Monday, February 13, 2017

More LIRR bleeptery

And the inconvenience and incompetence goes ever on and on

High winds have blown across Long Island all last night and most of today. As a result the incredibly long grade crossing booms deployed by the Bloody Long Island Railroad are snapping off all over the place forcing the crossings to be guarded by police cars and introducing increasing delays and, eventually, cancellations in a desperate attempt to get the timetables to match the way the trains are pretending to run.

Now this isn't the first, or even the eleventy-first time this sort of thing has happened. If you look at Wyandanch (Pearl of the East) grade crossing you can see it has one short boom and one really long one, about fifteen feet or longer. The long one has broken off just about every year, and was "wind proofed" after the second or fifth time with the addition of a metal Y-shaped bracket that the boom lifts into and protects it while it is parked in the upright position. When it is lowered, it uses a small leg to support it that also serves to stabilize it against the wind. This sort of lash-up set-up can be seen at many grade crossings across the island.

Can you see the oversight in the engineering of this elegant solution to the problem of high winds snapping off the booms?

If you answered "the part where the boom is traveling between each of these situations" then give yourself a toasted sausage sandwich with HP sauce. Indeed yes, the winds are free to tear the bejayzus out of the booms as they climb laboriously back into the raised position or lower themselves to place the inch-thick plastic boom between any hurtling cars and the trains, thereby preventing collisions.

So one has to wonder why in the name of bleep the Bloody Long Island Railroad "engineers" haven't come up with anything better in the thirty years I've been looking at the problem.

Either way, as of the time of writing (5:23 pm) there are numerous emails about fallen utility poles, broken crossing gates and whatever. Long idiotic excuses short - cancellations and delays of up to 70 minutes on all my trains tonight.

So far the Bloody Long Island Railroad has managed one day of acceptable performance since I returned from Florida five working days ago.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Back To The Same Old ****

One. bleeping. Day.

That's how long I was back in New York before the LIRR started bleeping me about.

I had spent the last nine days in Florida visiting with the Stevieling and just lazing about1 but eventually was forced to return to Chateau Stevie, life and the LIRR. By Wednesday the LIRR had cost me several hours of my time by cancelling or delaying trains despite the fact that the weather was unseasonably mild and dry

And the reason it took so long for the LIRR to start wasting my time and costing me money? I took the Monday off to recuperate from the drive.

So when I say "one day" it was actually "no working days".

Tuesday was lost to "signal trouble"2 and Wednesday to yet another track blockage caused by a derailed freight train3.

And what do these two problems have in common?

Neither would be mitigated in any way shape or form by adding a wildly expensive second track in the Pinelawn/Wyandanch Single-Track Chicane.

  1. Actually, two of those days were spent driving at each end of the vacation but I was out of New York the whole time so the point stands
  2. And never ask "Why, when the tax payers and commuters of NY bought the LIRR a new set of signal wires less than a decade ago?"
  3. I suspect the bloody freight trains run overloaded gondolas over the light gauge rail (since passenger train derailments are few and far between and these sodding freight trains seem to derail four or five times a year, taking out the route for days on end). Any other railroad would impose ruinous monetary penalties for this sort of thing

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Scooter Debacle

The sad tale of Mark's Snapped-In-Two Car Fiasco reminds me of a tale from both our mis-spent youths, when we were callow youths of 16.

It was wintertime, but the weather was wet rather than snowy and the rain had stopped. Mark suggested we go for a ride on his "scoot", a Lambretta scooter stripped down to the bare bones1, and I was up for it.

Naturally, there was a small problem, involving the lack of a full driver's license between the pair of us. I had none, Mark had only a provisional license, what would be called a learner's permit in the USA. This enabled him to ride a motorcycle at 162, but not to carry a pillion passenger. For that he would require a full license.

Not a show-stopper. Mark had a Cunning Plan.

"If we get stopped, I'll tell them I'm Chris". Chris was a mutual friend who had the Magic License required for our journey to be street legal. "You give someone else's name too".

I could see one of us should be the responsible one. "Okay" I said, enthusiastically. After all, if anyone was supposed to be responsible, it should be the driver, right? If he was an irresponsible jerk it wasn't my job to make him straighten up and fly right. Besides, he owned the scooter and I wanted a ride on it.

And so we set out from his house, and blazed out of the suburban crescents onto the main road and thence to the approach lane to St John Backsides school, wherein we spent many a joyless day being educated in subjects soon to be rendered irrelevant by technology. I digress.

About halfway up the lane we were pulled over by a cop in a Panda Car3.

"Remember The Plan" hissed Mark.

"'Ello 'ello 'ello. What's goin' on 'ere then, sonny?" said the officer4. "Which one of you is the qualified driver then?"

"I am, officer" said Mark, while I pointed at him so the officer would be in no doubt as to whom was speaking. It was dark and both Mark and I were wearing dark blue greatcoats that made us look like floating heads on a night like this.

"Let's see your driver's license then, lad" said the Officer, and this was the fulcrum on which Mark's brilliant plan hinged: he could announce that he, as Chris, had "forgotten" his documents and the police would have to allow him three days in which to produce them at a police station. There would be no "feeling of the collar" tonight, and by morning Mark would have explained why Chris had to nip to the local Rozzer House to show his documents in answer to a traffic stop at which he was not present. I was secretly glad it was not I who had that duty, as Chris was easily annoyed and I wasn't that friendly with him.

"Name?" snapped the Officer, poised with pencil over pad of desk summonses.

"Chris!" replied Mark. "My address is 2468 This Very Street."

I let out a small involuntary yelp as I realized the whole plan could come unraveled if the Officer made us walk two hundred feet to Chris's mum's front door, and mentally cursed Mark for not having the wit to steer clear of the street where Chris lived while borrowing his name, but the Officer seemed not to realize what was afoot, nor where the feet in question were.

Mr Brain having been given a sharp dose of adrenaline, then went into overdrive, and a plan for high-jinks of the most amusing stripe formed. I had time to run a quick check and it was perfect. No legal culpability. No way for anyone to actually object. The hard part would be keeping a straight face.

"And your name sonny?" asked the officer interrupting my reverie.

My name is Mark, Officer." I said, and watched with delight as the real Mark's face turned bright red and he did a little mini-jig of extreme annoyance and puffed his cheeks and bugged his eyes in the grimace of not-saying-anything-despite-an-overpowering-desire-to-do-so. "I live at 221b Mark's House Crescent."

"Right lads. Please drive safely and remember to bring your documents with you next time. It is a legal requirement."

"Yes, sir" we chorused, and watched as the Nice Officer climbed into his car and drove into the night.

Mark threw his hands into the air and shouted "Why did you give him my name?"

I naturally threw my own hands into the air and matched his aggrieved tone "You told me to use someone else's name!'

"But I didn't mean mine!"

"Well you never said, and you weren't using it!'

There were a few more rounds of yelling and shouting along these lines until we figured out the neighbours would be calling the police again if we didn't clear threatre tootsweet, so that's what we did.

The memory of the look on Mark's face as I gave "my" name has cheered me up on many occasions when I've been low.

  1. At the time this went down, Lambretta scooters had been out of production for many years and parts were unavailable outside of scrap yards. My scooter-owning friends had reacted to this by stripping the machines down, discarding foot-boards, side panels and front leg guards. They retained only the tubular frame, engine, transmission, sundry brake, electrical and steering components and wheels. The frame was then pained a bright primary colour (blue and red were two popular colours) and the result driven maniacally around the neighbourhood at high speed, pausing only to fall off or crash - sometimes spectacularly. Mark's scoot was bright blue, and had twin megaphone exhausts with home-made sound baffles that were, frankly, not up to the job, and could give motorcycles a run for their money
  2. The arcane rules of the UK licensing at that time were that you could drive a motorcycle as a learner at 16 but you couldn't take your test and acquire the desirable full license until you were 17. You could drive a car as a learner at 17, but you couldn't take the driving test and acquire a full license before you were 18. A learner on a motorcycle of any age was forbidden to carry a pillion passenger at any time. A learner in a car was forbidden not to carry a passenger - a passenger with a full license to drive a car. It was all rather bothersome really, but you couldn't argue with the grown-ups who invented these daft laws. This, along with thair classification as a motorcycle/sidecar combination also explains the otherwise bewildering popularity of the Reliant three-wheeled cars
  3. What they gave the suburban police officers who were not expected to chase anyone driving more than a push-bike, typically a Hillman Imp or some such subcompact vehicle, often a hatchback
  4. Probably misremembered, since non traffic division police typically open with “excuse me sir, is this your vehicle?”, which I believe is a legal trap. It is natural to panic and answer "No!" in order to get some distance between you and whatever it is that is annoying the police officer, but that is exactly what they are trying to get you to do so they can run you in for Borrowing Without Permission

Losing It

This morning a large, blocky, red truck bearing information in blue paint barreled past me. In every way it was reminiscent of a Fire Department Emergency Truck (something I'm sure was by design). One of those pieces of information was a toll-free phone number - 1-800-GOT-BOOM.

The semiotics of the truck's design along with the alphabetized phone number caused a derailing in Mr Brain, and it was about fifteen seconds before I straightened it out sufficiently enough to figure out that this was some sort of rental crane service.

Not an official Fire Department hi-speed response bomb disposal team transport vehicle.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

That Was Christmas, That Was

Ho Ho Ho!
Will This Day Never End?

The house seemed very sad, small and quiet this year with no Stevieling in it.

We barely managed to get the tree up the week before Christmas, and there was a very definite lack of Xmas Atmos about the place. Hell, even this post is almost a week late to press.

This year the annual family congregation at the In-Laws' place was cancelled in favor of doing it on Boxing Day instead, so Xmas Eve was a bit "meh".

Christmas morning we made a Skype connection with the Stevieling and Mr Stevieling the sig-nother. That was nice but not at all the same as having our daughter at home. In the afternoon we departed for the Mrs Steviemom's house for Christmas Dinner, made by Mrs Stevie and served to Mrs Steviemom at home.

Last year I nearly went mad from their insistence on watching Christopher Reeve in Time After Time which the Mrs Steviemom thinks is the best movie ever made and I regard as one step worse than dental surgery on the Voluntary Entertainment Desirability Scale. I had formulated a plan though: This year I provided Mrs Stevie with a copy of Noises Off which is a Christopher Reeve film I actually like. The Mrs Steviemom would have Christopher Reeve to gawk at, I would have a movie I could enjoy. We could actually sit through this one together. What could go wrong?

