Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Now That's A Pretty Song

Secret World by Peter Gabriel, from the Album Us.

A longtime fan of Gabriel's work, I find this song has just enough of everything to please my ear and engage my mind, and I actually understand what the lyrics are trying to tell me (which I don't, sometimes, with Gabriel's songs1).

Written around the time he was breaking up with his first wife, it tells the poignant story of a breakup from the point of view of someone both relieved to be out of it but at the same time sad beyond bearing that it came to that. The instrumental arrangement is complex, the lyrics clever and the rhythm driving and relentless, rather like the subject under consideration. I'm especially impressed with Tony Levin's bass and the very restrained piano part. I often play this track through again after hearing it.

The album includes the hit "Steam", a song I never really cared for in the version that charted but like better in the slow mix available on the CD-ROM "Peter Gabriel's Secret World2", and "Digging in the Dirt", which I liked a lot on first hearing it on MTV (I think). The Stevieling likes "Blood of Eden" particularly, and we both like "Kiss that Frog" so much that an alternate version of the percussion track was the wake-up wav for my first computer for years (another benefit of the CD-ROM).

I rate the Us album very highly, and if you are only going to listen to one Gabriel album, I recommend this one without reservation.

Listen to the last track twice.

  1. Shock the Monkey springs to mind
  2. If you see a copy of the CD-ROM and want to try it, you should be aware that the non-Mac version will only run properly on a Windows 3.x system. On Windows 95 the mixer controls are not moveable, though they work fine on XP where other things stop working. I've ranted elsewhere about the lack of a modern port of this product which is otherwise a fascinating snapshot of life during a recording session in the Gabriel Secret World studio complex.

Jackhammer Blues

So I nipped over to Home Despot to price up the rental of one Jackhammer, Inconvenient Concrete For The Breaking Up With.

The guy on duty at the rental counter was very helpful, and concured with me entirely that only the largest jackhammer would suffice for the task at hand. My reasoning ran along the lines of "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth overdoing". I think the tool rental droid's thinking was predicated by the fact that he didn't have any small jackhammers available for rent. No matter, our wills coincided and that was what was important.

The jackhammer was mounted on a handy-dandy two-wheel sack truck not unlike those upon which crates of beer are delivered to beer-intensive places. I took this for a good omen, but it also indicated a certain problem involving mass and size. The whole thing would never fit in my car.

The tool rental guy said it was no problem, and that he would be happy to help me load it, missing the point by about the mean distance between Earth and Pluto1. I was not loading that hunk of filthy, sharp metal into my beautiful automobile. It would, rather, have to be loaded into the traveling landfill that Mrs Stevie helms from place to place.

I considered how best to broach the novel idea of Mrs Stevie emptying her car of the two and a half persons weight in rubbish she feels necessary to the road experience, which converts her Taurus estate car2 into a one seater and discourages people asking her for lifts. I would find a way. The jackhammer had to be mine at any cost.

"Okay, I'm sold" I said. "How much?"

"Seventy dollars for four hours" he replied.

When I came to, I had a sudden clarity of thought.

A new plan was needed.

  1. No longer a planet thanks to modern astronomy which focuses on renaming stuff already found instead of on new celestial phenomena
  2. With special wheel-well emergency twin jump seats in the cargo bed that we paid extra for I might add

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Fence Posting

I took a brief tour around the security perimeter of Chateau Stevie this morning to ascertain the state of the fence in general.

This was a mistake.

I discovered that not one, as I had thought, but two cedar panels require new top rails urgently. This is a total pain in the rear end to do and usually involves level four swear words, but it turned out that there was also extensive damage to the larch fence that stands as a bastion between me and Crazy Joe and I used up my entire stock of level fours there and then.

I was disappointed to find that one of the top rails of the larch fence had rotted through, but I was positively enraged to discover the panel that forms the rear, southeast corner of the perimeter had broken away from the corner post entirely and was being held up by the tree. This will require three pressure-treated 2x4s, a car jack, some clamps, a box of galvanised nails and a hopper of level three swear words before the bloody thing is back where it should be.

I was so depressed about the prospect of this that I went back to the broken post at the front to see if things weren't as bad as I thought, vis-a-vis the amount of concrete I had, in my youthful exuberence, poured into the hole to secure the post. A little digging soon proved conclusively that not only were things as bad as I thought, judging by the continental tectonic plate I had somehow fabricated in 1995 from U-mix-it concrete they were orders of magnitude worse.

Sometimes I wish this curse of handymanism had fallen on other shoulders.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Post Posting

Another fence post has been eaten through by damp and insects at Chateau Stevie.

On the side of the house the driveway is laid there is an "L" shaped fence running from the property edge to about ten feet from the garage, then doglegging back for eight feet or so to bring the final run of fence (which is actually an eight-foot wide gate cunningly disguised as a fence) and the side gate in line with the front wall of the garage and house. I built this fence when the driveway was relaid in '95, and a damn fine job it was too.

Sadly, some fence-erecting lore passed to me turned out to be wrong, and the inside corner post at the dogleg1 rotted through at the end of last year sometime. It did this because it turns out that whether or not you arrange good drainage for the post base, you should NEVER set a cedar post in concrete. Would that this piece of knowledge had not come at the cost of actually doing it to see what would happen. The post rotting through wasn't a disaster since it forms a corner and is thus stabilised by the fence panels into immobility.

However, I arrived home on Monday to observe the run of fence leading from that post to the next one displaying a distinct wrack2. Letting out some of my most powerful Words of Power I leapt to the side gate, which I now noticed had warped into a banana shape for no readily apparent reason other than to irritate me. I opened it and the hinge post detached from the house.

Clearly the fence had become infested with some sort of evil spirt , so to be on the safe side I uttered some more Words of Power under my breath.

It turned out that the other cedar post, the one that terminates the run of fencing and also does duty as the hinge post for the secret Extra-Wide Gate of Admitting Appliances In To And Out Of The Back Yard Along With Letting Us Stable A Car On The Patio If We So Wish, had rotted through, much as I expected from the behaviour of the fence. Though the damage was done and there really was no need for them, I made some warding gestures and added a few more Words of Power to the already blue air.

The business of replacing this post would be easy if I had not set it in concrete. If I had gone Full Monty it would be a significantly harder job since not only would it involve excising the concrete pig from the pit but since the concrete would have been poured next to the patio it may well have bonded to it. It was too dark to do anything other than grab a handy 2x43 and prop the fence post back into an approximation of plumb.

The next night, after work, I took a metal rod I use for making holes in the ground for the Halloween lawn cat flats and probed around the post for concrete. The rod was nearly three feet long and would allow me to probe quite deeply in the ground. Crossing my fingers I thrust the rod with great force into the mud at the foot of the fencepost. I was rewarded with a severe shock to my wrist as the rod hit the concrete lying about half a millimeter below the ground. I examined my wrist for compound fractures and fought the pain by doing some mental exercises involving grasping the wrist with the other hand and leaping up and down while shouting protective charms. Once again the neighbourhood children were driven from the streets by my keen grasp of invective.

