Thursday, October 16, 2014

How to get your password right

An ominous message flashes up on the computer screen at Chronicle Towers. From the System. Your password, says the System Message, will expire in 14 days. Do you want to change it now?

Well no, actually. It would be preferable never to have to change it again, and the idea of “wanting” to change it is philosophically akin to the idea of “wanting” to change one’s toes.

But the System is relentless. The next day, the count is down to 13. Today, it’s 12.

The System is clever, almost to the point of sentience. The System can count backwards, among other things.

It can also recognise that the passwords you, in your insignificance, try to set up, are utterly beneath its tentacular, Systemic, dignity.

Still, you give it a try.

1234 you type, more in hope than in expectation. Insufficient characters, says the System.

password you tap in, more in desperation than in hope. Insufficient upper case letters comes the reply.

Password Nope. Must contain a punctuation character.

Password? Nice try, sucker. Must contain at least one numeral.

Password1? You must be joking. You used that one  in August 2011.

Let us get this absolutely straight, continues the System, conversationally. For acceptable security, your password must be at least 10 characters long, and  contain at least one upper case letter, one lower case letter, one punctuation character and one numeral. Would you like to try again?

AsQlll4&X? That will do nicely.

Pausing only to reflect that while the System may be quite clever,  it’s not clever enough to use apostrophes, you proceed to commit your new password to memory. Which is where the trouble really starts.

Because it is a truth universally acknowledged, that for a password to be secure it must be complicated, and for it to be memorable it must be simple. Yours may be secure, but it’s utterly unmemorable. So you write it down, defeating the entire object of the exercise.

And when you get home and try to do a bit of cyber-banking, the fun starts all over again.

The System at Funds “R” Us has even more questions than the System at work. And the two of them  appear to be talking about you behind your back. Perhaps they’re Facebook friends.

Key in the second, fourth and ninth characters of your passphrase, says the System at the Bank.

b 8 % you type, referring  to the dog-eared notebook in which you keep it easily to hand. Along with your mother’s maiden name and where you were when you first had a snog.

Thank you. And your password?

AsQlll4&X? Try again. That is the password for Chronicle Towers.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Small sinkhole in Bath: no-one hurt. Yet

As natural disasters go, it wasn’t much to write home about. But as the local paper of record, The Bath Chronicle was duty bound to record it.

“A small sinkhole has appeared in Bath’s Sydney Gardens,” ran the report. And beyond that no one seemed to know very much.

Councillor David Dixon (Lib Dem, Oldfield, no relation) took to Twitter in his official capacity as deputy leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council.



he twote. Which proves that (a) at least some of our civic leaders have a sense of humour; and (b) the old jokes are the best.

The hole, according to Mr Dixon, is “about a metre wide and three or four feet deep”.

Crikey. Let’s hope he sticks to deputy leading the council, and doesn’t take it into his head to launch any interplanetary space missions.

Because in 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter plunged to the surface of the red planet after NASA and Lockheed mixed up their metric and imperial measurements.
Mixed measurements: Mars Climate Orbiter before its prang

And in 2002 our bathroom was flooded to the depth of three inches when yours truly fitted a 15mm coupling to a half-inch pipe and turned on the mains without due care and attention.

Go carefully, Councillor Dixon, the next time you do any DIY. Disaster is but a step away, so measure twice, and cut once.

Back to the Bath sinkhole, and now that B&NES has put a fence round it, let us reflect for a moment on how truly pathetic it is. (The sinkhole, that is. The jury’s still out on B&NES.)

For comparison, take the monstrous chasm that opened up earlier this year in Yamal, Siberia. A town you may not have heard of before, and which even the locals call the “end of the world”.

Which is better than “fundament of the universe.” But only just.

The Yamal sinkhole is 30 metres wide and at least 50 metres deep. It may have been caused from within, by methane bubbling up through melted permafrost. Or from without, by a meteor. Or by something else, from somewhere else. But definitely not by fracking. Oh no siree.

Take the Great Blue Hole in Belize. It’s 300 metres wide and 124 metres deep. It’s underwater. And it has its own collection of stalactites and stalagmites. Put that in your pipe, Sydney Gardens Sinkhole. And smoke it.

Heck, even the limestone swallets up on the Mendips are wider and deeper than the burst pimple at the far end of Great Pulteney Street.

If it were a football team, it would be lowly Hartlepool United, currently propping up the bottom of League 2.

If it were a car, it would be a lowly Lada Riva, currently propping up the bottom of a scrapheap in Penge.

And if it were a tourist attraction... Wait! Set up a ticket office and plug in the cash registers. This could be Bath’s very own Wookey Hole!

