Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Digging up the past

The loft at Dixon Towers isn't really worthy of the name. It originally spanned the entire floor area of the house but, after a bedroom conversion it was squeezed out to the edges, where it became three crawl-spaces at the front, the end and the back.

With us so far? Good, there will be questions later. For now, though, the scene is set.

Into these crawl-spaces has been stuffed all the detritus that builds up in the course of everyday life and that seemed at the time too important to chuck away, but too cluttersome to keep out.

Most of it is crammed into large cardboard removal boxes.

So far so good. Old stuff stays in the loft, new stuff stays downstairs, and never the twain shall meet.

Until last Sunday.

That was when Mrs D suddenly decided, for no discernible reason, that it would be a good idea to have a rummage through the vaults and dig out the old photographs.

Now, if you've ever watched The Great Escape you'll have some idea of what happened next.

No, not yours truly zooming away on a purloined motorbike, jumping a barbed wire fence and heading for the hills. Although that might have been preferable to what really did happen.

Remember in the film when they dropped through a hole in the barracks floor, inched on hands and knees through a two-foot tunnel, and extracted the spoil by stuffing it down their trousers?

Well, something similar was going on in our loft last Sunday.

Except that in the film, the tunnellers were fit, flexible, 20-something military types. In our loft-based remake, the tunneller was a portly columnist with creaking hip joints who won't see the right side of 50 again.

Much grunting and straining later, the boxes were extracted and deposited in an untidy heap on the loft bedroom floor.

Due to an outstanding piece of foresight on our part many years ago, they were all neatly labelled – "Memorabilia", "Photos", "Bits and Bobs". Etc. Etc. Etc.

The scene switched from Stalag Luft III to Tutankhamen's Tomb as we tore the tape from the first box to reveal the treasures within:

A carrier bag, full of bank statements and pay slips from 1997.

A rolled-up school photo, three feet long, depicting the first-years tottering precariously along the top row, the lower sixth pulling a variety of stupid faces, Jock the caretaker running round the back so he could be in the picture twice, the headmaster smirking unctuously, and a grey blob that might just be the present writer in a pudding-basin haircut.

Old exam papers that would turn today's GCSE students into nervous wrecks.

A marble.

Then we hit the mother lode: photo after photo after photo after photo. Our forebears on holiday, in baggy shorts and smoking pipes. Us on holiday separately, before we were us. Us on holiday together.

Us looking dapper at dances, us looking drunk in seedy dives.

Us with babies, with toddlers, with schoolchildren, with…

With a disgruntled teenager who wanted his bedroom back pronto, and what was the point of going through all these boxes anyway?

It was fun while it lasted. But it was time to get back to the future.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

George Osborne and the new pound coin

As the fallout from the budget statement settles, and families across the country do their sums and realise with joy and gratitude that they could well be £2.37 a month better off – but not until 2016 – it’s time to sit back and reflect on our  Chancellor of the Exchequer’s lasting legacy.

What, when the history books are written and the students of 2114 scribble down factoids about the early 21st century, will be George Gideon Oliver Osborne’s foremost claim to fame?

Will he be remembered as The Iron Chancellor? The Bankers’ Buddy? The Hammer of the Needy? Austerity Man?

No. None of those things. If George Osborne is remembered by anyone, for anything at all, it will be as The Toff Who Invented The Twelve-Sided Pound.

Announcing it on the same day as the budget was clearly a ploy to distract us commoners  from the nitty-gritty of belt-tightening, and it appears to have worked exactly as he intended.

Because here we are, worrying more about the wear and tear on our pocket linings from those extra corners, and reminiscing about the days when the pound was foldable, rather than girding our loins for a few more years of pain.

Where did Osborne get the idea from, anyway? All this talk about the trusty round version being too easy to forge doesn’t really hold water. And don’t think for a minute that he was inspired by the good old threepenny bit.

Because he’d have a hard job remembering a coin that ceased to be legal tender just three months after he was born.

No, the smart money is on the theory that he was sitting in one of those posh cafés where they serve dainty petits fours on hexagonal plates, and  thought: “I can go better than that – twice better”.

Although to be strictly accurate, George didn’t get his sums right in that glorious moment of gustatory inspiration. Because if you count the top and bottom, or the heads and tails, a hexagonal plate  has eight sides, and a dodecagonal coin has 14. And 14 isn’t twice eight but 1.75 times eight. (Guess who’s been helping out with the maths homework this week?)

And if you’re confused by all those numbers, just imagine the effect they had on the Chancellor.

As with any change in economic policy, though, some people will benefit and others will suffer.

