Monthly Archives: July 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I read Ready Player One on my phone as an eBook. I tweeted my progress through my @stillawake and temporary @Bristol52 accounts and now I’m writing the review on my phone. For my geeky finale, I can upload this post to my blog from wherever I am, as soon as it’s done. This used to feel a bit impressive until I immersed myself in Ernest Cline’s world and read about the Oasis.

The Oasis is a virtual world in which you are a 3D participant once you are outfitted with the right equipment. People learn to read and write in there, make friends and live out their gaming explorations. Since the world and its environment are all but destroyed and physical life is subject to corporate control, people find that living in a virtual world is as much a necessity as it is an escape.

The creator of Oasis, James Halliday, has died and he has left one final prize to be won at the end of a gaming quest which takes place inside the immense alternate reality. The person who wins will inherit his entire fortune and the Oasis. The prize is an egg named after the surprises programmers sometimes leave in their software , called Easter eggs.

Ready Player One is about the quest for Halliday’s Easter Egg. There is a noble side to this hunt and there is its opposing side, the corporate, ruthless and soulless pursuit of the top prize for exploitation and greed.

Much of Cline’s work is an homage to 80s culture and to the solitary but virtually social world of the gaming geek. Knowledge is your greatest asset but you get nowhere without friends. All this set in a world of gaming and sci-fi.

There is a lot of exposition in this work but the pace stays steady and builds to quite a gleeful confrontation. Just as in the computer games we read about, the story gets tougher and tougher for our heroes and each big confrontation is brilliantly described. In fact, most of the books is filled with descriptions that are not too simplistic as to be tedious nor complicated enough to make it hard to picture.

Cline has achieved an incredible amount in one very accessible book. I loved it and towards the end had to force myself to put it down to get some sleep.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

The West End, as real as Broadmead

Is the West End real? Today it was called an “artificial construct” and yet the Bristol City Council refer to it in the same terms as they do for Broadmead and the Old City.

Core Strategy Publication 2009

“The city centre encompasses the distinctive neighbourhoods of Harbourside, West End, Old City, St Michael’s, Broadmead, Stokes Croft, Old Market, Temple and Redcliffe.”

Bristol Development Framework – Central Area Action Plan

“The West End neighbourhood comprises the area of the city centre that climbs the hill towards Clifton to the west of the Centre Promenade. West End is an important visitor destination within the city centre. As well as containing four of the city’s most important performance venues in the form of the Hippodrome, Colston Hall, O 2 Academy and St. George’s, the neighbourhood is also home to Bristol Ice Rink, three of the city’s museums and two destination parks – College Green and Brandon Hill, which also includes the newly reopened Cabot Tower. West End accommodates the city centre’s second most important shopping area in Queen’s Road and Park Street and is home to several major religious, civic and institutional buildings including Bristol Cathedral, Bristol Central Library, the Council House, BBC Broadcasting House, the Wills Memorial Building and the Victoria Rooms. Two major secondary schools, in the form of Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital and Bristol Cathedral Choir School, are located in the area.”

Potters, Perry Road

I saw the following lovely pottery creations when walking by Potters on Perry Road today. The painted tiles are delightful and beautifully colourful.

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The shop provides a potters’ retail showcase with work from around 50 artists.

9 Perry Road, Bristol, BS1 5BQ http://www.pottersbristol.com/

Sex education? No thanks, we’re free

The Bristol Inner-City Schools Trust has won the right to open a free school in the area of St Paul’s and Easton.

“No religion will be taught in the school and there will be no sex education lessons. Little time will be given to PE during the week, but pupils will attend on Saturday mornings for sport, art and activities” reported the Post. Andy Burkitt, chairman of the trustees of the Bristol said hundreds of parents had signed up in support.

Free schools are one of Michael Gove’s ideas with the money bypassing the local authority and going straight to the school. They can be set up by anyone, even a business, and their teachers will not need to have Qualified Teacher Status. They may possibly be one of the more insidious plans of the new government but we can only wait and see.

In this case the scary part is the lack of sex education. Alice Hoyle wrote in the New Statesman last week about the ramifications of using the proper words for describing sex acts:

And why is using the proper words so important? Let me give you two examples. First, I heard of a child abuse case where the abuser called his penis a “lollipop”, as no one would think twice about a child talking about lollipops. Second, a father was apparently investigated by police for months after his daughter said “Daddy hurt my Noo Noo”.

Noo Noo, it turned out, was her toy rabbit – which her father had put in the wash.

Source: New Statesman.

Now imagine not teaching anything at all.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Young white collar men around America are starting to fight in underground clubs. These fight clubs have rules and rule one is you don’t talk about Fight Club. Rule two is you don’t talk about Fight Club. There is in fact so much obfuscation in this book that by the time you get to the end you have to start at the beginning to figure out who didn’t say what to whom at just the right time.

Unless you’ve seen the movie. In fact, you, like me, have probably already seen the movie and are wondering why you would bother reading the book. Reason one, Chuck Palahniuk is such a trip of a read that he makes taking acid seem like a Christmas holiday for a bauble. I assume.

He is concise, laconic, detailed, egregious, perverse and revolutionary. Sometimes all in the same breath. He is also a master of seeing the big picture. Fight Club is about the human condition and getting out of our Ikea furnished flat-pack half-hearted lives and finding a better way and a better existence.

I loved the book. I’m glad I saw the movie first because I could picture Brad Pitt and Edward Norton throughout as a bit of a treat. What’s reason two you ask? See reason one.

A walking, talking, living doll

Mersina tapped on the window of the shop with cosmetics just outside the Subway outlet in Broadmead. A shop assistant looked outside and M leaned over and looked at the woman and pointed at the window. Chirp, cheep, jibber, jabber. She told the woman all about the window display. The woman agreed.

