Saturday, January 17, 2009

Groucho Marx

'These are my principles and if you don't like them, I have others!'

'Military justice is to justice what military music is to music'
- Groucho Marx

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Afric-air - Always strings attached

Internal flights in Africa can be an adventure in itself. Schedules are driven by the climate, the availability of resources, the mood of the day, etc. but its certainly not dictated by something as relative as time. The land of low technology is renowned for developing innovative ways to get things done. Things that other continents would tell you were impossible, too risky, no tools, no spares or some other feeble excuse. If you want to sit down and wait for these things to come right then you will be an old person when you finally stand up again.

It was in this environment that our intrepid hero found himself. The continent was vast and he had started his voyage in the metropolis of Johannesburg. Gradually, as he transferred from flight to flight, and moved from country to region, he was aware that the cities were becoming towns and the planes were looking less and less reliable. The uniforms became less formal. At the last terminal the corporate logos and colours were reflected in the various stains on the walls, furniture and peoples' clothes.

Our hero was not very concerned with such things. The people were friendly and aimed to please, even if sometimes they missed. They had a wonderful philosophical and stoic outlook on life. 'Sometimes the planes, they don't fly good. Sometimes they fall out of the sky.' These were not the corporate mission statements of the airlines but it was good to keep them in mind. Our hero, well, he had lowered his expectations at every turn and now he just wanted to travel safe and arrive rested. He carried his own food and bottled water, just in case. It was all part of the adventure. Part of the African experience.

The make and model of this last aircraft was a mystery. It carried no identification marks that made any sense, unless you could read runes and tribal markings. It had non-turbo props which looked as if they had come from three or four different planes. In the departure area there were only a few people lounging and waiting. There was only one passenger class, live cargo. Looking around our hero felt a bit overdressed for the occasion. The aircraft was boarded by polite invitation only and it seemed prudent to let the 3 guys with the tattoos and piercings on first. After all they would need time to stow their rifles and ammunition in the luggage area, the rear toilet. It clearly used to be the rear gunner's position, in a different era. All in the line of duty for a veteran aircraft.

The internal seating of the plane had been extensively adjusted to allow for the storage of large crates of cargo along the left side of the aisle. The right side was reserved for passengers and live cargo, of all classes. The hunters had moved to the back of the aircraft, to be near their life support systems and beer crate. They liked their back to the wall, so they could watch out for any action that might go down and insisted on sitting downwind from it. Our hero took a seat near the front, hoping he was away from any possible action but mainly to be near to the exit.

The captain performed his pre-flight checks and then came around and spoke to the passengers. He gave a quick 'Hi guys! Good to see you again' to the hunters and then turned to address the new guy. 'You're European mate, they say?' 'Yes!' our hero replied. The captain was white African from German stock but was native now, the old country connection had been lost a long time ago. He was born and bred on this continent and understood its ways far better than this foreign piece of EU live cargo. Polite chat over, he excused himself saying that he had to give the safety talk before take off. He suddenly shouted "Brace yerself guys. We're off now! In the case of an emergency landing on water, you can use yer ass as a flotation device. Good luck!" then he and the guys laughed out loud. One guy spat on the floor in a playful manner. The captain was still laughing as he entered the cockpit area, behind the threadbare curtain.

The aircraft soon came alive and fired itself up. All the important systems were functioning at less than 100%, most of the time but that was normal and the pilots had workarounds for most situations, if you were lucky. The engines whined painfully at first and then exploded into life in a seemingly random and uneven manner and with great clouds of smoke. The captain loudly declared 'If we make it to the runway we've got a good chance of taking off. Brace yerself, I'm going for it!'

The rough ground taxiway to the runway caused everything on the aircraft to shake violently, including the fillings in the few teeth that the guys at the back were using to open their beer bottles. The aircraft roared menacingly down the dirt track runway, frightening the wild pigs into the bush and scattering exotic birds in all directions. At the end of the runway, with the engines screaming for blessed release, we reached the point of no return. In reality it had arrived a lot sooner because the slicks we had been trundling on couldn't have stopped a shopping trolley in a supermarket car park. The controls were rotated and by good fortune we were off the ground. Today the aircraft flys!

