Thought, experience and memory from a brain in a jar, one that sometimes has control over a thirty-two-year-old Londonite.

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Location: Herne Hill, London, United Kingdom

31 August, 2005

Foot in mouth syndrome

Oh dear. Not only has Sheard died, but someone's publicly disgraced themselves on the BBC forum (and a finger may need to wag at the BBC web admin too!). It's forgivable, I suppose, to forget which part Sheard played in The Prisoner, but to then go on to say Number 2 was his "most memorable" role just becomes insulting.

30 August, 2005

Embarrassing Myself In Public #003

I was lucky enough to attend the grand wave-off of Dr Who magazine In Vision, c/o the good lady husband who had done a fair amount of work on the 'ographies in the last few issues. Having gone out without eating properly I tended to lurk about the buffet more than was healthy. There were speeches and that, and a fair amount of mutual surprise at who'd been invited. We hobnobbed with Tat Wood and Paul the dentist. Fairly late in the evening, with Scotch Eggs, pastries and lager doing their work, I let out a little trouser bubble, only marginally audible and delicately fragrant. It crept on me rather unawares, and I guiltily turned around, ready with tales of passing ducks, and midgets with halitosis, but instead I stayed Shtum, for the only person standing behind me, facing me, stuffing in a vol au vent, was television's Liz Sladen.

26 August, 2005

The Passport Office Writes

This just in from the passport office...

Dear Mr Scott

Thank you for your e-mail of 11th August 2005 regarding passport fees. As Customer Services Manager for the Peterborough Office I have been asked to reply.

Passport fees are set by Parliament in consultation with the Passport Service and the Treasury and are published in Consular Fees Order papers. The fees reflect the economic cost of providing the world wide passport issuing service. A proportion of the fee covers services provided by our Embassies abroad to British Citizens when they require help and also helps pay for new initiatives to combat fraud and identity theft (one of which is putting a biometric chip in the passport). We do not make a profit. As a Government Department we are required to recover costs.

Fees are reviewed annually, There has been no agreement about an increase yet this year. As soon as this information is available it will be posted on our website which is regularly updated.

Yours sincerely

Susan Coles (Mrs)
Customer Services Manager

This seems to suggest that no price increase is confirmed as yet. Also, the fact that the Passport Office has to recover its costs makes it unlikely that they'll be very interested in paying for the NIR. The ID Card Bill suggests, however, that the ID card administration will be done via the passport office, so presumably both the card fees and the passport fees will go into the same pot. It's difficult to tell from the letter whether Mrs Coles has told be all that she is allowed to tell me, or that she really doesn't know what the future holds. Knowing the Labour government, who regularly has had to dramatically change its policies in light of politicians saying the wrong things in speeches (much of foregin policy emerged from Blair's public addresses rather than the Foreign Office), this hardly seems surprising.

As I was saying

On a recent Dispatches, the Channel 4 investigatve journalism strand, Sun and Times journalist and chick-lit novelist Jane Moore put the supermarkets of Great Britain under close scrutiny.

I'm no fan of supermarkets as previous posts to this blog attest; however there were hugely questionable moments during the show. A particularly pointless part of the proceedings involved restaurant chef Raymond Blanc cooking up lamb chops (or lamp chops as the onscreen graphics stated) provided by his own butcher and the local Sainsbury's, feeding them to some testers, and discovering with no little surprise that his butcher provided better meat than the supermarket. This is akin to all those equally pointless documentaries where breadwinner men swap places with their wives only to discover that neither can do each others roles very well after a full day or two of trying[1]. The prices of the meat weren't bandied about, probably more down to commercial sensitivity for Blanc than any conscious decision to remove what is perhaps the second, if not the most, important factor in picking out meat.

Bad spelling and logic aside, the show had a great deal going for it. I don't believe in vegetarianism, because I don't think it's ecologically viable, but I am concerned by the welfare of the animal prior to its arrival in my plate. The footage of duck and chicken farms were unsettling, and the advice on hockburn hunting, and other ways of telling if a chicken was well raised or not have been put into good use. I enjoyed the finger wagging over incorrectly named cuts of meat, too.

