Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Point Of No Sale

T'was The Day after Xmas
And All through the Mall
Folk returning their gifts
How I despise them all.

Boxing day is one of the busiest days for stores in this neck of the woods.

Not for people shopping for stuff, although there are usually some pretty agressive sales on, but because it is the day the lumpen hordes stampede into the shops to return all the tat their thick as two short planks relatives gave them in the mistaken believe that despite years of experience to the contrary, the recipient's tatstes have taken an abrupt right turn in the last day or two. If ever there was an argument for abolishing Xmas, the Boxing Day mass gift return is it.

Gift cards are popular solutions to this sort of thing, of course, but some people feel they lack the personal feel of a billious yellow sweater two sizes too large or a musical ashtray shaped like a bat skull. Not so the Stevieling, who was grateful that people gave her gift cards for books and other stuff. Today, in the absence of Mrs Stevie, we would attempt to convert some of these joyless plastic oblongs into wonderous gifts just perfect for her tastes.

The Saturday before Xmas, Mrs Stevie had asked me to "pop into" a store called "Hot Topic", a mere eight miles from anywhere I would be that day, and pick up a gift card for the Stevieling for an unspecified amount. It turned out that the store was a "goth" store, catering to young people, particularly young ladies who desire to dress in black, wear black makeup and wear their underwear on the outside. Such was my disgust at the state of undress of the sales personnel that I purchased a fifty dollar card.

I took the Stevieling to the store on Boxing Day, fighting for a parking space with the crowds of dissatisfied giftees, so that she could convert the card into tee-shirts and hoodies with "Invader Zim" characters on them. Normally I would have remonstrated with this unremunerated advertising of a popular TV cartoon character, but I was so relieved she didn't want to explore the world of exo-corsetry that I said nothing discouraging, adult or sensible.

We got to the check-out desk where an very personable pair of salesgirls were perkily taking care of things. I traded some witty banter with one of them, who jokingly set the mall security on me, after which the Stevieling attempted to redeem her gift card. Twenty minutes went by in which the clerks called various support hotlines because the computer would not recognise any sort of electronic cash. No credit cards. No debit cards.

And no Hot Topic Gift Cards

We ascertained that the problem was not state-wide (working in the industry, as I do, I had no faith in the holiday-period staff getting things up and running again in any short order) and made a dash for the Massepequa1 mall, where they had another store.

After fighting to get a parking space with an even more determined crowd of disgruntled gift recipients, we found ourselves in a smaller, noisier version of the store we had quit half an hour before.

"Are your computerised card readers up and running?" I screamed at a young man who was wearing a Hot Topic tee shirt and was possessed of the most unfortunate combination of facial piercings and acne I have ever personally witnessed on a human being.

"Should be!" he howled back, straining to be heard over the thrash deathmetal "music" being rendered at volume 11 on the P.A.

With this encouragement we raced around the store reacquiring the garments we had so recently managed to avoid buying and got on line.

And stood.

And stood.

And stood.

When I saw young Pimply Shrapnel Face race for a back room I intuited the reason and said to the Stevieling that I thought we might be seeing the same problem as we had in Bayshore. She moved to the front of the line with many "excuse me please"s and asked "Excuse me sir, but are your computers broken down?"

The collection of misfit disenfranchised goff yoof standing around adopted startled and disbelieving expressions at the olde worlde politeness of the Stevieling, but were then shocked to hear the staff member reply in the affirmative (since none of them had thought to ask why they hadn't moved towards a cash register since getting on line eight months ago).

I told the Stevieling that I thought we were in for the same nonsense we got in Bayshore, and that unfortunately, if I had to listen to more than a minute more of what was passing for music I would be forced to go on an extended rampage of unimaginable violence that would likely get me arrested and her kicked out of the mall with no ride home.

We left Hot Topic purchaseless. Again.

I offered to go back to Bayshore on the off-chance someone had had an attack of competence, but she wouldn't hear of it. We stopped in at Waldenbooks and managed to get two books she was looking for despite the staff trying their level best to ignore us, and we left the hateful anti-consumer environment of the Westfall Mall2, never to return in my case. I know when I'm not wanted.

Mrs Stevie has offered to go back to the Bayshore store with the Stevieling tonight to re-re-attempt consumerism. The child didn't look as enthusiastic as she did yesterday. Possibly due to the fact that shopping with Mrs Stevie is a never-ending torment as she adds one store after another to the itinery and turns a four minute foray to buy a bar of soap into a six-hour marathon ending in her carrying eight bags of stuff into the house, or possibly due to the fact that Mrs Stevie just isn't as much fun to be out with as I am. I dunno.

It does mean that I can squeeze a short game of laundry basket Fashion Model in before they all get home though.

  1. "Mass-uh-PEEK-wa"
  2. The official name of the mall everyone calls "The Massepequa Mall"

Taking Stock

Arrr! Let's Take a Gander at the Booty, Me Hearties!

Xmas came and went in a very satisfying manner this year.

Santa delivered the following well-deservéd rewards to yours truly:

a):The "Definitive Director's Cut and this time I mean it" of Blade Runner, which came with all the other "definitive" versions of the film, oodles of documentary-like things, a frame with an animated scene from the movie1, a folder of concept art, a plastic statue of the origami unicorn and a small metal model of the police hovercruiser to play with when the movie gets boring. All packaged in a silvery plastic attaché case. It's dead good. Thank you Mrs Stevie.
2):A DVD of the Call of Cthulhu silent movie. This is a brilliant visualisation of the old 1930s H.P. Lovecraft short story. Doing the whole thing as a 1920s silent movie with el cheapo sets and stop-motion animation was nothing short of inspired. Thank you Stevieling.
♣):A brand new model 425 Workmate, what can clamp stuff vertically and comes with an additional leaf for the work surface in case you need to play cards on it or something. It's so beautiful I cried. The mechanism to enable one hand vise tightening leaves a lot to be desired and I predict it will wear out before the mechanism loosens up enough for it to work as the designer envisioned2 but that doesn't really matter to me. The important thing is that I have one, thanks to Les In-Laws.
™):The complete series of Space: Above and Beyond on DVD. Oo-rah!
þ):Two pairs of stain-resistant trousers. Apparently Mrs Stevie thinks my work is more exciting than I do.
n+1):This year's Hess truck. Hess trucks are an institution in this state, and I have a collection I started in 1993. Hess issues a new design every year, featuring working lights. Some years the truck is a tractor-trailer rig with some load or other3, some years the truck is something different like an RV or fire truck. This year's is a big wheeled monster truck. It's dead good, and has two friction drive motor cycles (with working lights of course) in the bed.

Santa was also good to the others in the house, delivering stuff I was too busy playing with examining my Hess truck or playing with evaluating my Workmate or playing with the Blade Runner hover cruiser examining the contents of my Blade Runner kit to make detailed notes of. DVDs and stuff. They seemed happy.

I love Santa.

  1. Achieved using superimposed polarised images. It is refreshing to see that technology in use when I was a toddler hasn't died out completely
  2. The original versions of this offered on other people's "clone" workmates involved a manually-activated clutch to link or unlink the cranks. Black and Decker opted for a sort of spring-tensioned ratchet that spends entirely too much time slipping and wearing away the engaging dogs on the clutch mechanism. WD40 and petroleum jelly have been applied to the screw threads with minimal improvement of the action. No matter. It wasn't a feature I valued on the model
  3. loads have included small cars with working lights, helicopters with working lights and spinning rotors and a space shuttle with working lights and a satellite deployed from the cargo bay, said satellite also fitted with lights and sound. Good value toys

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It Had To Happen Someday, I Suppose

With a skip full of jobs to do around the house today I was not pleased when Mrs Stevie came in from her organized religion and announced that someone had "tagged" our cedar fence.

Some years ago, in order to make sure the Stevieling could play in peace without being subjected to the fbleepckwit goings on of Crazy Joe et al next door I ran tall fencing around the perimeter of the back garden. The side of the house features a nice 70 foot long seamless cedar panel I engineered with a friend over the course of about two days or so, and it has stood as a proud testament to our constructional skills ever since. I have occasionally marveled that the long, flat surface hasn't been visited by our publicly literate youth, so today was more of a long-expected thing than a complete surprise.

It still pissed me off.

Each eight foot panel for this fence would cost a significant portion of 100 dollars to replace, depending on where I got it, and I had no pressure washer1 with which to clean the paint off. Grumbling, I grabbed a cloth and made for the scene of the crime, where it seemed that the moron responsible had run out of paint almost immediately, limiting the damage to about eight slats.

When I rubbed the paint with a cloth I found we had lucked out. The fence was so filthy that the paint hadn't keyed into the wood at all, but floated on a film of greasy grime. I grabbed a bucket and filled it with warm soapy water, and by using a scrubbing brush was able to clean those eight slats quite quickly.

As I was doing this, one of my neighbours for the other end of the street pulled up in his Chrysler LeMountainGoat and offered me the use of his pressure washer.