I had planned to do the work today, Saturday, but I just couldn't face it. I think it will require breaking up the concrete since the last time I excised a concrete post-pig it required my improvising a block and tackle out of my old rock-climbing gear, the utilisation of the broken-off post as a luffing boom4 and several days to recuperate afterwards. My ear is blocked again and the side of my face is sore so I wasn't in the mood for pounding on concrete with Messers Lumphammer and Bolster Chisel5.

I think this time I'll use a jackhammer to break up the concrete and detach it from the patio slab and/or the driveway. I'll rent a jackhammer next week and do both broken posts, I think. Normally I'd employ The Rule6 but I'm down a router which I must replace out of the meager funds left after having last week to make up a couple of grand in taxes my employer forgot to withhold and I honestly cannot justify a jackhammer or indeed find anywhere in Chateau Stevie to store one.


Still and all.

I've never used a jackhammer before.

  1. This post was central to the goings on during the "Falling Backwards Off A Workmate" episode too
  2. Technical term for "leaning" when it happens widthwise and turns a rectangular fence panel into a parallelogram
  3. Regular readers should not be surprised that there are often such things immediately to hand or within arm's reach in the grounds of Chateau Stevie. This one was left over from the garage cleanup I did last year
  4. Like a crane boom. I needed to turn a sideways force into a lifting one. I ran the rope over the post, which I positioned at about a 45 degree angle, and then attached it to the pig. When I pulled the rope, the post swung vertically and hauled out the concrete mass. I am grossly oversimplifying the amount of effort and the number of curse words and sprained muscles it required to do this
  5. Goodbye elbows for the next three days too, in that event
  6. No Tool, No Job

Friday, April 18, 2008

I-Cons of SF On Parade

I attended I-Con 27, advertised somewhat optimistically1 as "The East Coast's Biggest SF Convention", in the first weekend of April.

The convention runs from Friday night through late Sunday afternoon and takes place on the campus of the University of New York State at Stonybrook, about a half-hour from Chateau Stevie by Steviemobile. Mrs Stevie and I have been attending sporadically since we married. In fact, we used to attend every other year, when the guest list included one guest who also used that two-year cycle to put in an appearance, Harlan Ellison.

I-Con used to be a reasonably big author magnet. People I've seen in years past include names any SF reader would instantly recognise: Larry Niven, C.J. Cherryh, Octavia Butler, George Zebrowski, Barry Malzberg. And Harlan Ellison. In recent years the money use to lure authors into making the trip into darkest Long Island from wherever they come from Niven and Ellison came all the way from California, Malzberg came from NYC and so the "big names" began staying away in droves, leading to fewer writers with established bodies of work on campus during the con.

Around the time the Stevieling became self ambulant we began attending the con every year, come Ellison or not. Also, we began to go our separate ways as our individual focus shifted from a mainly media-guest oriented agenda to, for me, a more panel-intensive one while Mrs Stevie and the Stevieling followed the SCA2 route and got dressed up and hung out at Celtic folk concerts.

Four years ago Harlan Ellison attended I-Con and was very entertaining. The man is a witty raconteur and has a lifetime of stories to tell. Truth to tell I avoided his signing sessions because the man is an aggressive and shameless shill for the piles of books he sells, many of which are repackagings of stories I already bought and read before I came to the USA, and I find that a bit tedious when I'm standing on a line that can take hours to get me to the man himself. On the Sunday, after listening to his extremely entertaining presentation, I went to his last signing where I bought a copy of the first two volumes of "Edgeworks", a retrospective put out by White Wolf and which spanned four volumes originally. As he was signing my copies I couldn't help but notice that he looked tired. Little wonder, given the usual partying and so on that goes on at these things, but he didn't look happy. I asked him if he would be coming back and he quietly said he didn't think so.

I couldn't blame him. He lives in sunny California and is advancing in years. Who in his position would want to undertake a hours-long flight from the sun to the rain and cold that is the standard Saturday weather at I-Con? I was deeply saddened, for selfish reasons. This man had provided me with some of the most enjoyable stories I had read and had amused me with his tales of his life and friends any time I chose to get off my rear and find where he was speaking. Harlan Ellison is so much larger than life that not having him in it any more would make the world very much smaller. He was as good as his word, and I-Con was Ellisonless two years later.

I was going to I-Con anyway, but the news that Ellison would actually be there this year was an added incentive to free up some cash for purchasing and to dig out my copies of Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions, comprising five volumes I went without food to obtain back in nineteen seventy mumble. Not only that, but Norman Spinrad, now living in France and hence well out of Steviereach, would also be attending, which inspired an expedition to the deepest levels of the Basement of Crap to unearth whatever I could find of his. A once in a lifetime chance, as it were. I dug out The Iron Dream, The Men In The Jungle, The Solarians and Bug Jack Baron, all battered paperbacks, all bought secondhand in Coventry Market years ago. I also found a copy of Ellison's Shatterday, which contains my favourite Ellison story Jefty is Five. I was well-larded with signables and now had a mission.

I-Con, Friday

Friday night Mrs Stevie, The Stevieling and I made an early start for Stonybrook and as a result found ourselves not standing on line for hours as we had at so many previous I-Cons. We made our way first to the I-Con T-Shirt counter and bought that year's I-Con shirt, then went down to the Dealer's Room.

This is basically a gymnasium3 that has been converted to a bazaar of crap. Want to pay three times the going rate for some action figure somehow related to some out-of-production Sci-Fi show? Head for the Dealer's Room. Want a resin replica of the gun Harrison Deckard used in Blade Runner and that you won't be allowed to wave about anywhere in the con? Head for the Dealer's Room.

This is also where I would find the guy I made the Revolving Jewelry Case of Extreme Inconvenience for, and I was honour bound to find him and make my excuses. It turned out that he was waiting in ambush with his two helpers. They had bets on my not having it with me and were not swayed from some pretty churlish mocking at my expense by my tearful tale of router death. Philistines. I have sacrificed my most favouritest tool to the never-ending saga of this wretched Twirling Folly and what thanks do I get? Public Humiliation, that's what. Bah.

That took all of ten minutes, leaving us able to attend the Harlan Ellison/Peter David presentation in the Javits Lecture Theater complex4 at 8 pm, which was wonderful and ran 50% over time by popular acclaim. Ellison was cranky, pissed off and in great form.

He told us how he had been pulled off the line to board his plane because he had demanded that a noisy, abusive, cell-phone using woman had accused him of assaulting her when he had tapped her on the shoulder to ask her to SHUT UP! A man after my own heart. Luckily the cops had witnessed the entire affair. I say luckily because, although the entire line had apparently applauded when Ellison demanded this woman accord the people around her some courtesy, not one of them offered to be a witness as to his not assaulting this idiot. What a world.

He then went on to berate all the kids who were (still) on line for tickets, dressed up in their anime character suits. Ellison does not tolerate the cosplayers well. Or at all, to be honest. They seem to bring out the worst in him, mostly, I think, because they don't know who the hell Harlan Ellison is. He referred to the assembled, costumed masses as "freaks" and opined as to their general worthlessness with much heat.

More anecdotes, jokes and opinion pieces followed in typical Ellison fashion. If you have never seen him in action I urge you to do so if you get the chance. It is really impossible to properly describe the experience of an Ellison rant. All I will say is "Pray it is not you he is ranting about", because, as Asimov so adroitly pointed out, Harlan Ellison doesn't "do" tact. After this 90 minute standup show, it was time for the first Harlan Ellison signing of the con.

