Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bye Johnny, Bye Brant.

Johnny Hart, the man who gave us B.C. and who with Brant Parker wrote The Wizard of ID died on April 7th.

Many felt that the strip had lost its way in recent years and was no longer relevant. It is certainly true that after thirty odd years of reading them, I was less inclined to seek them out than the more recent strips and cartoons.


Back in 1976 or thereabouts I spotted a The Wizard of ID strip on the wall of Skid Row, the cocktail bar above Captain America's Hamburger Heaven in Norwich, England and was hooked. After leaving University I began collecting the paperback books of both strips, eagerly searching bookstores for the ones I was missing. I vividly remember that B.C. #8, the one with the origin of Grog in it, was particularly hard to find and the pleasure I got from it when I finally did track it down. The collection of both B.C. and The Wizard of ID ran to over thirty volumes before other interests crowded them out of the budget. I still have every one.

Classic incidents in the strips live on in many people's heads. The "Clams Got Legs" fiasco. Thor's invention of the Choo-Choo. The inevitable results of selecting "I Don't Know" as the password when The King of ID's castle was surrounded by Huns. Roll call in Robbing Hood's encampment. The first meeting with the newly-thawed Grog.

On April 15th, Brant Parker died.

I have no idea how well the work will survive. It would be nice to think that each strip would get its own "complete collection" treatment as one or two others have in the last four or five years. Until then:

A Soldier: What's the password for tonight?
Sir Rodney: "I don't know"
Next Morning:
The King: Good grief! The courtyard is full of huns! How on earth did that happen?
Sir Rodney: "I don't know"

Monday, April 23, 2007

Inside The Walls Of New Bog

Well, having recovered my health (apart from a crown that is giving me gyp but won't succumb to showing its true colours at the dentist) I was forced to begin working on New Bog again. The level of tension has been mounting in Chateau Stevie over the need to use one bathroom for three people who seem to have synchronised their bathroom needs in some psychic fashion, so Action was being called for.

I had finished the small jobs like removing the remained of the sheetrock as far as I could during the last few weeks (in between the other jobs that sprang up), and Saturday afternoon was spent removing the last of the nails in odd places that had been overlooked. I also had to fit a new stud next to one of the old ones since the sheetrock could be cut back only so far and this had resulted in ending up with the wall ending exactly at the edge of a stud leaving nowhere to fasten the new panels to. This was no big deal, except ffor finding a stud at Home Despot that was straight, undamaged and of a reasonably uniform texture throughout. Selecting one took about 20 minutes of digging through the piles of crap. Home Despot used to carry decent quality wood, but about ten years ago they changed their supplier "to enhance the purchaser's experience" and the quality went south bigtime. Then there was some nonsense involving cutting the thing to avoid pipes that was entirely too involved for such a small job. Last of all came bagging up the bits of sheetrock cut back to about an inch from the tile, during which I unwisely snapped a piece of sheetrock over my knee without first checking for nails and managed to stab myself in the leg.

All that was left of the pre-walling jobs was the fiberglass insulation. Years ago I did this job in the downstairs bathroom ceiling and the fiberglass had so-called "kraft paper" facing for a vapour barrier and the glass wool surrounded by a perforated plastic cover so that you didn't have to handle or breathe the stuff. Needless to say, in the twelve years since I did this, the product has been enhanced and you can't get the plastic-covered stuff for luvnermoney. The kraft paper vapour barrier is glued to about 6 inches of open glass wool. This meant that protective gear would have to be worn during the installation.

Protective gear in this instance means that any skin must be covered, durable gloves must be worn, a respirator must be used and some sort of head covering. Basically, anything to stop the wool getting at your skin either inside or outside your body. Past experience has persuaded me that covering the skin with woven or knit textiles is little use either, since glass strands get lodged in the weave and penetrate that way. The last time I did the job I used a disposable spun-olefin jumpsuit with a hood. Since then I have gained a sight more manly relaxed muscle tone, and the uniform didn't fit. I would have to improvise.

