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04 February 2011

Reaming Estate Pipes
 Using A Lathe

       -Posted by adam-

Most guys I know could wander around a hardware store equally as long as our wives could browse every style of shoe in a large department store, but after Sykes and I drove to Harbor Freight a few weeks ago to pick up a 7" x 10" metal lathe everyone wanted to play with it. Aside from being fun to use, it’s proved to be a great investment in time, efficiency, and control.

Cleaning estate pipes can often take quite a while. An estate that is lightly smoked usually just needs a few pipe cleaners run through the shank with alcohol. When a pipe is really dirty in the shank or full of cake, hand reamers and bowl reamers are necessary to bring it back to life. A reamer doesn't drill a shank because the tip has no cutting edges and the sharpened sides run parallel along the shank. Ordinarily we use a 4mm reamer that I put in a vulcanite handle to run down dirty shanks and remove quite a bit of tar, ash, and gunk just so we can continue with a few pipe cleaners soaked in alcohol. The same is pretty much true for the bowl. When the cake is thin, light reaming can be done with the senior reamer, or just a piece of sandpaper wrapped around a dowel. If using a knife or a pipe tool, it should be flat against the bowl to allow it to scrape the cake out. Quite often we get estate pipes that have thick cake and we have to use a hand reamer with different diameter scraping heads. It can be tricky to twist both the pipe and the reamer to clean out the bowl and hands get rather fatigued after just a few.

The metal lathe we purchased is pretty much a heavy, bench-mounted, strong-armed employee that can turn the shank reamer and bowl reamer with a lot of torque at low, safe speeds. The shank reamer spins at about 400 RPM, and the bowl reamers spin between 100 RPM and 300 RPM (slower speeds for more control on heavily caked pipes). We've tried using hand drills before, but they spin too fast and there isn't enough torque (or control).

Bill and I went to another hardware store recently looking for a way to modify the square shafts on the bowl reamers expecting that I would just need to take them to my workshop to fit them with aluminum extensions. Finding a 3/8" square socket extension worked perfectly when we wrapped one layer of duct tape around the shaft to make the fit snug. This, my friends, is when the light above our heads went on and smiles covered our faces.

Again, we use the lathe at a low speeds and have surprisingly excellent control over the pipe with both hands. Since the 4mm shank reamer is pointed (but not sharp) we can use two hands to hold the pipe and push it onto the reamer. We also took a 6-inch-long 5/32" bit and ground the tip dull and round in order to ream longer pipes. An unmodified drill bit that is sharp will self-feed into the shank and front of the bowl, so rounding the tip avoids these problems.

In chucking up the socket extension and pushing in the smallest reaming head, we are able to slowly ream the cake and work our way up to larger diameters if needed. Even rotating the pipe is safe on these slower speeds because it only scrapes the cake out of the bowl and isn't sharp enough to cut wood; plus, this comes close to solving how to ream so many bowls of different chamber configurations.

After we ream the bowls and shanks fine detail work is easy. There is very little we can do to improve pipes that had chambers poorly reamed or were smoked out of round. Soft spots in the bowl, which char faster and are noted as spider webbing, are often the cause of uneven reaming if done by hand. If using a knife, these softer areas could concave and cause a bigger problem in the future, so great care must be taken to ream the chamber evenly. With the lathe we are able to restore the chamber so the end result is a smooth surface that is clean to the touch.

The video below is simply a demonstration of these tools without sound or commentary. A machine turning and scraping isn't all that pleasant to listen to, but we felt a short clip of a pipe being reamed would answer a lot of questions about how we do this.

Posted by adam at 11:00 AM | Link | 5 comments

07 January 2011

Research With Tobacco Plants Leads Science to New Lights!

       -Posted by sid-

The sun goes down and the streets in the city are lighted. But not with electricity. The glow comes from bioluminescence of genetically modified trees. This may sound like science fiction; however, scientists could develop glowing trees that replace streetlights. This breakthrough in bioluminescence was derived from research done at Cambridge University. The process is implemented by transduction of modified genes with E. coli bacteria. No glowing trees have been grown, but multiple colors and significant amounts of light have been produced using this method.

