Monday, March 24, 2008

Partial Order Completion, The Curse Of E-Commerce and The Great Address Problem

I got home on Thursday to find a heavy padded envelope waiting for me.

My immediate thought was that it was my passport, applied for last week1 and processed in record time. This was, of course, stupid of me. The British Embassy moved all passport processing to Washington DC in order to centralise the operation. There they have gathered a crack team with decades of experience in slowing things down to a manageable speed.

The envelope, when opened, proved to contain the smaller of the two bearings I ordered for my drill press. No paperwork accompanied the part, and no hint was given as to when I would get the chuck, which was the part I needed most and the whole reason for submitting the order to Sears's website in the first place. I only wanted the bearings to prove/disprove a former co-commuter's opinion that the reason the quill on the drill press is running out is because one of the bearings is out of true.

Friday, a midlin' large2 box awaited me. At last! The chuck had arrived and not a moment too soon!

Or not, as it turned out. The box actually contained the other bearing and the chuck key, both of which would have fitted into one of those padded envelopes. The chuck, which truly would require a box, was conspicuous by its absence.

On Saturday the chuck was still AWOL but a book I ordered from Amazon turned up. This had been "packed" in a box half as long again as the book without any sort of padding, and the box, some sort of purpose-made book mailer I've never come across before, was simply closed with flaps. No tape, glue or other stop-anyone-from-opening-the package-and-half-inching-the-contents measures taken at all. The book, a thick and therefore massive object3 with lots of inertia, had been able to slip and slide a distance of about six inches, slamming into the unglued and gradually deforming ends of the package thereby sustaining light but annoying damage. Well done that e-store.

The technical term for packing up the orders and sending them out is fulfillment. Neither of the two e-commerce orders I received was particularly fulfilling since the one is incomplete and therefore as good as not delivered at all, and the other resulted in the otherwise perfect merchandise getting "distressed" en route.

Let us pass on to the true joy of e-commerce: painless international shopping. Ha.

I spent a good deal of Friday evening and Saturday morning attempting to do e-business with an English e-store, but was stymied for the most part by a stupid and persistent problem in which my postal address was morphed into what the English-and-never-been-anywhere-else web site designer assumed was a universal format, losing the small detail of which state I lived in from the mailing label. Fortunately I was able to engage a real human being in the process and something that should have taken all of ten minutes actually took closer to two hours. During this time I felt like a fool once (for missing a microscopically-sized link, lost in the page noise, that would let me attempt to fix things) and felt vindicated once (when the nice gentleman fixed things in my profile but the software still buggered up the mailing address anyway). The real person was very kind and helpful, but even he was completely fed up with things by the time we were done. I detected a certain relish in his tone when he informed me that the shop was changing its e-commerce site soon. I offered up a couple of suggestions4 but the best idea I think is to demand some sort of certification from web-portals that guarantee that if you offer overseas shipping the site can correctly record and reproduce the small detail of the shoppers address in a format the local mail services can recognise and use. Missing off the state (which I recorded as a county, there being no other space for it) was obviously a bug - and a deal killer since there are probably several towns with the same name as mine in my state alone, let alone the rest of the country. One other oddity was that the mailing label wanted to put the zip code after the Country. I'm not sure this is even correct in England.

I've come across this many times before of course. Anyone who lives in one country and does business on the web in another has. American websites won't record a county, even though it is a vital part of a UK address. UK websites won't allow you to not have a county, even though they aren't part of a valid US address. Don't get me started on the differences in requirements and nomenclature involved in accepting a credit card.

I don't get it.

Surely by now someone has a shopping cart that can detect the country the shopper is in and present a mailing profile/credit card slip in the correct format for that locale? If you are reading this and think "Boffo idea! I'll steal it and make one myself!" please remember to include an option to change the address and therefore the profile format to another country. Counter intuitive as it seems, sometimes a person wishes to make a purchase from one country and have it delivered in another.

Even National Geographic couldn’t cope with me ordering a subscription in the US for delivery to my mum in Canada a couple of years ago. You'd think that they would be the one organisation that "got it".

