Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What if the Royals watched Britain's Got Talent?

TV-watching in the Dixon household is normally a rather sedate and intellectual affair. A quiz here (preferably of degree-level difficulty), a Dickens adapatation there, plus the occasional historical or scientific documentary to keep the brains topped up with facts. Generally speaking variety is not us, telly-wise.

But not this week. For some bizarre reason the younger Dixons have broken out of the rigid straitjacket imposed on them by our traditional viewing habits and become obsessed with a reality show: Britain’s Got Talent. And where they lead their parents have little choice but to follow.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask. It gives the kids an entrée into all sorts of conversations they wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to join, and it means that we as parents no longer have to apologise regularly for not watching The Apprentice. For once in our lives, the Dixons exude TV coolth.

But for those of you who haven’t yet succumbed to the coolness that is Britain’s Got Talent, here’s a brief run-down.

Singers, dance groups and novelty acts from across the country vie for the chance to appear before the Queen at the Royal Variety Show. A panel – consisting of a highly-qualified music impresario, an erstwhile newspaper editor and an ex-Mrs Les Dennis – whittle out the no-hopers, and the remaining 40 acts (it would be stretching a point to call them artists) go on to the semi-finals, where they are subjected to a public phone vote. Eight successful semi-
finalists go through to the finals.

Our hosts are two cheeky chappies who have a history with phone votes. The cheeky chappy on the left appears to be operating on one-third power. Look a little below the stuck-down coiffure and the hearthrug eyebrows: the lights have gone out inside.

Now that we’ve reached the semi-finals, the judges are doing their best to ensure a satisfactory outcome by applying a basic rule of thumb to the contestants: Would the Queen really want to watch this?

It’s an easy way of dismissing any act that you don’t like, but it assumes a knowledge of Her Majesty’s tastes that we don’t actually have.

Perhaps it’s time for the Royals to turn the tables. Imagine the scene: the Windsors, like some real-life Royle family minus the overflowing ashtrays and the Pomagne, settle down on the sofa at Buck House and switch to ITV to discover what Cowell, Morgan and Holden are devising for their night of variety.

“Well,” says the Queen. “One really would rather like to see more of that chep who swings fridges around with his earlobes. Why does that fraightfully common Mr Cowell not like him?”

“One knows what you mean,” says Prince Charles. “And personally one would prefer some opera-and-flower-arranging action to a singer with all the stage presence of a tree.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” says the Duke of Edinburgh. “Thet Susan Boyle rocks one’s world.”

“Really, pater?” says Princess Anne. “One would have thoight, with your Greek heritage, that you would have favoured the Terpsichorean stylings of Stavros Flatley”.

“Stavros my shooting stick,” says the Duke. “Edward, go and make the tea. Darjeeling for oneself, Earl Grey for mater. Then get on the phone and start voting.”

Edward, much in the manner of Anthony Royle, screws up his face and mutters under his breath, but obliges. The next act attempts to impersonate a saxophone and fails. The corgis howl in doggy mirth and Prince Andrew sneaks out to the boozer.

Yes, we’re in very good company tuning in to Britain’s Got Talent. And at least, unlike the Royals, we don’t have pre-booked seats for our very own Variety Show.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ida Darwin, measles and why bad science mustn't win