I'll tell you what.

The Mrs Steviemom decided to invite a guest, that's what.

Now my mother in law has managed to cast off every single person she has been friends with over her entire life over the course of the last couple of years, typically because they are "losing it" (her words). This woman she has cultivated, to the bafflement of the family. The lady was one of the nurses for my father in law last year, but not the one they had the longest.

But over the course of the afternoon it became apparent why the Mrs Steviemom likes her - she echoes back everything the Mrs Steviemon ventures an opinion on, and does so at the top of her not inconsiderable voice. The Mrs Steviemom is bombastic and opinionated, and also extremely hard of hearing. This lady was the perfect conversational foil (in the Mrs Steviemom's view).

My take-away was a little different.

By the second hour my tinitus was going great guns on account of my eardrums being given the sort of workout normally reserved for the deck crew of an aircraft carrier launching fighter jets or those who have to stand outside and push the plunger when the dynamite has been put in all the little holes in the quarry's workface.

The conversation ranged over many topics: Those with whom they were both acquainted who were sick, those who had died, those who had succumbed to Alzheimer's.

The lady was also wetly coughing fit to bust a lung on a regular schedule, each time ending the racking and hacking with a jaunty "I should go to the emergency room". When I offered to run her there she said "Oh no, it isn't that bad and I'm sure I'm well past the stage where I can give it to anyone". Ten minutes would pass and the whole pantomime would be repeated hack-for-hack, word-for-word.

I haven't had so much fun since my leg went septic.

We did a facetime link with my mother, using my iPad and that of my sister who was visiting the nursing home. The Steviemum didn't really "get" how the camera in the iPad worked and so ended up giving us views of the ceiling and the wall behind her a lot of the time. Still, it was nice to be able to have even that little remote contact.

Eventually the day let out a tortured scream and collapsed under the weight of its own suck and we went home.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Christmas Story

At this time of year I am minded of the fact that when the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve stretches between weekends, British people do the sensible thing and take the week off to make merry.

And so it was a few years ago in 198_, during just such a week, a group of fun-loving pals decided to hold one big party and just move it each day. Much merry-making was done, wassailing and wenching and I don't know what-all else, including an hysterically funny tale at my own expense1 which I'm not going to relate. Not when the tale of Mark's Christmas Car Fiasco is right there waiting to provide a convenient distraction.

It was about three days into the party and we were all waking up on the floor of a spacious terraced house2, making noises about getting a shower and changing clothes and brushing teeth and acquiring more booze for round four. Mark lived about five miles or so across town, in a small village still at that point not part of the sprawl of the city itself, and announced he was going to nip home for a bit. He had turned up, to the general disgust of all, in a white Austin 1100 which he was restoring in order to sell on.

To get there he would drive through one of the older, busier parts of the city, then out into a spacious suburb made up of retirement communities and apartment complexes. At one point he would pass an old people's home set on a high embankment on the "bar" of a traffic-light controlled T junction with a bus stop set opposite the "leg" of the T.

It was a picturesque drive, as such things go, and there were sections in which he would be able to give his car maximum wellie, and glory in the joy of being alive and mobile in Merrie Englande at Christmas, even if it was in an Austin 1100. The road that passed the old people's home was an ideal stretch, apart from the need to cope with the traffic lights and the occasional would-be confused bus passenger wandering around into play. Clearly in the mood to indulge himself in Mercury's Domain he floored the accelerator and rocketed out of the drive into the early afternoon.

A couple of hours passed, by which time we had reconvened for coffee and bullshirt, and we had fallen to wondering where our good friend Mark was. In these days of cell phones and Skype we would simply call or text him and cause an horific traffic accident, but that was not possible in 198_, when the state of the electronic art was the CD. Phones were still tethered to the wall in them days.

Eventually Mark pulled up in his rusty steed outside the house. I say "pulled up" but he actually engaged in a slow speed crash into a frozen pile of snow-covered tarmac set at the roadside where it had been left by some road repair crew the week before. "Eye-eye" we all said internally, for we all knew the signs of the aftermath of one of Mark's "episodes", and a round or two of what would now be called "Tarantino swivel-eye" was indulged in. Shortly after that Mark entered the house and, after a brief stop for a drink, regaled us with the events of his trip that had come close to killing a number of innocent old age pensioners minding their own business at a bus stop.

It seems Mark had left the party house, driving up the driveway and deciding to use the aforementioned pile of frozen, snow-covered tarmac to perform an ad-hoc Dukes of Hazard style jump out of the sheer joy of having woken up from an heroic amount of libation the night before3. The car had performed a satifying leap and he had driven home without incident.

It was on the return leg, as he approached the traffic lights at high speed, observed by a small crowd of disapproving pensioners from the old people's home who were waiting for a bus into town, when events became more interesting in the Chinese sense of the term.

Unknown to our hero, the jump stunt had damaged the car quite badly. The 1100 design has the engine, transmission, brake master cylinder/brake fluid reservoir and front wheels on a sub-frame, a sort of sled, with the rear wheels on a second sub-frame holding up the back of the car. There is no chassis. The strength of the car comes from the body shell itself, what is called in the trade a "monocoque". It is crucial in such designs that the body shell be sound, solid all the way through, owing to the stresses of acceleration and braking.

When the car had crashed to the ground, the rusty floor pan had cracked across most of its width. As Mark had driven home the car had been slowly stretching9. Every time he accelerated, the front subframe had been pulled forward against the weight and inertia of the unpowered back of the car, and the car had gotten a tiny bit longer as the crack got a tiny bit wider (and longer too). The increased sound of the road noise would no doubt have been drowned out by the volume of the Christmas Music belting out of the radio.

On the trip back the car was doing Warp Factor Zoom when the stretching finally reached the point where the hand brake cables - which tethered the handbrake lever on one side of the crack to the cams that pushed on the brake shoes on the other side of the crack - pulled the rear brakes on. The increased drag stretched the car and pulled the brakes on harder, and the rear wheels locked up, to the consternation of the driver. The car, subjected to even more pull from the rear wheels, stretched a bit more and the hydraulic brake pipes, connecting the brake mechanism in the rear of the car to the actuating piston and fluid reserves at the front, decided enough was enough and pulled out of both rear wheel cylinders, disconnecting both rear wheels from the braking system and allowing the brake fluid to squirt out uselessly when the pedal was pushed. Then the brake cables, tensioned beyond their designed capabilities, and the only thing now holding the car in anything approaching its designed length, snapped, releasing the brakes and allowing the car to continue on its way unmolested by Newton's Third Law.

Now even in those days a car's hydraulic system was cross-connected so that the loss of pressure in one pipe would not compromise the ability of the driver to slow and eventually stop his deathtrap on wheels. The brakes on the 1100 were connected so that in the event of a catastrophic wheel cylinder/pipe failure, the opposite wheel and its kitty-corner mate at the other end of the car worked fine, providing (in theory) symmetrical braking and saving the day. Loss of the right rear hydraulic brake and the front left may fail but the left front and right rear will work as the driver madly stamps on the brake pedal10 and optionally screams like a little girl in sheer terror. We've all been there.

But the genius of Mark's situation was that he had engineered events such that both circuits had been torn to shreds simultaneously, something the car designers probably envisioned as only happening after running over a landmine or driving into a combine harvester's thrashy bits, neither of which the car had been engineered to survive, it being targeted at the suburban family rather than the post apocalyptic needs of Mad Max.

The upshot was that Mark's car became a ballistic road meteor just as the lights at the T junction turned red.

Mark's situation was made worse by someone having the nerve to actually pull out and turn left into his path, assuming that the mere presence of the red light on the main route would be reason enough for our hero to stop his vehicle in accordance with the law of the land and the relevant bits of The Highway Code.

Mark thought fast. If he ran the red light he would crash into the car now slowing to a halt in mid-turn so that the driver could wonder why Mark was not reducing speed with the best view. The only option was to drive up the pavement (US: Sidewalk) and up the embankment so as to miss the bus stop and the crowd of tut-tutting, “young people, drive like lunatics, thrashing's too good for 'em” muttering old people standing in and around the little shelter, then rejoin the more acceptable to the eyes of the law route on the other side of the traffic lights.

So that's what he did.

Now when Mark was telling this story he dwelt mostly on how he avoided driving over pensioners and didn't technically shoot the red light since he went around it and how he was really the hero of the day and like that.

His audience, annoyingly for him, focused entirely on what this must have looked like to the said pensioners, who must have seen it as a mad sod, possibly crazed by Christmas Spirit, deciding to simply ignore the red light and damn the consequences. We found this scenario highly entertaining and vamped on the theme for some minutes in humorous old person voices.

Mark was indignant, and then even more so when we stopped laughing long enough to remember that this had happened four and a half miles away, that Mark had continued to drive the remainder of the journey with no brakes whatsoever through a complex and dense part of the town road system, and took him to task for that with much use of unkind and hurtful words and speculation as to what was filling the space between his ears with the consensus being "air".

To this day, when I'm feeling low I cheer myself up by contemplating the exact moment when Mark's seeming mastery of his fate had turned in less than an eyeblink to immanent mortal danger and terror.11

Image of Austin 1100 sourced from http://classics.honestjohn.co.uk/reviews/austin/1100-and-1300/ and believed to be in the public domain.

  1. Involving my running around naked and failing to hide in a wardrobe from enraged people looking for their daughter, on whom I never laid a finger I might add, and I don't want to talk about that any more
  2. Except me, 'cos I brought an air bed c/w bedding, quilt etc so I could kip in style
  3. It was either this night or one after, or possibly one before but definitely in this house that I first heard Japan's Gentlemen Take Polaroids while under the influence of an equally heroic amount of libation which focused my mind wonderfully and caused me to fall in love with the album4
  4. Which, by a curious coincidence is almost exactly how I came to fall in love with the Yes album Fragile5
  5. By an even more curious coincidence while at a party at Mark's parents' house one Christmas about eight years previously6
  6. Though the brain focusing agent in that case was almost certainly Bulmers Special Cellar cider7
  7. Which at another party at Mark's parents' house caused me to vomit copiously into their Gas Miser gas fire8
  8. While it was lit
  9. Or, to be more accurate, bending, but the effect was the same - the front and rear sub-frames were getting further apart
  10. Typically the fault is not discovered until "a situation" is immanent
  11. This is how it usually happens to me. I believe I've mentioned the uncontrolled maximum acceleration into rush hour works traffic throttle failure fiasco of death and the realization that the cross road is in fact a T junction, we are on the leg of the T and the brakes aren't working because the car is currently airborne debacle of doom before.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Christmas Carol

It is a little-known slander, completely unsupported by any facts whatsoever, that Bing Crosby once had a flirtation with "flower power" in the early sixties, and for a period of about six months he kept a spacious, under-furnished apartment in "The Haight" where many of the legendary figures of the day could be found lounging on stinking scatter-cushions and spouting the sort of dribble that would mature in the fullness of time into the babble that is New-Age Philosophy.

