A Tale of Loot (and our apartment)

When I first moved to Chicago, I moved to a cheap apartment known as a “4+1,” for four levels of living over one level of parking.  No pets were allowed, but they did allow the tiger fish I had at the time, so it wasn’t a concern.

Loot Talks to the Fish

Loot Talks to the Fish

After about a month, my sister-in-law found a stray kitten.  He was tiny, and white, and fresh out of the bath he’d been given.  Every time I spoke, he’d stare at me with the most intense expression of contentment I’d ever seen, on a cat or otherwise.  I decided to take him home.

I’m of the opinion that cats should not have elegant or sophisticated names.  Cats tend to be full of themselves anyway, and a patently ridiculous name can help their humility.  So his name thenceforth was “Loot de Doot Doot,” or just “Loot!” for short, which he’d recognize as his own name when properly yelled for emphasis.

Although Loot never scratched, he did have ear mites when I first got him, and I had to take him to the vet a few times in the first week.  To avoid making it obvious to the management that I had a pet (it was not clear what the consequences would be) I tucked Loot into my backpack, which he actually seemed to enjoy.  On his final trip home from the vet, I stopped to buy a couple of hotdogs from a street vendor, and without thinking, tucked them into the small outer pocket to eat when I got home.  He looked pretty crazy when I let him out, and didn’t want to ride in the backpack after that, though he would occasionally climb in … just in case.

Loot was a source of chaos and a loyal companion, with more of the former.  I returned home from work one day to discover that Loot had emptied an entire economy sized box of tissues, spreading torn tissues all over the floor.  He had managed to cover every visible area of carpet, and sat proudly in the middle of the room so that I could admire his handiwork.  “Now you don’t have to walk all the way to the box if you need a tissue,” he explained, “you can just stop, bend over, and pick one up.”  He seemed genuinely confused why I was not pleased.

I invited a friend from college over for a beer, and in the manner of cats, Loot made himself scarce.  I didn’t think to mention to my friend that I had a cat, until he was sitting on my couch, and Loot leapt up behind him and grabbed his head with both paws. From my angle, I saw an amazingly comical expression of shock and surprise on my friend’s face.  Luckily, no blood had been drawn, because I could not stop laughing.  I actually have not seen him since that day.

One of Loot’s few talents was the ability and desire to keep things on his head, which I would occasionally exploit by putting small items on his head, which he would carefully balance until he forgot about them, or got distracted.  On a regular basis, I would balance empty cans on his head, which he would dutifully keep in place, usually until I bothered to retrieve them.

A Little Hat

A Little Hat

On Saint Patrick’s Day, one of the beer companies had a promotion where they topped their beers with little green plastic hats.  We had a few friends over, and we had about a six pack of hats.  One of the party-goers, perhaps me, put one on Loot’s head, and he proudly wore it for hours, holding his head flat, walking around slowly and carefully before ultimately refusing to move for fear it would fall off.  When it inevitably did fall off, he seemed inconsolable until he was distracted — or perhaps 10 seconds.

The apartment itself sucked.  One of Loot’s more useful pursuits was chasing and eating roaches, which I tried to discourage in the event that he was ingesting pesticides, but he did at least seem to keep them at bay by smacking them as they crept out of the baseboards.

My neighbors were insanely loud.  After being woken up again at two in the morning (no easy feat, I am a very heavy sleeper) I visited my upstairs neighbor.  I had to pound on the door, and he answered, apparently oblivious as to both the time and why I would suddenly stop by for a visit.  I was struck by two things.  First, there were moving boxes everywhere, so it was hard to see anything, even furniture.  Second, although loud, his stereo actually seemed a little quieter than it did downstairs in my apartment.

“Come in,” he invited.  We stood among stacks of boxes, since there appeared to be nowhere to sit.

“Did you just move in?” I asked conversationally, since it didn’t appear obvious to him why I’d stopped by in my bathrobe at two in the morning.

“I’ve been here five years,” he said, his expression saying, “what an odd question.”

“Moving out?” I said, trying not to seem too hopeful.


“Well, I’ve come up here because I can hear your stereo in my apartment below yours.  And I don’t just mean that I can make out the words, I mean it’s actually at a higher volume in my bedroom than I’d turn on my stereo if I were listening to my own stereo.”

He pointed between the boxes at his massive speakers.  “Nah, man, I point my speakers at the floor to make them quieter.”  I could see that the speakers were, indeed, lying face down on the floor.

“But I live below you.”


“Where the sound is directed.”


“Look, could you just turn it down so I can sleep?”

“That’s why I put the speakers on the floor.  It makes it quieter.”

“It’s louder downstairs.  Pointing them at the floor makes it quieter up here, but louder down there,” I explained slowly.  “It would be better if you pointed them at you and then turned the volume down.”

