Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Loathing And The Even More Loathing On The LIRR

The good thing about finally having a laptop to use is that I can drool this dribble "on the go1".

That includes time spent "commuting" on the bloody Long Island Rail Road, who often demonstrate to the world that they couldn't find their rear ends with both hands and a map.

Take this morning for instance.

The day got off to a crummy start when I woke up to the shrilling of my alarm feeling like I hadn't had any sleep at all. I staggered round the house, stark naked, clutching a towel in my twitching, sleep-deprived hand and bumping into things until a shriek of rage indicated I had bumped into Mrs Stevie, who was taking her early morning nap.

Staunching a number of small wounds with the towel I made my way to the shower, where I realized that the dripping tap now resembled an ornamental wall fountain and Something Would Have To Be Done.

All this staggering, bumping, wounding and showering made me slightly late, but that didn't matter as a profusion of total nitwits on the road made me quite late indeed. Each traffic light took two changes to get through because of SUV drivers too afraid of their own shadow to actually drive when the light turned green until someone else had gone first to prove terrorists hadn't somehow subverted the very tarmac, and since each lane was filled with the ugly gas-sucking things no-one went anywhere until the yellow light showed, spurring a panicked dash for freedom.

The bigger the car, the smaller the brain.

I finally boarded my standby, get-me-there-on-time train and settled in as the announcer announced a twenty minute delay west of Jamaica2 into Penn Station, which translated into "trains backed up in the Jamaica station throat because we don't have anywhere to put them". Magic.

That meant that just about the time I should have been boarding my Brooklyn-bound train I was able to watch it cruise into the station while I was still several hundred yards out of Jamaica. And of course, they couldn't hold the Brooklyn train because that would cause congestion.

We pulled in slightly after the following train to Brooklyn, the one that comes ten minutes after mine and stops everywhere so it always carries me 15 minutes into the part of my time card that will, due to the vagaries of the bloody Long Island Rail Road and their idiot schedules, get me home again a full 90 minutes after my usual Azathoth-awful arrival time, typically sometime around 9pm - too late to get anything useful done but eat and get indigestion in time for bedtime.

For our convenience it was brought in not on the adjacent track so all we would have to do was cross the platform, but on the next platform which required us to sprint to a staircase, vaulting over the slower fellow commuters, run up the stairs gasping for breath, dash across the bridge and down the stairs and try and find a door not clogged with standing would-be passengers. For our further convenience this train was a couple of cars short, so it was full to overflowing. But wait! For our absolute convenience the train was held so a few more trains full of people could attempt to transfer onto it from the apparently doomed Penn Station bound trains.

Yes, once again we were being treated to a "tunnel signal problem" fiasco, a staple of the Long Island Rail Road commute.

The problem, they say, is that of the four tunnels under the East River that connect Long Island to Manhattan, only two are signaled in both directions. One of those is permanently in use by Amtrack, who own Penn Station or the tracks into it or something. I lost track of the fine details of this particular needless idiocy years ago.

So, during normal operations the bloody Long Island Rail Road uses two tunnels in the "peak" traffic flow direction and one in the opposite, "off-peak" direction. Should one of these tunnels be rendered unusable due to, say, oooooh a signal problem or something, there is an obvious problem in that using the two remaining tunnels for peak direction traffic is only possible if the problem isn't in the one tunnel that has signals in both directions.

Edit: Which shows how annoyed I was. It of course doesn't matter which tunnel gets knocked out as the bloody Long Island Rail Road dispatchers aka the IQ Brigade will continue to run Off-Peak trains and so any failure will reduce the Peak traffic under the East River by 50%. Were the IQ Brigade to consider not running Off-Peak trains for the duration of the emergency, there would "only" be a 66% chance of a Peak service impact.

That's right, of those three tunnels, traffic can only move safely in both directions through one of them, because in the other two the signals only work in one direction, one into and one out of Manhattan.

Brilliant, eh?

"But Stevie" I hear you ask, "Surely this ancient, steam-era situation has been remedied by now?"

Well, you'd think so wouldn't you? To my certain knowledge the problem has been discussed as a "must get done" item for twenty five, going on twenty six years, because I've been riding the bloody Long Island Rail Road that long. That’s right, the bloody Long Island Rail Road can't get a relatively simple signal installation done in twenty five bleeping years.

"But Stevie" you say, "if the track belongs to Amtrack how can they?"

Well, since the bloody Long Island Rail Road is part of MTA which in turn is part of the city government which in turn is part of the State government, and Amtrack is, via an equally twisty chain of connections, part of the Federal government, both are paid for by Taxpayers and so there should be some way of getting a simple wiring job done. I mean, there are infrastructure Stimulus Dollars to be had that would pay for it.

But in time honored fashion the bloody Long Island Rail Road talks the talk and leaves it up to their passengers to walk the walk (due to cancelled trains).

So I got to work just in time, by hustling. Of course, my colleagues were discomfited by my staggering around the office, throat roaring as I drew in volumes of life-giving air, my face bright red and by my pleas to be euthanized immediately.

So much for the ride in.

