Friday, August 11, 2017

Now That's A Pretty Song

Dominion Road by The Mutton Birds, from their compilation album Flock: The Best of The Mutton Birds.

If you've never heard The Mutton Birds they sound sorta like Deep Blue Something did in the mid 90s, melodically at least. Since the material on this album comes from then and a little later that's not really surprising, convergent evolution being alive and well in the arts. Call it alternate pop.

Lyrically the song is magical, telling a story that is vivid in only two verses and a refrain with a varying line (I dunno what this trick is called. I don't doubt the style has a name), one of a young man, dissolute, who loses everything and then starts rebuilding his life. How all that gets shoehorned into a song three minutes and fifty-five second long without denting it beyond repair is a trick I wish I could emulate.

Better yet, the album is full of songs with poppy tunes containing ambush stories, some of them very dark. The song "White Valiant" scares the snot out of me and after dozens of hearings I'm still not sure what's going to happen.

There's a love song about a beaten-up electric heater that's not creepy at all, no sir, one about the stupid things an American Senator said on the radio that has a Led Zeppelin/Kashmir treatment, one about a guy who leaves home after an argument, goes to his sports equipment shop and waxes lyrical about how hypnotically well-made an AK-47 is in an increasingly strident tone.

There's a magnificent slow-dance/wedding song in which the beautiful chorus was actually intended only as a place-keeper for something else but the songwriter was over-ruled by the drummer, and a driving retread of their cover of "Don't Fear The Reaper" - the original of which runs at the end of the Peter Jackson movie The Frighteners, which I confess was why I sought out the recording in the first place. This one is better.

There's a letter from a love-lorn young guy bemoaning the fact that she lives in Wellington and he ... doesn't. It's poppy and sad and wonderful. How this wasn't a radio-play hit is a mystery.

Flock cost me deep in the purse and I don't regret a single cent. You should give it a listen. At the very least try streaming "Dominion Road", "A Thing Well-Made", "White Valiant", "Wellington", "Queen's English" and "Anchor Me".

The songwriting here is nothing short of masterful, and the instruments are played by experts. Why these guys were not more popular "in the day" is beyond me. Surely not just because they come from New Zealand. I thought we lived in a global economy now.

Go have a listen for yourself.

LIRR Fiasco

So yesterday the commuters attempting to catch the 8:58 am connection at Jamaica for Atlantic Terminal were witness to a particularly egregious example of the Bloody Long Island Railroad letting their inner Buster Keaton out for a walk.

At Jamaica, tracks 3 and 4 are adjacent, but served by different platforms. To get from platform 3 to platform 4 one must run up a flight of stairs, cross a bridge and trot down a flight of stairs, all the time fighting past equally determined and rushed commuters trying to execute the exact mirror image maneuver.

While this is a normal commuting inconvenience for me, for the vast majority of people punching, kicking and biting their way up and down flights of stairs are new to the process, those who have followed the Bloody Long Island Railroad's advice to avoid Penn Station during the interminable Amtrak work needed to stop trains derailing when trying to park to let the passengers on or off. Who could have predicted that decades of infrastructure neglect could result in such chaos1?

The train to Hunterspoint Avenue, one of the suggested "alternatives" to Penn Station is a blocky, double-decker train pulled by a duplex drive2 locomotive. The Atlantic Avenue train is a single-decked EMU train, sometimes of surprising vintage3, like 99% of the trains on the Bloody Long Island Railroad.

The trains had been announced on the PA as arriving on their usual tracks, 3 for the Hunterspoint Avenue train, 4 for the one to Atlantic Terminal. All the nice new destination boards hanging from the platform awnings were saying the same in bright yellow LED writing.

One might have thought this was now a done deal, but as I stood waiting for my train to Atlantic Terminal a large double-decker pulled in and opened its doors. I checked the destination boards. Still showing this train as heading for Brooklyn. But a sneaking suspicion was forming in Mr Brain and instead of pushing, kicking and biting my way to the carriage doors as per usual I hung back and prepared to sprint.

