A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: December 2012

What Is The Origin Of…?


New Year and New Year’s Eve

Although the Romans ordered their months from January to December, it was not until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar – in 1751 in Great Britain – that the 1st January marked the start of the new year. Prior to that, Lady Day (March 25th) – the day when Mary was informed by Gabriel that she would bear God’s child – had been the start of the new year in England.

It is thought that Julius Caesar first had the idea that the new year should begin in January. January is named after the two-faced Roman god, Janus, and it is easy to see how it might be associated with the transition from one period to another. Roman new year festivities were characterised by drunkenness and disorder – sounds familiar!

According to Christian tradition, January 1st was the day of Christ’s circumcision when he was given the name Jesus.

Of course, many cultures still celebrate the start of the new year at different times. The Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year occurs on the new moon of the first lunar month – between 21st January and 21st February inclusive. In many states in India the new year is celebrated in April as do the Nepalis whose new year falls on the first of Baisakh, 12th to 15th April.

The Islamic new year falls on 1 Muharram, and since their calendar is based on 12 lunar months equalling 354 days, there can, on occasions, be two Muslim new years in the same Gregorian year.

The Scots have appropriated New Year’s Eve or Hogmanay as their own. As is often the case, there is some confusion about the origin of the word Hogmanay. The Scandinavian word for the feast preceding Yule was Hoggo-not while in Flemish hoog min dag means great love day. Probably, though, the origin is from the French, homme est ne, In France the last day of the year, when gifts were exchanged, was known as aguillaneuf and in Normandy gifts given at that time were known as hoguignettes.

In 1693 the Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence noted rather snootily, “it is ordinary among some Plebians in the south of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane”.

First footing is still common in Scotland, a tradition designed to ensure good luck to the household. The first visitor should be male, dark and bear coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky. Apparently, blondes were associated with Vikings who brought nothing but trouble.

Wherever you are and however you choose to celebrate the passing of 2012 and the beginning of the new year, I wish you a happy, prosperous, healthy and peaceful 2013. Don’t forget you can get a collection of the WindowThroughTime blogs for free by e-mailing


What Is The Origin Of …?


Smart Alec

The original Smart Alec was a New York pimp, Alec Hoag, who operated in the 1840s. Partnered by his wife, Melinda, the couple would rob her “customers” while she otherwise distracted them.

They started simply enough by luring victims into dark alleys with the promise of a quick fumble but all they ended up with was Hoag relieving them of their property. Inevitably, some of the victims went to the police but Hoag simply cut some of the officers into a share of the spoils. His undoing started when financial difficulties caused him to renege on his arrangement.

Hoag further refined his technique by operating a scam known as the panel game con. The victim was lured to his apartment by Melinda who persuaded him to remove his clothing and put them on a chair at the head of the bed near a secret panel. When everything was ready, Melinda would close the curtain. Hoag would then rife through the victim’s clothes and relieve him of all his valuables. Soon afterwards, Hoag would bang on the door and Melinda would make out that her husband was returning, causing the victim to vacate the premises post. haste.

The police soon caught on to Hoag and arrested him and Melinda. However, Hoag managed to escape with the assistance of his brother but was soon recaptured.

Hoag was given the nickname “Smart Alec” by the police for being too clever for his own good. The phrase was then applied to other felons exhibiting the same level of craftiness and if first found its way into print in 1865.

In Graham We Trust – Part Twenty Three

Graham Turner Post Leeds United


Twenty five down, twenty one to go, twenty five points to find.

TMS 0 Brentford 0

There was an inevitability that the clash between TMS (one defeat in seven) and Brentford (unbeaten in ten and with five wins on the bounce) would end in stalemate. The surprise was that it ended goalless. However, TMS worked hard and the defence was resolute – showing the benefit of being unchanged for 5 games. Taylor might have won the game in the second half but his shot was cleared off the line. Still, we would have settled for a point at the start of the game.

TMS are down to the bare bones and the opportunity to bring new players in cannot come soon enough – but therein hangs a dilemma. TMS’ (modest) upturn in form has been due to a settled team and too much surgery could undo the work done in recent weeks to create a bit of daylight between TMS and the bottom four.

Helan, one of our unsuccessful loanees and surely the worst player on Man City’s books, was booked twice by the ref in the Owls’ game versus Huddersfield and did not see red – I know, I can’t understand what the linesman and assistant ref were doing. It is not the first time the Frenchman has been the victim of mistaken identity – earlier this season he was mistaken for a professional footballer.

Next up, away to Coventry who are unbeaten in nine.


The Best Thing About The Future Is That It Comes One Day At A Time


It seems as though our illustrious Chancellor is going to loosen his purse strings and give a grant of up to £21.5m to aid in the commercialisation of a new “wonder material” called graphene. Graphene was discovered in 2005. Manchester University academics Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for isolating the material and measuring its properties.

