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I am somewhat mystified by the talk recently about what team Scottish people, and various MPs, particularly Scottish ones, “should” support in the football World Cup. There are no “should”s, of course: anyone can support any football team they want to, or none. It’s just daft, at best, that anyone made an issue of it regarding the behaviour of our public servants.

But the stranger thing, really, is that anyone might expect a Scotland fan to support England under any circumstances.

I don’t mean here, a Scot who takes little interest in football between World Cups, but might enjoy watching some of what should be the best examples of the game. I’m talking about your actual, dedicated football fan. Some people suggest that such a Scotland fan ought to support England because we are neighbouring countries, and part of the same meta-country.

But consider this: Spurs and Arsenal are neighbouring teams, and part of the same city; the same can be said of Liverpool and Everton, Manchesters United and City, and perhaps most significantly, of Celtic and Rangers. Now, tell me this: if Spurs were in the European Cup (as I still think of it) , would an Arsenal fan support them? Would anyone say that an Arsenal fan “should” support Spurs?

Well, I can’t speak for any of the English teams I mentioned above, but I come from a family of Celtic fans, and was quite a dedicated fan myself in my younger years (before I grew out of the whole thing, and put my interest into music instead), and I can tell you that there is no way on this Earth or beyond that a Celtic fan would ever support Rangers in anything. My Dad’s saying about it not mattering who wins, only had a tangential application to the national teams. Its Platonic form was, “It doesn’t matter who wins, as long as it’s not Rangers.”

I’m quite sure that Rangers fans feel just as strongly about Celtic’s successes.

The logical extension of this interclub rivalry is to the national teams of Scotland and England; and no doubt, to those of various other pairs of nations. I imagine that French fans are unlikely to support, say, Germany against Brazil, just because they share a land border with one, and only a planet with the other.

So really, expecting a Scot to support England is crazy. Supporting the opponent of your greatest rival is perfectly natural behaviour

Book Notes 7: Nova Scotia, edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J Wilson

(I haven’t stopped reading, nor writing these notes: I just haven’t got round to posting them, for various reasons).

I actually started reading this back in October last year, but, it being a collection of short stories, I took it slowly, over months. Since I finished it this year, it belongs in my 2006 Book Notes.

Before I get much further I should declare an interest: one of the editors, Andrew, is an old university friend of mine.

So it might come as no surprise that I am more impressed by the very existence of this boook than by its content. Which is not to dismiss or belittle the content. There are some very good stories here, by some top authors and fine newcomers. But the overall sense of it is less than overwhelming.

Perhaps the most surprising letdown is a sin of omission: where is Scotland’s most famous SF author; indeed, probably its most famous living author? No doubt the good Mr Banks has other things to do — I doubt that he writes short stories at all, these days — but you’d think he could have done an introduction or something.

The introduction in fact is by David Pringle, the former editor of Interzone: I had no idea that he was even Scottish. But there you go: we get everywhere.

I’m not going to go through all the stories, just hit a few high and low points.

In a way the most disappointing story is Hal Duncan‘s ‘The Last Shift’. Not because it’s badly written or anything. Rather, because it’s not SF, fantasy, or speculative in any way. It’s a sadly-commonplace tale of the last day of a factory whose company is “outsourcing” or “offshoring” all the work. The fact that the characters all have wings and horns like the demons of our world’s mythology (and that the location doesn’t exist in our world) neither adds anything to it nor detracts from it in anyway: those factors are just irrelevant.

Which is a shame. I’m a keen reader of Hal’s blog, and look forward to reading his first novel, Vellum (I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve so far been put off buying it by the price: it’s a full-price hardback at £17:99, and that just seems a bit too much for an essentially unkown author).

The high points for me are probably ‘Sophie and the Sacred Fluids’ by Andrew C Ferguson (another disclaimer: I also had a passing acquaintance with this Andrew); ‘Deus ex Homine’, by Hannu Rajaniemi; and ‘Snowball’s Chance’, by Charles Stross.

In conclusion, I’m very glad it exists, and I’m glad I read it; but I hope the next volume, if it happens, is better.

[tags]books, book notes 2006, nova scotia, sf, scotland, science fiction, scottish fiction, scottish literature, scottish sf, scottish writing[/tags]

The Water of Life

Or at least a container for it. It’s Bike Week this week, and as I happened to be cycling through Islington anyway, I was caught up by the members of the local LCC. They were offering a free cyclists’ breakfast, and a Dr Bike clinic. I had already had breakfast, and my bike was serviced recently, so I didn’t stop for that (though it is making a strange noise again, so perhaps I should have).

