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.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Mac Goes Home

The Mac Saga has finally come to an end of sorts.

Readers1 may remember that I foolishly got involved in the process of determining why Mrs Stevie's elder brother, Bil the Elder, couldn't use his G4 Power Mac (Gigabit Ethernet)2 to access his Yahoo mail or download any interesting images that took his fancy. What can I say? Take a man's e-mail and you take away his voice. Take away his BarelyLegalTeens3 and you assault the very bastions of democracy and undermine the foundations of what makes this nation great IMHO etc.

I won't recap the various hardships that have been par for the course as I attempted to trick what I came to call the iBrik into booting up and staying that way for more than a few minutes at a time. You can do that yourself by selecting The Great Mac G4 Debacle from the "themes" list and reading from the bottom up4. I will recount only the events that came to pass over Monday evening, when I set the computer up on our coffee table and researched almost all the help documents stored on it, and Tuesday, when I got it to connect to the internet and I made a posting to a site using it.

After closing out the "help" facility on Monday night and finding nothing illuminating, I launched Norton Utilities and let it have a bash at analysing the system. Couldn't hurt, I thought. The first thing it called out was that the date on the machine was currently set to the first of January, 1901. "Wow", I said (to no-one in particular). "The bios battery must be dead."

"What does that mean?" asked Mrs Stevie, as always, hanging on every involuntary outburst in the hope of discovering some reason for violence. Since about the third month of our marriage, the woman has developed an addiction to lethally strong coffee which fuels homicidal rages in her that can explode for little or no reason. The recent forgotten anniversary has had her on a hair trigger, for example, even though it was the first time in twenty years I have done that. I tried to defuse the situation at the time with a witty remark that after twenty years one of us should be getting the Medal of Honor, but that only seemed to make her even more unreasonable. I digress.

"The battery keeps the computer from forgetting what day it is" I replied. "No battery, no memory. The computer thinks it is New Year's Day 1901 every time it wakes up."

There then came the internal clanking and grinding that means Mr Brain has spotted something relevant and is trying to connect the dots. This time it didn't get the chance, as Mrs Stevie decided to use a tactic I often come across in my work environment - wait until all the real work has been done, then jump in at the last minute to claim all the credit.

"Maybe that's why it won't talk to the internet then" she said with a tone of smug finality, well aware she had just ruined what little fun was to be salvaged from this whole sorry business.

I sat there gnashing my teeth. It was obvious that the TCP/IP chit-chat between the modem and the Mac wouldn't work if each time the modem asked if they could talk the computer responded by answering 106 years ago. The time-out built into most TCP/IP exchanges is on the order of microseconds or less. Mrs Stevie couldn’t wait and let Mr Brain figure it out. Oh no. She had to butt in with her conclusions based entirely on some spurious experience with some web-based bank software she uses at work that had absolutely no relevance to this case but by chance happened to have the same answer. It was like using a cheat book to solve one puzzle in a "Myst" game. It completely deflated the sense of achievement.

On Tuesday I had the day off to vote5 so I went down to Radio Shack with the Stevieling in tow to buy a new bios battery for the Mac. The battery, following the design philosophy used in every other part in the machine, cost $20. It was approximately 1/3 the size of an AA battery and cost approximately 2 000% more. As I say, this follows the design concept used throughout on this particular machine. I was so amazed that the battery was still being made that I ponied up the purchase price with only a muted scream of agony. I am obviously growing immune to Macenomics. Had the machine spent any longer in my house I quite likely would start looking upon "hard-to-find" and "costs-an-arm-and-a-leg" to be acceptable downsides to the joy to be had from just looking at the Mac.

Once the Lithium-Diamond battery was in place and I had the date and time adjusted properly, the machine began to connect to my modem with relative ease6. Then it was a voyage of discovery to try and stop the OS crashing every time a page was loaded.

Bil the Elder had his home page defined as Optimum Online's splash page. That wouldn't load for me using his Netscape browser. Occasionally, Netscape would try and link to, with disastrous results. If I didn't stop the page loading in time, it would announce that the page couldn't be viewed using this version of Netscape, which would cause the browser to launch some sort of utility, which in turn would freeze OS 9 and require an IFR7. Nor would the newest version of Netscape run on OS 9. I tried Firefox's page, but it also won't run on OS 9. I managed to change the default Homepage for the Netscape browser to Google in the end, but it was a tough fight for dominance between man and machine in a World Gone Mad, let me tell you.