When I work at almost anything that requires heavy concentration I perspire quite heavily. Always have, even when I was younger, fitter and thinner. Over the years as I worked on various outside construction projects I found that a white canvas baseball cap with a dark peak works best to alleviate the problem of sweating into my own eyes. The cap gathers the persiration into the peak which warms up and helps the moisture evapourate. The cap I use was available for use as a hood replacement. One down, several to go.

The respirator was also a non-issue as I have one, a real one, used when dust levels will climb to noticable levels on a job. Of course, it won't seal over my beard as it is. I used to crop my beard to a sort of fuzzy nap since the idea wasn't to have a beard so much as to have a face, which I've found I don't after shaving for a couple of days. Mrs Stevie made me grow my beard out to about an inch though, citing "scratchiness", and even though our contact these days is mostly via third party intermediaries and e-mail, such is the strength of her conviction on this matter that I generally opt for a longer beard and longer periods of consciousness. It would have to go though, so I trimmed it down to about 1/4 inch. Two down.

Nowhere could I find the old blue boilersuit I had for mucky jobs though, so I was forced to turn to an alternative body cover. I had, in my drawer of shiny man-made wearables, a Joe Weider sweat suit. Not a fabric thing to go jogging in, but an all-over PVC thing for making the wearer sweat. I forget what "logic" was behind the purchase of this wonderfully slick, shiny fashion statement, but it was just what the doctor ordered for fiberglassing. Well, it would have been if not for the tears in the trousers. Obviously, I had worn the thing on the treadmill and exceeded its design specs vis-a-vis stride-length. Not to worry, a few minutes with a heavy duty black, shiny garbage sack and some duct tape (blue unfortunately, the matching black was nowhere to be found) and I had effected repairs. Three down!

I hunted high and low for the box of disposable vinyl gloves I use for painting and glueing jobs but to no avail. I did turn up a box of old latex gloves bought before they started selling the vinyl ones so I reluctantly decided to go with those. The latex isn't really strong enough for long-term use unfortunately and ruptures in the rubber sometimes can go unnoticed. I would have to be careful, but it would seem all systems were now, in fact, go.

What a sight I must have made as I stalked manfully towards new bog, clad in a fetching mixture of black and purple PVC, latex and blue duct tape, my breath hissing Darth Vader style through the (rubber) respirator. I paused and reflected that it might be better to remove some if not all of the protective gear before going outside for any supplies. Although NYC has a nicely liberal attitude to novel modes of fashion, the suburbs of Long Island have perhaps not yet reached the levels of sophistication required to view such a costume as high fashion or work wear and I had no desire to spend another night in the cells trying to sort out a stupid misunderstanding.

And so it went for about three hours as I cut apart and removed the old insulation, some sort of untanned lizard hide/asbestos fiber concoction, and replaced it with precision cut lengths of glass-fiber insulation. The job had the usual moments of frustration, especially when it came time to split lengths down the middle to make them fit the narrower spaces. One of the problems is that the stuff has a sort of tab running down each side to facilitate stapling it into place. If you have to chop it into narrower strips (and if I remark that the stuff is actually made of several layers of mat to a depth of about 6 inches you will apreciate the trouble of that job) you will lose one of these anchoring strips and life gets tedious. Generally, though, the whole thing went well with one minor exception.

Remember I spoke about sweating when I do these kinds of jobs? When anything doesn't go right or begins to show signs of an out-of-planned-for-contingency excursion, I sweat (and swear) heavily. Add to that that the PVC suit is supposed to make you sweat (some people think you can lose weight that way. I tend to think you just develop heat prostration) and that the weather has finally broken and the bathroom was a torid 70 degrees F and you can perhaps appreciate that I was basting nicely by the time the job was done. Even the respirator was beginning to bubble since breath has moisture in it and it was condensing in the mask. Lovely. As soon as I was done I vacuumed the floor and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen for some much needed pre-shower iced-tea, at which point Mrs Stevie and the Stevieling returned home from whatever they do on a Sunday morning.