Once we reached level flight, things had calmed down. The captain switched off the 'seat belt' light. I could hear him laughing from where I sat. Most of the seat belts were missing and I had lashed myself to the seat by a piece of rope I found on the floor. The original seat belts had been tied together in intricate knots and were attempting to hold the cargo in situ on the other side of the aisle. The straining ropes looked like a disgruntled rhino had been roughly packaged as a surprise gift and hastily attached to the aircraft by a schoolboy's string collection.

A short time into the flight the captain emerged slowly into the cabin. like an apparition. The curtain fell away and he was left standing very still in the aisle holding a length of string in each hand. He started back again, walking very cagily. The other ends of the strings seemed to be fixed to something in the cockpit. Our hero could not see where they terminated but the captain was making sure they stayed taught and level. He hesitated now and then to make some adjustment to his grip. Was it my imagination? It feel as if the aircraft was responding to his movements. No, don't think crazy thoughts!

The captain excuses himself to our hero and asks him for a 'big favour'. 'Look, we don't have a co-pilot on board, you can't get the staff to show up reliably here, and I really need to go to the toilet. Its a lot to ask but can you take control of the plane for me?' and with that he passes the two strings over saying, 'Just make sure you keep them taught and level. They are attached to the flight controls. Be careful because it is very responsive to the slightest movement. If you pull back on both strings the plane will climb. If you let them go slack the plane will level off and then start to go down. If you pull to the right or left the plane will turn in that direction.' He demonstrated all these moves and the aircraft responded accordingly.

Our hero laughed but politely took hold of the strings. 'Very funny mate. I know a wind-up when I see it' and he let go control of the strings. The aircraft immediately starts to go right and down. The captain quickly takes back control of the strings and levels the plane.

'You crazy idiot. You nearly killed us all! Now take the controls and don't screw around'. He gave back control of the strings to the now very nervous passenger. The guys in the back are not happy. They hurl abuse at him and tell him to get on with it and do as he's asked. With this encouragement he took up the slack in the strings and tried his best to straighten up and fly right. The sweat was starting to run down his face. This was not happening.

He was tense but was still not totally convinced that all was well with this picture. Apparently, he was expected to fly an aircraft, built from second hand and/or obsolete parts, over the African continent, using only two strings. He decided to test his controls a bit and pulled back on the strings. The plane responded and started to climb. He slackened off and they levelled off. He pulled on the right string more than the left and the plane started to turn. He put it back on course and decided to fly straight and steady. This was a very odd and disconcerting feeling.

What was taking that pilot so long in the toilet. Stress and anxiety were left behind, and panic welled up in the reluctant pilot. 'God, I hope he doesn't have the 'runs'. What was keeping him?' The sweat ran down his face into his eyes. He tried to wipe it away using his sleeves but this disturbed the equilibrium and the aircraft started to move up and around. He re-checked his strings and all was well again but he was severely stressed. He hadn't signed up for this!

It seemed like an endless amount of time had passed before he had a strange new feeling. He started to become aware of the guys in the back. They had stopped heckling him and were smirking to themselves. It was then that he heard the captain's voice say to them 'Hey, the boy's doin' good! What say ye?' He was sitting in the back watching the fun and had been all the time. There was no emergency toilet break.

The guys and the captain were still laughing when he was led into the pilots cockpit area and introduced to the co-pilot. He was in on the joke. He had been seated there all the time, flying the aircraft in the absence of the captain. The strings? They were attached to the co-pilot's arms and elbows and he responded to the tugs and pulls from the passenger /victim. Changes in the string 'signals' were felt directly and the co-pilot responded accordingly, pulling up, down, left or right, as requested.

