Friday, December 27, 2013

Catching Up

Deck The Halls With Boughs of Meh

It's Boxing Day, and I have posted not of late, so:

The weekend began with the traditional erection of the Self-Illuminated Bush of Festive Merriment and the subsequent discovery of more than half the tree to be what is technically called "dark". A wail rent the air, but it was cut short when Mrs Stevie rammed a cushion over my face before demanding that I "do something about this tree". A plan formed immediately in Mr Brain that involved a dumpster (UK - skip) a can of gasoline (UK - petrol) and a box of Swan Vestas (US - strike anywhere matches) but Mrs Stevie clarified that what she meant was that I should correct the illumination issue and not "get creative".

Well, last year I bought a string of two hundred bulbs for just this tedious fbleeping job. Flashing back to that episode I inquired testily whether or not Mrs Stevie was absolutely sure she had located all the plugs involved in the intra-tree power distribution network, and was assured that there was less than no chance that a repeat of The Not Plugged In Fiasco of Extreme Annoyance was under way, so I swapped out maybe three dozen bulbs with some I had pre-sorted and removed the bases from1 then went to look for the string of bulbs.

I couldn't find it.

Mrs Stevie went out and bought some fairy lights from the local drugstore, and was very proud of the half price offer until it transpired that the bulbs from this set were so fragile that they blew immediately upon being plugged into a "good" string on the tree for a test. So I went out and bought some heavy-duty lights and started swapping in bulbs, checking each pulled bulb in a good string so I didn't replace good bulbs and waste resources.

I've mentioned before that this tree has the only lights that fail in the way they are designed to do, with one bulb usually not taking out the whole string but shorting itself out. This is good because the rest of the lights stay on, but bad because they are now slightly overpowered and will suffer shortened lifetime as a result. What usually happens is that a rapid cascade failure now occurs in which bulb after bulb blows and shorts itself so the rest can have a go.

I replaced three dozen or so bulbs in that lower string I mentioned, but in this one higher up the bulbs seemed good, meaning that one bulb had blown and failed to short out. I tested bulb after bulb, making my way around the tree, sobbing to keep my spirits up, when I encountered the two plugs that were not plugged into the adapter hanging next to them. I plugged them in and was rewarded with singed retinas as the tree lights burst into life.

I may have mentioned out loud some doubt in my mind as to Mrs Stevie's powers of observation and ratiocination but the ensuing frank exchange of views did no one any credit to be honest.

I went down to the basement for a sulk and immediately found the missing string of lights. I decided to shout at them for a bit, wait for the women to disperse, have some tea and retire to bed to avoid any more Christmas prep.

Monday began the least Christmassy week before Christmas I've ever personally lived through3 with a light snowfall. The news channels were bleating about three inches accumulation of snow. My estimate was closer to one flake. Nevertheless the Bloody Long Island Rail Road decided it was enough and enacted Operation Fbleep-up, resulting in me getting to work sometime around noon. Then it was a round of being volunteered to fix some code that was "not working right" and muck around trying to get a balky perl4 installation working and it was eight in the evening, resulting in me getting home around midnight.


Tuesday dawned and we were all looking forward to the informal Xmas lunchtime drink organized by Mr Partytime, a former colleague and right old raver known to run the best parties in the known universe from personal experience. Except the lunchtime enbeveragation attempt failed miserably when the organizer of said event simply didn't bother to come to work. Everyone promptly said "If he can't be bothered, neither can I" and that was that. Like I said, the least Christmassy Christmas was being built here, on a foundation well-laid.

Wednesday began and the Bloody Long Island Rail Road decided to celebrate the Three Wise Men getting stuck in traffic on the Jerusalem by-pass5 by breaking a few rails. Now I wouldn't mind6 but We the Ridership just bought a brand new clever track machine for them that is supposed to detect rails in danger of breaking before it happens so they can do something pro-active to avoid delays. The Bloody Long Island Rail Road is the only organization I know of that can throw such huge amounts of money at a problem and miss. Every fbleeping time.

It's good here innit?