The central feature of this den of iniquity was an enormous water pipe, custom built out of motorcycle parts and glassware lifted from a selection of the best-equipped university chemistry laboratories. This gigantic water-pipe (amusingly referred to by Cosby in "The Road To Hong-Kong" in one of the musical scenes) had no fewer than two dozen flexible pipes of luxuriant length, enabling a happening of hippies to enjoy their favourite smoking mixture together without the unsanitary sharing of pipe stems. It seems that if you needed a hookah in those days, "The Bingster"'s Place was where it was all at (man).

These gatherings would always devolve into an orgy of a sort most unsavoury to us in these more moral (and disease-infested) times, and Bing's Pad was, predictably, the most popular venue in the entire state of California. Busloads of young, acne-scarred men would descend on the place in the endless quest for a very earnest, stoned and accommodating young lady in a kaftan and little else (usually going by the name "Galadriel" but that is a phenomenon for another tale).

It was at the frenzied Thursday Night jam session and think-in that the virulent red Da-Glo™ knitted pantaloons - so popular for about a month in the summer of '63 - had their genesis, and it is rumoured that the Pet Rock was invented in a marathon brainstorming session fueled by some particularly fine Moroccan Gold. The first Whole Earth Catalog was conceived one Wednesday after the washer on the hot tap in the bathroom broke. Everyone was so badly wasted that instead of fixing the faucet or calling a plumber, they invented a whole new way of buying taps.

The Weight was written at Bing's place, and the great man is believed to have contributed the verse about Crazy Chester although he denied it strenuously and shot the last person who asked him about it.

Of course, these things didn't last. Bing came to his senses (literally by some accounts) after the disastrous failure of "A Night At Bing's", the seminal live triple album, a joint-venture between Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young & Crosby, Steppenwolf and The Grateful Dead. Once the dream died, it died fast and Bing unloaded the apartment and all its fixtures so fast everyone's heads stopped spinning.

Today, the building houses the last of the great "head shops", Haight Miles High, offering modern and antique "scene" materials, clothing, and hairstyling attuned to the modern flowerchild. As the owner, Galadriel, says: "What is the point in filling your hair with flowers if the underlying cut looks like you did it with a weed-whacker? The hair must accent and compliment the floral and crystal inclusions so that the final result is a holistic statement of wellbeing and harmony with the Earth-Mother."

Indeed, her own hair is a cascade of delicate flowers, highlighted with well-shaped amethysts and cairngorms all resting on a most pleasingly feathered coiffure, although she points out that that particular styling is quite expensive and says that she mostly ends up just weaving flowers into the customer's finished haircut. Over the years she has come up with a signature style featuring asymmetric placement of strings of flowers that is attractive, long-lasting and above all cheap. It is extremely popular with the younger hippies.

One can also purchase those eye-blinding knitted pantaloons as Galadriel and her life-partner Catweazle hand-make them to the same patterns, using the same ancient, mandala-encrusted knitting machine that the originals were made on in '62. In point of fact, the only downside to visiting the place is that Catweazle, a British Ex-pat, insists on wearing the damn things. They are available in more colours today since the march of time has brought with it newer, brighter and less cancer-causing dyes, but Catweazle, like many who weren't actually there the first time around, is a traditionalist and wears only the red ones as they are "more authentic". Be warned, wear shades.

Pride of place in the large window display is given over to the Brobdingnagian water-pipe that once graced Bing's apartment, and it is a magnificent sight indeed, worth the visit on its own.

I shall be writing these notes up into a more rounded article for The Fingerlake Morning Examiner under my nom-de-plume "Biro", and plan to headline it: Bing's Bong, Cherry Neon Thighs, Uneven Herbal Hair Stringing.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Uninsipred

Haven't felt much like posting of late.

Stuff's been happening. I just haven't been minded to write about it. A lassitude brought on by ennui and a yearning for both presidential candidates to be sucked down into the seventh ring of hell and stop talking.

Actually, that's not the whole truth. I usually write the blither that turns up here on my train, and lately the trains have been cattle cars (in terms of crowding) and I haven't had room for weeks to open up my laptop.

The 29th Anniversary of Mrs Stevie and I becoming Man and Wife rolled around, and we went for another dinner on the Valley Rail Road, which was nice, but there were a number of minor annoyances throughout the evening that worked to spoil the mood more than a little.

There's a story in that, but I haven't got time to do it justice. Suffice to say the previous outing, on my birthday, was better. We had fun despite that.

I think I'll speak of the Florida trip next. Anything to distract myself from the alternate bouts of depression and terror brought on by the Election Process.

Watch this space

Monday, August 22, 2016

Status Report

Mood: Onshore, gusting westerly with light showers and thunderstorms overnight.

What I'm Listening To Now: High Pitched Whistling, Insults and Complaining.

What I'm Reading: This blog post. What the hell else would I be reading for Azathoth's sake?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Now That's A Pretty Song

Baby, Now That I've Found You by Alison Krauss, from the album Now That I've Found You: A Collection.

A stripped-down acoustic version of the old Foundations hit1 from '67, I first heard it while traveling along the Beltway one spring evening at a time when I was living in Greenbelt, Maryland during the week and watching my young daughter become a stranger in New York every weekend.

Although the song is about a very creepy response to a girl giving the singer the brush-off, it had a peculiar resonance when I mentally subbed in my daughter's name instead of "baby" in the hook. The chorus fitted the situation I was in with respect to her - I had been initially scared at the idea of being responsible for a child, had been lost in her eyes the minute I had looked into them and had lost my heart completely to the many people she had been in the time since. I was missing her dreadfully and was in a very bad place, as I drove aimlessly around the freeway listening to NPR on the radio to use up otherwise empty hours.

And then this song was played and I was entranced.

The song is robbed of its original ornamentation, stripped back that the words become the center rather than the wall of sound arrangement. Those words are sung so poignantly that it will make you weep if there is an ounce of soul in your ... er ... soul, and the guitar accompaniment is nothing short of genius in its simplicity and beauty.

The rest of the album is pretty good too, but this is the standout track that makes it worth the price of the CD.

  1. A personal favorite at the time

And The Leaving's Gonna Get Me Down

So it's been a while, during which more annoying stuff happened at me; I will speak here of The Florida Relocation Annoyance.

The Stevieling has decamped for Florida, leaving Chateau Stevie an empty husk. When I say "empty", I'm speaking a bit euphemistically since she in fact left the vast majority of her crap behind for us to clean up. So the total Chateau Stevie deductions amount to a suitcase of clothes and a small human being.

This is surprising on many levels, not least because she roped everyone she knew into packing a storage locker full of stuff into a Penske truck. It looked like she had everything she owned in there. First stop after assembling a dozen friends as free labor was the church where she ordered everyone to load two enormous shelving units onto the truck while she did something vitally important somewhere else1.

The shelving units proved to be made of a rare lead/depleted uranium impregnated chipboard, so it was lucky I had assembled the makings of a block and tackle that would enable someone to help drag stuff up the ramp into the truck by trading three times as much time for three times as much pulling power. It took six of us to get each unit on a two-wheel sack-truck2 and wheel it to the truck, but only one person could work the truck while ascending the ramp on account of the narrowness of said ramp. I rigged the block and tackle and one of the other helpers grabbed the rope. I volunteered to be the truck puller and steerer and everyone else decided to argue about how the truck needed to be steered to avoid falling of the said ramp. I needed the advice because I couldn't see the wheels of the truck on account of having a faceful of shelving unit.

It was all very tiresome, and after the second unit had been dragged into the truck and lugged up against the compartment side so it could be secured I had a small moment of white-out vision and falling over, followed by about five minutes of wheezing and death expectation3.

Best I can figure I lost so much sweat in such a short period of time my electrolytes crashed4. It took me about five minutes and a pint of Gatorade before I could walk again.

On the upside I was able to dodge further loading duties as everyone who had witnessed the event was even more shaken than I was. All I had to do was groan a bit and do some more collapsing, shaking and speaking in tongues and they all thought I was about to have a stroke5 and begged me to go home and watch TV.

I did end up buying everyone lunch because by then all the heaving and shoving had resulted in a spot of "too many hunchbacks, not enough scientists" syndrome and everyone was annoyed with each other. Mrs Stevie and The Stevieling hadn't noticed because that is the normal state of affairs about ten minutes after more than one person is awake in Chateau Stevie.

Besides, they are all great kids and adults are supposed to be good to kids of all ages and make sure they get enough to eat.

The day ended with a skirmish of the sort familiar to everyone with a kid, the kind in which each side is trying to make the other crazy6. It starts with everyone tired, grumpy and one side staggering toward his/her bed almost blind with exhaustion.

Mrs Stevie: Do you have your GPS ready to go?

Stevieling: Yes.

Mrs Stevie: Do you have your license?

Stevieling: Yes.

Mrs Stevie: Do you have your registration?

Stevieling: Yes.

Mrs Stevie: Do you have your insurance card?

Stevieling: Yes!

Mrs Stevie: Do you have your EZ-Pass?

Stevieling: YES!

Mrs Stevie (announcing a winning move): I'll thank you to have less of that attitude when you speak to me (twelve minutes of pure annoyance redacted on humane grounds)

And thus was set the stage for fiasco.

A word about The Plan.

The idea was that Mrs Stevie would drive the big yellow truck down to Florida with The Stevieling and her boyfriend taking The Stevieling's car. They had originally been going to rotate driving duties, but we both felt The Stevieling's driving was not up to the challenge of 1700 miles in a three ton truck on Interstate 95 in the high winds of summer.

