Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Little Night Madness

Hallowe'en is my favourite time of the year. I love getting dressed up in some juvenile horror-themed costume and behaving like thirty years haven't happened to me. What can I say? "Up yours" if you don't like it is what.

Each year some friends of ours who own a stonking mansion of a house run a Hallowe'en party and they have invited us for lo these many years to attend. I feel that such devotion deserves the very best efforts on our family's part in order to wring the maximum enjoyment from the event. The best we ever did was to have Mrs Stevie and I turn up dressed as aliens in costumes that concealed us so well the hosts eventually had to give in and ask us if we were who they thought we were. Last year we repeated the theme and included the now old-enough to come along Stevieling. This unreasonable crimp on the young lass's creativity caused a row that lasted for many weeks so this year no attempt was made to enforce a family theme. In the absence of any sort of agreement on so much as a trend in our choices of costume, I improvised.

I decided to celebrate my body hair this Hallowe'en with an "Urban Werewolf" portrayal and began growing out my hair for it in July. For three months I withstood the increasingly strident taunting by my colleagues, staying true to my vision. I would wear my suit to the party, combing my hair and beard out wildly. Once inside the door I would remove my jacket to reveal that my shirt was shredded, allowing much of my body hair to be observed by one and all. It would be a great triumph, especially if anyone threw up like they did when I took off my shirt at our pool party last July. My fallback position would be to don green "rotting corpse" makeup and go as Gerry Garcia, whom I was beginning to resemble more than passingly. All bets covered and everything on course for merriment, undead-style.

Mrs Stevie then wistfully grabbed me in a choke hold and opined that she wished she could attend the event in her Victorian costume bought for the murder mystery party these same hosts held about three years ago. I said that I felt she should go as anything she liked, and I could help her since my own "werewolf" idea was coming together nicely. Mrs Stevie applied a passionate hammerlock and explained that she thought it would work better if we went as a themed couple. I pointed out that werewolves could be of any era, but my particular plan called for the wearing of my suit and though not perhaps in the height of current fashion it wouldn't pass for Victorian since they hadn't invented the Nehru jacket or 40" knee-bag trousers then. Mrs Stevie then demonstrated her ipon-seonagé followed by her signature pile-driver and explained that she felt we should both wear our murder mystery togs in order to create the illusion that our family was a tight-knit unit and not just a bunch of people having the misfortune to live under the same roof. I defended my "werewolf" idea hotly, with many fiendish arguments but eventually came to see her point of view as I settled into the barber chair. A quick session with Mr Clippers and Mr Braun and I once again resembled Nigel Green in his portrayal of Colour Sergeant Bourne in the movie "Zulu".

Fortunately, events took a turn Steviewards when we arrived at the party to discover that the host’s au pair, a delightfully perky Danish lady of about 19 years, had invited a baker's dozen of her au pair friends and the house was overrun by giggly international crumpet of a very satisfying calibre. By judicious moving from room to room I was able to engage many of these vivacious young women in lively debate without the presence of Mrs Stevie who disapproves of au pairs, youth and happiness in approximately equal amounts. I felt sorry for the young things, since the one guy at the party of their own age, who was supposed to bring some of his friends to meet them, had decided (in a moment of brilliance the like of which has not been seen since Hitler looked around and said "It's a bit crowded in this country, let's find some more room") to “forget” to invite them so he could have his pick of the crop. This plan succeeded right up until the time he was called upon to actually talk to them, at which point it dawned on him that he would have been more heroic in their eyes by sticking to the original plan since there was no-one there who could prompt him to talk about himself or egg him on to relate tales of his derring-do. Those au pairs not entranced by my own tales of tool-related environmental dominance (which was, bafflingly, most of them that spoke English) went and hid in the host's au pair's apartment.

Hallowe'en itself brought on much cursing, swearing and a spot of emergency tool usage in a hazardous environment. For the last two years we have added a new dimension to our Hallowe'en tableau with a fog machine. Anyone who has used one of these outside knows that the fog generated has a tendency to rise, since it is made of vapourised glycol and water and the air outside is on the cool side this time of year. I combat this with a homemade device to chill the fog, which helps to keep it sticking to the floor. The device is essentially an old beer cooler with a netting pipe running through it. Ice (about 45 lbs or 18 kilos if my metrimaths is working right) is packed into the cooler to form a pipe of ice through which the fog is routed. It all works about as well as can be expected which is to say the fog wells out of the delivery pipe at a reduced speed but does stick to the ground.

If the air is still.

Unfortunately, the air was not still last night so the fog had a tendancy to disperse quickly. However, that problem paled into insignificance when the fog machine abruptly stopped working about two puffs after coming to the boil. Hurried fabrication of a "pricker" to clean out the orifice didn't cause it to suddenly start working again, so I unplugged it, decamped to the kitchen and began diagnosing the problem.