Thursday, and I took a half day so I could Make Merry at yet another unofficial Xmas Cheer Event7 and it turned out to be four Englishmen, one Chinese guy and an American sitting at a bar with one straggly set of Xmas lights (the owner "couldn't find anywhere that sold lights8").

Then there was the music. Nothing says "Christmas" like Bob Dylan trying to see how long he can play the same note on a harmonica without passing out.

One Englishman and the Chinese guy were drinking cola, and they and two of the English guys that were drinking beer went back to work after two pints. Pathetic, really. I decided to just go home at this point rather than keep up the pretense.

Friday was, to be honest, just a long drag of meh as I tackled the Web Page Occasional Generation Or Not issue.

It was a doozy too. The code had been written by a clever consultant engaged in Job Protection coding, using a language in which it is possible to write so-called "obfuscated" code, code which looks like it does one thing while sneakily doing a quite different thing. There are contests to come up with the best tricks, but no-one but the consultant would ever deploy such stuff into the enterprise.

Fortunately, I haven't the usual evangelical stance held by my colleagues when it comes to Unix editors9, and I use a graphical editor with language-triggered color styles. What this means is that when Mr Consultant pulls a clever linguistic fast-one, I can see it coming a mile away and see it for what it really is. So I often get volunteered fixing The Code That Should Not Be.

I was assured that the scripts were running properly, they just needed some adjustment for "something weird" that a better man than I had spent weeks trying to find without success.

The job involved some data capture, the mailing of the report to a central server, the triggering of another script as a result of this and the building of web-page versions of the report as a result. It is, in fact, a fairly straightforward and not at all arcane thing involving well-understood components. But it seemed that some but not all of the web pages weren't being built. Being me I looked for easy and quick fixes but none of them worked by close of business10.

Then the weekend happened. The less said of it the better. The tedium was broken by Mrs Stevie demanding the installation of an inflatable Xmas sculpture sent to use some years before by my Sister and Brother-in-Law - the Canadian Kung-Fu gang - in revenge for something we had perpetrated on them the Christmas before. This is basically a bag of nylon cleverly stitched to make it take seasonal shape with lights inside and a fan unit in the base to keep it puffed-up. Ours had suffered a broken stand leg in transit, which I was always getting around to repairing.

I repaired the broken stand leg on the fan unit by gluing it. I didn't think the glue would result in a lasting bond but had a brainwave. I had some quick-set casting resin in the basement. I would mix a cupful and pour it into a cavity in the leg, thereby conferring great strength. Sadly, the resin hardener had "gone off", a condition I was first alerted to when I realized that the goo in the leg was not as hard as plastic but more resembled warm toffee. Thus another fiasco was enacted. I applied duct tape to keep the goo from getting everywhere and soldiered on by testing the fan unit, plugging it into the wall.

What I expected was the slow formation of a six foot snowman. What I got was the rapid inflation of an eight foot tall Xmas tree sculpture, some four feet across the lower "branches", flanked by two four foot snowmen. Mrs Stevie was alerted by my screams as I was rammed back over the sofa and crushed under this perfidious green balloon of death. As usual she quickly assessed the situation and offered carefully considered advice.

"Stop bleeping around with that thing and get it onto the lawn" she snarled, playfully.

I managed to hook a foot under the cable and yanked out the plug, at which point the whole thing turned into a bag and draped itself artistically over the living room and me, triggering nightmare parachuting flashbacks. I was so overcome with emotion at this turn of events that I refused to have any more to do with the wretched thing and Mrs Stevie was forced to deploy it herself, muttering about "useless lumps" and pondering "how hard could it be anyway?"

Which of course are the Magic Anti-Handiman Demon Summoning Words, aka The Words That Must Never Be Even So Much As Uttered At Any Cost.

The evil spirits struck early. She lost one of the tie-down stakes in the lawn somewhere after putting it down on the ground so she could be distracted. Hopefully this will give her some insight into the nature of life, "small" jobs and the shoals of anti-handiman demons that infest any seemingly simple piece of apparatus, and not complain any more of half hour jobs turning into all day sagas or barbecues assembled with missing bolts or handles.