In order to keep the vehicles in convoy they would need to breeze through the umptytump toll booths on I-95. Mrs Stevie would use her EZ-Pass, a radio-linked toll paying device, and we would get another EZ-Pass for the Stevieling.

We went out one Saturday about three weeks before Operation Stroke Induction and got the device from the AAA. All that remained was for The Stevieling to set it up via the official website and drop some e-funds into it to cover the trip. The last time I saw the device was about an hour after we picked it up, when The Stevieling carried it up to her room in the plastic bag it had been packed in by the AAA person.

That was The Plan.

I announced I was off to bed, and Mrs Stevie - who was going to indulge her usual practice of stomping around the house for another three hours to prevent anyone from getting any sleep prior to a hard day's driving - asked if I wanted to get up to see her and the Stevieling off in the morning. They were going to rise at five. I, of course, answered in the affirmative and went to bed.

At about 4:20 am I was shaken violently out of a sound sleep by Mrs Stevie, wet and naked after her shower. I blearily opened my eyes and screamed. Mrs Stevie used harsh words. I pointed out that I still had forty minutes of sleep owing to me, but she insisted she had said they were leaving at five7 and I had to get up now. I staggered up and into the shower where I slumped against the wall trying desperately to wake up. A few minutes before five I heard the phone ringing, and then Mrs Stevie's voice raised in anger.

The Stevieling couldn't find the EZ-Pass.

As far as I can figure out she never actually took it out of the bag. She had no recollection of ever registering the device on the website either. Solid own-goal by The Stevieling.

She spent 45 minutes looking fruitlessly for it, and a new plan was made in which Mrs Stevie would breeze through each toll and The Stevieling would join the long slow crawl through the "cash only" lane. Fortunately, I had dug out my Motorola two-way radios and insisted that both Mrs Stevie and The Stevieling become conversant enough with their fiendishly over-complex, over-converged controls to find each other on the air in the event there was no cell coverage when one of them got a flat or needed to get gas.

This turned out to be a stroke of genius that saved the day (and the two that followed), though The Stevieling's brilliant Missing EZ-Pass Ploy drove Mrs Stevie to new heights of apoplexy and lent an air of rage to the leaving of New York.

I went to work very tired.

  1. Thus proving that the acorn didn't fall far from the tree
  2. The sort people load beer on
  3. Not hyperbole. I actually thought I was about to croak
  4. The last time a crash of this magnitude was seen it involved an iceberg and a big ship
  5. And who's to say I wasn't. It was scary
  6. My father is a master of the form
  7. Lies

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Very Definition Of Useless

From the Wikipedia article linked to by the phrase hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic:

The hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic was a three-year period of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic (modern-day Germany) between June 1921 and January 1924.

To this I would like to add the following definition of my own in the same spirit:

The color blue is blue.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

This Sort Of Thing Happens A Lot To Me

Me: I don't want to set the world on fire ...

Policeman : Then why are you carrying two five gallon cans of regular unleaded gasoline, a box of Bengal matches, two roadside flares, a box of firelighters, a can of "Barbercrude" all-weather barbecue starter, a seven pack of Bic cigarette lighters and a Zippo?

Me: I'm going to mow my lawn, then indulge myself in a spot of outdoor cookery.

Policeman : Looks like rain ...

Me: I'm English. We don't fear rain. A true Englishman doesn't tan, he rusts.

Policeman : And the flares?

Me: I'm not a slave to fashion.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Not With Both Hands, A Map And A Sign Saying “This Way To Your Own Arse”

Once again I am put in the position of having to charge three quarters of an hour of lateness to my vacation time accruals because of a "6 minute delay" on the Bloody Long Island Railroad.

Today I pulled a muscle in my right leg after a random "charlie horse" spasm that was my body showing me what it feels like to idly dangle a leg into a working combine harvester, and was running later than usual. I missed not only my 8:17 train, but also my "back-up" 8:50 train.

Which I saw dawdling across the crossing at 9:05 as I drove past it.

Something Was Up. A gang of men in orange vests was lounging around the big metal box to the right of the south-east crossing barrier, and as the incoming (late) eastbound train wandered into theater it stopped at the grade crossing so a guard could dismount the train and - I am not making this up - walk the train through the crossing.

His technique was to stroll along waving the hand behind him in a "come along" manner for all the world as though the driver had lost his nerve and needed to be talked through the sanity-blasting prospect of crossing a road. I was put in mind of the stories of the man who had to walk in front of the first automobiles with a red flag so they wouldn't exceed the (stagecoach-owner lobbied for) speed limit of 4 mph, and struck speechless by a new level of insanity on public display.

Note here that I am not suggesting that whatever danger was posed to the train did not require a man-with-wavy-hand walk it through the crossing. I am suggesting that there were four men and a man supervisor standing doing apparently nothing who might reasonably have been lined up before the train, arms linked in a line of train protection, and done the job properly.

Once this piece of surrealist theater was over and the barrier had lifted I dug out my iPad and went fishing for the reason behind it all. Apparently the trains were doing this because the barriers at Wyandanch were broken.

I have to say they didn't look broken. They were dropping and lifting with appropriate clatter of what the Bloody Long Island Railroad laughingly calls a "bell"1, however, if the Bloody Long Island Railroad says they were broken I'll take their word for it. Perhaps they normally give off some sort of psychic rays undetectable to lumpen commuters or perhaps they normally glow with a radiance only discernible to Bloody Long Island Railroad staff of proper seniority.

What glaringly wasn't explained was why this lethally dangerous (to trains) railway grade crossing required a wavy-armed man when going east, but just an eagle-eyed driver when going west.

But that isn't what has me once again enraged at the pig-uselessness of the Bloody Long Island Railroad. What has me flirting with a coronary infarction is that the train to Penn Station was "only 6 minutes late" but the Bloody Long Island Railroad felt that the onslaught of trains into and out of the obviously badly congested Atlantic Terminal meant that they didn't hold the connecting train to Brooklyn and so "only 6 minutes" turned into 36 minutes.

This alone makes me want a train dispatcher in front of me, barefoot and tied to a chair so I can explain matters with a lump hammer the same way Kris Kristorfersen did to Mel Gibson in the remake of Payback.

I am sick of this nonsense. Only two days ago they pulled the same stupid fbleeping stunt with an earlier train.

And why do they do this? Is it because Atlantic Terminal is so choc-a-block with trains that the merest hint of a delay will cause massive disruption to the crowds of people attempting to get into (or out of) Brooklyn? Lets go to the Bloody Long Island Railroad schedule.

First the outbound, east-going trains struggling to get past the slew of inbound traffic:

The thing to note here is the puzzling "one train every half hour" aspect of the Jamaica-bound traffic (the relevant part I've outlined in black). Now it is true that Atlantic Terminal only has six tracks, and that the route to Jamaica reduces this to two for most of the journey. But still, the Bloody Long Island Railroad had announced no problems with those two tracks and so we must assume that the Jamaica-bound Atlantic Terminal-originating trains were only coming along once in a blue moon as designed by whatever idiot puts together the Bloody Long Island Railroad schedules.

The answer must lie in the hugely inconvenient number of trains trying to cram into Atlantic Terminal. My connection had been let go because another train was imminently about to ram it from behind as its driver frantically tried to avoid the train behind his (or hers; the Bloody Long Island Railroad has lady engine drivers too, and I feel just as strongly that they shouldn't be forced to drive trains on such dangerously overcrowded routes). Let's go to the schedule:

I think the thing to note here crucial to understanding the problem is that at the time I need to make my connection (outlined, again, in black) there is one Brooklyn-bound train every thirty fbleeping minutes. The only congestion that would cause the speedy dispatch of the Brooklyn train when a sizable number of its expected passenger load is being held prisoner about half a mile up the track is the congestion in what passes for the fbleeping dispatcher's brain.

And so we finally get to the nub of the matter; the Bloody Long Island Railroad are, to put it mildly, being run at every level by fbleeptards.

  1. If you filled an old galvanised bathtub about a quarter full of damp earth and pounded it with a Cricket bat you'd get an approximation of the sound these "bells" make

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Grim Reminder

I couldn't persuade Mrs Stevie I had Beri-Beri or Dengue Fever and so I was forced to accompany her to a wedding reception on Saturday evening.

Wedding receptions are tedious at the best of times:

a) The music is always too loud no matter how it is being generated. I've had serious ear damage inflicted by a demented harpist with arm muscles like a blacksmith's and a yen to channel Hawkwind as I walked up the aisle, and what a determined teenager can accomplish with only an iBook, an amplifier and two speakers half the size of an old-style English phone box should be banned by international treaty as I found out at the Stevieling's graduation party. This wedding featured a nine-piece band c/w four voice chorus up front harmonizing fit to bust the eardrums. Status Quo were less earsplitting when I saw their farewell tour in '841.

2) They are boring. Let's face it, when there's no food on the table I'm faced with drinking or joining Mrs Stevie on the dance floor, where the inverse square law of sound intensity means that the music goes from merely painful to stroke-inducing.

Then there are the speeches, which are typically too quiet to be heard after the sonic re-creation of May 18th on Mount St Helens, incoherent owing to the Best Man having had fortyfying drinks2 beforehand and now either having lost the carefully written speech, forgotten the once-memorized speech or simply forgotten how to read, and - when all is said and done - just un-entertaining.

Young men need to learn how to steal from the best, mash it up so it sounds educated and erudite and steer clear of saying anything directly about the groom's history or the bride's, because only in a Hugh Grant, Kevin Kline or John Cleese movie is that ever going to be funny and even then it won't ever end well for the speechifier. This evening the Best Man went with too quiet and incoherent, covering all bets. If he said anything compromising either the bride or groom, no-one heard it or if they did, they couldn't understand it.

™ ) The never to be sufficiently damned napkin folders. American restaurants employ a corps of highly trained commandos who lie in wait for me to take my eyes off my place setting, at which point one leaps in and before I can beat them away with a breadstick or the table centerpiece they have grabbed my napkin and folded it into whatever signature shape that particular restaurant favors.

I hate having other people handle my napkin once I am using it. Stupid, I know. The risk to health is no more than from the person who originally laid the thing out, but once I'm using it HANDS OFF! I don't care that it is no longer shaped like a cone or a triangle or the space shuttle. It is mine for the duration bleep it!

