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.

22 February 2008

After an entire month, a few observations about the day's experiences

I assure you that the past month's absence is more a reflection of my state of nerves and laziness than it is a reflection of the quality of my life. Go me!

Today I learned…

  • My only remaining excuse for taking lousy care of my teeth is that I’m just damned lazy.
  • Kansas winters make me homesick. (Go figure.)
  • Fish sticks were not put on sale at Dillons arbitrarily; it’s Lent and there's the whole meatless-Fridays thing going on (not that I bother to observe, though I am fond of fish sticks… hmm… piscatine food-like substance).
  • Cheap LCD displays hate being unused for extended periods of time.
  • There's some dude in town who’s the spitting image of Matt Damon. How strange.
  • Doubling up combined width/max-width/min-width attributes in a parent-child node relationship causes Gecko to prove that π = 3 for extremely small values of π. Or something.
  • When you are heads-down at a coffeehouse, there are few things more terrifying than discovering that the restroom is Out of Order.
  • My MP3 player is sweet in many ways, but its battery life is only a fraction of the length of the playlist it can hold. Argh.
  • Firmware updates are a Good Thing — I no longer need to reboot my POS router every time I power up my MacBook.
  • The aforementioned router (a Linksys WRT54G) apparently will issue a lease on, which caused ZoneAlarm on the desktop to throw no end of conniptions.
  • Bloglines is, like my router, a POS. But I’m too accustomed to having it handy to find a better service.

… and that's it for thus far today.

22 January 2008

Meta tag mishmash

This will make no sense unless you’ve read the following:

If you know what all of these places are, care what they have to say, and haven’t read them, do so now. I’ll still be here when you come back.

This approach amounts to, “require Web operators to opt-in if they intend to stick to the latest and greatest.” Five years out, this is going to result in a lot of rendering engine bloat and the bugs that go along with that, but Microsoft has plenty incentive to avoid that without badgering from standards advocate. They probably also have some insitutional memory with respect to solving that problem (though the question of whether or not they put it to use is another matter entirely).

Who wins, who loses

This situation begs a game analysis.

  • Good for Microsoft: customers don’t yell so much, and are more likely to accept version upgrades of IE (along with their security benefits)
  • Bad for Microsoft: improperly used, the recommended change in practice ultimately leaves Microsoft open to the same charges of deliberate somnolence they faced as a result of letting IE6 rot outright for something like four years: why improve your browser if no-one’s using its features? Given Microsoft’s track record, the possibility of this outcome needs to be taken seriously.
  • Good for professionals: there will be a mechanism by which developers can avoid passing on sudden and gratuitously fortuitous labor charges because oops! IE was updated and changes were made to the rendering engine
  • Bad for professionals: it becomes necessary to keep track of which sites are tethered to which versions of Internet Explorer, which is very close to the outcome WaSP was founded to avoid
  • Good for users: version upgrades will no longer result in the entire Web experience going wonky all of a sudden one morning
  • Bad for users: sitebuilders and their sponsors now have a perfect crutch for keeping their sites in the Stone Age

Is the good worth the bad?

In the long run, I believe so… especially if guys like me step up to the plate and keep on educating people.

21 January 2008

Autobiography: stapling and car parts

I just finished reading an article about poor handshakes, which brought me back to a couple of handshaking lessons I was taught when I was kid.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree

The thing is, Dad’s always had a handshake on the weak side. Anymore, it comes from professional and social habit, but at the bottom line the closest he gets to being the garrulous good ol’ boy is his atypically generous support for a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment (itself complicated).

The point is that when I was a kid, I didn’t know how to shake hands worth a damn.


The first clue toward a different way of shaking hands came from Poppa Joe, who tapped me for some DIY tedium six weeks before my tenth birthday. He was over at the apartment to ask us if I could spend my weekend with them — never a problem since I loved staying over there, and in any event their house was only a few miles away from the apartment. I could’ve walked over there with ease anytime I had an invitation (though at the time I was just getting into the habit of hoofin’ it at length).