I switched back to my trusty inferior design, loathsomely Windows-infested Compaq so that I could browse a few tech forums before the year was out, and I asked a few net acquaintances I trust8 what I might do. The consensus was that adding more memory to the machine couldn't hurt (all those Error1/2/3 messages meant "You're out of memory, Bub") and would allow a switch to OS X - version 10.3 seemed to be the likeliest to work on such an antique. The problem, as was pointed out to me by rab, one of the team advising me, was finding someone who could sell me a copy.

That turned out to be less of a problem than either of us imagined, because Bil the Elder turned up around 7 pm to reclaim his computer. He was delighted and surprised that it was working again. I was puzzled as to why he had suddenly appeared on our doorstep. Bil the Elder explained that Mrs Stevie had phoned him earlier.

"Come and get your computer. It's fixed" she said.

"Fixed? You mean it's working?" he asked in amazement9.

"It's working."

"How? What was wrong with it? What did Stevie do to get it working?" he asked.

"That idiot? Nothing. I figured out that the date was wrong in it. All it needed was a new battery. I don't know what all the fuss was about really" she purred, smugly. "Oh, I tell a lie: He did break your monitor stand. He fixed it but it looks a right mess".

I walked Bil the Elder through some basics, like how not to use the cord of the mouse to tie it to anything, how to get the pictures out of his camera and onto the machine and the advisability of using an external drive to copy everything to before he does any kind of software upgrade, and he left clutching the iBrik.

The house seems so big and empty now

  1. Our circulation here at TOS has been verified at somewhere between four and five, Steve the Oracle having been spotted in the wild and confirmed as still visiting once in a while and Paul the Globetrotting Wargamer now engaged in a frenzied search for libels in these pages vis-a-vis his good self on an almost weekly basis. Hello Paul
  2. For such it is
  3. Documentation on file with the webmaster to prove everyone involved is, no matter how barely, of legal age
  4. As we do in blogs, though it makes no sense to me. Why don't blogs display as "bottom-appended" lists of entries, positioning the reader at the latest (bottom-most) entry by default? Much easier to read from the top down than from the bottom up
  5. Which I couldn't, not being a citizen
  6. Relative to the weekend, when it wouldn't do so no matter what I did. One should not infer any sort of absolute ease here
  7. Index Finger Reboot
  8. Thanks Dunx, Raak, rab and Dan
  9. I confess to being a little disappointed in Bil the Elder's lack of respect for my abilities here. Although it is true that I honestly despaired of ever getting the damn thing running properly again, he doesn't know that

Monday, November 05, 2007

Tree Fellers

Crazy Joe decided to trim my trees again.

We don't mind him doing so so long as he keeps his trimming limited to that which pokes over the fence. He is not allowed to start hacking down anything he simply doesn't like, and of late he has been OK with that.

Sunday morning his nephew knocks on the door to tell us what's planned and the guy he brought in offered to take down the Job tree while he was at it for a very reasonable fee. No sooner said than done, and they had it down to the seven foot tall stump in no time. I went over and explained we wanted the stump left because it formed a very useful braking mechanism for teenagers who lost the ability to drive by getting a license to do so. Not five minutes later I returned to the front garden to see him already halfway through sawing the stump at the two-foot mark.

What is it with tree cutters? We've had several over the years and every single one of them has done something irreversible they were explicitly asked not to. The first one we retained cut down an overhanging branch Mrs Stevie had been dreaming of hanging a swing from since we went into negotiation for the house. He paved the way for any number of other cloth-eared gits with chainsaws.

To ad insult to injury, when the guy had finally cut through the trunk of the tree, it fell backwards onto him and the fence and I had to run over and help him push it the other way. I looked at the huge hunk of maple and asked him how I was supposed to get it out of my garden. Fortunately he had a plan, which involved spending the whole afternoon sawing up the huge block of wood into slightly less huge blocks of wood. It is was his hope that overnight, flocks of fireplace-owners would descend on the pile of wood and spirit it away. I kind of doubted it, on account of each piece resembling the wheel off one of those trucks you see in open cast coal mines. It was all still there this morning.

