PC 178 Smarties

If you have every worked for a public sector organisation you may be sympathetic to some of the news stories that abound at the moment? If you have worked for a private sector company you may read some of them with profound disbelief.

After attending Staff College I was posted to be GSO2 (W) (SHORTAS & UGS) (Note 1) in the GW(E) Directorate of the MOD (PE) based in Fleetbank House, just of Fleet Street in London. You see; bored already! I will not try to explain the intricacies of the Ministry of Defence’s buying department (PE – short for ‘Procurement Executive’, an unfortunate choice that word: ‘procurement’!) , save to say they have been reformed, reorganised, criticised and left alone to fester, and still they remain an immoveable monster which has eaten many a capable senior civil or military servant.

One of the features of the current ‘normal’ is that apparently we dream more than during the old ‘normal’. Last night I had a real nightmare and it was so vivid I scribbled it down. Does it make sense? I will let you be the judge of that.

“Down in the bowels of a NHS (Nutritional Happiness Supply) government building, rarely seeing the daylight, I sit with Jon and Marion, awaiting the other committee members. We are responsible for the supply of Smarties, a national favourite and one without which the country would simply grind to a halt. I’ve called a crisis meeting; people from all over the country have come, as their department is always invited, whether they have anything sensible to contribute or not. Three people could have made the decisions necessary but twelve will guarantee no decisions today.

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I call the meeting to order and put up an agenda as my first PowerPoint slide:

“The Menu for lunch.”

Good morning! First I can confirm lunch is fixed in Room 201 for 1230; coffee and biscuits on the table as normal. (Note 2) We have a crisis of supply …. so, George, why don’t you summarise where we are?”

George, the Midland Hub Warehouse Manager (NHS), looks sheepish, unused to the spotlight.

You may have read the minutes of a meeting thirteen years ago when it was decided to find a cheaper supplier and that that supplier is overseas.”

Many heads nod and recall that decision, taken after a great deal of heated debate, to place the contract in Germany. (Some people have been in their posts for years!)

Well,” continues George, “the world has fallen in love with Smarties and there is projected to be, in Quarter 2, a shortage. The price is expected to go through the roof and we will not have the budget to pay for them.”

“But there must be someone here in Britain who could produce them?” asks Alice who’s new and innocent to government by committee.

Well! There used to be quite a manufacturing base in the country but we have been seduced by cheapest is best, never mind the quality, crowing about how much money we have saved as we went to you-know-where, so now there’s no one who can produce Smarties here in the UK. I have photocopied off the General Smarties Specification (GSS) so please grab one and have a look.”

Antony interrupts: “Surely that place up in Yorkshire could be restarted?”

The meeting has a period of general discussion; I allow everyone to have their say.

“Can we work through lunch?” asks Alice.

Tut Tut” says Godfrey who’s travelled in from Reading and wants his lunch, the highlight of his month. He also seems to have a cough!

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We reconvene after lunch. Meanwhile the GSS has been emailed to a number of companies the committee thought might have been able to manufacture Smarties in the UK. Jon adds that he’s had two entrepreneurs he has never heard of ask for a copy. Antony says rather disdainfully they will have to do due diligence on these people: “We can’t let a government contract to anyone.”

“Surely that takes months?” asks Alice.

“Ah! Yes! But we could have a shortened ‘crisis’ version – I’ve been reliably informed it could be done in 5 weeks.”

“Would it help if the GSS had an option for alternatives in terms of size, or shape or packaging for instance?” asks Alice.

What? Like 50% smaller? Or less sugar? Or a softer coating? Or in a square box as opposed to a hexagonal tube? Or a bigger tube?” queries Jon

Brian, who’s been very quiet as he’s nearing retirement after a career spanning forty years and doesn’t want to do anything that might jeopardise his pension, complains. I glance at him across the windowless room; Brian is one of those ‘beige’ men, always dressed in shades of beige and often looking as though he needs a good bath, with his clothes heading for the washing machine. Brian always complains. “If the Smarties come in anything other than a tube then I will not be able to play the game of seeing how far the plastic end of the tube will travel.”

Everyone looks at him; they know that the cylindrical cardboard tube was discontinued in 2005.

“But Brian,” says Jon, “they have been available in all sorts of little boxes and bags and large tubes for some time!! Where have you been?”

I say I know a company who make something similar, a little chocolate button called M&Ms or maybe they’re called N&Ns ……. but they’re not Smarties.

