Thursday, July 29, 2010

The man with the keys to the world wide web

Excellent news. Bath entrepreneur Paul Kane has been entrusted with one of the keys to the world wide web. And if it all goes pear-shaped, he’ll be the man to turn it off and turn it back on again.
Or to be slightly more accurate, in the event of a terrorist attack or hacking exploit that threatens the integrity of said web, he would travel to the US to meet five of the other six keyholders. Together they would reboot the Domain Name Security System and reboot the www.
All of which sounds like a jolly good thing, on the face of it. Even if you don’t quite understand what it means in practical terms.
It does leave a few questions unanswered, though.
First off, how is Mr Kane supposed to buy himself an airline ticket to America if the entire world wide web has gone into hacker-induced meltdown?
And what happens if he loses his personal key down the back of the sofa? Has he got a spare? Has he put it on a keyring? Preferably one of those electronic jobs that warble back at you when you whistle at them?
And how many times has he heard most of these wisecracks before in one form or another?
So there’s absolutely nothing for us to worry about. Especially those of us who don’t know the difference between the world wide web and the internet, and probably never will. Because Mr Kane has got it all under control.
A bit like Bath and North East Somerset council, really. (He wrote, going off at a complete tangent.)
After last Sunday’s Sky Ride Bath, questions were asked on about how much money, if any, the council made from the event.
One regular contributor discovered that it would cost £550 to get a Temporary Traffic Regulation Order to close all the roads, plus an additional cost for advertising.
Following the link (shortcut: provided by our reader takes you to the Licences and Street Trading page on the council website that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that B&NES does indeed control everything.

Want to start a zoo? B&NES will sell you a licence, for £534 plus vets’ fees.

Want to trade as an acupuncturist (or a tattooist, or indeed any sort of -ist that involves piercing the skin)? The permit is a snip (ouch) at £72.

Want to put up a banner across the highway? Be prepared for a world of bureaucratic pain.
Want to store fireworks, or poisons, or petroleum? Want to breed puppies, or keep a sloth, or a tapir, or a crested porcupine? Fancy your chances as a chaperone for children involved in a theatrical performance? B&NES has the licence or certificate you need, or can tell you where to get one.

Just remember though, that if you want to start a new career as a pedlar, pushing a wheeled trolley is not acceptable.

You can even find all the forms you need to set up a sex shop. But you didn’t want to know that, did you?

Bureaucracy gone mad? Not really. Whether it’s the web or the real world, we all need someone to keep us safe from the mutters.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

If you're bored, you're boring

Right. That’s it. The lessons are over. The postmortem about school report has been held and concluded to nobody’s complete satisfaction.

The blazers, sweatshirts, dark trousers and sensible shoes have been scrunched up in a heap or left to fester in a dark corner.

For a couple of moments a veil of peace settles on the household.

In that brief stasis, the relief they feel at having no more maths, French, geography, food tech, whatever, just about outweighs the horrific realisation that they’ve got nothing to occupy them for six whole weeks.

Then all hell lets loose.

School is the only thing that really keeps kids busy. And being busy is the only thing that keeps them from either throttling each other or thinking up smart comebacks to any instruction from their parents.

All right, they probably throttle each other at school too, and cheek the teachers while they’re at it. But isn’t that the main reason you pay your council tax, to stop them doing it at home?

“Mum, Dad, I’m bored,” say the not-so-little ones.

“Well, find yourself something to do,” says the increasingly frazzled parent.

“But there isn’t anything to do,” comes the well-practised response.

 “Well read a book, or go for a walk, or tidy your room,” says parent, playing for time.

“But that’s B-O-R-I-N-G. Why aren’t we on holiday? All our friends are on holiday.”

“Well we’re going next week,” says parent, playing the trump card.

“But everyone else has gone this week. That means we won’t see our mates for ages.”

“Well it’ll be all the more fun when you get back together, won’t it? And anyway, you can Facebook them.”

“But they can’t get on Facebook in the Rocky Mountains. And why can’t we go to Canada? Why are we going camping in Devon? Again?”

Perceptive readers will have noticed that the conversation has already descended into one of the classic modes of parent/offspring non-communication: what psychologists call the But/Well Interface.

Child starts every sentence with “But...” Parent answers every objection with “Well...” And there are no winners. Ever.