♥ ) The expense. The wedding gift. New dress for Mrs Stevie. New shoes for Mrs Stevie (worn once and then added to the shrine to St Imelda Marcos in what used to be a closet). Hairdressing (Mrs Stevie). Nails (Mrs Stevie). This time I was expected to look 'acceptable' and so had to have a haircut too, but I drew the line at a manicure and cut my own nails. Mrs Stevie was unimpressed with my efforts and got all bent out of shape but I told her the wounds weren't deep and would heal before the big day and anyway I could wear gloves if they didn't and who knew you can't cut nails with wire cutters?

þ ) The more expense. The invite specified Black Tie which meant I'd have to hire a set of trousers with a stealth stripe down each leg, a shirt that had been crossed with a concertina and which had a collar that was last in fashion during the Relief of Mafeking, a waistcoat and jacket that had textile-coated buttons and pretend pockets and a bow tie3.

Now all rental tuxedo rigs come with studs and cufflinks patterned with a central disc (usually black) and "silver" rims but I planned to use a set of Victorian antique gold studs I'd been given years ago and pair them with a pair of truly impressive 3/4 inch diameter crystal cufflinks I was given when I was 15 or so. This juxtaposition of high quality owned (the studs) with high quality rented (the clothes) and Kitsch-Quality cufflinks that looked like they should be on the wrist of Grey Lensman Kimbal Kinneson and that had no intrinsically valuable part about them would surely mark me as a man to be reckoned with, accessorizationally speaking.

Mrs Stevie found the studs but claimed not to know "anything about" ugly 1970s cufflinks and presented me with a set of links and studs that looked like the rental ones except that where the rental ones were made of steel these claimed to be 14 carat gold. I wondered where they came from and Mrs Stevie coyly asked if they might not have been part of my own wedding costume. This was clearly a cunning ambush ploy so I countered with a fake attack of sudden gastric distress and hid in the bathroom until she found more urgent things to be annoyed at.

And so it came to pass that we rolled up at the wedding dressed to the nines, where it turned out there were about eight of us dressed in Black Tie rigs not counting the wedding party itself. Everyone else not in a dress or carrying some sort of musical weapon was wearing a perfectly ordinary suit and tie. All evening I puzzled this and eventually came to the only possible answer: that these days "Black Tie" was code for "Don't turn up in Bermuda Shorts, sandals and an Ozzie Osborn T-shirt". Which happens, because I've seen it.

Mrs Stevie insisted I dance with her and I put up a spirited and animated argument against this, but since we were on the dance floor at the time it apparently just looked like I had capitulated and was doing some sort of lame old person's dance from like 1990 or something.

"It reminds me a bit of our own wedding reception" I said once the band had stopped for a rest and the ringing in my ears had subsided.

"It should!" snarled Mrs Stevie. "We had our own reception here 29 years ago next August!"

"We did?" I said, brightening somewhat. "Well that explains the pall of dread and horror that has been hanging over the affair all night."

Shortly thereafter Mrs Stevie drank five cups of the lethally strong Espresso they were serving at the Viennese Hour4, got one of her migraines and demanded I drive her home. The trip was, for once, a quiet affair devoid of the usual critique of my shortcomings. Indeed, possibly due to some confluence of the Lutheran calendar, Mrs Stevie seems to have taken a vow of silence, not speaking a word since that night.

Bonus.

  1. First in a continuing series
  2. As in forty fbleep drinks
  3. I have plenty of bow ties but they are all real bow ties and all too small for my neck these days
  4. An over the top dessert affair. Look it up.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Anatomy Of A Fiasco

Last week I was the epicenter of a confluence of screw-up the likes of which the world hasn't seen since it got biffed by another planet and the moon was spat out.

It started innocently enough, oozing good intentions and only a whiff of brimstone™ in the air.

For the last year I've been husbanding a set of computer jobs that were written by a since-retired employee to some scheme only he knows. Operational issues arising from user-requested expansion of scope meant that the first job had been belted with the bodge hammer so hard and so often it was now a rat's nest of scripts scheduled all over the clock which worked to do one job - mostly.

The scripts had been amended often, sometimes by someone with only a tenuous grasp of what the update would mean1. They also had to be de-scheduled occasionally. The retiree had done this by hand but I wrote a script to do it automatically2 because I was going on vacation during one of the de-scheduling windows.

Later, I was asked to come up with a filewatcher, a database thingy that reacts to files arriving in a directory. I could not get the blasted thing working, so I wrote one in perl. It worked, indeed is working as I type, very well indeed. Not only that, I realized that for once I had designed something with so much flexibility that it could be used to replace the Rat's Nest code.

The Rat's Nest jobs essentially look for a file that gets transferred into that computer and do things with it. It adopts a technique of checking for the file by name and sleeping for half an hour if it doesn't see it. Problems arise in that the file has a date component as part of its name and files with the wrong date must not get processed - unless they must3.

Crossing midnight is especially nasty and causes all sorts of bugs to appear. I've been denying requests for longer run windows on all the other runs that do the same sort of thing for months because I don't want to inherit the same problems as the retiree did. Almost sorting out this issue actually had the Retiree making three copies of RatsNest.sh with slightly different code and running them in different time windows, which (nearly) covers all the bases and traps the incoming files. Sometimes more than once, which is a problem.

By replacing RatsNest.sh with SteviesSpiffyFilewatcher.sh all would be well. The umpteen different ways of doing the same job would become one thing. It was tested. What could go wrong?

I set up a sort of fake run to run alongside RatsNest.sh in order to see what could go wrong. Nothing did5.

One fly in the ointment was that before I could replace any late-night process, I would have to have the long-ago requested but yet-to-put-in-an-appearance remote computer access facility. This is a set of credentials that would allow me to use bleep to bleep and access the work computers from my laptop. I had been waiting for months for the go-ahead. It arrived at the end of last year. I tested it and it was, after a few teething troubles, dead good

Other projects got in the way of my implementing Project Unrestrained Genius, but last week H hour, D day, S script was decided upon and I adjusted the scheduler to turn off all copies of RatsNest.sh and switch on PureGenius.sh6 and I went home.

A sad mistake.

Naturally, I had made a spelling mistake that I hadn't picked up on. I learned a long time ago that if I don't see a problem in fifteen minutes of looking for it I never will, and have adopted review procedures to negate this7, but this was a small error I didn't know was there and missing iit was easy.

But I had planned for just such a screw-up and would be there with my trusty laptop to fix things on-the-fly should All not Be Well. I detected things not being well around 9:30pm (an expected email did not arrive) and activated remote access.

The remote access software announced it was going to update itself, and promptly did so, and that was it for my remote access. I struggled with the software in a World Gone Mad for two hours but couldn't figure out what had gone wrong.

All things being equal, I would then have done what I used to do in 1986 - jump an the next train west and work at my desk to fix the issue - but our office management has sent many emails telling me that unless I add my name to a special list ahead of time every time I need to get in I won't be allowed in after office hours.

I think you can see things were escalating nicely

I went to bed determined to takle the first train in that would arrive around 7 am, but was so worried that I couldn't sleep. I got up at 4:30, showered and ran for a train, just missing one and having to wait until 5:40 for the next one. I finally got into the office, fixed the typo and ran the scripts. I mailed out to everyone I could think of about the situation, who was to blame and why, what had been done and when and grabbed a cup of tea. It was about 7:20 am.

At around 7:40 am I became aware that my email client had disconnected from the email service, and that my explanatory mea culpa was still sitting in my outbox. A frantic series of phone calls revealed the ugly truth that everyone switched to the new cloud-hosted Office 3658 service a few days before was now working as they did back in 1986, sans email.

I began another frantic series of phone calls to the people I'd been mailing, but no-one was picking up. Turns out that the process I had screwed up was an essential part of the early morning processing and everyone had been up since three trying to figure out what was wrong.

I gnashed my teeth (again) at the paucity of documentation left me by the retiree, and ran upstairs to try and find anyone in the affected user group to tell face-to-face what was happening. Since none of them had been migrated to the failing cloud email system, they found my tales of dropped email service unconvincing, only reluctantly coming around when I suggested their quiet morning didn't mean no-one had problems, just that they couldn't tell anyone about them. Once I had them convinced I had to stand around for five minutes so they could all shout at me.

It transpired that another part of the organization had pushed out a "patch" that had nobbled the network connectivity to the Office 365 cloud, but I didn't find out about that until it was all over bar the punching.

On returning to my desk, one of my colleagues mentioned that he was getting emails to his phone, and an idea formed9. I would send out the mea culpa email from my personal account and see who yelled back at me.

Unfortunately my personal email account's name is one of those Fluffybunnystevie.net sort of names and a good 50% of the recipients would simply bin the incoming mail even though I sent it with the subject header AS YOU LOVE LIFE DO NOT BIN THIS EMAIL10.

It worked, sorta. Two of the upper management wrote back to say vile things in SHOUTY CAPS about me and my extreme incompetence, and mock me for my stupid email account name. About three hours later the cloud email service came back online and my original email went out, causing a reprise of SHOUTY CAPS and a stream of "me too" Replies to All that gave the cloud service a good workout.

So, all things considered, not my best work.

I have at least six more scripts that need replacing with the new style code, so I redesigned my new changes rollout checklist such that in the event I lost remote access nothing happens11 and poked around, eventually discovering the secret extra step needed to provoke my laptop to connect to the remote service. It seemed that all the Incompetence Demons had fled and gone away.

I can't wait to have another go.

  1. My favorite being the calculation of yesterday's date that would occasionally result in the nothingth of any given month
  2. And was shouted at by the retiree's Luddite colleagues when confronted by the new code
  3. All computer programmers4 recognize this requirement. Users supply it disappointingly frequently
  4. Now termed "developers"
  5. Naturally this roused my paranoia to new levels, but weeks of testing provoked no anti-programmer demons to manifest
  6. The original name was too long
  7. By grabbing someone who doesn't know what I'm doing and explaining the code to them. Works every time
  8. Now Office 364.5 since it took until lunch time to fix things
  9. I never learn
  10. Now I come to read it back, perhaps the subject header could have been better worded
  11. Which is what I should have done in the first place; turn off the old processes and turn on the new ones from home using the remote access service instead of doing that at work and planning on rolling it back from home

Monday, April 18, 2016

Now That's A Pretty Song

We Shall Wear Midnight from Wintersmith by Steeleye Span.