I was touched by this offer since I didn't really know the guy. I explained that I wasn't cleaning the whole fence, just the damaged part. His face fell a bit (as I have said before, My neighbours live in constant hope I will maintain my property better. For my part I live in hope that they will leave me in peace and stop dumping grass-killing crap on my grass verge and emptying their ash-trays along my property line. We live in a state of mutual disrespect).

The soap proved surprisingly good at cleaning the fence back to a nice orange colour though. I might use a scrubbing brush on the whole thing next year instead of a (new) pressure washer. I had no idea it would work so well. Normally the weathering is so bad that you need to fetch off a couple of thousandths of an inch of wood. Which is where the pressure washer proves itself supreme. You can turn a fence into papier maché in no time with a properly adjusted pressure washer. I digress.

So now our fence sports a nice orange stripe in a field of grey. I expect the tagger will see this as a challenge, so I am mulling ideas on how to catch the little bleeder in the act. Some sort of CCTV camera setup, but how to do it?

Ah well. We should be okay tonight. The wind has come up something fierce, which must make spray painting things problematical.

I can hear the siding trying to come off the house as I type.

  1. mine having gone south last summer

Friday, December 14, 2007

Petard, Own, Hoisting For The Use Of

Let The Merriment Commence Commencing!

Yesterday I was forced to forgo an entirely average experience at my office party and go instead for a slap-up three course dinner at a swank restaurant courtesy of Mrs Stevie's boss.

I tried to act as though it was an imposition, centering on the fact I would have to leave work a little early and catch a train that required a rush-hour connection at Jamaica, which would almost guarantee a standing ride in an already-overcrowded-by-the-time-it-left-Penn-Station train after a wait in the recently developed slush'n'sleet storm that was sweeping over the area and threatening to disrupt the commute.

I couldn't pull this off.

I arrived in Jamaica in good time, only to be greeted with the news that my connecting train was delayed because of a track fire in the East River tunnels. I walked to the end of the platform and looked back toward Manhattan, reflecting on the irony of the situation. In the East River tunnels, men were struggling to put out track fires while right in front of me I could see the eerily beautiful sight of deliberately set track fires keeping the switches from freezing solid. The entire approach to the station was punctuated by areas of luminous blue flame.

Something wasn't right though.

Every year the LIRR employees set out "sterno pots", bigger versions of the small canned jellified kerosene heaters employed on outside buffets for keeping Ziti, meatballs and Chicken Marsala hot in their tinfoil pans. Every year these intrepid crews brave the cold to pour flammables all over the point blades and set match to it. It really is a beautiful sight, if a little surreal the first time you awaken in a darkened railway car waiting to enter Jamaica station and see the blue fire dancing in the distance.

This year the flames looked entirely too regular and evenly spaced along the tracks.

I hunted around and found a slip switch1 I could observe from the safety of the platform, and could see right away what was going on. The LIRR had obviously instigated a(nother) capital improvement plan and converted the system from a sterno-pot and whatever liquid that will burn that's to hand system to a gas one. The rails appeared to have been converted to behave like a barbecue grill burner. All that was required was to turn on the gas and throw a lit something at the rail for it to burn merrily without recourse to fluids and tins of any sort.

Well done that railroad2.

I eventually caught a surprisingly empty train to Wyandanch. I surmised that the sleet storm had driven many to return home earlier in the day, lightening the commuter load during the rush hour. The drive home should prove interesting3, I thought. I wasn't wrong.

Everything, cars, sidewalks, roads, was covered with a glaze of melting4 ice.

It took me about five minutes to clear the windows of the car enough to attempt the drive home, and if it wasn't for my front wheel drive and traction-assist technology (a consequence of the ABS5) I wouldn't have made it home in time for the do. As is was I had to clear off the hood of the car after I got home and the engine had warmed the quarter inch thick ice enough to get it to lift from the metal. I shoveled the driveway and path to the door so Mrs Stevie wouldn't go a box of tacks when she got home with the Stevieling (which would only exacerbate her already hair-trigger temper6) and got changed.

The Stevieling had elected to stay home alone.

This would represent the longest she had been allowed to do that, and Mrs Stevie and I were a tad nervous about it, but at some point we had to put our full trust in her ability to deal with the world on her own and tonight would be as good a time as any. Mrs Stevie made the cooker off-limits (something to do with something put down on the hot stove last week or something, I wasn't paying attention either last night or when the incident in question happened since if they needed me to know something was wrong they knew all they had to do was demand I pay for the damage) and we set off for the 25 mph drive to the restaurant among a collection of the seasonal Long Island Panzerfürhen.

Yes, they were back in force, several divisions of them moving along the roads secure in the knowledge that a small slot scraped in the snow covering the windshield was ample for safe operation of a vehicle at speed on the public highways of Long Island. What a sight they made as they breezed along, huge chunks of ice flying off their vehicles to smash into each other and the road.

An inspiring sight.

As both of my readers will know, this behaviour disgusts and enrages me. It is dangerous. It is stupid. It is pointless, since the time saved by not clearing off your windows7, mirrors and lights8 is negligible when compared with that possibly lost in finding a new car or defending onself in court. I rant and rage every time I see this downright dangerous behaviour. Which was to prove a bit embarrassing on the way home.

We had an excellent meal and passed time in good company for about three hours or so, All Hail the Mrs Stevieboss For Inviting Us To Make Merry At His Expense9 , and eventually left for home around 10-ish. I had valet parked and was not paying attention when I got the car back (no, I had not been drinking - I had had one drink at the evening's start and stuck to water thereafter). The windows were clear, so I simply pulled out onto the road, set the Steviemobile's excellent heater10 to "11" and drove carefully off through Huntington.

The roads were blessedly free of traffic, and I took the car up to 30 mph and activated the cruise so I wouldn't be lulled into going any faster. I've been driving for over thirty years now, and know well that deceptive comfy feeling that has Mr Brain saying "it's okay, you could do the full 40 mph here, the roads are clear". All to often that comfy feeling is ripped away to reveal a freezing core of sheer terror as the car, now a 40 mph bolide ceding zero control options to the screaming driver, passes over a relatively small patch of ice and the old no-claims bonus is ablated away in the crunch of metal on expensive hardthing and the shriek of tortured passenger. The cruise control is a great way of not allowing Mr Brain any leeway for treachery. I use it all the time. I was feeling all comfy and smug when we approached a set of traffic lights which abruptly changed.

No worries, we were going slowly, and I had plenty of time so I applied the brakes gently and brought us to a gentle, controlled stop, at which point the glacier I hadn't noticed sitting on the roof of the car calved and a sheet of ice slid forward to crash down over the windshield, obscuring it completely.

I sat stunned for a second, reflected on how great it was that this had not happened on, say, the expressway at high speed, then activated the hazard flashers and began to unbuckle. The ice had cracked along its length and if I was lucky I would have time to sweep aside the half covering my side of the windshield before the lights changed (Sod's law demanding that a bunch of traffic would by then be trying to get past us although the roads were empty now, speed was of the essence) and I would then be able to park and finish de-icing operations. Mrs Stevie had other ideas.

"Not you!" she snarled. "You'll get yourself run over. I'll do it". And with that she leaped from the car and began clearing the windshield.

Her side of it, the one lacking certain facilities essential for operating the vehicle, such as a steering wheel, pedal cluster and so forth. I remonstrated with the demented woman in loud, forceful terms. I was just reaching the most fiendishly constructed part of my "clean my side of the windshield, you daft sod" argument, when she heaved aside the slab separating me from the sight of her now livid face. I screamed a little, but was able to regain my former iron control while she got herself back inside the car. The lights changed and I drove to a nearby carpark to see what else might be waiting to ambush us.

While I was doing this, the Stevieling called to say she was "having shivers". We had been quite proud of the fact that the other guests at table were being bombarded by calls from their teenaged kids or their teenaged babysitters, our kid was just quietly getting on with whatever she was doing. I guess this was foolish in retrospect, since the only thing she could be getting up to was no good. We arrived home to find the poor thing throwing up in the downstairs bathroom. Once she was in a better frame of mind we began investigating possible causes.

"What did you eat tonight?" I asked her. The Stevieling has a notoriously rebellious stomach that reacts unpredictably to certain foodstuffs consumed at the "wrong" time of day.

"Some of those cookies I bought last week" she replied.

"What about earlier, at Nana's house?" I pressed.

"Oh, just the usual. Some Chicken."

"And Oreos."

"And Sausage."

She finally looked around to indicate she had finished the inventory of her evening repast.

Mrs Stevie opined that perhaps the Stevieling should cease partaking of these eclectic menus and just "eat normal things" for her dinner. She parceled the now healthy child off to bed with much kissing and fussing.

I thought on it a bit while all this was going on and came to a different conclusion. The kid had eaten her "goat special" much earlier in the day and should have gotten sick much earlier if that was to blame. Not only that, she had also gotten sick the last time she had eaten one of those cookies. The answer was, to me, obvious.

