Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why flares are back in style

Fashion’s a funny business. Two years ago, if anyone had told you that in September 2011 it would be cool and trendy to walk around town wearing headphones the size of baked bean tins, you’d have treated them with the scorn you’d normally reserve for someone who claimed the world was flat, or that England would win the next World Cup.

But here we are in September 2011. Designer cans cost upwards of £120. They make the wearer look like Phones, the submarinating marionette from Stingray, and they annoy the hell out of anyone standing within 200 yards. They might look OK plugged into your hi-fi, but on the street they just make you look daft.

Flares are back in the news too. But not, as the headline might have mischievously suggested, flares of the long-leggedy hippyish trouser-type variety. If you thought you were getting the go-ahead to squeeze yourself into a pair of loon pants, then you’re out there with the flat-earthers and the England fans.

No, what we’re talking about here are solar flares. The kind that for the last few days have been shooting out of the Sun in the general direction of our innocent little planet, causing auroras both boreal and austral, knocking satellites out of whack and giving mobile phone companies a perfect excuse for those irritating drop-outs in G3 signal any time you venture more than half a mile from a built-up area.

Solar flares emanate from sunspots, in this case the 100,000km-long Active Region 1302, which has been described by normally sober sources such as NASA as a “behemoth”.

And that’s not a word you hear too often in the context of coronal mass ejections. It’s not a word you hear much in any context, come to that.

Solar flares, it says on the internet, are divided by intensity into five categories: A, B, C, M and X. There’s something rather disturbing about that apparent lack of a logical naming convention. A, B, and C are pretty ordinary. Then things get so bad, so fast, that the space boffins don’t even bother with D to L.

And as for N to W, well don't stop to think about them. Just head for the shelters, 'cos here comes a category X1.9 and it’s got our name on it.

It would be tempting to suggest that all this cosmic assault and battery is the Sun’s warning to scientists at CERN who recently reported that they might, just might, have detected a particle in the course of breaking the ultimate speed limit: the speed of light.

 “Ho,” says the Sun. “I’m the top light source around here. Taste my flares.”

Tempting, but preposterous.

In the short term, the mighty AR1302 isn’t even pointing straight at the Earth yet, so we may not yet have felt the full effect of its toasty plasma eruptions.

And over the next couple of years solar activity is predicted to increase, which means there could be more sunspots, more geomagnetic storms, and more people going around wearing tin-foil hats to ward off the ill effects.

Which might look a bit silly. But not half as silly as the twits in the big headphones.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Secrets from the Man Drawer

It’s funny how you can walk around Bath and get the feeling you’re in a parallel universe.

Whenever you step outside your front door, a bizarre distortion field catches you unawares and makes you start to question what is real and what isn’t.

Hordes of Jane Austen fans stroll elegantly down Milsom Street in their Regency costumes, making the casual visitor think for a moment that they’ve been spirited back 200 years to a simpler and more graceful age.

The illusion is broken, though, when the assembled Janeites start glugging bottled water and nattering into mobile phones.

“I have missed the post chaise and shall not be home for luncheon,” they say to whoever it is they’re talking to. “Pray keep the roast goose a-warming until my return.”

Things get even weirder as you go further out from the city centre. For reasons too complicated to go into here, you’re waiting to get into town from the far pavilions of Kelston Road when a ghastly realisation creeps up on you – you’ve entered an alternative reality in which they’ve invented bus stops, but not the buses to stop at them. No wonder everyone else is driving.

And even in the safety of your own home, things are not quite what they seem. Instead of birthday presents, you get cards from DHL telling you to collect your goodies from an industrial estate on the other side of Almondsbury.

Is Almondsbury even a real place? Given its close proximity to another purportedly real place called Catbrain, we venture to suggest not.

At the centre of this whirlpool of unreality, though, is a force of nature so disruptive to the peace and tranquility of normal life that we shudder to mention it within the pages of a family newspaper.

Yes, dear reader, we are talking about the Man Drawer.

What, you may ask, is one of them? Well, in a bygone age, young ladies had Bottom Drawers in which to collect necessities for their future married life. Maybe they still do.

In a similar way, us middle-aged chaps have Man Drawers, in which we gather all we need to cope with our current life.

