Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Ho Ho Ho And A Bottle Of Rum

Avast Ye
Scurvy Swabs!

The Stevieling received a copy fo the "Pirates of the Caribbean Game of Life" and insisted that everyone play it in the early evening of last night (Christmas Day). Game of Life is simple. You drive around a board, acquiring a spouse, kids and mounting debt until the end of the game track. In the original you could then optionally bet all your worldly assets on a spin of the wheel and in at least one case I can remember someone becoming Bill Gates Rich and thereby trouncing everyone else by doing just that. That rule has been excised from the latest Politically Correct versions I hear, which ruins the whole thing in my opinion.

Pirates of the Caribbean Game of Life has no spouses, kids or whatever. You sail around the board acquiring captains, ships and mascots until you reach the end of the game track. Each of the cards representing ships, captains etc has artwork based on the movie on it. Spiffy.

The first problem was the relative lack of light in the Steviemanse. All the lights are at one end of the room, and we decided the absolute best place to host this Piratical Marine Simulation was at the other one. I promptly broke out an ancient reading lamp and an extension cord, but when I plugged it in the sound of frying bacon erupted from the plug. This wouldn't do at all. The plan was to dominate the in-laws on the high seas, not electrocute them on a lamp with a dodgy plug1. Action was called for.

I ran downstairs to the basement-o-many-useful-items-and-some-not-so-useful-piles-of-junk and found a new plug in the lucky dip that is my electrical tool box. Then it was back upstairs to deploy The Leatherman Tool in it's First Job. I removed it from it's box and it's leather pouch, casually discarding the diagram of available tools snugged up inside it. It was the work of a few seconds to cut away the old plug with the Wire Cutter (#3 on the diagram), assemble the new plug, crimp the tines with the Pliers (#2 on the diagram) and use the snout of those same pliers (#2 on the diagram) to reassemble the plug. Job Done! A Great Triumph! The only fly in the ointment was the fact I didn't need to deploy any of the other 27 blades, awls, screwdrivers, bottle openers, files, inflatable landing craft or periscopes (#1, #4 through #27 on the diagram) folded up cunningly into the handles. Never mind, their time will come.

Now I have always loved the Pirates of the Caribbean, long before they made movies of the ride. I would stand on line driving everyone crazy by talking like a pirate, deriving much satisfaction from the increasing angst in my fellow "adults" in the queue as their kids began to pick up on the lingo and "go for it". It was therefore natural that I begin to ham it up and utter "Arrrgghh!" at every juncture. The Stevieling took great exception to this and went into an immediate sulk.

Her temper was not improved by the fact that the rules state that at certain points you may forcibly trade your cheapo ship for anyone else's more expensive one provided you make up the difference in value in GOL dollars. The more expensive the ship, the better it is at raiding other players, another occasional game mechanic. The Black Pearl, worth 4000 GOLBux was traded so many times I seriously doubt it actually sailed anywhere. No-one kept it for more than half a turn. This also worked to sour the Stevieling's mood, although everyone else thought it great fun indeed.

In the end we abandoned the game and went to have dessert instead. That was much better.

I'd forgotten how much children add to the Xmas Atmos.

  1. Plugs in the US differ from those in the UK. A typical UK plug is about 2 inches across, made of hard bakelite-like plastic, weighs about half a pound, contains a (usually wrongly chosen) fuse and has sturdy brass pins maybe 1/4 inch by 3/8ths in cross section. The wires are held in place by screw terminals and the cable is secured with a cord grip to prevent mechanical stress ripping out the wires.
    A US plug by comparison is usually moulded into the cord. Replacement plugs are, by British sensibilities, disturbingly unbusinesslike. They are a half-inch or so wide by about 3/4 inch long, have pins made from folded brass strip that can be bent with only the pinkie finger and have no fuses or screws involved in them at all. The wire is secured by pushing it into th plug body and closing the hinged pins together to drive spikes through the insulation into the metal core of the cable, then the assembly is pressed into the outer body of the plug. There are heftier plugs available in the US, but they are usually seen on high current (20 amps and above) circuit applications. There are a bewildering array of asymetric pin arrangements to differentiate a 20 amp plug from (say) a 40 amp one too.
    Americans look at UK plugs with amazement that such bulky things would actually work. It is all in what you are used to.

Monday, December 25, 2006

So Much for Santa

Stuff Christmas!

The Stevieling gave me a complete set of James Bond movies. They were titled in Japanese, which gave me pause. I have no idea if they are actually in Japanese because Japan is in region 2 and our player only plays domestic USA region 1 discs. ****ing Hollywood protectionism.

The Steviemum gave Mrs Stevie and Me matching digital music players. Hers is all right, mine has a wonky switch forcing me to listen to static on the in-built FM radio and not allowing me to interfere in the playback order of any songs on the thing.

It fair shakes my lifelong faith in the Rampant Consumerist Society. At least the Leatherman tool that Mrs Stevie gave me is still working.

So far, anyway.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve Job

Merry Christmas!

It's amazing what you can do with 40 feet of schedule 40 PVC pipe, a bucket full of fittings, some glue and about 66 yards of tinsel.


It has been shirtsleeve weather all day. Either Global Warming is actually true of the calendar has gone out of whack to pre-Augustus levels and it is actually late May or early October.A Christmas Story is in it's second showing on TNT, which runs it for the next 22 hours in continuous loop in case you miss a bit, and my neighbour has his Santa Landing Lights on. In a move of mind-boggling stupidity he arranged for the runway to be less than 8 feet long and to end at the wall of his house. I hope Santa has a Harrier sled. Even if he does, I predict coal in my neighbour's stocking.

May Santa be good to you all, may you have enough batteries to last the day and may your bells truly jingle all the way.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The World Is Alive With The Sound Of Everything

Yesterday (Thursday) I managed to get an appointment with an Ear Nose and Throat specialist in order to deploy expert measures in the quest for renewed hearing.

As I may have mentioned once or twice, I have had loss of hearing and tinitus in my left ear since the end of July, when I was laid low by an infection. Doc Rubberglove, my GP, is labouring under some demented fantasy that the whole thing is caused by an infection in my nose, and postulates some sort of tube connecting each ear with the troublesome organ. Obvious claptrap.

The ENT doctor, who bore a striking resemblance to the host of "The Daily Show" was very efficient. Eschewing the hoses, syringes, Rocket Fuel and hot water so beloved by Doc Rubberglove, he grabbed what looked like a teaspoon and simply gouged away for ten or twenty minutes while a burly technician held me down. He dug out a truly disgusting amount of wax from each ear, and remarked that it was of a peculiar red colour he'd never seen before.

I had.

We used to have four candles of that same colour, but Mrs Stevie claimed that one of them broke and had to be "disposed of" sometime around the beginning of August.

Then it was off to the sound booth to have my eardrums sonared (in order to detect fluid build-up1) and tested for hearing range. A variety of beeps and clangs were played into each ear at varying volumes, and I was asked to signal if I could hear them. I closed my eyes to prevent any visual cues being given, and the whole thing became very relaxing. I gradually entered a zen-like trance as I listened for the sounds.

Unfortunately one of the sounds was identical to the sound made by a skillet being surreptitiously withdrawn from a stack of pots and my signal that I had heard it was a loud shriek as I leapt from the chair and span into a defensive foetal huddle in one corner of the booth. It frightened the heck out of the technician who wasn't to know about certain reflexes I have developed over my 18 years of marriage.

Then back to Doc Teaspoon for the after test chat where he spoke warmly of several remote possibilities that he assured me I couldn't have, such as tumours, cankers and Benghazi Ear Rot. It was very reassuring, but I found myself reflecting wistfully on the time I couldn't hear anything during some of the more descriptive passages.

Then it was down the corridor to get Mr Elbow deathrayed. The elbow stopped working about three weeks after I began attempting to subjugate the guitar to my unique musical technique (shortly after the ear nonsense started, but I cannot conceive of a way that vile harridan Mrs Stevie could be the root cause of this ailment.

On the other hand, she did buy the guitar.

  1. Nothing was detected. I suppose I should thank heavens that Mrs Stevie would rather drink her coffee than find nefarious uses for it around a sleeping husband

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Brave New World Shall Arise From The Ashes

Sunday. I arose with a renewed sense of purpose and made tea. Retrieving my multimeter I determined to check the fuses in the plug for the broken string of lights in the Festive Bush O' Dangling Crap.

Accordingly, I began the process of locating the start of the string so I could trace the wiring back to the cluster of plugs and determine the plug I was interested in. It took a bit of time but I found it.

Dangling loose in the innards of the tree

I did a short extract from The Bonehead Dance, then it was the work of a few seconds to plug the dead string of lights into the power supply, at which point I was greeted by a glorious multi-hued burst of light. I took this for a good omen and a sign that the malign anti-handyman spirits that had infested the house on Saturday were either gone or dormant.

I drank my tea while I contemplated all things plumbing.

I nipped out to Arse Hardware and bought two screw-fit shut-off valves on the suspicion that I had melted the seals on the dripping hot water one by too enthusiastic application of heat. Plus, the screw-on shut-off valve that I had installed on the toilet water supply had worked sans leaks, drips or dribbles from day one. QED.

And so I began to take apart the broken bits. I desoldered the old hot water valve and dropped it in a bucket of water to cool off, then made a new pipe to replace the one that was leaking cold water. Of course, I couldn't get the bloody pipe to drain out could I? I was in no mood to be thwarted by such bagatelles and so deployed Mr Compressor in short order. I opened up all the shut-off valves and applied 80 PSI to the toilet shut-off to blow the pipe clear of water. It was, I reflected later, a great triumph if one overlooked the fact that water had shot out of the cold water shut-off and sprayed all over the ceiling, me, my tools, the walls. Pretty much everywhere in fact.

In a trice I had the pipe dismounted (once again the T-piece joint melted and the whole thing rotated alarmingly) and it was the work of a few minutes to make a new one with a screw thread on the end. Once everything was soldered in place (and the T-piece had had one last wiggle to show it's independance) I screwed on the new shut-off and turned on the water supply.


