Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Junctions that just don't function

April and May are the season of awards. We've just had the BAFTAs, sports clubs are dishing out the annual gongs and the Classical Brits are just round the corner.

What better time, then, to start our own awards scheme? Not for artistic achievement, not for sporting endeavour, not for just being Jose Carreras, but (drum roll and fanfare...) for Bath's Most Ridiculous Road Junctions.

The awards, sponsored by personal injury solicitors Ambulance, Chaser and Compo, will be held in the prestigious venue of Twerton Railway Arches in late May. These are the nominations and our predictions for success. Or otherwise.

Turning left onto Charles Street from Midland Bridge Road. You sit there waiting for the filter light to turn green. And so it does. "Great," you think. But you can't go forward because both lanes in front of you are blocked by traffic still waiting for the next set of lights to turn green. We say: frustrating, but hardly dangerous enough to win.

Turning right from the Lower Bristol Road into Brougham Hayes. Filter light? Forget it. You wait and you wait for a gap in the steady stream of artics thundering from the south coast to Bristol via Britain's only World Heritage City. "Never mind," you think in that optimistic way of yours. "Soon they'll get a red light and I can go". But just as the westbound traffic stops, you get a red light too and are stranded in the middle of the junction, your retail therapy in Oldfield Park a distant dream. We say: Frustrating and downright dangerous. You end up hopping the lights as they turn from amber to red.

Turning right from the London Road into Morrison's car park. Enough has been said about this particular nightmare to fill The Bath Chronicle seven times over. It doesn't help that the traffic coming in the other direction is merging from two lanes to one, with the private vehicles in the outside lane blissfully unaware of the buses, bikes and taxis on their left. It doesn't help either that you only have about 10 seconds to shoot forward before the filter light goes back to red, and that 25 other drivers in the queue behind you have the same idea. We say: Go by river.

The bottom of Gay Street where it meets Queen Square. You're on foot this time. How do you get from one side of the diagonal pedestrian crossing to the other? The green man stays green for exactly six seconds (timing subject to confirmation by the International Olympic Committee) and then you're stranded. You need the reflexes of a mongoose and legs like steel springs to stand any chance of getting across. We say: Bring your trainers.

The roundabout at the bottom of the Wells Road.You're back in your car, coming down the hill and intending to go straight across, over the river. At the bottom of the World's Most Pointless Bus Lane (Official) the left lane has an arrow pointing left for Bristol, and the right lane has a forked arrow pointing straight ahead for "Local" and right for the A36 and points east. So you obey the arrow and get in the right-hand lane.

Just before the bridge there's a confusing forked arrow in the left-hand lane, and as you go under the railway you find yourself pointing eastwards and forced to cut in to the left lane, which is already full of traffic off the Lower Bristol Road whose last concern is to let you in. (Thanks to Bubba, a contributor to thisisbath, for this one.) We say: Get on the bus, Gus.

All you have to do now is vote. Call 087654 JUNCTION followed by the number of your choice. Calls received after the deadline of last Wednesday will be charged double and the votes discarded. You have been warned.

Some day, all this will be my Bath Chronicle Column

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why outer space smells of raspberries

Front page news in The Guardian earlier this week: outer space smells of soft fruit.

Top boffins pointing their telescopes into intergalactic dust clouds – looking for the building blocks of life, as you do if you’re a top boffin – have discovered that lurking in the depths of Sagittarius B2 is a substance called ethyl formate, the chemical responsible for making raspberries taste like – well, whatever it is raspberries taste of. With a bit of rum thrown in.

Which is all very well if you fancy a bowl of out-of-season juiciness and you happen to have the keys to a space rocket. Those of us who live in this more prosaic world will just have to wait until Mrs D’s carefully-tended bushes come to fruition.

And even if you did happen to have the necessary means of transport, you’d have to be a bit careful: the very same protostellar nebula where the raspberries grow also harbours traces of propyl cyanide which, as you might gather from the name, isn’t particularly good for you, even in small doses.

And how did all this raspberry-flavoured space dust get up there in the first place? Could it be that the aforementioned top boffins are trying to make a name for themselves while Professor Stephen Hawking is temporarily indisposed, and are making the whole lot up?

Or perhaps it’s a publicity stunt for the new Star Trek film. (Achtung: Flashfest.)

How about this for a plot: glistening red aliens are massing in the Alpha Quadrant, slowly ripening in the glow of the theta radiation as they build up their stocks of propyl cyanide and put the finishing touches to their plans for an invasion of Earth.

But the all-pervading smell of raspberries has given them away, and even as they hide in the swirly Sagittarian dust, the crew of the Enterprise is on a mission: convert the enemy to jam. Sterilise the quantum jars and set pectin torpedoes to maximum spread. Resistance is futile, unless you get the pips stuck in your fillings.

Sorry if this gives away too much of the plot, but they’ve been repeating so many of the action sequences on the telly over the last couple of days that it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference now.

To get back to the point, though (how did we ever get off it?), these days it appears that science sells papers. What else could explain The Sun’s front page headline on the same day: “Fatties cause global warming”? Perhaps they ought to go on the raspberry diet, because that really does take the pip.