The point to the request was to put me to honest work the following day, as my grandmother had leased a new space and was due to move into it in just over a month. Since the merchandise at issue was yarn and thread, the entire south wall of the store was due to be covered in several hundred cubic-foot display boxes — all folded and stapled into shape by hand.

[My mother’s parents are the sort who achieve inner calm by making things with their hands; I take after my parents, for whom writing has been the path to the same result.]

Preparatory to this, Grandpa wanted to know hard I could squeeze, which is a valid question when you’re only nine years old and being called upon to spend an entire Saturday with a heavy-duty stapler in hand.

…So he takes my right hand and tells me to give him the firmest handshake that I can. I comply. He frowns.

“I don’t know if your hands are strong enough.”

I start feeling a bit crestfallen, then realize why I’m feeling the impulse to giggle.

“Uh, Grandpa? I’m left-handed.

As I recall the next day’s work was tedious as hell, but went well enough.

Eight months later, beside a classic Chevy pickup

The school year following the shop’s move to a new space, I started at a new school. I wouldn’t develop social grace around my contemporaries for another four or five years, and I didn’t relish the thought of coming back to an empty house, so often I would stay on the school grounds for another hour or so after school let out, reading in the library or shooting basketball. Because of this, and because I was no stranger to the principal’s office, I became well-liked by Mrs. Anderson, the school’s lead admin assistant. One of the afternoons I stuck around, her husband dropped in to take her home; she’d christened her own car the “Navy Blue Lemon” because it spent so much time in the shop despite the fact that it was a late model.

Mr. Anderson had a project car, a classic ’57 Chevy with white paint but no finish. I very nearly became a gearhead at first sight. After I was done ooh-ing and aah-ing over the truck, and after he threw around the obligatory atta-boys, he asked for a handshake.

I game him one.

“Ben, you can do better than that.”

I gave him another handshake. The reply I got to that was…

“You’re like an Oldsmobile.”

Given my ignorance of cars, I was mystified — and feeling more than a little snappy, because I knew it wasn’t a compliment, even if I had no idea why. “How’s that?

“…No clutch!” And he looked me in the eyes with a smile running from ear to ear. I was turning a bright shade of red, but even I couldn’t help but laugh.

I gave him a third handshake, and really put myself into it.

That one turned out with bit more success, and I’ve given deliberately firm handshakes ever since.

…To everyone but Dad.

20 January 2008

Oh, how the issue of quotes refuses to die

Every once in a while I will encounter someone, whether online or off, wondering how much it costs to get a site built.

The most accurate answer is, “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” At least, not if it’s going to be any good and more than a weblog.

I’ve already talked about the thought that goes into estimating. Lacking the answers to those very basic questions, I usually answer “$1500 and up.” [It used to be $1200, but inflation, ya know.]

…So I will say it one more time: tell me what you actually want, and I will tell you how much it will cost, mkaythxbai. If you don’t know what you want, expect to pay more for the time I will spend helping you figure it out.

Update, 3 hours later

Ross has a much pithier reply to the question at hand.

18 January 2008

Reflections on a month of MacBook experience

I received my first Mac ever on 17th December.

This past month does not represent the first time I’ve used a Mac regularly; when I was in school and working on academic Web projects, I relied for the most part on Macs (generally Quadras running 6 & 7, if anyone’s curious). Since then, I’ve used Macs from time to time onsite, and on a few occasions borrowed at length from friends. To make a long story short, I’m no stranger to the Mac platform, and I’ve always been fond of it.

(Mostly pleasant) surprises

  • I don’t typically use my mouse, even at home.

    This is due in large part to the fact that I haven’t yet gotten Photoshop installed on the MacBook, but even so you would think that with all the tabbed browsing I do, I would be lost without a mouse. This is oddly not so.

  • I *heart* Exposé.

    Simon Willison took the time to show it off for my benefit back in 2004, and I thought of it at the time as a neat toy. However, the past month has taught me its usefulness, especially because there's no easier way to jump between running windows within a single application (while Windows puts all taskbar items into the Alt-Tab pane).

  • There’s not nearly as much benefit in collapsing windows in OSX as in the Classic GUI; in fact, doing so actually creates hassles.

