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July 4, 2013

Random old work story

Rob @ 4:26 PM

In a past professional life I once temped in an office of a large multinational company, which shall remain unnamed. They had about seven or eight different models of desktop printer scattered around the place. The fanciest model was a couple of non-networked printers in the offices of select executives, who probably never switched the things on. More pedestrian, networked models of printer were in constant use by everyone else, including said executives' assistants.

When it came time to buy printer ink, they always bought far too much ink for the fancy printers (which didn't need any, and so the new stocks just joined a pile of useless ink in the supply cabinet) and far too little ink for the actually-used printers (which had little to no supply in the cabinet.) This made everyone miserable, but any complaints or concerns expressed toward the folks involved in the supply chain tended to get entirely misunderstood; "oh, we're out of [useless ink]? Sure, we'll get that fixed up for ya right away :-)" followed by an unhelpful delivery of more unneeded fancy-printer ink the next day.

Finally, they had to actually throw away a year's worth of the useless ink simply to make room in the closet once a reasonably-sized shipment of the actually useful ink arrived. At least, it was thrown out on paper.. in actuality, the employee in charge of bringing the perfectly-functional ink to the dumpster flogged it all on eBay and doubled their salary for the week.

And so it goes.

May 25, 2013

Candle safety tips

Rob @ 3:50 PM

Apropos of nothing in particular, here are some basics for the safe use of candles.

If you're like me, and I know I am, then you've used many candles in everyday life. If you're not like me, though, candles might be strange and threatening objects used only during emergencies, birthdays, or emergency birthdays. So, here is some advice to take some of the mystery out of safe candle use.

How to set up

Many people who use candles regularly, or who are fans of Clue, have a proper candlestick in which to set up a candle. If you don't, however, there are many ways to hack up a safe candle holder out of common household items.

Use something glass, ceramic, or metal. Avoid exposed wood for obvious reasons, and never use plastic as it can melt or burn with noxious and poisonous fumes. Be careful when using glass as well; too thin or cold and the glass could shatter from the candle's heat.

In addition to proper candlesticks I have a few old teacups, saucers, and other such things I bought at my local thrift shop for 10-25 cents a piece specifically for candle use; I don't drink or eat from them. Once you stick the candle to it it's really stable.

Be sure to use clean vessels, free of dust or other contaminants which could pose a hazard. Give your dusty old candle-holder a rinse and a wipe-down before putting fire in it.

Be careful with the vessel after you've got the candle going; the vessel will most likely become hot. Keep a potholder or rag nearby if you'll have to pick it up and move it.

How to stick a candle to it? After you light the candle, tilt it horizontally with the flame an inch or two above the center of a clean, dry vessel; the flame will melt off wax from the top of the candle. Drip a few drops of melted wax onto the surface, then immediately press the bottom of the candle onto the melted wax drops. The drops will harden in seconds, and the candle will be effectively glued to the base.

As the candle continues burning, drops of melted wax will run down to the base, harden, and reinforce the whole thing. Additionally, after you've burnt one candle down all the way, you'll be left with a remaining glob of melted and re-hardened wax with a hole in the middle about the width of your candle. When you want to burn another candle you can use its flame to melt that remaining wax a bit while dripping on your new glue drops, and then easily jam the candle into that hole, and be even more stable for the next burn.

Where to set up

One of my favorite places to set up candles is one which seems really obvious to me, but takes 90% of the people I tell it to entirely by surprise: put them in your sinks. Empty kitchen and bathroom sinks are probably the perfect place to set up candles when illumination in those rooms is needed. If you put them on a tabletop, countertop, or similar there is always the possibility they might fall or get knocked over, after which they can roll anywhere and light anything on fire, with fire. However, nobody has a flammable sink. If a candle falls over in your sink, at the very worst you have a little bit of sooty wax to clean off what is, by design, one of the most easy-to-clean surfaces in your home. Just be mindful of your surroundings; some kitchen sinks are under kitchen windows with frilly curtains; take all necessary precautions to get those out of the way and minimize the draft.

If a sink is not an option and you're on a countertop or table use a trivet (those things you put a hot pot or pan on when removing them from the stove) or a square of cardboard or some junk mail wrapped in foil, to avoid scorching the surface. I have a large ceramic tile from a hardware store specifically for this purpose.

Choosing your candles

There are a few candles I'd recommend you avoid.

Tealights can be tempting due to being inexpensive, but I find they aren't worth the trouble. They are small and fiddly, they don't throw off much light, they're generally not all that safe unless you have some sort of holder made specifically for them, and the holders tend to be novelty things which aren't all that safe in practice. Changing out the old tealight can be a pain, as well.