When your columnist and his brother were young, we were looked after by Grandma Dixon (you remember, the one with the odd theories about women’s lifespans).

Her response to any hint of an “I’m bored” scenario was a pre-emptive strike with some Rudyard Kipling:

“The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump/ Which well you may see at the Zoo;/ But uglier yet is the hump we get/ From having too little to do...”

Neither of us had a clue what she was on about, but she did instil in us the love of literature which has continued to succour us in our later years.

Of course we didn’t have video games in those days. All we had was a stick. But what might loosely be called the electronic cosh is definitely the modern parent’s truest, bestest, closest friend.

Plug in, turn on and wait for the electricity bill. At least it saves on arguments.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ringo Starr and the psychic octopus

One of The Beatles' lesser-known numbers is a jolly little ditty called Octopus's Garden.

It's not exactly what you'd call a classic. It wasn't written by John Lennon, or Paul McCartney, or even by George Harrison, but by drummer Ringo Starr, whose talents as a lyricist are hardly up there with the greats.

He sings it too, on the album Abbey Road, in those lugubrious tones that he was later to put to good effect as the storyteller in the Thomas and Friends animated TV series.

"I'd like to be, under the sea, in an octopus's garden in the shade," warbles Ringo at his most Liverpudlian. And somehow you can tell he means it.

Funnily enough, if you should ever chance to visit the website of the Daily Telegraph, you can find a picture of Ringo visiting this year's Chelsea Flower Show.

The caption identifies him as the narrator of the tales of anthropomorphised locomotives, but there's not even a mention of his job with the Fab Four.

Whether that says more about the Telegraph web site or about popular culture is a question we shall leave to the reader.

Anyway, cephalopods. They're back in the headlines after the astonishing success of Paul the Psychic Octopus's World Cup 2010 predictions. And rightly so.

They're fascinating creatures. They have eight legs (no surprise). They have three hearts (big surprise: one for each set of gills, one for their body).

They're pretty brainy, too, for an invertebrate mollusc. So brainy in fact that Sam Holliday has started contractual negotiations with Paul with a view to assuring the continued success of The Bath Chronicle's all-conquering Brain of Bath quiz team. Although it remains to be seen how Paul will cope in the infamous "smells round".

It's a bit like the old joke. "My octopus has got no nose." "How does he smell?" Oh never mind.

Paul is a bit of a turncoat, though. He was hatched in a tank in Weymouth, but early in his career emigrated to a sea life centre at Oberhausen in Germany. And since then he has taken an unhealthy interest in the fortunes of the German football team.

He correctly predicted four of their six Euro 2008 results, but it was at the World Cup that he really got into his stride. (Do octopuses have a stride? Subs please check.)

By choosing food from two boxes, one with the German flag and one with their opponents', he accurately foretold Die Mannschaft's progress from defeat against Serbia to defeat against Spain.

(OK, they had some wins too. But let's just remember the good times.)

And now the Spaniards have invited him to an annual octopus festival, at which they have promised not to eat him. Paul (and his minders) have wisely declined.

Sadly, Paul's career as a football pundit will only be short-lived. The natural lifespan of the common octopus is only two years, so he's close to retirement. A pity really: he'll never get to see his original homeland's success in Brazil 2014.

Never mind, though. We've always got Alan Hansen.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Why women live longer than men

It’s always heartening to read that things in this neck of the woods are better than they are elsewhere in the country.

Crumbs of comfort, maybe, but it does give you a slightly self-satisfied feeling to know that you were either born here or could afford to move here at some time in the past. You couldn’t now, but let that be.

Anyway, a report from the Association of Public Health Observatories adds grist to that particular mill.

(What is grist, while we’re on the subject? Has anyone ever seen it? Can you buy it from the market? Can you set fire to it? Does it bounce? Answers on a postcard...)

Anyway. “People in Bath,” we read, “live up to two years longer than the national average.

“Life expectancy for men in Bath and north east Somerset is 80, while for women it is 83.5.

“Which is significantly higher than the averages for England of 77.9 years for men and 82 years for women.”

So, as far as men are concerned, is 80 “significantly” higher than 77.9? Well maybe. The trusty Chronicle Towers calculator (it’s one of those ones with mechanical buttons and a hand crank and it doesn’t need batteries) was pressed into action to do a bit of statistical analysis.