    This has been the hardest adjustment for me to make in the process of unhinging myself from the One Microsoft Way.

  • The magnetic AC adapter plug is an instance of sheer genius.

    Every laptop should have this feature; the need to re-solder AC adapter connectors would become an historical artifact.

  • …So that’s what it’s like to have a real notebook battery.

    My Windows notebook only weighs four pounds, and the battery could only manage about two hours brand new. The ability to play DVD’s for three hours or more is refreshing, to say the least.

  • Perhaps only because I’m a cheap bastard who hasn’t owned a decent hi-fi rig since he was twenty-one years old, I find myself impressed by the sound card.

    I’m no fan of iTunes, but I find myself neglecting the speakers connected to the Windows desktop, in preference to listening to my music over headphones connected to the MacBook.


  • The finish on everything has an unbelievable affinity for crud.

    Apparently, the sole prerequisite for display smudges is that I merely need to think about touching the damn thing. I have a bad and entrenched habit of doing more than just thinking about it. The keycaps, bezel, and case finish (both inside and out) suffer similarly; household dust adheres to the outside case in much the same way as gauge blocks.

  • Two. Mouse. Buttons. Please.

    …Especially now that Boot Camp is part of the factory install.

  • The “lock” in System Preferences is a pain in the ass.

    The Cat Frob won’t change the settings on accident, so what’s the deal here?

  • iTunes doesn’t offer alternate key bindings, unless you want to set them up one-by-one in System Prefences.

    For those of us who’ve been faithful Winamp users for eight years (like meee), the adjustment is brutal. [I’ve already sent a lengthy feedback message to the appropriate authorities on this very subject.]

…I could go on a bit, but hence we get into some heavy duty minutiae. I’ll skip that.

The enigma that is Safari

I find that I don’t object to using Safari as my primary browser on the Mac, relegating Firefox to development and testing. The reason I did this originally was that the rig was purchased for testing purposes, which means that I have multiple Firefox installs, thus multiple profiles, thus an extra step when I start up Firefox. However… I discovered that Safari is hypersonic next to its brethren, and apart from intermittent hangs on server replies, I have every reason to suspect that Safari’s network interface can’t be beat. It doesn’t drive like a yacht with respect to RAM, either.

My *ahem* most-favoritest feature of Safari is that Flash objects in unfocussed tabs do not start loading or playing until the tab is brought into focus; I cannot understate how intently I wish that feature was present in Firefox.

I also bear witness to a number of boogers:

  • no direct keyboard shortcut for Search
  • Contrarian tab layout (argh!)
  • no visual cues indicating the load status of off-window tabs
  • Alt-click saves a link, notwithstanding the fact that Cmd-click opens it in a new tab (WTF?!)
  • there's a full-screen mode in every other Mac app and every other browsing title, but nooo, not Safari
  • target="_new" opens by default in a new window, not a new tab, and this behavior can’t be altered near as I can tell
  • no version-and-title-specific CSS filters (more of a Work Gripe than anything to do with being a user, but still)

…And that, for now, is that.

17 January 2008

Geekery: the march of progress

[The following was copied over from a post I wrote on a different blog back in December 2006.]

One of the tracks on my playlist is of a Canadian guy doing a stand-up routine that parodies an Internet helpdesk call (but not by far). The comedian mentions "a computer with a thousand times the power of the one we used to land on the moon" and prompted by a photo of the 5MB-capacity great-grandaddy of the hard disk in the computer you're using right now, I thought I'd do the math.

IBM 305 RAMAC disk storage unit vs. 1GB SanDisk Cruzer:

The IBM drive has roughly 60 cubic feet of cabinet volume, the jumpdrive roughly three-tenths of a cubic inch. Once the storage capacities of the two systems are factored in, the contemporary gadget enjoys almost two million times the efficiency of its ancestor (though it probably doesn't have nearly its ancestor's service life).

In terms of the volume of the actual storage media the numbers aren't nearly so far apart, as the flash storage on the jumpdrive takes up a significant proportion of the unit's overall volume, while its predecessor's magnetic media only occupied rougly 1/18th of its cabinet (with much of the remainder left over to vacuum tubes and machinery).