Steeleye Span were at the very leading edge of the wavefront of the modern UK "Folk Rock" scene back in the late 60s through the mid 70s and haven't lost their touch it seems. This 2013 album, inspired by Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching young adult fiction, is a recent find, bought sound unheard and turns out to be a delight from track one through the last one, which happens to be the achingly bittersweet pretty song in question.

In point of fact the entire album is made up of pretty songs, not a clunker in the mix, and has a brief voice-over by Sir Terry himself on one track.

Recommended.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Let The Wind Blow High, Let The Wind Blow Low

So last Thursday saw the arrival of the belated November gales1.

I arrived home after attending the leaving party for a colleague and found Mrs Stevie lounging about oblivious to the stench of smoke and burning rubber in the living room. I ran around looking for fires but found none, so contented myself with opening a couple of windows to allow some air exchange to happen, putting the stench down to combustion byproducts of yet another "cooking experiment"2.

I could still smell burning rubber ten minutes later, so I checked the basement again for a furnace mishap. Finding none I muttered "perhaps I'm having a stroke". Mrs Stevie offered some kind encouragement along the lines of my needing a brain before that could happen, so I decamped outside to see if this was another case of stenches originating in the garage3.

I was testing the air outside with the Steviesnout to eliminate the next door neighbor as a culprit4 but the air was clear.

It was while I was engaged in turning around and ingesting large volumes of air snoutwise that I first saw the damage the high winds gusting about had wrought on the fence, which was drooping in a manner that said eloquently that all three non terminal fenceposts had sheared off, and that the fence was now only held together by the half-rotten rails to which the palings were fastened.

I yelled some emergency Class Four Words of Power and dashed for the driveway and the pile of fenceposts replaced after they were sheared-off the last time the wind blew the fence down, put by for just such an emergency.

In a titanic battle of Man Against The Elements In A World Gone Mad I dragged the mighty, half-rotted timbers over to the sagging fence, pushed the fence back to an approximation of upright and braced each snapped off post with an older snapped off post in the manner like that used by the Riders of Rohan to brace the door of Helm's Deep against the Orc Hordes of Mordor in the movie The Two Towers.

This is where Hollywood was shown to be full of bullshirt. When Helm's Deep's front door was braced, it stayed braced and closed in a satisfying and encouraging manner, and did not burst open the wrong way and tear out the hinges. When I used the same technique on the fence, it fell over the other way, requiring me to run around the entire property line to the other side with more antique snapped-off posts and brace it from the other side, whereupon the bracing on the other side fell away and the fence flopped forward again, forcing me to rinse and repeat, all the while being blown hither and yon by the weather. I was soon forced to re-use many of the Class Fours.

Eventually I had the fence secured, but had noticed that the back fence, the one separating me from Crazy Joe, was flapping alarmingly. Upon climbing around one of the bushtrees half killed at Mrs Stevie's request5 and almost losing an eye a few times to bare branches I discovered that one (and only one) post had snapped. Could have been much worse.

Unfortunately, that post was directly behind the bushtree and I could only reach it with one hand. Bracing was out of the question because a tree was in the way. Replacing it would also involve deforestation. I realized gloomily. When I put the posts in, I did so from Crazy Joe's side of the property line. That wasn't going to be an option this time. In any case, some sort of immediate Action was Called For, before the wiggling of the fence cause cascade failures.

I realized that I might be able to lash the post to the bushtree and restore at least a semblance of stability to the structure, so I dashed inside and down to the basement o' wonders and rope storage, where not a week before I had seen a coil of the same rope I used to manufacture the Stevieling's tree house ladder. Naturally, this was nowhere to be found this night.

I grabbed a short length of rope I used to deploy the submersible pump and ran outside again, not really with much hope. The rope was too short for the task I needed it for.

It was while doing the Impotent Rage Against The Forces Of Nature Dance that I saw the coil of rope hanging from the swimming pool deck, and so was able to enact plan "Lash The Fence To The Tree Before It bleeping Well Falls Into Crazy Joe's Driveway" after all. This involved my poking one end of the rope between the post and the fence (with the tips of my fingers because the post was just beyond arm's length) while fending off the sharp bits of the vengeful bushtree, then running around the other side to fish it out (with groping fingers because the rope was just beyond arm's length) while fending off the sharp bits of the vengeful bushtree, all by the light of the Moon.

I finally secured the post to the bushtree with five or six turns of the rope, pulling the rope taught by tugging hard with both hands while bracing one foot against the bushtree and chanting the Magic Tightening Words. It was a great triumph, and I turned around to survey the temporary6 repairs only to see that all the braces had fallen off the front fence, so I had to go and fix that all over again.

It was all very trying.

  1. The same ones that claimed the Edmund Fitzgerald
  2. The women of Casa Del Stevie are fond of taking foodstuffs and creatively incinerating them fifteen minutes before I get home. After the last effort of The Stevieling I played The Crazy World of Arthur Brown's Fire at her at volume # 11
  3. Like when the smell of solvents in the basement turned out to be gasoline leaking from the generator in the garage
  4. He has a cast iron stove as part of his heating solution and has been known to burn some pretty noxious things in the past. Tyres had not featured until then, but there is always a first time
  5. Mrs Stevie hated the way the previous winter's heavy snows had made the branches of this dendritic evergreen bushthing splay out and demanded I saw them off. It turns out that dendritic evergreen bushthings only grow on the outside of the area swept out by the tree's branches, and once the branches are trimmed back, they never grow in again. We are now the proud possessors of a tree that resembles the tail of an old lady's poodle, green and bushy at the top, ugly and revolting at the bottom. Should've done what I did before and used string to bonsai the damned thing back into shape
  6. Should be able to replace the posts etc by next summer if the pudding-like ground ever dries out

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Expecting The Best, Planning For The Worst

Spotted this loose in the wild among the used book vendor product descriptions while browsing Amazon (US site) for Haynes "U-Boats" manual (just out of interest you understand; not actually planning on passing myself off as Commodore Schmidlap and obtaining a non-nuclear submarine with which to terrorize the Atlantic shipping lanes)


Please remember to leave your feedback after your purchase. It helps other Amazon shoppers know we are a responsible and reliable seller. Thanks and we look forward to severing you!

Presumably the vendor also stocks Samurai katanas.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Ever Outwards, Into The Fields Of Suck

So we got back from Florida on Sunday evening, a trip so uneventful1 that I couldn't be arsed to post about it.

I returned to work on the following Tuesday, to discover that there was still no hot water on my floor, and that inexplicably no-one had burned the place to the ground so we could be relocated to One World Trade Center2. A quick e-mail to facilities re: the hot water situation and it was "spend all day emptying my e-mail inbox, flooded with automated messages from some vendor software monitoring tool and therefore unable to send on some crucial business e-mails to me while I was on vacation, so my e-mail would start working again time".

I'd told my employer that I would be out of e-mail range and therefore unable to work while on holiday (a philosophical stance to which I hold firmly) but I'm not so callous as to leave the stand-by guy with no safety net. I had arranged for three of the most important confirmation mailings sent out by scheduled jobs to be forwarded to my own e-mail address, and checked it on a daily basis when I had net access so I could, in an emergency, offer Mr J. On-the-spot some sage advice on where to start looking for holes to plug. I had seen no e-mails at all.

This is because when the vendor-supplied monitoring thing sent a blizzard of useless e-mails to me, each the size of a telephone directory, it filled my meagre in-box probably in hours. The default action in these circumstances is to still accept incoming mail, indeed, to exacerbate the space problem by launching daily "your mailbox is full" mailings from the Administrator, but to shut down outgoing mailings. This had cut off a) me from the information stream and 2) my employers nose from his face.

Now we have an archival "Vault" that is supposed to take the body of these mailings and store them somewhere vast and roomy, leaving only a linking mail in the inbox, but perplexingly it doesn't trigger on a full inbox condition, only on the age of the mailings themselves. Not only that, telling the vault to archive a mailing takes almost 12 hours to actually action the request, so archiving everything for safety was not an option. The metaphor I need here would involve adding a pair of ears to the severed nose lying at my employer's feet by deft self-use of a straight razor.

Given the obstacles placed in my way preventing the job being done the right way, I took my own sweet time figuring out what could be deleted forever.

Wednesday dawned and I was invited to join everyone in celebrating the Chinese Lunar Year by partaking of a luncheon. The group putting this on called for everyone on the umptytump floors to arrive on a staggered schedule. Naturally, everyone but my group went at noon with the result that the line for what was an excellent buffet-style lunch was longer than that I suffered to experience the Despicable Me ride in Universal Studios only a week before.

Work over, I arrived in Wyandanch, perl of the east, in the pouring rain that evening and drove home. There I discovered that sometime during the day an "unhooked phone" situation had developed in Chateau Stevie's voice comms infrastructure. Re-seating each phone didn't fix the problem. Unplugging all the phones didn't isolate the problem. Neither did disconnecting the alarm system from the phone line, once I remembered that was a possible source of problems.

It was all very annoying.

I decamped to the Basement of Crap Storage and traced the place where the one phone line becomes a star topology of individual cables branching all over the house. I'd installed that about twenty years ago using parts from Radio Shack and it had worked flawlessly since. My plan was to disconnect the feed line from the outside of the house and install a jack into which I could plug a phone in order to test the line. Naturally this meant excavating several metric tonnes of crap so I could reach the junction box.

The issue is that the phone company now only takes responsibility for the phone line that arrives at the wall of Chateau Stevie, leaving all internal wiring to Yours Truly. I wanted to get a head start on the inevitable "Not at the pole, your problem" argument that was sure to be used by the phone company technicians by demonstrating that there was no line problem inside the house, or in the event there were, to deal with it quickly.

It was around that time when I remembered that Radio Shack, my go-to source for the little plugs, sockets, wire and so forth I'd need to enact plan Install Another Phone Connection Point To The Outside Line And Demonstrate That All Is Well Inside Chateau Stevie, was no longer in business, at least around me, and that every retail store they'd operated in my locale was a distant memory.

