Apr 9, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: H is for...Helicopters

 After the boffins discovered dinosaur juice, henceforth referred to as oil, locked away beneath the North Sea, they realized to get it out, and into cars, they'd need big drills. And the drills would have to be fixed in place on some sort of...rig. And to operate the rigs they'd need dudes in hardhats.

Dinosaur juice zones between Scotland (bottom left) and Norway

But, how to get those dudes to the rigs to operate the drills?

Since science wasn't smart enough to bio-engineer giant flying transport creatures, it fell upon the helicopter companies.

My dad worked for almost twenty years for British Airways Helicopters (later bought by British International Helicopters and then CHC Helicopters) and it was thanks to him I got to fly a Sikorsky S61N.

An actual British Airways Helicopters S61

Okay, that's not completely true. My dad was contracts manager and not a pilot, but he did manage to swing me some time in the S61 simulator, alongside an actual pilot.

This was no home computer simulator, this was one of those fancy state-of-the-art boxes on pistons, that give you a realistic-feeling ride while never actually leaving the ground.

Like this, only a helicopter version...

I got a quick "how to..." briefing from the pilot and then he asked to take off. I eased my helicopter into the air, no problemo. He told me to wheel it around a bit and I did, flying like a pro. He told me to land and despite missing my mark, I put us down with barely a bump. The pilot looked at me with a raised eyebrow and asked if I'd flown before. I assured him I hadn't, so he told me to do it again to see if it was beginner's luck.

The second time I tried to fly a helicopter it was like we were being flown around by a drunken octopus with vertigo. It was bad. Not only did I almost hit the ground at terminal velocity, but I'm pretty sure I nearly knocked part of an oil rig into the sea. My co-pilot took over and watching him handle the controls was amazing. He made it look easy as he wheeled around, touched down on an oil rig and then flew back. Easy.

Flying a (simulated) helicopter was great fun, but I definitely think it should be left to the professionals. I did get a certificate though. So, there's that.

That was H in the A to Z Blog Challenge. Come back tomorrow for I. And in the meantime go to http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/ and check out some of the other bloggers.


Apr 8, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: G is for...Glottal Stop

In America, despite my manly good looks, keen mind, and effervescent sense of humor...

...the first thing people normally notice about me is how I talk. Nowadays, my accent has been corrupted by the use of American words, the need to slow down to be understood, and the subtle assimilation of residency. Here in America, I still sound Scottish enough to raise questions about where I come from. To people in the UK, I sound American.

One thing people pick up on is my pronunciation of certain words, particularly those with the double t in the middle: 
Butter - Buh-uhr. This is due to Scots using a Glottal Stop when pronouncing those words.

A glottal stop is a complete or partial closure of the glottis (vocal folds) creating a sound which is used instead of the actual sound of the letter. So in butter, instead of the hard "t" sound I use a glottal stop.

Americans also use glottal stops, but you just don't notice it. Don't think too hard about it...just say:

Cat litter.

Did you make the t sounds or were they replaced with a constriction of the glottis and an interruption in air flow?

Say: Important

Did you say imPOR-unh? That's a glottal stop.

Say: Right now





...hate mail...

Do you hear it? If you're replacing a consonant sound with what is basically an interruption in air flow through your vocal chords, you should notice, unless you're really concentrating and over-pronouncing.

So, now that I've got you thinking about it, you'll be talking weird for a while...

You're welcome!

That was G in the A to Z Blog Challenge. Come back tomorrow for H. And in the meantime go to http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/ and check out some of the other bloggers.


Apr 7, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: F is for...Feist and the Foo Fighting Fleetwoods!

Last year I started a little journey through the alphabet talking about music. I like music a lot and know more than a normal person should about a lot of useless stuff. I started it HERE and continued HERE.

Now I'm working my way through the #AtoZChallenge and, reaching the letter F, my pal @LaurieBwrites suggested, nay DEMANDED, I write something around the Foo Fighters. I thought I could combine both my alphabet postings...so,

Foo Fighters 

I have to own up to not being a big fan or filled with jammy delicious knowledge about them. I have a lot of time for Dave Grohl who seems like a decent bloke, a great drummer, and a good frontman for his group.