Well, what else are you gonna do for entertainment in the skies above Africa where there are now stewardesses, no in-flight movies, no hot towels, wine, beer or even a basic catering service. Low tech humour and amusing creativity is called for and the unwilling participation of live cargo in the interesting initiation ceremony that welcomes you to Afric-air. Jambo!

Can you name this plane?
The illustrations shown here are purely for decoration and are not directly connected with the story.

The posters can be seen at Its has a terrific gallery of prints and aviation paintings.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Animal Zoo Days

It was one of those days that everyone dreaded. A cherished favourite of the Zoo needed to be separated from the group. She was being transferred to another animal zoo park. None of the staff enjoyed these events but it had to be done, in the most sensitive and careful way to lessen the trauma to the creature.

Careful thought had to be given to the ones that will stay behind. The rest of the group would be traumatised, if the task was not performed carefully. The group dynamics would be destroyed and it had taken them years to develop.

There is an understandable tension among the staff. Emotions were running high but they were focused on their task. They tell themselves it is for the best. It is for the creature's welfare and for the greater benefit of the zoo park.

The keepers have known this dear old lady for decades. She is a favourite with the keepers and the visiting public alike. They have been endlessly amused and entertained by her antics, her tricks and playful manner. One of her most mischievous tricks is to throw her food at the visitors when they appear. They would run screaming in all directions, not knowing what was happening. What fun this was for the onlookers.

The team gathered nervously outside her den and moved quietly forward. They must not make her aware that they are stalking her or she will bolt and become aggressive. If this happens then the game was up. She was a cautious creature with a long memory and once they had abused her trust, then there was no going back.

The dart gun and blow-pipe were loaded. It had been decided that if they had only one shot at this then they would need to be sure. A pincer movement meant that one or other shooter would get a clear shot. Their quarry was patrolling up and down warily inside her den but she had not detected their presence. The tension was almost painful.

Suddenly their was a crack and the dart hit its target, her ample rump. She had devoured a large part of the food budget of the zoo park, across the years. Now she was thrashing around betrayed, shocked and furious. Soon she was staggering and growing very unsteady. It was not long before she went down with a terrible crash but even then she was still protesting with loud indignant screams and clawing at the walls.

Ten minutes passed before anyone in the capture team dared enter her den. If she woke suddenly and had them cornered in the den, the unfortunate victim would be hacked to pieces before they had time to escape. Proceeding with exaggerated caution one brave member gave her a little kick as she lay sprawled on the floor. She was unconscious but still looked menacing. It was time for the team to move and move quickly.

The sleepy old lady needed to be carried to the waiting truck and secured for travel. She had a long journey ahead of her and they wanted her to arrive safe and sound. They also had a big responsibility to consider the safety of the truck driver and the general public, in transit gloria. She needed to be very secure but well secured. Food and water were in place in the truck and she was being dragged and roughly manhandled across the yard and into the truck. It appeared somewhat unseemly and undignified for an old dowager to be treated this way.

There was an emotional send off when the truck finally moved out of the yard. Some of the keepers were tearful and the visitors that had gathered were unsure what was happening but took pictures anyway, just in case. It wasn't real unless they had a picture of it. The look in the driver's face as he left was of fear and apprehension for the journey ahead. He was concerned that she would awake from her slumber to soon and claw her way through the cab to him. He was driving his worst nightmare.

As for the zoo park staff, the good news for them was that they now anticipated a new arrival, to replace their old friend. A newcomer to the zoo park. Fresh faced and full of fun, no doubt. Bringing with her, her own set of mischievous ways, comic antics and playful tricks. She would bring fresh blood and new breeding stock into the group.

It was late and everyone felt suddenly very tired. The adrenalin was wearing off now. It had been a difficult day. Full of mixed emotions. Thankfully not everyday is like this. Occasionally a tough job came along and this was a tough job but the tough got it together and did it. Somebody had to.