“No, but they could make Smarties for us surely, for this is a national crisis.” Says Alice

“What? Ask a competitor to make a Smartie?” sneers Antony.

“Should we respond to the entrepreneurs quickly ….. simply to say give us your suggestion and we will get back to you in a few days? Bring them in to a GSS meeting with all interested parties.”

“How many tubes of Smarties do we need?” asks Marion, always focused on the important facts.

“Well the nation gets through 18 million tubes a day …… each tube currently sells for costs £0.60 (for 32 Smarties at 38 grams each) and we’ll need enough to last until September at least.”

Committee members reach for their calculators and crunch some numbers …… and there’s a clamour …… everyone starts shouting at once ……. even Brian seems to be more animated than normal …….. Godfrey coughs loudly.

 

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There’s another sound in my ear; the alarm is ringing. I wake up in a sweat. Thursday morning and still in ‘lockdown’ …… another sort of nightmare!

 

Richard 30th April 2020

Note 1. For those unfamiliar with service abbreviations GSO (2) W- (SHORTAS & UGS) stands for General Staff Officer (grade 2) Weapons (ie technical!) Short Range Target Acquisition Systems & Unattended Ground Sensors. As if you ever wanted to know!

Note 2 Important issues always addressed first!

Note 3. In our real world, the news reported that some Dutch trader had a warehouse full of personal protection equipment and was offering it at a big mark-up – masks normally £0.15 for £3 or aprons normally £0.02 for £0.30.

PC 177 Numbers (2) 484065

 

Was mathematics created or simply there to be discovered? Discuss …… or not! A natural number 1, 2, 3 and so forth is represented by a symbol called a numeral; for example ‘5’ is a numeral representing the number five. A zero, ‘0’, was included at some point. When I was commissioned my officer cadet number 24067711 (See PC 176) was discarded and I was given my officer number, 484065.

PC 177 1

Whenever I idly think someone’s late I remember, for whatever reason (?), “Come in No 35, you’re time is up!” spoken over a loudspeaker to someone who had hired a dinghy for 30 minutes or so and needed to be encouraged to come back to the jetty.

In June 1968 the sailor Robin Knox-Johnston left Falmouth to take part in the Sunday Times non-stop, single-handed, Golden Globe Race, sailing his 32ft yacht Suhaili on to victory. He reached his home port 51 years ago yesterday, on the 22nd April 1969. At some point during the race his on-board generator, essential for powering the limited electronics in those days, failed. Robin determined that the spark plug gap was not right but didn’t have any feeler gauges. (note 1)

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Here is a clear case where necessity really was the mother of invention. Long hours of thought produced a light bulb moment (cf Thomas Edison and the electric light bulb – 1000 ways of not working!). Robin took a book and measured its depth; let’s say it was half an inch (these were pre-metric UK days!). Then he counted the pages and found the book contained 100; so each single page was 5 thousandths of an inch ……. and he needed a gap of 0.025 thou. He counted out 5 pages and that thickness was the gap needed for the electricity to jump the gap, to spark, and so ignite the fuel vapour and bring the generator to life. So clever! (Note 2)

The current credit-card sized UK Driving Licence has been around for a few decades but when it was first introduced there was some sensitivity about whether it should show the bearer’s age. The Driving Licence number is in the following format: one’s name followed by a sequence of numbers and letters. It didn’t take long to realise it shows your date of birth, albeit in a convoluted way. For example …..CAMERON610096DWD58CP …. is for a David Cameron whose birthday is 9th October 1966 …. and the last sequence is random (I think!!)

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Some numbers have become simply part of our day-to-day language. We know that 7-11 means the shop is open from 7am to 11pm and that ‘24/7’means the enterprise is open all-day, every day. Sadly 9/11 had also become imbedded in our memory, just as in the UK 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month (November) 1918 marks the end of the First World War.

When you travel you travel with numbers!! Holding your passport B265371 and your Boarding Pass, with its e-ticket 349623492634 for flight BA 249 departing from Gate 56 at 1120, you board looking for your seat number!