I was so enthused I immediately began the process of fabricating the new wastepipe. This was a different class of plumbing, replacing the hazards of hot pipes, flaming propane, poisonous flux fumes and dripping molten lead-free solder with possible asphyxiation from chemical fumes and long-term health problems brought on by contact with Methyl Ethyl Ketone. Magic stuff.

I already had a PVC pipe gluing kit in the basement from some job I did so long ago I've forgotten what it was. A quick check showed all the components still liquid and redolent.

I began by fabricating and assembling the parts dry. I had to cut three lengths of pipe on Mr Chopsaw and managed to not screw that up. The pipe would also have to twist around a couple of structural members of the house, which isn't recommended in waste-pipe design. Straight is best. The nice man at Arse Hardware explained loudly and slowly that the best way was to cut holes in any intevening studs. I explained back that doing so would probably drop the roof into the bathroom. In the end it was my problem so we did it my way. Truth be told, I would rather have used copper but I couldn't get the fittings to make the required bends.

The new wastepipe will be PVC schedule 40 pipe (the white stuff you see everywhere) attached to the old copper pipe by means of a reducing rubber fitting.

To glue PVC pipe you take the pipe and coat it liberally with the purple primer. This is a solvent of some sort that takes off the top layers of plastic, writing and filth from the pipe. You do the same to the inside of the sleeve fitting on the corner elbow or whatever you are using. Then you apply the MEK adhesive to both surfaces and push them together. It is exactly the same principle that used to be at the heart of making an Airfix plastic Spitfire. You melt the plastic with a solvent and weld the pieces together. Since I had 6 joints to make in less than thee feet of pipe, I got quite a dose of MEK, proven to be very bad for you if you sniff it enough. I just felt sick and had to break for tea, lunch and "Cat Ballou" which started as I sat down.

Mrs Stevie appeared with lunch and I explained that I had to leave the PVC to set up. Furthermore, attaching it prematurely to the wastepipe system could cause a buildup of explosive gas in the pipes. She sniffed but couldn't argue with me as I hadn't told her that I would be using PVC and therefore she'd had no time beforehand to research it on the web.

Once lunch was digested and Kid Shalleen had saved the day, I went and attached the PVC to the copper and began constructing support hardware for it all. A few offcuts of 2x4 do the job nicely. I was required to be at a production the Stevieling was appearing in at 5:30, so I washed up and contemplated the last two days of sheer heck. On the one hand, the job had taken twice as long as I had budgeted for and required the throwing away of a lot of hardware. On the other, most of the milestones of my usual plumbing jobs had been completely bypassed. These usually include:

  1. Cutting into pressurised pipe with Mr Pipecutter by mistake, getting a facefull of water and making another repair job for myself.
  2. Setting fire to clothing, leg hair, hair hair or parts of the house by inattentive use of the torch
  3. grasping hot pipe with bare hands
  4. Grasping the hot end of the torch with bare hands
  5. Getting water in the electrical system

Obviously I simply wasn't trying this time around.

Life Ain't No Fun When You're Working On The Railroad Bangin' In The Spikes With Y' Head

I emerged from my shower on Saturday, and plumped down in a despondent heap to contemplate the fiasco-in-progress that the New Bog plumbing had become. Turning to Mrs Stevie I noticed that she wasn't, for once, in a homicidal mood but looked on the brink of tears. What on earth could be the matter? I initiated contact1 with a jaunty "Wassamarrer?"

It turned out that while I was struggling with the arcane science of pipe-weaving, Mrs Stevie had deployed her beloved Self-Illuminated Christmas Bush O' Merriment and had discovered that about 25 of the 300 or so bulbs were dark. Heaving a sigh I took a look. All the plugs seemed to be in place in a nice little cluster inside the tree. I took a feel. All the plugs were in tight. "This not look good" said Mr Brain.

Strings of Xmas lights tend to be made as multiple strings of so many bulbs strung end-to-end with a single plug. 100 light will be 2 strings of 50. 50 can be a single string, but it isn’t unusual to find them as two strings of 25. It really depends on what the manufacturer makes as set units, and whether these units can be wired as a longer string economically. More money is required to make a string as two strings of 50 rather than one of 100 for example, but the advantage is that only half a string in in jeopardy at any one time if a bulb goes. My money was riding on these 25 bulbs being one half of an otherwise fine string of 50.

Now we all know the myth that when bulbs blow they are supposed to short out so the rest of the string keeps burning bright and summoning Santa. Indeed, most boxes of light carry stern warnings about not letting things get out of hand when the bulbs blow, because too many blown bulbs in a string will cause a cascade of blowing bulbs as the available voltage is shared by fewer and fewer increasingly overpowered bulbs. I've actually seen this happen. Once in 50 years.

The bulbs are designed with a springy metal strip that is attached to the filament at one end. The filament holds the metal strip back and prevents it springing forward and bridging the gap, shorting out the bulb. When the filament blows, the metal strip is released and like a switch reconnects the bulb internally so that power can flow through it to the rest of the string. The problem is that the older the bulbs are, the longer the heat has had to work on the metal strip, annealing it so that when the filament breaks the metal doesn't make it all the way across the gap. Lights out.

I used to have a tool the manufacturer claimed could sense the A/C standing wave in the bulbs and tell which one was blown. It rarely worked, had a complex set-up and didn't work at all on multi-string, er, strings. I lost the instructions for it long ago, and I lost the tool itself about five years back so there would be nothing for it but to do things the hard way.

This involves taking a bulb out of a working string, then removing each bulb from the bad string in turn and plugging it into the good string to see if it works or not. Using this method (accurately referred to as a brute force search) you hope that the broken bulb is near to where you start your search, that there is only one or possibly two or three bulbs blown and that you don't blow the good string by repeatedly flashing it on and off as you test.

Over the course of about an hour I made my way around the tree testing each bulb. Some of the bulbs had been hidden very cleverly by the fiendish tree manufacturer, and the bulbs had nasty little latches on them that began to hurt my hand each time I opened one. Not only that, some sort of machine able to exert a force of several tons per square inch had been employed to drive the bulbs into their sockets, making them all but impossible to remove without levers. Eventually I reached the end of the string without provoking it to resume illumination and so was forced to admit defeat.

Such was my despondency at that point I simply went to bed.

  1. It is a measure of my own state of mind that I took none of the precautions that 18 years living with that harridan have drilled into me, such as "don't" or "take cover first"

Plumbing Woes

Plumbing doesn't usually frighten me. I don't like doing it because I'm lazy, but when needs must I'm usually not scared of a few bits of copper pipe and some hot solder. The Time Of Plumbing was upon me on Saturday.

I started out by deciding to make the best of the unseasonally warm weather by buying the sheetrock I would need after project "Make Some New Pipes For The New Sink" was complete and so Mrs Stevie and I decamped for Home Despot and purchased one sheet of 3/8ths of an inch sheetrock (for shimming out the walls to the levels demanded by The Builders1 and three sheets of green-faced "moisture resistant" 1/2 inch sheetrock. We wrestled these onto a trolley and made our way to the truck rental counter for to obtain a suitable conveyance for this 4x8 foot bounty.

Which was when I discovered you need an insurance card to rent a truck and I hadn't got mine. Mrs Stevie didn't have hers either, but volunteered to go home and get one while I waited. For once I hadn't simply left the required document on the coffee table. I had remarked to Mrs Stevie a week earlier that I hadn't got the card and opined that we might have to get duplicates from the insurance company.

I was beginning to wonder if she had stopped at Starbux for a couple of "Latte Trompe De Tete"s when she appeared with the cards which she apparently found still in the envelope from 3 Gize Auto Insurance that had sat under a pile of crap on the coffee table for months. Mystery solved and truck rented. We loaded it up, drove home and transferred the load into the garage after a brief hiatus to rearrange the crap in there and make some room. I returned the truck with help from the Stevieling who felt that such a hazardous undertaking as the driving of an empty flatbed 15 cwt truck required her presence, bought egg sandwiches for everyone and that was the morning gone.

I began the plumbing by erecting a portable vise on the jobsite. Since I had no wish to ply the torch in hazardous enclosed spaces I decided I was going to fabricate the entire run of pipe for each line and install it as a set piece. Slowly I built up the twisty pipe-runs necessary for routing the pipe around the existing fittings and architectural features to the location of the new taps, sorta. I cannot get to the actual required location without routing the pipe though Mrs Stevie's lingerie drawer and Mrs Stevie has refused point-blank to countenance this radical and exiting departure from "standard" plumbing practice.

Anyway, I planned to finish each fitting by sweating on the little taps that allow the water to be shut off under the sink. I had found some nice ball-joint types that require a quarter turn to lock them either on or off. Much better than the old screw type. I did the hot water pipe first, and it was a great triumph. No leaks I could see and everything in the right place. I anchored the pipe to a 2x4 support and got on with the cold water pipe.

This gave me some trouble. First it had to go down to duck under the wastepipe before going up again. You never want to make pipe that makes water under pressure go down, because it makes it harder to drain the system should you need to. Why would you need to? Check back to the beginning of this blog and read the account of the lawn sprinkler deployment fiasco. If a leak were to be found, the only way it would show is when the pipe was full and under pressure, but you can't solder the pipe if it has even a small amount of water in it because the boiling water carries off the heat you need to get the pipe to solder or to unsolder. However, in this case the geometry of the workspace meant the pipe would indeed have to go down, then up again. Oh Well.

I attached everything to the cold water line, and that's when I discovered that I had cut the pipe with the little tap on it about 3/4 of an inch too short. Nothing for it, I would have to unsolder the pipe and make a new one.

The problem with that was that I had decided to add a poor man's anti-thump device to each line. When water is made to travel round many corners at high speed, it can cause the pipes to recoil when the supply is shut off, like when you turn off the shower taps. These pipes had long runs of unsupported piping and the recoil could be noisy and potentially dangerous so when each pipe made the right-angle turn towards the little shut-off tap I used a T-piece instead of a right-angle bend and added a length off vertical pipe that would remain full of air when the pipe filled and act as a shock absorber.

