barriers is wrong on many levels. There are loads of unhelpful parallels:
  • Historians - the landlords are fencing off the common land like during the enclosures!
  • Revolutionaries - Intellectual property is theft!
  • Speakers - free speech could be blocked!
  • Readers & listeners - works will be lost forever!
But what it boils down to is this:
  • Viewers - they want to cripple your videos and TVs, and make you pay for it!

Pictures of Talsi

After our time in Riga, we visited friends in Talsi, in the west of Latvia.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Some pictures from this month's trip to the Baltic. Our first stop was Riga, the capital of Latvia.

Riga from the top of the Lutheran Cathedral. The city is a mixture of old and new.

There is some beautiful Art Deco architecture.

Old and new exist side by side. Fortunately, the centre of the city is largely free from Soviet-era architectural monstrosity, although the Museum of the Occupation documents some of the less visible scars that were left by Soviet and Nazi occupiers.

A monument to the Soviet "liberation" of Latvia. There are still many ethnic Russians living in Riga, but tensions exist between Latvia and Russia.

There are also memorials to the victims of the Soviets.

The canal that runs through the city is set in a beautiful park...

...with with sculpture and trees and paths and benches.

A businessman who was refused admission to the Big Guild by German businessmen had sculptures of cats on the roof of his building with their backsides to the Guild House, showing his disrespect. The Guild sued, and made him reverse the cats!

Our hotel was up several flights of stairs - any idea who these guys are?


Strange! Today there seems to be an armchair in the male toilets at work - just beside the urinals, in fact. One of those sitting-in-a-meeting, slightly-but-not-very comfortable chairs, with apologies for armrests.

So is it officially a restroom now?
Or is that just an American way of avoiding the word "toilet"?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Greenbelt pictures

A few pictures from this year's Greenbelt...

There were loads of people!

Juliet Turner playing for the crowd.

You don't have to be a professional to play here :-)

But it helps if you can sing - there was a great choice of music.

And after the concerts, a nice cup of tea and a sit down in the Chai Chapel. The stools (and bongo drums) were just round the corner.

The drumming stopped, and peace decended over the campsite.


Do you remember the film Arachnophobia?

I think the invasion is starting to happen in my bathroom, right now!

Friday, September 16, 2005

Mobile phone companies worse than dentists?

Good news this time. I went to the dentist and she fixed the crown. It shouldn't really have come out so soon after it was stuck back in, so they didn't charge me. The last time it fell out was in Germany - I've no idea how it manages to pop out when I go on holiday.

A pleasant visit to the Destist, believe it or not. Customer service - it's a great idea :-)

Now lets see how the insurance and mobile phone companies do.

So far it's looking pretty bad for the mobile phone company. They took months to convert a previous contract to pay as you go, and still havn't managed to refund the extra line rental. Now they want to charge me for a new SIM...

I'm starting to think: straw, back, camel...

Charge spammers

Not sure whether this will help, but it might make me feel better. I don't want any ads on here but if spammers must plug their sites, they should note the following terms:

Terms and Conditions

SPAMMED ads or URLs or links to commercial or search sites are posted in comments on this site on the following terms:

  • Such advertising is charged at UK £25 per day or part thereof.
  • There will also be an administrative fee of UK £75 to verify the address and to determine whether the site falls within acceptable bounds of decency and taste. These bounds are set and varied at the sole discretion of the site author.
  • No guarantee or warranty is made of level of service, or availability of service.
  • Service may be terminated without notice at any time, and further daily advertising charges will not accrue after that point.
  • Posting a link or URL in a comment on this blog constitutes acceptance of this offered contract.
  • The terms of this contract may be revised at any time, by updating this page, or any later page.
  • This contract may be enforced in any court at the discretion and convenience of the site author.

What do you think - should I put the charges up?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Apart from that, how was the holiday?

Well I'm home... it's nice to sleep in my own bed again! And I had a great trip... mostly.

True, I was pickpocketed on the St Petersburg metro, and lost a mobile phone (about to be upgraded anyway) and an organiser (data safely backed up... mostly), so I may be talking to my insurance and phone company quite a bit over the next few days. Which reminds me: why do they insist on using premium rate (i.e. ripoff) contact numbers that won't work when you're abroad? Apart from all the money it makes them, I suppose...

So if you are wondering why you haven't heard from me (especially if you sent me a text message) that may be why. Please don't text my old mobile - I won't be able to read the messages for a bit :-(

But the holiday itself was fine. Good food, coffee, debate, company, weather - amazing weather, actually. And we saw some very interesting places and people. I'll have to post some of the pictures soon.

Oh, and one of my teeth seems to be loose. And the websites I help to run all seem to need updates. I think I might be a bit busy for a while.

I'll be needing another holiday!

Friday, September 09, 2005

St Petersburg II

Rush hour in the St Petersburg Metro can be an interesting experience. Fortunately we were travelling in the opposite direction to most of the commuters, so the interesting times factor was somewhat below Chinese Curse level.