We all trooped upstairs to a balcony area where his wife and a crew of helpers had set up a Little Shop O' Ellison and a table for the Great Man to sit at and sign. I Dug out my Ellison books, all six of 'em and planned to add a few more volumes to the stack once I got to the Ellison Travelling Book Store.

The line, as usual, moved slowly.

Look, I'm not stupid and I'm not complaining, really. I expected it to take forever. People who Ellison hadn't seen in years but who he knew from years of conventioneering were on line and he wanted to schmooze. Some people had large collections of books for him to sign and he, though kvetchingThis is SOP for Harlan Ellison, and only a neophyte autograph hunter would be put off by it, always signed each one. Sometimes these collections contained rare editions of personal interest to him, and he would converse with the owner and others, telling them the history involved and socialising with the proud owner a little. One older lady had brought a wheeled airline carry on packed full of such rare first editions. She alone caused a halt on the progress of the line of over 15 minutes. Nobody in the know minded. All we cared about was that the great man wouldn't get tired and need to call a halt to the signing early. For all that he is an energetic and witty man, he is not young and we could all see the strain that flying 3500 miles and performing for an hour and a half had had on him.

In the first half hour, a young woman with an arm full of books and Babylon 5 DVDs was begging her way up the line by acting as sweet as could be and telling each would-be place ceder that she needed to be somewhere else in ten minutes. She made her way up the queue until she got to my area, where she attempted the time honoured "cleavage glimpse" maneuver. You know it. The young woman scrunches down a little, hugging her luggage to her chest while leaning forward, during which she makes her pitch in the most wheedling tones possible. This had worked on many people further back but I was feeling mean on several counts. Namely:

Count One: I was so far back in the line that Ten Minutes was a dream.

Count B: I've been on these lines before and had no wish to lengthen my wait or leave the line without my autographs short of one of my vital organs failing, and possibly not even then.

Count þ: She was carrying oodles of signable crap and would be adding at least five minutes to my wait, probably more since I imagine this "ten minutes" thing would evapourate once she was in contact with the great man hisself and finally, most importantly,

Count Σ: She was wearing a sweatshirt and so showed no actual cleavage at all during her pleas.

What a gyp! I naturally refused point blank to let her queue jump, and after I took a stand, so did everyone else. The young lady was most uncharitable towards me as a result, but I remained resolute, saying only that she had two more guaranteed times to get her stuff signed this weekend according to the printed schedule so she had a clear choice - ditch the party or ditch the signing. I admit I was grumpy but I had been forced to explain to another young college-age individual involved with I-Con that my time was as valuable and in as short supply as his own already5 and wasn't feeling expansive towards the younger set that night as a result.

The line advanced, slowly.

Some two hours after getting on line I was finally at the book table, where I spent like money was going out of fashion6. There were only two people in front of me!

At that point, the person at the signing table pulled out a book of pictures of groups of famous authors and Ellison was entranced. There followed a seeming eternity while Ellison identified this and that author, then called over various people in his entourage to appreciate the book. It was a superb thing, I admit. Then something happened that made me glad that I had not given up my place, not been further forward in the line, truly a once in a lifetime event.

The guy with the book plonked down a yellow manuscript in a clear plastic binder in front of Ellison. Ellison picked it up and looked at it. He removed the pages and carefully examined the first few. The paper was very brittle with age and acidosis, but Ellison was gentle and not one flake broke off. He looked up and asked "Do you know what this is?"

The owner said all he knew was that it was a Harlan Ellison Manuscript.

Ellison explained that throughout his writing life he had enforced a contractual clause in which the publishers had to return all his manuscripts to him when they were finished typesetting or whatever, but that during the mid fifties7 he had been in the army, serving out of Fort Knox, Tennessee and had sold a number of stories to Ziff-Davies, who hadn't returned the manuscripts he sent them. They had claimed the manuscripts in question had been destroyed when Ellison had pressed them8. What was now sitting in front of him was the carbon copy of one of those stories. He knew it by the cheap paper he'd had to use for such purposes in those days. The top copy was, he explained, high quality paper but expenses had to be kept low when writing for cents on the word. He explained that he had all his manuscripts in storage. All of them except the Ziff-Davies ones, which until that moment he believed were all destroyed. What he had in front of him, he said, was the only copy of that story in the world. The implication that it was probably the only Ellison story "in the wild" was not lost on anyone.

"I will give you anything you ask for this, now" said Ellison, looking the owner straight in the eye.

The owner explained that Ellison had given him so much pleasure over the years that it would be his pleasure if Ellison would accept the manuscript as a gift.

You hear about these kinds of things happening, but if you are like me and have had a little cynicism sandblasted into your hide by the bastards that you come into contact with on a daily basis, you don't really believe they happen in the real world. I was agog to see what would happen next.

Ellison insisted on paying for the document. The owner insisted it was a gift. Ellison asked for the man's name and address, and the guy refused to give it. I mean, how can reality TV compare with this stuff?

Ellison turned up the insistence to number 11 and finally, genuinely reluctantly, the former manuscript owner gave it. I can only speculate as to what Ellison had in mind, but it is immaterial. The moment itself was everything and I'm glad I was there to see it firsthand. I've never seen Harlan Ellison at a loss for words before. At a loss for the appropriate rude words, sure, but for a few seconds after the manuscript was given to him he just sat there. Not outwardly astonished, shocked, happy or any of the other expressions you might paint on someone's face in a story about this happening. Just frozen, for a few seconds, and silent. Once in a lifetime.

I presented my stack of books, now numbering about a dozen items with the six I'd brought and the six I'd bought. I asked him if he wouldn't mind annotating them with "I-Con 27". I didn't explain that without that piece of data Mr Brain will simply misfile the signing in the next few months and I will lose the significance of it when I next see his name in Again Dangerous Visions. I didn't say that a book with just his name on it was probably destined for eBay, but mine were prized possessions that would never be sold in my lifetime. I should have. I didn't.

"You are such a pain in the ass" he said, and called down the line "This guy is the reason you're all still here!" The girl with the armload of crap led the chorus of catcalls and death threats. I guess she decided to blow off the party after all.

It was during this period that a call went up for Mrs Stevie to go down to the ladies room where the Stevieling was being violently ill. Ellison looked at me with concern and asked what I thought was wrong. I told him I had no idea since I had no control over the kid when she was out of my line of sight and precious little when she wasn't. For some reason Ellison approved greatly of this response. I thanked him and went downstairs to recover the womenfolk for the homeward trip. It was about eleven o'clock by then and everyone was ready for bed. I dunno how Ellison was keeping it together. I was done in.

I-Con, Saturday

We picked up a friend of the Stevieling and made our way to Stonybrook for the main event. Saturday is really the convention's best day, in which most of the events are scheduled to take place and it has the heaviest attendance partly as a result of this, but also because of people coming just to see the students dressed up as anime or video game characters. Bizarre is not the word (but it will do).

Mrs Stevie was in full regalia. Vicky was dressed as some inexplicable9 Japanese character from some incomprehensible show. Only I and the Stevieling's friend were in any way normally attired, and the Stevieling's friend was only waiting to get to the Dealer's Room so she could acquire some appurtenances and transmogrify herself into some inexplicable Japanese character from some other incomprehensible show.