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Numbers featured highly in my Royal Artillery days. Not only did we serve in regiments with differing numbers (for me in 27 Medium Regiment, in 39 Medium Regiment and in 32 Guided Weapons Regiment), the batteries within these regiments had numbers and a strict order of seniority dating back over two hundred years. It seems a long time ago now, having retired over 33 years ago in 1987, but I served for instance in 132 Medium Battery The Bengal Rocket Troop RA (raised in India in the days of the Raj) and commanded 43 Air Defence Battery (Lloyd’s Company) RA, established for the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 by a William Lloyd. (See note 3)

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Being reasonably numerate helped in the technical art of field artillery; in those pre-computer days taking down, with some urgency and accuracy, the 6 figure grid references of potential targets over a crackly radio link required a clear head. I am reminded, as I scribble this, of an error I made on a Colloquial German Course. I was play-acting handing over an observation post to another officer, a German, and was asked to tell him there was a large enemy tank behind the barn (one that you could see some distance away). Full of ill-found confidence I said: “Hinter der grossen Bauer befindet sich ein feindlicher Panzer.” In fact I had mistaken the word for barn (Scheune) with the word for farmer so we had the large tank hiding behind a fat farmer – makes me smile to remember it and the laughter of my fellow students!

In PC 174 I scribbled about the issue of the functionally illiterate, meaning that their grasp of our language is actually so poor that they can’t contribute to the society in which they live in any meaningful way. I also highlighted the statistic that some 47% of 16 year old school leavers (2006) didn’t achieve a basic level of functional mathematics. Since 2015 it has become compulsory for a teenager to be in either education or some form of training until their 18th birthday, but I am not sure this will necessarily alter this percentage much. I am ashamed when I watch someone reach for their calculator to do some basic mathematics, an addition or subtraction or even answer a ‘Can I have a 10% reduction?” question. Doing a daily Killer Sudoku puzzle may help my mental arithmetic – certainly keeps the brain from atrophying.

In English there’s an expression “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile” meaning that if you are generous to someone be careful as they’ll demand even more. Somehow it doesn’t have the same ring about it if converted to the metric system: “Give him 2.54cms and he’ll take 1608 metres.”!!

You may remember PCs 43 & 44 about our trip to Alaska in 2015, following in the footsteps of my great grandfather George Nation? Outside the tiny settlement called Eagle, itself 66kms from the Arctic Circle, was a workshop/timber yard/scrap heap that had a couple of rusted pumps for fuel, one diesel and one petrol. It was run by Ron who chatted while he operated the filler. He had an interesting perspective on the world and I chose my words carefully, not wanting to irritate him at 0830 in the morning, or at any other time come to think of it! When I asked how much I owed for the 40 litres of petrol, he said US$25 and then “cheaper huh compared with where you’re from ……. you pay for your petrol by the gallon instead of by the litre?” Blink twice and you almost believe it!

Richard 23rd April 2020

Note 1 A feeler gauge is a tool used to measure gap widths, eg a clearance between two parts. A spark plug has a central electrode that protrudes through an insulator into the combustion chamber. A spark is initiated between this and the earth electrode. The size of the gap needs to be accurate in order for this to work!

Note 2 It’s possible that this tale was not about Robin Knox-Johnston but someone else sailing around the world. I can’t verify it as I no longer have the book in which I read it!!

Note 3 Completely coincidentally my Honda Accord, which eventually rusted to bits, had as its number plate SAM43S. Lloyd’s Company was a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) battery whose number was 43.

 

 

PC 176 Numbers (1) 24067711

This postcard was prompted by a conversation with an acquaintance, one who had changed his Christian name late in life and then, intriguingly, admitted he would be happy to be called No 16!! It brought back memories of a cult television series from 1967 called The Prisoner. Patrick McGoohan plays a secret service agent incarcerated in a village in Wales. The village administrator, No 2 and representing ‘collectivism’, assigns the individualistic McGoohan the title No 6. Any attempt to escape is prevented by an enormous white balloon called Rover. The image of McGoohan lying on the beach, having been chased by Rover in and out of the surf, has stayed embedded in my memory!

PC 176 1

The current pandemic has produced a deluge of figures as bad as a Rio tropical rainstorm; statistics and projections, seeking to explain, seeking to reassure, seeking to give us all hope there will be light at the end of the tunnel and that the new world into which we emerge might be better. Notwithstanding the very serious nature of our situation, it’s worth remembering that in the UK about 500,000 people of all shapes and sizes, of all ages, from every background, die every year (about 9600 each week); of those, 170,000 die of cancer and 10% of that figure of winter influenza. This graph explains!PC 176 2

Currently almost 13,000 have died of Covid 19 in the UK, although many of these had underlying health problems; men and the elderly feature most (that’s me!!) Balancing those exiting this life are those entering our world, for example 731,213 babies were born in 2018 here in the UK. (Note 1)

There has been much comment here in the press about people not respecting the government’s guidance about daily exercising. The population of Brighton & Hove is about 290,000; normally there are an additional 180,000 students and tourists but they can be ignored because they are not here! If only 50% of us want to exercise once a day, that’s 145,000 spread, say, over 10 hours, spread over the city of 88 square kilometres that’s a density of 165 people per sqkm per hour. But then you realise the majority of that 88 sqkms is covered by housing and roads, that there will be more popular times to be out running, walking or cycling and most people will be drawn to the flat seaside promenade than the hills behind Tesco. You do the maths …… it’ll be busy! Just a thought for all those people scaremongering and moaning.

