26 October 2008

The anatomy of a windproof lighter, or when your Zippo doesn't light

Note: For those of you who are wondering, I'm trying to write linkbait. The existing body of Zippo HOWTO is teh suck. Note further that this article applies to all Zippo-type windproof lighters.

In a year and a half of owning a Zippo lighter, I've experienced challenges at getting the damn thing to behave… sometimes the Zippo won’t light, no matter how many times I strike it.

Symptoms and problems

The striker rolls with difficulty, or not at all

This problem is caused by a used up flint which needs to be replaced.

At the risk of stating the obvious, you replace the flint by removing the screw in the bottom of the lighter, shaking out the remnants of the old flint, putting in a new one, and replacing the screw.

If the flint stops working unexpectedly, you can usually get a few more uses out of it by rolling the striker to the inboard side of the lighter by a quarter turn, then using it normally.

The lighter throws sparks, but doesn’t light

When this problem occurs, it might be caused by:

  • Fuel depletion;
  • Fuel starvation; or
  • Wick burnout.
Refuelling the lighter

Lift the pad at the bottom of the lighter and deposit fuel on the batting underneath. Two or three passes from the spigot across the batting is usually enough.

If the lighter hasn't been used for a while, you’ll probably want to leave the lighter upright and open for a minute or two, to give the fuel vapor enough time to work its way up through the batting and wick. It’s also quite likely that a disused lighter placed back into service will need to be refuelled several times at close intervals, early on.

If due to habit, impatience, or inexperience you’re inclined to overfuel the lighter, hold the lighter perfectly upside down by its edge between the tips of two fingers with no obstructions between the chimney and the surface underneath — preferably a sink — and hold the lighter motionless until it no longer drips fuel through the chimney. Failure to exercise care as described will result in fuel spreading onto your clothes or hands, which is something to avoid.

Finally, take care to remember that fuel starvation cannot be fixed by adding more fuel to the lighter.

Resolving fuel starvation

Fuel starvation occurs when there is fuel in the lighter, but fuel vapor doesn’t find its way to the chimney. A Zippo user will see this kind of behavior under two circumstances:

  • The batting inside the lighter is too loose; or
  • The wick needs repair or replacement.

The first of these causes is easy to repair: remove the screw and pad, and using a suitably long, skinny, blunt object repeatedly apply pressure to the batting on both sides of the conduit that holds the screw until the batting ceases to give. By the time you’re done, you should have roughly ¼ inch (6–7 millimeter) clearance between the limit of the batting and the bottom of the lighter.

Wick repair and replacement

If your lighter doesn’t work and the portion of the wick in the chimney appears to be charred, you’ll need to cut off the used portion of the wick and pull up a fresh length.

Dealing with the wick of a Zippo lighter is a delicate process. To adjust or replace one, you need initially to:

  1. Remove the screw and pad.
  2. Carefully remove the batting.

The official word from Zippo is that the user should take care to arrange the removed pieces of batting in such a way that it will be possible to put them back into the lighter by the same order in which they were originally arranged, though experience teaches me that doing so is a feat of memory that’s beyond the abilities of most folks.

Once the batting is out of the lighter:

  1. Use a pair of tweezers or wire cutters to pull out the charred length of wick.
  2. Cut that length off with the tools at hand.
  3. Tug the wick back down from the bottom of the lighter so that it ends slightly below the top of the chimney.
  4. Replace the batting, making an effort to wind the wick through its separate pieces.
  5. Tamp down the batting as described above.
  6. Replace the pad and screw.

The wick itself is 2½ inches (63.5 millimeters) long off the shelf and the chimney is only about one-fifth of that height, so even the heaviest of smokers should be able to go at least a year before they need to consider wick replacement.


A good pocket-size multitool with wire cutters is probably the best thing to use when servicing a windproof lighter, though if you don’t have one of those you can get by with the following:

  • pair of tweezers
  • cheap paring knife
  • flathead (or multi-bit) screwdriver

The tweezers are the best tool for both removing the batting and threading the wick through the chimney of the lighter, and the knife — or better yet, a pair of wire cutters — is to cut the end of the wick.

The parts of the lighter
  • Exterior case
  • Latch
  • Chimney
  • Striker
  • Flint
  • Screw & spring
  • Screw conduit
  • Wick
  • Batting
  • Pad

The latch rests behind the chimney and keeps the lid closed.