Of all the music of theirs I've heard, my favorite is easily Hero.

"There goes my hero, he's ordinary"


Quirky Canandian chanteuse who first came to my attention after Apple used her song 1234 in an iPod commercial. After rooting around on youtube, I found that she had plenty more interesting songs to listen to and this one in particular caught my attention...cool song...quirky voice...dancing on a moving walkway...what's not to like?

Fleetwood Mac

Take my advice - NEVER get stuck in an elevator with me, not just because my un-manly panicking will embarrass everyone, but because if I get started on Fleetwood Mac I will bore you to death.

You can blame 1987.

Tango In The Night was released in '87, with Big Love being the first single off the album. I was immediately hooked on the track. I bought the single (still have it) and played it over and over and over. I bought the album, then I noticed my parents owned Rumours...and then there was no turning back.

I still remember seeing the band picture and thinking they had the names Stevie and Lindsey mixed up. Stevie was the girl? Lindsey was the guy? Huh.

Lindsey Buckingham left the group after Tango In The Night and the group never played Big Love live until he returned several years later. Lindsey stripped down the song to just him and a guitar with a version that is every bit as good, if not better than the original.

But, here's the original. Just because it's still one of my favorite songs of all time, plus it's a cool video.

FUN FACT: The Uh-Ah sounds in the song are actually not Lindsey and Stevie (as people first thought). Lindsey did both parts. He just sped up his voice for the female part. lol. There...let that weird you out for a bit. Enjoy!

That was F in the A to Z Blog Challenge. Come back tomorrow for G. And in the meantime go to http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/ and check out some of the other bloggers.

Apr 6, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: E is for...Etaoin shrdlu

Etaoin shrdlu!

No, I'm not typing drunk. And no, Etaoin shrdlu is not a Gaelic curse word or the name of an elf in a new story I'm working on. It's not something offensive written backwards and it won't summon magical beasties if you say it while waving your arms around. (I think. I haven't actually tried that last one. Let me know if I need to put a magic disclaimer in here.)

What it IS though is a nonsense phrase...yeah, no kidding...common in the old days of newspaper publishing when Linotype machines were used.

So...not QWERTY then...

Back in the days before computers, and other newfangled technology like indoor toilets, Linotype machines were used to print newspapers, magazines and the like and the first two columns on the left hand side of the keyboard are...etaion and shrdlu. And the reason for the order is as simple as letter frequency: e is the most used letter, followed by t, a, i and so on.

 Pic courtesy of Al Silonov via Wikimedia Commons

So, much like QWERTY is synonymous with today's keyboards, Etaoin shrdlu was the old timey equivalent.

For more information on the linotype contraption you can check out this link: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/342596/Linotype

That was E in the A to Z Blog Challenge. Come back tomorrow for F. And in the meantime go to http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/ and check out some of the other bloggers.


Apr 4, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: D is for...Dispatching

Those who follow me on twitter --> @SpartaGus  probably know this much about me:

1. I'm from Scotland. (One time a nurse stuck me with a needle to draw blood and all that came out was the quiet drone of bagpipes and the scent of heather. Granted, I might've been hallucinating...)

2. I wrote a book once (available from all good book stockists named after tribes of warrior women...yes, that means --> Amazon)

3. I work Wednesday through Sunday on the #BigTrainSet

So, what does working on the #BigTrainSet mean? (I hear you cry)

It means I'm a train DISPATCHER. (Got to the letter D eventually! Yay! The crowd goes wild)

A dispatcher is akin to an air traffic controller, except trains can't fly. Yet. My job is to line up trains through St. Louis and get them where they need to go in the safest and most efficient manner possible.

If you ever saw the Denzel Washington movie Unstoppable, about the runaway train, I'm like that one desk guy Rosario Dawson talked to...

Hi, Rosario...sorry, yes...emergency thing...

Except we don't have a gigantic map on one wall. Instead, I have an arrangement of 12 computer screens to look at. Also, Rosario Dawson doesn't talk to me.


This year is my 25th in the railroad industry and my 9th as a Dispatcher. Fortunately, I've never had to deal with anything like Denzel (or 'Guy at desk') did, but I've had my fair share of stressful shifts. It's important to keep a cool head (I keep one in the fridge...*boom tish*) and make sure everyone gets home in one piece to their loved ones.

