Using a computer power cord on a garbage disposal

When I replace garbage disposals, I prefer to use a power cord rather than hardwire them straight into the wall. The thing is, I don’t like paying $12 for the official power cord, which is chintzy looking and, frankly, looks under spec’ed. Instead, I prefer to use a┬ácomputer power cord on a garbage disposal.

The label on a 1/3 HP Insinkerator Badger says it’s rated for 5.8 amps at 125 volts. I found a computer power cord in my stash that was rated for 10 amps at 125 volts. It’s overkill, but when it comes to electricity, overkill is good. Best of all, it let me repurpose something I’d already paid for and was probably never going to use.

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Data compression, 1980s-style–and why PKZIP won

My employer has me doing some very gray-hat work that I don’t want to describe in detail, because the information has a tremendous potential for misuse. But suffice it to say I’ve been trying to send data places the data shouldn’t go, and I tried to do it by going all 1987 on it by compressing the data with obsolete compression programs. Ever heard of security by obscurity? I was trying to bypass security by using obscurity. In the process, I learned why PKZIP won the compression wars.

This is a very good reason to deploy 64-bit Windows 7 in your enterprise, because these obsolete 16-bit compression programs won’t run under Windows 7. I found that out the hard way once I got the data through to the other side and tried to decompress it. Oops. But tell me, what’s the legitimate business need to run 16-bit DOS applications in 2014? Maybe in a sizable company, one or two people have that need. Find some other way to accommodate them, and make life difficult for attackers, OK?

I say this because I was able to get the data where I wanted it to go. What I found was that once I got the data where I wanted it, and moved to a machine that could run my 16-bit decompression program (back then the compressor and decompressor were often different programs), the data was corrupted more often than not.

Of course, in my BBSing days, it sure seemed like a lot of my downloads wouldn’t decompress correctly, or they’d decompress but the program wouldn’t run. I always blamed my modem and line noise, the bane of BBSing in days of yore. But, for some reason, after PKZIP came along and became popular, downloads worked a lot better. Then along came some other programs like LHARC and its cousins, and they were perfectly reliable too, and tended to compress better than PKZIP did. Naturally, I became a fan. If it’s better and doomed to fail, I always like it. PKZIP of course was the first one to be really reliable, so it quickly became entrenched, and its format won. You don’t see .LZH or .LHA files in the English-speaking world anymore.

So I guess I owe my modems an apology. In an environment free of line noise, those early, finicky, New Kids on the Block-loving compression programs still failed too often for me to do what I wanted to do.

Of politeness and consideration in the connected age

I’ve quit several online forums in recent months, and lately I’ve been noticing a lot of Facebook wars–discussions that just got out of hand too fast. All of this makes me extremely nostalgic for the days of Commodore 64s and 128s, dialup modems, and hobbyist-run BBSs. It was hopelessly primitive compared to what we have today, but for the most part it was polite, and it certainly felt more like community.

What happened?

In the 1980s and even the early 1990s, computer adoption wasn’t extremely widespread. Today you can pick up a computer for $50 if you know where to look and get online with it. But 20 years ago, getting a computer took serious enough money that you needed to have some reason to be doing it.

BBSing whittled the subculture down some more–not everyone had a modem in those days. And the communities that formed around BBSs tended to be segregated by computer type–you had Commodore hangouts, Apple hangouts, IBM hangouts, and Atari hangouts. It was all local, because few wanted to pay the high long distance bills.

So everyone had a few things in common: From the same area, owned the same computer, educated and/or of higher than average intelligence, and wealthy enough to be able to own a computer in the first place. And nothing builds friendships faster than sharing. Sharing computer programs was a big element of the community.

When fights did erupt, there was considerable cooling off time. Only one person could dial in at a time, so saying something flip could take serious effort–dialing and re-dialing until the line wasn’t busy–and eventually you might decide it just wasn’t worth it if you didn’t get through right away.

That’s a big difference from today. Today you just start typing, and nothing forces anyone to consider any consequences. If you have a smartphone, you don’t even have to be home. When discussions get heated, everyone can pile on at once and say things in the heat of the moment, and things get out of hand really fast. And if one or more participants have had too much to drink, it gets even further out of hand even faster. That didn’t happen as often 20 years ago because sometimes people couldn’t afford both a computer and beer.