...And we won't even get started on the weight difference.

Apple MacBook vs. AGC Block II:

It's harder to compare these two machines, as they have completely different hardware architectures in almost every imaginable respect, designed to wholly different requirements. However, a look at the MacBook's spec page and various pages describing the the Wikipedia entry for the Apollo Guidance Computer yields the following factors of increased performance (bigger = better):

  • ROM: 3⅔x
  • RAM: 280,000x
  • CPU clock speed: 894x
  • Weight: 9x
  • Power consumption: 0.53x (the MacBook uses almost twice the electricty!)

And for the same reasons I didn't go into the subject of weight before, we'll avoid the discussion of the cost difference between these two pieces of hardware, except to point out that the MacBook is possibly something you can still afford even if you need to ask how much it costs.

These huge numbers are the result of a positive feedback loop. Computers are used to design more powerful computers (lather, rinse, repeat…) until the computers grow powerful enough to bump against constraints in the laws of physics (which is what this dual- and quad-core processor nonsense is about).

14 January 2008

Intellectual Property vs. the market

I’ve spent most of the afternoon vetting my iTunes library, which leaves me spurred to comment about a recent post passing through the intertubes in which the RIAA whines again about intellectual property rights.

First off, as a Web guy, I like to think that I’m pretty hip to the upside of intellectual property laws; if my stuff was worth ripping off, I’d probably be pretty steamed if it actually was.


When you’re the RIAA, and you circumscribe what the mass media promote, you’ve just made yourself a gatekeeper of popular culture — part of folks’ common experience. When you heap on the injury of ensuring that your product is partially crap, you encourage your market to cherry pick. You also lose respect — how much over-compressed, lowest-common-denominator-pandering crap do you expect us to take in tandem with the stuff we genuinely like?

Finally, you add insult to injury by treating us like thieves when we assert our rights to protect the embodiment of our licenses from theft and damage.

It’s true that lots of people have lost respect for intellectual property. Meanwhile, it’s been my experience that people pirate music (ooh, scary!) because:

  • their desire to listen to the music outweighs their ability to pay for it;
  • they want to try it before they buy it;
  • they want to encourage others to listen to it;
  • they can download the music more easily than they can rip it from media they already own; and/or
  • they want the gold without the dross.

I’m serious as a heart attack about the last one — seriously, why else would I be vetting a music library composed in great majority of tracks from CD’s I’ve purchased, in many cases more than once?

Respectively, these listeners are:

  • not giving you the money, because they don’t have it;
  • exercising the rights of a conscientious customer;
  • DOING YOUR MARKETING FOR YOU (oh, fercryinoutloud, are you ever STOOPID);
  • taking the path of least resistance to the goal of protecting their investment in their legitimate license of your music; and
  • hinting that y’all oughtta get your shit together.

So, you wanna raise your numbers and regain relevance? Here’s how to do it:

  • Quit insisting on stratospheric margins.
  • Make DRM-free downloads available sooner rather than later.
  • Make free tracks available. Ratchet the bitrates down and bracket them with ads and notices if you feel you must, but make the music available for trial in some format.
  • Quit treating your customers like criminals.
  • For the love of all that is good, stop marketing CD’s that are half-or-more composed of crap tracks, and compressing the whole so extremely that it makes the results physically exhausting to listen to.

When I look at the situation from a perspective of opportunity cost, I come away knowing that I'd rather buy a good CD than download any day. Why?

  • I can’t use P2P networks effectively without leeching and allowing myself to be leeched.
  • I have no way of knowing until the download is finished if I’m getting tracks that were ripped from media in good condition.
  • I may not be able to find the music at an acceptably high bitrate, or for that matter at any bitrate.
  • Chances are that I’ll be forced to rename or re-tag my files, so hell, I might as well rip them my own damn self.
  • Oh. Liner notes?! Buahahaha!!!

On the other hand, it’s altogether satisfying to take the best while throwing the rest away, and giving the mass media a well-deserved virtual middle finger in the process.

Get the memo and the clue already, hmmm???