Monday, July 17, 2006

Happy Birthday to Me (Almost)

It's my birthday next week. I asked for a guitar. Mrs Stevie was in a gifting mood since I bought her tickets for "Spamalot" for her birthday (next month) and so was willing to entertain yet another instrument cluttering up the house. She immediately grasped that purchasing a guitar was fraught with descisions that had to be made in order to have a playable instrument of decent quality. "What colour do you want?" she asked.

I gently suugested that the colour didn't really matter to me alongside such requirements as "steel strung", "accoustic", "properly engineered" (with total admission that I had little to no knowledge of what constituted "good" vs "bad" guitar engineering) and "decent quality". I suggested that we forego buying on the internet in this instance and instead adopt a policy of actually visiting guitar shops and asking the keen young people in the guitar sections to make suggestions and demonstrate guitars in our price range. We did, after all, live within easy commute of Sam Ash and Manny's Music, two Manhattan stores of international repute in the music biz (which is what we musicians call business). I did a bit of elementary research on the 'net and found that the choices were few when it came to well-regarded brands of guitar in my price range, and reluctantly thought that I might have to consider a non-name brand.

Thus, on Saturday we decamped on a whim in the early afternoon to "The Guitar Center", a specialist store just off the Commack Road, it being the nearest, with a view to starting what might be a very lengthy process of rubbish rejection and bullshirt filtration. Not. The staff at TGC were very helpful, and they worked with us to select and demonstrate instruments that would be playable and sellable in the event that the Steviefingers proved unamenable to guitar-twiddling. The young lad who helped us was gently amused by Mrs Stevie's fixation on colour but not sneeringly so and was quite understanding when it came to "play that one. Now play that one. Now that one again." End result: We ended up purchasing there and then, a rather mellow-toned guitar bearing the name "Mitchell", the store's own brand. Mrs Stevie chased me out of the guitar humidor (really, that's where they keep them) while she closed the deal for the instrument, a soft case and a floor stand. The Stevieling dragged me into the keyboard showroom and proceded to pick out a theme from Lord of the Rings on a Roland professional grade keyboard (which had a nice piano action I might add) even though she doesn't play keyboard instruments at all, then into the drum showroom where she demoed a set of tom-toms for my pleasure. After that it was off to Friendly's for ice-cream, then back home so Mrs Stevie could wrap up everything so it would be a surprise next Saturday.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Dancing in New York - The Mumbai Knee-Jerk

On Wednesday, in a bizarre "ramping up" of "security", two State Troopers were standing outside the Wyandanch LIRR Station-house. They made no move to board the train, nor was there any visble police presence on the train during my ride to Brooklyn. Where I was bag-checked1, presumably because word is out that I have a less-than-stellar view of the LIRR sometimes. Wednesday evening we had terrific thunderstorms, and to celebrate the LIRR first rescheduled my train to another track2 then drove it into a dead section of track3 filled with other stranded trains at the Queens/Nassau County border, reinforcing my high opinion of the competence of the dispatchers. We backed out to Queens Village in surprisingly short order4 and were able to switch tracks, pick up speed and drive back into the thunderstorm (which was travelling East) in time for a good soaking as we walked to our cars.

Thursday, there was one State Trooper standing halfway down the platform. He also made no move to board the train and there were no badges or uniforms in evidence other than the usual LIRR ones. The LIRR was not hampered by bad weather all day, and was thus forced to deliver me relatively on-time both to work and to my home again afterwards. Well done LIRR. The bag-swipe station was still in action, but I was allowed to pass through the turnstile to the subway sans chemically wiped bag.

Today (Friday) there was a State Trooper sitting in a cruiser parked fifty feet from the eastermost end of the platform on the other side of the road. The LIRR performed flawlessly. The bag-check was there, but I was not asked to hand over my bag.

I have no idea whether terrorists are in actual fact targetting the LIRR. I expect they have all been frightened off by federal pokings into my bank accounts and phone call logs, but I have to say that were I in fact a desperate fellow, determined to blow up the LIRR with my luggage, one State Trooper seated so far away he/she couldn't possibly see me on the platform at the station-house end wouldn't be much of a deterrent.