We parked and made our way to the building where the passes are issued, where I took my leave of everyone for a concerted program of panels, each one featuring Norman Spinrad. For once the weather was nice and so I eschewed my usual I-Con uniform of waders, oilskins and SCUBA tanks for jeans and the latest I-Con T-shirt. It was all very satisfying and cerebral and I was relieved to be able to pass almost the entire day without encountering Celtic Bards, Wizards, Pokemon or inexplicable Japanese characters.

Spinrad was interesting too, though for different reasons. With books in his stable like The Iron Dream he has become unpublishable in the USA, which is a great shame. He has so much publishing time under his belt that he also has some startling insights as to why the American SF market is the way it is, his take being that the large chains now employ software in a particularly destructive way to dictate what and how much they will buy from a publisher, wich in turn drives what the publisher will buy and how many copies he will print.

Spinrad authored one of the better Star Trek10 episodes, the one that features the planet eating robot death machine. He told us how that had come about, Roddenberry preferring to use a stable of "house" writers for his scripts normally. Apparently there was a need for an episode that was needed yesterday, on a very small budget with no exterior shots. Spinrad had already earned himself a reputation for not only being able to write screenplays for television, but of being able to write them to budget, an apparently rare talent.

The story of how that episode grew into being and how a second Spinrad script withered on the vine was some of the best, most interesting anecdotal material I have witnessed. I have an abiding interest on how the stuff I read and watch on TV get to become real, and a genuine admiration for those who try and get the stuff there unmolested. Their tales from the trenches are always interesting and sometimes a real eye-opener.

I was so busy racing from one panel to the next that I didn't get any "slack time" to visit the Dealer Room or the Game Rooms. In fact, I only got lunch because I screwed up when I made up my schedule and overlapped two events, making one of them not-get-to-able and freeing up thirty minutes for nosebagging.

The period straight after lunch was scheduled as a teleconference between John Coker and Ray Bradbury, who was being presented with the Gallun Award, a yearly award made at I-Con to those deemed worthy. I got there early and found John outside the lecture theater (which was currently hosting yet another Harlan Ellison thing, a showing of the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth) selling his latest book, a limited edition Bradbury retrospective/photo interview that has four previously unpublished stories in it, called Surround Yourself With Your Loves and Live Forever. I bought a copy, chewed the fat for a couple of minutes then went in to catch the end of the movie and the discussion about it afterwards

I rendezvoused with Mrs Stevie for the Ellison presentation of this documentary movie someone made over twenty seven years, years in which Ellison loaned the man (a prominent History Channel and Discovery Channel documentarian I might add) footage from his home movie collection and granted him interview after interview with cameras prominently rolling throughout, without Ellison noticing anything untoward. During the Q&A session afterwards I asked Ellison: "As someone who has regarded himself as a keen observer of human nature and behaviour throughout his life, how did you feel in that moment you realised that someone had made, over the course of 27 years, a feature-length movie in which you were the star without your noticing?". He cracked up, pointed out that I was not the first to have asked that, then skillfully dodged the question with a lengthy anecdote. It was extremely entertaining, and I didn't mind the evasive action at all. As I said before, Ellison is a great raconteur and (provided you aren't in his sights) highly entertaining when he raconts.

The Stevieling put in an appearance later on, wearing some sort of Japanese trenchcoat that covered her from just under her nose to just above her feet. One of the Dealers was selling them and all the younger teens were buying them like hot cakes. The Stevieling attempted to explain the reason, function and character involved but I lost the thread after the first two minutes of dense backstory. To me, they all looked like "Clunk" from Dastardly and Mutley in Their Flying Machines. Around six pm all the panels finished so that the people involved could get to the awards banquet. Mrs Stevie and I never bother with these as the one we attended back in the 80s was very disappointingly attended and the food was awful. I rendezvoused with Mrs Stevie and we swung by the Dealer Room to pick up the kids and, their protests ringing in our ears, we made our way home. The Stevieling made me smile. She told me that she had been in the Javits Building and Ellison was signing again. She went upstairs, in her full regalia and made her way to the signing table.

"Excuse me Mr Ellison" she said, probably through the collar of that ridiculous greatcoat.

"What is it, Kid?" He reportedly said. "I'm kinda busy here".

"I know. I just wanted to say 'thank you' for your concern over my health last night."

I would have given a lot to see his reaction to that. "I don't think he realised that your daughter was one of the freaks" she said as we drove onto the expressway.

I-Con, Sunday

Sunday dawned, and we were all so cream-crackered that we got a very late start. We picked up the Stevieling's friend. drove about a mile, turned around and went back for her ticket, drove back to our house so I could take a handful of aspirin, and then made our way back to the convention. Mrs Stevie was so annoyed by all this driving she insisted I drop of the women at the gate to the Dealer's Room, and I was so fed up to the back teeth with the women that I only put up a token resistance before burning rubber through the twisty road to the ISC, ignoring the various Jedi Knights, Puffy Shirted Pirates, Women in Wimples and Kids in Nose-To-Feet Japanese Greatcoats who leaped screaming from my path, stopping briefly to push out Mrs Stevie and urge the teenagers in the back to get out while the getting was good.

Then it was off to park the Steviemobile and locate Spinrad, supposedly appearing in a panel with Peter S. Beagle that morning in the SAC, a mere half campus sprint away. The weather today was more like th traditional I-Con weather, with a stiff breeze blowing off the light coating of hoarfrost that had formed on every surface overnight, so the sprinting was sprightly.

Spinrad didn't show, which put me in a foul mood since today was supposedly his one and only official signing. Had the wily author given us the slip or merely over-indulged in the wines, viands and sundry pleasures of the con last night/this morning? Only time would tell.

Meanwhile, Peter S. Beagle proved to be highly entertaining himself, as only someone with a lifetime in the writing trade could be. If you don't recognise the name, probably the most prominent thing he was involved with was the animated Lord of the Rings in the 1970s (and boy did he have some stories about that). He is an extremely soft-spoken man, with a voice one of the women present described as "molten chocolate", whatever that means. I found myself wishing I could have spent more time listening to the things this man had had to say over the last two days, but this year, for the first time in years, there was so much happening of interest to me that I was in a quandry sometimes as to what to pick from the conflicting timetables. The last time this happened was back when the convention was housed entirely in the Javits complex.

I wandered back to the Dealer's Room and nipped over to a particular book dealer I seek out each I-Con. He comes from Georgia and offers a small but eclectic collection of second-hand books for the discerning buyer, many of them first editions, many of them signed. This time he had a couple of nice things on offer: A first edition hardback of Spinrad's collection Songs from the Stars, which I bought, and first edition hardbacks of both Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions which I didn't. The Dangerous Visions was in good condition, a little stained on the page edges, but was missing the dust jacket. The copy of Again, Dangerous Visions was in very good condition and had the dust jacket to boot. Both books were reasonably priced and I find myself regretting today that I exercised some fiscal restraint on that Sunday on the grounds I already had signed early edition paperbacks of both11. I knew Ellison visits to I-Con were becoming rare and should have thought in terms of the investment value of the books. The problem is that I don't do that, ever, really. I buy books to read and to have so I can read them again12.