I wonder if my other neighbour, Mr Singh, needs wood for his wood-fired stove?

November Wish

Remember, Remember,
The 5th of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot.

At the end of the night
By the bonfire's bright light
Count how many fingers you've got.

Whingeing, Whining, OS Nining

I spent pretty much all day Saturday wrestling with Bil the Elder's Mac G4, trying to trick it into connecting to my broadband modem.

I have no idea how Mac computers of this or any vintage work, so the process was a voyage of discovery from the get-go. An what a voyage! What discoveries! Vistas of knowledge opened before me in a veritable cascade of stuff previously unknown.


The much-vaunted Mac help system was about as unhelpful as Microsoft's for a start. People I trust and respect have been telling me for years that these computers were easier to use than PCs running Windows, and I (still) believe that they found them so. I, however, have seen no evidence whatsoever of easierness, and nowhere was this more evident that the help. Of course, the Microsoft help was developed into what it is now over several years and the Mac help I was looking at was 4 years old so it probably was "better" (in some as yet unobvious way) then.

I knew what needed to be done inasmuch as TCP/IP needed to be set up so the machine would passively accept an address from the modem. This is resolutely would not do. The settings were straightforward, except for the annoyance of not being an administrator. I found out how to switch to administrative rights for each job, but I didn't find any way of staying with them across the various little tasks that had to be done. No doubt there is a way of signing on to the machine as an admin but I don't know how and I don't doubt Bil the Elder doesn't either.

Most of the time was spent fruitlessly searching the internet trying to find someone, anyone who had connected a Mac to Optimum Online using OS9. Nothing. For all the info on the 'net, Bil the Elder is the only person in the world trying to use Optimum Online via a G4 running OS9. It has been one of the most frustrating experiences I've gone through in a long while.

The biggest laugh was seeing a network wizard pop up to offer help. I've been listening for years to Applejax whine about Microsoft’s use of Wizards, and how only fools would invent them because they encourage the untrained to do stuff only a skilled computer technician should yaddayaddayadda. One more Dirty Little Mac Secret outed there then. In all fairness, the G4 didn't insist I use the wizard, whereas XP assumes you will want to use one, but most of the time the XP assumption is a good one. You can do Wizard-enabled jobs on XP without the wizards, if you know how.

And thereby hangs the nub of the horse I'm changing in mid-flagpole. I don't know my way around OS9 and the OS isn't helping me nearly as much as I hoped it would, not nearly as much as XP would in the same circumstances. I've no doubt someone out there could simply walk over, type a couple of lines and it would burst into internetty life, but if they are out there, they are being very quiet, at least, quiet on the nets.

So no internet for Bil the Elder yet then.

The camera "issue" turned out to be nothing more than a mis-communication. The software that wouldn't load was only for XP. I have no idea what the disk contained other than USB drivers, but the camera is accessible as a detachable drive when connected to the G4. It pops up on the desktop and if one knows where to look (I do) one can find the pictures in it and cherry-pick them onto the computer using drag-and-drop. The camera works (albeit in the most basic way imaginable) on the G4. I went to the Samsung website to see if a Mac-compatible "library" program like that given away with Kodak cameras was available for download, but Samsung, taking a leaf from Apple's playbook, have discontinued support for the camera two years after selling it to us and make no mention of it.

This has been a big disappointment, to be honest. I originally went round for a look at things to see if I could figure out what was wrong with Bil the Elder's internet connectivity, then removed the power supply to save him the cost of a $250-300"Bench Charge", ended up buying and fitting first one, then another power supply to finally get the thing unbricked, replaced the mouse, repaired the monitor stand that broke when the monitor realised what an utter piece of crap the G4 really was and committed suicide and I still haven't gotten Bil the Elder his interwebs back.


Friday, November 02, 2007

Metalworking For Mac Users

So last night it was back to the workshop to fix the design flaws inherent in the stand for the Mac Studio Monitor.

As soon as I got in from my evening commute, right after I washed of the 2 inches of bird excrement that had been deposited on the windows of my car that day1, I descended into the basement and once again went through the elaborate ritual needed to remove the stand from the Monitor of Damocles. I then located the last two aluminum plates I possessed2 and began the process of turning them into a businesslike repair.