If you're ever traveling through St Louis on Amtrak, you're going to run over some of the rail I control. So, give me a wave and I'll make sure I look out for you, get you where you need to go safely and, hopefully, on time.

That was D in the A to Z Blog Challenge. Come back Monday for E. And in the meantime go to http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/ and check out some of the other bloggers.


Apr 3, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: C is for...Comic Book Covers

Back in 1982, a trip home to Virkie in the Shetland Islands, after visiting my Gran in Ayrshire, would involve a couple of buses, a train and two flights. The trips weren't terribly long, but my folks had to tow around a 9 year old (me) and a 7 year old (my wee brother) and so, to keep us quiet some of the way, they bought us comics.

Choosing comic books as a kid is easy, you pick the coolest covers. So, from the small selection at the newsstand at Kilwinning Railway Station I picked...

Ghost Rider (Vol.1) #67 - Cover by Bob Budiansky (Apr 1982)

The Avengers (Vol.1) #218 - Cover by Don Perlin (Apr 1982)

I had no idea who any of these characters were. (This was decades before Robert Downey Jr would turn Iron Man from second string hero to box office titan.) Ghost Rider looked scary and cool, with his flaming skull and motorbike. An obvious choice for a nine year old. The Avengers all look horrified and apparently unable to stop whatever is going to happen. An invitation to read more...

Comic books rely heavily on their covers to attract their audience. It's a billboard attached to the front of the story, trying to draw a reader over to take a look. The best covers can convey some of the story in a compelling way or simply present a striking image that catches your eye...and in turn, your wallet.

Action Comics (Vol.1) #1 - Cover by Joe Shuster (Jun 1938) This cover is the Grandaddy of them all!

Uncanny X-Men (Vol.1) #251 - Cover by Marc Silvestri (Nov 1989)

Incredible Hulk (Vol.2) #49 - Cover by Kaare Andrews (Mar 2003)

Over the years, the art has become more sophisticated, but covers are still just fancy billboards to grab your attention. The best way to sell comic books is to put the best cover artists on the most popular books AND/OR create multiple covers. 

Variant covers - the comic inside is the same, only the cover is different - are highly collectible and often more difficult to obtain than the regular cover. Sometimes, covers are created as convention exclusives, as comic book shop exclusives, or might simply feature a very popular artist. A recent extreme example of variant covers is the new Star Wars #1. To celebrate Star Wars' return to Marvel (It was published for several years by Dark Horse) they created 68 different covers for the book. 2 or 3 are not unusual, but 68 is insane.

These are just a tiny sample of what I'm talking about - the first image is the regular cover by John Cassaday. The second is by Amanda Conner and is limited to 3000 copies, the third is a "Baby" variant by Skottie Young, and the last is by Alex Maleev and is also limited to 3000 copies.

With constant relaunches of comic book titles, it can often be confusing to a collector as to which issue they have.

Anyway, to round off, here are a few covers that have caught my attention over the last few years...

The covers:

Uncanny X-Men (Vol.1) #234 - Cover by Marc Silvestri (Sept 1988)

Astonishing X-Men (Vol.3) #2 - Cover by John Cassaday (Aug 2004)

Catwoman (Vol.3) #51 - Cover by Adam Hughes (Mar 2006)

Planetary (Vol.1) #26 - Cover by John Cassaday (Dec 2006)

Fables (Vol.1) #62 - Cover by James Jean (Aug 2007)

Amazing Spider-man (Vol.2) #575 - Cover by Chris Bachalo (Dec 2008)

Detective Comics (Vol.1) #880 - Cover by Jock (Sept 2011)

X-Men (Vol.3) #1 - "Baby" Variant Cover "C" by Skottie Young (July 2013)

Black Widow (Vol.6) #6 - Cover by Phil Noto (July 2014)

Inhuman (Vol.1) #12 - Variant Cover "B" by Phil Noto (Apr 2015)

That was C in the A to Z Blog Challenge. Come back tomorrow for D. And in the meantime go to http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/ and check out some of the other bloggers.


Apr 2, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: B is for...Bass

Meghan Trainor wasn't wrong when she proclaimed it's All About That Bass.