I made my way over to the Author Signing Table and got on line with the other hopefuls, and only a few minutes after the posted time Spinrad wheeled in and got down to brass tacks. He signed everything and anything people had brought for him and had no little bookshop set up to generate extra revenue from the affair. I had asked him on Saturday if he would be selling because I would rather buy directly from the author in the same way I buy CDs directly from Fairport Convention when I can. This way the generator of the work gets the maximum return on their sweat investment. Spinrad assured me that he would not be selling and I cursed inwardly at the time because I had not spotted the Georgian bookseller (some booths were in different spots to their usual location) and thought I might have to deal with a couple of less desirable book merchants on-site13.

I pulled out my nice "new" hardback and rather more shamefacedly my obviously secondhand paperbacks, but Spinrad didn't care. I explained how I had become enamored of his work at a time when I was fresh out of college and fresh out of work, and that each of these beaten-up books had been snatched up and cherished at the cost of missing lunch or walking three miles instead of taking the bus.

Spinrad waved me off, being more interested that all but two of my books were UK editions, including the controversial The Iron Dream , which had bolstered the shock-appeal of the story itself with a provocative cover depicting Adolf Hitler astride a large motorcycle riding out of the cover at the reader, a red swastika at his back along with a towering rocket vaguely suggestive of a huge hypodermic syringe. The cover got Spinrad animated. He grabbed his companion (I assume his wife though we were not introduced) and excitedly explained that this cover had all the design elements he had wanted on the American edition, elements the publisher had flatly refused to countenance. The Hypodermic imagery was deliberate and Spinrad's own idea, he claimed. The red Swastika tied in with some topical (at the time) stuff going on with the Ku Klux Klan (don't ask me, I have no idea what those nut-jobs were up to in the mid 70s and no desire to find out), and was again a Spinrad suggestion. He was very pleased to be surprised by this beaten-up old book.

I mentioned that his episode idea for the original Star Trek had been the only identifiable thing carried over into the Task Force game Star Fleet Battles under the scenario title "The Planet Killer". He scowled at me, growled "Oh yeah? This thing still in print?" which leads me to believe another failure to fully license has taken place. I explained that the people who made the game tore out each other's throats in an implosion of acrimonious acrimony twenty years ago, which mollified him, some.

The last order of business was to go see Ellison again. Once again he was in good, if grumpy, form, but he was obviously ready to go home. He complained that he had been put up in a fleabag hotel in which parties had kept him awake. He complained that when he asked some guy screaming into a cell phone outside his door at three am to keep it down, the idiot responded by sneering "Who the fbleep do you think you are?", a monumentally stupid thing to do because his years notwithstanding, Ellison is still perfectly willing to explain that datum to people with extreme prejudice. His litany of complaints set up a bad feeling amongst his most ardent fans and eventually one asked if he would be returning to I-Con. Ellison reiterated his complaints, made some comments about his home and his desire not to be out of it very often and, to no-one's real surprise said he wouldn't.

It must have been a tough call. On the one hand you want the man, the guest of honour, to feel at the center of the activities. On the other, he needs his sleep. Someone should have asked him if he wanted to be put up at the official I-Con hotel (a Holiday Inn with all that implies) or would rather be somewhere a little more secluded. I'm sure that a private house wouldn't have been too hard to sort out, given the fan base on Long Island. I dunno. I just think the same thing I did four years ago: It's understandable, but a great shame that the biggest draw for the convention has such a bad time of it that he doesn't look forward to the next one.

Ellison did one final signing, which gave me the chance to get a colleague's book signed (said colleague had planned to attend but had to cancel out at the last minute).

We left the Con around six and drove home, the kids dozing in the back, Mrs Stevie dozing in the front and me dozing behind the wheel.

  1. The fact is that the SF content of this convention is debatable since it has more media, anime, "cosplay", gamers and LARP content these days than trad Author-centric content. This is clearly What They Want and will only get more so as time goes on, but it rankles in this SF readers heart. Also, Dragoncon is bigger and Boskone has more trad SF in it
  2. The Society for Creative Anachronism, people who like to dress up and pretend they live in the middle ages. The middle ages as envisioned by various fantasy writers, at any rate. This is why your average Renaissance Fayre has wizards and ladies in impractical armour wandering around it. I digress
  3. Technically, the ISC
  4. Years ago, the entire convention was held in this octagonal building. People who attended in those years often remark wistfully how handy it was when everything was a few seconds walk from everything else. These days one is often confronted with the need to spring half the width of the campus to get from one event to the next, only to have to reverse the process for the following event. Since it rains during most I-Cons and is cold too, this is not a popular option for many people. I, of course, am made of Sterner Stuff™
  5. A long story involving me volunteering my requested services to the I-Con team eight months before and my being told the reason they were only getting back to me the week before the event was because of time constraints on the student body and that I should remember that a student has little free time when dealing with them
  6. A truism these days, sadly. At least, when it comes to American money, now almost worthless
  7. The date I remember him giving was 1954
  8. Something I imagine was not enjoyable for the Ziff-Davies representative. You don't want to be at the focus of Harlan Ellison's ire
  9. Not that the Stevieling didn't try. At length. Several times
  10. Original, Shatner-Nimoy-Kelly-Doohan-Nicholls Trek
  11. Sphere second printings of DV in three volumes which have nice covers and are in super fine condition despite being front and center in Domestic Flood Xena and good condition Pan first editions of the ADV collection in two fat volumes with what I think ar Chris Foss covers
  12. Excepting the New English Library books like my Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom books that were glued up with Virtual Adhesive™, which disintegrates over time. In the case of Heinlein's Time Enough For Love the time in question was about a week after purchasing it; I was racing the book to reach the end before all the pages were loose-leaf
  13. Long story, not worth going into

Thursday, April 03, 2008

RIP Mr Router


Last night I got home from work and went down to the matchbox I laughingly call a workshop to continue attempting to fabricate a new top for the jewelry case of extreme time wastage. I made the thing a couple of years ago for a friend who sells (amongst many other works of art) inexpensive jewelry to the Renaissance Fayre crowd, but storage in a cold, damp garage had resulted in the top cracking and its return for repair last year around this time. What with one thing and another I let time get away from me and so if I was going to return it to the owner this weekend (at I-Con 27) I would have to get my finger out and finish the work needed.

I had cut the sections of maple that would make up the top, but had found a one-half of one degree error in Mr Chopsaw's protractor had introduced a requirement for a session with the newly arrived in theatre Mr Oscillating Spindle And Belt Sander, a tool of some spiffiness I bought recently1 and nearly killed myself getting the wardrobe-sized thing past the eagle-eyed Mrs Stevie without comment or regard for the fact that it is apparently manufactured from depleted uranium.

I am a slave to my art3.

I had already decided on a simplified approach to this vexing "readjustment" of the geometry of the wooden wedges that the top is made of. I would glue up two lots of three to make two halves of the top, then sand the edges of the two unglued faces to make them flat so they'd mate with the other half with no gaps. Technically this would be called the "naff" solution, producing as it does a slightly asymmetric hexagon, but there are two factors to consider before insisting I go the fine woodworker route and sand each and every wedge to perfect 30 degree angles from the 30.5 degrees they seem to be right now. Firstly, the difference in geometry between the sanded and unsanded parts will be unnoticeable with the human eye and B) I could give a rat's bottom what anyone else thinks. If you want absolute perfect geometry, go out and make your own Hexagonal Rotating Tower of Jewelry Displayment and Handyman Annoyance. Maybe then you'll be too busy to nag me with pettyfogging nitpicks about "half a degree here" and "Two Pi Cos Theta there". All this fuss over three degrees of error over twelve cuts made on a saw designed for cutting house timbers with! Get a life for Azathoth's sake!