Those with the most to lose, of course, are the manufacturers of  chocolate coins. Year in, year out, they’ve been happily churning out sweet circular simulacra of cash and packing them into plastic nets ready to be stuffed into Christmas stockings up and down the land.

But now a new challenge lies ahead for the doughty chocolatiers: digging out their old 12-sided moulds, left mouldering (sorry) since the demise of the thruppence, and retooling.

Vending machine-makers, meanwhile, are rubbing their hands in glee. Because once Osborne has knackered the pound coin,  what’s to stop him fiddling  with the rest of our currency? ATMs and self-service tills will all need updating, to accept rhomboid 2p pieces and triangular £7 notes.

There are even rumours that Osborne has it in for the venerable seven-sided 50p, and is having it redesigned as a four-dimensional Möbius Strip with no sides at all.

Sounds fun? Hah! Try getting one out of your pocket, the next time you want to spend a penny.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Thank you very much for the World Wide Web

Twenty-five years. Is it really that long since Tim Berners-Lee jumped out of bed one fine morning with a figurative light bulb over his head?

Looking back at that momentous day in March 1989, Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim), explained things very simply: “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and – ta-da! – the World Wide Web!”

Obvious, when you come to think of it. What’s amazing is that no one had thought of the World Wide Web before.

And what’s even more incredible is that Sir Tim later confessed that those two forward slashes we’ve been meticulously typing at the beginning of every web address are totally unnecessary. He put them in, he said, because “it seemed like a good idea at the time”.

Well, we’ve all done things like that, from painting our bedrooms mauve to sliding down a hill on a tea-tray.

But looking back over 25 years of trying to remember which computer key is a forward slash and which one’s a backslash, it’s hard to forgive Sir Tim for that particular boo-boo.

Let’s look on the bright side, though. Much has changed since Sir Tim wrote in his WWW User Guide: “When color [sic] comes along, we can use colour...”

Imagine a world in which you couldn’t click your mouse on the words Click Here! and find that nothing happens because the web designer meant you to click some graphic down at the bottom of the page.

Imagine a world in which you couldn’t find out, with another mouse click, why Dermatologists Hate This Woman For One Weird Trick. What weird trick could it possibly be? Laying the poor out dermatologists with a bunch of daffs? Creeping up behind them and giving them a wedgie? Must... just... click... that... link...

Imagine, too,  a world where you couldn’t watch videos of kittens doing cute, stupid or downright dangerous things when you should be concentrating on work.

Yes, dear reader. For those of us old enough to remember it, that was the World before Sir Tim stuck those two extra Ws on the end. Not to mention the /s. Or possibly the \s.

It was a dark and dreary place. A world without Facebook. A world without Twitter. A world where you didn’t have  to remember a 12-character password and the second, fourth and tenth characters of a nine-character phrase if you wanted to find out how much money you haven’t got.

A world in which casually mentioning your mother’s maiden name to some friendly stranger down the pub wasn’t a catastrophic breach of data security.

A world in which you had to use a proper encyclopaedia, with paper pages, to settle family arguments.

And a world in which you couldn’t check up on the progress of Lydia the great white shark, whose solitary meanderings have taken her across the Atlantic in the general direction of the UK where, we can exclusively reveal, she will swim up the Avon to Bath and take part in the Jane Austen Centre's  forthcoming all-singing, all-dancing tribute to the Bennet family.  

So anyway, thank WWW, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The world would be a lot less fun without you.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Something nasty under the tundra

It is at times like this, with the world in crisis, nations rattling their sabres and the price of fuel going through the roof, that one thinks of the words of Boney M’s 1978 chartbuster Rasputin.

“Ohhh, those Russians.”

The late Bobby Farrell, lead singer with the top-selling Deutsche Disco act, must have known a thing or two about international relations. He was born in the Dutch Antilles and lived in Norway, Holland and Germany before dying, at a tragically early age, in a hotel room in St Petersburg. Russia.Now how spooky is that?
Well, not as spooky – or scary – as the news coming out of Russia right now.

And we’re not talking about the Ukraine here, or the imminent outbreak of World War Three. Or at least Crimean War Two.

No, this week’s really bad news from the land of the borscht and the balalaika got rather buried under all the macho Putinic posturing.

It came from far north and east of Sevastopol, and it concerned not mad monks but mad scientists.

French mad scientists, to boot.

They were poking around in the Siberian tundra and found what they describe as a “giant virus” – Pithovirus sibericum to its friends. 

It has been lying dormant for some 30,000 years, but with the defrosting of the not-so-permafrost it has warmed up, come back to life and started chomping on its prey: single-celled amoebae.

Killer: Pithovirus sibericum, yesterday 
(Pavel Hrdlička, Wikipedia)
Pithovirus, like Rasputin, is obviously very hard to kill.