Now I personally am trying to stop getting meat and veg from Sainsbury's. We've a very reasonable greengrocers and butchers, and both have the benefit of not giving you an experience equivalent to nails down a cliche every time you walk in. The greengrocers is, as Moore found out with her own local one, cheaper. What I find interesting, and again this wasn't really picked up on in the show, was that supermarkets pressurise their customers into bulkbuying - meaning that although you feel you're paying less for your 0-rotten in sixty seconds bags of carrots, the fact that you end up throwing half of it away does rather cancel out the saving. And whereas Moore focused on the waste being produced by supermarket contracted farmers (without explaining why vegetables rejected on aesthetic reasons couldn't be sold elsewhere[2]), no mention was made of the billions of pounds of produce thrown away by the consumer.

And here's the real nub of the problem. The supermarkets, when commenting on why they do things the way they do, regularly stated that the reason they do it is because they're complying with customer wants and needs. Moore touched briefly on the notion that we don't know how to shop any more, but failed to really embrace how this has come about. Choice is dictated by the supermarkets. Availability is dictated by the supermarkets. The supermarkets, through their research, have received a mandate to develop certain lines and products at the total expense of other lines and products (quite serious when some of those lines are species of animal). We ultimately will want what is put in front of us. If we judge what is put in front of us, we do so within that set, not by looking beyond the set - the what ifs are not close at hand, nor are they easily quantifiable. So from within the set we again begin rejecting things, with the supermarkets ever watchful, attempting to adapt what is available, and what is acceptable becomes narrower and narrower, and it becomes harder and harder to meet the demand. It's a feedback loop with diminishing returns.

A large part of the blame can be laid at the supermarkets' doors, but at the end of the day it is our own easily cowed behaviour that is to blame for the situation continuing. We are too happy to go with what is presented to us. For all my talk of buying meat and veg from the greengrocers, I still find myself crawling back to Sainsbury's for forgotten items. I still can't manage to buy a week's food all in one go, at a time that I can actually get to the small local shops[3]. That's why, as I make my way through the horrendously unthought-out queue at Herne Hill I do so with a sense of failure.

But in there on Wednesday I happened to espy and purchase a copy of their magazine[4], which had as one of the cover stories an item wherein secrets of bad behaviour in restaurants are exposed by top chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Warrell Thompson and... Raymond Blanc? Yup. They speak to Raymond who imparts almost identical criticism of badly reared chickens in cheap restaurants that he did on Dispatches when discussing supermarket poultry. The magazine seems to be interested in a bit of damage repair (several of the other articles seem to be pushing the "we're not Satan, Ms. Moore" approach) but the inclusion of Blanc's comments makes it appear they are intent on messing with our heads. Whose side is Blanc on again? I suspect, in fact, that it is Blanc who's the real smarty here. Having dissed Sainsbury's to the nation, he then uses their own publication to diss other restaurateur's establishments. Will he not be satisfied until we all have to eat at Chez Blanc?

[1] And rather than standing up for women's rights, and girl power, the subtext of these shows seem instead to suggest that a woman's place is in the home, looking after her hapless hubby.
[2] I suspect there is a dodgy exclusivity clause in the contract somewhere, but this needed to be declared openly.
[3] Oh, and don't get me started on the way the supermarkets opened huge shops out of town, driving the smaller local shops out of business, only to open crap versions of the same a few years later once everyone had forgotten.
[4] Magazine of the year! the cover proudly proclaims. Inside we learn it was voted Customer magazine of the year by PPA. Who? The Periodical Publishers Association - an industry award for a consumer title? This from the PPA website: 'In the competitive M-real Customer magazine of the year category, Sainsbury’s walked away with the top honour. Said the judges: “The magazine not only enhanced the brand but also encouraged loyalty and spend.”' Mmm... Now I've nothing against making money, but using the fact that your in-store magazine has won an award for enhancing the brand and successfully charming your customers out of their taschengelt as a selling point to the very people you're charming is just beyond cheeky, isn't it? It's like using the fact that Eats, Shoots & Leaves won Best Book at the publishing industry awards to sell more copies of it, when it won the award primarily for selling loads of copies in the first place. It is not an index of quality.