I unsoldered the pipe I wanted from the T-piece, but the heat also caused the T-piece itself to let go from the vertical pipe it was attached to. This was a recepie for leaks if ever I saw one. Then I had to re-heat the joint to get the new pipe section into it (because of all the solder already in the joint) and the T-Piece naturally let go of the vertical pipe again. Gah! Many and strong were the Words of Power uttered that afternoon I can tell you.

It was with great trepidation that I turned on the water supply, but everything seemd okay. I tested the valves in the open and closed position by means of a very long riser-hose and a Home Despot orange bucket. I was just about to dislocate my shoulders with some overdue self back-patting when I spotted two tiny spots of water on the floor. I dried off all the pipes and watched for about five minutes. Sure enough, there was trouble in Eden. The hot water shut-off valve was dribbling a tiny amount of water past the valve even though it was tightly closed and the cold water line had a microscopic leak in the T-Piece, not in the many-times melted joint but in the joint made for the new pipe.

It was late by then so I shut off the water supply to the upstairs took a shower, and retired defeated.

  1. The fabled and ham-fisted Genaro

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Why Some Jobs Should Be Put Off

Last Christmas we went with an all-blue motif in our icicle light and illuminated bush Christmas Display. I had been deploying white icicle lights that I had modified with solid armatures for years in conjunction with green lights in the Alberta Spruces, blue in the bushthing outside the front room window and red around the windows. During lamp deployment several catastrophic lamp failures provoked a critical temper excursion in the would-be illumination specialist and the entire display was junked in favour of new, blue stuff. It was pretty, but a little boring after a time. Twenty minutes was about what I measured it at, and I was seeking some way to suggest a return to the white lights for this year.

If only I hadn't neglected to take down the blue ones from last year.

By a stroke of luck, when I powered them on again this year I discovered that the torrid summer sun had bleached the colour from the bulbs and so we had, if not white, a sort of off-white display this year.


Modifying Troll, The Snowblower Of Supreme Spiffiness

Some three years ago I yielded to temptation (I mean, this is a toy and a tool; we are talking industrial strength temptation here) and invested in a bright red 8.5 horsepower two-stage snowblower. I did at least wait until Sears had a sale, so economy was, if not my watchword, my secret club word of the day.

In point of fact, I was also bowing to reality. The snow we get in my part of NY can be sudden and deep when it is all over. Deep enough to make life difficult if all you have is a Toro™ electric snow broom and some rather nice snow shovels picked up in Maryland at the onset of the blizzard of '96.

Clearing deep snow with the snow broom is fun but resembles shaving as the thing can only clear a swath to a depth of about six inches and requires some headroom over the snow ahead of itself to sling the snow away. It consists of what looks like an old-style cylinder-blade lawnmower blade inside a plastic hood, all attached to a pole with a handle on the end. The blades whirl round like mad when you pull the trigger and you push the thing along the ground into shallow snow. The snow gets thrown forward quite some distance.

One year it became very apparent during snow shifting that I was of an age when manual labour this intensive could push my heart into an out-of-design-spec excursion. Yes I could be (a lot) fitter, but there is no easy, quick way to translate that particular epiphany into a useful reality in a meaningful time-scale. Besides, I wanted some tools. Shoveling snow is a job, and for too long now I had been doing that job under a waiver of The Law1. There were literally years of tool-acquisition "banked" on account of this snow-shoveling nonsense. What was required was heavy plant. Nothing less than a self-propelled solution would suffice.

The machine in question was delivered by two Hispanic gentlemen (I believe these two lads also delivered the new stove back at the start of this blog) who left it attached to its pallet and drove off to leave me to dismount it. I fell in love all over again. Its bright red paint. Its fully rotating turret of snow hurlage. Its 27 inch wide maw of snow-gobbling, able to shrug off two feet of snow without a problem of any sort. But most important of all, its electric starter. No heaving on a bloody rope trying to coax a recalcitrant four-stroke into firing up in sub-zero temperatures for me. That was a path to madness and a dislocated shoulder into the bargain.

I had thought that by buying it I would guarantee the next three years would be snow-free, but we've had quite heavy snowfalls every year but last year (and even then I used it twice). I take the precaution of moving it to the front of the crap-filled garage each November and begin starting it and letting it run for a few seconds every week or so after that in order to keep the fuel system properly primed. It has never let me down, and is so impressive noise-wise, snow-clearance-wise and just about every-other-bloody-thing wise that I christened it "Troll". There is only one fly in the ointment, and it is a big one.

When blowing the snow it pays to send the ejecta as far as possible away from the site. Otherwise, one can find oneself clearing the same snow several times in one session. Snow is often followed by windy conditions hereabouts, and it is gusty wind that changes direction faster than a politician in an election year. All this means that during a marathon snow clearage session, one ends up with a fair few facefulls of icy snow. I went with it for three years but something had to be done. Something as in the purchase of a cab for Troll, The Snowblower Of Supreme Spiffiness.

Now Home Despot sell a couple of generic cabs, but I felt safer going back to the people who sold me the snowblower for one. A quick check on the interweb a couple of weeks ago showed me that Sears did in fact sell a cab for a tad over a hunnerd bux so I off I went to buy one. Of course, I made the mistake of going to the Sears in Bayshore first and stood around like a garden gnome while the staff ignored me. I eventually managed to provoke service by looking directly at one of the sales clerks and shouting "is anyone going to come over and sell me the expensive item I already know I want, or do I buy it from someone else?" This prompted one of the salesdrones to tell me they were out of stock. Then I went up to the Sears in Commack. Sale completed in about five minutes, with a short delay as I once again attempted to use the debit cards Cingular foisted upon me instead of giving me a real rebate2.

And then I ran out of time. I checked the parts inventory against the box contents and put it on one side for later and got with the plan, New Bog wise.

Tuesday night I became concerned that the weather was holding in a particularly menacing fashion. Warm (for me, anyway), no appreciable rain, sleet or snowfall, it was all very quiet from a weather standpoint. Too quiet. A Terry Pratchett "lull before a storm of biblical proportions at the most inconvenient time" quiet. Panic was in order.

I grabbed Mr Socketset, Mr Leatherman knock-off multitool and the cab kit, strapped a totally lame-looking LED headlight to my brow (the garage lights are out of commission) and made my way to the driveway to begin late-evening cab construction and installation by the light of the Christmas Icicle lamps.

By good fortune, all the actual cab components with the exception of the u-clamps, nuts and bolts, were painted flat black so they'd blend into the stygian gloom of the garage. This made the actual location and identification of the numerous bent-pipes that would become - in the fullness of midnight or thereabouts - a magnificent spindrift-proof cab a challenge, to say the least. The fun really got going from square one because the cab was actually a rebranded generic "one size fits most" affair anyway and so parts had been supplied for all the popular styles of handlebars (the cab attaches to the handlebar uprights). First job was to select from four sizes of u-clamp and two sizes of bolt before clamping two cross-bars on the snowblower. The ends of these crossbars attached to the upright for the cab support. An L-shaped bar inserted into that and then had to be leveled by slackening the u-clamps and rotating the cross-bars. It was all very tedious and so I decided to press on with the frame-construction and worry about getting it properly leveled later. Before I knew it, it was 11:30pm and I was done in.

Yesterday I rolled the snowblower out of the garage and into the soft glow of the lights on the bushthing in the front garden, then did the leveling thing, getting it done in surprisingly short order. Once the frame was level I finished it off by bolting together the roof cross-members (narrowly avoiding dropping Mr Ratchet on Mr Head in the process) and Prepared to deploy the glorified ripstock nylon tent that is the actual cab.

And there I hit the first major snag

The cab cover, like all frame-tentlike constructions was sized just too small to go on the frame easily and had to be stretched into place before being anchored by snaps, velcro, belts and buckles. When I say stretched I don't mean bulging muscle, clench-jawed type stretching, I mean cab-cover grabbed in both hands while dangling from the superstructure with feet braced firmly against the frame, mouth drawn back so far the actual muscle-structure of the mandible can be visibly ascertained by innocent bystanders from fifteen feet away and screaming the most potent Words of Power in the workman's lexicon stretching.

When involved in this sort of effort I often wonder why the manufacturer just didn't design the frame to expand into the cover after the cover was attached. Screw-thread adjustment, scissor-action cantilever, there are many ways the trick can be done. I can't imagine such a thing would add disastrous amounts to the final purchase price. This thing is a luxury item after all, at least in these parts it is.

Anyway, I finally managed to get the damn thing on the frame and it doesn't look half bad. It does reduce the visibility a tad in the same way putting the roof up on my TR6 used to; there is simply no substitute for 93 million miles of headroom"3. On the other hand, speaking as a wearer of spectacles I can think of 3,842 substitutes for a facefull of damp pulverized snow without breaking a sweat, hence the cab.

I now find myself looking to the skies with a wistful expression rather than a fearful one.

  1. No Tool, No Job
  2. A tale worthy of its own posting. Watch this blog
  3. To steal the TR7 ad-campaign buzzphrase and use it in a much better way. Funnily enough, the windows of the cab are made of the same stuff the rear window in the TR's softtop was. Small world

Monday, December 11, 2006

Why I Love Being Seen With My Daughter

Yesterday was spent acquiring plumbing supplies and avoiding actual real work on New Bog.

The next scheduled task is to extend the plumbing to a place it is almost perfect for connecting to the sink fittings1 but though plumbing doesn't frighten me like Backerboard does I am lazy and have a good idea of what can go wrong. Both these factors worked to stop me starting the job because I was absolutely committed to being done by five o'clock that evening come hell or high water, on account of the Stevieling being chosen to play the main attraction in our local church's2 Santa Lucia festival.