He seemed completely baffled by my words.  “But…  Pointing them down makes it quieter.”

Surprisingly, I successfully fought the urge to punch him in the face and managed to talk him into turning the volume down.  Later, I had the same conversation with him about five more times.

Although probably the most obtuse, he certainly wasn’t alone.  On any given night, somebody in the building would either be having a party, have an important drug deal to conduct, or find some excuse to turn their stereo up so loud that it was impossible to sleep.  I wasn’t sure how anybody in the building could sleep, and it didn’t help that the building itself had thin walls and a structure that would resonate with bass.

So without looking back, I decided to move to a nicer place that actually did take pets.  The leases overlapped, so I made sure Loot had enough food and water and spent the night in the new place the first day I could.  After work the next day, I went back to pack up the last of the stuff for the movers, and as I approached the apartment building from the garage underground, I heard an incredibly loud, rhythmic pounding.  “Good riddance to this place,” I thought.  It was louder, in the garage, than it was in my apartment when the tenant above blasted me awake.

As I got off the elevator, the noise was overpowering.  A repetitive beat, but now I could hear a repeating synthesizer melody over the bass.  At about the same time I recognized the tune as being one of the “back up” loops from a cheap Casio synthesizer, I realized the noise was actually coming from my apartment.

The Casio was connected to the only amp I had, which was actually quite powerful and loud.  Loot had managed to turn it all the way up, then step on the right combination of keys to put this horribly cheesy beat into an infinite loop.  Loot sat on the kitchen table, looking quite pleased with himself.

I rushed in and turned it off, leaving the door open.  A woman leaned in, one of my nicer neighbors whom I rarely saw.  She noticed the boxes, and said, “oh, are you moving out?  I’ll miss your little cat.”

“Yes…  What?”  As far as I knew, she had never been in the apartment before, and I’d certainly kept it a secret that I had a cat at all.

“Oh yes, every time somebody comes up the elevators, his little white paws come out under the door, and he talks to us.”

“Oh.  Well, I hope the noise didn’t bother you.  How long was it going, anyway?”

“No, it didn’t bother me at all,” she said, though I wasn’t sure if she were just being nice.  She gave it a moment’s thought.  “A little over 24 hours, I think.”

Not one person complained.


Just Like Suicide

On my first day in college, I was settling into my dorm room, and in wandered one of the ugliest people I’ve ever seen.  The college experience is unique in that you’re suddenly in close proximity to a large number of people whom you don’t know, are vaguely your own age, are on the cusp of adulthood, and coincidentally the onset age of many forms of mental illness.  The little troll-like beast looked around at the stuff I was unpacking, and half-asked, half-pronounced, “So, you like hockey?”

I didn’t want to leap to conclusions, so I looked around for any indication that I liked hockey, or that anything in the room implied anything of the sort.  It’s not that I dislike hockey, it’s just that I never gave it a second thought.  Perhaps it was some kind of test question, or conversational opener.  “Why do you ask?”

“You just kind of looked like you like hockey,” he replied.  This didn’t strike me as particularly complimentary.

After a moment, it was apparent he was going to say nothing more.  “Do you like hockey?” I asked him, for no particular reason, starting to feel vaguely uncomfortable with his continuing presence.

“It’s okay, I guess,” he stated flatly, and wandered out the door.

I’m normally the type of person who ends up being friends with people who are socially awkward or who don’t make friends easily.  I’ve never been able to bring myself to walk away from the lonely, and can usually find something interesting or redeeming in anybody.  By virtue of sticking up for or trying to help the downtrodden, I seemed to end up hanging out with them frequently.

I made a sincere effort with the troll to engage him in normal conversations.  Partly because of his striking unattractiveness, I made even more of an effort than came naturally.  In nearly every conversation, the troll managed to insult me in some way, and despite my best efforts to draw him in to social situations, got nowhere.  Everybody absolutely hated him.

I didn’t hate him, which meant that I got to commiserate with people who had to deal with him.  He actually had an amazing ability to say, at any given point, the very thing that would piss off the greatest number of people, and was such a pernicious loser that he was thrown out of every organization he attempted to join (an amazing feat, frankly) — he even attempted to join the volunteer fire department and was judged “a danger to himself and others” on the first day of training.

After a while, I gave up.

Near the end of the quarter, I was walking by his room on the way to the cafeteria, and heard him wailing, “I just can’t win!”   I stopped for a moment, and he howled, “I don’t care any more!  I don’t care any more!” in an anguished screech.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do.  A few friends saw me standing there, and stopped and stood there with me.  After a moment, the troll screamed louder, “I don’t care any moooore!  I don’t care no moooore!”

About a week earlier, we had all been present on the couches in my room in a mad college combination of studying and drinking when our mutual friend “Matt” staggered into the room and announced, in a drunken slur, that he’d “had quite enough.”  We waited for Matt to say something else, or pass out, but instead he ran toward our large, open, fourth-floor window.