Graphene is sheets of carbon just one atom thick. It’s properties are impressive – it is completely transparent and conducts heat and electricity far more efficiently than any other previous technology. It is said to be up to 200 times harder than steel but is lightweight. Graphene can stretch up to 20 per cent and is anti-bacterial.

But it is tricky to work with – material so thin is difficult to isolate, manipulate and connect to other materials. The challenge is to do so in a way that makes graphene commercially viable as a material.

There have been numerous examples of “wonder materials” which have failed to meet the commercial test. High-temperature superconductors, which won their discoverers a Nobel in 1987, were supposed to give us power lines which would not lose energy and carbon nanotubes (discovered in 1991) were predicted to transform microelectronics. Neither has happened – mainly because they have proven to be difficult to work with in a way that makes them economic to replace existing materials. Whether this will be the fate that awaits graphene only time will tell.

As the country grapples to recover from recession, at least it is encouraging that some money is being found to try and give our scientific community the opportunity to steal a march on others.


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To Have Another Language Is To Have A Second Soul



It is a truth universally acknowledged that we Brits are crap at speaking foreign languages. In some ways it is understandable because when you have been lucky enough to be born speaking the language of Shakespeare and the one in which God chose to write the King James’ Bible, why bother with anything else?

Some of us persevere, of course, and immerse ourselves in syntax and parsing, trying to make sense of the differences between the imperfect, perfect and pluperfect tenses, the differences between the conditional and subjunctive and the gerund and gerundive. Preening ourselves with our new found knowledge, we go on holiday determined to try out our new language skills. And what a let down this turns out to be.

Invariably, the first waiter we encounter turns out to be a wage slave from some third world country or is someone who is more anxious to practise their English than you are to practise your newly acquired skills and so the conversation reverts to your native language. If you continue doggedly on, you will find that the other person speaks in a thick, impenetrable accent or at 500 miles an hour so that you are completely flummoxed. Even if you can understand what they say, they generally use phrases which are not contained in your text book. Best to abandon all hope and revert to the mono-lingual British stereotype.

But, it seems, help may be at hand. 81 year old Alun Morgan from Bathwick in Somerset suffered a massive stroke. When he regained consciousness three weeks later he astonished his medical staff by speaking fluent Welsh. He had been evacuated to Wales as a small boy during the Second World War but had not spoken Welsh, even though he was surrounded by Welsh speakers. Doctors diagnosed Alun as suffering from aphasia, a form of brain damage which causes a shift in the brain’s language centre.

There have been other examples of this phenomenon. Kay Russell, a 49 year old grandmother from Bishop Cleeve, suffered a migraine and began speaking in a French accent. Devonian, Sarah Colwill, suffered a migraine too and began speaking with a Chinese accent.

This particular variant of aphasia – up to a third of stroke sufferers have some form of aphasia – is known as Foreign Accent Syndrome, which causes a sudden change to speech patterns such that the speaker talks with a foreign accent. Researchers believe that a small part of the brain affecting speech is damaged causing a drawing out or clipping of the vowels that mimic the accent of a certain country, even if that person has limited exposure to the language of that country. The first recorded example was during the Second World War when a Norwegian woman who had shrapnel lodged in her brain started speaking with a strong German accent.

This has set me thinking. Perhaps the area of the brain which controls language is a bit like a radio dial and depending upon where you are born, your dial is calibrated to a certain setting. If this is the case, then it cannot be beyond human ingenuity to develop a device which enables you to recalibrate the dial at will. As well as causing some amusement at even the dullest party, it would at once enable nation to speak unto nation, eliminating the need to spend months poring over dusty grammar books and vocabularies.

I think this is an idea which should be pursued with vigour.




Sad to hear that Gerry Anderson is no more – he died peacefully in his sleep on Boxing Day, having suffered from mixed dementia in recent years.

For men of my age, Anderson’s name is synonymous with Thunderbirds, the puppet show he created from his studios in a Slough Trading Estate in 1965. The puppet show featured the adventures of the Tracy family, father Jeff and his five sons, Scott (pilot of Thunderbird One and principal rescue co-ordinator), Virgil (pilot of Thunderbird 2), Alan (astronaut in Thunderbird 3), Gordon (aquanaut in Thunderbird 4) and John (principal duty astronaut in space-station Thunderbird 5). They all lived together with Granny Tracy, Brains and Kyrano and Tin-Tin on a remote and uncharted island, from which they launched their international rescue missions. Lady Penelope and her chauffeur, Parker, acted as their London agents.

Thunderbirds pioneered a technique called Supermarionation, which Anderson developed. The technique used puppets suspended and controlled by thin wires. The wire filaments were suspension-control wires for movement and cables that took control signals to electronic components in the puppets’ heads. Solenoid motors in the puppets’ heads created the synchronised mouth movements. The drawback was they could not be made to walk convincingly and so the action centred on them sitting, standing or using machinery.