The Santa Lucia festival is a Scandanavian Lutheran ritual in which the high point of the service is a reading of the meaning of the festival (which is a remembrance of some poor Sicillian woman burned at the stake for saying something the orthodox church felt "too modern") followed by the darkening of the church and a procession of children. It begins with young boys, who dress in pointy hats and white robes and hold stars on long poles, parading to the front of the church and singing. Then a procession of young girls, dressed in white with garland rings for crowns and holding candles, makes its way down the aisle and arranges itself around the alter rail before indulging in a bit of singing. Finally, a small group of older girls, young women really I suppose, parades down one side of the church, up the other and down the aisle before stationing itself behind the alter, singing "Santa Lucia" the whole time. Each of the young women holds a candle except for the central character, who wears a pine wreath with four (lit) candles on it3. This is Lucia, and this evening Lucia was the beautiful (if moody) Stevieling, who was in fine soprano voice despite having caught a nasty cold the day before. I was so proud I could have burst. In fact I did burst, twice, which caused Mrs Stevie to glare at me.

The Stevieling had been practicing at home and was in a pretty sour mood about it owing to the basic lack of comfort of the whole Flaming Head-Wreath of Religion. She always gets mad at me when I sing "Santa Lucia" too, since I only sing "Santa Lucia", using those two words to fill the entire song much like Ernie used "George Washington Bridge" on Seasame Street. I decided a mood lightener was needed and so began to sing:

"Santa Lucia, I'm wearing a tyre
Someone stuck candles in, and then set on fire
Can you smell burning hair?
Is my left ear still there?
Saaaanta Luciaaaaa
Santaaaaaaaaarrrrgh Luciaaaaaaargh!

The Stevieling burst into laughter, then said in a disturbingly accurate impersonation of Mrs Stevie "Great! Now I'll be cracking up in church when I sing the song! Thanks a lot Dad!"

I decided I should do something outside to make up for not doing stuff inside, so I tried my hand at excising the old landscape lights from the garden and replacing them with the brand new ones bought at  Blowes . The spikes which form the anchor for the lights had for some reason been made as two intersecting triangles to form a cross-cross-sectioned point, each blade having holes in it. Roots had wound through these holes over the years and made the job of removing them a four swear-word task.

Then I had to remove the power taps. Fortunately, Mrs Stevie had unearthed all the buried wire when she did her Hosta-ectomy last summer and hadn't bothered to bury it again. This meant I had the good fortune to have to try doing so in frozen ground, which was a ten to twelve swear word task. Then I had to construct and connect the new lights, and I was getting along swimmingly until lamp number four, whose lid would not come off for luvner money preventing me from installing the bulb. Of course, I didn't realise this until after I had squeezed shut the power tap4. Miraculously, I still had the receipt and so tonight can return the bloody thing and get one that works.

But watching the Stevieling steal the hearts of a churchfull of people was worth the wait. She was magnificent and her beautiful voice could be clearly heard (some of the prior candidates for this job have felt less than confident in their singing prowess and as a result have kept their vocalisation to a minimum). And she didnot giggle once. She asked for a meal at the California Pizza Kitchen afterwards and though I wasn't really up for a long trip I would have gotten her the moon at that point

The California Pizza Kitchen was much nearer.

  1. In order to get the pipes to the perfect place I would have to route them through Mrs Stevie's bedside chest of drawers.
  2. Mrs Stevie and the Stevieling's church in reality. As God is my witness, I am an atheist but I like and respect the Pastor and enjoy singing the carols.
  3. Rather like a Michael Manning fantasy, but with less shiny black vinyl, no bondage to speak of and minimal inspiration from medieval Japanese pornographic art
  4. You clamp these things to a power cable with a two-piece clamp with internal spikes that pierce the insulation and make contact with the inner cable to draw off power. Putting them on is tricky. Getting them off again without damaging them is damn near impossible.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Why I Hate Cement Backerboard

Sold as the "ideal" flooring material for bathrooms, cement backerboard has many things going against it from where I stand (after a day trying to build a floor with the stuff).

  1. It's expensive.
  2. It's heavy - I injured my left arm lifting the stuff and forget about maneuvering it in the teenytiny confines of New Bog
  3. In powdered form it is highly toxic. Working with it creates powdered backerboard by the cartload
  4. It buggers up your tools. The manufacturer claims you shouldn't use saws or powertools because of the hazardous dust but the reality is that it eats any kind of blade in very short order. A typical scroll saw blade rated for metal will fail completely within about three to four inches of cutting unless measures are taken to reduce the blade's contact with what it's trying to cut. The manufacturer recommends the "score and snap" method. A Stanley Knife blade will last for approximately 20 passes before the point is completely abraded away. It takes about 150 passes to cut halfway through a board on the long axis, and you try scoring and snapping a double ogee.
  5. It is brittle. When snapping the board (during the recommended score and snap method) it will often snap across the workpiece instead of along the score.
  6. Any gaps must be caulked using mortar. Mixing mortar is one of my least favourite occupations, second only to trowelling mortar or cleaning the tools after trowelling mortar.

Production of one 5x4 floor has killed five Stanley Craft Knife blades, seven jigsaw blades including a fifteen year old Pirhana blade that was universally useful and that Black and Decker no longer make, one spiral saw bit that actually melted and two multi-fluke countersinks.

This I vow on the manual for my router: Even were my beloved workmate to be kidnapped and held by terrorists pending my capitulation, never again will I attempt to work this material in any way, shape or form.

I leave this blog entry as my testament to several good tools sent to the happy hunting grounds in the attempt to cow the hated demon Backerboard into submission, and as insurance should Mr Brain clear the registers again and let me forget how dreadful a time I had of it. By this strategem I hope never to look up from a piece of broken backerboard with a blunt Stanley Knife in my hand and say "Now I remember why I didn't want to use this stuff."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Smells Like...Victory!

This morning the weather turned nasty and though there was no stuff falling on me from the sky the temperature was well below freezing. I wrapped up warm, even though I run hot and carry several inches of natural and healthy manly blubber for insulation.

I parked, not in my usual spot because some git has taken to beating me to it by a couple of minutes in the last few days, and began making my way from the car park to the station, about 100 yards away. As I walked between rows of cars I was suddenly struck by a very strong smell of gasoline. Open pan of gasoline strong1. I walked a couple more steps then stopped and turned, sniffing the air in the same manner movie vampires do when there are young women in corsets nearby.

There. Right behind me. It was a champagne-coloured minivan (a Voyager/Caravan/Freestar style thing) and it was sitting in a slowly expanding lake of liquid. The liquid was freezing in some places but not others (gotta watch where you buy your gas this time of year) and the smell was much stronger the nearer I got to it. I looked under the van and could see fluid dripping from the rear underside.
"This not look good" said Mr Brain and I began to dither about what to do.

Experience has shown me that calling 911 would result in an extended conversation mostly on the subject of who I was and where I lived. Not that I mind supplying these details when the occasion calls for it but my cellphone battery was very low at that time. I decided to walk to the platform at one end, and walk up it asking if anyone owned the vehicle. I took a picture of the licence plate in case anyone owned up to a vehicle of that type2 and as I walked away noted that the little BMW sports car that was parked next to it had already been vandalised. Should the minivan detonate it would probably visit the most violent Nagasaki3 upon the poor thing's superstructure. I am not the only one who owns a cursed car it would seem. By asking first then phoning someone (as yet undetermined) I would give the owner the chance of avoiding towing charges, fines and whatever else the town and county would deem appropriate to visit upon the now vehicle-less owner. Of course, there was always the chance a passing smoker would save everyone the trouble and simply arrange for the minivan and the surrounding vehicles to be scattered in kit-form over the car-park, allowing everyone to take their vehicles home in a small trash bag.

I put plan "spread the word about the leaking gas tank" into effect to general sardonicism on the part of my fellow commuters. The reactions I got as I approached each small cluster of well-wrapped people and said "Does anyone own a champagne-coloured minivan?" indicated they thought one of three things

  1. Leave me alone. I'm not buying whatever you're selling
  2. Someone left their lights on
  3. This idiot just crashed into the minivan
It was with particular relish that I then asked each group "Anyone parked next to a champagne-coloured minivan? 'Cos you might wanna move if you are". Anyone asking "Why?" got told about the gasoline lake.

Having warned everyone and given them their chance to own up and react, I called the LIRR and reported the situation. I have to admit that the reaction I got was very encouraging. The man on the other end of the call was couteous, polite, intelligent and grasped the situation quickly. I double checked to make sure I had actually called the LIRR and not gotten a wrong number, but he was an actual LIRR employee working at that moment in an official capacity for the LIRR. He confirmed the details and I left him to deal with it. I was too stunned by the professionalism and efficiency the call demonstrated to get his name. Whoever he is he is either a keeper or doomed to be downsized. Maybe this is the dawn of a new age of getting it right for the LIRR.

Only time will tell.

  1. Anyone who used to repair their own cars in the goodoledaze of leaded gasoline probably kept a pan of it for washing their hands in after a hard day grinding grease oil and undersealer into their hands while replacing some part of the undercarriage. The smell is never forgotten
  2. Mr Brain is pig-useless at remembering things to order and is not my friend at the best of times - hardcopy is always called for
  3. Nagasaki:
    abs n Damage of maximum imaginable proportions
    vb Infliction of same upon some person, place or thing
    source Bert Fegg's Nasty Book For Boys & Girls, usage modified by extensive use in the Lanchester Polytechnic Board Game Society esp during games of Star Fleet Battles

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Short, Violent Career of Brin the Barbarian

I wish people wouldn't lay claim to acronyms without either checking to see if they have a well-known use or taking the precaution of simply adding (in small type) the actual meaning the writer had in mind the first time he/she uses it. This would save much time, not to mention the embarrassment and legal trouble that can arise from an innocent but erroneous expansion of the writer's cryptographic reference into real English.

Case in point: I have been getting back to my fantasy role playing roots of late by participating in a Dungeons and Dragons manly high-stakes poker game. Now for those of you not in the know, Dungeons and Dragons manly high-stakes poker can be enjoyed in two very different but related forms -

  1. sitting round a dining room table with pencils, paper, geodesic dice, bottles of soda, snax and a handful of little metal figurines
  2. dressing up as the character you are playing, rendezvousing with a bunch of like-minded people and actually playing the part for "real" (albeit with rubber weapons and strict rules about limits on behaviour)
The latter version is called "Live Action Role Playing", or LARP for short. This is a form of the game I had not personally tried, though I have several friends who have and still do, and they all recommend it as the best time you can have in public without getting arrested. You have to consider the source, of course. I had become more intrigued as I read articles of the shenanigans of various groups of people having a high - if imaginary - time of it and had decided to give it a whirl at the first opportunity.