Each plate would end up as a 2.75 inch long, 1.5 inch wide affair, roughly trapezoidal but each end sloping at different angles and with a deep arc cut into the "short" long side so it would snug up to the center of the stand (recall that the new crack has formed running inwards, threatening to break into the center of the stand, so the plates must be set deeper in towards the center than the first repair). Mr Hacksaw mad short work of the various sloping cuts, and by cutting a series of slots into what would be the arc I was able to use it for getting out most of the metal there too. Then it was up to Mr Elbow Grease and Mr Half-Round File to achieve a professional-looking curve. Once again each plate was carefully bent by hand to the compound curve of the stand, glued in place with Gorilla Glue and clamped for a couple of hours during which I ate, watched "CSI" and sulked. Around midnight I drilled some holes and bolted the plates together.

Whoopee. Another successful repair achieved.

Overnight, Mr Brain mulled the problem of the Ever-Snapping Monitor Non-Support Of Stupidity instead of shutting down while I slept, with the result that although I passed out for seven hours or so, I feel like I just pulled an all-nighter. Magic.

What I've come up with is less than stellar. The problem is that too much of the weight is balanced over the front "legs" of the stand, causing the legs to try and spread when the monitor is on it. It is inevitable that now I have prevented the bloody thing breaking at its weakest spots, it will eventually break at the next weakest spot. The design is fundamentally flawed to the point of uselessness, and needs supplementing to remain functional. I tried various mock-ups for an aluminum strap running between the legs and holding them together, but I couldn't find a place to attach it without requiring a bend in the strap or screws in the part that rests on the bench. The former will mean the strap can flex, rendering it useless, and the latter will mar the surface the stand is set upon.

The only other things I could come up with were a triangular arrangement of blocks on a baseboard that the stand would sit in and the iBlox. The baseboard idea works by preventing the legs spreading. The legs start to widen, then engage in the blocks that stop them moving any more. The iBlox simply let the stand sag a small distance (less than a millimeter I'm thinking) and then provide support at the stand center where it should have been all along. The down side of that is that the point of contact is the locking boss for the stand, which, being made of plastic, could be damaged by having weight put on it.

It's all very annoying.

  1. I did this to avoid getting crap inside my doors when I wound down the windows, which I would have to do since I literally could not see through them any other way, and to put me in the mood for jousting with the idiotic design of the monitor stand
  2. one of the annoyances of this business is that it has exhausted my stock of small aluminum plates kept around for quick repair jobs. Now I shall have to find some more

Thursday, November 01, 2007

More Mac Nonsense

Last night I put the finishing touches to the repair of the stand for Bil the Elder's Mac Studio Monitor.

It involved more Gorilla Glue, some drilling and a bunch of nuts and bolts, but around midnight I was able to set the monitor upright on its stand and it didn't collapse in a heap again! A great triumph was declared and I went to bed.

Today, before work, I decided to see if Bil the Elder's Mac would talk to the internet if I connected it to my broadband modem. I carried it upstairs to my small, crowded computer room, placed the processor in an out of the way place, improvised a desk for the mouse and keyboard from a chair and positioned the newly repaired monitor on the floor. I pulled my own hateful, inferior-design Compaq Wintel box1 out of its slot and unplugged the ethernet connection between it and the modem. I plugged this into the Mac and booted.

Once again I heard the horrible tinny boot noise come from the box, but this time there was absolutely no writing on the monitor. Nothing. The little Apple button was alight and so were the two control buttons3, but there was nothing at all on the screen itself.

Had I seen The Black Screen of (Monitor) Death, yet another under discussed known problem hidden by the Apple community, chained in some attic room where no-one could see it and comment? Had I killed the monitor completely by the simple act of relocating it spatially? All these things, formerly thought impossible but now well within the realms of the almost inevitable were racing through Mr Brain.

Perhaps the answer was more simple. Perhaps I had somehow inadvertantly turned down the brightness and so just was not seeing the images that were being displayed normally. I reached down but could not reach the settings control button comfortably, so I carefully reached under the monitor and lifted it slightly while pulling it gently forward in order to tilt it a little further upward.