These newer breakthroughs in genetic engineering are derived from studies initially done using tobacco plants. Biochemists from the University of California at San Diego added the gene of a firefly to the tobacco's DNA. The gene produces Luciferase (an enzyme that makes fireflies glow). The scientist then integrated it into tobacco cells. The result was a tobacco plant with leaves, roots and stems that glow. Just like a firefly.

Tobacco at
Although we don’t sell glowing tobacco, we do have a plethora of tobacco varieties to choose from at Old Gowrie, Long Golden Flake, Westminster, Dunbar, and Margate are a few of our best sellers. We also have a huge stock of bulk tobacco (if you found a favorite blend). Some of the top sellers in bulk tobacco are 1-Q, Black Irish-X, Dark Bird's Eye, and Louisiana Perique Flake.

Posted by sid at 12:30 PM | Link | 1 comment

14 September 2010

30 hours of panic; or how to survive a DDoS attack
 A very atypical day and a half in the life of

       -Posted by sykes-

As you may have noticed, has been singularly unresponsive during the past twenty-four or so hours. At 1pm yesterday, we were hit with a DDoS attack (Distributed Denial of Service). Since then, with a nice stretch of working between 3am and 8am this morning (yeah, hardly a peak site traffic time), our servers have been slammed by millions of bogus requests from thousands of IPs. We've come up with a temporary solution, by moving to another server and just serving up a flat html page from there, which redirects to the full site's web server on our old servers, which handles legitimate traffic normally.

We've also discovered that we are one of at least four major premium tobacco retailers (with the other three being major cigar retailers) to be hit with a DDoS attack in the last 24 hours. This appears to be directed against purveyors of tasty, high quality smokables. These are targeted attacks. Still, in the Wild West that is the internet, the good code slingers are winning this particular round over the bad ones with our stop gap measure; we shall see how it progresses over the next few hours.

So, what is a DDoS attack and what have we done to make the site available?

Normal: Happy users visit and see a bevy of beautiful briars

In our wildly simplified diagram, this is how things are normally. Happy pipe smokers go to, read about or purchase or drool over pictures of pipes, pipe tobacco and cigars. Your computer asks our web server (by way of various servers in between) and our server nicely responds by serving up lots of fun pictures, images, tons of wonderful information, all stored on either our database server or our assets server.

A DDoS Attack: Lots of Zombies trying to get in the door makes it impossible for the regular user to access the site.

When someone initiates a DDoS attack against us, they've used thousands of slaved computers (think of them as zombies, perhaps) to remotely make http requests to our servers, specifically to the domain. Our servers, though they are shiny and fast, are utterly unable to serve up the information fast enough and end up getting completely bogged down trying to contend with all of the bogus traffic. The thousands of computers are innocent bystanders too-- more than likely they were infected with a trojan that causes them to make these requests at the behest of the master (evil!) computer, much like zombies at the behest of some wicked puppet master.

Keep in mind that this traffic doesn't do anything to us except just ask us questions. We've not been hacked, nothing has been compromised, everything is safe. All is normal, except that thousands of extra computers are asking our servers for information and we just can serve it up fast enough.

Our Solution: behind the splash page (bouncer) life is normal, but the bouncer is there to keep out the bogus traffic.

Part of the problem is that our regular servers, sort of like our store staff at Low Country Pipe & Cigar, like to greet folks with lots of fun stuff, show them what's new, and point out interesting odds and ends. That first page people reach is filled with dynamic content, pictures and other things that, in the normal running of things aren't taxing at all for our servers, but multiply that normal load times fifty or a hundred and things slow to a crawl or stop altogether. So, it's sort of like Ron, Kelly, Vince and Jennifer in the store all trying to show pipes to a thousand customers simultaneously, most of which really just want to stand in the middle of the store and not really do anything. Obviously, as good as our store staff is, they're going to grind to a halt in a hurry if they had to contend with this.