The ride back looked to be much better as I sat typing this TOS entry, until the bloke next to me showed me the screen of his Blackberry with an e-mailed alert that "due to a track condition outside Westbury Station, our train was being taken out of service in Jamaica. We discussed the matter for a bit, noting that the crew hadn't alerted us yet and we were very close to Jamaica.

Then we realized that this was the bloody Long Island Rail Road and the crew was probably just trying to avoid unpleasant reactions from the commuters. This turned out to be the case, and as we pulled up to the platform the bleeping useless bastards told use what we had already known for about five minutes.


To understand why the crew were so scared and why everyone was so pissed-off you have to know that there are exactly two trains that leave Brooklyn (which used to be called Flatbush Avenue but since the Granite-Lined new station was opened they re-titled Atlantic Terminal, requiring changes to every automated ticket machine in the system not to mention all the relevant printed schedules and how much did that cost I digress) that do not require the passengers get off at Jamaica and try to get on another at Penn Station are the almost useless 4:34pm and the very useful and popular 6:04pm. We used to have a useful and popular 5:01pm instead of the idiot 4:34pm that is too early for anyone to use, but some bloody Long Island Rail Road wuckfit decided it should run out of Penn. I've actually caught it. It ran almost empty the entire journey that day, but I'm sure that was an atypical day. Riiiiight.


If you take a train that means you have to change at Jamaica, you will almost certainly be catching a rush-hour train out of Penn Station that left already jam-packed full of commuters. When forced into that sort of commute I always ride the subway to Penn and board there because, Mr clueless bloody Long Island Rail Road dispatcher, I can get a bleeping seat that way. I once had to wait almost two hours on a frozen Jamaica platform becuase the system was so thoroughly bleeped to Port Jefferson and back that fewer traiins were running and there wasn't any room on any train that came through.

Well, track problems, congested systems, it's understandable that they'd have to reduce the traffic, but it's rather less obvious why it should be the 6:04pm out of Flatbush Avenue Atlantic Terminal every time this needs to be done, and it isn't at all obvious why, as we stood crammed face to face on the 6:22pm out of Penn why there were so many off-peak trains clogging up the same congested rail system we had to change trains to open up.

My theory is that given that the Ronkonkoma line was the last electrified, and since the computer dispatching system was up and running years before that, the Ronkonkoma schedules haven't been properly integrated into the system and it is just easier to delete trains from that schedule than to try and deal with the problems intelligently. This would also explain, mostly, why numerous times a year the 6:04pm peak train sits at the west end of the Pinelawn-Deer Park single track chicane for ten minutes so an off-peak train can get past us. Call me Phalthobart Malthusian Befubbleblatt but that doesn't sound like anyone with an active brain cell is at the dispatching desk. Can you imagine if the UP ran their line that way? Perishable fruit would sit rotting while a load of coal sauntered the afternoon away with priority routing.

I've often said that the bloody Long Island Rail Road couldn't find the cheeks of their own arse with both hands and a map and that they couldn't get me drunk in a brewery, but today they proved they couldn't get me laid in a cat house.

  1. And indeed, on the job
  2. Not the good one

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Great Deer Park Chainsaw Death Fiasco Debacle

I almost killed my chainsaw three weeks ago, though to be fair it tried to kill me back.

Mrs Stevie1 had expressed a desire to have the enormous Arbor Vitae bushtree growing between the King Crimson Maple we planted in the corner of the property and the struggling-back-to-life stump of the Intolerable Berry Menace - already subjected to chainsaw justice two years running - pruned tootsweet, so I dug out the 20-inch Poulan Pro and went at it.

I'd done most of the cutting, and turned the bushtree into a sort of vertical green poodle, it being several feet taller than me, when the chainsaw let out an almighty bang and tried to leap out of my hands.

Regular reader2 of this blog will know that I'm long accustomed to power tools attempting wily bids for freedom, so it didn't manage to free itself from my vise-like manly grip.

Which was a pity really, I realized when I came to think about it later, because a spinning chainsaw blade has a lot of energy that has to go somewhere in the event the engine comes to an abrupt stop, and that was why the blade - which had decided to make an independent bid for freedom and jumped off the guide bar in anticipation of getting a head start while I chased the saw around the garden but had hung up on the drive cog - swished around in impressive, razor sharp circles, threatening now my crotch, now my face.

Mindful of the hazard posed to others in the vicinity I warned them of the danger by emitting a series of loud, falsetto shrieks as I desperately dodged the whirling blade of unpleasant and embarrasing cuts should it score a palpable hit. It was all very trying.

Eventually the blade was done with its anti-handyman jiggery-pokery and I kicked aside the sawn-off bits of bushtree and sat on the lawn to assess the damage.

I thought at first that maybe the chain had broken, but it seemed whole, though hopelessly tangled. It took me several minutes to puzzle out the series of events that it had gone through to achieve the knotted mess it had become, and restore the more usual circular arrangement.