As I stood gasping for air and gulping down vast quantities of iced-tea the Stevieling let out a squeak and said "Dad, you look really cool!"

I surfaced from my iced tea and said "Really. This is what passes for cool with today's young people? PVC clothing patched with contrasting duct tape and a sweat-soaked baseball cap?"

"Yep. And the colours are way cool!"

Great. My daughter is growing up in a world where haute coiture is indestinguishable from cheap sweaty fetish garb.

Friday, April 20, 2007

New Languages To Blog In!

Matenon, me legis ĉe la hejmepajo de blogspot ke la blogspotuloj1 aldonis al ni alaij leterajumoj2 por taipi niajn retjurnalojn3.

Tio estas tre bona, sed ili ne povus fari tion se oni usus Esperanton.

Esperanto. La plej facila lingvo el la mondo. Diru ion esperante hodiaû.

  1. Jesjesjes, mi scias! Mi ne havas vortaro proksime tial mi memfaris vorton kiu signifas la homaroj kiuj laboras por blogspot.
  2. Mi jam diris ke mi scias! Ĉi tiu estas memfarita vorto kiu signifas la letterojn en kiu ni taipas.
  3. Gordono Beneto! Mi diris ke me forgesis mian vortliston! Vi legas "retjurnalon" nun!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Jack McDevitt Totally Rocks (Or Possibly Asteroids)

I am a long-time science fiction fan.

I've had fads and fancies for just about every sub genre that has been published as SF, some of which I'm no longer fond of, but my favourite form of SF is probably the detective/exploration story set in an alien/future framework of some kind. The epitome of the kind of story that can always float my Martian Sandship is Larry Niven's Ringworld.

It was a couple of years ago that I first came across Jack McDevitt's novel-length works, when he was a guest author at I-Con, and boy am I glad I did. He writes bang-up "get to the bottom of this up 'til now inexplicable mystery" stories in a hard SF setting.

Caviar. Better, A bacon doorstep with HP sauce1.

If you only ever read one book of this type, make it McDevitt's Polaris, a wonderful Marie Celeste mystery in deep space with many twists and turns.

Then read his Seeker, set in the same universe with many of the same protagonists.

  1. Take unsliced "tin" loaf and cut off two inch-thick slices. Butter generously. Pick one piece and layer on back bacon (cooked until done but not turned into jerky) and slather with HP "brown" sauce. Place other slice of bread butter side down on top of the other slice. Cut across width to give two sandwiches. Eat.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

That's A Big 1040 There, Good Buddy.

Federal 1040 and Schedule A, NY State IT-201, IT-2, IT-213 and NYC 1152.

If there is a more relentlessly irritating way of spending a weekend than preparing income tax returns, I have yet to find it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sometimes They Don't Cause The Problem, They Just Host It When It Happens

This morning I awoke to find my right ear blocked and whistling away. That makes about four weeks I had with both ears "working" before one packed up again. Great start to the day, no? It got better

I got on my train and sat in a two-seat "bench" facing another at the very front of the train. I took the window seat facing the rear of the train. A few minutes later a young chap got on and sat "kitty corner" in the opposite bench seat, taking the aisle seat facing forward.

Now I've mentioned before that the newest trains to be added to the LIRR fleet were apparently designed to seat Japanese schoolchildren under the age of 10, and that when two adults sit side by side the accomodations are cramped since each will be trying to take up one and a bit seats. What happened in Mineola showcased this issue in cinemascope.

A woman with the widest backside I have seen in a very long time got on the train and approached my seat. She turned and, to my amazement and the young guy's laughter proceeded first to sit on top of me, then by wiggling her fat arse from side to side to shoehorn herself into the seat. Well, I say "into the seat" but there were still significant amounts of me trapped between the vinyl and her denim pants. I thought the guy opposite would actually have a siezure he was laughing so hard.