Where was I? Oh right.

I had decided, as I was saying before I was interrupted, that I would make the pieces into two larger pieces by gluing them up before I attempted the sanding task. Now I had already come up with a way of stopping the new top from cracking, which involved using home-made metal plates screwed across the joints to hold them in place. I would have used my biscuit joiner, but the pieces are so small and stupidly shaped that I can't clamp them down in a way that doesn't get in the way of some or other part of the biscuit joiner and prevent it working properly. This obstacle was pondered over for a very long time before I reluctantly decided not to use the biscuit joiner. The point of doing these stupid projects is to deploy as many tools as is humanly possible, after all. Pulling a tool off the duty roster is a serious business requiring Herculean effort to come up with some alternate plan, one that saves the tool's place in the Scheme Of Things. Sadly, Mr Biscuit Joiner was benched.

The new plan involved making metal plates that could be screwed over the underside of the join to strengthen it. This plan had already suffered one setback when the chuck on my drill press decided to kill itself and it took a week to get a new one. Last night I gained definitive proof that this bloody job is cursed and is attracting the most malignant anti-handyman demons it has been my misfortune to encounter in a long time.

I did some messing about with the pieces while Mr Brain milled the problem and figured out some last-minute gotcha-removal operations. If I was going to machine the half-tops I would have to recess the plates so they wouldn't foul the sander's table. This would require a session with Mr Router, currently mounted in my router table as a light-duty shaping machine, and already equipped with the bit I needed for the task at hand.

I was forced to fart about with the fence4 on the table for more time than I cared to spend before I concluded that it would have to come off and be replaced with a piece of wood clamped to the table. It would not retract the distances from the bit I needed, and the cutout in the fence meant I did not have perfect control of the small wooden parts as they were moving over the fast-spinning, razor-sharp bit. There was a quarter hour more farting about trying to figure a way to get the clamps to work on the table without sliding off the various castings on the underside. Then there was the business of finding an appropriate piece of wood for the makeshift fence. It was all very tedious, but eventually I got it all sorted out and with a sigh of pleasure I donned the ear-protectors and began work machining the wooden pieces.

All went well for three of the six pieces.

As I was machining the fourth piece, there came a loud5 "Chunk" noise and the router began spitting sparks up through the table while making a sound reminiscent of the great Shop Vac Rebuild Test Run Fiasco6.

I made a loud sound of my own and quickly turned off the router. I took off my ear protectors and examined the tool, whereupon I discovered the most perfidious skullduggery perpetrated on me by Mr Brain: I had forgotten to use a table insert.

The table insert is a little plastic disc with a hole sized for the bit you are using in the middle. It goes in the much larger hole the bit pokes through in the table itself, and is designed to prevent crap dropping through the table onto the router body, which is handily equipped with vents so that in the event stuff does fall through that is heavier than sawdust, it can enter the mechanism of the router itself. Had this in fact happened, or was what I had witnessed a piece of metal, maybe a screw from the table itself, bouncing around in the cavity under the table where the bit was spinning? I didn't know

I did a quick visual check of the environment, and discovered nothing fouling the bit or the spindle. The router didn't seem particularly dusty or covered in wood chips either. I checked the spindle lock, used for when you need to tighten the collet nut that holds the bit and don't want the spindle to turn, hadn't engaged itself. It hadn't. I turned the spindle by hand. It moved freely with no squeaks, creaks or pieces falling out of the router. Having satisfied myself that the problem was probably transient I quickly turned the router on then off again. I was rewarded with a sound similar to that made when a garbage disposal has a spoon in it.

I dismounted the router from the table and turned it right-side up. A piece of metal fell out of it.

Had I stupidly allowed a piece of metal to sit on the router table and swept it into the router during the machining operation? It wasn't beyond belief that that had happened, but I had vacuumed the table top just before starting work. There was nothing for it. I grabbed Mr #2 Phillips Head Screwdriver and dismantled the router.

Once I had the case in half the damage was obvious, as was the source of that metal piece. I found six of its brothers inside the case. They turned out to be what was left of the dozen or so blades that had been sheered off the fan mounted on the armature spindle of the motor7. At least one of them had taken a voyage of discovery through the rotating part of the armature and gouged out cool little fillets from the soft iron core too. That was the indication that the whole assembly was unserviceable, since the motor has to be finely balanced and it was now missing some iron on one side.

In point of fact, I was amazed the whole thing hadn't exploded. Most people respect the whirling blades on a power tool and believe that the danger in using them lies there. Most don't consider that a high-speed tool represents a reservoir of dangerous kinetic energy (the sort you get from how heavy and how fast something is moving) too.

The router motor has a no-load rotational rate that is measured at around 18000 rpm. That translates to 300 full turns every second. I don't know about you but I cannot imagine anything moving that fast. My brain simply won't model it, and puts it in the "too fast to imagine" box. Now, to that 300 RPS, add in the knowledge that the moving element isn't just the spindle and the bit, which have a relatively small diameter and mass and hence a low moment of inertia8 but also the much more massive and larger-in-diameter soft iron laminated armature core and the copper windings it supports. Copper and iron are used because they are abundant and have properties that lend themselves to electric motor construction. The iron is easy to work and has certain useful magnetic properties, the copper is ductile9 and conducts electricity (and heat) very easily.

Copper and Iron have another property in common, one that often does not occur to people but in this case is rather important: They are heavy. Things that are made of them that are spun up to high speeds store huge amounts of energy, which can be thought of in this case as the "desire" by the materials to break into pieces and fly out in a radial fragmentation mine of death. Obviously the motors are engineered to withstand the forces they are put under, but on this evening almost half of the cooling fan of this motor had disintegrated and fallen into the whirling parts. How none of them were propelled through the case and into my soft tissues is a cause of wonderment and a testament to the design of the thing. How the motor didn't sieze up and attempt to tear itself apart in the manner of an improvised claymore mine of handyman destruction is also a matter of some amazement to me. The robust design of the router notwithstanding, the router table is due for redesign or replacement as a result of this, since I may not be so lucky next time. I want something between Mr Crotch and any red-hot fragments of catastrophically failing router when the modern designs prove less than those of twenty years ago.

I still don't know what happened. My money would be on a chip of maple heavy enough not to be blown away by the fan dropping through one of the cooling louvers and snapping off one fan blade. That would be enough to cascade the damage in an eyeblink into the router-wrecking fiasco I saw last night. All I do know is that the router is completely written off. I'd rebuild it since I have a fondness for the tool surpassing all others, but the armature is no longer available. This is the first time I've been contemplating the purchase of a new tool with anything less than ecstatic delight.

I'll have to buy a new one, of course. The router has been such a massively useful tool, especially when mounted in the table, that I can't see myself getting by without one. Here is a short list of the most useful things that I've dome with it:

Shaping fancy edges on shelves. Lots and lots of shelves.