It was in a way heartwarming to read earlier this week that scientists have discovered a fossil that probably comes closest to what might be called the “missing link”.
Step into the limelight Ida, a 47,000,000-year-old primate with features like fingernails and fur immaculately preserved, right down to the undigested remains of her last meal – a tasty vegetarian snack of fruit and nuts.
Ida lived in a swampy, volcanic area that is now part of Germany. And so important is her role in explaining the links between early life and us humans that her official Latin name is Darwinius masillae. Which ought to mean “Darwin’s great-great-grandma”, but doesn’t. It means “The Darwinian from the Pit of Messel”, which sounds like a Hammer second feature. But isn't.
What boggles the mind though is the fact that Ida – or rather her petrified skeleton – was actually discovered more than 25 years ago by an anonymous collector who kept her and her secrets hidden from public view. Eventually she was bought, for $1,000,000, by Jørn Hurum, a Norwegian palaeontologist who would probably be the first to admit that he was taking a bit of a punt. There was quite a chance that Ida was a fake. Luckily, she wasn’t.
Now, the 25-year wait for Ida’s perfectly formed skeleton to come to public light pales into insignificance beside the millions of years that she lay unregarded in that Teutonic shale pit. But if she’d come to public view as soon as her fossil was found, how many tedious arguments between creationists and evolutionists about when and how the world came to be might have been avoided?
Richard Dawkins wouldn’t have sold anywhere near so many books (the kind you buy because you think you ought to but never get round to reading). Creationist theme parks like Dinosaur Adventure Land in Florida might never have built. And Darwin himself might be sleeping more peacefully in his grave. It may be stretching a point, but you get the picture: hiding Ida also hid useful knowledge.
Meanwhile, one particularly unpleasant life form that should never see the light of day is rampaging around Wales: measles. Children get lifelong disabilities as a result of catching measles. Some even die of it. (Mumps isn’t much fun either, especially if you’re a bloke. Likewise rubella if your mum catches it while she’s expecting you.)
Enough parents have been been fooled – and yes, some newspapers were involved in the fooling – into believing that the MMR vaccination could trigger autism.
In Wales herd immunity – the level of protection needed to ensure that measles doesn’t get a chance to spread – has been compromised, and more than 120 kids have a disease that they need never have caught. Bad science won, big time.
As a final example of how people seem happier to believe bad science than good, take a report last January from your very own Bath Chronicle, in which it was announced that Bristol Water was investigating adding fluoride to water supplies. The reason is simple: children in areas with naturally-occurring fluoride grow up with less tooth decay than those in areas where the water has little or none.
By adding tiny amounts of fluoride to water that doesn’t naturally contain it, we help ensure children grow up with healthier teeth.
Enough people responded to the article with claims that fluoride causes cancer and “abnormalities” to make you wonder what century we’re living in. Let’s hope that, in this last case, Good Science beats Bad.
That was the column that was.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mind your vocabulary

The English language is a resilient beast. The mongrel offspring of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon, with a leavening of Greek thrown in for good measure, it has no formal grammar to speak of (noun cases? inflected verbs? we laugh in their general direction) and its pronunciation is totally out of whack with its spelling.
Find a continental European with a rough cough in Slough and you’ll find a very confused European indeed.
Like a lexicographical vampire, English absorbs fresh vocabulary like a swamp sucks in unwary travellers. Bring it your politically correct, your geeky or your New School Hip Hop rapper, and English will chew them up and digest them. In small, bite-size chunks.
To complain, as some people do, that English is under some sort of threat from these foreign invasions of weird words – whether they be “conflagration operative”, “boot sector” or “mad propz” – is to miss the point. English can take it. Always has, always will. Word dat.
But in the last few months a new invasion has hit our linguistic shores: of words that used to mean one thing but in these tough financial times have started to signify something quite different.
And while the English language will undoubtedly take the strain as it always does, even we regular users can sometimes get a little confused.
So here, for those who like to keep up with the times but are feeling left behind by the lingo, is a brief glossary of Words That Don’t Mean Quite What They Used To.
Flipping. Not the word you say in front of the children when you really want to say... well, never mind. This is the practice of buying a second home, doing it up on your parliamentary expense account, and then flogging it a vast profit. If you’re not an MP, this particular scam won’t work. You could always try flipping your garden shed but you’ll probably just end with it in bits on the lawn.
Scrappage. Not what you find yourself in when the wife discovers you’ve demolished the garden shed. Oh no. The Government gives you two grand for your 10-year-old banger, on condition you buy a shiny new one. This cunning economic measure revives the car industry, the environment and your street cred, all in one go. What’s not to like?
Nothing, although it’ll be even better when they extend it to cat-ravaged sofas, washing machines with motors that go SCREEEEE, old-fashioned tellies that can’t get Freeview and all the other household paraphernalia that you’d love to get replaced on the Government’s tab.
Quantitative Easing. Printing more money: the Treasury’s equivalent of maxing out their credit card. The problem is that it’s not actually their credit card at all. It’s ours, and we’ll be the ones who end up paying. For ever.
Flippage, Slippage and Ullage. Interchangeable terms for the slow decline of the Western economy. Either that or a trio of out-of-work actors who didn’t quite make the cut for In The Night Garden.
Qualitative Stoppage. The feeling you get when you sit down in front of the flatscreen TV the government has just bought for you under the Questionable Floppage scheme and realise there’s nothing on but Britain’s Got Talent, Eurovision and re-runs of Murder, She Wrote.
And there you have it. Your cut-out- and-keep guide to noughties English. Work these words into your everyday conversation and you’ll be the cynosure of all you meet. On the other hand, perhaps you’ll just get a good slappage.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