Next I figured I'd check out the cog, but first I should remount the chain on the chainbar. This required me to get covered in oil and gasoline, not sure why, but the saw was feeling mischevious that day as events had so ably demonstrated. I was checking the gas levels as a possible reason for the motor stalling and the saw rolled over in my lap and gave me a refreshing dousing in unleaded gasoline. The oil was from just touching the saw's guide bar, which was about as oily as the Gulf of Texas right now.

Since I was already covered in odiforous flammables I decided to check the oil levels as a possible reason for the failure. The chain needs constant oiling otherwise it overheats and might seize in the guide or break or expand so much it jumps out of the guide. This sort of failure is usually signified with lots of blue smoke from the workpiece3 but the branches I'd been cutting were thin so maybe they didn't get time to overheat. No, there was plenty of oil.

I then decided to remount the chain on the guide bar. The chainsaw blade has sharp, hook-shaped, horizontal teeth on the cutting side, forming a never-ending chain of miniature planes that shave the wood away, and vertical teeth remeniscent of those on the backs of T34 tank tracks4, which engage in the drive cog and in a slot in the guide bar, which keeps everything pointing the right way5. When the engine is turning, a centrifugal clutch, formed from whirling pivoted weights in a bell-shaped housing which is attached to the cog, allow the drive to slip and the chain is motionless. Rev the engine by pulling on the trigger in the handle and the engine speeds up and the weights fly outward and catch on the bell housing causing it to spin and drive the cog which in turn makes the chain move. Where was I?

Oh yes. Well I checked the guide bar for damage and, finding none I could see, attempted to get all those vertical teeth back in the slot in the guide bar, but they wouldn't go. It turned out that some of them had suffered damage that knocked up spurs of metal on them, widening them quite a bit. Well, that was that then, a new chain would have to be bought . I surmised that he damage occurred at the drive cog.

I didn't have time to find out though because at that point I accidentally let the little finger of my left hand brush up lovingly against the engine's muffler, still very hot after all the sawing, and as a result spent some time explaining how very unpleasant that was to the neighbors, then even more time attempting to stave off the inevitable agony with ice cubes and cold water.

Why I do this I don't know since it never works. As soon as the cold is removed, typically because I've run out of ice, the pain reasserts itself, building to a crescendo that, once passed, dies down to something only moderately intolerable.

Overcome by ennui and agony I refused to work any more that day.

A week later I managed to track down a new chain and reengaged the saw in single combat for mastery in a World Gone Mad.

First I stripped the chain guide off the saw completely and checked that the motor would in fact start. The "clonk" it had emitted had sounded like a piston breaking, and this motor only has the one. It started with only eight to ten minutes of pulling on the starting cord and yelling the Magic Start Words, which not only removed one item off the "possibly busted up good" list but removed the gaggle of jeering neighbors and their children from the vicinity too. Bonus.

I checked out the drive cog for damage while I was at it. There were some marks on the teeth, but the wear seemed even, such as might be suffered during normal wear and tear rather than a ding caused by the chain attempting a break for it.

The new chain came out of its packaging tangled, so once again I was obliged to become a master of improvised topology before I could start the Main Attraction - fitting the chain to the guide.

First I ran a few of the teeth along the guide bar to check that the slot really was undamaged and clean out some of the gunk a year and a bit of sawing had left in it - a lotion made of pulverised tree in chain oil is what it was. Then came the fitting together of all the bits.

The correct proceedure is:

  1. Hook the chain over the sprocket, allowing a couple of tangles to form in the chain
  2. Untangle chain, cutting exposed skin on teeth of chain
  3. Fit bar on bolt-and-peg seating. Tangle chain again.
  4. Untangle chain and hold in one hand, while keeping guide bar aligned with other hand.
  5. With other other hand fit combination cover/guide lock/guide extender and attempt to locate the extender wheel indexing pin in the matching hole in the guide bar
  6. Fail spectacularly
  7. Turn saw over in an ultimately futile attempt to see the pin and the hole in order to match them up, spilling the chain in a tangled heap into your lap
  8. Untangle Chain
  9. Repeat from step 1 until utterly overcome with the desire for death
  10. By dismantling the saw and adjusting the bar extender to wind the indexing pin as far back as possible, figure out the position at which the guide bar will properly engage the index pin
  11. Untangle the chain again
  12. Reassemble the saw, guide bar, chain and cover, finally engaging the hole in the guide bar on the adjustment pin
  13. Untangle chain
  14. Gradually lengthen the guide bar by turning the thumbscrew downward
  15. Or was that upward?
  16. Before the guide bar gets too long, hook the chain over the length of it
  17. The end, the bit with the cog inside, is tricky so mind you don't...
  18. The band-aids are in the bathroom
  19. Well, you should have bought some more last week while you were in the pharmacy!
  20. Once the bleeding stops, refit the chain and wind out the guide bar using the thumbwheel until about an 8th of an inch gap shows between the chain and the bottom of the bar when you lift the end
  21. Tighten the cover and you're good to go

I grabbed the chain and ran it back and forth to confirm that it was moving through the sprocket without binding, and declared it good to go, though I haven't actually tried to cut wood with it yet. By the time I was done reassembling the wretched thing I couldn't bear to have it near me any more.