The chimney is what makes the lighter windproof, and is integral to the structure of the lighter itself.

The striker is the reeded wheel that causes the flint to throw sparks.

The screw and spring push the flint all the way up to the striker, when properly installed.

The screw conduit holds the screw and spring, and is threaded at the bottom for the screw. It’s notable for the fact that two pieces of batting fit between it and the outside of the lighter.

The wick is made from copper alloy wires interwoven with cloth thread — thus the need for wire cutters — and is meant to be saturated with fuel vapor.

The batting is made from a heavier grade of fiber than normal cotton balls; it serves as a fuel storage medium that attenuates evaporation.

The pad is made of cloth fiber that takes up fuel poorly in comparison to the batting, holds the batting in place, and consequently prevents fresh fuel from leaking through to the bottom of the exterior case.

24 May 2008

Copyrights and treaties and jails and oh, my

I just bumped into a warning about efforts toward a new copyright convention. After considering the source and its concomitant shrillness, there’s one conclusion that can be drawn from the whole prospect:

Corporate rights holders want to protect their business models at any cost.

That's not a new conclusion, I know.

Meanwhile, I sit here as someone who’s been writing here and there about this and that, practically all of it online, for nearly thirteen years. Maybe I flatter myself, but I reckon I have some insight on the issue: there’s nothing to stop anyone from making tons of money off of ideas that are mine, and I’m okay with that.

The realities of a level playing field

What gets to me is that these big rights holders are still living in the world of fifteen-plus years ago, when works of artistic merit with high production values could be considered scarce.

They’re not anymore.

Understandably, these same rights holders want to lock down the past century’s worth of good stuff and stripmine it for every last red cent of revenue, while the market that would like access to those works is pushing back.

The best and easiest resolution to this conflict is to go ahead and let the market decide the best course of action, period, end of sentence — in effect, to hasten the inevitable.

Living in the attention economy

There are only 24 hours in a day, and of those a normal First World resident might have six or eight of them to spend at their own discretion. They need to decide how those hours are to be spent: with people in a gathering place? At home? Chatting online? On the phone? Passively enjoying a lease on intellectual property?

My focus here is on the last of those options: one way or another, the market is going to decide the price point greater than the expenditure of time at which people will be willing to exercise it.

For the notional consumer, the bottom line is one of opportunity cost: what is the best use of one’s time, and is that best use deserving of the expenditure of money?

Without respect to monetary cost, the best use of free time varies from one person to the next, but I suspect it can be said to center on one of the following activities:

  • Passive entertainment to the end of relaxation
  • Making things
  • Socializing with family or friends
  • Resting

The upshot for creative rights holders is that they need to focus on the market of people who engage in passive behaviors to relax, and draw sufficient attention to what they have to offer in the fragmented marketing environment of the present day. Finally, they need to prove that the access they’re selling to their offerings is sufficiently more valuable than access to others’ offerings that can be had at lower monetary cost.

The big disconnect: production cost vs. market value

The current solution to this disconnect can be summarized in two words: reality television.

Cheaply produced content that’s attractive to a comparatively large audience is a cash cow.

As much to the point, expensively-produced content needs to guarantee large audiences.

The necessities of intrinsic value, effective marketing, and ease of access

Any work with pretensions to being an ongoing revenue source must be well-written and well-performed; bring your A Game, or stay home.

Furthermore, such a work must be marketed effectively, both with paid placement and through word of mouth. Paid placement is a larger component of this system than the freetards¹ will ever admit, because it plays right into efforts to encourage ease of access.

Ease of access: should I stay or should I go?

Simply put: what's the path of least resistance to obtaining works? The less the time and effort required to gain access to a work, the more willing a prospective leaseholder will be to pay for it, all other factors being equal. This is why iTunes is such a smashing success: they have a huge catalog at tolerable price points, sitting at the far end of a regular gusher of bandwidth; it’s a million impulse purchases waiting to be made. The only better alternative is entire albums with hundreds of known BitTorrent seeds — an alternative that doesn’t exist far beyond the origin of a Zipf distribution.

If, however, your album’s not on iTunes nor in a nearby retail joint, then BitTorrent’s the only network on which you stand a chance of finding it at a reasonable opportunity cost… unless you have the patience to order it from an online retailer and wait for its arrival.

The inevitability of this dynamic decreases not a jot in other media or points of purchase, either.