However they were also handing out free water bottles, which is just what I needed: I just noticed this morning that mine is cracked, and in any case it’s very prone to making the water taste plasticy. So I accepted that gratefully, and am giving something back by adding what tiny amount of Google juice I can to the URL that is printed on the bottle: Islington Borough’s Green Travel page.

Now get on yer bike, everyone.

It doesn’t matter who wins…

I found myself feeling curiously left out as my colleagues left work to watch the England match yesterday. This despite the fact that I didn’t want to watch it, I purposely avoided watching it, and I intended/hoped to take advantage of the reduced commuter traffic (not much reduced, as it happened: such is London’s diversity) to get home easily, and collect my kids from school.

Where they were watching the football, of course, courtesy of the after-school club.

Above all, if I had intended to watch it, my sympathies would have been with the other side anyway: I am Scottish, after all, and as my Dad used to say, “It doesn’t matter who wins, as long as it’s not England.” Plus I’m a sucker for an underdog (I mistyped that as “undergod”; there’s a story in there, I’m sure).

But despite all that, as my colleagues left the office for the pub or wherever, I still felt a slight echo of the thing I felt as a kid when I was left out of something that “everyone else” was doing.

We all want to be part of a tribe, I suppose.

In the end I watched he last half hour or so at the school; from just before the scary personality-cult chants of “Rooney, Rooney!” to the end. The cheers, as you might expect in a primary school, were very high and shrill. I was pleased, though, that Trinidad and Tobago’s goal (before it was disallowed) got almost as loud a cheer. This was Hackney, and of course, there are a lot of kids with Caribbean ancestry.

And maybe a lot of good sports, too. Maybe I should learn from them, and support England. But I can’t see it ever happening: there are some early-learned prejudices that die impossibly hard.

So I guess I’m still part of a tribe.

Eye Contact, or: Pay Attention to the Web Behind the Curtain.

Eyes in the sky

There is a strange and mighty power to eye contact, it seems.

I’m not talking about the effects of making — or not making — eye contact while talking to someone, though of course that does indeed have a great symbolic strength and communicative ability. Rather, I’m talking about the effect of making eye contact at a distance; specifically while cycling.

As you might imagine, cycling round the streets of London has its hazards. It’s not as fraught with danger as some believe (fear of the dangers is one of the main reasons people give for why they don’t, or wouldn’t, cycle; which is a shame, because it’s good for the individual, and good for the environment), but that’s another discussion.

Most potential problems can be avoided with a suitable degree of alertness. But the necessary alertness isn’t all on the part of the cyclist: it’s important for other road users to be alert to the presence of cyclists, too. Who remembers “Think once, think twice, think bike!“, the road-safety campaign on British TV during the seventies? That was intended to make other road-users more aware of cyclists (and motorcyclists).

That is where one of the biggest dangers lies: quite frankly, there are a lot of road users who just don’t notice cyclists. And it’s not just the BMW drivers and Royal Mail vans (in my experience the two most dangerous types of motorised vehicle, from a cyclist’s point of view (though all generalisations are false, of course)).

No, any motor vehicle can be a problem, and pedestrians and even other cyclists are almost as bad. Indeed , the two accidents I’ve had in all my years of cycling in London were both caused, at least in part, by pedestrians. There is, however, a simple technique that can — almost magically, it sometimes seems — make other road users notice you.

Look them in the eye.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Just make eye contact with the driver, cyclist or pedestrian, and suddenly they realise you’re there.

Which is not so surprising: it’s hard to not be aware of the presence of someone who is looking you in the eye. What is strange, though, is the way in which it works at a distance. You don’t have to be able to see the other person’s eyes, or even to see the person. Innumerable times I have been hurtling along a road and seen a car or van about to pull out of a side road and smash into me (or at least, make me brake sharply). I can’t see the driver because of distance or dark windows, but I aim a hard stare at the area where I know the driver’s head must be. And the car (or van) suddenly brakes, and lets me sweep past.

Similarly, a burst of laser-like staring swept across a group of pedestrians can stop them stepping off the kerb and into my path. It’s quite remarkable, really.

I’m reminded of the story of James Dean’s death. He crashed his car into another car that was pulling out of a side road, and supposedly Dean said to his passenger, (who survived the crash), “It’s all right, he sees me.”