24 August, 2005

Round 2 - Seconds Out

Ready to launch into quite a lengthy post about supermarkets, the current state of TV documentaries and Sainsbury's Magazine, I found this squatting on my door mat:

Dear Mr Scott,

I enclose a copy of a response I have received from Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke MP at the Home Office which I hope you find helpful in addressing your concerns regarding identity cards that you asked me to raise on your behalf.

Please do let me know if you feel I can be of further help in the future.

With best wishes,

Yours Sincerely,

Rt. Hon. Tessa Jowell MP

Dear Tessa,

Thank you for your further letter of 13 July on behalf of Mr Simon Scott about identity cards.

I wish to clarify here, regarding compulsion, what we say is that having the debate over compulsion now makes clear that we are building a base for a compulsory Identity Cards Scheme. It is important for service providers in the public and private sectors to have a clear message of the Government’s intent that this would become a compulsory scheme. The Home Affairs Committee agreed that the full benefits of the scheme would only come with compulsion. However, no date has yet been set for a decision on a move to compulsion. There are a number of factors which the Government will need to consider before recommending a move to compulsion to Parliament.

The identity card proposed will help individuals assert their identity in a range of every day situations. For example, many young people routinely carry their very valuable passport to prove their age, and an identity card would provide a more convenient way of doing this. Added to this are the benefits of protecting people’s indentity and their right to access services in a simple and convenient way. These benefits are reflected in the public support for identity cards and I can assure Mr Scott, with ergard to thesurveys conducted in recent opinion polls, the majority of the public are still in support of the Identity Cards Scheme which is reflected in the Identity Cards Trade Off Research report published recently.

I note the points made by Mr Scott and am grateful for the time he has taken to further write in on this issue.

Yours ever,

Charles Clarke

I love the "what we say is" from Charles Clarke. He sounds like he's letting an apprentice in on the secrets of peddling snake-oil.

Viewers might like to know...

...that there is a fact sheep available to go with this programme.

Young Mr Paul Morris has recently been in touch to let me know that The Fact Sheep has received a long overdue seeing to. I urge a visit.

I recollect, many a year ago, handing out diddy Fact Sheep fliers at the Fitzroy Tavern, and enraging a pavement drunk from the safe and warming confines of a bus window by showing him one that read "Foot and mouth disease is not a 'gay plague'". This in turn was in reference to a mad and stupid vicar who noticed that both outbreaks of foot and mouth coincided with a relaxation in the law on homosexuality, the first with decriminalisation, the second with the equalising of the age of consent. He'd published pamphlets and everything. Always a danger, giving hateful twats dog collars and pulpets. I wonder if he'd be done now for fomenting.

"Implants! Those aren't your mammaries, they're somebody else's..."

Anyone who has read the article on reconsolidation theory and plastic memory at Hamilton's Brain might be interested in this report on the BBC News website.

Life Loading... Please Wait...

Well, very naughtily I purchased Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for the PC a couple of weeks ago and naturally enough have been sucked into its dark vortex ever since. It's much busier than the earlier GTA games, having moved very gently towards an RPG rather than a semi-formless TPS. The earlier games tended to involve the traditional gaming cycle of: save; try mission; fail mission; reload; try mission; succeed; save; etc. but because you now have a large and explicit range of statistics to manage the above technique isn't too benefitial. You might fail a mission but, in doing so, have your marksmanship or driving skills upgraded meaning you're more likely to succeed next time - so long as you don't reload before trying again.