Accordingly I began amassing suitable LARPing gear. I didn't have much of a budget but thought I might be able to put together a fair imitation of a barbarian's outfit on a shoestring after seeing the minimal costume requirements of "Conan The Destroyer" on the TV one weekend. I scored a pair of furry boots in a thrift shop and also a belt that would do for hanging a sword from. The sword was researched on the web and was made from a core of plastic plumbing pipe wrapped in many layers of foam rubber by yours truly. No scabbard would be needed, just a loop on the belt which was easily fabricated from duct tape. An old door-curtain served as a fine (if moth-eaten) cape with the addition of a bit of chain to hold it together. I googled for some sort of leather harness to complete the costume and managed to score a rather nice and totally barbaric-looking one from LeatherBoy dot com. It was a bit pricey, but the spike-studded codpiece was exactly the look I was aiming for and the chest cross-straps would be a fine place to attach fake daggers if and when I could locate some1. I needed a headband too, which I made from one of Mrs Stevie's towelling ones dyed black with india ink2. I cut a fine sight in my spiky codpiece and curtains, waving my rubber-wrapped pipe aroud in what I felt was a reasonably barbaric fashion. The only thing left was to locate a group to LARP with.

It was while walking out of the local Lutheran church gymnasium after one of the Stevieling's basketball games that I saw a large poster exhorting the reader to "come and join the fun with L.A.R.P.". I read the entire thing, which took up a sheet of craft paper about fifteen inches wide and two and a half feet long, and with each line became more excited. It spoke of "like-minded older people" who still were "active" and who met each week in the hall across the way. Older people meant no bloody kids ruining the fun with stupid anachronistic kung-fu fighting or still going through late puberty at 21. It was perfect, almost too perfect. I immediately told the pastor I was "in" and agreed to attend the next session the following Friday night.

Thus it came to pass that last Friday I burst through the double doors of the church hall, struck an heroic pose in my curtains, boots and spiky codpiece and I loudly boomed "I am Brin! I am here to kill, loot and ravish!"

It was then that I noticed that not only was I the only one who had troubled to dress the part, everyone else was significantly older than me. There was dead silence for a few seconds, broken by the sound of a couple of coffee cups being dropped, then all hell broke loose. A large group of men leapt up from the tables where they seemed to have been drinking coffee and eating cookies and ran at me roaring their battle-cries. I couldn't really hear what they were saying because all the women were screaming and carrying on. Clearly I had wandered into a set-piece, some sort of Goblin barracks perhaps or maybe a Troll enclave. Unfortunately, the Dungeon Master didn't seem to be there so I had to "wing it".

I drew my rubber-clad pipe and began to "kill" the enemy, swirling my sword around my head before bringing it down on the head of any Goblin/Troll near enough to do me "harm". I admit I was puzzled as to why there didn't seem to be any other "adventurers", but put it down to the probability that pastor had told me the wrong door to use and I had started the game separated from the rest of the "good guys". I felt bad for them since I had probably upset something it had taken weeks to plan out, but decided to try my best until they showed up. After all, it wasn't my fault.

I lashed about right and left with my "sword" but the other guys didn't stay "dead". They fell over when I hit them in the head, but would scramble up again within seconds. That clinched it. They were Trolls for sure. Everybody knows Trolls regenerate. I would end up having to "burn" them but without the Dungeon Master I didn't know the protocol for pretending to set them on fire.

Then it dawned on me. There were carafes of what looked like iced-tea on a side table. Obviously this was representing flasks of oil that would be thrown on the enemy in the classic "douse and burn" that is almost a cliché in regular Dungeons and Dragons manly high-stakes poker. I fought my way to the table, grabbed a carafe and threw its contents in a wide arc over the Trolls that were clawing at me with rather too much enthusiasm to be honest. I put it down to the excitement of the scene and threw another carafe’s worth of "oil" with deadly accuracy at my would-be killers.

By now some of the women players had decided to join the assault and I realised that I would never defeat the enemy single-handedly. The only thing for it was a fighting retreat. The "oil" was having quite an effect on the combat too, though a completely unintended one. The floor was some sort of hardwood that had been polished to a high sheen. The iced-tea or whatever it was was making the floor treacherously slippery and the enemy soldiers were having trouble keeping their footing. I would have stopped to allow a time out for mopping but they were playing very rough (some of the ladies were actually throwing cups at me) and so I decided that it was their own fault if their lack of control led them to slip and fall. In fact, there was so much slipping and falling by then that I was able to disengage from the enemy and make my escape through the doors I came in by. I thought it prudent, given the hot tempers of the Trolls, to block the door so I put my sword through the handles until I could think of a better plan.

Which was when I met the church wardens coming the other way. I paused to ask them where the players were supposed to meet. They were puzzled. I explained I was there for the LARP meeting. "The Lutheran Active Retired Persons" are meeting in the room behind you. There are no other church activities taking place tonight.

Mentally my feet were already windmilling while rapid-fire coconut noises were playing. Mr Brain surged into action and formed an emergency plan on the fly, one that would call on all my Live Action Role Playing skills to pull off.
"Then why were those men wearing ski-masks in pastor's office?" I asked in a puzzled voice, casting a worried look in the opposite direction to the blocked doors that were now beginning to rattle. The church wardens span round and raced to foil the dastardly burglars and for a split second I was about to join them when Mr Brain snapped back into the real world.

It was clearly time to be elsewhere, so I was.

  1. For some reason I received several e-mails a week from the same guy badgering me to buy handcuffs, leg-irons and animal collars of increasingly bizarre designs. I eventually had to add the company to my spam filter. Such are the perils of shopping on the WWWeb
  2. Which turned out to be a bad idea because the ink bled out onto my head leaving a purple stripe across my forehead, then I threw it (the headband, not my head) in the washer with some other stuff and by foul luck turned everything pale purple. Mrs Stevie threw a fit and several items of cookware at me, and called me some particularly vile names. As I've said, she drinks far too much coffee and suffers from bouts of irrational rage as a result

Monday, December 04, 2006

Progress (Of Sorts) On The Reconstruction Of Bog

Technical Advisery Adversity Aarvarkery Stuff

I am experimenting in this entry with the idea of having hyperlinks under the superscripts linking them to their respective footnotes, and an uppy () at the end of each footnote with a link under it back to the superscripted reference that the footnote refers to. If this feature proves useful to you, let me know. If it doesn't work, let me know. It may or may not be a feature of new postings, depending on whether or not I can devise an editor to make the links automagically for me as the "ideas" they link to spring from Mr Brain's fevered lobes. I also uploaded the pictures I took of the fantastic sights that greet anyone making pilgrmage to Bog (though they cannot as yet avail themselves of the promised facilities once they get there, and must make a rapid pilgramage to the downstairs bathroom instead).

Mrs Stevie made several pointed remarks on Friday evening about how near Christmas was and the desirability of having two bathrooms when it loomed over the horizon. I took this to be a subtle hint on the lack of progress on rebuilding Bog. Not being one for subtlety, I settled down in the recliner and snoozed for a bit while I thought about working on the floor some more.

Fortunately, over the years I have developed, well, I don't know what to call it; a sort of second sense that warns of impending cookware so I was actually rolling under the coffee table before I was awake enough to physically register Mrs Stevie's cowardly assault with her large skillet.

My having foiled the vile harridan's main assault by the old "duck and cover" method taught in the sixties to schoolchildren1, she was reduced to "putting the boot in" while screaming her trademark warcry2. I intuitively knew she was disturbed about something. Perhaps her new job was proving more stressful than expected, perhaps it was simply one or three too many Hi-Test Espressos. In any event, I thought it might be best to calm her with an olive branch and so I decided to offer to install the bathroom floor over the weekend.

And so it came to pass:

I had previously varnished both sides of two of the three 4x8 sheets of plywood, but had run out of varnish after finishing only the underside of the third sheet. This wouldn't be such a problem as might be expected, since I actually had more varnish. I simply didn't have the same sort of varnish as I had applied to the one side. In any event, I would end up not needing to varnish more than a 1x4 strip of wood as things turned out.

The Plan

Recall that The Floor of Bog is 5x4 in size, with an area in one corner about 8 inches on a side completely unsupported by the hardwood timbers that form the floor you can see in the previously published photographs. By using 4x4 foot sheets of plywood, I would end up having a strip 1x4 to cover when two of the sheets had been deployed. I would make that strip from pieces of the third 4x4 sheet. Recall also that this is already "Plan B", "Plan A" having been consigned to the scrap heap by Mrs Stevie's DIY center nagging. "Plan C" doesn't at this point exist.

Installing the plywood was challenging, especially the bit that overhung the large square gap the plumbers had to cut in the hardwood sub-sub floor to reach the pipes of water delivery and waste water removal. The two 4x4 panels I had varnished on both sides were designated to do most of the work, and I would deal with the bit with the hole in it as part of the problem of the foot-wide strip the too-small plywood boards would leave once fitted.

The first challenge that was undercome was to map the contour of the bath, complicated by a sort of double-ogee at each end, to the plywood. This I chose to solve as a two-stage process. I would transfer the contour to a cardboard template, then use the template to cut the wood. I would use the nice new contour guide to transfer the curve at each end of the bath to the paper. Simple.

A contour guide looks like a ruler with a bunch of pins laid across it and held by a backing plate. You push the pins against the curve and they retract to form a copy of it, then you trace the line using a pencil on paper and the contour guide as a stencil. Magic. I had wanted to try one of these for yonks3.

It was a foolproof plan and would have worked if the manufacturer of said guide hadn't cheaped out by not setting the pins in grooves restricting their movement to up and down.

