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Category Archives: Informative

May the Froth be with you!

By the title of this you may, quite rightly, assume that I have found something else to foam, rabidly, at the mouth about!

As those of my readership who have known me for a long time (and there are, rather surprisingly, an increasing number of people to whom that description applies) will know or remember, playing with words was “the thing” of my school class.

The sub-group of that class that avidly followed the BBC Radio show “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again!” (ISIRTA) was particularly addicted to puns (one of my former classmates recently referred to us as “Punslingers” and I approve of that) and played happily at twisting words and meanings to comic effect.

I have, often to the despair of colleagues, friends or family, continued to work on what I consider to be a highly intellectual form of humour even though this occasionally results in the joke being killed for me by having to explain it to my audience!

If you aren’t familiar with my particular kind of wordplay I have done a couple of “good ones” here: https://littlealfie.wordpress.com/2010/05/04 and https://littlealfie.wordpress.com/2010/06/08 . I have also written about ISIRTA in several other places – read and enjoy!

So, having established my credentials as something of a master of puns I found listening to the radio this morning somewhat painful!

This was because, however many others have to be explained to them, there is ONE pun that nearly everyone “gets”. It arises from the salutation often used in the “Star Wars” movie franchise “May the Force be with you” and sometime after its’ first utterance in 1977 somebody inevitably noticed the similarity between the first three words and the date “May the Fourth”.

“Yes”, I thought when I first heard it, “that’s a good one” but being a DATE it came around every year and each time a few more people noticed it and found it funny to the point we are at now where it is actually being called “Star Wars Day”. Today’s Radio 2 Breakfast Show was largely given over to children playing the movie theme live on air using a variety of instruments.

A joke, especially a pun, that is repeated too often (and once a year, every year will certainly do it for me!) rapidly ceases to be funny and when it then turns into a “DAY” that has no other connection with a movie than a mis-quote that happens to sound like a date, things have gone a bit too far.

I know that some of you are thinking I am being unnecessarily grumpy about this and setting out to spoil a bit of harmless fun and I would tend to agree with you but for one thing:

When I was a teenager there were not many things that impinged on my little world enough to annoy me: the threat of worldwide nuclear destruction was always there but during my school years I was mostly incensed by the unwanted Government interference in Offshore “Pirate” Radio.

After school but still in my teens, however, I became extremely worried at the United States’ Government’s attitude to protestors about the Vietnam War.

And I wonder, as another 4th May goes by, whether I am being paranoid or unduly cynical in suggesting that said US Government welcomes or encourages the invention of “Star Wars Day” as a way of making the world forget the unarmed protesting students shot at and killed by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio on that very date in 1970!

The message I got from that episode was that however enlightened a democracy you may live in, if you disagree with the government strongly enough they do have the power to kill you – and if you fight back YOU are apparently the one breaking the law!

Well, I have never been an American Citizen (I would probably have been killed or injured in Vietnam if I had been), never went to any university and if making us forget is the intention – it isn’t working on ME!

Just thought you should know.

Alfie

 

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2017 in Informative

 

It’s not Rocket science!

The Chinese are credited with inventing gunpowder – as they invented so many other things such as Chinese Takeaways, Chinese Laundries, Chinese New Year, Chinese Burns etcetera!

If you look up “Things invented by the Chinese” in Google you will find an article by the ever-reliable Wikipedia which lists the “big four” Chinese inventions as:

Paper

The (navigational) Compass

Gunpowder (including fireworks and rockets)

Printing

I presume that Printing was last on the list because there was no point in inventing it before you had paper to print on!

I also imagine a day in Chinese history when some Emperor or other decided “At last! Now we can do this!” then took his army, used his lovely new printed paper maps and compasses to find his enemies and blew them to bits with gunpowder-powered rockets!

It may not have happened like that but it’s a nice thought!

Rather surprisingly, and despite the technology being there, using rockets as a weapon of war did not really “take off” (sorry!) for many centuries while their gunpowder power source WAS utilised to lob various projectiles at enemy armies and civilians in European wars from about the 14th Century onwards.

Weapons where the gunpowder propellant actually accompanied the projectile on its journey did not begin to be used by the British Army until after various Indian armies used them against the forces of the British East India Company in the late 1700s – after which unpleasant experience Colonel Sir William Congreve (1772 – 1828) was appointed to conduct Research & Development on rocket artillery at Woolwich Arsenal.

The resulting product was tested by the Royal Navy (setting fire to Boulogne and Copenhagen), used in a fictional Peninsular War battle in Portugal (“Sharpe’s Enemy” by Bernard Cornwall), and used for real against France in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813.