Two weeks later the burn is healing nicely. The inch-long blister has burst, the old skin has sloughed off and I can finally bend the finger again.

So the time is ripe for a rematch with Mr Bushtree.

  1. So many of my life's more exciting moments start with that harridan's "suggestions"
  2. singular
  3. One of my old chainsaws had had it's automatic oiler fail. That's how I know this
  4. Don't know what that looks like? Look it up! I recommend Squadron Publications' T34 in Action. Squadron is based in Texas somewhere I think. Good luck
  5. Normally

Monday, May 10, 2010

An I-Con Of Science Fiction

I-Con was a blast.

I-Con is a convention run at the Stonybrook campus of SUNY1 for fans of Animé, SF & Fantasy. The VIPs run tha gamut from the movers and shakers in the comic industry to the actors in the most popular SF films and shows of the time such as Battlestar Galactica, Serenity, Star Trek Lord of the Rings and so on, and authors. In past years they had real astronauts and cosmonauts, but these days it is rare to find a real spaceman at this convention. I doubt any of the attendees would recognize them anyway.

At first, Mrs Stevie would attend every other I-Con to coincide with the attendance of Harlan Ellison. After the Stevieling was old enough to attend (11 months) we started going every year. As time went on the con got bigger and started to take over more and more of the Stonybrook campus.

In the early years of our attendance, it all packed into one building, the Javits lecture theater complex, a neat octagonal building with lecture theaters opening off corridors arranged in a cross form, the hub of the cross being a small plenum/atrium for lounging about in. Authors and media guests would be sitting at tables in the plenum or at the ends of the corridors and you were never more than a hundred feet from whatever event you next wanted to attend. It was in the Javits building that I met C.J. Cherryh2, Michael Dorn3 and Walter Schirra4 to name just three.

A big part of the SF con scene is the so-called "dealer's room" in which people can buy badges, props and clothing of an appropriate theme, which in the Javits era of I-Con was a terrifying thing to visit. You'd be shuffled at about a half a mile per hour past the various dealer tables by the force of everyone else packing shoulder-to-shoulder in the tiny room5.

You'd have to make two circuits too: one to select what you wanted to purchase and a second to transact the sale. Azathoth help the person trying to use a credit card. That would mean a third trip and the fervent hope the dealer hadn't given your card to someone else by mistake as you raced from the exit back to the entrance. Good times.

These days the dealer room is housed in a huge sports complex. Media guests also have a speaking stage in there. I have a picture of The Stevieling with George Takei6 taken in that place, and another of her with Billy Boyd7. In bygone years Mrs Stevie has run into Majel Barret8 and John De Lancie9 walking around that dealer room.

There are tables set up in that room for media guests to sign autographs. There's also a table in there somewhere (it never seems to make it to the key on the map) which is used by authors for signings. One of my fondest memories is of Ben Bova10 being dragged across the campus by the very young Stevieling. He had given a reading, then announced he was signing in the ISC11 but had no idea where it was. "I can show you" piped up The Stevieling and promptly did so with extreme prejudice.

Dr Bova is very generous when it comes to tolerating eager youth.

More and more, video games and Animé have taken the prominent role and the old-fashioned type-on-paper SF and Fantasy has been marginalized. I guess it's a sign of the times. Last year, Jack McDevitt12 had to cancel his guest appearance at short notice on account of the lousy weather (would that I had had as much sense) and such was the paucity of recognizable names 13 the con was effectively a waste of time for me that year.

Lest you are an I-Con attendee14 and think I am subscribing to the view that the con was doomed by having to temporarily relocate to Brentwood as the consensus seems to be amongst I-Conites, Brentwood had many advantages from my perspective over Stonybrook and I cut the organizers a lot of slack for having to work with an unfamiliar infrastructure. I've been there and done that. I was rather hoping for a second year at Brentwood in fact.

I was rather more scathing on certain other factors, chief of which is the ludicrously time-wasting method they choose every year to give people the tickets they bought and paid for months in advance, and which I hold to be extremely poor return for the faith shown by those advance purchasers in the con and their support with much-needed funding ahead of the event itself15

The I-Con staffers have stopped sneering "Well, if you can suggest a better method..." at me because I can. And I do.

Less than 9999 people attend I-Con in any given year. Allocate each ticket sold a five digit number. Mail out the tickets (which are also the badges you must wear to prove you belong in the con when challenged) with a missing component. The tickets are usually a piece of thin printed card with a small, square holographic label stuck in one corner. Have the labels held by the people at the desks, each of whom has a clipboard with the alphabetized list of names of people who have pre-bought tickets along with the matching allocated number assigned to their ticket, which could be hand-stamped on a generic pre-printed badge using the same sort of indexing stamp used when numbering banknotes during the quality control phase of production, or could be printed at the same time the ticket is. It could even be written on by hand, like the name usually is.

So to recap: you pay up front, months before the con. Sometime between then you receive through the mail you ticket bearing your name, your registration number but no little holographic sticker (the actual difficult-to-forge part of the credential). At pick-up time you get on line with about a thousand other people in freezing, wet weather, but the line moves really quickly because (and this is the clever bit) anyone can be checked in at any of the tables, since the people sitting behind each table are each capable of validating your badge against the lo-tek master list, unpeel a sticky hologram label from his or her own reel of same, and sick it on the ticket/badge, thus completing the check-in process.

