Thursday, March 22, 2007

So Much For Cascading Style Sheets

I was just perusing my copy of Dynamic HTML The Definitive Reference (though mine is Second Edition and cost ten bux less to get than the linked tome) and came upon a prime example of so-called computer "experts" losing sight of the forest for the trees. I quote vibratim except for the stuff I removed to shorten it a bit:

writing-mode NN n/a IE5.5(Win) CSS n/a

One of the constant values: lr-tb | tb-rl. Value of tb-rl can rotate text of some languages by 90 degrees.

This is absolutely typical! A little thought before putting pen to paper would have saved everyone time and the nitwit who invented this one a terrible loss of professional face, but no! The race to think up something "clever" has once more produced the veriest gibberish. Were I to apply this so-called "style" to this posting, the text would rotate 90 degrees and all you would see is a single column of vertical lines. If I set the font weight of the page low enough, those vertical lines would so thin as to be be invisible!

Did the morons who came up with this spare even one minute to consider the possibilities for terrorist misuse of the "technology"? What would happen if in early April some malicious hacker broke into the IRS help computers and rotated all the text 90 degrees? I'll tell you: Chaos!

This sort of thing is why we don't have a moonbase or flying cars.

When Life Serves You Lemons, Watch Out For The Paper Cut It Has Waiting In The Wings

Tuesday night I was late getting home owing to missing my train into work, then the next one while I tried to locate a parking space. Snow has been piled in some of the stalls and left to set up into icecrete, and people are behaving badly with the spaces that are clear, so it took a while.

Once at work I had to deal with several items of more than usual crappiness including being informed of the events alluded to in the previous post. I also had to "get into it" with my drug plan insurance company who are adopting a policy of refusing to cover anything as a cost-cutting exercise. This then involved me having to mediate between them and my doctor, with the added refinement that each time the insurance was declined no alternative medication was suggested in its place. It is hardly likely I suffer from hypertension with this sort of stupid, counter-productive crap going on.

Finally, my extended clocking-off time came around and I made my way to Penn Station (the Brooklyn trains to Ronkonkoma now being a thing of the distant past) and managed to miss two trains due to delays in the subway system, dooming me to arrive Chez Stevie at around 9pm. I filled in the time listening to a duet playing some sort of Appalachian pre-Bluegrass on Banjo and Violin, part of the sanctioned busking program that makes life interesting for the commuter, sometimes in the Chinese sense of the phrase.

The usual pattern is that the acts play for change and sell CDs of their material too, usually for around 10 bux. This act wasn't dreadful1. It was interesting to hear the music and watch it being produced but I don't know if I'd buy an album of the stuff. Not at the 15 bux they were asking anyway. I dropped a dollar and boarded my train when it was called, and spent the trip playing with php2 on an antediluvian laptop good for nothing else.

I arrived at Wyandanch and hiked the quarter mile or so back towards NYC to get my car, and began the drive home along Acorn Avenue. Acorn Avenue is a potholed stretch of road that has been in poor repair for, well, forever. The crews generally get round to filling in the holes around November just in time for the snowplows to tear out the indifferently-done repairs the next January. To add to the sense of adventure for the driver, there are no street lights along Acorn Avenue at any point, no "cat's eye" reflectors, nothing to give the driver a clue as to what the road looks like. Even the center line is no longer reflective, where there is one at all. One might easily be forgiven for not realising that this road is a highly trafficked route, used by hundreds of LIRR commuters every day.

Did I mention the school?

Anyway, I set out and engaged the cruise at 40mph rather than take advantage of the night to "forget" about the local speed limit as so many do, more in order to reflect upon the crappy day than any altruistic sympathy with the speed laws if the truth be told.

I was about forty feet from the usual array of potholes when suddenly there was an enormous thump from the undercarriage, a thump so loud that it almost drowned out a stream of my very best swear words. Yes, one of the smaller "repairs" had bee torn out of the road leaving a pothole about a foot deep and maybe 15 inches long. My speed was just enough to allow me to hit the far edge of the hole and inflict maximum nagasaki3 on the vehicle. Any slower and I would probably have bounced. Any faster and I would probably have sailed over it. The tar was pitch black (naturally) and the hole was perfectly invisible even with my headlights shining right on it.

The car didn't show any immediate tendancy to collapse onto the road in a shower of sparks, adopt a new course independant of the helm, wobble all over the shop making flappy noises or bounce up and down on one side so I assumed it was safe to continue and drove home without further incident, apart from some moron who refused to believe that I didn't have my headlights on full beam despite being shown that I had "more where that came from" while we were waiting at opposite sides of the Nicolls Road/Deer Park Avenue lights, and who insisted on trying to signal me in morse with his halogens for a good part of the wait for green.

Upon arriving home I unlimbered my big flashlight and inspected the damage. The ABS wheel cover was bent and broken, and it took some time to wrestle it back onto the wheel in anything approaching its original format. The wheel rim was nicely buckled too, thank you very much.

The brand new wheel rim I had fitted three days after Christmas4 during A Simple Three Thousand Mile Service and New York State Inspection.