These exchange programmes were necessary for the health of all, to keep the stock viable and to make sure the visitors kept coming back. The zoo park needed to maintain the 'ongoing quality of the wildlife experience provision' but it was hard on the staff and some said it was no way to transfer the restaurant manager, Gloria. Even if she was a bit belligerent to the humans and attacked the customers when they had no change. The staff would miss her but then they would not need to bring packed lunches to work any more.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Flying Blind

Following on from my previous story, I am reminded of the sweet old blind lady and her dog that were aboard the BA flight to New York. The flight had a long stopover for re-fueling and re-catering (stocking up on luke warm bitter coffee and artificially flavour enhanced foodstuffs). Snacks on the plane!
We managed to get all the cargo on!

The stopover was extended and it looked like the passengers were going to be stuck on the plane for a couple of tedious hours. Despite what you may think, the pilots do have empathy with the people in the cheap seats. The people in business class can be ignored. They are comfortable enough at the front with a squad of willing hostesses running after them, counting the bubbles in their real champagne and wiping them down with hot towels, periodically.

On this flight the captain took a stroll through the aircraft to speak to the little old blind lady. He introduced himself and let her fondle his insignia to prove he was really the captain. You can tell the status of a pilot by the size of his wings. It was amazing the number of people who had tried to deceive this woman in the past. She had to be careful.
Did you lock the door before take-off?

The captain apologised for the delay during the stopover and asked if there was anything he could do to make her or her dog more comfortable. She thanked him very much and asked if someone could take her dog outside to relieve itself before the next stage of the journey. Using the people lavatory is one of the many things they do not train these wonderful animals to do. Consequently, it needed to go, and go soon.

No more handbrake turns please!

The captain said that he was the only one authorised to leave the aircraft during a stopover and offered to take the dog for a walk around the aircraft. The lady was very grateful but offered a word of caution. Perhaps the other passengers would become alarmed if they saw the pilot walking outside the aircraft, apparently being led by a guide dog for the blind. 'Good point', he said and withdrew his offer.

We're off! Nothing can stop us now!

The dog was last seen being manhandled into the toilet by a steward. I hope it was not an old dog because the steward was going to try and teach it a new trick.

Straighten up and fly right

I told you it wasn't a seaplane!

Passengers on the fixed wing flight from Abu Dhabi to their oil production platform were alarmed when their plane became troubled and the pilot had to crash land on the water. (Bet you are glad there are inflatable devices under the seat now and wish you had paid more attention to the hostess's gesticulations during the safety drill, rather than focusing on her super-structure). As in all good movies, all was well. The passengers and crew were lifted off unharmed and flown to safety. The story is about the resumption of normality following this event.

As is the custom, the remaining aircraft belonging to the air taxi company were grounded, pending technical investigations but it was deemed to be an isolated incident. Services were very quickly resumed.

When you said ditch! I had something else in mind......

So, picture yourself sitting on the first plane to fly out following the accident, possibly a bit more nervous than usual. When suddenly the pilot appeared from the flight deck wearing swimming shorts, flippers, a face mask and snorkel and asked the passengers if they were ready for their flight.

3 passengers immediately bolted off the plane and refused to return. A complaint was made to the company and the pilot was severely reprimanded. Some people have no sense of humour!.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Super Size my Milk Way

Milky way 'larger than imagined'
A recent disclosure indicates that the Milky Way is considerably larger (contains more heavenly bodies), bulkier (more mass) and spinning faster (its all relative) than astronomers thought.

For decades, astronomers and stargazers thought that the Milky Way, was a weakling runt compared to the larger Andromeda, but not anymore.

Scientists mapped the Milky Way in a more detailed, three-dimensional way and found that it is 15% greater breadth. More important, it is significantly more dense, with 50% additional mass, which is similar to the weight but includes a size factor.

The new findings were presented at the American Astronomical Society's convention in Long Beach, California. Mark Reid of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said it was the cosmic equivalent of him suddenly increasing his bulk from his 5ft 5in, 10 stone frame, to 6ft 3in and 15 stone.

"Previously we thought Andromeda was dominant over the Milky Way, and that we were the little sibling of Andromeda," Mr Reid said. "But now it's more like we're sibling twins."