The child had shown me the way forward.

I would toss her cookies.

  1. A device to allow trains to swap between parallel tracks
  2. I have got to stop using this blog for LIRR "attaboys". It's ruining what little street cred I ever had
  3. In the Chinese sense
  4. And therefore almost frictionless
  5. Antilock Brake System
  6. Brought on by habitual coffee bingeing and working in the real estate law business
  7. Yes, all of them
  8. Which are as much for the benefit of other drivers, serving as a proximity warning, as for the convenience of the driver of the Schneepanzer
  9. 'Cos make no mistake, merriment of this quality costs one deep in t' purse hereabouts and I appreciate the gesture at a time when his business must be feeling the pinch from the burgeoning real estate/domestic economy crisis arising from the Sub Prime Mortgage Loan Debacle
  10. The Steviemobile has a specially designed coolant circulatory system that allows the engine and the heater core to warm up way faster than any other car I've had

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Confounded By Inconvenient Facts Again!

Last February I wrote a blistering critique of the lack of supply of replacement feet for the totally wonderful and incredibly spiffy Black and Decker Workmate.

The item was insightful, funny, well written and wrong in every detail1. Here is how I found out that Black and Decker have indeed made provision for getting high-quality replacement parts for your Black and Decker Workmate. I'm assuming you have one of these super-useful tools. If you don't it can only mean that you are a) New to the handyman scene and haven't had time to buy one, 2) some sort of luddite/purist who doesn't believe in using any tool designed after 1754 on the grounds it isn't proper carpentry if you do or ♣) You were put off by the thought that a mere ten years down the road one of the feet would come off and get lost. It is to this last group that this post is most directly addressed.

Last week I zipped over to Black and Decker's website to browse all things workmate, since I am in the market for the larger, slightly more spiffy2 model and wanted to drool over the explicit description of it's wanton features. I had started to do this at lunch, but my supervisor had come over and told me that my female co-workers were becoming "freaked out" over the "grunting" and "groaning" noises coming from my cubicle, and that I should continue the research at home. This was not really convenient, and I had invested much time in finding the articles, but the threat of legal action brought everything into perspective and I reluctantly agreed.

Part on my chagrin was that the Black and Decker website has enacted a curious policy towards the Workmate family of tools. Despite the fact that the phrases "Black and Decker" and "Workmate" have been associated for about thirty mumble years, so much so that when someone untooly says "Black and Decker", one can almost guarantee the next word will be "Workmate", the Workmate has no presence on the front page. There are a number of tabs to navigate to sub menus dealing with drills, saws, screwdrivers and all manner of other nifty things, but unless you know that the Workmate is listed under "Power Tools" you won't get to see one. Given that I find it incredible that the workmate doesn't have its own tab or icon on the front page, I find it absolutely incomprehensible that it should be classed as a power tool, since other than the model that incorporates a power strip in the frame, none of them can be enhanced by plugging them in, nor do they come with the necessary infrastructure to do so.

"So what?" I hear your Web 2.0-savvy selves saying dismissively. "Just use the bloody search engine and get on with your life for gosh sakes".

Well, yes, I could do that and, after taking me to a Google-like results page I would end up where I wanted, but why should people have to do that when they already know what they want, any hardware department would know what they meant by "workmate" and it has to be one of the most popular gift ideas on the Black and Decker books? Imagine a newlywed who has never been at all tool-interested trying to buy one for his or her spouse as a surprise gift. Not only are they being asked to look for something they have no idea about, but now they must "work" the website of the people that make it to find a picture of it and a list of features of the various models.


The website allowed me to revisit the question of the missing rubber foot, and to do a feasibility study on replacing the saw-dinged jaws while I was at it. I do this sort of thing for a living, and am not intimidated by a search engine, so I began caning the Black and Decker one for info about spares for the Workmate. After a good portion of an hour all I had to show for my trouble was a list of recall notices for battery powered tools. Nothing even vaguely workmate related. Once again I was confronted by the hard evidence that "data is not information".

All was not lost though. I would use the "ask our team a question" feature and get a straight answer from a human being.

I drafted a long letter in which I extolled the virtues of the Workmate and told of the numerous projects in which I had used it and waxed eloquent on how the jobs would have been much more tedious without it, and asked if I could obtain new feet and new jaws for mine, and if so, where.

I received an automated reply reiterating the list of useless "knowledge base" articles I had already consigned to the "as much use as a ham sandwich at a Jewish wedding" category, and an assurance that someone real would be contacting me, which they did a few days later. This person told me that the feet and jaws were indeed available as spare parts, and urged me to go to "Happauge3", where they have a service center at which the items could be purchased.

It follows the standard pattern for manufacturer-approved service centers and is closed on Saturday and Sunday.

In all fairness, Black and Decker provide a very useful online service center that is open 365.25 days a year (well, that's how it looks to the customer anyway). In all unfairness, they can't do anything for you without a part number, and try as I might I couldn't find an exploded diagram of the Workmate with the component part numbers called out anywhere on the site. If my Workmate came with a parts list, I lost it during the second Reagan administration when the tool was new.

So when I got an e-mail asking for feedback on the help I had received with my question (an automated quality control measure many online sites indulge in and one I usually approve of4). The process was quite brief and easy to use, and I used the time to point out that giving me irrelevant FAQ links was no help whatsoever and that the website was not conducive to effectively marketing a tool I have always held to be the most massively useful invention since Trevithick looked at his boiling kettle and thought "I could put wheels on that".

I tried to keep the tone constructive, but I might have allowed a smidgeon of whining and whingeing to seep through. I think I throttled back the chagrin and rage to a minimum, but I'm the first to admit that I don't do people, and I may have allowed my overall state of agitation to colour my responses a little.

Then the website hung when I submitted the response.

In former years, when I expected everyone in the new paradigm to subscribe to my own design and work ethic, this would have spurred a no-hold-barred email to whoever I thought was responsible with whoever I could think of that might know them CC'ed and certain rituals performed in the hope and expectation of the responsible parties being dragged into a formless abyss by creatures too horrible to view without going mad5. I am calmer these days and simply snarled, punched my stuffed face-hugger plushie6 and got on with life.

But the workings of the internet are mysterious, and the feedback was sent to someone who could read after all.

And on Monday I received a very long letter from a nice lady explaining that they were sorry I had had such a rotten experience, that they were committed to providing the best support for their range of products of which they were proud, and that in the hope I would not think badly of them they were sending me the feet and the jaws gratis. I could also take the previous advice in future and use the Hauppauge service center.

I was astounded. I re-read the whole exchange, preserved as a top-quoted email snake, and conceded that I hadn't communicated as well as I might and that my respondent's tone (in which I had detected a soupçon of righteous indignation, was perhaps understandable.

I lost no time in replying that it was extremely pleasant to discover this sort of thing7 could still happen in the world, but that I would be happy to pay for the replacement parts since I was entirely satisfied with the service the originals had given me8. I also explained that although it was good news that the nearest service center was not Westbury (as I had formerly believed), but that due to my commute I couldn't usually get to one anyway. I reiterated my happiness with the tool and stated my hope that my feedback would be more use than just a whine when it came to giving the Workmate more prominence on the website.

Though I stood9 by everything I wrote to Black and Decker, I felt like a git.

Last night I returned home to find a long, thin package addressed to me. I cast a look at the Stevieling, who said "it was on the deck when we came home" and went back to her Gameboy. Then the light dawned.

Inside the box were four shiny black rubber feet and a pair of the latest design of jaws for a Workmate 225. I stood looking at the wonders before me. It was the most beautiful sight I've seen since The Stevieling was born10 and I can't wait to exhume my Workmate and begin Operation Replace The Small Rubber Feet, One Of Which Got Lost Last Summer, And The Jaws Which Are Beginning To Lose Structural Integrity Due To My Inattention When Using Power Saws On Things Clamped In Them.

Which brings me full circle to: I take it back. I was wrong. You can get replacement parts for almost anything on a Black and Decker Workmate, including the feet.

Also: I apologize to the support staff at Black and Decker who didn't design the website and weren't to know I cannot get to their service centers during opening hours.

Later: It just dawned on me to check that the UK Black and Decker website had the same layout as the USA one, and it does not. The UK one has a reasonably prominent Workmate link under "workbenches" right there on the home page. It does not have a handy-dandy service center locator though, at least not one that I could see.