The trouble is, though, that Man Drawers tend to be affected by the reality distortion field we were discussing earlier. Yes, we were.

When you consider things from a rational perspective, you do not actually need a diary (unused) from 2010. Or one from 2009. Or indeed one from 2007. But there they are, clogging up the Man Drawer.

Even less do you need the headphones from a mobile phone you recycled two years ago. But there they are in the Man Drawer, entwined with the USB cable from the iPod that stopped working just before you happened to buy a brand new one (convenient or what?)

Clamps from the garage; old bars of chocolate; six kinds of propelling pencil lead; a bulging tube of glue: all are there because you thought they Might Come In Useful.

None of them ever will. But the Man Drawer takes them and twists them into a new and frightening reality. Ignore it at your peril.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bike in Bath website updated

Well, some of my criticisms in yesterday's blog about the Bike in Bath website have been addressed fairly quickly.

They've re-worded the subscription instructions to make it clear where you have to click. (Although I think you should just be able to click the word "Register" in the instructions to take you to the registration page. There, I just did it!)

And you can now type a full UK postcode into the box on the registration page. (Even if they do still call it a ZIP code for some reason.)

But on the registration page there are THREE fields for "State". One is an empty text entry field, the other two are pull-downs listing countries. Plus there are TWO pull-downs for "Country", neither of which is usable because they're empty.

A lot of the typos I mentioned are still there - four instances of "avabile" on the Stations page; "RECHARG" on the home page; "Holburne" still incorrectly spelled "Holbourne" on the home page graphic; a page called "SUBSCIBE". And the grey text is still jumping back and forth.

One typo I didn't notice before:

 It should be "bicycles". In fact it should be "7 free bicycles out of 15", but let's not be too picky.

Sorry, guys. You're getting there, but you've still got a way to go.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Early breakfast on a planet made of diamond

The Large Hadron Collider has been at it again.

Yes, the world’s biggest, baddest particle accelerator, which has always held an unnatural fascination for this writer, has only gone and created the Densest Matter Ever Observed.

Denser than lead, denser than a neutron star, denser than last Sunday’s collapsed sponge pudding, denser even than Denny Denson, Professor of Density at St Dennis’s College, Densebridge, quark-gluon plasma is so downright stodgy that if you had a matchbox full, it would weigh more than the entire universe.

(All right, that may be something of an exaggeration, but you get the general idea.)

Quark-gluon plasma, as its name suggests, is made out of a combination of quarks and gluons. And now that’s sorted out, we can move on.

Because dense things aren’t confined to the coils of the LHC. Spinning round a pulsar the size of Cologne, just 4,000 light years from Earth, is a planet made of diamond.

How it got that way is a matter of conjecture, but to put it into layman’s terms, a big star full of carbon bumped into a little star full of pulses, one thing led to another and you can guess the rest.

Now all that remains is to find a name for this new wonder of nature.

Suggestions have ranged from the romantic – Planet Tiffany – to the commercial – Planet Ernest Jones.

One thing’s for sure though: you’re not going to make a fortune by heading out there in a rocket and digging up some diamonds. You’d either be frazzled by the radio waves kicked out by Pulsar J1719-1438 as it spins through the firmament at 10,000 rpm, or squished by the gravity of Planet Bling.

Speaking of radio waves (and coming back down to Earth with a bang), the BBC has seriously messed up Radio 3 in the mornings.

Until this week, the start to the Dixon day ran as smoothly as a well-oiled machine. Alarm at 5.42 precisely. Leap up. Empty dishwasher. Make Mrs D’s tea. Back to bed to doze for an hour to the soothing strains of Through the Night. Up, shave and dress just in time for the news headlines at 7am. Three Breakfast with the muesli.

Not any more. As of last Monday, Radio 3’s breakfast show has moved to 6.30, when all right-thinking people are still dozing. The format’s changed, too. The news headlines at 6.30 are followed by the presenter (Petroc Trelawny at his far-too-cheeriest) reading them again at 6.45, followed by the newsreader again at 7am. Followed by Trelawny reading the weather.

Instead of gentle music, we’ve got the aural equivalent of Spongebob Squarepants.

There’s not much alternative, either. Radio 4 is too depressing. Classic FM is too full of adverts. Radio 2 has too much Chris Evans. Radio 1 has too much Chris Moyles.