  1. They go by the name of "The Ebony Hillbillies" if you want to try and find them for yourself
  2. A computer scripting language "optimised" for website authoring and very popular with the "free lunch" crowd. I am learning it because I was told to port a bunch of web-based, database-backed applications from Windows/IIS/ASP/MS SQL Server to Linux/Apache/some language/MySQL and I didn't feel like doing it in perl
  3. nagasaki (abs n.): extremely large amounts of damage dealt in a single incident, blow or volley
  4. Actually, I lie. It was the wheel that replaced that one when I noticed that the (now broken) wheel cover didn't fit the one they attached to the car in December.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

For Richard

Richard was one of the first people in the upstate crew I ever worked with after coming to the USA.

As other people in that office proved to have two faces, the one they showed me when I was there and the one they used at all other times, Richard proved to be an honest man, knowledgeable in his field (which happened to be mine too). Secure in his own sense of self worth, he was not threatened by an Englishman Abroad with a different work ethic as so many others were. If he was in earshot when I needed a cab ride to Albany railroad station I would be driven in his pickup, even if (as once was the case) the roads were all-but impassable after a snowstorm, and he shared his home, a magnificent farmhouse built of massive timbers in a "wedge and tennon" style, with me when I stayed over and had no-one to spend an evening with. I never knew him to raise his voice, though I'm told it occasionally happened.

We had drifted out of contact after I changed jobs a couple of times and it was only relatively recently I heard that he and his wife had separated. That said, I often thought of him and wondered what he was doing these days.

I'm told it took hours to bring the fire under control in the early hours of Sunday morning. There's little left of the farmhouse. Richard is missing. The fire crew recovered a body from the basement of the ruins that will require DNA analysis to identify.

Richard was good people. On a list of all the candidates from that area to be deleted from the face of the planet, Richard should have been well near the bottom. I can certainly think of several former colleagues that wouldn't be missed by many.

I shall miss Richard. The world is a smaller place without him in it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Sorry Tale Of Tony the eBayer, The Stolen Account And The Abomination That Is Microsoft Vista

Some two years ago I was commuting into New York with Joe and Tony and Sue and Karen, and Tony was complaining that his AOL wasn't working properly. I asked a few questions which Tony, an older gentleman and not very computer savvy despite doing an incredible amount of business using one answered, sort of. Tony sells records. Yes, records. Real honest to Azathoth vinyl records. Acetates too (they're the ones that need to spin at 78 rpm). When I remarked without thinking that I wanted to get an old 10 inch 78 as a prop for my Call of Cthulhu roleplaying manly high stakes Baccarat game, Tony appeared next day with two of them for me, gratis. I was motivated to try and help him as a result of this kindness, but Tony would prove to be help-resistant to a surprising degree.

After a few questions and the eventual acquisition of the answers to them (a process not as linear with Tony as with others) I found out that his nephew had adjusted the veeblefetzer1 on the computer and knocked out the AOL client. Not only that, the computer was running Windows 98. I offered to come over and try and fix things, but Tony works all but Wednesdays and Sundays. Wednesdays are not on for me, and Tony was spending Sundays at various family obligations for a few weeks. Neither of us wanted to tackle the thing at night. I kept at it for a few weeks but eventually gave up.

Eighteen months ago Tony again began to complain that something else wasn't working. I asked him about his anti-virus and he claimed he had Norton installed2. He also told me he had a persistent broadband internet connection, and the hairs on the back of my neck started to stand up. Symantec had dropped support for the version of Norton Anti Virus that worked on Windows 98 some months before. I did a quick Mr Brain Theater production of Explaining To Tony How To Find, Install And Maintain A Freeware A.V. Product and came to the only logical conclusion. I advised him in the strongest possible terms to buy a new computer. I explained that he was in terrible jeopardy, what with all the online banking and eBaying he did. I told him that he was dicing with I.D. theft by being cheap on this one. He vacillated then said he'd think about it.

Every month or so I'd ask him if he'd gotten any further forward in buying a new computer, and he would protest that "everything was working fine" on his old one. I would ask about the AOL thing and he would then start complaining about how that didn't work, forgetting that he had just told me it did. It was high comedy in action, and Joe, Sue and Karen got a giggle from it all as I once again tried to get him to see the danger. This went on for about a year.

Then Tony had his eBay account stolen and had it used to shill fake football tickets. He got that sorted out and came complaining to me. I shrugged and said that I had no new suggestions, that I had explained this might happen and that this might very well be the tip of a very nasty iceberg. I suspected his computer had a trojan keylogger on it that was keeping a log of his typing and sending it to some git elsewhere when he wasn't looking (not that he would have recognised what was going on even if he saw it happen)3. I was adamantly not going to get involved in trying to delouse a Windows 98 computer that would be re-infected within hours if not minutes of my fixing things. I begged him to reconsider the idea of a new computer and warned him not to do any online banking from that computer ever.

The next few weeks would have been funny if they weren’t so predictable and sad. eBay now no longer knew who was the real Tony and who was the fake. Tony had his auctions closed. He had his account locked. He was spending hours e-chatting to eBay "help" desk personnel each week.

He finally saw sense and bought a new computer and asked me to help him install it. I, of course, agreed. I asked him if he had gotten any anti virus software as part of the deal, and he said he hadn't so I recommended Norton Internet Security, a package that I use and my Father uses with no problem. I have never had an infestation and have had a number of saves from infection from Other People's Media. This is the sign of a product worth having in my book. I told Tony that we could download it, but that I felt he should buy the disc version. This was because I had visions of Tony needing to reinstall at some point and of my having to ask him what he did with the self-extracting download. Not optimal.