  1. including the attribution, but I knew that at the time and only credited it to Cotton Mather as a joke for Azathoth's sake!
  2. I know, it hardly seems credible but Black and Decker make a super deluxe version of the trusty 225, the model most people picture when the work "Workmate" is used in everyday conversation. It is called the 425, and features one-handed operation (no more holding the workpiece in your teeth while you tighten the variable geometry jaws on it), vertical clamping in addition to the old-fashioned horizontal kind, allowing you to squeeze things flat as well as together, and a removable insert that increases the top area for those times you need a small table to work on (no more clamping sheets of plywood to the top to make a bench). If this tool does not represent the last, best hope for world peace, I don't know what does
  3. AKA "Hauppauge". How anyone could make that mistake is beyond me
  4. I make exception for those sites that ask you to spend "a few minutes" making feedback and then lure you into a half hour, multi-page inforape that inevitably ends with the responder closing the window in frustration
  5. I never had a clear idea what they should look like, but since the Mac fiasco (ibid.) I envisage them as earnest young men dressed in black with an evangelical look in their eye and no regard for cost/benefit ratios
  6. Official Aliens Vs Predator version. I got it cheap at last year's I-Con. It's poseable. And soft
  7. Giving away stuff free. Keep up!
  8. This should have been apparent from my original mailing too, where I said as much
  9. And stand
  10. This sight displaced Mrs Stevie in her wedding dress from the top spot, which in turn displaced Mrs Stevie in her birthday suit which displaced my black TR6 and so forth back to a small steel fire engine that had a working water pump and a siren, which I got sometime around my fifth or sixth birthday

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

So Proud I Could Burst

It's that time of year again.

The time when parents gather their resources in order to hurl them at shopkeepers who provide the essential Xmas adjuncts: loot. The time when certain people have to climb ladders in all weathers just so a bunch of freeloaders can have a house that looks like a Blackpool Tram parked in the garden. The time when the church and school events are scheduled, with mandatory attendance by parents in general and Dads in particular.

I'm not a particularly avid fan of the church. For one thing I do not believe that a person has an undying part, and for another, as God is my witness, I am an atheist. I manage to avoid the place for most of the year, justifying my absence to Mrs Stevie 1 as possible blasphemy that could get her excommunicated, but attendance at two festivals is mandatory under pain of unthinkable sanctions possibly including a good, hard kick in the plums: Santa Lucia and the Xmas Special.

Santa Lucia is a Swedish festival commemorating the martyrdom of some poor woman who died for her beliefs, probably the heretical notion that women should be allowed to lie down during childbirth or that floggings should be confined to only double digit lash-counts. I honestly don't know. The festival is a highlighted by a ceremony performed by a selection of the congregation's children, and I described it in enough detail for you, dear reader, to grasp the essentials (providing you've not gone overboard on the Xmas Atmos already) here. Last year, the Stevieling was the star attraction, Lucia, and paraded around the church sporting a fir wreath headdress/candelabra2 and singing her heart out. This year, she inaugurated a new church tradition by giving the reading in which the history of the ceremony is described. This used to be done by a member of the congregation who came from Sweden and helped found the church itself, but sadly, the old lady passed away a couple of years ago. The church asked a couple of people to guest the spot, then hit on the idea last year of making it the outgoing Lucia's job. Thus the Stevieling got put in the frame for it.

She performed flawlessly, even though she was obviously embarrassed that her mother had dressed her in victorianesque clothes for some unfathomable reason (Mrs Stevie is on the cusp of finding out that the Stevieling is no longer a sort of mobile, life-sized Barbie doll to be dressed in whimsical fashion whenever the mood takes her. I don't want to be there when the levee breaks, I can tell you). She carried with her an "American Girl" doll from her collection that was dressed in the Santa Lucia costume, and used it to illustrate her short talk on the festival in the same way that the late church member had used a straw "Lucia Doll", part of the Swedish tradition.

The only fly in the ointment was that the whole ceremony had to be held in the gymnasium since the church has been gutted for renovations and isn't finished yet. The builder had sworn it would be ready during the summer, but then a series of delays such as always happen in the construction business ("Well, we could have finished, but your ceiling calls for it being covered in plaster and you just can't get it these days. It'll have to come from the plaster mills in Korea. Say, two weeks. We're also having trouble sourcing these brick things your architect asked for.") had slowed thing down until the date for Xmas beat the date for finishing the church renovations to the finishing line. Pastor Hellfire has excommunicated the lot of them and put a curse on their three-ton truck too, calling for the most dreadful divine intervention in the thing's maintenance history.

Thus went Saturday.

Last night, Tuesday, I was forcéd to attend a "musical evening" at the high school.

Understand that I've watched many of these young people suffer with their art for a number of years. Sometimes it's been a toss up who was suffering more, the players or the audience, but this time the evening started with a bang.

The high school has a swing/jazz "big" band, heavy on the saxes and horns, and they are bloody good. professional quality and I'm not kidding. It was an all-too-short pleasure to listen to these young musicians strut their stuff. They still have a ways to go before they individually become the jazz stars they so obviously want to be, but by the cringe, they are good. I don't remember ever hearing a band sound this good with young people of this age supplying the talent, outside of those national televised contests you sometimes come across. These young men and women will go far.

The rest of the evening was about what I expected. Strings played by kids with a slightly less approximate idea of where the fingers should be than they had the last time I saw them, hesitant wind instruments and so forth. The whole thing was made infinitely more tedious by the groups of their peers who had come to watch but then proceeded to yap through the entire thing, not shutting up even during the quiet passages. They learn this from their parents, some of whom were showing them how it was done that night too.

Why do people come to these events if they don't want to listen? I didn't have a kid on stage until the end of a two hour plus performance, yet I would rather leave the auditorium than gab throughout the performance. How can holding a conversation during a recital be satisfying? You can't hear what the other ignorant git is saying to you without asking them in a loud, carrying voice to speak up, after all. Why go to all the trouble and annoyance of attending the damn thing if you aren't interested in the slightest in what is going on during it?

It's a good job I'm not packing heat at times like this.

The last to come up to bat were the choir, featuring the Stevieling and about 100 others, and they were wonderful with a capital won. I thought I couldn't be more impressed, then they finished with The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah and they blew my socks off. Literally. Shoes blown to smithereens3, socks last seen leaving the auditorium at just under the speed of sound, trouser cuffs severely shredded in backblast revealing embarrassing ankle tattoo to all and sundry and everyone picking eyelets and bits of shoelace out of their hair. I didn't even notice. It was beautiful to hear and see.

Even if the video we got of the Stevieling was "utter crap" and could have been shot better by "A monkey with ADD and Parkinson's disease"4.

  1. Founder member of the Lutheran Ladies Auxiliary Militant, a sort of coffee-club come Inquisition who believe in putting people to The Question over a plate of sugar cookies
  2. Candelabrum? I'm not sure but I think that candelabrum is the proper name for the amount of light given off by the City of Birmingham and it's suburbs after dark
  3. A small village in The Republic of Ireland
  4. All opinions © Mrs Stevie. Permission to tell anyone who will listen granted to anyone who wants to have a go, provided it is clear who was in charge and who was given only one task: the simple job of recording a once in a lifetime event for posterity on a camera so simple Consumer Reports recommended it for ages 3 and above

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sharing The Misery

The Monday before last, I missed my train, and the next one, and as it turned out, the one after that too, despite a delay that should have had me safely on my way.

I was delayed departing from the fabulous Steviemanse by events too stupid to go into, involving me misplacing my keys, wallet, train ticket and finally my briefcase (this latter was facilitated by the tender care of The Stevieling who had dumped a pile of crap over it the night before). Such was the magnitude of this cascade of incompetence that I was late, even for the 9:33, my absolute last-ditch get-to-work-on-time train. I fired up the trusty Steviemobile and then showed the good people of Deer Park a thing or two in the line of driving. With my radio blasting I hardly heard any of the threats and insults hurled at me by those diving out of my path, although the crossing warden at the end of the street did catch my attention when she smashed her "STOP: Children" lollipop across my windshield. I had a moment of confusion during which I was convinced I was being attacked by some sort of protest movement forcefully arguing the case for family planning, then I regained control of my vehicle, raced along the sidewalk and through the supermarket car park, hung a hard right through the chicane formed by the pharmacy drive-through window, slewed a frantic left onto the street, scattering the school athletic club waiting to board a bus and I was back on my way with several seconds of time made up. Result!

My spirits soared when I saw a train obviously stopped just outside the station. I might make it yet if the railroad was undergoing one of its periodic "delays"! Then I saw the police and the yellow "Do Not Cross" tape strung all over the car park, and Mr Brain said "This not look good". There was tape everywhere. The whole carpark in front of the station (always full by the time the sun rises) was cordoned off and police were peering under cars and ducking under the platform. Not good at all.

I pulled into the large car park and halooed a fellow commuter obviously looking for his car and speaking on a cell phone. He told me there had been a fatality, as in, a train had hit someone. I thought for a moment. The incoming 9:33 would only have been doing about 30 mph when it came in. Why were the police shutting down the car park? It seemed excessive, but they sometimes make a meal out of fairly simple situations because they have had a quiet hour or two and get bored like anyone else. Action was called for.

I offered to take the commuter to Babylon with me, where I felt sure we could get a train if only I could find a parking space. It wasn't far, maybe a 10 minute drive, and I dropped off my fellow victim of the LIRR and went looking for a place to leave the Steviemobile. There were, in fact, many empty parking spaces, but all of them were "permit only". All the public parking was full.