This will be my Bath Chronicle column on Thursday April 23 if the paper ever gets to press.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Confusing the meerkat

It’s a funny thing, insurance. Well, it is until you you have to pay for it.
Or indeed, until you have to explain it to someone who never has had to pay for it.
“Daaaad, what’s car insurance?” ask the little ones, as yet another price comparison advert comes on the telly. How best to explain while protecting their innocence?
Well, a good way to teach is in parables: you use an example of something that your pupil is already familiar with in order to explain something more complicated and abstract that they don’t yet understand.
And luckily the younger brethren have a ready-made example right in front of them, in the form of the Grand National.
For was it not their very own dad who a couple of weeks ago forked out his hard-earned dosh on a number of promising nags (well, their names sounded promising), all but one of whom ended up as also-rans, and the other of whom (top grammar) brought home the princely sum of £3 as a disappointing each-way shot?
They understood that all right – or at least they understood the post-race cursing. So why shouldn’t they understand premiums, no-claims bonuses, excesses and courtesy cars?
Because, with apologies to Terry Pratchett, and his “inn-sewer-ants” joke, insurance is nothing more than institutionalised gambling.
You have a middle-sized car and a comparatively small amount of money. The insurance company has a comparatively large amount of money and maybe a courtesy car, which is never as good as yours.
You bet your money that your car will get nicked, or hit by someone else’s dodgy motor after they left the handbrake off at the top of a hill, or blown away to the Land of Oz in a tornado, or one of the other nasty things that insurance companies threaten you with to try to make you sign up with them.
The insurance company bets big money that none of these things will happen, and that your car will survive the year without being TDA’d, scraped or twistered.
You pay your stake (sorry, premium), and if you win the bet you can claim the big payout, which you then get to spend on another car.
The insurance firm meanwhile has taken your money, bundled it up with all the other punters’ dough and laid off an enormous bet on the re-insurance market, which is not explicable by graphs, pie charts, Venn diagrams or any other means at the disposal of your average parent.
Not even rich godfather, who works in it, has ever been able to explain said market to anyone’s satisfaction.
By this point though the kids are starting to lose interest, if not the plot. “Daaaaad, what’s a meerkat?” they venture. “Daaaaad, why are all those scary people staring into webcams on”
Again, these questions are best answered in parables.
For it came to pass that a company looked upon the profits made by the insurance companies and saw that they were good, yea even amid a crunching of credit.
And the company said “Lo, let us dress up a cute desert-dwelling member of the mongoose family in a velvet smoking jacket. And lo, let us give it a fake middle European accent and put it in an advert, for verily the punters can’t get enough of that anthropomorphic stuff, like unto the tea-swilling chimps and the bogroll-unrolling puppies. And lo, let us take a tithe of the insurance companies’ wonga even unto ourselves. Lo, lo and thrice lo.”
And the people did look upon the advert, and saw that it was passing good, at least the first time they saw it. But verily, after threescore viewings and ten, they grew vexed and weary with it, and threw the cat at the telly.
A lightly trimmed version of this is due to be my column in The Bath Chronicle on April 16 2009. Or April 19, as I keep thinking of it for some reason.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Joining the twittering classes

How many times have you Tweeted today? Have you become one of the Twitterati? Does your life revolve around a constant stream of micro-blogs from the friends, colleagues, celebrities and news organisations you follow online?

If the foregoing makes any sense to you, the chances are you've already signed up to Twitter, the internet phenomenon that's taking the world by storm. Essentially, you "follow" people you're interested in, and they can "follow" you if they choose.

Twitterati send out Tweets (messages of no more than 160 characters) telling people what they're up to. Depending on who's following you, you'll get a reaction in the form of another Tweet. Or no response at all, which can be a bit depressing.

You can Twitter from your mobile phone, from your computer or even from your Blackberry. If, that is, you're posh enough to own such a thing and it isn't the kind that threatens to engulf your allotment every spring with its thorny tendrils.

Actor and wordsmith Stephen Fry brought Twitter to the notice of a grateful nation when he got stuck in the lift of a London office block last February. His claustrophobic Tweets ("This is mad, I'm stuck in a lift!") may not have reached quite the same intellectual level as some of his more trenchant writings, but they certainly got noticed, and written about, by his 388,000+ followers.

Rock god and shape-shifter David Bowie isn't quite so active. Despite having more than 12,000 followers, he's only Tweeted once, back in January, and after that it looks as though he gave it up as a bad idea.

Which of course it might be. Because a lot of Twittering is totally trivial. When America wakes up, the chorus of "OMG it's Monday wish it was Friday LOL" is often enough to send the system over capacity and bring the non-information superhighway to a juddering halt.

But Twitter has its uses. Follow or /bathsport and you can pick up headlines from The Bath Chronicle as and when they reach our website.

And other Bath organisations are getting in the act as well, most notably the Avon Street bus station. Follow and you'll find yourself on the receiving end of a stream of handy updates about gridlock in Dorchester Street, sheep on the road in Peasedown St John, Bath's singing bus drivers and more. (One of these is not true.)