We got it wrong about Noah

History has a nasty habit of catching up with you. More than three years ago, on Friday, March 17, 2006, The Bath Chronicle published in our “This Day in History” column several tantalising nuggets of fact.
On that day in 1845, you will doubtless be fascinated to know, one Stephen Perry patented the rubber band. What he did with it afterwards is not recorded. Pinged it out of the window, probably.
A few short years later, on March 17 1876, Marshall Brooks was the first person to jump over six feet.
The original article didn’t say whether Brooks jumped upwards or sideways. And anyway shouldn’t it have been “more than” rather than “over”?
These deeply trivial snippets pale into total insignificance, though, when compared with the first item on the list. Because, according to the article, it was on that very day more than 5,000 years previously – in 3446BC to be exact – that Noah rounded up his menagerie and boarded the Ark.
Now leaving aside for a moment the question of whether Noah was truly a historical character, whether there really was an Ark, and if so where did they keep the skunks, all this is not really the sort of stuff you’d generally speaking give a lot of extra thought to.
So it was quite a surprise when last Wednesday (May 6 2009, date fans, and more than three years after the publication of the original article) a postcard arrived at Chronicle Towers questioning our dating of Noah’s embarkation.
The card was from someone who signed themselves only as Mark, and was ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS Never a good sign, although not quite as bad as green ink.
It was addressed to the Editor at our former headquarters in the Western Wasteland, but it doesn’t appear to have been delayed by inefficiency on the part of the Post Office. In fact, the postmark suggests that it was posted only one day before it was delivered. Nice one, postie! If anything can keep you from privatisation then this must be it.
The card has a clipping of the original article taped to it, together with a long and complex explanation of why it wasn’t February 17 when Noah took ship, but the 10th day of Zif (otherwise known as Ziv), the second month in the Jewish calendar. According to Mark it started raining a week later on the 17th day of Ziv (otherwise known as Zif) and stopped, 150 days later, on the 17th day of the seventh month, which might or might not be called Ethanim. And probably not in 3446BC either.
Confused? So were we. We had really bought into the 40-days-and- 40-nights thing and weren’t prepared for this 150 days afloat stuff. And be warned: trying to make any sense at all of when, if ever, Noah did his bit for animal conservation will lead you to the depths first of Wikipedia and finally of despair.
Just don’t go there is all.
Goodness knows why Mark was so long in posting his card. Maybe it took him those three years and a couple of months to do all those complicated sums. Maybe the card got stuck behind the sofa. Or maybe he’d only recently stumbled across the paper. (Sherlock Holmes might have made something of the fact that the clipping was curiously unyellow for three-year-old newsprint.)
Whatever the reason, it is the stated policy of The Bath Chronicle to correct mistakes promptly. So we did, although we’re still not sure exactly what it was we were supposed to be correcting.
Noah, consider yourself avenged.