However, I guyed the wretched thing using three stakes so we could get on with our lives and turned it on to test it again in situ. It inflated into full magnificence, but a problem revealed itself: The snowmen were stitched to the tree to constrain their pose, and the one on the right11 had torn free. I patched the small hole the damage had caused but could not get involved in finding nylon cord and restitching the thing, so we were stuck with a tree flanked by two snowmen, one standing proudly and waving to passers-by, one slumped drunkenly on one side. I offered to find my old inflatable Lowenbrau bottle so we could make it look like a Scotsman making merry in Sauchiehall Street but Mrs Stevie got The Look in her eyes and went thin-lipped so I left her to it.

When I finally reached work on Monday after another needlessly dragged-out commute I went digging in the file system of the web server and discovered the web pages that were "working" hadn't been updated for three months. Now everyone and his dog was telling me this process was working, and Mr Consultant was really very clever when you peeled off all the annoyance, so I entertained the notion he might be doing something unobvious that would put a false-seeming date stamp on the files holding the web pages.

I entertained it for about three hours until common sense re-asserted itself and I went for another look at the logs from the various bits and pieces and discovered a rather boring and straightforward problem that the unhelpful error in the log was obscuring12. It turned out that someone clever had decided to move the software library to a different file and the scripts were pointing at the wrong place. Once that was fixed all the "weird problems" went away. Not only that, the process was now actually working rather than relying on word-of-mouth that it was.

I took Christmas Eve off and used the time to clean what I could reach of the house. More meh, and I pushed the Dyson vacuum cleaner to the very limits of its design by attempting to use the wand attachment.

If you've watched that smug git Dyson on the TV you've no doubt marveled at his cleverness and bought into his "I just think things should work" mantra. We did, which is why we bought the Dyson DC25 cleaner (the original "ball" model). What Mr Dyson has done is rather clever - he's adapted a well-known technology from the grain industry and mated it with modern brushless electric motors to give the world a bagless vacuum cleaner. If only he hadn't made it out of plastic.

What no-one talks about is that emptying that canister in a house with real dirt in it means you get filthy as you struggle to dislodge the clot of hair wound around the central core of the mechanism that blocks particulate the dirt from emptying out. The canister on ours, once a space-age thing of transparent beauty, has been scoured into filthy grey translucence by high speed dirt particles zooming round and round, sandblasting the inside of the cannister. The process took about a month at most.

When I washed out the HEPA filters after three months as directed by the manual, the one in the ball wouldn't reseat properly and whistles every time I use the vac. The high speed carpet beater, without which the cleaner will not clean, "no loss of suction" notwithstanding, gets clogged in an eyeblink with long hair shed by any of the women in the house, requiring the mechanism be field stripped every time it is used. Even then, the high spin speed means that the drum of the beater "blade" has slots melted into it as the hairs act as tiny bandsaws. I once got some nylon cord caught in it. If I hadn't seen it happen and immediately scrammed the motor it would have sawn the beater in two. As it is it has a nice slot milled into it at one end.

But best of all is the hose and wand attachment. The hose is sprung to collapse into itself, yielding a three-foot hose that will "expand to fifteen feet" on our model. Well, you can certainly pull it that far if you have muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the effort is such that cleaning will probably not be happening. Not only that, you'll have to anchor the cleaner itself as it weighs about four pounds and the pull on the hose when extended more than about two feet easily exceeds this.

But even better is that when the hose is blocked enough for a vacuum to form in the hose - as it will when you clean drapes or furniture or suck up anything too wide for the crevice tool's throat - the contractive force in the hose becomes like unto the gravitational pull of the Sun and the cleaner will shrug off the anvils and concrete blocks you have used to hold it down and come running over to see what's going on.

Nor will you have any limbs free to use in self defense or leaping out of the path of the charging appliance as you will have dug both feet into some handy leverage point and be using both hands in a sort of power-lifter's stance in order to fight the spring-in-the-hose's pull. It is all very tiresome and had me shouting "I too think things should just work Mr Dyson, but when I say it I mean it!" as I scrambled to avoid the high-speed onrush of the dastardly machine.