All right, Radio 3 listeners are notoriously resistant to change, and that bit about Spongebob is the second exaggeration in 500 words.

But if you detect increased levels of grumpiness from Dixon Towers over the coming weeks, you’ll have a pretty good idea why.

Bike in Bath: great idea, flaky website

So, at last Bath has its own Boris Bikes. Bike in Bath is open for testing today, and gets its official launch later this month. And it's a great idea.

You buy a bike card (by registering online or in person from the Tourist Information Office in Abbey Church Yard), you head to one of the four docking stations (here's Green Park this morning, although apparently it's not operational yet), you wave your card at the gadgetry, you retrieve your splendid blue steed and off you pedal. Remembering only to return your bike to a docking station when you've finished with it.

As an added bonus, the first 30 minutes are free.

An excellent idea, and I shall be taking one of the bikes for a spin in the next day or so.

What's not so great, though, is the Bike in Bath website.

If you Google Bike in Bath you won't find it. Possibly because the page title on the Bike in Bath home page is "Home Page", which even from my limited knowledge of search engine optimisation I know is a bit of a bad start.

The fact that the words "bike" and "Bath" don't appear anywhere in the home page source code probably doesn't help much either, SEO-wise.

If you Google bikeinbath (without any spaces), Google will helpfully return a search for "bikes Bath". If you reject that suggestion and tell Google yes, you really did mean "bikeinbath", then the top link is to the whois record for

So far, so hard to find.

If you persevere and reach that elusive home page, your eye is immediately greeted by a chunk of light grey text on a white background (bad contrast), aligned left. Before you have a chance to finish reading it, it disappears and is replaced by another chunk of light grey text on a white background, aligned right (even harder to read.) This text flickers distractingly to and fro as you try to read the rest of the page.

Down the right-hand side are three grey panels with white text on them. Again, a bit hard to read. The middle one says "Recharg your ticket". Spelling mistake number one (there are lots).

Undaunted, you click the link to the Subscribe page. Whose title is SUBSCIBE (another spelling mistake). Here your can check availability of bikes in your "municpality" (losing count here) and "zona" (spelling mistake or untranslated Italian?) You learn you can pick up a bike from the "Holbourne" Museum. (It's Holburne, and is correct on their Station page, although here they've spelled "available" as "avabile".)

As well as the spelling mistakes there is non-English English all over the place. For example "You will contribute to reduce emissions"; "each stations is composed by a series of cycle-parking columns"; "move around the city in a fast, amusing and ecologically-friendly manner". Yes, "municipality" is an English word. But not one that anyone ever uses.

Never mind, though. Let's follow the instructions to register online:

"1 Register on the portal by accessing the panel for the reserved area"

There's no hyperlink from that text. You have to guess that to register you actually need to click a tiny blue "Login" link in the top right-hand corner of the page. 

When you do, you get this:

They put a login form to their own administration pages on the same panel as they use for user registration? Why? Links like that should be totally private.

Click the Register button and it takes you to "Pagina senza titolo" which asks for personal contact details and password over non-secure HTTP. There are two pull-downs for "State" which both present lists of countries. There are two pull-downs for "Country" which both present lists of nothing at all. The "Zip Code" input box won't allow enough characters for a UK postcode.

These are all very simple mistakes which could have been put right with basic proof-reading (maybe by a native English speaker, since the site is directed at English people?) and usability testing.

Sorry, Bike in Bath. I want to love you, but I won't be using your website to register - there are too many errors to inspire confidence. Time for a stroll to Tourist Information.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Serving suggestions

 “Daaaad...” It’s a word that strikes fear into every father’s heart, because you just know that it’s going to be followed by one of those questions that you can’t easily answer.

“Daaaad...” said Dixon Junior many years ago as we drove round and round an unfamiliar French town, exhausted after a seven-hour drive and unable to reconcile the map the hotel had sent us with the street layout. “Daaaad... How many planets are there in the universe?”

The question has gone down in family legend, and even though we now know the answer to that one (squillions, if you’re interested) the questions keep on coming.

“Daaaad...” we had last week, “Why do food packets always say ‘Serving Suggestion’?”

Well, thereby hangs a tale.