So much for the Sears-Roebuck Catalogue for the New Millennium.

  1. Yesyesyes I know. I got the photographs before Christmas, but only just now overcame my Formofillophobia enough to make out the application. It's tax time. Soon I shall be filling in forms the sole purpose of which is to remove money I haven't got from a bank account sorely in need of realistic amounts of cash. This gives me the heebie-jeebies and makes me hate forms of any kind
  2. defined as a cube about six inches on a side
  3. Dealing with the Solaris computer operating system. Thick. Heavy. Boring
  4. No, clean and constructive ones. I kept the top priority, "Kill the designer before he does any more damage", to myself

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Goodbye Arthur, And Thanks For All The Stories

Yesterday, after an illness, Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away in a hospital in Sri Lanka.

The last surviving member of the Big Three of Science Fiction (Heinlein and Asimov being the other members of this more or less universally acknowledged informal group) and probably the most well-known to people not steeped in the SF literature canon, he was probably best known as the author responsible for 2001, A Space Odessy, but that was really just one pinacle in a long career that spanned not only Science Fiction but works of science and technology too.

Others will have written at length on his career, life and body of work and I doubt anyone will have any trouble finding such material if they look. I'll restrict myself to saying that once again the world this morning is a noticeably smaller place.

For those who only know Clarke from 2001 or Rendezvous With Rama, you could do very much worse than pick up a copy of The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, ISBN 0312878605, wherein you will find excellent stories such as Times Arrow, Technical Error and, of course, the unforgettable Nine Billion Names of God.


Yesterday, the PA at Wyandanch was visited by an informative loon.

He announced as follows: The train due to depart Ronkonkoma at 7:40, Central Islip at 7:41, Brentwood at 7:51, Deer Park at 7:56, Wyandanch at 8:01, Farmingdale at 8:07, Bethpage at 8:12, Hicksville at 8:19, Mineola at 8:27, Jamaica at 8:43, East New York at 8:50, Nostrand Avenue at 8:55 and arriving at Flatbush Avenue at 9:01 is running with fewer cars. Walk up to the middle of the platform blahblahdribbledrool...

It was then 7:55 am. The train had presumably already left Ronkonkoma, Central Islip and Brentwood, and had already demonstrated not only that it was a short train, but more usefully just how much shorter the damn thing was - a statistic in conspicuous absence from the blither we had just been exposed to.

Between 7:55 and 8:55 there are numerous trains originating from other stations that pass through Hicksville, Mineola et al. No-one on the platforms of stations west of Hicksville were likely to care a jot about this message, especially (and this is a crucial point) since the chances of them standing on the platform that much ahead of the scheduled arrival of the train in question when they could be home in bed or having coffee in comfort were as close to zero as to be indistiguishable for all practical purposes (The actual chance requires the use of esoteric mathematical notation normally reserved for quoting the diameter of quarks and hence not meaningful to anyone not possessed of electron microscope eyeballs).

I mean, seriously, who plans this sort of infodump into empty air for Azathoth's sake?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Fear and Loathing In My Basement Workshop

Today, Sunday, I decided to do a job I've been putting of for a year.

Two years ago I built a display case for a friend who sells pewter jewelry and statuary at Renaissence Fayres, conventions and the like. He had broken his roatating case he used to display small pewter amulets and I said I thought I might be able to make him a new one. A year of design doodling went by and then I actually got my finger out and built a rather nice hexagonal case. He'd asked for a square one, but I pointed out that with a hexagon he had about 25% more display area for less footprint on his table. You can check this for yourself with paper shapes - the space you need is a circle traced out by the corners. Given that any empty space will silt up as the day goes on, a square case would soon end up non-rotatory.

I built the case out of maple wedges, and it loked good. The guy was absolutely flabbergasted when he saw it and I felt good, even though I took so long to get it to him he had already set up at I-Con (where we see each other each April) and so couldn't use it that year.

The next year I expected to see it in use, but disaster had struck. It seems my joinery was distinctly second rate, because during the time the case had sat in storage (in a damp garage, but it should have been good even so) the top cracked along one joint. I took it back and vowed to fix it.