For the record, I firmly believe that the only way to deal with a campaign of urban terrorism is enhanced vigillance from the urbanites themselves. If I were to level a complaint about the State and Federal responses to the terrorists it would be the lackluster attempts at public information dissemination. No prime-time TV ads telling people what to look for and what to do in the event of a suspicious package coming into their perception. As an ex-pat Englishman I know the power of such commercials. All the ex-pats here complain that drivers in NY don't dip/dim their headlights. What they often forget is that the only reason they have good habits in that area is the ads that ran from the 60's through the 80's with the "Dip, Don't Dazzle" slogan. Were proper informational/indoctrinational materials broadcast into the prime viewing of people in NY I am certain that it would be money well spent compared to the millions that are beinmg thrown around now trying for a technological quick-fix - something I am certain will never be practical.

1: A chemical wipe was swabbed around me zips. It was dead embarrasing.
2: It isn't the re-tracking that bothers everyone, It is the rather annoying fact that every time it happens the 6:04 Ronkonkoma train is not assigned a track until the 6:07 Babylon one is safely in dock. This pattern of passenger abuse is also de rigeur at Penn Station. All the important people (such as LIRR CEOs and so forth) live on the south shore apparently.
3: It happens. Lightning trips breakers or causes deadfalls that block the track. But why oh why do they continue to run trains into a blocked section? Do the dispatchers really believe that if they load the track enough the problem will suddenly self-correct? Are they, in fact, morons? I know which I'm betting on.
4: SOP is to sit for 10-20 minutes, then announce that we are in a dead section and that the railroad is deciding whether to have us wait or reverse out to the nearest switch and change tracks, wait ten more minutes, make the announcement again, wait ten minutes, announce and immediately pull forward and continue the journey. Two minutes into this progress, announce that we are now moving. This is know as the "Well, Duh" school of public information.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Communications Breakdown

Mrs Stevie and I have just about had it up to here (*makes inverse horizontal karate chop-like gesture on forehead*) with T-Mobile's "service", which includes lousy signal strength at work (though I suspect that was more the fault of the Motorola phone than the service, as a comparison with Ted's T-Mobile Nokia showed great differences 'twixt their reportage of signal strength), lousy reception even when signal strength is good and more holes in the network than my underpants.

Any call made on the train home would drop in three or four locations and the Commack Road (which features large in our breakfasting and warehouse outlet shopping lives) had several whopping dead spots too. We decided to switch to Cingular.

Mrs Stevie went and sorted out new phones (in consultation with me) for us and added the Mrs Steviemom and the Stevieling (who had recently successfully lobbied us for a phone of her own) to the account.Mrs Stevie, The Mrs Steviemom and I ended up with Nokia flip-phones and the Stevieling got a Sony-Ericksson because she "didn't want a black one". So far so good.

Last night Mrs Stevie picked up the phones and had the SIM card contents transferred to the Cingular/Nokia SIM1. I arrived in theater and Mrs Stevie suggested decamping to IHOP for dinner and phone phiguring-out. I figured out the Stevieling's phone and paged through the tones until she found one she liked and we set it as the default ring tone. Total time spent - 5 minutes and a brief look at the manual. The interface was different to the Motorola I was used to, but it made sense. Then I tried to figure out how to play the ringtones in my Nokia, since the default one sucked mightly. And tried. And tried. Eventually, the only thing I figured out was that the earpiece (not required for ringtone sampling of course) was broken.

Once we got home I exchanged the SIMS in my phone and the one we were going to present the Mrs Steviemom2 and began an hour long voyage of discovery with intense and repeated reference to the manual, which was very poorly written I might add). I have had many discussions with people about the intuitiveness of various User Interfaces, but in this one Nokia have engineered the finest example of a truly impenetrable UI I have seen in over 30 years in the UI business. This thing could truly be the answer to thwarting Al Qeda, since it is all-but impossible to figure out even when you know what you are doing and have the manual in front of you.