Tony went out to try and buy a copy. This proved difficult. When vendors didn't have it they would tell him he didn't need it "because he had AOL" or "because he used Optimum Online". Obvious tripe from people who didn't understand the scope of either the problem or the software suite itself. I tried explaining to Tony that these people were doing him a disservice. I tried to explain that viruses no longer make their way solely through e-mails that you have to open up, but can propagate by visiting websites, occasionally when you don't know you are doing so. I contemplated trying to explain about port sniffing, service hijacking and permissions escalation. But Tony is like unto a babe in arms when it comes to matters of technology, so instead I just said "Tony, if you don't do what I say you will be in the same boat with your brand new Dell next week as you are now on your prehistoric one. Buy the software."

Well, Sunday happened along with the stupid requirement to wind the clocks forward an hour several weeks ahead of the rest of the asylum. I did not oversleep and began to gather a small tool set prior to leaving home4. Half an hour before I was due to be there, the phone rang.

"Stevie, it's Tony. This monitor is too small. I bought a 15 inch one and I took it out of the box and it is too small. I'm gonna send it back and get a bigger one"

I sat silent for a couple of seconds while I said goodbye to the couple of hours sleep I could have had in light of this new breaking information, then said "Well, whatever you want, but you should be aware that if we don't do this today I won't be able to make it again for about three to four weeks."

"Three to four weeks? What, you busy next week?"


"What about the week after that?"

"I shall be at I-Con all that weekend. Sorry."

"So you won't be able to make it for three weeks?"

"Three to four weeks. It's Tax Time don't forget. I do my own and require several days of decompression during the process."

"Tax time?

"You know, forms, tables calculators, swearing. Taxes."

"So you won't be available then?"

"Tony, why don't you take a few minutes and decide what you want to do. If you want to install this computer I'm ready to go now. If you really can't live with the small monitor, we will have to reschedule."

He hung up and I continued getting my stuff together. The phone rang.

"I measured the screen5. It's as big as my old 17 inch monitor."

"Yep. That sounds about right" I said

"It looks smaller. I bought the smaller one but it is the same size as my old monitor. Who'd have thought it?"

"So. We on?"

"Well, I might as well keep this monitor. It's the same size as my old one. I bought the small size, I don't know from sizes, but it is the same size as my old 17 inch monitor."

"So. We on then?"

"Well, it's the same size as my old one. I bought the small size but I measured it and it is the same size as my old 17 inch monitor."

Eventually I managed to get a straight answer and set out for Chez Tony in the fabulous Steviemobile, arriving there a few minutes later clutching a deli coffee that I planned to sip for a quarter hour or so. Tony immediately offered me coffee. He would do so again approximately every five minutes throughout the morning. He announced that he had managed to find the Norton software, and had got it at half price. I immediately cringed at the thought of some unscrupulous git selling Tony an out-of-date version that would require human sacrifice to get running on Vista, but by some miracle he had actually got the right version.

The old computer was easily removed from his tiny, cramped office which was stuffed with every imaginable thing except for lamps. He had exactly one of those, and had taken the precaution of dropping it and breaking it about ten minutes before I arrived. How it managed to find the floor amidst his collection of coins, baseball memorabilia, records and CDs is a miracle deserving of a Discovery Channel investigative report on its own. Luckily I had brought along a small array of tools, including my CSI-style pocket Mini Maglite.

I suggested we put the new computer on the desk rather than on the floor. This plan was vetoed6. I shrugged and wired the thing up. Wrestling the cords round the back of the "hutch" style desk was a problem at times because the desk had not been engineered with computer installation in mind and so didn't have many of the holes and gaps in the various cross-members that purpose-built furniture usually does these days. The cords, having been packed in tight loops for months, tended to bunch up behind solid planks where they were a bugger to shift.

In some time at all we had the wretched thing wired up and properly connected to its keyboard, mouse, monitor (small sized, but the same size as the old one when measured), the old printer but not the scanner because we ran out of ports. The speakers, for some unknown reason, used a USB port to draw power rather than having a traditional power supply. Tidy, but it took a needed port for something that it wasn't really needed for. Then it was time to throw the first, second and, after some small reticence, third switches and coax the wondrous thing into life.

Windows Vista BuggerYouAbout Edition flared into life, sort of.

I was flabbergasted when the license agreement required not only an agreement to accept a software license, but also a separate agreement to license the hardware Tony had bought and paid for. Since we weren't about to reduce a brand new computer to a paperweight without a fallback plan, OS-wise, I disgustedly told him to accept both.

There was a short delay of several minutes while the computer "configured" itself. Then it asked for the details for its first User Account.

I told Tony to think of a name and a password and put it in. This he did, and there was another delay of several minutes while Windows Vista did some "optimising".

Then it wanted to download some updates.

Then it wanted a reboot.

By the time we had finished buggering about with the operating system more than an hour had elapsed. McAffee launched itself.

"I thought you said you didn't buy any anti-virus software?" I said. Tony looked blankly on.