Just don’t stand too close to the edge – because if you fell in, you could easily sprain your toe.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bath grass grows long

Mankind has always had a  rather ambivalent relationship with grass.

No, not  that kind of grass, silly. What we’re talking about here is the sort of grass that grows in gardens, and parks, and meadows, and prairies, and cricket pitches.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

We seed it, we scare off the birds that come to eat the seeds, we water it, we nurture it, we cosset it, we feed it.

And then we come along with a great big noisy mower and give it the horticultural equivalent of a Number One crew cut.
Notice about long grass, Royal Victoria Park Bath
That notice

And the grass, quite uncomplainingly, just keeps growing under our feet.

But now things are changing, at least in Royal Victoria Park, Bath, where  the grassy banks and other less-used areas are being allowed to grow long.

The reason, as it says on the little signboards that the council has posted up and down Royal Avenue, being to make the park “more visually in keeping with an 1850’s setting” and to “increase wild flower numbers (over time) and habitats for invertebrates, birds, and mammals.”


And whatever the cynics may say about it just being a cover for spending cuts, this can only be a good thing.

(Come on, how much money are they going to save by not trimming a few square metres of grass? Everyone knows that the real savings are going to be made in closing down all the public loos and a children’s centre here and there.)

Long grass, Royal Victoria Park, Bath, distant magpie
The wild bit: uncut grass in Royal Victoria Park, with flourishing birdlife
Now, anyone familiar with the Bath-based works of Jane Austen will have a special fondness for her detailed descriptions of the wildlife that once roamed and gambolled in the city’s open spaces in the days before the city corporation began to cut the grass in the parkland to the west.

In Persuasion, for example, she refers on several occasions to the magnificent herds of spiny anteaters that once added animation to our rolling greensward.

And who can forget the dramatic scene in Northanger Abbey when romantic heroine Catherine Morland is rescued by the urbane Henry Tilney from the chitinous claws of a giant stag beetle?

Perhaps strangely, Austen makes no mention of the flocks of flamingos that once nested in the stately pines of Lower Lansdown, or the screech owl that was reported to have made its home in the Abbey bell tower in 1803.

Floral display and gardener, Royal Victoria Park, Bath
The tame bit: Royal Victoria Park, with parkie
But she can hardly have been unaware of their existence, given the habit, then as now, of opinionated Bathonians to write scathing letters to the Chronicle and Herald about the annoying habits of the city’s bird life.

All of which goes to show that grass deserves to be taken as seriously now as it was back in the days of the inimitable Jane.

So the next time Mrs D hints that the paths round the allotment are in need of a trimming, then yours truly has the perfect excuse.

Those unsightly looking tussocks are actually a vitally important wildlife habitat, and to molest them with the trusty two-stroke strimmer would be nothing less than a crime against nature.

And if she’ll believe that, she’ll believe anything.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why allotmenteers have to carry the can

It’s nearly crunch time up at Mrs D’s allotment. And we’re not talking about the crunch of freshly picked peapods or sumptuously succulent strawbs.

No, we’ve got a problem with our waterworks, and it’s going to take some fixing. Here’s why.

In the beginning was the Tap.  And the Tap was good, for it had a Handle which turned, and a Spout upon which to attach a Hose.

And the Allotmenteers rejoiced, and thronged unto the Tap, and fixed their Hoses upon its Spout, and spread its Water even upon the Face of their Onions.

For verily, they said one unto another, we have no need to fill a Multitude of Watering Cans, nor carry them unto the Plot, and sprinkle the Water thereunto, and then stagger back for more.

For lo, they said, we can run a Hose from the Tap unto our Crops, and swiftly bring the Water unto them, like as the River that floweth in the Desert and succoureth the Date and the Olive.
But the Board of Water, yea even the Water that is Wessex, saw the Tap and waxed exceeding wrath.

And it spake unto the Council, whose Name is called B&NES but whom Everyone knoweth as BANES, saying: Take away the Tap with its Spout and its turnable Handle, for it irketh us, like unto the Cockatrice that irketh the Lion in the Plains of Judah. For it wasteth the Water that belongeth rightly unto Us. And say ye unto the Allotmenteers: No more Hoses for you Lot.

Now when B&NES comprehended the Anger that was upon the face of the Water Board it was sore afraid, and replaced the Tap with a different Kind. Yea, even the Kind with a Knob, that must be pushed in else it springeth out and stoppeth. Yea, like unto a tap from a Public Convenience (before said Convenience was closed  by said Council), and upon which no Hose might be attached.

And the Allotmenteers beat their Breasts and wept, and asked of one another: What shall become of us, for we must needs squeeze the Tap until our Watering Cans are full, and make a Score of Journeys from Tap unto Vegetables. And verily our Hands will be calloused and our Feet besplattered.