In order to select a ringtone and play it you must:

  1. open the phone & click the center button to bring up the main menu
  2. locate and click the spanner/wrench (so far, so obvious)
  3. tab down to "Tones" and click on it
  4. Tab down to "Tone" and click on it
  5. Click on "Open My Stuff" (WARNING! Do not click on "Tones" or you will be in the "Download Ringtones" submenu system)
  6. Tab down to "Tones" and click on it
  7. Tab down to "Tones" and click on it (WARNING! Do not click on "Alert tones" as his will bring you to the ring style selection submenu)
at which point you will be presented with a selection of ringtones that can be played by tabbing to them. No, I didn't inadvertantly duplicate any of the steps. That's really what has to be done and really what the rather stupid selections are named that will certainly cause one to go wrong at least once during the rather obviously important step of finding an acceptable ringtone. Even the outer design is dimwitted. They have doen away with the green and red phone sigils for "answer" and "hang up", replacing them with green and red angles at the corners of the square multi-function button. It looks really nice with the two blue angles in the top corners. I imagine if one has red-green colourblindness (the most common kind, I am told) this phone moves from being just incredibly annoying to figure out to damn-near impossible. A triumph of form over function. The Nokia engineers must be proud.

I am moved to wonder why the phone designers don't use the same vision as arcade video game designers, who abandoned displaying instructions twenty years ago on the grounds that if a game was so complex to play that people couldn't figure it out by watching it, no-one would spend money to play it. Look. It is a phone. It may well have an FM radio, camera, IM client, games and Azathoth knows what else but the primary use for the thing is to make and recieve phone calls. The phone functions should be easy to use and get-at-able without recourse to a manual as thick as a bible and as user-friendly as income tax instructions. I need to be able to figure out how to add an e-mail address to the phonebook without the manual, like I could with the Motorola. A learning curve is unavoidable (assuming the phone manufacturers never do the obvious and put their heads together and come up with a standard way of approaching menu-driveldriven phone features), but the Nokia guys have built a learning wall in this little beauty. Four mushroom clouds for design from Consumer Stevielabs.

1: And here was I under the impression that the whole point of SIM cards was that they would work in every phone for every network as a benefit to the consumer. Silly me. 2: I pity the poor woman if she ever needs to do anything halfway clever with this bloody phone. She finds anything technical not involved with food preparation to be problematical, by which I mean that although she struggled with the DVD player she has no problem with the controls of a microwave oven that I find all but impenetrable.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The New Job, The Pancakes and The Bloody Long Island Rail Road

So, yesterday Mrs Stevie began her new job, leaving the one she has held for lo these many years for greener, or at least, more pastel shaded pastures. This meant that she was quite nervous, and she rose at around 4:30am for her inaugural cup of Espresso Grande waking the entire household in the process.

I managed to remain in bed until my more accustomed 7 am by dint of extreme bloody mindedness, and rose to find hostilities 'twixt Mrs Stevie and the Stevieling well underway with much screaming, gnashing of teeth, name-calling and so forth very much the order of the day. The Stevieling was also joining in the badinage. The basic diplomatic sticking point between them revolved around the Stevieling's desire to dawdle over her pancakes and Mrs Stevie's desire to leave this minute for her new job lest she be a couple of minutes late. I decided to derail any further internecine warfare by offering to ferry the Stevieling to her grandparents (from where she embarks for the trip to the music camp she is attending all summer) rather than allow the good neighbours of La Chateau Stevie to witness the fun, despite the fact that this would definitely cause me to miss my train and make me a minimum of twenty minutes late for work. Mrs Stevie snarled something that approximated to agreement and left, the Stevieling eventually finished her flat batter puddings and was driven to her grandparents and I arrived at Wyandanch station just as the rain began to fall.

It was all proceeding rather along predicted lines until we reached Mineola (named after a long-unavailable miniature electronic keyboard) where the train stopped and an announcement was made to the effect that we had a medical emergency on board and the train was being held indefinitely until assistance could be rendered.