Clearly, the other driver didn’t. Perhaps if Dean had just tried looking at where the other driver’s eyes were, the strange, near-telepathic effect might have happened, and he could have lived to make many more films.

The effect is, I suspect, related to the “feeling of being watched” that most people have experienced at some time. There’s no obvious mechanism for it, but it does seem to be the case that, when someone is looking at us, we become aware of the fact.

Attention surfeit disorder?

When some one is looking at us, or is paying attention to us. Which brings me to another angle on this. That is the idea of attention.. Up here in The Future, in the days of the development of “Web 2.0″ (which, by the way, is pronounced “two point zero”, not “two point oh”, as I heard them saying on Newsnight the other day; we are, after all, scientists) we are often told (though perhaps mainly by Doc Searls) of how important our attention is.

Indeed, the phrase “the attention economy” is in use by some. Of course, the expression “pay attention” has been around for a long time, but only now has attention taken on some of the other trappings of money. We can “pay” for a web site’s services with our attention. Any site with adverts effectively meets this model, though there are more direct examples, such as Salon‘s premium content, for which you can get a “day pass” by sitting through a short advert — as an alternative to paying actual cash for a subscription.

The force of our attention — of looking — is powerful in multiple ways.

Pachyderm Prestidigitation

Like much of the rest of the London Blogosphere, I went with the family to see The Sultan’s Elephant on Sunday. I had had a quick look at it on the way home from work on Friday, when it was just standing still at the end of Pall Mall. Then, it was clearly impressive; but wasn’t clear quite how glorious, how majestic it would be once it was moving among crowds.

We drove in to Holborn and took the Tube to Green Park. The Tube was crammed, and I assumed (and feared) that everyone there would have the same aim as us. But no, it was just a commonplace weekend crowd, with many destinations in mind. When we got out, Piccadilly was busy, but not obviously in an unusual way.

We could see that the road was partly closed in the direction of Piccadilly Circus, so we headed that way. In the distance we could see crowds of people, but no obvious forty-foot elephant (and it’s hard to imagine a forty-foot elephant being anything else). One of the stewards told us that it was going to turn down Haymarket and then into Pall Mall.

Then, as we got a bit closer to the Circus, I caught a glimpse of a large leather ear flapping, and soon we could all see its head. But Piccadilly had never seemed so long, and it began to feel as if we wouldn’t catch it, though it was obviously going very slowly.

I hoped to get a picture of it with the statue of Eros in the same shot, but it was not to be. By the time we got to Piccadilly circus, it had already turned into Haymarket. So we decided to cut down Regent Street and get ahead of it. Guess what? We weren’t the only ones to have that idea. By this time we were among crowds, but not so dense that it was very hard to move; just dense enough to make us keep a tight hold on the kids.

A bit of zigzagging through back streets and we found ourselves on Charles II Street. Iit was clear from the music coming from Haymarket that the elephant hadn’t passed yet, and from the layout of the crowd that it would be coming along that way. So we positioned ourselves at the edge of the pavement and waited.

Sure enought, after a few minutes some stewards came along the street asking people to stay back on the pavements. Another few minutes and several police officers came along with the same message.

It’s worth pointing out both how good a job the stewards and the police did, and how little they actually had to do (from what I saw of it). It just goes to show that you can stage a big event with minimal crowd control. Treat people with respect and give them something interesting to watch and you don’t need to herd them through crash barriers like cattle in a slaughterhouse.

Anyway, a few minutes after that, and the elephant’s head began to appear round the corner. It was, as I said above, majestic: that’s the word that came to my mind as soon as I saw it.

I don’t know if it was the beauty of the beast, or the fact that there were bagpipes among the music that was playing (the pipes always get me like that); but I felt a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as it approached.

Then the fucker sprayed me with water.

Actually, being sprayed was quite fun. Fortunately it was a hot day. But I got hit so directly that I could almost hear the operators saying,”Get the guy in the orange t-shirt and sunglasses.” If you don’t want to get hit, don’t dress up like a target, I suppose.

As the beast itself passed next to us, and I got a brief chance to admire the action of the legs (it moves on wheels, but the leg movement is very convincing), I realised that the music was coming from a truck behind it on which a live band was playing. I had assumed it was just recordings, but the band added an extra touch, and we got to listen to them up close. They were good, and I’d like to find out who they were.

