Thursday, March 20, 2014

George Osborne and the new pound coin

As the fallout from the budget statement settles, and families across the country do their sums and realise with joy and gratitude that they could well be £2.37 a month better off – but not until 2016 – it’s time to sit back and reflect on our  Chancellor of the Exchequer’s lasting legacy.

What, when the history books are written and the students of 2114 scribble down factoids about the early 21st century, will be George Gideon Oliver Osborne’s foremost claim to fame?

Will he be remembered as The Iron Chancellor? The Bankers’ Buddy? The Hammer of the Needy? Austerity Man?

No. None of those things. If George Osborne is remembered by anyone, for anything at all, it will be as The Toff Who Invented The Twelve-Sided Pound.

Announcing it on the same day as the budget was clearly a ploy to distract us commoners  from the nitty-gritty of belt-tightening, and it appears to have worked exactly as he intended.

Because here we are, worrying more about the wear and tear on our pocket linings from those extra corners, and reminiscing about the days when the pound was foldable, rather than girding our loins for a few more years of pain.

Where did Osborne get the idea from, anyway? All this talk about the trusty round version being too easy to forge doesn’t really hold water. And don’t think for a minute that he was inspired by the good old threepenny bit.

Because he’d have a hard job remembering a coin that ceased to be legal tender just three months after he was born.

No, the smart money is on the theory that he was sitting in one of those posh cafés where they serve dainty petits fours on hexagonal plates, and  thought: “I can go better than that – twice better”.

Although to be strictly accurate, George didn’t get his sums right in that glorious moment of gustatory inspiration. Because if you count the top and bottom, or the heads and tails, a hexagonal plate  has eight sides, and a dodecagonal coin has 14. And 14 isn’t twice eight but 1.75 times eight. (Guess who’s been helping out with the maths homework this week?)

And if you’re confused by all those numbers, just imagine the effect they had on the Chancellor.

As with any change in economic policy, though, some people will benefit and others will suffer.

Those with the most to lose, of course, are the manufacturers of  chocolate coins. Year in, year out, they’ve been happily churning out sweet circular simulacra of cash and packing them into plastic nets ready to be stuffed into Christmas stockings up and down the land.

But now a new challenge lies ahead for the doughty chocolatiers: digging out their old 12-sided moulds, left mouldering (sorry) since the demise of the thruppence, and retooling.

Vending machine-makers, meanwhile, are rubbing their hands in glee. Because once Osborne has knackered the pound coin,  what’s to stop him fiddling  with the rest of our currency? ATMs and self-service tills will all need updating, to accept rhomboid 2p pieces and triangular £7 notes.

There are even rumours that Osborne has it in for the venerable seven-sided 50p, and is having it redesigned as a four-dimensional Möbius Strip with no sides at all.

Sounds fun? Hah! Try getting one out of your pocket, the next time you want to spend a penny.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Thank you very much for the World Wide Web

Twenty-five years. Is it really that long since Tim Berners-Lee jumped out of bed one fine morning with a figurative light bulb over his head?

Looking back at that momentous day in March 1989, Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim), explained things very simply: “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and – ta-da! – the World Wide Web!”

Obvious, when you come to think of it. What’s amazing is that no one had thought of the World Wide Web before.

And what’s even more incredible is that Sir Tim later confessed that those two forward slashes we’ve been meticulously typing at the beginning of every web address are totally unnecessary. He put them in, he said, because “it seemed like a good idea at the time”.

Well, we’ve all done things like that, from painting our bedrooms mauve to sliding down a hill on a tea-tray.

But looking back over 25 years of trying to remember which computer key is a forward slash and which one’s a backslash, it’s hard to forgive Sir Tim for that particular boo-boo.

Let’s look on the bright side, though. Much has changed since Sir Tim wrote in his WWW User Guide: “When color [sic] comes along, we can use colour...”

Imagine a world in which you couldn’t click your mouse on the words Click Here! and find that nothing happens because the web designer meant you to click some graphic down at the bottom of the page.