A year passed.

Today I decided to try and repair the wretched thing. I undid the truss rod that ran from the top to the base and lifted off the top. the rest of the case promptly fell into its component parts. Magic. Now I had a fiendish 3D jigsaw puzzle to do on top of everything else.

A couple of taps with Mr Hammer and the top separated into two halves along the broken joint. I peered at the edge closely, and divined the trouble: the joint was not square on either side, rather what I had suspected.

My miter saw was clearly slightly out of adjustment such that when the cuts were made they were on a slight bevel. Not much, but the damage doubled up on each joint on account of the bevel being on both faces.

I had a think and came to the conclusion that I would probably have to replace one wedge of the top, and set out to Home Despot to purchase a small length of 4 inch wide maple, a stock item. I took with me a sample left over from the machining of the original wdges that I would need to set up the tooling for the router. Each wedge requires a number of machining operations to accomodate the glazing and the central cylinder, and I long ago lost the measurements I used.

It should come as no surprise that the first obstacle was that the 4-inch wide maple stock was now of a different width to that I had used two years ago.

"How can 4 inch wide wood be anything other than 4 inches wide?" I hear you ask in a bewildered tone.

That's easy. The measurements used on any machined lumber, from the nasty 2x4s used to make houses to slabs of oak used to make sideboards are "nominal", which is a trade phrase for "lies". 4-inch wide lumber is, or used to be, about 3½ inches wide when measured with a ruler. The lumber industry claims this is because the wood started out as 4 inches wide but some gets lost in the machining. It should be obvious they play the same mendacious game when it comes to thickness too. Today I discovered that the guys who set up the planers at Weyerhouser or whoever Home Despot is using these days for hardwood have added, which is to say subtracted, another 1/16th of an inch or so. All the measurements will have to be changed to match. Not only that, the standard length appears to be 24 feet. I found one seven foot length but it was bent as a donkey's hind leg and therefore useless for the task. Even though I could find enough straight stuff to make the wedges from, I'd need the bloody plank to be flat so I could cut grooves in it. Putting warped wood though any of the router table operations I would need would be akin to playing Russian Roulette with an automatic pistol, since violent kickback1 of the workpiece is guaranteed under such circimstances.

I glumly surveyed my options, when suddenly I was bathed in sunlight and a heav'nly chorus rang in the air. The Rule! I had forgotten The Rule![

The rule says that for every job I have to do, I am entitled, nay, obliged to purchase a new tool to aid in the completion of said job, and that refusal of requestors of said job to countenance tool acquisition is grounds for refusal to complete said job. I usually phrase it more succinctly as No Tool, No Job but this terse rendering of The Rule obscures one of the subtleties of it, namely that the aesthetics of The Rule require that the new tool should be used as little as possible. Nirvana would be to purchase the new tool and then finish the job without the need to actually take it out of the box (other than for the completely correct and understandable fondling that any tool owner occasionally feels the need to do with his or her new acquisition). The closest I've come to that was justifying the purchase of Mr Chopsaw for the Bannister Installation Project, taking it out of the box, making two cuts then putting it back in the box as Mrs Stevie hopped up and down in appoplexy and screamed "THAT'S IT?" at volume number 11. It was a great triumph. I digress.

I could use The Rule to justify the purchase of an oscillating spindle/belt sanding table, which would allow me to properly joint the wood and perhaps salvage the pieces from the original structure rather than make them over again. From Mr Brain to the shopping cart, twas but a short dash to the tool department, and to cut a long story slightly less long, my workshop now has a rather nice sanding machine in it.

I sanded the parts in quastion and they fitted up a treat. so well I decided to fix every join on the lid, which required that I separate the pieces with a couple of taps of the hammer, sand them square and reglue them. Unfortunately, this also means the parts have all changed shape and I may end up having to remake them anyway to accomodate the other bits. Oh well.