And they mentioned this privily unto the Council, and the Council replied unto them, saying: tough. Which is to say, deal with it.

And then Mrs D rose up, and went unto her Chest of Drawers, and brought forth a Belt of many Holes, and girded it about the Tap. And the Belt did squeeze the Tap mightily, and the Water continued to flow. And the Allotmenteers shared the Belt amongst them, and were exceeding(ish) glad.

And then spake Mrs D unto her Spouse, saying: Go thou even unto the Website that is called Amazon, and buy thou therefrom a mighty plastic Bag, which will ride upon the Wheelbarrow, even as Nebuchadnezzar rode in Triumph through Babylon. And fill thou it from the Tap, that we may carry four or five Canloads at once.

And then spake Mr D unto Mrs D, saying: What about my bad Back? But she heard him not.

And when the Allotmenteers saw the Bag, they marvelled at its Capacity, and lo, Mr and Mrs D used no more nor less Water than they did in the Days of the Hose. And they saw that their Vegetables were good.


Thanks be to B&NES.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Choosing a present for Father's Day

Here it comes again – Sunday June 15 2014, Father’s Day. A day on which to honour the paterfamilias, the man about the house, Big Daddy, He Who Must Be Obeyed (Or At Least Ought To Be). 

And not, as some cynics may suggest, a cheap marketing ploy invented by card manufacturers to drum up trade in the lull between Easter and Christmas.

Oh no sirree boss, Father’s Day is the real deal, and don’t you forget it, because if you do, your dad will think you don’t love him.

However many times you may call him “Popsicle”.

Right, that’s enough moral blackmail. Onwards to the presents. And what do you get for the man who has everything? Or would have everything, if certain offspring hadn’t borrowed it, covered it in paint and dumped it at the bottom of the garden?

Perhaps Mrs D’s magazines will point the way. In among the sofas, soft furnishings and sconces that grace the pages of the country-home-and-garden-style glossy periodicals strewing the floors of Dixon Towers, there must be something suitable for Popsicle on his own special day.

Let’s see now... Fabric cleaner... Nerve tonic... Wait, how about a shepherd’s hut? They’re all the rage, you know. Tastefully painted in rustic shades of sage, slate, or russet, they trundle around your garden on wooden wheels and offer the put-upon Pa a haven from the incessant demands of family members for him to fix the printer for the third time this week.

“Let your soul breathe,” says the advert. If only. That printer won’t fix itself, and if we ever did get a shepherd’s hut there’d be no room left in the garden to swing a cat.

Speaking of which...

How about an electronic cat tracker? This ingenious device uses the power of GPS, 3G and who knows, maybe USB too, to log your moggie’s wanderings in the great outdoors and relay them to your computer, tablet or smartphone.

All of which would be fine and dandy, and would no doubt offer hours of instructive fun, if it weren’t for two things.

First, the cat that condescends to live at Dixon Towers would consider a tracking collar an infringement on its liberty almost as heinous as being decked out in a big pink bow, and would react accordingly: claws first.

I ain't wearing no damn collar

Second, said cat spends 99.37 per cent of its time in bed, only occasionally stumbling through the catflap to make sure the sun is still shining before mooching back to bed for another prolonged nap.

The cat tracker sounds rather like the techno-feline equivalent of watching paint dry, and it won’t be making it onto our Father’s Day gift list.

No, Mrs D’s aspirational reading matter is no help at all when it comes to choosing the perfect paternal present for June 15.

So perhaps it’s best to stick to the novelty stuff. That Darth Vader “I am your father” T-shirt was well received a couple of years ago. Anything that says “40%” on the label and can’t be bought by kids is just great. And there’s a chap at work who is very proud of his “Who’s the Daddy?” coffee mug.

Oh, and some shower gel would be nice, too.


Last year’s has nearly run out.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

World Cup 2014 - Ultimate Survival Guide

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or so, you can hardly be unaware that the World Cup kicks off today.

And if you want a chance to join in the fun, here it is at last...

Your Essential – Nay Ultimate – Cut-Out-And-Stick-To-The-Fridge-Where-It-Will-Gather-Dust-Until-The-European-Championships-In-2016 Survival Guide to Brazil 2014.

Getting There: If you haven’t bought your tickets and booked your hotel by now, forget it. Brazil is a very, very long way away (a member of the Bath Chronicle staff went there once and can confirm this), and is not a country to be visited lightly. Especially if your passport needs renewing, which in the current chaos will take at least six months. By which time, they’ll think it’s all over. And it will be.