I went on a hunt through the paperwork and discovered a "complementary" 30-day "evaluation" copy of MacAfee had been included in the bundle. I considered explaining to Tony and asking what he wanted to do, ran an internal movie of the possible outcomes from this and said "We're dumping this and replacing it with the Norton Internet Security software you bought." I pulled up the control panel, switched it into traditional view mode so I could actually find stuff, and deleted the MacAfee software.

Boy did that cause Vista to whine. I let it turn on its own AV and firewall for the time being and installed Norton Internet Security.

Which wanted to spend some time downloading AV templates, lists of phishing sites to block, lists of kid-unfriendly sites to block etc. This was acceptable. At least I know this is time well spent. Once that was up and running it turned of Vista's own AV and firewall. Things "Vista" might not be so bad after all, I thought7 .

I spent some time making bookmarks for AOL, eBay, PayPal and Google. The new browser format was throwing me and so this took much longer than usual.

Then Tony got fixated on the free AOL icon on his desktop. I spent five minutes extracting from him the story of how he used to get his AOL mail. This involved highly untechnical jargon which went out of its way to avoid any reference to the computer he used or how he used it and strayed into a number of unrelated topics, but eventually I "got" that he would like to get his e-mail from the AOL client rather than the browser.

Not a problem. I simply ran the install, which took about five minutes. It would have been shorter but Tony lost track and couldn't remember what "password" meant at one point, and what his account name had been on another. By now my coffee was gone and my smile was becoming a thing of Hammer House of Horror: Eyes bugging out, veins pulsing in my temples, cords standing out on my neck with the tension of my clenched jaw and lips pulled towards my ears with a virtual wire coat hanger wedged in my mouth, all from the effort of not reaching over and strangling Tony. I clicked on the Microsoft Works icon to show Tony how it worked.

A sad mistake.

There followed half an hour of frustration as the software walked us through the alligator infested, water moccasin festooned swamp of its registration process. Did you know that Microsoft want you to set up an account to register their software now? You still have to punch in more than two dozen alphanumerics in a "license" box, but in addition you have to create a MS passport account (they call it something different but forgot to alter the boilerplate at one point and gave the game away) in order to ensure a good customer experience. Right.

In typical Microsoft fashion the f____ing process hung at one point claiming a password problem and had to be restarted, only to claim three screens in that the account name was in use already. It took forever to complete the licensing registration, without which the software would not start.

How do I know the software would not start?

Because I found a copy of MS Office lurking on the disc and tried to start that, but couldn't for the life of me find the 25 digit key I was supposed to hand-type into the wretched license screen8 . No doubt I would then have had to re-sign-on to Tony's passport account to actually have the computer he bought allow the software he bought start so he could do what he had bought it all for to do.

It got better9.

The new machine seemed to take an inordinate time to boot, and it gradually dawned on me that the bloody thing was checking with Microsoft via the web to see if they would give Tony permission to start his fully bought and paid for computer.

This is the very limit of my patience. These bastards have got some kind of nerve, selling the poor sod software than bait and switching him into some sort of rental model. I can only hope that this straw finally breaks the camels back and persuades the open community to get moving unifying the mishmash Linux environment into something that people can confidently run at home without a degree in computer science and for which software houses can profitably develop popular packages like games. If I could reliably play my RTS Command and Conquer games on a Linux platform, run Turbo Tax on it and get an acceptable MS Office-like performance from Open Office10 I'd switch in a New York Minute.

I can't see companies buying Windows Vista the way it stands today. The parasitic network load alone could be ruinous and what happens if Windows Genuine Advantage (the thing that gives the computer permission to actually be a computer today) makes a false identification of your Vista as a pirate copy?11 Why, your machine shuts down and you can't do a bloody thing about it. In some states that behaviour is actually illegal.


I finally left Tony's house four hours after I got there. That included a thirty minute dash to CompUSA to get a cable for his printer. Call it three and a half hours to do about an hour's worth of stuff. Intolerable. I would have been there longer but I had an appointment to see the Stevieling play basketball in Hicksville that afternoon.

The next day I met Tony on the train. He complained that the computer took too long to start. I advised him to not power it down but to just log off. He responded by telling me it took too long to start. Then he complained that the Norton software had produced "some sort of list" and put up a message about "something fraud something 30 000 files". I explained (twice) that the Norton software needed to scan his computer, and that he should let it when it wanted to. He ran through his list of complaints a couple of times more and I repeated my answer. Then I told him that if the message was from Norton, and was green he was usually OK, but if it was red he should read the message very carefully before clicking on anything, and if he didn't understand the message to write it down and show it to me the next time we saw each other.

The next evening, around 9:30 pm, he called to ask if the message "No Fraud Detected" meant he was OK.

I instructed Mrs Stevie to stop leaping for the phone and let the answering machine get it first like I always do.