It’s not local anymore either. Today, the reach is global. I can talk to my cousin in Germany more easily than I can talk to my next-door neighbor. (Maybe my next-door neighbor should friend me so we’d talk more.) That means I can talk to the cousin I thought I’d never meet, which is great. The downside is that we become "friends" with people we really have only superficial things in common with and really don’t know and understand all that well.

Or maybe we do know our friends pretty well, but that doesn’t mean our other friends know each other at all. I have friends from my train habit, friends from work, friends from church, and friends from school. In some cases, the only thing they have in common is that they know me.

And let’s face it: It’s difficult for people who are too different to relate to each other. I had dinner a few months ago with some cousins who grew up in Cleveland. I learned pretty quickly that I know nothing about life in the Rust Belt. When they started talking about Cleveland, I didn’t understand half of what they were talking about.

And if my pet cause doesn’t solve a problem they’re facing, I can’t expect them to get as excited about that as I am.

We tend to expect all of our friends to agree with us, and to agree with each other, and that’s just not realistic. This has always been true, but we’re a lot more aware of it now that we’re always connected. We find out much sooner that we don’t know our friends as well as we thought we did.

Sometimes we’re disappointed that they weren’t what we imagined them to be. Ignorance was bliss back when we didn’t know one another so well, and we could imagine them to be whatever we wanted them to be.

And I think sometimes we just try to juggle too many relationships. Friends on Facebook are a status symbol, and sometimes people will try to juggle hundreds. That’s a recipe for arguments–essentially, inviting hundreds of people who probably don’t know each other into our living rooms.

In our real families, certain rules develop over the years. We learn what upsets certain people, and avoid those things. But all that goes out the window online, because nobody knows any of those rules.

But until we reconsider who our friends are, and perhaps lower our expectations of their ability to get along perfectly with one another, the situation will probably get worse before it gets better.

Answering the problem is difficult because there’s no single answer to it. Part of the answer is to reconsider who our friends are, and perhaps pare things down a bit. A big part of the answer is to just step away for a minute and let life happen. Let yourself be interrupted. It gives you time to reconsider what you were going to say. And when time finally allows a response, try to remember the other person may have a valid reason for thinking differently, as hard as that may be. In light of that, challenge the idea, not the person. And when someone is challenging your idea, try not to take it personally.

Things certainly were a lot simpler when my buddies and I were dialing into the M&M Factory BBS in 1989.

If you think you can do it so much better, then do it yourself

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately on the Classic Toy Trains forums. It seems like every time a new issue hits the street, someone has to find an article that has something wrong with it and point it out.It started a few months ago when my friend and mentor Joe Rampolla published an article about adding a capacitor to a toy train to make it stall less often and run more smoothly. The claims, as far as I can tell, were false (I had my longtime friend Steve DeLassus, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Washington University, check them out).

But practically every month since then, someone’s publicly taken issue with something in the magazine.

It’s not about a vendetta against a single author. One issue it was Joe. But last issue it was repair expert Ray Plummer’s advice on repairing a Lionel 2037. This issue it’s the legendary Peter Riddle’s article about getting Lionel’s TMCC and MTH’s DCS (two rival control systems) working together on the same layout.

In the case of each of these articles, the things the author said to do work. There might be an alternative way to do them. But that’s the nature of the hobby. Doesn’t it seem like Model Railroader publishes an article at least once a year about making trees, and not one of those articles has been a repeat since at least 1972 (and possibly 1942)? And if you were to read a complete run of Railroad Model Craftsman, you could probably find another 50 different ways to make trees.

Fifty or a hundred people having different ways to do it doesn’t make the guy who wrote the first article about making trees wrong.

In the case of Ray Plummer, what Plummer said matches what my local repair guy said and did when my Lionel 2037 had problems. When the pilot truck is adjusted within specifications, the 2037 and its many cousins run just fine. Plummer’s critic said the pilot truck is a poor design, and when you lengthen the truck to change its pivot point, it works more reliably.

That’s possible. I don’t know the theory behind pivot points. One of my best friends happens to be a mechanical engineer and maybe he could confirm that for me.

What I can say is that Plummer’s advice preserves the historical integrity and collector value of the locomotive. While modifying the pivot point probably wouldn’t make the locomotive worth any less to someone who just wants to run it, it would make it worth less to a collector.

I can also confirm that Plummer’s advice worked just fine on the locomotive that once belonged to my Dad. It’s almost as dependable as my Honda now.