It would also free up the four-to-six guys they need to marshal people into the small area they usually set aside for this "badging" to do real work.

With this scheme everyone is happy. I am because the line moves at a reasonable speed instead of clogging because there are, once again, against all reasonable expectation, fifty times as many people crowding into the L-S line and blocking anyone from getting to the empty A-E table. I-Con organizers are because fraud is guarded against effectively16. Even the people manning the tables are because no-one is snarling at them about terminal bleeping stupidity year after year and them not being able to get me laid in a cat house or drunk in a brewery.

Where was I?

Well this year I-Con returned to Stonybrook and not only did Jack McDevitt agree to try again at being an author guest, but Samuel R. Delany17 was to attend on the Saturday, participate in panels, do a signing session and read one of his stories!

Samuel R. Delany wasn't the first SF author I ever read, but he is the one that is first in the old brain when people ask me who was. I can clearly remember pulling a copy of The Einstein Intersection, a Gollancz publication in their characteristic bright yellow dust covers, from the shelf in the library of St John Backsides. Within about a half hour I was rubbing my eyes and saying to myself "You can do that with SF?"

The Friday badge pick-up was the usual cluster-bleep and took more than two hours. It was made particularly hellish this year by Mrs Stevie deciding that since she has a brand new shuttlecraft18 she should offer to ferry every one of the Stevieling's peers who wanted to go to Stonybrook, so I was riddled with cooties before I even got there. Then two of the young ladies had to buy tickets at the door, which took even longer to achieve than trying to liberate an already bought one. Then I got into a stand-up, knock-down argument with security on the entrance to the dealer's room, the only thing worth visiting by the time we had cleared immigration, that ended with me being ejected over a bottle of water

A goon attempted to grab my water bottle from my bag so he could toss it. I explained I would rather he didn't and it would have ended there with me returning to the vehicle and stashing the aqueous threat to Democracy but a uniformed campus cop, all of about 25 years old and full of himself in front of the giggling 18 year old girls filling the place by then, decided that I was arguing and didn't understand that the security staff had orders. I eventually got so tired of being lectured by this little sheep-pimp I told him to bleep himself and left. He fired a witty "enjoy your ride home" at me, so it became a matter of honor to bleep with him.

I had to give Raven his revolving jewelry display case of extreme inconvenience, Raven was in the dealer room, I would enter the room and drop off the case despite Officer Wannabe.

I simply dropped off the offending water and grabbed the case, which was packaged in a box that originally contained an air conditioner and was a lightweight luggage trolley, and talked my way in through the vendor-only entrance. I spent so much time chin-wagging with the people I knew from all the years I've been attending that I cooled off and jettisoned my plan to stroll out and greet the Idiot In Uniform as I walked out of the exit. I knew I had won.

Word to the wise to any goons-in-training: I get that I can't bring drink into a place where that same stuff is being sold, and will certainly comply with that policy. All you have to do is say "You can't bring that in" and we are jake. If you grab for anything without so much as a by-your-leave, we are on the outs - and I have an attack paralegal on permanent retainer. We now return to the scheduled program in progress.

Saturday dawned, and I grabbed two boxes, one filled with my entire collection of Samuel R Delany books (around 14 paperbacks) and the other with everything I had by McDevitt except the two books I bought the first time he had been at I-Con, about five years before (he and Ben Bova were the SF author draw that year)19, about 17 paperbacks (McDevitt was a lucky find for me and I'll buy anything he writes these days). I was in for a treat. But first we had to pick up the gaggle of young women that "we" had agreed to transport.

I once read a story in which the POV character spends the entire thing in a traffic jam with a heroin addict, who is going into noisy, painful withdrawal. It turns out at the end that the POV character is dead and in hell. After I-Con weekend I now envisage hell as being on the road in a Honda Odyssey with Mrs Stevie and five screaming teenaged girls blithering on about Azathoth-knows what. The level of noise would gradually climb to a crescendo, at which point Mrs Stevie would press the reset button by yelling "Keep it down!" and it would start all over again.

I was climbing the walls by the time we reached the Stonybrook campus, a thirty-five minute drive that Mrs Stevie can manage in about eighteen since she has no sense of smell and the stench of burning tire rubber doesn't bother her at all, and she fears nothing under the sun, including the Sheriff's Dept who now police the Long Island Expressway instead of the Suffolk County Police due to budget crunches. I digress.

As we were entering the car park, one of the young darlings in the back of the van cried out "I've forgotten my ticket! We have to go back!"

To understand the effect of this announcement you have to understand the parking realities of I-Con. We like to put our vehicle behind the sports complex so the walk to it during the con isn't an epic trek. Throughout the day the vehicle will get visited by me so I can drop off books & collect other stuff, and Mrs Stevie and The Stevieling (and, this year, the entire cast of "Hell on Wheels" - a Story of Teen Angst20") attend in costume21 and sometimes need to swap out attire as the day drags on. Parking space in this car park is at a premium and you have to be there 30 minutes before the con opens just to find a spot.