Still, when you can't speak a word of the language (except for "goodbye" and "tea with milk", which won't get you far in the metro) and when you have no Roubles, but dire warnings are ringing in your ears of psychotic muggers out to rob you of your last Lithuanian cents if you smile or make eye contact, and when you know neither how to work the tickets nor how to find your station, the journey still affords a certain amount of "interest". Fortunately there were no incidents and we emerged into daylight slightly relieved still to be alive.

After crossing the road (conspicuously, to avoid being run down) we made ourselves inconspicuous once more, and headed for the flat.

Up the stairs, a key was inserted in a huge cell door. It creaked open, revealing the Stygian darkness within. Silently, our Warder motioned us inside. The door slammed, and there was the sound of bolts and chains. As our thoughts drifted back to the KGB museum in Vilnius we realised this was where we were staying.

"Stop! Remove your shoes!" commanded the Warder. We were indeed in the real Russia.

A door opened. Daylight again! "Yes, I'm afraid the power is still off! There are slippers here. Come through to the living room. What about tea?"

Things suddenly looked a lot better. We could see again, for a start.

CAHKT ΠETEPБУPΓ / St. Petersburg

It had been a long day...

It had started in our sleeper compartment at about 1am, with Russian border guards inspecting our passports. One of the documents, from a country which shall remain nameless *cough* Ireland *cough* attracted a great deal of suspicious peering through magnifying glasses, and a long and vigorous conference between officials. Eventually a more senior officer was called to confirm that the state was in the EU, and the passport was not necessarily a sign of international terrorism. Thankfully there was no need to see whether Bertie Ahern's ministers would request and require assistance for our party's own ethnic minority.

After a brief visit from the customs officials, and a quick check under the seats in case our Irish friend was trying to decommission any armelites or AK47s in there, we were able to get back to sleep.

Very soon the sun rose over the Russian countryside, and after some time and a couple of coffees and teas, so did we. We were about to arrive in St Petersburg and rush hour was just getting started!

(this post has been specially backdated to when it happened through soviet timewarp technology and the russian instrumental case)

Thursday, September 08, 2005

This is not a mission trip and there will be no "word of report"

Traveling with missionaries is not necessarily what you'd expect. Especially if you only know them from those funny wee cards with a photograph and a map of "their" country.

Firstly, there's not as much theology as you'd expect, except late in the evening - it must say someting about theology that it raises its ugly head at ungodly hours.

Secondly, there is more beer. Decency forbids me from divulging who was responsible - at least that's the excuse - I'm not really pleading the 5th. Honest! On the other hand, they do thank God for their meat and drink (no vegetarians these missionaries), whether eating with friends or in restaurants.

Thirdly, there are more churches - more than I could ever have imagined. To be fair, this is largely due to one particular missionary, and may not be representative of the class as a whole. It may in fact be the result of a "spiritual journey". Since the journey continues, I'm assuming that enlightenment was not found in the increasingly alternative places of worship we visited.

Finally, there is less light. This is not a metaphor - I'm typing this by the light of my organiser, so I can post it later. But that's a story for another entry...

In conclusion (since I'm talking about missionaries, I suppose I need to use the Holy Presbyterian pattern of 3-points-plus-2-conclusions) and in the interests of fairness in reporting, I should mention there was not very much more beer. There was wine though.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Postcards from the middle

I managed to get some postcards sent today, though I had a nasty moment when I thought the lady was asking for 108 litai, which was twice as much money as I had in my posession at the time! Just as I was starting to think that maybe you can have too many friends after all, it turned out she only wanted 10.8 litai.

So some of you will be getting postcards. Some of you won't, cos I ran out of cards, didn't get them finished, will write them in Russia, lost your address, the dog ate them, or Peter and Trevor are too lazy to write them for me.

That's right - postcard writing is much easier, and more interesting, when you have other people who can help to fill in the blank spaces. Unfortunately, with friends like that you need to watch very carefully what they are filling the blanks with! So if you get a suspiciously slanderous card, don't believe all you read ;-)

This is actually a pretty good place to send postcards from. Although it feels a bit like Eastern Europe at times, apparently we're only a few miles (or should that be kilometers?) from one of Europe's many geographical centres. Apparently the middle of Europe is also in Poland and the Ukraine. It's obviously quite a large middle. Can continents suffer from middle-age spread?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Hello from Vilnius

Today we surfaced in Vilnius.

Actually we arrived yesterday, but it was a long day with lots of time spent on buses, and one "interesting" road. I also saw more crosses than I'd seen in my entire life, but that's a story for another time. All this (apart from the crosses) meant I wasn't about to write very much. Not that I'm going to write much now either.

Riga was great - a good place to visit. Vilnius is pretty interesting too. And free internet access is nice :-)

Maybe I'll work out a way to get pictures up soon... but for now, it's time to sleep!