On Tuesday they excelled themselves, with a link to their blog (yes, Bath bus station has a blog too) about some of the bizarre objects that have pitched up in their lost property department.

These included a dining chair (handy if all the seats are taken and your knees can't take the strain); false teeth; a hearing aid: a single shoe; a melodica (a mongrel hybrid of mouth organ and piano keyboard, often given as a present to children whose parents the donor wishes to torture); a dog; and a piece of chain mail. Whether the pooch was wearing the armour or playing the melodica – or both – is not recorded.

The list gets more distressing. We find "Jim" (lost by a care home, apparently, although who or what he is remains a mystery). We find prosthetic body parts and performance-enhancing tablets whose precise function is probably best glossed over in a family newspaper. (Here's a clue, though: what sounds like "Niagara"?)

All of these and more have been left on Bath buses, and if it wasn't for Twitter then we'd never have known.

(What we still don't know, though, is if they'll be sending the new 40-seat 20a/c service round Weston. If they do, we'll send a photographer!)

You can also read this in The Bath Chronicle. As long as you promise to read all the other stuff as well first.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Weston Tesco gets its drinks licence

So Tesco get a licence to sell booze from 8am to 11pm at their soon-to-be-opened Express store in Weston High Street, Bath.

Writing as something of a boozehound, this sounds great at face value. If we run out of vino at 10.30pm we can stagger down the hill and replenish our stocks. But writing as a Weston resident, should I be concerned about the potential of anti-social behaviour round the Tesco cash machine, and will the High Street be awash with rivers of hoody-thrown vomit every Friday and Saturday night?

Well, Tesco have a reputation to maintain and aren't likely to allow the area round their shop to turn into a focus of trouble. I walked up and down the High Street at 10pm last Friday and it was dead. Mind you, I walked along it again on Saturday morning and it was pretty dead then: the old Somerfield brought in a lot of customers, who probably helped to keep the other shops going as well.

I'm not convinced that the Weston Tesco will bring booze-fuelled ructions in its wake. No, what worries me more is the range of non-alcoholic products it will sell. Somerfield, while cramped and a bit run-down, sold a proper range of basic cooking ingredients and Tesco Expresses are not known for carrying an interesting or varied stock. And if the new Tesco isn't setting out to attract customers to do their weekly or daily shop, then I wonder how much of that passing trade will disappear too.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Everything's gone green - except Barack Obama

Just watched Barack Obama take off from Stansted Airport in Essex heading for Strasbourg in France, in Air Force 1. A total distance of 403.78 miles, according to the ever-practical European Distance Calculator.
In Air Force One, a whopping great jumbo jet.
So long, Barack, and thanks for all the carbon.

Make yourself aware of autism

These days there seems to be a day for everything. If it isn't World Sleep Day (dreamed up by a marketing department somewhere) then it's World Maths Day (calculated to send everyone to sleep, even if Bed Day doesn't). And it's all too easy to scoff and be cynical.

But Thursday, April 2, 2009 is (or was) World Autism Awareness Day, and if there's one thing that's worth taking seriously, this is it.

Mention autism to anyone who doesn't live with its effects and a common reaction is "Rain Man". And Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of a man with a genius for numbers but with no emotional or social skills was a truly remarkable performance. But it only showed an aspect of the broader truth.

According to the National Autistic Society, people with autism struggle to make sense of the world and the social rules and conventions which other people take for granted. They see the world as a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of, and which can make them feel stressed or anxious.

In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family and social life, may be hard for them.

Everyone with autism shares what's sometimes called the "triad of impairments": difficulty with social communication, social interaction social imagination.

But people with autism do not "look" disabled: parents of children with autism often say that other people simply think their child is badly behaved. And as a child with autism grows into an adult with autism – because autism is for life – they may find themselves at best understood, at worse considered "weird" and bullied.

So what characterises someone with autism? They may find it hard to cope with change, and may well adopt routines and set patterns in their lives in an effort to stay within a non-changing comfort zone.

They may be over-sensitive to sensory impressions, which can lead to them being frightened by loud noises or bright lights.

Or they may be under-sensitive to these impressions, and may not even give the appearance of feeling pain. Alternatively, they may feel pain and just not want the interpersonal stress of being comforted. They may try to stimulate their senses or relieve stress by flapping their hands or rocking their bodies.

They may be especially interested in one particular field – art, music, trains or computers for instance. And they may be absolutely brilliant within their chosen field.

They may have learning difficulties and need extra help at school.

They can be all of those things, or some of them, or none of them. Sometimes autism is described as a spectrum, and people on it, just like "neurotypical" people, come in all shapes and sizes.

A private member's Autism Bill is currently at Committee stage in Parliament. The Government is in favour of a more general framework of support for disabled people which will cover people with autism.

But it's an uncomfortable fact that Government, local authorities and primary care trusts don't know how many adults with autism there are in England, and without this information they can't plan the services that are needed.

If you're a parent of or carer for someone with autism, a lot of this will be familiar to you already. If you're not, and would like to know more, Google "Autism Awareness Day" and make yourself aware.

The usual inconsequential whimsy returns next week.