As far as this month’s article to hit the avalanche of criticism, I don’t use any command control system on my layout and I have no interest in doing so. So I don’t have any experience that would back him up, and neither do either of my engineer buddies.

But I trust Peter Riddle. Riddle has written more than a dozen excellent books about trains. Wiring is a subject that confuses almost everyone, but I’m confident that a fifth grader could read one of Riddle’s books on wiring and understand it, then proceed to wire a Lionel layout effectively. Seriously.

I’ve heard the argument presented in these arguments that if an author is wrong about one thing, the reader loses confidence in everything he says. I don’t buy that argument. Riddle’s advice that the Lionel 1121 switch is a good match for early Marx locomotives isn’t entirely correct. From my own experience I know a Marx locomotive will bounce if it enters the switch from a particular direction.

So do I doubt what Riddle says on the other 95 pages of the same book? No. I also know from experience that the things he says on the other 95 pages work. And I know that even though that Marx locomotive bounces through the switch 33% of the time, it doesn’t derail every time it bounces. So maybe he’s never seen the problem I observed.

I’ll daresay there’s at least one mistake in every computer book I’ve ever read. It doesn’t mean I stop reading computer books. I’ve been wrong once or twice before too. Just ask my boss.

Actually, come to think of it I’d really rather you just took my word on that one.

This criticism bothers me on another level too. Writing an article and getting it published isn’t an easy task. For most people it probably takes about 40 hours’ worth of work. CTT pays $70 per page, and a typical article is 3-4 pages long, so you do the math.

How many people want to spend a week of their lives writing an article only to have some self-styled expert rip it apart in five minutes? Is it worth putting your neck on the line for $300?

Most reasonable people would say no.

I’m sure this is largely an ego thing. Most people regard published authors as special people. So when someone knows something that a published author doesn’t, it must make for some kind of a high.

But the price is also high. How many great ideas languish in the mind of a would-be author, never to see the light of day, because the benefits just don’t outweigh that onslaught of criticism if it happens?

So the next time you catch a mistake in print, that’s great. It means you know enough to be an author. So think of something you know better than anyone else and go write an article and advance the hobby.

Of course, criticism is easier than craftsmanship. Zeuxis made that observation 2400 years ago, and it’s just as true today as it was then. Unfortunately.

Odd genealogy fact of the day: Bush and Kerry are cousins

Yes, George W. Bush and John Kerry are cousins. Ninth cousins twice removed, but still cousins.They’re also both related to Dracula.

Bush and Cheney are also related, as are Bush and Colin Powell. I also have a long list of other cousins.

Something else you may not have known, which is on that long list: The only two father-son combinations to be president were John and John Quincy Adams, followed by George H. W. and George W. Bush. That’s pretty widely known. But what you may not have known is the Bushes are distantly related to the Adamses (5th cousins), which makes them as closely related as Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt.

Getting started in Genealogy

I’ll admit it. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m a johnny-come-lately to the genealogy game. My computer can tell you how I’m related to more than 1,200 different people. And I just started last week.
I’ve accumulated more names than my mom did in years of research, working the old-fashioned way in the 1970s, searching libraries, museums, LDS records, and graveyards.

So how’d I do it?

Talking about Mom’s side of the family is cheating, because she can easily trace her ancestry to pre-Civil War days. Dad’s side of the family was the challenge, because his parents never talked about their roots (my grandmother actually told my mom to quit nosing around in the past and spend time with her two young kids instead–advice that I, as one of those two kids, disagree with, but it’s too late now).

Here’s what I did. I knew that my great great grandfather was named Isaac Proctor Farquhar (I didn’t know if the middle name was spelled “Proctor” or “Procter”), that he was a doctor, and that he lived in Ohio. I literally punched “Dr. Isaac Proctor Farquhar Ohio” into Google to see what came up. What came up was a family tree tracing my ancestry back to 1729. I verified it because I knew the names of my great grandfather and grandfather.

A better approach is to visit a pure genealogy search site, such as or the Mormons’ and punch in the names of any deceased relatives you can think of. The further back they are in the past, the better. The names of living relatives aren’t very useful, since people almost always strip out the names of any living people from their online records due to privacy concerns.

Once you’re reasonably certain you’ve found a relative, enter whatever you can find into your computer. Family Tree Maker is a good piece of software for tracking your roots, and it’s not terribly expensive. Several sites offer free genealogy software. I haven’t looked at any of it. There’s little risk in trying it though–virtually every genealogy program can import and export data in GEDCOM file format. A number of free Linux genealogy programs are available too–just search Freshmeat.