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie and his colleague Dr Chantal Abergel, from the University of Aix-Marseille, are quick to reassure us that humanity has nothing to fear from the unpleasant little critter. 

“It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell,” said Dr Abergel with more than a trace of Gallic glee. “It is able to kill the amoeba, but it won’t infect a human cell.”

Leaving aside the question of how she can be sure, what’s most worrying here is the thought that there might be something really nasty lurking under the semi-frozen plains of Siberia.

Picture the scene, if you will.The French boffins probe deeper into the squelchy half-frozen peat. Mais quel horreur! They reel back as a grey-green mass of sentient lichen pokes out a prehensile pseudopod, hauls itself up to the surface and fixes them with the three beadiest of its seven beady eyes.

“Hello,” it says. “My name is Dmitri. Please to take me where there is vodka.”

All of which goes to prove that just because you can do something (like re-animate a virus, or a lichen, or an Irish elk, or even Neanderthal Man) it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

From Icarus to Doctor Frankenstein, legend and literature are full of examples of those who flew in the face of nature, and fell. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris.

And when Vladimir Putin comes marching over the Russo-Ukrainian border, mounted on a prancing woolly mammoth and followed by troops of wild-eyed Orthodox monks, you can’t say that we haven’t been warned.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Chillies in a box

It’s a hard life being an amateur chilli grower, and February is the hardest month of all.

Because February, of course, is the month when the little darlings get planted. Or should it be March? Or even January? It depends a bit on which packet of seeds you read, but one thing’s for sure: chillies need both light and warmth.

Neither of which is much in evidence in the conservatory at Dixon Towers, which faces north west and lets in draughts like the Titanic let in water.

So what we need is a controlled environment. And that means a visit to IKEA to buy a chest, which we know before we set off is called an Apa. And it also means a conversation with a member of staff who isn’t keen to tell us where we might find said Apa in the flat-pack aisles at the end of the store, and who instead suggests we track it down in the children’s section.

Which, what with it being a Saturday afternoon, is knee-deep in tinies, hell-bent on obscuring the product from the paying customer.

So it’s back to the staff member, who is at last persuaded to look up the Apa on his terminal and divulge its hiding place among all the other flatpacks (what is it, some sort of trade secret?).

Home again to build the chest. Pause for  speculation about why IKEA Allen keys are never up to the job.

Finish chest with aid of electric screwdriver, stand back and admire.

OK, now for the heat. Place horticultural mat in bottom of chest. Drill hole for wire in end. Remove plug, pass wire through hole, re-attach plug.

Pause  to reminisce about the good old days when you had to buy a plug whenever you bought a new appliance.

Crack on with it, Dixon. We need light. Assemble fluorescent fitting and switch, in contravention of every wiring regulation known to man.

Fix gaffer tape to inside of lid. It doesn’t stick. Apply two coats of PVA glue to lid. Pause overnight while glue dries. Attach more gaffer tape to lid, fix light fitting to gaffer tape with double-sided tape. All seems well.

Place seed trays on mat, turn on mat and light, close lid and await results.

Important scientific discovery. Fluorescent light fittings give off heat. Seed trays give off water vapour. Gaffer tape does not stick to PVA-impregnated hardboard in warm damp environment.

Light fitting falls off, missing trays by a whisker.

Off to the DIY shop to buy industrial-strength pipe brackets. Drill holes in lid, attach brackets, dangle light fitting from same. Sorted.

By this stage the budget is so out of control that  if any chillies do emerge in August (or July, or October), the unit cost will be on a par with  expensive luxuries like saffron. Or even printer ink.

Then Mrs D  sucks her teeth judiciously and asks  “Don’t plants need air?”

Resist temptation to debate  transpiration with someone who clearly knows more about it than you do.

Open the lid a crack, leave the chillies to do their stuff.

They’ve had all the help they’re going to get.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hot. Cool. Yours. It's Winter Olympic meltdown!

So there we are, sitting on the sofa and catching our breath between multiple sessions on Netflix (we’re proper binge-watchers these days) when it hits us: the Winter Olympics are on!

As we watch, the Dixon drawing room fills with a sense of wonder. 

“I wonder how they do it?” says Mrs D, as a 15-year-old elf nonchalantly throws a single Salchow, a double Axel and a triple toe loop with bells on before landing gracefully in the arms of her swooping swain.

“I wonder if they get dizzy?” says young Miss D, practical as ever.

“I wonder when we can watch Breaking Bad?” mutters young Mr D, terminally unimpressed.

Another source of wonder is the ability of the BBC commentators at Sochi to tell at a glance the difference between an ollie, a stalefish and a McTwist 540.