One of the problems I had with the original was that the biscuit joiner couldn't grip properly on the small, odd-shaped parts and so the slots for the biscuits (little pieces of wood that span the joint and give it strength) couldn't be used. I decided to strengthen the joints with plates of metal screwed across the joints on the underside where they won't be seen. This is where fiasco struck.

I cut some lengths of metal and went to chuck a drill bit into my drill press so I could make the holes fo rthe screws. The chuck wouldn't open wide enough. This was odd because the drill was about 1/8th of an inch in diameter and the chuck is supposed to open up to five times that. It is the primary reason I bought that model of drill press. I messed around with the chuck for a bit, during which time it loosened up, then bound up again. I oiled it, but no joy. It felt like maybe loose metal had gotten into the mechanism (not possible, but that's what it felt like).

I was well annoyed. I don't use this tool, or indeed, any of my tools enough for them to start breaking. The only tools that I've had bite the dust have both been small drills. The Black and Decker gave years of good service and burned out because it was used al the time for every damned job I ever did. The Ryobi one quit because it was a piece of junk. 7½ volts, with naff battery technology. It really had no chance.

But the drill press? It has seen only light and sporadic use, partially because the quill runs out by a thou and can't be used for doing things like long boring operations2 or attaching a mortising bit3.

I heaved a sigh of annoyance and decided I would have to break the taper between the arbor and the quill.

Why are you looking so cross-eyed? Are you not conversant with the workings of a drill press? Okay, one crash course coming up:

The drill press consists of a motor that is stationary and which transmits its rotation through pulleys and belts you can jigger with to select different speeds at the drill bit, 15 speeds in this instance. It's a bit like a racing bike chain and gear set, except that there are two belts instead of one chain and none of the speeds duplicates any other like they do on so-called twelve speed racing bikes that only have about seven gears, and you have to dismantle the belts and move them by hand instead of having a little lever next to your crotch to move the chain about. Also, there is little chance of getting your trouser leg caught in the drill press gubbins as they are up around head height, but on the other hand you can't use a drill press for a quick jaunt to the shops. Where was I? Oh right.

The rotation is fed to the spindle, which is hollow with a taper machined into it, wide end pointing down towards the table. The taper is a machine standard, called a Morse taper. The name is a coincidence. It has nothing to do with David McCallum on the Titanic in A Night To Remember. The spindle is housed in a bearing/tube assembly called the quill. The quill holds the spindle steady while it moves up and down when the operator rotates the handwheel. This is how the drilling is done. A rod of metal called the arbor is inserted into the spindle. It has a matching taper, and a nice tight joint can be made just with friction between these two precision machined parts. The other, lowest end of the arbor is also tapered. Onto this taper is pressed the chuck, a three-jawed vise that holds the drill bits centered. Here endeth the lesson.

The mechanism in the jaws of the chuck was what had frozen up, but at this point I was still hopefull that a little WD40 and some elbow grease would loosen it up. And what do you know? A mere five minutes later and it was frozen so solid it could have had mammoths preserved inside it.

I tried turning the chuck key to no effect. I tapped the jaws gently with the hammer and got some movement, but the chuck was just taunting me before it set solid again. I tapped the jaws some more, but that was all she wrote. I tapped harder. It was about this time when Mr Brain informed me that the chuck was certainly a lost cause and that I would now be better employed getting upstairs and googling for a new one. I tapped the chuck a little harder with the hammer but nothing budged, and a momentary surge of pure rage surged through me, obliterating all rational thought for a few seconds as I contemplated the treachery of this underworked tool in my moment of need.

Letting loose a stream of the most potent words of power in my lexicon I belted the bloody thing so hard with Mr Clawhammer that sparks shot off it. The rage passed in the catharsis of the hammering and I set the instrument of my new found calm on the bench. Then I set the arbor carefully in the bench vise, gripping it by the little tag on the end put there for such purposes, and belted the chuck's rear with the hammer until buggerybastard paperweight flew off the arbor. I inspected the arbor for damage (none, than Azathoth), grabbed the handbook and recorded the model number of the drill press and the chuck and prepared to do battle with the interweb.