Glass-jar candles are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles, and I think they are all rubbish. While glass jars can be tempting due to their transparency or implied stability and safety, it's just not that dependable a material to put frigging fire into. I have had so many different ones spontaneously shatter on me, from cheap dollar-store ones to really expensive and supposedly high-end ones; even ones which have been blown out can explode on you from the temperature change for several minutes afterward. Additionally, the design means that the melted wax, instead of running down the sides of a candle and away, will pool up and tend to drown out your flame. It's really not worth the trouble.

Scented candles are something else I avoid. It's mostly a matter of personal preference for me, as I don't like artificial or perfumey scents in general, but it's also a matter of chemistry; candles work the way they do because of how the wax behaves, and once you start mixing perfumes and stuff into it you've got less wax and a less dependable reaction. The candle can burn faster, dirtier, smokier, and when melted the adulterated wax has a tendency to pool and drown out the flame rather than burning away cleanly. The ones with actual chunks of potpourri flakes and things stirred into the wax are just insanity, I can't see choosing to light that stuff on actual fire.

Be very wary of cheaper candles like dollar-stores might have, goodness knows what sorts of crud the wax or vessels might contain. I like saving money, but not at the expense of reliability or safety, especially when there are comparably inexpensive options which are also dependable by design; read on.

My favorite candles to have around are called shabbat candles, or sabbath candles. If you're unfamiliar; they're used in certain Jewish ceremonies, and as such usually come packaged in boxes with Jewish iconography and Hebrew writing on the box. In addition to being available in religious supply shops which stock Jewish items, many standard supermarkets will have these stashed away in the Kosher foods section. Be sure to get the cylindrical ones about 4" tall, not the taller tapered ones.

It may seem weird to use these Jewish candles for your mundane candling purposes, especially if, like me, you aren't Jewish, but they are probably the best emergency candles any household can have stashed in a cabinet. They burn brightly without being overly dangerous, and they burn cleanly and efficiently with minimal smoke. They are made to high standards due to their intended applications, which means they are made of pure, simple candle wax without cloying scent chemicals or dyes. Being shorter and thicker than your standard tapers, they're much more stable and less likely to fall over while still lasting long enough to be worth using (usually around a few hours if left to burn down all the way on their own.) One alone will serve the purpose of letting you find your way in the dark without crashing into things, and two or three around a room will light up your surroundings quite comfortably. They burn cool and slowly enough for you to hold one in your hand if you really need to, so long as you're careful with the wax drippings; you can bring one around your house to light your way. They are also incredibly inexpensive as candles go; usually around $25 for a box of 72 in my area.

If you keep a boxful of these and a lighter stashed away for a blackout, when the time comes and your neighbors are struggling to find their way around with one stinky $13 jar candle from a mall gift shop before it drowns itself in waxy perfume, you'll have enough of these babies to stay illuminated throughout the entire blackout with some left over to share if you're so inclined. Used just for emergencies, one box could keep you prepared for years. Whatever sabbath-type situations you do or don't partake in, everyone should have a box of sabbath candles handy just in case.

Safety measures for safe burning safely

Don't burn candles without adequate ventilation. A couple of these won't really affect the volume of air in an entire house, but a small unventilated room with a closed door is another story. Always have a door or window open at least a couple of inches.

Keep your candles away from open windows, air vents, or drafty doorways. A draft could knock your candle over, or cause a flare-up or a spark which is particularly bad for those who don't like everything to be on fire.

There's an invisible cone of heat rising from that flame, extending further upward and outward than you might think. Don't put candles on bookshelves or wall shelves where they might burn the wall behind or the shelf above. Don't put candles on a surface high enough where they'd burn the ceiling.

Never leave a candle unattended for any reason. If you're stepping out of the room, even for a moment, either bring the candle with you or blow it out and relight it when you get back. It may seem like a hassle, but so is a burning building. Also, sleeping = unattended. If you're getting tired, blow out the damn candle and go to bed.

Don't store your matches or lighter near a burning candle.

Keep a clear radius of at least two candle-lengths around your candle, free of anything burnable.

You may find yourself needing to disable your smoke or fire alarms in order to use candles without being alarmed; I totally don't recommend this. If you choose to do so, however, at least put up a sticky note or something reminding yourself to restore the alarms afterward.

Be very careful using candles around children or household pets, especially if said creatures are not already used to candles. Be ready to give safety lessons to kids if you have any around. During the first big blackout my family ever had, when I was very young, my mom had a great way of demonstrating the danger of a candle flame to my little sister and I; she took a long strand of hair off her head, and quickly singed it in the flame. The display was suitably intimidating that us kids stayed well clear of the candles for the duration.