As it was, the pins began to walk sideways and distort the curve as soon as I was stupid enough to actually try using the piece of junk. This is a non-tool. It will not perform the single job it was presumably designed to do4. I have accordingly made plans for it. Watch this space. What is even more galling is that  Home Despot  has the manufacturers label some of their stuff as "good", "better" and "best". I would have bought their "best" contour guide but for the fact they didn't have one on their shelves. They only had the "better" one. Azathoth help the poor sods who ever bought the "good" one.

I decided to use this sudden and unexpected tool failure as an opportunity to allow Mr Brain some room for innovation. A trip to the basement of crap provided a scrap of pine, my Japanese saw, my table-mounted router and a pencil. In a trice I had cut a length of pine, sawed two V-shaped notches in it and milled a rounded trough along its length for the pencil to sit in. By utilising two of the rubber bands from ammo stash5 wound around the pine block, one in each of the V-notches-of-keeping-the-bands-back-from-the-bearing-surface, I could lash an ordinary pencil into the groove-of-not-letting-the-pencil-slip-around-and-thereby-screw-up-the-tracing. Then it was a simple matter of puting down a cardboard sheet and running the Improvised Contour Tracing Machine Of Spiffy Excellence over the length of the bath to trace it's shape. Job done.

Then I took a short break to run Mrs Stevie to the doctor (she had somehow badly twisted her ankles and bruised both her big toes sometime the previous evening). That translated into three hours of wait-for-the-quack-to-appear and taking Mrs Stevie to lunch afterwards.

The cut-out-the-template-and-transfer-the-contour-to-the-wood phase of operations went surprisingly well, leaving only the actual cutting of the wood to be done. This was accomplished using Mr Scrollsaw for the bath contour and Mr Dremel (appearing as Mr Spiral Saw) for the hole for the flange. Then the wood panels were simply dropped into place ready for nailing.

As for the one-foot gap, that required some extra thought. Not only was there the huge hole of plumber convenience complicating matters, part of the bath contour was in that section too. The 1/4 inch plywood was simply too thin to support the floor over the hole, which was most of the width of the board and more worryingly, left no support for the corner. The 1/4 inch laminations would slide over one another and flex as if they were half their combined thickness unless they were somehow fixed together . Which was what I did in the end. I took two sections of wood and cut them to shape, then glued them together to make one 1/2 inch piece. The gluing would take all night to set up, giving me a great excuse to stop work (remember, it was Mrs Stevie's idea to use these pieces of wood; She had no defense against this logic and was forced to grimace and bear it).

On Sunday morning, with the women gone to do whatever they do do on a Sunday, I was free to apply a quick-drying varnish to the board, carve out the back of it to accommodate a pipe fitting that protruded about 1/32 of an inch above the floor datum, aply some varnish to the carved-out bit and grab a cuppa while it dried. The strip it was supposed to fit in was very slightly tapered, ending up 1/8th of an inch narrower at one end. I dealt with that by cutting the board down by 1/8th of an inch in Mr Tablesaw, which for wonder didn't add its own undesigned-for taper to the wood as it did when I made the jewelry display case of never being finished. It fit very nicely, and I nailed everything down.

The corner was still quite springy though. This was a problem because although I don't plan on putting anything heavy on that part of the floor (like my own manly weight) the floor must be rigid to support the backer-board layer that goes on top of the wood. Fortunately, my heritage as a former inhabitant of Coventry, a town with a long history of mining, came to the fore and I was able to fabricate a pit-prop from underneath to support the floor against the wall of the downstairs bathroom6. Job done.

Then came the attempt to cow the backerboard into submission. In this I was less than successful.

Backerboard is made from cement, with a significant silica component that is highly dangerous to aspirate in powdered form7. Cutting the board is perforce a tedious business, since it must be done outside while wearing breathing apparatus. I deployed my workmate on the back patio and wrestled one of the boards onto it. These boards are quite heavy, with a 3x5 sheet weighing in at between "cor blimey" and "****ing hell!". My plan called for the sheet to have the hole for the toilet flange cut in it. Since it was exactly the right width, I would simply drop it into place when I had the hole cut. No Problem.

I traced out the hole using dividers and a pencil and attempted to plunge Mr Spiralsaw through the sheet the saw penetrated about half the depth, then came to a halt. Puzzled I pulled it out of the hole, only to see the end of the bit glowing bright red. This was a first. I have misused tools to the point they lost temper before, but this represented the first time I can remember actually melting a tool. The end of the spiral saw actually melted. The board was undamaged, other than a half-drilled hole. I looked at the backerboard with new appreciation. Why the manufacturers forgot to mention its use in heat shields and bank safes is beyond me. I decided to utilise another method, and drilled round the circumference of the circle with Mr Drill. Then I tried to "join the dots" with Mr Spiralsaw.

To no avail.

The middle of the blade now had the tell-tale scorch marks that indicate a loss of temper on the part of the bit8. I decided on another new plan, the ill-fated and short-lived "Plan C", and deployed Mr Scrollsaw which did the job. Unfortunately, the hole proved to be slightly misaligned and the sheet proved too big to drop into place anyway. Not only that, the taps on the old pipes were in the ****ing way. Thus was born "Plan D".

I cut the board into a much narrower 5 foot long segment using the "score and break" method suggested by the manufacturer, and tried that. After deploying a reserve cache of swear words the damn thing finally dropped into place, leaving me to contemplate the new requirements for the remaining backerboard layer. The score and break method works, but tends to undercut the scoreline. This cannot be tolerated on the next pieces to be cut, so we may be looking at the ultra-dangerous-dust producing saw. Which means doing it all outside again. Heydeho.

By then it was about 4:30pm, so I decided to break for the day and connect up the Christmas Lights that had been hung9 but not wired. This was done, and such was the ease of it that I went ahead and deployed two "light-pipes" on the deck banisters. That was when I discovered that the long-thought-to-be-indestructible light pipes were subject to failure. As I bent one to the contour of the bannister (as I straightened it actually) a secton went out. Then came back on. And went out. Then came back on again. Closer examination revealed a devastating truth: I had arcing in my light-pipe. I was able to arrange things so that the arcing stopped and the lights stayed on, but now I am terrified that this Fizzing Light-Pipe of Death will burn down the deck.

Not terrified enough to open up the light-pipe and resolder the broken joint, mind.

  1. Presumably in those less-complex days the Soviet menace was armed primarily with Le Cruset enamelware and was envisaged as deploying it in hand-to-hand techniques rather than the intercontinental ballistic missile delivery and MIRV fusion warheads they threatened us with in the seventies.
  2. A five minute exposition on the accuracy of the UK Registrar's office vis-à-vis my parentage along with a catalogue of my perceived shortcomings beginning with my drawing breath
  3. Defined in this case as about eighteen years for the precisionists out there
  4. I've never before had a tool fail so spectacularly that it couldn't be used for something. This thing literally has no place in the universe. I would take it back but then someone else might end up with it
  5. For my Guzi 100-shot rubber band gattling gun if you must know
  6. Since I was the only one in the house and since the bathroom was at this time not in use, I judged the danger of firedamp to be minimal. I possess neither a canary nor a Davy Safety Lamp and so couldn't be sure that I wasn't operating in a cloud of methane at any time. One spark from Mr Drill would ignite any pockets of the deadly gas and blow me arse over tip. It's a manly life in the drop ceiling, I can tell you
  7. Though there are no explicit warnings about it, I can't imagine that aspirating solid chunks of board would do you much good either
  8. Followed in short order by the loss of temper of the bit's owner
  9. Last Christmas, if you want to be technically accurate

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Oh It All Makes Work For The Working Man To Do

So last night I got home, had pizza for dinner and started work clearing a space in the crowded and dangerous basement I used to use as a workshop, before the advent of a bunch of crap and a flood or two.

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that I wasn’t going to need my table tools because I was going to have all the wood for Bog milled to size by other people. That plan survived contact with the enemy1 for exactly three and a half nanoseconds.

The new plan requires extensive milling of boards in the basement using tools buried under crap hurriedly relocated during domestic flood Yolanda and thus the simple act of respecifying the bill of materials has produced yet another major unwanted job not on the original itinerary. Oh Well.

In the middle of this the Stevieling howls that her school project, some sort of PowerPoint presentation, won't fit on a diskette. I ask her if she can use a CD and she answers that she can, so I tell her to put the project on a CD. Much muttering, gradually raising in volume from the womenfolks.

Yes, it's true. After owning this computer for over three years and after specifically "upgrading" the burner software from my beloved Roxio to the less-than-stellar-in-my-opinion Nero2 as part of a major system upgrade to allow Mrs Stevie3 to make movies on the damn thing, no-one but me knows how to burn a G-D CD.

"Is the project finished?" I asked the Stevieling as I settled into the chair to begin yet another unplanned-for job.
"Except for the music."
"Then it isn't finished, is it?" I bellowed. "What music do you want to use?"
"Mom is getting it now."
And in due course Mom1, 3 appears clutching....a DVD!
""This isn't music!" I yell.
"I want the music from it though" says the Stevieling.

Thus the hunt was on to find the music and figure out which of the umpty-tump packages included in Nero Professional would be able to snatch the music as the DVD was playing. The answer was, of course, none of 'em. Well, not strictly true. There were a couple of packages that would grab the music as it played, but they themselves would not play the DVD in question. The DVD player software, on the other hand, would play it but not permit any naughty sound grabbing (though screen shots were allowed - go figger).

The answer was to set the track playing in the media player (I prefer this to Nero's version) and grab the sound from the card with Nero's quite nice wav file editor. That sounds simple doesn't it? Well, factor in that Media player wouldn't rewind the tracks and so I was forced to play a different one, then bounce back to the one I wanted to restart it. Then factor in that bloody windows span the DVD down and then was too busy to spin it up again so there was a nasty gap in the recording. Then factor in that the recorder behaved in an odd manner, GUI-wise (one of the two major hates I have about Nero is its GUI. The other is how slow the GUI is in some pretty critical apps). Now you should be able to see how grabbing a five minute sound sample took best part of an hour and caused me to miss the crucial "come-uppance" episode of Boston Legal and you will see that I ended my day in somewhat less of a good humour than I began it.