The fact that the Milky Way and Andromeda are of similar mass means that they share a similar attraction to each other, not necessarily good news. A more massive and attractive Milky Way means that it could be heading for a more violent collision with the neighbouring Andromeda galaxy, sooner than predicted. This event is still likely to be billions of years from now.

Mr Reid and his colleagues used a large system of 10 radio telescope antennas to measure the brightest newborn stars in the galaxy at different times in Earth's orbit around the sun. They made a map of those stars, not just in the locations where they were first seen, but in the third dimension of time - something Mr Reid said has not been done before.

Using this approach, Mr Reid was able to determine the speed at which the spiral-shaped Milky Way is spinning around its centre. That speed - about 568,000mph - is faster than the 492,000mph that scientists had been using for decades.

So now you know why you were feeling a bit dizzy after the New Year Celebrations

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Consumerism on a plate

Making Pigs of us all
It was the infamous James Clark, the founder of Netscape, who wanted to make pigs out of his chickens. He was deemed to be a force to reckon with. He was certainly determined and forceful enough to become a billionaire from the Internet feeding trough

Software developing engineers have a lot to thank him for. He transformed the relationship between themselves, the 'talent', which Jim certainly was, and the venture bankers (pardon the unintended rhyming slang but it does reflect Jim's opinion of them). All this was during the halcyon days of the Silicon Valley 'booming towards busting' days of the 90's.

He would state his view on business, using a rather unusual analogy. Consider, if you will, the bacon and egg breakfast, much favoured by the Western world. Jim said that the breakfast represented the company, and that the component parts of the said breakfast, were the people working there.

From this, he stated that by providing the eggs, the chickens have a vested interest in the meal but that the pigs were the only ones truly committed.
He wanted everyone involved in his ventures to move from being chick-chick, chick-chick chickens to become porky pigs.

In the olden days the people with the money controlled the game. The banks bought the biggest slice of the corporate pie and changed it into a standard model, fit for the supermarket shelves. Thus ensuring a quick hype, quick sale and short term profit. Like some people living in small apartments in Amsterdam, there was little room for deviation.

This stifled the creative force immediately. By taking over the driving, the bankers put the 'tal
ent' into the back seat. Buckling them up nice and harmless. If there was big money to make, it was going to be the bankers that made it. After all that was their business, their role in society. Making loads of money for themselves at the expense of others. It is the nature of the creature.

Jim Clark changed this around. He wanted the 'talent' to drive the business, to get the rewards for its success and to sustain their creative flow. So he insisted that the engineers receive a proportionate number of shares in their business and a voice in its destiny. Thus, making pigs of them all and building-in strong commitment.

Clearly as analogies go this one works as a simple illustration but does not bear too much examination. What is the role of the fried tomato or the sausage. Clearly the tomato slice and token salad bits are just garnish. The corporate logo, image and market positioning. The difference between a truck stop and the savoy grill.

Whereas, the sausage is a real player. If its a beef sausage then you suddenly have three parties in this marriage and this doesn't work, for most folk outside Amsterdam. If its a pork sausage, then the pig is dominant. It may be over-committed or over-exploited. Neither is good.

We have not examined the popular use of various coloured sauces. These could only be seen as some sort of lubricant, flavour enhancement and/or sweetener. Probably needed to ease the transition from being a chicken to becoming a pig. It can't be easy. Unless you have the big philosopher's stones ..........but that's another story. Frreep, frreep, that's all folks!

No animals were hurt in the writing of this blog!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Fireman's pet hate

Pussies galore
This is the answer to the age old question 'What do firemen hate the most about their jobs?' and 'What do you get most calls about?'