This is, in fact, why Wyandanch is such a popular station. It has no parking restrictions at all, and people who actually live closer to Huntington and Babylon stations, where you have to pay for parking and where a permit costs one arm plus a significant portion of one leg too, drive to Wyandanch to park for free.

It's dead annoying.

I gave up and returned to Wyandanch, parked in one of the empty spaces in the west end cark park, and walked back the three miles or so to the station platform. Where I was "waved off" by a police officer.

Trains still not running then.

But a bus was about to depart for Farmingdale, where rail service was rumoured to be a fact. I boarded the bus just as it was about to leave, and we set off on a magical mystery tour.

Farmingdale station lies about a 15 minute drive from Wyandanch. It can be reached by driving along Long Island Avenue, parallel to the tracks, crossing Route 110 and continuing for a few block to the railroad station. The driver decided to discard this unworkable plan in favour of driving through a half mile traffic jam so he could fight his way onto the Long Island Expressway. This took 15 minutes, took us due north and got us actually slightly further away from Farmingdale station. Then we drove along the expressway for 5 minutes until we had passed west of Farmingdale by some distance, turned off and made our way back east to Farmingdale station itself. The bus stopped at a traffic light just before the station, and the train, which was waiting at the platform, took this opportunity to depart for New York City.

Upon walking into the station I noticed that although Farmingdale has double track working, and although service through the (single track) Wyandanch section was halted and therefore nothing would be coming from that direction, a track crew was working replacing the cross ties (UK: sleepers) on the track they were dispatching the New York bound trains on. This made a sort of twisted sense. Oh wait, no it didn't. It made no sense whatsoever. No sooner was I on the platform and wondering at the madness of putting yet more people at risk of being run over than the LIRR announced that service had been resumed.

I got into work at about 1:30 pm.

Which meant I left around 7 pm and caught an 8:15 originating in Penn Station by joining it at Jamaica. By some minor miracle there were seats available, so I got to sit down rather than the usual case in which the train is full from the get-go and anyone stupid enough to try and meet it at Jamaica (because, say, the last convenient straight-through train from Brooklyn was several hours ago) is doomed to stand until Hicksville (which is where the vast majority of these freeloading seat hogs are actually going). Today, however, I got a seat, albeit sandwiched in with a family of train noobs who had been to town for a show and weren't sure how the whole train thing worked. I wasn't worried though.

Until the train stopped and the crew announced that a train had hit someone else and all service was suspended.

The family panicked and were driving me nuts until I finally said "look, you can't get off until we move into a station. You can't smoke until you get off. We're all in the same boat and it will all be over in about an hour or so (I made that last bit up, but honestly, if these idiots didn't shut up with their "call the conductor and demand an explanation" and "I'm going to do something" one of them was going to be killed by one of my fellow commuters).

The crew kept us informed of The Plan, which started out as "We're going back to Jamaica" and wandered around for a bit around that theme for an hour until the train actually started moving east again, at which point they stopped pretending there was a plan.

I got home around 10 pm.

The next day I found out why the police had had to cordon off the entire station. About ten minutes before the 9:33 westbound train comes into Wyandanch, an express hurtles through at about 70 mph going east. Someone had taken a sprint along the platform and swan-dived in front of this train, burst like a ripe human being hit by a very fast train and scattered his internal bits all over the carpark. The police were helping the coroner to find bits of suicidee scattered and splattered all over the car park and the cars themselves. For once I was glad I never got a space next to the platform.

I dunno. Granted that the loon in question was not in his right mind. Granted he had lost all hope. Granted he didn't give a toss about the effect of his death on his family. It still sucks that he chose to go in such a way as to ruin the lives of the train driver (who by all accounts had bits of the suicidee come through the cab window onto him - he could have been killed for Azathoth's sake), the cops who had to scrape up anything remotely remains-like before the gulls and rats moved in and the commuters who were standing right there when the jumper jumped.

He leapt from the place I would have been standing had I not been delayed.

As for the evening casualty, he (or she, I don't know for sure) was apparently walking along the track bed. In the dark.

To the ghost of the gentleman from the morning episode: I'm sure that there was some point to doing the deed in the way it was done, but given that you can't be around to gleefully observe the results, why make it so nasty for everyone, you git?

To the ghost of the person from the evening. Stay off the tracks. Whoops, too late.

Maybe what we need is those places like the one in which Edward G Robinson opted out in the movie Soylent Green1.

And once again I find myself defending the LIRR, who were absolutely blameless in all of this nonsense (with the possible exceptions of hiring an incompetent bus driver and deploying the usual "keep flubbing until it all goes away" plan in the evening). In a blog concieved primarily as a way to vent at the LIRR too. It makes me ill just to think about it, though probably not as ill as my fellow commuters feel every time they think about what they saw that morning.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

  1. Which, if I heard right, is actually purple

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Unbearable Naffness of Being

It has been a while since I posted in this venue, owing largely to the intrusion of life in my, er, life, which has crowded out all leisure-like activities.

For one thing I had to dispose of a three and a half foot long, 18 inch diameter log the tree fellers left on the curb at the corner of the property. I decided to do this on the last Sunday in November, the one after Thanksgiving. The deck at the front of the fabulous Steviemanse was also beginning to show the inevitable results of not waterproofing the cedar decking for two seasons. One of the planks felt distinctly springy. I resolved to replace it on Thanksgiving Thursday. What a weekend of productive handymanism it would be!


Thanksgiving dawned and I leaped from my bed, dressed and ran to the Steviemobile for a quick trip to Home Despot to get replacement cedar planks. I learned a valuable lesson that morning. It turns out that against all expectation, Home Despot does close on at least one day of the year. Thanksgiving.


I decided to play computer games instead until we were made to go to the In-Law's for dinner, and do the job on Friday.


Friday was lost to trying to understand the computer game "Sid Meyer's Civilization".

It's not my fault. Mrs Stevie bought me this game last Christmas, but it came with an instruction book about a quarter of an inch thick1 which put me off trying it out for, what, ten months or so. I love complex games. I used to play SPI military simulations and they read like the Tax Code in places. But I like my computer games intuitive and easy to pick up. "Sid Meyer's Civilization" is anything but.

Mrs Stevie meant well. For years I have bemoaned the loss of my gaming fraternity, and have often cried to the four winds2 that I could no longer scare up a game of Civilization, a perennial favourite from my once-huge collection of Avalon Hill games in which players vie to get their assigned people from the late stone age into the iron age. "Sid Meyer's Civilization" would seem on the face of things to be a perfect solution to this dilemma. If the computer game played more like the board game it would be, but it bears only a superficial resemblance and lacks the face-to-face byplay that was a big part of the point of the exercise in my gaming days. "Sid Meyer's Civilization" is actually a retread of a game called "Sim City" and as a result, far too much time is wasted on micro-managing the cities you build during a game instead of working strategically to beat the others into the Iron Age.

I'm not saying that the game is bad, far from it. It represents a truly staggering amount of work and once one understands how the damn thing works can be engrossing3. Gaining that understanding is a laborious and not altogether enjoyable process from my viewpoint though. Your Mileage May Vary, and if you enjoy playing Sim City to the bitter end (I don't) you will certainly find the additions "Sid Meyer's Civilization" makes to the game interesting.



Saturday dawned and so did the realisation that if I didn't get Mr Finger out and fix the deck, Mrs Stevie was going to do me some serious nagasaki5. Action was called for.

I dashed down to Home Despot (now open) and selected three new planks for the deck. This gave me two insights:

 a) Cedar planks are expensive.
 2) The surface of the deck was worth about a yard and a half6.

I looked at the deck with a new found respect for the phrase "Thompson's Waterproof Deck Sealer"7. I vaguely remember the damned thing costing a few hundred bux to build back in 1996 or somewhen thenabouts but had not kept up with the inflation in the precut cedar decking market. Still, no real harm done and it would be easier than I thought to replace the stair tread damaged by a tree fall last spring, since upon measuring it it didn't need me to make it narrower than a standard decking plank8 and could just drop in a new piece after cutting off about 6 inches of length9.

I removed the screws using Mr Drill-Driver. A satisfying number of them snapped off or were jammed so tight I had to drill off the screw heads, prise up the plank and then use Mr Self-Adjusting Mole-Grip10 pliers to wrest the rusted ruins of the galvanised "weatherproof" screws from the furring strips I had laid over the original concrete stoop, upon which the deck is actually constructed. Once I had the springy board up I could see the problem. The underside of the deck where the old green plastic scuff-mat had been was soaked through and had been eaten11 out by carpenter ants. The furring was also waterlogged and needed to be left open to the air for a couple of hours to dry. I whipped off a couple more planks, the ones that were obviously wet underneath, but they were unmunched by freeloading Formica so were left to dry in the sun and then replaced using nice new screws. The rotten board was replaced by a new one, as was the cracked stair tread, and our grey weathered deck now has two bright orange stripes in it.