I should point out that a good part of my anger was because Sears, the people who sold me the drill press about 13 years ago, long since stopped selling this model, and although Sears used to have a reputation unrivalled anywhere in the world for having spares for tools long after they had gone out of production, that reputation has been steadily eroding for years. On the off chance, I loaded the Sears website and, after a couple of false starts, found the parts department of it.

Whereupon, on typing in my drill press's model number, up sprang a list of parts and diagrams for it. Some of the bits were flagged as "Discontinued" but not the chuck, chuck key and bearings. The chuck was priced to sell at around $65 (no silver lining without a cloud) but I was over a barrel. The bearings I bought because it has been suggested to me that the wobble in the quill might be due to a duff bearing. It's worth a try. The chuck key is just becuase there's little point chewing up a new chuck with an old chuck key. The original isn't so badly worn I'll throw it out, but it makes sense to buy a new one now while they still have them.

  1. An exciting part of powertool usage in which all the energy of the high-speed whirling bits of razor-sharp steel is converted into kinetic energy in the workpiece, which uses this energy to seek its freedom in unexpected directions. It is not unusual for pieces of the handyman to be torn off or poked out at this time, which adds a frission of terror to any job
  2. boring long holes down poles rather than driving people nuts with endless droning on about uninteresting stuff
  3. I nearly went mad from frustration when it became obvious that the mortising attachement was right out - it is one of the most basic conversions you can do with a drill press and the other big reason I bought it

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Time Machine

Well, the clocks went forward this weekend in the goodole Yoowessuv-Ay.

Weeks out of whack with the world+dog, just like last winter (and wasn't that a stunning success that didn't cost a fortune in tech cock-ups and expensive computer software fixes?), all so we can perpetuate this medieval practice "better" than before.

I have to say I think the whole thing is a massive, massive waste of energy1 and resources and that we would be better off just fixing the clock at one goshdarn time. The argument against is that offices have to spend too much on heat and light if people come to work in the dark in winter. The fact that even with the bloody clock twiddling those of us in the Northern latitudes go to work in the dark and come home in the stuff regardless of farting about with the clocks doesn't seem to register. Well, they don't get to work before mid-morning snack time in Washington DC, when they bother to turn up at all. It's unreasonable to expect the politicians to grasp how the rest of the country works.

If businesses genuinely think they have an energy problem with the dark of winter, they should alter the working day at their affected sites to reflect that rather than insist that everyone change their clocks twice a year, especially when it comes to changing the clocks out of step with everyone else caught up in this stupid practice. International business is conducted in GMT anyway, at least if it's the sort of business that cannot afford to bank on people synchronising clocks set to wildy arbitrary local times.

This year something very rare happened - I didn't know the weekend the clocks changed and so didn't plan on losing an hour in the middle of the night. I've been sick for several days and less than observant as a result, but also Congress has moved the date of the clock change forward some weeks from the traditional place it used to happen. I've also been sleeping poorly thanks to the post-nasal drip the illness has left me with, which has in turn infected the back of my throat and made of it a slab of raw meat. The result was that I was still tired and exhausted when I woke up on Monday and I woke up late thanks to my alarm still thinking it was an hour ago.

It is typical that humans, having solved the really big problem of keeping track of time by finally inventing the clock, then had to go and improve matters until they broke by adding in the twice yearly clock twiddle ritual. It sort of made sense when clocks were rare, people illiterate and largely land-workers and the wonder of electric light had yet to be invented. In these days of sodium vapour, atomic clocks and general illiteracy it makes no sense whatsoever. You want your people to come in an hour later during winter, just write that into the contract of employment and leave my clock alone.

Speaking of atomic clocks, I have one that provided a fine highlight to the whole sorry mess.

My parents sent us a 70s-style round digital clock, basically a huge version of the chipset they put in the first digital watches, the same one they now use in disposable watches and stopwatch innards2 but upgraded so that it links with a satelite and synchronises with an atomic clock baseline. In all the time we've had it, it has only synched twice - the first New Year's eve we had it (I'd told it to do so on Christmas Day but I guess the signal wasn't all it might have been that week) and Monday. I was adjusting another clock when I noticed that the atomic clock of timekeeping had resynched. There appeared to be a small discrepancy in the atomic time with respect to EST as per Congress though. Everyone else thought it was 8:15 am. Atom time was 5:15 am.