Remember in Toy Story, when Buzz Lightyear sees a TV advert for himself, which ends with a voiceover: “Not a Flying Toy?” And remember how it makes Buzz turn from arrogance to grim self-awareness? He’s not a real Space Ranger, he can’t fly, and his only value is as a plaything.

Hubris leads to nemesis, pride comes before a fall. And so it is with food packaging.

That ham you bought from the supermarket may have dressed itself up enticingly with a pack shot of sliced tomato, crispy lettuce and a freshly baked baguette. But inside the packet (once you get the plastic film off) is the ham, the whole ham and nothing but the ham.

Even on simple packaging where they could just as easily have said “Remove from Tin and Put on Plate”, they print “Serving Suggestion”: more to make sure the content doesn’t get ideas above its station, than as a reminder to the literal-minded consumer.

But it’s a concept that could be usefully extended to other kinds of product.

Suppose you’re in the market for a new printer. (And why wouldn’t you be? It’s so much cheaper than buying replacement ink cartridges for the old one.)

Inkjet printers are all pretty much the same, and in the end your decision comes down to the box art. Which shows a proud dad and his admiring wife and children watching as cheerful family snaps and fancy-looking pie charts whizz out of the printer too fast to catch.

Boxes like that really do need a warning on them. Something like “Not A Real Family” or “Your Colours May Vary And Actually Be Restricted To Four Shades of Brown” would be a start.

Seed packets would benefit from warnings too. Readers whose memories stretch as far back as February will no doubt recall the saga of the World’s Hottest Chilli, and attempts to grow same.

There was indeed a warning on the packet: “Handle and taste with care!” But perhaps what it should say is “Handle With Utter Disdain. ”

On the packet, the Naga Jolokia peppers are red, fruity and pungent-looking. Whereas on our windowsill, they’re small, green and totally insignificant.

Because it’s the same with those chillis as it is with so many others things in life: What You See Is Definitely Not What You Get.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Skullduggery in the vegetable patch

Ahh, September. The month when the clouds of August roll back, the winds die down, the rain subsides and the sun bursts forth once more, just in time for everyone to go back to work.

All that remains of the summer holidays are memories, blurred photos of the family huddled miserably in the lee of a Welsh slate quarry, and bills.

Let’s not be gloomy, though. Because apart from meteorological schadenfreude, the end of summer also means the start of the vegetable show season.

Growers everywhere are preparing their prize specimens for display, and the methods they use to ensure success make the mind boggle.

Some competitors swear by secret potions. If you’ve ever wondered how that prize-winning pumpkin got so plump, then it’s probably thanks to regular doses of tea leaves, scrumpy and Bovril, drip-fed straight to the roots.

Some resort to furniture polish. It’s a well-known fact in horticultural circles that a quick spritz of Mister Sheen will give your best King Edwards the glossy shine they need to catch the judges’ eyes. And noses.

Some resort to trickery. Without giving away too many secrets, tying little kitchen weights to the ends of your runner beans is a favourite way of getting them to grow straight and true.

And while frowned upon in the bean-growing fraternity, the practice isn’t exactly illegal. As long as you don’t get caught.

No, the world of prize vegetable growing is a tough one, with no quarter asked or given. And anyone who enters it had better keep their wits about them.

It’s thus with some trepidation that we Dixons view the approach of this year’s Weston Village Flower Show, which takes place on Saturday, September 3 in the All Saints Centre, starting at 2.30pm.

Not that any of the competitors would stoop to skullduggery, you understand, but because our family reputation is at stake.

Mrs D has had some success in the past, but she’s already blaming the hopeless summer on a lack of winning produce. So perhaps this Saturday her two-year run as Onion Queen of Weston will finally come to an end.

And yours truly? Well, just read the introduction to the show programme. This year’s celebration of fruit-, flower- and vegetable-growing expertise will be opened, and the prizes presented, by none other than... Hugh Dixon, columnist with Ye Olde Bath Chronicle.

Ooh heck. Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, but this is taking the mickey. It means getting up on the hind legs and making a speech in which one tries one’s best to sound knowledgeable and entertaining about subjects about which one knows next to nothing.

Including chilli-growing, if this year’s miserable crop of duds is anything to go by.

Quite seriously, though, please don’t let this rare public appearance by your humble columnist put you off going. As all good gardeners will tell you, every rose has its thorn.