Part of the problem is that this was my first attempt to build a deck. The construction itself in many ways is quite innovative. I overhung the original concrete stoop on either side by about 9 inches, thereby widening the stoop by a foot and a half and making the front door look much nicer. The side panels lie flush with the deck, and are hung on a spaceframe secured to the decking rather than the stoop, meaning I could raise it slightly from the earth, providing some ventilation to aid drying and offset dry rot. This part actually worked out well: the ends of the decking were remarkably dry and well preserved underneath. The problem lies in that the furring strips prevent the air circulating across the width of the structure, allowing the center of the deck to become waterlogged in wet weather. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that I butted the decking planks closely together instead of leaving a small but defined air gap between them. I think the answer will be to route a few narrow slots in the joins to open up "breather" holes. I could do it with either Mr Router and a veining bit or Mr Dremel deployed in its mini-router persona. In either event, I think it will have to await the coming of better weather (we had our first snow fall on Sunday (December 2nd).

So that was Saturday. Mostly. One of my neighbours popped over to ask about the tree limb on the curb, and said he might like to make a coffee table from it. I looked him in the eye and said that if he wanted the limb he could have it, but that I was going to butcher it the next day if it was still there. If he took it before I got to it, he was welcome to it. If he left it until tomorrow, I would work my will upon it because Mrs Stevie had spoken and It Had To Go. He "ummed" and "ahhed" and I pointed out that it would take at least three people to lift it into any sort of truck, and they would probably need some sort of hoist. I pointed out that he could cut it up in situ, but added that I would be upset if I found the wreckage left for me to clean up after such an operation. He left, saying he would "think about it".

I got the Stevieling to bag the leaves that the trees had dumped on us during the course of the morning in accordance with some sort of arboreal hidden agenda, and took her to see Jim at Men at Arms, my absolute favourite Game and Hobby store, which lies east of us by about 30 minutes. We almost made it out of the gate, but Mrs Stevie ambushed us and demanded to be allowed to come too. Thus was a pleasurable Father-Daughter trip rendered into 30 minutes of Sheer Hell each way. Mrs Stevie disapproves of almost everything my daughter and I feel are appropriate trip-shortening subjects for conversations, and usually enforces a strict "shut up" policy during trips of less than four hours duration so we had to settle for playing "snigger ping-pong"12.

Upon arriving at Jim's store, The Stevieling indulged her favourite hobby du jour and used the Wages of Leaf I had given her to increase her collection of Pokemon cards. Don't ask me to explain Pokemon. I have no idea how they work, why they are so attractive to kids or how to play the various games based on them. I used to have to play a board game called "Pokemon Master Trainer" with the then much younger Stevieling, but I cured her of the habit by singing "Bow, Bow To The Master Trainer Elect"13 any time I won. At the time she was a very bad loser and would turn purple with appoplexy as I sang this, refusing point-blank to add her sweet soprano to the chorus. I would also sing the song (and bow) when she won I hasten to add, but that also made her mad (she was also that rarest of things, a sore winner). She eventually stopped making me play the game. Job done!

I stood aloof from The Stevielings mad dash to the Pokemon cards and scanned the racks with a detached air. I had come for the express purpose of obtaining a copy of the expansion kit for my Munchkin Cthulhu card game14 and could undertake this with adult detachment. Then I saw the tank kit.

The kit was for the game Wonkhammer 401k, a collecting hobby with a gaming facade nailed on it to boost sales that was, from the late 80s to about 2001 the most addictive thing I'd found to hurl money at bar none. I had weaned myself away from it in a process I likened to quitting smoking15 after a particularly disappointing convention/tournament I attended in the spring of 2001, when I decided that the people I was meeting while playing this game were about as pleasant as getting simultaneously audited on my tax-returns while getting a rectal examination from Doc "The Whole Fist or Nothing" Rubberglove. I had initially resisted getting dragged into the wretched hobby, seeing how it could easily bankrupt even someone with as well-balanced sense of proportion as myself. In any case, I was already hurling money at The Call of Cthulhu, a role playing game I ran in those days and had none left over for lead soldiers. Then Ralph gave me a small collection of the figures so I could "play him" and the hook was set.

At first it was fun. The average game involved only 10-20 figures a side and the rules were more guidelines for building your own games, much like many games are in Edition 1.0. Then the loonies began to take over and games began to get bigger. Soon the game was re-issued as a boxed set with extremely nice plastic figures included. Very high quality items, and the cost was actually less than if you had to get the stuff together from scratch like you did with the first edition. The rules now emphasised larger armies, with some topping out over 50 figures, and had been streamlined in many areas to speed play. The game was re-issued again, with newer, better figures and a "simplified" rules set designed to appeal to a younger gamer, one with the attention span of a booze-addled gnat. Much of the detail was now removed from the game, but the rules had been revamped to make them less susceptible to lucky dice rolls swamping the tactics as the second edition's sometimes did. Army sizes were even larger, and costs now included the need for small, army-specific rules additions purchased as "codex" booklets. The 3rd edition removed many of the more complex rules in a general move across the range of Goons Wonkshop products to "dumb down" the rules to broaden the appeal. Armies were bigger. Codex books were, sadly, thinner. All very high quality artwork, but lots and lots of margin space. The problem of Codex rules additions breaking the core rules beyond repair was also getting worse. New models would often spur the introduction of excessively powerful rules to go with them, often invalidating the core rules and causing no end of confusion in the community. "Rules Lawyering" became a catch-all insult applied to anyone trying to make sense of the game, and on-the-spot improvisation became the order of the day. The 4th edition went one step further, and printed no statistics for any armies an the grounds that most people already had Codex books and so the cost of printing this information, which would be out of date in no time, was not warranted. Of course, the information was still needed, and Goons Wonkshop sold a codex booklet containing it...

Nor was all this nonsense conducive to calming the hearts and minds of the players. The people I was meeting via this game were becoming more and more unpleasant as time went on, culminating in a convention I attended in Baltimore in 2001 in which I became convinced that the only way to enjoy a game of Wonkhammer 401k was to actually shoot my opponents dead before the game commenced.

I decided at that point that enough was enough and put aside all my stuff. Besides, I had grown to hate the painting part of the hobby once I had been enslaved to the production-line needed to finish dozens of identical front-line troops of whatever kind were called for. I had literally dozens of expensive models that, were you to come upon them unknowingly, you'd think were from the movie Aliens. I had a couple of hundred soldiers modelled to look like the guys from Zulu. I had around fifty futuristic Space Marines. I had a bunch of plastic tanks produced to go with these. Only some of this collection was painted, and I couldn't face the thought of painting the ones that weren't any more. I was done.

Until I saw the superheavy tank kit.

The kit was part of a coordinated effort to restart the hobby for those people who had huge collections of stuff (much bigger than mine, I might add), and it made me start thinking seriously of the parts I liked about the hobby when I was active in it. I was hooked all over again and had to have one of those tanks! Who cared that it cost as much as dinner for two at a local restaurant?

I resisted the urge to buy there and then and we returned home. As darkness fell I once again turned my mind over to the problem of the humungous tree limb sitting on the curb And I resolved to get stuck in the next morning, assuming it was still there of course.


Naturally this called for yet another deployment of Mr BSN16 Chainsaw, but the job was a little more complex than the previous session had been. In that previous triumph of man over tree in a World Gone Mad all that was required was that the bits of sawn tree be portable (in order that freeloaders could port the stuff away from The Steviemanse to their fireplaces). This time I was determined to salvage as much of the nice-quality heartwood. I had the idea that it might be resawn into all kinds of useful shapes for various half-worked-out projects such as the autoharp I've always wanted to try making, some blanks for turning on my router-crafter17, perhaps a cunning puzzle-box sawn using tha band saw I don't (yet) have and so forth. I would attempt to saw pieces as large as possible from the limb. Who knew? I might get planks for a coffee table from it.


The wood was so dense it fought the chainsaw in almost every direction, forcing me to resharpen the blade twice (always a luvverly job). The limb became hard to wedge and support as I cut more and more wood from it, and in the end I had to settle for cutting cubes about a foot and a half on a side from the wretched thing or run the risk of having it fall on me.

Eventually I had the damn thing in pieces and the pieces stacked in the garage for use next year. No doubt I will end up giving the wood away as firewood in ten year's time, but for now my intentions are to turn it to good use.

If I can find time between all that production line lead soldier painting I've gotten the urge to do.