When there is not a great deal to smile about, it’s good to read of stories that make one laugh, such as the President of Belarus saying working on a tractor, having more Vodka than normal and a daily sauna will protect you from the virus, or the Russian doctor who claimed, as she walked into a Moscow church, that she felt safe as you couldn’t get the virus in a holy place. For a period  here in the UK there was panic buying of loo paper but some weeks on there is now plenty in the shops, not to mention stacked in Mrs Smug’s fourth bedroom. According to Caitlin Moran, a Times Journalist, Americans use TWICE as much loo paper as other Western Nations, about 50lb per person per year. We know that in the US food & beverage portion sizes are enormous but I hadn’t realised that the average American arse needed twice as much paper to clean it than anywhere else! Our chum in Michigan posted that she’d been able to find a 48 roll pack – now I wonder how long that will last her?

Our health is often reduced to a series of numbers and of course we start with a NHS Number; mine is 6124727978 if you’re interested? Height and weight obviously …….

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An extract from my PE School Report card circa 1964

…….  and now that gets configured into a measure called Body Mass Index (Weight in kilograms divided by height in metres (squared)). To be healthy your BMI should be 18.5 to 25; 25 to 30 is overweight and 30 to 40 Obese. Sixty-four per cent of adults in the UK have a BMI of over 25 giving us the unflattering accolade of being the most obese country in Western Europe. The fattest nation in Europe can’t afford to get any fatter – otherwise the NHS will be inundated with other health issues that being overweight brings – so use the lockdown to stay fit/get fitter.

An optimal blood pressure level is 120/80 mmHg whilst 139/89 mmHg would put you in the higher range. In 2013 I attended a NHS Well Man clinic – and was assessed as having an 83% chance of not having a heart attack. Great I thought …… and then six weeks later had a triple heart bypass ……. so much for statistics and chance …. but someone has to be in that 17%!! Did you ever wonder about the claim that “99.9% of bacteria will be destroyed by this product”? So it’s the 0.1% not killed by it that will get you!

You may be beginning to wonder why I have added ‘24067711’ to the postcard title? Just as those who have fallen foul of the law are often portrayed with a number across their chest in the police mugshot, so I was given a number when I signed up for service in the British Army, at the Brighton Army Careers Office in Queens Street, in early September 1965 – ‘24067711’. Strange to finds myself living here 55 years later – well, in Hove, actually.

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The flyleaf of my little pocket-book sized New Testament

Later during officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst we had to endure, among other stuff, the Respirator Confidence test – wearing full NBC kit (trousers, jacket and respirator), standing in a gas chamber full of CS gas (Note 2), you had to remove your respirator and state your number (24067711), rank (Officer Cadet) and name (YATES) …… and then head for the door to spew up your breakfast in the fresh air outside. It’s worth remembering that the use of chemical or biological weapons by the Warsaw Pact in any conflict was considered likely and NATO had to be prepared.

Part 2 of this postcard on numbers will follow shortly.

Richard 16th April 2020

Note 1. Just to keep a perspective on these numbers, some 3 million people died from Typhus in World War 1 on Germany’s Eastern Front. My own grandfather died aged 49 in the 1936 TB epidemic in England; my mother was 16.

Note 2.The compound 2- chlorobenzalmalononitrile, a cyanocarbon, is the defining component of tear gas, commonly referred to as CS gas, used as a riot-control agent. NBC stands for Nuclear Biological Chemical.

 

PC 175 POD(s)

My Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, circa 1962 and given to me by my Godmother for my 16th birthday, is a mine of information laid out in a delightfully old-fashioned way, with some gorgeous little drawings. The thick blue-bound, rather battered reference book smells a little musty if I am honest and therefore not the Go-To tome if you are allergic to dust!