  1. Generic placeholder for some component who's primary characteristics are that you don't know what it is and you don't know what it does.
  2. True. What he didn't mention, because he didn't understand the rammifications, was that he hadn't had a subscription to NAV - and hence hadn't had any virus template upgrades - for five years.
  3. Although there is increasing suspicion in the online community that there are systemic problems with eBay's security that have allowed hackers access to high-clearance level credentials. eBay has been hacked in such a manner several times in the last few months.
  4. Just a couple of sets of micro screwdrivers and a small flashlight. Since I got my Leatherman Wave tool and strapped it frimly to my belt o'usefulness I have little need of much else. Between that and my 25 year old Victorinox Swiss Army Knife that never leaves my side I have most of the tools one needs for improvised small jobs not requiring a hammer. I love my converged portable tools.
  5. He really did. I found a wooden, 6 ft. folding carpenter's rule next to the screen when I got there. Obviously, for all his other faults, at one time Tony was into tools.
  6. A decision he later regretted. The shorter case along with the underslung eject button for his DVD burner make for an awkward under-desk arrangement. Like the old saying goes: "You can drive a horse to water but a pencil must be lead"
  7. Another example of my keen analytical powers at work
  8. And if they're gonna insist you have an internet connection and that you peform a laborious registration with a web site, why in Azathoth's name can't they get the bloody key off that sodding site and save my fingers?
  9. As in: it got worse
  10. Please don't write to me about how Open Office is as good if not better than MS Office unless you understand concepts like Mail Merge and know what Pivot Tables are for. I need an office suite to provide more than a multi-font typewriter and a (very) basic spread sheet. Until the last release OO's spreadsheet didn't offer pivot tables because no-one involved understood clearly what people in the real world use spreadsheets for
  11. Of course, this never happens. Oh wait, yes it does. Has, in fact. WGA has been screwing up on XP for over a year and has an impressive number of reported false "fake" hits

What We Have Here Is A Failure To Self-Motivate

I can't be bothered to do anything these days. It's got to the stage where I actually have three of the five markers for clinical depression. And am I downhearted?


Take last week for instance. The LIRR cancelled all the Ronkonkoma trains and announced that passengers who wanted to go down that line should "use alternate routes". The LIRR has no alternate routes to Ronkonkoma. What this message was actually saying was "We're dropping you off at Hicksville, miles from your home, and leaving you to fend for yourselves". I rode to Babylon and got Mrs Stevie to pick me up from there and drive me the five miles or so home.

Right there was the material for a classic blog rant. Loss of service. Pretence of trying to do something for the paying customer when in actual fact doing zero (not even tipping off the taxi companies that there might be a point in getting a few more drivers on station). The LIRR was metaphorically bending over and dropping its pants to reveal a "Kick Me" tattoo on each cheek. But the next day I found out that the problem was another suicide, and I slipped into a state of mind in which there wasn't much that could be done about things and that was that. No story, not even now.

My work is ultra uninteresting at the moment and about to get galactically more so if I read the signs aright. Unlike the old days when I would just pull up stakes and go find something more interesting to do, I have responsibilities now, including the responsibility of putting a roof over a bunch of freeloaders' heads and not dropping dead ahead of schedule. This is thunderously depressing at times. I have years of skills I'm not using but could be. I have turned into the sort of person I hated twenty years ago and I hate that.

Never mind. I have to restart work on New Bog this week and doubtless that will provide some moments of pure frustration that might segue into hideous danger and liven things up a bit.

Now That's A Pretty Song

Joe Cocker pounding out a hard rock version of Leonard Cohen's First We Take Manhattan. Bad news: this version is shorter by at least two verses and a chorus than the original, and the arrangement is good enough that I miss 'em, daft words and all. Good News: It is so far ahead of the original arrangement1 that radio messages take several minutes to travel between the two. Within one bar it had me hooked, and there was only a piano playing at the time. The driving drum beat had yet to cut in, followed by Cocker in fine voice. Absolute bloody magic.

Check it out for yourself on No Ordinary World, an album of covers that concludes with a version of Paul Brady's excellent Love Made A Promise2, by itself a darn good reason to buy the thing.

If the only time you've heard Joe Cocker is on the soundtrack to Woodstock you'll be impressed how he sounds when he's sober.

  1. Cohen went for an (unusual for him) electronic treatment a-la Kraftwerk on his. You can check that out on I'm Your Man
  2. From one of my all-time favourite albums, Spirits Colliding3
  3. A track or two from this will certainly feature in some future Now That's A Pretty Song since the album is packed with suitable songs

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Another Round Goes To Mr Brain

More inconvenience snow this morning, just a light dusting by the time I left for work but promising to thicken, then turn first to slush, then ice by evening in time for my homeward trek

On the ironical front, as I was walking from Bagel Boys (my breakfast sandwichmonger of choice) to my office I was running Joan Armatrading's Down to Zero in Mr Brain. This is a trick I learned when I was a poor student before the advent of the Walkman: The ability to reproduce album-long music works to order in my head. I may not be able to play music well, but I can damned well remember it almost note perfect. Another useless skill.

These days the playback often starts itself when Mr Brain is not under load, like some sort of demented mental screen-saver, and to say the walk to my office lacks brain-taxing stimuli would be akin to saying that Operation Iraqi Freedom presents a challenge. The entertainment kicked in:

Oh the Feelin' when you're reelin
You step lightly thinkin' you're number one
I made my way across the road and started down the slight incline towards my office building. Mr Brain busily unloaded all the routines for algebra, bicycle riding and sundry carpentry skills into backing storage to increase resources for high fidelity and low humour at my expense.
Down to zero in a word leavin'
For another one
I began to cross the through-building cross street to the car park on the left while page faults in the old grey matter caused swapping of Conversational Gambits; Young Women For Use On and the discriminators for sweet, sour, left and right to long-term archiving.
Now you walk with your feet back on the groundThe road was snowy, but not too bad. I adjusted my grip on my sandwich while I temporarily lost the ability to use a telephone and play Monopoly. Certain depth perception routines were also deemed "not necessary" and filed.
Down to the ground
Down to the ground
I stepped up onto the curb, missed my footing and crashed down to the ground, down to the ground. The playback was interrupted by one of those "needle dragged across the record" sound effects and I was temporarily incapacitated as Mr Brain madly reinstated a usable working set1.