Summary: one way or another, prospective leaseholders of intellectual property will get what they want, when they want it. The goal for the owners of that property should be to make it available as quickly as possible, with few or no impediments to use. The ones who do will retain the privilege of charging fees; the others will be shit outta luck. The better the work and easier the access, the higher the cost that the market will bear. The more popular the work, the more profit will be made.

Back to the problem: why restrictive legislation is wrong

We are left with rights holders who cling to the fiction that their property is scarce, artificially or otherwise; their collective delusion results in the demand that governments sponsor and enforce the fiction, notwithstanding the demands of common sense.

The medium term consequence of such sponsorship will be to leave the great creative works of the 20th and early 21st centuries in a permanent limbo, a Dead Sea in our oceans of cultural heritage, which will start to form the day upstarts figure out how to best use the tools at their disposal.

How to set things right

  1. Make stuff that’s truly greater than the sum of its parts.

    To do this, you must have good writing, good performances, and production values exactly at the lowest point needed to maintain the performers’ hold on their audience.²

  2. Get the word out to as many people as possible, as often as possible.

    People can’t see things that don’t cross their path, and won’t stop to obtain them unless the effort of doing so is worthwhile.

  3. Once you’ve got their attention, make it pathetically easy to obtain your stuff.

    If you can't show a member of your audience where something is and set up a system that will allow them to start downloading it within sixty seconds of hitting a landing, that person will find something else that does offer those benefits.

  4. Make that stuff usable on the user’s terms.

    In other words…

    • Copy protection is bunk.
    • Rights- and scope-managed formats are bunk.
    • Excessive advertising, watermarking, and nagging are bunk.
    • Crap-bundling is bunk.
    • Crap quality indices are bunk.

On those days when I have the money, I would gladly spend money on music, films, television, or literature if I felt tremendous confidence that it was good, and could have my hands on it in toto inside of five minutes. Wouldn’t you?


¹ While urbandictionary.com hews to the identification of this term with Open Source Software diehards, I refer to the broader class of people who cling to the prospect of inalienable and total freedom of information just as tightly as conglomos cling to the erstwhile artificial scarcity of their intellectual property.

² I propose to you that had not Titanic’s story not been so @#$&ing insipid, its production budget could’ve been slashed in half with little impact on its sales.

10 April 2008

Metered residential bandwidth: wave of the future

Over at Gizmodo, they’ve got something to say about what they think might be a new trend in Internet service pricing.

Meanwhile, I’ve been paying for metered-over-cap bandwidth for quite a while — almost two years for which I can speak from personal experience. My ISP has had metering infrastructure in place far longer than that.

When I asked one of their engineers what the deal was, he pointed out a highly relevant fact: bandwidth usage tends to follow a Pareto curve. In layman’s terms, that means that everyday users wind up subsidizing the leeches — that’s no good.

However, I see something else at work, too: I get the itchy feeling that the ISP’s planning to meter their customers’ bandwidth usage offer video on a different service tier.

Could it be that cable companies are anxious to discourage their customers from partaking of the smorgasbord of video options available from the public Internet? How could it be?!


08 April 2008

The best kind of insanity: thoughts on KU's national championship

I was watching, like nearly everyone else in town.

The last time I was near this electricity was in 1990. Even though there was no way to watch the game being played at the time, I couldn’t’ve asked for a better place to be than aboard an airplane when Portland got a road victory in that year’s NBA Finals; all aboard were all fans that night.

…Of course, history remembers what happened in that series, and in the series two years later.

I’ve watched MU and KU flame out under pressure too many times. Butler?! Bucknell?! UNI?! Tyus Edney?! Meh.

…But last night was different.

I confessed my Mizzou origins to one of my hosts, but later pointed out — with the national title in the hands of a Big 12 team, a rising tide lifts all boats, including Missouri’s. You bet I was cheering for KU.

I can happily remember what it was like to witness the thrill that came from these last two wins. It’s the antidote for a lot, from September 11th on down.

07 March 2008

On the subject of hoarding

I just scanned through POSSESSED, a short film comprised of interviews (et cetera) with four hoarders conducted on film.

It was difficult just to watch even a few minutes of it, not because it made me heartsick, but because I couldn’t drive the thought, “been there, done that” out of my consciousness. I came home to comparable sights for the final five years of my mother’s life.

The feeling of emotional fatigue was exacerbated by the fact that my best friend in town is developing the same form of mental illness. In this latter case, a brief reminder that he ought to clean out his car is met with defensiveness at best, words of one syllable at worst. And when I asked him why he lets things get to that point, he said, “it just makes me more comfortable to keep that stuff around.”