All of which are genuine snowboarding tricks, fact fans. You really could not make them up.

And that’s when those very same commentators aren’t stretching the English language to breaking point by pressing innocent nouns into service as verbs.

As in: “The English hopeful had a chance of medalling but it was the Russian veteran who podiumed.” Doctor Johnson must be spinning in his grave.

Even more wonderful (in the sense of making you wonder what it’s all about) is the Sochi slogan.

According to the official Sochi website, this ringing phrase is “a universal solution successfully combining innovation and dynamism.”

According to yours truly, it’s even more daft than Wenlock and Mandeville. And who remembers them?

Moon. Jam. Varnish.

Clamp. Knee. Bedwear.

Take any three words, put them in a row and stick full stops after them. You know it makes sense, especially if you’re being paid for it.

Enough linguistic opprobrium, though. We’re off to the moguls (bumpy skiing to the uninitiated) where the commentary team are getting a teensy bit overwrought.

“The poles are working overtime!” screams one, somewhat ambiguously. “Those kneepads let the judges know exactly what’s going on below the waist!” yelps another, somewhat less ambiguously. “The British pair are going back to back!” yodels a third with as little ambiguity as it’s possible to muster before the 9pm watershed.

To be strictly accurate, the British pair were snowboarders. There wasn’t any room for us Brits on the moguls after the three Dufour-Lapointe sisters from Canada took to the slopes.

Which of course leads us to further wondering, this time about the quality of dinner-table conversation chez Dufour-Lapointe.

“Hi girls,” says Mum. “And what did you do today?” “Mogulling” says Chloé. “Mogulling” says Justine. “Mogulled” says Maxime, who is soon to join the BBC.

The real trouble with the Winter Olympics, though, is that so many of the so-called sports are subjective. If it takes a judge to decide the winner, then is it really a sport?

Still, while our British curlers enjoy their brush with destiny, those of us left at home do at least get to play Spot-The-German-With-The-Rudest-Sounding-Surname.

Andreas. Ski-jump. Google.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Bristol crocodile blocks last route out of Bath

Typical, isn’t it? No sooner does one news story of weird animals threatening humanity get put to rest (last week, remember, it was mutant cannibal rats on a 21st-century Marie Celeste death ship) than another rears its ugly head.

Or to be absolutely precise, its scaly head. Because yes, gentle reader, a six-foot crocodile has been spotted sploshing around in the river Avon in Bristol.

It was first reported by a bus driver on Bedminster Bridge, which immediately raises two questions: (a) what was he on? and (b) where can we get some?

But that would be uncharitable, and the story must be true, because it’s been in all the papers, and the croc itself has not one but two Twitter accounts, and it’s been posting some fairly gruesome selfies all over the internet.

Indeed, no less a personage than Nick Gargan, chief constable of Avon and Somerset Constabulary, also took to Twitter (as you do) to advise his followers not to go water-skiing in the river.

Which could actually be a bit awkward, because over the last couple of weeks the Avon has become pretty much the only reliable route out of Bath. If the roads aren’t shut by design, for the fettlement of the sewage system or the installation of super-fast broadband, then it’s by accident.

Fallen branches, collapsed walls, rising tides and people driving the wrong way along motorways have all conspired to thwart any sort of escape from this fair city. Not that you’d necessarily want to leave, but if you did, it looks like the river is currently the only way out.

Or at least it was, until Chris the Crocodile came along and blocked the aquatic route too.

Help is at hand, though, in the shape of a press release cunningly disguised as junk email, received earlier this week at Chronicle Towers, promoting the benefits of a thing called the JetCard.

This “ultimate gift for the man or woman who has everything” (it says here) “buys world-class travel by private jet for time-strapped executives and HNWI’s who want a sense of private jet ownership without the costs and responsibilities.”

What’s a HNWI? Have Not (got the) Wildest Idea. But it sounds like a lot of fun. All you need is an airstrip and one of those cards, which comes in its own black box and is made of aviation-grade titanium, and you’re away.

But the real point of this spam (sorry, marketing communication) is to remind readers that Valentine’s Day is only just round the corner, and that if you’re the sort of HNWI who wants to surprise their significant other with a romantic gift on February 14, then prices start at a mere 4,320 Euros per hour of private flight.

For those of us who are more HMRO – Help (my) Money’s Running Out – than HNWI, the traditional Valentine’s Day profferings of chocolates, smellies and inexpensive pieces of jewellery will probably have to suffice.

Oops, that’s given the game away. If Mrs D was expecting a romantic river cruise with a bit of reptile-spotting at end of it, then she’s going to be sorely disappointed.