The announcement was repeated every five minutes as the rain steadily increased in volume and force.

After the third time I stood up and yelled "Look, this is stupid. We are two hundred feet from Winthrop hospital! Let's get four hefty guys and carry the poor sod to the Emergency Room!" This suggestion was brutally snubbed in favour of an alternate plan. The conductor told everyone that they could cross the tracks and board a train that would arrive "soon". Everyone around me began the "I think we should do it. Should we do it? I'm going to. Are you?" chant with me slipping in the occasional "No" when called upon to respond to the catechism. About ninety percent of the passengers disembarked into monsoon conditions and I snuggled down in my suddenly palatial-width seating. The train arrived. It was a double-decker and was packed so full of people that it looked like some student stunt from the 1930's. No-one was getting on it from what I could see. At which point the conductor says "we're moving" and prompts a stampede of soaking wet would-be passengers back into the train they had abandoned five minutes before, lured by the lorelei promise of "another train".

We eventually made Jamaica station, only to have to wait for another train parked in front of us to move. Apparently, our train was not expected to actually arrive there and so no-one had cleared a track for it. I changed trains and we proceeded to Brooklyn as the heavens showed us a thing or two in the line of deluges of biblical proportions. I viewed this increasingly inclement weather with a jaundiced eye, partly because I have jaundice but mostly because my anti-rain protection consisted of an "outback" style Aussie fedora, shirt and light slacks. Had I planned for such weather I would have traded that outfit for a diving helmet, oilskins, waders and a canoe.

I arrived at work late and so wet I would honestly have been drier if I had leapt into the Hudson River. I contemplated putting my shirt into the microwave for a few seconds, but reflected that with my luck running the way it was I would probably end up melting the buttons and setting it on fire. As it was it dried out, mostly, by lunchtime, at which point someone tipped half a cup of coffee over it so I had to wet it down again to remove the stains. Thus I arrived home that evening wrinkled like a prune on account of having not dried out for eight and a half hours.

I wandered round to the swimming pool, still sporting its winter cover that I had deployed on July 4th in order to prevent a repeat of last year's fiasco-a-la-Joe1, only to find said cover now contained about 25 gallons of rainwater which would have to be drained in order for me to remove the cover and let the sun get at the solar one underneath it. Failure to do that would of course provoke one of Mrs Stevie's "turns" so out came Mr Siphon pipe2 and the process of draining it off began. It took only about five minutes to maneuver the cover so that a single, deep pool of rainwater was formed that could be easily drained3 and to siphon the water out of the cover and onto my legs and feet. Fortunately they had just about dried out from breakfast time and so my sneakers were able to contain a couple of pints that would otherwise have drained uselessly away into the (waterlogged) ground.

With the solar cover now exposed, several goals could be met: a) the sun could warm the top three inches of water and trick Mrs Stevie into thinking the pool was "warm", 2) any further rain would go into the pool (as opposed to into the ground thence into my basement) and replace the three inches of water splashed out of it by bloody kids over the weekend and γ) nothing else that springs to mind. Fortunately I still had the presence of mind to remember to ask Mrs Stevie how her day went. She, following some feminine instinct, knew better than to ask me about mine and simply sniggered humorously as I squelched around looking for fresh clothes. I finally donned a pair of swimming trunks. Ironically, they were the only clean, dry pants I had by then.

1: Yet to be told. Watch this space.
2: An old segment of filter pump hose that had been hit with Mr Lawnmower once too often. 2 ½ feet long and an inch in diameter, I keep it around to hoover out the crap that dumps into the skimmer every time I pull the filter for cleaning. It siphons very strongly on account of the sheer volume of water that can be sucked through it every second.
3: If you have never tried to remove a water-filled pool cover, consider the weight of a full-to-the-brim five gallon  Home Despot  Orange "Homer" Bucket. Then consider the weight of four of them tied together. Then consider that the sidewalls of the pool are at nipple height. Then consider that the water is about eight inches below that. Reflect on the nature of moment arms and human arms. No, wait. Forget all that. Just take it from me that it cannot be done.