Congreve’s rockets were also (and I am indebted to Bernard Cornwall for this information which was given in the Appendix of the above mentioned novel) used against the United States of America during the war of 1812-14, specifically during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. This action is commemorated in the lines in the anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” which in its first verse has “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”.

Over the intervening years, and particularly during the 20th Century, gunpowder has been replaced as a rocket propellant by more efficient chemical reactions increasing the range, and power of these weapons leading to the V2 rockets used against London in World War 2.

Every rocket variant up to and including Vergeltungswaffen Zwei (Vengeance weapon 2) had the same problem – their effectiveness was limited to the accuracy with which they could be AIMED!

This became a difficulty when the speed and manoeuvrability of targets such as aircraft increased to the point where they were able to dodge or outrun things fired directly at them. What was needed was something that could (either internally or externally) be GUIDED.

As early as 1945, when it was thought that Japan would have to be conquered island by island and ship by ship, the USA was trying out radio-controlled, explosive filled “drone” aircraft with primitive TV cameras in the nose to aid the operator. The Japanese, of course used similar explosive-filled aircraft but left the pilots in to aim the plane at U.S. battleships and carriers!

Other much bigger bangs probably slowed that line of research and it is only comparatively recently that such aircraft for reconnaissance and attack have come back into fashion again.

Meanwhile, control by fine wire for ground to ground usage, heat-seeking technology for ground to air or air to air combat and in-built programmable computers with terrain mapping software (as in Cruise missiles) have now given us “smart” guided rockets that can almost 100% guarantee hitting whatever they are either aimed at or are simply told to hit!

As I said earlier the replacement of gunpowder as a propellant vastly improved the range of rockets and this led most importantly to the Human Race getting into space – probably the only way we can ever guarantee our Single-planet species’ survival!

It is my belief that any number of bad things can and probably will happen to us if we continue as we are with all our eggs in one planetary basket and feel deeply that we as a world should be turning all our scientific, technological and industrial ingenuity towards getting “out there” en masse rather than messing about fighting each other over minor trivia like religion, economics and politics.

Of course, our manned efforts to the Moon fizzled out, after only six landings, in 1972 once enough had been done to honour the memory of the late President Kennedy who had initiated the Apollo programme. It was apparently more important to fund the disaster that was the Vietnam War than to continue an actual Human advance!

This post was actually started in about August 2016 and I’m sure you’re wondering where I am going with it.

Well, so am I!

When I picked it up recently (1st February 2017) in my “unfinished” folder I could not, for the life of me, remember what had inspired it. Then I found, in one of my notebooks a couple of apparently random sentences which bought back my chain of thought.

This enabled me to resume the narrative 5 paragraphs ago where I turned it towards space travel and the old Apollo flights. I was heading specifically towards what I saw as the pivotal mission, the one that went wrong, Apollo 13 and its effect on the public will to advance interplanetary travel.

It has long been known that following the relatively routine and uneventful landings and safe returns of Apollos 11 and 12 the American public were becoming bored with space. It took the explosion in the oxygen tank of “Odyssey”, the Apollo 13 Command/Service module and the following life or death struggle to get home to reawaken interest in a further 4 missions.

I wonder how things would have gone if mission Commander Jim Lovell and his crew had not made it back. There are basically two possibilities: firstly that the US manned space programme would have shut down completely with no further moon landings and no ventures outward of any sort for many years. The second alternative (and the one I think is less likely) is that the Americans, inspired by the sacrifice of that crew would have seen the great glory to be had and run with space exploration to the point where we would already now have permanent colonies on the Moon and Mars.

Alas we can never know.

Permit me now to explain the convoluted thought process that brought me here.

Last summer my wife arranged for us to meet up with an old friend of ours in our former home village of Histon, near Cambridge. She was to drive over in the morning and do some shopping with our friend while I, still experimenting with my over 60s bus pass, agreed to join them via that mode of transport after my volunteer session at Peterborough Library finished.

The specific bus that I had to get runs by road from Peterborough to St. Ives then moves onto a special track that was once a railway line for the rest of the trip to Cambridge. There are a number of routes through and around Cambridge indicated by letters of the alphabet but only the “B” route goes to and from Peterborough. The whole thing from St. Ives to Cambridge is known locally as the “guided bus”.

Do you see yet how I got from that trip to the article above?

Well, the note that I found in my little book as mentioned above read as follows:

“Guided Bus -> guided missile.

St. Ives to Cambridge Bus ‘B’ -> Main Bus B.”