Additionally, although the phone company had been called, and although they had assigned the case to their Ultimate Galactic Top Emergency Awooga Awooga classification, they wouldn't actually have anyone at Chateau Stevie before noon Sunday, and that was before the snow complication.

For late last night it began snowing, and it was snowing even harder this morning when I fired up the fabulous Steviemobile and began what is certain to become a commute I will end up regretting.

I began well by finding I had forgotten my cell phone just as the train began leaving the station with me in it. I didn't think to panic at first, but then the reality set in that the phones at Chateau Stevie are hors de combat and I can't remember anyone's cell phone numbers because I use the autodialer in my cell phone to call them and I don't want to talk aboiut that any more. Then I did the Bonehaed Dance and used some well-chosen Class Two Words of Power (I'd have used Class Threes but there were women present).

Thus reduced to the same levels of family support I'd had in 19843 I would have to hope that the Steviemobile's traction control and a folding snowshovel would suffice to get me home, and that the Bloody Long Island Railroad cound be relied upon to deliver me back to Wyandanch in a reasonable time-frame.

I'm bleeping doomed.

  1. Bar the usual unpleasantness at the entrance to the Goethals Bridge courtesy of one's fellow drivers and the usual Sunday evening traffic jam on the Belt Carpark Parkway courtesy rubbernecking dolts who can't pass even the flashing runway approach lights at JFK without slowing down for a look and apparently have never seen anyone digging their car out of a snowbank with a snowshovel of all things. Thank you bleeping New York Hicks
  2. You leave them one job ...
  3. Nil

Friday, January 29, 2016

Another Plan Is Shredded

Over the course of Thursday I was put upon by several "well wishers" getting hysterical over the weather situation, all urging me begin our trip on Thursday evening instead of Friday morning.

Naturally I ignored this unseemly panic, putting it down to colonial lack of fortitude and storm panic1. After a few hours of this I took a look at a few weather websites, just out of interest you understand, and decided that despite my natural tendency of being a center of calm in a maelstrom of panic perhaps I was erring on the side of stiff-upper-lippedness and that an early start would indeed be wise, given the Armageddon levels of snow, ice, sleet, frogs and boils predicted to land on our route south. I called Mrs Stevie and informed her of my decision.

"Thank god you've finally seen sense" she snapped.

So when I got home, naturally events took a turn for the truly naff. First I had to walk the Stevieling through starting the snowblower, resetting the breakers, shutting down the water supply and phoning the furnace repair guy when the heating decides to perform its yearly act of sepuku2.

Then I had to deal with that ruddy cabinet. Two of the clips that supported the collapsed shelf had sheared, leaving their mounting pins embedded in the little holes in the cabinet sides. These had to be dug out with a variety of sharp pointy things before I could begin repairs. The Stevieling had scored some new clips with which to repair the collapsed shelf. However, they had oversize pegs so I had to drill out the mounting holes in the cabinet. My drill's battery was, as always, flat, so I had to spend twenty minutes charging it before repairs could commence.

By the time I was done with that I needed a shower, and then I had to pack so it was about 9 pm before we were rolling. I was desperately trying to get some sleep, but Mrs Stevie kept up a barrage of questions until we reached New Jersey, when I snarled at her to stop. The deal was she would drive the first few hours and I would sleep, then we would trade off, but she was cheating.

And it was hell. We traded off in Virginia and I drove through North Carolina, at the far southern edge of which our halfway hotel was waiting for us. Sometime around 5:30 am I was only holding it together with the thought that I only had twenty more minutes of driving to do. Then I realized that I was reading the GPS display incorrectly and in fact there was an hour and twenty minutes to go. I admit morale slumped for a second, but I used all my inner reserves and pulled myself from the pit of desperation.

"Stop that moaning and sobbing!" snarled Mrs Stevie. "I'm trying to sleep! How can I do that if you keep howling "Why me?" every ten seconds?"

We reached the hotel3 around 7:30 am, and were able to get our room so we could sleep away the day. Fortunately there was no-one in it, so the threat of having to find somewhere else to slump until the 4 pm check-in time was abated. The news from New York by then was dire and we took shameful advantage of everyone's sympathy for our driving ordeal by snow.

Mrs Stevie was upset that our room was at the rear of the hotel (where we knew security Klieg Light illumination fallout and idling tractor-trailer noise could be intolerable during the night), but I reassured her that we'd be all right as the room faced away from the offending truck park. As we pulled the covers up to our chins a truck drove up the side road and executed an emergency stop, dumping the contents of the compressed air reservoir in a percussive explosion of sound. To judge by the noise the shifting load made he was hauling scrap bells and cymbals. I cringed and prepared for maximum rage venting but she was already fast asleep. I decided to follow suit.

Four hours left me awake but exhausted. I dared not sleep longer for fear of not being able to sleep that night, and then being dog-tired for the next leg of the drive. We got up and went out for lunch, then frittered away the day exploring Lumberton and its surroundings before turning in again.

We woke to find it was snowing. We checked out of the hotel and had a leisurely breakfast, and were on the road again by 10 am, rather later than we usually set out. By then the snow had stopped, leaving the place looking like it had been frosted lightly with sugar. So much for the Great Lumberton Blizzard of '16.

Light traffic meant that we made good time, arriving at our destination, Orlando, around 5:30 pm. There was the usual back and forth in which timeshare people attempt to get us to sign up for a sales presentation4 and we turn them down, and we were finally allowed to go to our villa, unpack and collapse into bed again.

Sunday dawned and we were woken by Mrs Stevie's cell phone. A call from her mother to inform us that her father had died.

My Father-in-Law had suffered an abrupt and severe dip into dementia some months ago. He lost much of his vocabulary and often did not recognize people he'd known for years. He wasn't violent, but he also wasn't the man who had been flabbergasted when I told him I intended to marry his daughter and hoped he'd give us his blessing. That man had left the theater a while back. Sometimes he'd be more lucid than others, but the truth is the road he was on was a cruel one with no good ending. I may be being callous here but I think he was lucky. He died peacefully in his sleep the day before his 86th birthday. He raised three children and had four grand children. I could wish for such a good end.

His will called for his body to be donated to medical science, and my Mother-in-Law had been expecting the event for some time so there was no need nor desire on her part for us to return to New York. So we didn't, which shocked my mother when I called her with the news. As I explained to her the roads wouldn't be clear for days (the road outside Chateau Stevie had yet to be plowed) and we weren't needed.

What I didn't say was that Mrs Stevie is the first-in-line go-to person for all such emergencies in that family, and that part of the purpose of driving to Florida was to give the other in-town sib, Bil-the-Elder, the chance to step up for a bit, which to his credit he did in a heartbeat. In truth I think his father's death hit Bil-the-Elder the hardest.

He and my mother-in-law did call us as we sat at dinner on Tuesday evening, to find out how to spell 'Czechoslovakia' - which was a bit odd given that they have access to a computer with just as much ease as I did at that time. We gave them the answer, which was required for The Mrs Steviedad's death certificate, after firing up our portable hotspot and doing a Google search5 because of my many accomplishments, the spelling of Czechoslovakia was not counted among them6. Apparently, Mrs Stevie's grandmother had been born in Hungary, like her Grandfather, but a change in national borders had moved her into a much more perplexingly spelled homeland (that no longer exists because of another re-arranging of map borders).

And so the vacation we have been looking forward to for almost a year has been nobbled by bad weather causing us to have to drive through the night, leaving us hobbling about half dead from lack of sleep for days afterward, and the expected, long-overdue, humane yet ill-timed passing of my Father-in-Law, which has naturally left Mrs Stevie feeling both sad at her loss, conflicted over the mercy the death has been for her father (and, by extension, everyone who had feelings for him), and guilt-ridden over her not being there when it happened. Her grieving will be a long process. Mine was short and unexpectedly intense, occurring while Mrs Stevie was taking communion.

We had decided to visit the church for the morning service after she got the news on Sunday. Though I don't have any belief in God or an afterlife, I'm not an evangelical atheist and Mrs Stevie is devout and needed the comfort the service and speaking to a pastor would bring. I normally only attend church at Christmas, for the carol singing. Naturally, I do not take communion.

It was as everyone else was involved in the ritual and looking the other way I was suddenly overcome with a profound sadness, and began crying silently. It was a surprise. My Father-in-Law and I haven't really done much deep bonding since I married his daughter; indeed, we developed a healthy disrespect for each other (for much the same reasons it turns out). Luckily I was able to pull myself together before any Lutherans noticed and attempted "fellowshipping".

And so the holiday began, with me agreeing to two days in Universal Studios in exchange for no other theme parking at all. Monday and Tuesday were forecast to be the only warm, rain-free days before Friday so that's when we went.

Mrs Stevie was anxious to show me the Hogwartz Express ride that links the two Harry Potter themed parts of the parks, but to do that we had to buy a so-called "park-hopper" ticket for me (Mrs Stevie already had a one year pass with some time left on it that would work for her). These are attractively priced at slightly less than a Lear Jet, and so it came to pass that on Monday I was led sobbing, clutching a smouldering wallet and wailing "Why me?" into Universal Studios, Mrs Stevie Alone knows what sub-title, and we made our way to Diagon Alley, which I hadn't seen on account of it not being built the last time I could be persuaded to set foot in a Universal theme park.

I have to say that Universal had finally got the bit between their teeth with the Harry Potter thing, realizing that what Potter-Heads want is not a bunch of roller-coasters dressed up as dragons or griffins and given some daft Harry Potteresque name. No, what these fans want is the opportunity to buy Harry Potter themed memorabilia.

Now in the first Harry Potter themed attraction, Hogsmeade village, there is the admittedly jaw-droppingly accurate rendition of Hogwatrz, which houses a fine simulator ride that allows the riders to feel like they are riding along with the Quiddich-crazed broom-mounted actors. It is, when all is said and done, not bad at all, even for someone who has never read the books and had to be forced to go to the films7. The stuff inside to stop those on the hours-long lines from going mad and rioting is of an excellently high quality too. A credit to the engineers and artists involved.

There is, however, a serious lack of expensive theme-bling purchasing places, the market being mostly served by "Olivander's Wand Shoppe", which attempts to make up the difference by selling resin cast wands for about 50 bux8. You can find Hogwartz shirts, ties, scarves and hats in the Gifte Shoppe that terminates the ride inside Hogwartz9, but that's about it really.