I finally yelled "Girl, I got no more room to give you!" at which point she abandoned her attempt to squash me like a bug and retreated without a word of appology to stand in the accessway.

No sooner had she got up than another woman sat down with no problem, this new neighbour having less generous helpings of hips and mine having just been crushed to about half their usual width. This caused the previous would-be occupant of the seat to glare.

At me.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Problem Mitigation LIRR Style

I went to Penn Station on Monday Night to buy the ticket that I couldn't that morning due to "delays" in processing credit or debit card transactions. I reasoned that the problem must have been fixed by now and in the outside event that it hadn't I could always go to the bank, get some cash and conclude the deal at a human operated window.

A good plan that survived contact with The Enemy1 for about a nanosecond.

The lines for the ticket machines were so long they stretched the width of the concourse and impeded the flow of commuters trying to either get to their trains or to a different ticket machine. Lines for the people windows were shorter, but were not moving as far as I could see. I sighed, checked the clock and got on line.

Now you would have thought that given that the ticket machines had a problem that was causing congestion and had been having that problem all day that the LIRR staff would have organised some of those tape/rope and pillar things you see anywhere a queue will form to get the inevitable long lines collapsed into some sort of controllable and manageable formation, one that didn't have Penn Station knocked to its knees, but you'd be wrong. No, to the staff of the LIRR , this was all a bolt from the blue; totally unpredictable and something they couldn't possibly have foreseen in any way, shape or form. Another win for the I.Q. Brigade.

As for the actual problem, well, I still don't know for sure what it was (I can hazard a guess that hinges around Daylight Savings Time and single points of failure2) but the machines all have status displays up high where everyone can see and each one was periodically announcing it wasn't taking Debit or Credit cards only to announce it was a few seconds later. Another triumph of automation from the people who gave us the Harold Junction Capital Improvement Plan3. People were having to try multiple cards in multiple machines and wait for minutes while the transactions either cleared or timed out.

What added a piquancy to the whole affair were the once a minute announcements that the LIRR would be honouring March tickets until 10 am on tuesday. People weren't buying this tale, since most of them had had a similar ride in to mine in which a surly conductor snarled that I would have to have my ticket punched to "cancel it". Too late to argue the toss if the conductor on the ride home wasn't in on the latest version of the policy.

I really think that at times like this the whole bloody bunch of them should be forced by state law to wear oversize shoes and red noses. Maybe then we'd see a gradual improvement in what we get for our capital outlay.

  1. The Long Island Rail Road
  2. The single point of failure is something of a design motif for the LIRR and one I feel they wouldn't abandon simply to ensure things worked
  3. An all summer delaying tactic that had us having to catch earlier trains while the LIRR tore up the junction just east of the East River tunnel entrance. Their excuse was that when they were done the all-too common "train stuck behind Amtrack train stalled in Harold Junction" scenario would be a thing of the past. On the first day the junction re-opened for business, my first train into Manhattan was delayed behind an Amtrack train stalled in Harold Junction

Monday, April 02, 2007

Couldn't Organise A Piss-Up In A Brewery

Today was the first working day of April, and like a gazillion other commuters I managed to forget to buy my monthly train ticket before it was needed, remembering that fact just as I boarded the train.

The LIRR allows commuters of their overpriced monopolistic "service" to travel on their old ticket one-way, once, as a "courtesy". The fact is, people are going to buy the monthly ticket anyway, and when the LIRR tried charging for a one-way fare they were almost certainly inundated with complaints. It was cheaper to offer the "courtesy" than pay the complaints staff to turn up in all likelihood.


Having lost a ticket in the fantastically well-maintained Ticket Vending Machines just before Thanksgiving, and having gone through the wringer trying to get satisfaction from the LIRR drones for the next several weeks1 I wasn't about to try buying the ticket there again this side of armageddon. I decided to ride into Penn and use a TVM there. I would be late for work but at least if the damn TVM malfunctioned I would be able to see properly as I searched the crevices of the machine for the ticket, and find someone close to complain to if it didn't arrive.