So, what do you do if you have this problem in real life? You hire a bouncer. Our digital bouncer lets in anyone who asks nicely, but doesn't try to help anyone or be particularly nice about his greeting. It makes it much easier for him to keep up with the multitudes. He then lets in anyone who asks nicely, and inside the store, the customer experience (and our poor, harried store staff in the metaphor) return to normal. The digital bouncer, our splash page, does this by serving up the simplest code possible (a bunch of explanatory text) and letting in those who click the link to enter We'll leave the bouncer out front until we're confident the throng of zombies has passed and just normal good folks are trying to get to the site again.

So, we very much appreciate your patience and kind words as you've waited for us to return. Hopefully, we'll be able to drop the splash page in the next few days and return everything completely to normal. Brian and Ted will cover the phones until 10pm tonight to accommodate extra call volume. I, however, having been at this for almost all of the past twenty four hours, will go take a shower and get some sleep!

Posted by sykes at 4:24 PM | Link | 7 comments

30 August 2010

Very cool 3D model stuff
 A little preview of something we've been working on...

       -Posted by sykes-

Today, we're putting up the very first examples of something that we've been working on during the past few months. You'll find the new 360-degree flash models used for the new Sillem's lighters. Frankly, I think this may be the coolest thing ever. Or at least the coolest thing to happen this month. Alyson, Bobby and Melissa have been working really hard to pull this together. I think they've done a tremendous job. We're still very much in the Beta phase with this, rolling it out here and there as we can, making sure we have it down before we try to bite off more than we can chew. It's been a long road to get it this far; we have some ways to go before it's more widely implemented.

So, I figured a quick Q&A followed by two examples below might be in order.

Q: What in the world is this and where can I find it?
A: These are high quality 3D models that can be manipulated by clicking and dragging the mouse, making it possible to see the item from every possible angle. On those items that have it (just the six Sillem's lighters right now, but hopefully lots of stuff down the road), a button appears below the description and above the photo offering the 360-degree view, which pops into its own, extremely cool, javascript window thingy.
Q: Wow, cool! How did you make it go?
A: USB driven turntable and Canon DSLR camera are slaved to a desktop computer running specialized software. Flash apparatus is slaved to the camera. We pretty much set it up (which is far harder than it seems like it should be, as we've discovered over the past couple of months) and it takes care of the rest.
Q: What does the setup look like altogether?
A: See the photo below! The odd-looking wooden apparatus (which, frankly, looks like part of a medieval siege engine) lets us orient the turntable either right side up or upside down, depending on what we need it to do. Oh, and I know that which is in the booth isn't that which is on the screen. Alyson was busy with the update, so I took the picture, and it's far too complicated for me to actually make go, so I just pretended it was going. And then realized that I had a pipe on the screen and a humidor in the light tent...
Q: Again, seriously cool! When can we expect to see it on more stuff? Yeah, I am talking about pipes here...
A: Frankly, we're not sure. We have more work to do on lighting and reflections, and on how to consistently get good results with a variety of pipe shapes and finishes. This might take awhile, though we certainly hope it happens sometime soon.
Q: Well, can I see an example?
Sure! See below: (Note, of course, that you need the Flash plugin installed to see these).

Posted by sykes at 4:49 PM | Link | 4 comments

13 July 2010

Site Performance Problems Last Night
 Our apologies for the problems encountered

       -Posted by sykes-

Some of you probably noticed that reaching the website between about 6pm and 3am, last night and this morning, alternated between excruciatingly slow and impossible. I am very sorry for the inconvenience caused.

Apparently, a bad NIC card on one of the servers where we co-locate our servers (but not on ours) created tremendous latency problems for every server hosted at the data center. We could do nothing but sit and wait until the problem was diagnosed and fixed. Fortunately, everything is back to normal. Again, my apologies for the difficulties this caused.


I was trying to come up with an appropriate analogy for what happened, and I think this is the best I can do:

Imagine that the data streams in a data center are sort of like a highway. At each exit, there's an area of toll booths. Our website, our servers, sit behind one of those toll booths at an exit. At another exit on this same highway, there's a problem with the toll booths. They won't accept payment and won't let anyone through (or perhaps instead of 10 lanes to pay, there's suddenly only one). Traffic backs up from those toll booths all the way back onto the highway and the cars trying to get to our exit can't reach it, even though our toll booths are working just fine.

Posted by sykes at 10:03 AM | Link | 0 comments



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