Sure enough, the destination boards suddenly went blank as someone desperately pulled out the plug, killing the nice helpful yellow messages of a commute safely underway.

I sprinted for the stairs and hit the now-empty staircase running. In the dopplering sounds of the station behind me I heard the PA burst into life and announce the Brooklyn train on track 3, and the Hunterspoint Avenue train on track 4, along with a shamefaced “This is a track change for today only”4.

Yep. The Bloody Long Island Railroad had, in a burst of breathtaking incompetence, managed to steer the trains onto exactly the wrong tracks despite having destination boards and announcers saying what should be happening. I guess no-one told the idiots in the signal box.

Experience shows these people aren't the brightest bulbs in the bulb-holding thing at the best of times. Every day the train from Wyandanch pulls up to Jamaica and is blocked by a train that hasn't left for Penn Station yet - this despite the fact it happens every fbleeping day. I have the vision of a signal box staff clutching their heads in bewilderment and screaming "Look out! Here comes another one! It's just like yesterday! For pity's sake! Where are these trains all coming from?"

That vision was augmented yesterday by another in which the train drivers, leaning into the curve they expected to take, were suddenly swung the other way, banging their heads on the side windows of their cabs and screaming "WHAT THE Fbleep!" as they were hijacked by the incompetents tasked with setting the switches5.

I've said it before and will say it again: The Bloody Long Island Railroad couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery.

  1. Apart from everyone but Amtrack and the Bloody Long Island Railroad of course
  2. As in, diesel but can run on electricity from the third rail if need be
  3. With a "nose" to match courtesy of the chemical toilet
  4. No shirt, Sherlock
  5. UK: Points

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Now That's A Pretty Song

Grand Hotel by Regina Spektor, from the album Remember Us To Life.

I was driving home from my monthly Delta Green RPG manly high-stakes poker game when I heard this on A Prairie Home Companion, an NPR radio show. I was immediately smitten by the Joni Mitchell-like delivery, the entirely un-Joni Mitchell vocal quality, the spare piano treatment and the story hiding inside the lyric, which I've come to realize isn't what I first thought it was.

Public radio and television have steered me toward many artists I'd otherwise have never come across, either directly or indirectly. It was on a late-night bread acquisition mission that I first heard Stan Rogers singing Barrett's Privateers, which caused a bout of collecting and listening itself causing me to discover Archie Fischer (Rogers recorded a shortened and livened-up version of Witch of the Westmorelands provoking me to seek out the original on an album called The Man With A Rhyme - which had the original of The Whale, a song I first heard done by Fairport Convention on Five Seasons).

I discovered Paul Brady's beautiful album Spirits Colliding after watching a Britcom on Channel 21 WLIW, and found out he was with The Johnsons and wrote a favorite of theirs I had on a now long-lost Transatlantic sampler album Continental Trailways Bus.

But enough of lucky finds and odd syncronicities!

Grand Hotel and Remember Us To Life are recommended to Joni Mitchell fans and everyone else too.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Dried Fish

Blimey, where did all these cobwebs and silverfish come from?

As the reader - long-abandoned by the humble scribe - will know both the land of my birth and my adopted homeland went temporarily insane, and in a fit of inattentive wet-baby disposal not seen since the Romans decided that there were a few problems with having a Republic the one stormed off vowing never to have anything to do with those terrible French, Germans, Spaniards and especially the Belgians and Dutch, while the other elected perhaps the one man on the face of the Earth least fitted to run the country.

Britain now faces rebellion in the Cheviots1 for the second time in recent memory, and the press is telling me that stout-hearted Englishpersons are madly signing up to be Dutch, French and even, I hear, Belgian to escape the chaos this bewilderingly daft decision will precipitate. It is notable that the major political figures who were singing the praises of this monumentally stupid move have suddenly found more important things to do with their lives. No doubt merely a coincidence, and not a desperate leap to be in a chair when the music stops.