Perhaps it will clarify it still further if I remind you that “Main Bus B” was the name of the major electrical conduit in Apollo 13 that blew out when the oxygen tank exploded in the service module and lost them most of their power.

And that’s all it took to set me off.

So, having shared that meaningful insight into my thought processes, do you feel that you understand me and my mental workings a little better?

No. Neither do I.

Alfie

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2017 in Informative

 

Can I ride your Magic Bus?

When I started school in the late 1950s I walked there with my mother and she came and got me at the end of the day – a walk of about a mile each way (two miles each trip for her). That was in all weathers with no picking up by car options available – we didn’t HAVE a car then and mum wouldn’t have been able to drive it if we had! I seem to remember that I did sometimes “cheat” by standing on the back axle of the pushchair (aka “buggy” these days) with my little sister in it. Nevertheless I bet I still walked a good deal further than most of today’s little porkers do!

There was a bus that ran from the end of our street and if you got off at the bottom end of Station Street the school could be reached by a long uphill trek that was probably equivalent to half of the normal walk home. This meant that in bad weather you’d get just as wet going back down that hill and waiting for the bus as you would walking the whole way, so it wasn’t worth the bother.

I seem to recall that after mum stopped taking me I always got the bus to school and always walked home. I don’t recall whether she gave me bus fare for both trips – if she did it would have been a pocket money enhancing scam netting me a whole tenpence a week! That’s ten OLD pence, of course, of which there were twelve to a shilling (which became equal to five NEW pence in the 1971 decimalisation). It doesn’t sound a lot but would have bought me three extra Wagon Wheels or Jamboree Bags a week and you will have to ask your parents or grandparents if you don’t know what THEY were!

We moved house in January 1964 during my last year at that school but as the Eleven Plus examinations (which decided whether or not you were Grammar School material and which were taken in several parts) did not finish until just before Easter it was considered best for me to do them in familiar surroundings. Thus I gained my first experience of commuting as it required a bus into town and another out in a different direction each way to get from new house to old school and back.

What I am getting at here is that from my earliest days of travelling unaccompanied I have used public transport – particularly buses.

After that Junior School experience my use of Ipswich Borough Transport waned for a while – dad getting a car and me then getting first a bicycle then a motorbike meant I had no real use of the bus network for quite a few years.

During the period from October 1975 to January 1979 my friends and I did utilise the buses again as part of our Saturday night wanderings that I documented here: https://littlealfie.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/ . You will have to get through the initial waffle first but it DOES get to the real story eventually!

At the end of that period I sold the house, moved back with my parents for a few months and bought another motorbike. And it wasn’t until I sold THAT in summer 1982 that I used buses again – for my daily commute from Long Stratton to Norwich (previously mentioned here: https://littlealfie.wordpress.com/2011/09/ ) which takes us to the move to Chelmsford in April 1983 by which time I had learned to drive a car.

For the next five years I walked or cycled anywhere that we didn’t drive to – until May 1988 and the move to Cambridge.

Cambridge has a dreadful congestion problem and high parking charges (it’s probably down to all those wealthy University students) so whenever we didn’t have anything bulky to buy that necessitated using the car, we would drive one village over (from Histon to Milton) and get the “Park and Ride” bus to the city centre.

Cambridge and its populace are unique! They have the only transport system I know of where you can sit back, listen in and LEARN STUFF! In other cities you may worry about getting mugged but on the Cambus network your only concern is whether you are justified in interrupting the conversation you are eavesdropping on for an explanation of some obscure philosophical or scientific point!

A friend of mine once wrote something in the East Anglian Mensa newsletter (which he was editing at the time) about the French philosopher Albert Camus. I replied stating that Cambridge was such an intellectual city that they named their CAMBUS transport system after him. Sometimes my devastating wit surprises even me!

For the last 23 years (i.e. from December 1993) we have lived on the southwestern fringes of Peterborough. Our area is served by a “Citi-bus” route to the city centre but it follows such a torturous path through nearby estates and “townships” that it takes nigh on 40 minutes to get to the central bus station no more than 4 miles away!

Indeed, if Faith should ever need to take public transport to work for any reason it could (allowing for missed connections) take over 90 minutes to get there  – a five mile, ten minute car drive away.

So you may well guess that over that 23 year period I haven’t made much use of buses in Peterborough.

Until now, that is!

And the reason for that situation changing is simple. I discovered that, almost 3 years after the date that I considered I was contractually entitled to it, I was entitled to a free bus pass for use on all and any local bus services in the UK.

Thus, every time I now need to go into Peterborough by myself I save £2 or £3 on car parking. I can also, if I get any spare time, ride the bus routes of this city (after 9.30 a.m.) just for the hell of it at no cost whatsoever!