  1. None of which was repeated in other languages. This was a big instruction book
  2. Well, walls really
  3. as the total loss of Thanksgiving Friday4 proves
  4. Called "Black Friday" by retailers because of the hysteria their sales provoke in otherwise semi-rational people
  5. Nagasaki: a truly staggering amount of damage handed out in as short a time as possible, typically one volley in a game of "Star Fleet Battles"
  6. $US 150.00
  7. Although in all fairness I couldn't put down the waterproofing agent without cleaning the deck first and I couldn't clean the deck because Mr Pressure Washer went nails up during the attempt to clean the barrel that had lain for Lo! so many years in my garage episode back in September and I hadn't assembled the avoirdupois to obtain another one yet
  8. Which would involve deploying Mr Tablesaw and hoping that we didn't get a repeat of the "curved cut" problem I had during the construction of the Hexagonal jewelry Display Case of Inconvenience
  9. Using Mr Chopsaw, a very easy operation
  10. US Vise-Grip
  11. Against all expectation and assurances about the insect-repellent properties of cedar
  12. One player serves a muffled laugh to the other. The other player volleys it back. Play continues until the third person in the vehicle screams "What are you two idiots laughing at?", at which point a win is declared for everyone except Mrs Stevie
  13. Sung to the tune of the Gilbert and Sullivan "Daughter In Law Elect" song from The Mikado
  14. Four Steviestars
  15. Yes, I've done both
  16. Brand Spanking New
  17. a sort of lathe. I have a real lathe that I have no room to set up

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Job Tree And The New Chainsaw

A lull in a suddenly filled schedule now allows me to tell the story of how Crazy Joe's tree fellers ended up forcing me to buy another chainsaw.

The story of the Job Tree1 felling has already been related here but what I didn't relate was how I dealt with the two-foot diameter, 12-18 inch thick wheels of tree trunk left on my lawn due to them being too heavy and unwieldy for anyone to nick.

Most of the moveable wood was removed by scavengers2 but the weekend following the felling of the Job tree found me looking at the lawn with a jaundiced eye. The Fall weather has been very warm and damp and the grass has not quite slumped into winter hibernation mode, and I could see that if I let things stand much longer the lawn would once again feature a huge bald spot next spring. Action was called for.

Having dealt with the vexing "passport photo" business, I went out that Saturday afternoon with the aim of sizing up candidates for a replacement for the two 14 inch Sears chainsaws I have that are no longer up to the job of cutting warm butter.

"Two saws? Isn't that a little much even for someone as tool-fixated as you?" I hear you ask. The answer to that impertinent question is, of course, a resounding "no!", but the 14 inch chainsaw collection actually happened despite me rather than because of me. I'll explain:

About 12 years ago I needed to get rid of a bunch of bushtrees along our property line so I could replace the chainlink fence that ran round the perimeter with a cedar fence. In the process I would take the "L" shaped front garden, useful only as a dumping ground for the neighbourhood kids' beer bottles and other junk, and incorporate most of it into the back garden for the two-year old Stevieling to play in without the chance of catching one of Crazy Joe's house guests urinating through the fence or perpetrating some other neighbourly thing.

At the same time we decided to relocate the fence line on the other side of the front of the property, tear up the old drive and put in a nice new one that would go to the property line, turning an all-but useless two car drive into a five or six3 car one. The footprint of the new drive took in land that included a number of small sumac bushtrees that would have to go. As a point of interest, it was during the removal of these sumac treelings that I developed a hatred for the species that endures unabated to this day. Indeed, my feelings have only strengthened over the years, and I relegate sumac trees to the same place I put smallpox and fascism - the nail-it-shut-wrap-in-chains-and-throw-into-a-deep-sea-trench box. Pulling out these trees in a manner such that they wouldn’t grow back and heave the newly laid driveway in a season was the challenge, and required that a hole about two feet deep be excavated around the taproot and the taproot be severed4. I used hydraulic excavation for most of it, and that was how I found that the water table on my part of Long Island is about four feet above local ground datum due to the whole place being an ancient Indian burial ground and infested with mischievous water spirits or some similar physics-defying reason. It was all very trying.

A 14 inch Sears chainsaw was purchased for the getting rid of growing things part of these projects.

The driveway project was completed on schedule, but the saw's automatic chain oiler malfunctioned towards the end of it rendering the saw useless. It was taken to Sears' Hauppauge5 service facility for repair, and the people there proceeded to keep it for three months, claiming that they needed to import a part from Korea when I called them each week to ask after my saw. I eventually tired of the excuses, called Sears and pointed out that I had bought the saw for a project that was now imminent, and was instructed to return to the Sears at which I bought the saw at which time I would be given a replacement. The Hauppauge Saw would go back to this store and be sold as a "reconditioned" unit.

Sounded like a plan.

Either that or an excuse for nonsense at the store. I did some pre-emptive finding out of stuff. No there wouldn't be a problem with the fact that the store would have undergone a shift change. I should just go directly to the tool area and tell them why I was there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

That evening I visited with a very abrupt department manager who explained in short, crisp language that he couldn't "just give" me a new saw. Rather than argue the case I turned on my heel and went up to customer support. A few phone calls later and I returned to the now defensive department manager who claimed I had never told him why he should accomodate me6. I limited myself to angrily saying "You didn't give me a chance. You were too busy telling me how much you couldn't help me to listen".

I got the replacement saw.

Some 6 months later I began to be bombarded with early morning calls each Saturday from Hauppauge asking me to come and pick up "my" saw. I explained that it was no longer my saw, and that it should be returned to the store at which I bought it care of Mr Unhelpful.

They refused to believe this preposterous tale.

I refused to journey out to Hauppauge to pick up the saw.

I was working out of state in those days and greatly resented being woken up early on a Saturday after having driven for several hours from the beltway of Washington DC to New York. I also don't have much time for willfully dense nitwits wittering about chainsaws that they are proud to have replaced a modular part of in only about seven months. I refused to drive out to Hauppauge (about a twenty minute trip) and possibly fond myself liable for some sort of trumped-up service charge for the privilege.

One morning the phone rang, and an angry voice yelled "This is Sears at Hauppauge! We're bringing your saw round this morning and dropping it off at your house!"

I said "Fine! Suit yourselves!" and took the family out for a breakfast long enough that the saw losers wouldn't catch me at home. When we returned i had another 14 inch chainsaw in my collection. Mrs Stevie almost choked laughing at Sears service department, who refuse to believe tools don't belong to you even if you tell them so. I recall she was quite mellow all day as a result. Better days.

The newly delivered saw leaked chain-bar oil everywhere when I attempted to fill the tank to test the replaced auto-oiler. Brownie Points for Sears then for almost fixing the saw after a mere seven months.

The other saw was seen into an early grave by Bil the Younger and the Mrs Steviedad, who asked to borrow it to clear some trees from the affluent Bil the Elder's palatial back yard. Something about adding a runway for his Learjet or some such nonsense.

Felling trees is not at all as straightforward as you might think, and doing it in any one of the umtytump wrong ways can end up at best with the saw stuck in the tree trunk and at worst with the saw stuck in the tree feller as he or she is pinned under the tree itself. The would-be crew would need all the help they could get and I wasn't going to be in the work area on a bet.

I got up at six in the morning and hand sharpened the chain. I tensioned the chain7. I topped off the oil and gas tanks. I fired up the saw and killed it with the choke to prime the carburetor so the Mrs Steviedad didn't dislocate his shoulder starting it. I made up a kit including the ratty old8 leather work gloves I used when wielding the saw, The Yellow Hardhat Of Brain Salvage During Deadfalls9 and the instruction book, carefully chopped up and put into plastic page protectors all bound in a loose-leaf binder for reference in the field.

I stuck a post-it on page 18. That's the page on which the correct method of cutting down a tree is shown. It was a long shot, but I remain optimistic that once in a while I can break through a lifetime of habit and get people to read the safety instructions for tools they've never used for jobs they've never done before. Not this time though.

Weeks later I asked The Mrs StevieDad for my saw back, to be told "We didn't use it in the end. It didn't work."

I was puzzled by this statement, but all I got as far as a clarification was "It didn't work. It wouldn't work."

No matter. I needed to trim some bushes back and could fix whatever thing had gone wrong and forced them to rent from Home Despot instead. I returned home with the saw and removed it from its home-made chain scabbard. Which was when I saw that the chain bar was missing all its paint. "Didn't work" was clearly not the whole story then. This saw had seen some pretty heavy-handed use before it "didn't work", that was clear. Never mind, there's little you can do to a chainsaw to break it (other than have the oiler go south, of course). I fired it up and prepared to cut bushes. The saw died. I pulled it a couple of times but it wasn't starting, and it dawned on me that it must be out of gas. Clearly it had been working for a tank of gas before it "didn't work" too.

I tried to unscrew the gas cap. I gave up after a few tries and went to get the wrench used to strip it down. The gas cap has a fitting on it so you can use the wrench as a tommy bar in this situation, but you should never need to because, as it says clearly in the instruction book, you only tighten the cap finger tight. So, I could revise the period in which the saw worked while in the hands of Stan and Ollie by at least one more tank of gas. The one I had filled and the one that The Hulk had apparently put in. Naturally, since the oil is used at the same rate as the gas, I checked the oil tank. Just as naturally, the oil cap had also been tightened by means of one of those air wrenches that tire places use to tighten the wheelnuts on your car so tight that you can't change a flat without access to a workshop.