I had promised myself I'd play the game intensely only until I'd unlocked the State (at the start of the game you're restricted to a single city), but because of the added dimension of the character stats, the game is a lot trickier than before. And don't get me started on the territorial gang wars! Thus I find the end of the month fast approaching, and not a huge amount of work to show for it. Naughty Simon. Doesn't get a biscuit.

Luckily I can be self-deluded enough to consider my forray into mainstream gaming culture as research for a GRW article. The open plan, do anything aspect of GTA with the added mission playing, reminds me of the structure of text adventures - an explorable environment with sections (narrative and/or geographic) blocked off by puzzles. And with more games going for this sort of structure (with the increasingly successful online RPG games being perhaps the form at its most pure) I feel there's meat enough. What really fascinates me is the creation of a shared, known, but imaginary space, with GTA's cityscapes being fantastically potent in that they mimic familiar spaces and interactions. But I shan't shoot my bolt here. I've another article in mind, too, inspired by some work I've had at City Hall involving the books of condolence opened for the victims of the Thursday bombings.

I've slipped the release of GRW back another month, but will be doing a sizeable update to the website hopefully this weekend. I'm going to look at arranging mailing lists for readers and writers in the hopes that I can put them to use in widening our distribution and writing team. I've got in touch with a FlickR account holder who has an extensive collection of police mugshots for the cover of the new issue. And with an October release, the mag will be coming back on its second anniversary.

I've actually forgotten what updates are lined up for Hamilton's Brain. I've scribbled some stuff on Static that I'm not particularly happy with, and have further sketched out some ideas on One Hour Photo. Pieces just seems to get more and more difficult to write. Between my laziness and the sheer sadness of the central character I can hardly bring myself to sit down and write anything. I need to squeeze a bit more light into it, I think, otherwise the thing will be utterly unreadable. I'm going to be linking in my FlickR account and links page this month too. Trying to decide on what object to use as the FlickR link, though. All choices seem cliched. Or, worse still, difficult to model.

Recent and pending acquisitions - Eddie Izzard's Sexie and Circle which I've still not managed to see, and two Luke Smith albums which Amazon promise will take an absolute age to arrive. I'll tell you about Luke when they arrive, I think.

11 August, 2005

More Government Body Bothering

This to the Passport Office (via their highly recommended website) regarding the price increase:

I understand that in order to bring passports in line with forthcoming international standards, the price of passports will increase by about fifty pounds. The standards in question require the addition of a digital, encrypted photograph to be stored on the passport. Can you explain why the addition of such a meagre item is costing so much money? I understand that price increases in other countries, such as Australia, are much smaller, not even getting into double figures.

Is there any truth in the rumour that much of the increase will be used to set up the National Identity Register, even though the new standards for passports do not require the additional passport to be listed on a separate database?

And this longer bit to the Citizens' Surveillance Register team at the Home Office:

Some time ago the former opponent of ID Cards, Mr Tony Blair, stated that the forthcoming National ID Card and Registry, which the treasury have insisted will be self-financed, shall be capped, with registry and card costs being charged to the individual at less than £30.

This would suggest that the budget for creating the scheme is approximately £2 billion. Given that the current, less ambitious, NHS database has already cost over £6 billion. How will you be able to turn around a safe, secure, convenient system for such a relatively small amount of money?

Furthermore, I am a little confused as to how the scheme's cashflow will operate. Given that payment is made on registry, re-registry and further information adjustments such as changes of address, much of the cost will be spent before this point is reached. Where does the cash for the scheme come from?

I understand it is the Home Office's intention to register citizens' biometric information with the NIR when they renew their passports as early as 2008. Given that the Home Office has stated that, for the cards to be compulsary, a further vote in the House would be required, will the registry of biometrics with the NIR be optional until such a time as ownership of the card becomes mandatory?

