Monday, 27 October 2008

An unusual Pre-con day at the PDC

Today is Pre-conference day at the Microsoft PDC. Industry luminaries and experts like Charles Petzold, Mary Poppendieck, Jeff Proise and Juval Lowy are giving attendees the benefit of their wisdom and experience on subjects ranging from WPF and WCF, through Advanced Windows debugging and .Net performance optimisation to Agile software development. But I didn’t go. Instead, I went to church.

Getting to church wasn’t just popping round the corner. I suspect that folk in LA rarely “pop round the corner” for anything. Coming from UK, everything in Los Angeles seems so spread out. I suppose that unlike the UK, they have no “green belt” to worry about: need more space? Just colonise another block of the desert. As a consequence of this capacious town planning, street maps of LA can easily mislead eyes conditioned to maps of UK cities – as I and my legs have now discovered to our cost.

The first part of the journey was easy. After stoking up for the day on an archetypal American Buffet Breakfast (waffles with Maple syrup and sausage, egg and bacon on the same plate at one point!), I sauntered out of the lobby to pick up the shuttle bus to the airport. I first saw these shuttles when I came out of Arrivals at the airport yesterday. Swarms of them circle the different Terminal pick up points, day and night. Every major hotel within hearing distance of the airport, and all the car rental companies, not to mention the long-stay parking providers, have their own fleet of buses to convey customers cost-free to their place of business.

Then it was on to the FlyAway bus service headed for Van Nuys (or Van Eyeeeeeees, as our imposing female driver called out at each stop). The journey out along the San Diego Freeway gave me an excellent sample of suburban and (even more sub)urban LA, all of which I could observe in air-conditioned comfort from my front-seat vantage point. From what I could see, the City of Angels is mostly flat, except for the lumpy bits where they dump the canyons.

The flat parts of the city are divided into streets of which the Romans would have been proud and a geometrist prouder. Many of the streets are lined with palm trees, tall, leggy things, determined not to be overshadowed by the office buildings that surround them. To me, it looked like some of them had even resorted to surgery – being sophisticated L.A. palm trees - because instead of terminating in the mass of fronds that usually marks the top of a palm, these ones had another burst of trunk, and then a second bunch of greenery. Others have gone in for body ornaments, rigging themselves up as mobile phone transmitting towers.

Having alighted at the Van Nuys bus station, I consulted my map and confirmed that I needed to head for Roscoe Boulevard to catch the final bus. The map provided by the bus company showed the bus station virtually butting up to the Boulevard (as you can see for yourself), but rather worryingly, the friendly security guard who I asked for directions had to consider for a few moments before pointing out my way. He estimated “about 5 to 10” in answer to my question of how many minutes it would take to walk there. I suspect that in a former life he was a software developer, because by the end of the walk the actual figure lay just beyond the upper end of that range.

As I stood at the final bust stop, I offered a silent prayer that the driver of the bus would be a helpful one. I knew where I needed to get to, but I didn’t have a clue which stop I needed, because the google map that I’d printed out only showed a fragment of the neighbourhood of the church; my legs baulked at the thought of getting off a block too early, and my watch pointed out that I didn’t have time for mistakes. My prayer was answered. Not only did the driver offer to call out my stop; he also refused the five dollar bill that I proffered for the $1.50 fare requiring exact change, and took just a dollar bill instead. And it turned out that the bus stop was right outside the door of the church.

P1020828I’ve never been to a church as big as this. Grace Community Church was founded fifty years ago, and their first chapel, still on  the site, was about as big as a good sized English church building. The new “worship center” can, at a guess, hold between 3 and 5 thousand, with a stage up front for a small orchestra and good sized choir.

Phillip Johnson was preaching today. I’ve been reading his blog for some years now, which was how I found out about the church, and I’ve always found him to be a very interesting and edifying writer. Today he spoke, very though-provokingly, on the third of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not take the name of Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” – a prohibition on using the name of God lightly, and without due reverence.  Phil made the observation that, though atheists deny there is a God, they see no contradiction in invoking his name at times of shock or frustration or anger. He reminded us that in the world of commerce, businesses protect their names very forcefully through Trademark law as their brands and reputations depend on them. So why should God care about his name any less?

In all the other sins prohibited by the commandments, there is some profit or pleasure for the sinner, however momentary or fleeting. But in breaking this commandment there is no gain whatsoever. Even though it is now a habit for many people to punctuate their conversation with God’s name, it is still an act of rebellion and defiance of this third commandment. That is why every one of us who has used God’s name lightly is guilty. But Phil concluded by reminding us of the way to be freed from all guilt: the salvation and full pardon that we can have by believing in Jesus Christ.

Plenty of food for thought whilst waiting for the bus, and then on the walk back to the Van Nuys bus station. The other thing on my mind was the sun beating down on my head. I had, at the prompting of my wife, looked up the weather for LA before I came. I’d noted that the temperature would be in the mid to high twenties, and she had thoughtfully packed short-sleeved shirts. But I failed to carry the thought through to figure out that it wasn’t going to be patio heaters providing the warmth, and to take appropriate precautions. Basics, like a bottle of water and a hat. By midday the sun was a hot as any mid-summer’s day back home, and the best I could do by way of shading myself was to stand in the shadow of a lamp post – not terribly effective when you consider my girth.

But I made it safely to the bus station without dehydrating, and lived to regale you with the tale. It’s been a thought-provoking day of rest. And now, just one more night to go before all is revealed!

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