Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mrs D and the Large Hadron Collider

It is with a heavy heart that this column returns to a topic that last vexed its mind more than a year ago – the Large Hadron Collider.

Regular readers (and there are many, we know) will no doubt remember that in September 2008 the LHC, as its friends call it, blew the subatomic equivalent of a piston ring and was shut down for repairs, just a couple of days after it started its mission to probe the inner secrets of the Big Bang by shooting tiny particles round a 27km loop buried under the Swiss/French border.

Don’t ask how it does it. Don’t ask why. And don’t ask how much it costs. It just does, OK?

A couple of weeks ago the LHC, its gaskets newly fettled and its trunnions roundly swaged by a high-energy Man Who Can, was all ready to surge back into action and create an infinite flow of Higgs bosons, superstrings and Q mesons. But then a passing bird dropped a baguette down its cooling ducts, and the whole concern ground to a shuddering halt for a second time.

How preposterous does this sound, exactly?

Preposterous enough to make some apparently sane people start to believe that at some time in the future the LHC will develop its own transdimensional consciousness and attempt to manipulate its own past: to stop itself from working.

Why would it want to? Maybe to stop us hubristic humans from destroying ourselves – and indeed the whole universe – by poking our noses into things we don’t rightly understand.

Because if God had intended us to discover dark matter, he would never have given us powered flight

All of which brings us, in a rather round-about fashion, to Mrs D and her forthcoming solo jaunt to Warsaw.

Not, you understand, that one is in any way comparing one’s good wife to the Large Hadron Collider.

Especially not the “Large” bit.

But if her UK-based nearest and dearest are to stand any chance of survival during her absence, she is going to have to start manipulating us from the future.

The timeline will work something like this: Friday am, Mrs D heads for Heathrow, laden with prezzies for her relatives. Monday pm, she returns, laden with prezzies for us lot, only to find we have vanished into the domestic equivalent of a black hole.

Tuesday am, Mrs D sends back message to us lot on Saturday with full instructions for: loading washing machine; unloading same; reloading  using washing powder and conditioner this time; mopping floor after inexplicable washing machine explosion; defluffing tumble dryer;  cooking food; getting ready for school on Monday.

Back on Saturday morning, time passes through a tachyon non-conformity, twists round on itself and delivers the message from Mrs D.

Husband and kids get down to the household chores, black hole disappears up its own quantum singularity, bells ring, a flock of doves is released and Mrs D returns home on Monday to three happy Dixons, faces scrubbed and clothes clean, domestic tasks accomplished and never a cross word spoken.

So what will really happen? Will Mrs D send a message from the future to mend the past? Is the LHC deliberately trying to shut itself down? Only time will tell. But it might make a plot line for Paradox.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Recipe for sardines on toast

You will need: two slices of bread, one tin of sardines in oil, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, dried basil, butter, medium tomato.

Open tin, drain sardines, discard oil. Mash sardines in a bowl with salt, pepper, cayenne and basil. Proportions to taste.

Slice tomato thinly.

Grill bread on one side. Before it burns, take it out and spread the ungrilled sides with lots of butter. Spread the sardine mixture on top, then strew sliced tomato on top of that.

Put the whole lot back under the grill, sardine side up. Grill until bread is nearly burnt.

Eat with knife and fork.

Real bachelor food. Yum

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My hell in the Quiet Carriage

The long, sleek, purple train pulls into Bath Spa railway station, pretty much on time. You climb into the Quiet Carriage, find your seat and settle down, ready to head west.

It’s late morning and the train is practically empty. It swishes along merrily, the only distraction being those strange semi-literate arrival announcements from the train manager.

“Arriving into”? Where did they drag up that particular prepositional distortion?

It’s  “arriving at” or (at a pinch) “arriving in”. The phrase “Arriving into” is downright, and unnecessarily, wrong.

But don’t let it bother you. The English language is a flexible beast and can cope with anything that First Great Western Trains throws at it.