Imagine a world in which you couldn’t find out, with another mouse click, why Dermatologists Hate This Woman For One Weird Trick. What weird trick could it possibly be? Laying the poor out dermatologists with a bunch of daffs? Creeping up behind them and giving them a wedgie? Must... just... click... that... link...

Imagine, too,  a world where you couldn’t watch videos of kittens doing cute, stupid or downright dangerous things when you should be concentrating on work.

Yes, dear reader. For those of us old enough to remember it, that was the World before Sir Tim stuck those two extra Ws on the end. Not to mention the /s. Or possibly the \s.

It was a dark and dreary place. A world without Facebook. A world without Twitter. A world where you didn’t have  to remember a 12-character password and the second, fourth and tenth characters of a nine-character phrase if you wanted to find out how much money you haven’t got.

A world in which casually mentioning your mother’s maiden name to some friendly stranger down the pub wasn’t a catastrophic breach of data security.

A world in which you had to use a proper encyclopaedia, with paper pages, to settle family arguments.

And a world in which you couldn’t check up on the progress of Lydia the great white shark, whose solitary meanderings have taken her across the Atlantic in the general direction of the UK where, we can exclusively reveal, she will swim up the Avon to Bath and take part in the Jane Austen Centre's  forthcoming all-singing, all-dancing tribute to the Bennet family.  

So anyway, thank WWW, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The world would be a lot less fun without you.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Something nasty under the tundra

It is at times like this, with the world in crisis, nations rattling their sabres and the price of fuel going through the roof, that one thinks of the words of Boney M’s 1978 chartbuster Rasputin.

“Ohhh, those Russians.”

The late Bobby Farrell, lead singer with the top-selling Deutsche Disco act, must have known a thing or two about international relations. He was born in the Dutch Antilles and lived in Norway, Holland and Germany before dying, at a tragically early age, in a hotel room in St Petersburg. Russia.Now how spooky is that?
Well, not as spooky – or scary – as the news coming out of Russia right now.

And we’re not talking about the Ukraine here, or the imminent outbreak of World War Three. Or at least Crimean War Two.

No, this week’s really bad news from the land of the borscht and the balalaika got rather buried under all the macho Putinic posturing.

It came from far north and east of Sevastopol, and it concerned not mad monks but mad scientists.

French mad scientists, to boot.

They were poking around in the Siberian tundra and found what they describe as a “giant virus” – Pithovirus sibericum to its friends. 

It has been lying dormant for some 30,000 years, but with the defrosting of the not-so-permafrost it has warmed up, come back to life and started chomping on its prey: single-celled amoebae.

Killer: Pithovirus sibericum, yesterday 
(Pavel Hrdlička, Wikipedia)
Pithovirus, like Rasputin, is obviously very hard to kill.

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie and his colleague Dr Chantal Abergel, from the University of Aix-Marseille, are quick to reassure us that humanity has nothing to fear from the unpleasant little critter. 

“It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell,” said Dr Abergel with more than a trace of Gallic glee. “It is able to kill the amoeba, but it won’t infect a human cell.”

Leaving aside the question of how she can be sure, what’s most worrying here is the thought that there might be something really nasty lurking under the semi-frozen plains of Siberia.

Picture the scene, if you will.The French boffins probe deeper into the squelchy half-frozen peat. Mais quel horreur! They reel back as a grey-green mass of sentient lichen pokes out a prehensile pseudopod, hauls itself up to the surface and fixes them with the three beadiest of its seven beady eyes.

“Hello,” it says. “My name is Dmitri. Please to take me where there is vodka.”

All of which goes to prove that just because you can do something (like re-animate a virus, or a lichen, or an Irish elk, or even Neanderthal Man) it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

From Icarus to Doctor Frankenstein, legend and literature are full of examples of those who flew in the face of nature, and fell. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris.

And when Vladimir Putin comes marching over the Russo-Ukrainian border, mounted on a prancing woolly mammoth and followed by troops of wild-eyed Orthodox monks, you can’t say that we haven’t been warned.