Another triumph for science then.

I picked it up and poked a couple of buttons attempting to intuit "emergency manual time override" mode, but like all modern things, it is now impossible to figure out what should be an easy operation without recourse to a 1/8th inch thick user manual.

There was also some subsidence of crap on the top of the entertainment unit which made replacing the awsome clock of not-telling-the-right-time impossible without missing a train, so I bunged it up on top of Mrs Stevie's hideous china cabinet (a legacy from some relative or other, probably cursed4) and left for work.

This apparently was fortuitous, for when I returned home it was showing the right time5 along with a little icon demonstrating total 5-by-5 lock-on to the satelite-o-time, something it has never done before.

Someone seems to have done some science while I wasn't looking. Good for them!

  1. paradoxically, the reason the bold visionaries of Congress wanted to shift the clock twiddling agenda around was allegedly to save energy. This makes sense in some alternate universe where politicians themselves make sense
  2. You know: Shows the time and date, press the button to get a three second display of the month and day, press again to get seconds. You see this everywhere. It must be the longest serving chipset in the history of LSI 3 bar none
  3. Large Scale Integration
  4. To judge from the appearance of the damned thing
  5. Defined as "The same time all the other clocks in the house were showing" rather than any absolute declaration of universal correctness

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Sickness Never Stops.

That isn't a clever title, more of a comment that for the last three weeks I've had a head full of snot that culminated this week in three days bedrest for crippling bronchitis, and that posting dribble to this blog has had to take a backseat to dribbling dribble on my pillow.

I tried to go to work on Monday, but I felt so ill I turned right around once I got there and, after an impassioned plea to the harridan that guards the gates of Doc Rubbergloves House of Pain, departed straightway for the Quack and thence to bed. The turnaround on this trip meant that though I just came in, fell about and left again, it took me until 1:30pm to get back to the island. Then there was an hour of gasping for air in Doc Rubberglove's waiting room while the staff ordered possibly the largest and most fragrant Chinese meal in the history of Sinogastrophillia. Once Doc Rubberglove had had a listen to my pipes he immediately prescribed a bout on the electric nebulariser. This device uses compressed air to vapourise liquid medication that is then drawn into the patient's lungs with deep inhalations, thereby opening up the bronchial passages that disease, ill health and germs have squeezed shut.

And by Jove it worked quite well. After an hour on Doc Rubberglove's Patent Electric Fog Bong I could draw breath without making a sound like Darth Vader choking on pickles. I still felt like crap and looked worse, so the Doc gave me a note for three days bedrest, a prescription for some extra-hi-test antibiotics, another for a Steroid of Lungpipe Opening, another for a minibong of Magic Dust o' Lungpipe Opening and I made my way to the pharmacy to do my bit for the modern drug industrial complex. Before I left he also gave me a cortisone shot, just for laughs.

A cortisone shot is a sort of medical in-joke. If you have knee pain, a cortisone shot in the knee will fix the sprained ankle you also have but give no relief at all to the knee. Only a shot in the arm, given to ease the pain of a dislocated then reloacted elbow will do that (while doing zero for the elbow of course). It would seem that where cortisone shots are concerned, there is a sort of Chinese reflexology thinking involved in which there is a point on the human body that corresponds exactly with some other point on the human body. The punchline of this joke also only makes itself felt some time after getting the shot, which is, as advertised, painless. The pain kicks in about ten to twenty minutes after getting the shot, by which time you are safely far away from the bugger who gave it to you and unable to describe at fist-and-boot-point the similarity between the site of the injection and the same site after being kicked by an ill-tempered full-grown horse.