Onwards, ever onwards.

Things are pretty quiet in the Quiet Carriage. You take advantage of the fact that you’re allowed to use a quiet personal stereo. You stretch yourself out in a quiet sort of manner. All very civilised. All very quiet.

Read a magazine, in the words of the song, and you’re in Baltimore. Well Exeter, actually, but never mind.

Somewhere around Taunton, though, the trouble starts.

“Oooh look,” comes a voice from a couple of seats in front of you. “We’re in the quiet carriage! Look at that sign on the window! It says we’re in the QUIET carriage! That sign’s got a picture of a crossed out mobile phone! Does that mean your mobile phone won’t work in here? Because we’re in the QUIET CARRIAGE!!!”

Now from the general Tiggerish over-excitedness and sheer technological witlessness of the above, you might assume, dear reader, that these are the innocent ramblings of a precocious two-year-old, perhaps being taken on its first railway jaunt by its doting parents.

But no. These words spring from the mouth of an ordinary looking middle-aged lady, who yammers away to her travelling companion about the QUIET CARRIAGE!!! for the next 20 minutes, while he grunts and tries desperately to make it look as though he’s not with her. So much for quiet.

Business concluded, it’s time to head back. And this time we’re on CrossCountry Trains rather than FGW.

Now for those who are interested, CrossCounty trains look a bit like Eurostars, with automatic doors rather than the kind you have to be a contortionist to open from the inside.

They don’t go quite so fast, though. Especially round Bedminster.

To add to the air of international chic the staff address their customers as “Folks” rather than “Ladies and Gentlemen.” And there’s a Quiet Zone, not a Quiet Carriage.

But do your fellow passengers take the slightest bit of notice? Well, the six nattering businesswomen and the bloke on his mobile phone certainly don’t. Any chance of a post-meeting doze are blown out of the window in a stream of  inconsequential chit-chat.

What can you do? Sigh huffily? Stare pointedly or point (pointedly) at the Quiet Zone signs? It'll only make your fellow passengers think you’re a nutter. So the only solution is to pump up the volume on your previously quiet iPod Touch and attempt to drown them all out. Which rather misses the point.

A French philosopher once said that Hell is other people. A French friend said the other day that France would be great if not for the French.

And grumpy old Dixon says train travel would be an absolute dream.

If it weren’t for the other passengers.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The day they cloned my debit card

Deeply, deeply scary.

You get home on Friday evening and settle down on the sofa for a well-earned nap in preparation for gin o’clock a little later on.

The eyelids start to droop, a drowsy numbness, all that stuff. And then the phone rings. It’s an automaton, from the bank. They’ve made most of the real people redundant.

“If this is Mr Hoooough Dixon, please press the hash key.” Well, it is Mr Hugh Dixon, so we’ll excuse the mangled vowels and press away. Because this sounds like trouble.

(On the subject of hash keys, did you know that the official name of the symbol that looks like a nought-and-crosses grid is the “octothorpe”? Which might be because it bears a slight resemblance to a village with eight fields around it. But then again, it might not.)

Get to the point, Dixon. It’s more than likely this chronic lack of concentration that got you on to the receiving end of a disturbing phone call from a humourless banking android in the first place.
Said cyborg, meanwhile, is asking probing questions about the second and ninth letters of your mother’s maiden name.

You cast your mind back over several decades of family history scrabbling for an acceptable answer, and eventually the drone gives you security clearance. “Please listen to a list of five recent transactions on your account,” it says in its robotic way. Ooh heck.

Even to someone whose hold on his personal finances is about as tight as that of Jedward on a musical note, words like “ATM”, “withdrawal” and “Colombia” spell trouble.

Especially when combined into a single sentence with sums like £17.36, £65.32 and (bizarrely) £1.01.
You press the hash key like mad to indicate that you don’t recognise any of these subtropical transactions. Never mind octothorpes, this is serious. Because someone, it appears, has taken your bank card for a spin on the mean streets of Bogotá.

