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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(April 2014)

Is the world going slightly mad, or is it just me? Iíve gathered together several pieces of evidence for you to consider Ė but which answer do they support (the world, or me)? You can decide at the end of this column.

Exhibit A is the spare key for my VW Golf. I keep it with the front-door key in a little key-case which I drop into my back trouser pocket whenever I go out. Recently when Mrs S and I got into her car which was parked behind the Golf on the driveway, the indicators flashed at us twice. I realized that this was because I had sat on the key! After waiting for the car to lock up again automatically with another flash, we drove off. It was a wet day. When we returned, I noticed that all four windows on the Golf were half down...

Do you remember from my column last November that I can open the windows from indoors, by holding down the unlock button? (Itís a complete waste of time, though, because the car will then lock itself with the motion-sensor alarm active again and sensitive now to breezes, if I donít go out and disable it.) What I didnít realize was that it could also happen unintentionally. And then a few days ago, first thing, I discovered the windows had opened again Ė this time I had no idea when or why. Which madman at VW designed this feature into the car, and how can I stop it maddening me?

Exhibit B is a signboard that was erected a year or so ago at the entrance to South Hill Park Arts Centre in Bracknell. Itís perfectly flat (and is the same on both sides) but from any distance it looks even more convincingly three-dimensional than it does in my photo below. Hence as you drive past on the right, your brain expects the right-hand half of the sign to widen and the left half to narrow. But they donít, of course. So you experience the extraordinary illusion that the structure is rotating, and doing so even faster than you are moving past it. Hard to say if the designer intended this effect, but I find it intensely distracting, and so I would class the sign as a road hazard.

Exhibit C is the cycle track that you can see passing immediately behind the sign and then (where itís just visible on the left) crossing the entrance to SHP. I think this is a further hazard, because the intersection is marked Give Way in favour of bicycles and against vehicles that are turning in. I can easily imagine someone having to do an emergency stop and causing trouble behind them in the road. Itís fortunate that there are traffic-calming features along the road in each direction...

For Exhibit D, I offer you the front door-pockets of my Golf (designed perhaps by the same person that I was complaining of above): the pockets look normal, but when I happened to stick my hand in and back I discovered a narrower gap leading to the door cavity. Anything sliding into this would be lost for ever (though Iíve read on the internet of attempts to retrieve an item from a Golf pocket by accelerating gently and then slamming on the brakes). My remedy was to block each gap with a suitable section of polystyrene.

Exhibit E is green filter-arrows at traffic-lights Ė or at least when (a) the arrow is preceded by red-and-amber above it, (b) Iím at the front of the queue, and (c) the arrow turns out not to point the way I am going. Too late: Iíve counted the two seconds, and my foot is on the pedal! After all, what else does red-and-amber mean but ďprepare to goĒ? Even at familiar junctions, or where thereís a fixed white-on-blue arrow sign alongside the lights (as there often is), I canít help starting to move. Why donít the regulations allow the amber light above the green to be an arrow too? Until they do, Iím resigned to looking stupid at green-arrow junctions.

Self-service checkouts at supermarkets are my Exhibit F. Last year they were installed at a Morrisonís branch that we often visit. The first time we used one, I noticed a difference from those in some other stores: instead of annoying me, the automated voice was much quieter and almost seductive as I strained to hear it. I became so distracted that I forgot to take my card from the slot (luckily someone handed it in and I got it back later). Why canít supermarkets learn from the design of cash-machines, which wonít give you the money until youíve removed your card, and similarly make sure that you take it (even if just by having the voice shout at you)?

As Iíve said before, I wouldnít trade the Golf in for anything else Ė but really, what were they thinking of at VW when putting this car together? Exhibit G (not easy to show you, admittedly) is the pair of drain-holes under each front door. The rearmost hole is 15 inches from the rear corner, which seems to be enough to allow at least half a pint of water to collect inside the door, when it rains and the car is parked (as usual) on our upward-sloping drive. The water only drains out when the door is opened fully or the car reaches the level road. Why on earth couldnít they have placed the rear hole nearer the corner? I worry about what will happen to the door if the water freezes solid, or when corrosion sets in (if it hasnít done already).

Exhibit H, finally, is the horn button ... in my other cars I could sound the horn almost musically: piano e dolce, or forte e furioso, or delicato e ritmico, as required. But the button on the Golf is heavily sprung and I can only operate it by pushing it hard with my fist. The sound itself seems so loud and raucous that I feel it will offend every ear within half a mile. Is the world slightly mad to permit such ugly noises, or am I slightly mad to be upset by them?

Peter Soul

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