Oh well.

  1. Mrs Stevie
  2. Due to the fact that against all reason we still do not have a hard standard for how to arrange the interfaces for bloody optical drives, resulting in the positively Victorian need to sweep compatibility lists before buying them if you don't want to switch software. Roxio would not work with the Mad Dog dual density drive I got Mrs Stevie3 so she could make big movies
  3. The Enemy

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Another Night In Paradise

Mrs Stevie greeted me as I came in the door last night1 with the demand I "do something" about the smell in the basement which was "worse than ever".

I had relocated two of the three plywood boards of not-being-big-or-thick-enough to the basement, placing them next to the furnace so that any remaining volatiles would be driven off the wood and this was playing havoc with the washing of the clothes.

"Did you open a window?" I asked2 as I climbed out of my coat and dumped my bag. I was assured by Mrs Stevie and the Stevieling that they hadn't tampered with the settings of any of the windows, so I went downstairs to open a window and deploy a fan to vent the admittedly thick fumes back out into the neighbourhood where they belonged.


I could not reach the rear window for the wall of crap Mrs Stevie had artfully erected in front of it. Hearing the happy sounds of my comments on this sitiuation (one I've remarked on several times in the past three years) and the crashing of "valuable stuff" being moved with less care than one might typically use for relocating such treasures as collections of shoes that no longer fit or cases of rock-hard stage makeup Mrs Stevie immediately abandoned the elaborate brewing of some Espresso Muy Forta and came down to help out. Unfortunately I had wandered around to the other side of the basement at that point, and was almost frightened out of my skin when I came back, looked up and saw her crouched on a pile of boxes, positioned up into the rafters of the basement like some hideous predatory vampire recently risen from the grave and on the hunt for human sacrifice. Stupid tricks like that really get on my nerves, and I began plotting some elaborate revenge straightway.

Of course, the screen on the other side window was not in place so I had to improvise lest the basement fill with itinerant cats, racoons and other freeloading wildlife on the hunt for a comfy place to doss down for the winter. This I did by propping a large broken screen over the hole from the inside. Then I ran a fan for a couple of hours to drag cool air through the place, took the boards up into Bog and the problem was largely solved.

Fortunately, the Stevieling had used the weekend to not do some due-tomorrow homework which involved an elaborate photo-shoot and a box of Playmobil characters, so any chance that peace might break out was nipped in the bud. She finally got everything ready for school at around Ten thirty and went to bed, having produced a display about AIDS in Africa.

This she researched entirely on the web with entirely predictable results in the quality of the information she got (did you know that Zimbabwe was "an average African city"? I didn't). I corrected that one but felt that she should find out what happens when you put your trust in the internet as your sole sources so didn't make her change anything else, other than to cite her sources.

Maybe when she gets her mark she'll get the message I've tried drumming into her for years: that without peer review the material on the web is best regarded as suspect and for safety's sake should never be used as the sole source of any "fact"3. Since I'm only her father and couldn't possibly understand what the demands of a modern life are she naturally treats my advice as complete hogwash of the first order4. I love the girl more than life itself5 but she can be very trying at times.

Now what to do about acheiving vengeance on Mrs Stevie?

  1. Late, missed train necessitating trip to Penn delaying arrival at The Steviemanse by an hour
  2. A crazy plan, but I felt it might just work
  3. Except this site, which is the truest depository of facts ever invented. Trust everything you read here. It has the Stevie Seal of Approval
  4. I once tried to correct her technique on the recorder. She let me know in no uncertain terms that her technique was teacher sanctioned. I said I didn't think so. She disrespectfully disagreed. I halted her in mid dis by commenting "Before you say anything more, you might consider that on the shelf behind you there are four recorders that belong to me, and that I was playing in a recorder band when I was two years younger than you are now." This sudden confrontation with unhelpful facts drove her into a rage. I gave up. She, of course, gave up the recorder since she couldn't seem to make hers sound like the ones on my recordings of them. Go figger
  5. I'm speaking of someone else's life here obviously

Monday, November 27, 2006

Saturday, Saturday, Saaaturday Night's All Right

Saturday was "Stop f***ing about and go out and get the plywood for the bathroom floor" day. My plan was to buy a sheet of half-inch thick external grade playwood and have it cut to five feet, and from that fabricate a single, one-piece subfloor panel. I took so long debating over whether to buy a tatty exterior grade board or to go with the nicer non-waterproof one and varnish it after the fact that Mrs Stevie began to search out alternatives.

Mrs Stevie means well but she drives me f***ing nuts when she starts in on improvising around my jobs. She has no idea what this job entails and cannot visualize it in terms of the problems and challenges because she doesn't understand them despite many attempts to remedy that state of affairs. Add to that that I have no time to explain my thinking (again) when we are down to the wire and buying materials and you can see that the day was doomed to be unsuccessful from the get-go.

Mrs Stevie had found these 1/4 inch boards on a previous visit and badgered me to get them, and she went straight for them again this time around. Never mind that they were not thick enough and I would have to laminate them. Never mind that they weren't long enough (4x4, I need 4x5) and that would mean I would have to jig-saw up a plywood mosaic for a subfloor, exactly what I had repeatedly said I did not want to do since joints in the subfloor cause other problems that have to be solved by methods that were at the root cause of the previous floor coming apart at the seams. I tried to explain but she went on about how these were "water resistant". Right. Maybe as in driving through a light fog won't cause them to warp on the truck, but I damn well bet they aren't "oops, I overflowed the sink" waterproof. Mrs Stevie of course did her "Well, I just wanted you to see them" routine as she did last time we were in that department. I made a snap decision - I would use these bloody boards and when the bloody floor warped and fell apart I would be able to say "you picked it. Live with it".

I bought three of these things and then tried to regain my inner balance by suggesting we buy some replacement landscape lights while we were at it. I fitted some very nice mushroom-shaped plastic ones years ago. Unfortunately, the company that made them discontinued the line about six months after that and we not only cannot get replacement clear filters for them, six of the ten were stolen shortly after our front fence was demolished. Aparently, the open driveway with the fence spelled "private property". The open driveway without the five feet of chainlink spelled "free landscape lights, help yourselves". We ended up with four steel mushroom-shaped lights and Mrs Stevie worrying that the company would not be making them in six months. Obviously an industrial-sized snit was building that I had no hope of quenching.

While we were putting the wood (wrong sort, wrong size) on the roofrack her brother called. The in-laws are in town and wanted to meet for dinner at one of a chain of Italian pizzeria restaurants in the area, Bertucci's, and they wanted to go to one in Hauppage1. Mrs Stevie says "Bertuccis?" and looks at me with the universal "do you know what they are talking about?" expression2. I say "We've been there" since we had had a rather disappointing dinner at the one by Roosevelt Field. Mrs Stevie took that to mean that I knew where the restaurant was (despite the fact that at that point she hadn't mentioned the town out loud) and so no sooner were we underway than she called her mother and said that I had been to that particular restaurant and could tell everyone how to get there. This triggered yet another argument. Saturday was beginning to resemble every other non-starter of a day that week. Once that was sorted out I suggested we switch to the California Pizza joint in Huntington (much better pizza in my insignificant opinion), but she wouldn't hear of it.

Anyway, we got home and I decided to varnish the thin sheets of plywood to minimise the damage when they get a good soaking. I set up shop in the garage rather than the basement so that the whole house wouldn't reek of varnish and spent the afternoon treating the wood as fast as I could. It would be important for the varnish to have as long as possible to dry before night fell because once the temperature dropped to evening levels the drying process would come to a halt.

We got to the restaurant with no trouble, packing me Mrs Stevie, The Stevieling, The MrsStevieDad and MrsStevieMom into the fabulous Steviemobile, and rendezvoused with the Brother-in-law and the other Brother-in-law avec son famile and a fine time was had by all, even by the neices who started the evening behaving as though I was the creepy uncle instead of loveable Uncle Stevie but ended up just ignoring me. Then came time to go home and trouble reared its ugly head.

I packed the Stevielings stuff in the trunk and reached for the MrsStevieDad's take-home box-o-leftover-pizza. He pulled back on it. "I'll put it in the trunk." I say. "It'll cause a smell" he says. "No it won't, and it will stay warmer in the trunk" I say.

What I am avoiding saying is that no-one takes food into my car. Period. This is my first new car and I never allow anything that might spill or stain into the passenger compartment. It's a rule. No markers. No cups of coke. No McBurgers. And no greasy pizza. My precious upholstery is worth more than five bucks worth of leftover pizza any day.

What I didn't grasp is that the smell MrsStevieDad was worried about was not the smell of pizza in my trunk, it was the smell of my trunk getting into his pizza. I only found that out after I had dropped them at home. Apparently, even though the Thanksgiving veggies (cooked on the new stove and ferried to them ready-to-serve) arrived chez them with no noticeable taint and despite the fact that I carry pizza for my own consumption in that same trunk with no problems, there was imminent danger of this gourmet leftover pizza3 absorbing the foul charnel stenches that well out of the trunk every time it is opened4, rendering them less appetizing the next day5.

The MrsStevieDad is lucky. If I had aprehended his concern I would have spritzed the box lid with industrial strength winshield cleanser before closing the trunk.

We arrived home to find that due to some arcane physics allied with the actions of various malign anti-handyman spirits6, the whole house reeked of varnish.

  1. Pronounced "HOP-og"
  2. The very same one used the day the Stevieling announced out of the blue that Santa was going to bring her a "Fluffy my come-here puppy who comes when I call him and eats his bone". It being a week before Christmas and said mechanical wonder not having appeared on any Xmas wish-lists up to and including the all-important Letter to Santa this might have been a disaster but for the fact that I had chanced to see a commercial for the wretched cybermutt. Mrs Stevie had no inkling.
  3. Three or four slices were left, at an approximate value of about 8 dollars when new. Subtract depreciation and factor in that said pizza had sat next to a child for an hour or so for true market value
  4. Probably caused by the compressor, the road map, the bottle of winshield cleanser and the emergency Ausiie Outback fedora I keep in there
  5. Mmmm, nothing more appetizing than cold thin-crust pizza, if your tastes run to tomato paste and ricotta cheese on hardtack that is
  6. Possibly white spirits

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

More Stupid Nonsense Courtesy Of The Bloody Long Island Rail Road

So I get to the station a few minutes early and decide to save a few minutes by buying my December ticket now instead of at the last minute.