I arrived at Penn to hear the announcer booming out the usual "experiencing delays" messages to the shell-shocked outward-bound travellers. These messages are to the Penn Station commuter what Muzak is to the elevator user - background noise. Then I stopped to listen more carefully. The announcer was actually announcing his regret that the ticket machines were experiencing delays with credit or debit card transactions.

"Experiencing delays"? What the flock does that mean. Other than the obvious fact that the ticket machines weren't accepting payment by card today of course. That much was effing obvious.

Bottom line: The LIRR's data infrastructure is so robust it cannot withstand a very ordinary loading that is totally predictable and completely periodic in nature. Most IT places would kill to be able to have data that reliable. The LIRR just kills the data. Typical.

I heard mutterings about this being the date that the daylight savings time adjustment should have kicked in if an act of congress hadn't been passed to make it happen three weeks ago. I doubt this is relevant even if it is true (and I can't be bothered to check) since the time change always happens on a sunday morning at 2 am. I have no trouble whatsoever in believing that some vital piece of LIRR computer kit was screwed up. What I have trouble understanding is how that could bring the operation to its knees.

With the amounts of public money that that bunch of useless spare parts have thrown at various parts of the LIRR infrastructure, it would be nice to think they'd avoided building in a single point of failure. But I'd bet real money that they did, and that we were suffering for that decision today.

The LIRR management are the only people alive who could take you to a cat-house and show you a miserable time.

  1. see previous entry

How The LIRR Didn't Sell Me A Ticket, Blamed Me For It And Banned Me From Using My Credit Card

This all actually happened a while back. I hadn't realised until trying to tell the sorry tale of this morining's excuse for a commute that I hadn't followed up on the time the Ticket Vending Machine (TVM) in Flatbush Avenue swindled me, just before thanksgiving.

I called the number listed on the claim form at the start of December, where a young lady told me that they had sent me an affadavit that I would have to fill in and sign before the claim could be processed. This document never appeared.

I called again about a week before Christmas and was told (by the same young lady) that since I had initiated a chargeback through my credit card (one of the benefits of Visa Gold is easy access to this sort of service), I wouldn't be getting the affadavit after all. I said I didn't understand, since she had told me that it had been sent out over three weeks before. She replied that I wasn't entitled to file the affadavit because of the chargeback, and that furthermore the LIRR machines would no longer accept my card.

I said I understood that a chargeback normally indicated a lost card and so the LIRR was responsibly cancelling further access by that card, but since this was simply due to a fraudulent ticket sale charge I would like to begin the process of having my card's good graces reinstated. She explained that it was no reflection on me. I explained that on the contrary, it painted me as a poor credit risk and would reflect so on my credit history. She said it was policy and that there wasn't a "undo" procedure for it. I realised that I had inadvertantly uncovered a LIRR punative measure draped in the clothing of a "service" and struck my colours on that front (after mentioning that I always initiate a chargeback when my card is fraudulently charged - I wanted to stress my take on the matter since it seemed that was somehow not getting across) on the grounds of it being an unwinable battle, but I had another concern which I needed to address.

I explained that the LIRR could and probably would challenge that chargeback1, and the bank would simply re-charge the card and so I wanted to continue the claim process anyway. She told me that the chargeback meant I had my money back and that ended the matter. I asked for clarification. I had been told that an affadavit was already mailed. Now I am told that it wasn't and wouldn't be. Which of those two statements was the false one?

She replied that the affadavit had been mailed, had been received back at the claims department and another wouldn't be sent out. I said I was even more confused now. The affadavit first was sent out, then wasn't, then was and had been returned? Who had returned it? It couldn't have been me because I was in the process of calling to find out where the document was.

She explained that it had been sent to the wrong address. I asked how that could be. She explained that the address on the claim wasn't legible. I pointed out that before she said anything else she should know that I had the third (yellow) copy of the claim form in my hands and even though it was the last of a multi-part "carbon" copy form, I could read my address perfectly, She had the top copy.