Mrs Stevie first ascertained that this wasn't amusing improvisational Théatre-de-Van, then the screaming started.

I maintained an amused distance, knowing a) that Mrs Stevie had brought this down on herself by volunteering to transport lackabrain teenaged girls, and 2) I wasn't driving so I wouldn't have to go home at all. I could grab my gear and I was good to go.

Not only that, Mrs Stevie had only herself to blame. At every stop to pick up a teenager, Mrs Stevie had gone through a lengthy "Have you got your ticket? Show me!" routine, but had been so eager to depart by the fifth one that she had forgone her ticket check. I remember thinking at the time it was a bit foolish and she really should check all the girls had their ticket, and that in her place that's what I would do. But I had no desire to get on her bad side by interfering so I kept mum and assumed she knew what she was doing.

What then ensued is best viewed from a distance of about three miles through heavily smoked glass from within a half-buried concrete bunker. Mrs Stevie had a full-blown conniption fit.

It would have been interesting to watch under other circumstances since I've only ever seen these from the viewpoint of the target and have often wondered in the short moments of lucidity that come between cranial impacts what they look like from the outside.

Unfortunately I was too busy screaming about the parked cars we were about to crash into and clawing at my seat belt in a futile attempt to escape the hurtling Pilotless Ballistic Van of Certain Death in which I had been unwittingly trapped to pay attention to anything else.

Fortunately the other occupants of the van managed to draw her attention back to controlling the vehicle, by means of a group pantomime involving madly waving hands, informational facial expressions and in one case improvisational urination. It was all very trying.

We parked the van and Mrs Stevie explained that we would not be returning home, suggesting an alternative plan in which the young woman bought a second ticket, the price of which would be refunded on presentation of both tickets at the ticket booth on Sunday morning. There was a deathly silence, followed by general agreement that this was a good plan, and then I ponied up a sawbuck so the kid wouldn't be broke all day as a result of her incompetence and off we went, Mrs Stevie to breakfast followed by Ren Fayre goings-on, me to change my pee-soaked underwear and then to the first author panel of the day and the kids to get a new ticket and then wherever their little hearts took them, clad as they were in incomprehensible Japanese character drag.

Indeed, a little later in the day The Stevieling begged us to allow her to spend a fortune on a rather daft wet-look overcoat that was supposed to be worn in some Japanese cartoon show. The coat featured an oversize zipper with teeth the size of my little finger's last joint, and since the zipper didn't open fully the coat had to be stepped in and out of like a shiny hula-hoop with sleeves. Ridiculous.

All the kids were wearing them too. I shrugged and said "It's your money" which made the daft-mac lady and The Stevieling very happy and Mrs Stevie very unhappy, but hampered by her Ren Fayre finery she couldn't move fast enough to reinforce her side of the argument so that was that. I escaped to the building where the afternoon panels were to be held, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first panel was on the subject of whether someone should start their SF/Fantasy writing career by writing short stories for magazine publication or go straight for the novel. The answers to this question see-sawed back and forth as the panelists, all published authors, some with decades of experience in selling their work, gave their take. Most seemed to feel that you should write what you intend to end up writing - if you are a budding novelist, write novels, if you prefer the short form, write in it. The surprise was Carol Emshwiller, an author of longstanding reputation, who felt that it didn't matter, and went on to illustrate how she had broken every one of the "rules" the others had sagely concurred were in effect during the creative process and marketing of the results afterwards.

After the panel was over, I used the time to ask Samuel R. Delany if my 14 books would be too many for him to sign at one go (some authors have policies on what and how many they sign) and he graciously said no, no problem at all, then asked his helper where he was due to be next and was told he was scheduled to do a reading. He looked alarmed and said that he hadn't been made aware of this and that he had nothing to read. I said that I had everything the con attendees would know of his work in the box I was carrying, and that I would be honored if he were to pick something from that and read for us.

And that's what happened.

Unfortunately, when he opened the volume he picked, I don't think he realized how old the paperback was and he broke the spine of my early 80s vintage "Driftglass"22. Now I look after my paperbacks, and most of mine do not have broken spines as a result. It would be fair to say that if you break the spine of one of my books, I'm not your friend any more until the heat-death of the universe. But somehow, although I heard the "Crack!" and knew immediately what had happened, I didn't mind at all. It was worth it to hear the Grand Master read Aye, and Gomorrah, my favourite Delany short story. Afterwards, during the signing session, he was gracious enough to add "I-Con 29" to each signature so in years to come they would act as reminders of the day.

Authors are often surprised that I ask them to add this, and wonder why I don't want t he date. My answer is that since I have no plans to sell the books (said books are usually from my collection and may be upwards of twenty five years old) that knowing where they were signed is more important and anyway, if anyone wants the date, all it takes is a bit of research.

That said, I used my time on the Delany signing line to buy the new reprint of The Jewel Hinged Jaw, Delany's critique of SF, possibly one of the most sought-after analytical books on the subject and long, long out of print23. It was a good day for Science Fiction.