But in Diagon Alley all this has been redressed with not only another Olivander's Wand Shoppe and the inevitable post-Gringotts Bank ride gift shoppe, but also a shoppe that sells everything from the Gift Shoppes attached to the rides and caps and gowns for each of the Hogwatrz Houses and hats of the sort sported by the various teachers that have graced the place. Here we start seeing the proper amount of cosplay leverage being applied.

Another innovation, retrofitted rather half-heartedly to Hogsmeade after being included in the newer Diagon Alley, is the interactive shoppe windowe displayes activated by waving specially-fitted wands in a variety of magical-seeming and Potteresque ways. Each such display is indicated by a brass plaque in the sidewalk containing the particular gesture and "magic" phrase to be uttered in order to make whatever it is do whatever it does. A window display can be made to glisten with lights, rain can be made to fall outside the public conveniences, and so forth. Some of the ideas were quite clever. Some not so much.

We had lunch in "The Leaky Cauldron" in which the food was not very outrageously priced and was of a gratifyingly high quality. Should I ever be back in that park again, I'll be lunching in The Leaky Cauldron and if you are in the park you should too. The food was all of a distinctly English feel - Bangers and Mash, Steak and Lamb stew with Guinness, a huge ploughman's platter. I had the bangers and mash and apart from the fact that it came with a helping of disturbingly healthy steamed vegetables it tasted authentic to me.

After lunch we partook of a number of rides, including the simulator thing built into Gringotts Bank, which was okay, waited in vain for the dragon perched on the bank's roof to breathe fire and went home groaning about ankles and backache.

The next day we attempted to ride the Despicable Me ride. This ride either has hours-long lines or is broken every time we have been in it's vicinity, but today we were goo to go with "only" a forty minute wait. Yazoo!

I should point out that the Despicable Me movies are a guilty pleasure for me. I love them. They are for me what Marks Brothers movies are for others. Visual candy of an irresistible type.

Within forty minutes we were standing next to the doors to the ride. Then came a twenty minute improvised quiz given by the attendants, which largely fell flat on account of the audience being about 90% Brazilians. Since there was no bilingual English/Portuguese presentation provided, this, while merely horrible for us English speakers must have edged into intolerable. I pondered aloud; "I think the ride is broken".

"The ride is broken" came the announcement. "Go away, come back later".

Naturally this produced the most incandescent rage in Mrs Stevie who demanded to know why we should get on line and queue for hours again. She was immediately offered express passes allowing us to cut the lines, but her rage was not abated, even after we rode The Mummy (an excellent ride by the way) with no wait at all. We wandered over to The Simpsons simulator ride (ex-Back To The Future, same motions but different 3D movie playing as they happen) but were told it was down all day for maintenance.

Flames shot out of Mrs Stevie's ears at this news.

I stood well back, then hustled her to the Hogwatrz Quidditch Nonsense, which for a mercy was not only working, it had no lines whatsoever. A ride on that calmed her frazzled nerves and soothed her temper and I suggested we get lunch, which we did in The Three Broomsticks, the other Harry Potter themed restaurant. And the food was not bad at all, though not as stellar as we'd had in The Leaky Cauldron the day before. This restaurant had food more tailored toward an American palette albeit with an overriding "English" feel. Spare ribs and chicken with chips rather than bangers and mash.

We wandered out and rode the train back to Diagon Alley and watched the children having fun. We strolled into the Olivander's Wand ten minute participation theater thingy, in which children get to re-enact the wand-buying process from the first Harry Potter movie aided by actors and special effects. If you have kids or have had them, you'll get this thing. If not, not so much. We were in there with only one other family, so the boy and girl got to do the magic wand waving and were the stars of a small show. Mrs Stevie was smiling sadly at the end, and I realized once we were out of there that we were both intensely missing the young Stevieling, who lived for this sort of manufactured magical experience and brought a massive buy-in with her.

Mrs Stevie was looking about with such a lost expression on her face that nothing would do but that I march her into the gown store to get properly attired and thence to Olivanders to acquire a Shoppe Dysplae Actyvatione Wande. There we selected a suitable model from the bewildering collection of differently shaped wands.

And so it was that I got to walk around aimlessly watching the properly robed Mrs Stevie behave like a big kid, waving her wand at various books and scrolls and posters and I don't know what-all else, bringing thunder and rain or a disconcerting blast of frigid air here, animating a large poster depicting a skeleton or making the quidditch ball set levitate there. Brass frogs were made to spit water, fairytale books were made to open and reveal telescoping 3D tableaux, and a bunch of singing shrunken heads were magically silenced. My legs hurt as they always do when I have to walk slowly or stand about for long periods10 but for once it was worth it to see Mrs Stevie enjoying herself without recourse to lethally strong coffee.

And to top it off the dragon perched on the roof of the bank was breathing fire very impressively every five minutes or so.

And I have to say that the set dressing involved in the Harry Potter parts of the park is of exceptional quality. They've gone all-out to make it as believable as it could be, given that the premise is so darn silly. Dumbledore lectures people in line, the newspapers on the walls can be read and the pictures in them are animated. The paintings on the wall all address the people in line and argue with each other, and although that trick is Old Hat - I first saw this sort of thing in the Disney Haunted House ride - it is all very convincing.

I was completely worn out by the time we decided to try and ride that Despicable Me thing again, and the line for the train back to the other park was long and involved long flights of stairs. Luckily, one of the staff saw us and, probably taken in by Mrs Stevie's costumed elegance and smiling face11 and perhaps by my moans of distress, offered to move us up to the platform in the lift provided for people with strollers, wheelchairs or scooters12. This was good on two levels. A) No stairs and 2) We jumped about two hundred people in line.

So a word about the Hogwartz Express. You board it on the Despicable Me/Men-in-Black/Simpsons side at Kings Cross station, and a Pepper's Ghost arrangement means that as you step under an arch you seem to pass through a brick wall just as they did in one of those movies. The trick here is to play to the crowds and mug for the people who can actually see the magic happening. My favorite way of wowing the crowd is to walk backwards, giving a jaunty wave. The cries of amazement from the onlookers are a nice reward for one's theatricality, and help mask the cries of alarm of those children one steps on because one can't see them.

The ride itself is a rather fine mock-up of an old Great Western 'Castle Class' locomotive Hogwartz Castle and some corridor coaches. The passengers are boarded eight to a compartment and when the train sets out a very convincing series of scenes is shown through the window of London and the Hogwartz environs while the frosted glass between the corridor and the passengers is used to show a shadow show telling a story involving Harry, Ron and Hermione. You get a different show depending on which direction you are traveling. It is all rather clever.

And we got to ride the Despicable Me 3D ride, which was working and was fun13 and is recommended to anyone who enjoys the movies. Like everything else in both the parks, the ride is too short for the wait normally involved, but that is now the norm. Only you can tell if any theme park experience is worth however long the lines are. I draw the line14 at an hour.

Anyway.

That was our theme park quota for this visit. It was all gravy from then on, with much lazing around and some quality kissy-face predicted on account of all the robe and wand buying that had gone before. What could go wrong?

The Stevieling called two days later to tell me the furnace had shut down.

I told her to deploy a small electric heater and to call our go-to guy. Who didn't respond to several calls, so we looked up other options. One of those did respond and said they'd send someone around at three.

At two thirty, the Stevieling called to say she'd blown a breaker by running the heater on the same ciruit as the microwave, then making some sort of melty-cheesy thing. I never was clear on the details, but decided after three or four minutes of confusing cell phone mediated back-and-forth that the recipe involved was non-germane and did the dja-dja-dja-dja-dja Grimace Chant and the Wavy Hand Jive of Let's Forget This Bit And Move On. Naturally, although I had walked her through the process of resetting the breakers before I left, I had to do it all over again over the phone because she was so nervous she had forgotten everything we spoke about.

At three the furnace repair guy showed up and I got a call so he could explain his theory, which was "the pilot light has gone out and I'll charge 149 bux to relight it".

I said "Fine, but you should know that this furnace has had this problem many times before, and every time the pilot has shut down because of a failed thermocouple".

He opined that it might be the case, but he felt that the wind might have just blown out the pilot.

I said "Fine. But in the last twelve years this furnace has had eight thermocouple failures. I'm told by the guys that have serviced the furnace that this particular model is known for eating thermocouples. This was not mentioned by the people who sold it to me of course. So, for my own peace of mind would you please fit a new thermocouple before you re-light the pilot?"

He waffled for a bit, made some comment about the position of the pilot and thermocouple and agreed to add a new thermocouple to the bill, which he'd have to call home for the cost to install. He then pointed out that there might be more things hiding behind a failed thermocouple that could not be detected until the thermocouple had been replaced. I told him I understood that, mentally preparing myself for job escalation and bill inflation

Long story short he replaced the thermocouple, everything started working, and I was another 400 bux light in the purse. I got this news as we drove to dinner, which was marred for some fellow diners by the toxic stench coming off my credit card and the litany of class two Words of Power I occasionally snarled to no-one in particular.

And tomorrow we drive home. What new ambushes does life have in store for us?

  1. The ailment that causes people to run to the supermarket and buy up all the toilet paper upon being informed that rain is expected
  2. Which, as it happens, was Thursday morning around 8 am
  3. In Lumberton, North Carolina
  4. These are actually getting annoying. It used to be "Are you interested in Theme Park tickets?" and we'd say "No" and that was that. Now they won't give us the parking pass until the power sell has been attempted. Only when I said "I'm sorry ma'am, but we've had about five hours sleep in the last thirty six and my temper isn't what it might be as a result" that we were given the vital document and allowed to go on our way
  5. We not having had the perspicacity to carry a Websters Dictionary with us at all times
  6. Curiously, I now find I can spell Czechoslovakia with relative ease, but have forgotten how to operate a slide rule. This Means Something
  7. What Mrs Stevie calls a "sour-faced curmudgeon"
  8. Which isn't bad if you are a Harry Potter cosplayer I suppose. Serious money changes hands in the Star Trek cosplay hobby
  9. All rides in Universal Studios exit through a gift shop
  10. The front of my thighs go numb, but first they hurt like hell. This started in the late 80s. I've had tests, but no diagnosis
  11. And the fact we are obviously seniors by our matching silver hair
  12. The electric sort
  13. Though not as much fun as it would have been eight hours earlier
  14. Ahahahahaha!