In light of the recent news that much of the administration of the Birth, Marriage and Death certificates will be offshored to India, how will the system be made secure? Much of the talk of security issues have focused on data theft, but given that the NIR will be populated by other databases, and given that registry with the NIR will rely on existing forms of identification, how will the Home Office protect the Births, Marriages and Deaths registry from being corrupted by users creating false entries in order to back-up applications for the much more attractive "gold standard" National ID Cards? Under whose legal jurisdiction do the offshore workers come if they are to commit crimes against the Registry?

When the Home Office refuses to give out information regarding its own figures due to commercial sensitivity, thus fomenting argument between the HO and the LSE, which particular businesses are the Home Office protecting?

I'm hoping the responses won't be occupying the same realities...

10 August, 2005

Weak Ending

Well Prescott seems to be making the most of the limelight, with press-grabbing actions like taking a family around 10 Downing Street on an impromptu tour, and announcing that New Labour will provide homes for those not on the property ladder that will cost £60,000. It doesn't take a Jonathan Swift to spot what's going on! Blair is going to return from his holiday to find a For Sale board outside his office, you see if he doesn't.

That Perec quote in full

I got the detail slightly misremembered. The below section appears in a letter to the mother of a murdered woman, by the man who murdered her. She, hired as an au pair by the man, allowed for his son to drown, and his wife subsequently commited suicide. In this part of the letter, he is still searching for the au pair and is running out of options...

So then I began to appeal to the exhausting resources of the irrational. If your mysterious and beautiful American neighbour had still been there, you can be sure I would have had recourse to her disturbing services; instead, I went into turning tables, I wore rings encrusted with particular stones, I had magnets and hanged men's fingernails and tiny bottles of herbs, seeds, and coloured stones sewn into the hems of my clothes; I consulted wizards and water diviners, fortune tellers and crystal-bal gazers and soothsayers of all sorts; they threw dice, or burnt a photograph of your daughter in a white porcelain plate and examined the ash, they rubbed their left arms with fresh verbena leaves, put hyenas' gallstones under their tongues, spread flour on the floor, made unending anagrams of your daughter's names and pseudonyms, or replaced the letters of her name with figures in an attempt to reach 253, examined candle flames through vases filed with water, threw salt into fire and listened to the crackling...

09 August, 2005

Oh the joy of infectious stupidity. Whilst I was boarded on the 8:13 to Blackfriars, a chap got on board and asked if it was the Blackfriars train. One of the people in the carriage replied that, no, it was the Victoria train. This was followed by five or six people contradicting her. She decided to stand her ground, saying that the station had "forgotten" about the 8:13 train, and this was definitely the Victoria train. I stuck my head out, looked up at the display screen, and it did indeed say "8:20 Victoria".

So I got off, as did the various people under the impression that it had been the Blackfriars train. Then, after a minute or so, the doors closed and the train left, long before 8:20, because, of course, it wasn't the 8:20 at all. I only hope the person that had been heading to Victoria was suitably mortified when her train arrived at Loughborough Junction.

I actually wrote some more of Pieces yesterday - the scene in which George identifies his wife's body, and the scene in which his son is born. The trickiest part so far is as quickly and efficiently as possible setting the time period that each fragment of narrative is set.The other difficult part is finding something unique to say in each of the 110 (!) sections of narrative. I'm beginning to feel like I can write, though. Symbols and images are beginning to recur in a way that is familiar to me from my previous stories. I've often described my writing as fractal, and will frequently load sentences with a microcosmic variation of the whole. Pieces has the perfect form for it.

Furthermore, if I can pull it off, it will be one of the longest pieces of writing that I've ever done, abandoned novels aside. The two bits I put down yesterday have strengthened my resolve to keep at it - the way in which the two pieces linked up has shown me that I should let myself deviate from the plan in terms of number of fragments per timeframe. It seems the character is able to determine what should and shouldn't be focused on, meaning I need not waste time on the parts that do not hold as much interest for me. Ironically the metaphor of the assembled jigsaw is infecting the writing process itself, which can only be to its benefit. What's also been interesting for me is that, with individual passages written, I find connection points that lead me to other aspects of George's story that I'd never considered. I've also decided, whilst fuming on the 8:22 (hardly worth the rage, that nine minutes), that the death of Jacqueline, George's wife, will be the event that marks the point in time for my 253-inspired Wiki fiction project. This has the handy side-effect of disallowing me to get distracted by the Wiki project.