The ultimate hell is that there is no truly effective treatment for OCD (the underlying illness) — only coping strategies. Argh.

For those who might wonder: what about me?

We-ell… I'm not quite appositely obsessive-compulsive (i.e., to the point of throwing things out gratuitously, as is one commenter on the Metafilter thread where I found the film) but if I can't eat it, drink it, or smoke it, chances are that I will agonize over whether or not I should buy it.

Though I'm ashamed to admit it, I will throw recyclables away rather than let them pile up, if I can’t get my sorry, non-vehicular ass to the recycling station. Even when it comes to blessedly compact data, I only claim a spindle of eighty DVD’s and half a terabyte of disk space, itself only (roughly) half-full. The thought that I will eventually need a bigger apartment for the sake of my stuff is, to put it bluntly, appalling.

Make of all that what you will.

Two worldviews for the price of one?

It seems that the likelihood of habitable extraterrestrial planets just took a big leap.

But before you Sci-Fi Nerds Throw a Party…

To get there on any terms, we would need a spacecraft physically capable of surviving intact through the entire acceleration regimen of the trip and withstanding the rigors of the journey¹, while still being able at the end of the trip to operate its sensor suite and send a minimum of a few megabytes of data at a level of power sufficient to supply clear reception at the end of a 4.3 light year trip. Finally, the first such ship must be able to make the outgoing trip in less than fifty years, which is the longest travel time we could obtain without running the risk that a subsequent spacecraft capable of overtaking it could be designed and built. To attempt any such journey before those basic conditions would be met would be a colossal waste of resources.

To sum up the numbers

The conditions laid out above result in the following specifications:

  • One to two tons of payload
  • Sensor suite, data storage, and EM transmitter components capable of operating intermittently during fifty years of exposure to wide variations in temperature and exposure to high-energy particles
  • Both of the above joined to a propulsion system capable of maintaining an average speed of 93 million kph during those same fifty years, and decelerating to a capture velocity at the end of the journey

Such a system is possible in theory, though probably not practicable unless the infrastructure to build it can be developed in orbit. Meanwhile, three additional conditions must be met:

  1. The engineering of such a system must be made possible through advancements in propulsion and materials tech;
  2. The target planet(s) must be known to fulfill basic conditions of habitability such as atmosphere, surface gravity, surface temperature regime, and ambient radiation levels in advance (otherwise, we’re better off confining exploration to our own solar system); and
  3. Perhaps hand in hand with the research done to meet the second condition, the spacecraft design must be flown and refined several times before the full mission is attempted.

Such a program would offer a second piece of good news to follow on discovery of habitability: the technologies developed to fulfill the first mission could in turn be adapted to the needs of colonizing any habitable planet found.

Something tells me that as a species we’ll be lucky to accomplish all of these tasks within our lifetimes, and almost as lucky if we don't manage to louse our own planet beyond a state of easy habitability in the meantime.

When you’re a Web nrrd, this passes for news

Capture: SXSW humor.

06 March 2008

Angry thoughts about IE7 and IE8

So much has been written about how IE7 b0rked the user experience for a lot of users... and everytime I see that comment, I get pissy.


Reasons I get mad about IE7’s twitchiness

  1. If so many folks hadn't used IE6 as their dev platform and ignored everything else, these problems never would have developed.
  2. If the rest had used proper filter rules, their sites would’ve been easier to fix.
  3. If people would take the time to stay current with their skills and learn new ones, the breakage would’ve made more sense at the time (and thus caused less uproar).
  4. Did Microsoft's senior management honestly believe that the rest of the world would stand by idly while it let the Internet Explorer property go to seed? Pshaw! (Insert saltier words of one syllable here. Yes, I'm still all manner of pissed off about that.)

By my way of thinking the furore over IE7's “breakage” is from people who treat their jobs like sinecures.

…And the horse they rode in on!

My own experience

Perhaps I’m being a hardass; goodness knows that I’ve got a reputation for it. My bottom line, however, is that when IE7 came out, I probably spent 10-15 minutes per site getting things into shape. IE7 supports standards far better than its predecessor, and I was developing to standards, so I had few problems. Most of those were caused by vestigial hasLayout issues, though more recently I see that the fuzzy selector problem hasn't yet gone the way of the dodo.