It’s been cloned.

When the robot learns that it isn’t you who took a quick shopping trip to Latin America, its tone becomes even more businesslike.

“Please hold while you are transferred to one of our staff,” it drones, tacitly admitting what you knew all along: it’s a protocol droid, and you’ve got a walk-on part in Attack of the Clones.

Oh, and while you’re waiting, here’s some classical music. And some more, and some more, and some more. With recorded interruptions from a real person telling you how busy all the other real people are.

The worry levels increase as the wait stretches from five to ten minutes. It’s lucky for the bank that Bach isn’t around any more to collect the royalties: it’d take more than a further round of quantitative easing to pay off that little lot.

And the stress cranks up further when the family get home to find you with the phone glued to your ear and the word “fraud” on your lips.

Eventually you get to speak to that real person. They cancel your card and they reassure you: all dodgy transactions have been declined, the Dixon millions haven’t vanished in a haze of Bolivian marching powder, and they’ll send you a new card in the next two to three working days. Which they do.

All very quick and efficient, but it leaves you wondering: who cloned the card, and how did the bank find out?

Deeply, deeply scary.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Remembrance: fighting for our freedoms

A couple of years ago we went on holiday to northern France, just south of Boulogne.

It’s a quiet, unpretentious area for the most part, with a few seaside towns quite reminiscent of their English equivalents (kiss-me-quick hats, stalls selling fatty food, not a lot of sand). But even today there are reminders of the human tragedy that unfolded 20 miles inland, nearly 100 years ago, in the low, rolling hills of the Somme.

Some of the First World War trenches are still there – preserved, but their edges gradually softening with the passing years.

There is the 200ft-wide Lochnagar mine crater, where sappers attempted to drive back the opposing Germans with nearly 27 tons of high explosive: the 1916 equivalent of shock and awe.

In many ways life has moved on – the people of the small country towns go about their everyday business, the former battlefields have been turned over to agro-industry, their boundaries grubbed up to allow easy passage of tractors and combine harvesters.

But at almost every turn of every road is a graveyard, with its neat rows of white stones commemorating servicemen who fell in battle during the War to End All Wars.

In the Contay British Cemetery near Amiens is the grave of Private Henry Einar Dixon – great uncle Einar – who died on the Somme on September 19 1916, two months after the July offensive, when a trench caved in on him. He was 29, and like all his close relatives was a member of the Religious Society of Friends.

Einar was born in England, but had emigrated to Canada some years before. Family history is too hazy to tell us why. But he volunteered to return to Europe, and fight, with the Third Battalion of the Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment).

Einar had a brother – grandfather Hugh Dixon – who survived the war with honour. Conscientious objection wasn’t really an option then, even for Quakers. Einar’s gravestone is different among the uniform rows of 1,133 others because it has no cross – the Quakers don’t allow religious iconography, however simple.

Even as volunteers Einar and Hugh probably had little true choice about going to war, but there’s little doubt about what they believed they were fighting for.

They were fighting for their future – in other words for their families, for their descendants, for their compatriots, and for their freedoms.

Freedoms that we may sometimes find distasteful.

The freedom, for example, to write to The Bath Chronicle, as Tony Culver did last week, claiming that “the armed forces... have a bloody, unpleasant, nasty, brutish, barbaric, insensitive, stupid, idiotic heritage of slaughter and butchery.”

And the freedom of The Bath Chronicle to publish his letter without fear of censorship or suppression.

We should be proud that we can enjoy both of those freedoms, and more. We should be proud of those who have fought and died in our names, and who continue to do so. We should be proud, every November, to wear the poppies that commemorate them, and to respect the two minutes’ silence at 11am GMT on Armistice Day, November 11.

And Mr Culver should be grateful that he lives in a country which, whatever its imperfections, allows its citizens to write in the way he did.