And while we're on the subject, I've an idea of why Geoff Ryman picked 253 as the number for his book. Admittedly, it's most likely that the number was derived, as claimed, by the number of seats on a tube train of certain length (the odd number a result of the driver's seat), but if you dip into Perec's Life A User's Manual, you will find a section referring to a wealthy lady, and her expensive search for a missing relative. Listed amongst the vendors of false hopes are numerologists who speak of the significance of words and phrases condensed to the figure 253 (I may hunt out the quote tonight). No more likely to be the direct influence than Sirens Of Titan really getting the name UNK from a particular shot in a Warner Bros cartoon (see the Brain Probe), but I do enjoy these little coincidences, they signify little or nothing, but can be put to good use for fun and profit.

The 253 coincidence is further ramified by the inclusion, in the opening of Ryman's later novel Lust, of a N+7 rendering of the Lord's Prayer taken, if I'm not mistaken, from the OuLiPoan Compendium, the OuLiPo being the literary organisation to which Perec belonged. So perhaps Ryman had already read LAUM prior to writing 253, and although it may not have defined the tube novel, the arrival at 253 as the number of tube seats may well have registered subconsciously with him - its signficance not immediately apparrent but evoking a rightness that motivated him to complete the project.

Conjecture, conjure, etc.

EDIT: 15/08/2005
Londonist mentioned a piece by Ryman on the BBC site which is worth a read.

07 August, 2005


The Long Corridor
The Long Corridor,
originally uploaded by Simon Scott.
Went into town to photograph a very long corridor I know of for the "Guess Where London" flickr group. Met up with Jon and Julian and went on to karaoke with Mike and Alison in Archway. What larks. I did National Express, Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town, and Love Is In The Air. Ruby went over the best I think, and as a satyre of the news of the day, I change the lyric "I didn't start that crazy Asian war" to "I didn't start that crazy Arab war."

Alison did Goldfinger and we clapped after she'd sung the opening line, a joke we did not tire of for the rest of the evening. Mike and Jon performed Back In The USSR with aplomb and Julian's crowning glory was Arthur's Theme.

03 August, 2005

Biting off more...

Well, my deadline for the first quarterly issue of GRW draws closer and to date I've received one article. Hmm...

The problem I currently face seems to have the following causes:

  • if the magazine is quarterly, then the deadlines always seem far off into the future. Motivating writers, especially those working for nothing, becomes tricky;
  • my hopes of distributing the magazine through independent bookshops in London would take too much time and effort, and is made trickier when there isn't, as yet, a magazine to sell;
  • I have absolutely no idea whether or not anyone would want to buy the magazine;
  • I can't afford to print a large enough volume of magazines to end up with a competitive price.

With these points in mind, I've decided to bring GRW back as a monthly free magazine, but rather than distribute paper copies of it, I will only publish the pdf online, taking the additional step of uploading the articles as html documents. All of the trappings and fun will remain in the pdf files, which will remain available for publishing should the urge and the cash lead me to it.

I'm setting a contribution deadline of 22nd August, with a view to getting the 'zine edited and online by the 2nd of September. In the future it may be possible for the magazine to reach a stage where it can be published more commercially, but it wasn't why I started the 'zine and shouldn't be the reason for its termination either.

I'll hopefully also be having a relaunch drinkies on Friday evening at a pub of my choosing. I'm hoping to use it to ensnare more writers in my evil web. I'll also be looking at producing paper copies on request for distribution at the shindig. Can't celebrate its rebirth in the abstract, after all.