I need to stress entering anything you can find. Often I find incomplete genealogies online. I’ll find a record for a great great great grandfather that lists two children and a birthplace. If I’ve previously entered all available data and I know my great great great grandfather had 10 kids, including the two on that genealogy I just found, and the birthdates and birthplaces and spouses’ names all match, then I can be reasonably certain that I’ve got the right ancestor and I can see where that trail leads me. It’s more fun to track direct ancestors and see how far back into the past you can go, but you need aunts’ and uncles’ and cousins’ names to prove relations sometimes. Besides, sometimes you find a distant cousin who married someone interesting.

If you don’t find anything, talk to your living family members. Ask if they can remember any relatives’ names, birthplaces, and anything else about them. I only know about Isaac Proctor Farquhar because of some conversations I had with my dad. My sister may or may not have known about him. But I know there are relatives she knows about that I don’t. Old family photo albums and Christmas card lists are other sources of clues.

Here’s how I cracked a tough problem. My great grandfather, Ralph Collins Farquhar, married a woman named Nellie McAdow. Nellie McAdow was a dead end. Her mother’s name was Mary Lillian Miller. I didn’t even have her father’s first name. All I found was a guy named McAdow, born in Ohio. A subsequent search revealed her father’s initials were A.G. and he was born in Pharisburg. So then I had A. G. McAdow, Pharisburg, May 25, 1859-January 15, 1904. I did a Google search and found the text of an old book that casually mentioned A. G. McAdow owned a store in Pharisburg in 1883. Great, so the guy’s in the history books, and I still can’t find his first name. Somehow, somehow, Mom knew his first name was Adalaska. Adalaska!? No wonder he went by “A. G.” I searched for Adalaska McAdow. Nothing at But at, I found 1880 census data. I found Adalaska living with someone he listed as his stepfather, Smith May, occupation farmer. His mother’s name was Virginia, and she was born in 1838 in Ohio, and they had a daughter, Lena, who was born in 1871. That was enough information to feed a couple more searches, which gave me Virginia’s maiden name, Evans, and the name of her first husband, James W. McAdow.

He was tougher than most, and I still don’t know nearly as much about this line as some others–including Nellie’s mother, Mary Lillian Miller’s line–but I broke the dead end.

I still have no clue why two people with normal names like James and Virginia would name their son Adalaska.

The grandmother who told my mom not to pry into the past remains a tough one. Social security records confirmed her dates of birth and death, and place of death, because my memory was hazy. Mom knows her parents were German immigrant Rudolph Keitsch and Irish immigrant Bessie Bonner. A Google search revealed Elizabeth Keitsch graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1932. So far I’ve found absolutely no trace of her parents. I’m hoping that census records may help–a Google search for “ancestry records search” turns up several sites that will let you search various U.S. censuses for free, but they all use for something or another, which is down for maintenance as I write.

But I’m reasonably confident that once I can search census records, even my stubborn half-German grandmother will finally yield some information after all these years.

You can subscribe to to get to information that you can’t find online for free, and I’m sure that at some point I’ll end up doing that. For now I don’t have much reason to. You might as well see what you can find out for free as well. And I honestly hope you don’t have four grandparents like Elizabeth Keitsch. I hope yours are more like Ralph Collins Farquhar Jr., who took about 30 seconds to trace back to 1729, and whose grandmother, Elizabeth Stratton, led me back to the sixth century and gave me a splitting headache that forced me to temporarily abandon the search to return to this continent and four-digit years.

May all your lines do the same.

My spiritual journey

I guess this is as good of a time as any to write my spiritual autobiography. It’s not as long of a story as some–years of apathy have ways of shortening stories.
I guess I could sum up my current state in a couple of lines: Reach the world. Work within the system and change it from within.

Here’s how I got there. Read more

Dealing with the loss of a father

When does the pain of a father’s death ever end? Especially when that father dies at a especially cruel young age?
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist wrestled with that question the day after Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile was found dead at 33, leaving behind a wife and three kids. It’s a problem I’m all too familiar with. Read more


I got the call late last night. My great aunt in Cleveland died yesterday.