As it soon will, what with the EC grant money drying up faster than a sub-Saharan waterhole in July.

America is in the unenviable position of wishing that it's political hacks had bolted instead of stepping up and "taking power". Our president seems blissfully unaware of certain things we all assumed were prerequisites of being the Head Cheese, things like how the constitution says that the government must work. He has a habit of telling the world too, then getting upset when people laugh at his ignorance, though to be honest it stopped being funny almost immediately.

Not only that, but once again, a Republican president is making public all the little holes in the laws and procedures that reasonable men before him have simply assumed were good manners and ethics to adhere to, and is busy making himself a yardstick for cronyism and nepotism. Lets Make America Great again like it was 1920.

And infuriatingly, no-one will fix said holes with laws because the man in power at the time never knows when he might need to use one of these loopholes for himself. Disgraceful.

There are many simplistic analyses on why this state of affairs has come about. One that has particular resonance with the public is that it is a reaction to decades of increasingly less self-aware political correctness, and there is some evidence that this might be the case, at least for some. But I think what has happened in both cases is that charismatic demagogues have managed to unify small groups of disaffected people under their banner and get them marching in lockstep.

I know that's what happened in the USA. Those who felt that not being able to tell Polish jokes or make fun of women drivers are supporting The Man with The Tan alongside desperate people whose towns were all-but shut down when the one industry it had closed down or relocated. That latter group I can sympathize with. I've seen first-hand what the innocuously-named "inflection-point" and "paradigm-shift" can do to people, and it's only the youngest who can survive it relatively unscathed as they have the freedom to move with least cost and to retrain in some other means of earning.

What this slow collapse of the country's workforce implies in big, red, shouty caps is that no-one with the power to do so has been laying out any long-term strategy for the country as a whole, nor has that been done at the state level in all too many cases.

This is part of the role of government, and the leaders of the country-spanning industries (we are, after all, an oligarchy with the word "republic" painted on it) but we've had a generation of industry captains and politicos growing up in a relatively benign atmosphere of sixties-era-and-before regulation switch-off. Huge financial gains were made, and lost of course, as the economy, freed from governors that had become onerous, slewed from boom to bust. The same is happening as these same people work to deregulate the clean water industry even as terribly damaging pollution scandals break over the country.

And the worst part is the disconnect between the obvious correlation of the events and the people responsible for sorting it out.

Alan Greenspan professed himself profoundly shocked that his policy of "enlightened self-interest" failed to prevent the recent banking crisis usually labeled "the sub-prime mortgage fiasco", but of course, he was equating the banks themselves as organic entities (which by law they almost are) when all the decision making was done by banking officers - who assuredly were working according to self-interest. Since the "enlightened" bit wasn't actually required, nobody bothered to do it, each assuming someone else would pick up the pieces and mop the floor when it all went to Hellena-Handbasket.

Politicians, particularly those pandering to the rabid right "republican base", like to froth at the mouth and bellow about entitlements, but the sense of entitlement that runs through the three-letter ranks of the banks of the USA could be cut only with an expensive Japanese ceremonial sword swung with malice aforethought™.

Now the energy companies are demanding the relaxing of "onerous" restrictions that prevent them operating freely, while at the same time fending off the lawsuits their corner-cutting already causes. Coal mine collapses, oil-rig disasters, tanker collisions, all come with a hefty taxpayer bill attached. Republican are fond of making funding available to public services dependent on following onerous limitations on how they operate. Why can't the subsidies paid from the taxes to these companies (entitlement, anyone?) be tied to adhering to the law of the land?

Silly me. It's because the politicians making the law are paid-off by have received substantial campaign contributions from those same companies. But no-one is asking: "If we do this now, what do we do in fifty years to clean up the aftermath of all this selfishness?"

Hence the lack of posts; with so much surrealism loose in the world, why bother trying to document small outbreaks of it in this blithering blog?

  1. Very painful I hear, requiring a series of increasingly agonizing injections into the stomach wall2
  2. Now I come to think on it, that might be rabies

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.