Still for boys of a certain age not used to hi-tech gizmos it was racy stuff and holds an endearing place in my store of childhood memories.

F.A.B and over and out.

In Graham We Trust – Part Twenty Two

Graham Turner Post Leeds United


Twenty four down, twenty two to go, twenty six points to find

TMS 2 Notts County 2

TMS opened the second half of their 2012/3 campaign with an entertaining home draw against Keith Curle’s Notts County. Former Magpie, Rodgers, opened the scoring in the 18th minute when he reacted quickest to Morgan’s knock-on, Pantomime villain Hughes equalised shortly afterwards and Campbell-Ryce put the visitors ahead on the stroke of half-time. TMS’ equaliser with 10 minutes to go had an element of good fortune to it – Bialkowski fumbled Taylor’s cross into his own net – but was just about merited.

Thoughts at this time of year turn to the opening of the transfer deadline. With the exception of Rodgers and Gayle, TMS is back to the original squad and a run of one defeat in seven is suggesting they are beginning to gell. New signings, whether permanent or loans can be disruptive, if they are wrong-uns, just as much as beneficial. My sense is GT will make 2 or 3 permanent signings and 2 or 3 loan signings. There is a bit of daylight between TMS and the bottom four – 3 points – and it would be sad to waste the opportunity of grasping salvation/

Next up Brentford at home in what will be a testing encounter.

The End Is Nigh




Ever since homo sapiens became a sentient being, there have been predictions of the world’s imminent demise. Invariably, the due date comes and goes and life sails on.

In the first century CE the early Christians believed Jesus would return to Earth, bringing an end to life as they knew it, an event foreshadowed in Mark 13, 24 – 26. They are still waiting.

In December 1954 an Illinois housewife, Dorothy Martin, believed that aliens from the planet Clarion had beamed messages down to her that the world would be destroyed by a massive flood. Incredibly, her predictions drew some followers who quit their jobs and sold their possessions in anticipation of the watery end. The Seeker, as they were known, gathered at Martin’s home on Christmas Eve 1954 singing carols while they waited for the flying saucers to come and rescue them. Guess what? They didn’t come and the world wasn’t destroyed! Martin put this down to God being so impressed with their actions that he took pity on mankind!

Harold Camping believed that the Bible was a numerical code book which could be deciphered to reveal clues about the world’s impending end. In a press interview on May 11th 2011, the 89 year old preacher revealed that doomsday was going to be in 10 days time. When May 21st came and went, the intrepid mystic put it down to a mathematical error and recalculated the end to be October 21st 2011. Guess what?

Another doom merchant was William Miller who attracted a group of adherents in the 1840s with his prediction that Jesus would return to Earth in March 1843. He derived his prophecy from a comple set of mathematical calculations and launched a ferocious publicity campaign through sermons and pamphlets. It is thought that over 1 million heard his predictions and that he had around 100,000 followers. As March 1843 approached, many of the adherents sold their possessions, put on white robes and climbed to the tops of hills to await their rapture into heaven. When the inevitable happened (or didn’t) the imperturbable  Miller just moved the date to October 1844. After that he lost all credibility and the rump of his followers set up the Adventist church.

The mistake, it seems to me, that the likes of Miller, Martin and Camping made was that they picked a date too close to the time they were living in. This seems to me to be too risk a strategy. Far better is to pick a date way off in the future. If it doesn’t  happen, it is not too much of a concern to you.

My offering is the end of the world will occur in around 7.6 billion years from now. Around that time the sun will convert all its hydrogen into helium and will have entered its red giant phase.  This will cause the sun to swell to a size 20 per cent greater than the earth’s orbit and shine 3,000 times brighter. If the Earth stays on its current orbit it will be engulfed and vapourised. Alternatively, if it deviates, it may escape from the Sun’s influence with an equally adverse effect for life on the planet.

Put the date in your diary. Let me know if I’m wrong!

Yo Ho Ho



It is that time of year when children get excited about the impending arrival of Santa Claus, laden with presents. But where did the image of a jolly old man resplendent with white whiskers and red coat originate?

The credit seems to go to a German born, American cartoonist, Thomas Nast. He first drew the now familiar image for the Christmas season edition of Harper’s Bazaar in 1862. His representation was rather sad reflecting the sadness that the civil war and, particularly, the travails of the Union side were bringing to American homes. Nast drew on the German tradition of St Nicholas, a fourth century bishop famed for his generosity and present giving.

Nast’s images of Santa Claus became so popular they were collected and issued in book form in the 1890s.

In his prolific career as a cartoonist, Nast critiqued slavery and was a fervent supporter of the Unionists. He also popularised the donkey and elephant symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties.

Still it is at this time of year his legacy lives on.