Fabricating a pirate treasure chest for Stevieling's fifth birthday. (New tool - box joint jig!)

Planing small stock.

Making new handles for a football table (New Tool - Router Crafter "lathe"!)

Making the numbers for our house so the Pizza and Chinese Food delivery guys can find us.

Putting hinges on new doors. (New Tool - Hinge Templates!)

Making ceiling roses. (New tool - Trammel point!)

Customising wall mouldings.

Getting rid of sharp edges on Stevieling's Tree House.

Making stairs for Pool Deck.

Reprofiling cedar decking.

Machining almost everything for the Stevieling’s American Girl Doll beds

List of things I hadn't got round to yet but fully planned to do:

Making bas-relief carvings (New tool - Pantograph)

SCA Wizard's Staff (Router Crafter again)

Two room-sized bookshelves

Custom bathroom wall and floor mouldings

Put simply, the router is probably the most massively useful power tool after the hand drill that a home handyman could own. This is why I've always recommended them as a good start to the toolkit, along with a router table.

RIP Mr Router. I'm sorry I allowed a moment of carelessness to destroy you. You will be sadly missed.

  1. Using the need to repair the jewelry display as a convenient and timely way to bring The Rule2 into play and obtain the elusive yet siren-like sanding machine for my very own
  2. No tool, No job
  3. The stealthy acquisition of tools, some of them useful
  4. To machine wood on a router table one needs a solid edge against which to press and steady the workpiece. This is called The Fence. It consists of a long piece of plastic (in this case) with a recess in the middle for the bit to occupy, some screws riding in slots with which to adjust the fence with respect to the bit and fasten it down with, a guard assembly of some kind to protect the operator's hands when the bit is spinning but the workpiece has yet to be fed into it, and a fixture for a vacuum cleaner to be attached for chip removal
  5. Bear in mind that I was wearing ear protection and the router was running. Any noise heard in these conditions would be, by anyone's definition, LOUD
  6. In which, during an attempt to salvage a ten dollar snow shovel I inadvertently wrote off a fifty dollar Shop-Vac. I drilled out a rivet on my drill press. The rivet fell into the motor of my Shop-Vac. I stripped out the motor and removed the rivet. Before replacing the motor I clamped it in the bench vise and test ran it to make sure all the parts were installed correctly. In the space of two seconds it ate the front ball-bearing race in a shower of sparks and, at the end, a rain of teenytiny ball bearings, all to the accompaniment of the screaming of tortured metal. After due consideration I concluded I had not, in fact, assembled the motor correctly. Unfortunately I was unable to learn which components were replaced out of position as most of them had either disintegrated or fused into shapless blobs of copper. It was all very annoying and I don't want to talk about it any more and anyway my new wet/dry vaccuum cleaner has no stupid vents on the top through which rivets could fall
  7. This is how power tools keep themselves cool when the electricity is trying hard to turn the motor into a red-hot ball of molten copper
  8. A way of measuring the amount of energy a spinning thing will store
  9. Chemist-speak for "bendy"

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Rest Easy, America. UPS Is On The Job

I ordered a replacement passport a few days ago from the British Embassy in Washington DC.

All UK passport applications made in the US, at least, this part of the US, now have to go there because the embassy in NYC isn't a full embassy any more. It works if you want to flee there, as well as it ever did at any rate, but no longer deals in credentials of the border-security-assuaging kind.

I expected it to take a while, what with the passport being one of the new "secure1" tech-enabled passports but I got a call on Friday that UPS2 needed my signature for a parcel delivery that day. The call was from a highly informative robot that offered no way whatsoever for me to intervene in the doomed-to-fail3 attempt to deliver my passport to me.,/P>

Accordingly, I arrived home to find a little sticker on the door telling me they would attempt redelivery on Monday, what we in the Stevie family would come to call the Waste of Time Plan4. Mrs Stevie had a growl over an extra large mug of piping hot Mochachino pH3 Espresso Forte Con Cushion and decided she would intervene, since she works near a UPS depot. It might be possible for her to pick up the parcel if we could find some acceptable way of authenticating her.

Which turned out to involve her calling up with the delivery number and saying "I want to pick up the parcel".

Reflect a moment on the process involved here. I go to a great deal of trouble to get photographs sized to a new requirement designed to make a computer's life easier5 and spend a small fortune to pay for the RFID electronics that will allow the process of clearing immigration at an airport to take no more than an additional fifteen minutes while simultaneously allowing an Al Qaeda terrorist armed with moderately easy to get technology to steal the passport digitally from inches away like, behind me in an airport queue, without the need to remove the document from my pocket. The British Embassy, having found me to be trustworthy and rich enough to afford the documentation that says I'm who I actually am, go to the trouble of preparing said document and send it via what they believe to be a moderately secure courier service. The courier service leaves the only required identification document stuck to the front door of the house.

The lucky terrorist, in need of a new identity and on the lookout for any break, only needs to see the paper and grab it, make one phone call in which their own right to the materials is never requested or demonstrated in any way, shape or form and hey-ho another perfectly legal document with state of the (broken) art anti-terrorist technology is in the hands of the very people it is supposed to be used to hinder.

So that plan worked then.

I now have the document in question in my possession. It was mailed in a plain envelope with no anti-sniffing measures taken whatsoever, so for all I know the forces of evil may well have already nicked the passport by scanning the bloody envelope it got sent out in. I wish politicians would make more than a token fbleeping effort to understand the power, the limitations and the liabilities of the technology they so blithely mandate be brought into play in the War Against Pigbleeping Terrorist Bastards. They are worse than the most nitwit trekie I ever encountered6 for not being able to tell what is real and what only works on TV.

And thanks to the new computer friendly "no glasses" rule I don't even look like me in the bleeding picture it took so much time and effort to take.

  1. i.e. highly insecure in the absence of improvised faraday cages
  2. The embassy won't use any other method for passports. They feel, with some justification, that a service that requires a signature is safest when sending this sort of document long distance
  3. Since I was in Brooklyn and so was my writing hand
  4. See footnote 3
  5. And just when did we start making our appliances’ lives easier at the expense of our own for Azathoth's sake?
  6. At a Creation Con, about ten years ago

Taking The Test

On Saturday I sat a promotional exam set by the Government Body I work for1 for the post of Computer Departmental Manager.

I had been warned that it could include almost anything, and would be different than any past paper due to some sort of weird Exam Calculus the examination board uses to dream up the questions to avoid cheating.

The first irritating thing they did was to hold the exam, at least my part of it, in a high school in the backstreets of downtown Manhattan. This required that I get up at seven, forego breakfast and ride into Penn Station, then get a cab.

Cabs being what they are, it still took me best part of half an hour to get from Penn Station to the High School, so my original plan of coffee and a bagel went to the four winds in favour of actually being on time for the bloody test.

The next annoying thing was that they crowded us into an auditorium and made us sit in tiny kid-sized seats with no missed seats between us. This actually caused one moment of high comedy when two extremely large (300+ pounders or I'm a Dutchman) gentlemen were instructed to sit side by side. One refused, so they took an extremely tall, thin woman and sat her next to big guy #1, then sat big guy #2 next to her. As BG2 sat down he swelled up and the poor woman became a disembodied head floating above two very wide shoulders jostling for space where her neck should have been. I thought I would wet myself.