When you factor in that the hose is attached to the locking collar for all the attachments by two thin plastic tabs rather than a steel insert as is actually required for the strain involved it is just a matter of time before the whole thing snaps off. The time involved is, by experiment, two years and one week. I repaired ours with a metal tab and some duct tape rather than spend 50 dollars on a new hose (with the same stupid design problem). Hoover's "stolen13" design14 has a much more sensible but much less clever-looking coiled hose that makes no attempt to collapse itself, because Hoover actually have people who use their products whereas Dyson simply has a lunatic hipster fan base.


In the evening we all rendezvoused at the in-law's place for a family reunion with the New England chapter of the gang and a ritual gift giving that was actually a very pleasant evening and a final letting up of the anti-Xmas gloom that had descended like some sort of psychic smog on the land. The nieces and the Stevieling were having a ball talking about stuff no-one else could understand in a language all their own. I've never felt so old.

There was a bright spot when Mrs Stevie gifted one niece with some comic books graphic novels she had been jonesing for but had said were unobtainable collector's items. The look on the young woman's face was priceless, and Mrs Stevie scored a much-needed win in the kudos column from the Young and Restless lobby.

Some years ago the niece's mother (Bil the Younger's wife) had scored such a hit on me twice in a row by providing an Xmas gifting of the Peter Gabriel "Us" album, which remains a favorite to this day, then, the next year, finding an almost-impossible-to-score copy of the old Peter Gabriel CD-ROM package that included a tour of the studio while they were making "Us". I mentioned to her that I still had the album front and center in my iPod and that the Stevieling and I spent meny happy hours exploring the CD-ROM. Indeed, the memories of having my toddler sitting on my knee demanding (and getting) various videos from the CD-ROM so she could sing along are some of the sweetest I have. Mrs Bil the Younger was visibly pleased that presents she'd given me were such a hit at the time, and was quite surprised to find I was still playing with them instead of doing useful stuff.

Xmas day is all ours. We typically film ourselves opening our prezzies, though I've never actually mixed down the results into a movie for anyone to actually see. This year I had neglected to obtain tape for the camera and although the area drugstores were open they only had VHS-C or the newer subcompact tapes available. I, of course, needed the Sony format 8mm tapes. This sort of thing is what I should have been doing on Xmas eve but I'd been too busy with chores and could have sworn I had a couple of blank tapes in the bag anyway. Pfft.

I gave up looking after my third Drugstore and went home and instructed the family to use the Stevieling's digital camera. Then I couldn't find the tripod. It lives in one place. It has always lived there. It has never lived elsewhere. This day, it was gone and everyone plus dog was denying complicitness. A detailed search didn't turn it up15 so that was that. Double pfft.

I normally wear my Mitsukiku kimono for the gift dispersal and unwrappage ceremony but today I was already dressed for the world and couldn't be bothered. This was a minor disappointment for the ladies of Chateau Stevie because they had decided to get in on the act this year, Mrs Stevie wearing the lilac kimono I haven't seen in years and the Stevieling wearing the floral one I bought her at Epcot last summer.

The haul was a good one, I think. Mrs Stevie got her Doll House tree ornament (I've bought her one every year we've been married under pain of a punch up the throat) and tickets for two Broadway Shakespeare productions in which she'll be sitting on stage as part of the show itself. I also got her the second season of Game of Thrones on DVD, but the Stevieling got her the same thing in a better package so that was a flub.

The Stevieling got mostly stuff to help her in her college life and also cash for a holiday she's taking in Florida in a few days when she goes to stay with The Boyfriend. Her mother is not all together happy with this plan, but I pointed out that the Stevieling is a woman grown and does not need our permission any more. I'm not happy either, but I'm a pragmatist, and maybe this is the long-awaited sign of maturity I've been keeping a weather eye out for. The kid bought her ticket and laid her plans months before she told us anyway, so her sneakiness gland seems to be fully developed. So long as she is safe and happy that is all I care about. The Boyfriend, for all his faults, worships the ground she walks on.