PC 175 1

From it, this is an example of “A. Dry Fruits and B. Succulent Fruits.” And No 2 is labelled ‘Legume (pea)’ and the figure 14 says Pod or Hull. If you then go to ‘Pod’ further down the alphabet you get the description: “Long seed-vessel, especially of leguminous plants (eg pea or bean); cocoon of silkworm; case of locust’s eggs; narrow-necked eel net”. Marvellous language, English, isn’t it? One word meaning many many things!

If you buy your Broad Beans frozen, providing of course that Iceland or your local supermarket has not been raided by those with two chest freezers in their double garage, you have missed the sexiest thing possible to do with raw vegetables. When they are in season, buy some broad beans in their pods (better still, go to a pick-your-own farm), break open the pod to expose not only the broad beans but also the inside of the pod itself, covered in light green, silken hairs. Run your fingers over these hairs – sexy huh?

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If you have the time it’s worth taking the outer skin off the broad bean to reveal the tender inner one. Do this by placing the beans in a small saucepan of boiling water for two minutes, drain and then dunk in a bowl of cold water. Pop the bean from their thick, leathery skin by squeezing gently – so-called double–podding. (You see, you probably didn’t know this is a verb?)

The dictionary also informs me that pod is the name for the socket of a brace and bit (of a drill) ……. and a small herd of seals or whales. I imagine everyone has watched at least one of David Attenborough’s nature programmes and somewhere will have seen either pods of dolphins, or killer Orcas, or poor little Sardines forming pods to present a more intimidating sight for feasting whales.

In our C21st we tend to ‘Google’ – so ‘pod’ gets Pay on Demand (Note 1), Print on Demand, Payable on Death and ‘POD’, an American-Christian nu (sic) metal band formed in San Diego in 1992. Here in the seaside city of Brighton & Hove we have the British Airways i360, locally irreverently called The Doughnut, which offers passengers an opportunity to see the city and the sea from 138m high up in its 18m diameter observation pod.

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In the last century if you went camping you took a canvas tent and pitched it in some farmer’s field. Nowadays you can hire a camping pod, complete with running water and electricity. Glamping anyone?

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Any excess luggage needed for your stay can be packed into your car’s roof-rack storage pod.

If you are a foodie you will recognise the term Chocolate pods. Whilst the natural ones are the seed pods on the cocoa shrub, nowadays you can buy pods from Galaxy, from Nespresso, from Hotel Chocolat etc to create your perfect Chocolate drink.

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And if you are involved with the Armed Forces there are fuel pods of varying capacity and weapon pods, slung underneath fighter aircraft or infra-red flare pods to be activated against SAMs or AAMs

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The current Coronavirus pandemic has created a whole new lexicon, words I hadn’t known existed or have been specifically invented – ‘social-distancing’, ‘lock down’ ‘self-isolating’ ‘herd immunity’ to name but a few. Who knew you could have a NHS Coronavirus ‘Priority Assessment Pod’?

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And the word pod has been attached to the word sky to describe a new transportation system to be developed in Dubai, where Skypods on a monorail will whiz commuters around the city by 2030. A British company, BeemCar, has just signed a contract for this new form of travel.pc 175 8

We have all heard of the iPod, I imagine – “a pocket-sized portable music-playing device produced by Apple” – which first hit the shops in October 2001 and currently on its 7th iteration. What you may not know is that ‘pod’, in this case, is thought to mean ‘portable open database’.

Then we come to Podcast – a joining together of iPod and broadcast – ‘An episodic series of digital audio files that a user can download to a personal device in order to listen (to?).’ So for those who normally spend a lot of time in a car or travelling by train, this is a way to listen to every imaginable type of broadcast, from songs, to comments, to news, to reviews.

I have signed up to a Podcast platform giving me space to ‘publish’ my audio PCs. I have recorded the first 30 or so and published them on the platform. To ensure a free posting, I am limited to the number of hours of published content. In a month or so when I have recorded more I will start deleting the earliest ones. I only have just over another 140 to record so that’s some 16 hours of talking into a microphone, so don’t hold your breath, although with the self-imposed (Government diktat?) isolation for three months it seems a good time to tackle it ……… after clearing out this cupboard and that drawer, pulling out the fridge, moving the bed and vacuuming underneath, turning the mattress, clearing out the wardrobe, pulling out the outline chapters for that book you started in the last century etc or trying again to learn some basic Brazilian Portuguese.

And the name of the Podcast platform? Podbean! (Note 2) Bringing me nicely full circle to pods and broad beans!

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Richard 2nd April 2020

Note 1: Payment on Delivery used to be called Cash on Delivery COD

Note 2: Simply download the Podbean App and search for The Postcardscribbles.