Rescuing cats from trees and other high places is very
exasperating. Most of the time the cat is not stuck at all, it is merely exploring or fleeing something e.g. a dog, a bigger cat, a raptor (depending on country of origin). Secondly, they are most ungrateful creatures at the best of times and will fight its rescuer with tooth and claw. One firey described cat retrieval as being 'like juggling a chainsaw with one hand while trying to climb down a slippery metal ladder', with the other. It is because of this that a lot of cats are set free before the (nearly there) bottom rungs and the adage of cats landing safely on all fours can be regularly tested.

If you ask a fireman 'What is the best way to get a cat out of a tree?' He will suggest the use of a rifle, crossbow or other ballistic device. Some, more practical members of the brigade may suggest the sudden removal of the said tree itself. Thus removing the location from the event. This is unusually existential for a firey but may happen.

My story today concerns a certain hero from the brigade who was attending a call to rescue a cat from up the inside of a chimney in an old house. They approached this call with the same dedication and concern as they had for every 'cat in trouble' call. They were more miffed than motivated but showed the little old lady great courtesy in listening to her forlorn tale. She was clearly upset by the disappearance of her dear companion.

It was summer and she did not have a fire lit in the hearth. The cat had disappeared from the room that morning. She had searched the whole house and the cat could only be in one place, up the chimney. The firies consider that low tech solutions are best and that they would begin by shining their torches up the chimney and stare very hard into the dark. At the same time, one man went on to the roof to see if the cat had made it up that far. It had not. The little old lady went off to make tea and biscuits for her rescuers, as is traditional and in some way, expected.

In her absence, they began their search. One firey had his head and most of his shoulder up the lum and still could neither feel, see or hear the cat. The second firey listened on the wall for scuffles and scratching but all he could hear was the other firies stomping about. They owner shouted from the kitchen 'Can you see her?' 'Not yet!' they responded. In their minds, there was only one thing to do. Punch a whole in the wall above the fireplace. This would allow them to look further up the chimney and may also let them see if there was anything below, apart from the upper half of their colleague. They had to escalate the situation. They needed executive permission from the lady so that they could damage her house.

Being a sweet old lady, she granted them permission to do whatever they needed to do to rescue her beloved pet. So, while she continued to make the tea, the firies punched a whole in the wall and removed enough bricks to allow one man to stick his head inside. His head was inserted and whilst his colleagues shined their torches both up and down the chimney, the firey looked for signs of life or a stuck cat. Signs of a stuck cat; The reflections of a cat's eyes, the shadow of its bulk or the pungent odour of a scared cat's urine. No presence was detected. The owner cried from the kitchen again 'Have you got her?' 'Not yet!' they responded.

The firies were concerned. They had not only punched a gaping hole in this woman's wall and spread the rubble around her living room floor but they still hadn't found her stupid cat. The owner was preparing to re-appear in the living room carrying the tea tray with cookies and treats for the local heroes and they were stumped and empty handed.

Just at that, one man nudged the other and nodded with his head towards the sofa. There, under the sofa, watching the firies destroying the house, was 'Tiddles' the much loved pet cat of the little old lady. Not lost but hiding and observing. They had trashed this woman's house for no reason. They were in deep trouble, the woman was coming into the room. Although they were case hardened firies, they had broken out in a deep sweat and panic was growing.

These men are trained to think clearly and respond appropriately in the most difficult and traumatic circumstances and now was the time for action. In the split second that the woman arrived in the room carrying her tea tray, one of the fireys grasped the cat from under the sofa and stuffed it into the new hole they had made in the wall. Tiddles was too stunned to react to this surprising event but as the woman appeared, the firey pulled the cat back out of the hole in the wall. Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat "There you are cat' he announced with a flourish 'Safe at last'.

There was a tearful reunion between cat and owner and the heroes
of the day were duly rewarded by old lady hugs and kisses and fed tea and cookies. They continued to be thanked and regaled all the way back to their tender (love me tender: as Elvis always said).

This poor woman does not know to this day that her heroes had come into her house, inadvertantly defaced her living room, abused her cat, left without fixing the damage and finished by drinking her tea and eating her cookies.

Sometimes its hard to tell the good times from the bad. The world keeps on spinning. Best wishes for 2009!