Dimwit me.

The stupid f#$%ing ticket machine delivered only the receipt to say I'd been charged for t' privilege. No sign whatsoever of the ticket itself.
"How Innovative!" I exclaimed and went upstairs to inform those "in charge" that there was a problem.

There I was obliged to stand in line due to there only being two harrased-looking ticket sales people on duty. A young african american guy wasn't taking things very well. His technique for avoiding queue-tension was to walk up and down the length of the line muttering "I hate white people". Thus I was shown the heartwarming fact that full-blown irrational racism isn't just the province of white entertainers best known for their part on "Seinfeld"1 or rich Australian actor/directors2, but is also practiced and enjoyed by the black man in the street too. Lovely.

When I finally got to the window the lady behind it listened to me with a sympathetic ear then directed me to fill out a form. I was a little downhearted by this, but cheered up considerably when she told me I would not have to file the form in Jamaica (as so many LIRR processes seem to involve) but could leave it with her. By the time that was done I had about three minutes to catch my train home. Magic.

During the journey I reflected on the chances of the LIRR processes taking less than a few weeks to grind into action, especially since there would be a series of holidays in the same period that would serve to slow everything down to a managable speed. I resolved to call Visa when I got home and begin the charge disputation process from my end of things.


After the obligatory and always unwanted robot recital of my account balance I was conected in surprisingly short time with a human with a cultured eastern seaboard accent typical of Maryland. Who took all the details and passed me to another human, this one with a charming southern accent.

It is, of course, all but certain I was talking to people in different Indian towns throughout.

Who informed me that the charge hadn't posted, and probably wouldn't for another 3 business days. Since it hadn't posted there was no way to begin the process of flagging the charge as a total and complete rip off.

So now I have to wait until monday to go through the whole muzak/robot/muzak/person/muzak/person chain, at which point there may or may not be a charge showing that I may or may not be able to dispute.


1: Michael Richards, who played the loveable "Kramer", reportedly exploded on stage a couple of days ago during an extended heckling from some rude african americans and became extremely rude in return, expounding on the historical role negroes played in interracial exchanges in the USA and the use of cutlery in non-consensual bondage situations3
2: Mel Gibson was arrested a few months back for drunk driving, whereupon he reportedly became incensed at the arresting officer's possible semetic heritage and felt moved to expound on the role of Jews in starting world wars3
3: I'm not surprised that people think and feel this way. Humans are irrational. But famous people are not allowed to articulate their thoughts on the matter in public and stay famous. Go figger.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Man Who Went Up A Mountain And Rolled Down A Wheel

A story not unlike this one once appeared in Scaryduck's blog, years ago. I wrote to him to congratulate him on the quality of his writing and Stevie-oriented humour, and to remark on the coincidence of our experience with wheels. In his reply he encouraged me to have a go myself. I didn't, since he had already told much the same story much better than I could have - and who needs a rash of lookalike stories blooming all over the web? Time has erased Scaryduck’s archive from much of the public consciousness, and so it is now time to tell the tale of the Man Who Went Up A Mountain And Rolled Down A Wheel.

Once Upon A Time In The West (Of Welsh Wales)

Ken and I were once again in Wales, ostensibly to muck around climbing in the old slate quarries but also to do a bit of mucking around on a certain defunct narrow-gauge railway. We were staying with Ken's friend Dave, who had one of a row of cottages that faced the foothills of Cader Idris.

Everything in the area was made of slate. It was everywhere you looked. Where there wasn't sparse, short-cropped grass there was slate poking out of the earth. Slate boulders littered the countryside, cast-off from the Victorian-era slate industry that had bellied-up catastrophically long before I was born. You couldn't walk far in the hills without coming on at least one ghost village, not much more than a collection of slate walls usually, and you had to watch out when you sat on a wall (dry-stone, slate) that you weren't perched backwards over a bottomless chasm left by the slate miners1. The danger wasn't trivial, since much of the time you would be walking on slate and it rains quite a bit in Wales. Wet slate is about as easy to walk on as wet soap. The only thing that will grip on it is a pair of dry socks and that is because the water gets soaked up from the slate as you step. The men that dug the stuff out of the earth walked in boots with iron cleats in the soles. I can't think that the cleats worked very well. After a week in this town I generally went colourblind, only able to see in shades of grey and green for days after leaving Wales.

Ken was heavily involved with the local narrow gauge railway restoration effort, at the time an extremely unpopular undertaking with almost all the locals in the area. The railway was little more than some decayed buildings and abandoned track bed then. Ken, still at school but already showing signs of being a master carpenter in the making, had persuaded the technology department to dig in and try their hand at coachmaking to see if a collaboration project between our school, the society and a foundry couldn't conjure a period replica railway carriage from the raw materials. To say he was keen on this whole railway thing would be a massive understatement. I just liked the view from the clifftops.

Ken and I had decided to walk into the hills that day. The sun was shining for once and we were looking forward to doing some hiking and climbing.

We set off from the cottage, which was as I say one of a row on the main road that cut west to end up at Aberlefenni or some such place, crossed the road, navigated the ditch on the other side of the road and began the ascent up "the hill". Said hill, following a pattern common in that part of the country, had a slope that put the ground approximately at eye-level when one stood upright on it if memory serves. What can I say? We were young and knew not the meaning of the phrase "coronary infarction".

We were about halfway up the hill, almost to the edge of the first abandoned village when I found it. A cast-iron railwheel, something shy of a foot in diameter with a characteristic and very hard to reproduce curved spoke pattern. Ken identified it as ultra-top desirable and then some in a heartbeat.

"We have to get it back!" he said.

I wasn't keen. We were about 3/4 of an hour up the mountain, still in sight of the main road and the row of cottages we'd started from. We intended to loop around the mountain and would be coming back some distance to our current left. We would, experience said, also be completely knackered after climbing all over the mountain. I remember that the joy of walking downhill to the road was often offset by the need to walk gently uphill along that road for a mile afterwards to get back to the house. Anyway.

We dithered about the wheel for quite a while. It was far too heavy to lug with us. It was far too high up to leave and come back to another day (our itinerary was full of other walking/climbing stuff too and no-one wanted to cancel one of those epic feats of derring-do). These conditions were perfect for creation of an innovative solution to the problem at hand. Unfortunately, it was also at this point that Mr Brain, whom I would later realise would never let a golden opportunity like this pass him by, began to work insidiously for my downfall.

I looked at the wheel. Round, with a flange on one side. It was heavy and would exhibit a considerable bias were one to roll it along the floor. It would, in fact, roll in a huge arc.

I looked at the mountain. Steep (apart from the bit we were currently standing on). Soft, except for the bits of slate sticking out of it. Mostly flat if you ignored the village we were standing in and the boulder-choke around the ditch at the roadside. A plan formed as subliminal trumpets played "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and the sun touched the very edge of a ruined house wall to my back.

"We could roll it down" I said.

Ken did a little dance on the grass and yelled that it would be stupid to risk shattering the wheel on a boulder just because we didn't want to climb up here again tomorrow.

"No! We'll roll the thing thataway! It'll curve right around over there and come to a stop. We'll only need to climb halfway up tomorrow!" I urged.

I imagine my eyes were aglow with my own "brilliance" at this point. Whatever it was, my evangelical powers persuaded Ken that I knew what I was talking about (Ken may actually have been the first person to experience the roller-coaster emotions resulting from that assumption but he should comfort himself that he was by no means the last). I positioned myself and set the wheel rolling. It promptly fell over. I tried again, but the same thing happened. The flange was simply offset too far for the wheel to roll.

Unless. Unless I tipped it radically off-center and rolled it more directly down the hill. From the fevered chambers of Mr Brain 'twas but a moment's work to finally get the damned wheel moving according to the new plan.

A sad mistake

The wheel promptly turned to follow the slope and began to gather speed at an alarming rate. It also, bafflingly, showed no tendency to turn whatsoever, instead adopting an arrow-straight trajectory on the steepest, shortest path to the main road2 and the houses! Azathoth, I could see that already the wheel, less than halfway down the hill, was traveling fast enough to punch a hole straight through the slate walls of the houses down below and also through anyone unreasonable enough to be standing behind them.

I began to gibber and dance in place as the wheel, now with the bit between its teeth and firmly infected with speed madness leapt several feet in the air to clear what must have been an insignificant clod of earth. The energy it represented was considerable, whispered some tattered remnants of Mr Fischer's A-Level Physics class on kinetics. I looked wide-eyed at the ditch. The wheel was on course to run down the ditch, up the other side and launch itself like some cast-iron exocet into the second storey of one of the cottages (although I comforted myself that I couldn't be positive it was Ken's friend's house it was aiming for). Both Ken and I stood with our mouths hanging open in shear terror and disbelief at this totally unpredictable fiasco in the making. Someone was screaming quietly. I think it might have been me.

In a surprisingly short time the wheel ran down the ditch and slammed into the opposite slope whereupon it leapt vertically about twenty feet into the air and about a foot backwards. It crashed down again, laying a fantail of loose slate pebbles in its wake and repeated the process, this time only getting to about twelve feet in altitude. A couple more bounces and it was all over.

I swallowed, pushed my eyeballs back into their sockets and said "There you go, Ken".

Ken, overcome by euphoria at the elegance of my solution to the vexing wheel problem stopped throwing up and playfully tried to kill me with a lump of slate.

1: Slate was mined by cutting into a vertical face of slate cliff, then tunneling down. A slate mine looks like a quarry with a huge (and I do mean huge) pit at the foot of the cliff. Guard rails were usually rotted and gone. It wasn't the sort of place many people came for fun, really.
2: I had not noticed, until that moment, the cars