I was able to maintain some remnant of my manly pride by the fact that as I went hurtling groundward I managed to adjust the angle of my morning coffee so that it didn't spill all over me and freeze me to the sidewalk, but all in all this one has to be filed under the "finest hour - not" heading.

  1. "Working Set" is a computer term for a bunch of resources that a process needs to work. Yes, this is an attempt at geek humour, not readily accessible to the general public. No, geek humour isn't funny in the accepted sense of the phrase2
  2. Causing laughter, raising spirits, imbuing a sense of wellbeing and so forth

Friday, March 02, 2007

And Oh, Oh, Oh, Look At The Rain Falling

A deluge of biblical proportions has been sweeping over Long Island since early in the morning, with about three inches of wet falling by the time I was ready to depart for work. I was giddy with anticipation over seeing the Long Island Rail Road's contingency planning in the well-known floodplain that is Mineola Station.

Mineola has the worst drainage I've ever seen. The Ganges in full flood carries a mere fraction of the water that accumulates in the lower levels of Winthrop Hospital's car park on a drizzly day, and I have actually ridden on a train on which the conductor hung out of a window with a radio as we crawled through the station so he could warn the driver if the bow wave we were making looked as if it would wash against the third rail and short it to ground. I remember almost passing out due to laughing so hard I couldn't breath when the town council floated1 a plan to replace one of the many grade crossings by having the road dip under the track. The thought of what this would look like when it filled with water on the first rainy day has often cheered me up when my spirits sagged. I think the technical term for such constructions is "sump”. After receiving a good soaking just by crossing the carpark I was in the mood for a bit of schadenfreude2 so I was all eyes as we approached Mineola station.

I was in luck. Flooding was so bad due to the weather, which had been aided by some railway maintenance crews in a manner I will get to eventually, that the train was forced to stop, then proceed at about 3 miles per hour through the station.

First up for the edification of Stevie was the crew desperately trying not to get sucked into the ten-foot pit someone had dug for a foundation of some yet-to-be built building. There was a very impressive scale model of the Horseshoe Falls improvising itself over the lip of the pit where it approached the side of the trackbed3. When you remember that the ground on Long Island is typically one foot of topsoil over several tens of feet of sand you will appreciate the danger posed to the crew. It looked for all the world like a time-lapse film of the Goose River4 erosion taken over several geological eras. Truly impressive quantities of water were finding a new place to drain into in the absence of any formally arranged ones like, ooh I dunno, storm sewers5.

Then it was westward ho! to the small substation I never spotted before (it's possible some occluding structure had been washed away overnight).

Here a team of engineers had deployed an emergency pump to keep the rising water away from all those shed-sized transformers. The bright blue hose was laid for about a hundred feet along the trackbed where it disgorged the water...nowhere special. This team of experts were apparently happy to simply move the flood somewhere else rather than mitigate it by pumping into, ooh, I dunno, a storm sewer maybe. As is was, there was a nice deep pool of water forming under the Eastbound train platform of the station. The thing is, unless my eyes deceived me, the power station lies slightly downhill from the platform in question and so about an hour or so later I imagine the engineers were taken by complete surprise by a sudden unexpected and totally unpredictable inundation from this catch-basin.

No doubt when I return to La Maison Stevie I will find my own domestic flood in progress. The water table is already very high where I live and more than a light spritzing causes interior tidal activity. Either I or Mrs Stevie will have to vacuum it all up and then pump out the vacuum. It is all very tedious, and the one who gets stuck with the job usually ends up getting soaked again. Fortunately, the weather will likely disrupt the evening commute badly.

I expect I shall probably be late home tonight.

  1. See what I did there?
  2. Joy in the trials and tribulations of others. I know it's small minded but my clothes are still wet almost four hours later. I had, in the words of Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau "received considerable soak" and I take my small pleasures where I find 'em these days
  3. And how long will it be before the trackbed is undermined by this unexpected turn of events? No man can say
  4. The Horseshoe Falls were once about a mile further downriver than they are today. Google "Horseshoe Falls" "Niagara" and "Goose River" to begin your own voyage of discovery (in a barrel, preferably)
  5. This is a base calumny. Mineola has plenty of storm sewer gratings. The leap of intuition that the local civil engineers need to make concerns placing them at the bottom of the hills

Thursday, March 01, 2007

There Are None So Blind As Those With Easy Access To Industrial Strength Chemicals Under Minimal Supervision

Once again life hasn't been particularly treacherous with respect to my good self of late, so I am forcéd to dip into my past to sate your appetite for fiasco. This tale comes from my Lower Sixth Form year, when I was a callow yet strikingly handsome youth, with the idiotic desire to make a life in chemistry.