Unfortunately, thanks to the duplicitous Weasels in parliament (and I sincerely apologise to any real Weasels reading this for maligning them in this way) Faith, who turned 60 last year and has worked all her life on the understanding that 60 was the age at which it would all happen, now has to wait until age 66 before either the State Pension or her Bus Pass become available!

So, unless I shell out for a one day “mega-rider” ticket for her, I have to explore on my own – which isn’t so much fun!

Still, my weekly trips to my volunteer job at the Library and my regular appointment at the Job Centre enable me to observe city life and think on the motto of the now-defunct “News of the World”:

“All human life is here”.

Alfie.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2016 in Informative, Ipswich

 

We few, we happy few……

Pay attention children – it’s time for a little history – in a manner of speaking!

Twenty-five whole years ago this week I was attending my last ever fortnight long course with the now long defunct Tax Department of Barclays Bank Trust Company. It was called the “Senior Taxation Course” and was unique amongst all the courses I attended with them in that in that it imparted absolutely no technical taxation learning at all!

It was assumed by that stage in our careers that those attending it either knew everything there was to know about UK income tax or, at least, were competent enough to know how to find it out for ourselves.  So this course was designed to equip us for approaching management levels and contained items to give us skills in negotiation and conflict resolution, introduced us to the wonders of something called Transactional Analysis (Google it! I’m not even going to TRY to explain it) and finally,  attempted to impart to us what these days would be called “Presentation Skills”.

It was the latter part that filled all eight of us attending the course with dread!

We had been told well in advance to prepare a 15 minute presentation on a subject of our own choice using any current display technology (e.g. overhead projector slides, flipchart sheets  and most emphatically NOT Microsoft PowerPoint – Microsoft itself had barely been invented in 1987, let alone any MS Office applications!).

That was bad enough, especially for someone with my dread of public speaking, but we were told on arrival that we had most of the two weeks to apply what we had learned to polish up our performance which would be given on the second Thursday and VIDEOED  for later analysis and criticism by the rest of the class! Horror!

Fortunately, and typically, being a bunch of blokes in their 30s or 40s who had been through the Barclaytrust Tax course system we did not waste our evenings on anything as unimportant as updating our presentations – not when there was the cheap bar at the Parkway Hotel (the Barclays “staff residence” that we were billeted in) to frequent and the current crop of young trainee Personal Bankers to take an entirely academic interest in!

For information this batch of petite young ladies had, for reasons of their own which we did not attempt to explore, all decided to wear whilst off duty t-shirts advertising Jaffa Oranges and bearing the slogan “Small ones are more juicy”!

I think that I did have a go at some small revisions to my talk during the “half time” weekend although not to the content given that the subject was historical in nature and the outcome remained the same whatever I might have learned about how to present it.

After taking into account the date I had decided to enlighten my audience as to the causes, course and outcome of…… The Battle of Agincourt which took place between the English/Welsh army of King Henry V and the vastly larger French army on 25th October 1415. And which, of course, we won against all odds.

Obviously, to prevent my audience from dropping off during this exciting illustrated account of a glorious moment in our history I needed some sort of “twist” to the performance. I eventually decided to do the whole thing in character – as King Henry. I manufactured a crown from cardboard covered in tinfoil and used similar materials for a sword to use as a pointer to my wonderful, colourful flip chart drawings. For obvious reasons there are no recordings of KHV’s voice in existence so I decided to model THAT on the much more recognisable deep, fruity tones Sir Winston Churchill.

I began by reciting a big chunk of Shakespeare’s version of Henry’s pre-battle speech, thus:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

I have to say that learning that verse verbatim was the hardest piece of memorising I had been required to do since school when “Max the Molester” our English master made us learn by heart Mark Anthony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar  from the eponymous work also by the aforementioned Mr Shakespeare.

Needless to say, despite my considerable fear at having to stand up and deliver it, my entire account of the battle was well received by my colleagues (as, indeed, were all of theirs by the rest of us)! Well, they didn’t seriously think we were going to turn in critical fury on people we’d been drinking with for the last two weeks, did they?

I do wonder, however, what happened to those highly embarrassing but valuable video tapes. I will be driving the bloke who was in charge of that course down to Cardiff for our annual fishing match in a couple of week’s time – I’ll be sure to ask him!