I followed Delany and McDevitt around to their various panels (both are very interesting speakers) but missed the Delany-biopic "Polymath" because McDevit was signing at the same time and I was eager to get the autographs over and done with so I could return the books to the car. I bought a copy of McDevitt's Time Travelers Never Die while on line, so it turned out to be eighteen books I was handing to him. He was surprised to learn that I had acquired (and read) all the books since his last visit to I-Con, and we chatted about his upcoming fiction while he wrote a book's worth of signatures for me. I reckon I gave everyone writer's cramp that day.

Incidentally, I recommended the McDevitt book Polaris so often that Mrs Stevie demanded to be shown said book when we got home (as this was my first McDevitt book, bought at the other I-Con and signed then, it wasn't in the box) and has since devoured half a dozen McDevitt works and wants to read the others. You really should give Polaris a look.

Seeing as I was already in the dealer's room (the author signing table being in the back of it) I did some T-shirt shopping before returning to the Van of Death to drop everything off. I picked up a couple of T-shirts and a rather neat golf shirt with a really subtle Cthulhu logo on the pocket. S'my fave shirt now.

Saturday evening rolled around and the guests all made off to attend the traditional con banquet, which I'm told now features decent food in sufficient quantities for all. Past fiasco has made it a non-starter for Mrs Stevie and me though. We gathered the girls and departed for a diner, then returned them all home, getting back to Chateau Stevie around 9:30 pm or so, and falling into bed exhausted.

The next day was a much lighter program. I attended more panels, readings and whatnot, Mrs Stevie hobnobbed with Celtic bards, the kids went and got their refund on the ticket and then disappeared into the con for whatever they were going to do. For the first time in years I reached the end of the con before I was really aware it was all over. I swung by one of the filk singing events, but before I could get settled in it was over. I would have bought one of the singer's CDs, but the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the building. I spent the last half hour reading The Jewel Hinged Jaw in which Delany was developing the idea that form and content cannot be seperated, and then Mrs Stevie arrived in theater and I was told we were leaving.

It was much more fun than last year.

  1. State University of New York
  2. Author of Downbelow Station, Cyteen and the Foreigner series. Buy them. Read them.
  3. Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation
  4. Real Spaceman, not an actor
  5. Actually, there were two of them
  6. Mr Sulu
  7. Peregrine Took
  8. Mrs Gene Roddenberry aka Lwaxana Troi
  9. "Q" of Star Trek:The Next Generation
  10. "Hard" SF author of Mars, Venus and other books with slightly predictable names. Buy Mars and read it
  11. something-beginning-with-I Sports Center aka dealer room during I-Con
  12. Author of Polaris, an SF "locked-room" mystery that takes the Marie Celeste story and runs it into places it was meant to go. I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you haven't encountered McDevitt's work and plan to do so, start with this one. You won't be sorry
  13. A condition I readily cede is as much to do with my lamentable lack of familiarity with the newer authors as the I-Con executive's innability to stock the con with top-shelf talent
  14. A vanishingly small possibility
  15. This nonsense is worth a posting to itself, but I'll summarize: One buys a ticket in advance and gets a receipt. On the opening of the Con, typically late afternoon on the Friday, everyone is forced to stand for as much as three hours in March weather while once again the I-Con executive fail to get a clue. They arrange for people to sit behind desks with the tickets in a file box, alphabetized for ease of use. They break the alphabet into ranges of letters and allocate one file box to each range along with one of two people to verify you are who you say you are and give you your already-bought ticket. This wouldn't be so onerous and time-consuming if the idiots would realize just for once that the ticket-buyers do not spread across the alphabet evenly with respect to last names, but clump around certain letters. Like "S". As in Smith. You'd think that somewhere in the executive there'd be a halfway competent statistician, or someone who could remember last year's fiasco, but no.
  16. The real reason no-one gets their bought-and-paid-for badge when they pay for it: fear the purchaser will scan the badge and run off a few more With my scheme the secure credential that must be guarded with life and limb until the con starts is the box of stickers
  17. Author of such seminal SF works as The Einstein Intersection Babel-17, Dhalgren and a baker's dozen more titles available on request or by using you own Google nodes
  18. A Honda Odyssey seven-seater. Long story to come in another post if I remember
  19. Polaris and Hello Out There if you're interested
  20. As in: Angst brought on by teens
  21. Mrs Stevie in "Medieval Drag" and everyone else channeling some Japanese cartoon character or other
  22. A collection of Samuel R Delany's SF short stories
  23. I had been looking seriously at a copy printed in 1977 just weeks before

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Lappy Happy

So to celebrate the fact that this year, by dint of figuring out what our taxes should be and doubling the amount, I overcame the inability of my HR department to calculate my withholding correctly1 and we are due a sizable refund2.

We decided that we had enough with certain other funds put by to forgo the new desktop computer we had planned on buying and instead purchase three laptops, one for each of us.

This plan had many advantages.