It was time for the summer open day at St John Backsides Comprehensive School, and I was of a mind to volunteer for the chemistry lab display team that year. Each department would be trotting out some sort of demonstration of what they were attempting to do with the children so that the visiting parents could check that All Was Well. The chemistry department always put on some scorching displays, and I had been itching to work the room-long Bunsen Burner that Mr Thomas, the head of the chemistry department, had devised to demonstrate why Bunsen Burners strike back1.

It was dead good. The machine consisted of about twenty feet of three inch diameter glass tubing, attached to a regular Bunsen Burner by means of a wet rag bung. The whole thing ran the width of the lab and it was spectacular to watch and hear.

That's right, I said hear.

One of the major attractions of this thing was that it made noise, a very disconcerting roar that lasted several seconds, at regular intervals when it went off.

When it was time to let the punters in, the operator would position a lit Bunsen Burner at the open mouth of the Giant Sideways Periodically Malfunctioning Bunsen Burner Of Great Spiffiness and turn on the gas for the other one, sealed into the other end of the tubing with a wet rag. The rest was a matter of time. When enough gas had been forced into the tube it would reach the burner at the end and ignite. At that point a burning ring of gas would move down the pipe towards the unlit burner, causing the pipe to roar mightily. What red-blooded chemistry-addled lad could resist this? Fire, noise and permission to mess about with both in the name of science. My conscience would not let me stand idly by while others gave their valuable time to man this noble experiment and so I volunteered to join the demonstration team.

I was given the "volcano" experiment to demonstrate.

This was not the insipid baking powder and vinegar volcano that so many grade school parents have secretly built while their kid played Nintendo. Nor was it the more exciting rocket-fuel job seen on one "CSI" episode. Such more worthwhile machines were in fact illegal at the time in the UK as they violated the Firearms and Explosives act of 18mumblemumble, first enacted as a reaction to The Dynamiters of Victorian times. No, this volcano experiment fell somewhere in between those two extremes, though more toward the vinegar and baking powder job than Mount Saturn V if the truth be told. It in no way compared to the Giant Sideways Periodically Malfunctioning Bunsen Burner Of Great Spiffiness in terms of desirability, and my disappointment was great.

My job on that hot Saturday would consist of taking a vaguely volcano-shaped rock with a caldera gouged out of it, and filling the cavity with orange Ammonium Dichromate powder. I would then heat the handle of a deflagrating spoon2 to red heat in a regular, upright Bunsen Burner, at which point I would thrust the hot rod into the powder, triggering a wondrous transformation. The orange powder would fizz and expand violently, forming a green chromium "ash". Not too shabby, as non-landmark chemical experiments go. There was a disturbing educational quality to it, since the reaction was demonstrating the oxidation of Chromium from the 2+ to the 3+ state with the characteristic change in colour associated with such reactions, but even so it was an experiment worth doing and worth seeing.


It didn't take a genius to figure out that a whole day of this would rapidly pale, and I gloomily cast about for some way to salvage something from the fiasco. A little self pride would be a start.

Of course, those of you who have been regular readers of these snippets will instantly recognise the initial conditions were ripe for the interference of Mr Brain in the scheme of things, and that is exactly what happened. Having been instructed in the requirements of the demo and having been made to do it, I had about a week of lessons to worry at the problem. It was while staring at the rows and rows of chemicals on the supply shelves that I hit upon a sure-fire way to 'pep-up' this dog of an experiment4.

I was Idly thinking about how one can add certain chemicals to fireworks5 to get special effects - copper sulphate will make a striking green flame for example and sodium salts make for a nice yellow effect - but fretting that there was no actual flame produced during the eruption of Mount Boring. There was plenty of heat in the reaction, but it was buried in the green ash in a fraction of a second. A little pinch of orange powder made a shirtload of green ash, which was the reason the chemical was chosen. It really did look sorta like an eruption when it was under way. But there was no exposed flame to colour. I briefly thought about adding iron filings to the inital charge. With luck it would make for little sparks shooting out along with the green ash. But that would also really work better with a fierce flame rather than the little hot nugget buried deep in the erupting ash.

Then my eyes lit on a jar of powdered magnesium and Mr Brain played some footage of Ye Olde Daguerrotypist with his Flashpan. Maybe adding some magnesium powder to the orange muck would persuade the central reaction to be a bit more spectacular? I hurriedly produced my ever-ready glass vial and swiped a small amount. About a boiling tube full.

The day of the demo dawned and it was all I had expected. The smug swines in charge of the Giant Sideways Periodically Malfunctioning Bunsen Burner Of Great Spiffiness were King's O' the Lab and Mr Green Ash Everywhere was very much off in a corner. Bah. But no matter. I kept my spirits up with thoughts of the small unauthorised experiment I planned to perform when everyone else took lunch. If all went well the afternoon session would ring to the amazed cries of parents and the envious gasps of fellow students as my transformed volcano experiment provided a visual feast of chemical excellence for all to see.

Lunchtime came to pass.

Everyone filed out of the fug of the lab. Several of the demos had combustion byproducts that made for poor air quality over time, and a cloud of white ammonium chloride gas6 that had been hovering on the ceiling had descended about 15 minutes before and tear-gassed all but the most ardent parents from the laboratory, clutching their throats and wheezing theatrically. In the mad dash for fresh air and food, no-one made me leave! My plan was running like a Swiss watch!