I landed a Shakespearean retelling of Star Wars from the Kung-Fu Canadians, which is a brilliant gift, solidly in the gold, and some DVDs of various movies I've professed a liking for, a really annoying magnetic flashing safety light c/w window hammer and seat belt cutter, and bestest of all, the Stevieling gave me this years Hess Truck and Mrs Stevie gave me a rotary zip saw.

The zip saw is sort of like an angle grinder retasked for mounting small (about three inches or so) cutting blades, with a guard so you can't easily saw off your fingers while using it16. I've seen one advertised on TV and it was claimed it would cut backer board. The regular reader will know I once wrote off many beloved tools attempting to cut backer board, so if this works as advertised it will fill a need. Of course, Mrs Stevie is actually hinting that I should get on with doing the wall in New Bog which I had to pull out after the builder had put it in because it wasn't right and I don't want to talk about it any more.

This year's Hess Truck is bloody marvelous. It is a proper truck for starters rather than a helicopter or space shuttle or fire engine, with lights and sound effects. It comes with a caterpillar-tracked backhoe that also has lights and motive power! The little tractor zooms around climbing obstacles or just pushing them out of the way. Easily the best truck/load pair since the truck with the front-dump quad in the back17. I must get them both out together so I can evaluate which is best and if they look good together and other stuff which is not playing with toy trucks but serious adult evaluation and study.

Santa gave us a couple of games too; one from the Cranium guys which will be good at parties should we ever hold another one, and King of Tokyo which is an easy and enjoyable knock-out game using giant monsters who vie with each other to become King of Tokyo (which then presumably gets stomped flat) using a simple Yahtzee-like dicing mechanic. It's a fun way to kill 15 minutes or so.

So, not a bad end to the Christmas that Never Was, Nearly.

  1. To replace a bulb on the tree one must remove the bad one by flipping up the locking tab and pulling out the bulb, typically shearing the tab off in the process. The bulb must be tested using a known good string (so you must in fact remove two bulbs, which introduces the possibility of misplacing that one) and if it is bad, replaced with a good one. The bad bulb is pulled from the plastic base,2 and discarded. The process is repeated with the string of "spare" bulbs. The wires of the good bulb are straightened and fed into the base from step one, and folded over once the bulb is seated so they run up the sides of the base. This is when you discover you cannot remember where the empty socket is on the tree. It is all very tiresome, especially if you end up somehow replacing the bad bulb with itself, and have to go through the whole process again
  2. which for some reason has been manufactured to some tree-light standard so that no bulb will ever just fit a socket from a different set even if they look like they should when examined with a powerful magnifying glass
  3. Things weren't helped by the fact that although Christmas Day is a Wednesday, I took only the Tuesday off. In my youth in the UK a mid-week Christmas was the excuse for a week off and heavy merry-making with pals. Nowadays I have no pals and can't take strong drink without lying down in great stupor so what was the point?
  4. A scripting language that is standard SOP in the Unix world unless the System Administrator who "owns" the box hasn't bloody installed it yet
  5. Jack-knifed camel train caused tail backs and delays
  6. A lie. I'd mind quite a bit
  7. The official Xmas Cheer Event had somehow contrived to not happen at all, which shows that I was not the only one not feeling the Christmas spirit this year
  8. Another one not feeling Xmas Atmos
  9. Which can be summed-up as "If you don't know EMACS you are a clod, and there is no need to use any editor other than vi anyway"
  10. So not really that quick then, as it turned out
  11. As you view it
  12. Microsoft have a reputation for unhelpful error messages but the ones that come out of the Unix shell are much more horrible at times. It's just that Unix people stick together and stick to the party line almost as rigidly in the face of adversity as Apple people do
  13. Per Dyson
  14. Pot, meet kettle
  15. Though it did turn up my old three-years-lost digital multimeter
  16. Though sawing a leg while holding it is a distinct possibility
  17. Though the price is soaring to compensate. Hess Trucks used to come in at around 16 bux. This one cost almost twice that

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