...although I'm pretty sure she was talking about having a big booty.

Nonetheless, bass is where it's at as far as music is concerned. The bass and drums form the backbone of most popular music and without it you end up with Kenny G.

I used to play bass guitar and it's to an unsung pioneer of the instrument I'd like to dedicate the rest of this blog post.

I'm pretty sure if I asked you to name your favorite bassist you'd give me a list which might include: Paul McCartney, Sting, Flea, and if you're Canadian, Geddy Lee. Let's be honest though, it's the lead singer with their antics out front, or the lead guitarist in their tight pants that usually draw your attention. 
The average music listener knows the Rolling Stones's Mick "Big Lips" Jagger and Keith "Has taken so many drugs he should really have died years ago" Richards, but do you remember the bassist's name? Did you know he left the band more than 20 years ago and they've been using session guys ever since?

(The bassist was Bill Wyman, by the way)

Bassists have always been a little anonymous, but James Jamerson is a name too few have ever heard.

James Jamerson

Jamerson was part of the group of session players - The Funk Brothers - who created the "Motown sound" and helped propel The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops and many more to worldwide fame.

In all, Jamerson played bass on thirty #1 pop singles and over seventy hits including Heard it through the Grapevine, Baby Love, Ain't no Mountain High Enough, Get Ready, I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), How Sweet It Is, You Can't Hurry Love, and many more.

Jamerson wasn't just a run of the mill player either. He is recognized as a pioneer in broadening the purpose of the bass player, developing a more melodic style and syncopated rhythms to enhance the overall sound. No less than the likes of Paul McCartney (The Beatles), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Pino Palladino, John Entwhistle (The Who), Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report) and Jack Bruce (Cream) have all cited Jamerson as a big influence on their playing.

Sadly, Jamerson was never officially credited on any of the Motown songs he played on from 1959 and through the 60's. It wasn't until Marvin Gaye's What's Going On in 1971 that he finally got some credit and then, only two years later, he left Motown.

Jamerson died in 1983, aged 47, after a long battle with alcoholism. After his death, he finally received the accolades he deserved so much in life: inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with the other Funk Brothers, and awarded a Grammy for his contribution to music.

So, here's to the unsung hero of band. Turn up the bass...and listen to the peerless James Jamerson...

That was B in the A to Z Blog Challenge. Come back tomorrow for C. And in the meantime go to http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/ and check out some of the other bloggers.


Apr 1, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: A is for...Alphabet

Before your eyes roll back into your skull with boredom, let me ask you a question:

Did you know there used to be 27 letters in the alphabet?

Did you know YE...as in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe...is not a thing?

Did you know that people are pushing for NEW letters of the alphabet?

No? Well, read on my friend...

27th Letter of the alphabet

Today's emoticon-heavy, text messaging generation fully understand the benefits of brevity and a good smiley. This is not a new thing.

Not so long ago, in the middle 1800's, English speakers used 27 letters of the alphabet. After Z came & (ampersand)

So why is
& called ampersand and not just and?

When the alphabet was recited, with & after Z, it would sound confusing...

W, X, Y, Z, and and.

Instead, it was spoken like this: W, X, Y, Z and per se and. Per se meaning "by itself" Over the years, "and per se and" was smooshed together and became ampersand.

So, for a while & was the 27th letter of the alphabet.


Ye isn't a thing because much like & a letter existed to replace the Th in "the". It was called THORN and looks like this: Þ

Basically, shoddy penmanship is to blame for the confusion and creation of Ye. Really it's just The Olde Tea Shoppe.

Evolving alphabet

The English language is forever evolving. Some believe text messaging and the computer age will kill of English completely as we substitute every word and feeling with a string of emoticons. However, in the meantime we are slowly adapting to other changes... @ for example. @ started life as an accounting symbol meaning "at a rate of"

Nowadays, if you have a computer, you probably have an email like this:


Hopefully you chose a better name than that. However, there you see @ being used as AT.

Twitter is built around the @username idea and it's creeping further into day to day use.

Soon our alphabet might include some old favorites like & and some newbies like @.

That was A in the A to Z Blog Challenge. Come back tomorrow for B. And in the meantime go to http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/
 and check out some of the other bloggers.