I waited until I was sure that every parent, teacher or member of the headmaster's death squads was safely fighting each other at the buffet and then went into science mode. I carefully drew out my hidden vial of magnesium and contemplated it and the jar of orange powder. How much to use? The magnesium would burn extremely brightly, that much I knew, but I had no first-hand knowledge of what sort of quantities would be needed to inject the right amount of "oomph" into the already tired Volcano of Dullness. I decided on a 50/50 mix for the first attempt. The amounts involved were not great and I could scale it back for the next try if it proved too bright. I would seek to balance the increased brightness with the quantities of ash produced for the best aesthetic effect. I loaded the new mixture into the cavity in the rock and heated the brass rod with a sense of increasing excitement. This was science at its best!

It seemed to take forever but the rod was finally glowing bright red. Clutching the cool end in my right hand and holding it well away from my long, curly hair I positioned myself at eye level to the rock, about a foot from it. Taking a small breath I plunged the red-hot brass rod into the new experimental volcano powder.

A nova went off in front of my face.

I have no idea what the effect looked like because my optic nerves overloaded from the gazillion kilowatts of light that pounded up them at 186 000 miles a second, tripping the internal circuit breakers on the way. To this day it remains the brightest thing I ever nearly saw.

I sat up on my stool, careful not to move since I was totally blind. I say blind, but it was not the stygian black affair that people often report. No, this blindness was a field of actinic white, like a searchlight being shone into my eyes. "Well, that worked" I thought to myself.

I was in trouble, that much was obvious. I could not see anything. White white white was the colour of the universe. It didn't help to close my eyes either. It was white inside them too. How in hell was I going to bluff my way through the afternoon? I couldn't see to restock Mount Fiasco with orange powder. I couldn't see the Bunsen Burner. Someone could get injured if I tried to run the experiment in my current condition. It was most vexing. Not only that, my eyes felt as though the magnesium had gone off inside them. Action was called for.

I decided to wait a bit and see if my sight returned. If it didn't, that would be the time for confessions, learning Braille and getting a new dog. No sense in getting everyone excited if the blindness was only a temporary side effect of the scientific method. All great scientists go through such setbacks. Marie Curie ended up dead trying to invent glow-in-the-dark paint for her watch, and Lavoisier was guillotined over some debate with the masses of Paris concerning ideal gasses. This sort of thing has become less common as scientists spend most of their time arguing about things rather than doing real science these days, as I have said before.


Eventually the world began to intrude into my universe of whiteness. Little by little, solarised images corresponding to the laboratory began to form in the blankness, and they in turn became less cartoon-like and more mundane as the lunch hour wore on. By the time the first footsteps of the returning demonstration teams and their watchdog teachers were pounding up the stairs, my sight was back and any smoke from the detonation had dispersed. I looked about. There were no obvious new burns on the walls, ceiling or my clothing. Any ash was hidden amongst the acres of the stuff I made during the morning. I could see again. There didn't seem a pressing need to worry the teachers by reporting the events they had missed, so I didn't7.

The afternoon wore on with the lab filling with the smoke of other people's experiments and the periodic roar of the Giant Sideways Periodically Malfunctioning Bunsen Burner Of Great Spiffiness, although I noted with some wryness that the team looking after it were beginning to climb the walls since they actually didn't have anything to do. The machine would work whether they were there or not.

I performed the Volcano of Extreme Dullness several times with the orange powder, but I didn't repeat it with "oomph" since I had been unable to arrive at an aestheticly pleasing mixture due to lack of time. I felt that exposing the general public to untested special effects would only lead to censure by the teachers and earn me a damn good thrashing from the headmaster in the event anyone got inadvertently blinded in the pursuit of science. His speciality was French and he was ill-equipped mentally to understand some of the more obscure facets of the scientific method.

I never volunteered for the open day chemistry demonstration again.

  1. This is vital knowledge if you are ever put in the position of having to strike a Bunsen Burner
  2. A specially designed tool invented by some alchemist so that he could set fire to things at a safe distance. It consists of a small spoon with a long vertical handle and a brass disc-shaped guard that can be used as a lid if placed on a Gas Jar3
  3. A Gas Jar is a tall cylindrical jar used for all sorts of things in a chemistry lab, none of which spring to mind at the moment
  4. One must remember these were the early 70s and the school had been built and supplied with monies first calculated under a socialist government. The labs were full of the most desirable chemicals which were available (mostly) to a trusted science nerd like yours truly was reputed to be
  5. Home made fireworks were a thing of the past, since all the really interesting things that can be fabricated out of a "Smarties" (USA M&M) tube and various chemicals had been done by the time I turned fourteen. Indeed, every fourth year chemistry student was a firework veteran and had set fire to his or her house at least once in the previous three years
  6. Another oldie but goody. You put a flask of hydrochloic acid and a flask of ammonia side by side, run tubes from the flasks up to a glass "chimney" and warm the flasks. White smoke forms in the chimney and ascends to the heavens in a celebration of British Industrial Might. Don't inhale if you value your lungs
  7. Funnily enough, that Christmas I bought a copy of Samuel R. Delaney's "Nova", in which one of the protagonists suffers a similar blindness after copping a close look at an actual nova. Large world