I turned her away and told her to wave goodbye as she started to walk in to the shop. The woman was charmed and so was I. This was the first trip that M and I had taken to the shops when I wasn’t really too concerned about her wanting to escape from her buggy. I mostly welcomed it.

She walked along everywhere around the pedestrianized shopping section of Bristol and we had nowhere we needed to be for a couple of hours. We had lunch at Chandos Deli; we browsed by Piccolino’s but the £13.95 2-course menu was a bit rich for us. The £11.95 one at Brasserie Blanc, not so appealing and the £9.99 Carluccio one even less with its stodgy emphasis on breads for starters and pasta for mains.

M shouted ba-ba-ba at every bicycle and kept spinning the pedals at the one nearest our lunch table. She picked up many of the sour cream and Mexican salsa crisps at Chandos so in the end I bought a packet. She walked with me to the bank and followed me along in the queue. When she walked off too far I called her and she came back. It was amazing. And lovely. So wonderful.

The sun was shining, we sat outside and then she was tired enough to enjoy being back in her buggy until we got to Millennium Square. There she discovered the pewter lifesize figurines of William Penn and another fellow on a seat behind him. She was enthralled, gleeful in fact. She chatted to him until was time to meet her daddy so we could go to Explore @ Bristol.

It was a lovely evening as well but it was the realisation that she is now old enough to play, enjoy herself and understand when I ask her to stay close to me. She’s just so much fun and such great company.

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Securing the future of rail through commuters’ pockets

David Cameron has announced an investment of £9.4 billion in the rail industry in a project which is “absolutely key to securing our country’s prosperity in the decades ahead” according to the transport secretary, Justine Greening. What neither Cameron nor Greening mentioned was that the money was coming mostly from passengers. The projects are being part funded by above-inflation fare rises, which were announced in 2010.

The new investment package is expected to deliver faster journey times, more reliable services and capacity for 140,000 extra daily commutes by train. And do you know what these extra commuters will do? They will pay an ever-increasing amount of money for the privilege of travelling to work on a train.

I am one of them. The number of us is increasing in the same positive direction as our costs.

First is the price of the ticket. The increase of RPI + 3% each year for three years was announced in 2010. Discounts on season tickets had stopped in 2009* with the arrival of the hardest moments of the recession.

A return ticket to Cheltenham Spa from Bristol Temple Meads went up from £11 to £15 in two years which represents £1000 extra a year.

Second is the cost of the shops and food outlets at the stations. Most of these places have exclusive access to passenger footfall and are in a very privileged position. Instead of reducing prices to reflect the fact that they have a constant stream of customers, they take advantage and charge over and above what what you would find in the nearest stores.

At Bristol Temple Meads there are six convenience food stores within the station and one outside the ticket barriers. The six inside include Starbucks and Pumpkin. A coffee** and a muffin from Starbucks cost £3.30 plus £1.85 respectively. This is nearly £350 more a year than if you were buying them from the Starbucks located in the business park outside the rear entrance of the station (£2.25 and £1.55). Buy outside and you are saving one third of the cost.

Why the extra levy on each customer? Because the Starbucks in the station is run by Select Service Partners who according to Dominic Walsh from the Times, are doing exceedingly well. No surprise there.

Select Service Partners do not have the right to use Starbucks cards – which offer discounts – and they charge ‘eat in’ prices rather than ‘take out’ equivalents. It’s not a scam but it is a premium for every customer commuter that passes its doors and can’t see the difference behind the logo. In Bristol they also run the Bristol International Airport Starbucks which also doesn’t accept the corporate cards.

According to an SSP spokesperson, ‘operating a food service brand at a rail station is not comparable to operating that same brand at a high street or business park location. Rent structures differ, opening hours and days are significantly longer, trading peaks and trough are much more pronounced, more staff are required to serve at peak periods in a commuter environment, and there are a number of logistical challenges (such as operating in a smaller space, with limited areas for deliveries or within the confines of historically important buildings) that all result in high costs.

‘Unfortunately we are not able to integrate with the Starbucks loyalty
scheme however we do operate our own loyalty programme called the Bite Card, which offers our customers generous discounts. At Bristol Temple Meads, this can be used at the bar, the Pasty Shop, Upper Crust and Pumpkin.’

Pumpkin Cafes are ubiquitous throughout British railway stations and their prices are as painful to pockets as Starbucks. Overpriced items can also be found on the trolley service on certain trains and the catering carriage on others. Some prices which may seem familiar to you.

  • 69p for an orange (Pumpkin at Cheltenham Spa)
  • 1.85 for a fresh banana muffin (occasionally very tasty and fresh)
  • Sandwiches, pasties, pastry slices and sausage rolls are all exclusively Ginsters when not sold fresh (Cheltenham Spa)
  • Sandwiches range from £2.49 to 2.99, deep fill £3.39

From the trolley service on the Cross Country trains

  • £1.70 for 500ml drinks inc water
  • £1.20 Capri
  • £1.90 orange juice 330ml
  • £1.50 for a Starbucks caramel waffle
  • £2.10 for a Starbucks via instant coffee

The money paid to these outlets does not go to the government coffers directly, obviously, but the indirect flow is from us to them. So when you hear David Cameron talk about the biggest investment in rail infrastructure for the last 150 years, I hope you know who to thank. Hint: it’s not the government.

Bristol Temple Meads

Select Service Partners have yet to respond to a request for comment.

*Season tickets stopped being discounted on my service from December 2009.
** Grande soy caramel latte with an extra shot (and wet).

Updated with SSP comment: 23.07.12