Anyway, as you’ve probably realised, my purpose in writing all this is to point out that today is the 597th Anniversary  of the Battle of Agincourt and I feel that I would be most remiss if I didn’t  include the often overlooked  opening lines of Henry’s speech which I take as an instruction to remember it:

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;

So – Happy Saint Crispin’s day everyone and if the government ever wants to create a new Bank Holiday between August and Christmas…………

Alfie

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2012 in Informative

 

Hey, we’ve got a problem here.

Last July (and I can hear you thinking “at least he’s only going back nine months this time!” – quite mistakenly as it happens.) I wrote of my perception of the first moon landing by the gallant crew of Apollo 11 forty years earlier.

Today I am reminded that it is now forty years since the disastrous but even more gallant Apollo 13 mission – the one that nearly didn’t come back.

For those that believe in such omens the lift-off time of a couple of minutes before 1.15pm local time (13.13 in case you missed the reference) was probably not the best moment to launch something designated “Apollo 13” but they were nearly fifty six hours into the mission when the explosion in the Oxygen tank happened.

And THAT, by my reckoning, would have been just after 9pm local time on Monday 13th April 1970! Still, at least it wasn’t a Friday – that would have been REALLY unlucky!

The time difference between the UK and the eastern USA meant that I would have heard about it on the early Tuesday morning News broadcasts before departing for my job as a filing clerk in Ipswich 3rd District Tax Office and I can still recall the horrible feeling that these guys weren’t going to make it and were going to die horribly in the full glare of the world’s media.

Furthermore I thought I could see, whatever the outcome of their efforts, that THAT would be the end of humanity’s venture into space. And I actually feared that possibility more than the tragic loss of three men in terrible circumstances.

I was, however, deeply concerned about their fate and took the extremely unusual step of taking my radio (plus earphone – I think you could still be executed for listening to a radio in the workplace in those days!) into work. I did not think that this would be a problem as I worked out in the filing room where my superiors did not normally venture but I overlooked ONE thing!

Tuesday 14th April 1970 was Budget Day in the UK that year and THAT was the one day of the year that a radio was regarded as essential in the Tax Office!

The Personal Tax allowances always changed as, sometimes, did the rate of tax. We DID get printed handouts from the Treasury detailing the effects of these changes but they didn’t get to us until next morning and there was always at least one nutter who would turn up at the enquiry counter just before it closed at 4pm demanding to know what the changes were and EXACTLY how they affected him.

If we couldn’t make a good effort to tell him, he would write to the Chief Inspector of Taxes accusing us of gross incompetence!

Incidentally we knew that because he sent them to our own address and our District Inspector would throw them away!

Unfortunately, this year the guy who normally brought his radio in was on leave and one of my fellow clerks blurted out that I had mine with me! My colleagues, therefore demanded that I make mine available.

Now I don’t remember exactly what was on which station but the Budget speech, then as now, was carried live while one of the other BBC stations was doing extensive hourly bulletins on the plight of Apollo 13.

My fellow Inland Revenue outcasts therefore became somewhat annoyed when I kept switching over from the Budget periodically to get the latest from Mission Control which did not interest them AT ALL!

I was (for a 17 year old) quite firm about it though. It was MY radio and I had brought it in for a purpose that was NOT the Budget and they would have to humour me or I would take it away completely! They capitulated and managed to get what they had missed from the summaries given by the BBC from time to time – so everyone was happy!

I’m not going to tell the tale of Apollo 13 and its crew’s survival because I’m sure you’ve all seen the film and know how they scraped up an air purification system from spacesuit parts and duct tape.

As we know they got back safely and the USA resumed taking a keen interest in something that had been becoming a bit mundane to the TV audiences.

I would however like to pass on one unusual thing that I only noticed for the first time today.

I was reading an account of the Apollo 13 mission contained in a book that I have owned for many years now – “The Invasion of the Moon 1957 -70” by Peter Ryan – in which he relates the story of the German Measles problem.

If you didn’t know already the original crew were exposed to German measles and the Command Module pilot, Thomas Mattingly, did not show immunity. He was therefore grounded and his place taken by his backup, John Swigert at twenty four hours notice.

Now what I DIDN’T know was that Swigert’s speciality was “responses to malfunctions in the Command and Service Modules” which was , of course, exactly where the malfunction occurred!

Wasn’t THAT lucky?

I make a present of that knowledge to the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theorists out there – in the hope that they a) attempt to make something of it that I can laugh at; and b) suffer a total mental breakdown while trying to integrate what they THINK I’m suggesting with their belief that none of it happened at all!

Alfie

PS. The title of this piece is what Jim Lovell ACTUALLY said! When asked by Mission Control to repeat he THEN said “Houston, we’ve HAD a problem”. I’ve got a transcript of it, so there!

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2010 in Informative

 

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