She began to get defensive so I asked to speak to a manager. I got to speak to a manager.

Who simply repeated the nonsensical "Who's on First"2 style of explanation that I had already rejected as incomprehensible hogwash. I eventually hung up since I couldn't penetrate their well-maintained stupidity shields. For once, the LIRR had employed professionals, just not ones interested in protecting the customer's rights. The claim was dead.

But no.

At the beginning of January I received a letter from the LIRR informing me that since I had "refused" to fill in and return the affadavit3 backing up my claim, and since an examination of the TVM logs didn't support my claim, the LIRR was denying it4.

I stood stunned for a moment after I read this document, then rushed to the phone and called my credit card company with a view to investigating whether the chargeback had been overturned. I have had occasion to call the help lines about half a dozen times in the last two years and normally I get excellent help.

Not this time.

I was connected to the LIRR claims department girl's sister who couldn't understand what I was asking. I had a perfect record of the transaction, the dates of the various activities and so forth but she couldn't locate anything on her computer of the remotest help whatsoever. I was forced to wade through my credit card statements to figure it all out.

What actually burns me up is the unstated but clear implication that I was somehow trying to swindle the LIRR out of the price of a ticket. Even a cursory check would show that I had been a monthly commuter using these TVM things ever since they were installed5, that I bought only one ticket a month and that the day after Thanksgiving I bought a second ticket. Were I investigating such a case, those three facts would have me working from the assumption of innocence rather than one of the cunning free ticket swindler the LIRR obviously suspected me to be. I hope the person who actually got my monthly ticket7 is happy.

Still, now I get to make Bank of America happy by using my Platinum Planetary Society themed Visa card

  1. What, you thought this couldn't happen? Nope. If the vendor challenges the chargeback the funds are recharged to the card if written evidence of reasonable grounds for the chargeback aren't forthcoming
  2. An Abbot and Costello routine lengendarily famous in the USA. The routine revolves around one person asking about the status of the game in terms of the players on each base. Hoo is on first base. Watt is on second base. Idenow is on third base. When Bud Abbot asks "Who's on first?" Lou Costello hears "Hoo's on first" and confirms it. Bud Abbot then says confusedly "What?", only to be told "No, Watt's on second." Hillarity ensues entirely at odds with expectations from perusing the script, providing you grasp one or two basics about baseball. Even I find this sketch funny on occasions. The whole thing has achieved the status of a cultural icon, and any sort of conversation in which the people are talking at cross purposes or in which one of the conversants is deliberately trying to make that so can be classed as a "who's on first" situation
  3. Which I wasn't entitled to but had been sent out (albeit to a random address rather than the one I wrote down for them) and had been returned although it was probably missing tha notary's stamp and any useful illuminating information on the claim itself owing to the aforementioned address cock-up. Keep up!
  4. My official status with respect to the LIRR according to a strict interpretation of this letter was that of "big fat liar"
  5. Wyandanch was one of the first stations, if not the first, to have its staff replaced by a vending machine. The fact that this was viewed by many as a vast improvement should tell you something about the attitude of the staff that used to work at Wyandanch. All in all, I would estimate that I've been using the TVM with that same credit card or the one that periodically replaces it and thus maintains the audit trail for over a decade. Over 100 purchases with never a claim, but this one, along with the suspicious and out-of-pattern6 purchase of a second ticket only two days later rang all the alarms. Wuckfits
  6. Even if the LIRR doesn't track spending patterns closely, I know for a fact that the Visa companies do, and can tell in a New York Minute when the spending on your credit card deviates from it by so much as the cost of a t-shirt
  7. I have no doubt the ticket printed. I expect it either hung up in the works of the machine or lodged in a metal seam somewhere, to fall loose when the machine was next opened. It could even have fallen a few seconds after I looked. The machines in Brooklyn are housed in a dim, poorly lit area and I couldn't really see that well