Luckily I was too ill to watch television. I say this because the TV companies are celebrating the return to work of the writers, on strike since Christmas over "internet residuals" (which I thought could get you arrested in New York), by showcasing some of the worst television programs it has been my misfortune to view, however briefly. Daytime US TV is notorious anyway, but it comes to something when the Sci-Fi channel is showing eight hour long marathons of "Ghost Hunters", a show in which a bunch of idiots run around darkened houses with low-light amplifying cameras strapped on their heads, all the time making googly faces of terror and commenting on "auras" and "departed presences" in glorious technigreen monochrome. For this I bought a Phillips three-gun tube? Even the Daily Show, a formerly clever light political satire "fake news" comedy show and one that went back into production sans writers with minimal impact, has suffered with newly written "officially sanctioned" material that sounds like it was done by 15 year old boys. What a crock. If I want that sort of witing I'll just read this blog.

Thank Azathoth all I could do was collapse in bed for three days and gasp for air as an invisible giant attempted to squeeze the life from my body by sitting on my chest.

I restarted work yesterday, wheezing and gasping for air like some miner pulled into the light of day after a cave-in, and had just about the worst day at work for some time. Not so much disasterous as short on oxygen and boring. I still managed to miss my train and consign myself to a trek across New York to Penn Station, where I just managed to catch the 6:21pm train for Ronkonkoma.

As I may have hinted once or twice, the trains from Penn at this time of night are generally filled to capacity well before the doors close, so it was no surprise I couldn't get a seat and would be forced to stand, gasping and wheezing, until Hicksville, some 40 minutes away not counting the ten minute delay they were already announcing. I boarded the first vestibule I found with space, made to lean back against the last remaining full-back-width wall only to have someone with a bunch of luggage come in behind me and push me aside. He took my space and left me with a tiny back support on the other side of the vestibule where the wall has been cut away for wheelchair access. I was essentially leaning on a post about the width of my spine. Beautiful. I glowered at the git with the carry-on and made the best of a bad job.

But I was to be given the chance for sweet revenge.

The vestibule I had picked was the one with the lavatory next to it. This was not optimal, due to the ever-present danger of the damn water closet malfunctioning in some redolent manner, but it proved to be a providential source of entertainment this night. No sooner were we moving than the git began tugging on the big door handle trying to get in. He pulled upwards. He pulled inwards. He pulled outwards. What he never once did, at least with enough conviction, was to pull downwards, the only way the door can be unlatched.

Normally I would have leaned forward and mentioned the masonic secret to secluded bladder relief, but as I was about to do so I got a nasty twinge from Mr Back so I decided to see how long he could make it before wet-leg time. I'm not proud of this, but in all fairness I had nothing to read.

Now this guy was also a little self conscious and well aware that everyone in the vicinity had seen him fail to gain entrance to the latrine. He couldn't start rattling the door again without acknowledging his (obvious) bladder distress. Stealth was called for. He would engineer a way of the door bursting open of its own accord so he could fall inside. Over the course of the journey he casually leaned on the handle in a number of ways, each time carefully scanning the car to ensure no-one would see what he was really doing. I, of course was in full attention and making no secret of it. My giggles were also drawing a number of my fellow vestibulers attention to the program of ents in progress.

I think my favourite bit was when he broke down and asked a passing (lady) conductor for assitance. She took his word that the door was locked and used her key to unlock it, at which point, by sheer chance, the flush mechanism fired itself persuading her that there was actually someone inside so she didn't actually open the door. The secret of entry was thus preserved for a few more miles af bladder cramping fun.

I was hoping to see someone come up behind the boob and steal his place by just opening the door, but he had by now begun to spread the meme that the bog was occupied by some fiend who periodically flushed the commode at him to taunt him (it must have been agony each time the flush fired). The flushing was, of course, the same automatic business that I have mentioned before and happens due to some sort of pressure detection issue whether there is anyone in there or not.

Just before Jamaica he somehow managed to open the door to reveal an empty lavatory, whereupon he made a strangled noise before locking himself inside. He was still grimmacing when we got to Wyandanch, forty minutes after he had finally relieved himself. The bladder-stretch must have been Hurculean, I imagine, to leave the owner so discommoded for so long.

Thus are those who would steal the Stevie back support paid the wages of their perfidy.