Watching It On Telly: At home, or down the pub? Your choice, but at least you can be assured that almost everyone in the pub will actually want to be watching, whereas at home there may be the occasional dissenting voice.

Who To Support: England, obviously. But beware of divided loyalties. Mrs D’s ancestry means there’s always a bit of a frisson whenever England play Poland. Luckily, though, we got that out of the way in the qualifying rounds. Which means that the only cloud on the horizon is Australia, by way of Grandma Dixon. The upside is that we’ll have another team to support if England go out early.

The Office Sweepstake: The rules are simple: You will pick a team without the slightest hope of reaching the last 16, let alone the finals. Your team will lose. You will complain that the whole thing is rigged, and that the bloke who ran the sweep kept the best teams for his mates. You will be ignored.

What To Sing: England doesn’t have an official song this time round. Which is probably just as well for those of us who remember watching a succession of squads on Top of the Pops, all dressed up in their best suits, miming to a ludicrously over-optimistic dirge, shuffling nervously from foot to foot and wondering if they were going to meet Pan’s People.




Instead, there’s an official World Cup anthem by Pitbull (because nothing says “football” like a slavering attack dog), or an unofficial, and actually rather catchy, little ditty called Kick That Soccer Ball by spoof Twitter user @usasoccerguy.

Neither of which is doing very well in the download charts right now, being beaten hands down by Noble England, by the late, great and sorely missed Rik Mayall.


Which brings us to...

What To Wave: Dismiss any doubts you may have that it’s in some way beneath you to fly the cross of St George while Our Boys are giving their all in the steamy Amazonian jungle. We will proudly be dangling our ginormous red and white flag from the front bedroom window at Dixon Towers, and will remain resolutely proud.

England expects, and all that.

How To Celebrate If We Win: When we win, more like. If we can draw 0-0 with Honduras in the warm-up friendlies, what can possibly stand in our way?


Come on, En-ger-land!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Jupiter's Great Red Spot - why is it shrinking?

If Jupiter were a teenager, it would probably be feeling rather pleased with itself right now.

Because according to reports from NASA, the mighty gas giant’s most prominent feature, the Great Red Spot, is rapidly shrinking.

Shrinking red spot: Jupiter's mega-zit could soon be a thing of the past
Quite why that should be, no one seems to know. The monstrous zit on the face of the biggest planet in the solar system has been rotating majestically around the upper Jovian atmosphere for hundreds if not thousands of years.

But the reasons behind its sudden reduction are causing space scientists to scratch their heads.

If not their spots.

Maybe Jupiter stopped eating so much chocolate between meals.

Maybe it started going to bed at a sensible hour.

Maybe it did all the other things parents nag their adolescent offspring about when said offspring break out in spots. Like washing its face more frequently than once a fortnight.

Maybe it switched to a new brand of spot cream – an intergalactic-sized tube of Clearasil, perhaps.

Or maybe Jupiter is simply growing out of its spot, just as parents promise teenagers will happen when nothing else seems to work.

As with humans, though, very little is certain in the field of interplanetary dermatology. Spots can come back to haunt you even when you’re quite grown up, and it already appears that a new crop of  red blemishes may be welling up around the fast-shrinking big one.

So it looks as though Jupiter is going to have to keep up with the interplanetary cleansing, exfoliation and moisturising for a little bit longer yet.

What is certain, though, is that all this upheaval in the swirling clouds of Jupiter has absolutely nothing to do with fracking, or melting ice caps, or deforestation of the rain forest, or any other human interference.

Or has it? Another fascinating science report suggests a more troubling explanation for Jupiter’s recent facelift.

Readers will no doubt be familiar with the Breit-Wheeler Process, by which matter can – at least theoretically – be created by ramming two particles of light together to create an electron-positron pair. If not, where have you been since 1934 when it was first thought up?

A photon generator unit, yesterday.
Messrs B and W never believed it could be done for real. But Professor Steve Rose, of Imperial College London, has other ideas. “We can create matter directly from light,” he says, “using the technology that we have here in the UK.”

It seems that the denizens of Jupiter may have got wind of this.

Deep within the Jovian maelstrom, Academician Tharg is preparing his photon generator. He points one end at the other, closes a switch and stands back, his mauve protoplasm throbbing in anticipation at the prospect of an infinite supply of free matter.

A hideous crash rends the firmament. Technician Groll dashes into Tharg’s laboratory, her tentacles a-quiver.
“Sir, sir!” she screams. “Look outside! The Great Red Spot – it’s shrinking!”

Tharg smiles grimly. In the cause of pure science, he has disrupted the very fabric of the universe. But on the plus side, he has discovered the perfect spot cure.

The only trouble is, we mere humans will have to go all the way to Jupiter to buy it.