My roommate, closest to the window and thinking faster than any of us, managed to grab Matt by the ankles as he was halfway out the window.  Matt bent at the waist as momentum carried him forward, and his face hit the side of the building.  Three of us hauled him back inside, unconscious.

Matt’s face was scraped up, but otherwise he didn’t seem in very bad shape, so we dumped him in the common room, careful to leave him face down.

Neither Matt nor the rest of us spoke of the incident again, but it was foremost on our minds as we stood outside the troll’s door.

“You think he’s going to kill himself?”

“He probably should, I hate that guy.”

“Oh come on, we can’t just stand by and let him kill himself, whether we like him or not.  We should get him some help.”

“Okay, let’s go in.”

I knocked, then banged, on the door, but the troll didn’t answer.  He just kept up that awful screaming:  “I don’t care any mooooore!”

Crap.  I tried the knob, but his door was locked.

“Now what?”

“We’ve got to break in”

We knew from experience that the dormitory doors could be opened by applying enough pressure to the metal frame while pushing the latch.  We ran to our rooms and came back with a crowbar and a thin screwdriver.  When we got back, the troll was still screaming, “I don’t care any moooore!”

I winced at the awful noise.  “My god, he sounds like he’s suffering.”

“At least we know he’s still alive.”

After a moment, the four of us managed to spring the door open, and tumbled into the troll’s room.

He was sitting in the dark under his desk, in nothing but his underwear.  He looked remarkably pleased to see us break his door and spill into his room, as if we’d all decided to visit him on his birthday.  He was wearing huge, ear-covering headphones, which he removed upon seeing us.

“Oh hey, guys,” said the troll, “I was just listening to some Phil Collins.”


X10 and Compact Fluorescents

X10 is an unfortunately-named industry standard for controlling devices (e.g., lights) via low-voltage signals over power lines.  First created in 1975, it has the advantage of having relatively cheap hardware, and although there have been attempts to create a more modern and capable replacement, they have been hampered by high costs — an X10 switch might cost $10 if one shops around, and a Lonworks or Insteon switch might cost $100 or more.  Until the day comes when each outlet in my home is also its own web server, I think I’ll settle for the balance of control and cheapness that X10 provides.

X10 works by adding a 5 volt signal to the powerline’s power, which is then picked up by an X10 device that listens to the embedded command (e.g., turn on, turn off, dim, and so on.)  The problem with this is that various other things plugged into the powerline tend to absorb or attenuate this 5V signal, so by the time it reaches the device which should be listening, it can be too weak to reliably accomplish anything.

The traditional solution is to locate devices that are weakening the X10 signal, and place them behind a filter.  This works pretty well, although it can be tedious to locate the devices responsible, and it’s possible to require a lot of filters for acceptable performance.  An alternative is the installation of a repeater, which listens for the signal and echoes it back to the powerline, presumably closer to whatever device you’re trying to control.  It’s not cheap, and if the signal is weak enough, either the repeater won’t hear the original signal, or the device won’t hear the repeater.  I’ll come back to this problem in a moment.

Compact fluorescents are little fluorescent bulbs that screw into the place of regular bulbs, and consume considerable less power than incandescent lights.  However, they aren’t compatible with X10 switches designed for incandescent bulbs.  You can either use X10 switches designed for fluorescent loads (also known as “non-dimming,” “appliance,” or “relay”) or you can buy dimmable compact fluorescent bulbs, which has the advantage of able to dim them … somewhat.  (As they dim, they flicker and go out where an incandescent bulb would continue to dim through yellow and red — compact fluorescent bulbs simply cannot be dimmed as well or through the same range.)

However, these bulbs have the side effect of attenuating the X10 signal, and built-in lights aren’t candidates for simple plug-in filters.

On the plus side, there’s a device that can overcome this — not by filtering each source of attenuation, but by boosting the X10 signal itself.  It’s called an XTB, or X10 Transmit Booster, and it’s a clever little device that sits between the source of your X10 signals and the power line, intercepting the 5 volt X10 signal and putting out about a 20 volt X10 signal.

It works really, really well.

The XTB kit and components

The XTB kit and components

The company — or more accurately, guy — who produces these hasn’t the wads of cash for UL approval, so they’re sold in kit form.  The kit itself is beautifully put together, with excellent instructions.  The trickiest part was a surface-mount op-amp.

When it arrived, I’ll admit to being eager enough to whang the thing together in about half an hour, with the caveat that soldering components is almost second nature to me, and that I probably should have read the part about mounting the LED a little more carefully.  On the plus side, it worked flawlessly.  For those not adept with an iron, it’s possible to have it assembled for you.

If you’re running X10 and have any kind of signal issues, I’d recommend this before I’d recommend bothering with filters.