The monitor stand let out a sharp CRACK and I let out some sharp swear words.

Yes, the other side of the stand had broken. It had broken when I had reduced the load on the stand, obeying (once again) some bizarre Apple physics that work the opposite of the stuff normally in operation on a day-to-day basis.

I disconnected everything and carted the iBrik back down to the basement, where I went through the complex little dance needed to detach the 1960's pop-art sculpture from the bottom of the depleted uranium anvil it was "designed" to (almost) support4 and assess the damage.

The crack was, as expected, on the opposite "front leg/lobe" to the one I repaired fully last night by constructing a sandwich of custom made aluminum plates around the break and screwing it all together. I had had qualms last night as I finished the repair that the monitor designers had gone for a "Panther Tank" approach to the job, placing most of the weight over the front legs. The Germans faced this outcome of using the long 75mm cannon on the Panther, which pitched a great deal of weight onto the frontmost roadwheels. The monitor was now recapitulating the problems that arose from this design. On the tank, the front torsion bars had a tendency to snap giving the tank a nose-down aspect and reducing its battlefield utility. On the monitor, the front "legs" of the stand have a tendency to flex, twist and spread, causing the Plexiglas to fail and the monitor to adopt a drunken slouch to one side. They never did fix the Panther design, since it was late in the war, materials were scarce and the tank was otherwise so good at what it did that the benefits of the design outweighed the problems. The situation with the Mac is both similar and different. The problem doesn't get addressed because within a year any individual item is so retro no-one with any aesthetic sensibilities at all will tolerate whatever it is and Apple can simply remove the item from its catalog. Here also there are claims of superior design outweighing other concerns, but in all honesty, after rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands wet you couldn't prove it by me5.

The stand had begun to crack, but I was fortunate to have caught it before it failed totally this time. The crack only went across about half the width of the "leg". That was the good news. The fbleep this fbleeping fbleep-shbleep waste of fbleeping time news was that the crack ran back into the center of the stand, far enough back that I'm not sure a second cunning fix along the lines of the first will work at all. I'd replace the entire construct with some sort of plate and cup assembly, but the attachment mechanism is not a simple pin/bolt: It involves engaging a specially shaped flange on the stand in a specially shaped hole in the monitor, twisting the stand to "lock" it in place in its slot, then inserting a locking boss to stop people pulling the stand off unless they have a set of miniature screwdrivers like mine. It is all very tiresome.

There is no way I am going to spend any more money to replace the stand with an unbroken one of the same design.

Bil the Elder will no doubt blame me for breaking his computer. Maddeningly, there isn't any way I will be able to persuade him it simply yielded to time and abuse, but even my desire not to appear as one of the mass of people just waiting to cheat him is not great enough to overcome my absolute disgust at this so-called computer. I've replaced the power supply. I've replaced the mouse. If it were my own computer I would be concocting some Stevie-designed stand for the monitor or looking for a decently-priced LCD one6. Bil the Elder can replace his monitor if he sees fit. I won't. I'm done spending money on the thing.

It has been a long time since I hated a machine of any kind quite this much.

  1. Which has given sterling service with only two lockups requiring a factory reinstall in five years. Yes that is excessive and a pain in the arse, but I now believe that five years is the total expected lifetime of the better-designed, more well-loved2 Mac, at which point the user simply replaces the dead "better" hardware with the latest version
  2. Well, outside Chateaû Stevie anyway
  3. They glow with a scabrous, wan and altogether unholy radiance. Yet another reason to hate them
  4. Before anyone writes to me to debate the inutility of the Mac Studio Monitor Display Stand and Abstract Visualization of Man's Struggle Against Adversity In A World Gone Mad (Or Something), be aware there are dozens of people publishing on the web using their own version of the iBlox
  5. Power supply, fabricated from pure gold if the cost and mass are any indication, positioned directly above delicate motherboard. Superdense Monitor perched precariously on stand suitable for holding a small, helium-filled balloon. GUI so self-explanatory that after fooling for an hour I was no nearer discovering how to use hotkey screen navigation (no mouse d'y'see) than I was when I booted the thing for the first time. All the marks of epic great design there. Yep
  6. Fat chance of that: I've learned the hard way that "Apple" and "Obscene Pricing" are synonyms