The merriment was soon stopped as the seven hundred or so of us were then instructed to go to various rooms for the actual test. By now almost an hour had passed without one question being answered.

I was directed to a small, windowless room with about forty of those kiddie-seats with a table attached you see in films like The Breakfast Club. Mine was at the front of the fourth column, against a wall. We were then harangued about not using cell phones, calculators that could "store text" and so forth for more time than I would have thought possible even for a very pedantic person. Two taciturn monitors were assigned to the room, and the examination booklets waved about but not distributed. We were told we'd have six hours to answer 80 questions with no lunch break. We could snack in the exam room if we had candy bars an so forth. I thought about how the others would view my eating the apple I had packed as my snack while they tried to concentrate and decided it would probably be best to save to for afterwards.

We sat in these uncomfortable quarters for another thirty minutes before a siren was sounded, which was the signal to distribute the books and for the monitors to yell "Don't open the books" every forty five seconds. We were told that a second bell would sound telling us when it was okay to look at the exam. What actually happened was that five minutes after the bloody test was supposed to start, a panicked voiced echoed through the corridors yelling "Start the test! Start the test!"

Now a third monitor had poked his head round the door and been very specific about checking that we each had all the pages in our books. He said this more than once, which would have cued us that he was doing the "nod-nod, wink-wink" thing but by then we were all mentally exhausted from the hour and three-quarters of being under the monitors control. Never was the creed "Hurry up and wait" embodied so successfully than on that day.

I opened my books (one question booklet, one "in basket" booklet of materials) and did a quick count of the pages, by no means an exhaustive check of each and every page. I had six hours, minus monitor dicking about time, to answer 80 multiple choice questions and the last time I did a test like this (about thrity five years ago) I had run out of time rather badly. I raced into question 1.

Which turned out to be a ridiculously easy grammar question. Ditto questions 2 through 10. I did 'em all in about four minutes. Yazoo! I was making up the time lost by the administration!

The next three questions made my spirits drop. They concerned a bunch of leave requests filed by fictitious people and the legality/propriety of them. I couldn't for the life of me remember the leave policies of the agency I work for, so I did my best and guestimated. Then came question 15, which asked if I should refer another leave request to a Mr Dithers.

This gave me pause. How on earth was I supposed to figure that out? I flipped back in the booklet to see if there were any clues as to who Mr Dithers was. This turned out to be a Good Move, because it was during this time I found page 1 with the instructions on it.

These instructions told me that I worked for a fictitious company, let's call it the Gotham Widget Company, and that I was at such-and-such a level in the hierarchy. I did some checking. The next 37 pages contained not only the memos I had spent the last four minutes correcting, but about a gazillion Policy Statements governing the administration of the personnel of the Gotham Widget Company, including the granting or refusing of leave requests. The vexing question of whether Dotty Smith's leave request would be kicked upstairs to Mr Dithers was clear once I had cross referenced her leave request with her date of employment records, the calendar and the policy on granting leave to people when taken in the summer period. It required only about three minutes of furious paging back and forth in the "in-basket" book and the making of copious notes. The rustling from my desk became continuous and noticeable above the silence in the room, heretofore only broken by the woman behind me who was apparently eating Kibble brand dry dog food.

I dashed back to my other answers on leave requests and modified them according to the policies in the book. As I was finishing this "answer realignment" phase of the test I noticed an audible pick up in the amount of booklet page flipping going on in the rest of the room. I obviously had not been the only one to fall into the cunning "find and read the instructions" trap. I was cheered that Mr Brain was only able to manage average levels of perfidy, as I had expected epic levels of intellectual failure from him.

The day wore on with more of these bafflingly irrelevant personnel questions to solve. They got increasingly more annoying too. People who refused to go to drug treatment despite being drunk on the job. People who whined about their leave. People who took weeks off sick without telling anyone. All this was made palatable only by my discovery of an amended policy allowing me to summarily dismiss without consultation anyone caught with drugs on the premises (Ha! one less whiny loser to deal with. Fired!), another that forced me to deny any leave requested after march 14th that was to be taken during the summer period irrespective of seniority (Ha! another fifteen whiners put in their place) and another requiring me to fire the poor biddy in hospital who waited precisely two days too long to tell me she was ill. No matter that she had the longest service with Gotham Widget Company, I could fire her sorry ass and I could deny her payment in lieu of the huge number of vacation days she had into the bargain! There's one idiot who regretted not taking a vacation in the eight years she'd been with GWC! AHAHAHAHA!

I began to suspect that my mental balance was being eroded when question 62 asked me to adjudicate a grievance and my first response was to search maniacally through the policies to see if I couldn't bury everyone involved up to their necks in an anthill for whining without a permission slip.

About an hour into the session, the third man returned and began fingerprinting us. When he got to me he found a problem with my fingerprint card. I had filled it in in ink. He explained that he couldn't take it, and that I would have to leave the exam unless I redid the card in pencil.

I was astounded, and said so. "You want me to put my name and social security number on a card which will have my fingerprints on it in pencil? Are you mad? Have you never hear of ID theft or the Department of Homeland Security?"

"Those are the rules. Comply or leave."

The Madness continued in the imaginary world of the Gotham Widget Company too, where half the people were in rehab, just under half were either being fired or were in the process of resigning and the rest were on vacation. I alone was at my post, madly working out whether vacations was being applied for in the appropriate timescale, whether I should fire people outright or refer them to my manager with a recommendation (that they be fired) and assessing how many more people had either quit or been fired than last month. I found myself wondering what we did with the imaginary coke stash we found in Johnson's locker just before I fired him, and whether we actually took inventory of it yet.

The only remotely relevant question was a budgeting thing in which I was asked about the percentage of a budget that underfunded the expenses for last year at GWC. I leaped into action with my vintage Casio fx-451. Total the underfunded amounts in the calculator's rather basic memory. Divide that amount into the total budget. Invert the answer and multiply by 100 for a grand total of 1.9%! Now match that to the four answers in the book: 2.1, 2.5, 2.8 and 2.9.


Okay, I probably got caught in some error in the arithmetic. Do it again! Insumscribeummscreeb...1.9%. Blast! Okay, this must be one of those UK/US English things where the wording means the opposite of what I thought it did. Work the figures the other way. Fleedlefardleflumdibbledee-1.9%.


Right then, the person next to me got involved in a heated whispered conversation with a monitor. I wated until they were done, but at that point the person behind me started another conversation, then the person kitty-corner did.

I can recognise when fate is sending a message. I would come back to this question after I'd finished the others.

Which I did.

And I managed to calculate 1.9% from every other combination of the figures I could dream up. I checked for calculator malfunction and redid the problem. 1.9%.

I got smart. I took the four answers and reverse engineered the dollar amounts they represented, then munged the budget amounts to see how one of them might be arrived at. Never found one. I ended up just answering "A" and called it a day. By then I had been running for some ten hours with just one cup of coffee and some sips of water for fuel. I was not only done, I was done in. I made my way to the foyer of the school and then devoured the apple, core and all.


Not one question on computers, not even "How do you boot into Windows XP?"

  1. Unnamed, because I don't want to risk getting fired over anyone's imaginary hurt feelings