It’s kind of become tradition, on my mom’s side of the family at least, for me to write the tribute when a relative dies. Somehow I’m good at expressing those sentiments, and, well, I am a writer. But I can’t write Aunt Lilian’s tribute, and it has nothing to do with Aunt Lilian being on my dad’s side of the family.

I hardly knew her.

When my dad moved to Kansas City in the early 1970s, he never really looked back. He adopted Kansas City as his hometown, and after he and my mom married, he adopted them as his family. His father probably saw me fewer than a dozen times. His mother only saw me six or seven times more than that. I’ve seen one of Dad’s cousins twice, and his other cousin once. I met his aunt and uncle once, at their 40th or 50th wedding anniversary, in 1989. I only remember it being a big number in a day and age when few people make it to their tenth.

Once I got out of college and on my own, I always said I’d make it back to Cleveland. Some Thanksgiving, or sometime when I had some vacation time due, I’d fly out or take a road trip. I never did. It was always easier to just go to Kansas City. It’s closer, and economies of scale were on my side. One year I even had an airline ticket. I ended up not using it.

Then Uncle Bob died. I didn’t even make it to the funeral. I knew Aunt Lilian wouldn’t have a whole lot of time left. When you’ve been married that long, once your partner dies, you generally follow pretty soon.

Last Thanksgiving, I thought about going. I didn’t. I was thinking maybe this year would be the year. But I know good and well I probably wouldn’t have.

This has been all about me. That’s terrible. So what do I know about Aunt Lilian?

She was my dad’s favorite aunt. I think she may have been his only aunt, but that’s OK. She was worthy of the title. Her brother was my dad’s father and my grandfather. You can say a lot of things about Dr. Ralph–he was a brilliant man, a wise man, a great doctor, a small-time tycoon. But he wasn’t a nice man. Aunt Lilian was much more pleasant than her brother.

Dad didn’t talk about his family much. But he’d talk about Uncle Bob and Aunt Lilian and their sons, Bobby and Sterling. I think that says a lot.

Aunt Lilian was known for her chocolate chip cookies. That was the first thing Dad said about her. She didn’t know what the fuss was about. The recipe was right there on the back of the package of the brand of chocolate chips she bought and had been buying for most of the century. So anyone else could follow the same recipe, but somehow it wasn’t ever the same. I remember Dad and his cousins, Bob and Sterling, discussing why at one point. It was funny hearing a doctor, a physical therapist, and an electrical engineer talking about why a cookie recipe couldn’t be duplicated. These three great minds couldn’t figure it out. Aunt Lilian did her best to ignore them, and that was probably for the best.

And sadly, that’s the only story I can tell about her. She must have been pushing 100 when she died; I know Uncle Bob was 95 or 96 when he passed on. Her brother died more than 21 years ago, and he was in his 70s. All that time. I’m 26. In my 26 years, I managed to spend one weekend with her.

Don’t make the same mistake I made. A life is a terrible thing to waste.


Jumbo HD woes. My 15-gig Quantum drive mysteriously started working right from the regular UMDA-33 controller on my Abit BP6 yesterday. Totally out of the blue. That’s what makes this problem so maddening; it’s intermittent. I’m going to stick with keeping the drive connected to the UDMA-66 controller though, since this is a UDMA-66 drive.

And my March article for Shopper is almost complete. I need to come up with a good lead and a good closer, figure out whether I can fit one more trick into the 200 or so words I have left, and then fire it off to London. I could have done another book rehash but I decided to write this one from scratch, and I think it’s pretty good.

A useful modems link. Modems are mostly a thing of the past for me, but I know a lot of my readers (especially those in the UK) aren’t so fortunate. There’s a large and authoritative guide to modems at .

Snow. There’s a family from Michigan who recently joined our church. I remember one of them saying recently, “I keep telling the kids it doesn’t snow in Missouri.”

Well, not quite like it does in Michigan. But the seven inches or so of the white stuff sitting on the ground outside right now testifies that it can snow in Missouri. This isn’t Florida. So I’m guessing this was a bit of a rude surprise to them–not that they can’t handle driving in it.

Rick Sutcliffe may return to the Cubs. As a television analyst , not as a pitcher.

The Chicago Cubs are looking for a replacement for longtime analyst Steve Stone, who retired this year. Rick, who’s worked for the last two seasons as a part-time analyst for ESPN and for the San Diego Padres, is one of the candidates to replace him.

Rick and I are cousins, which explains the strong feelings I have about the Cubs, the team where he had the most longevity.