I could hear the pump motor, but it seemed much reduced in volume and I decided it must have become blocked. I decanted all the fog juice out of the thing into one of Mrs Stevie's saucepans (naturally, I had filled the fog machine reservoir just before it broke down) and tried running the machine with a charge of water in it in the hope it would shift the blockage. No joy. I would have to resort to some warranty voiding tactics. I broke out Mr Screwdriver and removed a dozen screws holding the metal case together and pulled off the top to reveal the chassis and fog-making gubbins inside.

There was a large fiberglass-wrapped parcel just behind the orifice, a transformer, some spliced wires and the tank/pump assembly. Remarkably few bits and pieces really. The design of these things isn't hard to understand: The power passes through the transformer and is either stepped down from lethal mains voltage to lethal sub-mains voltage levels or stepped up from lethal mains voltage to lethal higher voltage, then passes to the pump via the timer device (an external plug-in affair) and the fiberglass-wrapped heater/vapouriser. Plenty of scope for getting juiced there as you can appreciate, since all those connections are made with the assumption a nice steel cover will be in place when the power is applied. Of course, although it is strongly contra-indicated everywhere including here, it really wasn't feasible to reassemble the cover every time a test run was going to be done so the chances were good for a voltage-related fiasco before the night was out. This always gets the old juices flowing. The second circuit was the one for the fog juice. Simple enough. Juice is forced out of the pump (or not, as was the case last night) though a primitive metering device which allows the juice to return to the tank if the pressure is too high (just like the fuel delivery on the Triumph PI system used on the 2500 and TR6 marques as chance would have it) and thence to the vapouriser. First order of business was to detach the pipe from the pump outlet and pressurise it to clear any blockage. Actually, first order of business would be to either figure a way to pressurise the pipe aside from the obvious one or to check the toxicity of the fog juice since it appears to be similar to anti-freeze in makeup, but that only occurred to Mr Brain after the Stevielips had tasted of the forbidden fog-juice brew. No matter. That which doesn't kill me will only cause massive internal bleeding, neurological damage or genetic disorders. Cursing and swearing at the vile taste I grabbed first a glass of water to swill out my mouth and mucous membranes, then the fog juice bottle for any poison control center directions, located on the label under a smiling skull and crossbones icon. From what I could make out from the badly translated label the fog juice is "not for the internal use or applications unlike from the making of foog" but wasn't outright toxic. Once the headache had subsided and the double vision reduced to a manageable level, I began a tankectomy with a view to seeing if the bottom of the pump could be removed to expose the impeller and whatever was blocking it (probably a fog-juice booger or a small bug).

As an aside, sometimes on rotary pumps it is possible to free a blockage by reversing the polarity of the motor so it runs backwards, ejecting the blockage from the intake pipe. This, for all the Trekkies out there, is the only real world case I can think of where the phrase "have you tried reversing the polarity?" actually would be a useful suggestion and not total bollocks deserving a taste of Mr Phaser. For almost every other application, reversing the polarity would likely just cause massive, expensive and irreversible damage to the electronics of the device in question, such as a sensor array. Anyone doubting this should simply reverse the polarity on their stereo and watch it burst into flames. Reversing the polarity wasn't an option on the fogger pump because a suspicious circuit board absolutely packed with polarised electronic components was permanently mounted on it preventing the improvisation of a low-volt power supply to drive it. Back to the Hallowe'en FX Debacle

The pump proved to be a sealed unit, much as I feared. In order to get it to run now, I would have to use an extremely technical process. I plugged in the exposed chassis, and was rewarded by an immediate crack and an actinic blue spark from a cable splice, which oddly didn't blow the circuit breaker or fuse the fog machine. Thank Azathoth for crummy oriental design and construction. Everything seemed to be working despite the impromptu SF FX so I inverted the pump, pressed the "make fog" button and whacked the pump smartly about a dozen times with the handle of Mr Screwdriver. This proved to be the right course of action and the pump let out a shriek as it span dry. I hurriedly reassembled the unit and added some water to the tank. Pressing the "make fog" button now gave me volumes of steam. Perfect! I decanted out the water and replaced it with the fog juice in the saucepan. Another quick test filled the kitchen with choking amounts of fog, so I turned on the hood over the stove and went out to mount the fog-machine on the cooler in the now-pitch-dark garden. The kids were impressed but in all honesty this year the wind was too high to use the machine to its best advantage.

As I was leaving the house, Mrs Stevie and the Stevieling returned.
"Why is the kitchen full of smoke?" demanded the Stevieling.
I was about to answer her when Mrs Stevie, blundering about in the stygian depths of the kitchen in search of the refrigerator, slipped on a small puddle of spilled fog juice and collided with the sink, discovering the saucepan with the remnants of fog juice in it. I decided to let the child figure it out for herself and retired to the garden until Mrs Stevie had calmed down.

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