After it passed, and the crowd thinned a bit, we decided to head round to Waterloo Place to see the Little Girl’s crashed space capsule; not realising that it had been moved. No matter, though: it meant we got another view of the elephant as it turned onto Pall Mall.

And so to home. We didn’t stay to see the finalé, so we didn’t see the Little Girl at all; nor did we see her spaceship. All that was left on Waterloo Place was a hole in the road, which people, in their infinite capacity to make a mess, had already started dropping rubbish into. As it turned out, the ship had been moved to Horseguards for her to leave in.

It was a fabulous thing to see, though, and I’m so glad that the Mayor and the GLA saw fit to have it here.

My son asked me at one point, as the music surrounded us and the elephant towered over us, “Why did it come to London?” I answered with joy and almost without thinking about it, “Because this is the best city in the world.”

Sometimes it is.

Who the hell do we vote for?

It’s my custom prior to elections to write a post giving “voting advice”. Of course, I don’t expect anyone to take this advice: I’m just thinking out loud, really.

But now, with local elections happening tomorrow, I’m in something of a quandary. It’s always been easy in the past — or it was, before the last general election: vote Labour. There, that was easy, wasn’t it?

But now; now.

Now Labour are the ones who are bringing in ID cards. They’re the ones who are trying to allow themselves to make laws without parliament. They’re the ones who’re putting a new face on sleaze by selling peerages.

There is no way I can vote for them while they support ID cards; nor could I vote for any other party that did. Nor, no matter how cuddly and environmental David Cameron appears, there is no way in hell I could ever vote Tory.

In the last general election I voted Liberal Democrat, and I suppose it might have to go that way in tomorrow’s locals. The thing is, I’m not totally sure that I would want to enact a change in our local council. Things have been getting quite good in Hackney’s services recently, what with their roadside recycling and what have you.

The Respect Party‘s candidate for Hackney’s mayor is the father of a friend of my daughter, so I kind of know him. He came to the door last night, and I asked him about their position on ID cards (not a local issue, of course, but still). Totally against, which is good. So voting for him is tempting, but I have my doubts about the party leader, George Galloway. His performance at the US senate was genius, but there is still the “indefatigability” speech, and the way he campaigned against Una King in Bethnal Green.

Then there’s the Green Party. Always a possibility; but I have my reservations about their positions on everything but the environment.

You know, I might not actually decide until I step into the booth tomorrow.

[tags]politics, elections, voting, local elections 2006, hackney. respect party, green party, libdems, liberal democrat party, mayor of hackney[/tags]

Clarke and the convicts

The fact that some of the ex-cons who are foreign nationals have offended again should come as no surprise whatsoever: many convicted criminals re-offend after their release. It should be nothing more than expected. Nor is the fact of their re-offending in itself part of the scandal.

Furthermore, as has been said elsewhere, these thousand or so released offenders pose no greater or lesser threat to society than any other random thousand offenders. Their only difference is that they are not British citizens. Contrary to the belief, perhaps, of the Daily Mail and its readers, that does not inherently make them worse people — nor, indeed, any more likely to re-offend — than those of us who were born here.

That they should have been deported if the court specified that as part of their sentences is self-evident. As indeed is the fact that those who were released on licence should have been properly tracked by the appropriate authorities. These are problems in the systems for which the Home Office is responsible, and as such, they should be investigated and corrected.

The real scandal, though, is that the Home Secretary apparently did nothing to correct the problem after it had been identified: he is said to have known about it for some ten months, and only in the last week has he taken any action. And then only because a diligent opposition MP kept asking questions until he found out about it.

In a sense the actual problems are minor: the supposedly-lost offenders have been located by the Police and Parole Service. Most of them are now to be deported (which strikes me as verging on double jeopardy, since they have already done their time, but I wouldn’t expect this government to let a little thing like that bother them). Steps have been, or will be, put in place to prevent the same thing happening in future. If that proves not to be the case, there will be plenty of opposition MPs and journalists quick to point out that the problem still exists.

What we are seeing is largely an excuse for a mass exercise in xenophobia by the media: a depressing and frankly disgraceful display, which can only help to fuel the arguments of the vile BNP in tomorrow’s local elections.

And maybe that is why Clarke should go: for (inadvertantly) giving succour to fascists.

But if Blair did accept Clarke’s resignation, who would we get in his place? Whoever it was, I can’t imagine that they would be much better.

[tags]clarke, charles clarke, politics, deportation, foreign offenders, convicts, ex-cons, local elections[/tags]