Once I had filled the tanks with the requisite fluids the saw started and I began cutting, only to find the saw now cut in a curved path. I dismantled the saw and observed that the chain bar was worn paper thin on one side. It had obviously been run with no oil in it for a period. I went out and bought a new chain bar, but that didn't fix the problem. I switched the chain for the one on the Hauppauge saw, but that didn't fix the problem. Shortly after that the oiler broke, so I gave up.

Now no-one actually present during the Great Holbrook Tree Felling is talking, but here is what I think happened: I think the saw was working just fine but that no-one read the "how to drop a tree" instructions and they eventually got the saw stuck in a tree. Then they compounded the error by attempting to work the saw out of the notch by brute force (also contra-indicated in the instructions). Then they hired a saw from Home Despot so they could saw down the tree and rescue my saw. During this process the weight of the tree would have been pressing on the chain and chainbar of my saw, wreaking all sorts of "never do" type damage to it.

With a busted oiler and the damn thing cutting in a circle anyway, there was no way I was going to try cutting up the wheels o' wood in the front garden. Besides, there was The Rule10 to consider. No, what was needed was a new chainsaw. A much bigger one too.

I raced around Home Despot, Blowes and a couple of other tooly places, but it ended up that the only large saw I could afford was the Poulan 20 inch saw, and that only 'cos Sears was having a sale. Late Saturday night, while Mrs Stevie was sleeping of a day's worth of Espresso Muy Fortes, I snuck out to Sears of Northport11 and bought the saw.

Sunday, the women decamped for organised religion and I broke out the Mr Chainsaw for its inaugural sawing.

It was just great.

I was initially disappointed to discover that the new saw had no primer button, and that the starting process instead involved choking the engine and pulling the cord five or six times. "There go Messrs Shoulder and Elbow" I thought, but the whole business proved relatively painless. I soon had the saw running, and stepped up to the wood pile for my first cut. Revving the engine, I applied the saw to a modest piece of tree trunk, no more than 18 inches across, and the saw bit in with gratifying oomph.

In no time I had cut through the fallen limb and was standing ankle deep in the finest shavings I've ever seen from a chainsaw. It wasn't so much sawdust as small shavings that looked like a plane made them. The saw continued to produce these for the first hour or so, until the razor-like keenness of the blade was lost. The lawn was completely covered with shavings by then in a circle about ten feet in diameter, to a depth of a couple of inches. I've never seen a power saw cut like this before, and the large wheels of wood fell before my superior chainsaw might in no time12.

Naturally, after the first cut I was so overcome by the sheer sawiness of the saw that I let out a manly howl of glee and the neighbours, watching to see if I cut off a foot or electrocuted myself, ran outside to witness some imagined debacle only to see me dominating the arboreal scene in no small way. What a sight I made as I locked the saw into my working stance, 20 inch steel blade of wood destruction jutting aggressively from my crotch, shavings flying to the four winds, my triumphant screams of triumph filling their ears! How they must have seethed with repressed jealousy as they observed me cowing the seemingly invincible slices of tree into submission! Ha! In your faces, losers! Take that, tree! Die on me after two grand in root injections would you? Firewood ye shall be! HAHAHAHAHA!

I was almost sad when it was over and I had to quit to go and watch the Stevieling play basketball. I stacked the wood in front of the house and called to one of the neighbours across the street to tell them the wood was free to anyone who wanted it. By the time I had showered and changed for the game, it was all gone.

A shame to burn it really. Some of it would have made nice turning blanks for a lathe.

  1. California has Joshua trees, I have, or had, a well-smitten Job tree
  2. With my blessing
  3. At a pinch, if I do the parking
  4. The taproots of sumac trees go down about 18-24 inches then turn an abrupt 90 degrees and run horizontally before branching and undergoing more geometrical treachery. Leave the root and the tree will pop back up good as new in two to three months
  5. Pronounced "HOP-og"
  6. A lie. I began our short, unsatisfying relationship with a blow-by-blow replay of that morning's conversatiuon with his manager. He, being a model Sears employee, shut down his brain until the words "give me a replacement" were uttered. There is no point arguing at this stage, since the other person is indulging in the time-honoured New York sport of not-being-the-loser. I wasn't in the mood to play that night
  7. a laborious process involving loosening bolts, tightening screws and wiggling the chain without losing any small bits or slashing yourself to ribbons on the chain
  8. but extremely tough
  9. I now have a snazzy and probably dangerous cowboy Stetson hardhat too
  10. No Tool, No Job
  11. Of all the Sears in my area, this is the one you want if you are spending money. The staff there actually care whether or not you buy something and are very helpful
  12. Defined as about three hours

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Psycho Metrics

My UK passport needs renewing.

My beloved niece, The Stevieniece, is getting married next summer and I must travel to Skeeter Pits, Saskatchewan, to help her on her journey into domestic blisters. The new rules say I can't just gad about crossing the border with only my green card1 and a UK birth certificate, and that means renewing the passport I got in 1996.

Thing is, the UK has stampeded headlong into the biometric documentation business and requires all sorts of things be done that are awkward in the extreme if one does not happen to be in the UK when one is trying to comply with their bally rules.

The first awkward thing is the addition of a couple of hundred dollars to the cost, on account of the extra bureaucracy that must be set up to process my passport when I enter and leave the UK. Which I don't plan on doing this side of avian pig evolution day. I dunno about you, but I find coming up with a couple of hundred dollars on spec more than a little awkward, especially when it's for something so appallingly badly thought-out as these MK1 portable ID theft vehicles. It used to be that the terrorist would have to actually steal the document to abuse your credentials. Now all they have to do is scan them from close range. No doubt I shall be able to foil this dastardly plan by wrapping the passport in a aluminum foil wallet. Foiled by foil as it were. Of course, trying to get the ruddy thing in and out of this improvised Faraday cage so it can be used for what it is intended for will be a trial, but no sacrifice (on my part) is too great for Western Governments in the fight against global terrorism these days.

The second awkward thing is the sizing and pose for the pictures. It seems that in order for the computer chip to work properly, I cannot be photographed as I was for my last three passports, but must pose just so with my glasses off (to reduce glare). Great now I have to pull off my specs at every fbleeping passport check just so some fbleeping sorry-arsed computer system, well below the Star Trek state-of-the-art assumed by the shirt-for-brains politicians who specified the requirements of the system, can spend an eternity deciding what a human could in about a second: whether I look like me in the photo. Not only that, the instruction sheet demands the sizes of the face, head and so forth conform to (non-standard in the US) dimensions laid out in metric (again, non-standard in the US). If the fbleeping dimensions are so fbleeping critical (no less that 29mm chin to top of head, no more than 34mm for fbleeps sake), you'd think that there would be software available to scale the images properly. Not so, of course.

I spent about an hour with a very helpful but increasingly frustrated photographer at Sears as we attempted to get the scale of the photograph just right. The job was complicated because there was no provision for adding a ruler to the image displayed on the computer screen (good choice, anonymous software designer) and I didn't have a transparency of the required head size, just a PDF I found after about an hour of searching the labyrinthine UK Government websites. Sizing the photograph involved guessing, printing and comparing with a folded copy of the PDF.

It was all very irritating.

I wouldn't mind, but you have to figure that the bad guys already have equipment for ripping out the information on the biometric chips.

  1. Which is neither green nor made of card

Stranger Than Fiction

Last Thursday I was forced to ride to Babylon and get Mrs Stevie to pick me up, drive me back to Wyandanch and drop me off by my car because of an accident at Roslyn Road, Mineola.

This is the crossing that the powers that be have decided must be replaced by an underpass. An underpass built in the most flood-prone bit of Long Island not actually located in the Atlantic Ocean. It appears that my skepticism is misplaced however inasmuch as the crossing seems to attract more than its share of idiots who don't understand that trains are heavy, fast and do not stop easily.

Thursday's disruption was even more bizarre than usual. In a scene taken directly from the cartoon show "South Park" a 63 year old woman drove onto the crossing, then turned onto the tracks.

It gets better.

Having driven onto the west-bound trackbed during the busiest time of the evening, and having the good fortune to have an off-duty EMT and Fireman nearby who leaped into action, this oddly deranged woman then argued with her would-be rescuers, insisting they stop so she could get her pocketbook. Apparently, she was pulled forcibly to safety despite her wishes, only seconds before the westbound train to Penn Station slammed into her Buick le Hazard, hurled it several tens of feet back into the crossing and turned it into so much scrap metal which blocked the crossing and brought the entire LIRR to a standstill (with the exception of the South Shore line) until a crane could be dispatched to the scene.

Normally I'd be superpissed at this turn of events, but all I could think of was that episode of "South Park" in which old people are depicted driving without due care and attention through street markets, people’s front rooms and in one case up a staircase, all the while peering around and asking "is this Costello Avenue?" in reedy voices. One would-be victim was yelling "Run! Run for your lives! Old people are driving!" which was hysterically funny at the time, and funny enough on Thursday to dull the pain.

Old people are driving.

Be afraid.