Let’s crunch some numbers and find a percentage: 80 minus 77.9 is 2.1. And 77.9 divided by 100 is 0.779. And 0.779 times 2.1 is 1.6359.

Rounding up, men in Bath live 1.64 per cent longer than the national average. For women, the percentage is smaller: just 1.23.

(Guess who’s been helping the kids with their maths revision? Guess who’s got a brain like a bowl full of mashed potato? So please don’t trouble to write in if you think these sums are wrong. Enough tears have been shed already.)

There’s no obvious reason why women should live longer than men. Grandma Dixon, of blessed memory, used to claim that it was because women sit down and stand up every time they go to the loo.

This means, she theorised, that over an average lifetime women do more exercise then us chaps, and are therefore haler, heartier and more prone to bouts of longevity.

Several hours of internet searches have produced no confirmation of this breakthrough in medical thinking.

(There were a lot of pictures of cute kittens though, and a video of someone falling over. Grandma Dixon wouldn’t have approved of the World Wide Web.)

Be that as it may, there is good news in Bath and north east Somerset Health Report 2010 . (PDF, 600Kb).

We eat more healthily, we’re less likely to smoke or binge drink. Our children are less likely to be obese, although strangely they’re also less likely to be physically active than the average English child.

For more information, download a PDF file of the complete report from

It treats statistics in a far less cavalier fashion than the present writer, and suggests that those differences in life expectancy are indeed significant.

But on the theories of Grandma Dixon, it remains mercifully silent.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Lost in space - with a dodgy boiler

Technology has two very different faces.

A bright, shiny face and a grim, grumpy face. As events earlier this week will illustrate.

First, the bright and shiny bit: the International Space Station, or ISS to its chums.

Just look at its vital statistics.

 At nearly 51 metres long and 109 metres wide, and weighing 370 tonnes (that’s 407 tons in old money), it’s the largest and heaviest artificial satellite ever to orbit the earth. It travels at an average speed of 17,239mph, at a height of up to 286 miles above the ground, and completes 15.7 orbits per day.

It currently carries a crew of six people, who for all sorts of very good reasons aren’t allowed to indulge in any kind of interplanetary rumpy-pumpy, according to a recent  interview with NASA Commander Alan Poindexter.

(Now there’s a good square-jawed- New-Frontier-Buzz-Lightyear-style American surname if ever there was one. Just the right sort of star-spangled hero to lead humanity to infinity and beyond. No cosmic nooky on his watch, you can be sure of that.)

The ISS is big enough to be seen from Earth with the naked eye, and for the last few nights it’s been passing almost directly over Bath. You can find predictions for the next ISS passovers for Bath at

There’s something just a little bit awe-inspiring, and humbling too, about standing outside on a clear summer’s evening as it tracks across the sky, taking just four or five minutes from rising in the west to disappearing into the east.

Catch it if you can – it’s quite a show. And remember as it goes by: it’s not flying, it’s falling with style.

So that’s the exciting side of modern technology. Now for the dark, grubby downside: our hot water system.

Imagine: you stroll in from an inspiring five minutes watching the ISS zoom past, to find Mrs D with her special doom-laden face on.

And you know you’re in for a spell of protracted misery when she utters those dread words:  “Hugh, I can’t get the boiler to work.”

Which sounds uncannily similar to “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Except about six times worse.

Kids will go unshowered. Washing will go un-upped. Towels won’t dry on the towel rail. But that won’t matter because we won’t be having a bath any time soon.

Of course, there’s a hi-tech solution: engage diagnostic skills, repressurise the warp coils, calibrate the quantum flux generator and stand by for ignition. But no. The green light is flashing and the yellow light won’t come on, and let’s face it, you don’t have the slightest idea why not.

You can bet your booty they don’t have this sort of trouble on the ISS. But then, nor do they have the eventual cure. Which is to open up the innards and give everything a good wiggle. Turn it off, turn it on again, run the hot water and bingo.

Stand back and modestly accept praise from assembled family members. You have boldly gone where no man has gone before.

Until the whole damn lot goes wrong again the following morning. Time to introduce the chequebook to the boiler man.