If I could do it, why was it so hard for so many other people?

The answers I get to that question speak more than adequately to my anger.

05 March 2008

Gun rights, abortion, and frustration with Congress?

Science fiction novelist and freelance writer extraordinaire John Scalzi links to a WaPo article about the political culture in the county where he lives.

The reporter summarizes interviewees’ points of contention as resting on gun rights, abortion, and frustration with Congress (thus the title for my own post). As can be expected, the article does a fantastic job of confirming my own biases, namely those that lead me to the conclusion that many of these people are at best ill-informed as a consequence of slurping from the Fox News trough… and at worst, outright hypocrites.

Blow by blow

  • Gun rights

    I’m going on this one anecdotally, since a call to the NRA Institute for Legislative Action rang off the hook.

    I’ve yet to hear of any concerted effort in the mainstream of the Left to promote a British-style ban on guns; the effort seems to focus on assault rife and concealed carry rights. Those, folks, are issues about personal power, and I bet that’s what’s got the mudflap demographic so riled up — the fundamental “pry it from my cold dead hands” issue and the ease with which ownership restrictions can be considered the top of a slippery slope. Meanwhile, the manner in which the Bush clique wants to leverage existing registration requirements into find-’em-anywhere-anytime domestic surveillance systems is an even greater threat to folks’ civil liberties.

  • Abortion

    This is the issue that really steams me, and not without cause¹. Stories of prosperity-gospel churchogers² and lifelong Catholics taking their knocked-up daughters in for abortions are legion in my experience; I can count two that involve close relatives². Meanwhile, the whole issue has always reeked to me of hypocrisy³: the same people who are egged on by Rush Limbaugh into pasting the Nanny State follow up by insisting that the government ought to legislate morality. The fuck?! So much for intellectual honesty.

  • Frustration with Congress

    The gamesmanship of parliamentary procedure has led both the D’s and the R’s to tiptoe around each other. Between that and the fact that too many of those bozos are beholden to moneyed interests and the demands of looking good for the media, you have a big domed building filled with 535 milquetoast characters. Meanwhile, those of us who want real change wait for someone to put the Internet to its best use.


¹ After I was born and until my parents’ divorce, abortion became Mom’s back-up method of birth control. The why-and-wherefore of this fact gets long in the telling, so I’ll save that litany for a time when I can do it without coming across like a total horse’s ass.

² The omission of “Christian” from the designation I give these people is deliberate, if something of an overgeneralization — many of these people do come across to me as sincere Christians, but plenty more do not.

³ Judging by sources, I seem to recall the Savior as saying “…and why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

Another memorial to EGG

One E. Gary Gygax, the principal contributor to the early form of the Dungeons & Dragons games, passed on yesterday.

Like a lot of tech-oriented types I had tons of exposure¹ to his game as a teenager — by the time I was thirteen I had a complete set of First Edition rulebooks² — so I cannot understate the game’s influence (and by extension, the influence of Gygax) on the formation of my worldview.

Lessons learned from D&D: a list

  • There are lots of different ways to believe, and most of them are silly. Better to deal with it sooner than later.

    Seriously. Get your hands on a copy of Deities and Demigods and thumb through it, keeping in mind that it was sourced to a faretheewell.

  • If you want people to do something, you need to give them the tools and the incentives requisite to the task.

    “Running a game” is just an obscure synonym for “herding cats.”

  • Work smarter, not harder.

    …Because it doesn’t make sense to spend more time designing a locale than you’ll spend playing in it.

  • The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes is valuable beyond price.

    On Saturday afternoons that talent for ideation makes the difference between an okay game and a great one. In life it makes the difference between using mirrors and avoiding them.

  • It took a long time for us to get to where we are, and in the meantime we thought up plenty of imaginative ways to betray, abuse and kill one another.

    Digging into the game expanded my interest in history, by way of finding out why. What I learned was humbling.

  • Computers. So. Very. Rawk.

    When I was into playing, I went through unbelievable amounts of paper and mechanical pencil lead, to say nothing of the calories I burned toting around rulebooks. If I woke up tomorrow and decided to become a gamer again, it'd all be going on the laptop in a New York Minute.

…And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind.


¹The last time I played was in May 1998, for better or worse.

²Before I moved to Lawrence I retrieved them from their closet and gave them to a colleague with lots of active gamer friends. He in turn gave them to his little brother, who at last report gets steady use from them. Total win.