Prepare for the worst. Have some sort of emergency measure in place; if at all possible have a fire extinguisher handy.

April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert

Rob @ 7:34 PM

I remember chatting with Roger Ebert on movie forum message threads, and the odd email or two, back in the mid-1990s on CompuServe. I was a teenager poking around at early online fandom, and Ebert was the first mainstream "celebrity" I'd ever communicated with in such a manner. At first it blew my mind a bit to see his name on posts and realize it was actually that Ebert doing the typing. The online boom was still a few years down the line, though, and CompuServe and its forums were still low-key, cozy, and geeky; it quickly became apparent that Ebert was basically just another one of us film dorks (albeit one who had his own TV show) sharing and debating the films out there while unwinding in front of our keyboards.

He'll be missed.

March 7, 2013

Fog of War Scrabble

Rob @ 7:55 AM

My significant other Gus and I played a game of Scrabble the other day, and while cleaning up the board afterward I was struck by the idea for this variant. I've been tweaking the rules in my head since then, in hopes of playtesting it someday, and I thought I'd share it here as well. I'm not sure if there's been anything like it done before; my searches have come up blank. If any of you are into such things, please shoot me your feedback.

Please note that Scrabble is a trademark of Hasbro or Mattel depending on where you live, its use here is unofficial, I'm not affiliated with either of them, and blah blah blah. Full credit to Gus for applying the term "Fog of War" to the concept.

How to play Fog of War Scrabble
Fog of War Scrabble
The game requires a standard Scrabble set and compatible dictionary. The Fog of War rules are the official Scrabble rules, with the following modifications:

  • In addition to the game's normal 2-4 players, there is an impartial non-playing position called the Observer.
  • All tiles are flipped over and used on their blank sides. The actual letters printed on them are meaningless; tiles can be played as any letter, in the manner of the normal game's blanks.
  • All played tiles score one point each, no matter which letter they are. Board modifiers (double/triple letter/word score squares) apply normally. There is no "bingo" bonus for using all seven of your tiles.
  • When a word is played, the player announces what the word is and how it's spelled. The Observer has a paper representation of the Scrabble board (a 15x15 grid on graph paper would work) out of view of the other players; on this the Observer fills in the words as they are played. Thus, the Observer is the only one looking at the actual word game in progress while the players are looking at the blank tiles.
  • Memory is key. In order to make a correct play, the player must remember what all the words laid out on the board are and play accordingly. Any failure along these lines - say, playing a word on a letter which is actually a different letter - is an immediate out. Once you complete your play, if the Observer tells you that your word is invalid due to a tile on the board being something other than what you thought it was your word is removed from the board. You are "lost in the fog," and eliminated from the game.
  • The game can end in one of two ways. If all players but one get "lost in the fog," the scores are discarded and the last player remaining wins. If more than one player survives to the end of the tile supply and the natural end of the game, the scores are tabulated in the normal Scrabble manner.

I see a few ways this could put a really novel spin on the old Scrabble.

  • Without the normally-limited letter supply, differently-scoring tiles, and bingo bonus, the strategy of saving up rare high-value letters to play on the modifiers is irrelevant. Go ahead and play "QUIZZICAL" on a triple word score, but it won't shift the game in your favor in one fell swoop anymore.

  • Players can deliberately play words they think their opponents will have trouble remembering, in order to accomplish easier "outs."
  • Players can decide whether to play lots of small words, or go all-out with larger words each round, without appreciable scoring difference. If you play to confuse your opponents and get them lost in the fog before you, the numerical scores are meaningless anyway. On the other hand, longer words and mod squares will get you more points if the other players do last. What wll your strategy be?
  • When playing multiple games, the group can rotate everyone in by assigning the Observer role to either the winner or loser of the previous game.

What do you think? Would this actually be any fun?

February 16, 2013

The preferred nomenclature

Rob @ 11:10 AM

firefly_id
There are people who have to do all sorts of things in order to feel like they're properly presenting their true self to the world.

Some people do mutable things like particular clothing, hairstyling, or makeup rituals. Some folks feel the need to go more drastic, permanent routes such as cosmetic surgery or other body modifications. Some transition to a different gender identity than that which had been given them. These can all be paths to the same goal; gaining the ability to go out into the world and feel like they are inhabiting and presenting a "self" they actually feel is their own.

I consider myself really fortunate along these lines because, compared to what many others have to endure to reach that point, what I needed to fully feel like my own self at all times was a simple, painless, one-time thing. I had a small bit of paperwork surgery, and brought my legal name in line with how I truly think of myself.

It didn't hurt a bit. In fact, it feels pretty great.

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