First, The Stevieling has been silently jonesing for a laptop of her very own for years, but after one oblique inquiry a few Christmases ago, when the realities of the "vast" Stevie fortunes were revealed to her disbelieving ears, she abandoned hope. When she answered "nothing" to the inquiry as to what she would like for her birthday present, the perfect opportunity to surprise her occurred.

Second, Mrs Stevie, The Stevieling and I contend like heck for time on the desktop we have. Action was Called For on that front alone. The Stevieling had to be able to spend hours watching vapid Yootoob videos and Mrs Stevie's interminable web-forum dallying was of paramount importance. I was having trouble getting time on the thing just to get the taxes done, and my e-mail piles up unread in a big, electronic unread pile.

Third, every time I tried to start the computer after one of those bally women had been using it it would take forever to boot as it went crazy trying to clean up resources left by their web-consumption.

Fourth, one time in ten there would be a problem with something, and I was getting well-tired of asking "What did you do last night?" and getting back "Nothing". All I can say is that the Women of Chateau Stevie can take a bloody long time to do "nothing".

So I struck a deal with the devil and bought three Dell Inspiron laptops, each in a distinctive colour3, one for each person in The Steviemanse. The Stevieling was gobsmacked once she cottoned on to the fact that the blue laptop on the kitchen table was hers to have and use with no sharing at all. Naturally it's three days later and already there is a problem with one of the pre-loaded packages. Par for the course. It's entirely possible I broke it during the irritating set-up. Well you try registering McAffee from the applet. You'd think that if a company made a product they absolutely wanted registering over the web, the biggest thing on the unregistered version would be a screen-filling "Register Me Now" button. You'd be wrong. I gave up looking after almost an hour of poking the application. I probably tweaked a control that said "never allow this to launch again". It would match the design ethic of the rest of the application.

I've also spent hours just trying to connect to he wireless public networks all over NYC. I suspect the same software that won't tell you how to register it is forbidding the network DNS servers to supply me with a valid internet address. I did manage to access the sign-in page of Optimum WiFi, the semi-secured public WiFi my cable (and internet) company provides, but the servers were so sow responding my train had limped out of range before the sign-on was completed. One day my dream of uploading TOS entries on he iniquities being visited on me by the LIRR as they are happening will come to pass. One day.

Not only that, the perl thing I wrote to manage the stream-of-drivelness run-on sentences and let me convert them to less onerous footnotes will not run properly, and I've wasted huge volumes of time trying to make it do so. I eventually simply rewrote the script to turn the stupid bug into a feature, in the best traditions of IT workers everywhere.

So there you have it. The Stevieling's computer hasn't got the flash authoring environment installed on it, so she can't do what she most likes to do - make incomprehensible web videos. Mrs Stevie only uses hers as a web-access tool, so all those megawatts of RAM and SATAs of disk are wasted on her. And mine is only used to write stupid stuff for this blog - a job I formerly did on an antique and oft-malfunctioning Handspring Visor. All in all a waste of all the power the latest technology4 presents to me in the attractive red package currently sitting on my desk.

Which is why I feel obliged to play the latest and greatest 64-bit version of Minesweeper at all times.

  1. They got it so wrong one year I was dunned by the IRS for quarterly estimated payments, something usually reserved for rich-git Bankers, owners of corporations and others who play fast and loose with the tax system. I tried to get this fixed the proper way, but ran up against "we don't make mistakes. Ever." within the first three minutes and once you get there with this crowd you might as well give the bleep up. Another way to combat this brand of dimwittedness is to submit a W4 document that names a specific amount to be withheld over the year rather than use a calculation based on circumstances. My lot have replaced the "inefficient" paper W4 with a web version that - guess what - won't allow me to implement this simple anti-idiocy scheme
  2. It remains to be seen in these cash-strapped times whether we actually ever see the money we loaned the various government bodies interest-free of course, but hope springs eternal
  3. Mine's red. Red ones go faster
  4. Minus six months as I can't afford the money or the time to configure and overcome the teething troubles with the bleeding edge machines the kids are toting to college, which is to say what I bought is already obsolete by three months

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Another Great Start To The Week

So Monday started with a bang.

To begin with it was raining just hard enough to force me to wear my London Fog duster, which is nice for rain but awkward to get out of and back into on a moving train, and will pretty much guarantee that the day will turn out to be scorching hot, forcing me to either carry over one arm (requiring a third arm be grown before 5 pm but we don't sweat the small stuff) or to wear it and risk death by heat stroke.

Then, the rain increased in volume just before I left my car in Wyandanch LIRR car park and stayed at drench factor 11 until just after I took shelter in the station, when it reduced to drizzle. This was just long enough to flood the sidewalks and completely soak my coat so the weight of the thing climbed north of a hundredweight and the lining became damp.

I was just congratulating myself in having picked the one pair of shoes I possess that don't leak when some jerk deliberately drove through the flooded water in the curbside gutter and soakeed me from knee to the soles of my feet. Of course, this was the one time when the usual collection of broken bottles, barbed wire and razor-sharp metal fragments had been washed away so I didn't have the pleasure of seeing the bleep-hole shred his steel-belted radials. bleeper.

I hate this commute.